Once again I offer the noble and frequently requested (by at least two people) service of an essay-sort-of-thing about my favorite movies from the last year. This year it’s so overstuffed I’m breaking it into two parts. I’m also kicking around the idea of taking on my favorites from the last decade because the inspiration for writing the next thing is never greater than when you’re trying to write the thing in front of you. We’ll see.
As always, my standard context and disclaimers:
• This is a true mashup of something close to serious film appreciation and me defending my opinion that the Academy’s most-nominated film is worse than a movie about a family of wrestlers produced by (can-you-smell-what-) THE ROCK (is-cooking). I strongly discourage you from viewing this as a list of the objectively best films of the year or from trying to make any sense of it at all.
• At 44 my instinct for what I should and shouldn’t put in front of my eyes is pretty sound. Not to be bossy, but you should be intentional about developing that instinct for yourself. I’ll try to note any more extreme content that might be a problem, but do your homework and be discerning; I’ll definitely fail to mention something that’s troubling to someone. Don’t blame me if you watch something that offends you just because you noticed I saw or liked it. And definitely don’t watch something with your kids just because I say it’s good. I see a lot of movies my kids don’t see. Me seeing (or liking) a movie isn’t necessarily an endorsement. Be wise and thoughtful and do your own homework. There are good resources that will give you a sense of content concerns without spoiling movies. CommonSense Media is one I reference regularly.
• I’m writing about these films all at once, and it’s been a year or more since I watched some of them. That means I may not have a lot to say about a few, but they make the list based on my memory of what I felt or thought about them when I saw them. I also don’t plan to try to summarize the movies and instead just share some of my reasons for including them. This is exactly how real movie critics work, I’m pretty sure.
• I’ll try to mark any major spoilers, but you know, no promises.
• I saw a lot of movies this year, and I liked a lot of movies, which is nice. So I’m going to approach this a little differently. As I tried to group (and loosely rank) my favorites, I found a slight natural break behind the top 12, then another 10 movies that I still liked a lot. So I’ll roll out my top 12 in a second part in the near future, and I’ll also include a few favorite performances and other superlatives there. Here you’ll find my numbers 13-22 in no particular order plus my extras list.
Movies 13-22 in no particular order
This is a visually arresting documentary about the mission to the moon with no narration or extras, just 93 minutes of archival footage from inside the control room, capsule, and the landing itself. I am astounded that we haven’t seen this before and that we did what we did with the technology available at the time. I was hypnotized from start to finish. [streaming on Hulu]
If you haven’t read the book by Bryan Stevenson, I urge you to stop reading my words now and go do that. Stevenson’s story is one of the most powerful and affecting I’ve ever read, and it ought to reset our gauges on a number of fronts. The movie is very good, but I confess I have a hard time assessing how good because it is only able to cover a fraction of what you’ll experience in the book. Even if you see the movie first, the book’s impact won’t be dulled.
Ford v Ferrari
Here’s your first Best Picture nominee. I don’t think it merited that status, but it’s a fun movie with several performances that I found very entertaining. Tracy Letts is at the front of that line, and he offers up one scene that makes the full two and a half hours worthwhile (more on that later). Christian Bale is right on point, and while there’s not a lot to Noah Jupe’s role here (one of several weaknesses of this script), he’s clearly a star in the making. I worried that I was going to end up hating Matt Damon’s character and/or performance, which is always a concern when a non-Texan is playing a Texan. But I think he kind of nails it, both in inflection and with subtle phrasings like, “We’ll change your tires come rain.” That said, I’m about to tell you that he’s sort of playing Tommy Lee Jones the whole movie, and now when you watch it you won’t be able to hear anything else. You’re welcome.
This movie has become a bit of a referendum on whether you’re allowed to ever think Hitler is funny. I don’t care to dive into that debate, and I simply will not argue with anyone who answers that question with a “no” or who can’t suffer the trail of Jewish slurs uttered by the Nazi characters in JOJO RABBIT. The film markets itself as an “anti-hate satire,” and for me it works. I always found myself laughing at the absurdity of the villains here, never with them, and I believe the capacity for seeing the absurdity in evil is essential these days. We need to learn (or relearn) that capacity, pronto. Writer, director, and star Taika Waititi is Jewish, which ought to inform some of the criticism, and he’s also a genius creating in a space that no one else is right now. More of that, please. And more Archie Yates.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
This is one of those that may settle in a higher slot for me after a second viewing and/or over time. Amy and I saw this together and were both moved by it. More than pulling off a perfect impression of Fred Rogers, Tom Hanks embodies his spirit in a way that few could and keeps the focus where the film wants it — on what Mr. Rogers was giving to the world rather than on Mr. Rogers as a star. I nearly came apart during his prayer, which is as perfect a scene as I can recall in a movie.
