I love movies. Dramas, Science fiction, Thrillers, Comedies, Satire, Spoofs, Documentaries, Art House, Foreign, Classic, Modern, Animated, Independents, Franchises; all of it. I never had the privilege of taking a film class, but have been watching them, reading about them, and listening to filmmakers talk about their craft for 47 of my 51 years.
Each year I keep track of the films I have seen and curate a list of the best ones that I viewed for the first time. I send these lists unsolicited to family and friends, in part because I enjoy sharing what I love, but also in hopes that it will help give them a better understanding of who I am as a person. Cinema has the power to do that. It can provide escapism from the world around you, while at the same time enlighten and educate us about that very same world and the different people that inhabit it.
2020 was a year that required us to seek both of those things. There were days when I just wanted to get lost in Star Wars: A New Hope for the umpteenth time, or force myself to laugh by watching Airplane! once again. There were also days that I wanted to remind myself to be compassionate and empathetic, so I watched films like Trial 4 or It’s A Wonderful Life.
This year I watched 225 movies, and 132 of those were for the first time. The oldest of those was from 1932 (Grand Hotel, by Edmund Goulding) and the most recent being 2020’s Soul. So, once more for clarity’s sake, this is a list of the best movies I viewed for the first time, no matter what year they were released.
10. The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020)
Aaron Sorkin wrote and directed this courtroom drama detailing the fallout from the infamous 1968 Democratic Convention, and the government’s attempts at holding 7 mostly disparate men responsible for conspiracy to incite a riot. Sorkin takes liberties with the actual events, so while it’s not an entirely accurate historical document, it is excellent filmmaking. Sorkin’s dialogue is always a feast for the ears, and the performances from Sasha Baren Cohen, Jeremy Strong, and Yahya Abdul-Mateen provide suspense and tension to an outcome you may already be aware of.
9. Bill and Ted Face the Music (2020)
When Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure came out in 1989, I wasn’t that impressed. I didn’t find it that amusing and thought the sequel, Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, was beyond awful. Bill and Ted Face the Music, however, hit me right where it counts. The third in the series is funny and sweet and has a timely message about working together to achieve a common goal for humanity. And for a middle-aged guy like myself, the theme of not living up to your potential but ultimately finding value in what has become of your life is something a lot of us can relate to.
8. The Killers (1946)
Based on a short story by Ernest Hemingway and adapted by an uncredited John Huston, this noir classic was the film debut of Burt Lancaster and features screen siren Ava Gardener in one of her most seductive roles. The movie opens with the death of a main character, and the story is expertly laid out in flashback. Cinematographer Elwood Bredell and Director Robert Siodmak expertly use light and shadow to obscure the truth and keep the viewer guessing until the final moments.
7. The Dead Don’t Die (2019)
Director Jim Jarmusch is an acquired taste. From Midnight Train to Dead Man to Coffee and Cigarettes, and many more in between, his films frustrate some and delight others. The Dead Don’t Die apparently falls into the former category, with a 54% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. I however was delighted by this unique take on the Zombie flick, also written by Jarmusch, with outstanding comedic performances from Bill Murray, Adam Driver, and the always great Tilda Swinton. If you don’t find this movie funny, especially with the running Sturgill Simpson joke, the problem lies with you, not Jarmusch.
6. The Vast of Night (2019)
This independent movie, shot on a shoe-string budget, took me by surprise. The premise – a couple of 1950’s small-town high school kids discover a strange, possibly alien radio frequency – intrigued me, and the execution completely floored me. It begins with an expertly done four-minute tracking shot by first-time director Andrew Patterson, that weaves through the town, in and around a basketball gym, and then back through the other side of town. The movie introduces the main players but also keeps them at arm’s length, and it takes place in “real-time”, which aids the viewer in experiencing the suspense and mystery alongside the characters for the 91-minute run-time.
5. Be Water (2020)
37 years after his untimely death, Bruce Lee remains a source of awe, inspiration, and fascination for martial-arts and movie fans around the world. He left us with only a handful of films chronicling his jaw-dropping abilities, but his legend and mystique grow with each passing decade. There have been many documentaries about the charismatic Lee, but Be Water goes in-depth on his struggles with racism, and rejection by the Hollywood system he longed to be a part of. Using rare interviews, journal entries, and home movies, the documentary shows how he worked to overcome the limitations thrust upon him, and his ultimate success in sharing his culture with the world.
4. Mank (2020)
Films about Hollywood and the making of movies have always fascinated me. There have been many of those sorts of stories told about what is considered to be the greatest movie of all time, Citizen Kane, and Mank is at the top of that list. David Fincher expertly directs a screenplay penned by his late father, Jack Fincher, that details the writing of Orson Welles’ masterpiece, and its author, Herman J. Mankiewicz. Gary Oldman plays the title character, as the film jumps between the writing of Kane and the prior relationship Mankiewicz had with William Randolph Hearst, who was Mank’s inspiration for Kane. Fincher deftly handles Mank’s bouts with alcoholism and his quest to receive credit for his greatest work, while also exposing the politics of the Hollywood machine. Oldman is once again at the top of his game, but Amanda Seyfried’s portrayal of Marion Davies, Hearst’s longtime girlfriend, steals the picture.
3. Knives Out (2019)
Written and directed by Rian Johnson, Knives Out is a murder-mystery that cleverly balances humor, mystery, and a dash of suspense all the while keeping the viewer off-balance with each scene providing a new suspect for the death of a family patriarch. The all-star cast features Chris Evans, Christopher Plummer, and Jamie Lee Curtis among others, with a surprise performance by Daniel Craig as a southern-fried detective named Benoit Blanc. There are so many red-herrings, and blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moments, this is one movie that begs for repeat viewings.
2. Rear Window (1954)
There are many films that earned Alfred Hitchcock the moniker “The Master of Suspense”. Psycho, Rope, North by Northwest, etc., but Rear Window, may be his crowning achievement in that genre. Jimmy Stewart plays a wheelchair-bound photographer who spends his days voyeuristically spying on his neighbors in the sprawling apartment complex he lives in, until one day he believes he witnesses a murder. Hitchcock uses every weapon in his considerable arsenal to make the viewer feel as claustrophobic and helpless as Stewart, unable to convince anyone of what he has seen, and incapable of doing anything about it. The movie was filmed on an unbelievable set, on which an actual courtyard was built that featured 31 furnished apartments. Stewart is at his every-man best, and Grace Kelly is magnificent as his fiancé, but the considerable talents of Hitchcock makes Rear Window a masterpiece.
1. Beastie Boys Story (2020)
Some may feel this entry says more about my age than my taste in movies, and that may be true, but Beastie Boys Story is a documentary like no other. The Beastie Boys was one of the most influential groups of my youth, and like it or not, one of the most important in the history of hip-hop. Spike Jonze directed the two-man stage show – performed by surviving Beasties Michael Diamond (Mike D.) and Adam Horovitz (King Ad-Rock) – that tells the story of the band’s genesis and rise to stardom, while also enabling the guys to own up to their mistakes and poignantly eulogizing the late Adam Yauch (M.C.A.). At times hilarious, informative, and sad, Beastie Boys Story captures the spontaneity and joy of their music and gives the surviving members a chance to say goodbye to their fans.
Honorable Mentions: Chef (2014), The Rules of the Game (1939), Class Action Park (2020), Rush (2013), 1917 (2019), The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989), The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend A Broken Heart (2020), The Lighthouse (2019), Togo (2019), Greyhound (2020)
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