With another year coming to a close, it’s time for my annual review of the best – and worst – in cinema of the past 12 months. And what a generally disappointing year it was. Truly great films were few and far between, with only a handful earning the status of being genuinely outstanding. Some offerings were commendable, and many were adequate, but quite a few were sorely lacking. In fact, in compiling my list, I had far less trouble coming up with my Bottom 10 than I did with those at the top, something that speaks volumes about the quality of 2019’s offerings. This is something that’s reflected in this year’s field of Oscar nominees as well, a subject that will be addressed separately in an upcoming blog. A supplemental entry for my favorite documentaries of the year – of which there were quite a few in 2019 – is also under preparation.
In the meantime, though, here are my choices for this year’s cream of the crop and this year’s cold porridge.
This subtle, thoughtful little drama is rich in insight and symbolism, elevating a seemingly everyday tale to the height of inspired storytelling. Independent Spirit Award nominee Mary Kay Place gives an excellent performance in an uncharacteristic dramatic role, backed by a superb cast of supporting players that includes Andrea Martin, Estelle Parsons, Deirdre O’Connell and Jake Lacy. Director Kent Jones’s debut offering, an ISA nominee for best first feature, proves that a film can quietly entertain and enlighten without explosions going off every few minutes.
Though occasionally predictable and somewhat meandering in the middle, this excellent Colombian offering on the rise of the drug trade and its impact on the country’s native people is otherwise well executed on all fronts. With fine performances, beautiful cinematography and a nuanced though sometimes-rote script, “Birds of Passage” succeeds in telling a familiar story in an unfamiliar setting. Directors Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra present a heartbreaking story of paradise lost and hopeful rebirth from the ashes of tragic ruin, a truly powerful cautionary tale that will leave you moved in myriad ways.
Director Julius Onah’s riveting psychological thriller, filled with endless twists and turns, leaves audiences in suspense right up until the very end. What’s more important, though, is that the film forces us to face some incendiary questions about race, redemption, privacy, trust, perception and prejudice, all the while showing us that things may not be as simple or clear-cut as they seem. The picture’s superb script, fine film editing and excellent ensemble cast (most notably Naomi Watts, Andrea Bang, Tim Roth, and Independent Spirit Award nominees Octavia Spencer and Kelvin Harrison Jr.) make for one of the best offerings of 2019, a release worthy of serious viewer consideration.
Director Dexter Fletcher’s flamboyantly engaging film biography of pop icon Elton John hits all the right notes from start to finish. The film’s inventive song-based approach to this character study adds punch to the storyline, playing like a good old-fashioned musical, one that actually works in today’s often-cynical cinematic landscape. Golden Globe winner and Screen Actors Guild Award nominee Taron Egerton gives a career performance as the rock idol who had, and nearly lost, everything. Admittedly, this offering is nothing what I expected, but it exceeds all of what I hoped for. Regrettably, the film has been largely ignored by the Oscars (including an inexcusable snub for Egerton), but it has thankfully earned numerous awards and a boatload of well-deserved nominations in other contests. Rock on!
- “1917” (Full review to come)
Despite a somewhat slow beginning, this otherwise-gripping World War I tale, filmed ostensibly as one long continuous shot, takes viewers on a first-person journey through battle-ravaged France as two British soldiers try to warn their fellow troops about an impending trap set for them by allegedly retreating Germans. By bringing the war to the front row of the theater, audiences get to experience the terror of the conflict up close, a story capable of genuinely frightening viewers better than any of the best horror flicks on the market. The fine lead performances of George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman, combined with the stunning photography of Roger Deakins, the riveting score of Thomas Newman and the expert direction of Sam Mendes, coalesce to make this truly one of the year’s best. The effect may leave you feeling a bit claustrophobic and shell-shocked at times, but then that’s a sure sign the filmmakers have done their job, an effort that earned the film two Golden Globe Awards (including best dramatic picture), three Critics Choice Awards, 10 Oscar nominations (including a nod for best picture) and an array of honors in other competitions. This is the kind of grand, sweeping epic that Hollywood does well – albeit not often enough.
