Best Films Watched in 2020

Ninety-four (94) movies watched in 2020 and it’s time to pick the ones that stood out most.

A diverse roster, I think you’ll agree, and, if nothing else, I hope this post draws your attention to fine, ground-breaking cinema from around the world.

“Tigers Are Not Afraid” (Directed by Issa Lopez)

“Sorry We Missed You”  (Dir. Ken Loach)

“Come and See”  (Dir. Elem Klimov)

“Uncut Gems”  (Dir. Josh Safdie)

“Parasite”  (Dir. Bong Joon-ho)

“Loveless”  (Dir. Andrey Zvyagintsev)

“The Wolf House”*  (Dir. by Cristobal Leon/Joaquin Cocina)

“Daughter”* (Dir. Daria Kashcheeva)

“The Personal History of David Copperfield”  (Dir. Armando Ianucci)

“Motherless Brooklyn”  (Dir. Edward Norton)

“1917”  (Dir. Sam Mendes)

*Animated short film

Honorable Mention:

“Aniara” (Dir. Pella Kagerman/Hugo Lilja)

“The Duke of Burgundy”  (Dir. Peter Strickland)

“In Fabric”  (Dir. Peter Strickland)

“Are We Not Cats”  (Dir. Xander Robin)

“Son of Saul”  (Dir. Laszlo Nemes)

“Gosford Park”  (Dir. Robert Altman)

“The Laundromat”  (Dir. Stephen Soderbergh)

“The Gentlemen”  (Dir. Guy Ritchie)


“The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling” (Dir. Judd Apatow)

“David Attenborough: A Life on This Planet”  (Dir. Alastair Fothergill)

“Nomad”  (Dir. Werner Herzog)

Honorable Mention:

“Gates of Heaven”  (Dir. Errol Morris)

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Best Films Watched in 2019

Didn’t quite achieve my goal of watching a hundred films during the course of 2019, but at 92 I came pretty darn close.

Not as many documentaries this past year, which is somewhat surprising as it’s a genre that has long fascinated me.

I was blessed to view not one but two Stanley Kubrick films on the big screen, “2001” and “A Clockwork Orange”.  I’ve seen them both dozens of times but never in a theatrical venue. The former was a special thrill because I managed to get down to the Imax in Regina and watch it in 70mm, which made the experience even more awe-inspiring and powerful.

An interesting mix of movies made my final roster of favorites so let’s get right down to it:

Drama & Comedy

“2001: A Space Odyssey” (Directed by Stanley Kubrick)
“Capernaum” (Directed by Nadine Labaki)
“Ratcatcher”  (Directed by Lynne Ramsay)
“Ugetsu” (Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi)
“Roma” (Directed by Alfonso Cuaron)
“Happy As Lazzaro”  (Directed by Alice Rohrwacher)
“Leave No Trace”  (Directed by Debra Granik)
“Happy End”  (Directed by Michael Haneke)
“A Clockwork Orange”  (Directed by Stanley Kubrick)
“The Aerial”  (Directed by Estaban Sapir)
“Birds of Passage”  (Directed by Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego)
“Thunder Road”  (Directed by Jim Cummings)
“Zama”  (Directed by Lucrecia Martel)
“Her Smell”  (Directed by Alex Ross Perry)
“Smoking Aces”  (Directed by Joe Carnahan)
“White Boy Rick”  (Directed by Yann Demange)
“Galveston”  (Directed by Melanie Laurent)
“Under the Silver Lake”  (Directed by David Robert Mitchell)
“Listen Up, Philip”  (Directed by Alex Ross Perry)
“The Conformist” (Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci)
“The Favorite”  (Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos)
“The Man Who Killed Don Quixote”  (Directed by Terry Gilliam)

Honorable mentions:

“Too Late”  (Directed by Dennis Hauck)
“First Man’  (Directed by Damien Chazelle)
“Triple 9”  (Directed by John Hillcoat)
“High Life”  (Directed by Claire Denis)
“Knives Out”  (Directed by Rian Johnson)
“Valhalla Rising”  (Directed by Nicholas Winding Refn)
“Vice”  (Directed by Adam McKay)
“The Banishment”  (Directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev)
“Elena”  (Directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev)
“Legend”  (Directed by Brian Helgeland)
“The Apostle”  (Directed by Gareth Evans)

Most disappointing movie of 2019:   “Ad Astra” (Directed by James Gray)

Best Documentaries viewed in 2019:

“Apollo 11”  (Directed by Todd Douglas Miller)
“Three Identical Strangers” (Directed by Tim Wardle)
“Last Man on the Moon”  (Directed by Mark Craig)

Honorable Mention:

“Ice Guardians”  (Directed by Brett Harvey)


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Film Quote (David Thomson)

“Art is not a recreation, a consolation, a pastime, a business…it is the stone on which your knife is sharpened.”

