As of this posting, I’ve watched 102 films for the first time in 2020. Most of them were horror movies, obviously, because I dedicate a lot of my viewing to OcTerror preparations. However, plenty of others diverged from my usual habits or met expectations; I also re-watched a lot of old favorites this year, but we’re not counting those (yet). From the low of 365 Days to the better-and-darker-than-expected Frozen 2, I spent a lot of my free time in quarantine escaping with various forms of media. Back in the day, I used to list every film I used to watch in a year but that’s what Letterbox’d is for now. Instead, using heavy criteria, I narrowed down my list to just 15 films that really made an impact this year. That did require a few rules:
- The film must have been watched in 2020 but need not be released in this year.
- I’ll write an explanation about why this made my favorite list.
- If a film is missing that you think should be on the list, please remember maybe I saw it and chose not to put it on the list or haven’t seen it yet. These are my personal choices. If you’re curious about my viewing habits, follow me on LetterBox’d under ReadingMalone.
- My Neighbor Totoro (1988). Weirdly enough I wasn’t the only person to decide to watch this Studio Ghibli classic on election night. I’d heard accolades about the film for years and decided that its lowkey stakes and mellow nature would be perfect for what was an anxious period. I was right. Not just that but the story about two sisters discovering and interacting with forest spirits, including a giant one who they name “Totoro”, really hit well. The animation is lovely and, as always, the deeper drama hidden behind the mellowness makes everything that much better. It’s those small moments of peace and childlike adventure that sometimes make everything worth it.
- Dark Water (2002). I already talked about this film a bit during OcTerror, but I still find myself thinking about it months after I watched it. While the supernatural plotline obviously takes precedence in a lot of people’s minds, I just keep thinking about the loneliness, the rundown apartment, and the difficulty of divorce and holding things together when it’s all falling apart. Those seem like unique real-world horrors to me. Additionally, the score by Kenji Kawai is really a standout, and matches the melancholy mood of so much of the rainy, dark film.
- Secretary (2002). I’d read Mary Gaitskill’s “Secretary”, which this was based off of, in 2013, but, for whatever reason, hadn’t seen the film until this year. While the adaptation does differ in some ways from the story, it really does capture some of the moments of sheer awkwardness between the characters well. Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader play off of each other in great turns in this unconventional romance. There are moments of great tenderness between the two and equal moments of hurt. Plus, there’s this weird sense of humor throughout the film that just hits right for me. I watched it three times this year and could easily watch it many more.
- Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004). I read the screenplay for this film in 2015 which kind of sucked a lot of the desire to actually see it out of me. I mean, I basically knew what was going to happen so what was the use? However, someone finally convinced me to give it a shot and I was immediately proven wrong in so many ways. Yes, the script is good, but the production and effects give life to those words and so do the performances by Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, and so many others. The poignant message that even the painful things are worth remembering comes across more strongly when it’s more than just words. This is a gorgeous film.
- Pride and Prejudice (2005). Despite this being one of my best friend’s favorite films, I’d never seen it. So, I did a double feature with The Notebook for some pure chick flick vibes and indulged. And it was just lovely. I am probably one of the few English majors who hasn’t ever read an Austen novel, but I’m moderately familiar with the story. Even so I was captivated by the moves and countermoves of the social strata in this Regency era romance as Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy slowly come to care for one another. The settings are idyllic, the costumes are gorgeous, and the performances are a delight. It translates so much of a different lifetime to our own in ways that feel relatable and desirous and wins for that.
- Revolutionary Road (2008). This was a good year for me and Kate Winslet. Here, she and Leonardo DiCaprio team up again for a different kind of American dream. The various performances, both by the leads and supporting actors like Kathy Bates and Michael Shannon, really boost this film. At times subtle and sometimes incredibly dramatic, the idyllic love story and marriage slowly transforms into a unique kind of trap that feels incredibly suffocating. The production designs and pacing of the film really captures the shifting mood throughout this couple’s relationship. The ending, in particular, is one that will stay in my mind for a while.
- I Saw the Devil (2010). I kept checking the time while watching this film; not because it felt like it was dragging on, but because so much kept happening and so much was packed into the pacing that any other film would have neatly tied it up with a bow. Every time I thought it couldn’t get more thrilling or horrific, it did. This film wrestles with revenge and the desire for it in a way I haven’t seen many others do. Lee Byung-hun and Choi Min-sik play off of each other so well in this ongoing game of cat and mouse where the tables turn multiple times. The cinematography is also gorgeous, particularly in the opening and closing scenes. I would like to watch this film again, but it would be hard to do so.
