Monday, January 20, 2020

My Top 10 Movies of 2019

10. The Wind

So good. The Wind uses the isolation of pioneer life to create a scary, atmospheric, Western horror. It's beautifully gothic, it's psychological, and above all it's super spooky. Also: I love the title. You know how in horror movies someone hears something scary and someone else says, "Don't worry, it's only the wind?" What if that was true, but the fact only made the situation more frightening?

9. Dora and the Lost City of Gold

A fun, exciting, super positive version of Tomb Raider / Indiana Jones-style stories with attention paid to why exploration is better than treasure-hunting. Teen Dora is delightful while also being badass. And I love how the movie acknowledges the fantasy of the cartoon while modifying it to fit with the (mostly) grounded reality of the film. The one thing I scratch my head over is making a masked, talking fox a character that no one ever questions, but I can roll with it.

8. Mary Magdalene

Amazing. It takes some liberties with the Biblical narrative, but in service to presenting an accurate vision of Christ's message and the challenges that his contemporaries - including his own followers - had in understanding it.

The movie is deeply feminist and presents Mary as one of the few followers not only to actually understand what she was being called to do, but also to support Jesus through his struggles while also encouraging her fellow followers to rethink their perceptions of Christ's role.

It's a beautiful story, one of Mara's best performances, and extremely relevant today as it encourages its audience to not just rage against injustice, but to find and act on ways to relieve actual suffering.

7. It Chapter Two

Oh my God these characters.

I haven't read the book and hadn't yet seen the TV miniseries when I watched this, so the two feature films were my introduction to this story. And even now that I've seen the TV version, this is the adaptation that everything else gets compared to, because I love all of these characters, as kids and adults.

I'm also fascinated by what the story says about memory. If I understand correctly, its thesis is that our presents are defined by which memories of the past we hold onto and feed. I agree.

I was momentarily confused by the symbolism of extinguishing evil light with darkness. I'm conditioned to relate light to goodness and darkness to evil, but I think I get it if the light in this case represents bad memories that cripple us if we allow ourselves to be defined by them. Darkness then would represent extinguishing those memories so that other, better memories can replace them as dominant in our thinking. I'm not a psychologist, but if I'm right in my understanding, the film doesn't encourage a harmful repression of painful memories, but a conscious, willful choice not to dwell on them. I dig that.

6. We Have Always Lived in the Castle

A beautiful, creepy, horrifying adaptation of a beautiful, creepy, horrifying book. So Southern. So gothic. The film works on every level from the casting to the locations (Ireland works shockingly well for the American South) to the actual acting (Alexandra Daddario is especially surprising and effective) and the photography.

5. How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World

Absolutely lovely. I wouldn't want to choose between it and the first one. What a beautiful, bittersweet finish to the trilogy. And F Murray Abraham's Grimmel is an even better villain than the awesomely deadly Drago from the second film. I love Grimmel's dangerous intelligence and sense of humor.

4. Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood

I've had mixed feelings about Tarantino's films his whole career. I generally love the narrative structure, characters, and a lot of the dialogue, but get irritated by the excessive violence and Tarantino's insistence on the n-word. I can usually get past those things when the film has an optimistic arc (as in Pulp Fiction and Django Unchained), but I hate the nihilism of The Hateful Eight. And I had a hard time adjusting to the revelation that Inglourious Basterds is set in an alternate reality instead of being a straight-up WWII movie. But all of these other experiences shaped my perception of what a Quentin Tarantino film is and led me to the place where I'd perfectly enjoy Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. I have a lot to say about it and I'll get into SPOILERS, SO BE WARNED.

