film

My Top Ten Favorite films of 2019

This was an excellent year for movies. There’s a few movies I have yet to see that may have knocked others off this list, but hey, there’s a lot of movies out there and this year I’ve watched an inordinate amount of old and foreign films thanks to the Criterion Channel streaming service (I highly recommend it!). There’s only so much time in a year, what can I say? The films listed below have some reviews all to themselves, but there’s also several here that I saw and loved but never got around to writing a review of it.

10 Joker

Joaquin Phoenix certainly committed to this role, and it paid off incredibly well. When I initially heard about the concept of Joker origin story with no Batman to counterbalance the chaos, I wasn’t interested. To the filmmakers’, and performers’, credit- I actually really dug what they were able to do with the premise. The world building was excellent, the brooding tension was palpable and damn near overwhelming at times, but the best part was Phoenix’s incredible descent into madness. He carried this film and should, at least, be nominated by the Academy for this role. He earned it.

9 Ad Astra

I did not expect to love this sci-fi adventure as much as I did. Brad Pitt’s performance as Roy McBride was one of my favorites of the year. This “Apocalypse Now” meets “2001 Space Odyssey” vibe worked insanely well in my opinion. The irony of an Astronaut traveling to the furthest reaches of the solar system to reach his father is a fascinating inward character drama for Pitt’s McBride. Usually heavy-handed narration could sink an otherwise decent film, but here it not only enhances the drama, it’s essential to understanding who Roy McBride is. This journey to Neptune was an evolving and engaging one that I really dug.

8 The Wretched

I caught this film at the Traverse City Film Festival over the summer and it was one of the best original horror films I’ve seen in years! Set in Northern Michigan, a teenager visiting his father for the summer notices his Dad’s neighbor is a bit… off. I don’t want to ruin anything about this movie, but just trust me on this one, go watch it! Smart characters, awesome practical effects, chilling sequences, and literal edge-of-your-seat intensity- this film knocked it out of the park for me and I highly encourage every horror fan to seek this one out!

7 Ford V Ferrari

I recently caught this one with my Dad, I mean it’s the perfect Dad movie and the marketing worked for me. What I didn’t expect was that this one would be one of the best damn movies of the year in every conceivable category. Acting. Pacing. Heart-pounding thrills. Funny, sad, and powerful. The story of Carroll Shelby and Ken Miles working with Ford to beat Ferrari at the 1966 24-hour Le Mans race in France was compelling and once fully immersed, I didn’t want to exit the car when the credits rolled. It was incredible. They don’t make many movies like this anymore, check it out when you can!

6 Godzilla King of the Monsters

Look, I’m a sucker for giant monster movies, Godzilla especially. I grew up on those old Toho, man-in-a-suit, relics. I have a warm nostalgia and earnestness for these cheesy flicks, and this American sequel brought a lot of heart to some old favorites. The use of classic Toho movie monsters Rodan, Mothra, and King Ghidorah were 100% on point for their larger than life personalities. This movie, correctly, recognized that the monsters are the stars, and the human cast is just there to react to their mayhem. Lots of solid throwbacks to the fifty plus year history of Godzilla. I wholeheartedly loved this movie.

5 Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Is it just me, or is Quentin Tarantino’s skill as a writer/director aging like a fine wine? While this isn’t my favorite outing from the filmmaker, it is an excellent film. This is Tarantino at his most relaxed and most meta, his love for Hollywood, filmmaking, and the people who made them is made crystal clear here (if you haven’t already noticed). Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio excel as stuntman, and eternally cool, Cliff Booth and the internally wrought actor Rick Dalton. This is a film that’s completely at ease with it’s characters and lackadaisical with it’s pacing- though I’d argue that the relaxed speed of the plot was finely tuned for maximum enjoyment. The two friends can feel their time passing them by, and their conflicts come with meditative questions about how to evolve with the transitioning film industry. How do they stay relevant? Does it matter? It’s all good man, just kick back and enjoy the ride with Cliff through the Hollywood Hills, it’ll all work out.

4 The Irishman

This decades long Gangster epic is one of the finest films from Martin Scorsese in the 21st century. Granted, he has consistently made challenging, intimate, bombastic, and truly cinematic work that will stand the test of time- but this one may be my favorite film of his since “Gangs of New York”. Getting Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci together for this beautifully tragic film was a true delight. This is a film, obviously, made by an aging master of the craft. His directorial touch in this film could only be informed by someone that’s made movies for thirty years or more. He doesn’t just love these characters, he has empathy for them, and it feels as though he may pity these characters and the power structures they live and breathe in. It may be three and a half hours long, but it’s well worth the time sink. Easily one of the best movies of the year.

