It’s that time of the year! The Oscars are upon us and the 2020 movie slate will be picking up soon, so it’s time to wrap up 2019. My criteria here is, as always:
- How much I enjoyed the film and how much it stuck with me.
- How “good” of a film it is, in terms of craft and use of the medium.
- Cultural significance and relevance.
I have not yet seen The Lighthouse, Honey Boy, Hidden Life, Booksmart, Ad Astra, Ford V. Ferrari, and The Standoff at Sparrow Creek
Honorable Mentions: Us, Dark Waters, Toy Story 4, Bombshell, Peanut Butter Falcon, The Farewell, How to Train Your Dragon 3, El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, Adopt a Highway, The Parts You Lose, and John Mulaney & the Sack Lunch Bunch
Worst Film of the Year: The Lion King (2019)
This little movie is one of the last of the dying breed of midrange movies getting a theatrical release. Without that release though, I may never have been able to see one of the best films I’ve seen about how art can inspire and connect people across generations and cultures.
This biopic has been plagued by controversy and may not be completely historically accurate. But it rises above that, and the trappings of conventional biopic cliches, to become something a little more awe-inspiring and revelatory.
Since my first viewing, I’ve read dozens of think-pieces and reviews that have made me re-examine Marriage Story. Is it biased towards Charlie? Is Nicole made to be a villain or is that a subversion? Is writer-director Noah Baumbach actually saying divorce can be a good thing that enables growth on the part of both individuals? How autobiographical is this story anyways?
While my reading on the film has become more complicated, I see it as a true win for the film that it can not only spark this many debates and readings, but withstand them, and continue to stick in my mind months later.
With live-action remakes on the rise, the question has arisen if a story warrants being animated- and if animation still holds unique value compared to live-action. But Frozen 2 shows what an animated musical can do if operating on the highest level in all areas- music, sets, character design, story, voice acting. It is, in other words, super dope.
While the Winona Ryder version will always hold a special place in my heart, Greta Gerwig’s version sets a new bar with how to do a book-to-movie adaptation. While some consider purity to the source material as the way to judge an adaptation, I believe a good adaptation is in conversation with both the source material and with the cultural response to the material. This is particularly so with a book that’s been adapted as much as Little Women and has a huge meta-textual history to draw from, with everything from the author’s own biography to modern readers still debating #TeamLaurie and #TeamBhaer. Another straightforward adaptation won’t do. Gerwig pulls off a complete structural rehaul and an ending change that adds tremendously to the conversation and legacy of Louisa May Alcott’s work. Gerwig and the ensemble cast also make a delightful piece of entertainment while they’re at it.
This Spanish-language thriller finds less excitement in its kidnapping plot than the careful unraveling of secrets family members keep from one another. Beautiful acting by Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem and directing from Asghar Farhadi make it one of the most exciting and tense films of the year.
Jojo Rabbit has two distinct parts. The movie switches tones about halfway through in an abrupt fashion. It’s difficult to swallow at first, and it has been a stumbling block for many when it comes to liking this film. But I think it’s the film’s greatest strength. It’s in these two parts that we are given two different but related solutions to dealing with the problem of indescribable suffering.
The first solution is to use comedy to heal ourselves, ridicule the villains, and reclaim power. This is demonstrated in the hilarious first half, which uses humor to undercut Nazism and expose its ridiculous ideology and tactics. Humor gives Jewish character Elsa agency and power over an otherwise powerless situation.
In the second half of the film, we get the second solution: reckless hope and courage. Of course, humor is not unrelated to hope and courage. But one is focused on the past, while the other is focused on the future.
The ending captures both of these ideas. Jojo and Elsa dance, which is both humorous and an act of hope and courage. “Let’s dance” means, “let’s keeping living.” It means not giving in to despair, and being resilient, which children are particularly good at. All of this is found within Jojo Rabbit.
As I said in my review, The Two Popes is not only an enrapturing watch but also is relevant for non-Catholics and addresses religion and faith with frankness and honesty that I’ve rarely seen. I’m still thinking about specific lines of dialogue and the strangely pizzazzy cinematography choices. It’s such a weird movie, in the best way. It’s a must-see, if only for these two scenes alone:
I never wrote a review on Parasite because my original idea of doing a comparison between it and US and their shared metaphors of tunnels and class never got off the ground and I simply didn’t have time to do such a deep dive. I also saw it late, and most everything that can be said about the movie has been said. If you’ve been paying attention at all to this movie or the Academy Awards, you’ll know that Parasite is, indeed, a phenomenal film about class that doesn’t waste a single frame in telling a striking, chilling story. It’s brilliant.
I labored over this choice, I really did. The Last Black Man in San Francisco tackles many of the same topics as these other films. Parasite tells a much more elaborate, brutal tale of class warfare. Little Women captures equally the beauty of friendship and siblinghood. Marriage Story is also presented in a very realistic, almost documentary-like way. Blinded by the Light has acute observations on race. But The Last Black Man in San Francisco does all of these things in its own unique, unified way. It’s made with the kind of quiet confidence that is unusual for a directorial debut. It’s a meditative piece that carves out a quiet place in a noisy world. It’s an elegy for past times with a hopeful future. It was stunning. It’s stayed with me since June and I expect it will continue to for much longer.