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Favorite films of 2019

For many of my friends, 2019 was a rough year. At the rate 2020 is going, this year may not be better. For myself, this was one of the most time-consuming years I’ve had in a while, as can probably be seen by the unexpected four-month hiatus I took from writing film reviews.

I saw even fewer films than I normally do, and yet there seem to be fewer that slipped through the cracks this year. I still need to catch up with Pain and Glory and Portrait of a Lady on Fire, but most of the films being placed on other yearend lists I’ve seen.

At the same time, this was one of the richest years movie-wise for this entire decade, with enough great titles to chose from that narrowing my list down to the top twenty was difficult, let alone the top ten.

I have not seen Joker. This review by Andrew Spitznas convinced me I would hate it, but in light of its surprising 11 Oscar nominations, I will make time for it, and I will keep an open mind. This essay gives me some hope it might have something of value. Regardless of how I end up feeling about it, nothing I have heard makes me think it would be in contention for the list below. You are welcome to tell me how wrong I am or how excellent my instincts are.

I have been informed that Joker features a performance of a Sondheim song, which makes it one of at least three films this year to do so. The other two made my top ten, but I still doubt Joker is on par with them.

One thing that strikes me looking over all thirty-five titles below is how many of them relate to one another. Two films about the importance of sisterhood made the top ten. There are two comedies with strong political overtones, two films about the evil of money, two films about the horrors of British imperialism, two films about opposing the Nazis, two films about people close enough to one another to drive each other insane, and two films in black and white.

The calls below are mine, and I make no claims that these are the best films from last year. Indeed, there is more than one choice that I’m sure will leave people scratching their heads. However, these are the ones that meant the most to me, and I make no apologies.

Good Films Worth Noting (35-21):

A Hidden Life, Peterloo, Transit, Ad Astra, Once Upon a Time … In Hollywood, Rocketman, Dark Waters, Burning Cane, Diane, The Report, Everybody Knows, High Life, Non-Fiction, For Sama, Waves

Honorable Mentions:

20. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (Marielle Heller) – Casting Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers was a stroke of genius, but Marielle Heller’s decision to frame the entire film as an extended episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was an ever greater stroke of genius, allowing Rogers (Hanks) to address the audience directly asking them “What do you do with the mad that you feel?”

19. Amazing Grace (Sydney Pollack & Alan Elliott) – A front row seat to watch Aretha Franklin perform is a great thing. A front row seat to watch her work with her band and choir over a two-night recording session is transcendent. Filmed in 1972, and only being released now, Amazing Grace is a testament to the power of Franklin’s music and her use of her talent for the glory of God.

18. Apollo 11 (Todd Douglas Miller) – For anyone who was not alive for the original moon landing, this documentary recreates the excitement and awe with visuals and sound that place the viewer right alongside the NASA scientists and more stunningly the astronauts taking the first steps on the moon.

17. Light from Light (Paul Harrill) – A modern day ghost story starring Marin Ireland and Jim Gaffigan beautifully and sensitively explores the human need for connection—both physical and spiritual—as a single mother investigates whether a recent widower is receiving communications from his late wife.

16. The Lighthouse (Robert Eggers) – Eggers’ follow up to The Witch is a Lynchian nightmare in the middle of the sea. Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe play two men assigned to keep the titular lighthouse, but mermaids, gulls, and their own paranoias being to drive them insane. It’s a descent into madness and warning of the dangers of obsession, but a breathtaking and stunning one to behold.

Runners-up:

15. The Nightingale (Jennifer Kent) – On the one hand, this is a brutal story bluntly stating that colonialism is horrible and screwed over women, immigrants, and people of color. At the same time, it’s a brilliant frustration of the rape-revenge narrative, showing how futile violence is, especially in a world run by and for the most powerful. Kent subjects the audience to horrors that surpass her debut film, The Babadook, but she celebrates solidarity between victims of different backgrounds and shows the true cost and goodness of progress in a way that prevents this from becoming gratuitous or exploitative.

14. One Child Nation (Nanfu Wang & Lynn Zhang) – A sobering documentary about the horrific effects of China’s one child policy and the unwitting accomplices to that policy around the world. In tracing her own childhood co-director Nanfu Wang reveals the horrors and abuse against women, children, and families that stemmed from blindly following orders and a nation’s desire to put profits ahead of people. As a stark contrast to the subject matter, the beauty of children and celebration of life remind the audience and the directors what China stole from its citizens. Most striking is witnessing Wang’s own journey as she cross-examines the propaganda she was taught throughout her childhood.

13. Missing Link (Chris Butler) – After several weaker entries, Laika studios have returned to the top of their game, or at least very close to it, with this Jules Verne-ian tale about Sir Lionel Frost (Hugh Jackman), an arrogant British explorer who goes to America to prove the existence of the Sasquatch (Zach Galifianakis). As with Laika’s previous films, wokeness forms an inherent part of the plot, but here it’s not tacked on as gratuitous moralizing, instead being an integral part of the story. The visuals are as stunning as ever, and the labor of love about leaving old dreams behind for newer and better ones and overcoming prejudice is as timely as ever. Best of all it eschews many of the cliches that have plagued family films of late. (full review)

12. Shadow (Zhang Yimou) – Political intrigue, double crossing, honor, and exquisite martial arts all take center stage in this story of an elaborate coup between opposing kingdoms in ancient China as one king’s desire to honor a peace treaty clashes with his general’s desire to avenge his honor. Yimou’s choreography of the martial arts is some of his most stunning work ever, and the black and white cinematography heightens the looming tragedy and breakdown of trust and relationships in games of political intrigue, in which everyone puts their own interests first, even if it seems otherwise.

