Friday, January 17, 2020

Year in Review 2019: Movies

Now that my decade retrospectives are finished, it's time to look at this last year's media! This article covers the movies I watched in 2019. I actually saw almost every movie I was interested in this year! There were a lot of awful blockbuster sequels released this year (X-Men: Dark Phoenix, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, It Chapter 2, Spider-Man: Far From Home, I can't believe I actually saw all of these) and Disney continued consuming the entertainment world, producing 8 of the year's top 10 highest grossing films (of those, only one was a great film.) In spite of that it was still a great year for independent film, with A24, Annapurna, and Neon publishing great works from some brilliant artists.

This year I'm not going to write summaries of games or movies that I strongly disliked. I think these lists are more fun when focused on the positive side of things. Let's look at those instead!

Top Tier - My favorite movies of the year:

Frozen II (Jennifer Lee & Chris Buck) - It's hard to get excited about a Disney sequel following the abysmal Ralph Breaks the Internet in 2018 and honestly it's hard for me to support the company at all as they continue to grow their monopoly in popular film; that said, Frozen II is a legitimate excellent film, and one of Disney Animation Studio's modern bests. I've written extensively about it here, where I go into the film's risks and surprising themes. It's a film that was more divisive than I expected among critics who normally give anything Disney a free pass, and that alone should signal that there's something interesting going on here. The animation's gorgeous, the music's great, and the art and costume designs are all wonderful. A family film that focuses heavily on issues of personal, cultural, and spiritual trauma and features no villain and no easy answers is not what I expected in a Frozen sequel and I'm absolutely happy to see directors Lee and Buck take the story in this direction.

In Fabric (Peter Strickland) - A horror/satire film about a spooky cursed dress and the witchy department store it came from with a side of mundane workplace drama. In Fabric perfectly walks the line between clever and stupid and it's an audio/visual delight. The film is divided in two halves, followed two different owners of the cursed dress, and while the first half is much stronger they're both great and quietly funny in totally different ways. It's a bizarre mixture of Suspiria and Office Space that feels like it shouldn't work but absolutely does, leaving us with one of the funniest movies of the year.

The Lighthouse (Robert Eggers) - I went in expecting a tense psychological thriller and instead got a hilarious, campy, beautiful morality play. Willam Dafoe and Robert Pattinson's chemistry is fantastic as they spar, curse, and hug one another as coworkers driven mad on an isolated island. Loaded with both Greek and Christian imagery, The Lighthouse also continues The Witch's theme of "just be nicer to animals you jerks." Eggers' second film asks the question, "What if The Shining was set in 1890 and had way more fart jokes?" With deafening blasts of foghorns and flatulence, The Lighthouse features the year's best sound design. I drove through a really horrible storm for an hour to get to the theater and I'll say that's the ideal way to experience this one.

Parasite (Bong Joon-ho) - Three of my top five movies this year fall into the "I didn't expect this to be so funny" category; Parasite is a hilarious working-class farce before everything takes a dark turn. The film follows a family scamming their way into employment by a gullible rich family and it's extremely satisfying to watch until their ambition finally crosses paths with another downtrodden family and the resulting nightmare that unfolds. The social structures at play are so rigid that advancement seems impossible, leaving the poor to cannibalize each other's dreams while the rich wander by indifferently. Parasite succeeds at blending silly and horrifying events with far more grace than Bong's uneven 2017 Netflix film Okja did.

Rocketman (Dexter Fletcher) - Jukebox musicals and celebrity biopics are so common and follow such standard design cues that I never really have a lot of interest. Rocketman defies expectations and uses traditional forms to blast off in weird, wild directions, with phenomenal costume and art design and a performance by Taron Egerton as Elton John that deserves to be award winning. The spectacular style is the substance here, with visual flourishes and carefully recomposed pop songs telling us just as much about Elton's life as its dialogue does. The film focuses on universal doubts and fears and struggles rather than the purely celebratory or encyclopedic presentation of way too many biopics.

