My Top 20 Film Discoveries of 2020!

Reviewing my Top 50 Discoveries of 2020, it’s hard not to miss that this year has been most notably defined by a falling back into Japanese cinema. There’s no complaint in saying so as I adore Japanese cinema and as there is plenty of variety otherwise appearing on this list – experimental cinema, documentaries, dream cinema, Afrofuturism, animation, Canadiana, and plenty of general weirdness. Certainly this list owes a great debt to the bounty of streaming options out there. This list includes films screened on The Criterion Channel, MUBI, Shudder, Midnight Pulp, Kanopy, Netflix, and this year’s online version of the Fantasia International Film Festival. And if hard media is still your bag, many of these titles are available from The Criterion Collection, Arrow Films, Film Movement, Vinegar Syndrome, Synapse Films, Cult Epics, Third Window Films, and even the Winnipeg Film Group.

And so, without further ado, here are MMC!’s Top 20 Film Discoveries of 2020!

The Blue Sky Maiden (Yasuzo Masumura, 1957)

“An absolutely charming little melodrama featuring a plucky and adorable Ayako Wakao as a true-hearted young woman discovering her estranged family, whether they like it or not. Nice gals finish first!”

The Savage Eye (Ben Maddow, Sidney Meyers, and Joseph Strick, 1960)

“A bleakly lonely, yet beautifully poetic examination of a divorced woman and the City of Angels. Drunks and drag queens. Burlesque and bible thumping. Dark and light. Cynicism and possibility in an artificial world. The true In a Lonely Place.”

Superexpress (Yasuzo Masumura, 1964)

“Masumura’s tale of conspiracy, blackmail, and real estate corruption is as bleak a story as one can find. The director’s seeming trademark framing and cinematography is on full display – crowded, claustrophobic, and weighed down, high contrast pressure. I need more of Daiei’s Black series!”

Wavelength (Michael Snow, 1967)

“A ‘diary of a room,’ one that feels empty and overdetermined, blank and overwhelmed. Snow’s meditation manages to build tension out of the intensifying view of a 40-minute zoom and the tone of an increasingly repeating sine wave. Watching it lets the mind wander as visual effects and exposures lighten and darken, conjuring tensions between inside and outside, narrative and non-narrative, permanence and impermanence, and human action, the apparatus of cinema, and the space in between. A spellbinding surprise that might live up to Wavelength’s reputation.”

Hospital (Frederick Wiseman, 1969)

“Wiseman’s footage is astonishing, humane and unyielding and constantly reminding that so much of frontline medicine is itself social work that struggles to offer adequate solutions to those often in direst need. An intense experience that remarkably personalizes its patients despite their transitory appearances. Even an organ held in a doctor’s hand feels keenly of the reality it once was a person with life, experiences, suffering, and humanity.”

The Ear (Karel Kachyna, 1970)

“The Eastern Bloc love child of Who’s Afraid of of Virginia Woolf? and The Conversation, The Ear is an expertly drawn portrait of marital resentments brought into high relief by the paranoia of an always watching police state. Karel Kachnya expertly blends flashbacks with present time and ably portrays the semi-secretive, semi-overt actions of a government running on a mix of fear and performance. Immediate erasure and perpetual terror are The Ear’s options and ultimately the survivors may envy the dead. Bracing.”

The Telephone Book (Nelson Lyon, 1971)

“Recalling William Klein, Robert Downey Sr., and even Stanley Kubrick, The Telephone Book offers a wonderful and hilarious experimental sex comedy about a young woman seeking out and meeting her favourite obscene caller. Provocative, goofy, and increasingly outlandish, this is a sticky, joy-buzzered handshake film for pervy film snobs.”

The Day of the Jackal (Fred Zinnemann, 1973)

“An epic cat and mouse thriller smuggling a euro-tripping travelogue of the first order under the cloak of procedural realism. Complaints of lagging during its lengthy runtime are totally lost on me. And did I catch the origin of a classic line from The Fugitive? I think I might have!”

Pastoral: To Die in the Country (Shūji Terayama, 1974)

“Explicitly name-dropping Jorge Luis Borges, Shūji Terayama creates a Felliniesque, Jodorowsky-inspired remembrance of childhood and Borgesian forking paths. Theatrical, experimental, and all-around ostentatious, Pastoral is a carnivalesque treat of the Art Theatre Guild. Domo.”

