Top That! My Ten Favorite Films of 2019

It’s Oscar weekend, so I figured now is as good a time as any to announce my ten favorite movies of 2019. There’s not a whole lot of science that goes into my process; it’s mostly gut feeling that determines what goes into this list and how I’m arranging it. The emotional response is the most reliable metric I have — how well have these movies resonated with me, how long have they lingered in my mind? How did they make me feel when I first saw them? To a lesser degree, how much replay value do these movies have? Do I want to watch them again? Would I pay to watch them again? Not that the money makes that much of a difference, but these things can still be useful in making final decisions. 

With that said, these are the ten titles that made it. I suppose one of the benefits of missing a lot of movies last year (and I mean A LOT) is that I’m not feeling that bad for leaving some big ones off of this list. So I suppose you could call this Top That fairly off the beaten path. What do we have in common? What do we have different? 


Aw hell, there goes the neighborhood. Well, sort of. Quentin Tarantino’s tribute to the place that made him super-famous (and super-rich) turns out to be far more “mellow” than expected. Sparing one or two outbursts, considering the era in which it is set — of Charles Manson, Sharon Tate and a whole host of hippie-culty killings — this is not exactly the orgy of violence some of us (okay, me) feared it might be. Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood is, tonally, a different and maybe more compassionate QT but this fairly meandering drama also bears the marks of the revisionist historian he has shown himself to be in things like Inglourious Basterds. He gets a little loosey goosey with facts and certain relationships but that comes second to the recreation of a specific time period, one which TV actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt-double, BFF and gopher Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) are not so much strolling but struggling through. It’s the end of the ’60s and their careers are on the decline as the times they are a’changin’ in the land of Broken Dreams. Once Upon a Time does not skimp on capital-C characters and is quite possibly his most purely enjoyable entry to date.

My review of Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood 

It’s not often you see Mark Duplass in a bonafide tear-jerker, so if nothing else Paddleton proves his versatility as an actor. Don’t worry though, this movie is still very quirky. He plays Michael, a man in his early 40s dying of cancer and who chooses to forego chemo in order to spend his remaining days doing the same things he’s always done with his upstairs neighbor and best friend in the whole wide world, Andy, played by a heartbreaking Ray Romano. Over the span of a very well spent but not always easy 90 minutes we wrestle with the philosophical ramifications of someone choosing to end their life on their own terms, contemplate the possibility of the afterlife and, of course, watch kung fu, eat pizza and learn the rules of this pretty cool game called Paddleton — think squash/racquetball played off the side of a building. Beyond the controversial subject matter, Paddleton offers one of the more tender and honest portrayals of male friendship I saw all year. And that ending . . . wow.

My review of Paddleton

Thanks to a random visit to my local Walmart Redbox I got to catch up with this ingenious little chamber piece from Swedish filmmaker Gustav Möller. It opened in America in October 2018 but I didn’t see it until March 2019. I was so impressed with the set-up and eventual payoff I just could not leave it off this list. The Guilty (Den Skyldige) is about a recently demoted cop working the phones at a crisis hotline center near Stockholm. He clearly doesn’t want to be there. His day livens up when he fields a call from a woman in distress. As the situation deteriorates we learn a great deal about the man and the officer, who finds himself calling upon all his resources and his experience to resolve the crisis before his shift is over. The only other main characters in this fascinating drama are inanimate objects. It’s the kind of minimalist yet deeply human storytelling that makes many Hollywood dramas seem over-engineered by comparison.