3 John Wick 3

The John Wick movies just keep getting crazier and more intense and I’m here for that. Keanu Reeves has helped to turn the tide of action movies away from shaky-cam noise and darkly lit confusing brawls into an evolution of clean wide shots with well choreographed, but not defined by dance or ballet, action. This is a film series enamored with the history of action shown onscreen, and I fucking love that. The story may be simple, John Wick is out for revenge against the dirty bastards that ruined his retirement, but the devotion to grisly, eclectic, and unnerving violence is admirable to say the least. This film cracked open the underworld of John Wick’s assassin’s guild and expanded the lore in a few really cool ways. Also, that knife fight will go down as one of the best fight sequences in modern film history.

2 The Lighthouse

Yet another film has confirmed the manic brilliance of the A24 film studio. I will watch every and any film that comes from A24. I didn’t think Robert Eggers could top his first feature, “The Witch”, but this film took huge, gigantic, creative swings and for me, it worked wonders. “The Lighthouse” is a miracle film in my opinion. Not that it’s “so good it’s miraculous” but rather, it’s a miracle that it got funded and made at all. A black and white film shot in an ancient 1.19:1 aspect ratio with a clear and unavoidable admiration for turn of the century silent film work- I mean, this is a film for film nerds if there ever was one. The performances by Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe were both exquisite and legitimate tour de forces- and I don’t take that term lightly. They employ the grand range of expression in their descent into madness. This is one of the standout films I will remember fondly when thinking back on this year’s creative output.

1 Avengers Endgame

What can I say about this film that hasn’t already been discussed ad nauseam? It sits atop the box office throne, and it earned that spot. I’ve always been a fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe- since Tony Stark himself was tagged by shrapnel from his own bombs, I’ve been there. I grew up reading a wide variety of the Marvel comic book characters, and the sheer devotion that this studio has had in crafting incredibly accurate adaptions of their superheros has been downright amazing. These films work because of the focus on the characters themselves, about what motivates them, who they are as people rather than what they can do with their various “science gone wrong” superpowers. Endgame is my favorite movie of the year because it paid attention to every detail about their string of movies past and present, and they kept evolving their characters over time. Sure, the world saving stuff is bound to be fun, but I’m more fascinated with who these larger than life characters are and how their heroics, or failures, effect them. Besides, I will never get over the fact that the biggest movie of all time features Captain America, with Thor’s Hammer in hand, saying “Avengers Assemble”. As a longtime comic-book nerd, I will always cherish that very silly and quite amazing moment.

*Films I missed, but wanted to see: Uncut Gems, Knives Out, Parasite, Marriage Story, 1917, The Good Liar, Motherless Brooklyn, Honey Boy, Dark Waters, The Farewell, Midsommar, Rocketman, Shazam, Us, The Dead Don’t Die, Always be My Maybe, Aladdin, Yesterday, Missing Link, Rambo Last Blood, Dolemite is My Name, The Peanut Butter Falcon, The King, and El Camino.

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“C’est La Vie!” Traverse City Film Fest Review (2019)

Written and directed by Olivier Nakache and Éric Toledano, “C’est La Vie!” is a French comedy about a cantankerous, but well meaning, caterer rallying his crew for an elaborate wedding at a prestigious French chateau. Max (Jean-Pierre Bacri) has a lot on his mind as he ventures out of Paris and into the beautiful countryside where his team is beginning to transform the 17th century palace into one couple’s ‘dream come true‘. The musicians that the Groom, Pierre (Benjamin Lavernhe), wanted aren’t available so they’ve hired a combative DJ (Gilles Lellouche) at the last minute, the catering team and the musicians are squabbling over elevator use, and the Groom also wants an elaborate finale with fireworks and high flying balloon acrobatics. There’s also the fact that one of his waiters knew the Bride (Judith Chemla) years earlier and is still smitten for her, a few of his crew were unavailable so a less than ideal replacement has arrived via his number one in command, Adèle (Eye Haidara)- and that’s not to mention that Max’s secret girlfriend, Josiane (Suzanne Clément), that he works with has been giving him the cold shoulder as he’s still technically married even though both parties are seeing other people at this point. Whew!

