Hello to all you beautiful queens and kings of kino. It’s the end of December and time to rank my top 10 favorite films of the year. 2020 was a weird year for movies. A lot of stuff was pushed back but more importantly without the theater industry driven to fill its screens with new and relevant movies — I found it way more difficult to hear about new worth-seeing films. This was exacerbated by a lot of distributors flatly rejecting the option to make new movies available on video on-demand services like Netflix, HBO, or even Amazon.
This continues the long legacy of corporations refusing to respond to market innovations until they are practically forced to. It only took a global pandemic for Warner Brothers to bring all movies to streaming services that have existed for half a decade. But this has always been the case. I think about how it wasn’t until season 4 of Game of Thrones – in the year 2014 – that HBO shifted to a strategy of offering the show on streaming services rather than their previous strategy of bragging about how frequently their content was stolen. It really is incredible the lengths Hollywood executives will go to keep things the same. Which is another way of saying shout out to Searchlight Pictures the distributor of Nomadland. Apparently it’s the greatest film of the year — I wouldn’t know because I can’t buy it anywhere and don’t live in Los Angeles.
Anyway, this problem led me to watch a lot of the movies I saw this year within the past two weeks. I caught up after all the other end-of-year lists started coming out. I have not seen absolutely everything — I didn’t see Borat or Sonic or the concert movie people claim is more than a concert movie — but anything I think was in my wheelhouse I gave a shot. So here’s the list
10. The Queen’s Gambit
We’re actually going to start this list in the classic fashion of naming a piece of work that doesn’t meet the qualifications for this list. It’s the Queen’s Gambit. I’m not generally a television fan but I can make an exception for miniseries that are very much intended to be a tightly defined story with a beginning and end with no opportunities for a sequel of any kind.
The Queen’s Gambit is a 9-part adaptation of a novel by the same name following the story of Beth Harmon. Beth is forced to restart her life at a young age after her mother commits suicide, leaving her to an orphanage where she picks up an uncanny ability for chess. It is accurate to say Queen’s Gambit is “the chess show,” but the story goes beyond the limits of what you might expect from a sports drama about chess. It is just as much about pursing passion, the true definition of family, the loneliness that comes with being truly gifted, and the obvious challenges of being an intelligent woman in the late 50s and early 60s.
Of course many shows are about many things, but Queen’s Gambit felt unique in its ability to draw a through line between so many seemingly disconnected aspects of life. Beth Harmon feels like a person that actually existed, which I think is the reason why so many people are surprised and disappointed Queen’s Gambit is a work of fiction. In a way, the fact your audience believed it was a true story is the greatest compliment that can be made about a character study. It’s a story that literally feels real.
And the show creates such an excellent sense of time and place. I really felt like I could connect to Beth regardless of if she was a pre-teen, figuring our adolescent romance, or struggling with a quarter-life crisis. I also loved that this show comes as close to saying “it’s not about the destination, it’s the friends you make along the way,” without actually saying it. And even more surprisingly when that moment lands it feels genuine and endearing. I really loved this series and considering Netflix has some revulsion to shows going on longer than 4 seasons, I hope they consider the miniseries format for their future projects.
Another miniseries that doesn’t technically fit this list. If you’ve talked to me about movies for any length of time I’ve probably shared my deep love for the work of Alex Garland, the writer and director of Ex Machina and Annihilation. This year Garland continued his self-prescribed habit of departing as much as he can from his previous work by taking up writing a miniseries instead of another feature-length film. Devs has absolutely everything I love about Alex Garland.
The premise is cerebral and on the cutting edge of science fiction and philosophy. Devs is a secret organization within a Silicon Valley megacorporation attempting to create a reliable simulation of the future. The concept of this project begs many questions posed by the philosophical concept of determinism. Determinism is the idea our cells and DNA make up complicated personalities that interact with a phenomenally complex world… but ultimately our decisions can be understood by a complex algorithm and therefore mapped out and predicted by a powerful enough supercomputer. If this is too dense for you already, it may be helpful to know the viewpoint of determinism is typically countered by the view of free will. So the question is basically: you there, the sense of consciousness you feel inside your head while you’re watching this video right now — do you have control over your body and its fate or are you merely a pilot bringing yourself to a predefined end. There’s even a specific scene in one of Devs’ later episodes where you have a proponent of determinism argue against a proponent of free will and it’s not a conversation that pulls any punches for general audience. Both of the characters in that scene make pretty coherent and nuanced arguments for their respective viewpoint.
