I remember very clearly New Years Eve of 2019: I had worked for weeks putting together a kick ass roaring 20’s theme party, and those in attendance all had a Gatsby of a time, and we were so excited for the new year and all the things that 2020 would bring to us.
Well, that didn’t go as planned…
I won’t even waste your time with a rehash of the Pandora’s jar of events that this year has been for everyone, let alone what personal disasters we’ve each had to deal with. Instead, let’s take our cue from Monty Python and try to “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.” Some of us here at Film Combat Syndicate – myself, Cathy and this site’s founding editor, Lee – thought we’d try to end the year on a positive note and list some of our favorite things from this year.
Note: Some of these titles did not necessarily come out in 2020, but we enjoyed them during the course of the year.
Here they are, in no particular order:
I LOST MY BODY
(Cathy) Netflix doesn’t always have a ton of French-language movies, and the movies they do have tend to be heavy dramas. So I was pleasantly surprised to find the animated film I Lost My Body as a francophone option.
The film centers on Naoufel, an orphaned Moroccan immigrant who grows up in France. Lacking real direction, Naoufel becomes infatuated with a young woman he “meets” via interaction through an intercom when he delivers her pizza.
It’s a bit stalker-y, and it ultimately does not work out well for Naoufel. Coming to work hungover one day, he carelessly, but accidentally, severs his hand on machinery. Although Naoufel recovers from the accident, his hand — locked in a hospital morgue — decides it misses its body and makes the long trek across the city back to its owner.
The film is shown in alternating flashbacks and its present-day timeline.
(Christina) I have lost count of the number of people I have told that they need to watch this film. If you love Will Ferrell, are into music, and are in need of a laugh, this one needs to be on your list of movies to watch.
I will laugh out loud whenever I randomly remember a scene, my best friend and I will text each other quotes from the film to make each other laugh throughout the day, and I’ve added “Ja Ja Ding Dong” to all the playlists I’ve been creating since watching this.
(Lee) Hands down, the Russos brought on a hard, heavy-hitting espionage thriller that ultimately underscores how awesome it is when crew members reunite for a project. This one reconvenes actor Chris Hemsworth, AGBO cohorts The Russo Brothers and stunt multihyphenate-cum-debut director Sam Hargrave for a hearty thriller about a world-weary mercenary sent in to India to rescue the son of an imprisoned gangster from his rival.
With a sequel pending, it’s a film you’ll want to check out if you love action and have enjoyed any of the Marvel movies these folks have worked together on up until last year. My review here.
(Lee) This film counts as something that truly matters for anyone who loves action and also shares concerns for world events. Debut director Matthew Michael Carnahan, shepherds a story inspired by a pre-existing piece at The New Yorker, centered on young, inquisitive Iraqi police officer Kawa (Adam Bessa), whose momentous now-or-never addition to a rogue SWAT team led by Jasem (Suhail Dabbach) evolves into a harrowing tale of self-discovery, death and sacrifice, as Kawa slowly begins to realize more the unyielding resolve their latest mission requires, rather than the reason.
If you haven’t seen it yet, know that you’d be doing yourself a plus by checking it out.
(Lee) At least from where I sit, Adrian Teh is still poised to help carry the action genre well into the future since directing thrills like Paskal and his latest release, Wira. The Malaysian director tapped Hairul Azreen and Fify Azmi to lead the story of a soldier home from service only to find his family gripped in fear and debt by a vicious crimeboss. It’s a terrific outing for anyone following Southeast Asian cinema, and the incomparable Yayan Ruhian’s addition to the narrative is icing on the martial arts and action cake here. Read more about it here!
(Lee) If you take anything else from 2020 in Netflix, let it be a shared affinity for the members of Exile Tribe who’ve spent the last six years delivering one of the best and most eye-popping action multi-media entertainment franchises finally delivered to the western world in full this year with all seven current feature film installments of HiGH&LOW, a saga built on motorcycles, martial arts, and pure action muscle with a touch of drama, comedy and romance along the way.
It’s more than I can sum up and comprises the bulk of many a Tweet this year, and I’m really irritated that there were some people confused by the chronology of the films.
Favorite Theatrical Release
THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK
(Cathy) OK, OK, OK. I know Empire came out in 1980 — I saw it in the theater as an 8 year old! But locally, one of our drive-in theaters offered an encore showing of this classic early in the fall of 2020.
Due to Covid, we just didn’t have a chance to see any films in the theater this year. Thank goodness for the drive-in. Star Wars movies are meant for the big screen to begin with, and as Empire is regarded as one of, if not the best Star Wars movie ever, it seemed only fitting that I see it again at the drive-in. Of course, this time I had the best date with me — my teenage son, who had never been to a drive-in movie before.
ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD
(Christina) I have to admit that I walked into the theater expecting something completely different than what I saw. Long story short, the reason I went to see this one in theater is because the two people I went with, well, we have very different tastes in movies and this one was the only one we could agree on. One wanted to see this for the action, I am a Tarantino (mostly Kill Bill) fan, and the other was interested because of the references to Manson. We all got a little bit of everything. We saw fights, we laughed; this was a solid film and deserves all the talk surrounding it.
