Nate Bids Goodbye to the Good and Bad and Year 2019 in Film
As we close out another decade in cinema, the trends that dominated these ten years are still alive and well; superheroes, Pixar, socially-conscious horror, and inter-connected franchises aren’t going away any time soon. 2019 was a significant year for me personally and professionally. I had my first movie released with my name credited as a writer, Alien Warfare, one that the public can currently watch on Netflix. So when you bemoan how much money Netflix seems to be dishing out on questionable content, remember to count me in that questionable lot (there should be another film with our names as writers in 2020, I believe). Alien Warfare underwent some major rewrites after myself and my co-writer turned in our draft, but it’s all still a fun accomplishment after having written about movies for twenty years (and counting). Speaking on that front, I spent this year looking back on the amazing highs, and occasional lows, of the year 1999 in film, as well as re-reading my earliest reviews as a film critic (the last month’s entries will be completed in January, sorry). It was a very illuminating experience and made me grateful to that magical year of movies as well as my past self’s insights and tenacity to stick with it. As always, I invite you, dear reader, to follow along as I relive the finest films, the lowest lows, and many of the intriguing and mystifying moments that highlighted cinema and the 110+ movies I saw this year.
But before going into all that 2019 had to offer at the theater, let’s turn back the clocks once more as I take another crack at my top ten list from 2018 and give a first draft of a Best of the Decade list that I know I’ll inevitably tinker with repeatedly until the next decade.
2018 Top Ten List 2.0
10) Thoroughbreds (unchanged)
9) First Reformed (unchanged)
8) Sorry to Bother You (unchanged)
7) BlackkKlansman (formerly 6)
6) A Quiet Place (formerly 5)
5) The Favourite (formerly 7)
4) American Animals (formerly 3)
3) Mission: Impossible – Fallout (formerly 4)
2) Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (unchanged)
1) Assassination Nation (unchanged)
Nate’s Best of the 2010s Decade List
12) We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)
11) Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
10) Whiplash (2014)
9) Black Swan (2010)
8) Snowpiercer (2014)
7) Assassination Nation (2018)
6) Moonlight (2016)
5) Before Midnight (2013)
4) Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
3) The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
2) The Social Network (2010)
1) O.J.: Made in America (2016)
Not much movement. And now ladies and gentlemen, on with the big show.
PART ONE: BEST/WORST FILMS OF 2019
10) The Last Black Man in San Francisco
Gorgeously shot and beautifully realized, The Last Black Man in San Francisco feels like a sacred hymn to a city, a past, a wayward love that is just aching with feeling. The Sundance-winning indie has such an immediate and invigorating sense of lyricism. Jimmie Fails (Jimmie Fails) talks about the meaning his family home has, the same home he hasn’t been living in for a decade but has been returning to touch it up and hopefully take it back. Debut filmmaker Joe Talbot has created a movie on the edge of the surreal where everything feel heightened, more emotional, like a religious experience, without puncturing its core dramatic reality. We touch upon a lot of issues and themes, from gentrification and reclaiming one’s past for pride, to the identities we choose to inhabit, to friendship and the love/hate relationship one can have with their home, and each of these pulsates with meaning and fervent feeling. In many ways, this film reminds me of If Beale Street Could Talk, not just because it’s an ensemble of African-American working class figures, but because there’s a bittersweet tenderness that taps into the profound and universal that reminds me of the kind of knowing, compassionate voice of author James Baldwin. I was often spellbound by this movie, enraptured by its transporting musical score, awestruck by its dynamic photography, smiling from its presentation of bizarre comic flourishes, characters with genuine personality and peculiarities, and charmed by the overall picture the movie was lovingly constructing of a personal San Francisco bursting with meaning.
9) Queen & Slim
It’s billed as a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde, and while that description is technically apt, it’s more a frighteningly relevant thriller about police brutality, the skewed criminal justice system, and the hairpin-turning horror of daily life as a black person in America. A first date between Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) and Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) goes awry when they’re pulled over by a racist trigger-happy cop and, in the ensuring struggle, Slim shoots and kills the officer in self-defense. They go on the run trying to escape one setup after another, all the while during this hellish ordeal the characters are growing closer out of reliance and a budding sense of romance. This is a powerfully intense movie with several supremely suspenseful sequences where I worried deeply whether or not the titular pair would be found out, could escape out of a jam, and all the while the authorities are getting closer and closer. They become folk heroes for a community familiar with the oppressive day-to-day of always being seen as a suspect, as “up to no good,” as presumed guilty and dangerous. The screenplay by Lena Waithe (The Chi, Boomerang) is cannily crafted with a strong sense of how to develop its premise, deepen it with larger themes, and throw organic obstacles at the characters. I was impressed with how quickly the movie would crank up the tension of a moment, but these thriller aspects never felt cheap or superfluous. The characters do not get lost to the overall plotting machinations and the performances from Turner-Smith and Kaluuya are terrific. Queen & Slim is a character-driven chase film that manages to also touch upon powerful social themes, taking a mythic story and making it personal, relevant, and, in a new manner, timeless.