I really loved that scene, but Garland isn’t making movies for just me. That’s probably why the first four or five episodes of Devs really have nothing to do with any of the philosophizing I just mentioned. Garland may be a sci-fi and philosophy geek but he’s not an idiot. He knows he can’t just plunge people into these conversations and expect to keep their interest. Devs is really just as much a stress-inducing espionage thriller as it is a cerebral musing about the nature of existence.
Garland’s movies get a lot of press for their intelligence, but its really his characters that carry you through these stories and Devs is no exception. I think the main character of Devs is the most believable average person I’ve ever seen in a thriller like this. Lily is a smart person, but she is clearly outgunned by nefarious megacorporations and the sinister intent of reality itself. She really gets her shit rocked throughout this series, and I think it takes some humility to recognize if you were in her shoes that’s pretty much what would’ve happened to you too. There are some other great characters, although I will say the one weakness is Nick Offerman who honestly looks so god damn retarded in this series I never took him seriously, but anyway.
As someone who is a fan of Garland, I really loved watching him work in the miniseries format because it was a true display of his full ability in filmmaking beyond his writing that’s so frequently commended. There’s really only so much you can accomplish in a movie without diluting your vision for a project. Garland’s first movie Ex Machina was intellectual, witty, and subversive but mostly a very narrative-driven story. His second movie — Annihilation — had a premise that allowed him to do a lot more with visual storytelling, ambitious computer graphics, and genre-blending. But Devs’ concept and its miniseries format let him go far beyond anything he’s done before. Since he has 10 hours to work with he can set aside 3-5 minutes at the beginning of every episode experimenting with bizarre montages, which is something he wouldn’t necessarily be able to do with any movie. Of these sequences, the one that plays before episode 3 is honestly one of the most unnerving things I’ve seen and despite the overwhelmingly discomfort I felt during it, I went back and rewatched it three or four times just to get a true sense of what I was looking at. That moment of rewatching the same sequence multiple times, really defined my whole experience with Devs. It was truly captivating — to such an extent that I regret all the other times I’ve used the word captivating because this time I really mean it.
That said, the problem with making a show about determinism is you can see the ending from a mile away. The show writes itself into a corner in that way. That’s obviously disappointing, but everything before the final pair of episodes is really unique and easily one of my favorite filmic experiences this year — and if I was allowing miniseries to go anywhere on this list Devs would have easily been my #1.
8. Corpus Christi
One last rule-breaking entry. Corpus Christi is a Polish language film that was technically released in 2019 but it didn’t hit wider Western audiences until earlier this year — and a bunch of other year-end lists are using it so I am too.
Corpus Christi is about a troubled teen named Daniel who is released from juvenile detention and sent to work at a sawmill as part of his parole. Before leaving juvey, he’s shown having an appreciation for religion and a good relationship with the detention center’s priest Father Tomas. Once Daniel arrives to his assigned town, instead of going to the sawmill he decides to go to a church where he tells a half-assed lie to a cute girl that he is not some punk kid but actually a priest. This lie escalates into a full-on performance as Daniel finds himself impersonating a priest, but he’s pretty happy to be avoiding life at the sawmill so he keeps up the ruse.
Daniel hosts a variety of sermons and his interpretation of religious teachings is progressive to say the least. His liveliness reinvigorates locals in the town who have struggled with their faith after a tragedy took the lives of several teenagers in the community. He enjoys some early success, but things get complicated as his past comes back to haunt him.
Priest impersonators have been a thing for a long time, but the details of this story really hit at a good time for where we are in history right now. There are record numbers of people abandoning traditional religions but still maintaining a sense of “spirituality” with loose definitions. In the United States specifically, some 43 percent of Americans identify as “spiritual but not religious.” The implications of that have been extensively talked about in a book that also came out this year called Strange Rites — which I also highly recommend. Corpus Christi doesn’t quite reach the potential of its concept, but it is an intriguing look at the religious rules we hold firm to and the ones we’re more willing to relax.
It is a movie that takes a bit to get going, and I will say the ending doesn’t do anything interesting with its story, but it’s a thought-provoking concept that allows the film to persevere through its weaknesses.
