Friday, January 24, 2020

Top 10 Movie Picks of 2019

What a great year for movies!  As I mulled over what films I wanted to discuss for my annual writing duties, I was truly torn to narrow down the choices from 20 to 15 to the eventual list below.  We saw everything the past twelve months from the newest technologies such as digital de-aging to the oldest styles where filmmakers used 100 year old cameras for their work.  With so many joyful cinematic experiences added to the ol' mind palace, I feel compelled to share some of the other films which almost made the list.

Some standout performances this year included Tom Hanks' transformation into the beloved Mr. Rogers for A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.  Taron Egerton delivered Rocketman to the screen in a visually delightful musical every bit as electric as Elton John's songs.  Head and shoulders above the crowd for me though, was Paul Walter Hauser in Clint Eastwood's Richard Jewell which is perhaps the most impressive performance I saw this year. 

Some industry and fan favorites didn't make the cut this year as well. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was good but a bit exhausting in length and by-the-numbers for Tarantino.  Avengers: Endgame was wholly entertaining but suffers the same fatigue of too long of a runtime and just not living up to Avengers: Infinity War.  1917 is a visual masterpiece but offered little else in the way of distinguishing itself from the many war movies which precede it. 

Movies which were better than they should have been:  Hustlers, Good Boys, Ford v Ferrari, It Chapter Two, Dark Waters, Deadwood: The Movie, Booksmart, and Motherless Brooklyn.

Movies which were worse than they should have been:  Dark Phoenix, Us, Ad Astra, The Dead Don't Die, Spider-Man: Far From Home, and Terminator: Dark Fate

On to the best of the best...

[Honorable Mention] Arctic (directed by Joe Penna)

One of my favorite actors, Mads Mikkelsen (Overgard) shares the screen with only one other actor, Maria Thelma in this short but striking survival film.  Both plane-wrecked in the Arctic with no sign of salvation in site, Overgard must decide whether to brave the refuge of his makeshift shelter or venture into the blinding winterscape in search of rescue.  When his comatose companion takes a turn for the worse, his hand is forced and he treks into an uncertain fate with a hand-fashioned sled and minimal supplies.  Penna, the Brazilian freshman director really nails his first outing, presenting an original man vs. nature movie which is as inspiring as it is dramatic.

[10] The Nightingale (directed by Jennifer Kent)

From down under comes the highest art in revenge porn.  Set in 1825, the film follows its heroine Clare and her Aboriginal guide, Billy as they set out across the backdrop of Australia's Black War to make right the atrocities committed against them and their families. Both characters serve as a visual, primal scream at the injustices of colonialism.  Rape, murder, and dead languages make it difficult to swallow but impossible to look away.  While the story swept the Australian Academy Awards (AACTA), it's gone largely unnoticed domestically.  There's nothing feel-good about it, but one you need to experience.

[09] The Professor and the Madman (directed by Farhad Safinia)

At first glance, the laborious creation of the first Oxford English Dictionary in the mid-19th century wouldn't appear to be the makings of an interesting story, but oh is it ever!  The film follows the odd couple of Professor James Murray (Mel Gibson) and Dr. William Minor (Sean Penn), who from the confines of a lunatic asylum submits over 10,000 submissions in response to a public call for definitions to be included in a definitive collection of the English language.  With sharply powerful delivery by the two legendary leads, the script captures the very essence of linguistics, language, and the power of literature in a deeply moving manor.

[08] The Public (directed by Emilio Estevez)

The Cincinnati Public Library is the stage for a timely act of public disobedience addressing a subject not often tackled in film- housing and homelessness.  The ensemble cast here is a joy to watch as the city's homeless population lays siege to the public space in order to escape the brutal winter cold.  The movie is a much-needed, uplifting truly American story of the effect of organized protest.  Not particularly well-received by critics, the optimism of the film perhaps finds itself lonely in such pessimistic times.  While the ending isn't one of fairy tales, it is inspired.

