The year in film | January 8, 2020 | Almanac | Almanac Online |


Arts & Entertainment - January 8, 2020

The year in film

The best, worst and most memorable movies of 2019

by Peter Canavese

This year, the line between the big and small screen, between cinema and television, blurred more than ever. Big-spending Netflix — emboldened by last year's Oscar-acknowledged "Roma" — led the charge again with "The Irishman," "Marriage Story," "The Two Popes," "I Lost My Body," "The King," and "Atlantics," among others, while Hulu continued to program new feature films and Disney+ and Apple+ entered the streaming-service fray. This year, one could watch Willem Dafoe tangle with Robert Pattinson in "The Lighthouse" at the local multiplex, or stay home and watch Dafoe fall in love with his sled dog in Disney+'s "Togo," a big-screen-quality, family adventure film instantly watchable on anything from a phone to a giant-size 4K TV.

What does it mean for cinema when movies as dumb and/or chintzy as "Stuber" and "The Curse of La Llorona" compete for butts in seats with TV series as smart and/or cinematic as HBO's "Watchmen" and Disney+'s "The Mandalorian?" Choice, of course. Perhaps too much of it.

Truly, there is something for everyone in today's screen landscape. Want blockbuster movies? "Avengers: Endgame" set the new standard by skillfully wrapping up the initial phases of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (before "Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker" not so satisfactorily concluded the initial "Star Wars" saga). Want intimate human-scale drama? I've got the Mr. Rogers flick "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood" and indie film "The Souvenir" right here. Animated family movies? Have a "Toy Story 4" or a "Missing Link." Foreign film lover? We've got you covered with everything from "Parasite" to "Pain and Glory." "Rocketman" came along to shame those who thought "Bohemian Rhapsody" was the best of musical biopics, and "Cats" crawled into theaters to face the music with Broadway lovers. Even a good old-fashioned ensemble murder mystery came along in "Knives Out," to tide us over until Kenneth Branagh's Poirot returns.

In other words, not much has really changed (although TV's "Breaking Bad" suddenly became a movie — both streamed and in select theaters). But as the sheer volume of films and television increases, audiences must work harder to dig up the hidden gems (not to be confused with "Uncut Gems," the wild new Adam Sandler dramedy). That's where your Friendly Neighborhood Film Critic comes in, highlighting the most intriguing and, in some cases, the least widely discussed of cinematic options. Pin this list up on your bulletin board or grant it a magnet on your fridge, and you have a road map to 2019's boldest statements, its most adventurous narratives and arresting aesthetics.

In a year of cinematic stunts, like the long-take constructions of "1917" and "Long Day's Journey into Night" (which added 3D into the bargain) and the de-aging of everyone from Robert De Niro ("The Irishman") to Samuel L. Jackson ("Captain Marvel"), the fundamental things apply as time goes by: a dimly lit room, an illuminated screen and a story that appeals to our emotions.

And away we go...

The top 10 films of 2019

10. 'The Mountain'

As downbeat as they come, Rick Alverson's rigorous "The Mountain" functions as an eccentric commentary on the horror of historical ignorance and the pain of existence in a world that's gone insane. With just a dollop of deadpan black comedy, Alverson plays out a corrupted mentor-mentee relationship between the emotionally prone, newly orphaned Andy (Tye Sheridan) and a semi-charming lobotomist (Jeff Goldblum) as they travel the backroads spreading traumatic brain injury to the mentally ill and the socially ostracized. The year's most unsettling American self-portrait.

9. 'End of the Century'

Writer-director Lucio Castro's deceptively simple story of chance encounters, possibility and regret provides comment on gay romantic culture (and its sometime collateral damage) and how love and sex play out on individual but intersecting timelines. In 84 minutes, Castro dramatizes the lovers' two meetings (at either end of a 20-year gap), a flashback and a daydream to clarify the tension between the power of desire and the indifference of reality. Naturalistic performances (by Juan Barberini and Ramon Pujol) and direction make this zen koan on time linger in the mind and heart.