Excellent movies worth your time:

Booksmart (Olivia Wilde) - A funny coming-of-age comedy that never punches down, I recognized almost every character here as someone I've known at one time or another (especially Jared and his recursive shirt.) I've been an Amy at too many points in my life. Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever's chemistry is excellent and every interaction completely believable; it's a movie that refuses to allow anyone to be one dimensional and is surprisingly warm and optimistic in a way I'm not used to in modern comedy. This film should have been a major mainstream hit.

Dolemite is my Name (Craig Brewer) - I'm always up for movies about regular people making movies and Dolemite is My Name is funny, heartfelt, and Wesley Snipes is awesome in his role as director D'Urville Martin. Everyone's great here but Snipes just owns every scene he's in and between this and Chi-Raq he really deserves more roles. Eddie Murphy plays comedian/actor Rudy Ray Moore as he struggles to find relevance in a changing entertainment landscape, a sort of metacommentary on Murphy's own career.

Glass (M. Night Shyamalan) - I feel like I'm willing to go to bat for M. Night Shyamalan's films more than most, so it's not really a surprise that I was into Glass. It's incredible that this film functions as a sequel to two very different Shyamalan films (2000's Unbreakable and 2016's Split)
and yet is completely faithful to both while still feeling new. The most interesting figure here is Anya Taylor-Joy's Casey, the lone survivor of the events of Split. She's a mirror figure to Bruce Willis's  David Dunn, and a modern woman shown in contrast to the violent male figures that litter history before her. She's the one who's actually going to change the world for the better. Samuel L. Jackson's Mr. Glass is, knowingly or not, talking about her when he says, "This is an origin story."

Hustlers (Lorene Scafaria) - A story following a group of strippers scamming clients out of thousands of dollars, Hustlers is probably the most positive, empowering crime-drama I've ever seen. It goes to some dark places and there's a lot of pain but it takes the idea of a "crime family" and really plays up the loving side of family life over the obligation/loyalty side. It rightly paints the real criminals as the ultra rich who were able to wreck the country with no repercussions. Constantly defies expectations; there's neither shaming nor exploitation of the women in the film, and the love shown is genuine. Jennifer Lopez is great and her final scene is the kind of excellent ending that recontextualizes everything that came before it without invalidating anything; a look at objective reality after spending a whole film listening to a subjective story. It's not dishonest but profoundly human to see how much someone's love can color their perceptions. Constance Wu plays the naive newcomer tossed into a crazy world and that story usually ends with that kind of character being destroyed; instead she becomes a fuller person though her experiences and by the end has taken command of her situation.

The Irishman (Martin Scorsese) - Telling the maybe true, maybe not, half-remembered recollections of mob enforcer Frank Sheeran as he sits alone in a nursing home waiting to die, The Irishman goes far out of its way to show how little every terrible action in Sheeran's life amounted to. Robert DeNiro's Sheeran narrates the story while carefully avoiding topics he doesn't want to discuss (divorce being the biggest) and giving cold, clinical descriptions of murder that say everything about who Frank was (or believes he was.) It's ultimately the story of a man at the end of his life asking, "I mattered, didn't I?" Al Pacino's performance as Jimmy Hoffa is a little cartoonish but it works, and he's hilarious! My dad would have loved this movie and I couldn't help but think about him the whole time.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco (Joe Talbot) - A look at how hard it is to let go of the places that made you, even if the memories there are unpleasant. I'm always hit hard by stories about desperately trying to hold on to a home that's no longer yours. The friendship at the core of the film is totally real and is so warm, understanding, and supportive that we as an audience feel completely welcome in the squatted home that Jimmy and Mont put together; it becomes out home, if fleetingly, as much as it becomes theirs. The film is visually excellent and it's the kind of movie that I finish watching and then say, "How can this be this director's first film?"