8) Toy Story 4
As protective I was over Toy Story 3’s perfect ending, I am happy to say that Toy Story 4 more than justifies its own existence in this hallowed franchise and even improves from the third film. The themes are something of a repeat but the filmmakers have elected to focus almost entirely on Woody and his personal journey, and it makes the loss and possibility more robustly felt. In many ways the film is an exploration on relationships and the need to redefine ourselves, to move onward when the time is right, and to try something new even if things get scary. Between Woody and Gabby Gabby, ostensibly the hero and villain of the piece, they’re looking for meaningful connections where they can. They may be secondhand, they may be disabled, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t worthy of affection. This is a joyous movie that finds time to be wonderfully weird and often funny. It might not have the set pieces or ensemble showmanship of the prior Toy Story tales, but what it does have is a character-based emphasis on the most complex figure in this universe of toys. The conclusion is moving and satisfying and I don’t mind admitting that tears were shed. Toy Story 4 could have gone a lot of different ways but I’m relieved and appreciative with this new sendoff we’ve been granted.
7) Ready or Not
Ready or Not is a sneaky, nasty, delightfully dark little movie that left me hooting, hollering, squirming, and grinning with satisfaction. It’s a late summer surprise that delivers everything I was hoping for and has great, delicious fun with its humor and violence. Even with its tongue-in-cheek humor and premise, there is a lot of clever thinking put into Ready or Not. There are plenty of setups that connect to later payoffs, including that amazing finish. The screenplay by Guy Busick and Ryan Murphy thinks things through step-by-step so that it’s always ahead of the audience. It’s smartly paced, smartly structured, with supporting characters that leave a mark as well as thematic questions over culpability and group think. This is the kind of movie I wish Hollywood was making more of, with screenwriters that can take a premise and write the best possible version of that and with the best possible ending. Any misgivings I have for this movie are small quibbles, like maybe more specific payoffs linked to onscreen deaths, but even that would detract from later events and payoffs, so even my quibbles can be excused. Ready or Not deserves to be seen with a raucous crowd that will appreciate it to its full extent. I look forward to the Twister-heavy sequel.
6) Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Portrait of a Lady on Fire isn’t a revolutionary movie. We’ve seen variations on this story before, but what makes it unmissable is the degree of feeling and artistry crammed into every breathable moment. The movie tenderly moves along with guarded caution, as two women explore their feelings for one another in a time that didn’t care about their feelings. This is a love story that feels alive but also realistic in how it forms and develops. They feel like real people, and while disappointed by their limitations within a patriarchy, they will continue to pursue their personal dreams. The portrayal is so empathetic that your heart can’t help but ache when it isn’t swooning from the sumptuously understated romance of it all. I can understand why this might be too slow for many viewers but the movie never came across as dull for me, and it’s because I was so drawn into this world, these characters, and their yearnings being unleashed. If you’re looking for something more authentic, deeply felt, and, let’s face it, generous to women, then look for Portrait of a Lady on Fire, a beautiful indie romance.
5) The Farewell
This was a wonderful movie that just warmed my heart while holding to a beautiful melancholy. That is such a rare combination, and at its heights, The Farewell made me think it could have been plucked from the halcyon days of 90s indie cinema. The strange-but-true story follows an extended Chinese-American family that discovers its beloved Nai Nai (grandmother) back in China has terminal cancer. The family has elected not to tell her the devastating news and will reunite under the auspices of a grandchild hastily getting married. Our protagonist is Billie (Awkwafina), a struggling New Yorker who disagrees with her family’s deception. Her extended family is convinced she won’t be able to keep her emotions in check, and so every scene plays with a great deal of subtext, as just about every character holds the burden of keeping a secret that deeply pains them. It makes for some pretty emotional moments, as different characters hold more meaning to their words and would-be goodbyes, but the movie is ultimately rather uplifting. The characterization achieved by writer/director Lulu Wang is generous and honest, providing worthwhile moments to the larger family and giving them perspectives so while there is conflict nothing ever gets too preachy or stagy. The film is about 80% Chinese subtitles but the story is really universal and deserves to be seen and celebrated. The Farewell is a terrific antidote to the summer blockbuster season and it left me thrilled to find a small little movie that could remind you again of the powerful pleasures of simple, sharply written storytelling (also stay tuned for the twist ending of the year in the credits).
