It’s bad enough to try and put together of a “best of” music post at the end of the year, but with film distribution realities and the cavalcade of prestige films that happen at the very end of the year to impress Oscar voters, it’s really impossible to do so with film unless you are a professional critic. Then there’s the fact that you only have so much time and that film is a truly international phenomenon and that you have to find and watch those. A decade ago, I used to keep up on this well enough to do a Best Movies list on the date of the Oscars. But then that faded for several years and I didn’t go to the movies that often. Last year, I started reclaiming that part of my life and this year, I have watched a good number of films, enough to do this post as we hit Oscars Night tonight.
Now, I haven’t intentionally seen the Oscar-nominated films just in an attempt to comment on them. My interest in seeing Joker and JoJo Rabbit is almost zero. I wouldn’t mind seeing Ford v. Ferrari, but I haven’t. Somehow I haven’t made it out to see Little Women and that’s a real gap given the reviews. I haven’t seen 1917 either and while I suppose I will, it seems to be on basically no one’s best films of 2019 list even though it is going to win Best Picture. Well, it hardly takes genius to impress the mediocrities that vote on this, as we have seen again and again and again over the years.
But in any case, I’ve seen a lot of good movies this year and while this list would obviously change with any more films added, here’s the best of what I’ve seen of the 2019 crop.
- Parasite–Bong Joon Ho has been brilliant for many years, going back to Memories of Murder in 2003 and to greater international attention with Okja and Snowpiercer. This film shouldn’t have worked as well as it did. Creating a semi-farce with the thesis that the poor have to be brilliant to survive while the rich can be dumb as rocks should have faltered on the precipice of the mix of the politics, the humor, and the thriller that makes up the film. But it works perfectly, a truly great film that is one of the most powerful cinematic statements of the global Gilded Age. Not only the best film of 2019 but it has a case as the best film of the entire 2010s.
- Uncut Gems–Adam Sandler has always had good performances within him, such as in Punch-Drunk Love. But they’ve been few and far between. The Safdie Brothers are able to harness that manic energy in a tale of a scumbag jewelry dealer in the New York Diamond District, his various schemes and scams, his gambling habits, and his interaction with Kevin Garnett, who is great as himself. Not a relaxing film, as the entire dialogue is a 2-hour festival of people yelling, but the tension remains almost perfectly high throughout. Very fine film.
- Marriage Story–I thought this was Noah Baumbach’s finest film since The Squid and the Whale. Sure, they are both divorce stories. Well, how many times did Ingmar Bergman tell the same story, also often about disastrous marriages among artists? The question is not whether it is repetitive, it’s whether it moves the ideas forward. And this does, no question. Adam Driver is especially fantastic as the male side of this divorcing couple. Laura Dern is certainly deserving in her likely Best Supporting Actress tonight. This is some of Scarlet Johansson’s finest work and it was great just to see Alan Alda and Ray Liotta still working. Powerful stuff.
- Birds of Passage–Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego (The Wind Journeys, Embrace of the Serpent) team up again to tell another story about Colombian life and mythology. With an ethnologist’s eye and without the condescension that could torpedo a film like this, they tell the story of how the global drug trade destroys tradition among the Wayuu people of northern Colombia in the 1970s. The structure of the story is pretty typical gangland action–small-timers get big, people are betrayed, families are destroyed, violent revenge happens, everyone loses in the end–but within that genre, this is the more interesting of the year’s two major gangster films, a cultural tragedy in addition to a personal one. Quality performances from Jose Acosta and Carmiña Martinez particularly make this a deeply powerful story. Well worth your time.
- Once Upon a Time in Hollywood–Quentin Tarantino’s film is mostly perfect. It was interesting how many of the reviews were not happy that he took such a negative look at the 60s and the counterculture, and maybe this is me growing up in Eugene, but I really appreciated that part of the film, with its refusal to turn a blind eye to all the really awful stuff of that period and if it leads to some nostalgic longings of its two aging main characters to the surer days of the 1950s and early 1960s, well, one can see why perhaps. Wrapping this movie around the Manson Family and its murder of Sharon Tate (or is it Sharon Tate they will try to murder??) is great if tasteless, just because it pokes holes in 1960s self-aggrandizing mythology. One almost forgets that they are watching a Tarantino movie with the lack of violence until the last 15 minutes and then the violence hits in one of the most glorious and funny mass-violence endings to a movie I have ever seen. Great work from DiCaprio and Pitt as well.
- The Irishman–This is mid-major Scorsese. It’s not Raging Bull and Goodfellas and Taxi Driver. It’s more at the level of The Departed or, say, Kundun, which I personally like a lot. It received a lot of attention this year for several reasons that have little to do with the movie itself. One was Scorsese getting the gang back together one more time. One was the Marvel v. Scorsese war. Another was the de-aging technology used in the film. But as for the film itself, other than it being a bit too long, I thought it was very solid. Joe Pesci was outstanding, I am happy to have lived long enough to see Al Pacino ham it up as Jimmy Hoffa, and DeNiro actually tried for the first time in 20 years, even if he simply can’t move like a young man. I appreciated how Scorsese finally created a tale that does not allow one to romanticize these bad people, even if you tried. These are all just awful humans. And while the lack of words for the Anna Paquin character might be indicative of Scorsese’s lack of good roles for women (though from Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore to the Mary Magdalene character in Last Temptation of Christ this really isn’t true), it also works that someone is the silent voice of sheer disgust at what is happening. Not a brilliant film, but an entirely worthy late career entry into the work of the world’s greatest living director. Plus I got to see it on the big screen, which was awesome.