Little Women (Greta Gerwig) - Gerwig's adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's 1868 novel manages to feel contemporary without losing any of the details of the classic novel. With a framing device that simultaneously explores the way women are treated in the business world and the way audiences engage with stories, Gerwig's Little Women cuts back and forth between her four protagonists' childhood and young adulthood. The childhood scenes feature rich colors as writer Jo March looks back on youth with warm memories, contrasted by the cooler tones that represent her present day. There's plenty of excellent acting here, with Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, and Eliza Scanlen playing the four March sisters and Laura Dern in the role of their strong, patient, and exhausted mother.

Marriage Story (Noah Baumbach) - Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver play two young artists on the verge of divorce, a simple story told extremely well through top tier acting. A real testament to Scarlett Johansson's talent when she's not in a junk action movie, both she and Driver are fantastic leads and Laura Dern and Alan Alda are excellent supporting actors. There's a lot of human warmth here and the film is careful to condemn a destructive legal system rather than either the husband or wife in the middle of their separation.

Midsommar (Ari Aster) - A stressful, brightly-lit horror film that couldn't look more different from Aster's 2018 debut film Hereditary. Florence Pugh's Dani goes on a trip abroad with her boyfriend and his buddies to try to heal following a family tragedy and soon finds herself submersed in a culture with very different ideas about life and death than hers. It's absolutely a horror movie, but it's also an odd self-therapy film mixed with a breakup film. Midsommar powerfully subverts the typical "outsider finds a strange new culture and redeems/destroys it" expectations often seen in stories like these.

Us (Jordan Peele) - An amusement park sets the action in motion and the film itself becomes a roller coaster, a scrambler, a hall of mirrors, and a game of whack a mole by the end. A film about a family facing down their doppelgangers, it's a slasher, a PTSD drama, a zombie film, a dark comedy, etc. but manages to hold together marvelously thanks to Jordan Peele's writing/direction. Lupita Nyong'o is compelling as a woman divided against herself and Winston Duke's hilarious as a not-actually-funny dad. There are a lot of sides to this attack of the clones story; it feels like a story about American culture becoming so weak and vain that we've invited our shadow selves in to take our place, and it's simultaneously an uprising story with an oppressed/abused underclass organizing their labor and uniting to take their place in the sun. Features the year's best sound design after The Lighthouse.

Movies with standout elements:

Abominable (Jill Culton) - A sweet film with gorgeously animated nature scenes, Abominable is, oddly, one of several yeti/sasquatch family adventure films released recently. The fluffy monster is a lot of fun to watch, but this is really the story of Yi, a teenager using a road trip with her new buddies to mourn the loss of her father. This trip ends a lot more happily than Midsommar's. My only complaint is that it's another film where the weirdo billionaire ends up having a heart of gold, just as we saw in The Incredibles 2 and in Marvel's dozens of Iron Man films. We don't need more of that.

The Beach Bum (Harmony Korine) - The movie's an endless stream of good things happening to an awful person; it's gross, stupid, and hilarious and I was laughing the whole time. Author/poet Moondog (the most Matthew McConaughey character McConaughey has played in years) watches the world burn and just keeps smiling. Martin Lawrence steals the show as a dolphin tour captain and Jonah Hill's southern accent is the worst thing I've ever heard and I love it. Korine's first film since 2012's Spring Breakers, The Beach Bum lacks the teeth that that film had, opting instead to just lounge around and soak up the sun.

Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story (Steve Sullivan) - A documentary about musical clown Frank Sidebottom and his creator Chris Sievey, dramatically different from Lenny Abrahamson's fantastic 2014 fictional Frank story. I deeply connect to the idea of a performer growing bitter and frustrated with his creation; I've never thrown myself into a role like this but I did spend around five years writing characters and jokes that I never enjoyed and were at times very painful to me. And of course those were the ones an audience latched on to, while reacting to my more personal, authentic stories with a mix of ambivalence and confusion. Sad and sweet, Being Frank is worth a watch whether or not you've ever heard of the great Mr. Sidebottom.

