2020 was a weird year for movies: closed theaters, no Marvel movies, and the new Bond movie and The Fast and the Furious sequel pushed to 2021.
But limitations on theater attendance not only pushed studios to experiment with their releases, but also allowed some smaller genre movies to attract attention that usually would have been taken by blockbuster franchise films. In other words, 2020 made room for some great new genre movies, and gave viewers more of an opportunity to watch them.
Here are ten of the best sci-fi and horror movies of 2020 (in no particular order), all of which you can watch right now.
Gretel & Hansel
In his third feature film, director Oz Perkins (son of Psycho star Anthony Perkins) continues to do what he does best: creating an atmospheric horror story around a compelling female lead. But where The Blackcoat’s Daughter and I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House were original stories that felt like myths, Gretel & Hansel retells the famous Grimm Brothers fairy tale. As its title suggests, Gretel & Hansel focuses more on the sister (played by IT’s Sophia Lillis), forced to care for her younger brother (Samuel Leakey) after their widowed mother drives them out of the house. Their only chance at refuge comes in the form of the witch Holda (a terrific Alice Krige), who recognizes the innate power inside of Gretel.
The screenplay by Rob Hayes suggests a gritty tale of economic desperation and exploitation, but the moody cinematography by Galo Olivares and synth score from ROB adds a layer of mysticism to the story. Perkins hits all the familiar points of the classic fairy tale but presents them in a unique manner, making the movie all the more unsettling.
Written and directed by Remi Weekes, based on a story by Felicity Evans and Toby Venables, His House follows Bol (Sope Dirisu) and Rial (Lovecraft Country’s Wunmi Mosaku), two Sudanese refugees who lose their daughter Nyagak (Malaika Abigaba) during their escape to England. Their fortunes begin to look up when the couple are granted asylum and a home in the UK, but on top of the indifference they experience from case worker Mark (Doctor Who’s Matt Smith), they begin to realize that a vengeful spirit has followed them to their new country. As the hauntings intensify, the couple must come to terms with mistakes from their pasts.
Expertly toeing the line between realist drama and supernatural horror, His House is fundamentally the story of desperate people in desperate times. Weekes deftly stages the scares, but he never forgets the humanity of all involved. Thanks to outstanding performances by Dirisu and Mosaku, His House delivers supernatural frights grounded in the struggle of real people in the real world.
The Old Guard
Over the last decade, action movies like John Wick and The Raid: Redemption have revitalized the genre by replacing bombastic pyrotechnics with visceral fight sequences. The Old Guard, director Gina Prince-Bythewood’s adaptation of the comic series by Greg Rucka and Leandro Fernández, presents viewers with all the kinetic chaos one expects from a modern action flick. But it also offers first-class acting, in-depth character work, and one of the most romantic monologues ever committed to film.
The Old Guard stars Charlize Theron as Andy, a centuries-old warrior who leads a team of immortals (including Matthias Schoenaerts, Marwan Kenzari, and Luca Marinelli) living under the radar and righting wrongs that others cannot. When they discover a new immortal (KiKi Layne), the team commits to helping her, but they find themselves hunted by former CIA agent Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and his pharmabro employer (Harry Melling). Combining fantastic fight scenes with genuine emotion, Prince-Bythewood and screenwriter Rucka set a new milestone for action cinema, challenging other filmmakers to add some heart alongside the fast-paced fight scenes.
A few movies centering on the topic of dementia were released last year, including The Father and the documentary Dick Johnson is Dead. But no film captures the mixed emotions of the experience of watching a loved one struggle with the condition quite like Natalie Erika James’ debut feature, Relic. This Australian film features three generations of women—Kay (Emily Mortimer), her mother Edna (Robyn Nevin), and her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote)—dealing with the matriarch’s increasing loss of faculties.
That premise may sound exploitative, as if it’s making a monster out of someone who is suffering and vulnerable. But James, who co-wrote the script with Christian White, makes a clear distinction between the sufferer and the sickness. Make no mistake, Relic is frightening—both in Nevin’s portrayal of a woman whose personality changes without warning and in its images of rotting corpses and narrowing hallways—but James tempers the scares with a real compassion for its subjects, leading to one of the most memorable endings in horror history.
Zombie movies can often seem rote, familiar, and dull, but Mi’kmaq director Jeff Barnaby’s Blood Quantum reinvigorates the genre with scares and substance. Set on Quebec’s Red Crow Indian Reservation, Blood Quantum imagines an outbreak that affects White people but leaves Indigenous people unharmed. As refugees swarm the reservation, Sheriff Traylor (Michael Greyeyes), his ex-wife Joss (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers), and their sons Joseph (Forrest Goodluck) and Lysol (Kiowa Gordon) must make difficult decisions about safety and responsibility.
While he certainly follows the great Romero tradition of weaving political commentary into zombie horror, Barnaby’s script finds more shades of grey than earlier films usually allowed. The characters rarely fall into “good guy” and “bad guy” categories, thanks in part to the strong performances, especially from Greyeyes and Goodluck. If there’s one problem in Barnaby’s script, it’s that its too rich—so full of potential that the audience feels like they’re only getting a glimpse of a larger story. But that’s all to the credit of Blood Quantum, the rare zombie movie that leaves viewers hungry for more.
