Monthly Archives: January 2020

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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