Top 11 Movie Pairings of 2020
If you've read a single end-of-year-list, listened to literally any movie podcast, or even just lived in the world for the last 9 months, you know the drill. Year: bad. Movies: good. That's about it.
Here are my 11 favorite movies from 2020, each paired with one of the best old movies that I watched for the first time last year. The connections range from thematic to stylistic; intuitive to absurd; meaningful to superficial. But all the movies are transcendent. Screw dinner-and-a-movie. In 2021, we're doing movie-and-a-movie.
1. Minari (The 400 Blows)
Two very different tales, both told from the perspective of young boys. While both Minari and The 400 Blows weave semi-autobiographical stories from their creators (Lee Isaac Chung and François Truffaut), Minari extends out further than its predecessor of six decades, recreating a larger world through David’s eyes. Chung follows in Truffaut’s revelatory footsteps by treating children with respect and maturity, eliciting adult-like performances that carry an oversized burden. Alan Kim brings uncanny comedic timing where Jean-Pierre Léaud imbued his performance with a shocking world-weariness, the two in conversation with one another across 61 years. And it doesn’t hurt that Minari establishes what The Last Black Man in San Francisco first announced: Emile Mosseri’s status as a premiere composer.
2. Another Round (The Friends of Eddie Coyle)
The don’t-be-fooled-be-the-plot-description entries, Another Round and The Friends of Eddie Coyle will punch you in the gut if all you’ve heard about them are the log-lines. Thomas Vinterberg’s drunk-all-day tragicomedy traces a group of middle-aged teachers who decide to spice up their lives by increasing their daily BAC; Peter Yates’ 1970s crime drama fits snugly into the “one last job” canon. But don’t be misled. Both films pair genre fun with the existential dread of aging, the places and things and people in which we find solace when we can no longer find it in ourselves. Mads Mikkelsen and Robert Mitchum turn in two astonishingly aged performances, Mikkelsen raging against the dying of the light while Mitchum slowly embraces it like a fine wine.
3. Promising Young Woman (The Royal Tenenbaums)
When everything is just so, it’s easy to miss the chaos we sow. Until it’s not. Wes Anderson’s meticulously designed and shot movies work best when the humanity of his characters shines through the veneer of perfection, and The Royal Tenenbaums finds that humanity in the messy lives of a should-have-been, could-have-been perfect family. In Emerald Fennell’s mesmerizing directorial debut, Promising Young Woman, pinks, purples, and perfectly eye-popping interiors and costumes provide a contrast for the dark maelstrom of sexual violence and stolen futures hanging over the movie. Both movies, like the characters that inhabit them, traffic in controlled chaos, weaponizing the audience’s expectations to take our breath away.
4. The Nest (The Handmaiden)
Anyone up for some internalized class warfare and socialized repression of anything remotely resembling passion? It doesn’t hurt that one comes in the form of one of the most beautiful films of the last decade, Park Chan-wook’s masterpiece The Handmaiden, and the other carries one of the most scintillating performances of 2020 from Carrie Coon. Both of these period dramas led me slowly on a string, building their worlds with precision and care, before yanking me forward for a careening final half hour.
5. Mangrove (Nashville)
I wrote about Steve McQueen’s Mangrove in September, a celebration of community, a subtle subversion of both legal thrillers and the justice system, and an exploration of our duty to our identity all wrapped into one. I’ll be up-front: Mangrove shares little in common with Nashville, Robert Altman sprawling 1975 opus about two dozen lives circling in and around the country music business and each other over five days in the Tennessee capital. They’re connected here simply by their shared dedication to each of countless lives; McQueen and Altman have a distaste for the cinema of caricature, and both men invest every character with a wholeness that’s rare in such ensemble pieces. That’s what makes them so special.
