First Cow — 7/10

FIRST COW (2020, Kelly Reichardt)

Opens with a dog and a young woman in present-day Oregon digging up two human skeletons in the woods. Reichardt spends more time on this sequence than you’d expect — at least twice as many setups and cuts — in order to draw your attention to what comes next: a gloved hand in Davy-Crockett-era 19th century Oregon Territory yanking mushrooms from the soil for cooking. This is boilerplate Reichardt: the stark presentation of images begging the audience to do the work. We end up where we start; you are what you eat; circle of living things, etc.

She then shifts gears away from the philosophical and spends about an hour establishing the friendship between a white frontiersman and a Chinese fugitive as they team up to steal the milk from the settlement’s only cow, and use it to bake “oily cakes” that they’ll sell for enough money to continue their journey. Outlaw-ism turns to capitalism turns to the establishment of everything that is America. To that end, this is a lot more fun to chew on during the drive home than it is to watch. In between the arresting opening and the typically abrupt, beautiful-but-ominous ending, there are a number of awkward and frankly terrible performances from non-professional actors (made worse by the commanding presence of the likes of Toby Jones and Ewen Bremner, bolstering perfectly fine lead work by Magaro and Lee). And I can’t remember a film with audio work this bad; so much of the dialogue sounds clearly ADR’d, with the foley work prominently forward in the mix to the point where it sounds like we’re watching a 1970s kung fu movie. Not the kind of shoddy craftsmanship I’d have expected on her seventh feature — but Reichardt is so good with composition, non-preachy dialogue, and small stories with grand ambitions that you mostly forgive these shortcomings. This isn’t one of her best films, but mediocre Reichardt is still smarter than your average bear, and you’ll leave the theater really wanting a donut.

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The Invisible Man — 7/10

THE INVISIBLE MAN (2020, Leigh Whannell)

It’s telling that the most suspenseful sequence in this movie has nothing to do with invisibility — it’s the opening few minutes, when Moss is escaping her abusive husband in the dead of night. Because the premise of this umpteenth take on the Wells novel is something Whannell spitballed off the top of his head in a pitch meeting with Blumhouse and Universal (before it was fast-tracked into production and released less than 12 months after US and 19 months after UPGRADE): it focuses on the victim of domestic violence, and asks us to believe women. Seems like an obvious take, but one we haven’t seen before — the titular man is a villainous monster whose head we’re never in, and who we never see outside of the POV of Moss’s unhinged, gaslighted protagonist. He’s not just invisible because of his brilliant invention; his crimes are invisible to anyone who won’t sit right next to the wife, watching her life get destroyed.

Whannell takes that premise and runs with it, letting Moss carry the entire load and she really lets ‘er rip throughout this — sometimes a little too much (she behaves so crazily at times you can’t even blame everyone else for thinking she’s insane) — proving she has as much range as you’ll give her. And while Moss grounds the battered-wife angle, Whannell’s shoddy, first-draft-scented script provides his usual grindhouse pleasures. It’s gory, unsettling, and revels in B-movie atmosphere. Sure, the story doesn’t make as much sense as you wish it would, and some details are slightly risible (what kind of cop does a covert stakeout with the dome light on in his car?) but what you remember days after watching this is the uncommon degree of control over camera movement, off-screen and on-screen space, silence-as-a-weapon, and general tone of unease, all serving to deliver the goods in a movie that puts a new horror spin on the concept of how difficult it is for abused spouses to get justice, and just how much of the world seems dedicated to choosing the side of the invisible man.

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The Assistant — 7/10

THE ASSISTANT (2020, Kitty Green)

A stripped-down, narrow-focused short story about how moral conscience is systematically eroded and virtually criminalized by the machine of powerful companies and, specifically, film production. Less a product of #MeToo journalism than it is a careful tone poem existing on the outskirts of a job swimming in ingrained sexual harassment and exploitation. What Green, a documentary filmmaker whose CASTING JONBENET was a deeply weird meta-text, is up to here is defining an environment through detail — she uses precise editing, minimal score, and especially well-attuned sound design to drape you in the hapless charade of being an office grunt: note in particular the hum of fluorescent lights as their buzz is the only accompaniment to the first employee of the day in a lonely, dark office at the crack of dawn; the scrape of a metallic tissue holder as it’s slid dispassionately across a wooden desk; and a fork piercing the plastic wrap of a frozen supermarket meal-for-one.

