Mike’s Top Ten of 2019

So these recent years are difficult to talk about because — I just talked about them. I only posted the original Top Ten list for this year last year. Only a year has passed and usually that’s not a whole lot of time to see how your opinion changes. Usually it’s only enough to see where you overreacted to certain films or maybe undervalued others. But I’m happy to say — I think I got this one right. At least for now. We’ll see what happens in 3-5 years, but at the moment, aside from some minor number shifting (which is meaningless anyway), I’m very happy with the films I chose to be on this list.

That’s the one thing I’m seeing as we move further from this year — it was an incredible year of film. I knew at the time the top ten list was strong, but I didn’t realize just how strong. I’m only liking these movies more as time goes on. And all up and down the line, there’s some fantastic and memorable stuff. It’s gonna hold up.  Which is good, since the year after this is perennially gonna be a giant shit show, so at least we’ve got this one.

Mike’s Top Ten of 2019

1917

Ford v Ferrari

The Irishman

Jojo Rabbit

Knives Out

Little Women

Motherless Brooklyn

Parasite

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Waves

11-20: Ad Astra, Avengers: Endgame, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Dark Waters, Dolemite Is My Name, The Farewell, Freaks, The Lighthouse, The Nightingale, Where’d You Go, Bernadette

Tier Two: The Aeronauts, Amazing Grace, The Beach Bum, Honey Boy, In the Shadow of the Moon, John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum, Joker, Light of My Life, Long Shot, The Peanut Butter Falcon, The Perfection, Piercing, Queen & Slim, Ready or Not, See You Yesterday, The Standoff at Sparrow Creek, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, The Two Popes, Toy Story 4, Uncut Gems

Tier Three: Apollo 11, The Art of Self-Defense, Blinded by the Light, Booksmart, Fast Color, A Hidden Life, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, Marriage Story, Midsommar, The Personal History of David Copperfield, Polar, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, The Public, Rocketman, Shaft, Terminator: Dark Fate, Us, Velvet Buzzsaw, Western Stars, Yesterday

Tier Four: Always Be My Maybe, Before You Know It, Captain Marvel, Feast of the Seven Fishes, Fighting with My Family, Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened, Give Me Liberty, Hala, High Flying Bird, Jumanji: The Next Level, Just Mercy, Point Blank, Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story, Serenity, Shazam!, The Souvenir, Spider-Man: Far from Home, To Dust, Triple Frontier, Villains

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1. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

“Hey! You’re Rick fucking Dalton. Don’t you forget it.”

As this was the first decade in film that I covered in real time, there really weren’t a lot of films from it that have cracked the ‘all time’ list for me. Mostly because your all-time favorites list generally is comprised of things you’ve rewatched a bunch and grown really close to over time. And, if you’ve paid any attention to my ramblings over the years, I’m not really one for immediately making proclamations about things. Which means that, over the decade, only three films from it managed to crack what I’d consider my (ever-changing) all-time favorites list. One is True Grit, which took most of the decade to get there, and the second is Phantom Thread, which took about six months (though I did see it four times in theaters, so that might have had something to do with it). This one has become the third.

And honestly, I can’t say I’m that surprised. Quentin’s movies often end up at or near the top of my favorites list for their respective years, and at this point the only thing keeping most of them from being the #1 is the films that are on that all-time list. I love his work, and this was a no-brainer #1 for me for this year at the time.

But what I’ve discovered in the time since I first saw this (and saw it again… and again) and put it on here… it’s sneakily gone way up for me on Quentin’s list of films. It’s just so damned watchable. And I find myself settling into its little specificities that usually take you years and many rewatches to get into so much quicker than I have with his other films. This, above all his other movies except maybe Pulp Fiction, is quite literally a movie you can hang out with. Which is one of the most underrated virtues a film could have. It’s one thing to get dressed up and go out to a party and be social. It’s another to just go hang out with some friends, wearing whatever you had on and then just spending the afternoon shooting the shit, not really doing anything in particular. That’s what this movie is.

There’s just this perfect synergy between filmmaker and era that makes it work. The way he makes Hollywood feel like 1969 without ever really ever resorting to CGI (I imagine there’s a few shots taking out buildings and things, but most of it is done via set dressing and practical elements) is stunning. And then you have everything that Leo and Brad are bringing to the film — particularly Pitt’s laid back charm and Leo’s hugely underrated comedy chops. It’s a perfect entity of a movie. It really is.

2. Ford v Ferrari

“There’s a point at 7,000 RPM where everything fades. The machine becomes weightless. Just disappears. And all that’s left is a body moving through space and time. 7,000 RPM. That’s where you meet it. You feel it coming. It creeps up on you, close in your ear. Asks you a question. The only question that matters. Who are you?”

This is another one I knew pretty quickly upon seeing it that I was gonna be watching this one a lot. It’s just such an easy watch. And the charm of this one is the fact that the stuff outside of the track is just as, if not more interesting than the stuff on the track. So you get the best of both worlds.

James Mangold is one of our most underrated directors out there, and he really crafts the perfect movie with this one. Because, while on the surface this is, as the title says, a racing movie about Ford and Ferrari, it’s not really about that. It’s more Shelby and Miles v Ford. Because the movie is — and you don’t even need to remotely look at it through this lens if you don’t want to — really about the creative process and the constant struggle between artists and executives. Honestly, if you replaced the car companies with movie studios and made Damon a director and Bale his lead actor… same basic framework of a movie. Ford, mega company, decides it wants to get into racing to look cooler, since they make safe, boring family cars. It’s a marketing decision. So they hire a top end auto designer to craft a car for them. He hires a great driver. And most of the film is them working to create, with all this endless amount of money, the perfect racing car to compete with the company that primarily races cars. Only, at every turn, the company (who is really only in it for the publicity and to sell more cars), keeps enforcing regulations on them — put more marketable drivers, don’t race the cars above a certain speed — which is basically the same as studio notes and interference. Every industry has it. So the majority of the film is these guys, in it for the purity and not the business, trying to get around all this nonsense from the people who don’t really know what they’re talking about but feel like they get to have opinions because they control the money.

That angle is what makes this more than just a racing movie. There’s such extra depth here, on top of the fantastic work that Damon and Bale are putting into the film. It’s also just so well edited with amazing sound design. But mostly, it’s just so damn watchable. It’s a movie you can sit with and put on no matter what part it’s up to. You can never, ever put a price on one of those movies.

3. The Irishman

“You don’t keep a man waiting. The only time you do is when you want to say something. When you want to say fuck you.”

I’ve said it before — this is Martin Scorsese’s Cheyenne Autumn. Cheyenne Autumn is famous for being John Ford’s final western. Not his final film, but his final foray into the genre for which he’s best known. And it’s an elegy of sorts for the genre and a cold, hard look at the things the genre never really got into — which, for the western, was the treatment of Native Americans and an honest look of what really was now that it’s almost over. That’s exactly what this film is for the gangster genre.

Scorsese has, as a filmmaker, been very eclectic in his choices. You forget that he’s made period costume dramas, dark comedies, a musical, a Hitchcock-style thriller, a kids adventure movie in 3D — he’s really branched out. And yet, what people go to first are the gangster movies. Mean Streets, Goodfellas, Casino, The Departed. Those are the movies people associate with him. And, while this may not be his final film in this genre (though it certainly feels that way, as of this writing), this feels like his look back over the genre from an older man’s perspective. It feels like his elegy to it.

The film, three-and-a-half hours, follows the course of its main character’s life (through the help of all that de-aging technology) from his 20s through old age. And while, on the surface, it is largely based around the character’s career as a mob hitman and his relationship to Jimmy Hoffa (and Hoffa’s famous disappearance), there’s a level of introspection that all his previous gangster pictures didn’t have. There’s a final half hour of this movie that you’d never have seen him include before this. We see all of these people (the ones lucky enough to survive) get old and die. It’s not a bullet that gets them — the romanticized version — it’s strokes and high blood pressure. Remember how Goodfellas ends? Ray Liotta, in Witness Protection, bemoaning the fact that he has to spend the rest of his life “as a schnook”. But we don’t ever see that happen. Here, we see it. We watch them all slowly die off, and De Niro’s character spending the rest of his days in a nursing home, no longer in contact with the daughter he drove away because of the choices he made and silently awaiting the end, filled with nothing but remorse and regret for murdering his best friend. That’s what makes this such a special film. It really takes the time to look at the ramifications all the choices a life of crime has (especially when they’re not sudden like a bullet).

It’s a really incredible piece of work and perfectly sums up this series of chapters in the career of one of our most storied directors.

4. Knives Out

“You’re not much of a detective, are you?”
“Well, to be fair, you make a pretty lousy murderer.”

Rian Johnson was very quickly establishing himself as one of my go-to favorite directors. Brick was such a great debut, and I loved The Brothers Bloom as a followup. Then he made Looper, which really elevated him into that tier of ‘I truly cannot wait for whatever it is you do next’. And then he ventured into a galaxy far, far away, which is not really something he could have won with. The only way to truly stand out in that situation is to do something so new and ambitious that it transcends franchise. Which, no matter how you felt about Last Jedi, good or bad, it didn’t and could never have done. So he got a bit lost in the weeds for a few years and then immediately came back and reminded us all why we love him so much. Because he is at his best when he is writing and directing original material.

