Tuesday, January 14, 2020

My Top 10 Films of 2019

I admit... my intent to be more active on this blog last year took an even faster nosedive than I expected. I'm sorry to say of late that I've not felt terribly inspired with new ideas, but at least the end of one year gives me a very easy top to post about - my Top Ten Films of 2019!

1. Apollo 11 - It's remarkable to see footage of one of the most significant events of the last century looking not like faded newsreel, but vibrant color, as if it was shot in the present. Compiled from recently-recovered archival documentary footage, this film lets the events on screen tell the story. There's no omniscient narrator or talking head interviews to cast this like a tale you're hearing around the campfire. Knowing there were tens of thousands of hours of raw footage that had to be culled to make these 93 minutes makes the achievement even more remarkable. By showing the voyage of Apollo 11 as something unfolding before the cameras, the events become all the more immediate. Man landing on the moon has never felt more real or more awe inspiring. This is a film that should be shown in every elementary school.

2. Uncut Gems - Adam Sandler totally disappears in the role of diamond district jeweler/hustler Howard Ratner. You don't feel any trace of the actor's usual comedic persona even in the film's funny parts. This is a film that keeps piling the sandbags up against Ratner one after the other, with even brief victories quickly washed away. Every time you want Howard to just take his money off the table and stem his losses, he doubles down. It's like watching that guy walk the wire between the World Trade Center towers... he's got to fall sometime, right? Also, people who don't follow basketball at all (me) will probably be shocked at how the actual basketball player in the cast is such a natural actor. (Seriously, Kevin Garnett has more presence than almost any other athelte/actor I can think of.) I feel like this might be a little too intense for the Oscars to award Best Picture, but ten years from now when we look back at 2019 - this will be one of the first films that springs to mind.

3. Parasite - This one was released with a lot of "Go in knowing NOTHING" hype and I worry that might have scared off viewers afraid of a HEREDITARY kind of viewing experience. It's actually a dark comedy that turns into a thriller mid-way through with a surprising twist. It's gotten a lot of hype over its themes of class warfare, but more than that, I just appreciate it's a really well-made thriller about an underdog family who targets and cons a wealthy family who REALLY needs to do a better job of vetting their hired help.

4. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood - Tom Hanks never quite makes you fully forget you're watching "Tom Hanks as Mr. Rogers" but he completely embodies the goodness that was Fred Rogers and makes you believe a man could be as generous and compassionate off-screen as he was on it. It was a year where we really needed films about GOOD people and the difference that kindness can make in a person's life. Matthew Rhys has been underpraised for his role as basically the cynical audience stand-in, a man used to seeing the dark side of life and unsure how to profile a man who seems to have no dark side or skeletons in his closet. There's a subplot about Rhys's character's father that could have been cynical in its heart-tugging but Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster's script makes you believe that a man like Rhys can find his heart, just as easily as it makes you believe in Mr. Rogers.

5. Avengers: Endgame - The one big franchise this year that completely stuck the landing. Yes, the time travel logic is counter-intuitive and there are plenty of nits to pick there, but everything here works on an emotional level. The final fates of several Avengers feels earned, much like a circle closing. I wrote in my review that it feels more like a series finale than a feature film, and while there's a lot of truth to that, it's a series that a LOT of people have been watching for a decade. Balancing spectacle and heart so ably, if this becomes the rabbit that every other blockbuster film tries to chase, we're in for some entertaining movies.

6. Booksmart - It's a disservice to write this off as a "female SUPERBAD." I see the similarities, but it also has a lot more to say about finding and redefining one's identity than the earlier film grapples with. SUPERBAD is about the end of the high school days and the one last chance to go after what you want. The second-best parts of BOOKSMART are about Amy breaking free of the box she's been in throughout high school. (The best parts of the film are Billie Lourd, obviously.) I also like that is specifically avoids making this a literal "coming out" story for her. She's out, but this is really a story about breaking free of the person you used to be.

7. Knives Out - I've watched this movie twice, and it might be my pick for favorite dialogue of the year and favorite ensemble. This is one of those movies where the joy that everyone felt making it on set clearly permeates on-screen. It's a whodunit that seems to tell us the "who" halfway through and briefly morphs into a suspense film as we worry the responsible party will be exposed. Everyone brings their A-game here. I want Rian Johnson to make a new Benoit Blanc film every other year, alternating with a new original film with this cast. I can't pick a favorite member of the cast, but this is a real coming out party for Ana de Armas. Not only was she usually cast as the sex bomb before this, but she was a sex bomb IN A MOVIE I SAW and I completely didn't recognize her until I went to look her up. Johnson's script should be required reading for anyone working on a script with a large ensemble, to study the economy of information that fleshes out everyone.

8. Dolemite is my Name - I'm a sucker for films about never-gonna-bes who don't let any talent deficiencies get in the way of their creative dreams (See: ED WOOD, also from the screenwriting team of Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski.) I knew nothing of the story of Rudy Ray Moore before I watched the film. At first, you pity the guy for his fruitless pursuit of fame and fortune, then you find yourself admiring his hustle and savvy in finding the right audience for his comedy. And when he seems ready to blow ALL that money on making a film before he's even learned how to direct, you want to scream "No, Icarus! Don't fly too high!" The whole time you're bracing for the brutal payoff this hustling underdog is courting... but the movie has much more up its sleeve. This is the kind of movie that will inspire a lot of passionate (and hopefully) talented people to bet on themselves in pursuit of their dreams. It's also EASILY Eddie Murphy's best performance since... his dual roles in BOWFINGER, maybe?

9. Little Women - The back-and-forth timelines were confusing. There, I said it. Particularly in the first half, I feel like the movie could have handled those transitions more effectively, but that's one of the few bad things I have to say about this film. Having never read the book or seen any other adaptations, I came to this with virgin eyes and felt that writer/director Greta Gerwig did a remarkable job balancing the stories of these four sisters in this perfectly-cast period drama.

10. Hustlers - She's being pushed for Supporting Actress, but this film BELONGS to Jennifer Lopez's Ramona. Constance Wu's Destiny is our eyes and ears, what what passes for the film's moral center, but without J.Lo's seduction into their increasingly ugly grift, this whole movie would collapse. She's the ringleader, the one who keeps pushing them further and further, taking on bigger risks. Soon what began as a clever scheme making victims of Wall Street douchebros who deserved it treads into uglier, more dangerous territory. Ramona and Destiny's friendship is a well-drawn depiction of the emotional manipulations that come into play as a friendship takes a slow slide into toxicity. You're torn between wanting to be loyal to a friend like Ramona even as it's inevitable she'll take you down with her.

and the rest of my Top 20:

11. Once Upon a Time... In Hollywood
12. The Art of Self-Defense
13. Queen & Slim
14. Toy Story 4
15. Jojo Rabbit
16. Bombshell
17. The Irishman
18. Frozen 2
19. Ford v. Ferrari
20. Ready or Not

Of the big Oscar films and would-be Oscar films, I still have to see 1917.