My review of The Guilty 

Without a doubt one of the feel-good movies of 2019, The Peanut Butter Falcon is to some degree a modern reinvention of classic Mark Twain that finds Shia LeBeouf at a career-best as Tyler, a miscreant with a good heart living in the Outer Banks and trying to make ends meet . . . by stealing other fishermen’s stuff. When Tyler encounters Zak, a young man with Down syndrome who has found his way aboard his johnboat after having eluded his caretaker Eleanor (Dakota Johnson) and the nursing home in which he’s been placed by the state, the two embark on a journey of discovery that — yeah, you know where this is going. TPBF may be predictable but this is the very definition of the destination not mattering anywhere near as much as the journey itself. That destination, though, is pretty great. Especially when you come to the realization that it’s none other than Thomas Haden Church who is the vaunted “Saltwater Redneck.” I haven’t even mentioned Zack Gottsagen as the break-out star of this movie. He’s nothing short of fantastic, and one of the main reasons why I’m such a fan of this little indie gem.

My review of The Peanut Butter Falcon

Two words: Space Pirates.

And I’m talking about legitimately lawless assholes running amok on the dark side of the moon — more the “I’m the Captain now” type and less Captain Hook. The escape sequence across no-man’s land is like something out of Mad Max and even better it’s one of the most obvious (yet compelling) manifestations of Ad Astra‘s cynicism toward mankind. Of course we’re going to colonize the Moon. And there’ll be Wendy’s and Mickey D’s in whatever Crater you live closest to.

But this (granted, rare) action scene is merely one of many unforgettable passages in James Gray’s hauntingly beautiful and melancholic space sojourn about an emotionally reserved astronaut (Brad Pitt) in search of his long-lost father (Tommy Lee Jones), an American hero thought to have disappeared but now is suspected to be the cause of a major disturbance in deep space. My favorite thing about Ad Astra is the somber tone in which it speaks. This is not your typical uplifting drama about human accomplishment. Despite Hoyte van Hoytema’s breathtaking cinematography Ad Astra does not romanticize the cosmos and what they may hold in store for us. I loved the audacity of this film, the near-nihilism. I understand how that didn’t sit well with others though. It’s not the most huggable movie out there.

My review of Ad Astra 

James Mangold’s Ford v Ferrari almost feels like a response to the vocal many bashing Hollywood for not making movies “like they used to.” The ghost of Steve McQueen hovers over this classic-feeling presentation of a true-life story. Ford v Ferrari describes how the Americans went toe-to-toe with the superior Italians at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, a brutal endurance race that takes place annually in the namesake French town and tests the very limits of mechanical integrity and driver performance. It’s truly remarkable how the director and his team juggle so many moving parts to make a movie about a fairly esoteric subject not only cohesive but endlessly entertaining. That’s of course in no small part due to the performances of Christian Bale and Matt Damon in the leading roles, and a strong supporting cast who are a lot of fun in their various capacities as corporate executives, passionate motor heads and supportive family members. The movie this most reminds me of is Ron Howard’s Rush, which was about Formula 1 racing. As great as that one was, Ford v Ferrari just might have topped it. Not only are the racing sequences thrillingly realized, the real-life sting at the end adds an emotional depth to it that I was not expecting.

I’m going to be blunt here: The Academy screwed the pooch by not inviting Todd Douglas Miller to the party this year. Forgive me for not really caring what the other documentaries achieved this year, I’m too upset over this one right now. Assembled entirely out of rare, digitally remastered footage of the successful Moon landing in July 1969 — the audio track culled from some 11,000 hours of tape! — and lacking any sort of distractions in the form of voice-over narration or modern-day interviews, this “direct cinema” approach puts you right in the space shuttle with the intrepid explorers Neil Armstrong (whose biopic First Man, which came out the year prior, makes for a killer double-feature and also what I suspect is to blame for Apollo 11‘s embarrassing snub), as well as Buzz Aldrin and the often forgotten Michael Collins (he orbited the Moon while the kids went out to play). Just like those precious first steps from the Eagle lander, Apollo 11, this time capsule of a documentary is a breathtaking accomplishment.

