Critic’s Choice: Top 5 of (*Sigh*) 2020

Interesting, unexpected and catastrophic are all words you could use to describe the opening salvo of the new ’20s. The COVID-19 pandemic has proved particularly difficult to the film industry where the near-universal shutdown of movie theatres led to practically the entire 2020 release calendar either delayed to 2021 or dumped directly to streaming and download.

While Covid kept us here at Hollywood North Magazine from attending the usual slate of  events in person, the show went on in virtual form for many festivals including VIFF, DOXA and the recently concluded WFF. From these and other screeners generously sent my way, I was able to once again construct a list of my favourite titles on offer this year. As we countdown to a hopefully better year, let us re-visit some of the the best films of the worst year:

5) Eddy’s Kingdom

Canadian history class might be less boring if they added characters like Eddy Haymour into the mix. He’s a man you can never quite figure out, but will have loads of  fun trying as this wacky tale of a man and his dream for an ambitious island amusement park is thwarted by the vicious machinations of a Provincial government whose unethical tactics drive him to terrorism. It’s not quite as dark as it seems, but NSFW nonetheless. Watch with friends and decide amongst yourselves whether Eddy is an unredeemable villain or a misunderstood hero. 

4) Freaks

I had actually missed this sci-fi gem on its screen debut at VIFF 2018 and had declined to review it upon its subsequent theatrical release one year later.  But since making a splash on Netflix earlier this year, I felt Freaks deserved to have my impressions put down into writing and they were certainly positive ones. The riveting tale of a mutant child hidden away from the world is a master showcase of world-building on a limited budget and certainly a superior mutant yarn to whatever the hell The New Mutants was. There’s certainly  fertile ground for a new franchise here. Maybe they’ll actually set the sequel in Vancouver this time?

3) Chained

I definitely would’ve rated this one higher if not for the following entries and perhaps the lack of a Canadian setting. Nonetheless, Chained remains a first-rate thriller that never quite leads where you expect, isn’t afraid to keep you guessing and will leave your mind buzzing as the end credits roll. Just about everyone in front and behind the camera brings their A-game here to a story of a young boy confounded over what to do about a criminal he finds chained in an abandoned factory. Do yourself a favour, skip my spoiler-ific review and find out for yourself.  

2) Québexit

Anglo-Francophone divide, Western alienation, Indigenous land rights and general disdain for New Brunswick are all explored and skewered in the most side-splitting farce this side of 90s-era CBC comedy. The film deftly sets up its dominoes and lets them fall wildly as a tense stand-off between Québec and the rest of Canada over a narrow separation referendum threatens to make our country the world’s laughing stock (at least they’ll notice us). Like Canadian Strain before it, Québexit tells a tale that can’t be transferred over the 49th and is all the better for it.

Honourable Mentions

Alone Wolf

The most unintentionally timely bit of cinema this year stuck us with a neurotic loner isolated in his plastic lined house. It isn’t the coronavirus he’s hiding from, but his own demons borne of a past power plant accident. When a porch piracy incident forces him into the light again, he finds that life outside the bubble might not be the hell-scape his emergency kit business implies. Or…at least it won’t be boring. Alone Wolf is a B-movie thriller with some B-grade performances among the supporting cast to match, but it’s an enthralling one and a spark amongst sparse cinematic pickings this year.

Sonic The Hedgehog

The one movie here that I saw in theatres was at one point, the least likely to show up on this list. I vividly recall the groans and laughter that greeted the initial trailer for this film where the ocular assault that was the initial Sonic character design was first unleashed on the world. A vicious Twitter outrage mob (one of the few to do some good in the world) resulted in a winning redesign that allowed us to focus on what was ultimately a charming and engaging buddy-adventure flick. With a game cast, slick set pieces, and a spectacular protagonist to boot, Sonic deserves every bit of goodwill it ended up winning.

And the top pick of 2020 goes to:

1) Monkey Beach

The number one spot on my list goes yet again to an entry in the Indigenous new wave of cinema that’s been sweeping Telefilm’s radar and our nation’s screens. I’d be doing the film a disservice if I divulged too much of the plot involving a broken young woman returning to her Haisla nation home after a prolonged absence, so instead I’ll gush about the film’s superb crafting, whether it’s the performances, direction, cinematography, or eye-popping CGI renderings of the Haisla supernatural. If this is what reconciliation via cinema looks like, then Canada and the world have plenty to look forward to.

‘Til next year!

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