Blinded by the Light (Gurinder Chadha) - A very light-hearted family drama about fitting in from a cultural point of view that isn't usually seen in mainstream films released in the US, Blinded by the Light focuses on the teenage years of British-Pakistani writer Sarfraz Manzoor and how the music of Bruce Springsteen set him free. It has shallow characters but I think that's fine; it's aimed at a younger audience and features a hopeful message for kids about family/expectations/discrimination (even if there's a stark "nothing's really improved since the 80's" sentiment at times.)

The Death of Dick Long (Daniel Scheinert) - The latest film from one of the two Daniels that directed 2016's amazing Swiss Army Man, The Death of Dick Long is a weird as hell movie that feels like a farcical version of nonstop, tension-driven crime films like the Safdie Brothers' Good Time and Uncut Gems. The first half is gruesome, tense, and uncomfortable, and once we figure out what exactly caused the titular death of Dick Long, the entire thing breaks down into an absurd comedy about shame and degeneracy. It's actually quite similar to Good Time in execution, if that film followed a much dumber lead. Expertly made and acted, this is still a very hard film to recommend to a wider audience than "People who liked Swiss Army Man."

The Farewell (Lulu Wang) - A story of deception in the name of love, The Farewell has the rare distinction of being a PG-rated A24 film. This semi-autobiographical film by director Lulu Wang focuses on a family trying to throw one last grand party in tribute to their terminally ill matriarch who has been kept in the dark about her own diagnosis. The point of view character here is Billi, played by actress Awkwafina, who grew up in the US and is at first horrified by her family's deception. Love wins out and Billi slowly comes to understand the reasons her family does what they do, building up to a bittersweet but hopeful ending. There's strong acting all around but the relationship between Awkwafina and Zhao Shuzhen's granddaughter and grandmother pair holds it all together.

Hail Satan? (Penny Lane) - A documentary about the The Satanic Temple that examines its foundation, its leadership, and its political activism as it clowns on state governments attempting to endorse Christianity as a state religion. The film falls firmly on the side of the Temple, but doesn't shy away from looking at the uglier parts of its internal drama. It also avoids being a condemnation of Christianity as a faith, focusing instead on government misuse of faith and a failure of separation of church and state. It's funny, sad, and has a surprising heel turn, making Hail Satan? one of those documentaries that works well as a drama too.

High Life (Claire Denis) - A film with a scifi setting that could just as easily be set on a ship in the distant past, High Life follows a man and his daughter as the last survivors of a long voyage into unknown space. It cuts back and forth between the past and present, showing the horrifying situation that led to the young Willow's birth, and the core of the film's strength is Robert Pattinson's portrayal of a single father on a doomed mission; he even gets to sing a lovely lullaby. The thin line between desperation and joy in new parenthood is depicted with incredible accuracy and director Claire Denis is unafraid to look at our most painful mental intrusions.

Joker (Todd Phillips) - Todd Phillips' take on the iconic Batman crime clown is visually rich and driven by an excellent performance by Joaquin Phoenix. This take on the character is more interested in the mental anguish of a man lost in a system that lacks the funding and resources needed to give him the care he needs than on caped heroics. It leans heavy on Scorsese references in a way that can feel a little cheap, and it could have worked fine without any Batman connection at all. I do think it's fascinating seeing audience reactions with people projecting pretty much every possible political read into the film's riot scenes, and that's basically how the character of Joker is treated within the film. He's whatever convenient symbol you need.

Shazam! (David F. Sandberg) - DC's lightest film is a family adventure aimed at slightly younger audiences than usual that still takes itself seriously when it needs to. Shazam! is willing to be sad or scary without undercutting the mood with jokes, and like most of DC's films, the action has a lot of physical weight to it. A power fantasy for kids that feel unloved and invisible, Shazam! could stand to be more tightly edited and trimmed down by about 15 minutes, but it's a nice story with a "Love is the real power" message in the end.

