A few days ago, I overheard a coworker on a Zoom call preparing to give 2020 the old heave-ho, and among his list of complaints about the year was that “There were no movies! Only Wonder Woman 1984 qualifies as a movie, and it was great, but there were no other movies this year!” That was certainly not his foremost complaint (thank God for a little perspective, I suppose), but unless your definition of “movies” is limited strictly to the sort of blockbuster fare like WW84 that has clogged theaters for the last 20 or more years, such a complaint registers as, at best, shortsighted. What is true is that the big theater chains which showcase the superhero franchises and other mega-budget action franchises are, for the most part, currently closed in many parts of the country. But if the success of the WW84 release simultaneously in those theaters that are open (including drive-ins) and on HBO Max is any indication, Hollywood will find a way to get these potential blockbusters in front of your eyeballs, even as the industry template for production, distribution and exhibition seems to be necessarily mutating on a weekly basis.
But what is certainly also true is in 2020 that mutating model, and the amplified importance of viewing/streaming at home, has opened up and spotlighted a window of access to sorts of lower-budget, character-driven films that have of late become sublimated to the pursuit of the monster theatrical hit. Documentaries, foreign language films, adult-oriented comedies, dramas and even arthouse fare have found a captive audience in pandemic-restricted home viewers, who seem to be willing to sample content like Small Axe, The Queen’s Gambit, Time, How Do You Mend a Broken Heart?, Minari and countless others at home when they would be hard-pressed to drag themselves out to a theater to see any of the same.
One of the big question marks hanging over the future of movies in America and all over the world is, of course, if and when theaters reopen, will we go back? Or will our viewing habits have been so altered by the necessity of attempting to stay alive and safe and having thousands of options available to revolve around our schedules that the relative hardship of dragging our collective asses back out to theaters for a specific film at a specified screening time will no longer seem worth it?
Well, it has been ten months since I’ve been in a movie theater. Previously, the longest I’d been away from one, at least since I began college, had been a dry stretch of a month back in 1982, and I remember at the time that that gap seemed like a year or more— I so pined for the experience of seeing a movie on the big screen that when I finally made it back I was momentarily overwhelmed and found myself near tears, even though the theater was only a typically under-designed cracker-box multiplex. Here in 2021, it’s still hard to accept that resuming this activity is still so far away from being an accessible reality. But I can’t let go of my optimism that one day we’ll be able to return to seeing movies the way we used to. The undeniable truth is that, before the world changed, being in a movie theater had already become a source of stress long before the distinct possibility of losing one’s life (or at least getting extremely sick) for the chance to see the new James Bond movie. Rude, inconsiderate audiences, incompetent exhibition of the films themselves in multiplexes run by minimum-wage employees, and a host of other annoyances and booby traps have made the home viewing option seem like the far more attractive option for years, and God knows, when audiences do return to theaters, the habit of treating these auditoriums as if they were big screen TVs set up in their homes, where they don’t have to worry about decorum or talking over the picture and disturbing others, or even getting out of their pajamas, isn’t likely to improve. (It could very well get worse.) I’ve thought of theaters as a second home since I was about four years old, when I saw my first movie (Gay Purr-ee, 1964, Marius Theater, Lakeview, Oregon), and though before March 2020 I didn’t get out to one nearly as often as I used to, and though I miss the communal experience of seeing a movie—any movie—on the big screen, when they finally do reopen I know I will hesitate at the prospect of returning until I can be assured the environment has truly been made safe. But I can’t imagine not going back one day, and on that day I will try to rekindle once again the habit of an activity that has, as much as any other, framed the way I’ve lived my life for almost 60 years… unless and until those bozos sitting in front of me once again just won’t shut up and eventually drive me home for good.
With these thoughts in mind, my 12 favorite movies of 2020 were all, with the exception of two, films that I would have rushed to see in a theater but which I just happened to see at home. And without exception they were films that, while I feel sure would have been enhanced by the size of the image and enveloping sound of a really good theatrical experience, were not reduced in their impact by the relatively dinky home theater setup that graces my living room. Here’s that list, one that, given how much I have left to see from the blighted year past, might seem a little more constricted than most, followed by 13 movie viewing experiences from 2020 that, for one reason or another, I’ll never forget.
