Monday, December 30, 2019

The Movies of 2019

I watched 95 feature-length movies this past year, and saw 39 of those in the theatre, as indicated by an asterisk (*) before the name of the film. I also saw 16 shorts, 12 of those on the big screen (at a film fest). My top ten, accompanied by a whole load of Almosts, follows at the end of this.

I also managed to see movies from 20 different countries (although Canada was only short films this year), which is a record for me:

New Zealand
South Korea

Struggle: The Life and Lost Art of Szukalski (2018) USA - An excellent Netflix documentary about a once-famous Polish artist and sculptor who was mostly forgotten for the last 40 years of his life, rediscovered by underground comix creators living near him in California in the 1970s. It takes some wild turns, opening up a story that will leave you with your mouth hanging open many times.

Darkest Hour (2017) UK - A decent movie, and I can see why Gary Oldman received his Oscar. That said, as with so many biopics, if often felt very piecemeal. The one good part about that is at least it was limited in the scope of time it took in.

Paddington 2 (2018) UK - So delightful, and I can’t believe I put it off this long. And yes, Hugh Grant really does deserve all the accolades.

Dealt (2017) USA - An interesting doc about Richard Turner, a card mechanic - magician - who is totally blind. More interesting for the sheer pigheadedness he demonstrates, and the patience his family offers in return.

12 Strong (2018) USA - A serviceable film, yet another based-on-a-true-story film about the Afghan war. Helped by a good cast in some cases, but some of that good cast is sorely underused.

Bad Times at the El Royale (2018) USA - A clever thriller/mystery, quite violent, although not as over-the-top as a Tarantino movie would have been, which I’ve heard it compared to. Great cast, lots of excellent surprises all the way through.

Three Identical Strangers (2018) USA - A very interesting documentary that takes some dark turns. We had some issues with questions left hanging at the end as regarding the fate of one of the subjects, and I hesitate to say more because it’s worth seeing without spoilers, even now.

*The Favourite (2018) UK - Wild and brilliant and so very well acted. Often somewhat Gilliam-esque, I found, with some wild camera angles and lens choices. As well, the movie was shot on 35mm film with only natural light, including in many cases only candles, very much like Kubrick did with Barry Lyndon. It’s astonishing to look at.

Brexit (2019) UK - Benedict Cumberbatch is excellent in this docudrama retelling of how the Leave campaign won. An original on HBO, it’s another very good political retelling.

*They Shall Not Grow Old (2018) NZ - An absolutely outstanding documentary about WW1, film from the day cleaned up and timed right and colourized, all narrated by soldiers who had been interviewed for the Imperial War Museum. Gorgeous.

The Catcher Was a Spy (2018) USA - An okay thriller that takes a number of liberties with the facts and puts the thrilling parts in kinda the wrong part of the film.

Close (2019) UK - A good thriller that takes the expected gender roles and flips them nicely, including one character being fridged. It’s hard-nosed, the fights not easy for star Noomi Rapace, but it does stumble a bit when it tries to delve into the personal lives of its main characters.

*Shoplifters (2018) Japan - A wonderful film about what it means to be a family, and how it doesn’t have to be blood that ties us together and makes us look out for each other. Surely would have been in my top ten last year and stands a good chance for this year.

*Cold Pursuit (2019) USA - A darkly funny revenge thriller that is a remake, directed by the same guy who did the Scandinavian original, In Order of Disappearance. A couple of Coen brothers nods are here, one very good, the other quite over-the-top. Worth seeing.

High Flying Bird (2019) USA - I’m not a big basketball fan, but Steven Soderbergh’s film about the politics of players and ownership was excellent. Soderbergh shot this entire movie on iPhone, and aside from a few specific lighting issues the phone’s camera seems to have it looking good.

The Breaker Upperers (2018) New Zealand - One very funny movie that goes far beyond passing the Bechdel Test. It’s written and directed by the stars, two very funny women who also do a great job of depicting a great friendship.

*If Beale Street Could Talk (2018) USA - Remarkable camera work here, very affectionate and deeply personal. This would have been in my top ten for 2018 if it had made it to town before year end.

Minding the Gap (2019) USA - A moving, devastating, and in the end uplifting documentary. It starts seeming like it will be about skater kids and quickly turns into a deep dive into broken lives, domestic abuse, and strength and love. Oscar-nominated. 