What Green is not doing is biting off more than she can chew. No characters have names (they do in the credits, but not to the audience) in a self-conscious bid to decry the anonymity and de-personalization of the industry. And the decision to never see the face of the Weinstein-esque boss feels like a callback to films such as RAISE THE RED LANTERN, which centered on the kept wives of a Chinese lord, never bothering to give him a face either. This sets a low degree of difficulty, since Green doesn’t really have a responsibility towards storytelling, and while she clears the mark, unfortunately DP Michael Latham does not. This thing looks like cold garbage: as if wax paper was taped to the lens as a filter, wiping every frame with a low-contrast digital smear. There’s a way good cinematographers capture the banality of Kafka-esque offices. This is not BRAZIL or THE HUDSUCKER PROXY. It’s a documentary cameraman seemingly out of his depth, and the ugliness doesn’t seem to be on purpose.

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2019 Year in Review

My 8th straight one of these, and this time — thanks to the Academy pushing up its award show a few weeks (now it’s Feb 9 instead of late Feb or early March, per usual), it comes in the thick of Oscar season. And ironically, I find myself more disillusioned and annoyed than ever by how seriously people take the Oscars — they’re a joke of an award (okay, maybe not as much as The Grammys or Golden Globes) based not on merit but on an insular world where politicking and campaigning earn accolades; where ballots are filled out by secretaries and children, or by voters who don’t even bother to watch many movies. Ironic, I say, because as you’ll soon see, my top ten list is cluttered with this year’s Oscar contenders. It’s like I’m more in lock step than ever with a glad-handing body of back-patting industry insiders that I find routinely corrupt and pointless, despite the obvious career and financial benefits earned by its winners. This year, almost purely by accident, the same films who ran good campaigns for movies made by and for said industry insiders also happened to be exceptionally well-made, galvanizing works of art.

Anyway, with only some further ado — that being the annual caveat that I’ve missed a few well-regarded movies — the best of a strong year in film (so strong that I cheated 12 titles onto my top 10):

2019 Top Ten

  1. THE IRISHMAN — A heavy and mournful capstone on Scorsese’s titanic career, but one that also manages to be deft, playful, and wry nevertheless. It’s every bit the American epic it purports to be, and anyone who confronts what it says about capitalism, crime, Catholicism, and mortality will come away with a richer soul and a brighter eye. Deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the best works by Welles, Coppola, Hitchcock, and Hawks.
  2. 1917 — Poisoned by more bad takes than JOKER, this rich and stirring existential juggernaut fuses form and content into a tight, ticking-clock adventure that smuggles in a heartbreaking message about the fallibility of mankind, and the infinite losses suffered by soldiers at war that extend beyond losses of life — to those of love, friendship, family, and a oneness with nature. To emerge from the closing credits is to experience a release of tension and emotion unmatched by almost anything I’ve seen in 20 years. To then witness the smug and facile dismissals by elitist cinephiles (feel free to Google 1917 and “video game” for the ultimate in depressing laziness) is like an ice bucket challenge.
  3. ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD — It may not be Tarantino’s most fleet-footed romp or his cleverest exercise in wordplay, but it could be among his most thoughtfully-considered treatises on the meaning of cinema, and the gap between what becomes of things on film and what the human condition is in reality — a gap that Tarantino wrestles with and presents with an optimistic adoration of art itself.
  4. HER SMELL — A shrill, off-putting opening act soon yields a bottomless depth of emotion and a character study drenched in rock-and-roll ethos, matched in every frame by a teeth-gnashing, fearless, once-in-a-generation performance by Elisabeth Moss.
  5. (tie) LEAVING NEVERLAND & APOLLO 11 — The former is a Sundance doc that only made it to HBO, but is a stinging contemplation of the true cost of sexual assault — the lifelong scars it creates and the snowballing effect of this particular series of assaults: because of the union between celebrity adulation, the abuse of power, and the familial cycle of violence. The latter is the flip side — an almost achingly optimistic ode to the goodness humankind can achieve when we work together with guileless competency. It’s a remarkable assembly of archival footage with peerless, transcendent use of music and editing, not only asserting the best of who we can be, but also highlighting just how far our empire has fallen.
  6. PARASITE — A clinic in film direction, both spatially and tonally, as Bong tops himself once again with this unforgettable razor blade against the cheek of class warfare. That most people can’t tell if it’s a comedy, a horror movie, a satire, a drama, or a fantasy is a testament to it just being a comet streaking through the sky.
  7. UNDER THE SILVER LAKE — A second viewing somehow made this more inscrutable, but that isn’t a drawback.
  8. UNCUT GEMS — More than just a neon-drenched disco ball of armpit-moistening terror, it’s also a study in exploitation of others and exploitation of the self. New York City calcifies and erodes Howard Ratner. And none of it works unless Adam Sandler is just that good.
  9. TOY STORY 4 — Against all odds, an unnecessary sequel that deepens the franchise’s reckoning with the loss of childhood, the tenuousness of identity, and the willful construction of community based on shared flaws and desires. Not to mention, on a technical level the animation is really outstanding — a feature unfairly ignored in year-end talk.
  10. (tie) PAIN & GLORY and SHADOW — Two features made by aging international auteurs proving just how good they are at storytelling and atmosphere. While Almodovar’s is soaking in color as a vivid memory of a life filled with both regret and invaluable adoration, Zhang’s is drained to a metallic silver, exposing the lack of vitality an identity crisis can cause. One is quiet and contemplative; the other is dynamic and tactile. Both are intelligent, neither should be missed.

