Sunday, January 03, 2021

My top 10 non-2020 movies of 2020

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.

1. The Innocents (Jack Clayton, 1961)
Henry James' The Turn of the Screw had a bit of a resurgence in 2020 with the feature film The Turning starring Mackenzie Davis and Mike Flanagan's Netflix miniseries The Haunting of Bly Manor, and I hope that any curious viewers of those will look back at this stunning earlier adaptation from director Jack Clayton, based on the play by William Archibald. Deborah Kerr is phenomenal as Miss Giddens, the governess hired to take care of orphans Miles (Martin Stephens) and Flora (Pamela Franklin), who either encounters ghosts or slowly loses her mind while isolated with the children on the family's sprawling estate. Kerr perfectly balances her performance between madness and compassion, and the child actors both project an eerie self-assurance. The CinemaScope images from cinematographer Freddie Francis are breathtaking, and the sound design is unsettling, especially the use of the ethereal theme song "O Willow Waly." It's hard to imagine anyone doing a better job of bringing this story to life.

2. Emma (Douglas McGrath, 1996)
The article I spent the most time researching, pitching and writing in 2020 was this Vague Visages 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.

3. Gold Diggers of 1933 (Mervyn LeRoy, 1933)
This pre-Code musical is a sheer joy, even as it tackles the realities of the Great Depression from the perspective of out-of-work theater professionals. Ruby Keeler, Joan Blondell, Aline MacMahon and Ginger Rogers play four Broadway dancer/singer/actresses struggling to find work when shows close before they can even premiere (the opening features authorities seizing sets and costumes for non-payment), and they are all giddy and witty in that particularly naughty pre-Code manner. There's a silly romantic storyline about Keeler's Polly falling for a rich heir (Dick Powell) who's also an aspiring composer, which provides the requisite mix-ups and entanglements. The sharp dialogue is as entertaining as the dazzling musical set pieces from Busby Berkeley, one of which features Rogers singing in Pig Latin, clearly the height of cinema.

4. Secrets & Lies (Mike Leigh, 1996)
We 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.

5. Home Before Dark (Mervyn LeRoy, 1958)
I didn't even realize before gathering details for this list that I had included two movies by the incredibly versatile Mervyn LeRoy. Home Before Dark could not possibly be more different from Gold Diggers of 1933, and not just because it was made 25 years later. It's a rich, serious drama about a fragile woman (an excellent Jean Simmons) attempting to adjust to regular life after spending a year in a mental institution, and encountering hostility, suspicion and gaslighting from nearly everyone in her life. I watched it to include in 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.

6. Let's Scare Jessica to Death (John D. Hancock, 1971)
Although this low-budget production has one of the all-time great horror-movie titles, it's more of a slow-burn psychological thriller than a horror movie. Similar to The Innocents, it's the story of a possibly unstable woman (Zohra Lampert's Jessica) living on a remote estate and believing that she's seeing apparitions. And like Home Before Dark, it's the story of a woman recently released from a mental institution who is treated with suspicion by the people in her life. Jessica, her husband and their best friend embrace a hippie lifestyle by moving to an old country house in Connecticut and attempting to work as farmers, and they let a squatter they find in their new house continue living there. But Emily (Mariclare Costello) may be more than a harmless drifter, with ties to the house's sordid history. Director John D. Hancock builds creepy atmosphere in the house and the surrounding town, and the story takes on an impressionistic, dreamlike quality as Jessica slowly loses her mind, or is tormented into believing that she is.

7. Thelma & Louise (Ridley Scott, 1991)
I finally got around to watching this movie as part of a round-up on 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.

8. Anna and the Apocalypse (John McPhail, 2017)
This was the one movie on my list of Christmas horror 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.

9. The Right Stuff (Philip Kaufman, 1983)
The recent Disney+ adaptation of Tom Wolfe's nonfiction book about the early days of the American space program was a disappointment, but 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.

10. Pumping Iron (George Butler & Robert Fiore, 1977)
This is another Awesome Movie Year 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)