THE SANDMAN graphic novels (Preludes and Nocturnes, The Doll’s House, and Dream Country) by Neil Gaiman
(Cathy) Although I was introduced to Neil Gaiman’s Sandman oeuvre in the late 90s, I only recently had the opportunity to buy my own copies of the revered comic series. Gaiman is definitely on a hot streak right now, coming off the success of screen versions of Good Omens (co-written with Sir Terry Prachett) and American Gods. A screen version of Sandman is now in the works, so I wanted to reacquaint myself with the original story before the series comes to fruition.
The Sandman, an immortal being — one of seven Endless — is Dream, lord of the dream world. The first three volumes (including issues 1-20) revolve around Dream’s escape from imprisonment on Earth by an occultist seeking his own immortality. Once freed, Dream returns to his kingdom and begins to clean up various messes from his decades-long absence. Many runaway dreams have escaped and must be returned to The Dreaming where they belong, and several of Dream’s signature objects of power have gone missing and must be found.
The third volume, Dream Country, is a slight departure from Dream’s mission, as it contains four stand-alone stories, including “A Dream of a Thousand Cats” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” loosely based on the Shakespearean play. The Dreaming is an amazing place to visit, especially if you’re looking for an escape from 2020. These initial three volumes are also available as successful and well-acted audio plays via Audible.
(Christina) According to Goodreads, I read 67 books this year so naming a favorite is tough. I cannot pick a single book, but instead will tell you that if you like cozy mysteries you need to read anything by Ellery Adams and you should check out Victoria Laurie’s Ghost Hunter series.
If you like historical fiction and zombies, read Justina Ireland’s Dread Nation. Also of note are Debra Landwehr Engle’s Twenty, Suzanne Collins’ The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, and Luvvie Ajayi’s I’m Judging You. I’m sure there are more that need mentioned and I do talk about more in my article on the reading challenge I did this year, so be sure to check that out.
Favorite film (Disney+)
(Cathy) All children’s film creators know their audience is never just kids, so I am usually game to watch films with my kids (a young teen and a tween). Onward blended the fantasy and Dungeons and Dragons world with teenage angst and grief — an amazing combination that tackled a sensitive subject with grace and care. Two elf brothers find their late father’s staff and realize they can bring him back to life for one day. The spell, of course, goes awry, and the comedic adventure begins. For families who have experienced significant loss, the film can be gut-wrenching, but cathartic.
(Christina) I spent my July 4th weekend finally watching Hamilton. A few times. I have heard so many good things about this musical that I was beginning to think it was overrated, and though I was irritated that I knew I would not be able to see it on Broadway, I was coming to terms with it. Enter Disney’s release of Hamilton. I had to try it, I had to give it a chance. Let me tell you, people: the hype is real! I cannot go through a day without making at least one reference or hearing someone say a sentence and immediately hear a correlating lyric go through my head. Go watch it. Now.
Favorite Zombie Film
THE DEAD DON’T DIE (HBO Max)
(Cathy) I like my zombie films on the campy and comedic side, and I can’t say ‘no’ to either Bill Murray or Adam Driver (either with or without John Oliver-style “commentary”). The two play with an A-list cast of actors, portraying small town police officers who suspect ghoul-play when farm animals go missing. They surely can’t imagine what comes next. Well, Driver’s character Ronnie can, since he seems to know more than he’s letting on. The movie is very self-aware — dare I say meta? It’s an earnest zombie movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously.
YUMMY (Amazon Prime Video)
(Christina) What list would be complete without mentioning zombies? Yummy shows what happens when medical experiments go wrong and there is a zombie apocalypse in a hospital. For more on this one, check out our previous coverage.
Favorite Indie Film
BARNEY BURMAN’S WILD BOAR (Amazon Prime Video)
(Cathy) I am, as already admitted, behind on most trends.
Independent films definitely fall into that category. But I was pleasantly surprised with award winning make-up and special effects artist Barney Burman’s directorial debut, a horror-morality tale of our fear of “other.” A group of geocaching friends stumble upon a community of nuclear fallout-mutated pig people who are hungry for humans. Scary, right? Maybe not in the expected way. The unorthodox horror film has plenty of gore and suspense, but also heart. (Link to Christina’s review HERE!)
(Christina) Speaking of movies that have been hyped up (maybe this one was just in my mind), this one totally exceeded my expectations. A gory good time, this movie is full of laughs and kills. For more on this one, check out our review and previous coverage.