4) Marriage Story
The observational detail in Marriage Story is awe inspiring. I was floored by how involved I got and how quickly, and that’s because writer/director Noah Baumbach has achieved what few filmmakers are able to, namely present a world of startling authenticity. There is a richness in the details, small and large, that makes the entire story feel like you’ve captured real life and thrown it onscreen. Marriage Story does not adopt a side or ask its audience to choose. It presents both parties as essentially good people but with their flaws and combustibility that point to them being likely better apart. For a movie as deeply human as this one, it’s also disarming just how funny it can be. The humor is never cheap or distracting but just another element that makes Marriage Story so adept. I’d argue that Marriage Story, even with its suffering, is ultimately a hopeful movie. It shows how two people can navigate the pain they’ve caused one another and still find an understanding on the other side. Driver and Johansson are fantastic and deliver two of the finest acting performances of this year. Baumbach’s incredible level of detail makes the movie feel instantly authentic, lived-in, and resonant. I was hooked early, pulling for both characters, and spellbound by the complexity and development. There isn’t a false note here.
3) Dragged Across Concrete
Writer/director S. Craig Zahler is the real deal when it comes to budding genre auteurs. Because of my general awe with the characterization, Zahler had the added benefit of making the rising dread feel powerfully unnerving. It’s major a slow burn of a movie, setting up the various players that will be directly or indirectly involved with the robbery, and that robbery doesn’t even hit until well after an hour into the film. Because of that patience, or self-indulgence some will decry, the movie fleshes out all the participants and their various motivations so that the audience feels degrees of sympathy for many people on different sides of the equation. This leads to amazing tension for the last hour. I was tying myself in knots waiting for awful things to happen to characters I found compelling because, frankly, awful things happen easily in Zahler’s movie universe. As the film builds in intensity, the body count rises and the conclusion feels inevitable because of the superb writing that laid a tight foundation to build upon. Even in death, the characters stay true to whom they are, which can often be very not nice people. The acting is great from every player. This movie grabbed me from the beginning and refused to let go and I was genuinely spellbound from Zahler’s storytelling prowess and ability to weave a net of complex, flawed, humane, and fascinating characters into a tragic scenario of violence that left me anxious and exhilarated. When people complain that Hollywood isn’t making thinking-person films for adults, please invite them to the burgeoning oeuvre of Zahler, who is charting a path for himself on his own terms thanks to his tremendous writing voice. This is a ferocious punch to the gut in the best way possible.
2) Avengers: Endgame
Avengers: Endgame is unparalleled in our history of modern popular blockbusters because it needs to work as a clincher to a decade-plus of hugely popular blockbusters for the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), and boy do they ever stick the landing. How does one properly assess a movie like Avengers: Endgame, a conclusion not just to an Infinity War cliffhanger but to a twenty-two movie prelude over the course of eleven years? The emotional investment in these characters, their journeys, has to come to something to be ultimately meaningful when it’s time to close the chapter on one massively ambitious story before starting the next. Marvel had the unenviable task of wrapping up a major narrative in a way that would prove satisfying without devaluing the individual films and overall time investment. Hollywood is filled with trilogies that messed up their conclusions. Nailing the ending is just as important as getting things going right, because without a satisfying conclusion it can feel like that level of emotional investment was all for naught. Endgame reminds you how much you’ve grown to love these characters, what fun you’ve had, and genuinely how much you’ll miss these characters when they depart for good. It’s hard not to reflect upon your own passage of time with the ensuing eleven years, how you’ve changed and grown from the MCU’s humble beginnings in the summer of 2008. These heroes and anti-heroes can begin to feel like an extended family for many, and so fans desperately need the ending to do them justice. Avengers: Endgame is the ultimate fan experience.
And the best film of 2019 is…..
Parasite just unfurls with such natural ease, building and developing outward, building its characters, their problems and deceptions, and then, like that, it effortlessly turns gears toward another tone, and you weren’t even aware it was happening until after the fact. Bong Joon-ho’s film is so exact and impeccable and calculated that the pieces are move in tandem like a well-oiled machine. The synchronicity is so amazing that I often had to acknowledge how effectively the movie had surprised or satisfied me. Bong Joon-ho once again shown himself to be a masterclass filmmaker who can tackle just about any subject and any genre and make it sing. Parasite is a rare movie that works on near every level, each facet of filmmaking operating at such precision that it blends together to create a masterwork of tone and tenor that is universally accessible, brimming with menace and glee. That’s because Parasite is a rare movie that is so sumptuously put together, so seamlessly calibrated, that to watch the movie is to simply sit in awe of how talented the filmmakers are at weaving their tale.
