EJ Moreno on the best independent films of the year…
In a year where cinemas have been closed worldwide, it has been up to independent films to give hungry moviegoers exactly what they wanted. That focus on films in small theatrical runs or straight to video-on-demand platforms really gave way for some wonderful projects to get the shine they rightfully deserve.
With a few exceptions, this list won’t include many films from places like Netflix, Amazon Prime, and other major streamers as they’ve got enough of their own praise. The movies we’ll be talking about today are overlooked gems that you need to see or the hottest indie films that got everyone buzzing.
– His House
– Dick Johnson Is Dead
– Palm Springs
A micro-budget horror film released straight to a niche streaming service is the exact type of film I wanted to include on this list. And no other horror film has captured the normal 2020 way of life like this Zoom-focused paranormal film. Host, from director Rob Savage, tells the story of a group of friends having their silly Zoom seance turn into a hellishly bad night. From there, it’s one intense scare after another.
This horror romp comes in around 50 minutes or so, feeling like a breeze to watch and fun during every moment. Shudder’s Host is the natural follow-up to films like Blair Witch, Paranormal Activity, and Unfriended. If you want to see one of the year’s most original and refreshing horror films, you need to check this one out.
9. Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Some films tackle the same subject matter as Never Rarely Sometimes Always, and there will probably be more well-known ones, but I can’t think of one that feels complex in how it handles the emotion. There’s an elegance in the film that feels soft and tender, but it also doesn’t shy away from the haunting and hard moments. You have to appreciate a film that doesn’t feel afraid to throw you around in tone.
Director Eliza Hittman follows her wonderful 2017 film Beach Rats with this, giving viewers an even better look at her wonderful style and bending of tonality. Major props to scoring Sidney Flanigan as an actress, and Flanigan storms onto the movie scene with fire and an unstoppable drive in her performance.
8. Miss Juneteenth
Authenticity is often hard to pull off in films, and a common thread on this list are movies that feel personal and honest. Miss Juneteenth is one of the year’s most authentic films, giving an honest look at the complicated yet beautiful mother/daughter relationship. You know these characters, this situation feels familiar; it leads it to be one of the 2020s most comforting watches. At times Miss Juneteenth feels like a hug from your mother.
You feel uplifted through the film, the energy we need after such a hard year. In her debut feature film, Channing Godfrey Peoples announces her entrance into Hollywood, offering up just a small portion of what feels like her full potential. Let’s hope she continues to explore womanhood, motherhood, and feminine energy as well as she did here.
Sci-fi and horror are a perfect mix, and when done in the constraints of a smaller budget, it can lead to a filmmaker really pushing themselves creatively. Brandon Cronenberg does it again with his follow-up to 2012’s Antiviral, the bizarre body-swap Possessor. You won’t see many films like this, but you’ll crave more of the oddities you see here. Though, that’s expected from the son of genre master David Cronenberg.
When my only complaint about the film is it wasn’t gross enough, you know there’s something to behold with Possessor. And the performances from Andrea Riseborough and Christopher Abbott elevate this film to an entirely different level. They are on-par with another Cronenberg sci-fi horror duo, Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis in The Fly.
6. The Rental
Independent horror films shine every year, with the niche nature of many projects causing fans to go to places like IFC Films for their genre work. That’s why something as good as Dave Franco’s The Rental is a wonderful high-point in this jam-packed year. With paranoia only seen dramas of yesteryear and a slasher element that’s so refreshing, you won’t see many modern horror films like this.
You’ll fear AirBnbs as well, as the film expertly twists things like that house rental service in a strange new way. Like The Exorcist did for ouija boards and Final Destination did with semis on the highway, The Rental will ingrain itself into pop culture, changing how viewers look at something we wouldn’t normally think is so twisted.
In a year that saw Steve McQueen release five stellar films as part of his Small Axe anthology series, it was hard picking just one for this list. I could include all five in a perfect world, and this spot almost went to the poetically beautiful Lovers Rock. But there’s no denying that Mangrove is one of the year’s most hard-hitting films and quite possibly the best courtroom drama of 2020.
Letitia Wright is at her very best here, and she leaves everything she has in the role of Althea Jones-LeCointe. She makes this film hers, elevating McQueen’s solid look at institutional racism into another stratosphere. This type of story is familiar, this film sub-genre has been seen, but this acting and directing pair make it hit different.
Sometimes movies feel so deeply personal that they hit you deep. Sometimes a director bares their soul and allows you into their personal life. And sometimes you see a debut film that makes you think of the masterful intro works like Clerks and Sixteen Candles. For me, that film in 2020 is Shithouse from first-time filmmaker Cooper Raiff. Another great debut performance on this list that includes quite a few.
You’ve seen stories about young men entering college, trying to find love, all while figuring out who they are. But the way Raiff captures this all feels wholly original and profoundly honest. Coming off the era of college movies featuring so much machismo and lowkey sexism, Shithouse finds a way to give us something completely different.
3. First Cow
The minimalist period drama First Cow feels so wonderfully poetic, so precise its execution, and unlike anything you’d expect from the title. For as small as Kelly Reichardt’s film feels, it’s quite amazing how much of a punch it packs. Though the story involves a baker and a Chinese immigrant stealing milk from the only cow owned by the county’s wealthiest man, I guess you should expect something strange.
If this is your first Kelly Reichardt film like it was mine, you’ll have to get adjusted to the filmmaker’s artistic stylings. But once you do and once this story kicks in, you’ll see the importance of an artist like Reichardt. Saying so much with so little isn’t easy, and in the world where everyone says too much, First Cow has all the right words.
2. Black Bear
Aubrey Plaza fans rejoice as the actress is finally getting her time to shine as one of Hollywood’s most well-rounded talents around. Black Bear feels like her coming-out party as a filmmaker, offering pure style but packed with just as much substance. A rare combination, but writer and director Lawrence Michael Levine throws everything into this piece. There’s aren’t too many films as unique as this twisted tale.
Plaza isn’t alone in the film’s incredible acting as Christopher Abbott turns out another great 2020 performance, and Sarah Gadon feels like the backbone of the whole piece. This modern-day Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is explosive, volatile, and one of the best films about films ever.
1. Promising Young Woman
The indie movie of the year is also one of the year’s best films altogether. Explosive, timely, and so damn dark, Promising Young Woman reminds us why we love movies so damn much. The film has the conversations you want to have, sees the revenge you’ve wanted to dish out, and always you to enjoy even the darkest of moments. While still being campy and cult, it’s one of the year’s most complex movies.
In what should easily lead to her second nomination at the Oscars, Carey Mulligan commands every single second of this film. She demands you hang onto every word she says, every roll of her eyes, and then uses that to her advantage. Director Emerald Fennell might’ve found her muse in Mulligan, becoming a match made in cinema heaven.
What are your favourite independent films of the year? Let us know on our social channel @FlickeringMyth…