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.

film

Review: Joker

Written by Scott Silver and Todd Phillips, and directed by Phillips, “Joker” is a tragedy (comedy?) about how a lethal combination of society’s ills, neglect, and hatred toward’s one another can cause something truly evil to erupt. So, after months of national dialogue about how this film could be considered “dangerous” and “incendiary“, and now that the film has opened to a wide release, we can discuss the merits of those talking points and whether or not they hold any water. Joaquin Phoenix stars as the titular Joker, a character whose hidden beneath the peeled back layers of one Arthur Fleck. If you have any knowledge of one of the comic-book character’s more infamous storylines, “The Killing Joke” in which the Joker tries to prove to Batman that anyone is just “One Bad Day” away from becoming a violently unhinged and gleeful nihilist such as himself, then you’ll have a good idea of where the film ultimately winds up. The film is a challenging one at times, and it does inspire conversation- but something wholly different than what eighty-percent of the hubbub has been about.

First, however, we must take a moment or two to praise the work and care star Joaquin Phoenix put into this performance. Its a staggering amount of quiet subtleties paired with explosively grandiose swings that have been ground down into a portrayal that constantly evolves over the course of the two hour film. I’m not sure if it’s the “best” performance of an actor that I’ve seen in 2019, but it IS the most memorable for now. There’s a lot of legwork done to make the audience sympathize with the super-villain early on and it was effective in how that empathy was crafted. Arthur Fleck is a man that’s been battered by a world that is heartless and cold towards anyone that’s not wealthy or famous, and not a single person seems to understand him. Eventually, this empathy wanes and frays as Fleck crosses line after socially acceptable line until you can no longer feel good for once rooting for the character. Touched by hopelessness and tragedy, Arthur Fleck is Bruce Wayne and vice versa- what makes them different is how they each respond to such tragedies.

Before we get into a dialogue about the controversy surrounding the film, let’s take a moment to examine the craft put into the film aside from the performances. Gotham has never looked better in my opinion, this was truly a cinematic and believable depiction of the crime ridden and trash buried city that felt lifted directly off the comic’s pages. This Gotham is what I picture when I think of the fantastical city, Nolan’s Gotham never felt this realized to me. For all the successes of those Dark Knight films, this Gotham is my stylized preference for the look and tangibility of the infamous city. Speaking of the comic books, there are some direct nods and scenes dealing with the ever looming Wayne family, but they’re not too distracting from Arthur’s narrative. A couple of shots and moments feel a bit too connected to the Wayne family’s heir and future protector of Gotham, but this IS a film residing in Gotham City, so it is to be expected. The score was a perfect combination of overwhelming cellos and bellowing low notes all evocative of the sadness, dread, anger, and confidence relating to Arthur at any given scene. Though, there was a curious choice to use what can only be described as one of those “Jock Jams” stadium-anthems used at a particularly important moment for the character and its one of the most questionable score/song insert choices since “IT Chapter 2”- it just felt very out-of-place within the greater context of the film.

The scenes where Arthur is keenly aware of how he doesn’t fit in with crowds were particularly insightful to his world view. In the crowd of a comedy club he jots down notes while laughing at the wrong beats of a comedian’s stand-up set completely out of sync with the audience, or when he’s dancing in his living room to prep for going onstage, meticulously studying how people should behave in such scenarios; I appreciate these scenes within the context of this film and the superhero genre as a whole- but Art-house this is not. Which brings me to the crux of criticism for this film, it’s a deeper dive into the psychology of a character than what most films within this sub-genre of cinema will commit to, but this is more of a case of “Popcorn Psychology“, for lack of a better term, than an actual analysis of the character of Arthur Fleck or the Joker. The film asks you to indulge in how society’s abject apathy about people over profits can turn a broken man against said system, but it offers no answers, coyly rejecting any semblance of a political stance or a morality check on how we’ve failed the common man and what we could do to avoid such a fate. That being said, adapting a structured plot around a character such as the Joker, of Chaos incarnate, I understand that the difficulties of adapting such a character without Batman and Bruce Wayne to juxtapose against Arthur would be demanding to say the least.

Considering the hysteria surrounding the release of this film, after walking out of the theater, I have to say I was surprised that we were even having this discussion at all. I thought we were over blaming entertainment for violence, but apparently some issues never fully evaporate. The idea that this film would inspire another mass shooting in America (of which we have about 1 per day give or take a few data points) seems like an exaggeration by media outlets. Sure, this movie has some violent scenes, but the argument that this film in particular is dangerous enough to inspire people to acts of violence says more about our own society’s issues than the film’s issues. This film does not glorify violence, and anyone that would be inspired by this to take up arms probably wasn’t all that level-headed to begin with. Was there an outbreak of killings after the debut of “American Psycho”? How about “Drive”? What about “Breaking Bad”? These films and television shows focused on “loner” white males with questionable morality that take up arms, and none of these examples (among countless others) caused a violent uprising. “Joker” is just a movie, not a movement. It’s a thoughtful character study about how we forge tomorrow’s villains with the choices we make today. The moral that I took away from this film was “Be nicer to people”. When we look past our problems and ignore them, they fester into something capable of evil. This movie should make you consider your fellow man, any good film generates good conversation and this one certainly does that. So go see “Joker” for yourself and forge your own opinion, it’s a decently entertaining film and one that I highly recommend even if only for Joaquin Phoenix’s stellar performance.

Final Score: 1 Bad Day