A Star is Born (2018) USA - It does live up to its hype, and I’m disappointed I didn’t see it in the theatre. Some excellent performances, the music is excellent, the love story both moving and devastating.

Behind the Curve (2018) USA - An unsurprisingly irritating documentary about Flat Earthers.

Free Solo (2018) USA - I had to cure my own fear of heights by, believe it or not, jumping out of a perfectly good airplane. his movie came close to bringing back that fear. An astonishing tale of obsession.

*Captain Marvel (2019) USA - This was much better than I thought it would be. A great answer to Captain America fighting the fascists overseas, in that this one is Captain Marvel fighting the fascists at home. Fun without being silly, and a thrilling statement I think a lot of unaware critics missed the point on.

Apollo 11 (2019) USA - A stunningly good documentary, full of footage hidden away for decades, and edited so deftly it surely deserves an Oscar nomination. I was on the edge of my seat, even though of course I knew what was coming next.

Triple Frontier (2019) USA - Famously took its time getting made, with all sorts of stars attached before backing out, and when you hear those stories you worry about the final product. But it isn’t bad, actually. A good cast, some genuine tension (especially with the helicopter), and a more nuanced treatment of soldiers than so many of the recent rah-rah military films.

Searching (2018) USA - Surprisingly effective and even emotional (although my wife would disagree, as she felt there was too much disconnection). Really, though, it should have been marketed as a horror for parents of teens and tweens.

Ralph Breaks the Internet (2018) USA - A fine and fun and heartfelt sequel, but there isn’t too much else I can say about it.

A Private War (2018) UK - Good movie, good performance, but I’m beginning to feel like Rosamund Pike is usually trying just a little too hard. Interesting to look back at this and think on how understated Stanley Tucci was in his much smaller role.

*Us (2019) USA - For such a genuinely silly idea, this sure does nail it. Freaky and spooky and tense and some great performances, especially (of course) Lupita Nyong’o.

I Am Richard Pryor (2019) USA - A bog-standard talking head documentary, interspersed with some archival footage, that nonetheless is enjoyable because of its subject.

Green Book (2018) USA - I avoided seeing this on the big screen and honestly could have given it a miss at home. Surprising how I could feel disappointed watching a movie I expected to disappoint me.

*Shazam (2019) USA - Great fun. Leaned in heavy on the delightful silliness of the comic, and yet carried a nice emotional heft. 

Anthropocene: The Human Epoch (2018) USA - I’ve been a fan of photographer Edward Burtynsky for years now, and this movie perfectly translates his work to film. Stunning and disturbing.

Border (Gräns) (2018) Sweden - I see filmmaker John Waters added this to his top ten of the year, and if you know John Waters and his work that should tell you plenty. A seriously messed-up film that deserves your attention.

*Avengers: Endgame (2019) USA - Lots of bang, lots of noise, lots of fun, a good job of making you care about the characters. But it’ll take a lot more than that to convince me we should be getting these movies as often as we do.

Leave No Trace (2018) USA - Ben Foster, like Joel Edgerton, is quietly turning out some quality work that not enough people are aware of. An excellent, quiet film, with powerful performances by Foster and by Thomasin McKenzie.

Cold War (2018) Poland - Maybe not the same heights as the filmmaker’s last movie, Ida, but still gorgeous and glorious.

Last Breath (2019) UK - A tense and intense documentary, although I will admit the subject matter feeds on a deep and almost pathological fear of mine, so it really had me on the edge of my seat.

*John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum (2019) USA - The incessant violence is of no interest to my wife, and I don’t blame her, but this was still an excellent addition to a riveting series.

Perfect Bid: The Contestant Who Knew Too Much (2017) USA - A fascinating look at obsession of a different type, about a wannabe game show contestant.

Equalizer 2 (2018) USA - If the first one was a fun and more violent, adult-rated version of Home Alone, this one was mostly just an admission that some creators are not interested in treading new and interesting ground.

Venom (2018) USA - Oddly better than I expected, especially when viewed through the lens of a deeply bizarre friendship. Even love.

Stan & Ollie (2019) UK - I’m not a big fan of biopics, but films that take a closer look at one segment of the lives of people are more interesting to me. This handled that well, and the performances are outstanding.

