It begins with the usual disclaimer: This list, like all of my film lists, is a work in progress.

Of course it is. The temptation to pronounce judgments on works of art is great, more than ever in this culture of “rating” things with “Like” or “Dislike,” “Fresh Tomato” or “Rotten Tomato.”

But works of art are like city parks: They invite you to explore them, and your first experience is just the beginning. Your experience there has as much to do with your own choices and preferences as it has to do with the design of the part. Weather plays a role too, as do the other people who happen to be at the park that day. Go back again on a different day, in a different mood, and your experience will be different. Does that mean that it’s a waste of time to bother with questions related to the park’s design and the excellence or shoddiness of its condition? Of course not. but it’s ridiculous to pronounce judgment on any work of art; it’s better to share impressions, keeping an open mind so that we can be surprised and have that distinctively human experience of changing our minds.

[UPDATE: Right now, you’re reading Part One: Intro and Honorable Mentions. Part Two has now been published. Check out the Top 21 when you’re finished here.]

I’ll probably expand this list in January and February as I catch up with the films that got away. For example, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is one of the year’s most highly praised feature films, and it still hasn’t reached Seattle. Others, like American Factory and Missing Linkare films that just haven’t yet risen to the top of my priority list during this mad end-of-the-year scramble to see all of the 2019 titles, popular and obscure, that have intrigued me. But I’m sure that my appreciation of films I’ve already seen will change too as time passes. I recently updated my lists from the 1980s!

I watched more than 150 movies this year. I’ve written about many and enjoyed spirited arguments about those and many others. So, to mark this occasion of transition, as our attention focuses on a new year, I guess it’s time to get this party started.


Honorable Mentions

Ask me about my Top 20 of 2019, and I’ll name the movies that have been most meaningful for me: films I will continue to discuss, reflect on, write about, and revisit for the imagination and insight they offer.

The important thing to know about this Honorable Mentions list is this: I found enough to admire and enjoy in all of these that I will happily go back to them a second or third time. The beauty, the challenge, the questions they inspire, the levity of their humor of the gravity of their meditations… these things have given me a strong sense that my appreciation for them will grow when I return to them. I can make strong arguments for why I’ve been confident about my choice for #1 Movie of the Year for many months. But what about the movies farther down the list? The arguments become shakier, the choices more debatable. This process of ranking movies always reveals just how subjective and even ridiculous it is. Any of the films on this “runners-up” list could easily have landed in the #15-#20 range.

And that is evidence enough that 2019 was a richly rewarding year at the movies!

These films are listed in no particular order at all.


Two Films About Friendships Emerging
from Crises of Faith

Light From Light

written and directed by Paul Harrill

Full disclosure: Since the release of his fantastic first film — Something, Anything — filmmaker Paul Harrill has become a friend. I continue to be inspired by his first film, Something, Anything, and I continue to learn from my conversations with Paul. So I’ve been looking forward to this as much as any other 2019 film.

And it was a rewarding experience indeed. It’s easily my favorite ghost story of the year, one that is haunting in a variety of ways. This movie inspired a full essay on the tremendous questions it’s raising. I posted it here at Looking Closer.

The Two Popes

directed by Fernando Meirelles, written by Anthony McCarten

To learn about just how wildly this film misrepresents both Pope Francis and Pope Benedict XVI, read Steven D. Greydanus’s fascinating review here.

I accept everything Deacon Greydanus says — he’s a reliable and authoritative source. So I have to regard this film as a preposterous work of fiction.

Having said that, historical fiction — even the most fantastical and unreliable examples — can still speak “Capital-T” Truth in powerful ways. These two characters, so beautifully and compellingly portrayed by Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce, are mesmerizing, affecting, funny, and persuasively human. What’s more, the script brings to life vital and ongoing debates happening with many branches of the Church around the world.

I was entertained, challenged, and surprisingly moved. And I’ve already been a part of several thought-provoking conversations that it has sparked.

 


Two Documentaries About
Rock-and-Roll Artists Wrestling With Faith

Parallel Love: The Story of a Band Called Luxury

directed by Matt Hinton

Full disclosure (I’m posting this disclaimer a lot this year!): I’ve corresponded with filmmaker Matt Hinton occasionally over the last decade. But I went into this screening knowing almost nothing about this film or the band in the spotlight. When the screening was over, I was grateful for a chance to meet Matt in person for the first time. We talked for hours about the questions this movie raises. It was one of my favorite movie-going experiences of the year.

So, about the film itself: If you pitched a fictional narrative that followed this story arc, it would seem too implausible. I supposed you could call this description “spoiler-filled,” but all of these points are clear in the early buzz about the film and in its promotion. This isn’t a movie about shocking audiences with unbelievable twists.

Parallel Love tracks the following story: A punk band forms in the midst of small conservative Christian college community, made up of guys…

  • who have no interest in “Christian music”;
  • who want to follow in the footsteps of The Smiths or Depeche Mode; and
  • whose sound is ferocious and groundbreaking, and whose live shows have rock authorities hailing them as the best live show they’d ever seen.

Their subversive and challenging lyrics, the “gender fluidity” of their lead singer’s stage presence, the reckless energy (that’s an understatement) of their live shows… Luxury have so many characteristics of legendary punk rock bands.

But then, they sign a questionable record deal. And then… they suffer an unbelievable highway accident that nearly kills them all. And then… and then… and then…. The story gets weirder, sadder, stranger. Eventually, a bunch of them become Orthodox priests.

But the band keeps going. Luxury gets even better.

