Friday, October 29, 2021

THE TOP TEN FILMS OF 2019! With perpetual lateness as always, even with a pandemic.

So, you'd think that, the pandemic would mean that I now had the time and energy to actually catch up all the movies and such that I never seem to get around to. Well, yeah, I did too. That's not really what happened though, is it. In fact, if anything I feel like I'm way more caught up on 2020 and even 2021 then I have been in years at this point. I'm still behind obviously, but catching up on the past, seemed like the wrong move at times. I mean, I tried, but looking at 2019 in the middle of the pandemic, felt like looking at 1999 after 9/11. We just were so na├»ve you know...? I mean, it wasn't that bad, I mean, we probably should've expected it; in fact, a lot of people and made plans and preparations and then Trump and the Republicans came, threw them all out, and we're still having to wear fucking hospital masks everywhere. So yeah, looking back at, a still not great time, but just a not-as-awful time, just seemed weird most of the time. 

Honestly 2019, is also the first year in a while where I'm kinda bleh, about both my Best and Worst Lists. It's not that, there aren't great films, there are, there were quite a lot actually, but in terms of emotional appeal, films I really fell in love with and cared about, they were few and far between. I felt more distant then ever between me and the movies then in a particular year. Everything just seemed like a 3 STAR attempt, whether it was one or not in hindsight. I suspect that 2019 is a year that's gonna get rediscovered in a few years time and people re-evaluate how good the films actually were. So, in that unusual sense, this being late for all my Best of the Year Lists actually makes me, shockingly early this time around. And actually that is a nice change-of-pace. 

So yeah, don't consider this, me having the last word on the year, consider this me, having the first word on the re-evaluation of a year in film? Well, I guess we shall see. As always, I still haven't seen everything, my opinion's subjective, blah, blah, blah, here we go; let's finally close out the book on the 2010s. 


THE TOP TEN BEST FILMS OF 2019

NUMBER 10: 

10. Us


I went back and forth with a few movies for this tenth slot on my list; there's quite a few that I think I could've made a decent argument for, but inevitably I went with Jordan Peele's "Us", his follow-up horror film about an invasion of dopplegangers that opens up a nature vs. nurture parable about class in America. 

My Original Review:
Jordan Peele's, "Us" the most annoying movie for search engines since "It", is his follow-up to "Get Out" which I was utterly fascinated by. "Us", is another rare horror movie that I'm fascinated by. Mostly I'm fascinated by Jordan Peele, who's comedy background has proven to not only give a new, much-needed edge new storytelling dimension to horror, but also his own background as he does what the greatest of writer/directors do, they introduce us to themselves. "Get Out" was great in part because only Jordan Peele could've come up with it. "Us" is great in pretty much the same way, for the same reasons; it's a story that only he I feel was uniquely qualified to come up with.

Although in this case, it doesn't entirely feel that way at first. I mean, the idea of the bad guy being, well, "Us", our ourselves, is not exactly new. In fact, it's probably one of the most overused conceits in horror and sci-fi and a lot of others genres. Then again, many of the threats in "Get Out" were well-worn cliches too, but they weren't in that movie and they aren't here. There's always something else going on in Peele's films, more than that, he always, always, has something to say, something that too many movies in this genre generally don't.

The movie takes place mostly around the Santa Cruz boardwalk. At first, in the '1986 around the time of the "Hands Across America" thing, There, we meet young Adelaide (Madison Curry) who gets lost at the local amusement part for the briefest of moments and wanders into the Hall of Mirrors, where, apparently, she finds a doppleganger of herself. I know, it's the Hall of Mirrors, but yes, a doppleganger.

Years later, Adelaide (Lupita Nyong'o) has a family of her own, and her husband Gabe (Winston Duke) decides to take the the family to their beach house residence near the same area, along with their friends Josh and Kitty (Tim Heidecker and Elisabeth Moss). She's got kids of her own now, an athletic track star daughter, Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and a young son, named Jason (Evan Alex), who's about the same age his mother was when she had the strange encounter. Now that they're back at the same boardwalk and amusement area and beach, strange coincidences begin occurring. Jason, for instance, gets lost for a brief moment just like his mother did, but doesn't seem to be too traumatized, despite an unusual piece of art that he drew. It's around this time when their home, and apparently everybody's home begins to get invaded by mysterious groups of people. All wearing red jumpsuits, almost all of them seeming superstrong and superhuman, all using a pair of scissors as a weapon of choice. And, apparently, they all seem to not like rabbits.

The rabbit motif is just as surreal as anything. One of the early shots on the movie is a long take of a brown bunny, that's surrounded by white bunnies. Not the only time the movie reminds me of a Charlie Chaplin reference either, (There's a famous shot in "Modern Times", I believe of a single black sheep amongst a stampede of white ones.) as it seems like one of the, eh, "Us", I guess these dopplegangers are called, seems to have tried ballet at one point, somehow, and is able to use those skills to help fight off attacks, that reminded me of how W.C. Fields used to call Charlie "That goddamn ballet dancer." I don't think Chaplin is the real inspiration though, although it's fascinating to look around and see all of the strange items and signs and unique references in "Us". I haven't investigated it, but I'm sure the internet is full of dozens of theories about "Us", and what everything means. I'll say this, I'm not normally one for decoding movies, even David Lynch movies I think are often better left unanalyzed, but I did seek out stuff for "Get Out", and I'm excited to look up stuff for "Us" as well. The production design of the film, the specific outfits, the signs, even fleeting Bible references are fascinating to me. Why a putter and a crystal as weapons at one point? I think "Get Out" will inevitably have more of a long-lasting impact as it really introduced us to a kind of horror that we hadn't seen before and one that had such a distinctive thing to say about ourselves and the relationship between people in America from and of different classes and race and how they interact with each other. There are some fascinating details here about that, particularly during one frightening and hilarious sequence where the songs "Good Vibrations" by the Beach Boys and "Fuck Tha Police" by N.W.A. are used as direct contrasts depending on whether a white family or a black family is protecting a house from these invaders.

That's the greatest appeal I can give a current filmmaker, that after their films, I can't wait to look deeper into their work and find out more about it. I felt that with "Get Out" and I feel that with "Us" and well, and I give that credit to Jordan Peele.

I think "Us" suffered a bit from comparison to "Get Out", Peele's absolute masterpiece that's gonna be looked upon in the future as one of the all-time great American horror films, but there's a lot going on in "Us" as well, and maybe even more then in "Get Out". It's definitely one of those movies where the more you watch it, the more layers it has. You know, it's funny, American horror, for quite a long time, had been a real punchline among cinephiles. For a long time, it was a bunch of bad teen slashers, a bunch of remakes and sequels of other teen slashers, like from the mid-'90s 'til like, very recently, this was a trope-heavy genre where every film seemed pretty much, just another dumb variation of the previous film. Horror has been way more interesting in foreign countries in recent year, like Korea or Japan among others, these last few years, spearheaded by Jordan Peele's work has really gotten me excited about American horror again. Like, on top of everything else that goes into his movies in particular, it's just refreshing to see this genre, filled with real inspiration and meaning again. Ironically, this was a genre that had become a joke, and it took a comedian, to make me serious and artistic again. Who knew? 


NUMBER 9: 

Actually, before we close out this decade entirely can we go back to my 2013 list, just for a minute. What was my Top Ten that year?

1. Before Midnight
2. The Wolf of Wall Street 
3. Gravity
4. American Hustle
5. Blue is the Warmest Color
6. Her
7. Inside Llewyn Davis
8. Rush
9. A Touch of Sin
10. What Maisie Knew

Wow, goddamn, that was a very good year. Oh yeah, most of these films would've easily made my Top 5 this year. Well, maybe not... Maybe I put "Rush" a little high, maybe we all kinda overestimated how good "Her" was though.... Those are still great movies, but I will say that, generally, I don't really have too many regrets on these lists I make every year, but this year, 2013,... while I had to make a lot of deep cuts to this list, there's one movie that I wish in hindsight I put on this list instead. If I did this list now, there'd be some changes and that movie in particular, would be in the Top 5 and frankly I should've had it there at the time. 

I made the mistake, of kinda caving into some of valid criticisms of the movie, but I also didn't want to get bombarded by some of the not-so-valid criticisms of the movie that were pretty prevalent too. Anyway, I'm not changing this list, officially, 'cause I'm not gonna erase history, but I'm not making this mistake again, especially when the sequel was just as great.


9. Frozen II  


I know, I'm still gonna get some "Frozen" haters for posting this, hell, I got them last year when I posted my CANON OF FILM post on "Frozen"  but they can fuck off, 'cause they're wrong. "Frozen" is unbelievably amazing, one of the best films this decade, much less, animated films. And "Frozen II" was just as good, just as deep and expanded on the world in ways that I feared they couldn't do, and didn't think they would do. 

