Wednesday, January 29, 2020

I Thought 2019 Was A Pretty Good Year For Movies

Joe Pesci in The Irishman

These Best of 2019 lists still count as long as they're posted before the end of January, right?

2019 was the first year in quite some time when I actually watched more new releases than I had in the previous year. Perhaps that explains why I thought this was an unusually strong year, at least for feature film. I think my top four were all sensational movies, each a serious candidate for my Top Films of the 2010s list. I think this Scorsese kid has a future.

I didn't see a 2019 documentary quite on par with either the great “Hale County” or “Shirkers” from 2018, but there were enough exciting and vital non-fiction films to force me to expand my top 10 to a top 16.

The Irishman (Scorsese)
A Hidden Life (Malick)
The Lighthouse (Eggers)
Ash is Purest White (Jia)
63 Up (Apted)
Honeyland (Kotevska and Stefanov)
Long Day's Journey Into Night (Bi)
The Souvenir (Hogg)
Image Book (Godard)
For Sama (Al-Kateab and Watts)
Black Mother (K. Allah)
Los Reyes (Osnovikoff and Perut)
The Disappearance Of My Mother (Barrese)
The Mountain (Alverson)
Tell Me Who I Am (Perkins)

I'm feeling generous today, so I'll keep the comments brief.

The Irishman: “It was like... Remember Moses? When he walked into the ocean, the sea, whatever the fuck it was? And it opened up!”

A Hidden Life: Malick has directed not only one of the most grueling and moving films about a martyr since “The Passion of Joan Of Arc” but also the perfect movie to show to your authoritarian friend who insists that no matter what you think of the man, you have to respect the office.

Ash Is Purest White: The amazing Zhao Tao gets stuck with a loser partner on screen; fortunately her partner behind the camera is still one of the best directors in the world.

Honeyland: Everything you ever imagined a documentary about a Macedonian beekeeper could be, and so much more.

Long Day's Journey Into Night: This year's great film with a really long take.

Image Book: Some movies are just meant to be watched at home and stopped every 30 seconds so you can try to Google the references.

For Sama: No glib one-liner for a movie this potent. Waad al-Kateab films herself surviving the ongoing siege of Aleppo, Syria. She somehow finds a way to live and grow under unspeakable conditions, starting as a teenage marketing student, then falling in love, raising a baby, and helping to save the lives of her neighbors. There are still heroes, even in a world that doesn't care much about them.

Black Mother: Photographer and filmmaker Khalik Allah delivers a meditation (and accusation) on the legacy of colonialism in Jamaica that also turns out to be a visionary tour-de-force that renders the political as intimately personal.

Los Reyes: A fascinating observational documentary about two stray dogs who live in a Chilean skate park, both of whom would have been more convincing in “Jojo Rabbit” than Scarlett Johansson.

The Disappearance Of My Mother: When mom tells you to leave her the hell alone, you should strongly consider her advice.

The Mountain: No, seriously, just leave mom alone.

The two worst 2019 releases I saw are, of course, two of the leading contenders for Best Picture, so I'm going to say something nice about each of them.

Joker (Phillips): “Joker” is plagued by a few minor flaws, chief among them a hackneyed story and script that makes every obvious decision at every point. But there's one moment that really sings. Arthur (the Joker-to-be played by Joaquin Phoenix) shares an elevator with his neighbor (Zazie Beetz) – to express her exasperation with her day, she mimes putting a gun to her head. In the hallway, the desperately awkward Arthur tries to connect with her by repeating the gesture. He overdoes it so badly, she instantly knows he's a man best avoided, a fact to which he is oblivious. It's a moving, human moment from one of our greatest actors. Everything that follows is bland and forgettable.

1917 (Mendes): Sam Mendes has now directed three films I consider to be the worst movies in their respective years of release. “1917” is almost certainly somewhat better than the other two.

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