Well friends, it’s been a full year since you last heard from me. Hopefully not a full year until the next time. Sadly, I probably have already lost the three to five followers who actually cared what I wrote. But I digress.
For now, humor me by allowing me to share my annual Top 12 films of the year. Thank you.
First, the archives:
12. The Last Black Man in San Francisco:
An allegory for gentrification in San Francisco, the Last Black Man in San Francisco is a beautifully shot film that relies on poignant, well-timed dialogue driven home by a powerful score. Though the narrative may drift at times, the central theme of a man possessing a deep attachment for a particular home despite not being able to afford it, in the backdrop of today’s climate where economic inequality and racial bias are inherently intertwined, draws heavily on the heartstrings. The film isn’t so much in your face trying to spoon feed us a message as it is yearning for an answer to today’s problems through artistic means. I think 100 viewers can watch it and feel 100 different emotions, which is what true art is supposed to do. Though it received little fanfare on the mainstream circuits, the movie was among the darlings of the independent film scene, and will likely propel the future careers of all involved.
11. Ad Astra:
More an intimate slow burn than a deep space thriller, Ad Astra takes the maddening question of “What’s Out There”? and turns it around. Maybe, despite all of our most creative science fiction, our philosophizing, our conspiracy theories, our hopes – there’s nothing. Ad Astra may draw viewers to expect a space exploration thriller, but what they’ll get is even better: a personal story of a man trying to discover both his father and his purpose, and traveling further than any one else ever has to find it. Though Brad Pitt will likely win the Oscar for another film on Sunday, he probably deserved more recognition for this one.
10. Knives Out:
Who doesn’t love a good old-fashioned whodunit? Knives Out stood little chance of not being good, between an an All-Star cast and being written and directed by Rian Johnson, who is incapable of making bad movies. The back-and-forth mystery is intriguing enough to keep you engaged throughout, and well-delivered by an extremely likeable cast. There’s something about the normally slick Brit Daniel Craig playing an eccentric Southerner that is oddly endearing. The film also launches the career of Ana de Armas, who will reappear soon with Craig in the next James Bond movie this summer. Knives Out is too much of a pleasurable experience to be excluded.
9. The Farewell:
Every now and then you see a movie like The Farewell and think, “Why can’t every movie be this simple?” That’s not to downplay the film by any means, but a testament to its singular focus around an intrinsically relatable theme: Family. Sadly, everyone will experience the loss of a loved one throughout the course of their life. Director Lulu Wang (why didn’t she receive Oscar consideration, again?!) tells her true-to-life story about her relationship with her grandmother using two of life’s most dominant emotions: with sadness and humor. We laugh because we’d rather do that than cry, even in the most bizarre of situations. It helps to cast someone who’s naturally funny like Awkwafina, who excels as the lead in her first dramatic role. No lie, the last moment of the film made me feel a little bit manipulated by the story arch, but I digress. The sum of this movie’s parts, including the fact that it provides cultural insights from a Chinese-American standpoint, add up to a real cinematic gem.
8: The Two Popes:
Never before have I finished a movie and thought, “This would have been even more perfect if it included more talking between two old men.” The Two Popes tells the story of Pope Benedict and Pope Francis and their near unprecedented transition of power. While the behind the curtain view of the papal process plus a young Pope Francis’s early life story are all fascinating, the strength of the film is the dialogue between the popes, brilliantly delivered by veteran actors Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce. The two men showcase their expertise by consuming the characters they are playing, amplified by an excellent script by Anthony McCarten. Debates may ensue about the accuracy of the conversations, but by all accounts, the spirit of their discussions and the relationship conveyed between them in the True Popes are representative of real life. From a scholarly perspective, it was just so engrossing – and refreshing — to watch two intellectuals with two completely different ideologies attempt to meet in the middle in a congenial way. I found this a real treat to watch.
7. Jojo Rabbit:
A comedy taking place in Nazi Germany may sound paradoxical, but JoJo Rabbit somehow makes it work through terrific casting and just the right balance of satire and poignancy. While the film, set in the last days of the Third Reich, starts out by not taking itself too seriously, with goofball Nazi commanders (played excellently by Sam Rockwell and Alfie Allen) and a fervent Hitler youth (rising star Roman Griffin Davis) whose imaginary friend is a cartoonlike version of Hitler, it quickly becomes grounded by the arrival of a young Jewish girl ( a terrific Thomasin McKenzie) and the motherly touch of Scarlett Johansson, the latter of whom is clearly the anchor of the film. Based on a book, this adaptation is certainly one of the most affecting and creative films of the year.
