2020 in Review: 10 Favorite New-To-Me Movies

Elliott Folds
9 min readJan 2, 2021

It’s the start of a new year, which calls for one of my favorite annual traditions: listing my ten favorite new-to-me movies I watched last year!

I’ve been following the same set of rules for this kind of thing for the last few years: I’ll choose ten favorites, ranked as best as I can, and then list some honorable mentions. The movies can be from any year except the year that just wrapped up (2020) or the year that came before (2019).

All ten of these movies are fascinating and beautiful and well worth your time, so consider this an endorsement for all of them. I’ve also included ways to watch all of them (that’s current as of today, Saturday, January 2nd, 2021).

So! Here we go!

Václav Neckář and Jitka Bendová in Jiří Menzel’s winsome CLOSELY WATCHED TRAINS (1966).

10. Closely Watched Trains (dir. Jiří Menzel, 1966; Czechoslovakia; 92 mins.)

Between the precise composition of the shots and the young narrator-protagonist, Closely Watched Trains feels like a spiritual predecessor to Wes Anderson’s work. This comparison extends to the thematic content of the film as well, as the story of a young man coming-of-age against the backdrop of the Nazi regime is definitely cut from the same cloth as The Grand Budapest Hotel. Lucky for me, I love Anderson’s work, and Grand Budapest is my favorite of his, so Menzel’s stylistic flourishes immediately endeared me to the film. Menzel maintains a skillful tonal balancing act throughout Closely Watched Trains. Even under the wry, almost self-deprecating humor, the film never loses track of the preciousness of life and the horrific tragedy of war. Beautiful cinematography, strong performances across the board, a memorable score, and a clever script make this a gem of the Czech New Wave and a moving, delightful, and accessible coming-of-age tale.

Closely Watched Trains is currently streaming on the Criterion Channel.

Jean Arthur and Cary Grant lead a terrific cast in Howard Hawks’ ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS (1939).

09. Only Angels Have Wings (dir. Howard Hawks, 1939; USA; 121 mins.)

Only Angels Have Wings might be Howard Hawks’ crowning directorial achievement. The aerial work, the rainy nights, the beautiful atmosphere of the bars, the palpable camaraderie of the characters, the tragic loss of life, and yet the persistence to move forward. Cary Grant leads a terrific cast, including a quietly moving Richard Barthelmess and a rarely-more-likable Thomas Mitchell, and his chemistry with both Jean Arthur (the most charming) and Rita Hayworth is a joy to watch. This film seems to dabble in multiple genres at once, subverting the cliches of the Hollywood formula while still embracing the melodrama and the artifice within. In that way, the film feels very strange, but if the viewer lets themselves be carried along with Hawks’ unique rhythm, the reward is one of the most fascinating and exciting films in Hollywood’s fabled 1939 output.

Only Angels Have Wings is available to rent online.

Claire Denis’ mesmerizing masterwork BEAU TRAVAIL (1999).

08. Beau Travail (dir. Claire Denis; 1999; France; 90 mins.)

Beau Travail’s place in the modern canon of world cinema is assured, and Denis is rightfully seen as a master, but it really can’t be overstated just how much of a gem this film is. Peppered with sparse dialogue (though always packed with meaning), the film lives in one of two modes: muscular, suntanned men doing slow, precise choreographed exercises in the heat of the day and those same muscular men dancing and gyrating with attractive young women in some ethereal nightclub. Between these poles lies Denis’ almost cosmic meditation on masculine ego, homoerotic obsession, and regret. A fascinating, enigmatic, devastating beauty.

Beau Travail is currently streaming on the Criterion Channel.

Denzel Washington gives a titanic performance in Spike Lee’s MALCOLM X (1992).

07. Malcolm X (dir. Spike Lee; 1992; USA; 201 mins.)

Malcolm X is a truly massive film housing an even bigger performance from the great Denzel Washington. Tracing Malcolm X’s life and career while juggling numerous tones and visual styles and spanning across decades and continents, this is surely Spike Lee’s most ambitious film up to this point in his career. Washington is onscreen for virtually all of its long runtime, from the early exuberant days before his imprisonment all the way up to that fateful day in the Audubon Ballroom, and he is, of course, tremendous. All that classic Denzel charisma and magnetism is on full display, whether in his impassioned speeches or in his more intimate scenes. Lee’s direction is top-notch, making this full story about a life with an incalculably profound impact feel richly and deeply intimate. This is one of the essential American epics.