11. They Shall Not Grow Old (Peter Jackson) – If anyone ever wanted to imagine what it would have been like to live through a battle in a WWI trench, Peter Jackson manages to place them there with They Shall Not Grow Old, a documentary constructed from WWI footage and letters from the trenches. It’s a stunning technical achievement that rivals Jackson’s groundbreaking special effects from two decades ago in The Lord of the Rings, but also a painful reminder that war is hell, evoking compassion for the soldiers forced to suffer through the barbarity, keeping their memories alive. In many ways, the contrast between the humanity of the soldiers and the carnage of the battlefield maintains a Tolkien-esque spirit that possibly surpasses what he captured of the same in The Lord of the Rings.

The Top Ten

10. Frozen II (Chris Buck & Jennifer Lee) – Is this one of the ten greatest cinematic achievements from 2019? Probably not. Is it a very good musical, with beautifully written songs that are placed perfectly throughout the film for maximum emotional impact? Absolutely. I’ve seen it twice now, and the sisterly bond between Anna and Elsa (once again Kristen Bell and Idina Menzel) that was the heart of first film is even stronger here. Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez’s songs likewise top the strong score of the original film, building from the opening lullaby to Elsa’s inspiring power ballad to Anna’s heart-wrenching testament to the difficulty of change and loss. Along the way, Olaf provides even wittier comic relief, and Kristoff and Sven continue their welcome support with a thematically cohesive song of their own. (full review)

9. By the Grace of God (François Ozon) – I’m sure this has already been called the French Spotlight, but that description is misleading, because this chronicle of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church is not a story of investigate journalism bringing a monstrous evil to light, but a tale of survival from the perspective of three victims. Ozon balances the shifting narrative from one victim to the next perfectly, organizing each chapter as a progression to the realization of the full horror, not just for the viewer but the survivors as well. Based on a true story of an abusive priest in Lyon, France and the coverup by the diocese, the importance and difficulty of speaking out are at the center of the film as the consequences of sexual abuse and the subsequent silence become more deafening and widespread.

8. The Farewell (Lulu Wang) – The opening title card of The Farewell reads “based on a true lie.” It’s a lie that exposes a cultural and generational clash between Chinese customs and American ones as well as between parents and children. Billie (Awkwafina), having grown up in America, is horrified by her family’s intentions of honoring a Chinese custom not to tell her grandmother she has cancer. The family reunion under the guise of a cousin’s wedding brings out the differences not only between the emotional Billie and the more stoic Chinese traditions, but how time and environment change all the family members. Underneath the differences, however, is a strong love that manifests itself the best way each family member knows how—even when those ways are less than ideal—and it is that love Lulu Wang captures with beauty and sensitivity.

7. The Last Black Man in San Francisco (Joe Talbot) – Why do we tell stories and what purpose do they serve? That question is at the heart of this poetic, quasi-fantasy, semi-autobiographical film about Jimmie Fails (himself) and his devotion to the house built by his grandfather in San Francisco. Directed by Fails’ childhood friend Joe Talbot and written by both of them, this film depicts not only a cultural and family legacy but a celebration of art, plays, and cinema and how all of them can help us wrestle with our past and help us prepare for the future. Deeply indebted to The Wizard of Oz, the quest of Jimmie and his friend Mont for a home that has a special emotional value for them ends up revealing the ways each individual shapes a community.

6. The Dead Don’t Die (Jim Jarmusch) – The first socially conscious comedy on this list and the second of three Adam Driver performances, The Dead Don’t Die is a typical offering of droll Jarmusch humor. Excessive fracking has shifted the earth off its axis, which interferes with the earth’s cycle around the sun, which in turn causes a zombie apocalypse. Adam Driver, Bill Murray, and Chloe Sevigny play a team of cops fighting the legions of undead, even though it’s pretty clear that the events will end badly. In the face of certain death, Jarmusch never loses his sense of humor, highlighting the importance of caring for one another, the environment, and the importance of fighting for a cause that seems hopeless. (full review)

5. Parasite (Bong Joon Ho) – The first of two movies in which money is the ultimate curse to appear in my top ten. It’s tempting to call Parasite: Shoplifters, the dark and gritty remake, but that would be selling short this melodramatic, borderline fable of class warfare. Whereas Kore-eda’s Palme d’Or winner from last year was concerned with a family motivated by altruism doing their best to survive in the only ways they know how, Bong’s film is primarily concerned with the corrupting influences of money and materialism on everyone it comes into contact with, as can be seen through the central family who are motivated more by greed than anything else. The film escalates to the finale, where Bong pushes it to an eleven, but the quasi-surreal nature throughout makes it a satisfying payoff in which the true parasite (money and the love of it) turns on its hosts, and the morbid humor punctuates the bleak atmosphere at perfect intervals to offset the tragic nature of the story.

