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.
20. Deathtrap (1982)
One room, one play, three people and a wall covered in weapons. Someone is going to die but by who and with which weapon will they use to do it? After a series of critical and commercial flops, a once renowned Broadway playwright (Michael Caine) contemplates murdering his former student (Christopher Reeve) for his play, which is a guaranteed hit while his wife (Dyan Cannon), knowing his intentions, tries desperately to stop him. A twist turvy comedy thriller that’s more who’ll-do-it then whodunnit, Deathtrap will keep you guessing up until the final frame, which, I have to admit will be disappointing to some but I for one, enjoyed. It’s not the resolution I wanted and certainly wasn’t the one I was expecting but I think it works.
19. The McPherson Tape (1989)
Predating The Blair Witch Project by a decade, The McPherson tape (also known as U.F.O. Abduction) was the first found footage film to actually convince viewers it was real. Technically yes, the director of Cannibal Holocaust had to convince a judge that the cast was indeed still alive, that controversy had happened before the film was released, so almost everyone knew it was fake beforehand. The McPherson tape on the other hand, was so convincing, there are still ufologists that maintain it’s real even though it was debunked 30 years ago. Since this is the great grand pappy of the found footage genre, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s slow and/or uneventful but the exact opposite is true. It’s paced remarkably well (it’s the birthday scene from Signs stretched out to 60 minutes) and is actually quite creepy in places. It not only set the template that everyone after would borrow from but used it better than almost all of them. This is proof positive that you can create million dollar scares with pennies if you know what you’re doing and you do it well.
18. Extreme Prejudice (1987)
With a script by Milius, direction by Hill and one of the best casts of badasses ever assembled for a film, Extreme Prejudice is in the running for the most manly film of all time. There’s a reason this film has no physical release in the states. It’s because distributors were afraid that by just holding the case it came in, your body would spontaneously grow two or three new dicks. This film is filled with so much testosterone, that doctors prescribe this to post-op trans women to watch after their surgeries, in order to help with their transition.
Before Chuck Norris facts were a thing, and this is true, they were Mr. T facts and before that, they were Vin Diesel facts. Neither actor was apparently famous enough to become meme worthy but if it wasn’t for this film, none of those actors would have any of those dumb ass jokes to begin with. Because they were all just cribbed from this films IMDB trivia page. The only reason it didn’t catch on? Everyone who heard about this film was too afraid to watch it out of fear that their eyes would turn into penises. This film is so badass, your eyes might turn into dicks after watching it. You’ve been warned.
17. Escape from the Bronx (1983)
Picking up literal seconds after the first film ended, Escape from the Bronx is about a rag-tag group of people who must fight extermination squads amid their ruined city. I initially started watching this one before the first one but turned it off because I had no idea this was a sequel. You would think the lack of exposition or set up would’ve tipped me off but I just assumed it was eliminating the pointless backstory and was just hitting the ground running. Because it really hits the ground running. It wastes no time doing what the fuck it sets out to do, which is to create a space for non-stop action. The character is on the run, bad guys are after him and he must kill them or die. That’s it. That’s all there is to the plot and honestly, that’s all I want out of an Italian knock off. Watch the first if you want the crazy, watch this one if you want the action.
16. Massacre Mafia Style (1974)
After watching The Godfather and thinking it was garbage, popular lounge singer (and Dean Martin impressionist) Duke Mitchell set out to make a film about the real mafia. Having seen multiple passion projects from multiple amateur directors, I had a good idea of what this was going to be before I saw it. An ego project who’s only purpose is to make the lead look amazing that also doubles as a thinly veiled excuse for him to make out with gorgeous women. But much to my surprise, Massacre Mafia Style is not that at all.
Imagine a far less talented Scorsese doing a gangster film for half of the budget of Mean Streets and that’s this film. The only thing holding this back from being a certified classic, is the fact that the cast is comprised of actors who can’t act and that it was obviously made for no money. And the second thing isn’t even that big of a deal because if this had the cast of Mean Streets, this would easily be better than that film.
