This is the most excited I’ve felt about cinema in a long while. Not in terms of new releases – though I fell wildly in love with the films of Céline Sciamma – but just my new areas of exploration. I mentioned last year that sometimes it can feel like you’ve seen all the good films. But in 2020 I stayed up late watching Indian melodrama, discovered that war films aren’t all cardboard jingoism, and became briefly preoccupied with ‘70s schlock, as well as excavating new nooks and crannies in my true home – Golden Age Hollywood.
At heart, I am just a shameful sentimentalist, and wherever they originate, my favourite films are always those that make me feel. You’ll find the list of best ‘discoveries’ (movies I saw for the first time this year) slanted severely in that direction. I’m going to pick out 20 of those, chat about a handful of cinematic obsessions that dominated 2020 for me, and then share a few snippets of the best film writing I’ve done this year.
1. Broadcast News (James L. Brooks, 1987)
2. Our Little Sister (Hirokazu Kore-eda, 2015)
One of the loveliest films I’ve ever seen, an intensely moving and yet spare, understated movie on Kore-eda’s favourite theme of surrogate families (or perhaps, in this case, just families. It's a movie about many things: family, heritage, unexpected human connections, what we bequeath to our children, what we leave behind for our future selves and for others – plum wine or emotional wreckage – and our capacity to appreciate beauty. The blocking in the final scene is a tender ballet that traces these characters’ personas, their relationships and their unbreakable solidarity. Full review.
3. Céline Sciamma films (2011-19)
Sciamma has alighted on an essential truth in her work, which is that we should stop putting men in films. Her five features (if we include My Life as a Courgette, which she wrote), form the Sciamma Cinematic Universe – a place of cruelty, longing and occasional catharsis, of gender fluidity, of blessed tactility. Each of the films is marked by her vast capacity for compassionate non-judgement, and shot in a way that mirrors her material. My favourite, Tomboy, is almost scrappy at times; Girlhood oscillates between stylisation and social realism; Portrait of a Lady on Fire is touched with an elegant grace headily infused with flaming eroticism. I find her films both profoundly painful and utterly beguiling. Reviews.
4. Little Women (Greta Gerwig, 2019)
This has passages about as good as anything I’ve ever seen on screen, with Ronan a mesmerising, indelible and definitive Jo. It isn't a perfect film, but – beneath Desplat's overly conventional score, away from those performances that dwell in the shadow of past triumphs, those early lines uttered unnaturally to oneself – there are passages of extraordinary intelligence, sincerity and sensitivity that happily confirm Gerwig-Ronan as the most exciting actor-director partnership in aeons. I just kept crying. Full review (which also discusses the 1933, ’49 and ’94 versions).
5. After Life (Hirokazu Kore-eda, 1998)
Kore-eda’s answer to A Matter of Life and Death: the Technicolor fantasy of life (or at least reminiscence), the drab bureaucracy of death, as the newly deceased spend a week at a residential centre, deciding which memory to take with them for the rest of time. Their counsellors, meanwhile, have secrets and torments of their own. This contemporary masterpiece has more to say – quietly, painfully, sometimes obliquely – about life’s compromises, disappointments and beauties than almost any other film I’ve seen. I haven’t been this broken by a man sitting on a bench since Ikiru.
6. Blue Collar (Paul Schrader, 1978)
A breathtaking film about class and race, so entertaining that you scarcely realise what it’s up to. Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel and Yaphet Kotto are blue collar workers in a Detroit car factory who decide to steal from their corrupt union. In other hands, that could mean a conventional heist film or a reactionary polemic, but for Schrader it’s some wild fusion of laugh-out-loud comedy, counter-intuitive politics and rich character drama, like The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists filtered through the ‘70s malaise. Full review.
7. Only Yesterday (Isao Takahata, 1991)
An exquisitely beautiful Ghibli film about memory, which both understands that you can be impossibly nostalgic for your childhood whilst in your 20s, and that what we remember isn’t what is obviously significant – but it is significant. It's full of the most beguiling small moments. Like a little league baseball player standing on a quiet street in the sunset, a moment that threatens not to end. Full review.
8. A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood (Marielle Heller, 2019)
Matthew Rhys is a hardbitten feature writer, fucking up his life one malicious long read at a time. Then he’s sent to profile beloved children’s TV personality, Mr Rogers (Tom Hanks). The cover plug for the eventual feature is “Mr Rogers – Especially Now”, and that’s how I feel about this film. It’s so deftly done, toying meta-ly with the iconography of the milieu in a way that reminded me of Life on Mars, expertly using Rhys as a surrogate for its audience’s own cynicism, and drawing from Hanks a performance of multi-layered complexity that somehow plays out entirely on the surface. Full review.
9. A Girl in Every Port (Howard Hawks, 1928)
A wonderful Hawks comedy about sailors (and shaggers) Victor McLaglen and Robert Armstrong who have, well, a girl in every port. The opening scene promises so little, but then the film catches light: it’s so charming and disarmingly funny, balanced by moments of romance and rich emotion. That sequence in the apartment block – where McLaglen and Armstrong go in search of dates, then discover their latent compassion – may be the most tender and lovely thing in the whole Hawks canon. Then just when you think the film can’t get any better, Louise Brooks turns up and takes over. Full review here, and there’s more about both Hawks and Brooks in the Obsessions section below.