This movie is one hell of a palate cleanser. It’s his own version of an Agatha Christie murder mystery, only with a 21st century social bend to it. He’s got an amazing cast of people, anchored by Ana de Armas and Daniel Craig (and I guess Chris Evans’ sweater as well), but also featuring Christopher Plummer, Jamie Lee Curtis, Toni Collette, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, LaKeith Stanfield — dude’s got some heavy hitters here. And it’s just a brilliantly plotted film that, again — this is the refrain for this entire list so far — eminently watchable. This was the movie I rushed to see in theaters and then immediately spent the next two months showing to everyone I knew who hadn’t seen it. Just so I could experience it again and see their reactions to watching it. It’s so well-made and so funny. But also there’s that undercurrent of creativity and humanity to it that also helps it remain so good after every rewatch.

I’m honestly so happy that Johnson is now back to original material, because at this point, the worst of his original stuff is probably better than 70% of anyone else’s original material. And honestly, go ahead and bring Daniel Craig back for a sequel. I’m completely down for that. Just have him alternate between new idea and another Benoit Blanc sequel. Change time periods. Who cares. Benoit Blanc vs. the Nazis, “I’ll Be Reich Back.” Don’t care. Doesn’t need to make sense. Because that’s the beauty of this character. He legitimately could have given us our first real character who could fit among the pantheon of great directors. Which is actually kind of amazing, on top of how good this movie is.

5. Parasite

“They are rich but still nice.”
“They are nice because they are rich.”

It’s still kind of incredible to me that this movie won Best Picture. That is still one of the happiest moments of 2020 for me, seeing that all happen in real time before the world fell apart.

The greatness of this movie, aside from the dozens of things you can point to, from the writing, directing, acting and overall filmmaking, really just comes down to how easy it is to sit with this movie, even despite subtitles. I was so surprised when this started picking up steam at how many people I knew (most of whom are not the types to go out of their way to see something with subtitles and at best will only do so if prompted by others or by, say, the movie already having won Best Picture) who went to a theater to see it and came out talking about how amazing it was and telling everyone they knew about it. It’s not much of a secret that Americans have trouble with subtitled films and that foreign cinema doesn’t typically go over well here unless you have an inclination toward it. But this movie is so well-done that after a certain point, you’re not even paying attention to the fact that it’s in another language because it’s so damn engrossing. There’s a real universality to this that you cannot possibly underrate. I’ve never seen a movie that galvanized American audiences like this one has. Usually it takes a few years, and most of the time it’s something brought over by another filmmaker, like a Battle Royale or an Oldboy. Rarely is it something like this. And rarely is it so immediate and at the level this one was at.

It’s really just an incredible piece of filmmaking. And it speaks to the strength of this year that this is only #5 for me on this list (not that the rankings really matter all that much past being in the top ten). Because you put this in 2018, it’s #1 easily. But damn. What a year in movies.

6. Little Women

“Women, they have minds, and they have souls, as well as just hearts. And they’ve got ambition, and they’ve got talent, as well as just beauty. I’m so sick of people saying that love is just all a woman is fit for.”

So I thought about this the other day — I think this might be the film of 2019 that I’ve rewatched the most so far. It’s between Once Upon a Time, Ford v Ferrari and this. But this one definitely feels like the one I’ve seen the most of, often in little chunks here and there. You know, it happens to be on in another room as someone else watches it and you walk in and just catch this section or that section. Kind of like how I (and I imagine a lot of other people) grew up watching Goodfellas. It was just on because it was so good and then sometimes you’d get it within the first half hour, other times you caught the end. That’s what this has been for me. I absolutely adore this movie.

It’s no surprise how much I love film adaptations of Little Women — the 1933, 1949 and 1994 versions all feature in my lists for their respective years. But this one is now and going forward the single definitive film version. Greta Gerwig takes a very well-known novel and somehow makes it new and exciting again and still manages to maintain an authorial voice over it as well. I almost don’t know how she does it, but I also don’t particularly care. Because I love it, and that’s what matters.

The main change she makes in the film is by having the narrative serve a purpose rather than simply following the usual progression from the book. She juxtaposes scenes in brilliant ways, often showing them out of sequence, giving you a full portrait of the March sisters rather than simply going from A to B the way most adaptations would. And she bookends the film with these incredible scenes of Jo selling her book to a book publisher. And this underscores a lot of what the movie is trying to say — women have agency and value and can and should fight for their visions and their worth in the world. And you get that great third act where, in the book, Jo rushes to the train station and catches the Professor before he leaves and marries him, giving it this ‘happy’ ending. But here, the movie plays it as a compromise moment, giving audiences the ‘happy ending’ they so often crave. But really, the happy ending of the movie, which is more emotionally fulfilling than seeing her marry the Professor, is watching her see her work be published and come into the world, much like a parent watching their child be born. And this is underscored by the use of title cards (which, in this case, are book covers that basically act as title cards for the film). The opening begins with the book cover having the title “Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott,” but at the end, it’s “Little Women, by Jo March.” Because now Jo is the author of her own story, and this is Jo’s version of events, just like how this is Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, rather than just Louisa May Alcott’s. I absolutely love that message and how Gerwig took this movie and told it the way she wanted to tell it, giving audiences a message from the material they know so well but might not have really ever delved into (or seen on screen before).

And I say all of that before I get into all the other amazing stuff in this movie — Saoirse Ronan as Jo is amazing, as if Florence Pugh as Amy. Plus you get Emma Watson as Meg, Eliza Scanlen as Beth, Laura Dern as Marmee (how perfect is that casting?), Timothée Chalamet as Laurie, plus Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper, Tracy Letts and Bob fucking Odenkirk thrown in for good measure (Cooper in particular is amazing here and, as is the case with another film on this list we’ll be talking about, never gets enough credit for the work he does). The cinematography is stunning and the costumes and sets feel appropriately period without ever feeling stuffy like a lot of period pieces often do. The film also has a looseness about it with the way people behave. It’s not quite Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (which I adore, by the way), which feels deliberately anachronistic, but it’s more — ‘let’s just show how regular people, especially people this age, act and not pretend like everyone was mannered just because that’s just always how films show them’. And it’s beautiful. Truly, every single decision made in this movie is perfect and I still can’t believe that this is only #6 for me this year (but again… numbers are kind of meaningless). I suspect that given the amount of rewatches I’ve had on this, it’ll eventually make its way up the list as the years go by. But still, I absolutely love this one and I can not think of a better 1 through 6 in any other year I’ve covered in the past, I don’t know 20 or so.

7. 1917

“I hoped today might be a good day. Hope is a dangerous thing. That’s it for now, then next week, Command will send a different message. Attack at dawn. There is only one way this war ends. Last man standing.”

And then there’s this. What kind of year is this that a Sam Mendes-directed war movie shot by Roger Deakins and made to look like it all takes place in a single, continuous shot doesn’t even crack the top five let alone top three? Amazing. Absolutely amazing. And by that I mean both the year and the film.

This is, as I said, a World War I movie that takes place in the span of a day, and is shot to look like it all (minus one moment) happens in a single, continuous shot. The premise is: two soldiers are sent to send a mission behind enemy lines to warn another company to not go forward with the attack they’re planning the next morning because the enemy is aware of it and will annihilate them if they do. So we follow them as they go to deliver this message. And it’s just brilliant. It really is. The movie gets better every time I see it.

What I love most about this movie is that it’s not this big ‘we saved everyone and turned the tide of the war!’ type of movies. It’s literally just a errand. All they did was save a few people for maybe a few days. It’s cynically realist, which is appropriate for that war. By the end of the movie, it’s like, “Great. We saved today. But by Tuesday, we’ll probably have to go do this again, and in all likelihood there won’t be a message to stop us then.” Small victory. But also, that puts the focus on this particular story and how there’s all these types of stories in the presence of much bigger stories. There’s something really cool about that. Plus the one take thing is pretty sweet.

8. Jojo Rabbit

“Nothing makes sense anymore.”
“Yeah, I know, definitely not a good time to be a Nazi.”

I love that everyone knows about Taika now. Used to be that it was just the people who saw What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Then he did Ragnarok, and that opened him up to a lot of people but not all people. This one made it so everyone fully understands him and his style of humor and filmmaking.

The idea that he took a story about a Nazi Youth whose imaginary friend is Hitler and made it be so funny and so full of heart that it would be one of the most beloved films of its year is just amazing to me. Because there’s such rich storytelling here, and not just in the central conceit. All the scenes with Roman Griffin Davis and Thomasin McKenzie are just amazing. And then of course the scenes with Davis and Scarlett Johansson. Then there’s Archie Yates. Up and down, this movie is just so perfectly handled. And, of course, there’s that one moment with the butterfly that’s just utterly heartbreaking. Which is really a moment you have to earn. And this movie earns it.

There’s not really much more I have to say here, since most people have seen this and most people love this. It’s by consensus one of the best movies of the year, so this is just me affirming my love for it.

