I’ve always taken joy in taking stock of the year that was in cinema - list-making is soothing to me for reasons both clinically diagnosed and some that have yet to be. One of the most enjoyable things for me in reflecting back on my viewing experiences in a given year is discovering the unique ways in which films (made by separate people at separate times in totally disparate conditions) can oftentimes appear to be in direct dialogue with one another. Consider me your cinematic sommelier, letting you know which titles pair together perfectly via my favorite double features of 2020 (presented in no particular order).
1. Possessor (dir. Brandon Cronenberg)
Freaky (dir. Christopher Landon)
Body movin’, body movin’
Body movin’, we be body movin’
Two fantastic genre riffs on the body swap trope. Possessor has stuck with me more than just about any film this year, with Brandon Cronenberg fully inheriting his father’s body horror throne, with a tale of paranoia and the surprising malleability of the self in both a physical and mental sense. Andrea Riseborough continues to be one of my absolute favorite performers, but special notice must be given to Christopher Abbott who manages to convey the complex emotional landscape of a man possessed by another, emerging only briefly and occasionally from this hostile takeover.
Meanwhile, Freaky continues Christopher Landon’s hot streak of high concept horror made palatable for a younger audience. His character work outpaces his thriller chops, but it’s hard to quibble when the results are this much fun.
Two films that belong to my beloved personal subgenre of “inane horseshit”. One, a rediscovered action flick from the late 80’s made by a Hollywood stuntman, with a vibe that can best be described as somebody having uploaded the Waterworld stunt spectacular online, and then immediately added an Andy Sidaris skin.
The other, the most incomprehensible big budget blockbuster since Michael Bay’s racist fever dream Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen over a decade ago. Christopher Nolan indulges his primary interests (exposition delivered through a sound mix that makes you question if you have tinnitus, time as both a cinematic and narrative construct, people wearing shit on their face) to the point of abstraction. I loved them both unreservedly.
World of Tomorrow Episode Three: The Absent Destinations of David Prime (dir. Don Hertzfeldt
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WORLD OF TOMORROW EPISODE THREE: THE ABSENT DESTINATIONS OF DAVID PRIME from don hertzfeldt on Vimeo.
Two journeys into the animated fantastic that are pretty definitively not for kids. Hertzfeldt continues to deepen and complicate his narrative of a far-flung future that feels almost inevitable (the menus by which one can physically upgrade themselves being overrun with spam ads). Soul meanwhile, feels more than ever before like a Pixar has made and targeted a film towards ages 25 and up with this look at what really gives a life meaning. It’s visually and thematically sumptuous.
The Grand Bizarre (dir. Jodie Mack)
The two films that most sent me into an aesthetic reverie this year, tactile explorations of the physical byproducts of the world we inhabit syncopated to sound. Cinematic ASMR.
The History of the Seattle Mariners (dir. Jon Bois)
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Two longform sports documentaries; one, a reminder that history is written by the victors (reconstituting the cosmology of the NBA so that Michael Jordan’s petty grievances and singular drive become the animating force), the other proof that the world is so much richer and interesting when its not. Pound for pound, I may not have derived more enjoyment from a film this year than from Bois’ History of the Seattle Mariners, a thorough (and thoroughly irreverent) exploration of over four decades of baseball ignomity.
6. You Cannot Kill David Arquette (dirs. Price James, David Darg)
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In a year where solace became increasingly difficult to come across, I dove back into the comforts of my youth – namely professional wrestling. Luckily, the barbaric ballet of my childhood has grown up in some regards, while remaining complete carny garbage in others. David Arquette shows the latter, as we watch the actor choose to embark on a professional wrestling career in his 40s, fueled by a combination of a brain wired for self-destruction and a failed movie tie-in that found the young Arquette in the crosshairs of wrestling fandom in the early aughts. If you ever wanted to see a version of The Wrestler that is simultaneously more bleak, yet more charming, this will be your jam.
Paris Is Bumping proves the former, showing the progressive steps taken in what has far too often proven to be a viciously regressive industry, presenting pro wrestling’s first-ever kiki ball. Where else will you experience the exquisite cognitive dissonance of someone invoking Marsha P. Johnson’s name while performing a body slam?
7. Nate: A One Man Show (dir. Phil Burgers)
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Two comedic performers with classical clown school training bring their skills to bare in these wildly divergent comedy specials. Nate finds Natalie Palamides fully embodying the titular character, exploring notions of identity and consent while working in some magnificently dumb bits.
Very Very is a mime show (as the film succinctly states “Mime: comedy’s dirtiest four letter word.”) that goes immediately and wildly off the rails – if you’ve ever wanted to see a torrid love affair between a man and a coat, this is for you. Both use audience participation in exciting ways, and push the taped comedy special in exciting new directions.
Two incredible aural journeys – one a journey into the self as a person whose life is predicated on creating walls of sound suddenly and violently having their ability to hear taken from them. The other is a journey into the theater of the mind, harkening to the early age of television and radio shows as a teenaged switchboard operator and her older radio jockey friend finding themselves in the middle of an increasingly supernatural happening in rural New Mexico. Both paint soundscapes that are award-worthy, placing you firmly in their respective settings.
NOTE: Sound of Metal would also pair nicely with Soul, thematically speaking.
9. The Trip to Greece (dir. Michael Winterbottom)
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Dudes rock – two stories of male friendship that resonated strongly during a year where such interactions had to be put on hold. Kelly Reichart continues to paint a majestic filmography of rural and underseen experiences, while Coogan and Brydon continue (and if they’re to be believed, conclude) their journey into the heart of middle age while touring picturesque villas and restaurants. Both were balms in a year low on uplift.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things (dir. Charlie Kaufman)
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Don’t want to drift too far into spoiler territory here, but I will say that both films feature the indignity of aging alongside ghosts of the past bleeding into the present. They’re two of my favorite horror films of 2020.