4. Knives Out (Rian Johnson) – Probably the most fun of any movie released this year, Rian Johnson’s whodunit is a riveting mystery with a conscience and delightful sense of humor. When the 85-year-old Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found dead by apparent suicide and detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) is anonymously hired to investigate foul play, the greed of the millionaire’s family quickly becomes contrasted with the inherent goodness of Harlan’s assistant Marta (Ana de Armas). It’s a modern-day Agatha Christie inspired parable on “woe to you who are rich,” and as obvious as the politics are, Rian Johnson’s sizzling dialogue and eclectic cast of characters prevents the movie from ever becoming a sermon, even with villains who literally quote current political talking points. (full review)

3. I Heard You Paint Houses (aka) The Irishman (Martin Scorsese) – This may not be Scorsese’s final film; and with the streak he’s been on, I hope it isn’t. Nonetheless, it is a stunning and epic culmination to his career both as a love letter to a bygone era of cinematic gangster epics (many of them his own) and a thoughtful, heartbreaking story about the ways that violence wrecks communities, friendships, and families. Robert De Niro plays Frank Sheerhan, an Irishman whose skill at “painting houses” earns him an in with the Italian mob, notably Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), even as it estranges him from his family, notably his oldest daughter Peggy (Lucy Gallina, then Anna Paquin) whom Frank pushes out of his life, even as he laments her absence. The reverse aging CGI is surprisingly effective at allowing the titans to play younger versions of themselves as Frank’s recollection of his life gradually reveals the hollowness of what it was, and that now it is what it is.

2. Marriage Story (Noah Baumbach) – The second film starring Adam Driver in my top ten, and the first starring Laura Dern (so you should know what #1 is), Noah Baumbach’s brutal story of a marriage ending is unflinching in its portrayal of the ways we can hurt one another out of anger. Making that hurt even more painful is the fact that Charlie and Nicole (Driver and Scarlett Johansson) still clearly love one another, even though neither is willing to accommodate the other. A relationship this toxic may sound like excruciating cinema, but the journey of both protagonists to learn how to be alone and not use one other for their own happiness is hopeful and inspiring. It also features the best scene of the year in a soul-bearing single take performance from Driver. (full review)

1. Little Women (Greta Gerwig) – Gerwig’s approach to retelling Alcott’s famous story is one that has earned her both praise and criticism. For my money, her nonlinear approach to the story of the four March sisters is a stroke of genius—heightening the bonds between each sister, while giving each one of them their own arc. The filters are different for each timeline—golden for the earlier years of fond memories and none for the later years, enabling her to cut effortlessly between the different time periods as she juxtaposes scenes to draw comparisons that deepen the joys and sorrows of family life and sisterhood. Gerwig blatantly loves her characters, their unique personalities, their triumphs, as well as Alcott’s novel. Reuniting with Gerwig from Lady Bird, Saoirse Ronan is phenomenal as Jo, but the rest of the family stands out along with her: Florence Pugh as the carefree and later world wise Amy, Emma Watson as the quietly supportive and occasionally materialistic Meg, Eliza Scanlen as the sensitive Beth, and Laura Dern as the longsuffering Marmee who holds the family together. (full review)

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Cats

Year of Release: 2019      Directed by Tom Hooper.  Starring Jennifer Hudson, Judi Dench, Francesca Hayward, Idris Elba, Taylor Swift, Ian McKellen, Jason Derulo, James Corden, and Rebel Wilson.

To answer the most important question regarding Tom Hooper’s adaptation of Cats: does Jennifer Hudson have the vocal chops to pull off “Memory,” yes, she most emphatically does. Is it enough to save a train wreck of a movie that, with few exceptions, is a series of mind-bogglingly bad decisions? For that matter is “Memory” enough to save the show itself which is likewise a series of (less) bad decisions?

Before I brand myself as a hater of Cats the stage show, which is a more or less enjoyable two-plus-hour dance recital if you can accept it for that, let me sincerely say that it has several decent songs and the choreography is fun to watch. The songs I particularly enjoy from the show are “Memory,” “Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats,” “Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat,” and “Macavity the Mystery Cat.” The song (yes, singular) that I enjoyed in this presentation was “Memory,” in spite of Hooper’s attempts to sabotage it.

Hudson lands the one big showstopper that’s far more difficult to sing well than most people give it credit for. Hooper then follows it with a reaction shot of two humans imitating cats that elicited deserved howls of laughter in my theater. If following the one earned moment of pathos in the movie with that wasn’t bad enough, Victoria (Francesca Hayward) then sings the desperate Oscar attempt for best original song, cowritten by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Taylor Swift: “Beautiful Ghosts.” It’s the equivalent of a figure skater nailing the triple axel and then twice falling flat on her face while trying to turn around at the end of the rink.

I understand that the truncated act I version of “Memory” is followed with the full version of “Beautiful Ghosts,” so following the full version of “Memory” with a shorter reprise of “Beautiful Ghosts” could make structural sense. This ignores several important points. First, “Beautiful Ghosts” is lyrically a watered-down version of “Memory.” No musical needs to a new song to repeat the emotions of the song immediately preceding it. Second, “Beautiful Ghosts” stands out structurally and musically like a sore thumb from the rest of the score. Finally, it’s an okay song at best, so placing it next to the most famous song in the show is a particularly bad idea.

Speaking of bad ideas, possibly the worst one plaguing this movie is the decision that the paper-thin plot tacked onto the original needed more explanation. As a result, ridiculous and redundant expository dialogue has been introduced to the originally completely sung musical, explaining at the end of the Jellicle Ball, one cat, chosen by Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench), gets to go to the Heavyside Layer to be reborn. A seven-year old could have told you that from watching the stage show without it being explained to them, but apparently Hooper and screenwriter Lee Hall think the average movie goer in 2019 is less intelligent than the average seven-year-old. It doesn’t make the plot more sensical—that’s not possible—it just makes the stupidity of it more apparent.