Rim of the World (2019) USA - A fun alien invasion film where the heroes are teens. Not quite at the level of Attack the Block, but it deserved more attention for sure.

*Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019) USA - Woof. What a mess.

*Late Night (2019) USA - A significant lack of realism only briefly disengaged me from some great characters and interactions.

I Am Mother (2019) Australia - A decent post-apocalyptic science fiction film, tightly focused.

*Yesterday (2019) UK - Enjoyable with a lovely ending, but on the second-best film of the year based on the rock music of my youth.

*Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019) USA - Another tremendous MCU film with an ending that had me practically squealing with delight.

*Midsommar (2019) USA - There are some great moments, and some hilarious moments, but sometimes the humour might not have been intended. Much too long, and that’s without having seen the longer director’s cut. I did like it, though, even if it sounds like I’m complaining. Swinging for the fences gets you my appreciation whether or not it all works.

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) UK - The sort of biopic I tend not to care about. Some good performances, but by no means an Oscar-worthy film.

*The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019) USA - Perhaps the most beautifully-shot film I saw this year, wit an emotion heft we so rarely see. 

Burning (2018) South Korea - Like almost all South Korean movies, this goes places films from other places would not dare to. A dark and effective psychological thriller. 

*Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019) USA - Another alternate history from Tarantino, a tremendous film. The only question I have is how many people are going to understand that Pitt’s character is an unreliable narrator, considering his charm and looks?

*Blinded By the Light (2019) UK - The best rock and roll film of the year. Great fun, great musical moments.

*It Chapter Two (2019) USA - Almost but not quite the biggest disappointment for me, especially considering how much I enjoyed the first one.

*The Peanut Butter Falcon (2019) USA - This movie was a delight, and seeing so many mentally handicapped people in the theatre reminded me just how much representation matters.

*Tigers Are Not Afraid AKA Vuelven (2019/17) Mexico - Dark and unsettling story about homeless children trying to get by after drug wars have taken so much from them. Turns into possibly a ghost story, possibly a Mexican version of Pan’s Labyrinth.

The Biggest Little Farm (2019) USA - A fun documentary about the trials of starting up an organic farm in spite of knowing next to nothing about farming. Beautiful cinematography. 

*Official Secrets (2019) UK - Gripping true story about a whistleblower within Britain’s intelligence network, with some terrific acting. 

*Monos (2019) Columbia - Young people left to their own to guard a hostage for terrorist/freedom fighter group. What could go wrong? Turns out, lots. A very good film.

Booksmart (2019) USA - The hardest I laughed this year. We watched at home and probably should have had the subtitles on so my wife could understand what was happening. So many wonderfully-realized characters, solidly feminist, just all around a winner. 

Furie (2019) Vietnam - A decent, although not great martial arts movie with a female lead. Worth seeing, though.

Arctic (2019) Iceland - Like Redford in All Is Lost, Mads Mikkelsen says an awful lot with very few words. Riveting.

Toy Story 4 (2019) USA - I don’t know how they keep managing it, but Pixar’s sequels in this series have all been quality, and this one is the same. Not quite the heights reached earlier, but still excellent.

The Laundromat (2019) USA - Probably minor Soderbergh, but still very good with a great cast. Didn’t speak to me quite as strongly as The Big Short did, although still a valuable lesson on film.

*Ad Astra (2019) USA - Probably the angriest I was watching a movie this year. It was gorgeous to look at, but aside from the absolute science stupidity, so much of it felt like it had been plotted by a ten-year-old. 

In the Tall Grass (2019) USA - An all right adaptation of a story by Stephen King and Joe Hill, with some genuine tension, but it only rarely pulled me in deep.

In the Shadow of the Moon (2019) USA - A science fiction time travel cop thriller with a really cool twist towards the end. Workmanlike otherwise.

*Häxan (1922) Denmark -  A sorta documentary from back in the silent film era, accompanied by live music, which all makes for a remarkable evening at the movies. For the year this was very dark indeed.

Capernaum (2018) Lebanon - A devastating portrait of refugees in Lebanon, acted by real refugees. Would have been one of my top films of 2018 if it had made it here that year.

*Terminator: Dark Fate (2019) USA - Better than I anticipated, and a nice touch making it so female-centric. Not a classic but a nice step up from the last one.

