Brandon’s Top 20 Genre Gems of 2020

1. VHYES A sketch comedy anthology that mimics the uneven rhythms of a home-made VHS “mixtape,” combining spoofs of late-80s cable access garbage & a fictional home movie wraparound. It’s lean, strange, and amusingly absurd in all the ways I wanted it to be. Post-Adult Swim filmmaking at its finest.

2. The Berlin Bride Two reclusive 1980s Berliners split ownership over a mysterious mannequin; one uses her right arm to replace his own amputated one, the other treats the rest of her as his newlywed bride. Very funny & weirdly upsetting. Often feels like a surreally cheap riff on Peter Strickland’s work, which I mean as a high compliment.

3. Crazy World A Ugandan gang of kidnappers are thwarted by the unexpected Kung Fu skills of their pint-sized captives & their enraged parents. My first Wakaliwood experience was just as wildly entertaining & inspiringly low-fi as I had hoped. A total blast & a surprisingly heartwarming document of no-budget regional filmmaking.

4. Spree A grotesque satire about social influencer brain rot in the eternal search for likes, following a live-streaming ride share driver who becomes a serial killer in a desperate bid to Go Viral. I’m always a huge sucker for technophobic thrillers about how the Internet is going to kill us all, and this one was a worthy addition to the canon. It’s especially apt at pinpointing just how pathetic clawing for social media clout feels to an outside observer, even as a near-universal vice.

5. The Platform A nasty dystopian sci-fi pic that’s a lot like Snowpiercer & High Rise in its blatant illustration of wealth disparity, except that it’s so into Philosophy & economic theory that there’s room for little else. It’s almost 100% worldbuilding but it has more than enough Big Ideas & gory catharsis to pull that off.

6. Gretel & Hansel As beautiful & creepy as it is silly, and I kinda wish more movies were allowed to just dick around like this. The tension between conventional genre payoffs & Oz Perkins’s “elevated horror” tendencies is absolutely thrilling throughout this self-conflicted novelty. I don’t believe Perkins has it in him to make a genuine opening-weekend crowd pleaser, and this delightfully weird attempt at such a prospect is outright adorable.

7. Come to Daddy Elijah Wood stars as a hipster coward who finds himself sparring in a cramped isolated locale with his deadbeat alcoholic father. Written by the guy who penned The Greasy Strangler, it eventually turns into a Greasy mutation of a Jeremy Saulnier-type dark comedy as its violence escalates.

8. Bad Hair A Justin Simien horror comedy about a killer hair weave. A lot of people are going to ding this for taking its over-the-top premise too seriously in its first hour, but I think that’s its saving grace. If it were zanier and less politically purposeful it would’ve gotten old real quick; instead it really earns the campy B-movie payoffs of its climax by laying a lot of thematic groundwork and, against all odds, establishing a genuine sense of dread.

9. Weathering With You For its first hour this feels like an amusing-but-weak echo of Your Name., but the plot keeps pushing further & further into the weirdest direction possible until it ends at an absolutely stunning Choice of a conclusion that fully won me over. I really liked how Your Name. applied the Miyazaki reverence for Nature to Big City environments and this one goes even further in that respect by having Nature reclaim the City as part of itself.

10. She Dies Tomorrow Amy Seimetz’s dryly humorous chiller in which fear of impending Death is a communally transmitted disease. Rarely is cosmic horror so relatable. This feels like the darkly Funny existential crisis other people have been describing I’m Thinking of Ending Things as, but I didn’t experience. Whimsically bleak.

11. Sea Fever An eerily well-timed aquatic horror about a crew of deep-sea fishermen who have to quarantine themselves because a Cronenbergian parasite has infected their water supply. I was genuinely chilled by this once it got cooking, even if it borrows a well-worn story template from The Thing; it’s a much more impressive entry in the genre than this year’s so-so Underwater was, if nothing else.

12. Palm Springs I don’t know that this is the tip-top best of the recent string of post-Groundhog’s Day time-loop media (there’s been a lot of good’ns!), but I do like that it pushes the genre forward by acknowledging the audience’s familiarity with it and jumping into the flow of things way downstream. It doesn’t hurt that it’s really funny & charming throughout.

13. The Pool A bargain bin riff on The Shallows, in which a couple is stranded in a drained swimming pool with a killer crocodile. The CGI on the croc is so absurdly shoddy that the movie has no choice but to pave over its budgetary restrictions with a playful sense of humor. And then, just when you think it’s going to play Everything for cheap laughs, it gets shockingly fucked up. Fun, upsetting trash that’s willing to push its limited scenario to its furthest extreme. It also might be Pro-Life propaganda?

14. The Hunt It’s difficult to get too excited by another “Most Dangerous Game” riff the same year as the great Bacurau, but I enjoyed this far more than I expected to. Its both-sidesing makes it a little too timid to succeed as a satire, but I appreciated the way it treats modern American politics with the broad, ugly, unsubtle caricature of a pro wrestling angle. Feels accurate to the Moment as a cultural temperature check and packs plenty of cheap payoffs as an exploitative novelty.

15. His House Reinvigorates haunted house genre tropes with the same tactics that titles like Blood Quantum, Zombi Child, and The Girl With All the Gifts used on the similarly overworked tropes of the zombie genre: by shifting the cultural POV and the purpose of the central metaphor. You’ve seen these exact story beats & jump scares before, but never in this exact cultural context.

