From the Archives: My Favorite Film Discoveries of 2020

From the Archives: My Favorite Film Discoveries of 2020

In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it. 

Without further ado, I present to you: FROM THE ARCHIVES.

Originally posted on Cinema76.

One of the burdens of being a film critic is the task of maintaining a regular diet of new releases. Trying to stay on the cusp of film culture pretty much eats up any and all time used for film consumption. As a result, my shame list was pretty stagnant for many years, and my ability to revisit old favorites was severely kneecapped. Yeah, I’d love to revisit the entire Friday the 13th series, but I’m too busy cranking out 1200 words for What Men Want. Who has time for Apocalypse Now when you’ve got a deadline to review The Call of the Wild?

But this year, while COVID-19 has us all trapped indoors and the local movie theaters slowly drop off the map, I’ve had the opportunity to turn over a new leaf. Ive decided that I am no longer interested in keeping up with the new release schedule, at least not to the point of stressing out over it (which I have certainly done). I did manage to catch a bunch of new releases, many of which were very good, but there have also been plenty that I’ve decided to ignore entirely. I’m tired of writing about movies for which I have no interest, and I’m tired of sitting down to watch a movie and having it feel like work. So I’m not going to do it anymore.

I feel free! Free from the circle jerk of Film Twitter. Free from the rat race of trying to impress gatekeepers in the film journalism industry. Free from the the idea that a single, fleeting viewing of a film is enough to merit an in-depth study of its contents. Free to do what I love doing simply because I love doing it. And while 2020 has presented many, many challenges overall, it has reignited my interest in writing from a place of love. This year I got to watch a LOT of films that, despite not being new, were new to me. Let’s run down the best of the best.

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10. Warrior (dir. Gavin O’Connor, 2011)

Imagine that there are two extremely compelling Rocky movies happening simultaneously, and both result in the same “big fight where everything is on the line.” Oh, and instead of boxing, it’s mixed martial arts. That’s Warrior. Sure, it’s melodramatic, and it goes big with every emotional beat, but that’s what you want from a flick like this. Added bonus: it doesn’t take the easy way out at the end — the fight has a clear winner, despite both fighters deserving victory. I shan’t spoil it, but denouement of one of the most exciting athletic battles ever put on screen is a total thematic home run to boot. When this ended, I wanted to do one hundred push-ups. I was only able to do ten, and if I’m being honest, only six of them were completed with good form.

9. Wild Things (dir. John McNaughton, 1998)

I rented Wild Things for a sleepover when I was about 15 years old. Me and my buddies never watched the entire film, instead fast forwarding to “the scene” and then going to bed like the horny, entitled virgins we were. Looking back it’s rather funny. “The scene” is not nearly as sexy as its reputation would have you think, and when placed into the context of the film, it’s not sexy at all — it’s actually quite scary. Said context is some of the most insane double-triple-quadruple crossing this side of Jigsaw’s rampant posthumous retconning (seriously, when did he plan everything?), and everyone involved is fully aware of how low-class the movie they find themselves in happens to be. Add to that a Bill Murray performance that ranks amongst his best as well as a prolonged shot of Kevin Bacon’s penis, and you’ve got yourself a total trash classic.

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8. The Last Detail (dir. Hal Ashby, 1973)

Poor Randy Quaid. As he not so slowly descends down a path toward “looks like a human but is actually a sentient meme” territory, it’s easy to forget that he was, at one point, a pretty talented actor, and relatively normal guy. Here he plays a barely adult thief being escorted to military jail by a couple of hard partying sailors (Jack Nicholson and Otis Young), who decide to give the unfortunate young man the road trip of his life, complete with booze, hookers, and as much bacchanalia as can be managed. This was my second foray into the works of Hal Ashby (Harold and Maude being the first) and it will not be the last.

7. Car Wash (dir. Michael Schultz, 1976)

While it’s a silly comedy on the surface, it’s also perhaps the most heroic portrayal of the working class I’ve ever seen. Framed as a day in the life of the many characters at and around an inner city car wash, so much truth emerges from Car Wash. While there’s plenty of joyous revelry to be had, there’s a bit of a cloud over things, and the extremely realistic ending speaks to one of the harshest truths of life, namely that “endings” don’t really ever occur, and the grind lasts until our very last breath. Richard Pryor rolls through with The Pointer Sisters, and George Carlin, as a man stuck on one repeatable, silly phrase, wanders through the periphery, ensuring that the laughs never stop even as the film takes on some deceptively heavy material.

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6. Withnail & I (dir. Bruce Robinson, 1987)

The hardest I’ve laughed in years. Richard E. Grant is absolutely hilarious as the most uptight, entitled “AAAAC-TOR” who ever lived. A hangout comedy of the highest order follows two drug-addicted pals (Grant and Paul McGann) as they decided to get out of town for a few days with minimal planning. How minimal? Well, they failed to get food, failed to find comfortable housing, and since they’re both total assholes, they find themselves poor candidates for charity. Monty, played with gruesome delight by Richard Griffiths, is willing to help, but only if the boys are willing to, uh, put out. This is truly one of the laugh out loud funniest movies ever made, with the added value of its ability to retroactively make some of the bits from Wayne’s World 2 that much funnier than they already were.