- Train to Busan (2016). I normally don’t really like zombie films—they’re like my least favorite monster because they’re scary af. This film captures that element of them perfectly by creating the ultimate fear cocktail: let’s make the infection quick, the zombies fast, and put our people in an enclosed train. The suspense and action is really amazing and filmed well, but it’s the characters that make this film great for me. While there are some archetypes among them, they’re fleshed out enough that I care about their survival and sat on the edge of my seat with every battle against the undead. It’s also one of the rare horror movies to make me cry several times, and had an unexpected use of a musical motif.
- M.F.A. (2017). I tip-toe around the rape-revenge subgenre of horror. Not because I don’t think it’s an entirely valid thing but because, often in the past, it can sometimes be a little too much exploitation and not enough empathy, especially toward victims. However, with a title that carried the same name as my own degree, I had to see this one. What I found was a reasonably well-executed film that covered both the problematic aspects of rape culture at universities and the problematic aspects of taking revenge for other victims. Noelle is not a perfect character, but I think that makes her human. And while I may gripe about the improvement-of-art-through-trauma trope, the art itself is beautiful.
- Gerald’s Game (2017). Early in the year, I had a Flanagan Film Fest and watched all the films he’d directed in order. Which, thankfully, meant I finally saw the adaptation of one of my favorite King novels. Since the novel is so cerebral and doesn’t really involve much physical movement—it is about a woman handcuffed to a bed—it was hard to imagine how that would translate to screen. However, Flanagan utilized different techniques and really used Carla Gugino and Bruce Greenwood to their fullest potential. I will say that the Space Cowboy was not quite as creepy as he was in my imagination but was still eerie, and the gory scene really did its job of making me clench my teeth. Absolutely loved it.
- I, Tonya (2017). Not a lot of people know I’m a lowkey figure skating fan. Like it’s probably my favorite Olympic event next to gymnastics. So I was happy when I finally watched this dramatized black comedy about Tonya Harding and the events leading up to the attack on Nancy Kerrigan. Margot Robbie’s performance is great, capturing all the highs and lows of Tonya’s career and life. Other notable performances include Sebastian Stan and Allison Janney (and her bird). The soundtrack is also a banger from beginning to end. Whether you believe the truth of the film or not, it really makes you feel for the aftermath.
- Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018). Of the Marvel heroes, Spider-Man has been my favorite since the 90s animated show and computer game. I was excited to see Miles Morales turn on the big screen, especially with the unique animation style, but grad school and moods often seemed to get in the way. I love the way this film plays not just with traditional comic style but other styles as well like noir, anime, and cartoon. The action is awesome and eye-catching, the humor is good fun, and the heart of the film gets me every time. I also think, in some ways, it has one of the more relatable Peter Parker’s put to screen. It gives me high hopes for future creativity in this realm.
- Little Women (2019). This film has the dubious honor of being the last movie I saw in cinemas pre-COVID; it was early January. At least it was a good one. I also haven’t read the book this is based off of, despite sharing a birthday with the author, but was still captivated by the story of the March sisters, their troubles and bonds with each other, and the things that pull them together and apart. The production of the film feels like the concept of hygge incarnate, and the costumes are eye candy. For aspiring writers, Jo’s plotline is especially of note and may make them tear up or even cry. For sisters, there are plenty of relatable moments; the times you want to ruin their lives, or when they make yours all that much better. It’s an ensemble piece full of good performances and wonders.
- Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn (2020). I’ve been a Harley Quinn fan for a while now, so I was more than ready for a film following her misadventures in Gotham. When you throw in more women and make Ewan McGregor the villain, I was bought and sold. Not only do I think it takes some of the energy and spirit from Conner and Palmiotti’s run for DC but allowing Robbie more time to dive into Harley as a person and less as a stereotype works well. The soundtrack is fantastic, and I could rave about how the costumes work so well for female characters. The action scenes are so frantic in the best way. While the overall plot jumps may not be its greatest strength, I do appreciate the attempt at a non-linear plotline and diving into Harley’s bizarre storytelling.
- Hamilton (2020). While the actual footage came from June 2016 performances, most of us couldn’t afford tickets to see the actual show when it was ongoing. I’d heard about it, of course, especially when I had a Tumblr account, but wasn’t majorly invested. However, I became invested as my sister and I watched the film together, pausing to have in-depth political and historical discussions or to search a fact (What happened to Peggy?). The music is amazing and the acting is great, but it’s the unique staging that I fell in love with, particularly in numbers like “Satisfied” or “Ten Duel Commandments.” I also love the way it brought people together this year and how it felt like an actual celebration of an America we could all somewhat agree on in a beautiful way.
Next year will bring so many new movies. Not just the releases we were supposed to have in 2020 that were pushed ahead a year and the ones already slated, but movies I haven’t seen in years past as I play catch-up. Sure, it’s great to watch the newest release, to stream what’s hot or trending, but I’d rather be a little more sporadic and unpredictable. I’m excited for whatever 2021 brings to a screen near me.