Best of 2019, #1: Marriage Story

This is, to put it mildly, the best American movie of the year. It is, in fact, the best American movie in several years, since… well, since Lady Bird. And that’s only appropriate, since it’s obvious that one of the factors fueling this movie is Baumbach’s jealousy over that movie’s success. (One of the husband’s final humiliations is when he finds out that his wife has gotten a directing Emmy nomination, despite the fact that he thinks of himself as being the great director of the family.)

Both Baumbach and Gerwig have just turned out movies that aren’t exactly high on the subject of marriage, so who knows how things are going at home, but they’re certainly turning out great work, so I hope that whatever tension they’re feeling remains high!

Before this movie, the great American divorce movie was Kramer vs. Kramer, but this movie easily surpasses that one. That movie clearly picked a side, but this movie has the courage to split our identification (though not necessarily our sympathies) evenly. The result is one of the most heart-rending movies I’ve ever seen. It really wrecked me.

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Create Real Horror Movies. This is the only movie I’ve ever seen that exposes one of my deepest fears, the fear that my kids wouldn’t miss me that much if I got separated from them. The movie makes it clear that Driver is a very good father (with the big exception that he wasn’t a great husband to his son’s mother), but when Johansson’s work takes her to L.A., Driver keeps waiting for his son to miss him and that just never happens. Unlike the kids in The Squid and the Whale, this kid adjusts quickly and easily to his parents’ divorce, and, while that’s great for the kid and mom, it’s unbearably painful for for the father. I think every loving parent has a horrible suspicion that their children are just black holes of love, never intending to give back all that they’ve taken in, and this movie really tore me up inside by showing that fear made manifest.

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Pass the TBS Test. I’ve always felt that every great movie should pass the TBS Test: If you were flipping around the TV (I realize that people don’t really do that anymore), and you ran across this movie on TBS, would you be compelled by whatever scene you happened upon? In this movie, the answer is overwhelmingly yes. (A distinction that was also true of Kramer vs. Kramer, come to think of it.) There are several scenes/sequences that would make compelling short films, and none is more amazing than the home visit from the court evaluator. Driver is, as usual, riveting and squeezes just a right bit out humor out of his agonizing tension, culminating in wonderful bit of subtext-becomes-text when he slices himself open and fails to hide it.

Best of 2019, #2: Jojo Rabbit

Yes, this movie is greatly indebted to Wes Anderson, but I think it’s ultimately better than any Anderson movie since Rushmore. When I originally wrote up this list, I hadn’t seen this one yet, so I wrote that Joker was the only movie to take Trump seriously. Turns out, that’s not the case. This comedic film, about a good mom who watches her sweet 10 year old son naively (endearingly, in fact) embrace Nazism, could have been been dreadful if it hadn’t judged its tone juuuuust right, but I thought it used its humor as a powerful dramatic tool.

Why do people embrace Nazism? Because it puts you in a world of super-heroes and super-villains that is, on some level, fun. Those people at the Trump rallies are having fun, and mentally regressing to ten-year olds.

If a certain character had not blocked a certain other character’s knife, this would have been a very different movie, and perhaps a braver one, but I think it works the way it is, because it is willing to push us to that point before it takes mercy on us and our hero and drags him back to humanity.

As I’ve said before, I know I’m watching a great movie when I’m not thinking about movies but thinking about my own loved ones. Like many fathers of young sons, I worry so much about the toxic environment awaiting my son, and Roman Griffin Davis’s performance is so remarkable human that I couldn’t help but see my son in him, not a film character. As with tomorrow’s film, this film left me with a profound desire to hug my family afterwards, holding on to them for dear life.

Best of 2019, #3: Knives Out

Brick wasn’t as smart as it thought it was. The Last Jedi was pretty dumb. Looper was downright idiotic. How did Rian Johnson get so smart all of a sudden? Maybe, like Craig Mazin, his whole career pre-2019 was one long fake-out, setting us up for the knock-out punch? Even this movie’s trailer wasn’t very appealing. It showcased the movie’s weakest aspect (Craig’s accent, which is harmless but certainly never convincing) and the few jokes that didn’t land (“Is this ‘CSI: KFC’?”). So I was totally unprepared for how great this movie is.

