2020 might be remembered as one of the worst years in recent history, but it wasn’t all bad. Musicians from around the world got bored enough to release all kinds of quarantine music, Zoom kept people connected, and plenty of solid movies made their way onto the small screen in spite of countless delays to big budget behemoths.
Maybe these things don’t make up for the global pandemic, but there has to be some type of silver lining, and we’re going to try our hardest to appreciate it. Since this is a site dedicated to the discussion of cinema, it shouldn’t be too difficult to pinpoint the focal point of this list, but let’s get a little more specific.
There were, to the surprise of many, a ton of memorable films this year. Sure, you had to search a little harder because you couldn’t just head into your local movie theater, but this just meant the underdogs had an opportunity to shine like never before. This isn’t exclusive to small indie comedies either. Genres that typically rely on big budgets and theatrical releases somehow found ways to survive the pandemic. In particular, the science fiction genre thrived.
This is surprising when you consider just how many hotly anticipated sci-fi releases were pushed out of 2020. Dune, Free Guy, A Quiet Place Part II, BIOS, and Eternals were all victims of COVID-19 delays, but somehow, we still have ten excellent movies to talk about. They may not all be blockbusters, but they’re still representative of the great things this genre has to offer, and because of that, they deserve recognition.
1. Palm Springs
Ever since Groundhog Day came out in 1993, numerous films have taken the basic concept of time looping and tweaked it. Some of these films, such as Edge of Tomorrow and Source Code, have been highly regarded. Others, like ARQ and Naked, came out with a whimper. Regardless of the varying responses, it’s fascinating to see different filmmakers toy with such a specific premise. This year’s take on the formula comes from newcomer Max Barbakow, who gives us the romantic comedy Groundhog Day we always wanted.
Okay, so maybe Groundhog Day has romcom elements of its own, but Palm Springs somehow manages to come across as a completely fresh take on well-worn territory. A lot of this is the result of screenwriter Andy Siara. His nihilistic dialogue sharply cuts into a premise that has been visited repeatedly by folks who want a slice of the time loop pie. The guys behind the screen have managed to create something that feels quintessentially 2020. It’s got some edge, but there’s plenty of heart to compensate.
This pairs beautifully with the stellar performances of the two leads. Samberg doesn’t exactly break new ground, but his comedic timing is welcome as usual. Meanwhile, Cristin Milioti’s “everything sucks” attitude feels right at home in a movie like this. This combination of standout elements elevates Palm Springs beyond what it could have been – another Groundhog Day.
2. The Vast of Night
In a directorial debut like no other, Andrew Patterson has delivered a science fiction masterpiece that takes inspiration from the classics of yesteryear. The Twilight Zone is obviously the biggest inspiration here, but The Vast of Night isn’t just a one-note copy of Rod Sterling’s acclaimed anthology series. This surprise hit takes all the best elements of classic sci-fi stories and blends them into a wholly unique final product. Though the individual pieces may seem familiar, there’s still nothing quite like this low-budget throwback.
The Vast of Night takes place in 1950s New Mexico, where mysterious occurrences are uncovered by a disc jockey and switchboard operator. As the two team up to find answers, things get increasingly bizarre in the small rural town that serves as the film’s backdrop.
Mysteries are uncovered largely through dialogue and sound as opposed to large setpieces. The occupations of the two protagonists are no coincidence. The extraterrestrial activity doesn’t show itself as much as it exposes itself through radio frequencies. This isn’t an action movie focused on large-scale battles with alien life; it’s a more thoughtful approach to a story as old as time.
This slower, dialogue-driven style won’t gel with folks looking for something big and bold. This is a quintessential indie sci-fi movie at the end of the day. It’s aggressively low-key, but that’s part of the appeal.
3. The Invisible Man
It’s probably fair to say that few people expected The Invisible Man to be this good. Leigh Whannell’s take on Universal Classic Monster wisely distances itself from recent efforts like The Mummy, Dracula Untold, and Victor Frankenstein. While those movies took a big budget action-blockbuster approach, The Invisible Man dials things back. Rather than telling a cliché-ridden story about a spooky monster that goes bump in the night, Whannel chooses to tell a timely horror story grounded in realism; that’s largely why it works.
This is not the same HG Wells story you know and love, and honestly, that’s a good thing. It shares the same DNA, but it chooses to focus more heavily on modern themes. Judging by the jump scares and atmosphere, this has plenty of elements commonly found in traditional horror flicks, but they aren’t what really make this a horror story. The horror largely comes as a result of the modern twist. The Invisible Man isn’t some featureless ghoul; he’s a very real human capable of inflicting psychological trauma at any given opportunity.
The source material’s central character has never been cardboard, but audiences have also never seen him this fleshed out. The titular invisible man is an abusive monster before he turns even invisible. The suit may keep him hidden from plain sight, but this modern interpretation wants viewers to understand the extent of his domestic violence immediately. The suit doesn’t make him a villain; his violent past does.
By taking the original premise and warping it into a cautionary tale about domestic abuse, Leigh Whannell is able to craft something far different from the other contemporary monster flicks. After the swing and miss that was the Dark Universe, it’s pleasant to see something with such passion behind it. If only every reboot had this much soul.
Following the release of Possessor, one thing became crystal clear: the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Brandon Cronenberg, son of acclaimed body horror auteur David Cronenberg, recently gifted us with a slam dunk of a movie that almost certainly made his father proud. Although it’s reminiscent of David Cronenberg’s greatest hits, it never feels like a carbon copy. This is body horror for the modern era.
The film revolves around an assassin who is able to transfer her consciousness to other bodies in order to perform various hits. By assassinating people outside of her own body, she is able to go on living a consequence-free life, or so she thinks.
Possessor toys with motifs revolving around morality and humanity. If she’s not committing the murders, is she the one to blame? Is it possible to live a halfway normal life when your illegal career is aided by the promise of anonymity? Cronenberg asks big questions, and while he could have taken things a step further in various places, it’s still easy to commend his vision.
While Ridley Scott continues to get all philosophical with his Alien franchise, other filmmakers are taking a different approach. 2017’s Life proved that cosmic critters are often most terrifying when the story is kept simple. Recently, another movie helped verify that sentiment.
Sputnik, like the severely underrated Jake Gyllenhaal feature mentioned above, doesn’t overcomplicate things. At its most basic, it’s about an alien who’s pissed off beyond belief. It’s very much a straightforward survival movie, but unlike the competition, there’s enough hard science to make the story feel believable.
Despite the lack of philosophical mumbo jumbo, Sputnik is actually a pretty clever movie. It feels like a perfect balance between raw survival horror and hard science fiction. The story itself never feels overcomplicated, but the science behind everything helps the film feel like more than an Alien fanfiction.