From my original review:  
The original is a masterpiece, and I'm not gonna pretend the arguments against it are remotely relevant. For reasons that I don't follow at all, "Frozen" more then any other Disney movie in my lifetime has divided more fans and cinephiles then anyone. A good majority of them complain that it's a ripoff of "Tangled" for instance, and I refuse that argument 'cause "Tangled", is one of Disney's weakest movies that's just barely good enough to not be a straight-to-DVD feature and despite some memorable scene and sequences is truly one of their most forgettable films and I can only imagine that the people who defend it vigorously must've watched it all the time as kids the same way there's a lot of things that were mediocre-to-bad that, as kids we enjoyed but didn't quite realize how mediocre they were until we grew up....

Now, there are those who don't like "Frozen" regardless of comparing it to "Tangled" and those arguments I can find more tolerable, 'cause "Frozen" isn't perfect.... "Frozen" does so much more then just reinterpreting "The Snow Queen", it better-then-any Disney project completely subverts and reimagines the classic fairy tale tropes that they invented, it takes a story that really is only about two sisters and gives it such emotional complexity that and emotions; there's a surprise villain, but think about how the film's villain song is about how someone turns into a villain, and is ironically sung by the hero, one of Disney greatest and most complex characters, and in many ways, you can argue that she's entirely justified, even though you can also argue that their fractured relationship that began with questionable parenting is what led up to these actions too. I just love that a Disney film is about sisterly love, family who go to the ends of the Earth for each other, especially considering Disney's history with families, "Frozen" was a revelation, and for me a far more powerful one then most of their other films that are mainly about finding love and romance. Even more then all that, I just love how much it's Broadway influence reigned over the movie. Musicals have always been a Disney trope as well, but rarely did I feel like they were more influenced and inspired by Broadway tropes, if anything, I kinda thought they were usually more inspired by other musical movies, but this was the first time I thought the Broadway structure went through the Disney filter and it got the absolutely best parts of both mediums. Honestly, I think we're gonna look back years later after all this internet hullabaloo and bias has died decades from now and we're gonna realize that "Frozen" is not only one of the best films Disney ever produced, but as one of the best movies of the decade.

I wasn't expecting "Frozen II" to catch that kind of magic again, and it doesn't..., but it caught a different strain of magic though....  In a flashback sequence, we hear a story about by their father King Agnarr (Alfred Molina) about an enchanted forest that he visited once years earlier, and after things were going well with the local villagers, called the Northundra, a battle began, that ended in his father, King Runeard's (Jeremy Sisto) life and everybody except for him and his wife Iduna (Evan Rachel Wood) couldn't get out, and the forest is now hidden from the world. Well, it's unsurprising that the gang eventually finds this world, but what they find is also interesting, and I don't want to give too much away. For one, those actual spirits are actual characters, the Wind Spirit is named Gale which, might sound obvious, although I can't help but feeling there's a double-meaning with that name, because there's another famous Gale that gets taken by the wind into a new fantasy land. Yeah, the look of the movie doesn't resemble it, but there's some strong "Wizard of Oz" vibes from this film too, just the sense of a strange collection on a daunting adventure. Most of the inspriation though is Nordic mythology and northern Scandinavia in particular, based on the amount of reindeer in this franchise. They run into both the Northundra people, led by Yelena (Martha Plimpton) a wise older woman who's been protecting her land for decages from the missing Arondelle soldiers, who are also still here and are led by Matthias (Sterling K. Brown), and both sides are shocked to find anybody enter the world that's been closed off for decades, and also amazed at Elsa's powers of nature.

Something else that I never realized until now is how great a fantasy story these "Frozen" movies are, and I mean that in the most classic sense. I think one of my issues with how fantasy handles relationship building is that, too much of it seems separate from the fantasy world they're building when it's usually stronger when they're interconnected and not in a cliche way. There's no searching for rings here to save the world, although a few things have to be done to save their worlds and Holy Christ does it become a lot, a dam lot I should say, but the journey isn't a search for a world, it's a search for an identity. This essential story could be told, outside of a fantasy universe. Sisters who've struggled to get along for years, finally come together and then they find out stuff about their parents and family that they didn't know beforehand and now they both have to work together and apart in order to both keep each other's bond together, but must also risk everything, including breaking that sisterly bond forever if things go wrong. This could easily be some kind of Bergmanesque drama that could fit right into his Absense of God Trilogy, or something of that sort, and we're seeing this kind of complexity in Disney. Psychoanalytically, these movies are so much more fascinating and complex then most so-called character study films and these two films do it better then it has even has any need to.

Also, the music for the most part is great. There's one or two songs that are kinda silly in how they're presented; they're not bad songs at all, they just oddly fit, but some of the songs like "All is Found," about the maguffin Attahollah River is a gorgeous haunting lullaby that you could play over the opening of "Stairway to Heaven" and barely notice it being weird, and of course, the Oscar-nominated "Into the Unknown" is a classic inspiration ballad as well.

I also just like picking out the influences of these films. This one isn't as much Broadway, but it does have the structure, but I think it takes more of it's inspiration from other classic fantasy self-discovery tales, and possibly other Disney films, but not in normal ways. There's some amazing "Fantasia"-like animation here, especially in the sequence in the sequence where Elsa fights a water spirit, which is a water horse that she ends up taming. I also love how the song sequence for 'Show Yourself" is basically the opposite of "Let It Go", as he sings that Ilsa sings while rebuilding a different ice fortress and for different reasons then before.

I kept waiting for me to be disappointed in "Frozen II', to find something that was lacking enough for me to overlooked how amazing the themes of the movie are, and instead I kept being surprised by something new, either in the story or the animation or both. It takes some simple ideas and transports them to the highest scales in the most beautiful ways, and it just surprising me, inspiring me in ways that works on so many levels deeper then most "Disney" films, certainly deeper then most of the Princess films.

Apparently most people and critics didn't see it that way, looking through the RT reviews, even the ones who liked it don't rank it as high as the first one. So, I guess it's up to me to take the bold stance here and say that "Frozen II" is equally as masterful as the original. It's in a totally different way, but it's also a far more complex then the original even. I can't think of a Disney, or many movies that live in this push-and-pull relationship of love being explored in all different ways as it's being done here, and familial love at that. How many movies about siblings or even family members do you ever actually believe that they actually truly love each other and would jump off cliffs and push the other off on because of how much they care for each other? If I can come up with a handful of movies, I'd be shocked, even the best ones, I usually just see really good actors doing really good acting. Maybe it's the animation, maybe it's the performances, but I actually believe that with Elsa and Anna, and that's what puts these movies over the top. They're trying to something so difficult that nobody does well under the easiest of circumstances, and they did it under the hardest, and they did it twice.

"Frozen II" might even be more of an accomplished then "Frozen", because there was so many easy ways that this film, could've screwed up, could've given in to fan service or just became another Disney/Pixar sequel cash grab, when instead, they arguably made a complex emotional narrative and made it even more enriching and deeper. I mean, there was a chance they could've done something simpler and it still would've been good, it's mindboggling that they not only didn't do that, but they made it this good. They do not take the easy routes with these films and thank Disney and Pixar for that. 


NUMBER 8: 

8. Ash is Purest White


I've only seen three movies from Chinese director Zhangke JIA and now all three of them have made my ten best lists. Usually his films are wonderfully elaborate and layers commentaries on the past, present and sometimes future of modern day China, but this latest one, "Ash is Purest White", while not his most politically intricate is probably his most commercial film to date as it tells the story of a mafia girlfriend who goes to jail for her boss boyfriend only to come out five years later to find how much things have changed. 

From my original review: 
There's a scene in "Ash is Purest White" that includes a simple idea that I'm kinda amazed I've never seen it done before until now. A character arrives at a building  to meet with and reconnect with someone who she hasn't seen in a very long time. It's one of those automatic sliding doors that opens when you walk up close to it, only, it doesn't open for her. Not because it's not working, it clearly works, but not for her. It's subtle, but it's subtle in a way that makes the scene almost seem symbolic of the whole film, which is saying something 'cause there's already a lot in this movie.

Zhangke Jia ia one of the best filmmakers in the world.... and I'm fascinated by whatever he comes out with next. Every time I try to describe his films or his directing style, I run into a bind. I keep wanting to adequately compare him to some of the more well-known Western filmmakers, Richard Linklater, Robert Altman, Terence Malick, etc. etc. and there's comparable aspects to those filmmakers and several others, but none of those names ever seems perfectly fit. That's not a criticism, that's a compliment by the way. The movies he makes are distinctively his. Filled with quiet, fascinating long takes, observant slice-of-life portrayals of the past, present and the future of China, with quiet main characters who think much more than they often speak out. He characters live lives of quiet desperation until all that's built up in them, inevitably implodes and he finds and elegaic elegance to that. Despite the beauty of these films, he is regarded as controversial, and he's certainly a critic of modern Chinese society and where it's going. His films all seem to reflect that, often taking place in the past, present and sometimes even in an otherworldly future to show us a warning that we may or may not heed.

