The Great 2019 Movie Chase
Whew. Wow. 2019 was a wild year for me on the movie front. I had intense periods of engagement with film, film criticism (at least in the Twitterverse), and film podcasts. On the other hand, I also had loooooooong periods of complete detachment from all of those things either because I was ultra busy or the release schedule was ultra subpar (like this extremely blah summer). Fortunately, I had time right when the release schedule got completely extra and here we on, on the other side of the finish line (except for Oscar prep).
My overall impression of the year, even with the wind sprint is . . . that it was awesome. We can decry the blockbusterization of the movie industry like Marty, and I kinda think we should, because the blockbusters were a big blob of shoulder shrug emoji this year. But. Despite those structural headwinds, the non-theme park rides had an awesome year, in terms of quality and for some even at the box office. I won’t bore you much with that, but Uncut Gems, a hard-R indie about an unlikable man making horrible decisions made $24 million. Ford v Ferrari, a standalone passion project, made over $100 million in the US alone. Knives Out, a completely original story with no pre-existing IP grossed over $200 million worldwide. This might not last, but let’s take a moment to savor it.
This is #NotATopTen, more of a whirlwind tour of my scrambled thoughts on this year’s highlights. No rankings here (they’re here, ish), just escalating enthusiasm for what a given movie did to me this year.
It was not a great year for those blockbusters in terms of quality (Disney did alright at the box office, maybe kinda making Scorcese’s point). We got off to a promising start with the boisterous ’90s awesomeness of Captain Marvel, a film whose heroine and hero shots I unabashedly love. Avengers: Endgame never had a chance to be that, it just had too much plot work to do, but still, it managed to be emotionally satisfying by the end (RIP Tony Stark). The Rise of Skywalker was less satisfying than Avengers, but it wasn’t far off (save the flames for the TRoS post). John Wick 3: Parabellum was not as perfect a blend of craft, style, story, and emotional heft as the first, but that’s a very unfair bar as the series continues to be an incredibly imaginative showcase for martial artists, action directors, and violence designers, so yeah, I guess I’m back for the next one. Terminator: Dark Fate was a delightful surprise because it was way better than not terrible. Turns out building a story around Sarah Connor’s blistering mantra from T2, “No fate but what we make,” is a good formula for a solid Terminator flick (and a particularly useful philosophy right about now).
2019: A Good Year to Groove
Before we get to the main event, we gotta talk about music at the movies this year. There have been some incredible soundtracks this year. Captain Marvel featured some classic ’90s tracks; Hustlers, made the absolute most out of the first approved use of Fiona Apple’s “Criminal” in a feature film; Booksmart’s director Olivia Wilde wrote a letter to Alanis so she could have Kaitlyn Dever bet the crap out of “You Oughta Know” plus she got an awesome score from Dan the Automator; Us made spectacularly creepy use of “I Got Five on It” and many other songs. And the scores, there were so many scores taking me deeper into so many films this Little Women, Knives Out, Atlantics, Uncut Gems, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood . . . So, so much great work.
On top of the outstanding scores and soundtracks though, there have been some great movies by and/or about musicians as well. In case you needed a reminder, Beyoncé made a documentary about the making of her legendary HBCU themed set at Coachella called Homecoming, it’s on Netflix, you may have heard about it. I was lucky enough to see the webcast of that set, but even if you haven’t, it’s flippin’ Beyoncé at the height of her considerable powers showing off the incredible collaborators she surrounded herself with. While Her Smell, another intense collab between Alex Ross Perry and Elisabeth Moss, is a tough sit, it’s also a fascinating exploration of the psychic breakdown of a punk rocker whose ongoing implosion threatens to drag her family and the next generation of artists into her paranoid black hole. Teen Spirit (on Hulu!) is a hella stylish making of a star movie that features real life, well, star and model Elle Fanning in the central role, so it’s got extra meta-levels for anyone who needs more than incredible cinematography and solid Europop bops. The very last film in my calendar year, Wild Rose, was set aside specifically for the music angle after Tasha Robinson recommended it so highly on Filmspotting. Wild Rose is about a Scottish country singer, Rose-Lynn Harlan, played by Jessie Buckley, who sings the crap out of the part and co-wrote some of the original songs. Nicole Taylor, the screenwriter, has given us a full on Loretta Lynn grade backstory involving prison and Rose-Lynn’s struggle to raise 2 kids she had before she was 18. Wild Rose is affecting and inspiring as hell with inspo from Wynona, Leanne Womack, Emmylou Harris, (and in movie performances from Ashley McBride and Kacey Musgraves). Make art where and who you are is great energy to bring into 2020.