Even more mind-numbingly, all of this is being explained to Victoria, the youngest and newest cat attending her first Jellicle ball. In the stage show, the performing cats break the fourth wall, addressing the non-feline audience to explain the “Naming of Cats” and who the various cats are. It makes no sense at all that this needs to be explained to a cat, an animal with one of the best instincts. Inconsistently, the movie also doesn’t entirely abandon the fourth-wall breaking. For the final number, “The Addressing of Cats,” Old Deuteronomy looks right at the camera, presumably forgetting about the audience-surrogate Victoria standing right next to her. Or maybe it’s because Victoria has now become a Jellice cat, which is the one unexplained aspect of the stage show that the movie insists on keeping a mystery.

I’ve been negative long enough. Francesca Hayward is a very good dancer and singer, and from the little bit she has to act, presumably a good actress too, knowing how to emote with her body and eyes. Ian McKellen’s 110% commitment to mimicking a cat is more enjoyable than almost anything else in the movie, and of course there’s Hudson. Taylor Swift is also in the movie, and she performs “Macavity the Mystery Cat” with surprising skill, even if her breathy singing style doesn’t quite have the aggressive edge the song needs.

As a groupie of Macavity (Idris Elba, playing a smaller version of Shere Khan), it’s weird that Swift’s Bombalurina is the only female feline to have a noticeably not-flat chest, which the camera creepily draws attention to. If I wanted to think about this movie more than I do, I might say it’s an example of slut-shaming by making the most sinister female cat the only sexual one, as contrasted with Jason Derulo’s flirtatious Rum Tum Tugger. But I really don’t want to think about it that much. I especially don’t want to think about Rebel Wilson in a CGI fat cat suit spreading her legs and scratching the inside of her upper thighs, but bad ideas plague this movie in truly incredible ways. However, writing those sentences back to back just made me realize that when this movie focuses on cat bodies, or human ones thanks to CGI cat fur, the focus is almost always female and always unflattering.

I haven’t even talked about Hooper’s bad camera choices here. He apparently learned the lesson from his dumb single-take song idea for Les Misérables, but he’s overcorrected, cutting so frequently that, for the most part, we barely get to see the dances. Steven McRae’s tap dancing as Skimbleshanks is one of the few nice exceptions, even though Andrew Lloyd Webber decided the song need to be updated, cutting the bridge and re-orchestrating it, as he does to the detriment of several songs, such as “The Old Gumby Cat” and “The Addressing of Cats,” although the latter may have been because Judi Dench doesn’t have the voice to sing its enormous range.

I also need to mention the human faces on the mice and cockroaches that Jennyanydots (Rebel Wilson) keeps in line and occasionally swallows whole. Since the entire set was designed for human-sized cats, shouldn’t mice and cockroaches be proportionately larger than they are in real life, and not the same size? It’s a strange disconnect, much like the shots of human cats crawling on all fours and then randomly deciding to walk on two legs that plague most of “Jellicle Songs for Jellice Cats,” but clearly not something that mattered to anyone making Cats or anyone who will enjoy it, which can probably be said about most of this movie.

 

Personal recommendation: D+

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2018 Favorite Films

Someone on Twitter quipped (I do not remember who, otherwise I would credit them) that 2017 had a small handful of great films which were better than anything released this year. However, considering films just a small step below that tier, 2018 had a much larger pool to choose from. I found that to be the case myself, with over twenty films I could easily have included in my top ten. This was actually one of the hardest yearend lists I have ever put together, given the lengthy list of very good movies I had to narrow down.

An overused quote by Graham Greene states that films should depict the world both as it is and as it should be. Almost all the films below feature a world broken in one way or another whether by pollution, absent fathers, PTSD from the Iraq War, mental illness, or child abuse. At the same time most of those movies feature some form of beauty and hope, whether it be the bond between a boy and his dog, a girl and her father, or a son singing pop songs with his mom.

I think I made a better effort this year than usual to catch up with as many titles as possible, but some things inevitably slipped through the cracks (Cold War and Blindspotting). If a film is not included, I either didn’t see it or didn’t care for it as much as the thirty-five here.

Good Films Worth Noting (35-21):

A Quiet Place, Black Panther, Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc, Pope Francis: A Man of His Word, Lean on Pete, Thoroughbreds, The Rider, Minding the Gap, Roma, Shoplifters, Bad Times at the El Royale, The Death of Stalin, Chosen: Custody of the Eyes, 22 July, Shirkers

Honorable Mentions:

20. If Beale Street Could Talk (Barry Jenkins) – Jenkins’ third feature film is an adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel of the same title. Alternating between flashbacks of an innocent childhood friendship blossoming into a touching romance and the harsher present day realities of being black in America, Baldwin’s story through Jenkins’ camera is both a witness to injustice and a celebration of love and family.

19. Annihilation (Alex Garland) – Deeply indebted to the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, Garland’s intoxicatingly beautiful sci-fi film about survival and the quest for the perfect organism takes equally awe-inspiring and terrifying turns as its scientist protagonists confront the alien world of the Shimmer.

18. 24 Frames (Abbas Kiarostami) – Kiarostami’s final film, this beautiful recreation of twenty-four paintings and photographs invites reflection on what happens just outside of the frame, asking us to look beyond what we see in front of us and imagine the stories behind each work of art.

17. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (Morgan Neville) – A love letter to Fred Rogers, a man who saw everyone as his neighbor and used television as a means of living out his Christian faith with as wide an audience as possible.

16. I Am Not a Witch (Rungano Nyoni) – A debut feature from Nyoni, she poignantly captures the injustice spurred by fear and bigotry when a young African girl named Shula is accused of being a witch and forced to live in a state-sanctioned witch camp. A fantastic performance from Maggie Mulubwa as Shula reminds us of the freedom and joy a child should have in life and the tragedy of that being taken away.

