It’s that time of year when many of us spend time looking back on the year that was. For us cinephiles that means making lists, checking them twice and trying to decide which films were deserving and which films were not. In Part 1 of my 2020 retrospective on film, I look here at my personal stats, some of the pre-2020 first time watches that left their mark, and then look at some of the outliers from the 2020 slate of films that did not make my top 20 list but that deserve your attention.
Part 2 will look back at my filmtravels2020 exercise, and Part 3 will finally look at my top 20 of 2020.
My Peresonal Stats
Every year I log all the films I watch on Letterboxd, an online community and database that allows you to to create diaries, lists, and track personal stats.
Here are some of my stats from this yearTotal number of films watched in 2020:Total number of 2020 Releases watched:
Total number of films watched in a lifetime at the end of the year: 4,118
Total Number of Films Watched in 2020: 1,175
Total Number of 2020 Releases Viewed: 238
Peak viewing Months: June (40) and December (38)
Monthly Viewing Average: 97.9 films
Weekly Viewing Average: 22.2 films
Most watched genres in 2020: Drama (738) and Horror/Thriller (451)
Most watched Directors: Alfred Hitchcock (28 films, Hayao Miyazaki (8 films), Fritz Lang (6 films), Steve McQueen (6 films), Michelangelo Antonioni (5 films), Jean-Luc Godard (5 films), Isao Takahata (4 films), Wilson Yip (4 films), Ingmar Bergman (4 films), Jean-Pierre Melville (3 films)
A couple of added notes on these stats:
1. I surpassed and celebrated my 4,000th film watched, which for me was significant.
2. At the beginning of the year I revamped the focus of my reviews to read more simply and more coherently with my ratings. That included rewriting the description of my star rating and defining my reviews as mostly interested in theme and story rather than the technicals. Narrative is what speaks to me the most.
One outcome of this was a greater participation in Letterboxd community. I started the year with approximately 60 followers, and I ended the year with 409 followers, which is significant not becuase of the number but because it seems to indicate that something in my approach to dialoguing about film seems to be connecting with others, and conversation about film is a value that I uphold.
First Time Watches
In a year where I had anticipated dialing back on the number of films I watch and making my viewings more intentional, well… it’s been a year, that’s for sure. With theaters being shutdown because of Covid it has changed release patterns, how we see films, and the way we converse about films on a number of levels. Time off of work in 2020 also meant watching more film.
Given that most of these films were first time watches (60 of the total watches were rewatches), there were plenty of changes to my personalized lists. Leaving any new international favorites to my filmtravels2020 summary post, an endeaver I took on at the beginning of the year, here are some notable films that stood out:
1. A rewatch of TOLKIEN bumped up my rating and made it one of a few new 5 star additions (5/5) that joined my all time favorites list.
2. ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST became my new favorite Western (also one of my new 5 star additions)
3. Two genres that saw the most changes in terms of my personal favorites lists: horror and animated.
Of note on the HORROR front is the imaginative horror-fantasy LOST RIVER, Ryan Gosling’s incredible Directorial debut, a number of international gems like I SAW THE DEVIL, MOTHER, ONIBABA, and DEMONS, first time watches of bonafide classics in POLTERGIEST, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, THE CITY AND THE DEAD, LISA AND THE DEVIL and THE TINGLER, the thematically eompelling BEFORE I WAKE, new Canadian favorite PONTYPOOL, and four great additions from 2020 in THE INVISIBLE MAN, RELIC, THE LODGE, and THE DARK AND THE WICKED.
On the ANIMATED front, there were a handful of new international favorites including PERFECT BLUE, NIGHT IS SHORT WALK ON GIRL, and TOKYO GODFATHERS, a few of the unseen Ghibli classics I was able to check off my list (THE TALE OF PRINCESS KAGUYA a noticeable new favorite), the heartbreaking but brilliant British animated film WHEN THE WIND BLOWS, the heartfelt Spanish entry A DOG’S COURAGE, and two memorable additions from 2020 in SOUL and WOLFWALKERS.