10. Deadline at Dawn (Harold Clurman, 1946)
There’s a purposefully offbeat scene in this brilliant humanist noir from the typewriter of Clifford Odets, in which a sailor trying to solve a murder sees a nervy man dash from a building next to the crime scene. He tails the man… right to the door of a vet’s, where the suspect breaks down in tears. It’s closed, and he was too late anyway. His cat is dead. There are other stories, you see. And this film intersects with those. In the irritating vernacular of 2020, it is “noir adjacent”. The cat vignette seems the sort of thing that would happen during the night, in the New York of noir, but usually it happens just around the corner. And this film is just around the corner from noir. Full review.
11. The Secret of Convict Lake (Michael Gordon, 1951)
Most films that have a secret have just that – one secret – and so we sit around amiably waiting for it to be revealed. But almost everyone in The Secret of Convict Lake is covering something up: at least four of the characters are powder kegs just waiting to go off, and you have no idea where the explosion is coming from. Full review.
12. The Handmaiden (Park Chan-wook, 2016)
An intoxicating, strange, erotic Korean lesbian period-drama heist-romance, though it cares as much about genre as I care about horror films. I’ve tried to distil its essence – The Favourite if it was sincere, shot through with genius and spliced with The Sting; a warmer, feminist Rashômon shot like A Very Long Engagement, Lubitsch’s early role-play films with the songs and Maurice Chevalier replaced by sapphic love, East Asian geopolitics and graphic prose about vaginas – but it’s not really like those films, or indeed like any other films at all. It’s sad eyes and wet mouths, love that feels like betrayal, betrayal that feels like love. It’s imperialism’s dominance glimpsed through misogny’s dominance. It’s bodies so entwined they lose all parameters, all meaning. It’s twists that accentuate emotion, that find new depths to the characters, that renew, rather than erase.
13. The Souvenir (Joanna Hogg, 2019)
A riveting autobiographical drama about a film school student and her relationship with a darkly fascinating older man. The first half is tight and intriguing, the second open and exhausting, and though the odd line falls flat, for the most part it’s acted, written and filmed with a striking nuance, originality and truth. It feels like a spiritual cousin of Erick Zonca’s The Dreamlife of Angels, sharing that movie’s freshness of vision, its bleak acceptance of destructive relationships, and female characters who are complex and real, but also readable and specific. Not everything is revealed – neither here, nor there – but by the end you have a complete picture of these people, and of the chilly world they inhabit. Full review.
14. The Past (Asghar Farhadi, 2013)
A bleak moral thriller, in Farhadi’s distinctive style, about an Iranian man, Ahmad (Tahar Ramin), returning to France to divorce his wife (Bérénice Bejo), and being drawn into the lives of her boyfriend, his wife, and Bejo’s troubled daughter. It’s long but never feels it, dealing in complex characterisation, purposefully spacing out its revelations – even the premise itself is kept from us for 10 minutes – and wallowing in ambiguity, with shades of Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret. To the end, it all remains brilliantly unresolved – Ahmad doesn’t even get the climactic speech he asks for, because people want to move on; there is no ‘closure’ beyond the desire to close the book now. Full review.
15. The Bigamist (Ida Lupino, 1953)
This remarkably compassionate and sensitive film belies its opening, its periodic speechifying, and a credit that screams, “… and Edmond O’Brien as The Bigamist”. It has a patsy, a heavy, a good girl and a fatale, but the good girl unwittingly lures the anti-hero into adultery, the fatale is the wife who drags him back from the life he wants, and the heavy is just trying to make up for the time he let something happen to an adopted child. And Robert Towne thought he was being clever with Chinatown. (To be fair, he was.) Full review.
16. Housekeeping (Bill Forsyth, 1987)
A melancholy gem from Bill Forsyth, about two young sisters in an icy, isolated ‘50s town, and their relationship with their non-conformist aunt, who isn’t the free and liberating spirit of cliché, but a loving woman whose eccentricities (and mental illness) become an embarrassment. It’s an astonishingly uncommercial film: sad, quiet and almost devoid of incident, but incredibly well-observed, and even profound. Full review.
17. Battleground (William A. Wellman, 1949)
This film from producer Dore Schary and director William Wellman is miles away from the cardboard stereotypes and plastic heroics of most ‘40s war movies. It had the advantage, of course, of being made four years after the conflict, without the strictures that come with shooting propaganda. But while flagwaving, speeches and gung-ho clichés may have been hard to avoid during World War Two, there was never a reason why those earlier filmmakers had to people their pictures with one-dimensional characters, skimp on atmosphere, or attempt to squeeze the genre into the established mould of a Western. Full review.
