It’s that time again. I’m looking back at my favorite films of 2019, a year that wasn’t great, but wasn’t bad. Of course, I missed a lot of movies, as I always do. Would “The Lighthouse” have made it? “Harriet” might have. What about “The Farewell?” There are always those movies that slip through the cracks.
10: All is True – This look at William Shakespeare’s latter days is very human, very heartwarming, and features some great performances all around. Branagh rescued Shakespeare from the clutches of my high school English teachers, and he continues to make me love the Bard in new ways.
9: Aniara – Are you tired of feeling good about…anything at all? Based on a Swedish poem (the title is from the Greek meaning “sad or dispairing”), this Science Fiction film takes us on a journey into darkness. When a spaceship carrying colonists, with plenty of supplies, gets knocked off course and has no hope of finding its way back, the people on board have to cope with the knowledge that there will be no happy ending, no rescue, no hope. Gah.
8: Knives Out – Rian Johnson does Agatha Christie in this star-studded who-done-it. The cast seems to be having a ball and it’s a ton of fun to watch. Plenty of twists and turns before the truth is revealed. It was nice to see “Blade Runner 2049”’s Ana de Armas get a more meaty role. And Christopher Plummer is, as always, devilishly charming.
7: Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood – Quentin Tarantino’s Hollywood fairytale features two career high performances from its leads, tons of typically fun side characters, and a generally clever script. Tarantino holds off for a long time to hit you with his patented ultraviolence, so when it kicks in, it’s really nasty. The fantasy sequence with Bruce Lee that seemed to upset so many people (who didn’t seem to catch that it was a fantasy sequence) still cracks me up. And people’s obsession with Margot Robbie continues to confuse me. This would be a good one to watch with “Inglourious Basterds” for some revisionist Historic Fantasy.
6: The Man Who Killed Don Quixote – To say the least, Terry Gilliam is a controversial figure. It seems like he’s always been punching, always been lashing out, always been fighting. It hasn’t made him a ton of friends. And if I believed in luck or fate, I’d swear he’s got ‘bad’ versions of either. The story of the decades long quest to make “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” is probably more interesting and dramatic than the final film could have ever hoped to be, which I’m sure made the movie that now finally exists something of an anticlimactic letdown for many who’ve been waiting for it. I, however, enjoyed the movie thoroughly. Unlike many folks I know, I’ve enjoyed all of Gilliam’s films to one degree or another, even the oft hated “Tideland,” the essentially unseen “The Zero Theorem,” and the obviously-doing-this-for-a-paycheck “The Brothers Grimm.” This though, is a return to Gilliam of old. Maybe it’s because the film is rooted in a much younger Gilliam, it felt like a movie from the era of “Time Bandits” or “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.”
5: Booksmart – This is what it is, and it’s very good at it. A coming of age, nerds cut loose, teen comedy with the expected elements of drinking, drugs, sex, etc., it’s not new ground that’s being covered. However, it’s covered so well, with a good script, great lead actresses, and excellent direction, it more than makes up for the familiar territory. When I saw this I said that I thought it would be one of those special movies for a generation, the way “Fast Times at Ridgemont Times” was for kids in the 80s and “Dazed and Confused” was for kids in the 90s. With so much content coming out at such breakneck speed, who can say now if that’ll be the case, but I still feel that way about “Booksmart.”
4: Little Women – One of these days I’ll read this book. I’ve seen three film versions, and each one has gotten better. The 1933 version sucks. I’m a Katherine Hepburn fan and I can’t stand her in this film, nor do I like anything else about it. I’ve never seen the 1949 version. The 1994 film is quite good and I enjoyed it, but I don’t think it had a great deal of effect upon me. I saw it. I liked it. I never gave it another thought. Greta Gerwig’s adaptation felt like a warm hug. While not shying away from the fact that the past is a terrible place and life was hard, even for many people who ‘had it good,’ the movie celebrates love and family and goodness in such a wonderful way that it really warmed the lump of coal that rests where my heart should be. It’s a gorgeous movie, beautifully shot and really well acted. Of course, there will be those (likely who know nothing of the book’s author or her politics) who will complain about its liberal messages or whatever, but those people are going to complain about any movie that features women or actors who aren’t white speaking.
3: Us – Jordan Peele’s second picture is another beautiful and disturbing Outer Limits meets Twilight Zone type of Horror film, and it’s pretty great. Lupita Nyong’o dominates as the lead in an absolutely fantastic performance. The rest of the cast, including the kids, are all excellent supporting players. As much as I miss Peele the actor, Peele the director is making great films and I can’t wait to see what’s next.
2: Jojo Rabbit – Taika Waititi is one of the most interesting directors out there right now. From “What We Do in the Shadows” to “Hunt For the Wilderpeople” he keeps knocking it out of the park. Heck, he even made the jump over the blockbuster superhero film with “Thor Ragnarok” and didn’t miss a beat. With “Jojo Rabbit” he managed to play a dangerous game and come out on top. Making a comedy about Hitler and his cronies has always been a tightrope act. Making one about a Hitler-Youth kid in the final days of the Reich, whose imaginary friend is the mustached jackass himself?! AND making it heartwarming and heart wrenching at the same time, balancing the depraved horror of the Nazis with the wonder of youth…Frankly, it shouldn’t work anywhere near as well as it does. The fact that the whole thing hinges on the performance of an eleven year old kid? Waititi, you’re such a wonderfully mad bastard I’ll even be watching your “Suicide Squad” movie. That speaks volumes.