Runners-up:

15. Can You Ever Forgive Me? (Marielle Heller) – The “true story” of Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy), a down and out author who takes her agent’s advice to find a new career a little too literally and begins forging letters from deceased celebrities and then selling them to make ends meet. Marielle Heller’s comedy walks the fine line between sympathizing with its unethical protagonists without ever romanticizing or rationalizing their behavior. More pointedly, the film strongly criticizes the greed and superficiality of a society which gives Lee an outlet to use her talents in a criminal way, while acknowledging what a waste of a vocation that is.

14. BlacKkKlansman (Spike Lee) – The second comedic telling of a true story on this list, Ron Stallworth’s (John David Washington) infiltration of the Ku Klux Klan in the ‘70’s provides not only a brutally hilarious mockery of KKK, but a celebration of Stallworth’s victory over one racist segment of society. At the same time, Lee does not let us forget that racism is still alive and well with deep roots in decades of white entertainment that have been subconsciously absorbed for over a century. Drawing powerful parallels to the current climate, the comedic arc of the film reminds us that racism has been overcome before, and with effort can hopefully be overcome again. (full review)

13. Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (Ol Parker) – Quite possibly the biggest surprise of the year, and unquestionably one of the most joyful and fun films of the year, this sequel and prequel to the 2008 musical is not only better than its predecessor but a great standalone film in its own right. My friend Jeffrey Overstreet, in his own top ten write-up, extensively draws from my favorite film of last year, asking what each of his favorite movies loves and pays attention to. The answer for Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is: families, forgiveness and reconciliation, friendships, babies, mothers, grandmothers, courageous independent women, exposing and ridiculing sexism, Greece, Cher, singing, dancing, and of course, the music of ABBA. (full review)

12. Isle of Dogs (Wes Anderson) – Another labor of love, the meticulous detail and craftsmanship from Wes Anderson reveals a love of canines, Japan, the films of Kurosawa, and haiku. It also shows a love of justice and compassion through its fable-like story about how we treat refugees, the sick, and the outcast. For a film which takes place in a world overrun with pollution, in this stop motion world of Wes Anderson, beauty and goodness abound in more ways than imaginable. A haiku:

Garbage everywhere;
We need outcasts to survive.
Green tea and puppies. (full review)

11. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsay, & Rodney Rotham) – The most inventive and enjoyable superhero film since at least The Dark Knight, and possibly The Incredibles, the multi-verse approach to a Spider-man origin story provides kids of all backgrounds with a superhero they can look up to. Focusing primarily on Miles Morales and his journey to become New York’s only Spider-man, the world building introduces some of the most delightful surprises of any film this year, and the animations pop off the screen recreating the effect of watching moving comic book pages. To borrow a quote from another great animated film: not everyone can be Spider-man, but Spider-man can come from anywhere.

The Top Ten

10. The Third Murder (Hirokazu Kore-eda) – After we witness a shocking and brutal murder right as the film opens, it seems like the trial which hangs over most of The Third Murder should be foregone conclusion, especially since this is the culprit’s second murder and he comes across as anything but repentant. However, the truth is far more complicated than it initially appears, as Kore-eda examines the corruption of the Japanese legal system where lawyers care more about an easy explanation than a true one. The title’s meaning isn’t revealed until the film’s end, when it provides a sobering commentary on the destruction of human life, whether it be by a criminal or by the state.

9. The Guardians (Xavier Beauvois) – Like Cuarón’s impressive Roma, The Guardians tells a story of fatherless children in a world torn apart by violence. In this case the violence is WWI, and Beauvois focuses on the ways that life at home away from the front changes as each character does what they believe necessary for survival. That naturally reveals the best of some characters and the worst of others as prejudices are either confirmed or altered. The film’s similarities with Beauvois’ previous feature Of Gods and Men becomes apparent as a more noble path is celebrated by the protagonist’s refusal to return evil for evil, even as the war and its hatred moves closer to her and those she loves.

8. Madeline’s Madeline (Josephine Decker) – One of the most brilliant films of the year, Madeline’s Madeline is an unnerving case of life imitating art imitating life. Madeline (Helena Howard) is a typical rebellious teenager seeking her own identity as she works after school with an experimental acting troupe in NYC. Idolizing her fellow actors and reviling her mom, Madeline is naturally vulnerable to being exploited and lashes out at others while trying to pursue her acting vocation. The film’s hypnotic editing underscores the value Madeline rightly places on her work while simultaneously emphasizing she may not be the best judge of who is looking out for her well being. The film makes the importance of vocation clear, while also showing the dangers of putting anything ahead of people as it reminds us that “creating art” is not an excuse for objectifying human beings.

7. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Joel & Ethan Coen) – A film that puts the gallows in gallows humor—in one scene quite literally—The Ballad of Buster Scruggs comprises six vignettes on the subject of death in the old West. There’s a logical progression to each of the vignettes, from gunslinger to bank robber to traveling showman to prospector to pioneer to bounty hunter. Moving from outlaws to “more respectable” characters, the Coens make clear the one thing that connects everyone is death, as they satirize Western tropes in delightfully and wickedly funny deconstructions. The subversive storytelling invites us to reflect on the nature of our stories while simultaneously reminding us how those stories originated in the first place.