It’s an amazing story. And Matt Hinton, who made an extraordinary documentary about the tradition of sacred harp music called Awake My Soul a decade ago, has crafted a loving, challenging, complicated celebration of this band’s resilience, imagination, and talent.

This is one of those documentaries in which the story needs to be told via many “talking-head” interviews; it’s too much story to accommodate anything more abstract or poetic. The story and the people are the thing, here, and Hinton is wise to go that route. The goal of the movie is not to advertise and make you a fan, as the story makes it clear that this narrative is not going in the direction of myth-making or world-conquering. The heart of this movie is full of questions and conflicts, and you will be talking about it after you watch it, as I did with friends for hours.

And yet, I’m wondering: As a rock-loving young adult in the late ’90s, how did I miss this band? I feel like I missed out on music that would have been inspirational, exhilarating, and ultimately formative.

Long live Luxury.

One complaint I have about this film: I wish I could have watched the band perform whole songs here. In fact, the film would’ve been stronger if we could have spent a little less time hearing about the performances and actually experiencing them.

Strange Negotiations

directed by Brandon Vedder

Similarly, Strange Negotiations is about an artist about whom it is almost impossible to think or converse without talking about the toxins polluting evangelical Christianity in America.

In this film, director Brandon Vedder follows David Bazan, the singer who once fronted Pedro the Lion (and who, since the release of this film, has released another album with them), as he drives around America performing shows in fans’ living rooms and engaging in emotional Q&A sessions about his music, his family, and his faith. Inevitably, he ends up talking about the abominable marriage of evangelical leaders and Antichrist Candidate Donald Trump — the movie was made in the days leading up to the 2016 election.

I suspect it might lead his Christian fans and friends to reflect on how the Holy Spirit often speaks most powerfully through the music of those who have walked away, disillusioned, from the church and, sometimes, from Christian faith altogether. I was delighted to see my dear friend David Dark onscreen in heavy conversation with Bazan.

Now, don’t get me wrong — this story is very, very different from the one told in Parallel Love. But what a double feature they would make. I’m inspired and moved by both stories. And — I think Bazan would be okay with me saying this — I see evidence of the Holy Spirit at work in the choices and artistry of all of these artists.

Full disclosure (again): While I wouldn’t call Bazan a “close friend,” it’s true that he lives a few minutes from me and we’ve had quite a few conversations in local coffeehouses. But those didn’t occur until I had become a fan of his band Pedro the Lion; I already owned several of his albums, and had trouble containing my enthusiasm when I first bumped into him at a local cafe. We would have several conversations in years to come in that space of gourmet espresso drinks and exquisite French pastries. (The day he greeted me with an enormous grin and announced No Country for Old Men to be his new favorite film is an occasion I’ll never forget.)

As a documentarian, Vedder gives this film wonderfully poetic flourishes — he finds them conveniently in footage of Bazan’s freeway voyages from city to city, making vertical lines of traffic into images of Protestant proposals about heaven and hell, and then slanting those lines so we can sense one mans understanding of faith tilting off its axis. It’s simple, powerful, and memorable.

And, again, I wanted more music, more full songs, more of that live-music magic that I’ve experienced at Bazan’s shows.


Two Films About Art-of-the-Deal Makers and the NBA

High Flying Bird

directed by Steven Soderbergh, written by Tarell Alvin McCraney

It’s a movie about people talking on phones — filmed on a phone.

But what smart and sobering talk.

Steven Soderbergh continues his “comeback” (was he ever really gone?) with this story of sports agent Ray Burke (Andre Holland) who threatens longstanding NBA establishment policies and procedures by persuading a young rookie, Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg), to consider a groundbreaking and controversial new basketball endeavor during an NBA lockout. The clock is ticking, the pressures are high, and the stakes of their gamble are hard to measure due to the audacity of the idea. We’re challenged to wonder if professional athletes, or professionals of all kinds, aren’t increasingly drawn to careers that maximize their individual brands and turn them into isolated corporate entities rather than support the longstanding institutions that focus on teams, communities, and loyalty.

I may wish that the movie felt less like a script reading and demonstrated a stronger interest in imagery, but what Soderbergh achieves by filming this whole movie on an iPhone 8 is impressive, and 90 minutes rushes by like 45. For a movie that lacks of the genre pizzazz of Soderbergh’s Ocean’s series, this one still sparks with the same energy. As we find our bearings in this strange and complicated business, our adrenaline gets charged up by watching masterful magicians play tricks on each other in the rush for a big score.

And, like Uncut Gems, it’s all about behind-the-scenes politics in the NBA. It seems like such an unlikely subject to be the focus of two worthwhile films, but both of them offer complicated portraits of the ways in which what we see on the screen in the news, in sports, in entertainment, and in politics represents very little of what is actually going on.

Don’t miss this review from Brian Tallerico at RogerEbert.com.

And then, if you want to take it to another level, read Michael Sicinski’s powerfully observant take at Letterboxd.

Uncut Gems

directed by Josh Safdie and Benny Safdie, and written by the Safdies and Ronald Bronstein

As impressive in its execution as it is abrasive and discomforting to endure, Uncut Gems is a maddening motion picture — a jarring mix of strengths and distractions. For all of the technical excellence here, I feel a lot like I felt after watching The Revenant: This was a lot of stress to suffer just to arrive at some kind of statement about the glory of mere survival — or, worse, to witness the corrosiveness of #Winning.