Poetry at the Movies
The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a shaggy tone poem about two friends and a house they lovingly tend to, but do not own, in a now gentrified part of San Francisco. It’s a jumble of thoughts about the lengths we go to preserve our self-made myths, especially when those myths are meant as an antidote for the poisonous narratives threatening our sanity and our lives, as well as the public and private performance of masculinity in the black community. It is so packed with ideas and imagery that it collapses a bit in on itself by the end, but I was kept in it by the glorious chemistry and genuinely potent masculine bonding between its two leads, Jimmy Fails (that’s his character name as well, as I said, lots of ideas) and Jonathan Majors.
Part of my brain and soul will always be dedicated to Germany and German culture history so The Farewell’s exploration of family dynamics and cultural intersections amongst a far flung diaspora really hit me. The matriarch of this sprawling family, Nai Nai is diagnosed with terminal cancer, but her immediate family struggles to tell her that (presumably the Actual Lie of the tagline). In some ways The Farewell is the opposite of The Last Black Man in San Francisco which was excessively and performatively expressive, the film examines heartfelt family relationships and awkward marriage expectations and struggles to understand your family’s choices where none of the characters are quite able to say any of it out loud.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a crushingly beautiful documentary wrestling with the profound work Mr. Rogers did with his children’s show, so the bar for judging a fiction film that tackles the same subject is VERY high. Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood very much clears the bar the documentary sent, in many ways by taking on the same challenge to avoid presenting Fred Rogers as a singular individual whose goodness is unattainable, and instead help us learn to apply the work Mr. Rogers did with children as adults. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is based on an Esquire profile of Mr. Rogers by Tom Junod, which Heller has fictionalized a bit and subsequently framed as an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, a wonderful choice that lets Heller bring Fred Rogers’ process of working on the show and on himself into the film. Heller’s production team built out the miniature worlds of the show exquisitely, expanding the the Neighborhood into the real world. Heller’s film is a loving homage to the depth of the worlds that Rogers created from within himself, his effectiveness at using those worlds to heal and to teach, without ever straying into treacle or condescension.
Very Good Movies I Might Watch Again
I have so many reasons to love Hustlers. First of all, it’s the best film about the financial crisis since The Big Short. It’s animated by the same sense of indignation at the grotesque success of horrible people and the wreckage they created as that film and frankly, there should be more of those (I’m working on one myself, so I am probably biased). Second, Hustlers is anchored by two dynamite performances. Constance Wu plays Destiny, the ingenue stripper struggling to support her family, who provides our gateway into this world. We have to empathize with her struggle and understand her choices and Wu captures Destiny’s journey and contradictions very well. And then there is, Jennifer Lopez, holy crap. Our first encounter with J. Lo’s Ramona is when J. Lo struts out a dance to Fiona Apple’s “Criminal” that puts Destiny’s jaw on the floor along with ours. Lopez’s performance never comes down from there. This is Jennifer Lopez’s best work since Out of Sight and I want to be clear, that means I think it was great. Lopez is great in Hustlers. J. Lo brings the perfect combination of artistic craft, incandescent stage presence, and megawatt star personality. There is a moment when Usher, as himself, ambles up to the stage where Ramona asks him what his name is and there Usher is a good enough actor can contain his disbelief that this is happening, that J. Lo is coming off the stage to ask him his name. I don’t know who else could have turned a giant R&B star into jelly like that. Hustlers is also based on a longform article and while many folks struggled with Julia Stiles playing a fictionalized version of the real reporter, I think that framing of the story is essential because it gets us to think just enough about unreliable narrators to keep the movie from being a bit too unconcerned with the ethics of stealing from thieves and what that can do to our consciences.
