Tuesday, February 04, 2020

The Tethered, the Manson Family, and May Queens, Oh My! The Best Films of 2019

I think it put it nicely last year: "Another year another list of the best films of the year. It was a pretty great year. Such a great mix of films, funny, scary, sad; the year brought me through various emotions. My criteria for the best movies of the year are based purely on two main factors: artistic merit and pure rewatchability. These are the movies that I would want to watch again and again and ones I feel like have something to say either artistically or about the world around us. They may not all be instant classics and they may not be YOUR choices but that’s what so great about opinions, everyone has them and no one is ever wrong. Let's do this."

1) Us (dir. Jordan Peele). Mr. Peele did it again. Another winning Twilight Zone-like thriller this time about the end of the world. Marketed as an intense home invasion movie, the film is actually of a much larger scale and has a lot to say about society (like "Parasite"). And best of all for the viewer the film asks more questions than it answers which leaves the audience with enough fun stuff to chew on afterwards. An outstanding cast led by an amazing Lupita Nyong’o, a witty script about killer doppelgangers, an utterly fantastic music score from Michael Abels, and fun symbolism & clever Easter eggs (plus leftover rabbits from The Favorite!) set the stage for this scary – and surprisingly funny – good time; a movie I haven’t been able to stop thinking about since its March release. I can’t wait to see what Jordan Peele’s brain concocts next.

2) Avengers: Endgame (dir. Anthony Russo, Joe Russo) Easily the most satisfying film of the year, this action-packed, emotionally draining end-cap to a decade-plus worth of entertaining, big budget world building packs a wallop of fun. The film is a direct follow-up to 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War where the evil Thanos used the infinity stones to wipe out half of the world’s population, including many of the Avengers themselves. The first act of the film is set several years later as the remaining Avengers deal with the aftermath. Then the film takes a fun detour into Back to the Future II territory by time traveling into the events of the previous Marvel movies as a final stand. The film is utterly fantastic for those who are into this sort of thing – sure it’s just a studio “product” but it’s one made with heart and is a rousing crowd-pleaser. I’ve watched this film over and over again and get completely lost in the 3 hour epic that is filled with fun performances, a wonderful Alan Silvestri score, and a bittersweet ending that pays off in spades.

3) Marriage Story (dir. Noah Baumbach) Isn’t divorce fun?? A modern day “adult drama” in the vein of Kramer Vs. Kramer, “Marriage Story” follows a couple on the brink of divorce and how it affects them and their child. Weaving equal parts humor and humanity, Baumbach directs his leads Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver to career high performances (not to mention a fantastic supporting cast). Best of all he refuses to make either character the villain or hero – you can easily identify with either based on your own personal take (for the record, I sided with both of them, sue me). The film introduces these extremely likable people and puts them through an emotional wringer, introducing smarmy divorce lawyers and wacky family members along the way (praise be to Julie Hagerty). The film works in vignettes and recalls the brilliant work of filmmakers like Woody Allen and James L. Brooks. The movie’s opening and closing moments are magnificent; I just want give this movie a hug and sing “Being Alive.”

4) Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (dir. Quentin Tarantino) Quentin Tarantino’s gorgeous love letter to Hollywood. Leonardo and Brad are simply fantastic here as an aging movie star and stunt double respectively. Tarantino expertly weaves together his fictional characters and real life people, like actress Sharon Tate (a wide-eyed, infectious Margot Robbie) and the Mansion clan and takes a note from his revisionist history expertise. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Tarantino’s previous historical dramas but this Hollywood-set adventure really spoke to me in a way the others haven’t. Easily Tarantino’s best movie since the first Kill Bill, the film oozes with period details and moments of comedy and humanity. The film offers a fantastic setup for a climatic final act that is utterly Tarantino. This is the closest we’ll ever get to Tarantino making a fairy tale and it’s a glorious good time.

