Blog #20: Don’t let the door hit you on the way out (or, Best of 2020)

Arts Coverage, Blog, Film and Television

It’s perhaps an understatement that 2020 has not been a great year for anybody.

Thankfully, it’s been a very good year for movies and music (even though performing artists and theatres are struggling to keep their heads above water). Listed below are a number of this past year’s finest films and albums, to keep you occupied until the lockdown ends:

Top Ten Films of 2020

10. Underwater (dir. William Eubank)

While this deep-sea thriller suffered from some frustratingly blurry visuals (an inevitable casualty of the setting), it benefits from engaging characters and a solid script. Kristen Stewart is a compelling lead as a practical yet sentimental engineer on an underwater drilling site, and the crew has an easy chemistry that adds naturalism and humanity to the high-concept proceedings. Oh, and the film’s towering subterranean monster is the coolest creature of 2020.

9. Bill and Ted Face the Music (dir. Dean Parisot)

This long-awaited conclusion to the Bill and Ted trilogy reunites Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter (as well as co-writers Ed Solomon and Chris Matheson) in a bodacious tale of time-travelling metalheads destined to save the world. Like its predecessors, Face the Music mixes goofy stoner humour with time warp weirdness: tasked (on threat of death) with writing a song to unite humanity, the washed-up Wyld Stallyns journey to the future to steal the track from their older selves, while their daughters head to the past to assemble history’s greatest rock band.

This movie was clearly a passion project for all involved, and as a longtime fan of the series, it’s delightful to see the band back together. The best scene is a reunion with their embittered bassist – Death himself – who’s been kicked out of the group and tied up in litigation.

8. Gretel and Hansel (dir. Osgoode Perkins)

Osgoode Perkins returns with a nightmarish fairy tale. IT star Sophia Lillis brings an earnestness to Gretel’s dreamlike dialogue, playing nicely against Sam Leakey’s naïve Hansel and Alice Krige’s diabolical witch. Perkins’ stylish direction and disturbing visuals bring out the horror in Rob Hayes’ clever script, eschewing a straightforward adaptation in favour of something much more haunting.

7. The Lodge (dir. Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala)

This ominous psychological horror tale strands two grieving siblings at an isolated winter retreat with their hated stepmother – the sole survivor of a doomsday cult. The Lodge plays with your expectations, using misleading camerawork to cast doubt on the villain’s identity as a palpable sense of dread builds. There are gaping plot holes throughout, and the whole thing culminates in an ironic twist ending that really shouldn’t work, but the atmosphere and performances are so effective that you roll with it when you should be rolling your eyes.

6. Porno (dir. Keola Racela)

Teen hormones rage in this demonic sex comedy you didn’t know you needed. Porno’s obscene gore and “unbridled perversity” is complemented by an appealing cast of sheltered movie theatre employees, seduced and scandalized by the succubus inside a cursed projection reel. Robbie Tann steals the show as disgruntled Christian punk “Heavy Metal” Jeff, the subject of the year’s most disgusting cinematic injury. Very NSFW.

5. Possessor (dir. Brandon Cronenberg)

Brandon Cronenberg’s thriller about a corporate assassin who hijacks people’s bodies is as psychological as it is visceral. Possessor’s elegant violence, disorienting twists, and unsettling scenes of transformation are worthy of the ‘Cronenbergian’ label.

4. I’m Thinking of Ending Things (dir. Charlie Kaufman)

A romance fails on an epic scale in this mindbender about identity, aging, and the passage of time. Charlie Kaufman’s latest begins with one of many monologues from poet-physicist Amy, as she reluctantly embarks on a road trip to meet her boyfriend’s parents. Her partner is revealed to be insecure and short-tempered, his family dysfunctional, and as Amy mulls the future of their relationship, the fabric of reality seems to warp around them. I’m Thinking of Ending Things is surreal and beautifully shot, with a smart, dexterous script and an eerie, confounding climax.

3. Zappa (dir. Alex Winter)

Combining clips of its Frank Zappa’s incendiary interviews and live performances with home movies and other rare footage, Alex Winter’s most excellent documentary is a treasure trove of archival content that still leaves you feeling like you’ve only scratched the surface. Zappa’s incredible career – from his lifelong battle against censorship to his advocacy for post-Revolution Czechoslovakia – could fill several documentaries, but Winter was wise to focus so heavily on the music. If you know Frank Zappa mostly as a satirist and iconoclast, you’ll walk out with a greater appreciation of his skill as a composer.

2. The Color Out of Space (dir. Richard Stanley)

Richard Stanley’s neon-hued Lovecraft adaptation is a wonderfully weird cosmic horror freak-out. Based on the 1927 story about an alien substance that infects a family farm, The Color Out of Space is a phantasmagorical delight, with kaleidoscopic visuals, oddball dialogue, and quirky humour offsetting the existential dread of the premise. It also boasts an excellent cast, including a virtuosic turn from Nicolas Cage and a haunting performance by Elliot Knight as a surveyor who bears witness to the carnage.

1. Amulet (dir. Romola Garai)

Romola Garai’s debut blends occult and folk horror into a feminist parable about evil. In this slow-burning gothic, a veteran haunted by his sins moves into a decaying house where a young woman tends to her dying mother. Romanian actor Alec Secareanu soulfully channels the duality of his troubled character, who sees a monstrous creature in the attic as his opportunity for redemption. Co-star Carla Juri is appealingly enigmatic, and British actress Imelda Staunton (who Harry Potter fans will recognize as the sadistic Dolores Umbridge) brings a welcome dose of camp as a duplicitous nun. A perfect film.