Nevertheless, while I much prefer watching Adam Sandler’s Punch-drunk performance as Barry, the blue-suited salesman wound tight to the point of bursting, I must admit that the Safdies get a more ferociously impressive performance out of him here, one that deserves something more like an Olympic medal than an Oscar. The sustained intensity, the inexplicable compulsiveness to gamble, the ability to improvise while surrounded by threats — watching Sandler play Howard is like watching a masterful video-game player steer a spaceship through an asteroid field not by dodging the rocks but by pin-balling off of them until he finds a way out… or doesn’t… for the thrill of the game.

Kudos to the Safdies for bringing back some favorite faces I haven’t seen in ages. Eric Bogosian makes a strong impression here, offering a gallery of expressions that must immediately be turned into memes: his terrifying gangster fury, his sullen resentment, and ultimately his sheer incomprehension at Howard’s wheeling and dealing. Bonus points for bringing Judd Hirsch out of hiding in a strong supporting role.

The incorporation of Kevin Garnett as himself — he’s fantastic — and the clever integration of the story with the Celtics/Sixers playoff games are impressive. And the underworld of grifting, pawning, betting, and assessing is entirely immersive and convincing. But the Safdies’ incorporation of other celebrities, though — they makers of Good Time are seriously making a meta-joke about the cast of Good Times?! — becomes downright show-offy.

When it comes to distractions, though, I feel this movie bears too much resemblance to the Safdies’ last movie Good Time in its methods, pacing, and aesthetic trickery (right down to another nerve-wracking black-light sequence). And even more distracting is how the Safdies riff repeatedly and inexplicably on PTA’s Punch-drunk Love — in the controlled chaos of Sandler’s office environment, in the startling return of his bright blue suit, and in another occasion of having him cower (in a closet instead of a corner) for a sort of phone sex. I found these echoes weird enough to be distracting.

Having said all of that, I’ve rarely felt a whole audience get so tied up in knots by one character’s self-made predicament. And the magic of Sandler is that he somehow manages to make me care about him throughout. Contrary to what I’ve heard some other critics say, I don’t want him to triumph — not at all. He’s wrecking lives and hearts everywhere he turns in his frenzy of what seems like a kind of demonic possession: an obsession with fleeting and frivolous ecstasies based on temporal flashes of happiness rather than lasting investments in joy. I want him instead to wake up, to find redemption. His disordered loves make him an avatar of cultural ideals: the Most Resilient Salesman, the Most Resilient Politician.

But the movie seems to suggest that there’s something cosmic and beautiful at the heart of Howard’s insatiable appetite for gambling — in sales, in sports, in love, and in lust. But trying to find transcendence in Howard’s commitment to scoring feels a lot to me like trying to find “beauty” in Lester Burnham’s bloodied corpse at the end of American Beauty. I look into Howard’s zigzagging gaze and I see a madness I never see in Punch-drunk‘s Barry. Barry’s heart was in hiding, but he was ready to welcome Love even if he didn’t know its name. Barry was a candidate for redemption. Howard, by contrast, just wants to score; he’s too busy masturbating over his delusional ambitions to sense how lost he is. I want more for him, but the movie doesn’t seem to want more for him — the movie seems convinced that this self-destructive path is just so much more exciting than anything that might steer him in the direction of health and wholeness.


Two Films About Outer Space Voyages:
One a Riff on Apocalypse Now,
One a Meditation on How We Toxify Sex

(One I found frustrating as I watched, but I  came to admire a great deal about it later;
one I loved as I watched it, but became frustrated the more I thought about it.)

High Life

directed by Claire Denis, written by Claire Denis and Jean-Paul Fargeau

Robert Pattinson gives one of his two (or more?) outstanding 2019 performances in this film, one of the strangest and most unnerving science fiction films since David Cronenberg’s eXistenz.

And yet, I haven’t been as unmoved — and as surprised to be unmoved — by a high-profile sci-fi film, during a first viewing, since Under the Skin.

It’s directed by Claire Denis, who has made so many films that have become more and more meaningfully in the years after I first experienced them — so, of course, I can’t stop thinking about it. I’m only occasionally able to tune in to her signal enough to make something of my time with her imagination while I’m watching it. But my first impressions were a quick, off-the-cuff description. I have a lot of thinking still to do, and a lot of reading that I’ve done has increased my appreciation of the film.

Consider, for example, Darren Hughes’ deep dive into Denis work at Mubi.com. Or Adam Nayman’s impressions and interview at Cinema Scope. Or the Seattle Scene conversation about it. But, then, there’s Michael Sicinski at Letterboxd.

The relentless echoes of Tarkovsky, whether deliberate or not, intrigue me, as do the nods to Lynch (there are several shots here so Lynchian that they could’ve been lifted from Twin Peaks: The Return) and the fairy tale references.

I suspect that I could grow to love it if I can just find a path.

Maybe Filmspotting’s Josh Larsen can help me.

Caution: Yes, this movie stars Juliette Binoche, so it’s probably worth seeing. But she plays a sort of mad-scientist/witch-doctor who is obsessed with distortions of sex in a drive to create a sort of “perfect human.” So brace yourself for some deeply disturbing depictions of, um, sexual experimentation… for lack of a better word.

Ad Astra

directed by James Gray, written James Gray and Ethan Gross

While I watched Ad Astra, I was enthralled. I loved it. And I’d expected to love it, since I loved the last several James Gray films.

But after I left the theater, the voice-over narration started bugging me. Too obvious. Too unnecessary.

Then, the narrative started bothering me. It seemed too implausible, too contrived.