Toy Story 4 (Josh Cooley) - The first movie I took my daughter to see in a theater, Toy Story 4 is a good, if unnecessary, conclusion to Pixar's long-running series that I had thought had already concluded well with Toy Story 3 in 2010. This one focuses on the toy cowboy Woody feeling unneeded and directionless, never quite bonding with his new owner the way he did with Andy in the first films. It's a roadtrip movie about an aging hero trying to rekindle his glory days while doing his best to be a sort of father figure to a newly created toy. It's a good film (and it's amazing that the third sequel to a family movie from 1995 could still be good) but there was already a perfectly fine conclusion at the end of the third one.

Uncut Gems (Josh & Benny Safdie) - Uncut Gems is an addiction film focused on gambling rather than drugs/alcohol. Adam Sandler is genuinely great as gem dealer/gambling addict Howard Ratner; it's a very different role for him but some of his traditional mannerisms come through. Relentlessly tense, I preferred the Safdie Brothers' previous film Good Time, but this is quite a ride. There are a dozen opportunities for Howard to get out clean and clear his debt, but he just can't do it; he's too desperate for the next big win to just take the one right in front of him. Sadly I've known a few people like this, and there's very little you can do to talk them down.

Under the Silver Lake (David Robert Mitchell) - Just about every piece of this movie is a stylish, weirdo fever dream. Andrew Garfield plays a directionless young dude searching for his missing neighbor in a surreal Los Angeles filled with conspiracies around every corner. There are greater forces than man operating in the periphery of the film, including a supernatural owl woman, a mythical dog killer, and a demigod figure who takes sole credit for the last few decades of popular music. There are secrets hidden in cereal boxes and in issues of Nintendo Power. Silver Lake is a long, meandering ramble that doesn't capture the tension of Mitchell's excellent 2014 horror film It Follows, but is way more ambitious and delightfully strange. Credit goes out to him for making something so starkly different, even if he stumbles along the way. A more polished story wouldn't fit this odyssey.

What We Left Behind (Ira Steven Behr & David Zappone) - A documentary on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine released twenty years after the series ended, What We Left Behind is an intimate look at the struggles the show faced, the triumphs of what it accomplished, and how well it predicted some of today's political struggles. This one is strictly aimed at fans, with a ton of cast and crew interviews and a writers' room session where the original creative crew gets together to brainstorm a theoretical revival of the series. It's bittersweet to watch now, following the deaths of cast members René Auberjonois and Aron Eisenberg.

Decent movies with some issues:

Avengers: Endgame (Joe & Anthony Russo) - This was a strange one for me; I am very much not a fan of the Avengers films and I thought the previous film (2018's three-hour action scene Infinity War) was a giant mess. I was genuinely surprised to watch Endgame and actually think it was decent. It's a generally fun movie that does a way better job balancing action and melodrama than the rest of the Avengers films do, and the focus on a smaller crew of characters is nice. I never thought there would be a year where I liked an Avengers film more than a Spider-Man film (this year's morally repulsive pro-surveilance, pro-drone warfare Spider-Man: Far From Home) but here we are. Could have done without the deification of billionaire Tony Stark, but what could be more 2019 Disney than that?

Doctor Sleep (Mike Flanagan) - As a sequel to The Shining, Doctor Sleep is both tonally and narratively inappropriate, turning a very human story of trauma and addiction into a world-building comic book movie. As a campy, slightly-spooky movie taken on its own, it's actually a lot of fun! It feels like a trilogy of stories stuffed into one movie, shifting focus oddly between a young girl named Abra as she discovers her psychic powers, The Shining's Danny Torrance as he deals with his personal demons, and a crew of soul-sucking vampires down on their luck in a world that's moved on from magic. The villains just get clowned on so hard and so often that it feels like a supernatural Home Alone at times. I didn't know how to feel about Rebecca Ferguson's Rose at first but by the time she was flying through psychic space I was all in with whatever weirdness awaited.