That’s not even half of the elevated antics that take place in the film, and its a miracle that the pacing and heavy character count never gets too cumbersome or uninteresting. There’s a mark of brilliance in this film where everything that’s taking place may seem chaotic and erratic, but the irony that the filmmaking on display is incredibly efficient and clever likely isn’t lost on anyone involved in anything as large and unwieldy as making a film or catering an event will know. There about five to seven sub-plots and character arcs that are all weaved through various problems that the crew encounters as Max and his team constantly have to adapt to. Which just so happens to be his mantra on site, whenever something goes wrong, say a power outage that ruins the main course dinner, Max asks of his crew, “What do we do?” to which they dutifully reply “We adapt!”. The film handily juggles the quirky personalities of the catering crew, their needs, faults, doubts and successes, all with care and in a timely fashion.

The film confidently relies on it’s colorful characters and a consistent witty humor that snaps between sarcastic cynicism and a charming level of earned optimism, and it’s all the better for it. An upbeat jazz-imbued score plays into the chaotic, but classy, sense of momentum that rides throughout the film’s scenes giving it the proper tone that fits these characters nice and snug. Even though almost everything goes awry, the film acknowledges the intensity of the moment without getting too nasty or dark. In the end our resolution is met with a gentle recognition that even when it seems as though everything has gone wrong- not all is lost!

The film may be a bit bourgeoisie at times, but it never gets too rude about it. In fact there are undertones of working class humor levied at those in the upper class who are too stuffy and cannot take a joke (looking at you Pierre!). If you enjoy ensemble comedies that dish out a brevity of levity with a lovable cast of oddball characters, then I highly recommend checking this one out!

Final Score: Dozens of Twirling Napkins!

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“Villains” Traverse City Film Fest Review (2019)

Written and directed by Dan Berk and Robert Olsen, “Villains” is a dark comedy thriller where a couple of young amateur thieves break into a well-to-do home in the middle of nowhere where they find some ominous developments and disturbing homeowners. The film opens with our modern day Bonnie and Clyde, Mickey (Bill Skarsgård) and Jules (Maika Monroe), robbing a gas station. However, criminal geniuses they are not, and they end up stranded on a back-road due to an empty gas tank. Eventually they stumble upon a seemingly empty home, with a car in the garage to boot! All they need to do is break in and find the keys…

After searching the house for a few minutes they decide to check the basement, where they discover a young girl chained up, emotionless and mute to their concerns. Jules wants to save the girl (Blake Baumgartner), and Mickey obliges even though he’d rather make their escape as quick as possible. Not long after this the homeowners return and kickstart the film’s central power dynamic between Mickey and Jules, and George (Jeffrey Donovan) and Gloria (Kyra Sedgwick). George and Gloria are an older couple with a retro style from their clothes to their mannerisms. They can be charming at times, at least when they’re not mellifluously menacing the young drug-fueled thieves. In fact, the performances from the four major players is what keeps this one location thriller from destabilizing under it’s own expectations. Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice to see Skarsgård in a charming (though somewhat naive) role, and Monroe’s Jules is the heart and soul of the film. However, that being said, the title of the film alone brings a more devilish tone to mind than what we ultimately get.

The script is probably the weakest part of the film. What the actors do with the characters is what saves this one from an untimely demise of boredom. It’s not exactly a lackluster film, but it never quite gets as punchy as I suspect the original intention was. “Villains” will most likely find a cozy home on a streaming service in the near future- and it will probably do well there. I’d be a harder sell if this were to open to a wide release in theaters though, I’m not quite sure it’s worth the price of admission.

Final Score: 1 Bonnie, 1 Clyde

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“Extra Ordinary” Traverse City Film Fest Review (2019)

Written by Mike Ahern and Enda Loughman (with additional writing by Maeve Higgins and Demian Fox) and directed by Ahern and Loughman, “Extra Ordinary” is an Irish comedy that follows Rose Dooley (Maeve Higgins), a well known psychic in a cozy small town who’s got a love/hate relationship with her supernatural abilities. Rose grew up under the tutelage of her father Vincent Dooley (Risteard Cooper), the host of a local paranormal TV series that she often appeared on with him. Tragically, and hilariously, Rose accidentally kills her father one day when the two investigate a haunted pot-hole. As the film opens up to the present, we find her issues with bereavement haven’t exactly been worked through yet. Rose’s pregnant sister Sailor Dooley (Terri Chandler), pries her away from their father’s roadside grave after the opening credits, implying that this ritual has been performed ad nauseam.