And its last 30 minutes came to seem absolutely preposterous — a finale the physics of which I wouldn’t have accepted in WALL-E or any other children’s animated feature. Finally, I ended up struggling with just how much the film assumes that we will excuse its protagonist’s violence to advance his quest.

Still, I cannot deny the power of its imagery, its performances, and its glorious special effects. I need to see it again, following a hunch that I might have misunderstood it altogether. Perhaps what now seem like bone-headed decisions are actually deliberate and meaningful, and I just need a chance to discover that. Or, perhaps I was duped by images that reminded me of the greatest outer-space voyages I’ve ever experienced, and that temporarily blinded me to the film’s big problems.

Whatever the case, my compliments to Brad Pitt for making me believe in the character and the quest through a performance that I think is his best since The Tree of Life.

I feel evenly split between the views of the two hosts of Filmspotting, who argued heatedly and impressively about this film here.


Two Documentaries About Detail-Oriented Attention
and Achieving the Unthinkable

Apollo 11

directed by Todd Douglas Miller

I’m ready for a moratorium on films about astronauts.

Don’t get me wrong: As an elevating big-screen experience, this is second in 2019 only to my #1 of the year. And it’s so much more compelling because it’s not treating space merely as a backdrop for a personal drama: “He went to the moon because he didn’t know where to put his grief for a lost child.” “He went to outer space to discover that his dad was human after all.” This is a hope-inspiring experience precisely because it doesn’t make it all about the astronauts. It makes it about an extraordinary community effort of cooperation and precision.

If so many people could work together to achieve something so unlikely, then think about what could be achieved — regarding poverty, or gun violence, or inequality, or terrorism — if that kind of energy were harnessed to make a difference for the good of humankind. Imagine, for example, if an American government could work this way. Or a school. Or a church. Or a neighborhood. We need a shared goal and a shared motivation.

I remain skeptical and unsettled by the moon mission. Is it an awe-inspiring show of power? Yes. But power to what end? I mean, sure… we showed Russia. But is Russia worrying about that now? Why does it seem well-nigh impossible to apply ourselves to achieve something that alleviates suffering… For All (hu)Mankind?

Maiden

written and directed by Alex Holmes

Storytelling and cinema are two different things.

Some stories are guaranteed crowd-pleasers if you tell them well. And once in a while, one of those is really worth telling. This is one of those.

To tell this story in a manner worthy of the big screen, though, you need a treasure trove of footage of the actual events — not clever recreations, not sequences dramatized with animation, not a Peter Jackson “Wait until you see it in 3D” gimmick. And it needs to be footage that works on a large canvas.

Maiden has what it needs. It follows a familiar and predictable format: talking heads, sailors reminiscing about a singular against-all-odds experience, sewing together rough late-80s/early-90s footage with emotional testimonies and occasional interruptions as emotions surge like tidal waves and overwhelm vocabularies and eloquence. I’m reminded of Man on Wire, for example.

But Man on Wire was a helluva movie because, well… if you heard the story, you wouldn’t believe your ears, but seeing the footage and witnessing the complex emotions and rationalizations in the interviews elevated the cinematic experience into both an intimate encounter with extraordinary human beings and a sequence of metaphors that could inspire anybody to walk their own high wires, recover the courage to complete what they have begun, believe that the seemingly impossible is possible.

Maiden works like that.

Cinema is, after all, like an art achieved with a graphic equalizer: For some films, it’s right to turn up the Story and make it the focus. For some, it’s right to lean into the poetry of the dialogue. Some films would be much lesser things without their transcendent Musical Scores. So much depends on the vision and what will serve it best.

I’m of the opinion that Great Cinema will always be great achievements in Imagery. You can take all the rest of these elements away and still have a motion picture, but cinema is, at its most fundamental form, the provocative juxtaposition of images. In that sense, Maiden is not Great Cinema. It is a fantastic experience of storytelling made of a remarkable amount of strong historic footage as an unlikely boat, full of unlikely sailors, crashes through one big wave after another — not the least of which were the waves of criticism, doubt, disrespect, and mockery.

In these days when the world leaders are, in their arrogance and ignorance, still relying on abuse and derision in order to sustain the illusion that men are superior beings, Maiden is not only an exhilarating true story. It’s medicine for the soul, and reason to have some hope for meaningful victories in the future.


Thrilling Caper Movies About Admirable
Family-Focused Heroes Who Push Back
Against the Destructive Ignorance of the Rich

Parasite

directed by Bong Joon-Ho, written by Bong Joon-Ho and Han Jin-Wan

The most significant takeaway from Parasite for me is the unsettling sense that the cinematic prophecies about violent uprisings of the Poor against the Wealthy and Prejudiced are accumulating at an alarming rate — to the point that I feel I will live to see apocalyptic clashes and revolutions at a scale I haven’t seen before.

But that’s not what I’m here to write about. If I’m to write much about Parasite, I’m going to have to spoil things, because I feel that much of what this film is about was done better by another movie released earlier this year. (I won’t say which, or I’d be risking a revelation of the film’s Big Twist — which was clever.) And as stories of of families of co-conspirators who scheme their way through poverty go, I was moved much more by Hirokazu Koreeda’s Shoplifters last year.

Parasite has undeniable charms, no doubt about it. It has a certain Raising Arizona zaniness to it, as its sympathetic con artists improvise their way toward a livable income. I can see audiences enjoying it for its comedy of errors — until it isn’t one anymore. The performances are pitched high, as they are in all Bong movies. And there are some clever twists. But the contrivances and coincidences pile up fast, spoiling my suspension of disbelief quickly. I couldn’t take seriously the last 30 minutes, which often wants to be taken seriously — at least insofar as this is a film about Important Social Issues and the contempt that the rich have for the poor.