9. Motherless Brooklyn

“Frank told me once, if you’re up against someone bigger than you, someone you can’t beat toe to toe, make ’em think you respect their size, and then cut a deal that lets you walk out in one piece. Then figure out a way to stick it to ’em later without leaving your prints on the knife.”

This is the one top ten entry that I know I’ll have to most defend. And I don’t care. Because I love this movie and I continue to love this movie every time I go back to watch it.

Edward Norton tried to make this movie for 20 years, after his previous directorial effort, Keeping the Faith (a movie I really love). It’s an easy movie to dismiss — it’s a period noir about a detective with Tourette’s. So Norton’s performance, especially right at the top of the film, is twitchy and might be something people don’t think they want. But the film is so much more than that.

As a story — Norton is a guy with a condition in an era that doesn’t understand that stuff, and he was taken in by Bruce Willis, who taught him the ropes as a private detective and became a father figure to him. Then, one day, after a job gone wrong, Willis is killed. So now he’s gotta figure out what happened in order to solve the case Willis was working on in order to avenge his death. And that gets into a whole complicated web of corruption involving the city planning of New York in the 50s. Which kind of makes this a New York version of Chinatown, in a weird way. It’s quite good. And even if you have reservations about the Tourette’s aspect — you kind of forget about it after 20 minutes. And then Norton wisely makes it part of the character, so it modulates depending on how well or badly he’s doing and so he uses it to add to this guy’s arc.

I know this will never be for anyone. But I really love this one. It looks great, it’s well-directed and just is one of those movies that is perfectly engineered to tap into all the stuff I like. This is very much one of my ten favorite movies of this year.

10. Waves

I was not expecting this movie at all. I’ve been intrigued by Trey Edward Shults after seeing his first two films, Krisha and It Comes at Night. I admired the filmmaking from both of them but didn’t fully embrace the films the way others did. But I still was excited to see what he’d do with this one. And so I went to a theater to see it (I was the only person in that theater) and just had no idea what to expect from it. And from the opening moment, with that spinning camera shot inside the car, you just felt this energy to the movie and this extreme presence to everything. You felt somehow connected to all the characters and was invested in what was going on. Then you get to that centerpiece sequence and you’re just sort of fully in on the movie and going along for the ride. I remember being absolutely overwhelmed by what I was seeing, because I just didn’t realize how invested I was in everything until that moment.

Then he does the most amazing thing — he just shifts gears entirely. And that’s part of the brilliance of this movie. He has the confidence and ability as a filmmaker to start with one story, build to a climax, and then start over again from a different perspective and almost a different movie entirely, and know that the audience is going to go along with it. It’s absolutely brilliant how he handles it and it’s a movie that won me over so fully that I had absolutely no qualms about putting it on this list at the time even though it was the only film I had seen once and was most unsure about. But here we are, and it’s still here. I still love this movie. I think it’s one of the most emotional pieces of filmmaking I saw this entire decade.

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11-20:

Ad Astra — It’s James Gray and Brad Pitt making Heart of Darkness in space. How could you not be all in on that? What I love about Gray as a filmmaker is that he doesn’t try to make movies that fit a particular genre. Lost City of Z doesn’t go in for action sequences or all this fanfare. It just tells its story. And that’s what this does. There aren’t any Christopher Nolan space sequences in this. This film is much more interested in — what would space travel look like if we colonized Mars and had commuter shuttle flights to the Moon? And so that’s the kind of detail that populates this movie rather than elaborate set pieces. The story, ultimately, is Heart of Darkness. Pitt’s father (Tommy Lee Jones) went on a mission to Neptune and has not been heard from since and is presumed dead. But now a radio transmission has come that makes it seem like he’s alive (and possibly dangerous, based on power surges that start coming from where he was last seen). So Pitt has to go out and figure out what’s going on and face this emotional journey of his father being alive. And the film takes him closer and closer to this moment and follows his emotional and physical journey as he does it. It’s a terrific film. And Pitt is very good in it, in a very under-the-radar kind of way. I know this is one of those movies people didn’t see or dismissed because it wasn’t like all the other space movies, but this has so much more substance to it and really deserves a proper audience.

Avengers: Endgame — I’ve been critical of Marvel for years (pretty much the entirety of this decade), so it’s only fair for me to give them the proper amount of praise and respect when it’s due. And here, it’s pretty due. They spent 11 years building this universe and this cast of characters, and it all built to this film. And they spent the time in this movie wisely. They focused mainly on the core characters who started it all, and they gave the film’s two biggest characters (and those who were clearly at the end of their time with the studio) proper sendoffs. Most times I’ll watch their movies and go “yeah, that was fine” and see them as the same assembly line superhero movies. But this one (by design) was supposed to mean something. And it actually felt like it did. So good for them.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood — This is Tom Hanks as Mr. Rogers and that will forever be how this film is known. But what’s so great about it is — it’s not a biopic of Mr. Rogers. It’s about a journalist covering Mr. Rogers and gives you everything about Mr. Rogers without having to spend a whole movie with him. It’s kinda brilliant how it does it. And you think you want a Mr. Rogers movie, but in reality, the beauty of Fred Rogers is his ability to reach others. And that’s really what we want above all else. And that’s what we get here. Hanks, naturally, is amazing as Mr. Rogers and, alongside him, to absolutely no fanfare, is Chris Cooper, delivering an incredible performance. It’s a very lovely movie that I imagine most people have seen and feel similarly about.

Dark Waters — This is a Todd Haynes movie, which is just so weird to say. The guy who made Velvet Goldmine and I’m Not There and Far from Heaven and Carol making this pretty straightforward trial movie. It’s just a genre you wouldn’t normally associate with him, and yet — it’s a fantastic movie (which you do normally associate with him). It’s based on real events and stars Mark Ruffalo as a high-level lawyer who works for a firm that typically represents mega companies like Du Pont, but it placed in position to actually oppose Du Pont when a local farmer in his grandmother’s town reaches out to him with evidence that Du Pont is knowingly poisoning the water, which has caused all his animals to die and grow mutations and has caused an abnormally high rate of cancer in the town. And so we see him slowly start following all these threads until he realizes that Du Pont has known that the chemicals in Teflon are known to cause cancer and yet it was cheaper for them to lie about it rather than change their practices. Which is all true, by the way. So on that alone, you should see it, because it’s one of those movies that will make you angry when you see it. But also, it’s got great actors and is a trial movie, and trial movies are always interesting. It’s a really fantastic piece of work and not something they make all that much anymore. So I’m really glad it exists.

Dolemite Is My Name — If you want to please a crowd and if you want a movie that is going to entertain just about everyone who sees it, this is your movie. This is truly wonderful. It’s a biopic of Rudy Ray Moore and the making of the movie Dolemite, a blaxploitation cult classic from 1975. Moore was a man who tried all sorts of different careers before finding success as a comedian who put out raunchy material that wouldn’t get sold in stores but became ‘under the table’ hits. He spun that into making his own movie based on the fictional pimp character he created while delivering a lot of his material. And the movie (this movie) is basically just a bunch of misfits coming together to make a movie. They don’t have money, they’re all on the fringes of society and find a family together, you’re rooting for them because you like them and because you know that if they fail, they’ll lose everything. It’s that kind of movie. And it’s fucking hilarious. It’s written by the guys who make all the offbeat-but-great biopics like Ed Wood and Man on the Moon and People vs. Larry Flynt. And it’s got Eddie Murphy in his best performance in years. But mostly, it’s so damned entertaining. It’s one of those movies that really does just fly by, makes you laugh, keeps you entertained and is best seen in a crowd, because I guarantee everyone will be laughing at this one. It’s the total package.

The Farewell — One of the critical darlings of 2019, and a movie that I suspect most people know about or have seen by now. It’s really terrific. It’s based on director Lulu Wang’s actual family finding out that her grandmother was diagnosed with cancer and, rather than tell her, create an excuse to get the entire family together to see her one last time before she dies. And the movie is just brimming with authenticity, to the point where, even though it’s 90% in Cantonese and takes place in China, you’ll see parallels in your own family here. That’s how these movies work. The more specific they get, the more universal they somehow become. It’s an incredible movie and it deserved every bit of praise and every accolade it received. You owe it to yourself as a fan of cinema to see this one if you haven’t.

Freaks — The very first film I saw in 2019 and it remains one of the absolute best discoveries I had this entire decade. I honestly had no idea what this movie was or what to make of it when I put it on, and within 20 minutes I was absolutely riveted and could not look away. Here’s the setup: Emile Hirsch and his seven-year-old daughter live in a dilapidated house. She’s never been outside, and he tells her it’s dangerous to go outside and that if she ever does, people will hurt her. And she’s starting to get to that age where she sees other kids outside playing and getting ice cream and thinking, “This doesn’t seem so bad,” and starting to question everything she’s been told. And so you spend those first 10-15 minutes wondering what the deal is: is he really her father? Is this some sort of custody thing or is he wanted? Is it really dangerous outside? And the movie is very good about how and when it doles out more information. Eventually the girl does make it outside, and that’s when the movie starts to go. You start learning more and more about what’s going on and it just becomes more fascinating with each new turn it takes. It’s really smartly-written and wastes absolutely no moment of screen time whatsoever. I cannot say enough great things about this movie, especially given how little money it was made for. It remains one of the most exciting discoveries I’ve had, and you can never put a price on those.

