Thanks to the pandemic, I watched more movies in 2020 than in any other year since… maybe 1998, when I was a Film Studies grad student? (I didn’t log my watched films back then.) Here are the top ten older films (pre-2019) that I saw for the first time.
1. THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES
While I’m not one to see every last Academy Award for Best Picture winner, I always meant to get to this one from 1946; turns out it’s extraordinary, both as classic Hollywood cinema and also as a relatively nuanced record of a particular moment as it was occurring. I couldn’t name a contemporary equivalent (maybe Parasite, although it comes from a very different place) and don’t expect to anytime soon.
2. HIGH AND LOW
I was worried during the first hour that the film would never leave Gondo’s house, but now see how shrewdly it sets up a slow burn that reverberates as it expands towards other settings. That late bravura sequence in the nightclub/flophouse is one of the most meticulous and thrilling I’ve ever seen (and the final scene one of the more brutally honest ones as well.)
Was not expecting this as the first feature from the director of The Last Picture Show. Bracingly ahead of its time while also possibly one of the most incisive records of it. A flop upon its release, I can understand why lead Tim O’Kelly didn’t have much of a career afterwards; his stoic, controlled performance should be more celebrated.
4. HARRY AND TONTO
Art Carney fully deserved his Oscar for his work in this lovely little road movie which feels like the best Hal Ashby picture Ashby never directed. Also, the first of two titles in this top ten featuring a young Melanie Mayron!
5. DAY FOR NIGHT
Previously, I’d seen no Truffaut beyond Jules and Jim, so this was a revelation – can spot traces to come of everyone from Robert Altman to Wes Anderson, and yet there’s little precedent for what he achieved at the time: a meta-comment on his profession that’s equal parts love letter and sharp critique.
6. THE FILMS OF MARLON RIGGS
All his works are essential, but I’ll single out Tongues Untied (he had me at “The Institute of Snap!Thology”), and Black Is… Black Ain’t, which, like everything else of his explores cultural identity through a personal lens, made more urgent by his oncoming death (with multiple scenes filmed from his hospital bed.) Over a quarter century later, Riggs’ messages, thoughts, yearnings and assessments retain their vitality.
The other film featuring young Melanie Mayron; here, as the lead in Claudia Weill’s trailblazing cult indie gem, she’s the anti-Manic Pixie Dream Girl and I love her for it; also, look out for bearded Bob Balaban and young Christopher Guest (whom I can’t watch without thinking of the Nigel Tufnel to come.)
8. IT’S ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER
Not as essential as Singin’ In The Rain, but what is? My god, there’s so much to love here: the tour de force opening sequence, a splendid Cyd Charisse (given a real juicy role, as opposed to her Singin’ cameo), a dollop of early live television satire and a climactic slapstick brawl, among other delights.
Might be my favorite animated feature since The Incredibles or even Spirited Away. Visually stunning (the world’s been waiting for a family-friendly Day of the Dead-themed film) and emotionally satisfying to boot.
Delightful chaotic/anarchic nonsense from 1960s Czechoslovakia and, at 76 minutes, totally digestible even if you’re not well-versed in experimental cinema. Not that someone would ever be foolish enough to attempt a remake, but casting Natasha Leggero and Riki Lindhome in one could be perfection.
Atlantic City, Autumn Leaves, Bad Day At Black Rock, Diva, The Forest For The Trees, Golden Eighties, Glitterbug, The Green Fog, Italianamerican, Le Bonheur, Losing Ground, Mad Max: Fury Road, Mississippi Grind, Model Shop, Modern Romance, The Other Side Of The Wind, A Place In The Sun, Remember The Night, The Sheltering Sky, Shirley Valentine, Smooth Talk, Taipei Story, Taxi, Things To Come, Totally Fucked Up, Urban Rashomon
Ali: Fear Eats The Soul, Beau Travail, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, The Duke of Burgundy, Frances Ha, The Garden, The Gleaners and I, Holiday, Johnny Guitar, Moonrise Kingdom, Oslo August 31, Scenes From a Marriage, Staying Vertical, Stories We Tell, Young Frankenstein