My Ten Best “First Watches” of the Year

2020: The Year We All Stayed Home and Watched Movies

Some more than others. I'm ashamed (proud?) to admit that I watched 365+ films this year. It had always been a goal of mine - I had tried and failed at it several times. It took a pandemic, sheer will power, endurance, and perseverance to finally do it. Of course, "first watches" means that these are all films I've seen for the first time, regardless of what year they were released. I have my top 10 newly released films of the 2020, which should be coming out soon if it hasn't already - but, conversely, this includes a variety films: classics, new releases, cult hits, indies, arthouse, B-movies, you name it. I'm excited to share this with you, and I hope you enjoy it. Please do also consider them as recommendations - which I do, highly!

10. Thelma & Louise

Little did I know this gem would appear on this list for me. I had heard this was a modern classic for a reason, but I don't know why it took me this long to get around to it. This film absolutely shattered my uncertain expectations going in. Thelma & Louise is an absolute delight to enjoy from start to finish. It is perfectly paced and I was always on board, and never bored. The palpable chemistry between the perfectly paired leads, Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis carried the film and made you care and root for them immediately. The writing is tremendously on-point as it's action-packed, hilarious, gleeful, and thrilling and tense when it needs to be. Who needs Bonnie and Clyde when you have these two joyous and sympathetic fugitives you can't get enough of nor peel your eyes from on-screen?

9. The Exorcist

A definite far-cry from a delight to watch like Thelma & Louise, The Exorcist clocks in as one of the most effective and deeply disturbing horror films I've ever experienced. And I loved every minute of it. This film proves first and foremost that you don't need ridiculous effects nor cheap jump scares to deeply unsettle and terrify a crowd. This horror masterpiece is a masterclass from top to bottom in very nearly every aspect of filmmaking imaginable. I was deeply engrossed and utterly enthralled with the film every step of the way. This was another film I was kicking myself for not having seen it until now. The good news is, I now am the proud owner of the film and I cannot wait to revisit it over and over again until I'm spewing pea soup from my throat whilst twisting my neck around in circles.

8. A Woman Under the Influence

John Cassavetes' 1974 masterpiece is about a woman under the influence, of course! Just kidding, but not really. The general premise is that an alcoholic mother and wife is sent to a mental institution after alcohol induced psychosis. The father is left to fend for himself as he works full time to support their children. The film features some of the most realistic scenes, dialogue, and situations I've ever seen put to film. The film is wonderfully shot, masterfully directed, impeccably written, and expertly acted. I was utterly enthralled throughout and it is some of the best dramatic filmmaking you'll ever see. It's such a shame it came out in one of the best movie years in history, and was therefore shut out at the Oscars, criminally. Cassavetes rightfully earned a Director nod as well as Gena Rowlands' stunning, mesmerizing, and unforgettable lead performance. This one is absolutely worth checking out, even if it doesn't seem like your thing.

7. The Wicker Man

The Wicker Man (1973) will undoubtedly elicit strong reactions out of its audience, one way or another. And yes, I had to make sure to include the year. This is NOT the Nicolas Cage remake from 2006. This CULT classic features a wonderful Edward Woodward lead performance and fine supporting performances from its great supporting cast. The film is about a detective who comes to a remote island to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a young girl. As the investigation goes along, revelations become weirder and weirder as he suspects foul play, and he begins to uncover dark and strange secrets about this small society which inhabits the island. Featuring gorgeous cinematography, superb writing, assured direction, and beautiful sets and designs. The film is tastefully wretched and deliciously vile, I loved every second of this wonderfully strange viewing experience. As the film draws closer to its thrilling, yet disturbing conclusion, it's increasingly clear that Ari Aster drew much inspiration from this film for his 2019 sleeper hit Midsommar.

6. La Haine

The film plays like a French Do The Right Thing as it feels inspired by Spike's 1989 diamond in the rough. La Haine follows three misfit hoodlums in a tumultuous Paris suburb which has been laden with riots and protests following a bout of police brutality. It feels weirdly prescient and similar in theme and tone to Spike's film as well. The film is shot in gorgeous black and white and features a terrific, star-making Vincent Cassel performance. La Haine has a grounded realism to it that also has spots of much needed levity sprinkled in to give us room to breathe amid its heavy subject matter. The film crescendos and culminates in its exciting, wild, and unforgettable ending which is burned into my memory as one of cinema's all-time greatest endings in history.

