My 2020 in Film

To say that 2020 has been an unusual year would be an understatement; just as the coronavirus and attendant shutdown measures have affected everything else, my film viewing this year has taken a hit. I’ve hardly seen any of the current year’s releases compared to recent years, or even in comparison to my viewing habits before I started this blog and put more effort into keeping up. Obviously, in the scheme of things that’s not a big deal, but because of it I will not be offering a Top Ten (or even Top Five) of favorite 2020 releases. I liked a few things, like Color Out of Space and Birds of Prey, but I don’t think I can do justice to the breadth of this year’s releases.

I’ve been aware of my tendency to prioritize things and how it affects my viewing for a while, but this year has really crystallized it. From highest to lowest priority, it’s something like this:

1. A movie that is showing in a theater for a limited time in my area: if I can fit it in my schedule, I will be there.

2. A movie that I know is leaving streaming, expiring from my DVR, or that I have to return to the library: better get it turned around if I don’t want to miss it.

3. A movie in regular release in the theater: I’ll get to it if it’s something I really want to see, but I might take the chance that it will be held over another week.

4. A movie I own on disc: well, I’ll get to it someday.

5. A movie that is available on a streaming service: out of sight, out of mind.

6. A movie I own as a digital download: like number 5, but with number 4’s lack of urgency.

Mind, this isn’t a conscious system of prioritizing; it’s just something I’ve noticed in my own habits. There are also wrinkles that can have the result of pushing movies down in priority: What if I’m watching with family? And I might not buy a disc because I’ll think, “I know that’s on Netflix. I can just stream it.” But will I? Probably not until it moves up to number 2.

Since COVID has (mostly) closed down theatrical viewing in my area, it’s removed many of the factors that tend to motivate me to watch new releases. Streaming removes the urgency for me, even as high-profile new releases have skipped the theater entirely, and even when it comes to things my family would probably have gone to see in the theater like new superhero or animated family films. Is it expensive to go to the theater? Yes, especially with a family. But there is also value in having a physical destination and a time set aside exclusively to watch a movie without outside distractions, and that’s a big part of what I get with a theater ticket.

I do use the streaming services we have, but when faced with the choices on offer, I’m just as likely to watch something old as something new, and if we’re all watching together it’s harder to reach a consensus than if we make the decision to go to the theater. I don’t know what the theatrical experience will be like post-pandemic; I think theaters in some form will survive or bounce back, but I hesitate to predict what the business model will be, or whether the chains that have dominated the industry will stick around or sell off their assets to smaller, hungrier players (or if the studios themselves will get back into the exhibition game now that the rules have been loosened). I just don’t know, and I don’t think anyone else does, either.

Having said that, I still watched plenty of older movies (you can see my Letterboxd diary for the full list) and I’m happy to share some of my new (to me) discoveries. Here is a sample of my first-time viewing this year (all watched at home, of course):

Skull and Crown (Elmer Clifton, 1935)

I spent a good chunk of the summer watching B-movies from the 1930s and ‘40s: they’re nice and short and most of them are pretty formulaic, making for comfort viewing that goes down easy. Skull and Crown, however, is what parents were afraid would rot their kids’ brains in 1935: violence, a suggestion of pre-code naughtiness, and plotting that prioritizes novelty and excitement over logic and realism. Bob Franklin (Regis Toomey), a Canadian mountie, is expecting his sister’s return home from a girl’s school, when he gets word that the notorious Zorro (not the Zorro, but a ridiculous Mexican bandito) is making a headquarters for his smuggling operation in the area. Bob’s dog Rinty (Rin Tin Tin Jr., as seen in The Adventures of Rex and Rinty) gets in on the action as Bob goes undercover in Zorro’s gang, but this is a bit darker than you’d expect for a heroic animal movie (Rinty lives, but it’s close a few times!).

Sh! The Octopus (William C. McGann, 1937)

A rare example of a spoof of a spoof, Sh! The Octopus is a take-off on the influential (and already comic) play and film The Gorilla. Two police detectives (Hugh Herbert and Allen Jenkins) get drawn into a murky conspiracy in a lighthouse, interacting with a group of characters thrown together by a storm, none of whom are who they seem. The detectives are on the trail of a “crime octopus,” an apparently real octopus that periodically grabs people with its tentacles and pulls them through windows and trap doors. There are some interesting effects (including some famous makeup tricks) and a loopy, nightmarish atmosphere; I wouldn’t be surprised if this was a partial inspiration for Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse. I don’t know how I went this long without seeing it, because it seems like it was made for me.

Hellzapoppin’ (H. C. Potter, 1941)

Calling this a musical is bit misleading: there are songs and production numbers, but they are purely generic straight material to be undermined by a barrage of slapstick interruptions. This is anything-goes comedy, anticipating the zany 1960s and ‘70s: the cutaway gags of Laugh-In, Mel Brooks’ fourth-wall breaking, and the throw-it-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks style of Zucker and Abrahams all have their antecedents here. (And hey, Hugh Herbert shows up again in this as a detective!) It’s a busy film that never quite lives up to the incredible opening sequence, in which a bevy of showgirls, playboys, and wise guys are delivered into the literal pits of hell. This plays so much with its cinematic medium, including jokes involving the projectionist, rewinding and speeding up the film, and lots of special effects, that I’m curious what the original Broadway show was like.