If I hadn’t gone in ready for a Palme d’Or winner, I might have given this another half-a-star. I need to be generous with Korean dramas because I am just not, in most cases, on their frequency — the mix of high-pitched comedy and high-pitched drama rarely makes much sense to me. I admire the performances here, and Bong directs with such supreme confidence that what’s happening is always interesting. There are a lot of beautifully composed images, and he does wonders with the architecture and layout of the house in which the cons are carried out. But the intertwining character arcs all fit together like a Rube Goldberg device in a convenient, mechanized way that emphasizes contrivance instead of suspending disbelief. And that closing chapter takes the implausibility to another level.

If this sounds like a negative review, it isn’t: I highly recommend the film for the fun of the games it’s playing. But when a film is embraced and exalted almost unanimously by the critics I admire and respect, I end up writing to understand why I was not similarly impressed. So, sure, go see it! But don’t let the tidal wave of raves set your expectations too high.

Woman at War

directed by Benedikt Erlingsson, written by Benedikt Erlingsson and Ólafur Egill Egilsson

The night before I saw Woman at War, I was watching Terry Gilliam’s Don Quixote charging at windmills. Then, at this film, I watched Halla charging at electricity pylons. What a satisfying weekend double-feature.

I don’t much mind a preachy crowdpleaser if it’s this clever, when it’s led by an actress who is this strong in a complicated role, and when it’s this generous with moments of tenderness and humor. Director Benedikt Erlingsson takes some big risks here, both in narrative twists and in tonal dissonance, and those gambles pay off. If this movie took itself any more seriously than it does, if it had an actress any less versatile than Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir, it wouldn’t work.

And yet, while it’s constantly admitting that it’s something of a farce — I’ll let you discover the running gags — it’s easy to see that the seemingly unstoppable enemies of world-destroying industry are not at all exaggerated.

Ultimately, Woman at War is a sobering film that achieves only glimpses of grace. While the heroine is spirited, this movie isn’t likely to give anyone hope that we can save the world through our protests. It can only inspire us to show each other what love and grace we can in the midst of oppression. And I think that, for some of us, it will do just that.


Two Films About Surviving
and Thriving in High School

Booksmart

directed by Olivia Wilde, written by Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel, Katie Silberman

My high school experience couldn’t have been more different than the one captured here… but then, mine was so unusual that I don’t expect I’ll ever see anything like it in a film. (The only moments in high-school comedies that have ever reminded me of my own high school have come during Napoleon DynamiteSing Street, and some of the more generous sequences in Saved!.)

Still, I don’t dislike the genre: I was a huge Better Off Dead fan in the ’80s; I saw Heathers enough times in 1989 to be able to quote the dialogue as it played; I became an Emma Stone fan when Easy A arrived; Sing Street strikes me as nearly perfect; and Edge of Seventeen — while more of a drama than a comedy — is just outstanding.

Nevertheless, I’ve felt somewhat alienated by most high school comedies, especially those that suggest that high schoolers are 90% preoccupied with sex. I loved high school. I enjoyed the company of almost everybody in my (very small) class (of about 60). And when I graduated, I didn’t want to say goodbye to anybody. And what I remember is that my close friends and I were aware of that sex-obsessed-teen stereotype and made fun of it; we were just as interested (if not more so) in movies, music, and sports. And if were obsessed with anything it was a particular variety of comedy-one-upsmanship.

And yet, if the audience reaction today is any indication, this is obviously familiar ground for most, and my high school experience qualifies me as a visitor from another planet. So I guess that I’m grateful that, for all of these characters’ preoccupations with getting laid as if it’s the Meaning of Life, this movie plays with such heart, such an inclination toward empathy, and such a determination to liberate each and every teen character from the constraints of typical categories and stereotypes. This, like Napoleon Dynamite is a movie full of individuals, of human beings, not types.

And while the movie prioritizes delivering a kind of sexual “graduation” for its characters so highly that I found myself getting impatient, I’m glad that it ultimately ends up caring most about its central friendship — much the way that Lady Bird (which I find much more rewarding than this) ends up caring most about its central mother/daughter bond.

Miscellaneous notes:

– The much-hyped animated sequence — meh. It didn’t strike me as particularly inspired or funny, and it went on too long.

– The pop soundtrack: One of the smartest, most carefully curated soundtracks of the genre.

– The cinematography: Surprising, much stronger than is typical of comedies — any comedies.

– The pool party scene? Lovely, but not nearly as memorable as the one in Eighth Grade.

– The performances? Strong throughout. I expect we’ve just seen breakout turns by a bunch of young talents who will become bigger and bigger stars for the next decade.

Luce

directed by Olivia Wilde, written by Anthony McCarten

I saw this in an almost-empty theater — well, it was empty if you disregard the three people in front of me who were scrolling through Instagram (THIS IS HAPPENING FAR TOO OFTEN) — and it’s one of the most provocative, unpredictable, and “talk-aboutable” films I’ve seen all year. A couple of turns in the last 30 minutes strained my suspension of disbelief, but it’s braver and more complicated than the recent hit that wrestles with some of the same questions: Get Out

Moviegoers are missing out.

The cast are all strong. I wonder what’s missing here that might have made it catch on. If Nicole Kidnman and Michael Shannon had been cast instead of Tim Roth and Naomi Watts, would that have worked? Are we experiencing Octavia Spencer fatigue?

