Finding older movies is surprisingly difficult in the age of online streaming. Netflix has severely cut down on their movie catalogue, focusing on their own original television series, and most other streaming services do the same. Amazon has a decent collection of movies, as does the new HBO Max, and I’ve also found some rare gems on Vudu and Tubi, streaming services that are free with ads. JustWatch has become essential in figuring out where and how to watch any given movie. I wish the streaming services would focus more on making original movies rather than television series, but it’s in their economic interest to create addictive TV series that will keep you watching longer. Just as it is in the Hollywood movie studios’ interest to make $100+ million tentpole blockbusters based on pre-existing material.
Side note: I’m looking forward to seeing Warner Brothers’ 2021 movies (including Dune and The Matrix 4) which will be released to HBO Max simultaneously to theaters. I love watching movies on the big screen, but now home screens are pretty big themselves, and home audio systems sound great as well. Plus you don’t have to deal with people talking and making noise eating popcorn, or their cell phones going off, or people walking in front of the screen, etc. Your home seats are more comfortable, the food and drinks are not overpriced, and you can pause the movie if you need to go to the bathroom. All you’re missing is the communal experience of watching a movie in a crowd, which is something I was never very fond of anyway. I find that distracting and prefer watching movies alone. I think movie theaters will become a sort of nostalgic novelty as more people prefer watching movies in their home theaters. That shift was already inevitable, but the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the process.
On to the list, which again, are the best movies at least ten years old, that I happened to watch in 2020. I do this list for two reasons: 1) It’s original. 2) Ten years is a good barometer to judge whether a film has stood the test of time.
10. The Tenant (1976)
9. Burrowers (2008)
A mashup of a horror movie and a western. Most weird westerns are more of a parody of the Old West (see Wild Wild West or Back to the Future 3), but this was a legitimate western with the horror elements layered on top.
8. AM1200 (2008)
This is actually a short film (39 minutes) but it was produced at a high quality with superb cinematography. David Prior is a director to watch. The film is about a man on the run driving cross-country who becomes stranded in the woods and follows a radio signal toward an abandoned station—or is it abandoned? It’s very Lovecraftian in tone and style. I would like to see the streaming services make more “movies” of this length.
7. Sphere (1998)
Based on the book by Michael Crichton, it’s a very interesting premise (about discovering an alien spaceship in the deep sea) and it has some nice moments and visuals, but the movie isn’t as great as it could have been. It had the potential to be a deep sea version of 2001, but falls well short in that respect.
6. Screamers (1995)
As a Philip K. Dick aficionado I had been wanting to see this adaptation of his short story “Second Variety” for years, but the film had been difficult to track down. I finally saw it this year on Starz. Considering it was so difficult to find, I assumed it would be horrible but it was surprisingly good—not great, but worth watching. It’s sort of a cross between Blade Runner, Aliens, and The Thing—though not as good as any of those movies.
I had seen the Steven Soderbergh remake of Solaris years ago, but this was my first time watching the original directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. They are both great, though the original was longer, slower, and more difficult to understand, which is only partly because it was in Russian. Both films are based on the Stanislaw Lem novel which I have not read but would like to.
4. The Ninth Gate (1999)
A Lovecraftian noir directed by Roman Polanski about a rare bookseller searching for a book supposedly written by the devil. I would have liked it to be more explicitly Lovecraftian and the book was the Necronomicon, as I prefer Lovecraft’s cosmic horror with mythos of god-like aliens and ancient lost civilizations rather than supernatural horror centered around devils and demons of the Judeo-Christian religious mythos.
3. The Thirteenth Floor (1999)
This is an underrated sci-fi noir (my favorite genre) that was ahead of its time, dealing with virtual reality and simulations. I missed it when it first came out (it was overshadowed by the superior similarly themed The Matrix which came out the same year), but I saw The Thirteenth Floor for the first time about twelve years ago. I liked it then, though I liked it even more the second time around, as I have gotten more interested in virtual reality and the simulation theory. This is also based on a sci-fi novel I would like to read, Simulacron-3 (aka Counterfeit World) by Daniel F. Galouye.
2. Lost Highway (1997)
This David Lynch film had been on my watch list for years, and I finally saw it this year on the new Peacock streaming service (available for free with ads). Like most of Lynch’s films, Lost Highway is utterly weird. There’s a murder mystery and consciousness/body swapping. The movie is like a dream—or a nightmare, really. You can’t expect the plot to make full logical sense—because dreams never do—but it is captivating and eerie, with scenes and images you will never forget.
1. Mr. Arkadin a.k.a. Confidential Report (1955)
Apparently the studio interfered with Orson Welles’ cut of this film (including changing its title), and he did not approve of the changes in the released version (which I never saw). The “Corinth” version (created by Peter Bogdanovich) is supposedly the closest to Welles’ vision, and I thought it was fantastic. It’s a clear influence for The Usual Suspects, with Mr. Arkadin being a Keyser Soze-like figure. It’s a globe-hopping international thriller with some amazing picturesque locations, all in black and white. Welles is a true master of cinematography. It has an inventive narrative form (again like The Usual Suspects) told in flashbacks, with a twisty noir plot—like a darker crime version of Welles’ other masterpiece, Citizen Kane. I’m surprised this film hasn’t been remade—not that it needs to be, this version is perfect as is (except for the dialogue dubbing)—but Hollywood seems to remake everything and a modern take on this one could actually be interesting.
Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order):
- 2081 (2009) – A short film adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s short story, “Harrison Bergeron.”
- Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010) – I had high hopes for this film as a fan of sci-fi, horror, and all things weird, but this was perhaps too weird even for me. The plot was incomprehensible—if at all existent—and the entire movie moved painstakingly slow. It felt like fifteen minutes worth of story stretched out into two hours. Parts of the film were overly dark and disturbing. Though there were some cool visuals and a nice synth soundtrack…so there’s that. (I felt similarly about director Panos Cosmatos’s newest film Mandy, which I also saw this past year.)
- Conspiracy Theory (1997)
- Dagon (2001) – A low budget but fairly faithful Lovecraft adaptation—though the movie is much more gory than his story.
- Devil (2010) – A pretty good contained horror movie, mostly set in an elevator, but the mythological aspect was lacking. It was completely preposterous that there just so happened to be a security guard who knew all the “rules” the devil plays by…
- Eraserhead (1977) – David Lynch’s first film.
- Fear X (2003) – A neo-noir directed by Nicolas Winding Refn.
- The House of the Devil (2009)
- Inkheart (2008)
- Jaws 2 (1978) – I’ve seen Jaws a ton of times, and it’s one of my all-time favorite movies, but I never watched any of the sequels in full. I’d seen parts of Jaws 2 before when I was much younger. I was drawn to the movies because I was fascinated by sharks, but then I’d get too scared during the movie to continue watching. Jaws 2 is nowhere near as good as the original. I probably should have just watched that again instead of this.
- Lake Mungo (2008) – An Australian mock-documentary ghost story.
- Magic (1978) – Not William Goldman‘s best work.
- My Dinner with Andre (1981) – This movie is like a modern Socratic dialogue.
- Phase IV (1974) – Sci-fi horror about ants that become superintelligent and kill humans.
- The Poughkeepsie Tapes (2009) – I had to stop watching this horror movie, a faux-documentary about a serial killer, midway through because it was too disturbing—something that rarely happens to me.
- Red Hill (2010)
- The Ruins (2008)
- Visioneers (2008)
- Zenith (2010)
Bonus list of some of my favorite more recent movies (in alphabetical order):
- Ad Astra (2019) – This is the “Apocalypse Now set in space” movie I’d been wanting to see for so long. The moon rover chase scene shootout was the best part.
- Aniara (2018) – Swedish sci-fi on a generation ship.
- Archive (2020) – A poor man’s Ex Machina.
- The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016)
- Banshee Chapter (2013)
- Black Mountain Side (2014) – A Lovecraftian horror movie set in the icy tundra of north Canada.
- Color Out of Space (2019) – A solid adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s story.
- Come to Daddy (2019) – A Tarantino-esque mystery/thriller.
- Dragged Across Concrete (2018) and Brawl in Cell Block 99 (2017) – S. Craig Zahler is one of my favorite writer/director’s working today. Dragged Across Concrete is an onomatopoeia movie in that after watching it, I felt like I had been dragged across concrete.
- Europa Report (2013) – Underrated found footage science fiction horror movie about a space crew exploring Jupiter’s moon, Europa.
- The History of Time Travel (2014) – A creative faux-documentary about the invention of time travel.
- I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020) – Charlie Kaufman’s latest. This is what I want to see more of: Netflix giving auteur writer/directors the money to make whatever movies they want with little interference.
- In a Valley of Violence (2016) – A dark violent western
- Joker (2019) – Good but a bit over-hyped. No superhero movie (or Joker portrayal) has yet to top Nolan’s The Dark Knight (and probably never will).
- Knives Out (2019) – A modern classic murder mystery.
- The Lodge (2019)
- The Monopoly on Violence (2020) – Documentary on anarcho-capitalism.
- Never Grow Old (2019) – A dark western with a vicious villain played by John Cusack.
- Night Moves (2013) – A tense thriller about eco-terrorists.
- Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) – A fresh take on vampires by Jim Jarmusch.
- Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood (2019) – Tarantino’s latest should have won Best Picture in 2019.
- Parasite (2019) – Liked it but thought it got a bit too convoluted at the end.
- Resolution (2012) and Spring (2014) – Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead are a talented directing duo.
- The Sacrament (2013) – Found footage horror movie about a cult.
- Shirley (2020) – A fictionalized biopic about Shirley Jackson.
- They Remain (2018)
- TFW NO GF (2020)
- Uncut Gems (2019) and Good Time (2017) – The Safdie brothers are my other new favorite directing duo.
- Underwater (2020) – Loved the premise and special effects, but the plot and story were weak. Also, I like T.J. Miller, and he was funny in this, but his comedic relief did not tonally fit in this otherwise bleak and dramatic horror movie.
- The Vast of Night (2019) – Period sci-fi set in the 1950s about a UFO.
- Vivarium (2019) – Almost like a darker sci-fi horror version of The Truman Show.
- The Void (2016)
- Widows (2018) – Great heist story.