6. Little Women:
At times, watching Little Women felt like I was receiving feel-good endorphines straight to my brain. I’ll be honest, in the first hour, I was having a little trouble keeping up with who’s who, with the constant to-and-fro between time frames. But at the same time, I appreciated that creative storytelling was necessary to adapt a complex, beloved classic novel into a modern day film. And Greta Gerwig succeeded in spades. Though lacking one linear central story line, I found that it didn’t matter. Just being a voyeur into the lives of this family and the ancillary characters was a joy, and the scenery and score only added to the film’s wonder. Kudos to all involved, including Gerwig and the talented cast of Saoirse Ronan, Frances Pugh, Emma Watson, Timothee Chalamee, Chris Cooper, Laura Dern, Meryl Streep and Eliza Scanlen.
5. The Irishman:
Martin Scorsese goes back to his roots in this nearly four-hour epic crime drama with a legendary cast of Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel and others. That may or may not be a good thing, according to your tastes. In the second act of his career, Scorsese has appeared to choose passion projects that rely a little bit more on the strength of their story. His earlier classics, mostly featuring De Niro, focus on organized crime and, in many respects, the pointlessness of it. The Irishman once again explores that but with much less violence than early Scorsese fare. As characters appear, the first thing we learn about them is their date of death. Most died young and mercilessly. This is a movie about mortality. At the end of the day, we’re all moving to our deaths – some faster than others. Along the way, we witness a possible explanation to the mystery of Jimmy Hoffa’s disappearance, with some humor and expectedly strong acting. If you like Scorsese, you’ll greatly enjoy the Irishman.
4. Marriage Story:
Noah Baumbach has made a living telling near-autobiographical stories that are so relatable it almost detracts from the entire point of seeing a movie. You want to escape reality, not absorb deeper into it. But Baumbach is so good at it that it’s excusable. He already has told us a story of living through a divorce from the child’s perspective (The Squid and the Whale) and now he does it from the parents’ perspective. In addition to writing a brilliant script, his greatest achievement was casting two extremely talented and likeable actors: Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, both of whom were nominated for an Academy Award. The movie has such a real feel to it that Driver and Johansson feel like proxies for any once-in-love-now-despise-each-other couple who go on with their lives following the split. When it ends, you don’t feel like the story ends. In many ways it’s the beginning of a new chapter for both of them. A happy ending doesn’t always need to involve a perfect resolution, it’s about accepting and being happy with what you have.
3. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood:
Quentin Tarantino loves to rewrite history to give it a much more satisfying conclusion (See: “Inglourious Basterds”). He follows the same formula here with the Sharon Tate murders more than 50 years ago during the Golden age of Hollywood, basing his story around a fictional washed-up actor (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his equally hunky hitman (Brad Pitt). The movie is a fun hangout film and buddy flcik. It’s easy to absorb yourself in the world Tarantino has created and enjoy watching two of our greatest modern actors do their thing. Though not Pitt’s greatest work ever (even this year alone, see above), his inevitable Oscar win may as well be a lifetime achievement award for his many great past roles. No one else quite comes up with such interesting stories as QT, and this is yet another to add to his lore.
I truly struggled with what to put as #1 and #2. I adored 1917’s cinematic achievements, and while it’s truly a spectacular film, I think it won’t be the most remembered film of this year by virtue of it’s simple plot. And that’s not a critique by any measure. In fact, it’s what was needed to make this film work. Serving as a mind-numbing recreation of the brutal trench warfare of World War I, 1917 looks like it’s shot in a single take. It’s a rare “real-time” movie about two young British soldiers (Dean-Charles Chapman and George McKay) who are given the impossible task of crisscrossing a battlefield forewarn an entire battalion to call off a planned attack and avoid a bloodbath. The journey of the two men, simply getting from point A to point B, in one of the most deadly and unforgiving environments, is all that’s needed to result in movie magic. Congratulations to Sam Mendes in advance for your directing Oscar. Well done.
Parasite: Even when I was watching Parasite, I really wasn’t entirely sure what to think. I knew I was watching something great; it’s a beautifully shot film, but with a story so outlandish you’re not exactly sure what to make of it. But in its entirety, it becomes clear that Parasite carries the same themes as one of director Bong Joon-ho’s previous film, “Snowpiercer”: it’s a commentary on the evils of class structure, and a story that can be told in any country. With income inequality becoming more endemic, the lower class are becoming more and more equal to parasites in terms of what our society thinks of them. Parasite is the most ambitious film of the year, and will be a movie that I believe sticks in your memory, forces you to think, and will long be remembered in the annals of time. That, to me, makes it worthy of the top spot.