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Movies We Watched in 2020: Superlatives

Co-Written by Isaac O’Neill and Chris Howson-Jan

While 2020 certainly couldn’t be considered good in many respects, one of the things it was good for was movie consumption. Between the two of us, we watched over 850 movies last year: some together, some separate, some beloved rewatches, some first-time discoveries. The latter category is what concerns us today; movies that weren’t new releases in 2020, but were new to us, and excited or interested us in one way or another. We felt this year in movies deserved some recognition, so we’re handing out some awards and superlatives for our 2020 in film.

Isaac: Best Performance (winner & runner-up): Roy Scheider, All That Jazz (dir. Bob Fosse)

Runner-Up: Saoirse Ronan, Little Women (dir. Greta Gerwig)

Chris: Best Performance: Anne Hathaway as Kym Buchman, Rachel Getting Married (dir. Jonathan Demme)

One of the most difficult things to portray in a film is an empathetic yet unsympathetic character; that is, a character who is unlikeable in deeply truthful ways, who is so human that your heart breaks. Anne Hathaway’s portrayal of Kym, the mid-rehab sister of the titular Rachel, is one such performance. Kym is brittle, spiteful, and emotionally unavailable, but Hathaway imbues her with so much pathos, without ever excusing or apologizing for the character. Jonathan Demme is incredibly adept at finding human warmth in dark places, and finding it without compromising the nature of the character is a testament to his and Hathaway’s abilities.

Runner-Up: Tom Hanks, Cast Away (dir. Robert Zemeckis)

Isaac: Best Supporting Performance (winner & runner-up):

Runner-up Jeff Bridges, The Last Picture Show (dir. Peter Bogdanovich)

Nick Kroll, Joshy (dir. Jeff Baena)

Chris: Best Supporting Performance: Harvey Keitel as Judas Iscariot, The Last Temptation of Christ (dir. Martin Scorsese)

Casting lifelong Brooklynite Keitel in a Biblical period piece is a bold choice, one that to this day isn’t one that works for all viewers. But Martin Scorsese’s decision to portray a man synonymous with treachery as Christ’s closest confidante is bolder still. Keitel plays Judas as a man that wants to believe, but isn’t willing to accept things at face value — a shrewdness that makes him one of Jesus’ closest allies, making the inevitable betrayal more charged than the Biblical text.

Runner-Up: Lucas Hedges, Let Them All Talk (dir. Steven Soderbergh)

Isaac: Best Performance in a movie you didn’t like: Casey Affleck, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (dir. Andrew Dominik)

Chris: Best Performance In a Movie You Disliked: Nicole Kidman, Bewitched (dir. Nora Ephron)

Nora Ephron’s metatextual remake of the classic sitcom is a total mess, but you can see the hints of a successful film in Kidman’s performance as Isabel, a real witch who is cast to play a fictional one. Often criticized for being robotic, Kidman brings boatloads of endearing charm to the role, threading the line of a character that is naively optimistic but doesn’t allow herself to be trampled on.

Isaac: Biggest Disappointment: Sunset Boulevard (dir. Billy Wilder)

After falling in love with Double Indemnity, and enjoying Ace in the Hole, I was excited to watch Sunset Boulevard; watch what many consider to be Wilder’s best movie. It may be a banal critique to question its its self-seriousness but it came across as hammy for me, in a way that I found to overdramatic. It’s a fairly interesting plot that I imagine to be quite creative for the day, however it wasn’t the earth shattering cynical look on Hollywood that I was thinking it might be.

Chris: Biggest Disappointment: The Seventh Seal (dir. Ingmar Bergman)

It almost feels unfair to call this a disappointment, since my preconceived notions of what the film was almost certainly played a part in my reception of it. Expecting a more experimental, thematically oblique film in the vein of Bergman’s Persona, Seventh Seal felt more conventional than I expected — at least, as conventional as a film about playing chess with Death can be. It’s unquestionably a beautiful and thematically rich film, but the plot and internality of its characters left a lot to be desired for me.

Isaac: Biggest (positive) Surprise: Total Recall (dir. Paul Verhoeven)

What I expected to be another generic action movie to cross another flat Arnold performance of a list turned out to be one of the most well constructed, unique movies I saw this year. It’s commitment to practical effects, give the movie a character rarely seen, and the world building it creatively dispenses is a blast to unravel. I very much look forward to diving deeper into more of Verhoeven’s work.