All that said, "Ash is Purest White" is his most straightforward film yet, and I wouldn't be surprised if this is the one that gains the biggest cult appreciation in America. For one thing, it's a gangster movie. A popular genre all over the world and Asian gangster films in particular have caught on here. That said, it's still different. It focuses not on the crimes or even the big boss, or the investigation into the underworld, but instead on the girlfriend of the boss. Qiao (Tao Zhao) is a empathic and fascinating character. She's dating a well-known underworld figure named Bin (Fan Liao). He's so well-known that he's often under attack from rival gangs in attempts to take him out perhaps in order to take over his territory and properties. The movie begins at the turn of the century and he's still making deals in discos and running his organization. Him and Qiao seem in love, and while she runs her own charitable side projects and works at her own job, she's beginning to get used to the gangster life that he's in.

Then, an incident occurs where she is arrested after trying to defend Bin from an attack. She spends the next five years in jail, and returns to a new China essentially. This is his second movie in a row that seems to document the westernization, cultural, economic and even geographical changes in the country over years. When she is out, she begins to find Bin and return to their normal life, but plans go awry here as well as Bin has left the life and many others have moved on from their old positions and are trying to dissuade her from finding Bin herself, but she's particularly sly and knows how to maneuver around. I like one sequence in particular where we see how she manages to get somebody in a rich party in a restaurant to give her some money to get around town. You don't see too many movies about a women's journey into the life of being a gangster, but essentially we do get that parallel as she becomes more like Bin while Bin, we find out, has left the life entirely and doesn't want anything more to do with Qiao.

That is, until years later, when he reenters and Qiao is right there with him, both of them coming back into the fold after life-altering, in Qiao's case, otherworldly events change the course of their life once more.

I'm still only scraping the surface of "Ash is Purest White" btw. This is a movie filled with tons of emotional depth, some humor, a great character study, a reflection on the state of China and how it's continuous westernization is making the country less individualistic than ever, it's even a pretty decent commentary on what exactly a love story can be. As long as Zhangke Jia has something to say, I'm gonna want to hear what he says next. Few filmmakers have as fascinating a take on the world as him and he's earned his place as one of the best directors alive. Don't be surprised if he makes another Top Ten List of mine with this film. This one in particular, while it may or may not be his best film, it's definitely the one where I most got caught up in the world that he's in. 

Well, I said this would probably make my Best List, and it did. It's probably my least favorite of the films I've seen of his so far but this is still a great film. I like that's very intrigued by the changing of China as it become more influenced by Western civilization, socially, culturally, politically, and he's quite intuitive in finding interesting ways to show those changes, and on top of that, he's just a really interesting and compelling filmmaker. He just has some really sharp cinematic ideas and knows very cool and unique ways to tell them. There's almost a natural sense of how he just seems to know exactly where to put the camera and to let things play out; he has a way of creating shots that seems very naturalistic even though they're heavily controlled creative choices that you just don't see that often. One of the best and most important filmmakers in the world right now.


NUMBER 7:

One of the weird things about doing these lists so late is that, I usually expect everybody else to have seen everything by the time I get around to it, but there's usually always at least one movie or two that I bring up that I'll get more then a few people responding with some variant, "Wait, what film?! I've never heard of that?!" and it usually always surprises me when that happens. I don't know why; I guess, like, for last year, I expected more people to have seen "Never Look Away" and "Science Fair", for some reason.... (Shrugs) That said, and I admit I didn't look particularly close to see, but if any other critic out there had this film in their Top Ten this year, I didn't notice it, so yeah, if I am expecting that response from somebody for this year's list, I'm expecting it the most from this film. 

7. Mouthpiece


All that said, I'm a little surprised this movie hasn't gotten more traction, 'cause this little Canadian indy film called "Mouthpiece", it does something I have never seen done before. Based on a play by one of it's stars Amy Nostbakken, the movie involves two actors who are always onscreen simultaneously, portraying the same main character, a struggling young writer named Cassandra, who in the depths of grief and regret, has to write a eulogy for her recently departed mother. 

My original review: 
I'll admit that it's possible that I'm catching this film at the perfect time for me to see it. Still though, a much bigger part of me watched Patricia Rozema's latest feature film "Mouthpiece" and I thought, "Damn. I wish I thought of that." It's been a long time I've honestly had that thought I should tell you. "Mouthpiece" is an experimental film which actually has an idea that I haven't seen before; the main character is simultaneously played by two different actresses. One referred to as Tall Cassandra (Amy Nostbakken, who wrote the script for the film, based on her play, and wrote the soundtrack of the film.) and Short Cassandra (Norah Sadava). Both of them are two parts of the same character. They're always together, and sometimes one is talking while the other is off on something else, or sometimes they're both talking. It's not as jarring as it sounds, it's essentially the two sides of a person, both of whom have their emotional strengths and weaknesses and each one acts accordingly depending on the situation and whatever Cassandra's doing or thinking. 

Why would she be split like that? Well, don't we all have different personalities and feelings in a moment? Don't we all just sometimes want to express empathy towards others meanwhile just frustrated and annoyed at our own emotional turmoils that we have to deal with? Haven't you been in a situation where you want to be alone but somebody insists on trying to be there for you and all you want to do is crawl underneath the door and escape? I'm sure some people are going to spend a lot of time trying to decipher whether or not one part is the real Cassandra and the other is in her mind or whether one's the id or ego or superego, or whether or not one's the conscious while the other's the subconscious, but that's-, that's completely the wrong approach to the conceit. Parts of us are able to handle some things, parts of us handle others, and we are all split together parts that form a whole, sometimes you're in a mood and yet you still have to present and appropriate, calm, normal demeanor, even when literally everything anybody else does, just pisses you off; this just visualizes that idea. And it's especially an idea that seems more emotionally realistic when you're dealing with grief.

Cassandra's dealing with the sudden and unexpected death of her mother, Elaine (Maev Beaty). She wasn't in a particularly good place with her at the time, and her family is constantly trying to talk her out of doing the eulogy, because of an incident that occurred between them last Christmas. Meanwhile, she has to help set up the funeral, picking out the casket, get the flowers, buy the snacks for the after-funeral get-together, figure out what to wear that will appease her and her dead Mom. All this, while arguing constantly with herself while trying to write this eulogy. Everything's an inner struggle, and I totally get it. I've often been so caught up in our own mind that I'll freak out, stand up and try to leave my own self, even in the middle of a supermarket and then have myself remind me, "You need to get the snacks!" and then have to go all the way back and grab my cart.
 
There are a few fantasy sequences, including some musical scenes in the movie as well as diegetic scenes, and there's also some flashbacks as Cassandra remembers images of her mother when she was a little girl (Taylor Bell Puterman), as her mother quietly struggled with a marriage as well as holding back on her writing ambitions. Honestly, I can see how if this movie was a little longer it might annoy but this was the perfect length 90 minutes or so length and it doesn't end with some kind of cheesy version of "Persona"-like ending or anything. In fact, in hindsight, I like that they're different heights even; people's heights changes over time as they develop different communication skills, so naturally one is shorter 'cause she literally sees the world a little bit differently. (That's one of my theories anyway) It's one of the better depictions of the visual emotional mindset I've ever seen, and it's such a simple idea, I'm surprised I've never heard anybody come up with it before. 

The directing by Patricia Rozema is really on point as well; this is probably the most experimental she's been in a long time. She's mostly been a TV director in recent years, who occasionally made interesting films; I actually liked "Kit Kittridge: An American Girl" which I think was the first of those "American Doll" movies that came out mostly on DVD for awhile, and she also did the last theatrical adaptation I remember of Jane Austen's "Mansfield Park", but when you check out her '80s and '90s stuff, including "White Room" which dealt with something a little similar, a character who felt like he was living a couple different lives, she's got an interesting experimental narrative streak in her and this time is really works. And I'm really impressed with Amy Nostbakken; on top of the writing and acting being really good; this is one of her first acting roles, period, I also like the soundtrack of the movie enough to listen to it which I normally don't do and didn't even realize that it was also her. Apparently she's known in the Canadian theater circuit scene and this one-hour play that's a much more physical piece on stage is wonderfully adapted to a more intriguing subtle visual piece. It's been called by some as one of the best Canadian films of the year; I can't attest to that, but this is one of the most fascinating and enjoyable surprises I've seen from this year so far; one that introduced us to a new interesting voice and reminded me of how compelling and talented another one is. This is one that people will have to look for, but it's worth seeking out. 
 
Yeah, Patricia Rozema, is not a director I've ever really thought much about to be honest, and literally the only other feature I'd seen from her was an American Doll movie, but I liked that movie, and I liked this film a lot, and yeah, I was trying to think of any other film that did this. I can think of a few movies where a character is played by more then one person in the film, Luis Bunuel's "That Obscure Object of Desire" came to my mind, but that was more or less a joke on how one character saw another character, I've never seen this, where literally, we're getting the same character, portrayed by two actors playing physical manifestations of the character's physical and emotional state, and I was shocked at well this worked. This effect apparently started as a stage play that was even more of a physical performance for the performers, which there's a little of that here, and I can see why that would work so well on stage, but by dimming the physicality of the performances from Nostbakken herself and Norah Sadava, I think it actually made it work better on film, then I previously would've thought. Cause you don't need the physicality, you just need to see them, taking up space, answering each other or other's thoughts and questions, going through the daily events of having to plan a funeral and all the emotional bullshit involved in that.... It's incredibly well-done, and again I'm amazed that this is the first time that somebody's thought to do this. You'd think with movies, you watch enough of them, and you think you've seen everything, and then something like this comes across you, and you're halfway amazed that there are still smart, original ideas in movies out there.


