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Top Ten Films of 2019

February 4, 2020

parasitewindow

 

2019 was definitely a different year at the movies for me. Maybe you noticed my written reviews had become sparse around June or maybe you didn’t – you never know who’s following this thing. Regardless of what I didn’t write about, movies still came out each week. That’s a constant. Another constant is how people often reflect on the year in film and complain for one reason or another, shrug it off and move on. Well, I may not have written about many movies for the second half of last year, but I’ve certainly seen enough to know that it was a great year of cinema – from indies to blockbusters there was definitely more than a handful that rose to the top.

Are these THE Top Ten Films of 2019? Top? All I can say is that I’m listing off ten of my favorite films from last year. Like every year, I slaved over the order and it never gets any easier.  That being said, you can come at these however you will, these are my favorites in a really solid year at the movies. I loathe doing these lists alone, so joining me are returning contributing writers, Joshua Bertram, Mark Pracht and Steven Attanasie – thanks for joining me, guys!

Before we get to the list (or, just scroll down, I get it), a few considerations and reasons…

As mentioned, my output of film criticism was sparse, but my coverage could still be heard instead of read, since I was (still am) a frequent guest on Kicking the Seat, a longstanding podcast run by my colleague and friend, Ian Simmons. Just about every week you can hear Ian and myself discuss a movie or two that we’ve seen – (and you can even see us plow through each episode of Disney+’s “The Mandalorian“!) – in fact, the last time I showed up on the podcast we looked back on the 2019 at the movies.  You can find Ian’s own list of his Top 19 Films of 2019, right here.

Back to the drought: the primary reason for my lack of writing was due to an 18-week training program that kicked off in June in preparation for the Chicago Marathon in October. Little did I know how all the time and energy spent preparing to run my very first marathon would derail my usual schedule. I knew my presence here would take a hit or would turn into something else altogether, but not to the extend that it did. Running and sleeping had replaced writing about movies, but I wouldn’t have changed a thing.

I want to thank all of you who supported my efforts to raise money for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless! You were a great source of inspiration and motivation – and if you didn’t get around to contributing, I’m running with that awesome team again this year and could REALLY use your support again (or for the first time), so click here and help me out! C’mon, it’s my birthday – no really, it is!

 

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“Send Me to the Clouds”

 

One review I was glad I finished and posted was for Teng Congcong‘s debut, “Send Me to the Clouds“, a thoughtful drama that takes an existential look at life, love and desire in an emotionally poignant, often humorous manner. It turned out to be an enlightening viewing experience, not just because it follows a journalist Sheng Nan (a wonderful Yao Chen) who is recently diagnosed with ovarian cancer and is pressured to make a great deal of cash fast and find mind-blowing sex before losing senses in a costly surgery, but mainly because touches on a specific generation rarely heard from, the “leftover women”  born under China’s One Child Policy burdened to “surpass men”. How that effects a woman, particularly this woman we follow, ultimately winds up being a fascinating and beautiful contemplation. The film is out now on DVD from Cheng Cheng Films and can be purchased/rented on Amazon.

“Send Me to the Clouds” can be placed on an Honorable Mention list for 2019, along with “Rendezvous in Chicago“, the latest from local Chicago filmmaker Michael Glover Smith.  Looking back on the year in film, I find this clever and unique triptych on dating life coming back to me with it’s unexpected lyrical pace and fine performances, offering me more to think about it long after I wrote about it back in March. It’s currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

Two other Honorable Mentions come to mind are “The Peanut Butter Falcon”, “Chained for Life” and “Saint Frances”, two very different films, but most certainly worth your time.  There are other films I need to revisit (“Rolling Thunder Revue” and “Atlantics”) and there are films I could’ve easily fit in the next ten slots, my 11-20 would look something like this: “Dragged Across Concrete”, “1917”, “Little Women”, “I Lost My Body”, “Ad Astra”, “Apollo 11”, “Ford v Ferrari”, “Ash is Purest White”, “Just Mercy” and “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”.

Contributing writer, Steven Attanasie – who helped out greatly here in my absence –  has his own Honorable Mentions as well, some he deems  “worthy of inclusion” are the following:  “The Kid Who Would Be King,” “Apollo 11,” “Jojo Rabbit,” “Knives Out,” and “The Missing Link.”