Honourable Mentions:

Birds of Prey (dir. Cathy Yan) is a fun showcase for Margot Robbie’s inspired performance as D.C. antihero Harley Quinn, populated with colourful fight scenes and scenery-chewing side characters. Come To Daddy (dir. Ant Timpson) is a hyper-violent crime comedy populated with thoroughly unlikeable characters and so many twists your head will spin. Relic (dir. Natalie Erika James) is a terrifying horror film about death and decline, and His House (dir. Remi Weekes) is a grim ghost story about Sudanese refugees haunted by those they left behind.



Top 5 Albums of 2020

5. Pray For It (July Talk)

On their third album, Toronto alt-rockers July Talk dial down their confrontational style in favour of hypnotic and deceptively soothing arrangements. Leah Fay’s siren-like vocals and Peter Dreimanis’s aggressive snarl are more subdued here, though their lyrics still bite. Media satires like “Governess Shadow” and “The News” affect a sickly-sweet perkiness, while mystical bookends “Identical Love” and “Still Sacred” (the album’s finest moment) throb with mystery and menace.

4. High Road (Kesha)

Kesha’s latest record is delightfully eclectic, throwing country-pop, folk-rock, and power ballads into a blender alongside the empowering party anthems that have become her trademark. This is an album where therapy sessions become pop song fodder and reflective acoustic tracks (like the Sturgill Simpson-assisted “Resentment”) feel at home alongside club bangers and caustic frenemy takedowns. The quirky pop star is at the height of her powers here, effortlessly hopping between genres and running the gamut from defiant whimsy to scathing self-awareness.

3. Total Freedom (Kathleen Edwards)

Ottawa’s Kathleen Edwards is one of Canada’s most underrated songwriters, and her latest record sees her at her melancholy best. Edwards’s trademark sly humour is on full display (“I blame it on the weekly flyer / that took me down to Crappy Tire,” she sings on “Options Open”), as are her scathing takedowns of relationships gone wrong (“Everything in his house is afraid / What wouldn’t be under your weight?”). But her distinctive voice shines through just as clearly on meditative tracks like the contented “Bird on a Feeder” and the mournful “Ashes to Ashes,” as well as “Who Rescued Who?”, an affectionate elegy for a beloved pet dog.

2. Reliever (William Prince)

Folk singer William Prince’s second album feels like an intimate conversation between friends. There’s a distinct gospel influence on this record, with gentle acoustic arrangements and Prince’s soothing baritone belying sweeping reflections on life, death, love, and redemption.

1. Ordinary Man – Ozzy Osbourne

Ozzy’s latest album might be his most powerful work yet – and it’s certainly his most personal. Combining his trademark gothic grandeur with vulnerable lyrics about addiction and self-hatred, Ordinary Man is a devastating listen. Walloping riffs alongside tolling bells and mournful piano heighten the drama; the record also features cameos by everyone from Slash, Elton John, and Tom Morello to rappers Post Malone and Travis Scott.

Honourable Mentions:

Hayley Williams’ Petals for Armour debuts a new sound for the Paramore frontwoman, with intimate emotions and insecurities revealed against chilly electropop. Hamilton’s Terra Lightfoot put out another great blues-rock record with Consider the Speed, and Arkells’ acoustic Campfire Chords is the singalong we needed in these trying times.

Single of the Year: “Weeping Ghost” (John Carpenter)

This song slaps.


Adventures in Writing: Year in Review

On Friday, March 13th, a crow landed on my office windowsill, which I should have taken as an omen. That turned out to be the day COVID-19 really hit home in Ottawa, plunging us all into months of paranoia and uncertainty.

Over the next few days, I wrote an ominous short story called “Friday, March 13th,” about an office worker who receives a grim warning. That was the only vaguely COVID-19-related story (although the pandemic is never mentioned) that I intended to write, until Owl Hollow Press announced an open call for their virus-themed anthology.

I was incredibly daunted by this theme, wary of being over-pessimistic and not wanting to write something exploitative. I initially set out to write something dark; to my surprise, the story ended up morphing into a very funny social-distancing themed sci-fi romance.

The story was ultimately accepted into Owl Hollow’s When the World Stopped: A Collection of Infectious Stories, which came out this fall.

The rest of my 2020 stories have been largely escapist: a beachside cosmic horror story (inspired by an old poem, a dream, and my bitterness that I had no way to stream The Beach House); a sword-and-sorcery adventure; a dark fairy tale; and a grisly horror story about a ziplining trip gone wrong. I also harkened back to the days of eating indoors with “Eater of Universes,” written for Sliced Up Press’s cake horror anthology Slashertorte.

I finished off the year writing darker fare: a holiday-themed cosmic revenge story in which Santa Claus is apprehended by an interdimensional bounty hunter (written as a Christmas gift to my parents and inspired by my story “Dust in the Jail Cell,” which was released this year in Transmundane’s On Time anthology), and a surreal sci-fi nightmare for an open call (last submission of the year!).

In addition to the aforementioned anthologies, I had stories appear in Night Frights, Excuse Me Mag, and Weird Mask, and online at Back Patio Press, Sci-Fi & Scary, Horror Tree, and Fright Girl Summer. Some of my poems were featured in Twist in Time, Bywords, Hook of a Book, Final Cut Zine, Pink Plastic House, and the Twin Peaks themed anthology These Poems Are Not What They Seem, and I wrote a pair of articles for Ottawa Life showcasing Canada’s greatest bands and singers.

My productivity definitely waxed and waned this year, but I also managed to finish my first-ever novella, a macabre horror-comedy called The Doom That Came to Mellonville.


Happy New Year!

Thanks for reading my 2020 rundown. As we cross our fingers for happier times ahead, I’ll leave you with the song that encapsulates 2020 better than anything else:

Stay safe,

Madison