My Favorite Movie of 2020
First Cow (Kelly Reichardt) For many viewers her movies are intolerably slow, tedious and lacking in dramatic urgency, but after seeing this latest, after previous work like Certain Women, Meek’s Cutoff, Wendy and Lucy and Old Joy (I have yet to see her 2013 Night Moves), I have to rank Kelly Reichardt as one of my favorite directors currently making movies. Reichardt’s tales of ordinary people making their way through life and sometimes history, small-scale visions that reach well past their ordinary realms into specificity which allows both rich observations linked to time and place as well as a pointed universality, are realized with the patience of a documentarian, the tranquil gaze and empathy of a poet, and the assured exhilaration of a filmmaker who is at the top of her game. (These qualities are also a hallmark of another film on my list, Steve McQueen’s Lovers Rock.) In First Cow Reichardt tells a story of friendship, community, and enterprise in mid-19thcentury Oregon—a baker sets adrift by circumstances meets up with an entrepreneurially minded Chinese immigrant and the two of them create a sensation making fried cakes using milk they surreptitiously pilfer from the titular beast. It’s a winning formula for the fledging businessmen and their customers, until it isn’t. First Cow seduces the viewer with its apparent simplicity— it feels like a lushly photographed kinescope of a time and sensibility too far past now for anything but remotely aestheticized access. Yet the movie is also a work of deep feeling, a lovely melody in a minor-key expressing the song of an emerging America which rings of possibility, but also of dire, inevitable fate.
(the rest, in descending order)
Emma. (Autumn de Wilde)
American Utopia (Spike Lee)
Zappa (Alex Winter)
Lovers Rock (Steve McQueen)
Minari (Lee Isaac Chung)
Da 5 Bloods (Spike Lee)
You Should Have Left (David Koepp)
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (George E. Wolfe)
Bill & Ted Face the Music (Dean Parisot)
The Trial of the Chicago 7 (Aaron Sorkin)
The Old Guard (Gina Prince-Blythwood)
As of January 3, 2021, I still need to see Ammonite, An American Pickle, Bacurau, Bad Hair, The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?, Black Bear, Dick Johnson is Dead, Farewell Amor, Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds, The Forty-Year-Old Version, Freaky, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, The Jesus Rolls, John Lewis: Good Trouble, Mulan, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Nomadland, One Night in Miami, Small Axe: Mangrove, Red White and Blue, Alex Wheatle andEducation, Soul, Synchronic, The Trip to Greece, Wander Darkly, The Witches and Wolfwalkers.
My 13 Best Viewing Experiences of 2020
One of the most wonderful evenings I’ve yet spent since the days of quarantine were imposed was with one of my dearest friends, Katie Warrener, back in May. We cobbled together a watch party on Facebook IM, synched up our Blu-rays, pressed play and reveled in Fellini Roma (1972), bookended with an hour of catch-up conversation before and another hour of excited chatter after. So about four hours total in communion with the only other person I know who reveres this movie as much as I do. Roma serves as a sort of bridge between the self-reflexive fantasias at the heart of 8 ½ and Giuletta Degli Spiriti and the more openly nostalgic biography of Amarcord. It’s a fantastically entertaining, exuberantly congestive, inclusive and episodic celebration of Rome’s ancient ties, its ghosts of culture and religious ceremony and its messy social rituals. All of these are married to the director’s usual rich visual bombast and randy iconoclasm to produce a haunted vision of a city which Gore Vidal, on camera, describes (considering its history of unlikely rebirth and clashing sensibilities) as a perfect place to experience the end of the world. Three or four sequences here rank among the absolute peak of Fellini’s imaginative cinema– a long, cacophonous traffic jam leading into the city which includes among its many varieties of travelers and vehicles Fellini’s crew (and the director himself) getting the whole thing down on film; an eerily gorgeous tour underneath the streets which hints at the cavernous secrets the city still holds; a hilarious staging of a vaudeville show held for a raucous, heckling audience on the eve of World War II; and probably the movie’s most notorious sequence, a visionary fashion show of Catholic vestmental finery culled from the Church’s history and its possible future, attended by a Vatican rogue’s gallery of worshipers nostalgic for the trappings of Catholicism’s influence in a more “innocent” (read more culturally dominant) age. Fellini’s great movie would be exhilarating enough on its own, but seeing it with Katie, even though she’s 2,000 miles away, made it genuinely magnificent.