Honorable mention: Knives Out, Booksmart, El Camino, 1917
10) Charlie’s Angels
Where exactly did this go so wrong? The rebooted Charlie’s Angels is based on a property that the general public has little investment in 2019 and it seems like nobody was aching for another movie. I think the first wrong step was hiring Elizabeth Banks to both write and direct. Banks has been a highly successful actress and recently directed Pitch Perfect 2, but a fizzy spy thriller is another matter entirely, and the end results of the new Angels doesn’t help. Scene to scene, timing and shot selections just feel off. The action is so lackluster but the story is also needlessly convoluted and unclear, with things meant to be revelations that I thought were obvious, and things that the movie thought were explained that were very much inexplicable. The rules are unclear and there are so few setups and payoffs. At no point does the movie give me anything to grab onto, whether it’s an interesting set piece, a villain with a colorful personality, or some surprise turn. This is a very thoroughly bland movie that seems to serve its empowerment message above all else, sacrificing action, comedy, and good plotting along the way to beat the drum. The humor is strained, the high-tech gadgets and spy set pieces are so haphazard, the plot is convoluted without being intriguing, and there just isn’t a feel for the genre material from Banks as its leading creative vision. It doesn’t fail because it’s too woke, or whatever the self-pittying Men Rights Activists of Twitter claim, but because it didn’t know how to be the movie it wanted to be.
9) The Fanatic
The Fanatic is not a fun watch, especially by the last act, and I was mostly left scratching my head and wondering who in the world this movie was crafted for and why. It’s a bad movie but really it’s a gigantically miscalculated movie because what is the point and perspective presented? Are we meant to be weirded out by our mentally challenged protagonist, because that seems in bad taste? Are we meant to endorse his actions, because that seems in bad taste too considering how many transgressions he makes? Are we meant to feel that he is justified in his alienation or in how he responds to Hunter Dunbar, because that seems like enabling criminal behavior? Are we meant to feel for Hunter Dunbar when he gets the upper hand and tortures Moose in vengeance, because I can tell you listening to John Travolta wail on the floor in pained cries is not exactly a hoot.It feels more like the movie is simply incomplete, that it’s missing core elements to make it worth watching. Travolta unleashes a flurry of unrestrained acting tics and some may find it snicker-worthy, but Travolta hasn’t exactly been holding back as of late in his film choices. The Fanatic is really a dank genre thriller that doesn’t know what it wants to say and what it wants to do, and by slapping the mental disability factor into the mix, it definitely has no courage to pick a direction or statement. If you’re morbidly curious, you might find some degree of interest here but I wouldn’t advise it. The Fanatic is not the next best bad movie. It’s just a miscalculated effort and a sad one.
8) Gemini Man
This movie feels like a dozen screenplays stitched together with every other third scene missing. You can feel the full, tortured, decades-long development process and how it has become an impenetrable force that weighs down the eventual movie and squanders whatever potential its premise could have provided. I wish there was more to keep my attention in Gemini Man like some solid action set pieces, but the final product just sort of goes through the motions in every sense. It’s built on the parts of other movies, Will Smith’s past and present charisma, and the idiosyncratic interests of a talented director who definitely seems to be slumming it with this generic, predictable material. I still want to emphasize that the premise could afford a really exciting, contemplative, and engaging action movie, but it needed better writing, better direction, better action, better characters, old and new, and better, well everything now that I think about it.
7) Dark Phoenix
Ultimately this is the final X-Men movie, as we have known them for 19 years, and it’s the equivalent of a mayonnaise sandwich at room temperature: something nobody really wanted and delivered in a package not designed to satisfy. Thoroughly mediocre, Dark Phoenix is a pitiful ending to a franchise that kicked off the superhero era of the twenty-first century. f you asked writer/director Simon Kinberg, in private so he could be truly honest, whether he would have repeated what happens in Dark Phoenix as the very last X-Men movie, and I legitimately think he would say no. That’s the problem with the movie is that it’s a double dip that, surprisingly, doesn’t get better. The story is boring and repetitive, the action is bland, the characters are at the mercy of a story that has no interest in them, and the resolution does not provide any satisfying finality. It feels like the close of a weekly television episode that knows more is to come except it’s been cancelled. Coming to a shrug-worthy series conclusion, I think I’d rather rewatch The Last Stand than the second go-round of the Phoenix saga. The X-Men ultimately go out with a whimper but that doesn’t take away from the greatness of the other films. It’s been nearly two decades, and I’m grateful for the ride, but it’s a shame it had to end this way.
