It’s been a long, grim year for film and television — too grim to merit a whole top ten list. In its place I give you — with the proviso that no, I have not seen First Cow — my top eight shows and movies of 2020.
8. The Third Day
A love letter to Robin Hardy’s seminal horror flick The Wicker Man, The Third Day stars Jude Law, Katherine Waterston, and Naomie Harris as unsuspecting travelers flung headlong into a remote English island’s decades-old cultic tradition. It falls prey to a few shopworn cliches — if I never hear a character say “the darkness” in a haunted voice again, it’ll be too soon — but The Third Day is immaculately shot, full of gorgeous overheads and disconcerting close-ups on careworn faces and ruined architecture. Its performances, too, are nuanced and engrossing, Harris’s burnt-out desperation the perfect foil for Law’s melancholy and Waterston’s unnerving calm. Its portrait of suburban dysfunction elevated to the stature of religious war is one of the year’s most unsettling.
7. Strasbourg 1518
Jonathan Glazer’s latest short film is a grueling, kinetic piece of arthouse cinema inspired by the so-called “Dancing Plague” which afflicted several European towns in the early 16th century. While historical records give no indication that these episodes of possible mass hysteria led to deaths by exhaustion, folk history is replete with accounts of dancers dropping dead mid-step and magistrates packing the afflicted off to asylums. Glazer’s short captures that sense of trapped, manic ecstasy, the bodies of its dancers hurled across the screen, broken down to brute mechanical action of muscle and bone, fat and sinew. A hypnotic, challenging spectacle.
6. Euphoria Special 01: Rue
Sam Levin’s heart-wrenching and visually immersive show about the lives of a handful of troubled Gen Z kids navigating addiction, sexuality, abuse, and mental illness returned not for a second season — as yet delayed by the pandemic — but for a special set almost entirely in a single diner. Rue (Zendaya) and her sponsor Ali (Colman Domingo) chew over everything from suicide to Christmas in a wide-ranging discussion of Rue’s breakdown and relapse in the wake of her sort-of-girlfriend Jules’ (Hunter Schaefer) departure. It’s the episode’s opening dream sequence, or perhaps daydream, that hits hardest, though, unfolding a portrait of workaday queer bliss we know from the jump is imagined, a poignant look at the happy fantasies our lonely minds concoct to torture us.
The delayed fourth season of Noah Hawley’s anthology series, a sort of Midwestcore crime saga in the key of the Coen brothers’ ouvre, is full of bondage and humiliation kink, agonizingly long fart and puke jokes, malevolent tornadoes, and the very literal ghosts of the slave trade’s infamous Middle Passage. It’s a real everything-but-the-kitchen-sink of a season, its characters and storylines tangled together with irreconcilable complexity. It also reverses course on years of the series’s cop-centric storytelling, casting the traditional straight-laced marshal character as a briskly racist Mormon who shows his utter lack of character the second he first interacts with a young black girl, his impatient, thuggish bullying sweeping away all his high-minded blather about God and the law.
Director Emily Harris takes the opening of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s classic Gothic novel about a lesbian vampire bewitching a young Englishwoman traveling abroad and reassembles it as an ambiguously supernatural story of young love and sexual repression. Its compelling young leads and icy governess become entangled in a web of sexual tension and self-loathing the muddled, contradictory nature of which the film reflects in images of writhing insects and erotic mutilation, the profane and the sacred swirling together like blood and milk. The film’s exploration of the budding romance between Lara (Hannah Rae) and Carmilla (Aisling Franciosi) is moving and erotic, but it’s the repressed dynamic between Lara and her governess, the quivering Miss Fontaine (Jessica Raine), which imbues Carmilla’s last moments with such frantic, crushing horror. Carmilla is a story about the things women do to one another out of love, and the fragile beauty and deep ugliness that justification can harbor.
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3. Queer Japan
Anne Ishii and Graham Kolbeins’ realistic but defiantly joyous documentary interviews a multigenerational cross-section of Japan’s queer scene, everyone from noted gay erotic mangaka Gengoroh Tagame to Aya Kamikawa, the country’s first openly transgender elected official. Plumbing everything from the arrival of violent homophobia and transphobia with the end of the Edo period and the Christianization of Japan to the modern ravages of AIDS, Queer Japan is one of the few things worthy of the descriptor “heartwarming”, its beautifully imperfect portrait of the nation’s gay culture a rallying cry for community, sex parties, and rebellion.
Brandon Cronenberg’s sophomore feature didn’t get anywhere near the buzz afforded to the work of wunderkinds like Ari Aster or Robert Eggers, but Possessor is a ruthless movie, taut and ugly in the best way. Corporate espionage agent and assassin Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough) is employed as a possessor, able to interface with an enigmatic machine which places her in tenuous control of a host/target. She then fabricates circumstances under which the host’s suicide would prove unsurprising before pulling the trigger and scuttling back to her own body. The spectacle of Vos’s identity collapsing is coldly, clinically upsetting in a manner wholly distinct from the work of Cronenberg’s legendary father, David, all resinous outlines of empty bodies and slow, syrupy soundscapes churning with ambiguous emotion. Possessor is an experience to be savored, a tall drink of nihilistic viciousness with a dissociation chaser.
1. Better Call Saul
At this point it’s less a debate than a question of degree as to how much Better Call Saul exceeds Breaking Bad in terms of both reach and grasp. The show’s fifth season wriggles deeper and deeper into the slow-burn groove the series has worn, replete with sequences of Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk) walking through pawn shops and fantasizing with Kim (the astonishing Rhea Seehorn) about ways to wreck the life of their legal frenemy Howard Hamlin. These quiet, sensually rich scenes butt up against stomach-churning tension and truly sickening violence as Jimmy descends ever deeper into the criminal underworld of the cartels, making the show a kind of giddy see-saw between extremes. With standout performances from Odenkirk, Seehorn, and Michael Mando and cinematography unrivaled by any competitor, Better Call Saul might just be the best damn thing on television.