18. Dragon Inn (King Hu, 1967)
This was just SO MUCH FUN, a Taiwanese martial arts Rio Bravo with what I can only describe as brilliantly deadpan cartoon ultra-violence. You also get a nice minimalist score, a raft of cool performances, and a neat mix of studio claustrophobia and lovely exterior shots (from sumptuous vistas to the titular inn pockmarked with flaming arrows). It takes 15 minutes to get going (and, in my case, to be able to work out what’s going on), but after that it’s a whole carnival of leaping, slicing people in the belly, and laughing at a man for having no balls – when honestly there are other things you could have a go at him for; the psychopathy, for a start.
19. Quiz Show (Robert Redford, 1994)
Full review. The film was based on Dick Goodwin's memoir, Remembering America, reviewed here.
20. Why Be Good? (William A. Seiter, 1929)
A captivating silent rom-com, with Colleen Moore irresistible as a Charleston-ing flapper in love with millionaire’s son, Neil Hamilton. She’s a good girl – but his dad won’t believe it. It’s fun as a snapshot of the time – with slangy dialogue and deceptively interesting mores – and it’s also neatly filmed, but this material could well have felt slight. It has to be carried by Moore’s talent and charm, and both are absolutely off the charts. Her comic timing is perfect, and she’s so appealing when playing it smitten, but it’s those moments of pain that stay with you, played with such subtlety and purity.
1. Brian De Palma
De Palma was the first ‘great’ filmmaker I ever identified as someone whose work I couldn’t stand, but with age I have come to appreciate that the inherent stupidity and wildly erratic direction of his work is part of its appeal. It is, in fact, the main part. Sisters (pictured) was my way in: it’s trivial and trashy, even by his standards, but it is very directed, in the best sense of that word. After that, it was crane shots and voyeurism all the way, as I gorged on such debatable fare as Dressed to Kill, Femme Fatale and Passion, as well as the derivative but dazzling Blow Out, in which his warped oeuvre reaches some kind of apogee.
2. Louise Brooks
It took me a while to embrace the cult of Brooks, who wasn't a big star during the silent era and whose reputation rests on just a handful of irregularly-sized roles. It seemed unfair that being absolutely smoking hot, in a conspicuously modern way, made her recognisable to modern audiences in a way that, say, Clara Bow wasn't. But having finally 'got' it, thanks in large part to the evangelising of historian Pamela Hutchinson, a chance encounter with Diary of a Lost Girl and a Damascene conversion at seeing Pandora's Box on the big screen, I've since made up for lost time. This year I watched six, a real mixed bag, from the glory of Hawks’ A Girl in Every Port (see Discoveries, above) to the hopelessly compromised fragmentation of The Canary Murder Case – Brooks was dubbed, and her performance sliced and diced, after refusing to return for retakes – and the abject humiliation of Windy Riles Goes Hollywood. At her best, she has a cold, quicksilver magnetism entirely unique in cinema. And great hair.
3. Howard Hawks
Tough and soppy, the archetypal Hawks film is recognisable from a mile away: a hangout movie in which people are put to the test. I revisited Rio Bravo, Red River (a hangout movie on the move!) and – best of all – the staggering Only Angels Have Wings in 2020, as well as exposing myself to his puzzling ‘60s Nascar variation, Red Line 7000, which is faintly embarrassing but with those effective moments of Hawksian sentiment that always make his work worthwhile. And then there’s Ball of Fire, by far the best of his screwball comedies, with the incomparable Barbara Stanwyck at her absolute zenith.
4. Glenda Farrell
I just really like Glenda Farrell. No-one ever spat rat-a-tat dialogue like she did, and she was a constant companion during Lockdown 1.
5. Zachary Scott
Scott (pictured, right) – a sort of faintly upmarket Lee van Cleef, with the same widow’s peak, overbite and aquiline nose – was a Warner contract player who never quite made it, though endures in the pages of various Hollywood memoirs as the noted antagonist of the studio’s ‘Irish Mafia’ (Cagney, Pat O’Brien, Frank McHugh). Somehow he became the hero of this year’s Socially-Distanced Film Club, in which my friend Andrew and I watch a film together every Saturday night. Our first exposure was via Guilty Bystander, we enjoyed him in The Secret of Convict Lake, then actively sought him out, via The Southerner, Ruthless and The Young One. I’m not sure if he’s actually that good, but like Toby Wing or Donald Meek, it’s always nice to see him.
For your consideration, a pile of stuff I wrote on film.
1. On Mank, and how Old Hollywood learned to hate itself, for the Independent. Featuring Billy Wilder, Dorothy Parker, Clifford Odets and many more.
2. Malevolence and mansplaining in The Little Foxes, for the Guardian.
3. Bigging up the blistering Pre-Code masterpiece, Blessed Event, in Sight & Sound:
4. Extended thoughts on Elia Kazan’s troubling and inspired Wild River.
5. The Pre-Code era and sex, in They Call It Sin.
7. Googie Withers in Pink String and Sealing Wax
8. Ten Cents a Dance (part of Socially-Distanced Film Club; the full list of mini-essays is here)
9. Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil
10. It’s a Wonderful Life and other Christmas behemoths, for the Guardian
Thanks for reading.