Taking the three main people in my life, my wife Patty and my two daughters, Emma and Nonie, to see Gremlins (1980) at a drive-in. We made it back out to the outdoor cinemas we’ve always loved several times over the summer, but this is the one where everything coalesced into a magical experience, one which seemed as close to the “normal” we’ve known ever since I introduced all of them to drive-ins in 2005 as we’re likely to get for the foreseeable future.
Watching the 1988 cheapo horror thriller Necromancer (1988) with my best pal Bruce during a rare get-together, with masks, and after we were both tested for COVID-19, at his house in San Diego. Bruce and I were on the set for this one, guests of the movie’s lovely leading lady, Elizabeth Kaitan (or Cayton, as she’s credited here), and Bruce can actually be seen for about .5 seconds during a party scene we were both on hand for. Hard to believe it took us this long to finally get around to seeing this one. It’s no great shakes, but it’s much better than either of us ever imagined it would be, and it was memorable fun watching it together. Well, they can’t all be Animal House, I suppose…
Being dazzled by the Arrow 4K Blu-ray of Flash Gordon (1980), and knowing that I had written an essay that was included in the booklet featured inside, a rare honor afforded to me by Arrow Films producer Neil Snowdown. Thanks so much, Neil!
Ushering out my 50s late at night on August 17 with the splendid madness of Ken Russell’s Lisztomania (1975), one of my favorite movies. When the movie was over, as Liszt ascends to heaven, reunited with all the important women of his life and all borne on a chariot-spaceship shaped like a pipe organ, I was blissed out and suddenly 60 years old.
Creating the subtitles for 8½, part of the Criterion Collection’s gorgeous Essential Fellini boxed set, released to commemorate the great filmmaker’s centennial. This one took me all night, and it was the one and only time I haven’t minded pulling a 22-hour all-nighter to get the job done.
Seeing, or rather being absorbed by Francesco Rosi’s (Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule: NOTES ON RECENT VIEWING: FRANCESCO ROSI’S CHRIST STOPPED AT EBOLI (1979), plus BALLS OF FURY, DAUGHTER OF SHANGHAI (sergioleoneifr.blogspot.com) Christ Stopped at Eboli for the first time on Criterion’s newly released Blu-ray.
Seeing Emma. with Emma for her 20th birthday, 3/6/2020, just before the lockdown—it was the last movie we would see in a movie theater for the foreseeable future (ten months and counting…)
Finally seeing Alex Winter’s long-awaited documentary (HEROES: CLEESE, GILLIAM, IDLE, JONES, PALIN | Trailers From Hell) Zappa and accessing it via the virtual screenings link at (Salem Cinema : Salem, Oregon) Salem Cinemas in Salem, Oregon. So, I was able to support this arthouse-in-an-unlikely-place and relax into Winter’s brilliantly assembled, anti-hagiographic story about one of my favorite musicians.
Taking in Lee Isaac Chung’s delightful and moving Minari in an entirely unlikely environment, at the Mission Tiki Drive-in during the movie’s week-long Oscar-qualifying run. A really good Asian movie, about 60% of which features English subtitles for the Korean dialogue, running on a screen which might otherwise have been occupied by any number of loud, obnoxious cartoons or action movies I wouldn’t be even slightly interested in seeing? Yeah, I’ll drive 60 miles round trip for that.
