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Film List & Essay

Favorite First-Watches: 2020

2020 was an awful year, there’s no mincing words about that. My favorite movies to arrive from this year then ring a different, more critical note; they helped me live through something, and I am reminded of the proverbial magic of movies. Staying inside for months, returning to work for months and seeking refuge in movieland every night, then staying inside and going to college in my living room has provided me more time to delve into cinematic realms I had never previously been acquainted with. I almost felt the need to compile this list futile, as I had been sharing my favorite films all year long, as supremely obvious in my blog post chronicling my favorites from Noirvember; but I’ll let this list–nothing long or droning, just a short wrap-up of my sentimental regards towards each film–serve as a first for my blog. Hopefully this might inspire you to consider ten films that made your 2020, or helped you get through it, little by little.

10. Where Now Are the Dreams of Youth? (靑春の夢いまいづこ), 1932. Directed by Yasujiro Ozu.

Certainly not the most popular or well-loved Ozu silent from his student comedies, but this was my first of the bunch, introducing me to more known, perhaps better Ozu silents (I Was Born, But… from 1932 and my now-favorite The Story of Floating Weeds from 1934). This bite-sized story from one of my favorite filmmakers, one who makes thoughtful, time-smart, and playful films, does hinge on themes familiar to Ozu’s wheelhouse, but Where Now Are the Dreams of Youth? never feels disingenuous among his greater, more nuanced work. There are intimate character conflicts and great meditations on the meanings of friendship, money, and class as youth expires. The familiar comforts of an Ozu film and the quick but sincere reflections on sensitive topics of growing up and growing old resonate in Where Now Are the Dreams of Youth? with a quiet, self-assured greatness.

9. The Great Race, 1965. Directed by Blake Edwards.

My friend Suad (@WAMPASBabyStar on Twitter), connoisseur of such 1960s tentpole productions, led me into watching this madcap film (as well as It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, which is a trip for another time), and I have lived everyday since with an accomplished taste for the bizarre and wonderful end-of-era American films to arrive by the early-mid ‘60s. I love Natalie Wood, Jack Lemmon, and Peter Falk separately, but together! Certainly a collaboration for the books! The Great Race takes one asinine proposition and challenges it with another, just like the pandemonium of ideas from the turn-of-the-20th century, the time in which the film takes place. The characters are all fresh and fun, and if 2020 proved anything to me about my taste for actors, I know that it is impossible for me to be unhappy when Jack Lemmon is on the screen (his romance with Peter Falk in this film is pretty incredible, too). The costuming, around-the-world escapades, and familiar faces of the silver screen mark The Great Race as a sure-fire good time. If you have shied away from this film due its length or rumors of just how ludicrous its plot sounds, please do yourself a favor, let your hair down and give The Great Race a spin.

8. Miracle in Milan (Miracolo a Milano), 1951. Directed by Vittorio De Sica.

Surely I am no stranger to Italian neorealism, but Miracle in Milan is striking as something almost completely outside of the movement, while stealing from its key themes and making something convincingly sincere and hopeful (and, unlike many of its peers, at least tries to not be exploitative). I had learned of myself last year, especially, that yielding to hope and optimism should not be terms that make me out to be a “lesser” movie fan. Sometimes movies intercept our moments of darkness and disillusionment, and sometimes while these movies can be perfect to us, they are not without discussion; Miracle in Milan is one of those films that fills up the senses and caters directly to the downtrodden in need of a fantastical pick-me-up, but there is worthy conversation to be had about its implications (meant for a future post), at times romanticizing the plight of the working poor. The storytelling path this film takes is wonderful, though, and I appreciate just how much it intercepted a moment of personal darkness in a year that is deserving of all the movie magic in the world.

7. Merrily We Go to Hell, 1932. Directed by Dorothy Arzner.

The beginning of my burning love for both Fredric March and Sylvia Sidney. More than ever, I feel, this film has been thrust into the limelight with retrospectives on its pioneering director, Dorothy Arzner, and I cannot believe it took me so long to watch a film that is immediately in my wheelhouse. Sylvia Sidney has quickly become one of my favorite actresses from Hollywood’s golden age, and last summer I consumed a healthy all of her Pre-Code films, because yes, she really is that good–engaging, careful, and completely sympathetic. Fredric March, who I fell head-over-heels in love with over last summer, too, scores highly as a charismatic drunkard, a role that was practically written with him in mind. The two go ace-to-ace in this surprisingly sensitive, sophisticated drama; Merrily We Go to Hell is adult in feel and form, absolutely my favorite kind of classic Hollywood outfit. The film also delivers one of the best lines to arrive from American filmmaking: “You see, I’d rather go merrily to hell with you than alone.”

6. Show People, 1928. Directed by King Vidor.

When I made the resolution at the beginning of 2020 to fill my year with more silent films, Show People was the first I tried my luck with. Fortunately, this is just about one of the most endearing films ever made, of silent and sound. In 2020, Marion Davies made just about one of the most unlikely comebacks into the public consciousness, and I am so glad that my first real opinion of her was shaped by one of the comedies she starred in, not Citizen Kane (because when I first watched that, I had no idea who Marion Davies was nor what the film implied of her), and certainly not 2020’s Mank. She is charming and razor-sharp as a hopeful young actress who learns the value of and her strong-suit for comedy after clashing with the high-brow crowd of dramatists, a journey remarkably familiar to Davies’ own. Her talents obviously lie with physical comedy, her robust gestures and keen timing making her journey of self-actualization one of remarkable triumph and audience sympathy. When I watched this film in January of 2020, I, too, was coming to terms with my relationship with comedy; as someone who spends a remarkable amount of time studying people like Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner, learning to appreciate the implications of and the lives that are bettered by comedy has brought me to a place where I can announce to the world just how much I love movies like The Producers (1967) and bits like “The 2,000 Year Old Man” without embarrassment or remorse. Knowing and appreciating the pioneers, like Marion Davies, has also brought me to this place. Show People is just a grand, wonderful showcase of her talents, and an engaging meta-journey to a place where we should all feel confident in calling comedy a high art form.