Daisies (Vera Chytilová, 1966)

The Czech New Wave of the mid-1960s, brought on by a brief relaxation of government oversight and orthodoxy, led to an outpouring of creative work ranging from honestly-observed slice-of-life vignettes to avant-garde absurdism. In Daisies, a striking example of the latter, two young women leave a trail of destruction behind them in a cracked version of a Joan Blondell screwball comedy, but the juxtaposition of their antics with footage of atomic bombs and fighter jets, as well as dialogue that mocks simplistic Party sloganeering (“The world is spoiled, so we should be spoiled, too!”) puts it into the realm of social commentary. I had seen clips of this, but I don’t think I realized how similar parts of it are to Monty Python’s Flying Circus or Magical Mystery Tour: it seems like an example of youthful rebellion by people who went to art school instead of forming a rock and roll band. (Also, it’s a cliché to refer to an ending as “Brechtian,” but the ending totally made me think of Brecht.)

Harry and Walter Go to New York (Mark Rydell, 1976)

James Caan and Elliott Gould play small-time criminals in the 1890s; after a chance encounter in prison with Adam Worth (the real-life “Napoleon of Crime,” played here with brilliant self-satisfaction by Michael Caine), the two decide to beat Worth to a bank robbery with the assistance of Diane Keaton as a crusading newspaperwoman. What follows is a combination heist picture and fish-out-of-water comedy as the pair try to convince the rest of the underworld that they can hold their own in the big leagues. Presumably made following the success of The Sting, Harry and Walter combines a twisty plot, character-based comedy, and a lavish depiction of the Gilded Age.

The Big Fix (Jeremy Kagan, 1978)

Richard Dreyfuss plays Moses Wine, a former activist turned P.I. who gets drawn back into politics when he’s hired by an old flame to investigate some dirty tricks against a gubernatorial campaign. In addition to the themes of former campus radicals moving on and the passage of their youthful ideals, it’s an interesting take on the ‘70s sad-sack private eye genre. Moses deals with his family as much as his case, bringing his two adorable kids with him on stakeouts and enlisting his mother to create distractions (a subplot in which Moses puts his feminist ex-wife in her place by beating up her controlling New Age boyfriend is a definite marker of time and place). I wasn’t familiar with this at all before I found the DVD, but it’s a good reminder that Dreyfuss made several good films in the ‘70s and early ‘80s that are worth revisiting: his early career was more than just Jaws.

Urusei Yatsura: Beautiful Dreamer (Mamoru Oshii, 1984)

I didn’t realize this was the second movie in this series when I started watching it, but I had read the comics on which it was based years ago, and as it turns out the story is deliberately disorienting at first anyway. Lum is an archetypal “magical girl,” a space alien devoted to the horny teenage boy (Ataru) who defeated her in a game of tag for the fate of the earth (barely referenced in this film). Ataru and his friends are struggling to finish setting up for the school carnival when they start noticing strange details, and the carnival never seems to arrive. Are they caught in a time loop? The world of Lum includes aliens, demons, magic, and time travel, but ultimately the title is the biggest clue as to what’s going on. The animation is a pleasure to watch and the atmosphere is pleasantly strange.

The Peanut Butter Solution (Michael Rubbo, 1985)

In this Canadian family film, a boy (Mathew Mackay) experiences a scare that makes his hair fall out. Then a magical cure for baldness works too well and things get stranger and stranger. I guess this traumatized a lot of kids who saw it in the ‘80s, and while it is tame for adults I can see why it could be upsetting for kids. One of those “adults are out to get you, but children aren’t much better” stories with some amusing touches, and notable for featuring a pre-Titanic Celine Dion on the soundtrack.

Sound of Noise (Ola Simonsson and Johannes Stjärne Nilsson, 2010)

A tone-deaf police officer (Bengt Nilsson), alienated from his own overachieving musical family, faces off against a band of anarchic musical pranksters whose guerilla performances are disrupting the city. This has the energy of a heist film or a cat-and-mouse detective thriller, balancing its Futurist and John Cage-inspired explorations of the boundary between noise and music with a caustic wit. The clash between temperamental artistic personalities is a major source of comedy: as in Whiplash or Nocturne, the suggestion is that musicians are impossible to live with, and frankly, we deserve it.

Sheborg (Daniel Armstrong, 2016)

Sometimes a film really surprises you: I didn’t expect much from the rather generic packaging of this Dollar Tree find, but Sheborg (aka Sheborg Massacre) is a low-budget labor of love from Down Under, full of ingenious practical effects and no-holds-barred fight choreography. Goopy, gory, and goofy, this tale of alien invasion and a bad girl (Whitney Duff) who fights back is reminiscent of the early work of Peter Jackson or Sam Raimi. Recommended for fans of backyard wrestling and Gwar.

Thanks for reading; have a great 2021!

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