Seeing American Utopia for the second time, on November 4, 2020, the day after the election, when it still looked like Trump was gonna pull it off. At that moment it seemed like the last thing I wanted to see— wouldn’t the movie’s optimism be too unbearable? But it really cheered my soul, and by the end of the week its optimism felt, if not entirely fulfilled, then at least reasonable, something like a gift, a reason to keep going.
Catching up with John Ford’s Seven Women (1966) and Louis Malle’s Murmur of the Heart (1971) for the first time, on TCM and on the front porch of my house on my iPad, respectively, and bemoaning the fact that I’d waited so long—too long– for the privilege. How many more times could I have thrilled to these movies had I not been so slow on the uptake?
FIRST TIME SEEN IN 2020
Hearts of the West (Howard Zieff; 1975)
The Wrath of God (Ralph Nelson; 1972)
The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (Roger Corman; 1967)
Pete Kelly’s Blues (Jack Webb; 1955)
Murder She Said (George Pollock; 1961)
I Wake Up Screaming (H. Bruce Humberstone; 1941)
The Skull (Freddie Francis; 1965)
The Uncanny (Denis Heroux; 1977)
Bullets or Ballots (William Keighley; 1936)
The 13th Chair (George B. Seitz; 1937)
Farewell, My Lovely (Dick Richards; 1975)
The Stalking Moon (Robert Mulligan; 1968)
Cover Me, Babe (Noel Black; 1970)
The Big Doll House (Jack Hill; 1971)
Smarty (Robert Florey; 1934)
Town Bloody Hall (Chris Hegedus, D.A. Pennebaker; 1979)
History is Made at Night (Frank Borzage; 1937)
Sapphire (Basil Dearden; 1959)
Nightfall (Jacques Tourneur; 1956)
Ulysse (Agnès Varda; 1983)
Salut Les Cubains (Agnès Varda; 1964)
Wicked Woman (Russell Rouse; 1953)
Mur Murs (Agnès Varda; 1981)
Uncle Yanco (Agnès Varda; 1967)
Suddenly (Lewis Allen; 1954)
Black Panthers (Agnès Varda; 1968)
Fallen Angel (Otto Preminger; 1945)
After the Curfew (Lewat Djam Malam) (Usmar Ismail; 1954)
Wild Strawberries (Ingmar Bergman; 1957)
The Best Years of Our Lives (William Wyler; 1946)
The Return of Doctor X (Vincent Sherman; 1939)
Murmur of the Heart (Louis Malle; 1971)
Phantom of Chinatown (Phil Rosen; 1940)
Victim (Basil Dearden; 1961)
Attack of the Mushroom People (Mantango) (Ishirô Honda; 1963)
A Slight Case of Murder (Lloyd Bacon; 1938)
4D Man (Irvin S. Yeaworth Jr.; 1959)
Whirlpool (Roy William Neill; 1934)
Hamilton (Thomas Kail; 2020)
No Way Out (Joseph L. Mankiewicz; 1950)
Vigilante (William Lustig; 1982)
Il Bidone (Federico Fellini; 1955)
Aloha Bobby and Rose (Floyd Mutrux; 1975)
The White Sheik (Federico Fellini; 1952)
Sex Kittens Go to College (Albert Zugsmith; 1960)
The Giant Claw (Fred F. Sears; 1957)
I Knew Her Well (Antonio Pietrangeli; 1965)
Crime of Passion (Gerd Oswald; 1956)
6-Day Bike Rider (Lloyd Bacon; 1934)
Sam Whiskey (Arnold Laven; 1969)
The Devil’s Rain (Robert Fuest; 1975)
Gone to Earth (Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger; 1950)
Man Bait (Terence Fisher; 1952)
The Crimson Kimono (Samuel Fuller; 1959)
The Boston Strangler (Richard Fleischer; 1968)
Loan Shark (Seymour Friedman; 1952)
Race Street (Edwin L. Marin; 1948)
Manpower (Raoul Walsh; 1941)
Chosen Survivors (Sutton Roley; 1974)
Werewolves on Wheels (Michel Levesque; 1971)
Alien Vs. Predator (Paul W.S. Anderson; 2004)
Seven Women (John Ford; 1966)
Danger Signal (Robert Florey; 1945)
Scorpio (Michael Winner; 1973)