7. Another Round / Druk
Ok let’s talk about actual movies from this year. Druk, or “Another Round” as it has been marketed in the West, is a Danish-language film starring Mads Mikkelsen. It’s about four high school teachers who decide to test a philosopher’s theory that human beings are meant to maintain a .05 blood alcohol level at all times because that level of toxicity unleashes our true self.
This is obviously a very silly premise for a movie but it does well to have fun with its concept. It is surprising how effective this movie is at portraying the fun of day-drinking since it’s literally an ancient pastime. Stories like Druk have always been about providing the audience with a vicarious experience of what would happen if you finally let loose like you were in college. This appeal is a big part of what made rated R comedies like American Pie so successful — especially following a largely conservative monoculture that dominated the 80s and early 90s in the United States. Druk succeeds at holding its own when compared to other raucous comedies, but it really distinguishes itself by presenting an honest examination of the appeal of drug abuse, while maintaining the inevitable pitfalls of such a lifestyle. Obviously if there was no upside to this drug abuse, no one would do it. But Druk is clear-eyed about the short-term gains of relaxing your stodginess, and even moreso about the problems that arise from lying to yourself about your own bad habits.
The second half of Druk takes a darker turn and exemplifies how any party-hard personality trait is typically hiding some deeper depression. Whether that is a midlife crisis, chronic loneliness, abdication of adult responsibilities, or marital concerns. I liked that this movie could show both sides of the issue and gracefully transition from the comedic elements to the more dramatic ones without any tonal issues.
Mikkelsen adds a lot to this movie, most of all to its ending where he drunkenly dances for a solid five minutes. I imagine the filmmakers believed was the climax — and to their credit it was the best part of it. Druk may be a bit of retread for some people who’ve seen this kind of thing before, but it is well-made and one of my favorites from the year.
6. A Sun
I still don’t quite know what to make of the Taiwanese epic drama film A Sun. This movie follows a family whose son gets into trouble during the opening sequence —one of the more startling examples of contrapuntal music I’ve seen in recent memory — and follows their lives for the subsequent years that follow after that event. I would describe A Sun as a “slice of life” movie which is a term that comes with a lot of baggage in my mind. On one hand, A Sun accomplishes what the best slice of life movies excel at. It does a phenomenal job dropping you into the world of these characters and giving you a wide scope of their lives throughout multiple events and tragedies. It also has a lot of excellent understated moments of tenderness that you wouldn’t otherwise get in a film with a more determined narrative. On the other hand, it is incredibly long, there’s a bunch of filler, and it’s not really “about” anything. So maybe not for everyone, and at times it wasn’t even for me. There were moments where I wanted to give up, but there are other moments that I’m still thinking about now.
Not necessarily because the scenes were so impactful, but they just resonate so strongly like a good novel. To name a few, I really liked the scene where the aggrieved father shows up to the guy’s job with a septic truck and sprays sewage everywhere. Something about that is insane enough to believe it could happen. I remember the dream sequence — that isn’t a flashy dream sequence it’s shot like any other scene — but it shows two family members in a moment of intimacy that’s not present anywhere else in the film, which really expresses the sadness of their interaction that’s exclusive to the dreamworld. And the ending scene is similar where a mother and son just ride a bike through town, which really has no further subtext or meaning, but in the context of the rest of this two and a half hour journey, it just hits differently.
And this whole movie is backed by this nostalgic or idyllic score that adds to the emotional impact of every beat it lands on. Or at least it did for me. So much of your response to this movie is emotional and it either works for you or it doesn’t. It’s a film that escapes description but it has the potential to land some devastating emotional weight on you if it works. There are definitely some issues with how it tells its story, like there are a lot of monologues. But I think it’d be a mistake to discount the quality of its best moments which make it one of the best films this year.
5. Never Rarely Sometimes Always
I feel like I owe an apology to this next movie: Never Rarely Sometimes Always is a movie that was pilloried by user ratings on Rotten Tomatoes, which made me erroneously assume this was some nanny activist filmmaking telling me how I should think. Instead, this movie is a very raw and realistic depiction of what it’s like for a teenager to get an abortion in the United States. You can say a movie with that premise is inherently arguing a political point, but I’m someone who is fairly resistant to that type of filmmaking and I did not get that impression from this movie. This movie is closer to being an interesting footnote in a history textbook than a traditional movie.