Within that same small Irish town resides Martin Martin (Barry Ward), a widowed father who has a unique supernatural problem. His dead wife has been casually haunting him for some time- forcibly picking out his wardrobe, whipping donuts out of his hand etc. After Martin decides to do something about it, he tracks down Rose to see if she can help him out. Rose hasn’t used her abilities for some time now and works as a driving instructor, even though her heart’s not quite in it despite her cheery disposition. She refuses to help Martin at first, even though she quickly takes a liking to him. Across town residing in a large castle, loafing American one-hit wonder musician, Christian Winter (Will Forte), is running out of money. Out of desperation, he decides to make a deal with the Devil to ensure another hit song- he just needs the standard virginal sacrifice first. Once he tracks down Martin’s daughter, Sarah (Emma Coleman), and puts her in a spell of levitated slumber, Martin and Rose team up in one of the funniest ghost-busting duos to hit the silver screen in some time!

This film was a delightful surprise at the festival this year. Throughout it’s roughly hour and a half runtime the quirky, idiosyncratic, characters rattle off gut busting jokes at a rapid-fire clip while crucially maintaining an earnest and heartwarming vibe. The off-kilter nature of the film keeps everything light, even when the jokes and gags get a bit gross- which is all in good fun when battling the ego of Forte’s Christian Winter and his mustache twirling villainy. Martin Martin, while mainly playing the role of the straight man who’s startled by all of these ghastly ghost adventures, gets a fun twist in the second half of the film when his dead wife possesses him. Rose then utilizes Martin’s new gift to help them collect enough ectoplasm to break Winter’s spell on Sarah. This allows Martin to play an important role in saving his daughter’s life while evolving the comedic tendencies of his character.

Considering the fact that this is Mike Ahern and Enda Loughman’s first directorial feature- this is a superb outing for the duo! Personally, I know I’ll be looking out for the next film from them. If you enjoy comedies that dabble in other genres and styles, I highly recommend seeking this one out!

Final Score: 7 Jars of Ectoplasm

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“Sword of Trust” Traverse City Film Fest Review (2019)

Written by Lynn Shelton and Michael Patrick O’Brien and directed by Shelton, “Sword of Trust” is a dramatic comedy that follows a mysterious Sword from the Civil War, and how it may in fact bear proof that the South had actually won the war. Marc Maron stars in the film as Mel, a wry but welcoming curmudgeon of sorts that runs a pawn shop in Alabama. He has one employee, Nathaniel (Jon Bass), a fool with a heart of gold who harbors a fascination for conspiracy theories propagated on the internet. We’re also introduced to Cynthia (Jillian Bell) and Mary (Michaela Watkins), a couple visiting town to manage Cynthia’s grandfather’s will and belongings. With the bank owning her grandfather’s house Cynthia is left only with a Civil War sword with several documents and a letter from her grandfather stating the sabre’s importance.

At first when the couple dare to enter Mel’s pawn shop, eager to rid themselves of their inherited relic of alternate history, they attempt to recoup their losses by feigning the sword’s legitimacy. This scene (and the film as a whole) between Mel and the couple attempting to prove the sword’s authenticity was a welcomed throwback to the character driven, dialogue heavy, indie flicks from the nineties. After some clever wordplay the four decide to seek out any true believers of the conspiracy willing to shell out enough cold hard cash for the blade. They encounter rival factions of southern men willing to get nasty over the conspiracy as they discover that a surprising amount of people believe in the flimsy facade, and are willing to get violent for “the truth“.

The emotional crux of the film, which was unexpected on my part, came from Maron’s Mel. When the foursome are hauled in the back of a trailer to the secret location of the family boss presiding over items of legitimacy from “The War of Northern Aggression“, they take the time to get to know each other. Cynthia and Mary recount their decision to chase their dreams before attempting to have and raise children, but it’s when they ask Mel about his life where he reflects on his musician-junkie days with Deirdre (in a small supporting role played by the director of the film, Lynn Shelton) where the film finds its humanistic core. The film’s identity relies, wisely, on the performances of its characters, and its in Marc Maron’s performance in the third act where all of the character’s intricacies and nuances are connected to a past of love, regret, hardened outlooks, and a weathered sense of realism that’s relatable and true to life. Maron, always ready with a pithy comeback, is anchored by a cast of skilled performers all working towards a well made dramatic comedy. “Sword of Trust” is a film that’s perfectly tailored for our post-truth paradigm, the fact that it manages to be equal parts clever and funny while maintaining a breezy hour and a half runtime is in itself a small cinematic miracle. Check it out!