“The human tragedy is not our diligent wars, our arbitrary floods and earthquakes, our ordinary outrages of cruelty…It is that desire is sometimes obscured, and impeded.”

David Thomson, The Big Screen

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“Whiteface” Directed by Everett Sokol; Director of Photography Sam Burns

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Film Quote (Tarkovsky)

“In cinema it is necessary not to explain, but to act upon the viewer’s feelings, and the emotion which is awoken is what provokes thought.”

Andrei Tarkovsky 



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I hate comic book movies (d’you think it shows?)

This movie sucks (and so do you)

Whatever happened to scholarship, whatever happened to standards? Why are there no good, reliable movie critics these days?

Where have you gone, Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris? We miss you Manny Farber and James Agee.

What in Christ’s name are they showing in college and university courses in 2019 to inspire emerging film makers, “Citizen Kane” or “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”?

How did we get to the point where “directors” like JJ Abrams, Zack Snyder, James Cameron and Joss Whedon are held aloft as role models and auteurs, artistes worthy of veneration (and, God help us, emulation)?

No one, it seems, is speaking up on behalf of film aesthetics. Most contemporary reviewers, professional or amateur, wouldn’t know mise-en-scene from a bag of marshmallows. A significant number haven’t seen a motion picture made prior to 1970.

I have to ask, where do you go for movie reviews, who do you trust with your hard-earned money?

Please don’t say Rotten Tomatoes.

Really? Really?

 As far as I can tell, most of the so-called professional reviewers on RT are a pretty undistinguished lot. What quality of criticism are you likely to receive from freelancers who squeeze in the odd article or review to supplement their meager income, individuals whose only source of expertise is that, well, they like movies? Somehow they manage to land a gig at a radio or television station, or are assigned a column in the local free newspaper, and they’re off to the races. Their own personal bully pulpit, allowing them to champion the latest franchise film, assembled via committee, tailor made for mass audiences, just stupid and derivative enough to be comprehensible to them.

And the amateurs posting on RT—ay yi yi. Now we’re talking about dim-witted millennials (“Generation Moron”, as I call them), fan boys and girls with lots of energy and enthusiasm but, alas, completely lacking any exposure to film history or theory, even the basic fundamentals involved with creating moving pictures. Their comments and opinions are, predictably, juvenile; they don’t read anything more wordy than billboards or graffiti, and consider any offering that doesn’t boast a superhero a foreign movie.

“A cinematic masterpiece!”

“A thrill ride you never want to stop!”

“Best movie you’ll see all year!”

You read the blurbs but can you believe them? Do you trust someone from WXYZ Radio or to deliver a fair, impartial, educated appraisal of the movie in question?

Truthfully, you won’t fare much better if you turn to more legitimate publications and platforms, reviewers who should have some cred to go along with their national profiles. I’ve been absolutely stupefied by the glowing reviews Rolling Stone and the New Yorker frequently lavish on spectacle pictures, idiotic blockbusters, films where the script was clearly an afterthought. Green-screened, computer-generated, audience-tested drivel framed around four or five extended action scenes over-loaded with CGI, accompanied by a thunderous, head-splitting soundtrack.

Here’s a review I wish they’d print:

Sphincterman vs. the Blue Meanies is so patently awful I wanted to scrub its memory from my eyeballs with fistfuls of steel wool. It is so brazenly unoriginal, imitative and predictable, the denouement is obvious right from the opening credits.

There are no less than five writers responsible for this abomination and each should have his/her fingers burnt off with a blow torch so they never touch a pen or keyboard again.

Director I.Q. Sixty, responsible for such doozies as Sexy Fox VI: Return of the Hotties and the upcoming cinematic reboot of Hogan’s Heroes, apparently apprenticed under Michael Bay or, perhaps, Ed Wood. He has no grasp of dramatic tension and the scenes featuring live actors are awkward, stilted, about as convincing as watching mannequins copulate.