Director Scott Z. Burns’s meticulously detailed, methodically explained offering tells the story of Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s efforts to prepare and release a report exposing the fraud and failings of the CIA’s post-9/11 Enhanced Interrogation Techniques program, particularly the government’s campaign to squelch criticism about its questionable effectiveness. Excellent performances by Adam Driver, Maura Tierney, Golden Globe nominee Annette Bening and a fine ensemble of supporting players enliven a story that otherwise would have been painfully talky and deathly tedious. The picture’s razor-sharp script not only delivers the facts, but it does so with edgy wit and just the right amount of cynicism to reveal the true nature of what was really going on during a turbulent period in the nation’s history, when ethics were sacrificed on the chopping block of expediency and the fulfillment of dubious agendas. This release didn’t receive much attention when it was in theaters, but it’s a smart, savvy, eye-opening offering that every truly loyal American should see.
Director Lulu Wang’s excellent comedy-drama about how to handle an impending family tragedy is one of the most capably made, thoroughly satisfying films of this or any other year. With excellent performances by Golden Globe winner Awkwafina and Critics Choice and Independent Spirit Award nominee Shenzhen Zhou, as well as a superb, smartly written script, the picture takes viewers on an emotional rollercoaster, from laughter to tears to heartfelt warmth and back again. There’s so much to like here that it’s difficult to get one’s hands around everything it has to offer. However, despite a smattering of nominations in various competitions, including National Board of Review honors as one of 2019’s top 10 independent films, it’s unfortunate that this release has not received wider attention during awards season, including, unfortunately, not a single Oscar nomination. Keep the hankies handy.
While some have aptly said that this film covers ground that’s been addressed before and that it occasionally plays like both a therapy session and a legal consultation, writer-director Noah Baumbach’s latest nevertheless offers viewers an engaging mix of heartache and humor, showing the pain and utter absurdity that frequently go into the dissolution of a marriage. The truly superb ensemble cast, with excellent performances by Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver, Ray Liotta, Julie Hagerty, Alan Alda and, especially, Golden Globe and Critics Choice Award winner Laura Dern, coupled with an incisive script, make for a dynamite combination that reaches out, grabs and holds audience attention from beginning to end. Arguably Baumbach’s best film, this offering is more than deserving of all the praise that has rightfully been heaped upon it, including six Oscar nominations (with a nod for best picture) and a host of other honors. You’ll laugh, you might cry and you’ll definitely feel the heart strings tugged with this one, but the picture assuredly earns the reactions it evokes. Be sure to catch this one.
Director Jordan Peele’s richly layered, deftly nuanced smart horror offering tells a tale that can be viewed both individually and collectively, one that gives the audience much to think about upon leaving the theater. The filmmaker’s second feature defies the sophomore jinx, delivering an expertly crafted allegorical story that’s captivating and insightful while dishing out great laughs and a few good scares without becoming gratuitous. Peele has taken a quantum leap in his artistry and storytelling skills with this release, an accomplishment that will likely allow him to write his own ticket from here on out. I can’t wait to see it again! Sadly, though, the picture has come up short during awards season. Despite winning the Critics Choice Award for best horror/sci-fi film and a handful of other nominations, including a Screen Actors Guild Award nomination for best female lead for Lupita Nyong’o, the picture has been otherwise snubbed in other competitions, a true shame to be sure. Perhaps this one hits a little too close to home – a sure sign of its impact and effectiveness.
Dissecting the struggle between the classes through the lens of innate human nature – regardless of class status – provides the foundation for this rip-roaring black comedy/social satire, one of those rare films that grabs your attention and relentlessly holds it hostage without letting go. Building on themes explored in such previous works as “Snowpiercer” (2013), writer-director Bong Joon Ho serves up a riveting, ruthless offering that makes its point clearly but without being heavy-handed or cartoonishly over the top. In doing so, the filmmaker expertly dishes out a wealth of utterly hilarious humor about subjects that ultimately prove to be no laughing matter. Easily the year’s best and sufficiently award-worthy for its superb writing and excellent ensemble cast, “Parasite” has been lavishly praised with numerous nominations (including six Oscar nods), as well as best director honors at the Critics Choice Awards, best foreign language film accolades in the Golden Globe and CCA contests, and best picture at the Cannes Film Festival. But, most of all, this is a movie that gives us a lot to think about, a message we had all better take seriously.