6) The Silence
It’s hard not to constantly be comparing it with A Quiet Place, and it’s hard not to constantly be wishing you were watching A Quiet Place instead of this mess. The Silence fails as a thriller because it’s so unclear so often about the nature of its threat, its extent, and the lack of urgency on display. Once the bat dinosaur monsters are on the loose, it feels like the rest of society immediately knows the rules of what attracts them. It doesn’t feel like the movie is going anywhere. The immediate aftermath of the dino birds appearing leads to a limited response. How interesting or scary can things get when the Internet is still functioning and the teenage daughter can still keep up with her instant messages even out in the country? This brings me to the last act where the movie completely changes into a home invasion thriller with a religious cult that has bitten off their own tongues. It all comes together to form a hilariously awful conclusion that teeters into pure camp. Much could be forgiven if the scares were consistent, well constructed, or even interesting, or if the characters were engaging and relatable, or if the structure packed a series of setups and satisfying payoffs, or if there was a sense of thought and care put into the world building with these unique creatures, or, all the things that A Quiet Place achieved. The Silence is a movie that is best deserving of being silent. Skip this Netflix original and, if possible, watch A Quiet Place again.
Polar is such a thoroughly unpleasant film experience I was wondering if Lars von Trier had somehow made a comic book movie. I enjoy exploitation movies, I enjoy slick hitman spectacles, and I enjoy audaciously stylish indie films with their own lingering sense of cool, but Polar is gratuitous in every sense of the word and a chore. The film veers from grotesque, brutish, gory violence to cartoonish, grating, juvenile slapstick. The violence is far too gross and brutal for the light tone it wishes to maintain. It’s the kind of violence where every gunshot necessitates a lurid explosion of blood, and why stop at one gunshot when a dozen will do? This is a film that wallows in the grotesque, tittering to itself and trying so damn hard to be so provocative that it becomes exhausting. It’s jam-packed with style-for-style’s-sake choices that further call attention to its overall emptiness. I started counting the number of shots that existed simply to highlight a woman’s butt. Everything about Polar feels unnecessary. The sex scenes are gratuitous, the violence is gratuitous, the style is gratuitous, and when everything feels tacked on for cheap thrills, the movie becomes hollow, calculated, and lazy. As I was watching this two-hour cartoon I was strongly reminded of the 1990s Tarantino knock-off, The Big Hit, which was an exaggerated cartoon of tiresome depravity. It tried so hard to evoke a carefree hipness when it came to its criminals, their depraved acts, their comedic interactions, the debauched humor, that it all felt like two hours of collective flop sweat.
I honestly have no idea who could enjoy Gaspar Noe’s Climax. I have watched dozens of movies where I knew it wasn’t for me but I could at least fathom some appeal to a select viewer. Climax is the rare film where I cannot even fathom any person enjoying it, because to even attempt to enjoy it on its fever dream level it purports would only lead to disappointment. Climax is incredibly, unbearably, crushingly tedious. It’s 97 minutes that could literally be condensed into a music video for a three-minute song as far as substance is concerned. we watch them pace around and scream, cry, sometimes writhe, sometimes fall down, sometimes fall down and writhe, sometimes fall down and writhe and cry, and that’s about the extent. It can be downright embarrassing to watch especially as Noe’s penchant for tracking shots makes the performance takes so agonizingly long. I’m confounded by this monotonous experimental triviality. I think, even if you were to be overly generous, Noe’s film just cannot measure up on any artistic or entertainment metric. If you’re eager for a crazy, trippy, immersive drug-fueled experience, get ready for something more akin to standing by and holding the hair of your friend while they vomit into a toilet.
I was waiting for Cats to end long before it did because so much felt so pointless. The false whimsy was covering ineffective and repetitive storytelling, malnourished and unimportant characters, confusing world building and powers, middling songs (with one sterling exception), and direction that seems to make the whole enterprise feel like a children’s cartoon. It’s too simple to be intellectually stimulating, too weird and confounding to be whimsical, too sporadic and repetitive to be emotionally involving, and vacillating between complete seriousness and wanton silliness. The horror of that first trailer is alive and well in every unnatural moment of this nightmare. Much of the show feels like a children’s television series that was hijacked by a sexual deviant. By the end of the movie, I was convinced that I was watching an even scarier version of Midsommar and that this cat gang was really a religious cult that was selecting a ritual sacrifice to their blood-thirsty Egyptian Gods. I think the Cats producers wanted to do something to distinguish it and in doing so they unleashed one of apocalyptic seals.
