I’ve watched a film a day for almost a decade now (this August will be my ten year anniversary) and every year brings with it it’s own highs and lows. I try and watch at least fifty classics, fifty hidden gems and fifty current movies with the rest of the year open to whatever. With the exception of October, I never plan what I’m going to watch ahead of time, so watching trash is unavoidable but as long as I hit my quota, I feel like it evens out. Out of all of the films I watched last year, these were the ones that surprised me the most. This isn’t a list of the most obscure films or the best hidden gems. Some of these films you’ve never heard of and some you’ve seen a million times. If I went in with no expectations and was pleasantly surprised or considered something better than I thought it would be, it was eligible.
These are my Favorite Film Discoveries of 2020.
10. Field of Dreams (1989)
Field of Dreams is one of those movies I know I hadn’t seen but I feel like I did through osmosis. Certain films like Star Wars and Wizard of Oz are so ingrained within the fabric of pop culture, that you’ve heard every line and seen every scene of those films, whether you’ve sat down to watch them or not. Because I’ve heard the line “if you build it, he will come” about a million times over the years and because I knew what it was about before watching it, my mind filled in the gaps and painted a picture of what I thought it was, so I never had any desire to actually sit down to watch it.
But man, I was waaaay off. For one thing, the baseball diamond is completed in a matter of minutes, not the slow build up I was expecting. I also had no idea that the film is essentially a road trip movie that involves an old poet and a ghost. It’s not the film I was expecting at all, which is a pleasant surprise. It’s a delightful, crowd pleasing tear jerking fantasy that’s every bit as good as it’s reputation suggests.
09. Star Time (1992)
Less a slasher and more a psychological thriller, Star Time is less concerned with the blood and the gratuitous nudity of it all and instead, focuses more on tone and presentation. The end result is a unique horror film that’s a good fifteen years ahead of the curve. I don’t know if its weirdness was an intentional choice made by the director or if it’s the result of the director being horribly inept. Either way, the film is unlike anything else made in the 90’s. If the film was an equation, it would look a little someone like this: Joker – money + weird shit ÷ by early David Aronofsky = Star Time.
08. He Who Gets Slapped (1924)
After a series of betrayals that both end with him slapped in the face and getting laughed at, a disgraced inventor rebrands himself a clown with a unique gimmick: that of a living punching bag for every clown in the troupe to slap. After years of being ‘HE who gets slapped’, the clown falls in love with another circus performer but predictably (this is a tale of revenge after all) his love is threatened by the same person who drove him to the circus in the first place. Far darker than I was expecting, He Who Gets Slapped is shockingly violent for a film that came out almost 100 years ago. It’s a nasty tale of revenge with a great performance from the legendary Lon Chaney and a plot that’s more effective at half the length than Joker.
07. Punishment Park (1971)
Due to prisons being at max capacity and political dissidents trying to combat a new wave of fascism, President Nixon declares a state of emergency. All new prisoners, most of whom are connected to the anti-war movement, are now given the choice of jail time or spending three days in Punishment Park— a miles long excursion through the desert where they will be hunted for sport by federal authorities. The prisoners invariably choose the latter option but learn that, between the blistering heat and the brutal police officers, their chances of survival are slim. A fictional documentary about a dystopian future made back in 1971 is somehow as prescient today as it was back then. Maybe even more so. Nothing has changed in the fifty years since this was released. Nothing. Police brutality is still rampant, the justice system is still rigged and the powerful still twist the truth to fit whatever agenda they want to push. This isn’t a fictional documentary, it’s just a documentary.
06. Brain Damage (1988)
Frank Henenlotter’s films make me want to take a shower. He, like Troma, makes films that feel diseased. They feel like you’d catch something if you touched them for too long. Some fans are attracted to that level of sleaze but it ain’t my bag. Which is why I put off watching Brain Damage for so long. I just assumed it would be another one of his grimy ass sleaze fests, so color me surprised when it turned out to be legitimately funny and kinda sorta smart.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s still a fair amount of nastiness (it’s still a Henenlotter film after all) but the grossness feels in service to something rather than just being there for shock value. Or maybe it isn’t and I’m just looking past it or accepting it because I loved the creature so much.
Alymer (John Zacherle) is a brain eating creature that attaches himself to the brain stem of a host and pumps them fill of hallucinogenic drugs in order to make them more compliant. He’s an ugly little puppet who does terrible things but he oozes so much personality, you can’t help but love him. I wouldn’t call him funny per say, but he is definitely a ham. He, along with Henenlotter working at the top of his game, make Brain Damage one of the most underrated horror comedies of the decade.