5) Jojo Rabbit (dir. Taika Waititi) What a delightfully wacky and beautiful film this is. Taika Waititi’s glorious satire is set in Nazi Germany and offers a quirky tale of a Nazi idolizing boy named Jojo who is shocked to learn that his mother is hiding a Jewish girl in their home. Oh and his imaginary friend is Hitler and he’s played by Taika Waititi. An all-star cast is completely game for this wacky film that is at times side-splittingly hilarious and then also dead serious. Waititi lampooning Nazism isn’t a new thing, but in this day and age it’s a shocking wake-up call to our horrifying past. Roman Griffin Davis is spectacular in the lead role as are his other young co-stars. Scarlett Johansson gives another charming performance here. For some reason this film has endured an unfair backlash and I have no idea why; this is far from the typical WWII drama so anyone who insists this is Oscar bait is wildly off base. This really shows Waititi showing his skills and I can’t wait to follow his career from here on out.

6) Midsommar (dir. Ari Aster) Along with Jordan Peele, Ari Aster is two for two as far as I’m concerned. Midsommar, like Hereditary, is a disturbing horror tale, but the approach is wildly different. Set in sun-soaked summery Sweden, this dark tale is a complete contrast to its bright and sunny locations. The film follows a young woman named Dani (soon-to-be-big-deal Florence Pugh) who travels to Sweden with her boyfriend and his friends after recently suffering a family tragedy. The young couple’s already rocky relationship is tested when they visit their friend’s creepy commune to witness an authentic midsommar festival. They should of stayed home… Midsommar is bathed in gorgeous bright lighting and colors. What a beautiful and disturbing film.

7) Booksmart (dir. Oliva Wilde) Essentially a “female Superbad” - but oh so much more - this uproarious and beautiful film finds two straight-laced high school seniors on the brink of graduation making the decision to have a night of debauchery when they realize their goofball classmates got into great colleges AND partied hard all four years. Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever are perfectly cast and have amazing chemistry as best friends who hesitantly try to cram four years of fun into one night. The film is filled to the brim with fun and wacky characters but the film really has something to say about the perspectives of young people you rarely get to see in mainstream films. This hilarious film deserves all the pomp and circumstance its received since its release.

8) 1917 (dir. Sam Mendes) The best war films aren’t really about war and nothing is more of a prime example of that than Sam Mendes’ WWI thriller 1917. A race against time, the film follows two British soldiers on a seemingly impossible mission. The entire film is a simulated long take – stitched together to appear as if there are no edits – and is a sight to behold. It’s not a new concept; Alfred Hitchcock basically pulled it off in 1948’s Rope. And “Birdman” even pulled off a Best Picture win just a few years ago, but this experiment has never been done on such a huge scale. Mendes and his wondrous team somehow pulled it off and it’s glorious.

9) Parasite (dir. Bong Joon Ho) This is the movie that you can’t stop thinking about once you’ve seen it; as if it’s burrowed into your brain like, well, a parasite. This thrilling dark comedy from South Korean auteur Bong Joon Ho is certainly one of the most original and expertly made films in quite some time. As someone who sees watching foreign films sometimes as a bit of a chore (all that reading!) I found this endeavor particularly digestible. A fascinating take on the upstairs/downstairs concept (not unlike let’s say “Us”) this brilliant social commentary about the haves vs the have-nots is so well crafted throughout you just simply can’t believe what you’re watching. A poor family cons their way into the lives of a rich family and then, well, to know any more is to ruin the experience. See this striking film now.

10) Knives Out (dir. Rian Johnson) Way more than just an update of Clue, “Knives Out” is a spectacularly fun ode to the mystery drama while also attempting to make a statement about the world we live in. An absolute dynamite cast highlights this fun little flick about a rich family patriach who seemingly dies from natural causes… but someone suspects foul play. Enter Daniel Craig and his syrupy Southern accent as he tries to make sense of the case. Everyone is firing on all cylinders here: Jamie Lee Curtis, Toni Collette, Michael Shannon, Chris Evans, and especially the lesser-known Ana de Armas in a pivotal role. This movie is fun from beginning to end and offers enough twists and turns to keep you on your toes.