I admit I didn’t quite connect with THE FAREWELL the first time I saw it, but it was the middle feature of a run Amy and I went on when we had 24-hours without kids for our anniversary (between KNIVES OUT at the theater and HONEY BOY back in our hotel room…and between other things. What’s up?). I was much more affected the second time around, particularly by the rationale for the confounding (to Billi and most westerners) premise — that a community ought to own and bear one another’s suffering in whatever ways it can.
Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood
I’m not a Tarantino guy, so it’s a little unusual that one of his films appears this high on my list. I found the ending here unnecessarily grotesque to the point of being silly. And it’s a long, meandering story before you even get to the flamethrower. But despite the way they were nominated for Oscars, Brad Pitt is the star of this movie, not Leo, and I was more than happy to sit and watch the story wander just to enjoy the brilliant ease of his performance. [content: It’s Tarantino, so…]
This one is excruciating to watch precisely because Adam Sandler so completely inhabits this character, who seems simultaneously helpless to manage and utterly devoted to the inner chaos destroying him and everyone in his orbit. I can’t recall ever being so tense in a movie from start to finish or hearing that same sentiment universally from everyone who saw it. This year was a case study in what’s wrong with the Oscars in many ways (more on the nomination front than the ultimate winners), but Sandler not being nominated is one of the biggest travesties. [content: This is not for the faint of heart. It is dark and makes you feel a bit like you’re trying to walk on razor blades for two hours.]
This is an exceptional visual achievement, no doubt in equal parts due to Sam Mendes’s particular vision for the film, Roger Deakins’s brilliance as a cinematographer, and some virtuoso production design. (If you aren’t sure what production design is, watch 1917 and think about the imagination and execution required to pull off what you see beginning to end.) I wish the script was better, but I don’t think it’s as empty as some have suggested. There are some powerful moments and images; I just kept waiting for a culminating thread to match the dramatic tension created by the set-up and the aesthetics.
Light of my Life
This was a late addition that I just watched last week. My friend Scott called it THE ROAD meets LEAVE NO TRACE, and that’s as accurate an assessment as I could offer. It doesn’t quite rise to the level of LNT for me, maybe because it rests on a post-apocalyptic conceit and the simple realism of my favorite film from 2018 is at the heart of its power. Still, LIGHT OF MY LIFE delivers a similar emotional arc, with a father and daughter navigating both the daily challenge of survival and a growing need to know and love one another well. This is yet another chance for anyone who’s still catching up to realize that Casey Affleck (who writes, directs, and stars here) is not just Ben’s little brother. [streaming on Amazon Prime]
Extras: movies I kind of liked, really hated, or just want to tack on a comment about.
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
I just can’t be baited into the angst over the imperfections of the new Star Wars movies. Sure, I wish Disney bosses had followed the Marvel plan and appointed someone to oversee the story development of the new triology. While I like all three of the new canon movies, there are some obvious issues with continuity of characters, themes, and such. Still, this is the third consecutive good Star Wars movie in an effort that could have been disastrous. On its own it’s a fun, entertaining movie, and it lands the impossible-to-land franchise without any major casualties. Is that too low of a bar? Maybe, but who has time to be mad about that? (A lot of you, apparently.)
My original review on letterboxd:
I liked it and (again) think those picking it apart are missing the point. It’s Star Wars you dorks. That said:
Woman at War
Did you know they make movies in Iceland? Well, they made this one anyway. And it’s a delightful story about Halla, a 50-something community choir director who is also waging a secret campaign of sabotage against an unholy alliance between the aluminum industry and her government in defense of the gorgeous Icelandic landscape. There is a lot more going on here, including a collision of Halla’s lone-ranger idealism and a nearly-forgotten opportunity to adopt a child and become a mother. It’s smart, well-acted, funny (especially the repeated resurfacing of a Spanish tourist perpetually in the wrong place at the wrong time, which is funnier if you’re well versed in Spanish cursing), and a little heart-breaking. There is a well-executed twist in the end, and the whole of the story asks powerful questions about what it means to change the world. [streaming on Hulu; content: one scene of non-sexual female nudity in a locker room]
Queen & Slim
I saw this on a whim late one night on the heels of a couple of stressful hours that were sure to keep me awake and walking the floor if I didn’t leave the house. The writing is a bit of a mess at times, and it pushes the boundaries of believability a bit. Or does it? I suspect that question is at the heart of the film, which takes a new, blunt-force approach to exploring the relationship between the black community and the police. The film certainly has a point-of-view, but if you stick with it to the end, it’s not nearly as reductionist and narrow as it may initially seem. Despite its flaws, I was challenged and moved. [content: a pretty, um…thorough sex scene that leaves very little to the imagination about 2/3 of the way into the movie.]
