Hollywood continues to be stuck in a rut of throwing money at the tried and true. More sequels! More reboots! We are getting painstaking “live action” remakes that are technically dazzling, but lacking the magic that made the originals beloved (I’m talking to you, Disney, with your Lion King, Dumbo, and Aladdin). We are getting flogged with dead-dog movies (A Dog’s Journey, A Dog’s Way Home, Art of Racing in the Rain), as if the state of the world isn’t making us cry already.
Meanwhile, you can still find true gems with independent films, at the art-house theater, or streaming online. When audiences aren’t lured to the multiplex, more eyeballs (and boundless creativity) seems to be found on streaming services. Oscar winners and other huge talents are being lured to streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime to create original content, and boy oh boy, some of what you find online is soooo much more fresh and exciting than what the studios are releasing in theaters. There is no way to dig through all of the content online and in theaters, but here are some places to start….
Give Me Liberty
My favorites of 2019
Give Me Liberty – A relentless, raucous ride in an always-late medical transport van, the story follows driver Vic as he picks up a motley crew of characters including a bunch of old Russian folks that are late for a funeral, a social worker, a charming con artist, and a handful of people with disabilities trying to go to a talent show. A hilarious and surprisingly moving slice of Americana via Milwaukee, you feel like you are dropped into a spontaneous documentary that reflects real people more than any movie I’ve seen in a long time. When I saw this film way back in January at Sundance, I leaned over to my partner as the credits rolled and said, “I think I’ve already seen my favorite movie of 2019.” And I was right.
The Farewell – You don’t have to have foreign-born family members to appreciate this sweet, funny, and touching story of a family trying to hide grandma Nai Nai’s cancer diagnosis from her. Instead, they throw a wedding as an excuse for everyone to gather to say goodbye. All the performances are spot-on, with Awkwafina showing she is a lovely dramatic actress.
Parasite – A poor family of con artists literally works their way into a rich family’s house, becoming trusted tutor, art therapist, housekeeper, and driver. As cons go, of course, things are about to go very very wrong. I’ve always enjoyed Bong Joon-ho’s work, and he again knocks it out of the park with this comedy/thriller that is a wince-inducing commentary on the class system.
Ford v Ferrari – Matt Damon and Christian Bale have loads of fun (as does the audience) in this true story of American moxie as the Ford Motor Company attempts to beat their rivals Ferrari at the Grand Le Mans race in the 1960s.
The Kid Who Would Be King – This marvelously entertaining reimagining of the King Arthur tale with modern working-class British kids was loads of fun. My 10-year-old companion was even convinced that the magic was real, he just needed to study and practice.
Avengers: Endgame – It feels like we all binge-watched 20+ movies, chapping our eyeballs with superheroes, investing years of our lives in the process. But guess what? This last episode was actually really good, and, most importantly, had a satisfying ending! (Raise your hand if you cried!)
Queen & Slim – If only their awkward Tinder date had ended at the diner. Instead, a traffic stop leaves a white cop dead on the side of the road, and a black man and woman running for their lives. Stylish, frustrating, and heartbreaking, Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner Smith are entirely convincing as reluctant folk heroes.
Apollo 11 – The all-original footage in this documentary, some of it in perfectly crisp 70mm, is so astonishing to see for the first time that you gasp. It is best to see this on as big a screen as possible, so that your hair can blow back as the Saturn V rocket takes off, so you can peer over the shoulders of people at Mission Control, and so you can reach out and touch the surface of the moon with the astronauts.
The Expanse (series) – OK, not a film, but I’ll cheat here. Though there has been a resurgence of sci-fi films, the most exciting “space story” I watched this year was this political epic involving Earth, Mars, and The Belt. I binged the first three seasons, and breathlessly waited for season 4 in December (thankfully picked up by Amazon Prime after Syfy booted the show). Yes, it is the best sci-fi series since Battlestar Galactica, which is saying a lot, and I can’t wait for more!
Lolo Spencer in Give Me Liberty – As sassy social worker Tracy, Spencer is the funny, perturbed heart and soul of the story as she tries to keep everyone around her grounded in the chaos.