The Lighthouse — Robert Eggers’ brilliant followup to The Witch, which, as he said, is predicated on the notion that “bad things happen when two men are trapped inside a giant phallus.” It’s Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe as two men working at a lighthouse. And that’s the movie. It’s weird and wonderful and brilliantly shot and honestly could be a silent movie if they wanted it to be. I mean, then you’d miss all of Willem Dafoe’s sea captain voice and all the farting, but you could. It’s really one of the most unique experiences you’ll have with a movie, and I love it.

The Nightingale — This film features the best single performance I saw in 2019. The best. Full stop. And that is by Aisling Franciosi as this film’s lead. The film is written and directed by Jennifer Kent, her first since The Babadook, and is about an Irish convict in Tasmania in the 1820s who is the victim of unspeakable violence from her British captors. So she sets out to get revenge, and follows them across the Tasmanian wilderness to hunt them down and kill them with the help of an Aboriginal man. It’s so good. It’s utterly brutal, but so worth seeing. And, as I said, Franciosi gives the best single performance I saw this year. She’s spellbindingly good in this movie, and the movie is one of the best of the year (in a year that we’ve already established is way better than most other years) and really needs to be seen by people. It’s one of the best movies of this decade that you very likely know very little or nothing about.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette — There are a few filmmakers whose films always feel worthwhile. And I always mention them. Steven Soderbergh, Spike Lee and Richard Linklater. They’re people who keep making movies, even when audiences sometimes don’t see two or even three at a time before the next ‘bigger’ one comes out. This is one of Linklater’s overlooked ones. Most of his stuff is overlooked, but this one in particular feels like one of the bigger ones in recent years. It stars Cate Blanchett as a former famous architect who has spent the last fifteen years married and raising a child and not having any outlet for her creativity. She takes all sorts of medication, gets into fights with the neighbors over dumb rich people neighborhood stuff and has really just lost her way in life. And eventually, after the family decides to stage an ‘intervention’ for her, she runs away. And that’s where the title comes from. It’s hard to explain, since the movie’s not expressly about its plot. It’s more a look at this woman and about what happens when someone who is by nature creative can’t create. It’s really charming and I thought was horribly overlooked by people because it doesn’t fit the traditional format of what you’d expect out of a movie. But I love it, I think it’s one of Linklater’s better films (and he’s got a lot of great ones) and just one of those hidden gems people ought to seek out.

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Tier Two:

  • The Aeronauts
  • Amazing Grace
  • The Beach Bum
  • Honey Boy
  • In the Shadow of the Moon
  • John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum
  • Joker
  • Light of My Life
  • Long Shot
  • The Peanut Butter Falcon
  • The Perfection
  • Piercing
  • Queen & Slim
  • Ready or Not
  • See You Yesterday
  • The Standoff at Sparrow Creek
  • Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
  • The Two Popes
  • Toy Story 4
  • Uncut Gems

Ready or Not is one of the best horror movies to come out this decade. And I don’t say that lightly. It’s more of a horror-action-dark comedy (I guess?). Kind a more mainstream/action-y version of You’re Next, if I had to try to quantify it (which I shouldn’t have to do and it doesn’t need, but I’m trying to sell as many people as I can). This is a real crowd-pleaser of a movie and I think people who haven’t seen it will enjoy it. It’s an ingenious premise: woman marries into a board game dynasty. The family’s tradition — every new spouse, at midnight on their wedding night, must play a game. Most of these games are harmless. They play a board game and move on. One game — hide and seek — means the bride or groom must hide somewhere in the house… and then the rest of the family gets weapons and hunts them down and if they find them, they murder them. That’s the plot. And this movie is a bride (Samara Weaving, who is once again, incredible here) who slowly figures out her in-laws are trying to murder her. It’s so much fun. This movie is way funnier than you’d ever expect and will have you shouting and cheering at the screen. This is one of my automatics to show to people who don’t know about it because I know they’re gonna enjoy it. The Standoff at Sparrow Creek is one of the few movies I would ever designate as the closest approximation to a Hitchcock film without being Hitchcock. The caveat, of course, is that nothing actually ever does get close to what he did (though the case could be made that this is as good as maybe some of his very, very lesser films, but the point stands… you can’t beat the real thing), but this does feel like something in that realm. The premise is: a local militia (which are basically regular dudes who decide they’re a militia and sit at a warehouse with guns and talk about how fucked up the world is but do nothing) find out that someone from a militia in the area just shot up a cop funeral. So they all convene to see what’s going on. There, they find out that one of their guns is missing, meaning that one of them is the one who did it. So now they’ve locked themselves in this warehouse and have to figure out which one of them is the culprit. So it’s this interesting little procedural mystery that takes place entirely in a single location. It’s really, really well done. The tension is maintained very well and built up toward the end. I highly recommend seeking this one out, because it’s definitely one of those gems where you’ll come out going, “I really liked that.” Long Shot is a very charming rom com for adults. The premise is based on the unlikely pairing of Seth Rogen and Charlize Theron. But it works. It really works. He’s a journalist who was formerly babysat as a child by the current Secretary of State of the United States who is next in line to run for president. And they meet and she eventually takes him on as her speechwriter which precipitates a romance between the two of them. It’s really well done. It very briefly goes into unnecessary comedy territory, but for the most part, it’s a really terrific piece of work that has so much likability to it and brings out the best in its stars. There’s really so much to like here.

In the Shadow of the Moon is one of the best Netflix discoveries I’ve ever had. It starts as a police procedural: a bunch of people all die very suddenly and very violently at the same time across town. All the same way. The same suspect is reported as leaving the scene(s) of the crime. So we follow a young cop (with a very pregnant wife) and his seasoned partner as they drive around the graveyard shift (which usually just means picking up drunks and going to get noodles at 3am), with the young cop determined to try to track down this suspect and get himself a promotion. And so you follow them over the course of the night as this all goes down and the situation is resolved. Then, nine years later, it happens again. Which seems to go against all logic, but there we are. And so we follow this same cop as figuring this out becomes his life’s obsession. It’s just a nice little mystery procedural of a film that really worked for me. I just loved experiencing this one and think it’s exactly what the Netflix platform is for — really solid little gems that could never have gotten a proper shelf life in theaters and now have a place for people to constantly discover them. I sure hope people do, because it’s a terrific film. The Peanut Butter Falcon is one of those feel-good kinda movies that will win you over by the time it ends. It’s about a guy with Down’s Syndrome (and stars an actual guy with Down’s Syndrome, who’s awesome here) who watches old professional wrestling videos from the 80s and dreams of becoming a wrestler himself. He escapes from the care home he’s at so he can go down to Florida to a wrestling training camp he saw on one of the videos. Along the way, he meets a troublemaking drifter who begrudgingly decides to help him get there. And it’s just this nice little road trip movie with so much heart that’s so damn likable. It’s really hard to not root for this one.

The Perfection is another one of the best Netflix discoveries I’ve ever had. This one’s probably more likely to get an audience than In the Shadow of the Moon, but both are very worthy films. This one’s more of a psychological thriller, I’d say. It stars Allison Williams (coming off Get out, which adds a nice level of ambiguity to the first half of the film that makes it work even better) as a former child cello prodigy who was attending a very prestigious music school but had to leave when her mother got sick and she had to leave to care for her. Now, a decade later, her mother has died. So she comes to see a performance by the girl who took her place, now on her way to becoming a renowned concert cellist. And the first section of the film is her meeting the student and her old mentor, befriending the girl and sleeping with her. Then, after that — some shit goes down. It’s better if I leave it at that. There’s about a 20 minute section as the two of them are gonna go sightseeing that is just — it’s some of the tensest 20 minutes I’ve ever seen on film. And then that happens and the film begins slowly unraveling. It’s — sublime. Ultimately the film becomes a wildly different film than you’d expect, but it’s just really amazing to watch. It’ll keep you guessing and wondering what the hell is going for quite a while. I really loved it. And again — perfect for Netflix. In terms of stuff that they put out as Original Films, this is truly one of the best you can find. Honey Boy is Shia LaBeouf’s autobiographical film about his own childhood in which he plays his own father. Which makes this movie one of the most expensive forms of therapy ever used. The film is really raw and deals with a lot of difficult stuff. You can actually see a dude baring all his baggage on screen. And it’s a really fascinating piece of work. You don’t really get to see something this openly honest all that often. And I think, despite all the personal baggage he comes with as an actor, this is definitely something worth seeing.

