Despite working in a cinema for over four years, I would never have called myself a film buff. Sure, I always enjoyed movies, but my actual knowledge of great cinema was quite limited. 2020 marked a big improvement on that. Over the course of the year, I watched over one hundred and fifty films: for the non-cineaste, a ridiculous figure, and for the true enthusiast, an entry-level attempt. Either way, it was an informative experience, and one motivation as I began writing my own screenplays in the autumn.
This was a difficult list to choose, and to cut it down, I applied the rule of including only one film from any given director.
15. Inside Llewyn Davis, dir. Joel & Ethan Coen
In many ways, so far this has been the century of disappointed dreams, and this Coen brothers film from 2013 is a skilled depiction of the struggle to enact hope despite perennial discouragement. One could argue that it’s a big cliché: a down-on-his-luck musician, everything going wrong, advancing age, the mercilessness of an avaricious world, the cruelty of jilted women. It may not offer anything very new, and it is imbued with a brutal melancholy. Nonetheless, there is a vital emotional involvement present in the film — “a genuinely personal approach”, to quote Stanley Kubrick — that appealed to my own melancholic temperament.
14. The Immigrant, dir. James Gray
The only other James Gray film that I had seen was Ad Astra with Brad Pitt. It was routinely summarised by critics as “Apocalypse Now/Heart of Darkness in space”, which quite missed the point, because it was a story about the relationship between the father and the son, not a story about bringing down a megalomaniacal leader. Anyway, Ad Astra is a good film, and when I saw the cast for this (Marion Cotillard and Joaquin Phoenix) I was curious. Also released in 2013, it was buried by Harvey Weinstein when Gray refused to recut the film according to the producer’s demands. This is a real shame, because Cotillard’s performance is outstanding, and the cinematography is also excellent. As the title would suggest, it follows the journey of Cotillard’s character, an immigrant to New York City in 1921. Of Polish origin, she has fled war-ravaged Europe, but soon finds the big city to be a discouraging place. It’s a cliched phrase, but her struggle to survive is well-depicted, and Phoenix also puts in a good performance. It is not a one-note script, either, dealing with other themes such as devouring obsession, as both Cotillard’s and Phoenix’s characters are driven by unyielding motivations.
13. Children of Men, dir. Alfonso Cuarón
My favourite Harry Potter film has always been Prisoner of Azkaban, and the only film that I ever saw in 3D was Gravity: both directed by Alfonso Cuarón. It was not a surprise, then, to find that his 2006 work Children of Men is a fantastic ride. Starring Clive Owen, the premise is simple: humanity has become infertile, until this one woman becomes pregnant. It sounds as though it has the potential to become quite maudlin, but it does not. There are few genres that can match the sense of thrill and excitement that is produced by a great journey movie (1917 being the most recent example), and Children of Men delivers without reservation. The cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki (often known as “Chivo”) creates some astounding sequences, in particular a couple of long one-shots, while the pacing of the film ensures that tension is never too high or too low. In a way, it is just a B-movie, but a powerfully-made B-movie is much better than a dull film that wants to be clever.
12. The Battle of Algiers, dir. Gillo Pontecorvo
In order to understand the potential of cinema, Kubrick once told a friend, you must watch The Battle of Algiers. Released in 1966, it depicts the Algerian struggle for independence against French occupation during the years 1954–62. An example of Italian neorealism, it is shot in a documentary style, with a number of non-professional actors who had been present during the conflict. The effect is to give the audience the genuine sensation that they are watching events as they unfolded, rather than a mere reconstruction. There is very little sense of the interposition of directorial or editorial vision, even with a score composed by Ennio Morricone. Furthermore, Pontecorvo avoids the cliches of cinematic heroism, for though he demonstrates the difficulties faced by the insurgents, he also depicts the brutality of their methods, for instance in a scene where rebels plant bombs in busy public locations. Cinema is partly the art of concealing artifice, and in that, The Battle of Algiers is a tremendous achievement.
11. Incendies, dir. Denis Villeneuve
Released in 2010, this was Villenueve’s final French-language work, and garnered him considerable attention in Hollywood. It was on the basis of this film that Roger Deakins agreed to work with Villeneuve on Prisoners, a screenplay of which Deakins was otherwise wary. Incendies follows two Canadian twins who travel to their mother’s home country, an unnamed location in the Middle East, to find their brother and father, the identities of whom they have no knowledge. At times, the film may drag a little, and the nonspecific treatment of the ambiguous Middle Eastern violence does rub against the borders of cliché. Nonetheless, the personal story is mythological in its elements and execution, while the intercut storylines of mother and children are given additional complexity by the physical similarities between the two main actresses, Lubna Azabal and Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin.
