Sunday, December 27, 2020

The Best (Older) Films I Watched in 2020

Goodbye, Dragon Inn

As someone who has often complained about how hard it can be to keep up with new releases while also watching the thousands of older films that I've been meaning to see, there was a certain Twilight Zone irony to having a global pandemic shutter movie theatres for most of the year and push many major releases to some indeterminate time in the future. In the words of Mr. Henry Bemis, there was time now, so long as I didn't mind spending so much of it in my own flat.

During the many months of lockdown, I watched a lot of older movies that were new-to-me, and was able to finally check off some heavy hitters that I've had on my to-watch list for years. I didn't manage to complete some of the loftier goals I set myself (such as watching all of Berlin Alexanderplatz) or even some of the dumber ones (like watching Eyes Wide Shut every day of December leading up to Christmas) but since we're not getting out of this anytime soon, I might find time to fit them in before I write next year's post. As ever, though, as great as it was finally seeing movies that I expected to be great, the biggest thrill came from seeing films I knew nothing about, and realising that there is always more to discover.

Before we get to the list, a shout-out to the best film I rewatched this year: Wayne's World. We all needed a little comfort this year, and nothing allayed my anxiety as much as revisiting Aurora, Illinois and seeing that the film is just as funny as it was when I was seven, if not funnier since I understand a lot more of the jokes now. 

Anyway, here are the best older films I watched for the first time in 2020. A good year, but only in this one respect.

Hellzapoppin' (dir. H.C. Potter, 1941)

The closest any live-action film I've seen has come to matching the madcap, discursive and meta energy of Looney Tunes, as comedians Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson go to Hell and try to make a movie out of their stage show Hellzapoppin'. That it maintains the blistering, disorientating momentum of its opening 10 minutes for the duration - even when it shifts to a more traditional plot about Olsen and Johnson trying to get a young couple together (which really just serves as a new venue for fourth wall breaking and piling on running gags) - without getting tiresome or overwhelming is even more impressive.

Dragon Inn (dir. King Hu, 1967) 

What a blast! I've been meaning to watch this for years, and I regretted waiting so long from the moment that one of the heroes catches an arrow in a wine decanter, turns it around, then smacks the base so that the arrow flies back out and kills the archer who fired it. Deliriously fun, with an epic, adventurous spirit that easily places it alongside something like Stagecoach or Seven Samurai in the pantheon of great art that is also just so much fun.

Italianamerican (dir. Martin Scorsese, 1974)

Scorsese is such a passionate filmmaker, someone who so loves the potential of the medium, that it's tempting to say that all of his films are, on some level, an act of love. This short documentary in which he talks to his parents about their lives and their family feels especially worthy of the term, though. Charles and Catherine Scorsese are so fun together, and there were few more joyous moments for me than seeing Martin Scorsese chuckle to himself as his parents start in on a subject which they have clearly argued about hundreds of times before. Also provides a great sauce recipe, which no Marvel movie can claim.

The Passenger (dir. Michelangelo Antonioni, 1975)

Easily my favourite Antonioni, though admittedly that's a relatively low bar since he's always been a filmmaker whose skill I admire while not actually liking what he does with it. This one got me, though. Jack Nicholson is at his louche best as a journalist who steals a dead man's identity in order to start a new life, only to find himself caught in a fatal web of intrigue. The sultry, hazy mood is perfect for a story about shifting identity, and it does the art-house noir thing much more effectively than Blow-Up.

The Hitcher (dir. Robert Harmon, 1986) 

What a thoroughly nasty piece of work! Not necessarily in terms of the violence, which is on a par with horror films of its era and is fairly tame by today's standards, but in the bleak, nihilist tone. The terrible things that Rutger Hauer does to innocent bystanders in this, and the absolute torture he puts C. Thomas Howell through, speak to a clarity of purpose and a kind of perverted bravery that you don't get in a lot of horror films; It's the sort of film that threatens a whole family not to raise the stakes, but because it fully intends to butcher them all in the next scene. There's some deaths in this that are so senseless and cruel that I couldn't shake for days afterwards, pretty much all of which happen off screen, because of how  rotten the whole thing made me feel. Really bracing stuff.

