5. The Assistant
Your mileage will vary when it comes to The Assistant, an ultra-low-key psychological thriller about the horrors of the #MeToo era. While critics adored the film, audience reception hasn’t been as kind. This tends to be the case with slower films in the genre. People expect to be thrilled by thrillers, and when that doesn’t happen, you’ll often find a lot of animosity.
The Assistant is particularly off-putting for people because it hardly seems concerned with telling a traditional story with a beginning, middle, and end. Rather, viewers are given a small snapshot of a woman’s workday. The conflict is constantly present, but it’s not present in the traditional sense. Rather, it subtly looms in the background while strings of seemingly harmless conversations appear on screen.
Regardless of what you might initially believe, The Assistant does have everything you would expect from a story like this. The storytelling may deviate from a more traditional template, but there’s still an illuminating story at the center of everything. As unconventional as the storytelling can be, this is still a story of good versus evil. It’s just a story that refuses to talk down to its viewers, and frankly, we need to see that more often.
As a piece of storytelling, Shirley tries something that isn’t seen often. It takes bits and pieces from a real person’s life to tell an almost entirely fictionalized story. The film is biographical, but it’s not exactly a biopic in the traditional sense. Since screenwriter Sarah Gubbins chose not to focus on a particular moment from real life, there’s more creative freedom, which allows for something a little more experimental.
Basically, don’t go into the film expecting Trumbo, Capote, The End of the Tour. Shirley is far more akin to a psychological fever dream than any of the more conventional films listed above. Considering how often biopics are thrown out into the wild, this is definitely a positive.
The film focuses on a made-up scenario where acclaimed author Shirey Jackson and her husband decide to take in a young, naive couple. The interactions between the four of them end up inspiring Jackson’s 1951 novel, Hangsaman. It all sounds very straightforward on paper, but in reality, expect a lot of uncomfortable silence and catty confrontations between the characters. The Jackson household quickly becomes the number one destination for psychological warfare.
Shirley isn’t exactly cinematic comfort food, but it does offer value in other areas. For example, Elisabeth Moss eats the scenery alive with her assured acting chops. There is a constant feeling of uneasiness that flows from scene to scene, and Moss does everything she can to intensify the film’s mood. This willingness to bask in this kind of atmosphere pushes the film forward in unexpected ways, even if it alienates viewers looking for something more rote.
3. Black Bear
Aubrey Plaza’s career trajectory has earned her all sorts of well-deserved acclaim. She could have thrown in the towel and settled for a career that’s entirely defined by one sitcom performance, but she broke free from April Ludgate limbo and went on to star in a multitude of genre-defying films. From Safety Not Guaranteed to Ingrid Goes West, there’s plenty of Aubrey Plaza to go around, but there’s nothing quite like Black Bear.
Generally, the purpose of these lists is to inform the readers of what they’re getting into ahead of time, but with Black Bear, that’s a little tricky. It’s one of those “the less you know, the better” movies. Basically, Plaza has to face a number of increasingly uncomfortable situations while viewers desperately try to figure out what the hell is actually happening.
In other words, if you’re looking for a stress-free comedy that you can put on for background noise, you’re probably not in the right place. Black Bear is not only stressful; it’s also mind boggling. Just when you think you have everything figured out, the rug is pulled from under you and you’re forced to reevaluate. Nothing is as it seems, so it’s best not to jump to conclusions too quickly.
Patience is the name of the game with Black Bear. If you have the patience to handle all of the intricacies and frustrations, you are in for one of 2020’s most unique motion pictures. Just don’t forget to take a few breaths throughout the nearly two-hour runtime.
2. I’m Thinking of Ending Things
Charlie Kaufman has written and directed some of the most beloved films of the 21st century. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Adaptation, and Anamolisa are just a handful of projects that he has helped bring to life. His films often sit somewhere between experimental blockbusters and abstract arthouse dramas.They’re not necessarily unapproachable, but they’re far stranger than the average mainstream theatrical release.
If you understand and appreciate Kaufman’s off-kilter brain, then I’m Thinking of Ending Things should leave you satisfied. If you’re not accustomed to his brand of eccentricity, this one might throw you for a loop. Nonlinear storytelling mixes with otherworldly symbolism, resulting in an experience that can only be described as Kaufmanian.
This ultimately means that the questions you will inevitably have may go unanswered. There isn’t a straightforward conclusion, but that doesn’t make the journey any less enthralling. On the contrary, there’s something absolutely alluring about the trail of breadcrumbs left behind. Kaufman’s film is clearly open to interpretation, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t some sort of clear vision. After all, these breadcrumbs lead somewhere.
Through all the twists, turns, and general confusion, viewers are in for a thought-provoking, albeit polarizing, mystery. The level of craftsmanship is off-the-charts as usual, and even though the head-turning script won’t appeal to everyone, there’s going to be an audience who will fall head over heels in love with I’m Thinking of Ending Things.
1. Promising Young Woman
Emerald Fennell’s award-winning directorial debut about a woman seeking vengeance deserves all the hype that has been thrown its way. Let’s take a moment and ignore the genre-focused criteria of this list; Promising Young Woman is one of the best films of 2020, period. It has a message that feels both timely and universal, and it includes a career-defining performance from Carey Mulligan.
For the uninitiated, Promising Young Woman focuses on a woman, named Cassie, who leads a double life in an effort to keep the streets safe from sexual predators. By day, she’s an unsuccessful med school dropout; by night, she lingers in nightclubs looking for men to trap in her web. Mulligan’s take on the feminist badass propels the material forward dramatically, but there’s more to this than a single performance.
It’s a modern vigilante story with a necessary satirical bite. This easily could have been a sappy melodrama that holds your hand until you reach the finish line, but it never chooses to make things easy for itself. Fennell and company make an effort to tell a story that appeals to various types of viewers, and they succeed without breaking a sweat.