In a year where many of us couldn’t go to the movies, we saw a groundbreaking shift in the number of movies that came to us. And while there’s plenty of reason to embrace these newfound opportunities, there’s also undeniable value in seeking out the movies that have formatively impacted those being made today. In that spirit, below are the best movies we’d never seen before and, if this list serves its function, may be new to you someday soon. Some came out last year, some came out 100 years ago—literally!—but even the oldest movies are representatives of what remains a young art-form. This is where we express our gratitude, recognize their proximity to us in the present, and make a case for finding a sense of joy and discovery not just at anticipating the next big release, but at stumbling upon the gems that have been waiting for us all along. (Don’t worry—we’ll rank our favorite 2020 releases right around the 2021 Oscars ceremony.) Without further delay, your Theophany team picks!
“WHY DIDN’T ANYONE TELL ME ABOUT THIS??”
The movies flying under the radar.
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993), dir. Bruce Timm, Eric Radomski
Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy gets a ton of (deserved) credit for grounding Batman. Nolan takes the idea of Batman and plugs him into primal and philosophical questions about fear (BB), chaos (TDK), and pain (TDKR). They become intellectual exercises by way of action film, and they are special. But there’s more than one way to skin a bat, and 20 years before Nolan got his hands on him, Mask of the Phantasm humanized Bruce Wayne and his alter ego in a way that still has not been topped.
Targets (1968), dir. Peter Bogdanovich
In the twilight of an accomplished career, an aging star known for his turns in increasingly irrelevant fare is bucking up for what may be his swan song. The world is changing around him and so is his utility as an artist. Unbeknownst to him, he’s on a collision course with one of our country’s most infamous instances of unanticipated, seemingly-unmotivated, villainous evil.
If that doesn’t yet sound like it could be the description of another movie, let me note that 1968 was also the year Roman Polanski announced himself as a serious mainstream talent with Rosemary’s Baby and Sergio Leone released his merciless slow-burn Once Upon a Time in the West.
That’s right, this is Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood for everyone who didn’t like Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, but also its primer.
THE BIG LETDOWNS
The movies that didn’t deliver on the hype.
A Star is Born (2018), dir. Bradley Cooper
I’ve got nothing against movies about show business. I’ve got nothing against musicals or Lady Gaga, nor against pop music (though this movie really seems to!). Most of all, I’ve got absolutely nothing against Sam Elliott. And yet, despite a few brief moments of delight this felt desperate, strained, and excruciating to sit through.
The Color Purple (1985), dir. Steven Spielberg
This movie means a great deal to many, and I can’t or won’t try to take that away. I believe this is primarily because of multiple best-ever performances. However, this film is probably the most egregious example of the mismatch between filmmaker and subject matter. It’s painfully noticeable in every harrowing moment punctured by a comedic beat, every bittersweet moment misrepresented by swelling optimistic music, and the silencing of Celie for the final act in favor of Albert’s rushed fall and redemption. While at the time, a movie like this is perhaps the most we could have hoped for, but that can’t excuse this era without representation, and in which Spielberg (although maybe well-intentioned) mistook privilege and skill for entitlement to tell this story.
THE LAZARUS AWARDS
The movies we used to dislike that found second life.
Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), dir. Joel & Ethan Coen
Perhaps I was too young when I first saw this, or maybe just too happy, but watching this now in 2020 the anxiety of feeling stuck, the subtle losing/self-sabotaging of a dream, and the general melancholy and cyclical nature of life really resonated. This rewatch confirmed what so many experienced the first time—this film is a masterpiece.
