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Tuesday, December 31, 2019

The Ten Best Movies I Saw in 2019

Here we go. The usual rules apply: these are what I consider to be the best films I saw for the first time in 2019, regardless of when they were released. Alphabetical by title:

The Farewell. Despite the strong reputation of all involved, and despite the plainness with which the filmmakers presented the China which actually exists today, I kept expecting, up until the final moments of the film, for some kind of sappy Hollywood reveal. (Nai Nai actually knows she has cancer, and she wants to prevent her kids from knowing that she knows about their effort to prevent her from knowing that she has cancer becomes she loves them so!) It never happened. The film ended and the bald facts of loss, and the deep strangeness--or is it that strange?--in how different families and cultures choose to deal with that universal fact are laid before the audience without apology. A film that is stark, and warm, and beautiful, all at the same time.

Hotel Mumbai. In some ways, this is a totally conventional "can our heroes escape this death-trap?" action film. But in so many otherwise it is not. The bad guys are not sugar-coated nor made relatable nor demeaned to in any way; these terrorists are young both devout and worried young men and hard-core killers, at the same time. Similarly, the people stuck in the hotel and simultaneously fearful, suspicious, defiant, and totally ordinary, with the result that brave actions are presented as the examples of bravery they are, without any guarantee of success (mostly, they fail). This partly--but only partly--fictionalized re-telling of one tiny part of the horror of the Mumbai attacks is manipulative in the most honest way: it shows, graphically, a terrible situation, and allows you to care about those who endured it, somehow.

If Beale Street Could Talk. This movie's story is a painful one, beautifully told. James Baldwin's novel is a tragedy, with the unjustly convicted Fonny forced to live his life behind bars, watching his son grow up without him. And yet, the feeling is quietly triumphant. Barry Jenkins's direction makes the racism at the heart of this love story ultimately kind of small and pathetic in the face of the grace, beauty, and fidelity that Tish and Fonny have between themselves. Yes, the legacy of racism (in the form of an emotionally ruined rape victim and vindictive, twisted cop) destroys their future...but it does not destroy them. The quiet, intense cinematography and soundscape of the movie takes a rough story and, without moderating the horror and injustice of it all, makes it glorious to behold.

The Irishman. Lots of buzz around this movie, obviously; possibly Scorsese's final film, and certainly the only time we're ever going to see De Niro, Pacino, and Pesci (and don't forget Keitel!) all in a movie together. Still, in watching it, I couldn't help but team it in my mind with another 3+ hour-long movie about gangsters I watched, and loved, this year (see below). Anyway, no, I didn't find the CGI to make these actors in their late 70s look 40 years younger entirely persuasive, and yes, the fact that Scorsese adapted without any narrative questioning what is almost certainly complete fiction bugs me a little. But the heck with that. This was an epic gangland tale, with all the beats and twists and sudden violence carried off with a subtlety and skill that only a team of greats could have managed. The 15 minutes or so during the tribute dinner, where Scorsese cuts between close-ups and framing shots, showing De Niro's, Pacino's, and Pesci's characters all starting at, confronting, and confessing to each other, putting the final act of the movie in motion, is as good a work of cinematic story-telling as Scorsese has ever filmed, I think.

Knives Out. I am so glad that we managed to avoid all reviews of and spoilers for this film until we saw it. Just great, delicious fun, with so many wonderful turns (Linda cooling smoking her cigarette, watching her hysterical husband chasing after the cops! Marta being frightened at Fran's apparently dead body, starting to flee, then performing CPR anyway! And Blanc plunking on the damn piano!) and so many clever narrative clues (the letters burned at the edges! the dogs barking at Ransom!) Like any contrived mystery story, there are holes in the story, covered up by coincidences--but honestly, the more we all as a family thought and talked about it, the tighter, and therefore more delightful, the story became. It's rare to be exposed to movie that's just a wicked joy to watch unfold; Knives Out did that for us, in spades.

