We asked some of our writers to contribute a paragraph about the most memorable movies and TV shows they saw this year.
Three films stand out among my favorites from last year. In 2007 Ian McKellen played King Lear in a production by the Royal Shakespeare Company, which was filmed for TV the following year. Set during the nineteenth century, the production and lead performances are all strong and compelling, particularly Ben Meyjes’s Edgar disguised as Poor Tom on the heath. But the highlight, of course, is Lear. Over the course of the play, McKellen descends from arrogant foolishness into a madness so deep and believable you cannot fathom that someone of sound mind is beneath it. Perhaps more than any other character in Shakespeare, Lear forces us to confront the moral and physical frailty of the human condition—an altogether fitting play for 2020.
The two other films were old favorites. Chariots of Fire is most famous for its opening scene, the young men jogging along the beach to Vangelis’s anachronistic techno score. There’s so much to love in it, from singing “Jerusalem” and Gilbert & Sullivan to the rich characters, scenery, and costumes. But underneath the humorous script is a serious examination of our loves and the way they guide our actions. Harold Abrahams runs to beat not just his opponents, but the English upper class that looks down on him as a foreigner and a Jew. His companions run for amateur pleasure. His rival, Eric Liddell, runs to give glory to God; when he runs, Liddell says, he feels God’s pleasure. I can’t think of a film that is so enjoyable and Augustinian at the same time.
Every February or March, when the world is dark and dreary and the austerities of Lent approach on the horizon, I assemble an Italian picnic and watch Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing. Set in a sun-soaked Tuscan villa with Branagh’s long, sweeping shots, the film is a pleasure to watch. And the cast is perfect: Brian Blessed; a young and girlish Kate Beckinsale; Keanu Reeves as John the Bastard; Denzel Washington as his brother the duke, charging on a stallion with a cigar in his teeth; and Michael Keaton as the foolish watchman. But front and center are the young and bronzed Emma Thompson and Branagh as Beatrice and Benedick, squabbling their way into a hard-won love. This awful year is almost over, but cold months lie ahead of us. None of us can go to Tuscany, but Much Ado and a bottle of good chianti are the next best thing.
Between new parenthood and the pandemic, it has not been my most adventurous year for TV and film. I have enjoyed, however, the central role of fatherhood in Disney+’s space Western, The Mandalorian (a far better piece of Star Wars media than the most recent big-screen installment). I’ve also turned for cozy viewing to Forged in Fire, a reality TV show from the History Channel about “bladesmiths” competing to forge the best knives, swords, and other edged weapons. The show, outlandish as it occasionally gets with the challenges it poses to the smiths and their creations, is an earnest celebration of craftsmanship and sportsmanship. The men (and they’re almost all men) competing on the show evince a real respect for their tools, their materials, and one another.
My top film is a classic I turned to for counter-programming on election night (I also spent some time in Adoration before the Blessed Sacrament, praying for our country). I rewatched the Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? and was delighted once again. This picaresque journey through Great Depression Mississippi is loosely inspired by Homer’s Odyssey, with George Clooney’s Ulysses McGill as the homeward-bound rogue and John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson playing his hapless crew—in this version, his fellow escapees from the chain gang. The film’s soundtrack of classic folk and bluegrass music is justifiably beloved and famous. The whole movie serves as a wry but affectionate portrait of America, warts and all, and it gave me a strange little bit of hope.
Leah Libresco Sargeant
The last film I saw before the pandemic shuttered the movie theaters was Terrence Malick's A Hidden Life. I had snuck my daughter (newly baptized the day before) into the theater under a large coat, and spent a little of the movie pacing in the back when she woke up, but we managed to see the whole thing. It was magnificent. The story of Bl. Franz Jägerstätter's martyrdom at the hands of the Nazis is the story of how threatening even small acts of love and faithfulness are to the Devil. The Nazis didn't need Jägerstätter for their war machine, but they could not tolerate any higher loyalty or any sign of hope that drives out fear. When we say “Yes” to Christ, the powers of this world hear a “No” that frightens them. Bl. Jägerstätter underwent a red martyrdom—his wife lived a white martyrdom, suffering alongside him. My husband and I left the theater both inspired and intimidated by our own duty to become saints and to raise our daughter to be one.
This year I rewatched the films of Eric Rohmer. I had discovered them in college one winter break, when I stayed on campus as my friends went skiing. Few of my youthful enthusiasms have held up over time. Rohmer is the rare exception. This year I also watched a great deal of film noir, a genre that is pulpy, formulaic, but serious in its basic concerns—more serious by far than countless art films. Early during lockdown a friend asked me for some film recommendations. Here is what I sent him:
- Lone Star: a stunning film about love at the U.S.-Mexico border; worth more than a thousand op-eds
- Dodsworth: two wealthy Americans tour Europe and test their marriage; one of the greatest films ever, finally out in blu-ray
- Criss-Cross: Burt Lancaster returns home and can't stay away from his ex; my favorite noir
- The Man from Laramie: Jimmy Stewart in a quiet, soulful, beautifully shot western
- Letter from an Unknown Woman: escape to Stefan Zweig's Vienna with Joan Fontaine
- Narrow Margin: a perfectly lean and mean thriller
- Charley Varrick: Walter Matthau replaces Cary Grant and grit glamor in this North By Northwest for the embattled workingman
- The Best Years of Our Lives & Mrs. Miniver: William Wyler's two great films about the people who won World War II
- Trouble in Paradise: the most perfectly amusing and amoral screwball comedy
- Sullivan's Travels: a send-up of Hollywood's false compassion and sentiment that vindicates higher forms of both things
- The Searchers: one of the few films I could watch again and again
Since then I've been slowly watching the films of John Ford. I hope to write on both him and William Wyler some day.
This has been the Year of Streaming for many of us. I’ve especially appreciated Kanopy, a subscription service offered for free by many American library systems. Kanopy hosts The Fits, a sublime fable in which a tomboy learns that adulthood demands acceptance of our vulnerability, and We Are the Best!, a confection about two punker girls who take their school’s lone outspoken Christian under their wing. I’ve found treats like the Brazilian horror Hard Labor and forgotten gems like the Lucille Ball/Boris Karloff thriller Lured. Still, the most “2020” moviegoing experience I had was, unquestionably, the distressing new Cats. It unnerved me; I watched it twice.
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