Whatever the case, I’m so glad I saw it.

 


Two Haunting Revelations
of Real-World Tyranny, Toxic Propaganda,
and Resilient Courage

Dark Waters

directed by Todd Haynes, written by Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan

Stories like this one feel formulaic because they are true and they happen all the time. You can tell a familiar story poorly, and you can tell a familiar story well. Dark Waters is a David vs. Goliath story like countless others, but it’s also a Todd Haynes movie — so that means it is crafted with enough subtlety, complexity, and grace to rise above most movies of this sort. It doesn’t go for easy crowd-pleasing; it lets situations remain truthfully messy; and it never sets up a big “We got ’em moment.” It’s more The Insider than Erin Brockovich or Spotlight. And it honors a man who clearly deserves to be lifted up as a great American — or, better, a great human being.

Mark Ruffalo was good in Spotlight, but his big moment in that may has well have played with a “For Your Consideration” tag during the movie. He’s much, much better here. Sure, he gets to state the obvious and moralize, but in this film I found those moments constantly convincing in their contexts. I think this may be Ruffalo’s best work since You Can Count On Me, the movie that started all of those Brando comparisons.

And it’s a shame that I saw this movie tonight in an otherwise empty theatre tonight. It’s no Jumanji: The Next Level, I guess.

We like Mister Rogers talking about neighborliness. But this is what love requires of the good neighbors that Rogers sought to inspire.

The movie doesn’t need to spell out that we’re watching the President, the Trumpublican Senators, and all who have sold their souls for power carry out even greater crimes against ordinary Americans with the same kinds of lies, false promises, and conspiracies to increase their wealth at the expense of our health and security. I emerged from the theater feeling compelled to pray for the brave individuals who are taking on those Goliaths right now, shouldering seemingly unbearable burdens, taking risks with their lives, in order to someday hold criminals accountable. I am praying that we get to hear their stories soon, hear songs sung about them, and see movies made about them. And I hope that this film will find a much, much larger audience so that it will increase Americans’ desire to seek out and know the truth, and then to rededicate themselves to honesty, integrity, and service.

These movies about truth-tellers and Davids versus Goliaths rarely work. The Insider worked. And this works. God bless Todd Haynes and Mark Ruffalo.

Go see it. Before it’s gone.

One Child Nation

directed by Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang

Somewhere right now, some church organization is pouring money into an amateur filmmaking endeavor, trying to make a feature film that will inspire audiences to “vote Pro-Life.”

If there really was such a thing as a genuine Pro-Life movement — one that cares not only about making pregnant Americans think twice about rushing into abortion, but that wants us to care about cherishing and supporting human life from conception all the way through to care for the aging — then we would see that movement celebrating and promoting this film.

One Child Nation doesn’t have anything particularly groundbreaking to offer in its artistry. Formally, it’s a pretty straightforward documentary made of interviews and historical footage. Nanfu Wang’s narration goes a long way to helping audiences understand a global crisis not as an abstract but as a personal and relevant challenge. It’s compelling and, well… insert a bunch of words that have been overused in describing documentaries about injustice and cruelty. Devastating. Heartbreaking. Harrowing. It’s all of the above, but it trusts viewers to understand the gravity of the situation — it doesn’t punish us with horrors.

Perhaps its most distinctive characteristic is the grace demonstrated in its interviews: As Wang interviews older Chinese men and women who “had no choice” but to follow their government’s one-child policy, she never strikes a judgmental tone. She listens with sensitivity and compassion, and draws out stirring and sometimes shocking testimonies.

It might be easy for American viewers to watch this, at first, as if watching testimonies of human rights abuses on the other side of the world. But Wang brings things all the way back and reveals a surprising level of American complicity in global human rights abuses, highlighting how many Americans don’t know — and, worse, don’t want to know — the dark secrets behind the adoption of Chinese “orphans.”

Watching this at the end of 2019, I couldn’t help but think about how the Chinese government’s conspiracies to profit off of the oppression of their own people looks a lot like what the American government is doing through cruel family separation policies, taking children from desperate families and putting them on the adoption market. Further, the extremes to which the Chinese government has gone to suppress reporting on their own horrific operations should alarm Americans who have seen their own President brand journalists as the “Enemy of the People.” America’s crimes against its own citizenry are increasing at a sickening rate — and this movie gives us a vision of the kinds of atrocities that fascism (like the sort gaining ground right here) makes possible.

One Child Nation is now easily accessible via Amazon Prime.

https://youtu.be/gMcJVoLwyD0


A Music Video Par Excellence

Anima

directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, choreography by Damien Jalet, projections by Barri

Thank you, Paul Thomas Anderson and Thom Yorke, for some of the most beautifully surprising cinema I’ve seen in a while.

In less than 15 minutes, ANIMA cut through the hurt, the distraction, and the weariness of one of the toughest weeks of my life, and it spoke powerfully to me. I haven’t experienced anything quite like this since Wenders captured Pina (in 3D).

“Everythiiiiiiiiing… is in its right plaaaaaace.”

I’ve yet to read lyrics for ANIMA or hear the album, but the narrative of this 3-track excerpt arrives at a moment of intimacy that moved me to big fat tears at 9 AM on a busy Friday morning.

This highlights PTA’s greatest strength: creating occasions of profound—profound because they’re particular—human connection within worlds of madness.