Didn’t Quite Make the Cut: BOOKSMART, a visually assured debut from Olivia Wilde that remembers the jokes and delivers the honesty. KNIVES OUT is a screenwriting clinic and a stealthy indictment of 2019 America. And PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE is a breathy romance that seems to have been recorded on a matchstick and set ablaze by its actresses. Check it out when it gets a wide release next month. (There’s also plenty to admire about another tier of Honorable Mentions, like FIRST LOVE, LONG SHOT, US, THE LIGHTHOUSE, and LIGHT OF MY LIFE. This was a good year for movies).

And now, the requisite awards:

Best Director — Sam Mendes, 1917

Best Actor — Joaquin Phoenix, JOKER

Best Actress — Elisabeth Moss, HER SMELL

Best Supporting Actor — Shôta Sometani, FIRST LOVE

Best Supporting Actress — Fatma Mohamed, IN FABRIC

Best Screenplay — THE IRISHMAN (Steven Zaillian)

As usual, no worst or bottom 10 list. Needlessly punitive, vindictive, petty, and self-owning. I don’t even seek out movies that have potential for such a bullshit list anyway. Even some films that are heavy contenders for most other top 10 lists (MARRIAGE STORY, LITTLE WOMEN, ASH IS PUREST WHITE, CLIMAX) are films I thought were perfectly fine if not pretty good, so I can’t even cry overrated. Again: this was a good year for movies.

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Little Women — 6/10

LITTLE WOMEN (2019, Greta Gerwig)

It’s fine. Builds up steam as it goes and finishes strong, mostly on the shoulders of an exceptional cast doing their damndest. But it’s still another theatrically staged, respectable adaptation of a popular novel, and no amount of self-conscious meta-analysis and chronology blending can make up for the just-okayness of the story.

Hard to believe someone under 55 wrote the joke in the first five minutes where a character’s dress catches a flame from a nearby fireplace, a man says “You’re on fire!” and she says “I know,” smiling and writing furiously, only to be told again “No… YOU’RE ON FIRE!” which she finally notices before a helpful bystander stamps it out. How many times have you seen that hoary old dustbox of a scenario played out in movies and TV? I’m setting the over/under at 23.