05. The Sound of Music (1965)
One of the great cinematic monoliths I’ve never seen, The Sound of Music has been on my watchlist for about two decades now. I knew I had to see it but not a single thing about it was appealing to me. I’m not the biggest fan of musicals, I don’t particularly enjoy movies with 18 hour runtimes and I don’t care about nuns or singing families but goddamn it, this film won me over. The songs are fucking delightful, Julie Andrews is a treasure and much to my surprise, I was never bored. It is overly long but at no point did the film feel like it dragged. Twenty minutes could’ve easily been cut out but I honestly don’t know from where. It’s not that every scene is essential but that no scene feels superfluous. It’s a big ass piece of candy that might be too big or sweet for some but I found thoroughly enjoyable.
04. The Verdict (1982)
A down-on-his-luck lawyer, reduced to drinking and ambulance-chasing, is handed a golden goose of a case: a malpractice suit where everyone wants to settle. An easy slam dunk that would keep him in whiskey money for at least two years but as he starts to investigate the case, he suddenly realizes that the case should go to court. Will he be able to punish the guilty, get a decent settlement for his clients, and restore his standing as a lawyer, or will his sudden conscience be too little, too late?
This film is so great, that you can pick any individual element of it at random, compare it to the best examples of whatever category that thing belongs to and I guarantee it would be just as good or better than whatever it is you’re judging it against. For example: if you were to judge Paul Newman’s performance against any other male performance of the 1980s, it’s easily as good. The same can be said about the courtroom scenes, the supporting cast, the script, the direction, the character drama, the final shot, the list goes on and on. It’s as perfectly constructed a film as you’re ever going to find. It’s so good, that I don’t even think you could teach it in film schools, because there’s no way you’re going to be able to make anything this good; it would literally dissuade students from even trying. Because what’s the point?
03. Ninja III: The Domination (1984)
No studio better exemplified the 80s more than Cannon. Golan and Globus weren’t interested in making art (although they did throw a bone to some respected autors every once in awhile), they were interested in making fat stacks of cash. Their films were glorious trash, with ninjas and explosions being both plot points and main characters. They would pump the market with tons of garbage because they knew they only needed one of them to be a hit. They were madmen, they were gamblers and for a brief period of time, Hollywood was legitimately afraid of them.
They were spending millions on Eddie Murphy and Ralph Macchio vehicles, on big tent pole movies and blockbuster sequels and here they come, with some dumbass low budget movie about a ninja possession and they completely blow them out of the water. This movie is so awesome, it makes everything else released that year irrelevant. Does Red Dawn have a ninja fight that lasts twenty minutes? Does Ghostbusters have an erotic scene involving V8 juice? Is their hot yoga and jazzercise in Amadeus? I didn’t think so.
02. The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)
I wonder what the cinematic landscape of today would look like if the directors of 1950’s sci-fi didn’t take their films seriously. You can draw a straight line from the big-budget MCU films to Star Wars to the schlock of the 50s. Films like Them! and The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Incredible Shrinking Man paved the way for everything you enjoy today. If they weren’t as smartly written and well made as they were, modern audiences might still consider genre fare to be nothing but cheese. I’m not saying Star Wars wouldn’t have been successful without this film but I am saying that without it, Star Wars may not have existed in the first place.
Richard Matheson’s epic story of a man cursed to constantly shrink (the title really doesn’t bury the lede) is one of the fundamental building blocks of the genre. It takes a ridiculous premise and injects it with actual gravitas and pathos. Not only does the shrinking man have to contend with giant house cats and spiders but also has to confront the existential dread of his situation. What is going to happen to him when he shrinks smaller than atoms? It’s an epic adventure about man vs nature but more importantly, it’s about man vs the great unknown. It’s a film that lives up to its title— the man shrinks and it is incredible.
01. The Quiet Earth (1985)
A scientist awakens to find himself alone in the world. While searching for any other survivors, he does whatever he can to keep what little sanity he has left. How much of a film has to be perfect for it to be considered a masterpiece? Because I’d argue if a film is consistently good throughout but has an all-time great ending, it could easily be considered a masterpiece. Take The Wicker Man for example: nobody cares that 95% of it is average at best because the ending is so spectacular, it trumps everything else that came before it. The Quiet Earth is kind of the same way. The ending is so mind-blowingly good, it would be a masterpiece regardless of the quality of the rest of the film but unlike The Wicker Man, the rest of the film is actually great.
It starts off as a last man on Earth story and then, without getting into spoilers, it transitions into a completely different type of film. While I preferred the first half more, the second half is still enjoyable in its own right. In fact, both halves of the film are the best versions of their respected sub-genres. The first is unquestionably the best last man on Earth story (sorry Vincent Price) and the second is the best post-apocalyptic tale that doesn’t include a madman named Max.
What did you think of my favorite film discoveries of 2020? Were you surprised at which films I thought were worthy of such an honor?