Fred Baldwin as Sphincterman emotes like a turnip but fits the costume and has a terrific head of hair. His voice drops two octaves when he’s being serious and he once took an acting class, though had to give it up when he realized his teachers were cardboard cutouts. I’m not saying the kid comes across as wooden and untalented, I’m saying he’s even worse than that.

As with most of these silly comic book flicks, serious, legitimate actors have been grotesquely overpaid to take on supporting roles, greedy thespians who don’t mind damaging their artistic legacies as long as they’re well-compensated for it. Sir Patrick McKagan is allowed to chew the furniture and piss on the carpet to his heart’s content; as Oskar Angst, fanatical leader of the Blue Meanies, he makes us forget he was once considered the finest Shakespearean actor of his generation. This is a performance he could’ve faxed in.

And let us not spare the other A-Lister who was coerced into renting her considerable talents to this insult to the senses. Marlene Merrill, as Sheela, Queen of the Night People, seems to be channeling either the Statue of Liberty or perhaps a coat rack whenever she makes an infrequent appearance, reading her lines off conveniently placed cue cards, eyes shining with tears of shame. I shall pillory her no more.

There is absolutely nothing new here. As Yogi Berra would say, it’s déjà vu all over again: ordinary man granted extraordinary powers, tries to do good, gets beat up by bad guys, regains his faith in himself and wipes out the baddies in a tedious, violent finale lasting longer than a solar day on Pluto.

Buildings are toppled, elevated street cars plunge to the ground, half the city leveled but, goddamnit, our hero triumphs in the end, the stink of decaying bodies troubling no one as he strides forward to accept the thanks of the mayor and a smattering of traumatized, shell-shocked survivors.

It takes a whopping 143 minutes to get to that point and more climaxes than Hugh Hefner achieved during his long tenure at the Playboy mansion.

I felt genuinely abused by this picture, my brain treated like a public urinal in a New York City bus station. This is what you, as movie-goers, are looking for? Mental kitty litter?

In order to enjoy these puerile comic book adaptations it is essential that you possess the attention span of a trepanned lab rat and the reasoning skills of the Canadian Shield. It’s hard to believe the same species that produced a Michelangelo or Einstein could also be responsible for something as godawful as Sphincterman vs. the Blue Meanies.

In the name of ‘entertainment’ we disconnect our higher order thinking, lop off a quarter million years of evolution.

For the sake of ‘diversion’ we embrace dull banality and comforting familiarity.

We tell ourselves we retain the mindset of children, open to the enticements of wonder and magic…but even youngsters sense when someone’s trying to fool them and resent, above all else, the slightest hint of condescension.

They’d much rather be treated like grown-ups.

I wish the same could be said for the rest of us.

This essay is excerpted from Mouth: Routines & Rants (Black Dog Press), available as an e-book/Kindle; May, 2019

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Best Films Watched in 2018

Thanks to the irresistible temptations of Netflix and the unfortunate discovery of podcasts, I watched less than 100 movies in 2018, far below my usual tally.

Ah, but in my defense, the proportion of good movies to bad ones was better than average.

I finally got around to compiling a “Best of…” list featuring, as usual, films from just about every genre and era, with a marked preference for original, daring movies that push the envelope and challenge audiences, rather than catering to the lowest common denominator.

No comic book movies, rom-coms or steroid cases in tights. Great cinema is at a premium these days as Hollywood continues to dummy down its “product”; one has to seek further and further afield to discover innovative, artistic visionaries who reject formulas and stereotypes and instead present us with an entirely different perspective, worlds we never imagined before:

“Sorry to Bother You” (2018)  Directed by Boots Riley

“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” (2017)  Directed by Martin McDonagh

“You Were Never Really Here”  (2017)  Directed by Lynne Ramsey

“Killing of a Sacred Deer” (2017)  Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos

“Cash Only” (2015)  Directed by Malik Bader

“Kaleidoscope”  (2017)  Directed by Rupert Jones

“Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie”  (1972)  Directed by Luis Bunuel

“Viridiana” (1961)  Directed by Luis Bunuel

“Exterminating Angel”  (1962)  Directed by Luis Bunuel

“Good Time”  (2017)   Directed by Josh & Benny Safdie

“The Wife”  (2018)  Directed by Bjorn Runge

“Land of Mine” (2015)  Directed by Martin Zandvliet

“Mute”  (2018)  Directed by Duncan Jones

Honorable Mentions:

