Special thanks to comic artist @RentonHawkey for this year’s header image.
Here it is, that time of year again when the Academy is about to hand out Oscars to deserving actors and directors – but usually picking the wrong films and the wrong performances every year, and then trying to make up for it later. I am under no such industry-political constraints and can continue to post my annual unedited rantings on film. If you know me well, there are two glaring omissions. Yeah, I was a bit disappointed in a couple of the year’s most anticipated releases. We can take that offline. But I’m not here to bemoan the mediocre! It’s time to celebrate the annual crop of great cinematic offerings. Here they are, my favorites of the year, ranked in order of preference:
10. The Report
Here’s a challenge for a filmmaker: make a movie about a central issue of our era, but here’s the catch – the majority of the film will consist of a guy in a square, windowless, concrete office reading thousands of pages filled with incomprehensible jargon and difficult-to-remember names. Who’s gonna sign up for that assignment? Thankfully, writer/director Scott Z. Burns volunteered for duty and had the wisdom to entrust the captivating screen presence of Adam Driver to keep audiences riveted as it methodically, painstakingly goes through its complicated and hyper-detailed subject matter. Driver brings moral force, conviction, intelligence, and grit to a highly confined role.
9. Uncut Gems
This film should be prefaced with:
From the moment the film begins, the viewer is immersed into a perspective of paranoia, heightened awareness, off-kilter panic and unease. It’s as if the filmmakers got high and asked themselves the following question: “Hey, remember those last 20 minutes of Goodfellas when the walls start closing in, Ray Liotta gets all coked up and everything gets dialed to 11? Let’s make a whole movie at that intensity threshold.” And then they went out and fucking did it. Sandler utterly disappears into an original, deeply flawed human character that you somehow can’t help but root for.
8. Her Smell
This film throws you into the deep end, immediately immersed into the POV of a voyeuristic hand-held docu-style camera. Elisabeth Moss dominates every frame as she presents a scathing depiction of an indie rock legend, flying with her highs – creative powers, innate rock-star charisma, drug-fueled perceptions – and submerging into collapse, ruin, and the catastrophic tolls of an unhinged lifestyle. At times brutal, at times endearing, Moss delivers a searing performance, perhaps the best of the year.
7. Dolemite is My Name
Oh what a joy it is to see Eddie back in a groove, stealing scenes, using his comedic gifts – that unparalleled timing, the play-doh facial contortions, the ability to turn on a dime and detonate a giggle grenade. But this time around, we’re witnessing a new layer of Murphy’s capacities as a performer – in his inhabiting of the persona of Rudy Ray Moore, there’s a depth of humanity, a well of sadness on the brink of defeat and despair. This quality is something that Richard Pryor was able to channel in his comedy and film roles at an earlier age, but Murphy seems to have found a new gear, and I hope he gets more opportunities to demonstrate it. “Dolemite…” represents another foray into biopics about eccentric creatives from the team of Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski who gave us Ed Wood, Man on the Moon, and The People Vs. Larry Flynt. They have a knack for getting audiences to join a Quixotic creative mad person and invest in their success. Wesley Snipes gave the best supporting performance of the year with his portrayal of D’Urville Martin – a flourishing turn filled with wry detachment and hilarious affectations.
6. Diego Maradona
I usually don’t like to mix fiction and non-fiction films on these kinds of lists, but every once in a while a documentary film comes around that demands special recognition, and this year, “Diego Maradona” is that kind of film. The filmmakers were gifted with a wealth of footage with which to weave this cinematic journey into the incredible life of one of soccer’s legends. It is comprised of an enormous amount of home video footage, which gives audiences intimate access to the perspective of Maradona as he becomes beloved by two countries – overwhelmed with constant attention, and then that intimacy becomes profoundly discomforting as Maradona’s life spirals to tragic depths. Riveting. Powerful. Unforgettable.