He also made it a point to take a stab at a movie which has earned 11 Oscar nominations, “Also, someone’s got to say it, “Joker” is not a good movie. In fact, it’s quite bad.” I’m not going to disagree with him there, but I will share how it goes about being bad by sharing what I feel is not bad about Todd Phillips surprising hit. Joaquin Phoenix is good in it and he’ll win Best Actor. He’s been better playing other haunted/damaged characters, but this has a brand on it, so more people saw it. Lawrence Star’s cinematography is great and the memorable score by Hildur Guðnadóttir is unique for a “comic book movie”. The problem is that Phillips screenplay, which he co-wrote with Scott Silver isn’t offering anything new or different. Maybe the people who’ve responded to it – and there are some who think “Joker” is the best movie of the year – haven’t seen better movies covering the same themes and subjects, like Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy”. That’s all the time I’m offering that clown though.

Before you scan my ten and get all hot and bothered, here are 2019 films I have yet to catch up with: “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”, “Maiden”, “Les Miserables”, “Pain and Glory”,  “Last Black Man in San Francisco”, “Burning Cane” and ” everything else on Matt Fagerholm‘s list. That being said, it would behoove you to check out 2019 reflections and list here from a few revered colleagues: Daniel Nava and the aforementioned Michael Glover Smith.

 

 

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Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir in “Woman at War”

 

 

10.

 

Joshua – WAVES 

The story “Waves” tells feels sprawling for one that maintains a focus on a single family of four. The dynamics of the family are compelling and complicated in ways that continue to be revealed over the course of the film, rendering your understanding of the characters increasingly more complex. And this is part of what makes Waves such a deeply rewarding experience aside from its overtly showy style and the way it uses popular music to drive the emotion of scenes. It allows you to live with this family through their joys and their great pain, and to understand the ways that social and familial isolation tragically underlie our cultural brokenness. (avail. to stream or own DVD/blu-ray on February 4th)

Mark Pracht – JOKER

No matter how you may actually feel about this film, two facts are clear: One, Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is one for the ages, and two, the film has inspired more actual conversation about the nature and point of art than any other. For me, the film raises questions, sometimes without answers…and there was a time when that, in itself, was enough reason to create something. For me? It still is. Your mileage may vary. (avail. to rent/own on streaming services & DVD/Blu-ray)

Steven – UNCUT GEMS

This film has bounced on and off my list for the last week and a half as I viewed more films, and like the film’s protagonist, has withstood blow after blow and remained on my list. The Safdie Brothers follow up perhaps their most stylistically successful film, 2017’s “Good Time,” with their most commercially successful, thanks in no small part to the film’s star Adam Sandler. Sandler’s commercial recognizability is subverted to its best effect since 2002’s “Punch Drunk Love,” playing his typically repugnant behavior for actual life and death stakes. Its writer/directors’ incredible knack for casting characters all the way down the call sheet gives the film a brilliant authenticity. Its true power is in how it resonates for days and how good Sandler can be when he taps into his childish instincts in a real world context. Needless to say, they don’t go over as well as they do in your typical Adam Sandler vehicle, and there’s something truly satisfying about it seeing it play out this way for once. (now in theaters, coming to DVD/Blu-ray on March 10th)

David – WOMAN AT WAR

Reminiscent of a John Sayles film with Wes Anderson whimsy, Benedikt Erlingsson’s “Woman at War” is the one film I consistently championed all last year – heck, I’m still talking about it in 2020! For me, it was one of those discoveries I hope to find each year, since I had not previously seen anything by the co-writer/director or its wonderful lead actress, Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir. She plays Halla, a 50-year-old environmental activist In Iceland who crusades against the local aluminium industry, creating a panic amongst local law enforcement and government officials. Her bold actions become problematic for her when she is finally granted permission to adopt a young girl from the Ukraine. While its deadpan humor, quirky charm and fun insertion of live music in the story, “Woman at War” is alluring, winning you over as its tender heart shines throughout. You too will be compelled to tell everyone about it. (now streaming on Hulu)

 

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Jessie Buckley in “Wild Rose”

 

9. 

 

Joshua – LITTLE WOMEN

Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of the classic Louisa May Alcott novel might seem an odd choice for 2019. Jo March’s limited options in the 1860s-set story may not resonate as much with girls of today as much as they have in the past. But in presenting this classic story with this much passion and care, with this great a cast and with a script and editing style that feel this lively, what Gerwig does is assert that the great stories that have resonated with women deserve a spot in the canon, and that stories by and about women’s lives and experiences are sacred things deserving of respect. (now in theaters)

Mark – AD ASTRA 

Almost the direct antithesis of JOKER, and a spellbinding experience. Swinging wildly from Kubrickian meditation to flashes of sci-fi action and horror, AD ASTRA is a odd experience not for every audience, but, for me, it touched upon how “the future,” once a golden gateway to a greater humanity, may now just be a cold, lonely place where our own fears and obsessions cut us off from each other. (avail. to rent/own on streaming services & DVD/Blu-ray)

