I initially thought looking back at my year in movies might be a depressing experience, and in a way, it was. For the first time in five years, I wasn’t able to make it to Noir City in San Francisco in January (not enough vacation leave and not enough money). I didn’t get my writing on film published in any new markets. Plus my Letterboxed diary informed me that I didn’t see any movie in theaters in 2020. (My last in-theater experience was December 27, 2019, when I saw Uncut Gems.) But in other ways, this was a tremendous year in movies for me.
Looking back at my movie resolutions list for 2020, my only real goal was to finish Roger Ebert’s Great Movies list, which meant knocking out 104 unwatched films. (Somehow I mistakenly thought I had only 68 to go.) How did I do? Miserably. I saw only 24 in 2020, leaving 80 to go. Roger should be giving me a thumbs down.
I also began two long-term projects: to watch all of Alfred Hitchcock’s feature films and all the films in the Ingmar Bergman Criterion box set. I didn’t even complete all of Hitchcock’s silent films, still having three to go, plus all his other feature films. I knew this would probably be a three-year project, but now it’s probably going to be longer than that. (And don’t even get me started about the Bergman project, which I barely started.)
I’ll be totally honest. As soon as the pandemic hit, these projects - Ebert, Hitchcock, and Bergman - all felt like assignments, which they were: assignments to me, from me. Instead of continuing them, I sought comfort from the pandemic in genre movies. For several months, westerns, science fiction (mostly from the 1950s), and horror became my go-to movie experiences. You can read my thoughts about each by clicking on them.
The last movie I presented at the library was Ida Lupino’s The Hitch-Hiker (1953) on March 5, but our library movie discussions weren’t done, not by a long shot.
Stephanie, from our library system’s Virtual Services department asked if I would be willing to host a virtual movie discussion program, which I was delighted to do. The idea was to announce a movie on the library’s Facebook page, telling patrons that we would be discussing a movie each Friday, one they could watch on Kanopy, the library’s subscription streaming service, at their convenience. Then anyone who wanted to could join us for a Zoom discussion. After a few weeks, things began to jell, especially when my colleague Darnice joined us as our expert moderator.
At first, the library wanted us to watch and discuss only positive, “feel-good” movies, which I did for several weeks, starting with the 1974 version of Murder on the Orient Express. (I don’t think that’s exactly a “feel-good” movie, but that’s how we started.)
After just a few weeks of this, I realized my audiences were ready for harder stuff. We tackled 25 movies in 25 weeks. (I took two breaks, letting Darnice and my coworker Colin each moderate films.) I picked most of the films, but we also had some great “audience choice” picks. We had some great discussions, but some of my favorites included Big Night (1996), Seven Samurai (1954), Transit (2018), Howards End (1992), Seconds (1966), and The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019).
Eventually I decided to invite some other people to join us. Imogen Sara Smith spoke about the Buster Keaton film Sherlock Jr. (1924), Eddie Muller stopped by for a discussion on film restoration and preservation (and yes, film noir) during the pandemic, Todd Hitchcock dropped in to talk about the future of movies and movie theaters, Raquel Stecher gave us a wonderful presentation of the best books on movies, and we ended the year with Bill Morrison discussing his amazing film Dawson City: Frozen Time.
I never would’ve been able to have these guests join us for in-person visits, but thanks to the pandemic, they were available. I appreciate them all. I also appreciate everyone who joined us for these events. I determined that we had people from at least 26 different states joining us as well as folks from Canada and the UK. Again, we never could’ve reached so many people in person. And I have more great films and special guests planned for 2021.
Before we had Todd Hitchcock on as a guest, I began to wonder about the future of new movies. Were studios working on new projects, or simply delaying the release of already-finished films? Would indies have an advantage or a disadvantage? How long can we keep this up?
Since no one was going to theaters, I streamed a lot of movies and went to the AFI Virtual Screening Room, the only place I could see new content. Even though I wasn’t in theaters, I had a great time experiencing new films such as Bacaurau (2019), my favorite of the films I saw at the AFI Virtual Screening Room. Two Amazon Prime movies, Blow the Man Down (2019) and The Vast of Night (2019) restored my hope of finding good content, at least for awhile.
But, probably like many of you reading this post, I bought a lot of physical media this year. It was hard to say no to all the sales that were going on, and many of the deals were simply too good to pass up. I’m not even going to estimate how much I bought, but I’ll say this: I had to buy another large bookcase a few weeks ago, and it’s already maxed out.
I was honored to appear on several podcasts during the pandemic, including The Movie Palace and Fatal Femmes, and I have a couple of others planned for early 2021. I hope to do more of those in 2021, but my main focus is going to be writing.
I’m going to concentrate more on writing that dives deeper into film. Writing that’s more thoughtful, more analytic, writing that explores more connections that may not be immediately apparent. I want to explore why certain movies connect with audiences, and why others don’t. What do movies say about us? What do we take away from them?
Three of the reviews I’m the most proud of (and, consequently, had the most fun writing) were those where I learned something about myself. While revisiting Peggy Sue Got Married (1986), I reflected on some of the things we can miss out on in life, making us wonder what's we're missing out on now. (Thanks for that, COVID.) The western The Bravados (1958) caused me to think about concepts of justice, revenge, and forgiveness. I explored some of the same concepts in my essay on Day of the Outlaw (1959), one of the most unflinching westerns of all time. (That essay is available in the July/August 2020 issue of The Dark Pages.)
I realize that analytical and personal should, perhaps, not exist in the same piece of writing (depending upon the market you’re writing for). But I'm going to at least attempt a balance.
And what about my goals/resolutions for 2021? Brace yourselves: As far as movie-watching goes, I plan to do less of it in 2021. Sure, I’m still going to focus on my Ebert and Hitchcock projects, but those are the main two. I watched nearly 400 movies in 2020. Some of you will watch 400 movies in a few months (or less), but I simply can’t process that many films. Looking back over my Letterboxd diary and my own personal notes from 2020, I ran across several movies I didn’t even recognize by their titles. I couldn’t tell you who starred in some of them or what they were about. Maybe some of that is simply due to getting older, but I need more time to process each film, to dwell and reflect on them.
Of course, Devil Girl from Mars (1954) - my favorite bad movie from this year's watching - doesn’t really require a lot in the area of reflection and meditation. Or maybe it does…
I also want to read more in 2021, and that includes reading about movies. I read about 25 books on movies in 2020 and hope to push that past 30 in 2021.
So please tell me how your year in movies went in 2020. I’d love to hear your stores.
I wish you all a Happy New Year! Let it be filled with good movies and good discussions/writing about movies.