By jumbling the timeline, Gerwig is calling attention to her own authorship of the story, but also making parallels with her protagonist — Jo, of course, was a writer in Alcott’s original novel, but here she’s also writing the novel “Little Women,” turning the movie into an exercise in nesting doll art-imitating-life-imitating-and-so-on, which then makes Gerwig more of the main character than Jo. By the end, Jo’s interactions with Tracy Letts’s publisher Mr. Dashwood mirror the true-life partnership between Alcott and Thomas Niles, right down to the perceived dullness of the first few chapters (and subsequent confidence instilled by the teens who loved it). All this sweaty metaness really just comes down to writing what you know, with little to no imagination.

So the result is some nice costumes, some manipulative tear-jerking amidst hermetic, handsomely-staged period sets, letting out almost no air aside from the performances of Timothée Chalamet and Florence Pugh, whose chemistry is off the charts and who reach heights of such earnestness and fiery three-dimensionality you wish Gerwig had gotten over herself and Jo’s narcissistic fealty (either to source novel or life experience, respectively) and just made a new story about those two. Then we might have been spared the hilarious miscasting of Bob Odenkirk as not only a Civil War vet but also as Meryl Streep’s brother.

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1917 — 10/10

1917 (2019, Sam Mendes)

I’m as surprised as you are! This thing has so much stacked against it, both fairly and unfairly. It’s unabashed Oscar bait with can’t-miss subject matter (the unsung heroes of WWI); a show-offy gimmick of basically being a oner a-la the mostly reviled BIRDMAN (it’s actually a “two-er,” since midway through it cuts to black and opens back up hours later); and directed by Sam Mendes, who’s never made a great film, and whose last effort, SPECTRE, was, if not the worst Bond movie ever, a numbing and dour slog through obligatory IP so bereft of creativity you’d think it was directed by Shawn Mendes.

And yet! Remember that scene in OLD SCHOOL when Will Ferrell’s lifetime-moron Frank seemingly gets possessed exorcist-style and defeats James Carville in a debate? I think that’s what happened to Mendes. Something entered his body and orchestrated this titanic ode to the human condition, a philosophical treatise on the relationship of cinema to the battlefield, and a visceral experience so vigorously lachrymose it forced me to pull over to the side of the road while driving home from the movie theater, sobbing violently in my car like Tom Hanks at the end of CAPTAIN PHILLIPS.

So let me start with a potential common complaint against this: i.e. the oner disease. Some critics so proud of their own ability to sniff out directorial arrogance have decided to categorically dismiss oner movies as showy and pointlessly distracting — and they’ll go into 1917 already hating it by design. But showy, by itself, isn’t necessarily bad. VERTIGO is showy, too. So what? If you’ve got it, flaunt it. And what Deakins is doing here is the opposite of distracting; he puts the camera in impressively head-scratching places in order to give you the sense of time uninterrupted (making the mid-film break and time jump all the more jarring) — an amount of time integral to the hero’s journey and a key ingredient of the suspenseful, harrowing odyssey Schofield and Blake embark upon.

In film language, if edit points are periods, then a oner can be a run-on sentence, but Mendes and Deakins find a poetry in the lack of periods, one that eluded BIRDMAN and VICTORIA (and maybe even RUSSIAN ARK?) — such as images that combine wide compositions, silhouettes, close-ups, two-shots, and inserts, all in one fluid three-second move. Deakins also wisely shies away from conventionally beautiful exterior lighting — these aren’t sun-dappled fields and lush forests: they’re gloomy, cloudy skies overseeing white-washed trenches of dead bodies; foggy, flame-scorched woods, evidence of the ghosts of battles left behind — much like the name “Karla” scrawled on a bunker wall in chalk with a heart on it, a masterfully subtle touch of production design to remind us of the shared humanity of our enemies.

And yet even within this carefully ugly visual palette, Deakins will follow up a vision of despair with a painterly composition two seconds later, simply by tilting up his camera to frame a weeping soldier in front of a floral tree and babbling creek. As Malick did with THE THIN RED LINE, Mendes juxtaposes the indifferent, awesome beauty of nature with the terror of war, placing our species’ innately entropic tendency towards violence in an environment of harmony and quiet peace. The sense of loss is palpable both in Schofield’s individual experience and in the grander portrait of an epoch of human history where inconceivable displays of savagery exist alongside displays of distinctly unique courage.