Steven  – COLD CASE HAMMARSKJOLD 

The age in which the internet has been our primary way to get information has given rise to countless hucksters employing the familiar documentary style to peddle conspiracy theories. I don’t know if the film’s Danish director Mads Brügger is a huckster, but his decidedly European take on Michael Moore’s intrusively soft confrontational style plays well here. With Swedish private investigator Göran Bjorkdahl in tow, and a deck full of aces up his sleeve, Brügger travels to Ndola to investigate a fatal plane crash in 1961 that killed UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld. The film then takes several meandering turns before its filmmakers end up investigating a far different, seemingly totally disconnected crime. It ends up painting a disturbing picture of the African continent’s exploitation at the hands of its former colonial powers as the two threads come together in devastating fashion. I don’t know how much of what I saw in this film is true, but it never seems all that far-fetched, which is what its filmmaker excels at doing for the film’s entire duration. (streaming on Hulu)

David – WILD ROSE 

Don’t you dare dismiss this as a standard underdog story, because as underdog stories go you’ve never seen one so rousing, touching and funny. Rising Irish actress, Jessie Buckley is absolutely amazing in an impressive and committed performance as Glaswegian derelict single mother/ex-con Rose-Lynn, who dreams of becoming a country music singing sensation in Nashville. She’s got the talent and the fire, but she’s also unstable and a foul-mouthed, hot-headed liar with no filter. From the moment we hear Rose-Lynn sing (Buckley does her own singing and she’s fantastic) we’re won over and want her dreams to come true just as much as she does, but we mostly just don’t want her to screw up and let down her two kids and mother (a wonderful Julie Walters) again. Directed by Tom Harper, from a script by Nicole Taylor, “Wild Rose” has a great amount of heart at its core and the addictive songs from the soundtrack will have you standing up and clapping or watching the hair on your arm stand up. This is one of those films that made my heart sing and swell at the same time. Something we always need and “Wild Rose” is one that I’ll be recommending for a while. (avail. to rent/own on Amazon Prime, Google Play, Vudu & YouTube and streaming on Hulu)

 

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Florence Pugh in “Midsommar”

 

 

8.

 

Joshua – THE IRISHMAN 

The Irishman is a behemoth of a movie, one that at three and a half hours could only have been made with the good will granted someone like Martin Scorsese over a 50+ year career. It’s also a movie exactly about that kind of lengthy career and the weight of aging. For large parts of it, The Irishman is an entertaining gangster hangout movie that might test viewers’ patience. But as it unfolds into an underworld epic, the film rewards the efforts of viewers willing to stick with it until its extraordinary last hour, when the story culminates in a gripping series of scenes that find Scorsese asking questions about masculinity, violence, power, class, and legacy that seem to be at the top of mind as the filmmaker approaches 80. (streaming on Netflix)

Mark – THE STANDOFF AT SPARROW CREEK

A good, old-fashioned locked-door mystery, with a ripped-from-the-headlines political and cultural subtext that provides the framework. It’s main concern is it’s mystery, and the performances. On that level, it exceeds all similar films this year. (streaming on Hulu) 

Steven – MIDSOMMAR 

Anyone who thought the shadowy charms of writer/director Ari Aster’s debut film “Hereditary” masked his talent can now judge him properly with the broad daylight terror of his follow-up, “Midsommar.” Aster’s talent for ratcheting up tension is matched beat-for-beat by his tireless composition as a director. For the film’s first thirty minutes or so, it is a deep domestic drama with the promise of sunlit climes in Scandinavia as a means of escape from the terrors facing the film’s main couple, Christian (Jack Reynor) and Dani (Florence Pugh, an actress who was born for this kind of stuff). Instead, the real horror they thought they’d left behind is nothing compared with what awaits them in this incredibly frightening film. It’s a cheat to call it a horror film, as it really only fits in that genre if you watch it with the sound off, but it is a film that understands and exploits the tropes of the genre in adept fashion. The gore is truly unsettling and haunting, but the film takes far too much joy in the set-up for increasingly absurd payoffs that you can’t help but go with Aster on this journey into madness. It’s disturbing, but it’s also a blast, and that balance is nearly impossible to strike. (avail. to rent/own on streaming services & DVD/Blu-ray)