Tarantino is, as ever, a divisive filmmaker and there were lots of upset people (especially about Bruce Lee and some maybe too casual reference to wife murder), but . . . I really liked Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood (as I wrote earlier in the year). It might be Leo DiCaprio’s best work ever, including a scene that is utterly stolen by child actor Julia Butters but which only works because DiCaprio is so on form (the entire sequence on the set of that Western with Butters and Timothy Olyphant is pastiche infused filmmaking at its best). Pitt’s Cali cool and PTSD inspired calm are not as showy as DiCaprio’s maudlin drunk, but I think it is a similarly great performance. Margot Robbie, despite her dearth of lines, has an incredible sequence in the middle of the film where she watches footage of the actual Sharon Tate in her last movie and it’s so many things all at once. On top of all the other stuff, OUATIH is easily one of the most detailed and faithful retellings of the Manson killings out there (though I do still need to catch up with Mary Harron and Guinevere Turner’s Charlie Says). Even if . . . well, the murders themselves don’t actually happen in this Hollywood fairy tale. You don’t need to know Helter Skelter or Karina Longworth’s incredible podcast series on Charles Manson’s Hollywood, but if you do know it . . .
Great Movies I May Never See Again
This is the hard part. I am definitely recommending these movies BUT they are all challenging. These films all explore truly harrowing behavior and its often disastrous consequences. I would not describe any of them as enjoyable experiences, so if that’s what you’re looking for, you are more than welcome to skip ahead. Personally, though I am extremely glad I saw these movies.
Uncut Gems possesses exactly the kind of New York indie aesthetic that you would expect from, uh, indie filmmakers from New York like the Safdie Brothers. It’s raw, foul-mouthed, gritty, sure, but it is all of those things at, like, 11 out of 10. The camera and Adam Sandler’s struggling jeweler Howard Ratner are in constant motion. Ratner owes a lot of money to dangerous people, he simply does not stop trying to work an angle, work a score (it’s entirely likely that he could not stop, even if he wanted to). He’s, well, he’s a hustler who makes such regularly terrible decisions that Adam Sandler needs every ounce of his considerable cinematic charm to keep you hanging on, hoping he can come out clean just once. The Safdie Brothers fill their story with a number of interesting twists on the traditional inveterate loser story, including the most sympathetic portrait of a mistress I think I’ve ever seen. It’s a striking balance of feeling like you have a handle on people, without ever being quite sure enough to know what’s going to happen. It’s masterful filmmaking right to the bitter end.
Claire Denis’ High Life might be meticulous in attending to the physics of her story set in a spaceship circling a black hole, but she is not interested in the antiseptic and mechanistic standards of most spaceship-based sci-fi. She is supremely interested in exploring human physicality and the extremes of the human psyche and body. Denis’ space ship is full of convicted criminals sent on a mission that everyone understands is a one way trip. From that bleak premise, Denis wrings her characters out as they wrestle with themselves and each other and their desires at the ragged, bleeding edge of humanity. Juliet Binoche is riveting as a scientist-cum-witch-doctor stealing what she wants from the bodies around her under the cover of the authority of an abusrd mission that slowly erodes. The center of the film, however is Monte, played by Robert Pattinson, who continues to prove that he is a daring and talented actor unafraid of any kind of challenge. Monte begins the film alone on this ship except for a little girl, Willow. The film cuts back and forth between Monte and Willow’s hardscrabble existence on the deteriorating spacecraft and the bitter story of Willow’s strange parentage. When the deteroriation of their home goes too far, Willow and Monte face a stark choice. It says a lot about how you see the world whether you consider the ending to be hopeful or hopelessly bleak. I change my mind about it all the time.
The Babadook is one of the many excellent, recent horror films that are about so much more than the scares, so I have been looking forward to Jennifer Kent’s second film for awhile. The Nightingale is not technically a horror film, but it is still harrowing, quite explicitly wrestling with rape and murder and personal trauma so great you just want to murder someone. That just about covers the first 20 minutes and what Jennifer Kent does from there is to refuse the viewer any visceral, proxy pleasure associated with the simple catharsis of revenge. Clare is an Irish convict banished to Tasmania played by Aisling Franciosi (from The Fall!) who might be righteous in her search for retribution but she is also so lost in her own racism that her abuse of her Aboriginal guide Billy, played by Baykali Ganambarr (who also helped compose the songs his character sings) shocks us into reconsidering the concept of righteous anger altogether. The bulk of the film, Kent explores the multiple forms of horrific physical and psychological damage inflicted by abusers/colonizers on everything around them and the cascade of damage that causes. The Nightingale is shot in Academy ratio (4:3) and the nearly square frame makes the whole film feel claustrophobic despite taking place, for the most part, in the Tasmania wilderness. By the end of the film, we are left to ponder the costs of revenge which does not erase the trauma and how and what kind of healing might even be possible.