- (tie) “Official Secrets”
This somewhat rote but nevertheless compelling biopic tells the story of British whistleblower Katharine Gun and how she exposed government efforts to strong-arm United Nations Security Council members into sanctioning the 2003 Iraq War based on faulty intelligence, only to subsequently face prosecution (not to mention harassment) under the UK’s Official Secrets Act. It’s a story not well known outside the UK and one with a message that we should all take to heart. Keira Knightley delivers a knock-out performance as the unlikely and unwitting heroine, backed by a superb supporting cast and the fine direction of filmmaker Gavin Hood. Like the story it’s based on, this film hasn’t received much attention, but it’s definitely a worthwhile view.
- (tie) “Knives and Skin” (Full review to come)
Although somewhat meandering at times, this refreshingly experimental, eloquently metaphorical, profoundly poetic look at the joys and challenges of coming of age in a pervasively dysfunctional world offers a truly original story unlike anything most viewers have probably ever seen. With nods to the likes of David Lynch, Paul Thomas Anderson and others, director Jennifer Reeder serves up a frequently absurd, frequently hilarious, but sincerely heartfelt tale about a community of lost souls seeking to find their way with virtually no guidance to help show them the way, save for hard-fought looks within that gradually help them get a grip on their lives and futures. Exquisitely shot with inventive lighting, striking cinematography, and a production design lavishly peppered with neon and pastels, these elements perfectly complement its inspired script and an atmospheric soundtrack that consists mostly of beautifully performed choral versions of pop songs. This one isn’t for everyone, but it surely gives everybody much to ponder – and an undeniable desire to want to watch it multiple times.
- “Spider” (“Araña”) (Full review to come)
When a believed-dead right-wing Chilean nationalist reappears decades after working with the radical Fatherland and Liberty movement to overthrow the Communist government of President Salvadore Allende, old ghosts from the past re-emerge from the woodwork, circumstances that create havoc for the story’s principals, both personally and publicly. Told through a series of flashbacks seamlessly woven into the present-day narrative, the film reveals a complex political struggle that spills over from the day’s public events and into the personal lives of the movement’s participants (and vice versa), both in the past and the present. Director Andrés Wood delivers an engaging, edge-of-your-seat thriller with both personal and public implications, as well as a message that’s just as important for today as it was in the past, and not just in Chile. “Spider,” a nominee for the Chicago Film Festival’s Gold Hugo Award, the event’s highest honor, is yet another excellent example of the work coming out of one of the world’s foremost emerging film industries.
Despite occasional tendencies toward being formulaic, director Todd Haynes’s fact-based thriller explores the efforts of a determined community, led by a courageous and ethical attorney, to take on a major chemical corporation hiding the dangers of its products and all of the fallout that comes with it. The film’s excellent no-nonsense script does a fine job explaining the complex litigious questions involved, detailing the implications of the crusaders’ actions without resorting to jargon or unfathomable legalese. Then there are the superb performances of Mark Ruffalo as the heroic lawyer and Bill Camp as his outraged and victimized client, performances deserving of more attention than they received. This is an important story, one that’s well told and doesn’t hold anything back, a tale that should inspire us all to taking action when it comes to tragedies such as this.
- “Babyteeth” (Full review to come)
The seemingly unlikely romance between a seriously ill teenager and a junkie/small-time drug dealer outrages her parents, despite the fact that mom and dad each engage in their own bad behavior and have more than their own share of issues. Yet, as this story plays out, it becomes apparent that those who are supposed to provide guidance can learn much from those they’re guiding. With a tautly written script, a superb ensemble cast (especially Ben Mendelsohn in one of his best performances), creative cinematography and a more than ample supply of quirky humor, this excellent debut feature from director Shannon Murphy ushers the audience through a minefield of emotions (especially in the film’s concluding sequence), leaving viewers moved – and drained – by picture’s end. Think of this as a slightly off-the-wall, bittersweet and decidedly more dysfunctional version of “Terms of Endearment” (1983), and you have the idea. This is a superb offering from a promising new talent. Don’t miss it.