David – THE FAREWELL

Here’s a film I wish more people saw and talked about last year. Sure, it’s on some other year-end lists, but “The Farewell” should’ve been the sleeper hit of the summer. Writer/director Lulu Wang’s tender and hilarious dramedy tells the story of a Chinese-American woman, Billi (a wonderful Awkwafina), who is told her grandmother, Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhou) has terminal cancer, but the rest of the family decide to keep the diagnosis from their matriarch and instead plan a wedding to bring the whole family together one last time. Based on Wang’s own family story, which gained momentum after she told it on NPR’s This American Life in 2016, the film is filled with such relatable characters (all performed by a fine cast) that “The Farewell” winds up being quiet a universal tale. Some will be surprised by Awkwafina’s range, maybe even consider her something of a discovery here, even if (and probably because) they’ve seen her other work. That make sense. She’s just that good. I’m positive Wang’s film will find a wider audience over time and I’m certain viewers will be delightfully surprised. (avail. for rent/own on various streaming platforms & DVD/Blu-ray)

 

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“The Farewell”

 

 

7. 

 

Joshua – THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD

World War I rendered as you’ve never seen it before, They Shall Not Grow Old transports the viewer back into the trenches through restored and colourized footage mixed with voiceover interviews from soldiers who were there. The mixture of emotions shared by the men bring to life the experiences of war, the horror, the despair, the camaraderie, the boredom, in a way that enhances the already remarkable imagery. Through the blending of narrative voices and the way the footage retains a ghostike impression, director Peter Jackson has brought us into the past to remind us of what it still has to teach us.   (streaming on Hulu)

Mark – UNCUT GEMS

This is my kind of drama, like an early David Mamet play. A flawed, desperate man tap-dancing through scams and schemes, trying to stay one step ahead of a bridge collapsing behind him. The tension is nearly unbearable as the film careens toward its climax.

Steven – THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON

As the notion of family has begun to evolve in the world, so too has it evolved on film, and no film better demonstrated that evolution this year than “The Peanut Butter Falcon.” Steeped in folklore from Huck Finn all the way up to the world of dirt water rasslers, the film is sweet without ever feeling saccharine. Reveling in those same glorious real-world stakes of “Uncut Gems,” this is a few notches softer though not without its own sharp edge. Shia LaBeouf has had his personal and professional struggles, but one of the things that made him a star in the first place is his charisma. That’s cranked to 11 here as a fugitive from backwater justice who teams up with a twenty-something man with down syndrome (the truly lovely Zack Gottsagen), who has escaped from an old folks home. The pair encounter many adventures and set-backs on their way to a wrestling training camp run by the Salt Water Redneck (a game and charming Thomas Haden Church), but it’s a journey-more-than-the-destination kind of movie with empathy to spare. (avail. to rent/own on streaming services & DVD/Blu-ray)

David – US

Jordan Peele’s creepy doppelgänger tale was the first 2019 movie that made my head spin. While “Us” is more of an outright horror flick than his last movie, it’s just as clever and intricately crafted as “Get Out”, but its anchored by a bravura dual performance from Lupita Nyong’o that is simply spectacular. Sure, other actors are portraying two versions of their characters, yet it’s Nyong’o as the protective mother and the deeply unsettling psychopath, that elevates the material Peel provides. There are fun moments of humor, but there’s mostly this aura of dread as we step deeper and deeper into this violent and unsettling underworld. I’ll never forget certain moments in “Us”, like when Nyong’o first speaks to Adelaide as Red or when the twist at the end leaves viewers perplexed and puzzled, for better or worse. Not everyone likes the film, but “Us” confirms that Peel is a filmmaker to watch and Nyong’o is here to surprise us. (avail. to rent/own on streaming services & DVD/Blu-ray)

 

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Eddie Murphy in “Dolemite is My Name”

 

6.

 

Joshua – BOOKSMART

The most fun teen comedy I’ve seen in years, Booksmart takes the language of high school party movies and gives the genre a shot in the arm with a great story structure that plays like a quest, some inspired formal choices from debut director Olivia Wilde, and a wonderful cast headed by Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever as the two bookish leads determined to attend one school party before they graduate. But Booksmart’s greatest strength is the confidence it has in the value of the central relationship. It’s a warm and hilarious ode to female friendship and coming-of-age.  (avail. to rent/own on streaming services & DVD/Blu-ray)

Mark – DOLOMITE IS MY NAME

A truly effervescent film. Eddie Murphy is amazing in every frame, and the absolute joy the entire film takes in the act of creation is as infectious as anything you will see this year. Comedy with a big, big beating heart, which I find in short supply. (streaming on Netflix) 

