My Favorite Film Discoveries of 2020

These are movies that were new to me in 2020. This year was the first time I watched them and they stuck out as pictures that were my favorites, ones I highly recommend and would revisit myself.

Neighbors (1981, directed by John G. Avildsen)

From my review: In the same way that Kubrick played with distorted space in The Shining to subconsciously unsettling the audience, there’s play with time going on in Neighbors. Earl eventually becomes disoriented and has to ask his wife what it is after so many starts and stops on his way to finally settle down for the night. She tells him it’s two in the morning, but soon after, he ends up paying Vic a visit. When he emerges from that bizarre conversation, the birds are chirping & it’s sunny outside. These are not continuity errors but intentional distortions […]

Neighbors is a bizarre, disturbing film, and it’s a shame that so many production elements weren’t there to make it something better. I could easily see Tim & Eric remaking this novel and doing it right. If you’ve seen their Bedtime Stories horror anthology, it traffics in the same territory. The difference is that those comedians understand how comedy works, and Avildsen seems entirely out of his element. I would say Neighbors is most definitely worth a watch because it is unlike most films. It has piqued my interest in the novel, which I’ve heard is much better than what was adapted on film.

The Stuff (1985, directed by Larry Cohen)

From my review: Cohen’s intent with the movie is admirable. He wanted to tell a story about the mindless consumerism he saw happening in the 1980s and also the way food manufacturers were adding harmful ingredients that would have a long-term negative effect on consumers. Since this time, we’ve seen concerns about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and the consequences of all sorts of ingredients from corn syrup, to name a few. For the most part, Americans just wolf down processed food without a second thought and Cohen was already imagining how this could harm people. I think you could easily remake The Stuff with a tighter script and some more thoughtful editing and have a contemporary horror masterpiece. While he hasn’t trafficked in body horror to date, I think someone like Ari Aster could handle this material quite well, balancing the horror and comedy masterfully […]

The special effects are superb, especially the head models. Frequently in the picture, a human will expand their jaw beyond standard human ability and vomit up a shocking torrent of The Stuff. This is accomplished with some fantastic head models designed by Bret Culpepper, who also did effects work on The Re-Animator. For a low budget production, I was impressed with how well crafted these models were, and the gore was precisely what you would want in a movie on this subject matter. I would highly recommend The Stuff, it is a very entertaining picture, something like the themes of Neil Breen but with self-awareness and a sense of humor.

Tampopo (1985, directed by Juzo Itami)

From my review: Tampopo is a delightful light fantasy, existing in a world where there is no real menace or villains. It reminded me of Jacques Tati or Wes Anderson’s films, pleasant and comedic while still speaking some truth. Couched inside this movie about food is a story about a love of all things creative, especially movies. The film opens with a gangster, his girl, and three flunkies taking a seat in the front of a movie theater. The trio of henchmen set up a table complete with a meal and flute of wine. The gangster speaks directly to the audience about food and movies, pointedly saying that when we die, we view our last film, as our life flashes before our eyes.

Goro is introduced as Yojimbo, or Clint Eastwood styled character. He’s calm under pressure and never lets an antagonist’s jibes break him. Throughout the film, you have references to American cinema in the form of the cowboy Western, gangster movies, screwball comedies, romance, sports films, and even erotica. Writer-director Juzo Itami has composed a meal for the eyes, a mixing of unlikely but familiar ingredients to make a sumptuous dish that you’d have a hard time not enjoying.

Dead Man Walking (1995, directed by Tim Robbins)

From my review: Filmmaker Tim Robbins never tries to present the story as cut and dried and make sure that Matthew is guilty of the crimes. This is not a case of the wrongfully accused, there are reenactments of that night that make it clear we are dealing with a murderous rapist. He didn’t do it alone, had a partner who it’s implied egged him on, but Robbins refuses to blame the partner either. Matthew did the crime, and there is no getting around that. Robbins even has Prejean directly confronted by the parents of the teenagers, the girl’s parents (played by R. Lee Ermey & Celia Weston) spit venom at her for daring to aid Matthew. The boy’s father (Raymond J. Barry) is still mad but seems beaten down by grief and his wife leaving him because she can’t move past this tragedy […]

Robbins asks us to consider what it means to take human life and if the state taking a life is a reasonable response to murder. The execution scene that ends the film is a rough emotional experience, and the director smartly intercuts between Matthew’s lethal injection with his crimes. Sister Helen tells him before they are separated for the procedure to begin that she will be the face of love to him as he leaves this world. That struck me powerfully, the idea that even the vilest human being deserves to see love at least once before they die. And it’s really fucking hard to give love to people who do so much harm and inflict so much pain; for those parents, it’s perfectly reasonable for them to have boiling anger. Sister Helen never chastizes the parents and gives Matthew assurance that his final wishes that his death gives them peace are a noble idea.