Final Score: 40,000 dollars

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“The Wretched” Traverse City Film Fest Review (2019)

Written and directed by Brett and Drew Pierce, “The Wretched” is a throwback horror film that uniquely finds a balance between old school practical effects and an unnerving new wrinkle to the folklore of Witches. This was the last film that I caught at the Traverse City film festival this year, and it turned out to be my favorite film of the fest! Oddly enough, I was in line for another film earlier during the week with friends and we struck up a conversation with a couple of guys behind us after hearing them name-drop “Big Trouble in Little China” and “The Thing” as a few of their favorite films. They happened to be filmmakers from Michigan, now out in L.A., and had a film at one of the later Midnight movies during the week. That film was “The Wretched” and my friends and I made the move to get tickets for that film because of that short conversation, and we were better off for having done so!

This review will be more vague than usual as the film has only been screened a few times for audiences at this point, and the less plot details out there, the better, in my opinion. We follow Ben (John-Paul Howard), a seventeen-year-old visiting his father, Liam (Jamison Jones), for the summer in North Port Michigan, on the Leelanau peninsula. Over the summer Ben works with his father at the local docks teaching kids how to sail and clearing out the slips. He’s mostly concerned with garnering the attention of the local girls and trashing the petulant bullies’ boat after some uncomfortable humiliation. However his attention is soon turned to his fathers’ odd neighbors and their increasingly strange behavior. Ty (Kevin Bigley) and Abbie (Zarah Mahler) seem normal at first, and initially they are, but after a wander in the woods with her son Dillon (Blane Crockarell), Abbie begins to take on more… aggressive tendencies. Eventually evoking “Rear Window” in Ben’s obsessive paranoia over his neighbors’ strange actions, Mallory (Piper Curda) a quirky co-worker at the docks, joins him in investigating the truth. Kids start disappearing and everyone except Ben seems to have forgotten them, forcing him to action.

Piper Curda and John-Paul Howard in “The Wretched”

This film excels on several technical fronts. Firstly, the adherence to practical effects over the use of CGI in this film is not only admirable, but downright mesmerizing. I’m not sure how they crafted some of their scares, but they were highly effective in creating an atmosphere of disgusting, moody, tension. Which, by the way, is utilized perfectly in this film. Some modern day horror films overdo the heightened levels of tension throughout their run-time, but this film wisely gives the audience a false sense of security at times; allowing several scenes to breathe and the audience to get attached to these characters as people first and foremost- not just fodder for the supernatural villain to devour. These characters were also, delightfully, more intelligent than expected, they’re smarter than your average teenager stereotype from any given slasher flick. One character even removed his shoes before heading up a staircase to find the source of a few bumps in the night. They seemed like reasonable people approaching an unreasonable scenario, no comic relief characters blindly blundering into danger here! Oh, and the sound design has to get a mention as well, it was unsettling and perfectly set each scene to a mood that slowly evolves from creepy to outright terror nearing the third act!

Zarah Mahler as Abbie in “The Wretched”

Speaking of the third act, it gets pretty intense! Not to oversell the film, but the choice to stack several types of phobias on top of each other in the final sequence was brilliant! Forcing your characters to keep charging forward through a continued escalation of terror like that was, well, it was a damn good time at the cinema. This was a satisfying throwback to old tropes with refreshing new techniques and execution. Anyone that enjoys films like “The Witch“, “Evil Dead” (The Sam Raimi version), or “Halloween” (The John Carpenter version) will probably enjoy this one as I did. I highly recommend seeking this one out once the film makes it’s way through the festival circuit and distribution process. Keep your eyes peeled for this one!

Final Score: 1 Witch

*Below is a link to an interview with one of the directors, Brett Pierce, where he discusses the reasoning behind why they decided to shoot the film in Northern Michigan, check it out!

https://www.northernexpress.com/news/feature/evil-dead-descendant-bros-brett-and-drew-pierce-bring-the-wretched-1/