True Stories (dir. David Byrne, 1986)

This gained a new lease of life this year thanks to Criterion putting it out, and because the scene of John Goodman saying "I like sad songs. They make me want to lie on the floor." found a viral foothold with my fellow inveterate mopers on Twitter, and it's richly deserved. A funny and melancholy musical that feels like the missing link between Hal Ashby and Wes Anderson, it's shot through with David Byrne's naive yet piercing view of humanity, which has always underpinned his best songs and translates to film pretty well. Not a film for everyone, since it's plotless by design and his sketches of life in the fictional Virgil, Texas ride the line between wry appreciation and freak show gawping, but I found it to be incredibly winning.

Matewan (dir. John Sayles, 1987)

Made me more than a little sad that there isn’t a place for the kind of sprawling yet intimate epics that John Sayles made in the ‘80s and ‘90s anymore, especially since this is one of his best. In telling the story of the West Virginia miners' strike and the Battle of Matewan in 1920, Sayles tells a story of labor battling capitalism in ways which feel both grand and intimate, capturing both the sense of larger historical forces building to a bloody foregone conclusion and of real people trying to survive. An immensely tense windup to a brief and fateful shootout, shot through with a mournful, dusky tone.

Defending Your Life (dir. Albert Brooks, 1991)

As a huge fan of A Matter of Life and Death and Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey, I'm a big fan of any fantasy that wants to depict the afterlife as something of a bureaucratic headache, and Brooks' depiction of heaven as a really nice hotel where you hang out before trying to justify every single action you've ever taken is one of the most fun and existentially terrifying explorations of that concept. There's dozens upon dozens of great one-liners, most of which are delivered with oily charm by the late lamented Rip Torn, but there's also such a tremendous sweetness to it all, particularly in the romance between Brooks and Meryl Streep, which gives the rest of the film license to be as silly and creative as it is.

Lorenzo's Oil (dir. George Miller, 1992) 

Prior to this year, I only knew this film for being the source of an incredibly strained joke in the mostly-forgotten Simon Pegg-Nick Frost-Seth Rogen movie Paul, and for it being something of an outlier in the career of George Miller, since it was a relatively straightforward drama drawn from real-life and with none of the fantastical elements that typify his work. Which is a long way of saying that I went into it with relatively low expectations, but found it to be very affecting and excellently done. In telling the story of two parents (Nick Nolte and Susan Sarandon) trying to find a treatment for their terminally ill child, Miller avoids the kind of sanitised depictions of illness and long-term care that you tend to see in awards-friendly dramas, and instead makes a film which is genuinely upsetting in its depictions of grief and the effects of a degenerative disease without being exploitative. Visually striking and expressive throughout, with a tremendous control of its heightened yet human tone. Probably his best film not to feature war rigs or life-affirming pigs.

Orlando (dir. Sally Potter, 1992)

I've been meaning to watch this for years and unsurprisingly it’s great. Tilda Swinton is captivating as the immortal, gender-shifting title character, perfectly suited to the film’s playful yet sad tone as she adjusts to changing centuries and her own fortunes as her shift from male to female drastically alters her place in society. Lovely seeing the debuts of Simon Russell Beale and Toby Jones in minor roles, too.

Crooklyn (dir. Spike Lee, 1994) 

The release of Da 5 Bloods on Netflix and David Byrne's American Utopia on HBO spurred me to revisit a lot of Spike Lee's earlier movies, and to fill in a few blind spots like this really lovely family drama set in 1970s Brooklyn. Inspired by Lee's own childhood, it's a beautifully observed, funny and moving story filled with small moments of family life that range from hilarious to heartbreaking. It was particularly good watching this in such close proximity to Da 5 Bloods and Clockers (1995), since all three show off what a brilliant, varied and underrated actor Delroy Lindo is.

Open Your Eyes (dir. Alejandro Amenábar, 1997)

As someone who loves Vanilla Sky, which Cameron Crowe adapted from Amenábar's film but with a considerably largely scope and budget, it's hard for me to choose between the two in terms of which I prefer (though the music choices in Vanilla Sky do resonate with me a lot) but they do make for an interesting contrast. There's a very tactile quality to Open Your Eyes, stemming at least in part from the more modest production values, which gives it a distinctly different texture from Vanilla Sky and ultimately a different idea of what dreams feel like when we're in them, and by extension, filmmaking; do they feel real until someone points out that they aren't, or are they fantasias where everything feels off by design? The dialogue between original and remake made this a fascinating watch, even if I knew the twists and turns and ultimate destination ahead of time.

