Monthly Archives: December 2020

The Best Films of 2020

One of my favorite scenes in cinema is a rare moment of levity in Jean-Pierre Melville’s otherwise bleak WWII drama Army of Shadows. Lino Ventura’s character, a prominent member of the underground resistance to the Nazi occupation of France, takes in a screening of Gone With the Wind while on assignment in London. Emerging from the theater with a sad smile on his face, he tells an associate that he’ll know they’ve won when he’s able to see a great movie like that again in Paris. I’ve thought of this scene often during the COVID-19 pandemic, which I know will be over only when I’m able to see films like the ones listed below in actual movie theaters again (as opposed to seeing them via streaming links).

So here are my top 10 favorite new films from a batshit crazy year, followed by a list of 20 runners-up. I’ve linked to my original reviews where applicable. I’ve only included movies that first became available to watch in 2020 — some films that are making a lot of critics’ list this year aren’t here because I saw them at festivals last year and they already made my “Best of 2019” list (e.g., Vitalina Varela, I Was at Home, But… and Saint Frances). Most of these are currently available to stream or watch in “virtual cinemas,” and the ones that aren’t will be available soon. Enjoy!

10. To the Ends of the Earth (K. Kurosawa, Japan)

9. Zombi Child (Bonello, France) – My Time Out Chicago review here.

8. City Hall (Wiseman, USA) – My review on this blog here.

7. Never Rarely Sometimes Always (Hittman, USA)

6. Days (Tsai, Taiwan) – My review at Cinefile Chicago here.

5. Bacurau (Dornelles/Mendonca, Brazil)

4. Tommaso (Ferrara, Italy/USA)

3. City So Real (James, USA) – My review on this blog here.

2. The Woman Who Ran (Hong, S. Korea)  – My review at Cinefile Chicago here.

1. Time (Bradley, USA) – My Cinefile Chicago review and interview with director Garrett Bradley here. My interview with subjects Fox an Rob Rich here.

The Runners-Up:

11. Tesla (Almereyda, USA)

12. Divine Love (Mascaro, Brazil)

13. Monster Hunter (Anderson, China/Germany/Japan/USA) – My review on this blog here.

14. Fourteen (Sallitt, USA) – My review at Cinefile Chicago here.

15. Liberte (Serra, France)

16. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets (Ross/Ross , USA) – My review at Cinefile Chicago

17. Nomadland (Zhao, USA)

18. House of Hummingbird (Kim, S. Korea)

19. Joan of Arc (Dumont, France)

20. Shakedown (Weinraub, USA) – My review at Cinefile Chicago here.

21. Dick Johnson is Dead (Johnson, USA)

22. Wolfwalkers (Moore/Steward, Ireland)

23. Queen of Lapa (Collatos/Monnerat, Brazil) – My Cinefile Chicago review here.

24. The Projectionist (Ferrara, USA/Cyprus)

25. Ham on Rye (Taormina, USA) – My Cinefile Chicago review here.

26. Collective (Nanau, Romania)

27. She Dies Tomorrow (Seimetz, USA)

28. Martin Eden (Marcello, Italy)

29. The Wolf House (Leon/Cocina, Chile)

30. Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin (Herzog, UK)


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Divine Love* (Mascaro) – A-
2. We’re No Angels* (Curtiz) – A-
3. Robocop (Verhoeven) – A-
4. The Wolf House* (Cocina/Leon) – B
5. Mayor* (Osit) – B
6. Total Recall (Verhoeven) – A-
7. Wolfwalkers* (Moore/Stewart) – B+
8. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom* (Wolfe) – B-
9. The Railway Children* (Jeffries) – A
10. Monster Hunter* (Anderson) – B+

* – First-time watch

All the Books I Read in 2020

Who said there was no upside to the pandemic? I read more books in 2020 than I have in any calendar year in decades, due at least in part to “quarantine life.” I will have read more than 30 by the time the year is over – although the only book I read this year that was actually published in 2020 is Carl Hiaasen’s amusing comedic-mystery novel Squeeze Me (a book so current it contains jokes about COVID-19 and Donald Trump “Zoom bombing” a virtual meeting). I am posting a list of everything I read below and affixing letter grades to each. The books are listed alphabetically by author’s last name:

Sense and Sensibility (Jane Austen) – A+
Go Tell It On the Mountain (James Baldwin) – A+
The Poisoner’s Handbook (Deborah Blum) – B+
Performed Literature: Words and Music by Bob Dylan (Betsy Bowden) – A-
In Cold Blood (Truman Capote) – A
South and West (Joan Didion) – A-
Chronicles Volume 1 (Bob Dylan) (re-read) – A+
My Dark Places (James Ellroy) – B+
Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall (Chris Fujiwara) – A-
Wild at Heart (Barry Gifford) – A
Killers of the Flower Moon (David Grann) – B+
King-Sized Murder (William Herber) – C+
Squeeze Me (Carl Hiaasen) – B-
The Midnight Assassin (Skip Hollandsworth) – A-
The Quarter (Naguib Mahfouz) – B+
The Executioner’s Song (Norman Mailer) – B
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark (Michelle McNamara) – B-
In Praise of Walking (Shane O’Mara) – B
John Ford Interviews (ed. Gerald Peary) – B+
Bob Dylan: Prophet, Mystic, Poet (Seth Rogovoy) – B
Cinematic Encounters 2: Portraits and Polemics (Jonathan Rosenbaum) – A-
All Passion Spent (Vita Sackville-West) – B+
Lady Killers (Tori Telfer) – A-
Why Bob Dylan Matters (Richard Thomas) – A
Bare Bones and Letters to Lovers (Alyssa Thordarson) – B+
Dylan Goes Electric (Elijah Wald) – A-
Bob Dylan in America (Sean Wilentz) – B
The Code of the Woosters (P.G. Wodehouse) – A
Joy in the Morning (P.G. Wodehouse) – A
The Mating Season (P. G. Wodehouse) – A
Leave it to Psmith (P.G. Wodehouse) – A-

Paul W.S. Anderson’s MONSTER HUNTER

Lovers of spatially-coherent action movies rejoice! Paul W.S. Anderson and Milla Jovovich, the director/actress team best known for the RESIDENT EVIL franchise, are back with a new fantasy film adaptation of a video game. Personally, I haven’t played a video game since I was a kid in the 1980s – and am therefore unqualified to discuss MONSTER HUNTER in relation to its “faithfulness” to Capcom’s popular series of games – but I do know cinema and I can say that, as a piece of filmmaking, Anderson’s latest succeeds spectacularly. The premise is simple: While reconnoitering in the desert, U.S. Army Captain Natalie Artemis (Jovovich) accidentally crosses over into a parallel world populated by giant monsters with whom she must do battle while trying to make her way back home. The script, written by Anderson, is probably the leanest he’s ever worked with and the result is one of his best films. This movie is pretty much nothing but Milla Jovovich fighting big, badass CGI monsters, which variously look like overgrown insects, dragons and mutated dinosaurs. In many ways, this feels like a silent film — one particularly terrifying scene in which Artemis is trapped by spider-like creatures in a cave is as elemental as Fritz Lang’s DIE NIBELUNGEN. What little there is in the way of plot has to do with Artemis’s relationship to a man known as “The Hunter” (Thai actor/martial artist Tony Jaa), a native of this treacherous world who speaks no English but on whom she must learn to rely as a helper and guide. The chemistry between Jovovich and Jaa gives the movie its heart but, along the way, Ron Perelman and a giant sword-wielding cat also pop up and add to the fun. It’s too bad that most critics won’t take MONSTER HUNTER seriously based on its pedigree when it deserves to be discussed alongside MAD MAX: FURY ROAD and THE LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy, spectacle films with which it earns legitimate points of comparison.

MONSTER HUNTER opens in theaters this Friday, December 18. Visit the film’s official website for info on tickets and showtimes.

The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. The Last Man on Earth* (Salkow/Ragona) – B
2. One Night in Miami* (King) – C+
3. Ride Lonesome* (Boetticher) – A
4. Seven Men From Now (Boetticher) – A-
5. Possessor* (B. Cronenberg) – B-
6. The Abominable Dr. Phibes* (Fuest) – B
7. The Fly* (Neumann) – B
8. Footlight Parade* (Bacon) – B+
9. The Silent Partner* (Duke) – A-
10. House on Haunted Hill* (Malone) – D-

* – First-time watch

The Best of 2020: Dylan’s “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)”

This is the first in a series of year-end posts about some favorite works of art that I first encountered in 2020. It will be followed by pieces on my favorite books and films.

