Slightly behind schedule, here's one of my favorite traditions of the year (which has become an increasingly common practice for others as well, since the rise of Letterboxd), my list of my favorite movies from earlier years that I saw for the first time in 2020.
piece on the greatness of Gwyneth Paltrow in the 1990s, and my viewing of Douglas McGrath's adaptation of Jane Austen's classic novel was the spark for that story. I initially watched this movie to prepare for the new version directed by Autumn de Wilde and starring Anya Taylor-Joy, and while I think Taylor-Joy is brilliant, that movie fell a little short for me. This one, on the other hand, is a pure delight, led by Paltrow's fabulous performance as the well-intentioned meddler Emma Woodhouse, who is oblivious to her privilege but also humbly open to learning from her mistakes. The various romances are all satisfying, the writing (from either Austen or McGrath) is witty, and the performances are all effortlessly charming.
covered this movie (which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes) as part of our 1996 season of the Awesome Movie Year podcast, and it's a great example of Mike Leigh's humanistic, character-driven storytelling, with justifiably lauded and awarded performances from Brenda Blethyn, Marianne Jean-Baptiste and Timothy Spall. It takes the kind of storyline that could come from a sensationalistic TV movie (an upper-middle-class Black woman reconnects with her working-class white birth mother) and treats it with warmth and sensitivity, more about forging genuine connections than about exploiting divisions.
this tribute to the late Rhonda Fleming, who often cited it as her favorite role. Fleming is good as the main character's scheming stepsister, but this is Simmons' show all the way, and she brings vulnerability and a reserve of unexpected strength to this surprisingly nuanced and progressive drama about mental illness.
road trip movies that I wrote (somewhat ironically) just before the pandemic lockdown, and it lives up to its reputation as a rollicking thriller with a dark edge. Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon are fantastic as the title characters, who free themselves from their downtrodden lives when they inadvertently embark on a crime spree. Director Ridley Scott and screenwriter Callie Khouri portray female empowerment and rebellion against the patriarchy without losing the movie's sense of raucous fun. Some of it goes a little too far over the top, but it all builds beautifully to that iconic (and remarkably cynical) ending, in which the only way to truly defeat a rigged system is to opt out of it entirely.
recommendations that I hadn't previously seen, and I'm grateful to that assignment for pushing me to watch a movie I'd had in my queue since it came out. Like Gold Diggers of 1933, this is a joyous musical about a dark subject, although zombies are less of a real-world concern than economic depression. The cast of mostly unknown young actors capture the outsize emotions of teen angst as well as the terror of witnessing the end of the world, and then they engage in gleeful song-and-dance numbers about it. The catchy original songs don't end when the violence begins, and director John McPhail successfully balances the music with the violence, giving proper attention to both. The filmmakers impressively integrate multiple genres into an entertaining and weirdly heartwarming movie.
reviewing it got me to watch this earlier film adaptation, which is quite long (over three hours) but is consistently engrossing. Director Philip Kaufman somehow fits more range and nuance into his movie than the series creators can fit into an entire TV season, and he includes the story of pioneering test pilot Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard) that the series leaves out. Yeager's refusal to join the space program and the way he's subsequently left behind adds a melancholy counterpoint to the scenes of hotshot future astronauts like John Glenn (Ed Harris) and Gordo Cooper (Dennis Quaid). The movie makes these towering national heroes into flawed, even sometimes unlikable people, bringing them satisfyingly back down to Earth.
selection, and I didn't really have any expectations for this documentary about the bodybuilding scene in the late 1970s. But it's so much fun to watch, with future stars Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno hamming it up for the cameras, alongside other bodybuilding champions who became minor celebrities. Schwarzenegger comes off like the villain on a reality TV show, self-consciously playing up his devious scheming in a way that he would never do now that he's a beloved celebrity and former politician. It's a fascinating glimpse into a younger, less guarded Schwarzenegger, and a snapshot of a scene poised between wider pop-culture recognition and weird underground subculture.
Honorable mentions: Beverly Hills Cop (Martin Brest, 1984); Dark Water (Hideo Nakata, 2002)