The cinematography! The production design! The dialogue! The performances! (One silly accent aside) One problem is that, since they were being so coy about the plot, they had to hide the fact that Ana de Armas is the main character, which means she didn’t get the star treatment she so richly deserves. She quietly steals scenes from each of the big name actors, keeping us in her head, not theirs.

Tips: Beware of concepts you can’t promote well

 The most obvious way to promote this movie is “A private nurse becomes the number one suspect in the murder of a wealthy man when it turns out he left her all his money.” But that set-up isn’t established until halfway through the movie, so it would have been frustrating to viewers who had seen the trailer that it took so long to get to that set-up. So instead, it was just promoted as “An old fashioned big-house star-studded murder mystery,” and it did fine, but ultimately its marketing was a liability, not an asset. And because Armas is not one of the previously established stars, she got sidelined by that promotion strategy. Still the plotting and pacing in this movie were pretty much perfect, so I can’t complain.

Best of 2019, #4: Joker

By the time I finally got around to reluctantly watching my screener of this movie, I had been fully conditioned to hate it. Imagine my surprise to find out that it’s actually pretty great.

First, I had been warned by months of media coverage that it was a lazy Scorsese knock-off. It’s not. If you want to see a lazy Scorsese knock-off, go watch The Irishman. I thought this one definitely wanted to be in conversation with Scorsese, but its greatest assets (the cinematography, score, production design, and Phoenix’s performance) were not at all indebted to Scorsese. I thought it was an original vision.

Secondly, I had been warned by the media that this movie was recklessly reactionary. The ghouls at were openly rooting for there to be shootings during the opening weekend showings. They ran article after article about violence that was sure to come. It didn’t. Personally, I always found the two movies this one is most in conversation with, Taxi Driver and The Dark Knight, to be vaguely reactionary, and it’s never surprised me that one inspired a presidential assassination attempt and the other a mass shooting. Of course, it’s not too late for this one to inspire violence (the Hinkley shooting wasn’t until four years after Taxi Driver), but, having seen the movie, I’m not surprised that it hasn’t.

(Just to be clear, Taxi Driver is superior pieces of filmmaking, but I worried more about people taking the wrong message from that one than I do from this one.)

Speak to Real Life National Pain: This is one of the only American movies to take the Trump election seriously. It’s no secret that a lot of people on the left think we shouldn’t do that. “There was no populist element to Trump’s victory. Blame the Russians and move on. Triangulate better next time.” They get pissed whenever a reporter interviews a Trump voter. The problem, they say, is that such voters weren’t silenced effectively enough, and we’ll do better at that next time. This movie actually stares down America’s screaming throat and listens to the madness.

I’m old enough to remember when the left embraced empathy and the right was against it, but that seems like a long time ago now. The belief now, as far as I can tell, is that there’s never been a strong enough wall between empathy and sympathy, so one is always in danger of leading to the other, so we should all just stop feeling each other’s pain and raise the barricades instead.

What I love about this film is that Phoenix demands our empathy without ever once asking for any sympathy. Sorry AVClub, but nobody left the theater wanting to be Arthur Fleck or any of his pitiful followers. You can feel for people and still loathe their actions. We must learn to do that again.

The Best of 2019, #5: The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part

This movie has received zero year-end love, so I just rewatched to see if it’s as good and I thought on first viewing. It’s even better! This is certainly the most underrated movie of the year. This year saw two eagerly-awaited follow-ups to animated hits of a few years ago. Frozen II went on to surpass its predecessor at the box office and become the biggest animated hit of all time, while this one flopped hard. How did the public get it so wrong?

I’m not sure any movie has stayed with me as much as this one. Most obviously that’s because I haven’t stopped playing and singing its songs (Yes, one fun song is genetically engineered to get stuck inside your head, but “Not Evil” does that job even better) But more importantly, I thought this movie had the courage to hit the emotions just as hard as the original, and go darker (as heard in “Everything’s Not Awesome”)

This had a lot to say about how we gender the concept of “hero”, why we crave post-apocalyptic narratives, and how men and women try to change for each other, for good or ill. The performances of Pratt, Banks, Arnett, et al, continue to be wonderful, and Tiffany Haddish is a great new addition.