Bar stools at the legendary Captain Tony’s Saloon in Key West, Florida

2020 has sucked for all sorts of reasons. Observing strict COVID-19/social distancing guidelines means that I’ve spent less time with family and friends than ever before; what I assumed would be my busiest and most productive year as an artist has ended up being the exact opposite; and, as an adjunct college professor, I’ve had to re-learn my trade from the ground up as I’ve transitioned into teaching classes online exclusively. In order to maintain perspective, I’ve had to remind myself that I’ve been a lot luckier than some other folks I know: Unlike friends and colleagues who have been laid off, I’ve at least been able to work from home and continue earning a steady paycheck. Being at home more often also means that I’ve spent more time consuming art — mainly, literature, music and movies — than I have in a single calendar year in decades, maybe ever. The work of art that I’ve turned to for comfort more than any other during this tumultuous time has been “Key West (Philosopher Pirate),” the penultimate track from Bob Dylan’s terrific Rough and Rowdy Ways album, which was released in June. I’ve listened to this song literally hundreds of times already, often on headphones while walking around the north side of Chicago wearing a quarantine mask, and it’s never failed to be a transporting and cathartic experience.

I think it’s productive to regard “Key West” as Dylan’s own version of “Over the Rainbow,” a song originally written by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg for The Wizard of Oz and sung by Judy Garland’s Dorothy in response to her Auntie Em’s advice to find a place where there isn’t any trouble. Dylan, who described “Over the Rainbow” as “cosmic” in his 2004 memoir Chronicles Volume 1, makes an explicit nod to The Wizard of Oz in “Key West” when he sings, “I’ve never lived in the land of Oz / Or wasted my time with an unworthy cause.” Beginning with a disturbing description of hearing the assassination of William McKinley on a pirate radio station, Dylan’s song specifically details the act of traveling to Key West, a destination the narrator posits as a mythical place free of trouble, a “paradise divine” that appears “on the horizon line.” The subject of the song is the thin line between life and death, and Dylan uses Key West, a place where he apparently spent a considerable amount of time decades ago, as a metaphor for some kind of peaceful afterlife. The lyrics and Dylan’s phrasing are perfect: There are literally dozens of magical vocal moments scattered across the song’s nine-and-a-half minutes (e.g., “…if you got something to confess,” “Bougainvillea blooming,” “…gold fringes on her wedding dress,” etc.). But what truly elevates the track to heaven’s door, to that rarefied sphere of Dylan’s greatest achievements, is the genius accordion playing of Donnie Herron, the multi-instrumentalist and stealth MVP of Dylan’s live band for the past 15 years. Herron’s accordion here becomes the aural personification of a gentle Florida breeze, warmly embodying the “healing virtues of the wind” that Dylan so memorably sings about.

“Key West” also has meaningful and substantial connections to “Murder Most Foul,” the already-notorious, 17-minute epic about American popular culture in the wake of JFK’s assassination that follows it on the album. In addition to being concerned with the murders of Presidents and the act of listening to the radio, both songs also share similar lyrics: The phrases “down in the boondocks” and “going down slow” in “Key West,” for example, cleverly become literal song titles that are quoted in “Murder Most Foul.” Conversely, some of the lines in “Murder Most Foul” (e.g., “the man who fell down dead like a rootless tree”) appear to have been composed in pointed contrast to certain lines in “Key West” (e.g., “I’ve got both my feet planted square on the ground”). But the most important connection between the songs comes in the “Key West” lyric “I heard your last request,” which seems to refer to the final, self-reflexive line of “Murder Most Foul” (after a litany of other requests: “Play ‘Murder Most Foul'”). It is as if the narrators of the songs are in dialogue with each other — the narrator of “Key West” hearing and fulfilling the dying wish of the narrator of “Murder Most Foul” (who may be JFK himself) — thus creating an eternal two-song circle within an album full of other such circles (add the Julius Caesar-themed “Crossing the Rubicon” to these two, for instance, and you have a trilogy dealing with political assassination). Making these kinds of connections has always been part of the fun of listening to Bob Dylan, of course, but the songs on Rough and Rowdy Ways offer an exceptionally intricate, Joycean web in which listeners can get lost if they so choose. And I emphatically choose to do so. Such is life, such is happiness.

For those who don’t already own Rough and Rowdy Ways (and, if you don’t, what’s wrong with you?), you can listen to “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” on YouTube here:

You can read more of my thoughts on Rough and Rowdy Ways here. My buddy (and Flickering Empire co-author) Adam Selzer expounds on the connections between “Key West” and “Over the Rainbow” at length here.

For the record, my top five favorite albums of the year are:

5. Emma Swift – Blonde on the Tracks
4. Haim – Women in Music Pt. III
3. Run the Jewels – RTJ4
2. Fiona Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters
1. Bob Dylan – Rough and Rowdy Ways

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