6. First Reformed (Paul Schrader) – This dark night of the soul story has been the darling of most Christian and secular critics for 2018, and the acclaim is richly deserved. A modernized version of Bergman’s Winter Light, with strong influences from Diary of a Country Priest, The Sacrifice, and Taxi Driver, First Reformed is a challenging examination of a crisis of faith. Ethan Hawke’s Reverend Toller, pastor of a dwindling First Reformed church in upstate New York, pointedly and literally asks, “Can God forgive us,” after being confronted with the catastrophic damage done to the planet by humanmade global warming and the silence of many Christian leaders in response. Despite the scathing critique of a capitalist Church more concerned about prosperity than souls, Schrader is not interested in tolling the death knell for American Christianity, but instead champions the ways which Christian faith can make a difference in the world by standing with the outcast and caring for the least of these, while acknowledging the pain of watching many Christians do the opposite.

5. Paddington 2 (Paul King) – “Paddington looks for the good in all of us, and somehow he finds it!” That line from Mr. Brown summarizes the winsome charm of both the titular bear and this sequel to his 2014 cinematic adventure. This entry improves on the original in every way with its homages to Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, one of the best production numbers of the year, glorious storybook-like production design, and outstanding supporting performances from the entire cast, with especially fabulous work by Hugh Grant. Embodying his Aunt Lucy’s mantra, “If you’re kind and polite, the world will be right,” Paddington celebrates joy and love wherever they’re found, from the care of his adoptive family to touching the souls of hardened criminals.

4. You Were Never Really Here (Lynne Ramsay) – There’s a shot fairly early in You Were Never Really Here when Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), a PTSD Iraq War veteran who now works as an efficient hitman, is worried a kid saw him as he collected his next assignment. After being reassured he’s fine, there’s a shot of the empty doorframe after he leaves. It summarizes both the importance of invisibility in his line of work and his depression telling him it would make no difference in the world if he wasn’t here. A chance to rescue a young girl from a child prostitution ring provides an opportunity for Joe to make the proverbial difference, but depression, trauma, and violence do not wash away that easily, especially in a line of work which feeds upon all three. A sliver of hope is present throughout the film, however, as the relationships between Joe and his mother and the young girl form a contrast to a bleak world.

3. Let the Sunshine In (Claire Denis) – Given my amicable indifference to most of Denis’ past work, my love for this is as surprising to me as anybody. Featuring a phenomenal performance from Juliette Binoche as an artist desperately searching for a meaningful relationship, often with some of the most toxic men she meets, Denis structures a clear progression to the same place where the film began. Functioning almost as an inversion of the traditional romantic comedy arc, the film reveals the shallowness of genre clichés as it gives all the agency to Binoche’s artist as she learns happiness comes from acceptance and not making some grandiose development or progression.

2. The Favourite (Yorgos Lanthimos) – I described this to a friend as King Lear from the perspectives of Goneril and Regan, retold as a vicious dark comedy. That description is overly simplistic, but it underscores the fine line between comedy and tragedy that The Favourite walks so brilliantly. A speculative, yet not implausible, version of events that led to the shift of power in parliament toward the end of Queen Anne’s reign, games of political intrigue have rarely been portrayed as darkly or caustically as the manipulation and backstabbing here. With Olivia Colman as the monarch, and Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone as the ladies competing for her favour, the trio of actresses all give fantastic performances, and the ruthless portrayal of the court’s corruption provides the perfect backdrop to expose the price of vanity and envy. (full review)

1. Leave No Trace (Debra Granik) – The one film that has stayed with me more than anything else I’ve seen this year is this heart-wrenching tale of survival of a father and a daughter living in the Oregon woods as a means of the father coping with his PTSD from serving in the Iraq War. The inevitable conclusion hangs over the entire film, bookended in the first and last shots. Each time the protagonists depart another home, the pain of broken connections and relationships becomes greater and greater until the final separation demonstrates that humans are meant to leave a trace. Completely devoid of villains, the film is anything but an exercise in tragedy, as it instead celebrates the generosity and compassion of people from diverse walks of life who all want to do their best to help, even as it acknowledges the reality that that help is not always possible.

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2017 Top Ten

Award season is upon us, and it is once again the time of year when film critics share the films that meant the most to them over the previous year, and naturally, I don’t want to miss out on the fun. 2017 was an unusually busy year for me with a move across the country, and a few more films than usual slipped through the cracks – so I delayed posting this by one week to try to catch up on a few more. However, The Breadwinner and Call Me by Your Name are two major films I still need to watch.

2017 was also the year of #metoo, and recognizing the humanity of the downtrodden and those who have been systematically repressed by society for years, and that theme played out in several major films of the past year, including likely best picture nominee The Shape of Water, Anne Hathaway’s ambitious star vehicle Colossal, and the brilliantly unnerving Get Out.

Another major theme of this past year was the idea of questioning our heroes and reexamining what it means to be victorious, which very notably played out in the year’s most anticipated film, Rian Johnson’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi. That theme was also prominent in The LEGO Batman Movie as well as Christopher Nolan’s grandiose blockbuster Dunkirk.

Finally, David Lynch’s Twin Peaks certainly blurred the line between cinema and television, but I still believe it should be classified as the latter; otherwise I would just list every episode as the top 18. I jest, but only partially.

Good Films Worth Noting (35-21):

The Greatest Showman, The Wedding Plan, I, Tonya, Mudbound, Baby Driver, Columbus, Wonder Woman, The Lost City of Z, The Meyerowtiz Stories (New and Collected), Good Time, Lady Macbeth, The Big Sick, Hunter Gatherer, The Work, Son of Joseph

Honorable Mentions:

20. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczyńska) – A modernized take on The Little Mermaid, setting the classic fairytale in a sleazy nightclub in Soviet Poland. Emphatically not a film for all tastes, this horror/fantasy/musical mashup is an impressive display of light and music capturing the danger and excitement of coming of age in far less than perfect world.

