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Sunday, February 9, 2020

The best films of 2019

George McKay, center, probably deserved an Oscar nod for his lead role in 1917.
Well, I'm a little late to the party, but I have a couple of good excuses - and, anyway, at least I get to publish my list before the Oscars are announced this evening. Proud to say, this year I actually saw every Best Picture nominee (and all but one in an actual movie theater - the one being Joker, which I caught on DVD the day after it was released in that format).

Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem
star in Everybody Knows
As usual, I have a quibble or three with the Academy, but it looks like the front-runner this year is 1917, which is also my top pick, so you never know. Following right behind, however, is a film that got zero notice from the Academy (though some critics gave it due props), which is sadly ironic in that it's an all-black production that easily deserved the attention and could have helped to save the annual hue and cry about Oscars-so-white if it had been properly recognized.

Instead, The Last Black Man in San Francisco is this year's most-overlooked movie at Oscar time (see my full review here). Honestly, I'm not cynical enough to think that Academy voters disregard good material just because the people who made it are black; rather, I think they are simply too self involved to be able to appreciate a lot of fare that isn't right up their alley - hence, outstanding non-traditional or foreign material often gets overlooked.

That said, you may notice that the much-ballyhooed Korean film Parasite didn't make my short list (though its Oscar success may have helped the Academy dodge the racism bullet this year). I acknowledge that Parasite is extremely well made, but it is too brutally dehumanizing for my taste. I've gotten the impression that many people found its class-struggle story to be groundbreaking - however, 2018's Japanese production Shoplifters told a very similar story, while humanizing all its subjects, which to me was both more difficult and much more worthwhile. (Then again, a movie-savvy friend told me that Parasite was his favorite film of 2019 and Shoplifters his favorite of 2018, so maybe I'm just confused.)

Other films that the Academy liked more than I did were Ford v. Ferrari, which told a very good story, but in such a drawn-out fashion and with so much time spent inside a race car that I got bored (despite great performances by Christian Bale, Tracy Letts, and others, as well as a lot of unsubtitled but perfectly executed Italian dialogue - a surprise treat for me); and Little Women, which also featured some very good acting but was almost unbearably twee and, at times, so anachronistic as to be groan-inducing.

But the rest of Oscar's favorites made my list - so, here we go:
  1. 1917 - This is what a truly great movie is supposed to be. Advice to anyone who a) hasn't seen it and b) hasn't seen the trailer: Don't watch the trailer, it will ruin the film - just go see it. And, yes, I mean GO to a movie theater and immerse yourself in the darkness for an unforgettable experience.
  2. The Last Black Man in San Francisco - A stunning achievement by a crew of first-timers, strikingly original and deeply personal. Will hold up just fine on video, so borrow this one from your library or (if you must) stream it.
  3. The Irishman - Scorsese and his team of regulars do it again. Forget what they say - it's not too long!
  4. Once Upon a Time in ... Hollywood - Tarantino does it again, only this time with a bit more subtlety (though not too much of that, after all, it's Tarantino). Leonardo DiCaprio is really good here, but Brad Pitt is even better, and ought to win the Supporting Actor Oscar.
  5. Jojo Rabbit - Imperfect, but enhanced by extreme originality, it's gratifying to see a film this quirky get noticed by the stuffy ol' Academy. Probably won't win anything but, in this case, the nomination is the prize.
  6. The Farewell - Nominated for a bunch of less prestigious awards (and winning quite a few), this movie was inexplicably left out of the running for Oscar, despite being a near-perfect indie film by an American (albeit Asian-American) director. The story would fit any family, especially any family with recent immigrants, but ol' Hollywood apparently couldn't relate. Extra props to UAlbany product Awkwafina, who starred and earned a Golden Globe for her efforts.
  7. Transit - Similar to Jojo Rabbit, in that it re-imagines a WWII scenario with deft originality, this film takes place in the France of the present, but depicts the displacement of people there under the German Nazi invasion of the 1940s. Lyrical, beautifully filmed, heartbreaking.
  8. The White Crow - I'm no ballet critic, but I enjoyed every minute of this adaptation of the true life of Russian dancer Rudolf Nureyev, probably because it so effectively shows how the passion of a great artist helped him overcome terrible odds.
  9. Joker - Much better than I expected, and not at all a comic-book movie (though based on comic-book characters), this film captured my attention and never let it go. Joaquin Phoenix will win the Best Actor Oscar for his brilliant performance as the horribly mentally ill Arthur Fleck.
  10. This is a tie. Marriage Story and Everybody Knows have significant commonalities - family relationships gone dramatically awry, superstar casts, indie vibes - but they are also starkly contrasting: One takes place between brutally competitive New York City and Los Angeles, the other in a charming Spanish village; one involves a rather superficial decision to divorce, the other a decades-old, crime-laced mystery. But they share crackling dialogue, beautifully shot scenes - many of them intensely intimate - and a couple of nice twists. While Marriage Story earned best-actor nods for Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver, Everybody Knows got bupkus, though its male lead, Antonio Banderas, was nominated instead for his work in Pain and Glory. Obviously a good year for him - and for Johansson, who also was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her work in Jojo Rabbit. Impressive achievements for both.
Still to be seen: I've yet to catch up with the aforementioned Pain and Glory, and would also like to catch The Two Popes (which had each Pope interpreter get an Oscar nod), and another African-American themed movie called Waves that got an 84% rating on Rotten Tomatoes (compared to 92% for Little Women and a perplexing 68% for Joker).

In all, 2019 was a far better than average year for films, as was 2018 - a promising trend, with Amazon and Netflix deserving much of the credit.

Transit, starring Franz Rogowski, center, was one of the best films of 2019
and earned a 94% critics' rating on Rotten Tomatoes

1 comment:

Roger Owen Green said...

I never saw The Two Popes either, and I would have but life got in the way. Never saw Joker or Once Upon... or Transit or White Crow.

I'd forgotten about Last Black Man, but I liked it a lot.
I think Ford v Ferrari worked because it mocked the Man (but the Man fought back).
The Irishman IS too long. The hits became, dare I say it, boring and monotonous. And I didn't love the ending.
I liked Jojo more than you.
I would have bet money The Farewell would have been nominated for something...
I found Marriage Story brutalizing. Whereas the stuff in Parasite made more sense to me. Shoplifters, which I saw, I thought was telling a different story. The main family in Parasite was on both sides of the spectrum.