Tell Me Who I Am (UK) 2019 - A documentary about one twin with memory loss from an accident being taught his history by his other twin, with a banger of a shock near the end.

Wild Rose (UK) 2018 - Terrific movie about a country singer in Scotland, about her attitude and her legal problems, and while it follows a fairly standard redemption path it’s worth watching for that joyful turn and for some great music, including a song co-written by Mary Steenburgen.

The King (2019) UK - Less historical drama and more one that plays with Shakespeare’s works, Joel Edgerton wrote this and has a fine supporting role. Some outstanding battle scenes to boot.

*Jojo Rabbit (2019) New Zealand - Hilarious right up until the gut punch reminding you where and when this takes place. I can’t imagine anyone other than Taika Waititi pulling this off, and he does it so well. Bonus points for really dragging out the “Heil Hitler” scene. 

*Parasite (2019) South Korea - Easy choice for my favourite movie of the year. A tremendous thriller about class, family, and poverty. Not a misstep in the whole thing.

*Doctor Sleep (2019) USA - A decent adaptation of the Stephen King book, a sequel to The Shining that manages to straddle both the book and the original Kubrick movie. I really appreciated the director using actual actors to take on the roles of the original actors. 

A Vigilante (2019) USA - This was a remarkable movie, disappointing that it had no traction on release and showed up on streaming with no fanfare at all. Strong feminist story, and if it weren’t for the dumb thing she said after the latest Clint Eastwood movie was released I would have said between this and Booksmart 2019 should have really been Olivia Wilde’s year.

Dolemite is My Name (2019) USA - Eddie Murphy is fantastic in this, and the story is a delight.

*Extra Ordinary (2019) Ireland - A movie about a woman who doesn’t want to use her special talent to help get rid of unwanted ghosts, but falls into it anyhow. One of other finest comedies of the year, and Barry Ward puts in not just one of the best comedic performances of the year, but possibly of the decade. Seriously, he works some magic with his role. 

*Daniel Isn’t Real (2019) USA - A darker version of the memorably mediocre movie Drop Dead Fred, about an imaginary friend (played by Arnold Schwarzenegger’s son). Okay, with a nice twist near the end, but only middling.

*The Vast of Night (2019) USA - A first movie, made on a shoestring, and stunningly gorgeous. There are a couple of jaw-dropping long tracking shots and a great sense of mystery. Well worth seeking out.

*Jallikattu (2019) India - A film about masculinity and violence, filled with stunning imagery, but perhaps a bit too loud and frantic.

*The Wretched (2019) USA -  A decent horror movie about a witch who kills people and then lives inside their skin, and the boy next door who realizes what’s wrong and tries to fight back.

*The Irishman (2019) USA - Forget the issues with the digital de-ageing, which only took me out of it for a few minutes at the very beginning. The acting is remarkable, especially by Joe Pesci, and three and a half hours flowed by without catching me up at all.

Atlantique (2019) Senegal - A beautiful story of love and loss and greed that turns, surprisingly, into a very different type of ghost story.

*Knives Out (2019) USA - A great murder mystery with twists and turns and tremendous performances from an all-star cast. Fun.

*Dark Waters (2019) USA - A darker, male-centred Erin Brockovich, based on the true story of a lawyer who takes up the cause against DuPont and the damage done by their production of Teflon. If anyone would challenge Joe Pesci for the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, my hope is it would be Bill Camp, who is incredible in this.

The Guilty (2018) Denmark - A good Danish thriller that takes place entirely in an emergency call centre. We learn more about the cop taking the calls as the movie goes on, as well as the person he is trying to save, and the final multiple reveals don’t feel like a cheat.

*Star Wars: Episode IX - The Rise of Skywalker (2019) USA - I saw it, I don’t mind I saw it, I hope I won’t have to see another for a good long spell. I understand why some people are upset about Rose being sidelined, but I am old and cranky and had trouble caring even when the original characters were on-screen.

The Aeronauts (2019) UK - An exciting action movie about flying a balloon in 1862, kind of based on a true story (from the excellent book Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air) although with Felicity Jones inserted as a female balloon pilot instead of who flew with Eddie Redmayne’s character instead. The aerial photography and stunts were incredible, and it was originally to be released on IMAX, which I am sorry never happened.

