To put it shortly, 2020 has been a year of looking back more than looking forward. The field of movies that came out this year has been limited, and at times, anxiety at the state of the world made it feel more comfortable to stick to familiar films, while at other times, fewer new movies to catch allowed for opportunities to start catching up on the past. Here’s a messy sort of list, for a messy sort of year.
Best trailer for a movie that didn’t end up coming out this year
In the Heights
I will not be living in Washington Heights anymore when this film eventually comes out simultaneously in theaters and on HBO MAX. I’m not living in Washington Heights anymore right now — I moved out during the pandemic. The community has a texture and movement and, if we’re being honest, some really loud motorcycles that rip down the streets, but I’m past that, I guess.
I love earnest, open-hearted musicals, and I was excited for In the Heights. The trailer had it going on, and good. The hopefulness, the dreams, the fantasy. I was excited to see people dancing on the wall, in the pool, through the fire hydrant blasts. I was looking forward to a (hopefully) meaningful story about race and class and ambition. I’m still thinking about that trailer. There were much, much bigger tragedies. And the movie will come out, so a tragedy it is not. A minor bummer, I guess. I hope the movie’s worth it.
Best French serial from the early 20th century
The truth is, I’d like to have judged between this and another Louis Feuillaude serial, Judex, but I only saw the movie adaptation from the ‘60s (pretty good, and it had giant bird head costumes). I picked up Kino Lorber’s Les vampires set in April, figuring it would last me until things got back to normal. You know. I wish there was a way to get this series in front of a large group of people, so we could be talking about this on Twitter, or something. It’s insanely engaging, it’s got Mazamette, and it has a surprising number of rotating big bosses (pour one out for Irma Vep, who never got to take her deserved spot on top). Watch it.
Weirdest double feature
Impractical Jokers: The Movie & Parasite
I actually had the opportunity to pull this off in a movie theater (sorry, I still miss AMC A-List). An immature quartet of friends, a contrived plot featuring Paula Abdul, and the feeling that you’re sitting in a theater watching a high production value episode of TV. Followed immediately by an IMAX screening of an allegorical class-struggle masterpiece of cinema. So, you know, balance. I think the weirdest/worst part about a pairing like this is that I genuinely didn’t glean anything new from this pairing. It’s like eating roasted marshmallows and turkey bacon together; they just don’t mesh.
Most disappointing movie commentary
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Criterion Collection finally offered a disc of my favorite all-time movie (at time of writing and for the five years prior). I was asked why I was getting excited for a movie I already owned digitally. “Because,” I said, “there are bonus features” (the quote may not be exact, but the sentiment is). The supplements promised a “New audio commentary featuring [Wes] Anderson, filmmaker Roman Coppola, critic Kent Jones, and actor Jeff Goldblum.” The Grand Budapest Hotel is a technically fascinating film (read Matt Zoller Seitz’s book!) that you could break down in intense depth, going through the 4:3 cinematography, the incredible production design, the Alexandre Desplat score evocative of folk Eastern European music, the colors, the acting, the humor, the small gestures by Edward Norton, and the rest of it. The men spent their time mostly just reminiscing about things unrelated to the story and occasionally bringing up the filming locations. The worst kind of commentary is the one that really teaches you nothing.
The Birth of a Nation
I’m glad I finally watched this oft-cited movie so I could make my own judgement. The Birth of a Nation sucks. On a story, historical, and moral level, it’s just repugnant. I have to be fair and admit that the first half was able to grip me with the battle stuff, the intensity and such. But then, the KKK arrived. There isn’t much new to say about this horrid movie that’s been hotly debated for about a century. I don’t want to dwell.