The Aeronauts is a balloon adventure movie. Yes, you read that right. Balloon adventure. Takes place in the 1860s. Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones. He’s a scientist, she’s a daredevil. They go up in a hot air balloon so he can study the effects of altitude and air and all that stuff (since — 1860s… still learning all that stuff). And so part of this movie takes place in the upper atmosphere as they can barely breathe and the balloon is icing over and there’s climbing on top of the balloon and all this insane stuff. I knew they were probably on a stage in front of a green screen with this balloon but even I felt unsafe with what I was watching. It’s absolutely thrilling. Honestly, I was more on the edge of my seat with this movie than I was for any Avengers, Star Wars, Fast and the Furious movie I’ve seen. They really did a fantastic job with this one. The Two Popes is the pope movie we didn’t know we needed. Anthony Hopkins, Jonathan Pryce, two popes talking about stuff. And yet somehow pretty awesome? It’s based on Pope Benedict’s abdication and Pope Francis taking over, and it’s largely the two of them hanging around the Vatican and talking and all of this playing out. It’s a well-made film. Two of our best actors getting great parts in a good movie. What more can you ask for? Uncut Gems is a two-hour long panic attack. I’m glad people saw this one (which they sadly didn’t do with Good Time), because the Safdie brothers are terrific filmmakers. I probably don’t need to say much, but — Adam Sandler. He’s great here and he reminds you what he can do when he’s not making those terrible comedies he’s almost exclusively done the past decade. The movie really does just keep you squirming and on the edge of heart palpitations until it ends. It’s a terrific movie.

Amazing Grace is literally just a documentary of Aretha Franklin singing. And why wouldn’t you want that in your life? It’s based on two nights she did singing gospel songs in a church in South Central LA in 1972 (which was originally directed by Sydney Pollack at the time but sat in a vault for years until they decided to put it out). And the film is half one night and half the other, and it’s just Aretha singing with a gospel choir. And it is, quite literally, a religious experience. I’m telling you — there’s nothing better than Aretha. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is (almost mercifully) the last one. It’s not a good movie. I don’t think many people would try to claim that it is a good movie. But it is Star Wars and admittedly I’ll take a bad Star Wars movie over most other movies. Let’s not pretend like Attack of the Clones isn’t in this same section of its year. It is what it is. I enjoy the ease of those movies, even when, taken on context of the franchise, this is an unholy mess. The beauty of having a movie like this on my list is — I don’t need to try to sell you on seeing it, because everyone’s made their choice already. So I can say whatever the hell I want. If you’re reading this article for my recommendation of this movie, I cannot help you. John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum is the third one. You’ve probably seen all three and there’s really not much for me to add with this. I will say that this one does feel a bit aimless overall, in terms of plot. It just kind of bounces around between ideas without ever really going anywhere. There’s Angelica Huston, there’s Halle Berry and the dogs, there’s him in the desert, and then the finale. All that is to say — I thought the plot of 4, which they set up here, would be what this movie was. But hey, more John Wick is always good. The action is always fantastic and I’ll take as many of these as they want to give me. So I’m good.

See You Yesterday is a time travel movie with something to say. It’s about two science nerds in Brooklyn who work to build a time machine. Only, as soon as they do… one of their brothers is killed by police officers. So now, she commits the cardinal sin of time travel — don’t go back and try to change anything because you’ll affect the current future in doing so. And so the film is them trying to go back and forth trying to right that wrong and keep anything else bad from happening. It’s a really, really great movie and is one of the best things that exists on the Netflix platform to watch. Queen & Slim is, essentially, Black Bonnie and Clyde. Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith are a couple who, on the way home from an awkward first date, get stopped by a white police officer, an encounter which ends very badly. So now, the two of them are on the run together, and the rest of the film becomes about them trying to get away and survive. And of course, all the racial and social justice implications hang over the film. But most of all, it’s just a really great piece of work. Well-directed, well-acted, a great supporting turn from Bokeem Woodbine (but what else is new?) and just an all-around terrific film. Joker is a movie that is quite good. I just hate all the people who really like it. Mostly it’s Todd Phillips taking King of Comedy and setting it in Gotham with this character. That’s literally the movie. He makes it look grimy and 70s and takes out all the superhero artifice and simply makes it about this one dude and all the shit that turns him into this character we all know. It’s not groundbreaking, but if we’re lumping this in with the rest of D.C. (which we should absolutely not do, because it is not overseen by the actual clowns shepherding those messes), it is better than all the stuff they’ve done since Nolan left. I have a lot of problems with this movie (and the reaction to it), but the movie itself is solid.

Light of My Life is a weirdly amazing little movie. Now that I understand what the reference is, it’s almost like The Last of Us in a weird way. No zombies, though. The Last of Us meets The Road. A virus has wiped out the world’s female population. And so now, a father is traveling across the country with his daughter, who he’s been hiding as his son. Though she’s about to hit puberty, and they’re not gonna be able to hide her for much longer. So the film is him trying to keep her protected but knowing he won’t be able to forever and just hoping he did a good job. Yes, metaphor for fatherhood. It’s a really great movie, even as it occasionally falls into a few genre pitfalls (not too many, though). This won me over with its opening scene, which is a sort of eight-to-ten minute unbroken single shot of the father and daughter just talking before bed. I really liked this one a lot. The Beach Bum is Harmony Korine doing his colorful Spring Breakers thing again. Only here, instead of bikini-clad college girls, it’s Matthew McConaughey as the biggest stoner in the world (yeah, I know). He plays Moondog. And the movie is literally just him drifting through life without a care in the world, just sort of going from one thing to another as he pleases, and things just working out fine for him. It’s pretty wonderful. This is one of those casual movies you can just hang out with. Probably helps if you’re high, too. But even without it, it’s just fun. The movie is as its main character is, without a care in the world. And it’s just terrific. Piercing is a B movie Phantom Thread. It would make a great second half of a double bill with that movie. It’s a down and dirty genre picture based on a graphic novel. It begins with a man holding an ice pick over his infant child. And the premise is that this man, in order to divert his desires to murder his child, decides to go, under the guise of a business trip, hire an unsuspecting prostitute and murder her. That’s his plan. And we follow him as he goes to the hotel, preps his plan, makes sure he has it all ready… and then the prostitute gets there. And things obviously do not go according to plan. It’s a very short movie, only 80 minutes, and very, very much worth your time.

Toy Story 4 is a movie that I was really apprehensive about, given the decade Pixar had since Toy Story 3 came out. Pixar put out 11 films between 2010 and 2019. So, that’s ten films post-Toy Story 3. And of those ten, five of them are sequels and one of them is a prequel. And of the four original films, two of them are Brave and The Good Dinosaur. Not that either of those are specifically ‘bad’ movies, but given the level of excellence Pixar has shown (and remember, their 2000s output was Monsters Inc, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Cars, Ratatouille, Wall-E and Up), they’re just okay. Inside Out and Coco reminded me of that previous output stuff and is among the best they’ve ever put out. But, with a decade of okay, but overall lazy-feeling sequels and a 50% average on original material… I had my concerns. ESPECIALLY because Toy Story 3 ended as perfectly as it did. It was the perfect capstone to those films, and especially for me, it caught me at the exact right age, putting and end to that era of our lives (it came out within a month of me graduating college, to boot). So I really didn’t need to see them go and diminish everything they’d created with that ending. And yet… despite my damndest to try to find a reason for this movie to not need to exist… I can’t say that. It feels like a worthwhile sequel. And that’s because, while Toy Story 3 wrapped up the story with Andy, this one wraps up Woody’s story. Toy Story 3 was about growing up and moving on from a place in your life and going onto the next thing. And that was more for the audience. This one is specifically about Woody, who is a character that most of us have spent most, if not all of our lives with. So it’s nice that, while there was that whole collective thing of all the toys going, “Andy’s gone, now what?” now Woody, after helping everyone through that, now has to go, “Shit, I’m obsolete, now what?” And that’s what makes this a worthwhile film. I can’t say it’s that amazing outside of that specific storyline, but it’s a movie that feels very purposeful and very nice in the way that it allows Woody’s story to end gracefully.

 

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Tier Three:

  • Apollo 11
  • The Art of Self-Defense
  • Blinded by the Light
  • Booksmart
  • Fast Color
  • A Hidden Life
  • The Last Black Man in San Francisco
  • Marriage Story
  • Midsommar
  • The Personal History of David Copperfield
  • Polar
  • Portrait of a Lady on Fire
  • The Public
  • Rocketman
  • Shaft
  • Terminator: Dark Fate
  • Us
  • Velvet Buzzsaw
  • Western Stars
  • Yesterday

Western Stars is a Bruce Springsteen docu-concert (is that a term? It is now) where he performs all the songs from his Western Stars album in the barn on his property and in between each song, talks about the story behind the album and shares footage of himself from throughout his career. It’s a really introspective look at his career that beautifully compliments an album about aging and a time gone by. If you love Springsteen, you gotta see this. Rocketman is the Elton John biopic with Taron Egerton. It’s a fun jukebox musical that’s probably the best version of an Elton biopic we could possibly get. It’s not Bohemian Rhapsody, but Bohemian Rhapsody is barely Bohemian Rhapsody. It’s a good time at the movies with great music and some fun staging of numbers. A Hidden Life is Terrence Malick returning to plots. He had done that tone poem experiment with Tree of Life, To the Wonder, Knight of Cups and Song to Song, but here he returns to an actual story (even though with him the plot was never actually fully linear). But the others were definitely more about mood and feeling whereas this one has a definitive story. And it’s about an Austrian farmer who refuses to fight for the Nazis during World War II. So it’s kind of a working man’s version of A Man for All Seasons — someone standing up for their beliefs, even in the face of death. It’s a stunning film and is filled with Malick’s usual shots of nature and general atmospheric quality. If you like Malick, you’ll like this film. It, like its subject, feels destined to be an unsung hero in Malick’s filmography.