Steven – 1917

So many great films this year dealt with its characters problems on a micro level, distilling big problems down to a very human level. “1917”s characters don’t have time for that precious development, which is a tremendous part of director Sam Mendes’ latest film’s power. Moving at an unrelenting clip in what is designed to look like one single, continuous take, “1917” puts a human face on an inhuman task. Two young soldiers are tasked with carrying a message across enemy lines which are mostly abandoned, in hopes of stopping an attack on enemy forces that will turn into an ambush. With one soldier’s older brother among the 1600 men marching toward certain death, time is of the essence in this propulsive, unrelenting film brilliantly shot by the always amazing Roger Deakins. Unlike Christopher Nolan’s equally unflinching “Dunkirk,” Mendes has managed to make time in his relentless narrative for truly touching moments of humanity. With more than a few visual nods to things as far afield as Tarkovsky’s “Ivan’s Childhood” and newsreel footage of the era, this is an expertly crafted film by an ace student of the medium’s limitations and possibilities.

David – THE IRISHMAN

Martin Scorsese. Robert DeNiro. Al Pacino. Joe Pesci. Harvey Keitel…and Ray Ramano? You bet. How could this eagerly-awaiting epic not be good? Well, considering the questionable (aka embarrassing) recent work by DeNiro (“Dirty Grandpa”) and Pacino (“The Hangman”), I had my reservations. But, “The Irishman” surprisingly (and thankfully) reminds us of a handful of things. Chiefly that another great film from a master filmmaker should never be doubted. Also, that Scorsese and screenwriter Steve Zaillian (adapting Charles Brandt book) are able to provide material in which DeNiro and Pacino deliver performances that remind us why they’re two of the great actors of their generation. It also reminds us of the greatness of editor and longtime Scorsese collaborator, Thelma Schoonmaker, who slices this surprisingly somber and reflective story into something poetic. It also firmly places Pesci as the MVP of the film, delivering an intense albeit quiet performance unlike his intense tough guy roles in previous Scorsese films. Regardless of how long you think you can watch a film, this three-and-a-half hour epic is best scene in one sitting…you can handle it. (streaming on Netflix)

 

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“The Irishman”

5. 

 

Joshua – A HIDDEN LIFE

“A Hidden Life” may be a three-hour meditation on faith and morality set against the backdrop of Hitler’s rise to power, but it is Terrence Malick’s most focused and purposeful film in years. The movie explores conscience and consequence in the story of an Austrian farmer waiting for the day he is called to join Hitler’s army, but knowing he could never do so. Malick reflects contemporary politics through this historical lens, asking viewers to consider the ways evil empires rise through the willingness of everyday people to participate, and the personal cost one might be willing to suffer to avoid bringing suffering on others. This is a remarkable achievement.  (now in theaters)

Mark – MARRIAGE STORY

The kind of film that lives and dies on its performances, and every single one is amazing. I’ve heard it called the 21st century “Kramer vs Kramer”, but it’s far more hopeful than that film. There is so much love in the film, mixed with, yes, pain. It’s also nice to see a film about artists depicted as normal people, and the arts as actual jobs to do. (streaming on Netflix)

Steven – DOLEMITE IS MY NAME

1994’s “Ed Wood” remains a gold standard in the movie biopic world for its unyielding love for the misfit band of characters who came together to make movies. It’s fitting that the pair of writers who brought Ed Wood’s story to the big screen now give his kindred spirit in the Blaxploitation world, Rudy Ray Moore, the same tender love and care. Eddie Murphy delivers his best performance since “Bowfinger” to bring Moore’s goofy aesthetic as a born entertainer without an outlet to life. Surrounded by an outstanding supporting cast, Murphy may not look or sound like the real Moore, but his winning performance more than compensates. Director Craig Brewer brings the whole shaggy dog enterprise together with a plainly evident talent for recreating the feel of the period, and not just the look. Coupled with a game cast, a terrific script by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, and an unconditional love for the people it’s depicting, “Dolemite is My Name” is a biopic done right. Now stop waiting to watch it and put your weight on it!

David – ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD

Like Scorsese, writer/director Quentin Tarantino delivered a movie within his wheel house, yet offered something different and surprisingly soulful. It’s still full of his trademarks – humor, knowledge of movies/TV shows/music, sudden violence and ample displays of bare female feet – but at the core of it all there’s this great friendship between veteran actor, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his best pal/sometime stuntman, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), a couple of lonely guys who are each other’s number one fans. It’s a bond unlike any other in a Tarantino film and living within the peripheral of the story set in 1969 Hollywood is the sublime performance by Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate. The Spahn Ranch sequence will forever be one of Tarantino’s most accomplished works on film. I will never tire of seeing Cliff feeding his dog or insecure Rick getting all bent out of shape over his possibly fading acting career. Pitt and DiCaprio are an absolute delight, but the impressive feat is how Tarantino transports us back in time, conveying a sense of nostalgia and longing. I get why some have issues with the ending, but that’s Tarantino for ya and by now I’ve come to accept it. (now avail. to rent or own on DVD/Blu-ray)

 

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“1917”

 

4.

