Here is my obligatory/traditional annual top 10 list of movies, ranked according to mainstream standards. In other words, weird movies are allowed in this list, but I attempt to rank the 2020 releases according to their general merit, intended for people who don’t specialize in the surrealer genres. Provocative cults film like Jesus Shows You the Way to the Highway can (and did!) make this list, but they will not automatically be catapulted to the top. (This year, a much higher percentage of weird films made the overall list. This was based more on my pandemic-mandated change in viewing habits than on the quality of the year’s weird cinema. I took far fewer trips to the theater, which meant more time watching screeners and online rentals, which skewed my views towards the outre rather than the ordinary). Stay tuned for the top 10 weird movies of 2020 tomorrow.
2020 honorable mentions (in alphabetical order): 76 Days, Bacurau, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, Color out of Space, The Gentlemen, Kajillionaire, Lake Michigan Monster, La Llorona, Onward, Palm Springs, The Platform, Shirley, A Trip to Greece, VHYes, Vivarium, and Why Don’t You Just Die? (The omission of Cats, Capone and Jiu Jitsu from this category is not an oversight).
There were many contenders I couldn’t (well, didn’t) fit in screenings of before this article’s deadline, including Nomadland, The Trial of the Chicago 7, Mank, The Father, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Promising Young Woman, The Sound of Metal, Da 5 Bloods, Soul, Wolfriders, and many others.
And so read on for my subjective and incomplete ranking of the best cinema the strangest year in memory had to offer…
10. Black Bear: Two stories involving a love triangle, set in the same remote cabin: which one (if either) is true? An experiment in narrative ambiguity that features a rare but remarkable dramatic performance from Aubrey Plaza in dual (?) roles. Plaza shouldn’t be overlooked come Oscar time—but almost certainly will be. Less commercially oriented awards-givers should take note, however.
9. Beasts Clawing at Straws: A crime boss, a ruthless madam, a corrupt customs official, and a struggling sauna clerk all scheme to possess a bag stuffed with cash. An exquisitely plotted neo-noir deftly handled by first-time Korean director Kim Yong-Hoon. This twisty, out-of-sequence crime thriller is just another example of how South Korean cinema is killing it right now. With better distribution, this could have been a bigger hit stateside (pandemic theater closures certainly didn’t do it any favors).
8. Possessor: Read our review. In the near future, elite assassins carry out their work by possessing the bodies of innocent parties through a neural implant; Taysa, a top Possessor, has trouble on her latest assignment when the subject proves capable of sporadically suppressing her control and asserting his own free will. This is one dark and brutal movie that squeezes the breath out of you in its sociopathic grasp. really needs to pick up the pace and start making movies more than once every 8 years.
7. She Dies Tomorrow: Read our review. Amy is convinced that, as the title hints, she will die tomorrow. She spreads this irrational belief to everyone she meets. A melancholy and oddly compelling thought experiment about what life would be like if we constantly lived with consciousness of our own death; similarities to the current pandemic are accidental, but reflect our darkest doubts in this dark moment in history. A major step forward for , who, like fellow feature sophomore Brandon Cronenberg, needs to direct more frequently.
6. We Are Little Zombies: Read our review. After meeting at a funeral parlor, four emotionless, orphaned Japanese children run away and form a pop band. High-energy, carnivalesque pop-psychedelics enliven s genre-bending feature debut, which wrings a surprising amount of empathy from a tale of children whose defining characteristic is that they have no feelings. Scored to a chiptune pop soundtrack and structured as a video game—with grief as the final boss—its Nintendoesque nostalgia will appeal to many.
5. Dick Johnson Is Dead: In the best documentary of 2020, a daughter and her elderly father stage various death scenarios (some fairly bloody) as a way of psychologically preparing for the inevitable. An intimate, loving, and entertaining testament. Recommended viewing for anyone who may die someday. A Netflix exclusive.
4. The Outpost: Based-on-a-true-story tale of Combat Outpost Keating, a base established by US army to attempt to forge good relations and collect intelligence from local Afghani tribes, but placed in a valley that made the soldiers sitting ducks for constant Taliban raids. Don’t get too attached to any of the characters. The thrilling, immersive firefights make it the best modern war movie since The Hurt Locker. It’s a real shame more people won’t be able to see this on the big screen with surround sound, where it belongs; it won’t play as well on TV screens.
3. Jesus Shows You the Way to the Highway: Read Giles Edwards’ review. A CIA agent (who also happens to be a hunchbacked dwarf and pizza connoisseur) accepts a mission to go into “Psychobook” to combat the virus “Stalin” released by the Soviet Union. Meet the President of Ethiopia (a kung fu supervillain who dresses like Batman) and Jesus himself inside this virtual reality world which is itself nestled in an alternate reality where the Cold War never ended, and technology is simultaneously stuck in the 1990s and decades ahead of where we are today. You’ve never seen anything quite like this absurdist psychological thriller/camp comedy. It’s a real-deal next-generation cult movie waiting in the wings.
2. I’m Thinking of Ending Things: Read my review. A woman travels to meet her boyfriend Jake’s parents at their remote cabin on a snowy winter day… but she’s secretly thinking of ending things. In some ways, his maze of memory and uncertain identity is ‘s most surreal film, with a phantasmagorical ending that appears to throw all rational logic out the window. Incredible performances all around, with Jessie Buckley and Jesse Plemons taking the roles of the doomed couple, while and portray Jake’s exceedingly strange parents. A coup for Netflix, who made this an original production, although it won’t get as much awards season play as their more conventional-minded offerings (Mank, Da 5 Bloods, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, etc.). The normally not-insane Owen Gleiberman named it one of 2020’s worst movies, which is the sort of foolishness we’d usually expect from Rex Reed; it at least proves Kaufman can still be divisive, which is a good thing.
1. The Wolf House [La Casa Lobo]: Read Giles Edwards’ review. Stop motion animation from Chile, telling the dark fairy tale story of a girl who flees a cult, finds an abandoned house in the woods, and raises two piglets as her children. The experimental animation traps us in a constantly shifting nightmare dollhouse; Maria merges into and out of the walls, conjures human features for her pigs, and even the religious paintings on the walls can’t keep their shape for more than a second or two. Some of the stop-motion is familiar, with crude models that look like sad, cheap children’s dolls, but much of the action plays out as paint splatters over the shack’s two-dimensional walls, a format I hadn’t seen used before. The scenario inspired by the real life Colonia Dignidad, a Chilean cult run by ex-Nazis, and the tone is simultaneously calm and detached, and nightmarish. Excellente.