Apollo 11 is a wonderful documentary about the Apollo 11 moon landing, featuring some never-before-seen footage that is beautifully restored. The film takes the interesting track of not having any sort of narrator and simply letting all the footage speak for itself. And the result is one of the most captivating and stunning documentaries of the entire decade. It’s really terrific, and I suspect everyone who sees it will also be instantly captivated by it. Midsommar is Ari Aster’s followup to Hereditary. And whereas Hereditary was much more of subtle with its humor (it is part comedy, whether people want to acknowledge it or not), this is much more overtly funny. Not a comedy at all, but more overtly funny. And whereas Hereditary slow plays the most horrible/shocking moment in the film, Hereditary just starts with it. The first ten minutes of this movie are intense. And then there’s an extended leveling off period, until the actual movie starts. Which involves the main character, her boyfriend and his friends going to Sweden to attend an annual festival. Of course, it slowly becomes a Wicker Man-style horror (which we all knew was eventually gonna happen), but there’s so much other shit going on, from peeing on ancestral trees to people jumping off cliffs to bear suits, to stealing someone else’s thesis topic, to that sex scene — there’s some crazy shit happening here, and it’s pretty fun to watch. Like Hereditary, it’s a bit overlong, overindulgent, but the tone is incredibly steady and it is extremely well-directed. It’s impossible not to have this movie stay with you, and ultimately, isn’t that the goal?

Terminator: Dark Fate is an attempt to bring that franchise back to its former glory, which it really hadn’t had since James Cameron left despite three attempts. Rise of the Machines was an okay movie with some good stuff but a lot of forgettable stuff. Salvation had a good idea at its center but was undermined by bad plotting and ultimately didn’t work. And Genisys was basically one of those sideways remakes of the original that never really made a whole lot of sense, but it did bring Arnold back so at least we had that. The problem with all three of those movies was the same: everybody was too afraid to step on James Cameron’s toes and was working within the limited confines of the structure he created with the first two films and didn’t take any risks. This movie brought Cameron back, I guess under the guise of allowing itself to take risks. Because this is the first Terminator film since Judgment Day that actually felt like it had something new and fresh to offer the franchise. It does something bold (which doesn’t always work. See: Alien 3) by starting the movie by saying, “We didn’t stop Judgment Day, we just altered the timeline.” And it kills John Connor within the first few minutes. Just offs him. Every other movie kept Connor as the Jesus figure and here — boom. And so the idea is, because Sarah stopped Judgment Day in the second film, she (and her son)’s no longer the important person she was originally supposed to be. Now the new hero is a random woman in Mexico. She’s the new John Connor and now they have to protect her, because the machines are sending Terminators back to get her. And so Sarah, now on a mission to kill all Terminators to avenge her son’s death, and Mackenzie Davis, a half-human, half-Terminator from the future, have to save this woman so she can become who she’s meant to become. They work Arnold into it in a great way — he’s the Terminator that killed John. But now, because that future no longer exists and because he’s fulfilled his purpose, he’s got nothing else to do. So he’s learned about the world and has settled down with a family. And he’s begun to feel remorse over what he’s done. It’s a fascinating way to provide Arnold with more to do, since we do love him and love him as this character, but inherently he’s a machine and can’t really have that much character development. There’s a lot of really interesting intellectual and emotional angles at play here, and I think this is a hugely underrated movie that I feel hasn’t yet gotten its proper due as the best movie since Cameron stopped making them. I think more people need to give this one a proper look.

Shaft is a sort of sequel in the way that the previous film was a sort of sequel. Richard Roundtree was the original Shaft in 1971, and then Samuel L. Jackson starred as Shaft in 2000. In that movie, Roundtree plays the original Shaft, who is Jackson’s uncle. In this movie, Jackson is back as that Shaft, only Roundtree is playing his father, and the film is about Shaft III, Jackson’s son and Roundtree’s grandson. I wasn’t really sure what to expect out of this, but the movie won me over almost immediately upon it starting, announcing itself as a fun, very hard-r rated comedy with some action thrown in. Jackson’s Shaft is a wonderful throwback, a man firmly still that same character, only very aware that character can’t really exist in today’s culture. So they leave him the way he is, feeling perfectly and obliviously out of touch in a way that somehow works. And the main crux of the story is Jackson and his son (who he’s basically ignored, since he’s not exactly the fatherly type) having to work together, even though his son is a wannabe FBI agent, is very much a hipster and is exactly the type of kid that would make Jackson’s character go, “What the fuck?” And that’s largely where the movie gets its comedy. It’s just absolutely fun as hell and really was exactly up my alley. It could have been a really dumb and forgettable movie but they managed to get the absolute most they possibly could out of it and I really wish more people saw this movie because I think a lot of you would enjoy it. The Personal History of David Copperfield is an Armando Iannucci film. So, if you liked Death of Stalin, In the Loop or Veep, you’ll like this. It’s an adaptation of Dickens and is full of Iannucci’s style of humor. It’s just a wonderfully good time. At this point, how could you not trust Iannucci to give you a good time, so just see it if you haven’t.

Blinded by the Light is basically Bend It Like Beckham but with Bruce Springsteen’s music instead of soccer. Indian boy in London in the 80s discovers Springsteen’s music and suddenly becomes obsessed and uses his love of it as an impetus to do what he really wants to do, which is be a writer and music critic and not follow the path his family has set out for him. It’s charming. You’ve seen it before, but it doesn’t matter. It’s just a fun, likable movie. Us is Jordan Peele’s followup to Get Out. It’s more ambitious but less successful, but still a fun time at the movies. I’m sure everyone knows about it and has seen it, so there’s really nothing I need to add to the discussion except to say that I like that Peele makes smart, elevated genre fare and takes even a story that I probably wouldn’t care about from most people and makes it interesting and entertaining. Polar is basically Mads Mikkelsen doing John Wick. Which basically means, why haven’t you see this movie already and why aren’t you watching it right now? It’s Netflix, too, so it’s easy to find. The premise is that he’s a retired hitman trying to cash out on his hitman pension (that’s a thing), meanwhile the cash-strapped owner of the firm he works for can’t really afford to keep paying out all of the retirement funds on all these retiring hitmen, so he starts having them killed, one by one. But, you’d be surprised — turns out the main hitman character of a film is not that easy to kill! It’s fun. And even when it starts to feel like John Wick, it deliberately announces that it’s not. (You’ll see what I mean. It’s involves a dog.) It’s just a really fun movie that, while it’s not John Wick, exists in that space of, “You’ll like it because you like John Wick.”

Yesterday is a film based on a great concept: what if everyone in the world, except one guy, suddenly forgot who the Beatles were? And so now he’s the only one left who remembers them and their music and, an aspiring musician himself, starts recording all their music, both for his own success and to allow the music to still exist within the world. The film is written by Richard Curtis, which means it’s very charming, and Danny Boyle directs it and keeps it visually interesting throughout. I think the film kind of runs out of steam toward the end with the concept, but for the most part really does some really nice things (that scene near the end with Robert Carlisle is pretty nice). This is one of those movies where, even though I had issues with it when I saw it (mostly wanting it to fully have delivered on the promise even though it only got about 75% of the way there), I still find myself easily able to watch it. And watchability is one of the most underrated virtues of any movie. So I think this one’s a pretty solid success. Marriage Story is Noah Baumbach’s ode to his own divorce. It’s hard not to see the parallels, but he claims it’s not wholly autobiographical, so I guess we gotta take that grain of salt as it is. The film is about a disintegrating marriage. Adam Driver is a New York theater director and Scarlett Johansson is his wife, who acts in most of his plays but is mainly remembered for a dumb high school movie she made years prior. After they decide to split up, she moves to LA and the rest of the film becomes about the increasingly bitter divorce proceedings (as she hires Laura Dern, a shark of a lawyer, while he hires Alan Alda, who is an older, nice guy) and the struggle to share custody of their son. It’s a frank look at divorce in a (attempted) humanizing way. The film ultimately sides with the Driver character and almost villainizes Johansson, no matter how much he and anyone else tries to say that it doesn’t, and I think that hurts the overall product. But the performances by the actors are good, and it feels like a nice, human story and is probably Baumbach’s best film.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is the unrequited lesbian love story you didn’t know you needed in your life. It’s a beautiful film that was rightly considered the best foreign film of the year. And it’s about a female painter brought to an isolated island in the late 1700s to paint a wedding portrait for a woman who is basically about to be sent away to marry a man she’s never met (the portrait is meant to show him what she looks like before the marriage). The woman does not want her picture painted, and we find out there’s been several attempts at a portrait before this one, all of which ended badly. And for a lot of the film, it’s this awkward dance of the two of them talking to one another in these slow, uneventful scenes, and then builds to a point where the sexual tension becomes unbearable. It’s a really terrific film that is one of the most essential foreign films of this decade. The Art of Self-Defense is a Riley Stearns film. His first movie was Faults, that great cult deprogramming movie with Mary Elizabeth Winstead. That was a pretty straight drama while this — this is a very dark and very absurdist comedy. It stars Jesse Eisenberg as a very boring and timid man who is one day randomly attacked by a masked biker gang on the street. And so, in retaliation, he decides he’s gonna learn karate so he can defend himself should this ever happen again. And so the film is him taking karate classes at the town dojo and taking it really seriously. I can’t even explain it to do it justice, so I’ll say this — watch a trailer. If the humor works for you, then absolutely watch the film. Because it’s fun and funny as hell. If you can’t stand that type of humor, then maybe the film isn’t for you. But I’m telling you, I laughed my ass off at this. It’s a very funny movie.