Marriage Story (2019) USA - Certain Oscar nominations for ScarJo and for Adam Driver. Hard to watch when you’ve been from a divorce, but I managed to get through it and am so glad I did. For a movie so disturbing and upsetting it ends on a lovely high, if bittersweet, note.

*Little Women (2019) USA - Glorious and joyful, even as it is accompanied by tragedy. I wanted to watch it again right away.

I Lost My Body (2019) France - The story of a severed hand making its way across Paris to reconnect with its owner, this animated film has a real emotional heft and strong symbolism. Best animated feature of the year, but not for children.

The Report (2019) USA - Adam Driver again, who was everywhere in the last few weeks of the year, as the man who brought the CIA’s torture program to light in an obsessive, Herculean effort that took many years. Annette Benning plays an uncanny likeness of Senator Dianne Feinstein.

Short Films

If I could find a link I supplied it, since short films are often more difficult to track down.

Period. End of Sentence. (2019) USA - An excellent documentary short that won the Oscar, about menstrual rights and activism in India. Ntflix

Anima (2019)  UK (15 minutes) - Thom Yorke of Radiohead doing a lengthy music/dance video, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Excellent. Netflix.

Frankenstein’s Monster’s Monster, Frankenstein (2019) USA (32 minutes) - An okay spoof/mockumentary starring David Harbour, and while it goes over the top too many times, I do realize that was the point. Netflix.

*Make Me a Sandwich (2019) Canada (3 minutes) - A clever short horror about domestic strife.

*The Video Store Commercial (2019) Canada (4 minutes) - An actual commercial for a real video store in Calgary, and it was glorious.

*In Sound, We Live Forever (2019) USA (12 minutes) - A nice horror/thriller piece in which most of what happens is background or in the past, sound jammed up against peaceful yet increasingly ominous visuals.

*Bedtime Story (2019) Spain (9 minutes) - About a witch watching a family from an apartment across the way. Suitably creepy.

*Fears (2019) Spain (5 minutes) - A creepy monster-in-the-closet story accompanied by an overly obvious ending.

*The Boogeywoman (2019) USA (18 minutes) - A horror about a young woman’s first period. The first half, in a roller rink, is much more effective than the second half when she is wandering the deserted city streets. (Trailer only.)

*Changeling (2019) UK (9 minutes) - A very creepy story about a new mother and the transformation on her baby. (Trailer only.)

*The Hitchhiker (2019) Australia (13 minutes) - A great short film about vampires, terminal illness, and friendship.

*Re-home (2019) USA (8 minutes) - Clever conceit, about re-homing loved ones like pets because of the skyrocketing cost of living. (Trailer only.)

*Lili (2019) Netherlands (8 minutes) - A screen test, #MeToo, and how it all goes wrong for one man. (Trailer only.)

*A Noise That Carries (1019) Canada (15 minutes) - I worry that what was meant to be a scary part just ended up feeling silly, because I’m pretty sure our laughs came when they weren’t intended.

*Girl in the Hallway (2019) Canada (10 minutes) - I would rank this as one of my top ten if it was feature length. As it is, a devastating must-watch.

My Grandfather’s Memory Book (2018) USA (5 minutes) - A lovely animated short by a Pixar animator about his grandfather’s drawings about his life. 

I had more trouble narrowing the list down to a top ten for the year, at least after the first three. But here goes:

1. Parasite
2. The Irishman
3. Little Women
4. The Last Black Man in San Francisco
5. Knives Out
6. Us
7. Jojo Rabbit
8. Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood
9. Atlantique
10. (Tie) Dolemite is My Name/Marriage Story

Movies that on another day might have forced their way onto this list are Border, Blinded By the Light, The Peanut Butter Falcon, Tigers Are Not Afraid, Monos, Official Secrets, Booksmart, A Vigilante, The Vast of Night, Dark Waters, I Lost My Body, The Report, Paddington 2, The Favourite, They Shall Not Grow Old, Shoplifters, If Beale Street Could Talk, Minding the Gap, Free Solo, Apollo 11, Anthropocene: The Human Epoch, Leave No Trace, Cold War, Burning, The Biggest Little Farm, Arctic, Toy Story 4, Wild Rose, The King, Extra Ordinary, and Capernaum. Several of these were 2018 films, which is why I kept them off the top ten.


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