You know, Anderson loves Jonathan Demme so much, I’m thinking that the next Radiohead tour could be the occasion for the greatest concert film of all time.

 


 

Two Impressive American Period Pieces
Featuring Strong Shows By Leading Men…
Both of Which Veer Into Glorifications of Violent Vengeance
(One by Outsiders Against Privilege, One by Privilege Against Outsiders)

Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood

written and directed by Quentin Tarantino

A few scattered first impressions:

“There is a ‘family’ in our driveway.”

When I have some time to write more about this, I’ll be noting some intriguing correlations with Jordan Peele’s Us. This is certainly a year in which the outcasts rise up and lash out. The attitudes of the lead characters — and the filmmaker, in fact — toward these troubled uprisings is interesting and, in this case, troubling.

Felt to me, on a first viewing, like a study of, and a declaration of love for, exteriors. Of a time. Of a place. Of people.

Interiors? Those moments that seemed intent on giving us glimpses revealed very little. Maybe that’s the point — the hollowness of the Hollywood dreamers. But that makes the movie seem profoundly at odds with itself, celebrating the very religion that costs so many their sense of meaning and purpose.

But oh… the exteriors. Of course, this movie looks great. Tarantino still knows how to film actors and locations in ways that blaze with life.

Does it sound great, though? This screenplay does not snap, crackle, or pop like so many other Tarantino screenplays. I’m already straining to remember particular lines and exchanges. The music of the writing that was such a concert in earlier Tarantino work only plays in fits and starts here.

Rack this up with one of the many performances in which DiCaprio is just acting too hard for me to ever believe in his character. Sure, that’s complicated by the fact that his character is a mediocre actor at best, but still — Pitt suspended my disbelief, and DiCaprio did not. If this had been a broader comedy, he would have fit in better. But Pitt is acting in a much subtler, more contemplative film than DiCaprio is.

Another thing: The last 20 minutes of this movie crushed my hopes that this might eventually escape the Curse of the Things that Keep Me Frustrated with Tarantino. Crushed them.

I grew tired a long time ago of the Tarantino “Stand Your Ground” ethic: Design a situation in which characters must commit violence out of self-defense or vigilante justice, and you have a free pass to unleash an orgy of human bodies being spectacularly destroyed for our entertainment. I used to strain for ways to excuse such things so that I could feel better about liking so much else in these movies, but now I just admit it: There’s a lot to like in this film, and a lot I cannot defend in good conscience—particularly the bloodshed and bodily harm staged for pleasure rather than any kind of edification. I cannot shake the sense that men who physically abuse women will find some kind of exhilaration in certain graphic sights and sounds. The strange spots in the audience erupting in what sounded like joy during those moments did nothing to dissuade me of this.

(Sigh.)

At least the violence in Jarmusch’s latest, as somewhat underwhelming as that film was, was accompanied by a sense of genuine fatigue and dismay.

If I were to highlight a line that I would like to focus on in a second viewing, one that is repeated in a way that seems important, it would be this: “I never stood a chance.” If this film has a theme I find compelling, that line is key to tracing it.

A reader was surprised that I didn’t rate the movie more highly, considering how much I admired about it. I replied like this:

The prolonged revelry in the desecration of human bodies at the end is enough to make me count it down significantly. (When Hayao Miyzaki inspires my admiration by his frankness about the “insults to humankind” he sees in the movies, I think this is the very kind of work he’s talking about.) But the virtuosic sequences of driving in the city and the loving recreation of a time and a place, along with some typically wonderful Tarantino character work by great actors, contribute enough goodness that I have to take it seriously.

Joker

directed by Todd Phillips, written by Phillips and Scott Silver

If you want to read my thoughts on Joker, fine. But know that I wrote what I wrote before I read my friend Chris Hoke’s extraordinary essay about the film, which increased my appreciation of it exponentially.

Okay — these were my first impressions:

Enough about Taxi DriverThe King of Comedy, and Fight Club. I kept thinking, “This reminds me of something.” That feeling got stronger as the movie went on. But it wasn’t until Joker marched up to the camera on the talk show that I saw it. So much about this character has been done, and so very well, for so long, by Bono… as MacPhisto.

But I don’t want to dwell on that. Many — perhaps most — movies are made of other movies and media influences. Some of them do new and innovative things with the things they steal, and some turn out to be mere imitators. I don’t feel particularly driven to give a Batman slap to this one. I want to point out, instead, why I finally went and saw this film.

This was a movie I really didn’t want to see because

A) I’ve been burned out on movies inspired by comic book characters since before Tobey Maguire was done playing Spider-Man;

B) I don’t care much about the Batman mythos, and have only ever been glad of seeing Batman Returns (for Catwoman), The Dark Knight (for Ledger), and LEGO Batman (for finally delivering a depiction of Batman that rings true);

C) Bob Dylan’s right — “It’s not dark yet / But it’s gettin’ there” — and my heart doesn’t need the additional weight of heavy-handed movies about that fact;

and

D) I love Joaquin Phoenix, but he’s already played much more sophisticated, original, and interesting men on the edge of madness.

But I finally talked myself into seeing this film because my undergraduate students are embracing it, and because it’s fueling their skepticism (and even cynicism) about film critics.

No, it’s not blind devotion to comic book movies that’s making them respond. It is, to some extent, that they’re tired of hearing scorn for works of art that are their first experiences of important ideas. They haven’t grown up with Taxi DriverThe King of Comedy, or even Fight Club. (Or MacPhisto, for that matter.) They’ve grown up with superheroes and supervillains. And they’re intrigued by a “sympathy for the devil” take on a villain that has only ever been a monster in their movies.

