2020 was a year when I watched many movies and loved few. Here are the exceptions.
I enjoyed a Marvel movie well enough, because it was about losers in love and included public humiliation through lobster-eating. I watched two movies about the discovery of an underwater monster, with parallel events and character backstories; of the two I preferred the indie Sea Fever to the more mainstream Underwater, but the Underwater monster was a real thrill, I have to admit. Sea Fever was also the last movie I saw in theaters.
All right, let’s attempt a top ten.
10. Big Deal on Madonna Street: A jazz-scored, low-slung crime comedy about a gang of shlimazls who think they can pull off a big score. One criminal is always lugging his baby around, because Mamma is in prison, and the baby’s incessant wailing is played for pure comedy. Funny and, almost against its will, a little bit heartbreaking.
9. Servants: Elliptical tale of Communist persecution of the Church in Czechoslovakia. Gorgeous, every frame is a Lee Miller photograph. It goes for the maximally depressing ending and I’m unconvinced this was the most insightful choice; maybe I wouldn’t say that if the images and actions of the rest of the film gave me more of a window into these men’s faith and their wrestling with that faith.
8. Lured: Lucille Ball/Boris Karloff serial killer confection. Do I really need to say more?
7. All That Jazz: I didn’t like this Fosse-directed self-laceration session, exactly. But in the end it had complete commitment to an individual vision of life and death, regret and fatalism (and a dollop of self-pity but who wouldn’t?), an endless purgatorial threshold where the gates of Paradise are barred by honky-tonk angels in glitter and heels.
6. True Stories: “Everything from the rise of the personal computer to a platter of pigs in a blanket becomes an optimistic lunge toward relationship with another person. An endless drive alone in your car with the windows up, passing all the blank aluminum-sided warehouses, but full of hope and longing. ‘Who can say it isn’t beautiful?‘”
5. Hail, Caesar!: “That’s his whole shtik as a character, he cares intensely and sweetly about the moral answers and he never gets the questions right. But does he have to?”
4. Chocolate Babies: “I have no idea how this movie would play to people who came out post-2000. How would they take the brazen camera-glaring declarations: ‘I don’t have Magic Johnson disease. I don’t have Ryan White disease. I have AIDS,’ like, at what historical remove does agony become camp? For me this was a very funny movie and almost unwatchably sad.” As I made this list I kept moving this one up and up, from “Also notable” to #9 to #7 to here in the top five. A true rediscovery via Suns Cinema.
3. Blood Quantum: The past isn’t dead–it’s coming to get you.
2. Romeo + Juliet: “Sun-soaked idiot teenagers with guns make mortal and sometimes beautiful decisions.”
1. The Prison in Twelve Landscapes: A documentary about the way prison weaves through American life. Hauntingly shot, perfectly paced, but really the key to this movie is the way it finds the prison in unexpected places. A public park, a radio station, a special store; an ordinary sidewalk in a gentrifying city, and the offices where that gentrification is accomplished. #1 this year for me because both its artistry and its idea are unexpected and acute. Streaming on Kanopy, which means you may be able to watch it free on your library card.
Also notable: Set It Off, Tales from the Golden Age, Across 110th Street, Hale County This Morning, This Evening, Paperhouse (this just barely missed the top 10 and maybe should bump Lured, even), Earth Girls Are Easy, Midnight Run, Bringing Out the Dead, Deep Cover, 10 Things I Hate About You, Absentia, Chicago, Hard Labor, Crawl, The Eagle (this also I feel bad about keeping out of the top 10), The Child, The Tree of Life, Summer of ’85, Smooth Talk, Ma.
Against my religion, but very well-directed: Dirty Harry. Also, for similar reasons but from the other side of the political spectrum, Can Dialectics Break Bricks? That one is also the most delightfully weird movie I watched in 2020. Too bad about the whole violent contempt for Holy Mother Church thing. At least it wasn’t popular!
Impossible to comment on: Night and Fog, a movie I am glad I watched but about which I have nothing to say.
A movie I loved, but I watched it right as the pandemic was turning my life upside-down and so I remember it essentially not at all, still it’s Abel Ferrara licking all the surfaces of alcoholic guilt so I assume you should watch it: The Blackout.
A very fine example of the non-horror movie for horror fans: Atlantics, a ghost story.
A rewatch I haven’t mentioned yet, but really enjoyed: Ginger Snaps aka The Lycanthrope Mystique.
Best dance number in a movie which was not really for me: the Frug/club scene in Sweet Charity. A phenomenal number.
I would like to say that the most 2020 movie experience I had was the distressing new Cats but in reality I should specify: The most 2020 moviegoing experience I had was watching Cats for the second time. I cannot take credit for the title of this post, as it was a friend’s comment. I think it is a fair summary of many things.
Cat who is judging you via Wikimedia Commons.