Like classic Greek theater, this movie takes place within 24 hours, but encompasses life born, lived, examined, and extinguished — our heroes awaken in a calm field to march unknowingly to their perilous orders; Schofield himself drinks milk in the adolescence of his journey, then later, in his hardened future, passes it along to an infant in a delicate display of fatherhood (and glimpse of familial life he’s avoided and may never achieve). He learns of mercy and of randomness, of loss and regret, of triumph and of absurdity, and of the capacity of humans at their lowest to bond in art, community, and performance. A bloodied hand is thrust into the cavity of a bloodier wound; an airplane crashes through a two-dimensional painting of a house once occupied; a scavenging rat can be responsible for tripping a wire that buries men alive; an encroaching figure can be friend or enemy, and only darkness can mask his identity… these are the pieces of a tapestry that evokes no less than the continued struggle we endure in order to find meaning in a meaningless world: a godless universe that heaps untold amounts of tragedy on the unsuspecting and the undeserving, and asks us to continue rolling the boulder up the hill. If we save lives, are we delaying the inevitable or rescuing generations? The answer will evade us eternally, and we can only rest periodically, putting our head against a tree, and close our eyes to dream of what could have been.

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Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker — 5/10

STAR WARS EPISODE IX: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER (2019, JJ Abrams)

[I’m going to spoil absolutely everything, in case you’re curious – consider yourself warned]

Ahhh, yes. That’s the Star Wars I recognize. With decades of throwaway kids movie after throwaway kids movie, it seemed clear this money-grubbing franchise dedicated more to disposable merchandise and tranquilizing children for two hours knew where its lane was. Then, starting in 2015, Lucasfilm accidentally made three actual good movies in a row: THE FORCE AWAKENS, ROGUE ONE (perhaps the best of the bunch), and THE LAST JEDI (easily the most challenging and artistic-minded one ever; as low as the bar was). I was fooled into thinking perhaps something might come of this. But then SOLO happened, and now the main-line episodes have wrapped up just like RETURN OF THE JEDI: a confused and desperate junkpile of lights and noises, appealing either to 8 year-olds or the 8 year-old brain inside the adults who have no interest in confronting any issue of substance.

There are brief instances in the screenplay where ARGO and BATMAN v SUPERMAN scribe Chris Terrio introduces his pet theme about the corruption of power and terrorism: a key line from Keri Russell (repeated later by Oscar Isaac) mentions that the Empire wins by making you think you’re alone; when actually “there are more of us.” One can extrapolate metaphors about how domestic terrorists (mass shooters, suicide bombers, alt-right Incels) are born; or even one about our current climate of Republicans vs. decent people. But even Terrio gets buried by Abrams’s larger concern, which is the difficult job of wrapping up dozens of disparate storylines in an ever-bloated universe, all while servicing fans like a greedy carnival barker. A creaky Billy Dee Williams is dressed up and shoved in front of the camera to spew some nonsense about how the real force was the friends we made along the way; cutting-room-floor footage of the late Carrie Fisher is retrofitted and CG’d into the story awkwardly; and cameos from Mark Hamill and Harrison Ford get to ghost-dad their way into cheesy goodbyes. It all reads like a massive corporation soothing its fickle and butt-hurt fanbase by petting its head, showing them their favorite toys, and letting them play for two hours without enforcing any rules, just so they can nap later this afternoon.

There are moments of earnest and earned humor (Abrams also delivered gags in FORCE AWAKENS that were the funniest parts of this whole franchise), and occasionally some terrific acting — especially from Adam Driver, who can say more with his face than any dialogue could convey. But there’s also cornball galore, and too many times where Daisy Ridley is saddled with green screen moments where she just scrunches up her face in fake-determination, hoping that whenever the VFX are finished her acting looks better (it doesn’t). The plot is characteristically ludicrous (grandpa Palpatine wants Rey to kill him; when she doesn’t he gets mad and tries to kill her, but then she kills him anyway; what?) and I couldn’t stop laughing when Poe is flying a spaceship and says he can see two human beings from miles away just clinging to a bar. It’s Lucasfilm’s fault for delivering a thoroughly mediocre theme park ride disguised as expensive entertainment. But it’s my fault for expecting anything better.

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