Waves is the third film from Texan-born indie director Trey Edward Shults and in it he has something pretty extraordinary. Set in the Sunshine State, Waves achieves a level of emotional realism that feels pretty rare. It’s a heartbreaking account of an African-American family of four torn apart in the aftermath of a loss. The cause-and-effect narrative bifurcates into two movements, one focused on the athletically gifted Tyler (a phenomenal Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and how he struggles to cope with an injury that may well derail his life plans; the other on his neglected sister Emily (an equally moving but much more subdued Taylor Russell) and how she deals with her own guilt. Beyond its excruciatingly personal story Waves also has a stylistic quality that is impossible to ignore. As a movie about what’s happening on the inside, very active camerawork and the moody, evocative score — provided by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross — work in concert to place you in the headspace of the main characters. It all adds up to an experience that’s felt more than just passively taken in, and by the end of it you’ll feel both rewarded and exhausted.

This was a brutal thing to do, putting Parasite at #2. It’s sooo good. It’s actually my very first experience with a Bong Joon Ho movie and I feel like I have caught him in peak season. True, the application of metaphor isn’t very subtle in this genre-bending, history-making thriller (its nomination for an Oscar Best Pic is a first for Korean cinema) but then not much is subtle about the rapidly industrializing nation’s chronic class divide. The story is as brilliantly conceived as the characters are morally ambiguous, with a few twists stunning you as just when you think you’ve nailed where this is all going, the movie turns down a different and darker alley. Sam Mendes’ 1917 is going to win Best Pic this year, but you won’t hear me complaining if some-crazy-how Parasite ends up stealing the hardware.

My review of Parasite

Nothing else 2019 had to offer immersed me more than the sophomore effort by Robert Eggers, the stunningly talented director behind 2016’s equally disturbing The Witch. The Lighthouse is seven different kinds of weird, a unique tale about two lightkeeps stranded on a remote New England island and running on dwindling supplies of booze and sanity while trying not to die by storm or via paranoid delusions. It’s got two firecracker performances from Willem Dafoe (whose career to date has arguably been just a warm-up for Thomas Wake) and Robert Pattinson, who are expert in selling the desperation here. Beyond that, the story put together by the brothers Eggers is bursting with metaphorical meaning and indelible imagery. Best of all it becomes really hard to tell what’s real and what’s fantasy. Man, I tell ya — this movie cast a spell on me that still hasn’t worn off.

My review of The Lighthouse


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Photo credits: IMDb

The Girl in the Spider’s Web

Release: Friday, November 9, 2018 

→Theater

Written by: Jay Basu, Fede Álvarez; Steven Knight

Directed by: Fede Álvarez

2018 has been a productive year for Claire Foy, star of Fede Álvarez’s gritty, Scandinavian-set crime thriller The Girl in the Spider’s Web. In the span of nine months the British actress, perhaps most recognized as Queen Elizabeth II in Netflix’s critically-acclaimed drama series The Crown, has not only appeared but starred in three films, two of which were major studio productions. In March we saw her come undone at the seams in Steven Soderbergh’s iPhone-shot, psychological thriller Unsane, and just last month embody resilience as Janet Armstrong, wife of astronaut Neil Armstrong, in Damien Chazelle’s First Man. With Spider’s Web she proves she can take a life as ruthlessly as anyone. (Or, you know, spare it too. But we know better, this Girl isn’t big on compassion.)

Seven years after David Fincher’s adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the first installment in Swedish novelist Stieg Larsson’s so-called Millennium Series, and it’s out with Rooney Mara and in with Claire Foy as Lisbeth (that’s a silent ‘h’) Salander, a steely-nerved spy/computer hacker and brutal dispatcher of men “who hurt women,” a vigilante who bears the scars of her own abusive history. It’s also out with Daniel Craig as journalist Mikael Blomkvist and in with someone else, but I’ll get to that later . . . maybe.

Even more confusingly, unless you’ve done your homework and actually seen the Swedish films adapted from each of the original three books, this belated follow-up pursues a narrative that technically kicks off a second “trilogy,” one authored not by Larsson but by David Lagercrantz, who was granted rights for continuity after the original author passed away suddenly in 2004. Lagercrantz’s first contribution to the series details Salander’s bloody dealings with cyber-terrorists and corrupt government officials alike as she attempts to recover and destroy a doomsday program created by a man named Frans Balder (Stephen Merchant). Along the way, Lisbeth must also deal with a past that comes back to bite her. Like a . . . like a spider.