19. The Florida Project (Sean Baker) – Mostly shot from the perspective of six-year-old Moonee, (an outstanding Brooklynn Prince) Sean Baker’s deeply compassionate tale about the cycle of poverty in a Florida housing project just outside of Disneyworld captures the joy and hope common to kids even as it details the injustice of a painfully broken world.

18. A Ghost Story (David Lowery) – A meditation on time, grief, and moving on, the use of a fullscreen aspect ratio boxes the viewer into a world where a deceased husband is forced to watch time unfold in the home where he and his wife had blissfully lived, as he learns to live there as a ghost.

17. Get Out (Jordan Peele) – Both a horror film and a satire, Get Out simultaneously explores the frightening nature of racial relations in America and exposes the shallowness of liberal white people who pretend to be allies while perpetuating harmful stereotypes.

16. The Unknown Girl (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne) – A seemingly simple and normal act of selfishness ends up having unexpected repercussions when an unknown girl ends up dead. Jenny, (Adèle Haenel) a doctor at a local clinic, feels particularly responsible and begins a quest to find the girl’s name so she can be buried in a grave and her family can know what happened to her. This effort to repair some of the damage ends up revealing a much more widespread tragedy of all the ways we fail our societal responsibility to one another.

Runners-up:

15. Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villeneuve) – An unnecessary sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1982 masterpiece, but a brilliant one that respectfully builds on the world of the original film without ever trying to surpass it or engage in derivative fan service, the next chapter in the world of replicants takes a simple yet thrilling mystery and explores human nature, memories, and how we treat others in a world where machines and humans are viewed as commodities. The alternate future is as chilling here as it was in the original, and Roger Deakins’ cinematography makes the bleak world menacing and breathtaking.

14. The Shape of Water (Guillermo del Toro) – A beautiful and haunting fairytale about giving a voice to the voiceless and repressed, The Shape of Water merges fantasy and civil rights for the least of these in moving and powerful way. Sally Hawkins gives a powerhouse performance as a mute cleaning woman who risks everything she has to help a strange creature from the Amazon whom most of the world rejects as a freak, because she sees someone as broken as she. While a little heavy handed at times, del Toro’s film is nonetheless a splendidly filmed reminder of the value of the most vulnerable in our society. (full review)

13. Dunkirk (Christopher Nolan) – Arguably Nolan’s most ambitious film to date, and unquestionably his most hope-filled, Dunkirk is a celebration of an unorthodox heroism that finds victory in retreat, capture, and loss. Crosscutting effortlessly between three timelines on land, air, and sea, Nolan places the viewer right beside the soldiers and civilians as they all do what they can to survive and to rescue the allied troops from the impending threat of the marching Nazis. Even with big name stars such as Kenneth Branagh and Mark Rylance, no character stands out as the humanity and value of all the characters is equally important. (full review)

12. The Post (Steven Spielberg) – Thrilling newsroom drama about the importance of freedom of the press and the first amendment, Spielberg takes deadlines and interviews and turns them into life or death stakes that are as riveting as the best actions scenes he has ever directed. He also does not shy away from showing past failures of news outlets and still insists that it is essential they be allowed to do their jobs without censorship. As Katherine Graham, Meryl Streep as phenomenal as the reserved owner of the Washington Post making her way in a male dominated world and proving her small family paper is a major news outlet that won’t be intimidated by any corrupt politicians.

11. Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri (Martin McDonagh) – Contrary to what many of this film’s detractors have claimed, this is not a film about redemption and how everyone has their own demons and how even the most racist scumbags deep down are good people. This is a film about damnation and how a perfect model for righteous outrage allows herself to become as corrupt, ruthless, and violent as the monstrous racists she claims to despise. Mildred (Frances McDormand), whose daughter was brutally raped and murdered, initially earns all our sympathy in her quest to protest the injustice of the local police department, but her understandable anger soon erupts out of control as the film escalates into a full-blown Greek tragedy. It’s a painful cautionary tale, but one timelier than ever. (full review)

The Top Ten

10. My Happy Family (Nana Ekvtimishvili & Simon Groß) – A moving and intimate look at the dynamics of a family across generations and genders and the struggles and expectations that occur when one member wants to move out from the tight-knit unit. As we witness the different ways family members often take one another for granted and the tole that can take, frequently changing dynamics make us reconsider our own preconceptions. Masterful use of long takes with handheld cameras are incredibly effective at making the viewer another member of the family as the film invites us to observe and reflect on the dynamics of how we interact with our own family members.

9. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas) – An intense and beautifully filmed, genre shifting work of art about grief and the ways we deal with it (or don’t). The entire film is basically a MacGuffin, or several, as Maureen (a phenomenal Kristen Stewart) works in Paris as a personal shopper solely for the excuse of staying there to try to communicate with the spirit of her deceased brother. However, until she comes to peace with his passing and the unusual heart condition which also affects her, the materiality of her career, the unnerving mystery she gets caught up in, and the possibility of other supernatural entities haunting her, will be as meaningless and shallow as Hitchcock’s famous trope, which is why Assayas’ brilliantly detailed focus on those seemingly important subplots makes the narrative abandonment of them in favor of something greater all the more potent.

8. The Beguiled (Sophia Coppola) – Meticulously crafted and gorgeously filmed, Sophia Coppola does a fantastic job of letting the tension within an all-girls Southern boarding school slowly simmer into a toxic boil during the Civil War after they invite a stray Union soldier into their domicile. Exploring the notion of Southern hospitality gone awry and human susceptibility to be beguiled by the easiest solution to our problems, the selfish ulterior motives for doing the right thing slowly create cracks in the picturesque world the Southern women have envisioned for themselves. When the third act erupts into full-blown melodrama, Coppola skillfully drives the film all the way to its memorable final shot.