The story of this movie is so barebones that you can summarize it in maybe two sentences — there’s not a lot there — but knowing what happens in this movie is not a substitute for experiencing it. One of the great strengths of cinema is its ability to transport you to another place or witness the world through the eyes of someone else to better understand their experience. This movie shows just how terrifying it is to be stuck in some middle-of-nowhere town with unsupportive parents and a carousel of juvenile boys joking about blowjobs all the time. It’s not an atmosphere that can handle a conversation about abortion. It is incapable of talking about the incredible responsibility of childbirth or the long-term considerations of getting an abortion. So unsurprisingly, people like the main character Autumn are left to address this monumental decision on their own.
What I really liked about this movie was its intentional lack of commentary to any of the events. There’s not a lot of dialogue in this movie beyond the necessary interactions. There’s no character acting as a stand-in for all the talking points of pro-choice feminism. All you get is Autumn, her experience, and exactly what it entails. Many of things are pedestrian in nature, like booking appointments or pamphlets about adoption. Other things are more unique to her situation but speak to the terror thousands of teenagers experience every year. For example when Autumn is told her abortion is a two-day procedure, she has to find out some way to stay overnight in New York City without any money or alarming her parents. Regardless of your views on abortion, I don’t think the solutions she’s forced to consider are very humane or by design.
I respected this movie because it isn’t ideological or interested in changing your mind. It just wants to show you reality and maybe seeing that reality will make you think differently. Maybe your takeaway from this movie is: oh my god, I can’t believe we terrify teenagers with this messed up system. Or maybe your takeaway is, wow it’s way too easy to get an abortion. Whatever your view may be, the movie is a starting point for the rest of that conversation.
Personally, I’ve always identified as pro-choice — although I have become increasingly disillusioned by that viewpoint to the extent that I don’t have an opinion anymore (but I’m a guy so I get to have no opinion) — and this movie only furthered my belief abortion is a phenomenally complicated topic often confused by political talking points. Never Rarely Sometimes Always is not a talking point, it’s a practical depiction of reality that really captures American life in our current moment. I think it is a unique film for that reason and one of the best for the year.
4. Bad Boys for Life
Number four is Bad Boys for Life. Maybe the placement of this movie will lower your expectations for all the other movies I just talked about, but really it should elevate your expectations for Bad Boys for Life. I talked about this in my original review back in January — but I cannot understate how insane it is this movie is so good.
And I should say I don’t have any love for the Bad Boys franchise. I saw Bad Boys 1 and 2 for the first time in their entirety a mere 24 hours before I saw Bad Boys for Life. There was an Alamo Drafthouse triple feature of all the movies leading up to the new one at midnight. There was a problem with the projector so the third one wouldn’t play and we had to come back the next day. I was very grateful for that because those first two movies might provide ironic enjoyment but watching them back-to-back wasn’t something I enjoyed. So I came back the next day and was pleasantly surprised this movie was so good.
On the most basic level, it is a successful action movie. It has clearly defined characters who not only feel like real people but their personality actually impacts how they perform in the action set pieces. Will Smith’s character is the reckless hotshot who goes in guns blazing, whereas Martin Lawrence in the stodgy old guy that just wants to get back to his wife alive. There’s an obvious conflict and tension between those two approaches which keeps the action in this movie engaging and entertaining.
But this movie is not just limited to the character who’s doing the action and the other character who’s the comedic relief, because this movie introduces a squad of younger characters who not only allow for flashier set pieces, but have a tangible impact on the story too. That squad is led by a former romantic interest to one of the main characters, and their prevalence in the film brings into question the relevancy of the Bad Boys, which is part of the whole theme of the movie. The intermingling of personalities and action style shows the filmmakers knew one of the most basic principles of action filmmaking which is to make every element of the story serve the action. If you were to grade this movie for its ability to work as an action movie, Bad Boys for Life is one of the best.