Chris: Biggest Surprise: Hubie Halloween (and the Sandlerverse at large)

Like many, I had written off the later works of Adam Sandler sight unseen, taking the negative press and numerous jokes about Sandler’s perceived lack of commitment to his films as gospel. Taking on the challenge of watching the six films that Sandler has made for Netflix in anticipation of the new Hubie Halloween was a largely ironic exercise in cinematic masochism. And there are undeniably some stinkers (The Ridiculous Six and The Do-Over particularly drew my ire), there are also some hidden gems that have perhaps been obscured by people’s preconceived notions about Sandler’s work. The Week Of is a touching film about family and the kind of pigheaded but deep devotion fathers have towards their children; Sandy Wexler is anchored by a truly ludicrous voice from Sandler, but is a very sweet love letter to the underdogs of show business, and a surprisingly successful love story. These movies still might not grab you, but I’d encourage anyone who enjoys Sandler’s early work to dig into these movies with an open mind, and hopefully discover the same pleasures I did.

Isaac: Best Scene: ‘Speech at Final Hearing’, Contact (dir. Robert Zemeckis)

I’m not the biggest Jodie Foster fan. But she’s able to convey a mosaic of feelings from her life’s work creating a highly implausible story that her government is hesitant to believe. Contact is about human achievement and belief, and Robert Zemeckis allows the story built up over the course of the movie to hit you with a gut punch of feels in this moment.

Chris: Best Scene: ‘The Dinner’, Big Night (dir. Campbell Scott & Stanley Tucci)

Big Night is the story of two brothers who run an Italian restaurant together, and the party/feast they put on for a visiting celebrity; it’s only fitting that the dinner is an incredible one. This film is best remembered for its shots of food, and it certainly doesn’t disappoint, particularly the legendary timpano. But more important than the food is the people eating it: their expressions of delight, their exchanges across the table, their basking in the enjoyment of good food and good company. It’s a sentiment made doubly potent in the last year. And even though the harshness of reality eventually seeps in, as it always does, the film suggests that perhaps, regardless of the outcome, one wonderful night is enough for its own sake.

Isaac: Most Original Film: Living in Oblivion (dir. Tom DiCillo)

A movie about an indie filmmaker making a movie, the goofy cast, self seriousness of their characters, and the ridiculousness of the situations they find themselves in amidst this haphazard movie shoot makes for a hilariously self-aware watch that left me questioning every ensuing scene following the opening one.

Chris: Most Original Film: Days (dir. Tsai Ming-liang)

Days is a film by Taiwanese auteur Tsai Ming-liang, who is known for his style of extremely long takes, often with limited movement or action in the shot. As someone who sometimes struggles with patience and engagement in ‘serious’ or artful movies, especially in quarantine, I was a little concerned about how I would take this style of filmmaking. However, Tsai’s style ultimately has a powerfully meditative effect. The long shots lead the eye around every corner of the frame, drinking in every element of their composition like a living painting. The minimal context, dialogue, or hints at the internality of the actors sparks a curiosity and reflectiveness. And while I won’t claim I was never distracted, I was never bored either. There are many films that require patience from the audience; Days is the only film I’ve seen that has patience for the viewer.

Isaac: Biggest Blindspot (movie you wanted to see but haven’t): Brian De Palma

Over the past few years I’ve managed to knock out most of the all-time cinephile “must-watches”, with this year including a few such as Citizen Kane, West Side Story, and Die Hard. So I’ve looked to getting through the bulk of major directors’ filmographies, as a secondary method of seeing every classic. Perhaps the biggest blindspot of a more modern director for me is Brian De Palma, who directed well known classics such as Scarface, The Untouchables, and Mission: Impossible. But he also has made lesser known acclaimed movies such as Carlito’s Way, Blow-Out, and Body Double, that I am eager to burn through this year.

Chris: Biggest Blindspot: Akira Kurosawa

In a year filled with mental exhaustion created by the now-infamous quarantine brain, one thing that fell by the wayside was the amount of ‘classic’ movies that I dug into. Particularly, the work of Kurosawa, who seems right up my alley (Asian period epics), has continued to elude me. As someone who has never been big on diving into a director’s full filmography, I don’t expect to watch a dozen Kurosawa films this year or anything like that, but at least crossing him off my directors bucket list would be a good start.

Isaac: Cineplex Memorial Award for the Last Movie You Saw in Theatres (CMALMYST): Jojo Rabbit (dir. Taiki Watiti)

Slight asterisk here, I saw Tenet a few months ago, and with about six other people, in a very empty IMAX theater. Not how it’s meant to be watched. I also saw Invisible Man at my first ever drive-in theatre experience this summer. It (in)conveniently happened to be the longest day of the year, and so the first 20 minutes were met with a lot of squinting as Natalie and I tried to parse out what was happening on screen.

SO, in the spirit of what this award is asking, I saw Jojo Rabbit on January 17th. Typically, there wouldn’t be much more detail than that, but it was coincidentally a fairly notable experience.