Lucy in the Sky (Noah Hawley) - The feature film debut of Noah Hawley, creator of the excellent Fargo and Legion TV series. Natalie Portman does a good job playing a character sort of, but not really, based on the life of astronaut-turned-criminal Lisa Nowak. The film goes all-out camp melodrama by the end but never quite gets crazy enough to live up to Hawley's previous works. I like all the ways Hawley plays with aspect ratios, Jeff Russo's soundtrack is solid and I actually found it a lot funnier than I expected. One of my favorite gags in the movie is Portman running into a grocery store that has everything you need for crimes in one convenient aisle: Rope, axes, wigs, you name it. This film was poorly received by critics and completely unseen by audiences (my only film in 2019 seen in an entirely empty theater) but it's actually fine; the real problem is it could have easily been better if Hawley just got to go full force with his style.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino) - While I enjoyed Taratino's latest, I felt mixed overall. The production design and costuming is phenomenal (one of my favorite scenes is just a montage of LA's neon signs coming to life one after another) and I loved several individual scenes, but it didn't cohere for me the way I hoped it would. Knowing the history of westerns, Sharon Tate, and the decline of Old Hollywood feels essential, with Tarantino dropping us into this world as is with little introduction for outsiders. Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt are both great and I appreciated the idea of rewriting Sharon Tate's story to celebrate her life rather than dwell on her death, transforming her from a lurid victim into a beautiful, hopeful human being. It's oddly sweet but at the same time doesn't give Margot Robbie's Tate enough to do; I would have appreciated more time spent on an actual story for her character beyond the "An ordinary day in the life" vignettes we get. The violence at the end goes too far (though not in a way I at all expected) in contrast to the rest of the film's tone and just ends up feeling stupid.

Pokemon Detective Pikachu (Rob Letterman) - A pretty dumb story with great animation, the main draw was my daughter hootin' and hollerin' every time a new Pokemon appeared and it's funny hearing people say things like, "This is made from Ancient Mew DNA" in a completely straight-faced way. Way, way better than an average video game adaptation, Detective Pikachu is basically a series of chase scenes, some of which are a lot better than others.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (JJ Abrams) - The final chapter of the Star Wars Sequel Trilogy is the strangest installment of this trilogy. It's at times openly contemptuous of Rian Johnson's Episode 8: The Last Jedi, there's way too much rehashed from Return of the Jedi, and it bluntly shows that every piece of heroism in the original films was more or less pointless. Luke's pacifism and Vader's sacrifice in Return of the Jedi is trivialized and Emperor Palpatine rises from the grave unexplained, off screen, and is once again the most entertaining part of the movie. His return is such a lazy and dumb decision, but simultaneously the most fun part of the film, so can I really complain? The World's Angriest Jedi Rey defeats a cackling Space Satan by making a pair of lightsabers into a cross and exorcising him. For every other misstep here, at least that rules.

Velvet Buzzsaw (Dan Gilroy) - I really appreciate "Jake Gyllenhaal acts like a complete maniac" movies and this is a fun one, but it's nowhere near as good as Gilroy's fantastic Nightcralwer. Velvet Buzzsaw's a strange soap opera/horror/black comedy about The Art Industry, a sort of Final Destination via fine art. It's very episodic, follows such a wide cast, and has so many B and C plots that, structurally, it feels like a short TV series compressed into a two hour movie. It probably would have been better as a series instead.

Yesterday (Danny Boyle) - Perfectly pleasant, Himesh Patel's singing is nice and the jokes are good. Kate McKinnon is a solid comedic semi-villain and a crestfallen Ed Sheeran is funny. Not enough is really done with the premise; a guy's in an accident and wakes up in a world where The Beatles never existed and nothing much else changes. He reintroduces the songs to the world and they're just as popular as they were in real life, even devoid of any social context. It's breezy and cute but it's just really bizarre that nearly everything is unchanged even as the film goes to painstaking lengths to ensure us that no other band's ever been greater than The Beatles. As a celebration of a musical icon goes, it's nowhere near as interesting as Blinded by the Light, but there is a surprisingly nice John Lennon tribute.


That's it for 2019! I'm sorry I didn't like the new Godzilla movie enough to say anything about it. Better luck next time, big guy.

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