Tip: The Smarter You Are, The More Heartfelt You Have to Be

This is one of the most post-modern movies ever made (Right down to an end credits song by Beck about the greatness of end credits). The whole thing is an examination of how and why we tell stories with several very clever self-aware jokes. So it’s a very head-y movie, but its heart is even bigger. In fact, that’s the whole point. The boy playing with these legos wants to be cool by closing his heart, and the movie knows that we’re conditioned to root for bad-ass-ery, so it gets us wrapped up in his quest. It’s truly shocking when we’re reminded, along with him, that it’s more heroic to open your heart than it is to harden it.

Best of 2019, Bonus Runner-Up: Us

A Saturday post?? It’s been almost ten years since I did that! Folks, there’s been a shocking turn of events: I unexpectedly got a chance to see one of the movies I hadn’t seen and it’s upended this list! This was going to be movie #5, but now it’s been knocked down to runner-up status, and if I’m going to finish all these before the Oscars, I’d best cover this one today!

Parasite isn’t on this list because it seems silly to see just one foreign-language film and say that was the best one, so I decided to limit myself to the best English-Language films of the year. But I did see it, it is amazing, and it makes an amazing companion to this film. Talk about great minds thinking alike! Both have two four member families, one living below ground and the other above, both involve a plan by the underground family to displace the aboveground one. They’re both great movies, and I just think it’s a shame they came out the same year because I fear that the similarity cost this one an Oscar nomination.

My one concern: This has one of the all-time great “Everything you know is wrong” twists, but I was never sure about its placement. It’s revealed at almost the very end of the movie, after it’s too late to affect any of the heroine’s actions. (The Sixth Sense reveal also happens at almost the very end, but in that case the hero acts.) Basically, this movie is saying “Sorry, but you have to buy another ticket and watch it again now that you have this essential piece of information that will change the way you see everything.” I haven’t had a chance to revisit it yet, but if Get Out is any indication, I’m sure it will only grow in my estimation on subsequent viewings.

Tip: Exhaust the Plot, Then Escalate

In the first half of this movie, the four members of the family go face to face with their doppelgangers, and the viewer assumes that that will be the whole movie, and it feels plenty satisfying. But then they successfully escape to the nearby lake house of their friends …only to discover that their friends have been killed by their own doppelgangers! It’s an escalation of the action, an escalation of the danger and it’s an escalation of the the theme, going from a personal horror story to a broader societal critique, and it’s absolutely thrilling to the audience.  Most horror movies have diminishing returns in the second half, but this movie is just getting started.

Best of 2019, Runners-Up: The Two Popes

One of the best surprises of the year, highlighted by two amazing performances: How wonderful to see Hopkins gleefully rediscover skin-crawling creepiness and Pryce get to play a genuine hero for the first time in years (though both popes turn out to be more complicated than they first appear.) (It’s fascinating to compare Pryce’s performance here to “Game of Thrones” where he got to play the evil version of the same character, and did an equally good job.)

Tip: Give them a Fit Bit

The play, as far as I can tell, just consists of two men, a pope and a pope-to-be, sitting in a room and talking for two hours. The movie has to “open the story up”, and it does so in various expected ways (It adds little moments away from the confrontation, it dramatizes the stories Francis tells about his past, etc.) but it also uses a trick I found amusing: Benedict is wearing a Fit Bit, and, as anyone married to a Fit Bit user knows, it’s constantly telling him he has to get up and walk around, so the two keep having to get up and walk from room to room (and of course these are some of the most spectacular rooms in the world). It’s a good humanizing detail, and it livens up the visuals at the same time.

Best of 2019, Runners-Up: 1917

Like Dunkirk, this is a showy technical achievement that still manages to be an impactful tragedy. I thought this film rose above that one through its performances. This one follows the same strategy of getting name actors to play the higher-ups while the youngsters are played by new faces, but I thought Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay were far more compelling than the young stars of Dunkirk.