What really makes this movie so good is it reuses throwaway lines from Bad Boys 1 and 2 to suggest there is some coherent storyline across the entire franchise. They redeploy all the jokes including the teenager they grilled in Bad Boys 2 or the captain’s incompetence at basketball started in Bad Boys 1. More importantly they develop the families of these characters and use them as a source of motivation for both main characters in different ways. Martin Lawrence is scared of dying and wants to get back to his wife. Will Smith has a hidden past that contributes to the antagonist of this story. All of this stuff feels so natural and obvious, you wonder why previous Bad Boys movies weren’t as good. Maybe that speaks to the genius of the writers and director of this movie, or maybe Bad Boys was always good and it took this movie for me to recognize the potential its fans have seen all along.
Either way, easily the best action movie of the year — and I did see many others. I think I would’ve had good things to say about this movie in any year, but since this year is so whacky I do think it’s hilarious this made it into the top 5, but it really is that good.
3. The Trial of the Chicago 7
Number three is the Trial of the Chicago 7, which is a movie I actually avoided for most of the year. This movie is written and directed by Aaron Sorkin and before I saw this movie I really thought Sorkin had overstayed his welcome. I think his most interesting work in the past few years has been with directors who neuter his smarmy tone. Movies like The Social Network and Moneyball have clear Sorkin influence without being overbearing with the witticisms that I’m just kind of tired of after seeing all the television shows he’s worked on for two decades.
So I was pleasantly surprised when I finally gave Trial of the Chicago 7 an honest shot and it quickly became one of my favorites for the year. The biggest criticism of Sorkin’s style is he tends to use the same type of dialogue no matter who the character is supposed to be. Whether you’re the President of the United States, the CEO of Facebook, a 70-year baseball scout, or just a teenager — everyone talks the same in a Sorkin script. With this movie, it’s not that Sorkin adapted his style but he found a setting that makes the dialogue appropriate. His sarcastic subversive dialogue works very naturally for a group of anti-establishment activists during the height of the Vietnam War protests. All of these characters are either very well-read activists or established lawyers, so they can keep up with conversations about obscure political movements or legal arguments that would be unbelievable for an ordinary person. Additionally, the fact this trial was seen as a sham trial creates the smart and comedic tone Sorkin has been writing for his entire career.
That tone is accomplished because of the diverse and combative characters in the entire cast. The most notable is Sasha Baron Cohen’s performance of Abbie Hoffman, a radical activist who was a borderline performance artist due to his adamant disregard for the system and his knack for media stunts. I’ve been familiar with Hoffman for a while and I think his character is hammed up a little bit for this movie, but it is a generally accurate portrayal of one of the more unique figures in history. Surrounding Hoffman are various degrees of other types of activists like the buttoned-up Tom Hayden played by Eddie Redmayne, the comically passive David Dellinger played by John Carroll Lynch, and the kinda stoner bro Jerry Rubin played by Jeremy Strong. All of these characters are real people in history and their stories have surprisingly resonant allegories to the modern day. You have a group of people who have the “radical” views of: not supporting foreign wars, universal healthcare, and legalizing weed. Within that group you have strong disagreements about the best way to accomplish their shared goals. Hoffman representing the performative mockery of the system and Hayden representing the strait-laced work within the system. It’s an argument that you could argue divided the movement then, and continues to divide it now, but there has not been a final word on which approach is the best.
The beauty of Sorkin directing this story is he gives each of the characters a moment to dunk on the others, which means even the viewpoint you’re most sympathetic to gets dunked on as well. It works because every character is so charismatic, mostly due to the confidence imbued in all of them through the script. I need to point our Mark Rylance specifically, who carries much of the film due to his central role in it.
It’s a really fun movie with some significance due to its allegories to the modern day. All of those things are right up my alley. Assuming you care at all about politics or history, this is easily one of the best movies of the year but it may not be for everyone.
My number two pick was very close to being number one: Run. Run is follow-up to 2018’s Searching. If you’ve been following my work for a while you might remember me naming Searching as the biggest surprise of that year. Directed by first-time filmmaker Aneesh Chaganty, Searching was a thriller shot entirely from the perspective of a computer screen. It sounded like a dumb ass gimmick, which is probably why I had such low expectations but that movie not only proved the gimmick could be done well, but it was also a genuinely excellent nail-biting thriller unlike anything I had seen in a while.