And one of the things I admire about this generation — well, at least the majority of those I’m getting to know — is their inclination toward empathy, their aversion to “Othering,” and their solemn interest in understanding the causes of affliction and depression and dysfunction.

They see, in Joker, people they know. They see the alienated. They see the abandoned. They recognize (as audiences who made Garden State a hit recognized) the relevance of a story about a young man reliant on medication for lack of love. They talk about how, exiting the theater, they were speechless, grieved, even awestruck by what sounded to them like the ring of truth.

And they don’t want to hear it dismissed as derivative by the voices they’re supposed to respect just because those critics can point to “influences.”

Granted, they’re very strong influences — and I see clearly that Joker is an imitator that borrows, steals, and relies on the forms and functions of far more original artistic visions. And no, nothing in the movie surprised me because it was being so obvious, telegraphing its punches at every turn, and then underlining each punch with ominous tones as if hinting that the Director’s Commentary for each one will elaborate on What It All Means.

But I’m much more interested in investigating why so many are taking this movie so seriously. It’s speaking to them. We would do well to ask why. Marvel and DC are the prevailing mythos of more than one generation now, the way Star Wars and Indiana Jones were mine, and this has, for many of them, taken things to another level. It has them thinking about the causes of extremism. It has them thinking about the nature of destructive forces rising in the world, and about the complicity of the political and cultural entities that condemn those forces in cultivating those forces.

I worry that Joker’s antihero is going to make too much sense to some of them, particularly to those who have, themselves, been abandoned and alienated and left fumbling for any kind of reliable role model. But I hope that it inspires those who have known enough goodness and love in their lives toward wisdom.

So, yeah — I’m irked that this movie treats You Were Never Really Here as if it was never really there. But I would love to use this occasion as an opportunity to ignite young moviegoers’ curiosity about those films to which this film owes so much — not smack them for not recognizing movies that they’ve never seen, and certainly not prove Joker’s Big Sermon (preachy and out-of-character as it is) to be true by responding with sarcasm and dismissiveness.

After all, I’d never seen Hidden Fortress when I saw Star Wars for the first time. And I don’t begrudge my friends their love of Downton Abbey just because the far-superior Gosford Park exists.

Anyway, this movie, for all of its derivative characteristics, gets something right that U2 gets right: the Devil is born of an appetite for attention, and he’ll feed on whatever spotlights we give him. What’s more, he needs love as much as any of us.

P.S. De Niro’s pretty good in this.


The Most Rock-and-Roll Movie of the Year

Her Smell

written and directed by Alex Ross Perry

I’ve never enjoyed self-destructive rock-star revelry as drama. And while I believe that style is substance, I’m not sure all of this ugliness is in service of much.

Still, as Becky with the Good Glare, Elizabeth Moss is rock-and-roll incarnate. And while most of the talk is going to be about her performance, the whole ensemble is otherwordly — particularly Agyness Deyn and Gayle Rankin.

This film rivals Uncut Gems as the most intensely immersive cinematic experience of the year. Both of them send us careening through a world of disorientation and distortion, inviting us to empathize with characters who are completely out of control, intoxicated by the drugs of ego and capitalism, torn from the contexts in which love and intimacy have any opportunity to save them. It’s a harrowing experience. But I found it ultimately meaningful and even redemptive… something I can’t really say about Uncut Gems.


The Movie I’ll Stumble Across on Hotel Room
Television and Watch to the End Every Time

The Dead Don’t Die

written and directed by Jim Jarmusch

“But one must face the fact: the power of Evil in the world is not finally resistible by incarnate creatures, however ‘good’; and the Writer of the Story is not one of us.” – J.R.R. Tolkien

Man, that Tolkien. He knew how to cheer people up, didn’t he?

In a similar vein, Jim Jarmusch’s new zombie movie is not interested in telling us what we want to hear. (Remember the epigraph at the beginning of The Big Short? It applies here too.)

During this opening-day screening, several moviegoers — some of the few who chose this over The Secret Life of Pets 2 and Men in Black 3 and Shaft — didn’t get what they wanted. They got up mid-movie and staggered out. And as they did they looked and acted exactly like Jarmusch’s zombies, expanding this movie and its wisdom into 3-D.

This may not be one of Jarmusch’s strongest works — but it’s too early to say. I usually need two or three screenings to start getting a good sense of he’s up to. Whatever the case, I’m grateful for some more time seeing the world through his moods and lenses.

I love Jarmusch for knowing how to give shape to the sense of loss I’m feeling in 2019.

I love that the same imagination that packages this observant lament as a comedy (it’s actually the most serious zombie movie I’ve seen since 28 Days Later) also gave us a gorgeous vampire movie about the timeless joys of pursuing artistic passion and the joyous affirmations of love and poetry that we find in Paterson. With Jarmusch in the world, I don’t feel so lonely; with each film he makes, I have a stronger sense of having found a kindred spirit.

I love him for rejecting those zombie-movie genre conventions that allow audiences a convenient escape of just how truthful and timely these B-movie metaphors can be.

I love this world-weary, heavy-hearted, and — yes — heavy-handed eulogy for the America that aspired to value the mind and the conscience above the stomach. I suspect Cormack McCarthy will too. “You can’t stop what’s coming.”

Posie Juarez and Zelda Winston are outstanding as Rosie Perez and Tilda Swinton.


Okay, that’s just the opening act. Coming soon… my 20 favorite films of 2019.