Favorite First Viewings of Older Films in 2020

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.

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.

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.

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!

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.

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.)

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

Film Journal: April 2020

Day For Night

Honestly, few films I’ve viewed in this second month of quarantine have provided as much pleasure as the first two seasons of Succession, which I binged after HBO made it and a few other shows temporarily free to non-subscribers. Epic, hilarious, nasty and blatantly (and effectively) Shakespearean, it’s both a balm to and a mirror of these times.

Still, as I work through my various streaming queues, a few close contenders emerge. Day For Night, the first post-Jules and Jim Truffaut I’ve seen is one of the great movies-about-movies in part because it delves so deeply into process without seeming too inside-baseball; it also reactivated my interest in the Antoine Doinel films, so Antoine and Colette, the first one after The 400 Blows is a trifle by design (thirty minutes, part of a multi-director anthology), but Truffaut’s perfectly suited for crafting trifles with heft and weight.

Also pretty good: that long-unreleased Orson Welles film on Netflix, which is a mess at first but eventually stumbles upon the genius you’d expect from the man; a Mike Leigh short that neatly condenses material for a feature-length film into a compact frame; Fleck/Boden’s best effort since Half-Nelson; Beineix’s ultra-stylish-and-just-as-moving early ‘80s thriller (which I tried watching once years before but must’ve dozed off pretty early into it, because I didn’t remember a thing about it); and, a relatively late Powell/Pressburger flick that’s unlike anything else they did and, simultaneously, something that could come from no one else.

I last saw Scenes From A Marriage more than two decades ago in a film class and it remains my favorite Bergman (television origins and all) for its surgical focus, wringing so much thought and emotion out of such bare essentials. Stories We Tell, which I rewatched for a work project, also remains the most innovative documentary from the past decade, while Klute also holds up nicely though this time I was more in thrall to Gordon Willis’ cinematography than Jane Fonda’s admittedly iconic performance.

Biggest letdowns included Hale County This Morning This Evening, especially after all the raves it received at the end of 2018 (“Pretty but aimless” is my three-word review) and Kinetta, an early film from the director of Dogtooth and The Favourite (a case of not-quite-there-yet.) As for most notable What-Did-I-Just-Watch titles, Greener Grass is silly but almost enchantingly weird at times for its commitment to such weirdness, while Bunny Lake Is Missing starts off as Hitchcock before turning into proto-Haneke in the last half hour—if you think of Keir Dullea as something of an automaton based on 2001: A Space Odyssey, well, this will irrevocably change that.

Films viewed in April in chronological order, with director, year of release and my rating (out of 10.)

The Booksellers (D.W. Young, 2019) 6
Hale County This Morning, This Evening (RaMell Ross, 2018) 4
Welcome To L.A. (Alan Rudolph, 1976) 5
The Small Back Room (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1949) 8
Trixie Mattel: Moving Parts (Nicholas Zeig-Owens, 2019) 7
The Short & Curlies (Mike Leigh, 1987) 8
The Hunger (Tony Scott, 1983) 7
Day For Night (Francois Truffaut, 1973) 9
The Queen (Frank Simon, 1968) 6
Isn’t It Romantic (Todd Strauss-Schulson, 2019) 5
Mississippi Grind (Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden, 2015) 8
Scenes From A Marriage (Ingmar Bergman, 1974)* 10
Sissy-Boy Slap-Party (Guy Maddin, 2004)* 8
Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley, 2012)* 10
The Wonders (Alice Rohrwacher, 2014) 6
The Last Waltz (Martin Scorsese, 1978) 7
Kinetta (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2005) 5
Klute (Alan J. Pakula, 1971)* 8
The Sapphires (Wayne Blair, 2012) 6
Cinema Verite (Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, 2011) 5
Bunny Lake Is Missing (Otto Preminger, 1965) 8
Antoine and Colette (Truffaut, 1962) 7
The Other Side Of The Wind (Orson Welles, 2018) 8
Circus of Books (Rachel Mason, 2019) 6
Hector and The Search For Happiness (Peter Chelsom, 2014) 3
Diva (Jean-Jacques Beineix, 1981) 8
Greener Grass (Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe, 2019) 6