Friday, February 7, 2020

Taking On 2019: Top Films

Hey! We're here, the Oscars are about to happen and we can finally put a bow on the year that was, and as such that means I'm ready to write down this list with pictures and words that list, definitively, the best films of last year. At the halfway mark I'd already seen some pretty good films, but there are so many heavy hitters to come that things really did change. But you know what they say, the more things change, the more they stay the same. That is to say that you can check out all the things I watched on Letterboxd, but how about we get down to the Top Ten?

10. Parasite

The latest from Bong Joon-ho came in with pretty lofty expectations on my end, having been responsible for some of my favorite films, and while there are arguments to be made as to how it stands up against the rest of his filmography, he manages to once again craft one of the year's best. With a tightly wound story, tremendous cast, and his mastery of blending genres creates Parasite certainly brings together some of the year's most memorable scenes. As it wraps up there are more traces of Park Chan-wook than I was expecting, but with so much quiet action throughout it's hard to see Bong Joon-ho's latest as another rousing success in a career without a miss.

9. Fourteen

Every year there seems to be something that takes me completely by surprise, and this year I was floored when I finished up with that at the Philadelphia Film Festival by how strong of a grip it had on character, friendship, and the nuanced pains of life that so often either get overlooked or have the drama ratcheted up to Make You Feel. And there are bigger scenes here, but even those are rooted in realism that they can evoke emotion all on their own. Plus there's that train station scene where Sallitt just lets the camera linger in a way that encapsulates all the care that this film takes in capturing and depicting life. All around a remarkable film, and that's without even mentioning the two central performances from Tallie Medel and Norma Kuhling that are among the year's best.

8. Deerskin

Coming in to putting this list together, I wasn't sold on 2019 being all that great of a year, and while I do still question that, the fact that Deerskin sits so low in these final rankings is perhaps a testament to how high the year's highs ended up hitting. From start to finish, this film finds Dupieux apparently doing what he does, and at a remarkably high level. Aided by a wonderfully committed performance from Jean Dujardin, there's a meditation on art and the artist wrapped in that sweet, sweet deerskin jacket. Its lean run time means not a moment is wasted, as it brings you in to its truly killer style.

7. The Beach Bum

Remember that thing about Parasite coming in with sky high expectations? Well, I think only Harmony Korine's take on the stoner comedy would have entered with higher ones, as I've been waiting for it since it was announced, and am of the mind that there's a strong case to be made that Spring Breakers is the best film of the last decade. Unfortunately, this one seemed to come and go, which is a shame, because it once again finds Korine working at an insanely high level visually, nailing both a look and tone that conceal the larger mediation on art and commerce that occupies the core of the film (along with the whole in the moment and towards the future dichotomy). Oh yeah, and this movie is low key the real best ensemble cast of the year, all anchored by a mesmerizing turn in the role of Moondog by Matthew McConaughey. Florida is terrible, but Korine makes it the most captivating place in the world.

6. Les Miserables

Ending up as the best film I saw during PFF, Ladj Ly's remarkable debut has the first time filmmaker bringing a look at a city on the precipice of revolution, though brings us far from Hugo's source material to a modern Paris. Situating so much of the film in the perspective of the cops, letting us wallow in overt racism and the self serving interest of sustaining a corrupt institution, it makes for a compelling drama on its own, but finds life in the way this perspective is used to explore both the beginnings of corruption and resistance through the different characters. By the time it reaches the finale, I found myself stunned in my seat. A hell of an announcement for Ly, and I cannot wait to see what he takes on as his next project.

5. Little Women

Strong year for ensemble movies, with Gerwig's adaptation of Little Women retaining the original narrative, but shaping it in a way that both modernizes it in terms of its audience, but also its form. Or so I'm told, I haven't actually read the book, nor have I seen the other adaptations. Still, the way Gerwig handles telling the story, juggling between the two time periods, requires such an attention to detail and technical precision, which she achieves both overtly and subtly through visual cues and the use of color. There's Ronan too, who gives another tremendous performance, and pairs wonderfully again with Chalmet, as they both did in Ladybird. But also there's Florence Pugh. No need to tip my hand too much though, there will be time to celebrate her soon enough.

4. Marriage Story

Big year for Scarlett Johanson, probably an even bigger year for Adam Driver, but both bring their best to Noah Baumbach's examination of a couple going through a divorce. At this point I feel like it has been talked to death just how humorous it is, despite the weighty material, but that kind of makes the drama feel as if it's only assumed to be great. And that's the case, the dramatic beats, both quiet and loud, hit with the weight of a ton of bricks, but it's how that serves the deeper examination of love and partnership where the film earns its spot on my list. It doesn't pull punches, but doesn't completely give way to the cynicism of the reality that lawyers are terrible, children ruin everything, and no one will every truly love you 'enough' no matter what they say.

3. Uncut Gems

Would it be better to just write about this one entirely in meme form? Maybe, but I'm not about to do that. That is not how I win. Sandler is great, obviously, he has been plenty of times before, and few things piss me off more than the 'oh, he can be really good when he wants to/with the right director/when he tries' so we're not going to dwell on that one. The Safdie brothers bring about a thrill ride, capturing that thrill of the gamble, a life where any second could be the last, all complete with those moments to breathe, celebrate, and go right after that next high. Probably plenty more to get deep in the weeds with, as it were, and I will admit my slight bias in the sense that I was attended a game during the Sixers/Celtics series that takes place during the film and still keep the rally towel and Sixers shirt that they gave away in a steady gym rotation, but yowza is this film a sight to behold.

2. Midsommar (Director's Cut)

One of the films that I definitely had the chance to revisit from the previous year, obviously in an ideal world I'd be able to watch anything multiple times but it just doesn't fall that way sometimes, I'm highlighting my second viewing here because Ari Aster's sophomore feature, because that's kind of when it started making this climb, just as Hereditary did last year. This cut is more whole, extends some scenes, builds the world, contextualizes the characters, and makes a more complete picture. It also gives us more time for Florence Pugh, which brings me to the point we've all been waiting for, the brief departure in to just how great she was in 2019 between this, Little Women, and Fighting With My Family. She really is a force here, both through physicality, but just in how she commands the screen. She doesn't just give the best performance in this film, in Fighting With My Family, in Little Women, with Midsommar she is very likely giving 2019's best performance. End of sentence. Which now brings us to this list's...

1. Climax

Not very often that a film has the chance to go wire to wire, as it were, but Gaspar Noe's latest is such a shot of energy, chaos, and thrills all at once, and is entirely, given all the discussion around the topic last year, a work of pure cinema. When I came out of this film the only thing I wanted to do was walk right back in to the theater for the next showing, which says a lot in the moment, but the fact that feeling has been able to withstand the better portion of the year is likely the ultimate compliment I can pay to a film. The film is inventive, provocative, amazingly polished without losing the freedom of motion that defines the physicality the film needs in order to thrive. And it not only thrives, it comes alive. From start to finish, Noe's film pulses with life, that cut through everything else, and stands as the year's best.

So there we have it, the movies that stuck with me. In 2020 perhaps we will have more posts, but I don't want to write any checks that I can't cash. In this economy??? I don't think so, pal. But let me know if the comments what I missed out on, what I still need to see, and what your favorites were. Until next time!

Comments are welcome and, for anyone with a literary mind, I encourage checking out my poetry blog filled with all original works for your reading pleasure.

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© 2020 Richard James Thorne

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