2) The Dead Don’t Die
What The Dead Don’t Die better resembles are the humorless anti-comedies of late-night Adult Swim blocs. It’s not so much that there are jokes, it’s more the absence of jokes, and somehow that might be the joke? The humor is stuck in one mode throughout the film. A character will slowly say something understated or obvious (Example: “That’s not good”) and then the reaction of others will be delayed, and then after that nobody will say anything for several painful seconds later. The deadpan jokes are too obvious and too uniform to really strike any potent comedy targets. The consumer “satire” is brittle to the point of breaking. This movie is only 105 minutes but it felt so much longer. the pacing not just as a whole but scene-to-scene and even line-to-line from conversations is deadly still. It’s rare that I could honestly say there are entire supporting swaths of this movie that could be cut completely and not impact the story at all. It makes the many storylines we hopscotch across feel like they don’t matter and are generally wasting our valuable time. I can’t fathom how someone can actually be a fan of this writer/director. I was tempted to walk out at several points but I held in there. The jokes are too obvious and barely jokes, the pacing is awfully slack, and the whole movie is reprehensibly boring. Even when it has moments of weirdness it finds ways to make it boring. The structure does little to nothing with a large ensemble of very good actors. The movie and premise had potential. Ultimately The Dead Don’t Die feels like one egregiously long in-joke that the audience isn’t privy to. The joke’s on us, folks.
And the worst film of 2019 is….
1) The Haunting of Sharon Tate
I was worried early that this was going to be an E! True Hollywood Story version of The Strangers, and I found that drawn out home invasion scenario to be very depressing. That brings me to the biggest point of contention I have with The Haunting of Sharon Tate and that’s its gross game of watching Tate and her friends die repeatedly in a misguided attempt to surprise the jaded audience. There is little redeeming value to the schlocky, offensively bad Haunting of Sharon Tate. It purports to be a sympathetic portrayal to a victim, yet it plays upon her death for fake out thrills and makes her seem crazy in order to project some added sense of tragedy because I guess what happened to her wasn’t tragic enough. If you needed any further proof to suggest the bad faith of writer/director Daniel Farrands he has another movie slated for release in early January 2020. The title: The Murder of Nicole Brown Simpson. Oh, but dear reader it gets even worse from there. According to the one available film review published, it turns out that Farrands is theorizing that Nicole Brown wasn’t murdered by her husband, O.J. Simpson, a jealous, wife-beating, controlling liar who had all that DNA evidence linking him to the crime. Instead it’s some drifter played by Nick Stahl who turns out to be a serial killer on the loose. Please just let the audacious offensiveness of these last few sentences just sink in and remember that this man is using this grievous shock value to make a name for himself. I feel confident with one New Year’s prediction: I will have a slot already reserved for The Murder of Nicole Brown Simpson on my Worst of 2020 List.
Dishonorable mention: Ma, 6 Underground, Hellboy, Richard Jewell
PART TWO: VARIOUS AWARDS AND ACCOLADES
Best titles of the year: I Trapped the Devil, Always Be My Maybe, Knives Out
Worst titles of the year: Happy Death Day 2U, The Aftermath, Stuber, The Art of Racing in the Rain, Jexi
Titles that could be confused with porn: Little, Her Smell, Shaft, Itsy Bitsy
Biggest Disappointment of 2019: Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. It was a sad experience for me to realize I wasn’t enjoying a single creative decision in a Star Wars movie. 2019 became a big geek year for finales, with some nailing the ending (Endgame) and others badly missing (ahem, my beloved Game of Thrones). It feels like director J.J. Abrams and company were in a mad panic after the divisiveness of The Last Jedi and retreated to the safety of nostalgia and fan expectations. This feels like the producers made a list of fan demands and then acceded to them. Episode 9 is a mess of bad plotting, rushed pacing, truncated character arcs, useless cameos, and a reheated Return of the Jedi climax that was as boring as it was exhausting and dispiriting. It’s supposed to be an end to this new trilogy, and a trilogy of trilogies, but the backwards-looking franchise will never be done paying homage to its cherished past while it eats its own tail until it vomits. Maybe some time off until 2022 will be best for Star Wars.
Florence Pugh, the Real MVP of 2019: I’ve been a Florence fan since her scintillating performance in 2017’s Lady Macbeth, so watching her catapult to bigger and better platforms has been wonderful. She showed true range this year, playing an aspiring wrestler in a family comedy (Fighting with My Family), the emotional focal point of a horror movie that required her to break down wailing every other second (Midsommar), and as the most-reviled March sister in Little Women, and she nailed every role. Next year she’s going to be joining the MCU in Black Widow. She is having herself a moment.