NUMBER 6:

Sasha Stone, the critic and creator of Awards Daily, is a Facebook friend of mine. I wouldn't call us friends in real life or even compatriots or anything but I admire her for many reasons, although admittedly I think she has started to lose it a bit. Most of that's her recent politics, which-, I won't go into, 'cause while I mostly disagree with them, she's not an idiot and they are more nuanced then I can describe here in a timely manner and I don't want to waste time on that..., but I've also found some of her movie preferences a bit strained as well. She's one of the ones who really loved "Green Book", which you know, yeah, I firmly disagree with her on that one. She also really really hated this film in particular from 2019. And look, I don't want to jump on her, 'cause she actually has gotten a lot of undue slack for hating this movie..., but, yeah, I think she's completely off on "Little Women".


6. Little Women


Yeah, I wasn't the biggest person on "Lady Bird", Greta Gerwig's big directing breakthrough, but "Little Women" I think is actually great, and this particularly in particular. I gotta admit that I never did go through the previous film versions of the movie before seeing this one; I have since I watched this, and while they're all really good, and frankly "Little Women" is the actual great American novel, (Yeah, fuck you, "The Great Gatsby", you overrated overly-contrived piece of garbage) but Gerwig finds some beauty and wonder in finding a new way of not only telling the story, but to reinterpret and recreate Louise May Alcott's real true vision of her autobiographical tale of four sisters going on their own wonderous life adventures in mid-19 Century America. 

My Original Review:
So, last year I wrote a review of Bradley Cooper's "A Star is Born" where I lamented that I was a bad cinephile and film buff for having not seen any previous version all the way though. I have a bigger confession to make now, 'cause this goes beyond cinema. I have not seen any version of "Little Women" until now, and neither have I read the novel. This is a little bad, especially for me since there's at minimum three previous major "Little Women" film adaptations on top of several others of all media that I haven't gotten too yet, and unlike "A Star is Born", which I knew the story of fairly well; I'm actually coming into "Little Women" a little blinder then normal for me. My experience with this work is shockingly limited. My knowledge of "Little Women" is basically, that one episode of "Friends" which gives away spoilers, and that "Little Women"'s author, Louisa May Alcott, was ambidextrous. And I learned that weirdly enough, from the taking the SATs. I don't remember much else from that day, 'cause I was pretty tired/hungover and forgot my calculator, and fell asleep in the middle of testing (I mean, I still got 1130 on a 1600, but I really should've done better), but I do remember part of the English side of the exam, involve reading an article on Alcott and how she wrote different stories, using different hands. She would write her more, lightweight and nicer works with her right hand, but when it came to her more darker material, she actually wrote a lot of siliceous pulp material under several pen names over the years, she would write it with her left hand. That amazed the fuck out of me; especially if anybody's seen my handwriting, it's pretty debatable that I even have a dominant hand, although I am right-handed if you're curious, but especially as a professional writer, let's just say that thank god I can type, so anyone who can write well with both hands is impressive to me, and to add a weird quirk like that to it, well, for that I'm always gonna be impressed with Alcott.

And I think Director Greta Gerwig has a deep respect for that fact too, as well as other real-life aspects of Louisa May Alcott, 'cause she put that ambidextrousness and other real-life aspects of Alcottt into Jo (Saoirse Ronan), although since the story was inspired by her own life, I guess that was inherently natural.

What isn't normal is that she's purposefully decided to use a non-linear story narrative to tell this story, jumping pretty liberally from different time periods, locations, narrative threads, and characters. So, from the fact that I'm already coming in a bit blind, I'm coming into a story that I don't know and I'm basically getting the story told in a way that's not how it's traditionally told, and...- well, I guess I might have a skewered perception here, but it feels like, assorted scraps of a whole.... Like when you've got one of those like, 30-course dinners where every course is two bites or so, and you like everything, but you don't really know how they go into each other, or how they're originally pieces together, or whether you felt like eating this or that at that particular moment or not, but the bites themselves, well, honestly I rather enjoyed them. A lot.

I thought for a minute to look up what differences and alterations that Director Greta Gerwig made to the story, but maybe it's for the best that I just simply don't know and only judge this on it's own. (Post-script Note: I of course did look it up after I wrote this, but I still haven't seen the movies; I viewed Be Kind Rewind's Youtube video on the subjects.) So what's she doing with the otherwise well-wourn text? Well, basically the original novel was mostly a profile, of four eclectic and ambitious young-but-not-affluent women, during the U.S. Civil War, and that's essentially how I appreciated it. And yes, a modern-day reading of this story will take a look at these lives and tales, through a modern-day lens, and honestly, I think they're shockingly relevant. Even without the flourishes that Gerwig takes, especially with Jo's story.

We still have battles with our better angels about love and independence and it is a struggle, no matter which direction you decide with your life. Art vs family is still a struggle. Leaving your home and seeing the world is still something that pops; I mean, at one point it's mentioned that Jo wants to build a women's school and that, women's colleges were only recently being built. That's true, and an opportunity for someone like Amy (Florenche Pugh) to go with Aunt March (Meryl Streep) the family's aged spinster matriarch to go travel along with her through Europe, basically was the equivalent of going off to college back then for women. Yes, she was an artist as well like Jo, Jo being the writer who went off to New York and sold stories, and Amy the painter, and artists do go out for inspiration. Meg was also an actress who decided to marry young and marry a poor tutor, John Brooks (James Norton) and honestly even her little blip of a story with the goddamn fabric, I found it sadly relatable to today. Seriously, it's an expense for me to buy even a decent new t-shirt, and people don't realize just how much more affluent they are then those who are genuinely struggling to live day-to-day. (It's especially annoying to have to buy nice clothes for job interviews when you don't have money, which is why you're trying to get hired for a job, in order to buy decent clothes.... [Sigh]) And I have relatives, particularly younger ones who traveled across the world to go to school. And relatives who stayed at home and got married, and relatives like me, who both cared for their sick younger sibling as Jo does for Beth (Eliza Scanlen), the touching young pianist who is a favorite of Mr. Laurence (Chris Cooper) and becomes ill from scarlet fever, forcing Jo to put both romance and career on hold, even giving up one, the love of Laurie (Timothee Chalamet), Mr. Laurence's son, who ends up with Amy, who had a crush on him all along while Jo relents in the true loneliness of the independent woman.

I also think scattered timelines of the narrative work well, 'cause memories themselves can seem scattered, and especially given the conceit at the end, which is a very unique interpretation that both literally embraces and strays vehemently from the original text, but it shows that events in recall and flashbacks, and when re-written into a cohesive narrative arc, can be altered, changed and adapted as certain memories and events will more naturally stick out more then for others.

I do know some critics of this movie, and, I can see some of their criticisms, obviously others I can't cause I am learning this text as I review it, but as an introduction to it; I found it fascinating and emotionally fulfilling. I can see why Gerwig wanted to tell this story anew, and I think she found a modern telling on it that actually works. I also think the cast is great, not just the main four, the supporting cast at the edges of the screen are delightful. Laura Dern and Bob Odenkirk as the March parents are delightful for the few scenes they're in, and I love Chris Cooper's small performance here; you can barely recognize him as Mr. Laurence, but you can see so much in his eyes and nods a man who may indeed be well-off, but definitely has an emotional life and has grown into enjoying the smallest of moments that he can find. I wonder if I actually do read the book in the future, assuming I can find a copy somewhere; I probably have a paperback in the garage if I look hard enough...- or I guess find it online that I will enjoy it as much, since I suspect a more straightforward narrative might now bore me, and I fear that way as well for any of the other film adaptations, but for this one at this moment, in a world where even with more opportunities for all, especially the impoverish and women that we're still constantly at odds with the best choices to make with our lives and what sacrifices that entails, yeah, it felts painfully relatable to me, and yet inspiring and hopeful.

I guess the only real other standard I can come up with is, would Louisa May Alcott like this version of her story? And, of course I don't know for certain, but I have a sneaky suspicion that she would've approved, even of the changes. I'm sure she'd still want payment for her work though.


I actually gave this film only 4 1/2 STARS, when I originally reviewed it, but the movie has only grown in my appreciation for it since it came out and the more I dived into other film versions of the movie and into Louisa May Alcott's work. Yeah, I did start reading "Little Women" and yeah, I get why this text, has lasted this long and continues to be remade, and continues to be told well. And Gerwig's vision, I think is the best; because of how it really does deconstruct the novel, not only through the non-linear storytelling narrative, but also through deconstructing the novel and exploring and recontextualizing the book with it's issues today, how it did work as a biography for Alcott, how it didn't work and why it didn't work, and showing how one's life got woven into their work and vice-versa. It's the fullest version of this story, adapted for film, so far, and there already were some really sharp, layered versions of this story out there, and this one, blows it out of the water. 


