Jan. 5, 2021

My Favorite First-Time Watches of 2020  

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watched a lot of movies last year — 581, according to my Letterboxd account. (This marked the first year in a decade where I didn't write about the majority of the movies I watched — a quarantine-induced decision.) 

Here are some of my favorite discoveries that were not released in 2020, in no particular order. Descriptions are taken from the review written at the time.

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Le Boucher (1970), dir. Claude Chabrol 

 

This is a straightforward thriller only if you choose to not really scrutinize the minutiae of these characters and their neuroses. Le Boucher blurs the villain/innocent person dichotomy; we aren’t even sure how Paul and Hélène would characterize each other. Chabrol has engineered a riveting trick mirror of a movie.

 

The Rapture (1991), dir. Michael Tolkin 

 

It’s a shame for The Rapture to continue going on little-seen: It’s one of the most unforgettably tantalizing movies about religion I’ve seen. 

 

Seconds (1966), dir. John Frankenheimer 

 

Seconds is recognized as something of a classic now, and for good reason: it is, among other things, a searing cinematic indictment of superficial self-help. The movie is of course more than that, capturing the horrors of being trapped in societal institutions and really getting to the core of midlife malaise. What can one become after they’re long past achieving the milestones they thought they’d wanted?  

 

The Last of Sheila (1973), dir. Herbert Ross 

 

Most whodunits are an effectively fun pastime whose details are to be forgotten. The Last of Sheila doesn't want to be a mere pastime — it wants to knock the wind out of us.  

 

Society (1989), dir. Brian Yuzna 

 

Society is pretty potent — a delectable horror farce that knows having a daring concept isn’t enough. You’ve got to put your back into it.

 

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969), dir. Paul Mazursky 

 

Nothing is resolved in Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. Its two couples will keep looking for a “resolution,” whatever that means; they'll try myriad things to try to artificially make one happen and last. Mazursky slyly instills in the film the eternal idea that as long as we’re alive, this search will never end. Actualizing satisfaction is Sisyphean. The events in the movie are, for the characters, just one of the failed, ultimately futile attempts to try to disprove that.

 

Miami Vice (2006), dir. Michael Mann 

 

It’s impressive that Mann was able to take an earlier work of his — an exemplary feat of procedural TV — and then retool it into an intoxicating crime-world fantasia where sense needn’t matter à la The Big Sleep (1946). Sometimes enough style and conviction in one’s presentation can make a film. Miami Vice is a movie to get lost in.

 

Smiley Face (2007), dir. Gregg Araki 

 

I don’t know if hilarity would ensue as dependably as it does if Anna Faris’ performance weren’t genuinely masterful (she’s the Carole Lombard of playing high; she has about 101 different expressions for “bemused”) and if producer-director Araki didn’t so perceptively shoot and edit things as if the camera were the eyes of a smoked-out slacker. 

 

My Name is Julia Ross (1945), dir. Joseph H. Lewis 

 

Although it’s a brisk 64 minutes, My Name is Julia Ross leaves too much of an imprint to feel like a quick B-movie exercise. It’s the rare gaslighting-centered thriller where its woman lead refuses to even temporarily bend to the whims of those trying to convince her that she’s hysterical. She stands by what she knows. Then, in a straightforward development that feels unusual for 1945 and even now, she conquers. 

Last Action Hero (1993), dir. John McTiernan 

 

Last Action Hero is a fascinating mid-career statement. It finds humor in its star’s professional accomplishments, but it also educes an ambivalence about the future, and the limitations of being Arnold Schwarzenegger, the action star.

 

Murder by Contract (1958), dir. Irving Lerner 

 

Like the character it circles around, it’s so economical in its approach that it seems above all else to be trying to get a job done, to entertain and then be discarded of. But days later this story of a contract killer remains etched in my brain in a way that suggests it might soon claim a permanent spot, not just for its ahead-of-its-time artistic coolness but also for the eeriness of its tacit capitalist critiques. No matter how much you think you’re bending the oppressive system, the bending — like cutting a head off a hydra — doesn't altogether stop the perpetuation of the system's oppressiveness. Claude procures what he believes he should want and then have, and then what?

Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. (1992), dir. Leslie Harris 

 

Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. is powerful in how it portrays Chantel’s worldview as a young Black woman whose desires are poised to be impaired by unjust social institutions in spades. Johnson’s performance, made even more cogent by the fact that she’s actually the age she’s playing, radiates, with just-rightness, the paradox of being wise beyond your years while also being held back by both emotional immaturity and what resources are available to you as a young person.

 

Smithereens (1982), dir. Susan Seidelman 

 

Smithereens is such a melancholy depiction of a quarter-life crisis that follow-up Desperately Seeking Susan, which revels more in the absurdities of one, by contrast feels like a salve.

 

Death Race 2000 (1975), dir. Paul Bartel 

 

The performers — particularly the in-on-the-joke cool Mary Woronov and the comically always-fuming Sylvester Stallone — know precisely what kind of movie this is and seem to be luxuriating in the material, just as we are.  

 

The Train (1964), dir. John Frankenheimer 

 

The Train captures exactly what makes Burt Lancaster so exhilarating to watch just generally: here’s this indomitably athletic man who can convince us that he’s equal parts vulnerable — that the physicality, in a way, is an extension of a surplus of feeling. 

 

Cane River (1982), dir. Horace B. Jenkins 

 

For years, Cane River was a mythic masterwork. Shortly after the film premiered in New Orleans (screenings saw support from actor Richard Pryor and critic Roger Ebert), Jenkins died. Distribution plans were scrapped as a result. And because there weren’t any surviving archival prints of the film, it was assumed lost for decades. An interest remained not only because of some of its initial celebrity supporters but also because of the few positive reviews published at the time. A negative of the movie finally showed up in 2014; it was subsequently restored. There were some resulting screenings from then on, including at Ebert’s annual Ebertfest. But it wasn’t until this May that the movie was actually widely seen. It became available to stream on the Criterion Channel service, which is where I first heard of and watched it. 

The Watermelon Woman (1996), dir. Cheryl Dunye 

 

In addition to being an indictment of representational injuries inflicted by the long-standingly white-supremacist film industry, The Watermelon Woman functions as a playful work of autofiction. 

 

Angst (1983), dir. Gerald Kargl 

 

One inevitably does not “enjoy” watching Angst, loosely based on the real-life spree of the Austrian mass murderer Werner Kniesek. But many viewers, I think, will get a nauseating thrill out of it.  

 

Totally Fucked Up (1993), dir. Gregg Araki 

 

The conclusion of Totally Fucked Up is both bleak and uplifting. It is, on the one hand, deeply tragic; on the other, it’s sort of optimistic — suggesting that maybe it’s more worth it to weather life’s storms than let them knock you around. You could get sucked up by one of its cyclones; said cyclone might spit you out someplace totally fucked up. But what if it took you somewhere pretty good? You never can tell.

 

Starship Troopers (1997), dir. Paul Verhoeven 

 

Starship Troopers is a gripping Trojan horse of a movie. This capable sci-fi action film is also disdainful of other capably made sci-fi action features that perpetuate noxious ideologies as much as they seek to thrill. It makes you want to rewatch, and rewatch with a more critical eye, violence-heavy blockbusters teeming with similar ideas. 

 

Journey to Italy (1954), dir. Roberto Rossellini 

 

What I like best about Journey to Italy is that the crumbling of its central marriage doesn’t come from a series of blowups but more so a series of solitary micro-journeys, brief brandishes of middle-aged self-discovery. 

 

Messiah of Evil (1973), dir. Willard Hyuck and Gloria Katz 

 

Messiah of Evil is one of the best horror movies of the 1970s; I can’t say I’ve seen anything quite like it. 

 

Born in Flames (1983), dir. Lizzie Borden 

 

Born in Flames is a propulsive movie — a flurry of provocative ideas and forward-thinking stylistic innovations. (It attempts to, and succeeds at, so many things that it reminds us of the limitations genre itself can bring.) Its final message, above all else, is that while there may be periods during which discussions of revolution are particularly in vogue, nothing can be accomplished concretely without direct action, without solitary and intersectionality undergirding efforts. It can’t be all rhetoric; it can’t just be protests. It’s a movie functioning as a sort of call to arms.