[07] The Current War (directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon)

This epic period piece documents the war for control of America's electrical grid between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse.  A star studded cast provide an up-close encounter to this legendary cut-throat feud, including a dynamite portray of Nikola Tesla. The set and costume designs of the film are well crafted and among the finest of anything you'll see this year.  The dialogue between the two industrial titans at the World's Fair near the film's closing left me in tears.  The complicated nature of invention, capitalism, and business are all on full view for a dramatic investigation of the dawn of the electrical age.

[06] The Goldfinch (directed by John Crowley)

Any film which can blend a coming-of-age story with an art heist is a special event.  Based on the best selling novel by Donna Tartt, its a story of broken homes, surrogate family, and the enduring power of art.  Young Theo finds his world turned upside down when his mother is killed while he survives a bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Survival is the inherent theme throughout this gem of a movie.  We witness the emotional and physical struggle of the characters to survive but also metaphorically that of a small painting which likewise emerges from the ashes of the act of terror.

[05] The Irishman (directed by Martin Scorsese)

Many years in the making, Scorcese's labor of love documents the rise and fall of Jimmy Hoffa, the Teamsters, and the American Mafia through the eyes of Frank Sheerhan (Robert De Niro).  While epic in scope and flashy with its de-aging effects of the main characters, what makes the film so incredible is the acting.  De Niro delivers in top form and Pacino gives as good of a performance as any of his career as the explosive Hoffa.  Of course, Joe Pesci's killer return to the screen shows not a single unpracticed note.  Perhaps overindulgent at 3 1/2 hours, the runtime is the only minor flaw found in one of my favorite director's new work.

[04] Parasite (directed by Bong Joon Ho)

Believe. The. Hype.  Parasite is a fresh thriller which will keep you glued to the screen and on the edge of your seat.  A down-on-their-luck family infiltrates a wealthy household one by one as they seek and plot to gain the jobs offered by their benefactors- tutor, housekeeper, driver.  Wholly Hitchcockian with hints of class warfare, there are twists and turns at every corner of this Korean-language masterpiece.  After winning the Palme d'Or at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, it has garnered a cult following all over the globe. The film is darkly comedic, creepy, and hypnotic. 

[03] Joker (directed by Todd Phillips)

The most infamous of comic villainy getting transformed into the highest of cinematic art was controversial, divisional, and it absolutely delivered.  In this love letter to Scorsese (see Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy), a gritty early 1980's Gotham lifts its curtain and dictates the terms which create a villain.  One man's monster is another man's anti-hero and the most powerful of movies make us struggle with who we cheer for.  With over 150 nominations and counting, it has already won Best Film honors at the Golden Globes as well as the Venice Film Festival along with several Best Actor awards for Joaquin Phoenix.

[02] Jojo Rabbit (directed by Taika Waititi)

Finally a WWII movie which steps outside the boundaries of Hollywood war-fatigue!  Young Jojo is forced to confront blind nationalism when he discovers his mother is harboring a Jewish fugitive in Nazi Germany.  The film is brilliant in creating an outlandish comedy as- mustache, whiteface and all, the film's director plays Adolf Hitler himself (or at least the slapstick projection of Hitler from the young boy's imagination).  Sweet satire ensues in this timely look at cult political theater on the world stage.  The power of laughter makes us reflect on the absurdity of war and blind allegiances which make good people follow along with human atrocity.

[01] The Lighthouse (directed by Robert Eggers)

Stunningly shot in black and white with antique cameras, the story of two lighthouse keepers in the 1890's is fueled by whiskey, cabin fever, paranoia, and mermaids.  The characters are loosely based on a combination of the real-life Smalls Lighthouse Tragedy as well as the legends of Proteus and Prometheus from Greek Mythology.  It's a Herman Melville story in a Stephen King universe.  It's subversive and paranoid.  It's the quest for fire and the struggle to survive man's basest instincts and inclinations.  Perhaps one of the most unique things ever put to film, The Lighthouse is shuttering and simply one of a kind. A new masterpiece through the lens of cinema from its infancy.

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