The Invisible Man
In his scripts for the Saw series and in his directorial debut Upgrade, Aussie filmmaker Leigh Whannell scared audiences with disturbing visual images. In his recent update of/twist on the Universal classic The Invisible Man, Whannell induces dread and horror through the absence of images, building tension around what we can’t see…
Previous takes on the story, including H.G. Wells’ original novel, focused on scientist Griffin, who goes mad with power after discovering a serum that renders him invisible. Whannell’s film stars Elizabeth Moss as Cecilia Kass, who opens the film by escaping her abusive boyfriend Adrian Griffin (The House on Haunted Hill’s Oliver Jackson-Cohen). After learning of Griffin’s suicide, Cecilia begins to settle into a new life with the support of her friend James (Aldis Hodge) and his daughter Sydney (A Wrinkle in Time star Storm Reid). But her fragile happiness shatters when strange events begin to occur around her, leading her to believe that Griffin is still alive and invisible. What follows is a feat of horror filmmaking steeped in the harrowing lived experience of abused women who go unbelieved. Every time the camera pans to an empty space, every time Cassie begs someone to listen and believe her, we feel a sense of deep existential dread and trepidation that goes far beyond jump scares and spectacle.
Bill and Ted Face the Music
When Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure debuted in 1989, its poster declared, “History is about to be re-written by two guys who can’t spell.” Twenty-one years later, those two guileless slackers returned to rewrite our present. Original writers Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon join returning stars Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves to bring us the later adventures of Bill S. Preston, Esq. and Ted “Theodore” Logan. Their high school history tests and hit singles long behind them, Bill and Ted remain committed to their band Wyld Stallyns, even deep in middle age. But just as they begin to lose hope that they’ll ever write the song to unite the world (as prophesied in the first movie), time traveler Kelly (Kristen Schaal, playing the daughter of George Carlin’s Rufus) arrives to give them one more chance.
Face the Music is a hilarious and twisty movie about hope and contentment, brought to life not only by the returning stars, but newcomers such as Samara Weaving and Brigette Lundy-Paine as daughters Thea and Billie, as well as Anthony Carrigan as an insecure killer robot. Bill and Ted Face the Music may not be the single best science fiction movie of 2020, but it feels the most vital.
As established directors like Doug Liman and Michael Bay struggle to make an effective Covid-era quarantine movie, British director Rob Savage has already perfected the genre. Coming in at a tight 56 minutes, Host is the ideal lockdown horror movie, one that takes the now-familiar limitations of video conferencing and uses them to create a unique horror experience.
Taking place entirely within a Zoom chat, Host stars Haley Bishop as Haley, a young woman leading her friends (Jemma Moore, Emma Louise Webb, Radina Drandova, Caroline Ward, and Edward Linard) in a virtual séance. But after a seemingly harmless joke by one of the members calls forth an evil spirit, the women find themselves fighting to stay alive, cut off and isolated from one another. Savage and his team, including co-writers Gemma Hurley and Jed Shepherd, find clever ways to turn the collective bane of our socially-distanced existence into inventive horror. Savage transforms gimmicks like virtual backgrounds and video effect filters into harbingers of terror, making the mundane into the menacing.
While its title may mistakenly bring to mind a lesser entry in The Conjuring extended universe, the Guatemalan film La Llorona draws upon Latin American folklore and actual history to create a story that’s both terrifying and urgent. Set in 1980s Guatemala, La Llorona follows the last days of dictator Enrique Monteverde (Julio Diaz), whose previous conviction of genocide against Indigenous Mayans has been overturned. As he and his family stay barricaded in his stately home, Enrique’s erratic behavior drives away most of his staff. But the family’s situation grows worse with the arrival of new housekeeper Alma (María Mercedes Coroy), whose presence brings increased supernatural activity.
Unrelentingly somber and deeply disturbing, La Llorona isn’t an easy watch. Director Jay Bustamante, who co-wrote the script with Lisandro Sanchez, forces us to sit with the aging dictator and allows us to feel a gradual sympathy for his family, even as Alma and other Indigenous characters remain distant and unknowable. It all builds to one of the most harrowing endings in recent memory, made all the more potent for its real-world relevance.
How to describe the Brazilian film Bacurau? Is it sci-fi? A western? A comedy?
Written and directed by Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles, Bacurau takes place in the fictional titular town, sometime in the near future. As the townspeople come together to mourn the death of matriarch Carmelita, their differences and tensions boil to the surface. Things go from bad to worse when a pair of bikers stop over in the town, attracting the attention of unscrupulous tourists, lead by a mercenary played by genre great Udo Kier.
That synopsis almost sounds straightforward, but rest assured, Bacurau fits no standard category. And that’s a major part of its charm. Mendonça and Dornelles clearly love their eccentric cast of characters, lead by Sônia Braga and Thomas Aquino, and give them plenty of room to be themselves. Even when the plot kicks in, the film never settles down, making for one of the most memorable and ecstatic viewing experiences of 2020.
What sci-fi and horror movies did you watch in 2020? Which films would you add to the list? Let me know in the comment section.