 

In the Realm of the Senses (1976), dir. Nagisa Oshima 

 

In spite of In the Realm of the Senses’s bold provocations and brashly confident, stylish filmmaking, the whispers around it — it featuring real sex, it being bombarded with censorship and outright bans for decades, it bearing a story so hard to believe — disappointingly continue to almost eclipse the work itself, lumped in with other movies reduced to little in the popular imagination aside from their so-called sordidness. In forgoing so many genre limitations and general cinematic conventions, In the Realm of the Senses proves transcendent — the kind of work that has the power to make you reconsider the form as you’ve come to understand it. 

Between the Lines (1977), dir. Joan Micklin Silver

 

In Joan Micklin Silver’s equal parts bighearted and devastating Between the Lines, journalists are put on a pedestal — elevated like characters in a soap opera.

 

Howards End (1993), dir. James Ivory 

 

This is a stylish soap opera. It's also an enduring and smart reflection of class and gender disparities, the privileges and disadvantages that come with each, and the prices people pay when they either rise in the ranks or stumble downward.

The Devils (1971), dir. Ken Russell  

 

The movie’s release was inevitably thrummed with controversy. Many critics found it an empty, torturesome provocation. Russell’s famed extremity is almost designed to not be easily stomached just generally — it becomes much more of a test when paired with these religious themes and this copious amount of sex and gore. But I found The Devils exhilarating, albeit a couple of markedly unfun hours. It lampoons, I think fairly spectacularly, the weaponization and power-leveraging of religion while chillingly underlining just how frightening the practice is.

 

La Collectionneuse (1967), dir. Éric Rohmer 

 

La Collectionneuse is a sort of corrective, testament of truth and misapprehension. We know both how Haydée exists in these men's heads and how she truly moved about life. It’s a feature-length burlesquing of the bad habits of an unreliable narrator.

 

Company (1970), dir. D.A. Pennebaker 

 

The documentary sometimes can feel like a thriller. Most of the time, we live up to the sitting-at-the-edge-of-one’s-seat platitude, waiting for a performer to mangle a word or a phrase or a specific note or a run of notes. Pennebaker’s no-frills, shaky, fly-on-the-wall approach complements the jumpiness. It’s no doubt already daunting enough for one of these actor-singers to try to not fumble when the record button is on and blinking in the sound room. So how much worse can it be when cameras are also avidly watching and moving and zooming?  

 

Tales from the Hood (1995), dir. Rusty Cundieff 

 

Movies like Tales from the Crypt and Creepshow don’t stick around in our heads all that much, however successful they are at frightening us and/or getting us giggly for some 90 minutes, because their terrors are so much skewed toward the preternatural — stuff that couldn’t really happen. In Tales from the Hood, the everyday horrors of being Black in America prove scarier than any made-up horror-anthology platitude.

 

M (1931), dir. Fritz Lang 

 

Lang has said he made M with mostly uncomplicated intentions — that he simply wanted to dissuade parental neglect. But, in hindsight, the movie is clear creative evidence of a man disillusioned. (He’d been a German citizen since 1922.) Lang would emigrate to Paris in 1933, after Joseph Goebbels banned his The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933), whose title villain was purposely written to resemble Adolf Hitler. Then Lang ventured to the U.S., where he would make some of his most celebrated movies — many of which, including The Woman in the Window (1944) and The Big Heat (1953), are now hailed as foundational films noir. The majority of his filmography spotlit characters who doled out or were entwined with the worst things about society — violence, crime, greed, deceit. M is no exception. It might be the most pessimistic, moonless example. 

 

The Silent Partner (1978), dir. Daryl Duke 

 

The Silent Partner is escapist in the best way — it so smartly curbs expectations that we can really lose ourselves in it, then think about what exactly it has accomplished later on.

 

Portrait of Jason (1968), dir. Shirley Clarke 

 

Portrait of Jason is a compelling exploration of the fallacy of locating real, unadorned truth through a subjective art like the movies.

 

Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion (1972), dir. Shunya Itō

 

Female Prisoner still puts on a pedestal the beats of the woman-driven revenge feature that don’t sit very easily — the use of rape as a catalyst; passages of women being tormented that run long enough to make us wonder if the misogynistic viewer were being pandered to. But this movie has evidently been made by someone who had seen enough women-in-prison movies, enough revenge films, knew what both required/what drew people to them, and realized that you didn’t have to ascribe to their limitations if you knew they could be more.