10. Jaws, dir. Steven Spielberg
Discussion of this 1975 picture usually centres on the shark, yet the real star of the film is the composition. Some of the two- and three-shots (sometimes including the shark) are vital to putting the audience inside what could otherwise be an absurd tale. Of course, the other vital component is the quality of the characterisation: Scheider’s determined police chief, Dreyfuss’s arrogant but clever marine biologist, and Shaw’s legendary man of the ocean, are so interesting that it wouldn’t matter if the shark were portrayed by a Muppet. Above all, it is a masterclass in rising tension, and demonstrates a simple truth that a great many filmmakers today have forgotten: less is more.
9. Klute, dir. Alan J. Pakula
Certain films appear here because of the images that they left in my mind, which recurred to me even weeks or months after seeing the film. Klute, released in 1971 and starring Jane Fonda as a high-class call girl and Donald Sutherland on the trail of a missing person, is one such movie. Some of the compositions, particularly in the second half of the film, speak of tremendous loneliness and isolation, without ever plunging into excessive piteousness. Of course, with Gordon Willis as cinematographer (The Godfather I, II, III; Annie Hall; All the President’s Men), that is not surprising. There may be moments in the storyline that are a little contrived or unlikely, but the overall atmosphere is so complete, and Fonda’s and Sutherland’s performances cohere to it so cleanly, that minor wobbles cannot derail the film as a whole.
8. Aguirre, the Wrath of God, dir. Werner Herzog
Watching this 1972 historical epic is a mind-bending experience for several reasons, not least of which is the audio track. Filmed in the Peruvian rainforest along the Amazon River over five weeks, Aguirre’s dialogue was originally recorded in English, but under the arduous climatic conditions, the material was rendered unusable. The actors later dubbed their lines in English, but this was lip-synced poorly, and Herzog opted to re-dub the dialog in German, but this time leading man Klaus Kinski did not return, as he demanded too high a fee. I watched the English-dubbed version on YouTube: the syncing is rather squirly, but in a way this adds to the atmosphere of impending madness. The movie itself follows the journey of Spanish conquistadors going up the Amazon in search of the mythical El Dorado, led by Aguirre, whose maniacal desire to find the city of gold drives him ever deeper into madness. It is a claustrophobic, attritional film, and its considerable influence on Apocalypse Now is evident.
7. Rear Window, dir. Alfred Hitchcock
“Bottle movies” is the name given to those films that take place mostly or entirely within a single limited setting. The difficulty, as I discovered when I attempted to write a bottle movie, is that this conceit can very quickly become a contrived gimmick. The genius of Hitchcock’s 1954 picture with Jimmy Stewart is that the viewer never once becomes preoccupied with the setting. Part of this, of course, is due to the star power of Stewart and his romantic interest and fellow would-be investigator, Grace Kelly. Another key reason is the urgency of the premise. Stewart, nearing the end of a frustrating injury lay-up, begins to suspect that one of his neighbours has murdered his wife. Watching from across the street, he observes suspicious occurrences, and works to solve the crime, even while his NYPD friend insists that nothing’s happened. Yet perhaps what sets this apart from other bottle movies is the variety of other mini-stories that play out before Stewart’s gaze. The hidden tragedies of “Miss Torso” and “Miss Lonelyhearts” are ostensible side-shows, yet they give the film an emotional depth that lifts it beyond the realm of mechanical murder-mystery..
6. The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, dir. Sergio Leone
I was lucky enough to see this 1966 film on the big screen, because my local cinema was playing it during the summer, as part of an ill-fated campaign to attract germ-wary patrons. There are many great sequences in this movie, but perhaps none as memorable as the climatic Mexican standoff. Leone displays considerable nerve in letting the scene run on… and on… and on… and yet somehow the tension does not drop, even as we see yet another shot of Lee Van Cleef furrowing his tremendous brow. It probably helps that the score might well be the best movie soundtrack of all time, yet what stood out to me was the immense sense of confidence that permeates the film. There is no hesitance, no undue caution, no sidelong glance at the audience to check if they are still following. It would be very difficult to find an adventure film in the last twenty years with such self-possession.