15. Big Time (1988)
The best concert films either provide you with the best seat in the house or an intimate look at the band. They could also act as historical artifacts but history is never as important as entertainment. People want to rock out or they want to rock out and also learn a little something about a band they like. This concert film does both of those things but in true Tom Waits fashion, in the most insane way possible. Stitched together from two performances in LA & San Francisco during Waits’ 1987 tour, Big Time is as much a musical art installation as it is a concert film. There are bizarre interludes that involve a variety of odd characters (all played by Waits), a bit of spoken word, and even some stage theatre thrown in too because why the fuck not. This is 90 minutes of a gin-soaked cookie monster singing and waxing poetic about a heroin dealer he once knew in between cigarettes as a bunch of people behind him bang on junkyard instruments. In short, it’s brilliant.
14. Jennifer (1978)
Nothing aggravates me more than the legion of stupid assholes who parrot the same thing over and over again every time a remake is announced. It’s the same shit every time– “Hollywood is out of ideas” and “Why can’t they come up with new ideas?” It drives me crazy because none of them say shit when their favorite horror film gets another sequel and because we wouldn’t have a ton of horror gold if it wasn’t for remakes and rip-offs. There’s no Godzilla without The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, no Friday the 13th without Bay of Blood and Halloween, no Orca, Alligator or Piranha without Jaws, no Abby without The Exorcist, and no Jennifer without Carrie.
There’s no point in recapping the plot because the two films are identical but where they differ is in the two girls’ powers. Carrie had psychokinesis, or the ability to move objects with her mind and Jennifer has, well, they don’t have a name for her power. She can manifest snakes. Many snakes. An army of psychic vengeful vipers that she uses to dispatch of everyone who gave her shit. Hollywood doesn’t need new ideas. It just needs fun ones and Jennifer fits the bill.
13. Night Killer (1990)
I don’t even know where to begin with this crazy fucking movie. Do I start with the fact that it was directed by Claudio Fragasso, director of the notoriously awful Troll 2? Or how about the fact that this is sold in Italy as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3 even though the film has neither a chainsaw or a massacre and isn’t set in Texas? I guess I should start with the plot because it’s the wildest thing about it. Immediately after being brutally tortured and raped for hours by a serial killer, a woman is kidnapped by a completely different scumbag who proceeds to mentally and emotionally fuck with her for some unknown reason.
Since the woman went into shock after her ordeal, she can’t remember what the killer looks like; a fact that the scumbag may or may not know. Is he the serial killer who kidnapped her before and is trying to get her to remember so that he can finish the job or is he someone else playing an even more insidious game? Night Killer is what a crazy person thinks a horror movie is. There’s nudity but it’s always off putting. There’s kills but they’re all the same (the killer wears a Freddy Kruger type claw hand which can somehow punch through a woman’s stomach). And there’s not a scare anywhere to be found even on accident. It’s not as entertainingly bad as Troll 2 but it easily outdoes that film in pure WTFuckery.
12. Mausoleum (1983)
Mausoleum is the type of film that if it was any better, it would actually be worse. The film’s poster sells you on a completely different film and while I’d love to see that film, the film we ultimately got is probably a million times more interesting. Nothing about this film works on a technical or creative level. The screenplay is borderline incompressible, the acting is slightly better than what you’d find in a typical porn and the direction is negligible. Every decision the film makes is the wrong one. It’s utterly inept from start to finish but like the best of the “so bad, they’re good” films, this film works in spite of it’s flaws due mostly to the fact that it’s crazy as fuck. All I have to say is two words: titty. demons. If that’s not enough to sell you, this ain’t your kind of movie.
11. Saint Bernard (2013)
Structured almost exactly like Alice in Wonderland, Saint Bernard is a trippy mind fuck of a movie where the main character does nothing but interact with crazy people doing random crazy shit until the story decides to just end. There’s just enough plot to string these interactions together but not enough to explain anything. The first fifteen minutes or so are boring as hell but once the main character finds the severed head of a saint bernard on a highway overpass, the film begins to click into place.
From there, the main character runs into: mutated policemen, deranged homeless people, bizarre dwarves and numerous other oddballs. Chickens fall from the sky, a grotesque abomination creates a portal to an otherworldly dimension with his piss and a group of mysterious lumberjacks have to help the protagonist fight off an army of animated stick people. Again, with no explanation given to any of it. Some will find it tedious, others will be put off by it’s uncompromising strangeness but I kinda loved it.
What do you think of last year’s film discoveries? Are you surprised by any of the inclusions? Let me know down in the comments!