Run is Chaganty’s follow-up to his debut and I think it firmly establishes him as one of the most exciting young directors working today. There is no gimmick with Run, but it does have a great premise. The movie stars a mother and daughter. The daughter Chloe is bound to a wheelchair due to a variety of medical complications. She is cared for by her mother Diane who is so familiar with taking care of Chloe there’s a new tension that arises when Chloe is finally set to go to college. Chloe detects this concern and begins to believe her mother isn’t being totally honest about the status of her college acceptance. The nature of that tension and the whole history of their relationship unravels across the rest of the movie.
To explain why this movie made such an impact on me, I need to do a quick story about myself. I started doing movie reviews and video game reviews when I was in High School. I fell into journalism out of that natural interest, and there was a brief period of time where I wanted to get into filmmaking. I took film studies courses and I did film production. This was before I realized writing was really what I was good at and movies just tend to have a lot of writing in them. Somewhere in those classes I stopped watching movies the way everyone else does. When normal people watch movies, they see the story and the characters and the spectacle. When I watch movies, I see the camera angle, and the writing, and the production. When I discovered this was how I saw movies, I got a little depressed. It was like I had taught myself to not believe in magic, because I was no longer swept away by cinema like I used to be when I was younger. And there was a hole in my life because that awe and wonder that motivated me to express my own ideas through writing was now gone. But I have come to discover there are a handful of films that are so good, I can suspend my thinking brain and feel entranced by the magic of filmmaking again. That happened to me when I watched Run.
The building of tension in this movie is simply masterclass. It does a phenomenal job of teasing out information to the audience. One of the very first scenes is a classroom and there’s a close-up of a tissue box being passed around the room. It’s natural for the audience to seek answers, so immediately you’re thinking: where are we, who’s talking, what’s happening, why are they here? You’re engaging with the movie because you’re looking for something to reward your attention. This movie knows how much to give you and how much to withhold. Which is what happens in that first scene. You find out you’re getting reintroduced to Diane who says something publicly and the audience has to decide if they believe her or not. It’s inviting the audience to interpret the movie as it’s happening. Even when there is a straight-forward scene of dialogue, it’s the kind of dialogue that’s true to life. It’s messy, imprecise, and contains lapse of attention or detail. People don’t approach conversations like chess matches, so it’s believable two characters talking to one another will miss something that you caught. And the tension that comes from you discovering something becomes anticipation for when the character will discover it, or what will happen if they never discover it. This is relatively basic stuff in building tension, but it’s clear in this movie Chaganty is a student of tension and knows how to wield it with expertise. That’s pretty much all I can say about the movie, because it’s a story best experienced blindly.
I also thought the concept of this movie was very smart. It shows how a wheelchair-bound character makes every element of life so much more stressful. Something as simple as grabbing something from the top shelf or going to the store around the corner is now an opportunity for tension. And I also thought it was super cool that the person who plays Chloe — Kiera Allen — is actually someone who uses a wheelchair in real life. Despite this concept being kind of obvious, she’s apparently one of the first actors to get a starring role as a character who uses a wheelchair.
Which goes back to why I’m so excited for whatever Chaganty makes next. He’s proven his ability to be an inventive writer and an immensely skilled filmmaker. I will say the one thing his movies are missing are that extra bit of weight that comes from truly great cinema. This is one of those situations where this is a movie I’d give a 5 out of 5, but it could be eclipsed by a lower-rated movie that had more of an impact on me. Which is what’s happening right now…
1. Horse Girl
This year was immensely stressful for a lot of people, not just because of the pandemic but because we’ve been subsisting under a generation-long trend of increased depression, anxiety, social isolation, and paralyzing loneliness. This has been exacerbated by social media, cancel culture, and inaccessible healthcare specifically for mental health. With all this in mind, the movie that made the most impact on me was Horse Girl. Horse Girl has a ridiculous title and the fact it stars Alison Brie — who most people know from Community — may create the false impression this is some sort of comedy. While there are comedic moments in Horse Girl, it is really meant to be a harrowing depiction of the onset of schizophrenia.
This movie had such an impact on me because a lot of the influencing factors on the main character’s mental state are very relatable realities of being a young person in the modern day. Sarah has a passion for horses, but she’s barred from partaking in this hobby due to a tragic accident that’s only hinted at. Beyond her love for animals, she is shown to be socially isolated. We initially believe this is because she’s kind of dorky. She seems to only watch the same television show for hours and hours and she maintains this awkward cheerfulness that’s more unsettling then it is reassuring. So we assume the reason she’s lonely is because she’s kind of lame.