NUMBER 5:

You know, I don't think, really, people who can't stand critics, dislike the fact that they disagree with them on a movie or two. Not, in the abstract anyway. What I think a lot of them are actually saying is, "How could you not enjoy something that was so much fun for them!?" I get it, there are movies I hate that some can't believe I hate, and it's never the movies themselves I think they have an issue with, it's that they just find the movie to be so naturally something that appeals to them that they just don't see, or don't want to see that some people could have issues with them. It's happens with me too; I haven't run into too many people that say hate "Back to the Future" or "Rocky" or some of my personal favorites, but I've met people who don't love say "The Breakfast Club" or "The Wolf of Wall Street" or even "Almost Famous", and hell, especially "Frozen", movies that I genuinely can't imagine why anybody would hate them. 

And I can't imagine how or why anybody would hate this movie either, 'cause this movie is just way too much fun!

5. Knives Out


Now, thankfully I haven't met the person who hates "Knives Out", and I hope I never do, but this is a movie that's just pure id, and it doesn't help that I do love murder-mysteries. It wasn't superheroes that everybody was infatuated over when I was growing up, the big genre was mysteries in my mind and murder-mysteries most of all and we haven't had a good one in a long while, and thank goodness Rian Johnson is a lover of the classics. It's so good to see him finally coming to form here; this is the movie I've been waiting from him for years!

My Original Review:
I know there's a certain subsect who have watched Rian Johnson's latest film, "Knives Out" and were mostly, kinda befuddled by it. I mean I don't think they hated it or anything, but it's definitely a movie that, for those who mostly know Johnson from his previous feature-length directorial effort, which was "Star Wars: Episode VIII: The Last Jedi" probably are confused by this film in particular. They might also know "Looper" as well, which was his previous science-fiction feature that probably got him the "Star Wars" gig, but yeah, they probably might be wondering what he's up to. As for me though, my reaction after seeing "Knives Out" was, YES! RIAN JOHNSON IS BACK, BABY!!!! Whoooo!

I can't help but to smile when I think about "Knives Out", his lovely, twist-of-a-knife spin of the classic over-the-top whodunit. Even one of the characters remark about how it seems like the character live in a live-action Clue game. This is the kind of movie I've been waiting for from him for a long time. The big thing with Rian Johnson, is that he was always a student of the classics of genres and that's why with movies like "Looper", he was able to find a mass audience with a clever new approach to some very classic sci-fi genre tropes, like time travelling and futuristic hitmen out for one last kill. It's why it made sense for him to direct a "Star Wars" movie I presume, but if you really dig into his filmography, you'd realize that it wasn't what he truly loved. He likes new takes on the classics. 

For instance, before "Looper" he directed "The Brothers Bloom", an outlandish comedy about two conmen brothers who both get caught up in one last major con, and they may or may not be conning each other while also conning their mark. There's a lot of double-turns and twists in that film, and it's an enjoyable little romp, but the movie that I've always associated him with was his debut feature, "Brick". "Brick" is an underrated little indy that's a classic film noir, some really James M. Cain-hard boiled stuff, but it takes place in a modern-day high school. It's an over-the-top version, but I always thought it held up pretty well as a classic labyrinthian detective story. It's clever in how it takes the trapping of a high school as a replacement for the usual cold, seedy motifs of a fog-laden big city's underbelly, and he uses it for both comedic and dramatic effect. I can see how some might not love it and think it's mostly just a gimmick, but I thought it worked in kind of the same way that Joel Schumacher's "Phone Booth" works as a filmmaking exercise then as a realistic, plausible film. And film noir was rarely plausible or realistic to begin with, so I always thought it fit pretty well. 

But now, with "Knives Out", I think he's finally reached full potential. His love of embracing and toying with genres, especially mystery genres, have finally found it's most extravagant and delectable form. We meet the characters after the murder of the rich family patriarch Marian Thrombley (Christopher Plummer) a famous murder-mystery writer who's suddenly dead after his 85th Birthday. All signs originally point to suicide, but of course, his family is a classic all-star collection of suspects, each of whom lie to the police officers, Lieutenant Elliott (LaKeith Stanfield) and Trooper Wagner (Noah Segan) for one reason or another, each of them have a their motives for possibly wanting Marian dead. And then there's a famous private investigator, Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig, shockingly doing a wonderfully bizarre southern accent for a role that, especially with a name like Benoit Blanc, you'd think he could've gotten away with a more European one if he wanted.) who was hired shortly after the murder to run his own independent investigation into the death by someone who clearly suspects murder, although he isn't sure of who exactly hired him. 

Look, I'm not gonna go through all the side-characters here. Trying to explain how and why they all could've done the murder would just take too long and ultimately is pointless, but you get people like Michael Shannon, Jamie Lee Curtis, Don frickin' Johnson of all people, and Chris Evans, playing up these absurd over-the-top caricature types that feel straight out of everything Agatha Christie ever wrote, and they are just all superb in this. My favorite of the bunch is actually Toni Collette's performance, as the wispy widowed daughter-in-law who scrapes by with the typical cons of being an online social media influencer in the lifestyle coaching side of that medium; her name doesn't get mentioned enough among the great actresses working today, but look through her career and filmography and you realize just how much she had done and is capable of, it's ridiculously that we haven't placed her firmly on the Meryl Streep podium yet. 

There's some other beautiful weirdos playing other beautiful weirdos in this thing, like M. Emmett Walsh and Frank Oz and Katherine Langford, Riki Lindhome has like ten lines maybe, and I don't remember what her character even is, but throwing her into this little world with the likes of K Callan for some reason makes perfect sense. All that said, the only character who actually matters narrative wise is Marta (Ana de Armas) Marian's nurse and housekeeper who the Thrombeys seem to like and often treat her, "Like family", which, even if that were true, would not necessarily be a good thing. She's the last one to see Marian alive and unlike the rest of the family has a physical, let's call it an obvious tell when she lies, so she's the perfect person to help with the investigation Benoit figures. 

Unbeknownst to her though, it turns out that she also had a motive and as suspicion continues to grow on her, the family also begins to try to go after her. The movie is a wonderful game of cat-and-mouse in which, only one side knows their playing. It's all the delightfulness of a great episode of "Murder, She Wrote", pumped up on steroids and camp. A scenery-licking delight for all involved, and the scenery by the way, is over-the-top and charming as well. Who's job in production design was it to gather all those knives, I wonder? We need more of this genre in modern times; I think most people watch serial detective mysteries and/or Poirot or even Sherlock Holmes stories, and think they all take place in the past, even attempts to modernize them are mostly attempts to slick it up and batter it down to make the genre seem cool and hip or something, but frankly, a good mystery is a good mystery, and "Knives Out" shows that the classic structure and format is just as entertaining and relevant now as it was when those locked-in murder-mysteries were locked-in. I don't know if this'll end up being the best film of the year, but it's definitely ranking among my favorites; it's one of the most fun filmwatching experiences I've had in a long time and sometimes you need to have a little fun. 

Oh, and it does actually have some other pieces of meta-commentary on the times too, so you know, yes, you could probably make an interesting comparison of it to "Parasite" if you wanted, but I still just enjoy the laugh I get out of a suspect throwing away a piece of crucial evidence, only for the dog to go fetch it and keep bringing it back. 


I'll admit, that this is a genre that I'm prone to loving to begin with and doing a good, comedic version of it, is actually really hard to pull off well. Neil Simon gave it a few attempts, that were just okay, and I know it's kinda common now to talk about how great "Clue" actually was; I'm in the minority on that one and never thought it worked, any version of it, but this is the way to do it. Some great writing, great scene-licking over-the-top performances from some great actors, and really make it fun. Fun in the execution but also meaningful in it's story, 'cause more then just the whodunit aspects, there's some great layers of commentary in how every member of the family reacts to every new reveal in the mystery. And Daniel Craig here, is having so much fun in this role too btw. I would've almost thought that this could've been some bad stunt casting putting James Bond in the detective role; "Murder on the Orient Express" had Sean Connery, but they didn't have him play Poirot but Daniel Craig creative a really cool, fun detective character out of this. I haven't seen the sequel yet, but I'm definitely looking forward to it. This was the most fun movie of the year for me. 


NUMBER 4:


4. Portrait of a Lady on Fire 


Celine Sciamma's biggest film to date, "Portrait of a Lady on Fire" is going to be looked on in the future as the big movie that brought about this current trend of LGBT period pieces, that have come around since. For me, I don't know it's her best film; but it's definitely her most assured to date, and she's definitely the correct filmmaker to bring about this trend. She's been making great female-led coming-of-age romances and lesbian narratives for well over a decade now, and it's nice to see something of hers really stick in the mainstream. It's also just a damn great film.