Best Parts of Not Really Good Movies: the under the bleacher scene in It: Chapter Two; Elisabeth Moss’ budding killers relationship in The Kitchen; Dan Nye and KateLynn Newberry in Dark Iris; Jessica Rothe in Happy Death Day 2U
The Best 10 Minutes of 2019: It may seem a bit of a cheat but I’m going with the conclusion to El Camino, the Breaking Bad epilogue I never knew I needed. It was such a pleasure to jump back into this world and back with Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul). It provided a satisfying sense of closure and gave long-delayed peace to the long-suffering Jesse. It also gave us one of the final film performances from Robert Forster.
Runners-up: the French ruins night run, 1917; the visit to Spahn Ranch, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood; the evaluator visit in Marriage Story
Best Time I Had in a Theater in 2019: I really wanted to say seeing Kevin Smith and Jason Mewes live for Jay and Silent Bob Reboot, but it’s got to be all three hours of Avengers: Endgame. I made sure I emptied every ounce from my body so I would not miss a moment by having to sneak off quickly to the bathroom. It was 11 years of setup for a glorious payoff. You better believe my theater lost its mind throughout.
Gravity But in a Hot Air Balloon Award: The Aeronauts
The Wicker Man But Sweden Award: Midsommar
We Need to Talk About Kevin But Super Heroes Award: Brightburn
The Lon King But Worse Award: 2019’s The Lion King
Most Desperate to Get Out of a Franchise: Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique, Dark Phoenix. So desperate that they even spoiled her character’s death in the trailer. But her untimely death did give us the best film line of 2019: “I know whose blood that is now.”
What’s With All the Puke?: Apparently enough filmmakers thought that projectile vomit was a source of comedy, including the likes of Knives Out, Hustlers, It: Chapter Two, Charlie’s Angels, and The Perfection. Two of those movies even use their ingenue’s constant retching as a personality-defining trait. There’s even a section on the Does The Dog Die website called “Does Someone Vomit?” Gross.
Yesterday But Today: Here’s a closing question: if the Beatles songs were released in a contemporary market, would they be the era-defying hits that they were? I’m somewhat doubtful. For an experiment, show Yesterday (or even 2007’s Across the Universe) to teenagers generally unaware about the Beatles catalogue. Do they instantly take notice? Do they ravishingly consume the songs and seek more? I’m sure some will; just because music is old doesn’t mean it can’t connect with a new, appreciative audience. However, would these songs be global hits instantly launching the songwriter to stardom? The Beatles are an indelible part of our culture and have influenced generations of artists. It’s hard to overstate their artistic influence but partly because of the time and place of that influence. Would Beethoven be as influential if he had gone unknown by history until the twenty-first century? Maybe this whole premise isn’t quite what it seems after all.
Best Opening Shot: Uncut Gems beginning through the inner workings of Adam Sandler’s colon. Is this an ironic statement of some sort on the films of Sandler?
Best Ending Shot: (tie) Midsommar and Knives Out. Both involved put-upon heroines staring forward, accepting their new elevated position, and smiling upon their foes.
Most Gratuitous Moment of 2019: The many deaths of Sharon Tate in The Haunting of Sharon Tate. we know ahead of time what fate awaits Tate so it becomes a waiting game of when the Manson family shows up and slays our characters. I didn’t have to wait long because the Manson family killers get to business quickly, but you see, dear reader – IT WAS ALL A DREAM. That’s right, Sharon Tate wakes up screaming having dreamed a prophetic nightmare. It was using fake-out murder sequences to keep an audience guessing. Is THIS the time Sharon Tate gets murdered? Nope, maybe it’s THIS time? Nope, I guess we’ll just have to endure many sequences of Tate and her friends being killed to learn which is the legit murders. It’s using her victimization as a reset button for exploitation thrills. It’s bringing Tate and company back to life again and again only to torment and defile them anew, and that I found righteously offensive.
Runners-up: all of 6 Underground; the 90s soundtrack for Captain Marvel; the indecisive aspect ratios in Lucy in the Sky; Olivia Wilde’s reporter character in Richard Jewell
Welcome to the Uncanny Valley: Welcome to the new nightmares of special effects run amok, ladies and gentlemen. If you weren’t acquainted with the term “the uncanny valley” you definitely got up close and personal in 2019. It began with the live-action anime Alita: Battle Angel, which was in the works for decades in order to better portray the saucer-eyed style of anime art. It was weird and yet this was the high-point before the descent. The “live-action” Lion King served as a stark reminder that photo realistic animals might not be the most capable of expressing emotion. As soon as I saw Mufasa speaking, I was immediately shaken by the image and longed for the expression of the animation. And last, and certainly the lowest point, was the release of Cats, where they decided that makeup and prosthetics were boring and to add CGI fur and cat bodies to all the actors and dancers. There were also the de-aging effects in The Irishman, which were at first horrifying to witness. The results are currently being used to psychologically break terrorists. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should, filmmakers.