Different Man Different Movie Award
The Wizard of Oz
The same man can’t walk through the same river twice, or something like that. The first time I rewatched The Wizard of Oz this year (you could say all watching is rewatching, but this movie has been part of my family canon for a long time), I was preparing to spend indoor time with friends, laughing, enjoying, and expelling non-deadly particles into the air. I was building a Dungeons & Dragons mini-campaign inspired by the podcast The Film Reroll and a Washington Post article’s revisionist take on the politics of Oz. I rewatched it recently with my sister (we share a bubble). My movie nights have had more… repetitive crowds this year than usual. My Dungeons & Dragons games are run over Zoom. Maybe I should’ve realized something was up with the year when Dorothy’s house didn’t hit the Wicked Witch of the East in our game. Oops.
Best use of Kol Nidre
The Jazz Singer
Kol Nidre is the moving, soulful song chanted at the opening to Yom Kippur, where Jews try to start the Day of Atonement on the right foot, by cleansing themselves of all vows, promises, and ties that bind them to the possibility of breaking their word. The cantorial music sung today can be traced to a 19th century composer named Max Bruch, and I’ve thought for a while that it would make a powerful moment in film. Then I watched one of the most famous talking pictures of all time and saw it had been hiding there all along. I’m always looking for more Jewish representation in film, and coming across this tale of being torn between two worlds was quite meaningful (yes, I know this movie has significant moral problems). If there’s a better use of Kol Nidre, I’ll happily reconsider.
Best pleasant surprise
Phineas and Ferb the Movie: Candace Against the Universe
The TV show Phineas and Ferb is a masterpiece of the artform. But it works really well in its 11-minute intervals. The show excels in deconstructing the same formulaic structure, over and over, to continuously find new meaning. Expanding beyond the time limitation can be dangerous, and other longer-than-40-minute attempts by the show were plagued by dry spots. Which is why I was pleasantly surprised by how good the Disney+ Phineas and Ferb movie was, telling the story (sort of ripping off Toy Story 2) mostly from the perspective of Candace, as if fans of the show were kids when they came to it and are now old enough to relate to the struggles of aging and feeling stuck in a rut. Worth a watch.
My most significant trend of favorite movies
The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Magnificent Ambersons, Chimes at Midnight, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, the parts of An American Pickle I did like, and literally anything about Orson Welles.
Living in a world that is wholly different from the one you knew only a year ago will certainly target the nostalgia in any person who cared for the feelings of safety and security, though, admittedly, I’ve been reckoning with these feelings for most of my moviegoing career. It might be the collective Jewish memory I’ve inherited that has me thinking about movies that are about the death of an era, the disappearance of a lost age, but I keep finding myself coming back to these types of movies. They’re the ones that target that feeling that something was lost, something tragically irretrievable, and we can never fully get past that loss. I’ve always had a soft spot for these movies; maybe this was the right year to reaffirm the meaningfulness of the past while we stare into an unknown future.
The best anxious comfort movies
Steve Jobs, A Serious Man, Uncut Gems, Eagle Eye, but oddly enough, not Synecdoche, New York.
I call these comfort movies because they’re the ones I came back to this year, knowing full well what I was in for. My wife asked me why I would purposely watch something that I know would make me feel anxious. Why purposely submit yourself to clenching your teeth, tightening your muscles, enduring emotional discomfort? I have two explanations: the practical and the emotional. 2020 was the year of pulling out my phone during movies, stopping in the middle, going to bed, or changing gears and just playing some video games. The thriller, the anxious movie, has its viewer holding on — there’s a clinging sort of notion that’s needed to watch them. Anxious movies grip you, and if they’re what it takes to stop getting distracted during a time when I haven’t been to a movie theater in months and everything in the news makes me anxious, I’ll take them.
This leads to the other point: these selections of anxiety offer familiar discomfort — I know what tzuros will befall Larry Gopnik, what arguments the contentious Steve Jobs will get into. The virus that has defined this year is invisible, flies through the air, and can be carried by people who don’t even know they have it. You can give it to your loved ones. You can survive it and still have long-lasting consequences. Find comfort returning to something you can control (or, you know, just return to the comfort movies that won’t make you feel relieved to be back in our world. This is not a great method of coping).