Favorite Series (streaming)
AP BIO (Peacock), THE MANDALORIAN (Disney+)
(Cathy) So as an educator, I love watching shows that poke fun of the school system. Good comedies take bad things to an extreme, so the goofy ineptitude of nearly all the teachers, administrators, and staff at Whitlock High School, a fictional school in Toledo, Ohio. Former Harvard philosophy professor Jack Griffin fails to get another university post, so he moves back to his late mother’s home and takes a job teaching A.P. Bio (advanced placement, in case you forgot). The class is full of eager nerds looking to get that coveted high score for college credit, so their disappointment in Griffin’s refusal to actually teach biology is palpable. Griffin does, however, manage to impart some life lessons — and the occasional biology lesson — while still needling his career nemesis, Miles Leonard. Full disclosure: I’m a Midwestern girl, so a lot of the mannerisms ring true, just in case you were curious.
And of course, my year would not have been complete without The Mandalorian. We were late to the Season 1 party (my signature move is getting into a movie or show well after everyone else has already discovered it), but binged it while hungrily anticipating Season 2. (Link to Mandalorian story/stories here??) It is a fascinating sneak peak into a world most Star Wars fans have only dreamed of, and plot lines that connect the original films with the animated and stand-alone shows in a linear and believable fashion.
Plus, Baby Yoda (I’m not ready to call him Grogu yet). ‘Nuff said.
COBRA KAI (Netflix)
(Christina) If you’ve been reading my articles, you know how I feel about reboots and remakes. However, this is an exception. Cobra Kai just does not rely on nostalgia to trick viewers into thinking it is good, it is a genuine continuation of the lives of the Karate Kid and his still rival Daniel-san. It pokes fun of the original movies in ways, but stays true to them in others. I cannot wait for season 3!
(Lee) If slow-burn crime and police procedural thrillers are your speed and you’re new to the allure of Korean film and television, just know Netflix is all about that life.
Their content library is fresh with shows and films, one including Studio Dragon’s 2017 series, Stranger. Cho Seung-woo and Bae Doo-na star in the respective roles of Prosecutor Hwang Si-mok and Lieutenant Han Yeo-jin as they find themselves routinely partnered in their endeavors to uncover corruption in both law enforcement and in the courts.
The series also focuses on how their friendship grows despite Hwang having part of his insular cortex removed as a child due to his hypersensitivity to sound, with Hwang’s personality coming off as ineffectual and often robotic.
The drama is highly interwoven and complex at times but the characters and their relationships toward one another, coupled with the climatic endings for each episode as the plot unfolds just a little more each time make Stranger a purely entertaining series.
(Lee) In the wake of such series as Into The Badlands, the launch of the aforementioned Cobra Kai and the in-and-out premiere of the CW’s Warigami, it felt refreshing to see Shannon Lee’s creation continuing onward with Cinemax’s hit series, Warrior, since debuting season one last Spring.
Set in the late 1890s, tensions mount amid the gangs of San Francisco in a rivalry born from racism between the Irish and the Chinese, and the interwoven gangland politics of Chinatown. Enveloped in the course of events is Ah Sahm, a gifted pugilist fluent in both Cantonese and English, as he manages to wedge his place in with the Hop Wei Tong and tread the terrain accordingly while struggling to reconnect with long lost sister, Mai Ling (Dianne Doan), and ultimately coping with the fact that things may never be the same again.
The show’s sudden cancellation earlier this year left a bitter taste that still lingers in the wake of its recent series finale. Nonetheless, the show delivers in all areas of martial art action and drama, from its edginess and intensity throughout, weaving the worlds of both languages together in a way that coheres sensibly for all engaged audiences.
Both seasons are now available to stream and purchase on Amazon and Google Play, and will very likely hit HBO Max in the new year.
HAIL TO THE DEADITES
(Christina) This past year, Lee and I viewed a couple different documentaries and films from festivals, but I’d have to say that Hail to the Deadites was my favorite. I absolutely love the Evil Dead movies and show and adore Bruce Campbell. The film is a love letter to fans and a must-see. It also made me realize that my Evil Dead collection is lacking (I only own the films) so I am now knitting myself a tiny Ash.
(Lee) Between Fantasia and NYAFF’s own programming along with covering a few horror festivals to boot, providing an in-depth outline of my favorite picks feels a bit arduous. With that, I’m gonna throw some titles out which I recommend, starting with Juzo Itami’s Tampopo, a beloved classic which I got to screen for this year’s Winter Showcase at NYAFF, in addition to the main NYAFF premieres of Areel Abu Bakar’s Malaysia and Brunei-shot action thriller, Geran, and Johnnie To’s bustling Hong Kong action romance drama, Chasing Dream, as well as the Japan Cuts premiere of the whimiscally fun, deadpan animated musical comedy, Kenji Iwaisawa’s On-Gaku: Our Sound, which is currently out in the U.S. from GKids.
Fantasia saw some terrific outings as well, like Justin McConnell’s Clapboard Jungle, a documentary chronicling four years of his efforts treading the teething terrain of the global film market in pursuit of getting his films funded and produced, a delightful introduction to me with Yoshimasa Ishibashi’s only feature-length directorial project to date, Milocrorze – A Love Story, and Bao Tran’s near decade-long labor of kung fu cinema love, The Paper Tigers, which endured a hearty online festival run this year ahead of a U.S. release in 2021 from Well Go USA.