R.I.P. Franchise Awards: X-Men, Men in Black, Terminator, Charlie’s Angels, Godzilla
The Saddest Step Up Movie Yet: Joker. Seriously, he danced, like, a lot.
Better Late Than Never Award: The Current War, featuring the battle between Edison and Westinghouse for America’s power grid, had been on the shelf for two years after the demise of The Weinstein Company. Its eventual wide release was strangely subtitled “The Director’s Cut.” Can a movie that has never been released to the public, outside of some festival screenings, really declare its first impression a director’s cut? Aren’t these supposed to be different, and generally longer versions of the original edit?
Best Movie I Saw in 2019 (That Wasn’t Released in 2019): Never Look Away
Get Over IT Award: With the disappointing It: Chapter Two, we have characters that are still harboring feelings over crushes they’ve held since they were twelve. Surely everyone of us is defined by our middle school era romantic designations and would never move on nearly thirty years into adulthood.
Most Ridiculous Plot Element of 2019: The revelation for Serenity. It was sold as a film noir. It had Anne Hathaway as the femme fatale soliciting her old flame, Matthew McConaughey, to knockoff her new, abusive husband (Jason Clarke). It’s all falling together and then, midway through, Serenity unleashes a twist to end all twists and reveals that everything is really a computer game and the characters are merely avatars, created by a child genius so he could find the courage to murder his real-life abusive stepdad (also Clarke) and mourn his dead father (also McConaughey). Huh? The fact that this came from reliably trustworthy screenwriter Steven Knight (Eastern Promises, Peaky Blinders) was like being blindsided. Come for Body Heat. Stay for The Lawnmower Man.
Runners-up: Cats… just… all of Cats; the “actual” explanation in Us; Arthurian legend coming in to Hellboy; having empathy for the Wall Street goons being duped in Hustlers
Best Onscreen Death: The explosive and bloody conclusion of Ready or Not. It’s a fist-pumping, cheering, clapping, highly memorable closer, and one of the best endings in years. It’s one of those endings you can’t wait to talk about with others.
Runner’s-up: Eye lasers, Brightburn; “I am… Iron Man,” Avengers: Endgame; bringing out the flamethrower, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood; horse chase, John Wick 3.
Bad Math Award: In the Fast and Furious spinoff, Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) is seen in a series of childhood flashbacks with his younger sister played by Vanessa Kirky (Mission: Impossible – Fallout, The Crown). There is a 21-year age difference between the two actors, so watching them only a handful of years apart as children is one of the most ludicrous aspects of a movie built upon intensive ludicrousity.
Best Villain of 2019: The tethered in Jordan Peele’s Us. A bizarre doppelganger family intent on mysterious, violent vengeance, anchored by a mesmerizing Lupita Nyong’o as a twisted matriarch. The explanation may not have sufficed but the creepy factor was off the charts.
Runner’s-up: Mysterio in Spider-Mn: Far From Home; Gabby Gabby, Toy Story 4; Fox News’ Roger Ailes (Jon Lithgow) in Bombshell; Rebecca Ferguson in Doctor Sleep
Favorite Line From a Review in 2019: From the wretched Climax: “If you’re eager for a crazy, trippy, immersive drug-fueled experience, get ready for something more akin to standing by and holding the hair of your friend while they vomit into a toilet.”
Runner’s-up: “It’s basically a 108-minute greeting card,” from A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood;
“How to train your expectations. Step one, lower them,” from How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World
PART THREE: OVERALL MOVIE GRADES
I have reviews and mini-reviews for almost all of the graded movies listed below.
Dragged Across Concrete
Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Ready or Not
Toy Story 4
El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie
The Last Black Man in San Fransisco
Queen & Slim
Ford vs. Ferrari
The Lego Movie 2
Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood
The Two Popes
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
The Current War: The Director’s Cut
Dolemite is My Name
Hobbes and Shaw
John Wick: Chapter 3
Jumanji: The Next Level
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark
Spider-Man: Far From Home
They Shall Not Grow Old
Godzilla: King of All Monsters
The Peanut Butter Falcon
Sword of Trust
Terminator: Dark Fate
Alita: Battle Angel
Don’t Let Go
Happy Death Day 2U
It: Chapter Two
Jay and Silent Bob Reboot
Men in Black International
Cadia: The World Within
Curse of La Llorona
F*** You All: The Uwe Boll Story
How to Train Your Dragon 3: The Hidden World
The Lion King
Lucy in the Sky
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
Where Did You Go, Bernadette?
The Dead Don’t Die
The Haunting of Sharon Tate