First things first. Foy is enough to get you caught up in Spider’s Web. She takes a pedestrian thriller and punches it up with a physically bruising performance. Even if Foy is inheriting a lot of the character simply by sitting in a make-up chair — that jet-black hair and shoulder/back tat are definite and transformative trademarks — she plays emotionally detached quite well, her line delivery clipped in a manner that’s brittle and harsh, almost robotic. She perpetuates the tragic, enigmatic aura surrounding the character while delivering a number of harsh blows to her big-bodied opponents.

The story itself isn’t quite as distinguished. Spider’s Web is a pretty formal action flick that hinges upon a macguffin and its being kept out of the wrong hands. Who are the wrong hands exactly? Well, they call themselves The Spiders, which isn’t a very interesting name even if it is conceptually appropriate. Led by Claes Bang’s intimidating Holtser, they’re a shady organization to whom Lisbeth may or may not have a personal connection. Meanwhile, a child savant (Christopher Convery) proves just as crucial to the mission objective as a certain femme fatale (Silvia Hoeks, good but a plain Jane villain compared to her Luv in the Blade Runner sequel). The boy’s affinity for numbers and patterns just might help forward The Spiders’ nefarious agenda. Further complicating matters is corrupt deputy director of Swedish security Gabrielle Grane (Norwegian actress Synnøve Macody Lund).

Lisbeth may be a capable heroine, but she will also need more help than her computer hacking skills to combat her foes this time. Aiding in the quest is the return of the aforementioned and new-look Michael Blomkvist (Sverrir Gudnason), and hacking friend Plague (Cameron Britton). And for contrast’s sake, we even get an American in on the action in the form of Lakeith Stanfield‘s NSA security agent Edwin Needham. His motives may be guided more by plot than professional objectivity but Stanfield is a good actor and watching him round out the numbers for Team Salander is undeniably fun.

Álvarez, whose previous film (the mainstream-unfriendly Don’t Breathe) is distinguished for his directorial creativity, certainly isn’t as inspired here even with $43 million to throw around. But Spider’s Web‘s lack of chutzpah might not be entirely on his shoulders, considering the material he’s adapting isn’t quite as politically and intellectually charged as what came before. With the passing of the baton from Larsson to Lagercrantz came a (so I’m told, fairly radical) change of style, the latter doubling down on pulpier action. As has already been proven, Álvarez is adept at spiking the adrenaline, whether that’s an early scene where the girl with a black Ducati vroom-vrooms away in the nick of time across a sliver of ice or a big set piece involving a movable bridge helps her evade capture for just another minute.

Spider’s Web is a classic case of style over substance, Foy’s uniquely restrained performance defiant in the face of all that generic cybercrime stuff. In the end it proves to be a competent action flick but it lacks the depth, both in terms of world-building and what we come to learn about the character itself, to truly qualify as a so-called “new Dragon Tattoo story.”

“Ugh. Get a room you two. . .”

Recommendation: Your fairly standard action romp elevated by a strong central performance and an appropriately icy setting. Fans of the actress are encouraged to apply while fans of Larsson’s original books might want to take a rain check. Dragon Tattoo 2.0 this ain’t.  

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 117 mins.

Quoted: “Are you not Lisbeth Salander, the righter of wrongs? The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo? The girl who hurts men who hurt women?”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared

Release: Friday, May 8, 2015 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: Felix Herngren; Hans Ingemansson

Directed by: Felix Herngren

Believe it or not, this ungainly film title actually leaves details out. So does the promotional poster.