Tora-san’s Sunrise and Sunset (Yoji Yamada, 1976)

“A very strong Tora-san film. Money takes centre stage as Tora runs across a famous and eccentric painter and an adorable geisha struggling to recover a debt. Supporting characters get plenty of great moments as does Tora getting the VIP treatment on the road. All that plus an unexpectedly gory Jaws fantasy!”

Ticket of No Return (Ulricke Ottinger, 1979)

“An intoxicatingly wonderful experimental feature. A highly fashionable woman of no words takes a one way ticket to Berlin for a pickled tour of the metropolis, touring the highs and lows of drinking establishments with a bag lady and periodically running across a trio of intellectual metaphors masquerading as prim, judgemental women. The drab weather and ugly coloured decor are gloriously evocative thanks to the film’s immaculate framing and compositions. Where has this “Portrait of a Female Drunkard” been all my life? This is my kind of New German Cinema!”

Space Adventure Cobra (Osamu Dezaki, 1982)

“I’m so glad to have fallen for Cobra now rather than when I was 15. It feels more respectable to cite the joys of this wonderful anime without quite the pubescent fanboy edge. The roguish hero! The swooning romanticism! The reduplicating and fractured images that refer back to its manga roots! The Barbarella-esque disco pop art sensibility! The star-shaped nipples! It does sag a touch near the end (the story, not the nipples), but it’s a minor quibble. Damn you Matthew Sweet; you were right again.”

Angst (Gerald Kargl, 1983)

“An exceptional and terribly disturbing film. The dual presentation of subjective tightness to the psychopath killer and the overdetermined objective scrutiny of the too-close camera is a wonderfully fraught dance, creating something like Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer as directed by Terrence Malick. A bravura lead performance, exceptional camerawork, and a stupendous score make Angst an incredibly difficult watch even harder to avoid. Yikes.”

Dust in the Wind (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 1986)

“Small moments making up big events in small lives. Love and loss framed through passages and barriers, made smaller and sadder by the constancy of the land, of the town and the city, and of the traditions and the politics. Significance in insignificance as any meaning becomes precious. A temporally slippery, understated curio deserving of melancholy wonder.”

Joan of Arc of Mongolia (Ulricke Ottinger, 1989)

“Like its title, Joan of Arc of Mongolia is a film of connections, linking East and West, Europe and Asia, modernity and the nomadic frontier, and Ottinger’s early, ostentatious fiction films and her later documentary efforts. Ottinger’s love and respect for her subject matter means that any risk of JoAoM orientalizing its subjects is embraced in its sensitive reverence and its purposeful blend of realism and fantasy. Lengthy but fascinating and always unexpected, Joan is a unique and lovely work that manages to conjure the best comparisons to Wes Anderson, Werner Herzog, and Agnès Varda.”

Only Yesterday (Isao Takahata, 1991)

“Childhood days revisit a young woman as she enjoys a working holiday in the country and reconsiders her job, her home, and her happiness. Takahata’s balance between memory and present is masterful, finding small poignancies in a multitude of moments. That end, merging the two timelines in a dialogue-free sequence, was so unexpected, so clever, and so neat that it will stay with me for days.”

Tokyo Fist (Shinya Tsukamoto, 1995)

“Holy smokes! Shinya Tsukamoto’s Fight Club is a boxing, body horror bloodbath, a self-punishing masterpiece in Braindead-level trauma and masculine melodrama. A total haymaker!”

Fireworks (Takeshi Kitano, 1997)

Fireworks is a film that reveals itself slowly and precisely, promising a cop-gangster deconstruction but turning into a treatise on mindfulness, mortality, and the importance of hobbies. Takeshi is now officially a genius in my view, something totally bewildering as he looks like someone with barely any interest or understanding of the world around him yet has the soul of a sardonic, remarkably confident, and utterly brilliant artist. A beauty.”

Frank (Lenny Abrahamson, 2014)

“They say the best villains have good intentions and have little idea of the evil they commit. Rarely do stories so centrally attend to such concerns. Oh, and the music is incredible. Magic.”

The Burden (Niki Lindroth von Bahr, 2017)

“Do you like the films of Roy Andersson but wish they looked like The Fantastic Mr. Fox? Oh boy, are you in for a treat!”

What were your best discoveries in 2020? Maybe they can be one of my discoveries for 2021!

This year us almost over, kids. Check back on Christmas Eve for a bonkers holiday short and look out next week for MMC!’s final proposal of 2020, a favourite film released this year that offered some much needed hope amid some rough times and that helps point the way for the year to come. MMC!’s favourite films of 2020 will be available in January. Hang in there and thanks again!

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