 

Joshua – KNIVES OUT

Rian Johnson’s “Knives Out” is a banger of a flick, a thoroughly entertaining and stylish whodunit? that doubles as a scathing parody of American wealth and class. It has legitimately surprising and satisfying narrative twists in Johnson’s most elegantly-written script, and a stellar ensemble cast including an MVP comedic performance from Daniel Craig. Johnson unveils the sick greed underlying America’s moral facade, and pleads to his audience for the importance of goodness in an era of cruelty, even if it being truthful makes you sick. The final shot of the film is the best of the year. (now in theaters, avail. on Blu-ray on February 25th)

Mark – THE IRISHMAN

A culmination of several careers, and something I don’t think we’ll ever see again. On top of that, it’s drama that uses our history with this filmmaker and these actors honestly. It doesn’t use it as shorthand, but to add depth. The final scenes are truly heartbreaking. Al Pacino hasn’t been this good in years, and Joe Pesci deserves every accolade.

Steven – THE IRISHMAN

Having now spent seven hours over two viewings with Martin Scorsese’s latest—and longest—epic, I am now in the camp that it is one of his best. Scorsese taught us how to watch mob movies when he revitalized the genre with 1990’s “Goodfellas,”  but the reason he is the revered master of said genre is because he’s able to adapt to the speed of its story. “The Irishman,” despite the presence of Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and countless other bit actors, is not “Goodfellas.” That was a frantic story told by a cocaine-addled man who still loved his time in the mafia. “The Irishman” is an old man’s story, opening with a leisurely stroll through a nursing home that perfectly establishes the “let’s slow things down” style of the film. In the same way “Godfather Part II” does likewise by bringing us back to the old country and pumping the brakes immediately, Scorsese matches the speed of his narrator—however unreliable—and his tale of towering reverence for a pair of giants in the worlds of labor and crime. Everything else, including his family, is sidelined here, just part of the job. The film’s bursts of violence come almost always at a distance, sometimes even off camera, because De Niro’s Frank Sheeran was just doing his job. That’s not the interesting stuff here, despite being incredibly interesting in and of itself. The truly compelling stuff is when two men sit in the booth of an Italian restaurant, dipping bread into wine in that most Catholic of ways, allowing the audience time to sit and contemplate with them for three and a half hours. And every last minute of it is riveting

David – MARRIAGE STORY

Noah Baumbach’s chronicle of a married couple’s divorce (yes, there’s irony in the title) has one of my favorite openings of the year and it turns into something fascinating and compelling from there. It presents the highs and lows of marriage in a short time span in a very relatable manner, without vilifying either thirtysomething spouse. I felt empathy for both Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and understanding for both of their perspectives. When the couple move forward with their divorce, the steps they have to take in this foreign territory is frustrating and complex as we see the attorneys they work with (all wonderfully played by Alan Alda, Ray Liotta and Laura Dern) have them confront hard truths that wind up changing who they are. While I haven’t seen every Baumbach film, his structured narrative and emmaculate attention to detail here (that shoe-tying bit at the very end) never upstages the warmth and compassion he has for the the married couple. Driver and Johansson turn in career-best performances here, and Baumbach executes his impeccably structured narrative with a confident warmth we haven’t quite seen from him before. It can be a painful journey, but Baumbach keeps the feature lived-in and emotionally authentic.

 

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“Us”

3.

 

Joshua – US 

Jordan Peele’s second feature “Us” doesn’t lend itself to as neat an interpretation as Get Out. That makes it a more frustrating and maybe a more rewarding film on the whole. Where Get Out acknowledged the complex experiences of race in America with a satirical grin, “Us” forces the nation to wrestle with sins rooted deeply within its subconscious. “Us” is lead by an unshakeable lead performance from Lupita Nyong’o, and Peele slips humour among the horror in excellent tone-blending as he explores the consequences of failing to make peace with the shadow self, suggesting all the parts of ourselves we want to pretend don’t exist are still there and still important. (avail. for rent/own on various streaming platforms & DVD/Blu-ray)