Tip: Give Them Ironic Motivation

This movie does something interesting. It gives Chapman a personal motivation for his mission (which felt a little contrived): if he succeeds he may save his brother’s life. Despite knowing that, MacKay, worried for his own life, says maybe they should refuse orders. Then the movie kills off Chapman halfway through the mission. MacKay didn’t feel he owed it to Chapman to help save his brother when he was alive, but he does feel that obligation once Chapman is dead. That’s nicely ironic.

Best of 2019, Runners-Up: Little Women

Going into this movie I couldn’t help but think about the fact that “Little Women” had a distinction that was not shared by any other Great American Novel: It already had three excellent film adaptations (1933 with Katherine Hepburn, 1949 with June Allyson, and the very best: the 1994 version with Winona Ryder) so who needed another one? Unfortunately, after watching it, I still feel that way.

This is, in many ways, a great film. The cinematography is absolutely gorgeous (Oh how I wish I could take this movie’s cinematography and transfer it over to Harriet!) The performances are great (though in almost every case, the performances in the 1994 version were even better), but it never drew me in all the way.

What ultimately alienated me from this version is the timeline-rearranging. I spent the whole movie trying to figure out why Gerwig did it and I never came up with an answer. The plot turns in the book are so moving, so why spoil them all up-front? And it put Gerwig in the position of having to work hard to differentiate Beth’s two illness, which now play out simultaneously. She did so with the tired trick of color-tinting one blue and the other gold, which drew attention to itself and still didn’t work.

As for the big change to the ending of the story, it’s fine. Alcott intentionally chose to disappoint the reader, and by doing so she made a powerful statement about women’s choices in the 19th century, but Gerwig (like lots of modern readers) couldn’t accept that disappointment. She wanted a more heroic ending, and she cleverly found it by borrowing from Alcott’s own life-story. As it turns out, that does indeed make for a satisfying ending, and one can hardly criticize Gerwig as not being true to the 19th century, when this is the version that really happened. It’s a neat trick. (Of course, at some point we’ll get a fifth version which acknowledges the real possibility that Jo is lesbian and/or trans, and then this one will look dated.)

Best of 2019, Runners-Up: Harriet

This is certainly the most essential movie of the year, in that this is the story that most needed to be told. Harriet Tubman is the greatest hero in American history and she’s only now getting her biopic. And it’s perfectly fine. It does the job of telling this story, and it’ll be a good choice to show in schools from this point on. I just wish it was more artfully made.

The score (by the usually great Terence Blanchard) is ham-handed. The cinematography is very flat. This was obviously going to be a very hard movie to light, since Tubman’s whole trick was that she would travel through the woods on moonless nights, and thank god they didn’t shoot it day-for-night (You scoff that they never would have done that, but X-Men: Apocalypse had a day-for-night scene set in the woods at night, and that movie came out just three years ago), but their solution is just to have big blue flood lights on at all times, so bright that even when people light lanterns those lanterns cast shadows. How I wish this movie could borrow the cinematographer from Little Women. Even better, imagine this movie had been shot like The Revenant (another big-19th-century-foot-trek movie).

But ultimately, my big concern is Tubman herself, both in writing and performance.

Cynthia Erivo is fine, and I don’t mind that she got an Oscar nomination, but ultimately I wanted a performance with a little more interiority. Ten years ago, I gave this advice to actors and actresses: Always look like you’ve got a secret. Harriet Tubman was a woman with a lot of secrets, but Erivo plays her as too much of an open book.

In terms of the writing, I feel like the major turning point in Tubman’s life was the moment when, after years of asking God to change her owner’s heart, she reluctantly asked instead that God take his life, and the man unexpectedly died the next day. That, understandably and correctly, convinced her that she had superpowers, and she acted accordingly from that point on. The prayer is in the movie, but the camera isn’t even on Tubman at the time, it’s on her owner’s son. And we don’t see her find out that the owner is dead. We never get that “Holy shit, God does what I say, this changes everything” moment. That’s Tubman’s secret, and I wish it fired up the movie more.