Taste of Cherry (1997, directed by Abbas Kiarostami)

From my review: For a film about such an intimately emotional experience, Taste of Cherry chooses to distance itself, placing the whole of the movie in an almost purely rhetorical realm. We learn very little about the personal life of our main character and not much about the people he encounters during his journey. Conversations orbit around significant existential questions, yet the movie is very much about the beauty of human existence and frailty. This is also a movie that Roger Ebert gave a single star to because he said it lacked any forward momentum, which I think was sort of the point. This is a piece of ambient cinema, and it defies Western expectations […]

Taste of Cherry is meant to leave the audience with questions. That central question is, why does Badii want to die? Once we realize that there will not be an answer forthcoming, then the logical second question is, is it wrong for Badii to kill himself? Also, why does he believe it is vital to have a second person involved? Why not directly go off into the wilderness and end it? Why must he be buried? Even the film’s conclusion leaves us unsure if Badii will die. We see him take his pills, ride in a taxi to the hole, and lay inside as lightning flashes overhead. The screen goes to black, and there is no view of what happens the next morning.

Friday (1995, directed by F. Gary Gray)

From my review: I haven’t laughed at a comedy film like this in a very long time. This was a couldn’t stop, tears in my eyes, perpetual motion machine of laughing. Friday was an independent picture made by people that were figuring out how to be filmmakers and showing some of the best promise of any debut I’ve ever witnessed. Yes, there are weak points, and not all the jokes hit, but this is an instance where gags are being thrown at the screen every second. When ones do hit, they connect hard, and you’ll find yourself uncontrollably losing it […]

The cause of my eruptive laughter was John Witherspoon as Craig’s father. I am familiar with Witherspoon from his regular role on The Wayans Brothers show in the 1990s. He is so much better when he doesn’t have to censor himself for television. Witherspoon perfected playing a character type, an older over the top fatherly/uncle figure. His comedic choices and timing are so spot on I have to assume he was the cause of numerous crack-ups on set. There is a moment near the end where one character remarks that Craig thinks he’s a mac, and Witherspoon responds with perfect timing, “Macaroni.” It is an entirely absurd line that isn’t intended as an insult necessarily, just an ad-libbed reaction. It had me rolling.

Leaving Las Vegas (1995, directed by Mike Figgis)

From my review: Leaving Las Vegas is one of the bleakest mainstream films I’ve ever seen, and there’s no way you could tell this story without that tone. Audiences are so conditioned by most wide release pictures that we expect Sera to give Ben a reason to stop drinking and keep living. Or we think she’ll give up sex work and get married and live happily ever after. That’s not this movie, and it would be dishonest to twist the story in that direction. I don’t think the film presents alcoholism in an entirely realistic manner, and doing so would cascade the story deeper into the hellish nightmare it already is. Director Mike Figgis tries to find organic moments of humor without being cloying and manipulative. The final scene of the movie doesn’t hold anything back and will shatter your heart without ever playing the moment as maudlin.

The story feels like cliche material: the down on his luck drunk and the hooker with a heart of gold. What elevates them are the performances of Nicolas Cage and especially Elizabeth Shue. I almost see her as the protagonist of the story, with Ben being a supporting figure. She is the one who still has to live when the screen goes black, she’s the character whose therapy sessions we get snippets of. Because of her line of work, she’s had to learn to withhold personal judgment while being used. Sera isn’t helpless, though, she talks about the power of providing people with their fantasies and how they worship her for a brief moment with awe. With Ben, she withholds judgment but receives love instead of being expected to give all of herself to him.

Deliverance (1972, directed by John Boorman)

From my review: Masculinity is a theme at the forefront in this story, with the men engaged in almost constant one-upmanship over who is the best at being a man. That is until the second act twist where one man is sexually assaulted. They have now encountered a brutal force that has torn masculinity from them, and they have to kill it. This eventually leads to paranoia as the canoe trip goes further off the rails. The once bare-chested Lewis finally ends up whimpering in a boat with a bone jutting out from his leg, barely able to speak. Ed is thrust by default into the leader’s role and ends up making a terrible mistake that will haunt him for the rest of his life. Bobby emphasizes that they can’t tell anyone what really happened out there for two reasons: he doesn’t want to go to prison and doesn’t want anyone to know about his sexual humiliation […]

I couldn’t help but think about Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and its questions about the violence of individuals versus institutional violence. We have another study of that in Deliverance. The violence of the hill people is not excused, it is an act of vile assault, and there is a valid excuse that Lewis’s actions are self-defense. However, the reminders that the communities these men are traveling through will be obliterated with the formation of a new dam refocuses our attention on the violence of institutions. Is it any wonder these rural people have become aggressive towards any stranger that sets foot near their homes? Lewis’s excuse when burying the body is that soon all of this will be one giant lake, and the body will be buried so deep that it won’t matter; no one will ever find it, and the men will be free.