As we get to know Sarah more and see the various tragedies of her life, the audience discovers she is suffering from early indications of mental illness. She experiences memory loss — sometimes in the form of sleepwalking, other times portions of her recent past are missing. She’ll find herself in places without knowing how she got there or people she’s interacted with many times will suddenly look different. All of these things can be explained as something other than what it actually is — maybe she’s just tired, or she got too drunk, or some other explanation. The human mind has a way of rejecting explanations it doesn’t like and accepting ludicrous explanations that provide a sense of comfort.
Sarah doesn’t believe she’s mentally ill, instead she believes some combination of conspiracy theories like she’s actually a clone of her late-mother or potentially being abducted by aliens because of her similarities to her mother. You can tell these conspiracies are intrinsically linked to some lost individual she never truly knew. It is a common expression of the depressed to believe the person who would have understood them did exist, but now they are separated somehow and that is the source of their unhappiness. Sarah is content to pursue these theories and tell people about them because the alternative is far more terrifying. That alternative is something we all consider but never truly want to believe.
What is the answer to the question: Why don’t I have a job? Why am I single? Why don’t I have friends? Why am I lonely? Why am I depressed? Why aren’t other people like this? The answer to these questions can be very simple but we are never tempted to accept that simple answer because we’re scared of what it might mean: Maybe, there’s just something wrong with me.
I think we all experience this level of self-doubt at some point. It’s why “imposter syndrome” has become such a big thing as people in our generation are finally moving into roles of responsibility and the shift feels so dramatic it feels like an act. But more commonly, we never get a position of responsibility and we flounder in this undefined state of irrelevancy wondering why we’re stuck. Horse Girl may be about someone who has a medically-prescribed mental disorder, but Sarah’s response to these otherwise very normal sources of discomfort and doubt are as resonate as they are heartbreaking — even if you don’t have mental illness.
I really need to take a moment and laud Alison Brie’s performance as a troubled young person that seems to know she’s fucked up but doesn’t want to admit it. Her feigned enthusiasm never betrays the undeniable sadness of her character. I really connected to this aspect of her character. That attempt to match other people’s mood so there’s no reason for them to discard you. See, I’m normal. I’m enjoying this awkward event just like you. I think a lot of people attempt to do this before they ultimately discover it’s a fake mask that doesn’t fool everyone, in the same way it doesn’t fool us when we see Sarah act this way and still detect her discomfort. It’s a tricky balance to strike, but one she maintains the entire movie. It’s easy to take for granted her performance and enjoy the movie without really locating where the empathy of the film comes from, but that performance is really what makes this movie so relatable.
I don’t know what it’s like to have schizophrenia, but I did appreciate the depiction of this illness wasn’t a bombastic science fiction allegory as we often see in Hollywood storytelling — although there is a little bit of that. The movie doesn’t use its premise as an excuse to make crazy montages, it uses the strengths of filmmaking to express the life of Sarah’s mental state. The film uses noncontinuous editing and special effects to disorient the audience to match the disorientation Sarah feels when she’s coming out of a psychotic episode. These creative decisions are to get the audience to relate to Sarah’s experience. And all of these tools are used in the context of a grounded portrayal of reality. You can almost simultaneously see Sarah’s unreliable interpretation of the world but still figure out what literally happened. Which is another way of saying it’s a movie that uses its stylization in service to the story its trying to tell. It’s not simply artsy for the sake of being artsy, it’s using the craft to tell a story that couldn’t otherwise be accomplished through another medium.
Though I will say the movie ends in kind of a disappointingly ambiguous note. Which is part of the reason I gave it a 4 out of 5 when it first came out, but it’s not enough to detract from what else is accomplished in this movie. Horse Girl offered something new to me this year. A unique portrayal of a specific segment of the human experience that’s usually only done in service to some other goal. Movies use mental illness to ramp up their whacky sci-fi thriller or to give film students an excuse to go avant garde. Horse Girl is a sincere depiction of a topic we so frequently reference without ever actually addressing. When I see a movie, I want to feel like it made an impact on my life. Horse Girl is not a pleasant movie to watch. It only offers pain and sadness, but I consider it the most impactful experience you can have, which is why it’s my favorite movie for 2020.
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