Look & See. Definitely not everyone's sort of movie; think a Terrence Malick film (he was one of the movie's producers, for whatever that's worth), with even less narrative than usual, then inter-cutted with a very straightforward and only moderately engaging documentary about farmers pushing back against the corporate agriculture world. Am I putting this on my list solely because Wendell Berry is a hero of mine? Maybe. But the man's words are prophetic and haunting in themselves; putting them together with images of farmland wasted, mountaintops removed, and rural communities bankrupted and in despair makes them even more powerful. Berry is, more than anything else, a witness: a man's whose agrarian sensibilities, and whose lifetime of work, has opened his eyes to scenes that modern capitalism routinely disguises. To see the world though his eyes, while accompanied by his words, is a great accomplishment.

Once Upon a Time in America. I re-watched The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly this summer, which got me on a Sergio Leone kick, and I decided to check out this one, which I'd never seen before. Oh man, this movie was just so much. I loved its rich, pulpy, almost baroque characterizations of the inhabitants of old New York City, the immigrant Jews and crooked cops and ambitious city-builders to be. And it's such a hit parade of late 1970s Hollywood; besides De Niro and Woods, you have Tuesday Weld, William Forsyte, Danny Aiello, and more. While Scorsese used computer effects to try to make an old De Niro seem young, decades ago Leone used ordinary make-up to show a young De Niro growing old. It works better. The story actually gives the women in the gangsters' lives a significant role to play, which I didn't expect from Leone, and which puts this movie ahead of The Irishman in that regard. And actually, in more than that regard as well; there was fullness to this movie, an expansiveness and growth--like America!--which The Irishman (perhaps appropriately, given that the whole film is implicitly about aging and death) lacks. Given a choice between the two, I'll take this one--though preferably I'll have both.

Pather Panchali. I've told myself that I need to watch The Apu Trilogy, the famed story of Apu, a poor boy from Bengal, filmed by Satyajit Ray at the very beginnings of Indian cinema more than 60 years ago, for decades. Some years ago I determined to watch them, and I got around to seeing Pather Panchali, the first and most primitive--and also most haunting--of the movies, but then never completed the trilogy. This summer, though, I finally did watch all three--Pather Panchali, then Aparajito, the story of Apu as a teen-ager and student, and finally Apur Sansar, where Apu is a young man, husband, and father--and I loved them all. I perhaps related most to the final film--I could see myself in the conflict-fearing, ultimately unambitious Apu, and I suspect I would respond to the tragedies of that movie much in the same way he did--but it is Pather Panchali that stands above the rest in its brilliant, simplistic, even crude presentation. Rarely have I seen rural poverty dramatized so unsentimentally and effectively, despite the enormous cultural distant between Ray's sensibilities many decades ago and my own today. The moments of childhood wonder and grace in that film, and the desperate sadness of Apu's loss, made all the worse for the utterly undramatic way that loss is presented on the screen, are nothing less than masterful.

Rocketman. By contrast, I'm not going to pretend that this movie is a masterpiece; it's not. But dammit, it was great fun, filled with pretty consistently creative and engaging takes on all the usual biopic tropes--and, of course, great music. The filmmakers missed some pretty easy choices--what, no "Burn Down the Mission" or "I Feel Like a Bullet in the Gun of Robert Ford"?--and parts of the film were manipulative as heck, but oh well. He's Elton John, folks! Compared to the simultaneously show-boaty and inauthentic Bohemian Rhapsody, this movie knocked it out of the park.

Widows. Another non-masterpiece, but a clever, smart, and only occasionally ridiculous-coincidence-dependent heist film, and all that adds up to a fine film. I loved that the filmmakers didn't feel a need to come up with any contorted exposition heavy scenes to explain the presence of so much political argument, domestic drama, racial conflict, and more in this otherwise completely straightforward action flick. Instead, they just went ahead and put it in, and the cast (all of whom were excellent, from Viola Davis's star turn all the way to every supporting character, whether it be Daniel Kaluuya as the gangster whose teaching himself Italian or Lukas Haas as the amoral real estate developer who probably knows exactly what's going on and doesn't care) made it all sound entirely appropriate and informed and connected. My wife thought the final betrayal was a necessary part of the story, while I didn't, but either way, it's a solid two hours, well worth spending.

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