JFK (1991), dir. Oliver Stone
A feverish trip through a New Orleans DA’s efforts to uncover the JFK assassination as a national conspiracy. I’m sure I was turned off before by how over-the-top this is, a wavelength I was better prepared to tune into this go-round. In a time where conspiracy theories may have more traction than ever, it’s important to come to (at least) three conclusions: 1) That people are clinging to them out of genuine feelings of instability and distrust; 2) that the most-appealing ones are often extremely reductive and very clear about who the villain is; and 3) that this reductionism comes at the expense of sober considerations of the ways legitimated power–regardless of its categorization as corporate, government, etc.–has documented impacts on real people, both contemporary and historical. Recommended alongside Stone’s Untold History of the United States miniseries, supplemental to understanding his perspective not as merely provocative but as uncompromisingly critical of such power.
OUR TOP 8
Eve’s Bayou (1997), dir. Kasi Lemmons
What a unique film about New Orleans spirituality and intergenerational trauma with nuanced, real characters. In many ways, this is the type of movie The Color Purple should have been – focused, real, and centering the pathos and those experiencing it.
The Civil War (1990), dir. Ken Burns
Okay so teeechnically it’s a mini-series, but I couldn’t help myself. As someone fascinated by history not just as a general overview of societal change but as an account of the sensations and logics of people in times past, inescapably similar and yet almost inaccessibly different from our own, I’m awestruck by the technical feat at hand. Ken Burns lays narration, voice-acting, talking-head interviews, and an indelible musical centerpiece over paintings, drawings, photographs, maps, and letters—while using essentially zero reenactment footage—and manages to immerse us into a newly-industrialized, as yet still sparsely-populated, only intermittently-developed United States that was closer to its genesis than it was to us upon release in 1990 (let alone today). The use of the audiovisual medium of filmmaking to transport and immerse us on the other side of a technological event horizon, before the popularization of sound recording and a couple decades prior to the advent of chronophotography, highlights the potential of the form to preserve the past just as it does our unavoidable tether to the present, transcending limitations on what can be shown by evoking imagination.
Here’s hoping that any future effort to bring a much-needed breadth of perspective will make use of these significant aesthetic decisions.
To that end, I can’t say that it’s as exhaustive as it needs to be but I can say that I came away with no other impression of the Civil War than that the South was willing to kill and die for the right to own black people and, just as damnably, that immediately following the conclusion of the war, the country we know today decided it would sooner appease and accommodate this appetite than make good on its assurance that all people, regardless of skin color, be afforded the equal right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Dodsworth (1936), dir. William Wyler
A melodramatic-yet-attuned marriage drama, carries the dubious distinction of being just the second-best William Wyler-directed movie on my list.
The Soloist (2009), dir. Joe Wright
Better than the book, significantly. While truth can be stranger than fiction, sometimes fiction is more honest than the truth. Also, Jamie Foxx is so good, all the time, and I don’t feel like his name gets spoken enough when we talk about the greatest living actors.
The Exorcist (1973), dir. William Friedkin
The mood, the slow-build, the setting, the directing are all just a giant chef’s kiss. Can’t believe it took me this long to watch.
Little Women (2019), dir. Greta Gerwig
One of the warmest, kindest, coziest movies I’ve ever seen, but one that avoids a cheap chintziness through depth of character, hot-blooded people faced with serious considerations of the costs and rewards of their love for themselves and one another.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), dir. Robert Wiene
It would be hard to avoid making this list with such certifiably mind-melting set design. It took time and practice for me to be able to stomach silent films—something I can’t recommend enough—but take heart in learning that it runs under 80 minutes, was considered “the first true horror film” by Roger Ebert, and contains a twist that has since become totally ubiquitous in contemporary film. And did I mention the set design?
Nightcrawler (2014), dir. Dan Gilroy
An amazing film, ahead of the curve. What it points out in us has only gotten worse since. The blend of horror and dark satire is uniquely necessary to indict our obsession with violence and voyeurism, as well as the compartmentalization within which we allow/process them. Jake Gyllenhall makes his best case that he could play the Joker. He moves as a force of chaotic reflection in the film, pushing everything and everyone that is broken just over the edge.
