Monday March 23, 2020
My Top 10 Movies of 2019
I usually apologize for posting my top 10 list late—and this is by far the latest I’ve ever posted this thing—but screw it. If I’d rushed it, I couldn’t have added about half these movies (#s 1, 3 and 9 for starters). They would’ve slipped into the gap. Plus, as you know, it’s been kind of a fucked-up year. In January, I was down with a virus (not that one … I don’t think), then I was playing catch-up throughout February. And this month, yeah. This shit show.
In that regard, most of these movies are available for streaming on Amazon (“The Farewell” is free if you have Prime), while “The Irishman” and “Dolemite” are on Netflix. Stay safe.
10. A Family Tour
At a hotel in Taichung, Taiwan, a film director who’s been exiled from Mainland China and now lives in Hong Kong, is seeing her mother—traveling with a tour group—after five long years. The meeting is outside a hotel and includes her husband and 4-year-old son. It should be heartfelt. It isn’t. It’s stilted and slightly awkward, and then it’s interrupted by the tour director, who leads the mother away. The sense of violation is immediate—maybe particularly for me, since my own mother suffered a stroke three years ago. At that moment, I was really hating on the tour director. Turns out, she allowed this meeting, and others, to happen, despite risk to herself. What we’re witnessing is the long arm of authoritarian rule. Even in another country—ostensibly the same country—it can come between a parent and child.
9. 63 Up
It felt a bit like attending a class reunion; I kept getting reacquainted with forgotten friends. “Oh right, Tony, the wannabe jockey who becomes a cabby, who’s got a joie de vivre and is always on the run, always on the make. And Nick, the farmboy who doesn’t “want to answer those kinds of questions” (about girls), who becomes a scientist and moves to the states and marries one beautiful woman, then divorces, then he marries another beautiful woman. I guess it pays to not answer those kinds of questions. And of course Neil, unforgettable Neil, who at 7 was a cute Liverpudlian boy with Beatle bangs who skipped along sidewalks and wanted to be an astronaut, and who at 28 was homeless in the Scottish countryside, unable to answer questions without rocking back and forth, in the midst of a psychological breakdown.” I could never forget him. Not in a million years.
8. The Irishman
When introducing characters throughout the movie, Scorsese will often freeze-frame the shot and let us know when/how the character died—usually it’s brutally—and I assumed that’s where he was leading us during the extended denouement: to the death of Frank Sheeran. But that’s the one he doesn’t give us. He shows us Frank buying a coffin. He shows him estranged from his family—his four girls—and FBI guys showing up to try to get more info on the Hoffa case. But then this too goes away. Everything goes away. The nurse taking his blood pressure doesn’t know from Jimmy Hoffa, and Frank is more and more irrelevant, more and more alone, until he asks the departing nurse to leave the door open to let a little light in. And that’s where Scorsese leaves him. He doesn’t end him. He leaves him in purgatory.
7. Dolemite is My Name
This is the first Eddie Murphy movie I’ve loved since the 1980s. What’s fascinating is he’s playing someone the exact opposite of Eddie Murphy. Murphy was a hit on “SNL” at age 19, a hit in the movies at age 21, a standup phenomenon at 22, and the star of the biggest box office movie of the year, “Beverly Hills Cop,” at age 23. Not many actors were hotter, sooner. And in “Dolemite” he plays a dumpy, middle-aged man who missed his shot. But Murphy makes this credible. He has hurt in his eyes.
6. Avengers: Endgame
There’s a need for the MCU to move on, so I guess this is the right call. But some part of me feels we didn’t get enough Iron Man vs. Captain America. It’s not just the clash of personalities. They represent the two halves of America: its ideal (democracy/Cap) and its messy reality (capitalism/Iron Man). It felt like more could be said with this dichotomy—things that might help explain us to us. But pause a moment to consider the triumph of this series.
5. JoJo Rabbit
I don’t know if it’s the funniest movie of the year, but it’s certainly the most original. Playing the Beatles’ German-language version of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” over the exuberant opening credits? And associating this happy 1964 music with the mania Hitler caused among Germans who adored him? Wow. There’s a scene where a Gestapo agent tells JoJo to ignore the rumors that Hitler has only one ball because it’s not true—he has four of them. I’d say that’s actually writer-director Taika Waititi. He’s certainly got some big ones. He even plays Hitler in this, to comic perfection.
4. The Farewell
The Chinese title is more direct, “Don’t Tell Her,” which is a little ironic since the point of the movie is a particularly Chinese lack of directness; keeping an unpleasant truth from a beloved family member. The cultural absurdities here may be specifically Chinese but the family absurdities are universal. I love the final scene in China: Billi in the cab with her parents being taken to the airport, and watching her Nai Nai through the rear window waving and getting smaller and smaller and smaller. That’s all of us, eventually, saying good-bye to loved ones. Or being the loved one.
3. Corpus Christi
Is Bartosz Bielenia a shapeshifter? In Jan Komasa’s “Corpus Christi,” he plays Daniel, a 20-year-old criminal who pretends to be a priest in rural Poland, and throughout the character seems both immoral and holy, male and female, child and man. He’s a not-good person who becomes one. He repairs a community. I think he enjoys what he does—he’s good at it—but don’t be fooled into thinking he’s a good kid. He’s not. Maybe that’s why he makes such a good priest.
2. Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood
It’s not until we see the title at the end that we realize we didn’t see it at the beginning. We also realize why. At the end, it’s an admission. The author is basically saying he did his best but he can’t change history like he did with “Inglourious Basterds.” He’s breaking the fourth wall. He saying this is just a wish-fulfillment fantasy, a fairy tale, a once up on a time… I’d argue it’s the most poignant moment in any Quentin Tarantino movie but I’m not sure what else would rank. Poignant isn’t a word we normally associate with the man.
1. Pain and Glory
This is my favorite Almodóvar. He’s usually too quirky or pungently sexual or something for me, but this one hits home. Because it’s a portrait of the artist in winter and I’m a writer in autumn? Because the artist, director Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas), has a sense of failing his dying mother, and I’ve been probing that wound since my own mother died last August? The movie is Almodóvar’s, specifically his, but it doesn’t feel narrow. It’s as wide as life. It forgives everything but bad art.