Tracy Letts in Ford v Ferrari – As Henry Ford, Jr., Letts nails a scene where he sobs after being taken for a first spin by race car driver Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon). “I had no idea… I had no idea…”
Lupita Nyong’o in Us – Great in a dual role, it’s her terrifying performance as raspy-voiced evil doppelgänger Red that still gives me chills. Give that woman some tea and honey!
The seagull in The Lighthouse – Someone needs to tell Robert Pattinson that nothing is more dangerous than a one-eyed seagull scorned.
Movie most likely to be mansplained
Ad Astra is a brooding sci-fi story of a man (Brad Pitt) sent by the government to the outskirts of the Solar System to retrieve his long-lost father (Tommy Lee Jones) who has gone rogue. It reminded me of how once a male co-worker mansplained to me about how Ridley Scott’s Prometheus was actually a brilliant film just disguised as dumb one with lots of plot holes. Given Ad Astra‘s overwhelming praise from mostly male critics, I stand by my review that the film just isn’t as smart as it pretends to be.
Finally, an unspoken truth mentioned in a sports movie
Brittany Runs a Marathon reveals the harsh truth that in order to achieve your athletic goals, you may shit yourself in the process.
Most gorgeous cinematography
You couldn’t mention two films more different in look and style as The Lighthouse and A Hidden Life, but both were absolutely stunning. Looking at pipe-smoking grizzled lighthouse keeper Willem Dafoe’s face was like looking at a century-old photo found in an attic. Whereas Terrence Malick surprised no one that every shot of his latest film was as dazzling as a painting, with its Austrian vistas and toiling farmers.
Hottest scene (human)
A tie between Jennifer Lopez working the pole in Hustlers to Fiona Apple’s “Criminal” and Brad Pitt taking off his shirt while working on a roof in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. The fact that both of these beautiful people are 50+ makes them even hotter.
Hottest scene (inanimate object)
The bookbinding porn at the end of Little Women made me gasp and swoon with delight. Be still my beating heart! (Fans self)
Strangely not hot
Juliette Binoche visiting the “f**kbox” in High Life. I guess it is a friendly technological addition for any long-distance space travel… but still, it was kind of… (clearing throat)… ew.
Most perfect song sequences
Two scenes perfectly portrayed the joy of music for me this year: In Rocketman, when Elton John (Taron Egerton) premieres at the Troubadour club in L.A. his infectious rendition of “Crocodile Rock” momentarily causes the singer and crowd to literally elevate into the air in the ecstasy of the moment. In Blinded by the Light, teenage Bruce Springsteen fans in working class England take over their school radio station and triumphantly sing “Born to Run” through the halls and into town with such a joyful exuberance it is like hearing the song for the first time.
The Aftermath was kind of a snoozer, a post-World War II romantic drama involving a miserable British couple and a hot former Nazi. But when the ex-Nazi is as attractive and repentant as Alexander Skarsgård, and wears such a gorgeous array of sweaters as he does, it’s hard to fault Keira Knightley for falling for him.
Audiences seemed to get over their initial fear and repulsion at the site of Will Smith in blueface in the trailers for Aladdin (the film turned out to be a hit). But no such luck for the movie adaptation of the musical Cats. The trailer instantly became infamous in a sort of, “What the eff did I just watch?” way when it dropped. By the time the film was released for the holidays, still being edited days after it hit theaters, it was already destined to be a stink-bomb in the litter box of Hollywood failures. (Watch it here.)
Best trailers (aka Most-anticipated movies for 2020)
There is something about the “us versus them” political climate these days that seems to parallel the Cold War of the 1980s. Maybe it is no coincidence that two trailers with an 80s-vibe dropped late in the year to great excitement (including my own). I know I’m not the only one excited about Wonder Woman 1984 and Top Gun: Maverick in 2020!
Most fun to be had at the movies
In 2019, I got to go to the Sundance Film Festival for the first time! Always intimidating for its razzle-dazzle fanciness, it turns out that regular people, if they are willing to be flexible, can pretty easily score tickets to film screenings after the initial celebrity fuss of the first few days. Like any film festival, it turns out the movies are as hit and miss as anywhere else… But it is fun to see and hear about hot titles that you know will be making a splash later in the year. And, if you are lucky, you can catch a gem that may be your favorite movie of the year (see my list above)!