Malcolm X is available to rent online.

Much of Satyajit Ray’s THE HERO (1966) is a pas de deux between Sharmila Tagore and Uttam Kumar.

06. The Hero (dir. Satyajit Ray, 1966; India; 117 mins.)

The Hero sort of feels like Satyajit Ray’s answer to in its meditation of fame and regret. Uttam Kumar is fantastic as Arindam Mukherjee, a superstar actor who works through his career and his loss of values in an interview with a reporter played by Sharmila Tagore, who is also fantastic. Under Ray’s sleek direction, gracefully opening up the world of the train, and with his intelligent and human script, the cast uniformly sinks their teeth into this film. Kumar is the MVP out of necessity — without him, the whole film would fall apart — but the whole ensemble is remarkable, peppering the background of the train scenes and in Arindam’s flashbacks. This also has one of the all-time great nightmare sequences. Easily one of Ray’s most rewarding films.

The Hero is currently streaming on the Criterion Channel.

Jitka Cerhová and Ivana Karbanová cause all sorts of delicious chaos in Věra Chytilová’s DAISIES (1966).

05. Daisies (dir. Věra Chytilová, 1966; Czechoslovakia; 76 mins.)

Věra Chytilová’s iconic masterpiece of anarchic cinema more than lives up to its reputation. Operating on its own chaotic wavelength, Daisies follows the exploits of Marie I (Jitka Cerhová) and Marie II (Ivana Karbanová) who seek to spoil themselves after realizing how spoiled the world is. They begin to live extravagantly and rip off older men and cause general mischief. In less than 80 minutes, Daisies upends a whole slew of cultural norms. Beautiful, ambiguous, funny, cynical, and truly visionary.

Daisies is currently streaming on the Criterion Channel and HBO Max.

Jean Dasté in one of the many jaw-dropping images in Jean Vigo’s swooning L’ATALANTE (1934).

04. L’Atalante (dir. Jean Vigo, 1934; France; 89 mins.)

My only complaint about L’Atalante is that I didn’t see it sooner. The final (and only feature-length) film from Jean Vigo before his untimely death at 29, this film is a technical marvel and a humanist miracle. Featuring spirited performances from Dita Parlo, Jean Dasté, and the great character actor Michel Simon, and intoxicating dreamlike imagery, as well as a relentlessly romantic score from Maurice Jaubert, this film looks and feels like no other film from its era.

L’Atalante is currently streaming on the Criterion Channel.

Yuzo Kayama and Yoko Tsukasa give astonishing performances in Mikio Naruse’s swansong SCATTERED CLOUDS (1967).

03. Scattered Clouds (dir. Mikio Naruse, 1967; Japan; 108 mins.)

Filled to the brim with unspoken turmoil and emotional devastation, Naruse’s final film chronicles the rough terrain of a relationship between a widow and the man responsible for her husband’s death. Spanning years and exploring just how deeply these wounds can go, much of the Scattered Cloud’s success rests on the performances from Yuzo Kayama and Yoko Tsukasa. Kayama is a handsome, likable screen presence who beautifully lives in his own cloud of grief. Tsukasa gets a bit more to chew on, as this really is her story: her arc and her inability to move forward, despite the best intentions, is one of the film’s most lasting ideas. Brutally sad but incredibly beautiful, this is the work of a master storyteller.

Scattered Clouds is currently streaming on the Criterion Channel.

David Byrne in Jonathan Demme’s electrifying STOP MAKING SENSE (1984).

02. Stop Making Sense (dir. Jonathan Demme, 1984; USA; 88 mins.)

Stop Making Sense feels like a miracle. It hints at a narrative arc, but that part is unimportant. It’s a live performance recorded and packaged specifically for consumption as a film. In its brief runtime, it becomes a living, breathing, sweating testament to David Byrne’s skill as a performer, as a songwriter, as a storyteller, and to the remarkable talents of everyone in Talking Heads. It’s a breathtakingly joyous experience. I can’t remember the last time I watched a recording of a live performance that captured the same brand of energy, of buoyancy, that you feel as you’re leaving a great communal experience. This is a masterpiece that proclaims as loudly as possible that there is no joy greater than making art with people you love.