7. mother! (Darren Aronofsky) – A horror film fantasy, a Biblical allegory, a contemporary parable on care for the environment, a feminist tale of the injustices society inflicts upon women, a meditation on the nature of art and the artist’s need to create, Aronofsky’s latest bizarre fever dream is all those things and then some. A nameless artist (Javier Bardem) and his doting wife, the titular mother, (Jennifer Lawrence) live in a sort of Eden removed from society, but when his desire for fame brings an increasingly unpleasant stream of guest to their home, the disregard and contempt they all show for mother’s vocation results in a tale about the purpose of art and its corruption. Featuring some of the most bombastic imagery of the year, Aronofsky’s commitment to his vision is truly remarkable. (full review)

6. Graduation (Cristian Mungiu) – “I don’t do things like this,” says the school principal in a conversation with a student’s father. The father, a respected surgeon played by Adrian Titieni, responds that he doesn’t either. And yet, the entire film is about his efforts to do such a deed and his rationalizations for it. After an early tragedy, which he is attempting to rectify, it’s easy to excuse his choices, and nearly everyone in the film does. However, that creates and endless cycle of corruption in a society where good intentions are often the closest thing to actual goodness. This portrait of the consequences of sin at all levels of society is not devoid of hope as the film quietly observes its characters, occasionally offering glimpses of a more noble, if difficult way.

5. The Salesman (Asghar Farhadi) – Winner of last year’s Oscar for best foreign language film, The Salesman did not receive a wide release until this year, and it is one of Farhadi’s most powerful films yet. The imitation between art and life blurs after two married actors are forced to evacuate their apartment and find themselves dealing with an unexpected tragedy, which results from the previous tenant’s dissolute lifestyle. The different ways the husband and wife respond to that tragedy threatens not only to derail their production of Death of a Salesman but to break apart their marriage as well as the husband’s quest for justice becomes less about his wife and more about his own desire for vengeance. The most remarkable aspect of the film is the way it handles questions of forgiveness, reputation, and healing, reminding us to whom those abilities belong.

4. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (Luc Besson) – Easily the most imaginative film of the year, and one of the most downright enjoyable as well, Luc Besson’s comic book adaptation is everything that a sci-fi film should be: fun, action-packed, and visually splendid. Besson’s world building demonstrates the full potential of CGI and 3D technology, taking them to dazzling heights previously unexplored. Cara Delevingne and Dane DeHaan make an unorthodox but thoroughly enjoyable screen couple, as they join Besson for his wild ride across galaxies and planets, which always takes time to appreciate the incredible creatures and places Besson puts on screen along with the importance of mercy and forgiveness. No film this year unlocked the full potential of digital cinema more powerfully than this. (full review)

3. A Quiet Passion (Terence Davies) – An intimate portrait of the tortured soul of an artist, interspersed with several of her most famous works, Terence Davies’ unusual biopic covers the life of Emily Dickinson from her school days to her death, highlighting her tempestuous but compassionate relationships with her father, sister, brother, and other New England socialites. Cynthia Nixon’s performance as Emily is unquestionably my favorite of the year, and Jennifer Ehle’s turn as her younger sister is wonderful supporting work that enables Nixon to play Emily’s moods off Ehle’s quiet and sympathetic presence. Focusing on Emily’s growing agnosticism, insecurity, and sense of perfectionism, Nixon makes us empathize with a “difficult” character who struggles to fit into the world and uses her poetry as the primary means of communicating the longings of her soul.

2. Phantom Thread (Paul Thomas Anderson) – When high-end London dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) takes a foreign waitress named Alma (Vicky Krieps) into his home with the intention of remaking her into a suitable model for his flawless dresses, the Vertigo style tale of a neurotic man controlling and reworking a doting woman takes a delightfully sinister turn as two self-centered people attempt to prove their love for their obsessions in increasingly demented ways. Paul Thomas Anderson seamlessly – pun intended – weaves Jonny Greenwood’s lush continuous score into the film, creating a sort of fantasy world where Woodcock’s neuroses and desire dictate every action. When the continuous score gives way to traditional cues, that world is shaken, and the new one that replaces it beautifully shows the destructive selfishness which permeates the world of an artist who only lives for his desires.

1. Lady Bird (Greta Gerwig) – I’ve made no secret that Gerwig’s directorial debut is my favorite film of the year. But I have now watched Lady Bird four times, and besides always growing richer with each viewing, the one thing that is truly apparent is that it is first and foremost an act of love. Gerwig’s love for all her characters, for Sacramento, for New York, for mothers, for fathers, for theater, for first boyfriends, for Catholic school, for prom, and for best friends shines through in every scene, every line of dialogue, and every frame. As the headstrong, titular protagonist Saoirse Ronan is phenomenal as she chases her dreams and aspirations through her final year of high school, and the coming of age tale reflects an appreciation for all of life’s ups and downs, and the juxtaposition of successes and failures is a reminder of how life is often a funny and heartwarming combination of both. (full review)

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Seeing and Believing Podcast: Best Films of 2017

A big thank you to Wade Bearden and Kevin McLenithan for inviting me onto Seeing and Believing’s podcast to discuss my favorite film of 2017, while they counted down their top ten films.

https://christandpopculture.com/seeing-and-believing-137-the-top-ten-films-of-2017/

(I’m at the 49:14 mark). I’ll be posting my own top ten list in the next week.

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