What can I say? I loved it. We saw this with both of my brothers’ families, and everyone had a great time. My theory is writers-directors Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck knew they owed parents one after six years of Let it Go, and they mostly made this for the grown-ups. I laughed as much as I did watching any other movie this year.
I’ve fully embraced my deep love for Brad Pitt, and he’s great here, but as hard as I tried, something just didn’t work for me in AD ASTRA. My feelings about it actually went through a weird cycle: I kind of didn’t get it at first viewing, then I reflected on it for a week or two and decided I liked it more than I first thought. Then I saw it again and agreed with my firstself. There are some great moments, particularly visually, but the script takes a very strange path to what it’s trying to say, and the moral resolution is a bit too simplistic for the morally problematic route your hero takes to get to that resolution. Also, more Donald Sutherland!
I actually don’t mind movies that are long, but I tend to agree with the notion that in 2020 this would have played better as a limited teevee series than it does as a winding three-plus hours of Scorsese’s aging greatest hits. That said, I liked it just fine. I just got a little bored along the typical Scorsese scenic route to the actual plot, and the de-aging stuff combined with the fact that these guys can’t help but move like their actual age was distracting. There’s also plenty to love, including Joe Pesci’s performance, which is outstanding. I’ll give it another shot eventually, but it misses out on my upper tier for now.
The Two Popes
I liked this and wish I had more to say about it, but I was doing other things while watching it, which certainly limited my experience. It’s nice to see Anthony Hopkins in a meaningful role again. I continue to be a little mystified by how infrequently that happens in recent years.
Only The Boss can be this earnest and get away with it. But he is. And he does. And it’s terrific.
I know I’m in the minority, but I’m pretty ambivalent about MARRIAGE STORY. I like all the players, and there are some moments that shine, but it’s a little overcooked for my tastes, even after giving it a second look. I know it’s a story about stage actors, but it felt too much like a stage play to me too often.
Fighting with my Family
This is the least artistic and most commercial piece of Florence Pugh’s breakout year (more on that to come), but it’s a lot of fun. I’ve had zero interest in professional wrestling since Sting went to the dark side, but this is actually mostly about the story and the characters and never really feels like a cheap infomercial for the WWE or whatever the current wrestling behemoth is called these days.
I’m a huge fan of what Jordan Peele did with GET OUT, and I tried hard to get into this. I have no doubt Peele is just smarter than me, and Lupita Nyong’o is hauntingly brilliant. But I just couldn’t find it.
Echo in the Canyon
I’ve certainly seen better rock docs, but I enjoyed Echo in the Canyon, which explores the music scene that grew up in Laurel Canyon outside LA in the mid-60s—The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, The Beach Boys, The Mamas and the Papas—and the ways that music shaped generations of artists. This film was Jakob Dylan’s project, and I would have preferred more time given to the fascinating interviews and less to Dylan and his friends playing a Canyon tribute show. My sense is the concert footage is sort of his love letter to the music and an effort to demonstrate how timeless it is. But man, the conversations with David Crosby, Roger McGuinn, Lou Adler, Jackson Browne, Graham Nash, Eric Clapton, Michelle Phillips, Ringo Starr, and even a little Brian Wilson are just so compelling. It’s a shame the ratio isn’t tilted more in their direction. Despite its flaws, the reflections and stories from those folks make ECHO worthwhile. And and AND Dylan spends quite a bit of time with Tom Petty. I’d pay to watch the whole thing again to get to see those final conversations with him.
Joaquin is predictably brilliant, and narratively JOKER is less of a mess than I expected.
It’s also trying to be two different things—a compelling drama about one man’s psychological deterioration and an origin story for maybe the most iconic bad guy in superhero lore—and misses completing either effort. Which is too bad, because I can see the potential of both.
But the real trouble is that there is nothing here but a deeply cynical and secular (a word I mean very precisely) view of the world, void of any presence of morality or true north. That’s a problem on two levels: I’m offered no chance to contrast what’s broken in Arthur/Joker with someone or something whole or redeemed; he’s just one wreck in a world of various (mostly stereo)types of wretches. That’s bad storytelling.
And while I don’t need every movie I see to say something, this movie is trying very hard to convince me it has something to say. All I hear is an echoing hollowness. Who needs that these days?
I admit I have approximately no idea what is happening here, but whatever it is, Willem Defoe is doing it with undeniable and utterly insane genius. This is also where I got on board with Robert Pattinson. [content: I don’t even remember, but this thing is bananas, so consider yourself warned and be prepared for anything.]
WAVES is not at all what I expected, and I was not into the first half of it. But this is essentially two movies, and what unfolds in the second half is rather beautiful.
Man, Lucas Hedges is everywhere.
Part Two will follow directly.