Sure, a 100-year-old man does climb out a window. And (spoiler alert) he does disappear . . . well, relative to the perspective held by those we meet at the film’s open. Our geriatric protagonist is Allan Karlsson (Robert Gustafsson) and he appears very unhappy in his current state, confined to a tiny room typical of most retirement homes. It’s his birthday, but before the congregation of staff and fellow residents can send him their well-wishes he’s out the window and vanished. And so begins a desperate search that will entail local police and gang members.

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared develops mostly through flashbacks, and because it does the title succeeds in misrepresenting the significance of current events. Confusing isn’t the right word, but misleading seems a better fit. The story is far less concerned with the here-and-now as it is in delineating the old man’s life experience. We occasionally resurface in the present tense as Allan makes his way nonchalantly from point A to point B, from B to C and C to D. While each point bears little geographic significance they serve as opportunities for Allan to explain the events in his life that have come to define who he is. Surprisingly there’s much more to him other than his fascination with blowing up everyday objects.

Landmark moments — his castration at the hands of a cruel doctor; his role in J. Robert Oppenheimer (Philip Rosch)’s Manhattan Project and subsequent involvement in the Second Great War, where he befriends Albert Einstein’s “less intelligent twin brother,” Herbert, during his time spent in a Russian gulag; his greater rises to prominence thanks to his shoulder brushings with Vice President Harry Truman (Kerry Shale) — serve as the backbone of this bizarre tale. Played exclusively for laughs, they characterize the whimsical fabric of the narrative while suggesting how miraculous history can sometimes be. The movie never aspires to be profound; it’s far too clumsily comedic to actually be taken seriously, but on occasion it does inspire thoughtful reflection. Relative to Allan’s life, if he never developed an affection for blowing things up, would he necessarily have found himself in the positions he does later in life?

When not busying itself in the affairs of the past, The 100-Year-Old Man depicts an amusing cat-and-mouse game ongoing amongst Swedish police and thugs. The former attempts to link a bizarre murder/kidnapping to the 100-year-old man, while the latter is trying to recover some 50 million (Krona, I presume, even though the currency is never specifically mentioned) that Allan has taken via a comical mix-up at a train station early in the film. The result is a complicated and wildly unlikely misunderstanding leading to the involvement of a British brute (played by the one and only Alan Ford), that, strangely enough, is more satisfying than a good deal of the backstory presented.

Unfortunately the film’s structure loses its novelty fairly quickly. Running nearly two hours in length, the adventure overstays its welcome, dragging in more than one place and indulging in frivolity to the detriment of our diminishing goodwill. More often than not, though, The 100-Year-Old Man serves as delightful entertainment featuring an atypical protagonist. It’s historically inaccurate, harmless fun.

Recommendation: The third-highest grossing Swedish film of all time somehow found its way to Knoxville, Tennessee. If you can get your hands on this little ditty, I recommend you do so. It’s funny, heartwarming and bizarre in equal measure and while it won’t linger in the mind much longer than a couple of days I feel pretty comfortable saying it will be worth your while . . . for those who are fans of things that are just a little bit off of the beaten path, anyway. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 114 mins.

Quoted: “If you want to kill me, you’d better hurry because I’m 100 years old.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

TBT: Let the Right One In (2008)

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Happy Halloween everyone! In trying to properly celebrate the world’s most bizarre ‘holiday,’ today’s entry nearly did not happen, as I couldn’t find a copy of the original Halloween and I’m not into the whole bootlegging thing (yet). . .that, and I don’t watch a lot of T.V. Then the second choice was going to be Child’s Play. Netflix again failed me by informing me that there was a “very long wait” associated with that particular rental. So I was forced to go to other options. After pouring over many great suggestions from you fine folks, I decided to go in a completely different direction and I wound up watching a movie about. . . vampires. I know. I know. These, if anything, seem to be the type of ‘horror’ film that I would instantly be turned off by. Predictable, utterly cliched, and usually just. . .weird as hell, I’ve yet to find a vampire film that I could really enjoy. And then I stumbled across this little gem, something that many people might not necessarily associate with ‘horror.’ Nonetheless, today’s TBT turned out to be a great choice and I’m glad I made it. 

