It’s the end of the year, so let’s get right into it:
- Knives Out: When the patriarch of a wealthy family dies under suspicious circumstances, an investigation filled with zany characters as well as twists and turns ensue. More than just pure escapism though, this Clue inspired whodunit has a fun political undertone along with one the strongest and most original scripts of the year. With a star-studded cast, including Chris Evans, Toni Collette, LaKeith Stanfield, Christopher Plummer, Michael Shannon, Jamie Lee Curtis and Daniel Craig, I could say that Daniel Craig’s Southern accent is the standout, but honestly pick your poison. Everyone is great here. Every aspect of this film is highly entertaining. Writer/director Rain Johnson comes through with a stylized comedic murder mystery that should be up for an Oscar or two. And maybe this is the movie which proves to the neckbeards that “The Last Jedi” was pretty great. Or, maybe not…
- Jojo Rabbit: Beginning with a montage that compares the frenzy of Hitler’s fan base to Beatlemania, “Jojo Rabbit” shoots immediately into Mel Brooks territory with its “out of bounds” hilarious satire. But it also has that irresistible heart found in other comedies from writer/director Taika Waititi. Set in Germany during WWII, this comedy follows a young boy, Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) who is a part of Adolf Hitler’s army and has dreams of capturing a Jewish person for Hitler in order to become his best friend. But one day he is confronted with a dilemma, when he discovers that his mother (Scarlett Johansson) has been hiding a teenage Jewish girl in the walls of his home. Also, Jojo has an imaginary friend. It’s Hitler. And it’s played by Waititi himself. So, I get it. This synopsis sounds like it very well could be an unpleasant watch. A heartwarming comedy about a child Nazi? Yikes. At the very least the logistics of making a movie like this sounds insane; let alone getting us (the audience) to laugh, as well as root for its characters. But this is the magic trick performed by Waititi. And it is a great one. Because, by the end, “Jojo Rabbit” becomes this hilarious coming of age story for the whole family.
- Joker: “Joker” is an R-Rated stand-alone prequel of sorts about the man who would become the titular Batman villain. This version of the Joker story was not one that I was familiar with and thus I was happy with sitting through two hours plus of this mentally unstable character, as he watches the world burn. Even though plot-wise there isn’t really much more to it than that, there’s a lot here to appreciate. I think we all knew Joaquin Phoenix (The Master, You Were Never Really Here) was going to be an excellent Joker. I mean, the man is an eccentric character in street clothes. And he is spectacular in this. Not any better or worse than Heath Ledger’s 2008 performance as the Joker. Phoenix’s Joker is a whole other beast. From his dance inspired erratic contortions, to his body transformation, to that laugh, with this performance Phoenix reinvents the character so much so, that audiences will actually find themselves rooting for the Joker; unironically. Also, Todd Phillips, the director of the horrid “The Hangover” trilogy, has probably made the best movie he’ll ever make by nailing this fan fiction “Taxi Driver” homage.
- Under the Silver Lake: Every year there is one movie like this. A movie that is bizarre and profound, hated and loved in equal measure. A movie where after watching, you may feel as though there is so much more to uncover, while others will proclaim whoever enjoyed this movie to be unbearably pretentious. “Under the Silver Lake” was that movie in 2019 (with a release date having been delayed for months). From writer/director David Robert Mitchell, this begins as a fairly straight forward crime drama/neo-noir, following an unlikable young man (Andrew Garfield) who becomes infatuated with a woman (Riley Keough) whom he sees in his apartment complex; and then one day she disappears. But in very Lynchian style, there is much more (ugliness) when you dig beneath the plastic façade. And as we start to pull back the layers and the story becomes almost too convoluted to find “believable”, that is when the fanboy “cult classic” magic begins. This is a movie that can and should be dissected for some time after its viewing; even if all of the work that goes into post-viewing analysis may be altogether meaningless. This is the love child of “Mulholland Drive” and “Chinatown”, even though rumor has it “Southland Tales” may be the real father.
- Booksmart: This high school comedy about two super smart female friends having a “life crisis” the day before senior graduation, was said to be the “Superbad” of this generation, but I thought it was much better. It’s the funniest movie of the year, as well as the best “buddy comedy” I’ve seen in ages. And as great as the acting is (Beanie Feldstein is not only hilarious as one of the two leads, but also a sensational actor) I have to equate the fact that this movie reaches teen comedy perfection multiple times, to the direction of Olivia Wilde, who gives us one of the best directed movies of the year.