Stop Making Sense is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

Albert Finney and Audrey Hepburn make a screen couple for the ages in Stanley Donen’s magnificent TWO FOR THE ROAD (1967).

01. Two for the Road (dir. Stanley Donen, 1967; UK; 111 mins.)

Stanley Donen takes the ideas of romantic cinema and celebrates it while injecting a healthy dose of painful reality. He chooses two of the English language’s most attractive movie stars, Albert Finney (in full himbo mode!) and Audrey Hepburn, and follows their ten-year marriage as seen on their various road trips across Europe. It’s a memory piece more than anything else, but the arc of their relationship is clear and their palpable connection burns through the screen. These are two beautiful, intelligent adults who love each other deeply, who are still physically attracted to each other, who are able to hurl verbal jabs and insults at each other with the best of them. Finney is magnificent, but Hepburn sort of steals the show. In what is probably her finest onscreen performance, she gets to grow from a virginal bride to a fully fleshed out adult, living beautifully in different shades of sexy and goofy and bitter. They make a screen couple for the ages. The script is funny without losing its honesty, it’s tragic without leaning too far into artifice, it’s romantic without being treacly. It’s a remarkable balancing act that makes for a masterpiece.

Two for the Road is available to rent online.

Honorable mentions (in alphabetical order): Ace in the Hole (Billy Wilder, 1951), The Band’s Visit (Eran Kolirin, 2007), But I’m a Cheerleader (Jamie Babbit, 1999), Carnival of Souls (Herk Harvey, 1962), A Cottage on Dartmoor (Anthony Asquith, 1929), Crossing Delancey (Joan Micklin Silver, 1988), Divorce Italian Style (Pietro Germi, 1961); Eat Drink Man Woman (Ang Lee, 1994), Fireworks (Kenneth Anger, 1947), The Freshman (Fred C. Newmeyer & Sam Taylor, 1925), The Hitch-Hiker (Ida Lupino, 1953), Kuroneko (Kaneto Shindo, 1968), Le Bonheur (Agnès Varda, 1965), Le Notti Bianche (Luchino Visconti, 1957), Like Father, Like Son (Hirokazu Kore-eda, 2013), Local Hero (Bill Forsyth, 1983), Love & Basketball (Gina Prince-Bythewood, 2000), Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (George Miller, 1981), Monsoon Wedding (Mira Nair, 2001), One Sings, the Other Doesn’t (Agnès Varda, 1977), Pennies from Heaven (Herbert Ross, 1981), Pickup on South Street (Samuel Fuller, 1953), Rushmore (Wes Anderson, 1998), Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa, 1954), Sleepless in Seattle (Nora Ephron, 1993), Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One (William Greaves, 1968), Tea and Sympathy (Vincente Minnelli, 1956), They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (Sydney Pollack, 1969), Tomboy (Céline Sciamma, 2011), Wendy & Lucy (Kelly Reichardt, 2008), Within Our Gates (Oscar Micheaux, 1920), Whisper of the Heart (Yoshifumi Kondo, 1995), and Who Framed Roger Rabbit (Robert Zemeckis, 1988).

And for some miscellaneous viewing stats:

  • First movie watched in 2020: A Fantastic Woman (Sebastián Lelio, 2017)
  • Final movie watched in 2020: Holiday (George Cukor, 1938)
  • Worst movie watched: The Notebook (Nick Cassavetes, 2004)
  • Oldest movie watched: Ten films by the Lumière Brothers (Louis Lumière, 1895)
  • Longest movie watched: Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa, 1954; 207 minutes)
  • Month with most amount of movies watched: December (58 movies, including shorts)
  • Month with least amount of movies watched: February (11 movies) (pre-COVID, naturally)
  • First movie from 2020 seen: Birds of Prey (Cathy Yan, 2020)
  • Total movies watched: 455 (!!)

Turns out movies can be good sometimes. Who knew!

If you made it this far, thanks for indulging me. Onward and upward into 2021, friends!

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Elliott Folds

Atlanta-based freelance actor, dramaturg, and musician. Sometimes I watch movies. Hoping to use this as a place where my dramaturgical notes can live.