5. Relic (Australia)
At its core, co-writer/director Natalie Erika James‘ feature debut is a haunted house movie, but it’s also so much more than that. A woman and her daughter return to their matriarch’s home after she goes missing, and they find things in mild disarray. Furniture moved, doors padlocked, sounds emanating from behind the walls — and it only gets stranger once the old woman returns. Horror is no stranger to metaphor, but Relic captures the terror of dementia with emotion, honesty, love, and legitimate scares. What do you do when the monster in front of you is your loved one? The answer will surprise you, and if you give the film your attention and focus it might even make you cry. There’s horror in losing yourself, there’s horror in losing someone close, and there’s horror in the walls.
4. Possessor (Canada)
Too many genre filmmakers feel compelled to keep their visions in check in the hopes of gaining a larger audience, but writer/director Brandon Cronenberg creates art of a different breed altogether. His latest blend of science fiction, body horror, and social commentary focuses on an assassin who uses tech to “enter” a patsy’s mind and steer them towards murder. The violence is grotesque and graphic, but just as brutal is the emotional toll on both the parasite and the host. Possessor is a fascinating watch delivering pain and beauty alongside its genre thrills, and it goes out with an ending that just levels you. It’s gorgeous and horrifying.
3. New Order (Mexico)
We live in a time of constant upheaval and class warfare, but in the battle between the haves and the have-nots, the moral high ground can sometimes be conspicuously deserted. That’s a bold admission, but writer/director Michel Franco‘s New Order is as unafraid as it is ambitious. A fancy wedding unfolds as riots spill into the streets — the working class is sick and tired of taking orders from the one percent, and as bodies pile up the wedding party itself is infiltrated with bloody results. Kind characters doing their best exist on both sides, but good intentions can’t always compete with greed, brutality, and power. At under ninety minutes, the film delivers its incriminatory assault at a constantly moving pace that embraces nihilism with smart and unflinching awareness. It’s not an experience for the weak of heart or spirit, but it’s a necessary wake up call all the same.
2. Promising Young Woman
No film is for everyone, but writer/director Emerald Fennell‘s feature debut still manages to offer something to everyone all the same. It’s a unique take on the rape/revenge subgenre in that its inciting incident is never glimpsed, but it’s also the year’s best romantic comedy? I know, confusing, but the film is a masterclass in control and tone that shapes its narrative with pop sensibilities and powerful precision. Carey Mulligan commands the screen as a woman on a mission, and it’s a plan we won’t fully grasp until the end credits roll and we’re left enraged, in awe, and with a compelling desire to watch the movie again. Promising Young Woman is audacious entertainment guaranteed to have you laughing aloud and reeling from its tragedy. It is a masterpiece.
For all of its many faults, 2020 was still a year filled with fantastic, brilliant, and original films. Many of the best speak to the human condition in one way or another, but it’s writer/director Chloé Zhao‘s Nomadland that captures modern-day America with brutal truth and beautiful eloquence. The film features an unsurprisingly amazing Frances McDormand as a widow who lives in her van and works seasonal jobs across the west, and from its opening at an Amazon warehouse to its ending elsewhere, it delivers a damning commentary on this country’s sacrifice of its citizens. As critical and raw as it is throughout, though, the film never neglects the humans at its heart as it takes time to show us their joys as well as their struggles. Our collective film of the year here at FSR went in a different direction, but Nomadland is simultaneously hopeless and hopeful, and if that doesn’t sum up this year in America I don’t know what does.