Fast Color is a wonderful film from Julia Hart, who is fast becoming a must-watch director (her other films to this point are Miss Stevens, Stargirl and I’m Your Woman). This one stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw as a woman born with superpowers who has spent years trying to suppress them with drugs and alcohol and is now left with seizures that cause power outages. Meanwhile, she’s on the run from a government agency that wants to take her in and experiment on her and is just trying to get back home to see her mother, who is taking care of the daughter she had and abandoned because she was (at the time) unfit to care for her. It’s basically a superhero movie if presented through the lens of an independent family drama. If you remember, Midnight Special was a superhero movie told through the lens of realism, but it was still pretty big in scope by the end. This is very much an intimate drama that’s much more about Black Girl Magic than it is about anything else. It’s a pretty wonderful little fairy tale of a movie that is one of the better hidden gems of the decade. Booksmart is one of the big hits of this year that pretty much everyone has seen by this point. It’s quite wonderful, as it traverses the well-worn ground of high school comedies but finds interesting paths to take to make it feel fresh. It’s about two high school valedictorians who spent the last four years being perfect students, only to realize that they haven’t had any fun, and while everyone else was seemingly having fun, they also got into the same good schools as the two of them did. So, they decide they’re gonna cram four years of partying into the night before graduation. And naturally, some shit goes down. And it’s fun as hell. Olivia Wilde does a fantastic job in her directorial debut and Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein are terrific as the two leads. It’s just an extremely likable movie and really does manage to make a tired genre feel incredibly fresh.

Velvet Buzzsaw is Dan Gilroy’s third film in his elevated B movie trilogy (the first two being Nightcrawler and Roman J. Israel, Esq.). This one’s more of a horror satire about the art world. An ambitious woman finds paintings in a dead man’s apartment and steals them for exhibition. Turns out… paintings are haunted, and start killing people. But the twist is they only seem to target morally compromised people. It’s interesting. The film has a lot of ‘big’ characters, namely Jake Gyllenhaal doing — honestly I don’t really know what he’s doing, but it works. It’s an interesting film, and I suspect that when it came out, people either didn’t fully understand what it was going for or weren’t on board with it. But I keep thinking about this and I like what he’s trying to do, because I got what he was trying to do with the first two movies. I’m not sure people fully thought about what Nightcrawler was, and I think people’s response to this was more in line with Roman J. Israel in that they didn’t see the grimy B movie roots in the story it was trying to tell. When you look at it through that lens, it’s such a fascinating movie. I’m really a fan of what he tried to do here. The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a wonderful movie with a wonderful message. It’s ultimately a film about gentrification, and is about a man who vividly remembers growing up in this one specific house that he grandfather said he built that’s been in the family for years. And he dreams of one day getting to buy back that house and live in it. To the point where, every day, he goes and fixes up the outside of the house, even though there are people living there. And one day, those people just up and leave, probably because they were unable to afford to pay for it anymore. So he takes it upon himself to move into the house in the hopes of claiming squatter’s rights. And it’s just this beautiful story about looking for home in a changing landscape, one that doesn’t value the people who built it into the place that it is. And it’s a beautiful story of friendship. You realize pretty early on that you’re watching a special film, kind of how you felt within those first fifteen minutes (and they’re not of the same quality, but you know what I mean) of Moonlight. This is a really worthwhile film.

The Public is a film written and directed by Emilio Estevez, and for some reason, only now has it occurred to me that the film is almost an adult version of The Breakfast Club. It’s this weird spiritual companion. Because it, like The Breakfast Club, largely takes place in a single location. Estevez stars as a midwest librarian whose library is (as many libraries are nowadays) shelters for homeless people during the day when they have no place else to go. And the city is currently in the middle of record freezing temperatures, and with overcrowding at the shelters, homeless people are dying in record numbers each night. So, one day, the homeless people who typically inhabit the library decide to organize a sit-in. They say they’re not gonna leave. The city isn’t looking out for them, so why should they obey the law? And so the film becomes this standoff between everyone locked inside the library and the police outside. Alec Baldwin plays the chief of police and then there’s Christian Slater as a crusading district attorney with higher aspirations who, in his quest for a good public image, turns the situation into a full on hostage crisis. It’s a fun little movie with a good message at its center that’s, above all else, extremely watchable. I have certain things in my DNA that trigger me in positive ways when I watch a movie. If I find a movie that feels like something I would have discovered when I was ten, I’ll probably really like that movie. And this feels like one of those movies. You know, when you’re just flipping around the seven HBO channels and this is just randomly playing all week and maybe you catch part of it one day when you’re looking for something to watch, and you think, “That’s pretty good.” So the next day when it’s on you watch the whole thing, and then it just becomes something that, when it’s on and you’re waiting for something else to start, you just start watching it and before you realize it, you’ve watched it a bunch because it’s just one of those movies you can do that with. This is what that felt like as I was watching it, and that’s why I like this movie so much and I speak so highly of it. It’s not the greatest movie ever, but it unlocks that part of me that was young and really excited about movies, and you can’t have enough of those in your life.

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Tier Four:

  • Always Be My Maybe
  • Before You Know It
  • Captain Marvel
  • Feast of the Seven Fishes
  • Fighting with My Family
  • Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened
  • Give Me Liberty
  • Hala
  • High Flying Bird
  • Jumanji: The Next Level
  • Just Mercy
  • Point Blank
  • Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story
  • Serenity
  • Shazam!
  • The Souvenir
  • Spider-Man: Far from Home
  • To Dust
  • Triple Frontier
  • Villains

Give Me Liberty is the kind of comedy almost no one knows about and never sees, and the only people who properly acknowledge something like it are the Independent Spirit Awards, which so few people actually pay attention to (actually look deep for stuff to watch from) anyway. It’s another one of those very specific movies that somehow feels universal. It’s about a guy who drives one of those access-a-ride vans who is having one hell of a day. He’s trying to deal with his senile grandfather who he takes care of at home, drive a bunch of elderly Russian nursing home patients to a funeral and drive a woman with ALS (played by an actress who actually has ALS) to her destination. And then somehow this giant crazy Russian dude also somehow manages to come along for the ride. It’s such a weird movie but it’s fun as hell. Eventually the people and the situation wins you over. Plus it’s really great that they cast an actual disabled woman in the film (her name is Lolo Spencer, and she’s terrific in this). It’s a really great film that I’ll bet you probably haven’t heard of. Captain Marvel is a pretty standard Marvel, and even probably lower tier for them. That said, even most lower tier Marvel movies are still absolutely fine entertainment. It’s their first solo female superhero movie and it’s the first time Samuel L. Jackson’s actually had some real stuff to do. So, in a lot of ways, it’s cool. Plus everything Ben Mendelsohn is doing is terrific. But with Marvel, you have to compare the film to all the other movies, and for me, this is one of the lesser ones.

Rolling Thunder Revue is a Bob Dylan documentary/concert film from Martin Scorsese with some surprises thrown in. It starts with footage of Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue tour from the early 70s and has everyone talking about it… then Dylan and Scorsese start throwing a few curves. They introduce a character who isn’t real and talks about things that straight up never happened. And it’s subtle. And then all of a sudden Sharon Stone shows up and starts talking about being on the tour (which never happened). At one point, the fake character from Robert Altman’s miniseries Tanner on Tanner shows up. And by the end, you’re not sure what was true and what wasn’t, because they’ve constructed this elaborate narrative about the tour. It’s kind of like F for Fake with Orson Welles, where he claims ‘for the next hour, I will tell you the absolute truth’, and then as soon as the hour is over, he spends the next ten minutes absolutely lying to you and giving you false information. The point isn’t about the facts so much as it is about whether or not you’re entertained. Plus, it’s Dylan. He spent a career being a chameleon and having fun with people. So it fits him perfectly. It’s a wonderful piece of work. And the footage is awesome. Just Mercy is a fun lawyer/trial film with Michael B. Jordan as a young lawyer determined to free death row inmates who were wrongly convicted. Lawyer/trial movies are always interesting, and you get part prison movie on top of that (which are also always interesting). Jamie Foxx is great as the prisoner, and you get Brie Larson in there as well. It’s a really solid drama.