11) Joker (dir. Todd Phillips) The love it or hate it take on the popular comic book villain is a dark and disturbing portrait of mental illness headlined by a stunning Joaquin Phoenix performance. There have been gritty, violent comic book adaptations before but this movie owes more to the early filmography of Martin Scorsese and Sidney Lumet. The film is a reflection of our own current state of affairs sadly. And yet I was still transfixed and entertained. Phoenix’s portrayal of a maniac slowly losing his mind is jaw-dropping and the film is gripping from beginning to end.

12) Ford v Ferrari (dir. James Mangold) Cars? Snooze. Race cars? Bigger snooze. But something about Ford v Ferrari is sheer excitement for me through and through. I was pleasantly surprised by this extremely entertaining story about men who wanted to build a Ford car that could beat the Italian Ferrari in the Le Mans race in the 1960s. “Based on a true events” are so prevelant currently its hard to find a movie that doesn’t have some alleged true story behind it, but Ford V Ferrari is supremely well-made mid-tier studio movie that features really likable characters, stunning cinematography, and all the feel-good beats this kind of story can offer without ever coming across as too “LOOK HOW GREAT AMERICA IS.”

13) Hustlers (dir. Lorene Scafaria) “Showgirls” meets “Wall Street” in this light and fluffy dramedy featuring an extremely charming Jennifer Lopez as a senior stripper who turns to ripping off her Wall Street clients after the 2008 financial crisis. Yet another piece of entertainment with a strong point of view. We rarely get to see the types of characters portrayed in “Hustlers” and I really found their story fascinating. The film has a lot of humor and heart and while it may seem “sleazy” it is anything but and features a wonderful ensemble of talented female actors. This film needs to be adapted into a musical like now.

14) Ready or Not (dir. Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett) A truly bizarre and ultimately fun horror-comedy that plays like an even more messed up version of the home invasion thriller “You’re Next.” A young bride must play a game with her new, rich in-laws – as is tradition with the family – and a simple game of Hide and Seek turns into a night of murder and mayhem. Samara Weaving is fantastic bride who must defend herself from her psychotic in-laws and the supporting cast is filled with actors who all seem to be having a blast. I did and you will too.

15) Rocketman (dir. Dexter Fletcher) A brillaint and fun take on the usual music bio-pic. The life and times of the eccentric Elton John has been turned into a flashy musical featuring his own songs with characters who breakout into song. Taron Egerton is outstanding as Elton and does all his own singing. Comparisons to last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody are numerous and expected; I loved both films but they they’re actually wildly different in their approach. A beautiful, glossy Hollywood musical extravaganza and I’m all for it.

Who could just limit themselves to just 15 movies?? Here are six more:

Spider-Man: Far From Home – Two great films in one: a truly fun Spidey adventure, arguably more so than Homecoming and an emotionally satisfying follow-up to Avengers: Endgame.

Uncut Gems – Stress-inducing to the max. Adam Sandler is fantastic as an unlikable guy making constant bone-headed decisions. The final act is Hitchcockian.

Crawl – A truly fun monster movie. A kinda cute and corny father-daughter drama. A gripping disaster flick. Did I mention there are killer alligators??

Star Wars The Rise of Skywalker – The Skywalker saga is wrapped up in a pretty satisfying way. No real complaints from this non-Star Wars fan. This new trilogy is my favorite. Sue me.

Bombshell – Charlize Theron is one of several amazing performances in this gripping and funny docudrama set in the crazy world of Fox News.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood – So much better than I had anticipated, this true life story about how Mr. Rogers changes a disheartened journalist’s life will warm your heart. And possibly make you want to wear cardigans.


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