- The Lighthouse–Do I want to see Willem Dafoe have the time of his life spewing sea blarney for 2 hours while watching over a desolated lighthouse and bossing Robert Pattinson around? Yes, yes I do. It’s a blast. Both actors are great and I’m surprised that neither got any Oscar nomination love for their work. The film slips a bit at the end when Robert Eggers can’t really escape a somewhat typical mysterious horror film ending that doesn’t quite work.
- Knives Out–Pure, unadulterated New Gilded Age entertainment from Rian Johnson. From Daniel Craig’s ridiculous southern accent to the fact that none of the family members know what country their maid is from to Don Johnson’s MAGA speeches, this is a savage satire of the rich in an age of self-pieties toward tolerance in the face of massive greed. My favorite bit–even the Gender Studies major is a horrible human being when the money is on the line.
- Booksmart–I was surprised this didn’t get more end of the year list love. What a great, profane, awesome coming of age comedy from Olivia Wilde. Both Kaitlyn Dever (who I knew from Justified) and Beanie Feldstein are riotously funny. The only thing that ran untrue was that every student in the school was actually going to the elite college of their choice, but maybe that does make sense in the rich L.A. world in which these characters live. Great supporting turns from Lisa Kudrow and Will Forte (and the teddy bear). Good stuff.
- Ash is Purest White–In many Chinese films, gunplay is a given, part of a mythology about triads in a society that doesn’t actually have that many guns. Jia Zhangke’s superb new film about low-level gangsters in a rapidly changing China reverses that, showing how one mere gunshot–used by a woman shooting a warning shot in the air to save her gangster’s boyfriend’s life–can have life-altering experiences in real-life China. Tao Zhao gives one of the best performances by any actor in 2019 is Qiao, the woman who fires that gun and then lives to pay the price. Very worthy work.
- Pain and Glory–Not Pedro Almodovar’s greatest work, but certainly a very strong one, with a fantastic performance by Antonio Banderas as an Almodovar-like director who is suffering from a combination of physical aliments and neuroses that have placed him in a state of hiding and, for awhile here, heroin usage. Told as a series of vignettes that force the director to deal with his personal past, it’s a touching and often funny film.
- Apollo 11–It’s kind of easy to make a good documentary with a whole bunch of NASA footage from the Apollo 11 moon landing. But Todd Douglas Miller does a good job with it, with a significant assist on the Moog-heavy soundtrack. Hard to argue with the idea of spending an evening with this film.
- Shadow–Zhang Yimou is a long way from his glory days of politically charged films such as To Live and Raise the Red Lantern. But he’s also moved away from his bought man of the Chinese government aftermath that seemed to betray his early career. He’s now making solid film after solid film and this slow-burning and cinematically beautiful story of a wounded warrior getting revenge with a double is a worthy addition to his catalog.
- American Factory–Not sure this Obama-produced documentary of Chinese owners taking over a closed GM factory in Dayton is a great movie exactly, but it is a fascinating and disturbing look at industrialization in the Gilded Age. Since the Chinese owners seemed to think they were going to come out as the heroes saving the community, the filmmakers received full access. Between listening to how the Chinese discuss the Americans (they believe they are a superior race, basically) to the open hatred of the American plant managers toward unions, it is a powerful look at the plight of industrial workers today. I will definitely show this the next time I teach U.S. Labor History.
- A Hidden Life–Well, it was nice to see Terence Malick make a movie that made a lick of sense for once. This was a significant improvement over his recent disasters, his self-indulgent tendencies finally tethered to something that matters. This is basically The Passion of Joan of Arc rewritten for the Nazis and with lots of voiceovers and landscape shots. But the stories are nearly the same. The Malick style doesn’t work as well when the hero is in prison in the second half; claustrophobia has never been his forte. But I was very happy to see a good Malick film and in the theatre no less.
- A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood–I was prepared to hate this movie and then did not. Tom Hanks, in his friendly, old Hollywood way, was perfect as Fred Rogers and going for a real story, based on a cynical journalist who famously wrote a profile about how Rogers saved his life, worked way, way better than a biopic method would have. Surprisingly decent.
- Amazing Grace–Back in 1972, when Aretha Franklin decided to record a live gospel album–one of her classics, Amazing Grace–Sydney Pollak recorded it for a documentary. But there were a lot of mistakes in the production, including the inability to line up which takes were which since the notes didn’t exist that could match the sound and visuals up. It was a lost opportunity. But a painstaking process was completed to fix this and the film was released early in 2019. It’s a very interesting concert film. Maybe not a great film, but certainly a great look at the black church elite in the early 1970s, including Franklin’s famous father, and of course at this great artist.
- Dolemite Is My Name–Craig Brewer’s biopic of Rudy Ray Moore is shallow, but entertaining. The fact is that Eddie Murphy is far more charismatic than Moore ever was and he brings it all to this role, one of his best performances in years. He should have an Oscar nomination for this. And the rest of the film is pretty funny, which even in a typical shallow biopic, makes it above average.
Well, there’s lots more 2019 movies to see, but let this be a pre-Oscars open thread, so long as there are no politics in it except as is reflected in film. Maybe we will have an Oscars open thread too.