Have I the Right to Kill? (The Unvanquished) (Alain Cavalier; 1964)
The Nightcomers (Michael Winner; 1971)
Dr. Who and the Daleks (Gordon Flemyng; 1965)
The Ghoul (T. Hayes Hunter; 1933)
The League of Gentlemen (Basil Dearden; 1960)
Chop Shop (Ramin Bahrani; 2007)
The Werewolf (Fred F. Sears; 1956)
The Black Sleep (Reginald Le Borg; 1956)
Christ Stopped at Eboli (Francesco Rosi; 1979)
Berserk (Jim O’Connolly; 1967)
The Hill (Sidney Lumet; 1965)
Daughter of Shanghai (Robert Florey; 1937)
Tomorrow is Another Day (Felix Feist; 1951)
Odds Against Tomorrow (Robert Wise; 1959)
Macao (Josef Von Sternberg, Nicholas Ray, Mel Ferrer, Robert Stevenson; 1952)
Variety Lights (Federico Fellini; 1950)
Fellini: I’m a Born Liar (Damian Pettigrew; 2002)
Basil Dearden (3)
Federico Fellini (3)
Robert Florey (3)
Lloyd Bacon (2)
Fred F. Sears (2)
Michael Winner (2)
PERFORMANCES I LIKED IN 2020
Michelle Dockery (The Gentlemen), Nicolas Cage (Color Out of Space), Julia Garner (The Assistant), Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Ewan McGregor (Birds of Prey…), Riley Keough (The Lodge), Jim Carrey (Sonic the Hedgehog), Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn, Mia Goth, Bill Nighy, Gemma Whelan, Miranda Hart (Emma.), Elizabeth Debicki, Donald Sutherland, Mick Jagger, Claes Bang (The Burnt Orange Heresy), John Magaro, Orion Lee, Toby Jones, Rene Auberjoinois, Evie (First Cow), Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Chadwick Boseman (Da 5 Bloods), Bill Burr (The King of Staten Island), Kevin Bacon, Amanda Seyfried, Avery Tiiu Essex (You Should Have Left), Rose Byrne, Steve Carell, Natasha Lyonne, Chris Cooper (Irresistible), Charlize Theron, KiKi Layne, Matthias Schoenaerts, Marwan Kenzari, Luca Marinelli, Chitewel Ejiofor (The Old Guard), John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki (Tenet), Keanu Reeves, Alex Winter, Brigette Lundy-Paine, Samara Weaving (Bill and Ted Face the Music), Steven Yuen, Yeri Han, Youn Yuh-jung, Alan S. Kim, Will Patton (Minari), Joel Kinnaman (The Secrets We Keep), Sunita Mani, John Reynolds (Save Yourselves!), Eddie Redmayne, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jeremy Strong, Mark Rylance, Frank Langella, John Carroll Lynch, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Keaton (The Trial of the Chicago 7), Sacha Baron Cohen, Maria Bakalova (Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan), Kevin Costner, Diane Lane, Booboo Stewart (Let Him Go), Amanda Seyfried, Arliss Howard (Mank), Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn, Micheal Ward (Lovers Rock), Riz Ahmed, Olivia Cooke, Paul Raci (Sound of Metal), Dearbhla Molloy (Wild Mountain Thyme), Chadwick Boseman, Glynn Turman, Viola Davis, Colman Domingo (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom), Tessa Thompson, Nnamdi Asomugha (Sylvie’s Love)
WORST OF 2020 (besides the year itself, of course) from worst to least-worst
The Personal History of David Copperfield (Armando Ianucci)
Greenland (Ric Roman Waugh)
Dreamland (Miles Joris-Peyrafitte)
Wild Mountain Thyme (John Patrick Shanley)
Tenet (Christopher Nolan)
It ain’t all gonna suddenly get better now that the calendar has changed, but nonetheless I wish you all health and safety and sanity and justice and many more good movies in 2021, until such delights once again become the norm.