Monday, December 2, 2019

2019 Awards Screener Grab Bag

by Rob DiCristino
From my mailbox to your eyeholes.

1. Honey Boy (2019, Dir. Alma Har’el)
Shia LaBoeuf playing his father in a film he wrote about his own adventures in Hollywood super-stardom may seem like, well, the most Shia LaBoeuf thing ever, but there’s something so vulnerable and self-effacing about Honey Boy that we’re able to see beyond its would-be pretension and straight into its wounded soul. LaBoeuf presents his stand-in Otis in two phases of life: the up-and-coming child actor looking for guidance (played by Noah Jupe) and the burnt-out, twenty-something addict looking for purpose (played by Lucas Hedges). Haunting both is James (LaBoeuf), Otis’ degenerate, recidivist father. James is awful, broken. He’s a bad influence. But through his father’s pain — which LaBoeuf brings to the fore in a nuanced and truly remarkable performance — Otis finds his strength. Isreali filmmaker Alma Har’el brings the verite in Honey Boy; her shaky close-ups and jagged construction convey the conflict and catharsis at the core of her film. I didn’t mean to be alliterative just then, but I’m leaving it in.

2. Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound (2019, Dir. Midge Costin)
Veteran sound editor Midge Costin makes her directorial debut in Making Waves, a documentary chronicling the fascinating history of motion picture audio. Through interviews with talking heads like Steven Spielberg, Ryan Coogler, George Lucas, Ben Burtt, Sofia Coppola, Ang Lee, Barbara Streisand, Robert Redford, and David Lynch, Making Waves reminds us that film is a visual and an aural medium; it’s that complex orchestra of incidental effects, foley, dialogue, and score that amplify those flickering pictures and cement them in our memory for life. There isn’t a whole lot here that a seasoned cineaste won’t already know (Edison, The Jazz Singer, Burtt’s Star Wars design, etc.), but Costin takes care to present the chronology in an accessible and interesting way. Too many of us forget that every film is written three times: the script, the shoot, and the edit. That last one is often maligned as micromanaging — futzing with the artist’s vision and corrupting its integrity — but that’s the good stuff, man. The edit is where we make movie magic.

3. The Peanut Butter Falcon (2019, Dirs. Tyler Nilson & Michael Schwartz)
Yeap, it’s another Shia LaBoeuf film (I can now spell “Shia LaBoeuf” without having to look it up!). This one’s a bit more straightforward, though, a Mark Twain-esque odyssey through the American South that finds Shia playing a washed-out drifter named Tyler, who — while evading charges of grand larceny — encounters Zak (Zack Gottsagen), a nursing home escapee with Down syndrome searching for his childhood wrestling hero, The Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church). Hot on Zak’s tale is Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), his former caretaker. Tired of running from their problems, their flaws, and their personal truths, the trio makes a go of it on a makeshift raft drifting downriver through all manner of quirky Americana. The Peanut Butter Falcon isn’t a great film (it’s kind of the Oscar bait cousin of the far-superior Swiss Army Man), but it’s earnest and introspective and features Dakota Johnson, a heavenly nymph sent to earth to absolve lesser humans of our sins and inspire us to greater glory. That’s enough for me, and it should be enough for you.

4. Arctic (2019, Dir. Joe Penna)
Speaking of proverbial odysseys, Joe Penna makes his feature debut with Arctic, a film in which Mads Mikkelsen tries to survive the punishing Arctic Circle. I’m serious; that’s basically it. A literal three-hander (the cast includes Mikkelsen, Maria Thelma as “Young Woman,” and Tintrinai Thikhasuk as “Helicopter Pilot”), Arctic is about as punishing and understated a survival adventure as they come. Mikkelsen (Casino Royale, NBC’s Hannibal) trades showy dramatics for nuanced grunts and glances (there’s no Wilson the Volleyball character to whom he can spout exposition), saving Arctic from being just another Dad Movie about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps and taming the open frontier. His character is utterly fucked from the beginning — he knows it, we know it, and we all spend every frame of Arctic trying to figure out how the hell he’s going to get through to the other side. While there’s nothing about Arctic’s story or Penna’s filmmaking that makes it an all-timer, Mikkelsen does utter my absolute favorite line of 2019 — a heartbreaking, soul-crushing, earnest lament of existential exhaustion that you’ll take like a punch in the gut. I won’t spoil it. See for yourself.

5. Jojo Rabbit (2019, Dir. Taika Waititi)
I imagine I’ll be writing a bit more about Jojo Rabbit later in the season, but I need to use this space to start getting my thoughts organized. I’ve watched it twice now, and I’m convinced that Taika Waititi’s sixth film is the Trump era’s (era) Catch-22, a social satire that seeks not to minimize the brutal destruction of totalitarianism, genocide, and war, but to highlight its idiocy and celebrate the unrelenting human spirit that ultimately dooms it to defeat. Roman Griffin Davis delivers one of my favorite performances of the year as Jojo, an idealistic — though misguided — latchkey kid who sees Adolf Hitler’s nationalistic furvor as an antidote to his social rejection, parental abandonment, and pre-pubescent confusion. With the help of his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), the permanently-inebriated Captain K (Sam Rockwell), Jewish hideaway Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), and an imaginary version of Hitler himself (Waititi), Jojo walks a hero’s road of trials that culminates in one of the most beautiful and joyous resolutions that 2019 cinema has to offer. There are valid arguments against Jojo Rabbit’s seemingly flippant approach to serious issues, but none can negate its unflinching belief in our shared humanity. That has to mean something.


  1. Of these, I've only seen Honey Boy but I really loved it! I'm definitely curious about the others on this list. Thanks for the write up!

  2. Yea, Dakota Johnson is lovely. I love looking at her interesting face. I don't know how to say this but it's like her face is so calm looking that when she has an expression, it comes through very clear. I know Melanie Griffith's face by heart from Working Girl (jn which I thought she was really brilliant), and it's fun to see Melanie's face in Dakota's.

    It's also hard not to fall in love with Shia Leboeuf in the Peanut Butter Falcon. I admit I'm biased because I have a younger sister with DS and autism and so watching a guy be really awesome to someone with DS might have naturally affected me. But well...yea. Even though my sister is the cutest and miss popular, she's non-verbal and it takes a lot of patience to take care of her. And it's not easy, and most people, though they'd like to, just cannot handle it in more than small doses. Even our family gets overwhelmed daily. So, it really does take a special sort of person. And Shia was very good at coming across as authentically that sort of person. Like it doesn't just take friendliness or caring, it's a special depth inside.