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5. Atonement (dir. Joe Wright, 2007)

A cinematic punch to the gut. The ending to this movie, which came straight out of left field, absolutely ripped me to shreds. It’s a sweeping romance, a war epic, and a tale about the passage of time and the regret that comes with living into old age. I had always dismissed this movie as “one of those Keira Knightley book movies with petticoats and shit” but I could not have been more wrong. Well, not wrong. Plenty of Keira and her petticoats are on display, but the vibe is nothing like you’d expect. A masterwork of craft (a scene at Dunkirk rivals the movie of the same name), with a script that will make you laugh, swoon, and then cry to the point of vomiting. Ugh, this is such a masterpiece. Also, if you know more about costumery than me and would like to point out that no one wears a petticoat in this, please be advised that while that may be true, I know that you know what I mean, and I hope your next meal tastes like mustard.

4. Def by Temptation (dir. James Bond III, 1990)

Believe it or not, back in the day, Troma Entertainment used to try, and Def by Temptation is one of the finest results of these rare instances. It’s a simple story about a succubus preying on the horny black men of the city’s night life establishments. Embroiled in the horror are an aspiring actor and a young minister (played by Kadeem Hardison and writer/director James Bond III, respectively) who must band together with a demon-fighting cop to stop the evil force from continuing its campaign of sex and murder. Yeah, it’s a silly movie, but the low rent effects are unexpectedly powerful, and the relationship between our stars is fleshed out and human in a way rarely afforded to movies of this caliber. Oh, and Sam Jackson pops up for a scene.

3. Modern Romance (dir. Albert Brooks, 1981)

Thanks to the Criterion Channel, I was able to fill some holes in the filmography of the absolutely brilliant Albert Brooks. He’s made a lot of great movies, but Modern Romance is far and away his best. As awful a guy as Brooks’ Robert Cole can be, I found myself relating to him in a big way here. Same neuroses and selfishness, perhaps. I’m better looking, though. Cole puts his girlfriend Mary (Kathryn Harrold) through the wringer, leading to a supremely dark finale that made my stomach quiver, even as I laughed myself stupid. This might sound film student-y, but there’s no High Fidelity without Modern Romance (even though the two are wildly dissimilar).

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2. The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (dir. Joseph Sargent, 1974)

First in line of my “rented this on iTunes and within five minutes of pressing play realized I should have just bought it” movies, this impeccably paced procedural moves forward with the efficiency of a well-oiled machine. Every piece of the puzzle is essential, but no one element rises above the rest as most important. There isn’t an ounce of fat on this tale of a subway hijacking gone right, and the NYC public transportation/law enforcement personnel tasked with bringing the bad guys in without hurting any innocents. Walter Matthau tells about ten different people to “shaaaaaadup” while Jerry Stiller dishes out quip after quip. Robert Shaw is terrifying as the lead terrorist (about one thousand times more terrifying than Travolta was as his remake counterpart), and Earl Hindman, aka Wilson from Home Improvement, shows his face.

This movie is perfect, and anyone who says different is a wiener.

1. Southland Tales (dir. Richard Kelly, 2006)

Anyone who reads this website knows about the love affair I’ve had with Southland Tales this year. Another movie that I rented only to find I should have purchased it, this absolutely bonkers apocalyptic sci-fi drama comedy action movie is what happens when a filmmaker decides to give in to every creative impulse that flashes through his brain. There are two Sean William Scotts, both of whom give great performances, a young, pre-super humanly sized The Rock, and even a scene with a silver-haired Jon Lovitz as a violent, racist cop. Cheri Oteri shares a scene with Christopher Lambert, while Nora Dunn chews scenery as a fast talking lesbian communist. Kevin Smith shows up in old age makeup while Wallace Shawn fucks up the earth by building massive energy generators powered by the ocean’s waves. The real runaway performance, however, goes to Sarah Michelle Gellar, as a former porn star using social media to go legit and perhaps enter politics. She plays Krysta Kapowski with such knowing aplomb that it seems crazy she’s not the star of more movies. She is so so so so good here.

Oh, and a scarred, bloodied Justin Timberlake does a lip-synced performance of The Killers’ All These Things That I’ve Done while high on designer drugs and it’s the best thing to ever happen in the history of human existence. I might actually mean that.

Yes, I spent $70 to get the out-of-print prequel comic books, and then another $30 on the upcoming Blu-ray release with extra footage (pushing the complete film close to three hours in length).

This movie is a masterpiece, and you probably won’t agree and I don’t care. Movies like Southland Tales are why I go to the movies. They’re also why, as movie theaters close left and right, I’ve purchased an expensive television to give me some semblance of the theatrical experience at home.

Honorable mentions: The Loved Ones, Frownland, Suburbicon, The McPherson Tape, The Night Stalker, When a Stranger Calls/Back, The Rum Diary, Sweet Smell of Success, The Insider, Damien: Omen II, Ali, Apocalypse Now, The Stepfather, Frost/Nixon, The WNUF Halloween Special, Dial Code Santa Clause.

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