4. I also checked off some major blindspots with long held CLASSICS like PARIS, TEXAS, DOG DAY AFTERNOON, A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH, HUNGER, 8 AND A HALF, The BELLS OF ST. MARYS, THE PASSENGER, ALL THE PRESIDENTS MEN, Hitchcock’s filmography, BIG NIGHT, and the silent films CITY LIGHTS/MODERN TIMES/THE KID, all of which could make a fair case for my top films of all time list.
2020: The Outliers
One of the givens in any year is that many of the films that make the festival run, some of which emerge as Oscar hopefuls, don’t actually see wide release until well into next year. This has been amplified in 2020 by the odd release patterns, the closing of theaters, the delayed Oscars date, and delayed releases overall. Of note are these much buzzed and talked about releases that I simply have not had an opportunity to see: PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN, MINARI, NOMADLAND, ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI, NEWS OF THE WORLD, FRENCH EXIT, THE FATHER, GREENLAND and JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH. Keep your eye out for these releases in the new year.
Secondly, given these release patterns, I like to give some attention to thoe 2019 releases that I wasn’t able to spotlight last year. Malick’s A HIDDEN LIFE is his most accessible film to date, and it definitely left it’s mark on me transplanting It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood as my top film of the year. The caption for the captivating international drama CORPUS CHRISTI says Sinner. Preacher. Mystery, which sums up the storyline with precision. These three elements would have had it as my number one of this year, but in context it made its way to the number 4 spot of last years list. The colorful and visually mesmerizing PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE ended up slotted in at number 12, and BEANPOLE, the gripping international Russian set drama which I described as a fascinating study of faces set in the context of war, also cracked my top 20 of last year.
Thirdly, I always enjoy shedding some light on films that tend to get lost in the shuffle of the more illustrious top lists of the year. So to start with, here are 20 HIDDEN GEMS from 2020 that did not make my top 20 but that I think definitely are well deserving your attention:
1. Mr. Jones
A fascinating look at a little known story that uses a mix of creative visuals, tightly crafted tonal shifts, a wonderful literary device and a journalism backdrop to examine notions of truth. A “what if” question that brings together this rich and troubling history and sense of imagination to explore someting very real. The Ukraine setting also had me excited to watch it.
2. Banana split
A love letter to the power and beauty of platonic freindships. It’s a bit of a rauncy comedy, but it also has a lot of heart.
3. Miss Juneteenth
Convention becomes the canvas through which to create an unexpected but powerful character study in this little indie drama. With a sharp eye for family dynamics and the struggles of the single mom that sit at its center, this is one of the best underseen films of 2020
The rich symbolism of the driveways illuminates the beautifully realized mutli-generational aspect of its relationship drama. A rich and compelling emotional story that isn’t being talked about near enough.
5. The Vast of Night
Unfolds like an old time, late night radio show, an aspect of the film that is utilized to great effect through its visuals and incredible sound design. Features one of the most jaw dropping cinematic sequences of the year, a how did they do that tracking shot that illuminates the film’s rich, dark aesthetic. This is a small, high concept, sci fi drama that is less about the the destination and far more about the journey. Give yourself over to it and it transforms into something special.
Don’t let the non-linear storyline of this film fool you, this intimate, indie, street view drama offers a clear picture of the problem of gentrification, examines the challenges of memory (think this years Last Black Man in San Francisco), and uses the wonder of poetry and cinematic vision to capture the beauty of its human, urban and cultural backdrop.
6. The Glorias
This underrated gem features some of the best and most stunning cinematography of 2020. The way it uses the timelines and the multiple performances of “the Glorias” to draw a portrait of Steinheim from within the different stages of her life I thought was a brilliant narrative device, making this not simply an exceptional visual accomplishment, but a compelling story.
An equally creative biopic that employs timelines and a creative story structure to offer us a portrait of an important female figure in human history. Marie Curie, the person who discovered radium, is brought to life by emphasizing the tension her discovery, something that holds the potential for both good and bad, unfolding this tension into the visual storytelling in ways that made this an unexpected surprise and an invested and compelling watch.
8. Broken Hearts Gallery
This film had the unenviable position of releasing when theaters were just beginning to open back up (before closing again). Which is a shame, because this is the perfect film to see with a crowd. It’s funny, charming, and touching, and features a charismatic lead that helps make this entertaining romantic comedy kind of impossible to resist.