Queen & Slim (2019), dir. Melina Matsoukas
Subtle and complicated, like a parable. Immortality grinding against fate. Love and lust in a chemical reaction with community trauma. An unforgettable film.
The Heiress (1949), dir. William Wyler
I can’t discuss it without giving anything away, and I can’t say I don’t want to give anything away without giving away that it’s going to reveal itself to you over its runtime. So just pretend I said absolutely nothing except:
Olivia de Havilland and Montgomery Clift. Watch it. We’ll discuss after.
The Long Goodbye (1973), dir. Robert Altman
Deeply cool, funny, and destabilizing. Cat-parent canon (but don’t let that dissuade you).
The Mission (1986), dir. Roland Joffé
While the Church’s role historically was not as innocent as it is portrayed here during the colonial takeover of the americas, the theology on display is beautiful to behold, even if it is more aspirational than historical. Along the way, the film features some of the finest portrayals of redemption, forgiveness, and what it really looks like to “turn the other cheek.”
Training Day (2001), dir. Antoine Fuqua
Another on the list of “I can’t believe it took me this long to watch.” This movie knocked me out. Denzel was riveting, an absolutely unhinged performance. Living in LA where the film takes place, so much of what is in this film is extremely true, with so many specific details like the tattoos that makes me wonder if Fuqua/Ayer had some inside info. I can’t believe it took me this long, BUT 2020 feels like the right year to really take this one in.
Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (1970), dir. Elio Petri
A newly-promoted police inspector (played by Gian Maria Volonte) has murdered his mistress. Thus begins a game of cat-and-mouse in which the inspector serves as both. This may sound straightforward enough as a thriller-worthy premise, but it’s the farcical elements and backgrounded political unrest (in opposition to rising fascism in Italy) that makes this not just absurdly effective as a movie, but upsettingly prescient as we wonder together whether police specifically, and the powerful generally, are either unwilling or incapable of self-accountability.
Stop Making Sense (1984), dir. Jonathan Demme
Time isn’t holding us. Time isn’t after us. Time is a pony ride.
Time isn’t present in that dimension. (Sure ain’t!)
or, from the movie’s tagline:
Why a movie?
If last year you tried to tell me that a concert doc would sit atop this year’s list, I might’ve laughed in your face. Sure, The Last Waltz is fun and all but really, what more could this genre possibly have to offer? Well, in the case of this creative collaboration between Talking Heads frontman David Byrne and the late Jonathan Demme, the answer is, perhaps without exaggeration, everything.
Two ardent humanists—one an angular extraterrestrial with a scientific curiosity about what fills the time and attention of modern people and the other oft-celebrated as among our most empathic filmmakers, one who repeatedly demonstrated an intimate familiarity with these same people throughout his career—combine to bring us what is perhaps the definitive defense of the medium. Film as alternate, augmented reality.
Prisoners (2013), dir. Denis Villeneuve
Combines the taught crime/mystery elements of a great Fincher film with the haunting religious/spiritualism of a Martin Scorcese picture. The entire cast is phenomenal, and you remain just as invested in the mystery at its center as you do the characters, and watching them disintegrate into the worst kinds of people when pushed just far enough. From the opening shot of a cross hanging from the car rearview mirror, you know that this is a film that will grapple with how much our morals can hold up under distress, and how much we simply use religion and its symbology as window dressings on our comfortable lives.
8. The Civil War
6. Little Women
5. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
4. The Heiress
3. The Long Goodbye
2. Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion
1. Stop Making Sense
8. Eve’s Bayou
7. The Soloist
6. The Exorcist
4. Queen & Slim
3. The Mission
2. Training Day
What about you? Did you catch up with any “new to you” movies this year? Did any of them surprise, amaze, or inspire you? Did you have any theophanies? Let us know in the comments!
Interested in joining the Theophany team? Send us a message on Facebook or Twitter! Maybe your picks will be on next year’s wrap-up!