8. 'The Souvenir'

Joanna Hogg's agonizingly honest and mature semi-autobiographical drama explores the agonizing self-delusions and inexperience of youth. As Hogg's stand-in, Honor Swinton Byrne comes to hard-won realizations in her vocational and personal lives, each informing the other as the film student succumbs to the overtures of an older lover (Tom Burke) who's harboring a dark secret (Byrne's mother Tilda Swinton plays along as Byrne's uneasy screen mother). Hogg's understated approach and self-examined privilege accumulate for a distinctive take on the young-adult coming-of-age narrative.

7. 'The Last Black Man in San Francisco'

Joe Talbot's impressive debut serves up a highly personal and locally resonant story that begins as a screed on gentrification but turns out to be a lively and complex salon on family history, friendship, community and the folly of belief in ownership. Playing characters that exhibit differing shades of naive sentimentality, Jimmie Fails and Jonathan Majors deliver breakout performances, while Talbot fearlessly creates a heightened reality that's also grounded in some uncomfortable truths about American life — particularly its insistence on buying and selling stolen property to establish and maintain the land of the free, home of the brave.

6. 'Long Day's Journey Into Night'

In a year of strong Chinese imports (see also "An Elephant Sitting Still" and "Ash is Purest White"), Bi Gan gave us the greatest stunner with his visionary and transportive neo-noir (natively titled "Last Evenings on Earth"). A classic "cherchez la femme" narrative gradually reveals itself to be a meditation on untrustworthy memory, as well as unconscious and celluloid dreams. As such, an amateur detective's plodding path to find his lost love leads to an astonishing "one-take" 3D dream sequence forming the film's final 50 minutes. A lyrical, gorgeous, but devastating reminder of precious time in the vein of director Wong Kar-wai.

5. 'The Irishman'

Flawed, but still essential, Martin Scorsese's culminative statement on American life through a mobster lens appears at first to be a neat capper to a thematic trilogy formed with "Goodfellas" and "Casino," stories that likewise run on the insider knowledge of mob protagonists, sourced from nonfiction books. But the pivotal truths in question in "The Irishman" may not be true at all, which little concerns Scorsese, star-producer Robert De Niro and ultimately audiences. For here is a Shakespearean history laced with the tragic limits of loyalty. Gifted with great performances (count also Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel and Al Pacino as a funhouse-mirror Jimmy Hoffa), elegantly crafted, innovative and pure, uncut Scorsese.

4. 'Portrait of a Lady on Fire'

Celine Sciamma's doomed but rapturous romance patiently observes the spark, the fire and the sad extinguishment of love. As William Butler Yeats noted, "love comes in at the eye," dramatized here as a painter (Noemie Merlant) who falls in love with her subject (Adele Haenel). Beautifully realized, "Portrait of a Lady on Fire" works as a feminist historical drama (foregrounding customarily forgotten late-18th century female painters), but soars as a love story of swoony beauty.

3. 'A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood'

Marielle Heller's finely sensitive Mr. Rogers dramedy gets the magical appeal of Fred Rogers — children's show host, ordained minister, husband, father and friend to all. As played by Tom Hanks, Rogers could have made the convincing center of a hagiography. Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster's ingenious adaptation of Tom Junod's "Esquire" profile "Can You Say ... Hero?" sees Rogers as the most extraordinary kind of human: capable, like all of us, of succumbing to anger and selfishness, but choosing again and again to look beyond himself and truly see and hear each person he encounters. In doing so, Mr. Rogers helps to heal the temporarily broken (embodied by Matthew Rhys' world-weary journalist).

2. 'Parasite'

The year's sharpest comedy, Bong Joon-ho's "Parasite," examined the economic chutes and ladders that drive and plague a capitalist society. Bong mines both the comic and poignant possibilities of his carefully unfolded fable on economic inequality, as family exploits family exploits family. Keen production design, insinuating camerawork, and well-calibrated performances (including that of Bong regular Song Kang-ho) helped this South Korean stunner to cross over as multiplex fare likely to score not only a Foreign Film Oscar but a Best Picture nomination.

