My movie watching decreased by 30% in 2022—completely expected since between the pandemic and unemployment, 2021 was an anomaly of a year. If I learned anything from such circumstances, they helped me acclimate to watching more movies at home, as Letterboxd (now five years after I began using it) ended up a motivator to watch more movies, period. Here are the best older (pre-2021) films I saw for the first time this year.
I’d seen a handful of Ken Loach pictures from this century but nothing earlier (unless you count the Poor Cow footage inserted into Soderbergh’s The Limey); I want to see more in 2023 as his second feature (from 1969) is simply masterful. An initially straightforward but increasingly resonant story about a boy and his bird, it captures something about the British working class arguably not even Loach contemporary Mike Leigh has ever replicated. Looking beyond archetypes, it subtly indicts an entire social structure while also locating a speck of transcendent beauty within it.
2. RUNNING ON EMPTY
A teenager (River Phoenix) born into family forever on the run (due to a crime committed by his former hippie-activist parents) struggles to forge his own identity. While Phoenix’s death five years later makes it too easy to overrate his work, here (along with My Own Private Idaho) it’s sublime, as is Sidney Lumet’s direction—for that matter, so is the family sing-along to (of all things) a James Taylor song (too earnest to probably get away with in a movie today.)
3. GRAND HOTEL
In 2022, I kicked off an attempt to watch all the Best Picture Oscar winners I haven’t seen (about 40 or so) over the next few years; this is the best of the five I’ve made it through so far. Viewing this pre-code film was like trying on a vintage coat that fits beautifully: you’ve experienced such level of comfort before (via all the ensembles that followed from Robert Altman to Wes Anderson) but its age, finery and grace render it all the more satisfying.
4. SHERLOCK, JR.
I admired Slate film critic Dana Stevens’ new book about Buster Keaton—not enough to make my top ten this year, but at least it encouraged me to seek out the major works of his I’ve missed. This one in particular also landed dead-center on my radar after it cracked the latest Sight and Sound poll’s top 100. It’s 45 minutes long, just at that breaking point to distinguish a feature from a short, and it would be peak Keaton even if it didn’t have the best chase scene of all time.
5. DEAD RINGERS
David Cronenberg came back with the good-enough Crimes of The Future this year; if you liked it, chances are you’ll love this. Building on the body horror/tech-nerdery of Videodrome, it’s a feat of camera trickery but also a deep dive into all of the unsavory obsessions that makes his characters (and for all we know, the director himself) tick. Also, watching Jeremy Irons perform mouth-to-mouth on himself (or at least his body double) is a very Special Moment.
6. ONE SINGS, THE OTHER DOESN’T
Alternate title: Women’s Lib Rules. Agnes Varda was a treasure for many reasons, not least of which was that she made narrative films (Cleo From 5 To 7) as genuine and engaging as her documentaries (The Gleaners And I). This hails from a somewhat undervalued period between those two peaks; however, its dissection and celebration of feminism and abortion rights is obviously as relevant as ever and that she fashions it with whimsy and humor doesn’t make it any less powerful than a more outwardly darker work like Never Rarely Sometimes Always.
7. THE CROWD
This came as a recommendation from former Boston Globe critic Ty Burr when it aired on TCM (it’s not streaming anywhere); I want to rewatch it in a cinema when I next have a chance. Although King Vidor’s film about society, peer-pressure and collectivism looks and feels the near-century old that it is, it doesn’t matter: great art endures when it retains a strong resemblance to the present moment in premise and concept if not in its physical aesthetic.
8. CORPUS CHRISTI
The idea of a criminal posing as a member of the clergy isn’t new; to frame it as an identity crisis and a genuine attempt at redemption rather than just for laughs, however, sets up a tightrope walk for this Polish film’s protagonist, who lives out his selfish fantasies while also becoming a more active presence for good in the world. And yet, there are no easy resolutions and the film zags when you expect it to zig without losing focus or purpose.
9. MIDNIGHT RUN
I often think of the late 1980s as a particularly fallow period for cinema, but this is the third 1988 film in this top ten and it’s a glorious action-comedy, like Lethal Weapon but with brains and far more nuanced dialogue and character development. Also, it greatly helps that Robert De Niro (so good at comedy when given a good screenplay!) and Charles Grodin are as inspired and sublime a pairing as Lemmon and Matthau, Pryor and Wilder, Tracy and Hepburn.
10. SIGN O’ THE TIMES
Long available for whatever reasons I suspect are firmly kept locked up in the Paisley Park vault, this concert film to complement Prince’s landmark 1987 double album of the same name has, like so much since his untimely death, reemerged. As a “director”, the Purple One was obviously no Jonathan Demme, but this, made at his absolute fucking peak (at least artistically), should be as well-known as Stop Making Sense. The choreography is almost as amazing as the outfits, which are almost as wonderful as the music.
Birth, Blue Collar, Chocolat (1988), Darling, Fort Tilden, The Godfather Part II (!), The Heartbreak Kid (1972), Jaws(!!), Once Upon A Time In America, ‘Round Midnight, The Secret of Roan Inish, The Sisters Brothers, Splendor In The Grass, Time Piece*, Titicut Follies, A White, White Day
(*A short presently streaming on Mubi and a must-watch for any Jim Henson fan.)
BEST RE-WATCHES (not including anything for 24 Frames):
Appropriate Behavior, The Boy Friend, Delicatessen, Dick, Ed Wood, Hairspray (1988), Knives Out, The Last Days of Disco, Nosferatu The Vampyre (1979), Out Of The Past, Phantom Thread, The Shop Around The Corner, Something Wild, The Sweet Smell Of Success, Vive L’Amour, Written On The Wind