My Original Review:
I don't think I realized until now just how soulful Celine Sciamma's films are. I've been a fan of hers since her debut feature "Water Lilies", one of the best LGBT coming-of-age romances I've seen. All her films are essentially about feminity and what that entails exactly. She's known for writing other films as well, most notably in the west, probably the Oscar-nominated animated feature, "My Life as a Zucchini" but the more I dive into her films, the more I think her real goal is to get into the female mind. Sure, she's a female director, don't all female directors aim for that? Well, Kathryn Bigelow would beg to differ, but no, I really mean that she's trying to visualize it though.

This film for instance, the obvious comparison film to "Portrait of a Lady on Fire" is Ingmar Bergman's "Persona", that movie is specifically about trying to get inside the mind of it's female protagonists. It's also about two girls struggling to connect with each other on an island, and one of them is an artist. Okay, this film is a natural romance, and "Persona" was basically a deconstruction of film entirely but there's still a lot of similarities. When thinking of Celina Sciamma, like Bergman, I think of faces. Close-ups. Like shots of Zoe Haran in "Tomboy" out of breath while playing a game with other kids, or intense close-ups of Karidja Toure taking off her helmet or checking her mail in "Girlhood". And now we have a movie that's centered around womens faces, and picturing them, literally.

In flashback to a class, Marianne (Noemie Merlant) reflects back on a painting she did, a portrait of Heloise (Adele Haenel). Heloise is about to get married off through a few complications have arise, and she's become strangely defiant about being painted, and the upcoming nuptials. There's one painting that's made of just her outfit, this green dress that she's supposed to be posing in, but she doesn't pose for it, so there's no face in the painting, just this, empty space where an alabaster girl's supposed to be.

Actually, the family doesn't commission her to paint her normally, they actually bring her on under the guise of being a hired companion of hers. in order to just, be around her and friends with her enough to eventually paint her from memory, I guess. The rouse eventually fails, but by that point, their rocky beginning kinda clicks. This begins a slow-moving and slow-growing but passionate romance between them as eventually, she begins reluctantly posing.

It's hard to describe the actions per se, which is something I feel about a lot of romances in general, especially brisk unexpected and doomed flings like this one is. I mean, this isn't a romance that's gonna last, that's obvious from the beginning. For one, it's a period piece; it takes place on an island off the coast of Brittany around the end of the 19th Century; I mean, the main narrative for Heloise is that she's being put in an arranged marriage for familial business reasons; even with little presence from the family as most of the time, and even if the main metaphor that peppers their romance wasn't Orpheus and Eurydice, it's not like they're able to run away with each other.

She manages to stay a little bit longer then planned after finishing her first portrait, and then destroying it and explaining to Heloise's mother, known as La Countess (Valeria Golino) that it doesn't accurately capture her daughter. Really, the third character in this castle is Sophie (Luana Bajrami) who is the maid that provides some exposition and seems to have a fairly interesting existence on her own, as at one point both Heloise and Marianne help her out by getting her to have a miscarriage or abortion; I'm not actually sure to be honest on that one. They go to the beach and have her keep running back and forth until she can't.

They go down to the beach a lot, and often spend time exploring the island, both the natural landscape and occasionally the other residents of the island. I got to talk about both the location and in particular Claire Mathon's cinematography too; the only way to describe the look of this moive is lusciously. It not looks beautiful but nearly every shot looks like one of the paintings in the movie which were done by artist Helene Delmaire, who based the paintings on many of the shots of the film. 

There's a lot of paintings and drawings as well, this isn't an easy task itself; it kinda reminds of like how that scene in "Titanic" was supposed to happen, only throughout the whole movie has the drawings and paintings help captures the images of their world and the island. Sciamma's always had a great cinematic eye for visuals, I remember some of the swimming scenes from "Water Lilies" that took my breathe away; water and beaches always have strong symbolic meanings in most European cinema, especially French cinema, and it's an important metaphor for life and death here too, but there's so many other little details in the narrative as well to sort through. The kind of powerful subtle details that grow and are built upon with relationships of all kinds. It's almost like a Kieslowski film in that respect. I'm already on my second viewing to pay more attention to those details and just get kinda wisked away and swept up into this world and this complex relationship between these two young women. "Portrait of a Lady on Fire" is a really striking and beautiful romantic film and uncovering true feelings and emotions while discovering new others one and all the joy and struggles they entail. Those kind of feelings that you can see in someone's eye that they truly feel, but you can't kind understand or explain why they feel that way, just like a mystery we get from a beautifully painted portrait.

"Portrait of a Lady on Fire" is one of those films that people are gonna look back on this year and really zone in on as a seminal movie from this year. And Celine Sciamma is gonna be one of the more influential filmmakers in years to come; this might be her best directing yet. We're already seeing more period piece LBGT romances, some good, some not-so-good, and there had been a few before, but none this good, and none this compelling of a narrative. One thing I have been amazed by, with this film, is how many women, not just bi or lesbian women, just women in general, who have randomly talked about how great this film is, and it is a bit of an old thing to talk about masculine filmmaking vs. feminine filmmaking, that's an ancient and outdated theme of the old original auteurists, but there is something to that, and I hope this is the direction that all artists start going into, especially romances. I personally do want more stories, more good stories, that give us a true female perspective and vision of femininity portrayed as in cinema. She's one of many good female directors how are paving that way, and there's gonna be others, but Sciamma should absolutely be one of the filmmakers who 20-30 thirty from now, we're gonna look back at cinema and see that she was truly an influential filmmaker, and movies like this are gonna be classics. 


NUMBER 3: 

3. For Sama  


There were a lot of good documentaries this year; I'm actually shocked I only managed to find room for one on this list. (If I did a Top 20, there might've been like, seven on the list) I think I picked a very good one though. It's an autobiographical documentary called "For Sama", made by and about it's filmmaker Waad Al-Kateab, as it tells her five-year story of being a single female filmmaker and in Aleppo, Syria, to falling in love, getting married and having a child while witnessing and documenting the frontlines of the Syrian conflict, documenting life in a hospital directly in the middle of the warzone, to eventually becoming a refugee herself. There's been a lot of eye-opening and startling documentaries about Syria in recent years, few have touched me so deeply and strangely been so life-affirming as we see a first hand account of how life not only survives, but continues on in the presence of so much death. 

My original review:
Dear Sama,

I doubt you will ever read this, but having seen this wonderful movie that your mother Waad Al-Kateab made for you, I have some thoughts about you and I want to tell them to you. 

Number one, you are a cute little baby. Every time I saw you onscreen, you made me smile. Second, and most importantly, your mother made you a beautiful gift in making this movie. For years, she filmed her surroundings and the events that shaped her young life, and eventually your brand new life, and well, they were gruesome and disturbing, and hopefully by the time you're an adult, your hometown of Aleppo, Syria will in no way resemble the horrors of the crumbled buildings and bodies, or the constant bombings and airstrikes that interrupted and impeded on what should've been the happiest moments of your life. More importantly though, the fact that your mother, was able to stare into the depth of this, excuse-my-language, Hell, and that she was able to live her life is simply amazing. She was able to make her way through the streets of bodies and slide across the bloodied hospital floors, when those hospitals were still able to stand, and manage to find love. Your father and mother, in the midst of this chaos caused by a genocidal dictator, were able to have a lovely little wedding. 

Actually, I shouldn't have said, those words, "genocidal dictator", that could confuse you, let's just call him a "Bad Man" for now. You can look up the things he did and why when you get older and the Bad Man and his family have been disposed of and sent to the dustbins of history. 

There's a lot of people, like your mother who are documenting what the Bad Man does, and has been doing. Much of it, has informed the greater world, some of it has perhaps even helped, but your mother decided that it wasn't enough to just let the camera roll on what happens to other people, and she told her story as well, and therefore also, your story. That was really brave of her. I can imagine it being very difficult to stare into abysses as constantly as she does, and still realize that such emotional, personal feelings, like love, and everyday feelings can be so pivotal and critical to how we appreciate what she and many others was going through. And, your mother, and father, went through a lot. 

They put their lives at risk, perhaps even yours, for a greater cause. They were there to make sure that others voices would be heard, and they did all that, in an effort to make sure you would have a wonderful loving home to live in. To come home to. Obviously, you're not currently in Aleppo right now, and even that is a mini-miracle you owe to your amazing parents, but they were trying, perhaps stubbornly as long as they could. I hope you like it currently in the UK though.

Be nice to your new younger sister too. She perhaps wouldn't be here either if your parents didn't do everything they could to protect you and make sure you're still here. There were a lot of people who didn't make it. There were times when your parents feared for your life and there own, and yet they persisted on showing us the brutal reality of lives interrupted, all the while, made sure that their lives would not be. To do that in a modern warzone, well, it's inspiring to say the least and downright amazing. There are many people who have no idea what their parents were like and what they were doing before they were born, and many of them, well, it's always a miracle when a new person is born, but very few have as amazing a story about their birth as you do. I hope, if nothing else, you cherish that fact, and all the little coincidences and facts that brought your two loving parents together to have a little miracle like you. 


Here's to you little Sama, you have a wonderful life upcoming, and wonderful parents who've made sure of that. Make the most of it while you can. 

Sincerely, 

An admirer of your mother's work. 