The film spends a lot of time just hanging out with characters that I fell in love with, starting with Leonardo DiCaprio's Rick Dalton, but especially Brad Pitt's Cliff Booth (and his dog Brandy), and surprisingly Margot Robbie's Sharon Tate and Emile Hirsch's Jay Sebring. I've seen some of Tate's movies, but never thought much about her outside of the tragedy of her death. Up until a week or so before seeing Once Upon a Time, I don't think I even knew that she was almost full term in her pregnancy when she was murdered. In Once Upon a Time, I got to spend an afternoon with her, watching her go the movies and see one of her own films, delighted just to be a part of it and thrilled with the enjoyment of the rest of the audience.

Knowing that that Once Upon a Time was leading to her murder - and knowing how Tarantino typically presents violence - I grew more and more uneasy as I got to know and like her. And the same thing was going on with the fictional (and therefore expendable) Cliff and Rick as their stories started intersecting with the Manson cult. Coming right behind The Hateful Eight, I fully expected Once Upon a Time to get super dark and ugly. But then it went Inglourious Basterds instead.

If I hadn't been familiar with Inglourious Basterds, I don't know how I'd have reacted to the alternate reality ending of Once Upon a Time (even though the hint is right there in the title). But with precedence already being set, I was just relieved and profoundly moved to see things play out the way I wanted them to instead of how they really did. Which, weirdly, makes me mourn even more the deaths of Tate and Sebring and their friends, knowing that there were no real Cliff Booth and Rick Dalton in their lives.

Since seeing the movie, I spent a lot of time reading about the murders and trying to understand what led to them. I've spent even more time reflecting on this beautiful, beautiful film and looking forward to seeing it again.

3. Knives Out

It's possible that Knives Out nudges in front of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood only because I've seen it more recently. But Knives Out is an absolutely perfect example of one of my favorite story genres: the whodunnit. I never doubted for a second that Rian Johnson could pull this off, but it was even better than I expected. Just perfect, with a great cast of characters, plenty of fun twists (while always playing fair with new information and clues), and also powerfully challenging attitudes of condescension and entitlement (particularly in the super wealthy, but there's a message here for all of us).

2. Avengers: Endgame

Did not take enough tissues.

I expected Endgame to complete the story begun in Infinity War (with of course references to earlier films), but did not expect it to complete the stories begun in Iron Man, First Avenger, and really the entire saga so far. It's deeply emotional and a satisfying conclusion in so many ways. An amazing achievement.

The only reason it's at Number 2 and not Number 1 is that it does rest heavily on the foundation of nearly two dozen films that came before. That's not in any way a criticism. It's unbelievable that Endgame completes such an ambitious project so, so successfully. But if there was a movie that could touch me as deeply without having the benefit of almost 48 hours of previous material to help it... well, that would be Number 1.

1. Little Women

I was somewhat familiar with the story, mostly through the '90s movie and that episode of Friends where Rachel challenges Joey to read it in exchange for her reading The Shining. But I wasn't at all prepared for how intensely I would connect to the characters in Greta Gerwig's version. She gives everyone - not just the four title characters - powerful moments of longing and failure and success and love and every single actor absolutely nails it. There are so many different kinds of dreams and motivations. Some of them are heartbreaking. All of them are relatable.

From a narrative standpoint, I appreciated Gerwig's tactic of starting the film later in the story and then flashing back to earlier events. That kept me from getting impatient as I waited for certain plot points to develop. I was concerned for a little while that I'd get confused by the flashbacks, but I never did. Even before I realized that Gerwig was using different color filters for each time period, I was able to stay on track with just hairstyles or the context of the scene.

Diane and I went back a second time with some friends and agreed that it was even more rewarding on repeat. We noticed subtle foreshadowing that we'd missed the first time. And there was a lot of proactive weeping in anticipation of scenes we knew were coming. Just so incredibly rewarding.


Erik Johnson Illustrator said...

That Star Wars didn’t crack your top ten makes me question every I know about you.

I’ve heard so much positive buzz for Knives out and Little Women that I regret not having seen either. So many movies that are released in December turn out to be good after their release that I often miss out until they thaw out on DVD.

Michael May said...

"That Star Wars didn’t crack your top ten..."

It surprises and disappoints me, too.


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