Color Out of Space (2019, directed by Richard Stanley)

From my review: Richard Stanley doesn’t lose the sheer existential and body horror elements of the original work, though. Color Out of Space is an intense experience that doesn’t treat the audience with kid gloves. It does take its time building up to the grand explosion of horror in the finale. There are zero jump scares here. Every moment you feel terrified is earned by the script. The first act is about establishing characters and letting the audience know who they are and why we should care about what happens to them. The horror that befalls the family is profoundly personal and turns them against each other. I think this is the best adaptation thus far from a Lovecraft story.

Nicolas Cage’s performance will stand out because he goes bizarro in the middle of the picture. This is before the real madness of the alien presence kicks in and appears to just be Cage possibly doing a Trump impersonation? It fits though because everything is off-kilter and veering into mind-bending horror. He’s definitely not the lead here, and I think seeing Cage as a supporting character actor as he ages would be fantastic. Richard Stanley says this is planned as the first in a trilogy adapting Lovecraft’s work, and I am fully on board for the next entry. If you are a fan of this type of cosmic horror, then you are in for a massive treat in Color Out of Space.

Miller’s Crossing (1990, directed by Joel & Ethan Coen)

From my review: Tom’s hat is one of the most vital components of understanding the character as he relies on the hat to obscure his motives. The opening credits play over his dream of being in the woods and watching his hat blow away, eventually understood as a metaphor for his armor. If you track the placement of the hat throughout the movie every time Tom loses his hat, he’s about to get a physical attack. He dreams about losing his hat while sleeping with Verna symbolizing the vulnerability he has by becoming involved with his boss’s girl. With that in mind, pay close attention to the final scene and how Tom interacts with that hat.

While Gabriel Byrne does a great job playing Tom as a steely, close to vest stoic, John Turturro delivers something on the other end of the spectrum as Bernie. Bernie is such a slimy, rotten character and is that way from his introduction. Tom finds Bernie already in his apartment waiting for him, and the two have an exchange about the bookie’s problems with Caspar. During this opening talk, Bernie implies that he’s been involved incestuously with Verna while speaking about her as someone who uses sex to get her way. Later, Bernie emotionally manipulates Tom and then lords that over the man in a disgusting display. I don’t think the Coens ever used Turturro better than they did in this picture.

Heat (1995, directed by Michael Mann)

From my review: I’d always heard how good Heat was, but it was a film that I’ve circled around without ever sitting down and watching it, until now. I wouldn’t say I am a fan of Michael Mann’s, but I have appreciated every film I’ve seen, with Collateral being my favorite until now. I’ll just get this out of the way now, I loved Heat, so much. Christopher Nolan owes a significant part of his career to Mann, and I hope he has given adequate thanks for the aesthetic he has mimicked. This is a dense neo-noir multi-character novel turned into a movie that delivers on its themes and character arcs so beautifully & tragically.

Heat is a movie about two people who have locked themselves in so tightly into their respective worldviews, ideologies, and careers that they are destroying themselves in the process. This becomes crystal clear in the middle of the film when Hanna and McCauley actually sit down across each other over a cup of coffee. They lay everything out, making it clear to the other person who they are. During this scene, I realized that while they were adversaries, neither one was the villain of the film, that honor belongs to some minor supporting characters. Hanna and McCauley see what they are doing as inevitable, they no longer remember how to stop the momentum of what comes next and so they are resigned to facing whatever the fallout might be.

The Day of the Locust (1975, directed by John Schlesinger)

From my review: There’s an exhausting sunbaked feeling surrounding Day of the Locust. The music and the soft lighting make conflicting claims, but if you pay close attention, you notice the rotten smell wafting up from underneath. You see it in the cracks in Tod Hackett’s apartment, hidden by a framed quote claiming the presence of God is protecting the people within. This is shown as the landlady tells Tod about the earthquake of 1932, where she and her tenants were spared while others died across the city. Tod ends up covering the crack with his artwork, slowly building a fresco of Hollywood in flames, hollow, empty faces screaming out.