Yeah, I just went from the female perspective of filmmaking on romances, to the female perspective on war, the most masculine thing ever, I realize that, but this was a really powerful and touching movie, and we need the female perspective on war as well. "For Sama", is one documentary on the Syria Conflict that I actually do like going back to watch again, despite how horrific some of it is, because of the way it's framed and told and because of how intimate it is. How personal this film was, and just how universal it is. It's a story about trying to live your life while confronting war and death in the face, every day, and it's really inspiring. I'm not gonna say it isn't hard to watch, 'cause it very much is, but it's absolutely a special film, made for very special reasons. 


NUMBER 2:

Well, from war from a female perspective, to war from a very masculine perspective.

2. 1917 


Spoilers the rest of the list is gonna be boring and a little bit too as expected. That probably gives away what my number one is, but "1917" is genuinely a great cinematic accomplishment. Yes, it's a gimmick, but it's a damn good gimmick and it's pulled off successfully. And you know what, Sam Mendes doesn't get enough credit as a great director. I know, people love to pounce on how "American Beauty" hasn't aged that well; which I call bullshit on 'cause I think it's aged very well, but you know what, he hasn't made a bad film yet, and "Skyfall", "Revolutionary Road" and "Away We Go" are really underrated gems, and I've got two of his film, "American Beauty" and "Road to Perdition" into my CANON OF FILM, and I suspect one day, I, and many others will feel compelled to place "1917" into similar spaces as well. Even if, the title is really stupid. (They really couldn't come up with a better name then just, the year?)

My original review: 
The ending of "1917" pays tribute to Lance Corporal Alfred Mendes, who is noted by the filmmaker, his grandson Sam Mendes, for being a storyteller. Alfred Mendes was more then just a storyteller, he was a famous novelist and short story author and was one of the leaders of The Beacon Group; a group of famous writers from Trinidad & Tobago who wrote about that nation's emigration movement in the West Indies in the'20s & '30s, this, despite a lack of publishing housing in the Caribbean at the time. Even he though, much like most I suspect, didn't talk about their war exploits for a long time, if many of the soldiers ever did at all when/if they made it back home back in those days. Sam Mendes, has been a great storyteller, long before he finally maneuvered his way into film, after getting a degree in English, and then making it big in England's theater scene, including some West End productions.

So, I was kinda surprised when people started referring to "1917" as a comeback of his; I never really thought of him as being out of favor. In fact, he's been one of the best and most consistently great filmmakers of the last 20+ years. I think it was because his first feature, "American Beauty" was the only one he ever really got the award accomplishments for and since that was his debut directing effort that he kinda got defined by that film in particular, and especially in recent years, that film has been heavily parodied and mocked, and some have questioned it's greatness and depth for some reason. Honestly, I don't get the recent criticisms of that film, or for that matter, most of the lack of respect for his other features. I guess, some of the knock on him is that, he had a habit of working with some of the best cinematographers of all-time, and they don't think he's done a lot of the true auteur work of being a director perhaps, and yes, from Conrad L. Hall to Roger Deakins, he's known for his work with the best cinematographers. Even with this film, "1917", which yes an unbelievable cinematography accomplishment, but this is an amazing storytelling accomplishment as well. Cinematic storytelling at that.

It's the first time Mendes has had a writing credit on any of his films, and sure, it's fairly simple on the page, but brilliant in it's execution. Yes, we've all heard or known about the singular take gimmick, but I don't care. First of all, it's not a single take, there's a lot of long takes and some very well-done and well-placed editing to make it seems mostly like the movie was shot in one long take in real enough time, but you know what, that's the right approach here, and for a war movie too, a World War I movie at that? I mean, there's bumping the difficulty up and then there's bumping the difficulty up. I mean, it's one thing to shoot long takes of two soldiers fighting their way through the rest of their own and other regiments in the trench, in order to find the General that's calling for them, but you have to still build the trenches. You still have to figure out how to move the camera through those trenches, and that's just the first take, after that, we got a warzone to get through and build and create and still somehow manage to do all this, and figure out how to light and move the camera in the right places and get the timing absolutely perfect on every little detail. (Holy God, I just realized, how'd they gets the rats to move correctly?)

Corporal Schofield (George Mackay) and Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) are called in by General Erinmore (Colin Firth) to go on a dangerous yet important mission. The Germans have curiously retreated from the front and Colonel Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch) has taken the bait and begun plans for an all-out attack, believing that they've gotten the Germans to retreat. What they don't know, is that the Germans have set the trap for their air raid and soldiers to land on them. He's brought his regiment, the Devons, all 1600 of them to run right into a suicide mission, including Blake's older brother Lt. Joseph Blake (Richard Madden) and there's no way to get ahold of them by phone, and they can't bring reinforcements to close from the air, for fear they'll tip off the Germans more of their position.

They have to cross the Dead Man's Zone, through the front, into the German's abandoned front line, and if they somehow survive that without tripping over the landscape of barb-wire, dead bodies and dead horses, or fall into literal ditches full of enough water to drown in, or in any of another dozens or so ways, not including the possibility that the General's info was wrong and that there were still troops at the line and ready to take out anybody crossing at that moments, they got less then a day to get past Ecouste and find the Colonel to deliver the message to call off the attack.

I always hear about war stories like these, and I gotta admit, I have wondered in the past about how many soldiers have been sent on these, in some ways trivial missions; nowadays, that's a message done on a cell phone. They had phones back then, but the Germans cut the lines as they retreated. You'd also think, why only send out one crew, or even just two soldiers on this mission, in order to save well over a thousand lives, would be too little, but it does make sense, if you send too many, the more likely you get noticed and tip the Germans off that way.

Also, I'm glad that were still doing World War I stories. Literally, I don't think anybody's left on this planet that witnessed that war anymore, I'd certainly be shocked if there's anybody left around that's apart of it. I will say though that that does concern me about the movie, normally the farther away we get from these battles, the more revisionist histories that filmmakers come up with, that's why such great care is taken for World War II films to get them to be as accurate as possible. I don't know how accurate this was in regard to replicating a WWI experience, it felt accurate enough to me; more importantly though, it felt like I lived through these characters specific war experience. George Mackay, is not an actor I'm familiar with, in fact, most of the cast are mostly unknowns to me, only the higher ranks have major-named actors, and even then, they're cameos at best, and that's correct and appropriate, but he's onscreen, literally every minute of this film, and he gives an amazing performance; one of the best of the year. It's not the showiest, by any means, but for what he has to do, it's a stunning, epic, all-encompassing role, that, if it misses a single beat, the whole movie falls flat. This is a stunning performance, and it's just a stunning cinematic accomplishment altogether.

I hope others appreciate just how difficult this was, and I hope appreciate how great this storytelling is. Every aspect of the filmmaking process is on point, to make this film as great as it is. To me, this is the best mainstream example of visual filmmaking since "Mad Max: Fury Road", this is one of the quintessential example of telling the story through the visuals. It doesn't lay out more then you need, doesn't lay out too little, it gives us exactly what we need to know, when we learn it, and how we learn it, better then 99% of movies could ever do.

Yeah, this is a visual storytelling accomplishment, and you know what critics will eat it up, and I'm a critic and I ate it up. You're left in amazement in "How did they pull this off?!" It's just really talented filmmakers and a lot of hard work. And you know, filmmakers have been trying to do this single take thing since Alfred Hitchcock's "Rope", and while technology has made it more easier to do then ever before, I will say that I still genuinely thought this approach was limiting in terms of the kinds of stories you could tell through these long unbroken takes that may actually be one-shots in some instances or just seem enough like them in others. I never would've imagined a war movie being shot in this style so successfully. All the other recent films that have used this, or a similar gimmick, and there's some good films in that collection, "Birdman...", or the German film "Victoria", they're good movies most of the time, a lot of them seem so small in scale, even the ones that aren't essentially just filmed plays are still minor stories, mostly taking place in modern day, following characters around with cameras and little more. "1917" is about as ambitious as you can possibly get with this gimmick, and that's an accomplishment that really needs to be admired. 


(Deep breath) 

Alright, one more movie. The best movie of 2019! You all ready? Here we go.

(Drumroll) 

NUMB-

(Drumroll stops suddenly)

Oh, screw it. I picked "Parasite", okay. 


1. Parasite 


Yeah, obvious choice is obvious, and I wish I was more creative and different too. This means that I've gone with the Oscar Best Picture winner in three out of the last four years, which is mind-boggling to me, personally. I promise, next year, I will not be a playing-it-safe year with my Best List... (Oh, trust me, if my current number one of 2020 stays what it is, I'm gonna have some people very annoyed at me, believe me.) but for now, I don't know what else to say or add. "Parasite" was a deserving winner, and an absolute masterpiece. It's the most important film of the year and the most timely emotionally and politically. it's the most relevant and feels more prescient every day. 

My original review:
So, this is the film that pulled it off. The first foreign language feature to win the Best Picture Oscar.