1. 'The Lighthouse'

Robert Eggers' blinding vision, set in a psychosexual landscape of a mind on the brink, has everything we go to the movies for: meticulously effective sight and sound, confident storytelling, humor and horror, dream and nightmare. One of the all-time two-handers, "The Lighthouse" pits Willem Dafoe's eccentric lighthouse keeper against his new No. 2 (Robert Pattinson) in what's either an external battle of wills between two men of dubious sanity or an internal battle of Jungian archetypes trapped in a Freudian phallus trapped in a disturbed brain. Eggers' film can be read in a number of equally satisfying ways, each a comment on fraught humanity and its fragile rationality.

Runners-up "Little Women," "Transit," "Peterloo," "The Farewell," "Luce," "One Cut of the Dead," "An Elephant Sitting Still," "A Hidden Life," "Knives Out," "Rocketman," "Avengers: Endgame," "Atlantics."

The bottom five films of 2019

5. 'El Chicano'

This brownsploitation actioner billed as the "first Latino superhero movie" teases itself as a Mexican American "Batman" but has the moral sense of "The Punisher." "El Chicano" wastes a fine actor (leading man Raul Castillo) as it mechanically goes through its painfully dull, occasionally gruesome paces.

4. 'The Art of Racing in the Rain'

One of three — count 'em, three — 2019 films in the increasingly popular genre of soggy dog movies where we hear the pooch's thoughts in voice-over. Dog lovers, start your engines and turn off your brains for this Nicholas Sparks dog tale that will grab at your heartstrings.

3. 'Rambo: Last Blood'

Co-writer/star Sylvester Stallone goes back to the bloody well with this sadistic sequel in his popular vigilante-killer franchise. Mechanical and morally wrong, and long removed from the day when John Rambo was more of a character than an icon, this one's strictly for those who enjoy watching self-righteous murders in bulk.

2. 'Cats'

A special kind of bad, this adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber's famous/infamous spandex-and-whiskers stage musical becomes an unintentionally funny and uncannily unsettling big-screen monstrosity by digitally infecting stars like Dame Judi Dench and Idris Elba with cat-scratch fever. There aren't enough CGI artists in the world to make this work.

And the worst film of 2019 goes to:

1. 'Playmobil: The Movie'

What do you get when you bring together dull animation, charmless characters, unthrilling adventure, flat attempts at humor, and generic-brand songs? This tedious, talent-deficient "Lego Movie" rip-off.

Of course, there's plenty more to remember beyond 2019's highest highs and lowest lows. Read on for our take on the best good guys, the worst baddies, the top documentaries and the most magical animated movies.

Best heroes

5. Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas) in "Knives Out"

4. Franz Jagerstatter (August Diehl) in "A Hidden Life"

3. Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) in "Little Women"

2. Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) in "Avengers: Endgame"

1. Mr. Rogers (Tom Hanks) in "Won't You Be My Neighbor?"

(Honorable mention [TIE]: Woody (Tom Hanks) and Forky (Tony Hale) in "Toy Story 4")

Worst villains

5. Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson) in "Doctor Sleep"

4. "Adolf Hitler" (Taika Waititi) in " Jojo Rabbit"

3. Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard) in "It: Chapter Two"

2. Charles Manson (Damon Herriman in "Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood"; Matt Smith in "Charlie Says")

1. Joker (Joaquin Phoenix) in "Joker"

Honorable mention: Red (Lupita Nyong'o) in "Us"

Top documentaries

5. "Love, Antosha"

4. "Honeyland"

3. "American Factory"

2. "5B"

1. "For Sama"

The animated winners

5. "Frozen II"

4. "How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World"

3. "I Lost My Body"

2. "Missing Link"

1. "Toy Story 4"

Peter Canavese is an Embarcadero Media movie critic.


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