5. Persona, dir. Ingmar Bergman
Also made in 1966, and it could not be more different in style and content, though it contains a similar sense of confidence. A nurse cares for an actress who has suffered a breakdown and refuses to speak. They move to a small place out in the countryside for a rest cure, and the nurse’s identity begins to collapse as she shares increasingly intimate stories from her past. It is a deeply unsettling film that is not a horror, a disturbing film that is not a thriller. There are a few moments in the final half-hour that are quite unlike any other movie I’ve seen (though I’ve yet to watch any David Lynch works). Like Aguirre, it depicts a descent into madness, and in a way that makes the viewer themselves feel a little crazy.
4. The Conversation, dir. Frances Ford Coppola
Coppola’s 1974 film is, in effect, a murder mystery in reverse. A surveillance expert, Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), records a conversation between a man and a woman in a busy public location, a technical feat of masterful proportions. As he works on the recording and uncovers more details of the conversation, however, he becomes increasingly uncomfortable and paranoid. It is a dark, relentless movie, almost dystopic, and it fits in well alongside other dark-secret films such as Klute or The Parallax View. In reading the screenplay, it’s interesting to find that there was originally a subplot about Caul being the ruthless landlord in his apartment building, unbeknownst to his neighbours who think that he’s just another tenant. I suspect that Coppola excised this because it detracts from the “everyman” demeanour that Hackman evokes with such ease. The disintegration of his world thus becomes more comprehensible, something that the viewer can easily imagine happening to themselves.
3. Cool Hand Luke, dir. Stuart Rosenberg
There are great film acting performances, and then there are very rare occasions when an actor or actress incarnates a character without any visible seam: Marlon Brando as Vito Corleone, or Daniel Day-Lewis as Daniel Plainview. I would contend that Paul Newman’s appearance in this 1967 motion picture is one such film. There is no point during this prison drama at which Newman can be seen trying to be the character, doing anything to convince the audience. He just really is Cool Hand Luke — though, of course, he isn’t. The intelligence of this story is to construct the persona of the unflappable, unbreakable prisoner, who disdains the pressures heaped on him by a cruel incarceration — and to then sweep it aside, and suggest that this persona was really a fantasy dreamt up by the other prisoners, who were beaten down long ago. What begins as a heroic fairytale becomes a tragedy.
2. Paths of Glory, dir. Stanley Kubrick
Martin Scorsese said that when he saw this 1957 Kubrick movie, he knew that “we had to wait for a Kubrick picture”, and it’s easy to see why. In the space of only 90 minutes, this film includes such different experiences as a war film, political intrigue, a courtroom drama, and a spiritual journey. The concision and clarity is astonishing, as is the ease with which these quite varying genres are integrated in a single frame. It is sixty-three years old, yet it feels quite beyond age. It offers innumerable iconic shots, for instance as Kirk Douglas’s Dax marches through the trenches, and in its brutal depiction of the realities of World War I, it is about as good a history lesson as any movie can hope to be. It is difficult to imagine this film being made today: if it were, it would become marooned in melodrama. Kubrick here proves himself to be the true filmmaker: always showing, never telling.
1. The French Connection, dir. William Friedkin
If I were arranging this list on the grounds of philosophical content, I would have no justification for putting this movie ahead of, say, a Bergman work. Nor can I say that it is the best-made story on this list. In truth, I do not have a clear justification for placing this 1971 action-adventure in the #1 spot. Clearly, though, there is something to this story about a grizzled detective trying to catch up on a massive drug deal, because it picked up Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Film Editing, and Best Adapted Screenplay. The echoes of Friedkin’s work reverberate through our contemporary crime films, but like an echo, the successor is always lesser than the originator. I do not know that I’ve seen a better car chase than Popeye’s breakneck pursuit under a New York train bridge, but then how would I — part of it was shot in real, live traffic, a phenomenal risk that even Friedkin, in later years, has declared foolish. Like a lot of 1970s films, it projects an atmosphere of bleakness and indifference that, in turn, makes the crimes, and the actions of the desperate police, actually believable. Cinema these days is largely dominated by action, and Lucas and Spielberg are often given all the credit for that, but the truth is: Friedkin was first.