Even a week or so after it happened, I'm still somewhat in amazement at what happened and how it managed to pull this off. Not only that a foreign language film won, but a South Korean film at that! The Oscars had previously garnered a bit of a reputation for having inexplicably ignored much of the country's great films outputs they've had over the last couple decades or so. When the movie won an Oscar, it technically became the first South Korean film to win any Oscar, and it was also the first South Korean film to win Best Foreign Language International Oscar. and the first film from South Korea nominated for anything, which, honestly is bizarre. I don't know how exactly the Academy flubbed this one so oddly, 'cause the Korean New Wave of cinema over the last twenty years has arguably become one of the most influential film movements worldwide in the last forty years, and it's seeped into Hollywood. Maybe not as prolifically as say, the Nuevo Cine Mexicano movement of the '90s has infiltrated and controlled Hollywood for the last decade and a half or so, but Korean New Wave outside of the Oscars has not gone unnoticed. BONG Joon-ho in particular has made one English-language film, "Snowpiercer", even if that wasn't a Hollywood production, it was 80% in English and had lots of English-language stars and so does his previous film, "Okja". In fact, I remember being surprised by the Scott Wilson cameo in "The Host", his acclaim monster movie from well over a decade ago. The one big advantage that BONG perhaps had over some of his other contemporaries, he always had a global outlook on cinema and his movies reflected that, while others like PARK Chan-wook or KIM Ki-Duk have always seemed more introspective, for good and for bad. I actually usually preferred that, 'cause as for BONG, I've never been big on him before. I actually didn't care much for "Snowpiercer" or "The Host". Up 'til now, I though "Mother" was his best film, and while that movie is universal in it's narrative, it's probably got the least to say on a global scale.

That said, I'm still kinda surprised this was the one that broke through. When you think back on the history of the Academy, other then the obvious questions of "How did this take so long?" there's the other questions of "How, did it, take so long?" and "Really, this one pulled it off?" I can think of several foreign films over the years by some incredibly acclaimed filmmakers, many that the Oscars did in fact honor in some manner, that I would've guessed as being much more likely to have won long before "Parasite" did. Movies that are a lot more Oscar-friendly in the most traditional of senses. Seeing something like "Parasite" win, especially winning a year after one of the most non-descript and inconceivably bad, blatant pieces of Oscar bait in "Green Book" winning last year,- well, I guess everybody in the Academy just fell for it.

I can't blame them, I fell for "Parasite" as well. Trying to decipher the movie and figure out how or why the Academy decided to narrow in on this one foreign film in particular is about as much of a useless exercise as, well some would say The Oscars.

So, what about the movie, what about "Parasite"? Well, it has a lot to say. A lot, it has a lot to say. In this political climate, "Parasite" feels very much like a left-wing political parable, the kind you'd expect from Lina Wertmuller in the '70s, only without the sexual politics she would include. I'm not pulling this out of my ass either, BONG has said as much, and the movie basically gives us no other interpretation; the main theme of the movie is very literally, modern class warfare. The main family are the Kims, a struggling family of hustlers and con artists who live in what can charitably be described as a basement apartment. They literally live underground, below the street, where they struggle to steal wi-fi on their cell phones in order to try to hustle to get any menial job they can.

The son Ki-Woo (Woo Sik CHOI) gets a job substitute tutoring for a friend at a rich family's estate, the Parks and for their teenage daughter Da-Hye (Ji-So JUNG). He's not much of a tutor, but he's smart and knowledgable enough to fake it, at least enough for Da-Hye's mother (CHO Yeo-Jeung) to be convinced to keep him on. After that, each of the Kims begin manuevering their way into working for the family, firstly by Ki-Woo getting his sister Ki-Jeong (PARK So Dam) on as an art therapist for the Park's rambunctious young son, Da-Song (Hyun-yun JUNG), they get their father Ki-Taek (Kang-ho SONG) hired on as the driver for the Park's father, Nathan (LEE Sun-Kyun) and inevitably, their mother Chung-Sook (JANG Hye-Kim) finds a way to get hired as they figure out a way to convince the Parks to fire they're beloved housekeeper Moon-Gwang (Myeong-Hoon PARK). Eventually, the entire family, unknown to the Parks is hired by them.

If I'm just looking at the characters and the narrative, I would just say that the Kims are basically, the family from the TV show "Shameless". (Well, the American version at least, which is the one that I know best.) I mean, it's not that outrageous and Ki-Taek is not the caricature that William H. Macy's character is, but essentially, they're a poor family that's hustling at every angle to get by, and in this situation they just happen to find the perfect marks, or Parks in this case, a sweet-but-gullible family who has a lot of money. They certainly have a nice house, which they begin infesting even before the family goes on a camping excursion.

That's the first half of the movie, the second half of the movie; I'm not even certain I can talk about. Not just because of the twist though, I mean obviously, these best laid plans are doomed to go astray, that part is predictable, what's not predictable is how and why one unexpected bug inevitably dooms them, and more then that, it's what that bug means. I said this movie says a lot, and there is some deep symbolism throughout the entire second act. This is the kind of movie that's going inspire several essays trying to explain what everything means and how it means it for years; that's already started, and it ain't gonna stop anytime soon. Needless to say, the title is particularly apt, in many more ways then one, but I think the main instruction of the movie is to look inward at ourselves, and our society and observe what we have created. A lot of people have noted that this movie might take place in South Korea, but that some form of this story can take place nearly anywhere. That's true, in fact there's already an American TV adaptation in the works, the second one inspired by a BONG Joon-Ho film after "Snowpiercer" another movie that was also about the struggles for the poor to get up to the higher classes. Hell, I already compared it to one TV show that was already adapted from a source in a foreign country, so yeah, this is adaptable and across several different lines, I can easily see this movie done with different races or ethnicities between the families, but honestly, adding those elements might be more pointless then we realize 'cause the movie should be specifically about class, and the ways and how our society is built for one class to dominate, leach and control the other.

The end of the movie could be misconstrued as being a pro-capitalist message, it even includes a main character who explicitly insists that money is the key to the happiness of the characters. until you realize that the situation the Kims are in, makes that dream, simply that, a dream that this family, simply will not ever be capable of achieving. One last step back to see that the problem that, the real problem isn't their lack of money, it's that their lack of money shouldn't be the problem to begin with.

It's a story of the rich and the poor, and it's all metaphor, it is, until you realize way too late, that it painfully isn't.

Yeah, "Parasite" is a movie that we're gonna be talking about for a long time to come, not just for the trivial cultural importance, it's just a great film with so many layers to it that cut really deep into the fabric of society. I will say this though, I hope it's not the only foreign language film to win Best Picture in the future, 'cause there really isn't a good reason for a foreign film to have never won previously, although it is a very good first winner. Who knows what's next, maybe Korean television shows will start crossing over and becoming the next big American fad now.... (Eye roll) 

No, I've not seen that either yet. 

Anyway, I've got to finish catching up on last year. Here's an alphabetized list of Honorable Mention from 2019 that you can look into, as well as the films' directors. 


HONORABLE MENTIONS 

LIVE-ACTION AND ANIMATION
The Art of Self-Defense-Riley Stearns
Birds of Passage-Christine Gallego and Ciro Guerra
Bombshell-Jay Roach
The Chambermaid-Lila Aviles
Clemency-Chinonye Chukwu
Colewell-Tom Quinn
Dark Waters-Todd Haynes
Dolemite is My Name-Craig Brewer
The Farewell-Lulu Wang
Ford v Ferrari-James Mangold
How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World-Dean DeBlois
Hustlers-Lorene Scafaria
Jojo Rabbit-Taika Waititi
Just Mercy-Destin Daniel Cretton
The Lighthouse-Robert Eggers
Les Miserables-Ladj Ly
Luce-Julius Onah
Marriage Story-Noah Baumbach
Monos-Alejandro Landes
The Mustang-Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre
Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood-Quentin Tarantino
One Cut of the Dead-
Pain and Glory-Pedro Almodovar
Styx-Wolfgang Fischer
Queen & Slim-Melina Matsoukas
Transit-Christian Petzold
The Two Popes-Fernando Meirelles
Uncut Gems-Benny Safdie & Josh Safdie
Waves-Trey Edward Shults
Weathering with You-Makoto Shinkai

DOCUMENTARIES
17 Blocks-Davy Rothbart
Always in Season-Jacqueline Olive
American Factory-Steven Bognar & Julia Reichert
Apollo 11-Todd Douglas Miller
Athlete A-Bonni Cohen & John Shenk
Black Mother-Khalik Allah
The Cave-Feras Fayyad
Citizen K-Alex Gibney
David Crosby: Remember My Name-A.J. Eaton
Echo in the Canyon-Andrew Slater
Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles-Max Lewkowicz
The Great Hack-Karim Amer & Jehane Noujaim
Knock Down the House-Rachel Lears
Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice-Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Freidman
Midnight Family-Luke Lorentzen
One Child Nation-Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang
The Silence of Others-Robert Bahar & Almudena Carracedo
Roll Red Roll-Nancy Schwartzman
Rolling Thunder Revue-Martin Scorsese
They Shall Not Grow Old-Peter Jackson
Where's My Roy Cohn?-Matt Tyrnauer