9. The Midnight Sky
Critically maligned upon its release mostly for what has been described as a head scratching final twist and a disjointed narrative, this understated and largely misunderstood existential sci fi drama boasts a deeply humanist concern and qualifies as my “most underrated” pick of 2020. It tables some compelling questions about the future of our planet and about humanities worth, layering the narrative with a mix of grounded drama and cosmic reach.
10. Save Yourself
This indie, apocalyptic comedy-drama uses a sweetly captured and affectionately drawn central relationship to offer an astute commentary on our addiction to technology. The performances make this work, but the script, which works its way towards a love it or hate it ending, deserves credit for taking something a bit off the wall and making it so effortlesly watchable and emotionally meaningful. Examining the nature of human connection is always a rich well to drink from, and it serves this film well.
11. Troop Zero
If you are looking for something to watch with your children but that also explores grown up themes like grief, struggle, sadness, belonging, identity and fear, this is your ticket. It’s not talked about near enough despite it being well recieved by those who have seen it. A childhood drama with a whole lot of heart and a very mature soul proved to be one of the more memorable viewings of 2020.
12. The Call
This is the kind of film that, once you see it you want to tell everyone else about it, if just so you can have someone to talk about it with. There are some exceptional visuals in this film, but the hook is the premise, a tightly scripted and well crafted time travel narrative with a neat twist.
The story of the making of this film is almost as compelling as the story itself, with both facets of the film adding its own element of risk and controversy to the narrative. Mileage will likely vary on the controversial elements, but I love films that dare to pull the cover off of tightly guarded moral questions. This film takes a difficult moral subject and uses it to push the boundaries of nuance, empathy and compassion. The physical forest fires that form the backdrop of the narrative provide the metaphor for the internal fires that are raging within, with the question of whether it would be better to just let it all burn hanging in the balance.
14. Blow The Man Down
With a real Coen Brothers vibe, the rich Maine, seaside setting, and an enchanting soundtrack, Blow The Man Down was a highly enjoyable watch that swept me away into it’s quaint, isolated venture filled with some fun and dark tonal shifts. This was this Spring’s answer to last fall’s equally Coen-esque Cold Pursuit.
15. The Kid Detective
A solid story anchors this quirky, fun, indie drama about a young detective who grows up harboring feelings of resentment, regret, and emotional hurt. The film is filled with humorous notes, and there is an entertaining mytery that carries us through the bulk of the film, but it never loses sight of what the mystery, and the solving of this mystery means to our central character. Sometimes the hardest puzzles to solve are ourselves.
16. The Rest of Us
The family dynamics feel familiar, dealing with matters of disconnect and estrangment and dysfunction, but it is the thing that brings these characters back together that gives this film its weight. Good performances and a strong concept give way to this film’s true selling point- it’s heart.
If you are looking for a spiritually concerned drama featuring a transformational arc that tackles the tough subject of racism from a somewhat unique lens, this film makes some narrative choices that play out the “burden” that it carries in a multi layered fashion. It was one of the more transcendent film experiences for me in 2020.
18. Selah and the Spades
As a familiar YA drama in a crowded field this feels surprisingly unique and fresh. It takes a famliar genre and uses the story to subvert expectations. What we get is some wonderful world building, a rich tapestry of characters, and an entertaining story. Watch for the upcoming spin off series but make sure to see this one first.
19. Uncle Frank
A sweet and also heartbreaking charcter study about an uncle and his niece who are both trying to find their way in a world they feel they don’t quite belong in, one an aging, closeted gay man and the other a lost young woman just finding her way into the great unknown of her coming of age world. Some great performances provide this film with it’s foundation, with the two leads exhibiting a ton of great chemisty, but its the quiet, emotional punch that elevates this as a memorable and timeless story.
20. Judy and Punch
The ending of this colorful depiction of an old world, historical setting does admittedly falter a bit. This is a problem of its own rather large ambitions. This is a small drawback in an otherwise lofty and yes, ambitious film that should satisfy your need for an adventerous and often fantastical period piece while also offering you the more modern expostion of its focus on gender struggles and social struggle. It’s a wonderfully visual composition as well, making full use of its imaginative backdrop to draw out the larger themes of good and evil and the smaller more intimate themes of its relationships and personal struggles. Really enjoyed this one.