It’s that time of year again. How to decide what’s “best” out of the six-hundred-plus movies I watched in 2020? It’s an impossible task, so here’s a fairly random selection of things which may not be best, but certainly appealed to me and stuck in my memory.
Two recent two-disk sets released by Eureka in England provide two very different forms of popular entertainment. Two Films by John Woo contains a pair of top-notch martial arts movies from the first stage of Woo’s career, before he hit it big with the gangster films of the mid-’80s, while the three movies in their Bela Lugosi/Edgar Allen Poe set present some of the most deliriously perverse horrors of the pre-Code era. While the crown jewel is Edgar Ulmer’s expressionist masterpiece The Black Cat, the set’s revelation is the Easter egg inclusion of a “virtual director’s cut” of Robert Florey’s Murders in the Rue Morgue, which follows Tim Lucas’ suggestions, based on internal evidence, or what the film might have been before studio tampering made it a disjointed mess.
We love stories about bad people; even better, we love stories about bad people who begin to have doubts about themselves and the lives they’ve lived. Two new releases from Criterion explore that self doubt in genres tailor-made for such characters – the western (Henry King’s The Gunfighter, 1950) and the gangster film (Stephen Frears’ The Hit, 1984).
In popular culture, and exploitation movies, cannibals are the disreputable cousins of the zombie; they have the embarrassing habit of eating unsuspecting people without any supernatural justification. There’s a distinct difference, though, between American and Italian cannibal movies – the former adhering to tropes related to serial killer stories, while the latter draw on anthropological ideas to provide a gloss of realism to graphic exploitation imagery. The contrast can be seen clearly between Andrew van den Houten’s Offspring (2009), Lucky McKee’s The Woman (2011) and Pollyanna McIntosh’s Darlin’ (2019) and Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust (1980) and Umberto Lenzi’s Cannibal Ferox (1981).
A couple of recent disappointments from Indicator – excellent editions of two mediocre movies (Guy Hamilton’s Force 10 From Navarone  and Paul Annett’s The Beast Must Die ) – are offset by the terrific French television series of adaptations from the Maigret novels and stories by Georges Simenon, fifty-four feature-length movies centred on a magisterial performance by Bruno Cremer as the famous detective.
With a spectacular 4K restoration from the original three-strip Technicolor negative, Criterion have reinstated George Pal’s The War of the Worlds (Byron Haskin, 1953) to its place at the pinnacle of 1950s science fiction. While Barre Lyndon’s script, updating the story to the present and relocating it to California, strips H.G. Wells’ novel to its bare essentials, Pal and his production team turned interplanetary destruction into a glorious visual spectacle which hasn’t looked this good since the original Technicolor prints played in first-run theatres.