While Tod Hackett might be our protagonist, the core of the film rests with Homer Simpson (Donald Sutherland, the Simpsons tv character is named after him). Homer is a heartbreaking and frustrating character. We learn he has a complicated past with a dancer who left him. Religion plays a significant role in his life, as he takes Faye and her alcoholic father (Burgess Meredith) to a revival meeting. That scene, in particular, is interesting because Homer is joyously transfixed while Faye gives into the theatricality of the service. There are quite a few moments where the sacred is overtaken by the profane, and the gaudy spectacle of the revival is one of those. Homer is also sexually repressed, his nervous energy transferring into his hands, the knuckles continually cracking. Faye runs into the embrace of Homer because, as she tells Tod later, Homer expects nothing from her and worships her.

Sullivan’s Travels (1941, directed by Preston Sturges)

From my review: Sullivan’s Travels is a masterpiece in my book. It’s a metacommentary on movies that never loses sight that it’s also a slapstick comedy. The film is a reflection of the struggles of the working class, particularly during the Great Depression, but it’s a genuinely endearing love story. Preston Sturges managed to create a film that captures so much about his point in time yet speaks universally to the struggles & victories of our lives today. Yet Sturges made a movie preaching about the annoyance of preaching in film. It’s a beautiful paradox the produced a picture that is one of the best American films ever made.

Sturges does choose to get sober in the third act of the film, but I argue it is a vital turn in the tone of the picture. Sullivan ends up sitting in the pews of a Southern black church where they are screening a Disney cartoon. Prisoners from a chain gang have been invited by the pastor to enjoy the humor and joy of watching this simple distraction. Sturges received a letter from Walter White, the secretary of the NAACP at the time. White wanted to express how moved he was by the profoundly nuanced and human portrayal black Americans were given at this moment. If you step back and look at representation in cinema at the time, black people were often mocked and presented as figures of ridicule for stereotypes of laziness or dumbness.

The Palm Beach Story (1942, directed by Preston Sturges)

From my review: This is the ur-text of screwball comedies, every core element boiled down to its purest essence. There are pratfalls galore, windows getting smashed, and people confusing each other for others. It exists as both an ode to the comedies of mixed-up identities from Shakespeare and commentary on the late stages of the Great Depression. This film will inspire future pictures like Some Like It Hot and Intolerable Cruelty, but it doesn’t put on airs of being profound or world-changing. This is a pure character-centered comedy that understands how important it is to have a diverse variety of roles […]

There is momentous energy from the opening credits of the film, a rapid-fire account of the wedding day between Gerry and Tom, which hints at a larger mystery that is revealed in the punchline of the finale. The movie isn’t concerned with following one core plot but allows for episodic asides. Gerry ends up sharing a train with a rowdy drunken group of millionaire hunters. This leads to an awkward and hilarious moment where two of the hunters begin clay pigeon shooting with saltine crackers while onboard the train. It’s a sequence that features a host of Sturges’ regular players who are having a fantastic time playing into the high comedic energy of the movie.

Some Like It Hot (1959, directed by Billy Wilder)

From my review: Some Like It Hot holds no pretense about being a farce. This is the same vein of comedy found in sitcoms like Laverne & Shirley or Three’s Company, where characters get in a situation and only further complicate it by refusing to be upfront and honest. It’s a very classic structure that, when done competently, is a fun comedic puzzle, the audience trying to figure out how they will get out of this situation […]

The intensely sexual nature of the film challenged the notions of the Hays Code, the censorship system in place at the time. Wilder didn’t care and released the movie without their approval, and as a result, this movie was one of the pictures responsible for invalidated the whole censoring system. I was definitely surprised by the outfits Monroe was wearing, which would be considered pretty salacious even by today’s standards. I’m also disappointed yet again at how Monroe has been reduced to a sex symbol since her death. Despite the apparent lack of professionalism on set, her performance as Sugar is both genuinely funny and full of pathos.

The Apartment (1960, directed by Billy Wilder)

From my review: The Apartment is a masterpiece. Every element of the film just hits on all cylinders. The cinematography, particularly in the office environment is fantastic, emphasizing the vast repetitiveness of the landscape. Wilder takes the type of film that has now become flat and bland-looking and reminds us that romantic comedies can look amazing. The script is beautifully written and, while over two hours long, doesn’t waste a scene or moment. Every part of the story is essential in developing the characters and establish relationships.

The Apartment is not a riotous laugh romp, but it is funny in a very humanistic way. The observations on humanity feel both of the time and timeless. If you are a viewer of Mad Men, then you find a familiar setting with characters treating women in an upsettingly objectified way. The film’s point of view is that these men are shallow and hedonistic, making Fran a real person that Baxter must confront and process.

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