Today’s food for thought: Let the Right One In

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Release: January 26, 2008

[Netflix]

This review is coming at you right off the heels of the end credits, which only finished just seconds ago; therefore this is going to be the freshest any film has been on my mind since I started doing Throwback Thursday. And as such, this is probably going to be a sloppy review. All the same, the beauty and sublime perfection that is Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In is likely to leave a lasting impression upon me. This is one of the most beautiful films I have ever laid eyes on. And again, vampires do did almost nothing for me.

A Swedish film, Let the Right One In is about a young boy who finds his first romance in a girl who’s not quite human. Alfredson’s work here is stunning for a couple of reasons. Let’s start with the cinematography, considering this element is all but impossible to gloss over.

It’s obvious that Alfredson is about as taken with the elegance of winter — what, with all its crystal-tipped trees, snow-blanketed wonderlands — as any person might be who may consider themselves a romantic. The winter is harsh and unforgiving — especially the further north you go — but the director is intent on capturing the exquisite beauty, if but to simply distract for a moment or two from the world as it were. It’s also a perfectly spooky setting in which to make a horror film. The wintery environs throughout compound the effect of the many bizarre murders that happen in this small town near Stockholm. Bodies are discovered buried in snowdrifts, in thick ice; the chilled breaths of the characters provide an instant discomfort from the opening scenes.

Fortunately there is a story woven like fine fabric through this frozen wonderland of troubled youth, despair and oppression. Twelve-year-old Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) is introverted and a little strange, resulting in his constant bullying at school. He wants to do something about it but can’t find it within himself to actually take action. Then one night he comes across a very strange girl on a playground just outside of his decrepit apartment block — a girl about his age (“I’m 12, more or less. . .”) and the two become friends, even despite her initial not wanting to even go that far. She’s actually a vampire, destined forever to live off the fresh blood of humans, otherwise she’ll die.

Of course, none of this information she reveals at first, which is part of what makes this such an interesting watch. Bit by bit we see this innocent/vampiric personality coming together. Alfredson selects the perfect moments to reveal the characterizations of the “vampire,” using the experiences of this disturbed boy to reflect the nature of humanity versus that of the undead (what exactly are vampires — are they dead, or not? If someone can riddle me that one, I’ll give them. . .a Twix, or something. . .)

Instead of associating laughable, questionable special effects with the actions of these kinds of creatures, the girl (an excellent performance from Lina Leandersson) her character is very much reacting to and interacting with the real world, in real time. Her attacks are not only necessary but understandable. We know why she’s sucking so much blood from the necks of these otherwise-harmless passersby. And we see the effects her presence takes on the town. Each murder becomes more and more strange, and as they do, Eli (Leandersson) knows her stay in this tiny, frost-laden town is dwindling. Only, she begins to fall in love with a real person — Oskar.

The relationship is beautiful, as much as the scenery is a pleasure to watch. I could stare at the introductory scene all day. And while this couldn’t seem more of an odd choice for the night when we celebrate All Hallow’s Eve, the only thing more terrifying than it is the prospect of sitting through a shit horror film on that night. Fortunately, my experience tonight was completely the opposite. I want to reveal so much more about this film, but alas I cannot, for fear of ruining the entire experience for you.

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4-0Recommendation: This will not be the scariest thing you can find on Halloween, but if your goal is to watch a quality flick, here is one rare example of applying classical elements to a story very much steeped in reality. The locations help to make things interesting as well, as Sweden is a beautiful landscape of architectural splendor, barren isolation and unrepentant cold. In short, this is the perfect location to find some creep creatures lurking around. Forget about coffins and Dracula. This is a vampire movie for the 21st century, and it really works.

Rated: R

Running Time: 114 mins.

Quoted: “Oskar, I do it because I have to. Be me for a while. Please, Oskar. Be me, for a little while. . .”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com