“In The Loop” (2009)  Directed by Armando Iannucci

“Death of Stalin” (2018)  Directed by Armando Iannucci

“Belle de Jour”  (1967)  Directed by Luis Bunuel

“The Milky Way”  (1969) Directed by Luis Bunuel

“Dunkirk” (2017)  Directed by Christopher Nolan

“Get Out” (2017)  Directed by Jordan Peele

“Night and the City”  (1950)  Directed by Jules Dassin

Best Documentaries:

“Icarus” (2017)  Directed by Bryan Fogel

“They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead” (2017)  Directed by Morgan Neville

“Going Clear”  (2015)  Directed by Alex Gibney

“United States of Amnesia”  (2013)  Directed by Nicholas Wrathall

“Film Worker”  (2017)  Directed by Tony Zierra


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Censorship at the CBC

Speaking of censorship…I responded to Eli Glasner’s choices as the “best” pictures of the year on CBC’s website and my comment was “disabled” because, apparently, the administrators thought I was too mean for pointing out that Eli’s pick for the second best film of 2018 was an ANIMATED SUPERHERO MOVIE.

I took a screen shot of my disallowed, censored comment and you can judge for yourself if I was out of line.

Er, I spot a typo, that line should read “positively Mamet-ian brilliance”.


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Val Lewton: A Master of Suspense

I have to give a plug to the folks at The Secret History of Hollywood.

I’ve spent the last couple of days listening to podcasts of their comprehensive, 6-part documentary on the life and career of an under-appreciated cinematic genius, Val Lewton.

After a lengthy apprenticeship to David O. Selznick, in 1942 Val Lewton was lured away by RKO Pictures to head up a new department specializing in horror movies. RKO had nearly gone broke backing Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane” and “The Magnificent Ambersons” and their board yearned to emulate the success Universal Pictures was having with their stable of movie monsters.

Lewton had little interest in producing such lowbrow fare as “Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman”, etc. but all of his life had retained a taste for the macabre. Working with a team of collaborators that included, at various points,  Jacques Tourneur, Mark Robson, Nicholas Musuraca, DeWitt Bodean, Ardel Wray and Robert Wise, Lewton reinvented horror cinema, employing shadows and “dark patches” with skill and inventiveness. During his tenure at RKO, he produced modestly budgeted gems like “Cat People”, “I Walked With A Zombie”, “The Seventh Victim” and “Ghost Ship”.

“Shadows: The Val Lewton Story” is diligently researched, vividly presented. Mark Gatiss does a magnificent job as narrator, but the entire production is a credit to all involved.

This podcast gets my highest possible recommendation.

You can find the first episode here.

This series of one of the finest podcasts I’ve yet encountered, a testament to the power of that medium.



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Best Movies of 2017

For the second year in a row I managed to watch over one hundred movies in 2017.

Here is a roster of my favorite cinematic experiences of the past year:

“I, Daniel Blake” (Directed by Ken Loach)

“Dogtooth” (Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos)

“45 Years” (Directed by Andrew Haigh)

“The Saragossa Manuscript” (Directed by Wojciech Has)

“The Hourglass Sanitarium” (Directed by Wojciech Has)

“Blue Ruin” (Directed by Jeremy Saulnier)

“Kill List” (Directed by Ben Wheatley)

“Stalker” (Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky)

“Le Corbeau” (Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot)

“Faust” (Directed by F.W. Murnau)

Honorable Mention:

“The Four Hundred Blows” (Directed by Francois Truffaut)

“A Touch of Sin” (Directed by Jia Zhangke)

“The Rover” (Directed by David Michod)

“Disorder” (Directed by Alice Winocour)

“Hell and High Water” (Directed by David McKenzie)

“The Lure” (Directed by Agnieszka Smoczyńska)


“Merchants of Doubt” (Directed by Robert Kenner)

“Muscle Shoals” (Directed by Greg Camalier)

“The Wrecking Crew” (Directed by Denny Tedesco)

“Kedi” (Directed by Ceyda Torun)

“Red Army” (Directed by Gabe Polsky)

“Twenty Feet From Stardom” (Directed by Morgan Neville)

“Lo and Behold” (Directed by Werner Herzog)

Honorable Mention:

“Bergman’s Island” (Directed by Marie Nyrerod)

“The White Diamond” (Directed by Werner Herzog)

“The Corporation” (Directed by Mark Achbar, Jennifer Abbott)

* I had the great fortune to see both “Stalker” and “Faust” on the big screen, which only enhanced the genius present in those masterpieces.

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