Filmmaker and writer John Waters models a face mask with his likeness outside Atomic Books. Credit: Rachel Whang.

Hunkering down and thinking about watching a movie or two?

Let John Waters offer a few suggestions.

Every fall, the Baltimore-based writer and filmmaker comes out with a list of what he considers the Best Films of the Year for Artforum, an international magazine that specializes in contemporary art. These are the films that Waters is most enthusiastic about, the ones he talks about in interviews and recommends to others.

Because his list comes out before the Golden Globe, Oscar or Screen Actors Guild awards are announced, it’s a smart, early, buzz-worthy assessment of what audiences have seen in a given year – a bellwether of sorts – and people in the industry take note. 

Waters usually compiles a list of 10 films. This year he chose 11. Some premiered in the U.S., while others are foreign films that first became available in the U.S. in 2020. Many can now be viewed online. None directly addressed the current global pandemic, but it’s not hard to imagine some of the plots taking place in a lockdown.

Here are John Waters’ picks for the Best Films of 2020, as sent to Artforum subscribers this week. His article appears in the December issue of Artforum, out December 1.

Butt Boy, directed by Tyler Cornack. “A jaw-dropping, deadpan, bowel-bonkers thriller” about a heterosexual dad who turns into a serial killer and “inhales” his victims through his rear end, all following a routine visit to his proctologist. During several online conversations with his fans this summer, Waters marveled at the final scene, which takes place inside the man’s rectum.

Swallow, directed by Carlo Mirabella-Davis. A psychological horror film about an unhappily married woman who eats objects that aren’t usually considered edible, such as marbles and thumbtacks and batteries, eliminates them, washes them, and puts them on display in her home. And there’s a happy ending.

The Hunt, directed by Craig Zobel. A political satire about a group of liberal ‘elites’ from big cities who hunt down blue-collar types from flyover country for kicks. It’s the film that caused an uproar with certain Republicans who saw it as an allegory about the fight between red states and blue states and thought it was an attack on them when it actually made liberals out to be the villains. After the movie’s 2019 premiere was cancelled because of the controversy about it and mass shootings in Texas and Ohio, Blumhouse Productions and Universal Studios released it in March with the tagline: “The most talked about movie of the year is the one that no one’s actually ever seen.” Waters nominates Betty Gilpin, who plays one of the Hunted, for “Best Deplorable Actress of the Year.”

Why Don’t You Just Die!, written and directed by Kirill Sokolov. According to IMDb, this is a Russian film in which a detective and horrible father, his resentful actress daughter, an angry thug and a cheated cop, all seeking revenge, come together for a violent version of Meet the Parents. Due to budget limitations, the wallpaper in the parents’ residence was xeroxed on a color printer. Waters calls it a “blood-drenched, seat-ripping, Tarantino-influenced Russian grindhouse family revenge comedy,” ideal to see in a packed movie theater. It’s now out on Prime Video.

The Audition, directed by Ina Weisse. A drama from France and Germany about a violin teacher who takes an intense interest in a student, while neglecting her own son, also a violinist. Waters calls it an “Ingmar Berman-meets-Joanna Hogg melodrama” that “will fill you with arty masochistic inner peace.”

Deerskin, directed by Quentin Dupieux. A horror-comedy about a more-than-slightly-unhinged wannabe filmmaker who becomes so obsessed with a vintage deerskin jacket he buys that he sets out to murder anyone who might copy him. The fringed jacket, you see, is his imaginary friend who talks to him and wants to be the only jacket in the world. Waters, who models Saint Laurent jackets, calls it “the fashion film of the year.”

The Human Voice, written and directed by Pedro Almodovar. Tilda Swinton stars as a woman abandoned by her ex-lover, who never comes to pick up his suitcases. Based on a 1930 play by Jean Cocteau, filmed over nine days in Madrid, it’s Almodovar’s first American-language film, and it would be believable in today’s pandemic. It was shown this year at the New York Film Festival, for which Waters designed the poster. Waters says Swinton’s 30-minute emotional crack-up is “pure cinematic enjoyment.”

True History of the Kelly Gang, directed by Justin Kurzel, with Russell Crowe, Charlie Hunnam and George MacKay. Based on a novel by Peter Carey and filmed in Australia, it’s the story of bushranger Ned Kelly and his gang of robbers in the 1870s. Waters describes it as a “gory, insane, homoerotic, historical western” about Outback outlaws who sometimes dress in drag just to mess with the authorities. He says George MacKay’s performance “gives new meaning to the word butch.”

American Murder: The Family Next Door, directed by Jenny Popplewell, is a true-crime Netflix documentary about the Watts family murders that took place in Colorado in 2018. Waters was impressed by how well the story is told, without resorting to “cheesy reenactments,” and found it both powerful and depressing to discover who the real killer was.

And a tie for No. 10 between two docudramas, The Trial of the Chicago 7, written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, and Mangrove, directed by Steve McQueen. The first is a courtroom drama about the 1969 trial of seven defendants charged with conspiracy to incite a riot after the countercultural protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The second, part of the Small Axe series on Amazon Prime, follows The Mangrove Nine, a group of West Indian immigrants in Britain who clashed with London police in 1970, revealing systemic racism on the part of officers there. Waters recommends that viewers watch them together as a double feature and then go out and film themselves getting arrested at a protest rally. “Then you’ll be the best movie of the year.”

Ed Gunts is a local freelance writer and the former architecture critic for The Baltimore Sun.

2 replies on “John Waters’s list of 11 best movies of 2020”

  1. An air traffic controller began to write his first novel which I wish he would at least self-publish about a Texas trailer park serial killer named Hugh G. Rection who enters chili cooking contests with a dry chili containing calcium carbide, which turns into acetylene when exposed to water and a source of oxygen. When the victim’s chili reaches his bowels, Mr. Rection gets the victim drunk and dares him to light a fart which is a mixture of the fast flame front acetylene already mixed with the oxygen. The flame front shoots into his rectum faster than the nozzle velocity than the fart and causes his bowels to explode spraying his insides all over his trailer. If only that story could make it to the silver screen and if only the novel could be available with custom gold gilt pages for which I would pay top dollar to add to my private library.

  2. How predictable and preciously fossilized dear John Waters. Curious how some people never changes; not much comfort in this day and age.

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