Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Rob's Favorite Movies of 2019

by Rob DiCristino
Favorite, not best. Art is subjective, etc.

Honorable Mentions: Avengers: Endgame, The Lighthouse, The Farewell, Booksmart, Dolemite is My Name, Marriage Story, and the films listed here.

10. One Cut of the Dead (Dir. Shinichiro Ueda)
Anyone can break the fourth wall, but only One Cut of the Dead has the guts to break it, fold the pieces in half, mount them onto rockets, and shoot them into the sky. That it reinvigorates the stagnant zombie genre is reason enough to recommend One Cut of the Dead, but the real beauty and value of Shinichiro Ueda’s film is its willingness to trust and challenge its audience; it does its thing and expects us to keep up. No re-framed repeats. No flashbacks. No “Once More, with Feeling.” For our efforts, we are rewarded with a remarkably-constructed jigsaw puzzle of imagination, ingenuity, and creative spirit. Takayuki Hamatsu’s lead performance is a master class in manic genius, and the final sequence — in which we see the true labor of love that is filmmaking on any scale — is one for the ages.

9. Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Dir. Celine Sciamma)
Forbidden love was well-trodden thematic ground long before the year 2019 — even same-sex love is finally (painfully) achieving a kind of on-screen normalcy — but Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire plays those familiar notes with such grace and melancholy that they somehow feel fresh and new. Noemie Merlant and Adele Haenel give staggering lead performances in a story about the pressures of nobility, the destructive chaos of creation, and the bold, unspeakable bonds of true intimacy. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is an elegant period piece with a frustrated anarchist’s soul. It’s about why we come together and how we say goodbye. Oh, and don’t be afraid to Google “Orpheus and Eurydice” after you watch it. It’ll make the movie better.

8. Long Shot (Dir. Jonathan Levine)
Speaking of unconventional love stories: How long has it been since you saw a romantic comedy that really convinced you that the Designated Couple belong together? Not just “I’m Hot, You’re Hot, Let’s Be Hot Together,” but actual mature, romantic love coupled with mutual respect and unrelenting bravery? Long Shot does that. Long Shot does a lot of amazing things. It should be a classic. It should have been a box office smash. If it had come out in the ‘80s, we’d be talking about it the same way we talk about Tootsie or When Harry Met Sally. Charlize Theron — a national treasure of whom we still take unspeakable advantage — takes an “easy” role seriously, and Seth Rogen tunes his nonsense to just the right frequency. I adore this movie.

7. Midsommar (Dir. Ari Aster)
Funny story: I took a couple of friends to see Midsommar a few weeks after it came out. I’d already gone to a press screening and sung the film’s praises to anyone who had seen and appreciated Ari Aster’s debut, Hereditary. I told them Midsommar was equally intense. I told them it would save their relationships or destroy them. I told them it would hurt. Still, my friends were primed and ready to go, expecting to have their minds blown and their souls ravaged. But it only took until the end of Midsommar’s cold open — the moment that the title emerges from the snow — for one of them to lean over to me and whisper, “I hate you.” From there, it was a head-first leap into a journey through our worst selves, a daylit nightmare that exposed our darkest insecurities. You might not consider Midsommar to be a horror movie, but it’s plenty terrifying to me.

6. Jojo Rabbit (Dir. Taika Waititi)
Taika Waititi’s “anti-hate satire” is an acquired taste, for sure. It asks you to have a sense of humor about a repulsive period in our history. It asks you to see Actual Nazis as insecure, misguided children with implied humanity and the capacity for change. There’s nothing wrong with rejecting that premise entirely, and I’d never begrudge anyone for finding the entirety of Jojo Rabbit to be in poor taste. But those of us who have the luxury to look beyond that initial crassness — and, it has to be said, Taika Waititi’s self-satisfied “quirky” persona — will find a beating heart at its core, a song of hope and forgiveness, of clarity and peace. Roman Griffin Davis and Thomasin McKenzie are exceptionally warm and vulnerable, and Scarlett Johansson gives her best performance of the year. And Sam Rockwell. Oh, Sam Rockwell.