1: The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot – With a name like that, you probably aren’t expecting a meditation on identity, personal mythology, aging, and quiet heroics. Melancholic, poignant, and beautiful, this movie showcases Sam Elliot like few others.
Best Actress: Lupita Nyong’o for “Us”
Best Actor: Sam Elliot for “The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot
Best Supporting Actress: Tilda Swinton for “The Dead Don’t Die”
Best Supporting Actor: Christopher Plummer for “Knives Out”
Best Director: Greta Gerwig for “Little Women” (though honestly, this could be a four-way tie for #s 4-1 on this list)
Best Score: “Us” Michael Abels
Best Video Discovery:
The Mihmverse: This year, I found myself taking advantage of Amazon Prime’s streaming service. That was how I discovered the films of Christopher R. Mihm. He’s directed a movie a year since 2006 and shows no signs of stopping. What began as very tongue in cheek parodies of 1950s drive-in monster movies have evolved over the years to be more thoughtful and interesting homages. 2017’s “Demon with the Atomic Brain” is probably the best so far, with some really cool ideas that get weirder and weirder as the movie continues. The films are clearly shot on very small budgets (I don’t mean “Hollywood small” I mean a private citizen’s expendable cash small), often featuring family members and (I’m assuming) friends as opposed to trained actors. Sometimes sets are just rooms with curtains hanging up to cover the walls. This is real homemade stuff, the kind of movie I could make if I had the right camera and editing software. Yet, the love is there and it translates to the screen. You’ve probably got to be a big fan of the kinds of movies Mystery Science Theater 3000 lambasted to enjoy Mihm’s films, but if you’re that type of film buff, these movies should bring joy.
Bumblebee: What if this had been the first Transformers movie to come out? What if this was the model the sequels followed? If only. A fun Kid-Adventure movie with CGI used to enhance the story, not cover up the crap. “Bumblebee” has heart and logic, and all the things missing from the Michael Bay CGI explosion garbage of the previous films.
Best Movie-Like TV:
The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance was what I’ve been waiting for. This 10 part series is a wonderful expansion on the original film, capturing the strange wonder that has made 1982’s “The Dark Crystal” a favorite of mine since seeing it in the theater.
Best Short Film:
Zima Blue (dir. Robert Valley)
I’m trying to be less negative, but that said, bad movies should be called out. Trying to see the bright side of things, to look for the good, doesn’t mean one shouldn’t notice the crap. There’s been such a push-back on calling out bad movies over the last few years, I think some folks are letting things slide that shouldn’t. So, I’m not going to number these. I’m just going to discuss them briefly.
“Alita: Battle Angel” is sort of everything wrong with contemporary Action/Sci-Fi films. It’s like someone had a checklist of bad choices and worked very hard to mark each one off. It’s empty and soulless, feels like rehash of dozens of better films, looks like a bunch of CGI confetti, and never earns a single emotional beat that it’s clearly expecting the audience to buy into. Also, anime is creepy enough when it comes to sexualized & infantilized women, but turn the character into a truly disturbing CGI monstrosity and it’s next level creeper gross-out nonsense.
Night Shyamalan squandered so much good will that for a while his name wasn’t mentioned in trailers for his films. For some reason that escapes me, “Split” seems to have won a lot of people back and folks were really excited for “Glass,” his version of “The Avengers.” Bringing together the hero and villain of “Unbreakable” and the villain of “Split” was going to be Shyamalan’s final redemption. Alas, the movie sucks. It sucks hard. It sucks in the most Shyamalan of ways. The final ‘F-you for caring’ twist isn’t even the worst sin the film commits. Stop giving this man money to make movies. Stop it. There are good writers and directors out there who never get a second chance, who never get a chance at all, yet this man KEEPS MAKING CRAP. Stop it.
There were some other bad movies. Films that didn’t live up to their premise like “Brightburn,” or that had terrible ideas at their core, like “Serenity.” And heck, as much of a train-wreck as “Serenity” was…and it was…at least it started out as an interesting movie (dang, that ‘twist,’ though…so stupid). And I just don’t get the John Wick love. I don’t get it. They’re just the Underworld movies, but with hitmen instead of vampires and Keanu Reeves starring instead of Kate Beckinsale’s butt in tight pants. They’re just as silly-serious and the CGI blood is just as awful looking. I don’t get it. But that’s enough negativity.
A few movies that don’t make my list, but I want to mention: “Abominable” was a very, very strange animated kids movie that was …interesting. “Toy Story 4” is the third Toy Story movie I’ve thought “nobody’s asking for it, but it’s much better than it really has any right to be” about. “Dora and the Lost City of Gold” is much, much, much more fun than I expected and I’m bummed it didn’t get more notice. “Good Boys” wasn’t bad. “Happy Death Day 2U” was a sequel that shouldn’t exist, yet worked far more than I expected and was a lot of fun. And finally, “The Kid Who Would Be King” deserved more attention than it got.
20: The Missing Link
17: Dolemite is My Name
16: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
15: Godzilla: King of the Monsters
14: Apollo 11
11: I Am Mother
10: All is True
8: Knives Out
7: Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood
6: The Man Who Killed Don Quixote
5: Little Women
2: Jojo Rabbit
1: The Man Who Killed Hitler and then the Bigfoot