5. Knives Out
I suggest that the following phrase be retired: “the precision of a Swiss watch.” In all future occasions where anyone wants to praise a work of complex engineering, how about we all start referring to “Knives Out” instead, because Swiss watches are a janky mess by comparison. Rian Johnson’s intricately plotted mystery zooms through its twists and turns with delightful energy, featuring about a dozen wonderful supporting performances: Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Ana de Armas, Christopher Plummer, Toni Collette and Don Johnson each give Oscar-caliber turns in their respective roles.
4. Avengers: Endgame
Endings are hard. Great endings are rare. Endgame concludes a decade of storytelling into a nearly Platonic ideal of satisfying ways to wrap it all up. So many storylines and characters to pay tribute to, and somehow, it touches on them all. The hilarity and obscured sadness of Lebowski Thor, the zen-like acceptance of Smart Hulk, the brooding of Ronin/Hawkeye and Black Widow. A fitting conclusion to Cap and Shellhead. And such glorious raise-my-devil-horn-metal-gesture-hand-in-the-air moments: Cap wielding Mjolnir, Stark outsmarting the Titan, the “Back to the Future 2” revisiting of classic Avenger moments, and the brilliant execution of the team’s signature catch-phrase, which Whedon and the Russo brothers had the wisdom to restrain themselves from using until the moment of ultimate confrontation. I’ll never forget standing in the back of an IMAX screen on opening weekend, as the final credits rolled, seeing this sweet woman in her 50s – in rapt attention – waiting for each name to come on the screen so she could give one last bit of applause, and then when RDJr’s name was displayed, she clapped and hopped up and down, eyes welled with tears, filled with gratitude. Whatever comes of the future of the MCU, this era was an unqualified triumph.
Much has been said and written about the central filmmaking decision at the core of this project – the choice to make the entire film roll as one continuous shot, without cuts. This culminates a recent trend in filmmaking where other attempts have been made (notably Birdman), but this is a true quantum leap in craft. With other exceedingly long-take scenes and films, I’ve always noticed that performances can falter. The brutality of the uninterrupted take is that even the slightest dip in performance quality becomes that much more apparent. Without the safety and refuge of a quick edit, actors are left as if performing without a net. But in “1917” – there are no such dips. George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman are stellar throughout every moment they are on screen. The cumulative effect of the immersion of the single-take format pays enormous dividends in the film’s climactic moments – the enormous stakes of the narrative become heightened to an almost-unbearable degree of intensity. Roger Deakins, cinematographer, continues to paint with light with such mastery of the medium, it’s a privilege to be in a cinema anytime one of his films is shown.
2. A Hidden Life
For many moviegoers, Terrence Malick can be a bit of an acquired taste. I’ve been enraptured by nearly all of his films, but even I have had to admit in recent years, some of his projects have suffered somewhat by Malick’s devotion to aesthetics over narrative. “A Hidden Life,” based on true events that are so compelling, Malick cannot totally submerge the narrative, and what emerges is perhaps the most balanced film of his career. The contrast between the divine environs of the mountains of Austria, photographed with Malick’s gift of finding the beauty in natural-light compositions, juxtaposed against the drama of the human horror of Naziism, makes for a transcendent experience.
The opening image of Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite” is a shot of some socks, and what are socks if not parasites of people? From the first shot onward, I was continually impressed by the thematic framework the film – nearly every character, relationship, or incident in this movie can be viewed as an example of parasitism. Instead of coming off as didactic, the thoroughness of the central theme weaving through every aspect of the film provides a powerful model not only for understanding these characters and their central conflicts, but as a prism through which to view contemporary South Korean life, perhaps even the 21st century human condition on a global scale. “Parasite” builds its own little world, with characters playing confidence games that would make the legendary magician and con-man expert Ricky Jay proud. The film ratchets and tightens into a bravura series of Hitchcockian sequences, arriving at a zenith of cathartic madness that literally left my jaw agape for several minutes. I had the great gift of seeing this film without even seeing a single trailer beforehand or even knowing what genre the movie was. I still don’t even know how to describe it other than to just say, go see it.