5. Knives Out (Dir. Rian Johnson)
Y'all know me. Know how I earn a livin’. Know what a big Rian Johnson fan I am. And look, I’ll be the first to admit that he’s sometimes too cerebral for his own good. He often prioritizes the smart thing over the entertaining thing (see Benicio del Toro in The Last Jedi), but I’ll be goddamned if Knives Out isn’t Johnson racing in his highest gear, a joyous Agatha Christie homage with a remarkable cast that reminds us exactly why we like movies in the first place. It’s the kind of movie that encourages us to use our brains to have fun, one that proudly proclaims that a story can challenge our expectations without breaking rules or faking us out. Knives Out is a murder mystery without a murder, a whodunnit in which, as the poster says, any one of them could have done it. How can we possibly resist?

4. Uncut Gems (Dirs. The Safdie Brothers)
Someone once asked me why I would ever want to watch a movie that didn’t make me feel good, much less why I’d want to watch a movie that made me feel bad. It’s an interesting question, I guess, one that these mythical Normal People might ask themselves when in conversation with cinephiles like you and me. I suppose the answer is that I use movies to understand the world around me. I use movies to build structure and logic in a universe that won’t allow for either, one that shuns us for our idealism and calls foul against our hopes and dreams. I want to learn about myself through the work of others. I want us to channel our collective pain into more manageable doses in pursuit of a shared solution. I want us to grow together. Uncut Gems listens. It beats itself bloody so that we might heal ourselves. May we always honor its sacrifice.

3. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (Dir. Quentin Tarantino)
What’s left to say, really? I sincerely hope this is Quentin Tarantino’s final film, his final commentary on the industry that has defined so many of our spiritual and creative journeys. I want to leave Hollywood just the way Hollywood does: learned and weary, but hopeful for the future. I want to leave Rick Dalton treading up that endless driveway toward destiny. I want to leave Cliff Booth a hero. I want to leave Sharon Tate that long career she was so brutally denied. She won’t get it, though. None of them will. Quentin is lying to us. But he’s showing us what ought to be true, what might have transpired had our late lamented better angels not sold us off to corporations and conglomerates. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a timeless meditation on the past, a film in which its characters cope with regret and hope for a second chance. I hope they get it. I hope we all do.

2. Parasite (Dir. Bong Joon-ho)
Speaking of getting what we deserve: Parasite! I alluded to this last week, but no one waged class warfare better in 2019 than Bong Joon-ho. What’s more, he was also the only one brave enough to give us a downer ending, a realistic one that doesn’t cheapen our struggle or posit laughably easy solutions to our problems. Yes, it would be nice to hack the affluent to pieces with an axe or rip pearls from the necks of our richest socialites, but that high won’t last long. Systems are in place to vilify us for those actions. They don’t lead to catharsis or revolution. What we need is a realignment of our values, a willingness to play the game with as much cynicism and contempt for Them as they have for Us. More than that, we have to let go of the idea that they will ever learn, ever care. If we cannot make ourselves heard, then we must make ourselves seen. But can we? I suppose that’s up to you.

1. The Irishman (Dir. Martin Scorsese)
It’s almost unfair to call The Irishman the best film of 2019. It’s almost unfair to call it a defining film of Martin Scoresese’s very long, stunningly intimate career. To say and believe those things, we’d have to consider the fifty years of pain and strife that preceded it. We have to take into account Scorsese’s lifelong search for meaning, the stilted, frustrated, angry pursuit of God that has permeated throughout his filmography for so long. Like Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, The Irishman feels like a parting shot, the culmination of a sociological expedition that found its subject -- despite decades of shouting desperately into the ether -- just as wanting as the rest of us. While it can certainly be enjoyed on its own, The Irishman might be best considered as a conversation about Scorsese’s total body of work. It’s a necessary bit of self-reflection. A benediction. A prayer.

5 comments:

  1. I need to get to "Portrait of a Lady on Fire" and "Jojo Rabbit" in particular. Somewhat related, we should do a top ten of this year for "eat the rich" movies.

    Totally love your write-up on THE IRISHMAN. It's so much all of those things and memory too.

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  2. After looking at this list, I agree that I need to see more movies.

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  3. Rob, this was all beautifully written and really moving. I love a lot of these same films, and you articulated the why perfectly.

    Thanks for this!

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  4. "Portrait of a Lady on Fire" sounds terrific, and your Top 10 is the first time I've even heard about this movie existing. How can that be? :-O Oh well, more excuses to watch.

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  5. Took me time to read all the comments, but I really enjoyed the article. It proved to be Very helpful to me and I am sure to all the commenters here! It’s always nice when you can not only be informed, but also entertained! rdxhd

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