Pickpocket (dir. Jia Zhangke, 1997)

As someone who came a little late to the Jia party, it was great watching his debut and seeing him  come out swinging with a gorgeous, sad story of a pickpocket who, after learning that he has not been invited to the wedding of one of his best friends, enters into a relationship with a prostitute. Despite the English-language title, it's more reminiscent of Rohmer than Bresson in its simple yet beautiful compositions and its unprepossessing yet aching story.

Goodbye, Dragon Inn (dir. Tsai Ming Liang, 2003) 

I would probably have loved this if I'd seen it any other year - I've really enjoyed exploring Tsai's work after first encountering his 2013 film Stray Dogs - and it's in keeping with the slow, meditative and transfixing tone that typifies so much of his work. However, the story, of the last night at a Taipei movie theatre before it closes for good, had particular resonance in a year where so many movie theatres closed their doors, with many facing deeply uncertain futures. It also helped seeing Dragon Inn, which plays while the rest of the story is going on, since it added greater poignancy to the appearance of two actors from that earlier film, who come to see their younger selves on screen one last time. 

Nostalgia for the Light (dir. Patricio Guzmán, 2010)

Patricio Guzmán’s documentary about the Atacama desert in Chile, and how it serves as a base for astronomers to peer into the past through its array of telescopes, but also played host to some of the atrocities of the Pinochet regime, is incredibly haunting. The staggering contrast between the high minded sense of wonder and discovery embodied by the scientists who look to the stars, and the mothers who search for the mass graves that may contain their children, makes for an unforgettable, often wrenching experience. Guzmán’s narration is beautiful, and the way he mixes the cosmic with the tragic is often spellbinding. A film I’ve been meaning to see for years which really lived up to my expectations.

88:88 (Isiah Medina, 2015)

Almost literally indescribable. A stream of consciousness assemblage of sounds and images that feels more like a sound collage or mixtape than a film, it's the sort of work that rewires your brain and makes you reconsider what film can do, and feel bitterly disappointed about how few people really push the boundaries of the medium.

The Green Fog (dirs.Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson and Galen Johnson, 2017) 

Exhilarating, inventive, often pretty funny interpolation of Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, reconstructed through films and TV shows shot in San Francisco. Beyond the "spot the movie/show" fun that comes from such a recognizable and much-photographed city, there is a real thrill in seeing how well the film conveys the key points of Vertigo without being able to directly show any of it. Very much a film for people who have seen too many films, but a great one nonetheless.

Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda (dir. Stephen Nomura Schible, 2017)

Despite being a fan of his work with Yellow Magic Orchestra in the '70s and his output as a film composer - his theme to Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence may be the prettiest piece of music I've ever heard - I've never really delved too deep into the life and work of Ryuichi Sakamoto, so this documentary, which gives an overview of his long and varied career but mainly focuses on the aftermath of his 2014 cancer diagnosis, and his response to the Fukushima nuclear disaster, was quietly revelatory for me. Through that lens, Schible captures a great artist wrestling with enormous questions and a sense of fragility, but not merely as an individual; a sense of how fleeting and delicate all life is, and how easily it can be snuffed out or swept away. A really beautiful work of documentary as both dissection and snapshot.

Upgrade (dir. Leigh Whannell, 2018)

I was a huge fan of Whannell's new version of The Invisible Man (which wound up being the last film I watched in a movie theatre, if you're in the mood for some mildly depressing trivia) and it made me want to check out his previous film, which if anything was even better. A technothriller about a man (Logan Marshall-Green) who has to share his body with an artificial intelligence, it plays like a lower budget and sharper version of Venom (a comparison that is only heightened by how much Marshall-Green and Tom Hardy look alike) that fully understands the potential of its premise for action, horror and comedy, with Whannell ably balancing all three tones and more besides. Marshall-Green is particularly great in the moments when he has to play the disconnect between his mind and his body, staring in mute horror as he breaks bones and contorts his assailants in ways that should not be possible.

Bisbee '17 (dir. Robert Greene, 2018)

As with his previous movies, Greene uses the documentary format and the idea of performance to thrilling effect, traveling to Bisbee, Arizona to orchestrate the recreation of a notorious mass deportation that took place in 1917, when over 1,200 striking miners were expelled from their homes, taken to the desert and left to die. In having residents of the town, some of whom are descended from people who were part of the deportation in one form or another, re-enact the past, they are forced to confront it, and Greene is able to illustrate the ways in which America avoids talking about the brutality of its history until it has no choice but to acknowledge it. A great work of ACAB cinema.