It was at the recently reopened Westdale Theatre, a gorgeous old theatre that was closed for renovations the entirety of my undergrad at McMaster; a circumstance that felt especially unfortunate when I lived within a literal stone’s throw of it in my final year of university. Since I’d moved back in with my parents I’d been unable to capitalize on seeing any flicks there. When I was invited to see Jojo Rabbit at the Westdale Theatre on a Friday night, I jumped at the chance. Since I was going to be late, I’d asked my friends to grab me a ticket, and they’d been kind enough to do so. They told me that the guy at the ticket booth was holding on to it for me, and to just give him my name when I got in. Traffic ended up taking longer than I thought, so as I parked and briskly walked up, I was in a bit of a panic that I was going to miss the beginning. I saw the massive line out the door, and slipped through the door, rather than politely waiting in line. As I walked up to an extremely-on-brand-looking ticket booth guy, before I had a chance to say anything, he looked at me and said “Isaac?” knowingly. Through my surprised chuckle I asked him how he knew. He replied “I could just tell based on your vibe.” I laughed and thanked as he handed me my ticket, found my seat, retold what had just happened to the delight of my buddies. We went on to enjoy the surprisingly hilarious Jojo Rabbit with the accompaniment of a packed theatre of blissful university students.

I’m not the biggest cinema-head (is that what they call themselves?), but it was quite a memorable experience, and one that I officially miss almost 12 months out.

Chris: CMALMYST: Emma. (dir. Autumn de Wilde)

Like Isaac, this isn’t technically the last film I saw in a theatre. I saw Tenet in a distanced screening that seems horribly unwise in retrospect (good thing I didn’t go for New Mutants as well), and saw Jaws at a summer drive-in. But my last true movie theatre experience was Emma., the strong Jane Austen adaptation from Autumn de Wilde. Having spent months clowning on the very questionable-looking trailer, I was pleasantly surprised at how the film managed to make a quite faithful adaptation feel engaging and vital. Hopefully by the end of 2021 I’ll have a new film to put on this list.

Isaac: Most in Need of a Rewatch: Munich (dir. Steven Spielberg)

Spielberg, doing one of his more serious movies, was something I was excited for. It’s an important story, told from a perspective beneath an underlying narrative that I was not aware of. Though I enjoyed it, I found its long runtime made it difficult to hold my attention. It was clearly well crafted, and part of me thinks its a hidden gem amongst Spielberg’s diverse filmography. I am hoping that my mood at the time was the largest factor in my questioning its merit.

Chris: Most in Need of a Rewatch: Undine (dir. Christian Petzold)

As someone who’s relatively new to the world of serious cinema, films that are more subtle with their themes still challenge me. I watched a number of films I consider to be excellent this year — Picnic at Hanging Rock and The 400 Blows to name two — that I struggled with on a thematic level. The two films of Christian Petzold that I’ve seen, Transit and last year’s Undine, have caused me similar difficulties. I think when watching these kinds of movies, I can sometimes become distracted trying to ‘figure out’ the movie rather than simply engaging with it; a rewatch would help to focus on the film rather than what I’m thinking about it in the moment.

Isaac: Movie Most In Need of a Shout-Out: Memories of Murder (dir. Bong Joon-Ho)

Bong Joon-Ho gained widespread fame for directing the first foreign language film to win Best Picture at the Oscars with Parasite. After falling in love with Parasite at my first ever TIFF-going experience, I worked through the rest of his filmography. Bong has directed English films Snowpiercer and Okja. I think has best work has been done in his native language, my favourite (outside of Parasite) of his by far was his entry Memories of Murder, an expertly crafted murder/crime thriller from 2003.

Chris: Most in Need of a Shout-Out: The Jackass Trilogy

In my younger, more foolish years, I dismissed the Jackass gang and their ilk as crude, mean-spirited, and pointless. None of those things are entirely untrue, but to overlook these films for that reason would be a terrible mistake. In an incredibly difficult year, when my attention span often hampered my ability to watch highbrow films, and when good cheer was in short supply, Jackass, Jackass Number Two, and Jackass 3D were a vital panacea. These movies are truly unconcerned with being anything other than entertaining for the viewer, and that lack of pretension — combined with the incredibly dumb but often touching camaraderie shared between the group of friends that have devoted their lives to these pursuits — was one of life’s simple pleasures for me in 2020.

It’s fascinating to reflect on a year — especially one as weird as the one that was 2020 — and see the kind of movies we are drawn to. I always love seeing the diversity of movies that I enjoyed; any story or genre can be riveting if done well. As the pandemic continues to carry on, you can be sure that we are continuing to watch plenty of movies, and are hoping to write even more about them in the near future.



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Isaac O'Neill

Isaac O'Neill


Basketball, Roundnet, Ultimate. Movies, Television, Podcasts.