5. Certified Copy

Certified Copy, the masterpiece by Abbas Kiarostami, is a philosophical, arthouse, art-defending thinkpiece about maintaining one's relationships, ego, artistry and sanity amid achieving fame and fortune. Of course, it's about way more than that as that's all surface level. The film is as thought provoking as it is visually engaging and stunning - featuring lowkey some of the best cinematography I've ever seen put to screen. The film also boasts some of the greatest dialogue I've ever seen and heard on the silver screen. Juliette Binoche is a force to be reckoned with in this film. The direction is masterful as Kiarostami is one of the best to ever do it - the film boasts many exquisite long-takes which appeal greatly to my cinematic interests. The film is a brilliant, heady drama which explores many intriguing existential ideas and is worth diving into if you're willing to step outside your comfort zone.

4. Memories of Murder

I won't dive too deeply into this one, as I've written a review of it here on this site. What I will say, is that if you are a fan of Parasite and/or are a Bong Joon Ho's work in general, this is a must-see. The film is masterfully done in every conceivable way and is a dark and harrowing look and what was essentially South Korea's version of the Zodiac Killer. Bong Joon Ho really went out and made a masterpiece this early on in his career, and we had no idea. Or, at least, I didn't. Until now. Check this one out, and give my review a read! Both are well worth a look.

3. Long Day's Journey Into Night

Bi Gan's surreal masterpiece is an exploration of the trippy and a journey into the beautiful. If you've ever wondered how to stretch a dream sequence into a feature film, this is it. The film's first hour and a half or so sets up the story with exposition, but done in an oh most interesting way. After that, we transition into an hour long dreamlike sequence which is shot as all one continuous take. Or, at the very least, made to look that way. The filmmaking on display here is absolutely mint and is utterly enthralling. The dreamlike quality and the tracking shot envelop you in awe and is the cinematic equivalent of being lifted on a cloud. The film's setup is entirely paid off in its remarkable second half - where all your questions are answered in the most satisfying of ways. This film is cinematic candy for those who can appreciate the craft.

2. Come and See

Elem Klimov's 1985 harrowing masterpiece encapsulates the experience of a Belarusian partisan soldier during the raids and pillaging of villages by Nazis during World War 2. The film bleakly and disturbingly captures the life of a young boy who eagerly joins the partisans and quickly realizes the error in his choice. Klimov pulls no punches in his portrayal of the horrors of war and the awful truth of what happened to his fellow people during that hideous time in history. The film, although difficult to stomach, is surprisingly beautifully captured throughout, even in its grimmest of moments. The young boy who joins the partisans, Flyora, is played exceptionally well by Aleksey Kravchenko in what may be the greatest child acting performance ever put to film. Olga Mironova, his co-star who plays Glasha, his platonic friend turned love interest, also turns in a wonderful performance as the ever-interesting and enigmatic travel companion. The film follows their tumultuous journey as they struggle to survive and support their fellow men, women, and children who desperately hide out in the forest, searching for sustenance, shelter, anything. Come and See may very well be the hardest to watch and most horrifying depiction of war ever to grace the big screen to date. This is compulsory viewing for anyone who considers themselves a cinephile - but tread carefully.

1. Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Where to begin with this one... Oh! I've got it. I wrote this about it awhile back. Be sure to check that out. Celine Sciamma's perfect masterpiece Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a sight to behold, and an experience to be reveled in. Portrait has never left my mind ever since I saw it almost a year ago, and the subsequent four or five viewings after that. Between the writing, direction, acting, production, costumes, use of music, cinematography (which is *chef's kiss* by the way) and everything about it are all impeccable. The film in my eyes is flawless and I do not say that lightly (as someone who does not believe a perfect film exists). The perfectly paired leads share a chemistry that is palpable and carry the 2 hour run time that flies by with their effortless charisma. The film is mint as far as craft is concerned and it just draws you in and never lets you go. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is exquisite and is a feast for the eyes - I hope you bring an appetite.

Honorable Mentions:

L-R: Persona, The Seventh Seal, Citizen Kane, City of God, A Man Escaped 

I'd love to hear what you think!

Have you seen any of these and agree? Disagree?

Drop a comment below and let me know how I did!

But, be gentle...please.

Rob McNeil

My name is Rob McNeil. I was born and raised in Normal, Illinois and I am a 28 year-old award winning screenwriter. I am very passionate about film, so much that I watch far too many films on a daily basis. I have written fifteen feature screenplays, a spec pilot thriller series, and several short scripts. I aim to make filmmaking a career, but for now, I will write about it.

Rob McNeil

My name is Rob McNeil. I was born and raised in Normal, Illinois and I am a 28 year-old award winning screenwriter. I am very passionate about film, so much that I watch far too many films on a daily basis. I have written fifteen feature screenplays, a spec pilot thriller series, and several short scripts. I aim to make filmmaking a career, but for now, I will write about it.

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