- The Irishman: The movie was nearly three and a half hours long, so I’ll keep this one short and sweet. Martin Scorsese directs a movie about a mobster (Robert De Niro) recounting the killing of Union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). For me, this was not only the finality of a trilogy that consists of “Goodfellas” and “Casino”, but it reads as a more complete thought; that means I thought it was better (de-aging aside). Fight me.
- Parasite: Sadly, the only foreign film to make my list (sorry, “Monos”) there could be a strong argument made that “Parasite” should be number one for everything it attempts and absolutely nails here. No lie. Watching “Parasite” is like watching a two-hour juggling act. Even though I was a huge fan of 2009’s “Mother”, here writer/director Bong Joon Ho makes his Hitchcockian masterpiece, telling the story (set in South Korea) of an unemployed family that begins to weasel their way into the lives of a disgustingly wealthy family. This movie not only hits on the solid story (stories) aspect you look for in a film (there are literally 3 or 4 different stories going on at once) it also layers in tons of dark comedy and some scathing political satire regarding not only North and South Korean relations, but of South Korean and the United States as well. Now that I’m thinking about it, this probably should be higher on my list…well, maybe next year.
- Midsommar: Writer/director Ari Aster was right. This really was Willy Wonka for perverts. This “horror” film tells the story of a young woman (Florence Pugh, who gives my favorite performance of the year by a female lead) who goes on a trip to Sweden with her boyfriend and his friends, in order to participate in a Coachella-like festival (just with more white people). What “Get Out” did for white people in the suburbs, “Midsommar” will do for white people internationally. It’s that effective. And it’s twisted in all of the right ways. That said, if you think of this as less of a standard horror flick (because it isn’t traditionally “scary”) and more of a relationship/breakup movie, then this two hour plus bright and beautiful looking nightmare will come full circle like an aggressively sadistic yet satisfying joke. Also, the final scene of “Midsommar” solidified Aster as my spirit animal, hitting another twisted homerun in this follow-up to last year’s “Hereditary”.
- Luce: My favorite protagonists are highly flawed. Speaking as a Black American, “Luce” is everything I want in a movie. Directed by Julius Onah and co-written by J.C. Lee, this slow-burn thriller tells the story of Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) an honor student, originally from war-torn Eritrea and adopted at age ten by white American parents (played by Naomi Watts and Tim Roth). One day a teacher (Octavia Spencer) becomes suspicious that Luce’s calm and affable exterior may be hiding something a bit more sinister. It’s quite fascinating to see all of the dynamics at play. From the white American parents who struggle with how much to trust their black child, to the black teacher whose ideology comes in direct conflict with Luce’s. And Luce, a character that struggles with his identity as an immigrant person of color, going to a predominately white school, where he is praised for his eloquence and ability to basically make the white people around him feel good about themselves, is a revelation of a character. The beauty of a film like this is that ten different people could watch it and come out with ten differing takeaways. To me this isn’t a story about a sociopath or a star student, but rather a commentary on being black in America; how as a permanent immigrant (based on skin color alone) there is a dichotomy within the community and individual, which causes a schism in mentality and social norms. What does it mean to be a Black American? Is it Obama? Is it a rapper on BET? Is it a Mammy? Is it even an American? Or is it all of these things and none of them at the same time? “Luce” asks all of these questions, while making the bold statement that the Black American is culturally schizophrenic and as James Baldwin once said, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.” To me, “Luce” is an example of how one perfectly tells the story of what it’s like to be black in America.
- Marriage Story: Noah Baumbach writes and directs the most perfect film of the year. “A Marriage Story” contains the best script, the best direction, the best editing, the best all-around performances and honestly, made me cry multiple times. If you haven’t seen this Netflix film yet, I’d describe it as a more expansive version of “Kramer vs. Kramer”. We see a couple (Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson) who once loved one another, go through a divorce. And then we are made to witness them figuratively cut each other up for a couple of hours. I’ve never been through a divorce myself, but this looked pretty accurate to me; and more vicious and with more bloodshed than most war films. Also, I know what you’re saying, and trust me, a movie that contains not one person of color is not a conventional pick for me; but here we are. What I will say, in my defense, is that this is a movie that punched me in the stomach and when I was on the ground, proceeded to start kicking. Yeah, that sounds like more my type of movie.
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