5. The Crowd, 1928. Directed by King Vidor.

There really is nothing quite like watching The Crowd for the first time, and this first time being after an 8+ hour shift at a minimum wage customer service job that you’re working at during a global pandemic. I will be honest, three King Vidor silents show up on this list, and this is the second. I’d say Vidor’s films are a grand starting point for anyone looking to form a meaningful, engaged relationship with American silent pictures, as his films from this era are always remarkably human, mature and timeless. Without knowing it, The Crowd has influenced a sound majority of my favorite films, namely The Apartment, which borrows its crushing themes of isolation and pedestrianism and manifests them into corporate politics. The Crowd is almost completely singular, though, as a film that does not pride itself on the actions that differentiate us from the rest of the world; the film shifts the blame to the world and society itself that make us feel small and insignificant, wherein only those that achieve the miraculous can really be extraordinary. No, The Crowd tells us that there is a beauty to every single life, not just the ones that achieve those miraculous things, and this is likely the only movie that has ever brought me pride in serving coffee to strangers.

4. The Wildcat (Die Bergkatze), 1921. Directed by Ernst Lubitsch.

Like the three King Vidor films that have made their way onto this list, two Ernst Lubitsch films have achieved the same. This year I have completely restructured my relationship with my favorite director, who in previous years, I had only known of through his sound pictures. The Shop Around the Corner (1940), To Be Or Not To Be (1942), and Design for Living (1933) were among my first-favorite films that welcomed my journey into the American classics, all directed by Lubitsch during his time in Hollywood; it was only in 2020 that I dove head-first into his wonderful world of silents. The Wildcat, one of Lubitsch’s earlier silents released in his native German, immediately stood out to me as delightfully unconventional with its cookie-cutter frames, but still reminiscent of the American Lubitsch productions I knew and loved. Pola Negri dazzles and its four-act structure gives balance to this asinine film about mountain bandits, of all things. Perhaps the greatest films that stick with us are the ones that make little to no sense without us assigning some sense to it; The Wildcat is indeed a champion of that remarkable madcap breed.

3. The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg, 1927. Directed by Ernst Lubitsch.

Much more sensitive a film than The Wildcat and reminiscent of films I treasure about youth, love, and loss–The Graduate (1967), They Live By Night (1948), and Alice in the Cities (1974)–The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg is one of those once-in-a-lifetime greats that touches you completely, body and soul. Ramon Navarro and Norma Shearer are perfectly-pitched in this quiet little film about the beauty and inevitable failure of first-love. Immediately The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg struck me as a Splendor in the Grass-type tale, with its soft, unspeakable blows to the heart that could very well drive anyone over the edge. Of course, the fates are not so drastic as that of Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty in Splendor, but the disappointing and sad resolve that Novarro and Shearer have to come to together, first as kids but then as mature adults, is just as heartbreaking as the final scene of Splendor, where Wood and Beatty are forced to come to terms with their lives without one another in them. The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg is one of the most genuine films I’ve ever seen, even though Novarro playing a literal prince might be too outlandish to some, and I am grateful to have found another film that fits into my personal “April Come She Will” canon.

2. They Live By Night, 1948. Directed by Nicholas Ray.

My love for this film is certainly no secret, and I have certainly held no reservations talking myself silly about the perfect beauty of Farley Granger’s perfectly beautiful face in one of the most honest films to come from the great Nicholas Ray. Of all the innumerable words of praise I could throw towards this film, I will cut myself short to say that I am a greater person who treasures my youth more, having seen They Live By Night. If you are interested in reading my essay about the film, a component of my Noirvember favorites which I made its own post simply because it was a much longer piece than any other film on the list, you are more than welcome to here.

1. The Big Parade, 1925. Directed by King Vidor.

Greta Garbo certainly chose her man. I’d heard countless voices of praise towards this film before I actually resolved to watching it, but I never thought I would enjoy a film that appeared to explicitly be about war, a kind of film I am almost-always opposed to enjoying. Nobody tells you it’s more than that. Of war and tragedy, love and loss, coming of age without familiar comforts, The Big Parade is indeed a sobering film about war, but it is, again, King Vidor’s purposed eye for handling life’s shortcomings in real time, as the average person might square things, that makes the film subversive. Indeed temporal, seizing the kairotic moment of WWI in one of the greatest films to come about its wake, The Big Parade is also a very mature film, eliminating the distance between audience and actor, all while being completely unobtrusive and poetic for those with softer hearts and weaker stomachs; the whole film is quite the delicate balance between war and other things: war and love, war and friendship, war and death. As someone who let runtime and subject matter inhibit her for too long, please do not let that be the your story if you have not yet had the pleasure. The Big Parade is haunting, beautiful, completely devastating, and completely worth your time and thought. In a year starved of hope and humanity, The Big Parade is kindly (though I can’t promise entirely) affirming.

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