Stone Cold Masterpieces
I think it is a tragedy that Booksmart did not kill it at the box office. It features a great score from Dan the Automator, as I mentioned, and it has many, many other killer soundtrack choices (including an iconic use of Perfume Genius’ insanely good “Slip Away”). In addition to all the good music, Booksmart is stuffed to the gills with excellent acting, especially the glue roles that can really tie these crazy ensemble movies together. Billie Lourd is the best of those, an utterly, impossibly outlandish woman named Gigi, who really ties the film together. None of that ensemble synergy would shine so brightly if it weren’t for the brilliant central performances from Kaitlyn Dever (who was devastatingly good in a completely different way in Unbelievable) and Beanie Feldstein. Their chemistry is great, it’s impossible to tell when an ad lib ends and Katie Silberman’s script begins, the energy and verbal motion between them is crackling. The movie is every bit the R-rated cringe factory that Superbad was, but it digs deeper into the core relationships and what it means to be young and a woman, and not just for our protagonists. I adored this movie, it’s on Hulu, you’re welcome.
Now that I have my idiosyncratic pick out of the way (most folks are probably not going to associate the word “masterpiece” and Booksmart, I get it, that’s fine), let’s rock some chalk.
Parasite has been at the top of everyone’s lists since it premiered at Cannes in May and won the Palme d’Or. To see Parasite is to sing its praises. Bong Joon-Ho is a filmmaker with a keen eye for the brutal inequality between rich and poor and the merciless ways the rich enforce that gap (this is after all what Snowpiercer and Okja are basically about). Parasite might be the Bong film that is most sympathetic to the rich people in that it does not ascribe innate, brutal direct oppression to them, but it never loses sight of their complicity in that oppression, so our perspective and our sympathies lie with the poor family grifting out survival working as a team. Parasite would probably be a great film if that was the only level on which such terrain is explored but Bong has that extra gonzo gear, so he built a gloriously specific house that lets him dig a lot deeper than that. I’m not one to shy from spoilers, as April Wolfe says every week on Switchblade Sisters, it’s not what happens, but how it happens that matters, but Parasite is such an exceptional ride that it would be churlish to spend any more time talking about the plot. Just find it and watch it, the most imaginative and expressive exploration and meditation on the ethics of inequality out there today.
And finally, we come to Little Women, my favorite experience weeping in public all year. I’m a big fan of the novel, I read it many times growing up and I even like the 1994 film version with Claire Danes and Wynona Ryder and Christian Bale. But Gerwig’s take hit me in a different place, still in the gut, hence the tears, than that movie or even the book. Gerwig’s little women are so vibrantly alive and she, and Yorick Le Saux’s camera, are so in love with these women that it made me feel like I had maybe never really understood the novel. That love bursts from the screen right from the beginning and drew tears of awe from my eyes almost immediately. The sheer vitality of Saoirse Ronan is undeniable in those opening moments, but the velocity and messiness of the world she has launched herself into is absolutely breathtaking. There is a tendency when making adaptations from a beloved property to lean too heavily on the words as they exist on the page and to treat those words with too much reverence. I see this all the time in theatre, especially working on Shakespeare. In Gerwig’s adaptation, the words spill out of her characters, they overlap, there‘s no preciousness. I’ve never seen the famous vivaciousness and boisterousness of the March sisters, the energy and connection that makes Laurie fall in love with all of them so clearly. On top of all of that life, which would be enough to make this Little Women a great movie, Gerwig genuinely wrestles with the contradictions of having a prodigious character like Jo, who does not need a man to live or to fall in love to drink deeply of life, who bristles with anger at the cultural condescension toward women, end up conveniently meeting someone she can marry. The tagline of Little Women is “Own your story” and Gerwig ensures that Jo, and you can’t help but feel by proxy, not Louisa May Alcott but Greta Gerwig, owns hers. That extra level of meaning, created with such a deft touch, is what turns a great movie into a perfect one for me.
And that’s it! We made it. Hopefully you nodded your head at the films you loved or you got moved to find out what’s up with something else you meant to see but didn’t. I have no idea what 2020 will bring, here’s hoping it’s as good as 2019. Until next year. Oh, crap. It is next year. Well. I have to use the last of this pizza dough and I swear I won’t keep screwing it up. See you at the movies!