Feast of the Seven Fishes is apparently based on the director’s own graphic novel about his own upbringing, and it’s a film that I told myself months in advance, “I need to see this.” Because it’s title refers to the typical Christmas Eve dinner Italian families have, which are usually fish-based and sometimes do go as far as making seven different types of fish. And, having grown up in an Italian family, I’m always weirdly fascinated whenever someone makes a movie like this, because I always want to see if it captures the feeling I had growing up. And this is set in the 80s and in Pittsburgh, and yet is just a really charming coming of age story of a kid whose dream is to be an artist but is in line to inherit the family deli. Meanwhile all his relatives live within about ten minutes of each other and they’re all preparing for the big Christmas Eve feast. Meanwhile he’s dealing with an ex, his childhood sweetheart, who still has feelings for him, and a new girl he meets who is from an upper class WASP family… you get the idea. There’s a lot of stuff going on. But mostly what I like is the scenes with him and the family, and the fact that it’s a small town and people just bouncing around from event to event. I just really liked it a lot and think it’s one of those nice hidden gems that I created this site specifically to try to help people discover. Triple Frontier is J.C. Chandor’s first film since A Most Violent Year, and it’s a deceptively simple film. Special forces team get together again after a number of years to go rip off a South American drug lord. So it starts as a heist movie with a conscience. Only, once they execute the heist, you’re stuck with a shit ton of money in the middle of the jungle and now have to figure out how to get it out and stay alive. It’s fun. And the cast is great (Oscar Isaac, Ben Affleck, Charlie Hunnam, Garrett Hedlund, Pedro Pascal).

Hala is a wonderful coming-of-age drama about a Muslim teenager coming into her own. She’s the child of immigrant parents (whose marriage is faltering) and grew up in America in many ways an American kid. So she’s torn between the duties to her family and religion and simply being a kid. It’s a really terrific film with a great central performance from Geraldine Viswanathan. To Dust is a really off-the-wall little comedy that I just love, because it’s so unique and so specific. Geza Rohrig plays a Hasidic Jew whose wife dies. And he becomes obsessed with how her body is going to decompose, to the point where he goes to a burnout high school science teacher (Matthew Broderick) and devises a pan to kill and bury a pig to see how it’s gonna rot so they can approximate what’ll happen to his wife. It’s so weird and yet absolutely wonderful. Spider-Man: Far From Home… it’s not the first one. Homecoming was absolutely wonderful and is one of the better, if not best, films Marvel’s ever made. The sequel is an above average sequel, all things considered. You get the post-Endgame emotions of Peter losing his mentor. They finally bring Zendaya fully into the fold as a character. And you get an intellectually interesting (if not fully successfully realized) villain in Mysterio. Overall, it maintains a lot of the fun of the original, and it has the single best mid-credits sequence Marvel has ever done (J. Jonah Jameson forever).

 

Villains is a really fun dark comedy crime film with Maika Monroe and Bill Skarsgard as fugitive lovers on the run who stop at the wrong house at the wrong time. Originally intending to steal a car, they end up finding much more than they bargained for. Jeffrey Donovan and Kyra Sedgwick are both really terrific as the couple who own the house and the film is that perfect length of a quick 90 minutes, in and out. It’s a real good time and one of those great discoveries that’s waiting for people to find. The Souvenir is a wonderfully-directed indie from Joanna Hogg, based on her experiences as a film student in the 80s. The film is about a female film student who begins sleeping with an older man. And it’s just that. A quiet character study that looks immaculate and is just a really nice drama. Always Be My Maybe is a wonderful rom com written by and starring Ali Wong and Randall Park. It’s just a lovely, charming movie that, for a change, features Asian leads in a rom com. Which is not wholly important but is also hugely important, if that makes sense. I’m a big fan of this movie for a lot of reasons. High Flying Bird is Steven Soderbergh making the movie he was probably going to make before they fired him off Moneyball. It’s about a sports agent dealing with life during an NBA lockdown. A lot of the film is two people sitting around a table and talking, mixed with interviews with actual NBA players talking about the business and all the stuff no one actually talks about. It’s a really interesting film. Not totally successful, but with Soderbergh, you’re always interested in the risks he takes and are willing to forgive whenever a film doesn’t reach the heights it’s aiming for because at least it’s reaching. If you’ve watched most of his stuff, you’ll know that a Steven Soderbergh movie is always worth your time.

Fighting with My Family is an absolutely charming film about an actual WWE star’s journey and family life. She grew up in a wrestling family in England and eventually made her way to the WWE and became one of its top stars. So it’s got that working class charm that films like The Full Monty and such have, and it’s got the sports movie aspect, as she has to work to ‘make the team’ so to speak and achieve her dreams. And even at the end, when the final match, while you know it’s scripted and how it’s gonna end, you still get that ‘Rocky’ moment of seeing her triumph. It’s really well done. Having grown up during the golden age of professional wrestling and having been a fan of it for those childhood years, I was leery about this, because I just assumed this was gonna be some sanitized thing and not actually be anything good. But it’s not. It’s a really strong piece of work that is really less about professional wrestling than it is about someone from a working class family achieving their dream. This will appeal to everyone and not just wrestling fans, and I think that’s why I like it as much as I do. Shazam is Big but with a superhero. And it’s really charming. Kid gets a superhero’s powers when he says the title word, and for half the film you have a child in an adult superhero’s body learning about his powers and having to deal with an actual supervillain who’s running around. It’s a lot of fun. Never gonna be mistaken for one of the best superhero movies ever made, but considering the flat tone and forgettable nature of most of them, this one stands out as one of the more lively ones. Jumanji: The Next Level, while it doesn’t capture all the fun of the original, is still a worthy sequel. The entire original cast is back, and they add Danny DeVito and Danny Glover to the mix, and they mix up who plays who. So The Rock is doing a Danny DeVito impression for half the movie. It’s fun. And they do a nice thing with the ending, moving it into what you’d normally expect a Jumanji movie to be. It’s still got a lot of fun that the first one had and remains a very worthy franchise.

Before You Know It is an interesting little indie that caught me by complete surprise. It’s co-written by, directed by and stars Hannah Pearl Utt and it’s about two sisters who find out that their mother, who they long thought was dead, is not only alive but is actually a known soap opera actress living and working about 25 minutes from where they’ve lived their entire lives. What I liked most about it — aside from Mandy Patinkin — is that it doesn’t take the usual route you’d expect for this kind of movie, even as it traverses a lot of the usual route. The opening scene is a nice little same-sex date that’s so low key and so ordinary that it made me immediately perk up because I knew this wasn’t the kind of movie I was expecting. And that’s how it feels all the way through. It’s a nice little gem for those looking for stuff below the usual stuff beneath the surface. Fyre is the documentary about Fyre Festival and the absolute shit show that it was. This is the Netflix one. The Hulu one is probably more even-handed about ‘all of these people are criminals’, whereas the Netflix one is produced by some of the people involved and tries to go easier on some of them. But it’s the more entertaining of the two. It’s just a horror story of what happened, combined with the greatest single scene of that year in film — the scene where the guy talks about going to the customs agent, prepared to blow him in order to get the cases of water into the country. It’s amazing in the most cringeworthy way, this doc. Point Blank is just a straight action movie for those who enjoy those. It starts from the opening seconds and never lets up. Frank Grillo is a criminal on the hook for murdering a corrupt official and Anthony Mackie is an ER nurse. Pretty soon both of them are on the run as the corrupt officials and police start to target them and their families. It’s a lot of fun, in a down and dirty kind of way. Pure B movie action and really enjoyable.

Serenity is a movie that looked good on paper, given the people involved (Steven Knight, who made Locke and created Peaky Blinders and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway), but tanked horribly and had the stink of a terrible movie on it from the get go. Problem is, it’s actually a good terrible movie. You know, like The Wicker Man or The Happening. It’s bad in such an operatic kind of way that you can’t help but watch it for the train wreck that it is. And the only way I’ve found to actually get people to see this movie is to spoil the (insane) twist for them. Because otherwise no one cares. But when you hear what you’re in for, somehow that’s what gets people to go, “Okay, I need to see this.” Basically: the set up is a typical femme fatale noir. McConaughey is living in a small fishing village and takes tourists out on his boat. It’s a small, calm existence. One might call it… serene. And then Hathaway, his ex-wife, shows up, and we find out that he’s going by an assumed name and has a past that he’s kept from everyone in this place. And she says that her new husband is coming down on business and that he’s abusive and a piece of shit and she wants McConaughey to kill him for her. Very much a noir set up. You could’ve seen Robert Mitchum in something like this in 1949. But then, about halfway through this movie, we find out what’s going on (because all the while you’re wondering why certain things are happening and why the acting is so stilted): the entire movie takes place inside a video game. That is, McConaughey is dead and his son wrote this video game to keep himself from actually killing his father, who is abusive toward his mother (Hathaway). Get it? That’s right, it’s insane. Because then you’re following McConaughey as a character who is programmed to do one thing, but then, for some reason, like The Matrix, is able to act almost autonomously to choose how the story ends. It’s fucking bizarre, and yet, I can’t stop thinking about it because it’s an exercise in “what made you think this was a good idea?”. It’s so specifically realized and so ill-conceived at the same time that it’s one of the most interesting movies I saw this decade. And to me, an interesting bad movie is so much better than a ‘whatever’ good one.

– – – – – – – – – –

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