16. The Lodge This is not as solid as the directors’ breakthrough Goodnight Mommy but it covers a lot of the same ground: creepy kids with maternal resentment, a few chilling indulgences in dream logic, telegraphing its Twist but then following through in the grimmest way possible. Severin Fiala & Veronika Franz just seem to hit an icy sweet spot for me, even though they seem to disappoint a lot of people. And it turns out they’re an aunt-nephew duo? Weird.

17. Blood Quantum A zombie breakout among white urbanites reaches an isolated Indigenous reservation, and it appears that the Indigenous people are immune. It’s a solid genre entry, especially in how hard it leans into post-Romero gloom & gore. Outside its central conceit & cultural context it’s very much a straight-forward zombie movie, though, so it’s unlikely to win over many people with general zombie genre fatigue.

18. Spontaneous A post-Heathers high school black comedy about a spontaneous combustion pandemic, one that feels shockingly well-timed in a way the filmmakers could not have anticipated.

19. Capone Covers only the final year of the notorious gangster’s life, which he spent under house arrest while left senile by neurosyphilis at the age of 48. This is in the same genre as Venom, by which I mean it’s a tragically bland nothing of a movie that Tom Hardy’s bizarro performance transforms into a riotous good time through sheer force of will.

20. Tito First-time director Grace Glowicki casts herself as an impossibly timid geek who’s drawn out of his cowardly seclusion by an idiot stoner who barges into his life. Meanwhile, vaguely menacing demons attempt to invade the frame but never arrive. The central performance is consistently entertaining, grotesque, and frustrating, like watching Crispin Glover suffer a traumatically bad acid trip. The movie itself is much more difficult to pin down. It’s an arthouse-horror/stoner-comedy? I almost want to describe it as Josephine Decker’s Cheech & Chong, but that’s way overselling what it can deliver.

-Brandon Ledet

VHYES (2020)

I’m frequently surprised by how little respect sketch comedy anthology movies get in general, but something about VHYES‘s muted reception feels especially egregious. Structurally, the film harkens back to the channel-surfing absurdism of 1970s cult classics like The Groove Tube & Kentucky Fried Movie, tying together a collection of unrelated, retro-styled comedy sketches by mimicking the uneven rhythms of a home-made VHS “mixtape”. Combining spoofs of assorted late-80s cable access garbage with a fictional home movie wraparound, the film is on its surface a shameless indulgence in retro VHS-era nostalgia. The individual gags are solid, though, and are elevated by the participation of LA comedy scene goofballs like Thomas Lennon, Kerri Kenni, Charlyne Yi, John Gemberling, and Mark Proksch. What really distinguishes VHYES, however, is how it uses its wraparound structure to give those sketches a surreal, menacing sense of purpose. As a whole, the film evokes the eerie delirium of flipping channels past midnight, blurring the border between what’s onscreen and what’s an oncoming dream. It’s a loose collection of varyingly successful sketches the way most anthology comedies are, but the unexpected sincerity & deft of its wraparound story breaks through that classic structure to uncover something freshly exciting & praiseworthy that’s rarely achieved in the genre.

Filmed entirely on actual VHS & Betamax deadstock, the comedy sketches that comprise most of VHYES are a collection of parodies of late-80s ephemera: Bob Ross painting tutorials, violently paranoid Security System commercials, QVC shopping showcases, Cinemaxxx era softcore, etc. The wraparound story initially exists as an excuse for all these vintage spoofs to commingle. On Christmas Day, 1987, a child is gifted a VHS camcorder and unknowingly begins recording experiments with the format over his parents’ wedding tape. Amazed that he can record live television to watch later at his convenience, the boy sets out to make the ultimate VHS mixtape, creating a Burroughs-style cut-up montage by surfing channels late into the night, filming sub-America’s Funniest Home Videos pranks with his buddy, and unknowingly leaving blank space for his parents’ wedding to interrupt his D.I.Y. art project. The bizarre rhythm of these images alternating in a believable, disorienting cycle is outright hypnotic. And once the movie has you in a state of late-night channel-surfing delirium, it crashes all three levels of its taped reality (the “found footage” sketches, the pranks, and the wedding) into one subliminally horrifying nightmare. Early in the film, one of the sketches warns that the VHS camcorder’s ubiquity in the home will inspire a newfound, wide-scale techno-narcissism that will incite the fall of mankind. By the end, I was nearly convinced that was true and that we’re just now reaching Phase 2 of that downfall.

VHYES is post-Adult Swim filmmaking at its finest: lean, strange, and menacingly absurd. Anyone who’s spent more than ten minutes watching a Tim & Eric or PFFR project will be familiar with the kind of delirious, weaponized nostalgia on display here. If it were just a loose collection of gross-out, retro-styled sketches I wouldn’t be praising it so emphatically. (Okay, if Kuso is any indication, maybe I would be.) I really do feel like the unconventional wraparound narrative of this film transcends the conventions of its channel-surfing sketch comedy genre, if not only for feeling more sincere & purposeful than what’s typically pursued in these anarchic goof-arounds. I don’t expect that it’s enough of a revolutionary paradigm shift to warm skeptics up to the sketch comedy film as a genre, but if you do tend to skip over these films because they appear to be aimless freewheeling frivolities, this one might be worth a closer look.

-Brandon Ledet