Mark – 1917

Yeah , it’s a “gimmick film,” but the gimmick works so, so very good. By keeping his camera intimate and unblinking, Sam Mendes has given us a personal look at World War I. The politics and reasons for the war are immaterial to the men fighting it. Men who just want to go back to their families. The point is slammed home by using the most illogical, yet massively destructive war in modern history. A film filled with shocks and unexpected turns. It’s Bravura filmmaking in every frame. (now in theaters)

Steven – THE FAREWELL

The most powerful movies sometimes sneak up on us in surprising ways. Prior to seeing writer/director Lulu Wang’s tale of wrestling with her family over keeping a secret from her grandmother couldn’t have seemed more foreign a concept to me. Without thinking the story would affect me emotionally, I was clearly going in naively, because Wang’s family story is my family’s story and yours, and that is why it resonates with me and the countless people to whom I’ve recommended the film. Every family is essentially the same and the joy of shared dysfunction is instantly endearing. As you begin to spend time with the brilliantly understated Awkwafina and her Nai Nai, played with beautiful ebullience by Zhao Shuzhen, and all the various uncles and cousins, you see the universality in the human experience. Everyone’s family is kind of a pain in the ass, but the love overcomes enough of the petty squabbles to make the really big squabbles more passionate. The love, humor, and compassion of “The Farewell” stays with me for days after I see it, and I cannot wait to see it again.

David – WAVES

I’ve read and heard some complaints that the latest film, a gripping family drama set in Miami from writer/director Trey Edward Shultz, feels like two separate stories being told in its 2 hour and 15 minute runtime. Actually, that’s one of the many things that I like about it. It’s a storytelling decision that makes sense and it becomes a more interesting and impacting for it. As the high school senior with a stern father (excellently played by Sterling K. Brown), Kelvin Harrison Jr. (who had an amazing year, between this and a fantastic lead performance in “Luce”) is a marvel to behold, conveying the academic and personal pressures he has placed on himself, manifesting in a disastrous mixture of anger and drugs. When the focus is on his slightly younger sister, played by Taylor Russell (delivering an uncompromising and honest performance), we’re given something real and true that’s rarely seen on screen, a tentative day-by-day life in the wake of sudden devastation. You can have your “Uncut Gems” and whatever anxiety that seemed to have given everyone who talks about it, but watching these two teens navigate such pressures and grief/trauma produced an emotional and physical reaction out of me. “Waves” is an unpredictable and powerful film that starts off with dizzying 360-degree camera work and ends on some touching, well-earned somber notes. At times, it’s a bit much to handle, but then again so is life.

 

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Aisling Franciosi in “The Nightingale”

 

2.

Joshua – ONE DAY IN THE LIFE OF NOAH PUIGATTUK

It may seem counterintuitive to call “One Day in the Life of Noah Puigattuk” a thrilling film when it is largely comprised of one extended three-way conversation between the title Inuk, a government agent trying to convince him to move to a settlement, and an English-Inuktitut translator. But the lengthy, frustrating, and often comical conversation that transpires is a brilliant slow build that expertly highlights the failures of communication in government-Indigenous relations with a foreboding sense of tragedy that nods to the film’s historical context and the insidious nature of colonialism. The translator speaks, intentionally or not, in a way that frustrates progress in the meeting, as though he’s ambivalent about his own role in the colonization process and the reality of what is coming for this community. The film’s unexpected epilogue is a kick to the gut, capturing decades of displacement and their impact in a single unbroken take. This is a masterpiece.  (released in Canada, no U.S. release yet)

Mark – FORD V FERRARI 

Pure entertainment anchored by two excellent performances. Yet it sneaks in commentary, as I kept thinking, “this film is about everything wonderful and terrible about capitalism in one story.” Yeah, it’s “competence porn,” but I keep finding myself drawn, and moved, by movies about people who simply do their jobs well. I cheered, I cried, and I immediately wanted to see it again. (now in theaters)

Steven – ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD

Every film lover knows the feeling of love at first sight. We long for that experience every time a movie comes along that we think is right in our sweet spot. Then there are the films that take a couple of weeks and multiple viewings to truly unfold their power, and that’s what Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film has done to me. I went in ready for pretty much anything other than what the movie actually was, and that is a loving tribute to a Hollywood before it “lost its innocence,” so to speak. Tarantino rarely gives us a “day in the life” type of film, and while he’s always been a dialogue driven director, here he becomes less concerned with plot and stakes, knowing that history itself will provide those. Tarantino gives not only his own creations Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth, played to perfection by Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, a Hollywood ending, he gets to right some wrongs for real people who deserved a happy ending. His means of getting there may not please everyone, and I still have my own issues with them, but any chance I get to hang out with Rick, Cliff, Sharon, and the rest of these characters is a chance I’ll take.