6. The Way Back (In A Lonely Place)
Exactly 70 years separate these two films, but Hollywood is still fascinated by broken, explosive, over-the-hill men. The Way Back is a melodrama about a grieving alcoholic saved by a junior high basketball team; In A Lonely Place is a brooding noir about a deranged screenwriter who can’t be saved by a woman. Where they depart in tone, they converge in the object of their focus. Ben Affleck and Humphrey Bogart each play on their established personas to deliver searing performances, the types that make you feel as though you’re watching acting-as-therapy. If only the paparazzi had ever captured Bogart fumbling an armful of Dunkin’ Donuts - alas, in an ironic twist, the legendary breakfast spot first opened the same year that Nicholas Ray’s classic noir was released.
7. Time (Where Is the Friend’s House?)
Film often sacrifices the personal for the universal; intimacy for clarity. But by entrenching their masterpieces in the perspective of their main characters, documentarian Garrett Bradley (Time) and docudramatist Abbas Kiarostami (Where Is the Friend’s House?) give generously of themselves and their creations to create wholly immersive experiences. Time belongs as much to Fox Rich - the centerpiece of this splintered story of her two-decade effort to raise a family and get her husband out of jail - as it does to Bradley. And long after an unparalleled career as one of cinema’s finest directors, Kiarostami is remembered for the faces he captured - chief among them that of Ahmed (Babek Ahmedpour). Lives are precious things; Bradley and Kiarostami treat them as such in these two movies.
8. Da 5 Bloods (Band of Outsiders)
One film’s title (Band of Outsiders) aptly describes the other’s plot (Da 5 Bloods), and though Spike Lee’s Vietnam heist film may seem worlds apart from Jean-Luc Godard’s seminal entry in the French New Wave, the two share quite a bit of DNA. Both involve robberies. And both play on alienation. But what makes them each so special is their furious commitment to autonomy. “We control our rage,” spits a ferocious Chadwick Boseman in Da 5 Bloods, offering a vision of Black autonomy to his men in a flashback to the Vietnam War. And though less outwardly aggressive, Odile, Franz, and Arthur’s meandering journey in Band of Outsiders perfectly tracks the era’s focus on youthful rebellion and self-determination. And, of course, like all great films, they feature phenomenal dancing sequences.
9. Shithouse (Italianamerican)
Shithouse is the indie darling of 2020, the coming-of-age story made by and starring 23-year-old Cooper Raiff as an awkward, lonely college freshman. Italianamerican, re-released this year by the Criterion Collection as part of a collection of Martin Scorsese’s early short films, is a simple documentary about his parents, shot by the young director two years before Taxi Driver. Shithouse takes place almost entirely on a college campus; Italianamerican in Scorsese’s boyhood Little Italy apartment. Both films reached directly into my heart. I called my mom almost immediately after watching Shithouse, in which Raiff’s character struggles with the separation from his family. Months earlier, I showed my parents Italianamerican when they visited just a month after I first watched it. These are the movies that are technically sound, yes, but by recounting experiences that I can relate to with tremendous authenticity, they transcend the sum of their parts to become something more.
10. Mank (Mulholland Drive)
Well, the Davids certainly have a dim view of Hollywood. Fincher (Mank) and Lynch (Mulholland Drive) will never be mistaken for one another - the former a tactical clinician and the latter a philosophical surrealist - but both tap into a cynicism in and around tinseltown in their respective “odes” to the business that made them. They pair nicely together. Mank traces the decline of a perennial outsider from the inside; Mulholland Drive envisions the journey from the outside-in, directly toward the center of the heart of darkness. Together they piece together a picture of a complicated city: the indifferent grandeur of Hollywood and the disfigured reality of the city around it.
11. Synchronic (La Jetée)
One: a stirring, melodramatic riff on friendship from genre and indie darlings Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead.
The Other: a short film tackling existential quandaries, composed primarily of a fractured yet fluid collection of still photos assembled by mid-century renaissance artist Chris Marker.
Both: emotional odysseys through death and identity centered on a time-bending experience that enhances understanding of ourselves and the world around us.
Synchronic capitalizes on overwhelming performances from Anthony Mackie and Jamie Dornan to pull at the heartstrings even while it’s scintillating the brain cells. Watching La Jetée, on the other hand, is simply the best possible use that a human can make of 28 minutes.
And just like 2020, both will punish you for your preconceived notions of time.