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The movies I most enjoyed in 2020 (that I hadn’t seen before)

Though a terrible year for new movies, 2020 proved a remarkable year to catch up on stuff I had not yet seen. According to my diary on Letterboxd, I watched 51 movies this year, with only one in a theater (Little Women), and 11 from 2020.

The best movie I watched in 2020: Mafioso

I had not known about Mafioso, an Italian film released in 1962, until my dad pointed it out to me on The Criterion Channel. This movie, from the outset, is never quite what it seems, and pulls you along through one situation after another until you arrive at a destination you could have never foretold. (And yes, I’m being purposefully cagey).

Though 50 years old, it has a remarkably modern sensibility to its tone and story. But it’s old enough to draw out a fascinating depiction, almost an ethnography, of Sicily when it was still quite pre-modern.

I’ll order the remaining films alphabetically.

Class Action Park

Though not a stellar exemplar of the documentary form (fairly standard mix of interview and archival footage), the subject matter is off-the-wall bonkers — a kind of cheapo theme park in New Jersey where the attractions were injury-inducing, the management were stoned teenagers, and it seemed everyone went there on a dare.
Stream on HBO Max.

Diabolique

A very French thriller about two women, a man’s wife and his mistress, conspiring to murder the man. Remarkable filmmaking craft, engaging story, never boring for something that many might consider ‘art house.’
Stream on The Criterion Channel.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Before going big with Thor: Ragnarok, Taika Waititi wrote and directed this charming film about an orphaned adolescent, his adoptive family, and their delightful, strange, low-key adventures. Strong mix of a comedy and pathos, all underlaid with a genuineness typically lacking from such cross-generational stories.
Stream on Netflix.

Jojo Rabbit

Not much to say that hasn’t been said. Just a good movie worth watching.
Stream on HBO Max.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco

If you haven’t watched it because you’re not all that interested in “San Francisco,” you’re missing out on one of the better pieces of filmmaking in the past couple years. Every aspect of the craft is on point. And Jonathan Majors performance is literally star-turning.
Stream on Amazon Prime Video.

Little Women

I haven’t seen any of the 5 or 6 previous versions of this film, so I have no basis of comparison, but it stands quite well on its own. The performances from the sisters are stellar, Chalamet is pleasant to look at, and the twisty ending is unexpected in something otherwise so straightforward.
Sadly, streaming on Starz, so you’ll have to digitally rent elsewhere or (shh!) pirate.

Oldboy

This year I caught up on a bunch of New Korean Cinema, including Joint Security Area, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, and Mother. While I appreciated each of them, Oldboy was truly transporting. It’s nearly 20 years old at this point, but if you haven’t watched it yet, do yourself a favor and settle in. Apart from the antiquated cell phones, it’s surprising how contemporary it feels.
Digital rental. It’s a shame it’s not on a streaming service.

Palm Springs

Came at just the right time during the quarantine. A smart, funny, arch, sweet romantic comedy.
Streaming on Hulu. It’s too bad Hulu’s user experience is such hot garbage.

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

Even though I love John Hughes’ silly comic efforts (more than I appreciate his angsty teen films), I’d somehow never seen this until year. Or if I had, I’d forgotten it, which made for the same viewing experience either way. I do not think I laughed as hard at a movie as I did watching this. Specifically this scene:

Yarn | You ever travel by bus before? ~ Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987)  | Video clips by quotes, clip | 5307d364-ccf7-4b18-8c94-7556e039e0a7 | 紗

Digital rental.

What’s Up, Doc?

The Criterion Channel turned this up earlier in the year, I didn’t really know what to expect (other than that it was a “San Francisco” movie), and it is a delightfully absurdist 1970s take on the classic screwball comedy, with some amazing comedy set pieces.
Digital Rental. Only $1.99, tho.

The Wicker Man

(The 1973 original, not the 2006 remake).

Another gem that popped up on The Criterion Channel as part of a Halloween horror connection. Though I was aware of the film’s cult status, I didn’t know what it was about, so was repeatedly surprised, and even occasionally taken aback. It’s a truly original film.
Still streaming on Criterion.