David – THE NIGHTINGALE

I was interested in whatever Australian director Jennifer Kent was going to do after her breakthrough “The Babadook”, but I never expected “The Nightingale”. It was the most challenging and heartbreaking story to watch unfold on the big screen last year, yet one in which I felt myself getting lost in more and more as it unfolded. To describe “The Nightingale” doesn’t really give it justice, since much of the film’s strength comes from experiencing its immersive atmosphere (which often feels like a dreamlike fog or a nightmare vision) first hand. Kent’s unrelenting look at the ugliness and beauty of humanity makes “The Nightingale” a powerful and unforgettable film. However, what truly makes the film is Aisling Franciosi’s strong and vulnerable portrayal of lead character Clare, delivering the best performance of the 2019. I can’t begin to fathom where she had to go as an actor to embody her role. Kent tells a story that’s both bleak and hopeful, one in which it’s impossible not to be drawn to (and devastated by) such a powerful look at the ramifications of violence. It’s one that flickers long after viewing. All that said, this terrific film is difficult to recommend to just anyone and warnings should be heeded going in. (read my interview with Franciosi here. avail. to stream or own on DVD/Blu-ray on February 4th)

 

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Apollo 11

 

 

1.

 

Joshua – PARASITE

Bong Joon-ho’s latest, “Parasite”, is less a psychological thriller than it is a sociological thriller, one that explores class politics with a particular streak of black comedy, twisted narrative elegance, and visual and thematic richness. “Parasite” follows the efforts of a lower-class Korean family to grift their way into working for a wealthier family despite their lack of qualifications. It’s gorgeously shot and the meticulous visual staging uses the vertical nature of social hierarchy to display the descent and ascent of the Kim family throughout the film. No one gets off easy here, as Bong populates the film with shifting sympathies and keeps the audience’s perspective changing on the victimless nature of the crime in question. Parasite is one of those movies that delights for its sheer unpredictability, despite its structure feeling so tight. Bong covers a lot of topics, from the roles we play consciously and unconsciously in capitalist society to the nature of privilege, but he succeeds in bringing it all together in one of the tightest, most satisfying tragicomedies of the century so far. (now in theaters)

Mark – APOLLO 11

This film is amazing, truly. The idea that, fifty years after the fact, unseen footage of the “Apollo 11” mission would exist, and it could be so expertly presented. The film is massively entertaining; I was gripping the armrests of my seat in several sequences. The conceits of portraying the technical details of the flight are inspired, and the sound design and score are the best of the year. My only regret is I never got to see it in IMAX. (avail. to rent/own & streaming on Hulu)

Steven – PARASITE

In a year full of personal films from writer/directors, none held such glorious contempt for humanity as Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite,” a masterpiece in every sense of the word. In a year in which many films—including some on this list—began as one film before taking a sharp detour into becoming another film, none managed both ends of the equation, and the transition between them with such mastery as Bong Joon-ho. The film begins by siding the audience with a family doing what it takes to survive, borderline squatting in a basement apartment and folding pizza boxes to make money. When the son is given the opportunity to take over as an English tutor for a wealthy family, he uses it as a means to get his other family members employed. Then something happens that makes the family question whether their own methods were even dastardly enough to actually survive in this increasingly cutthroat world. Like a good number of films on this list, the film has empathy to spare for wholly unsympathetic characters, but Bong knows that the world has no empathy for them. The craft on display is second to none this year, with cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo moving his camera with such elegance that when it stops, it becomes an act of horror in and of itself. The power of “Parasite” in his how easily it earns an audience’s empathy and how expertly it manipulates that empathy. I look forward to having that empathy manipulated again soon.

David – PARASITE

I try not to use the m-word all that much when describing films, but Bong Joon-ho’s “Parsite” is a masterpiece…on every possible level. Screenplay. Cinematography. Editing. Acting. Directing. This wickedly clever and unexeptedly funny satire about wealth disparity is unforgettable and simply amazing, demanding multiple viewings just to take it all in over and over. The characters are intriguing in and of themselves, but the portrayals by the actors make them more and more fascinating as the twisted story unfolds. It may be a socially aware film specific to South Korea, but the story by Joon-ho and Jin Won Han is universal. Suspense is sustained in a Hitchcockian manner, as two Korean households collide and revelations are dropped with unbelievable and uncomfortable tension. Bong Joon-ho is as attentive as always here and I’m absolutely elated that the audience is growing for this film. I cannot stress enough thought that the less you know going in, the better. But once you do go in, you’ll never forget it and will want to talk about it with everyone.

 

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the dogs of “Parasite”
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