Wow, did the critics ever get this one wrong. This taut, engaging political thriller effectively builds suspense in a Polanski-esque way with a mesmerizing story that delivers clues to its true nature in carefully measured doses, leading up to revelations and a climax that will blow viewers away. Jamie Lee Curtis delivers what is arguably the best performance of her career as a chilling composite of several well-known political figures, along with a solid lead portrayal by Tika Sumpter. See this one – it has much to say (and important stuff at that).
NOTEWORTHY (IN ALPHABETICAL ORDER)
“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”
This heartwarming tale of redemption and forgiveness showcases the efforts of mild-mannered children’s TV icon Fred Rogers when he intervenes to help heal the anguish plaguing a hard-nosed investigative reporter and his estranged father. Oscar, Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Award nominee Tom Hanks delivers an outstanding, exceedingly reverent portrayal of the legendary and unlikely television star, as does Chris Cooper as the long-absent and now-penitent father figure. Director Marielle Heller serves up a touching yarn whose innate predictability is creatively offset by a variety of inventive cinematic techniques and clever storytelling techniques. The picture could have used a stronger male lead than Matthew Rhys, and the back story of the protagonist’s conflict could have been fleshed out a little more effectively, but the film otherwise comes through with a soothing quality that the world could use more of these days.
“A Hidden Life” (Full review to come)
While writer-director Terrence Malick’s stream of consciousness style of filmmaking may not be for everyone, he certainly offers his best example of this kind of work in his latest offering, “A Hidden Life.” As with nearly all of his pictures (which are known for including beautiful imagery for its own sake and not necessarily as a means for moving the story forward), this release could definitely use some editing, considering its nearly three-hour runtime. However, given that this fact-based film features a more narrative-driven focus than some of his other works, that change, coupled with his signature style, make for a moving combination, one that’s simultaneously emotionally stirring and beautiful to look at. August Diehl and Valerie Pachner give quietly impassioned performances as protagonists wrestling with crises of conscience in World War II Austria, set against the beauty of their native countryside and the ugliness of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime. Admittedly, this picture may try the patience of even the most diehard moviegoer, but it’s worth sitting through even the slow passages given the rewards on offer.
Reviews of this explosive exposé of the pathological sexual harassment Fox News head Roger Ailes inflicted on his female employees have run the gamut from highly praiseworthy for taking on such a sensitive subject to utterly disappointing that it “doesn’t do more” in exploring the roots of its underlying issue. This is a conundrum I find hard to fathom. For the most part, I found this a worthwhile offering, presenting a probing look at a troubling story that effectively mixes cynicism, satire and serious drama in examining a serious workplace matter that often isn’t taken seriously enough. The film’s superb ensemble cast features excellent performances across the board from Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman and Margot Robbie (all of them Oscar and/or Golden Globe nominees), as well as supporting players John Lithgow, Allison Janney and Malcolm McDowell, combined with an inventive storytelling approach that keeps the picture fresh and engaging throughout. Frankly, I don’t understand what disappointed viewers expected out of this release, but I find their criticisms misplaced that “Bombshell” somehow should have handled its material in a way that it wasn’t intended to be handled in the first place, an unfair disparagement if you ask me – and one this film doesn’t deserve.
Hands down, this is the best superhero movie I’ve seen in quite some time – well written and well acted, with no overreliance on action or special effects gimmickry to carry the story. Brie Larson seamlessly steps into the role of superhero, capably supported by a cast of colorful supporting players who add humor, intrigue and warmth to a well-constructed narrative. Honestly, I don’t care how well or how poorly this offering fits into the larger Marvel Universe mythology or the overall marketing strategy of the franchise; I judge a film on its individual merits, and, on this score, this picture succeeds well on every front. “Captain Marvel” does what a superhero movie should – entertain, inspire and leave viewers feeling as though they’ve gotten their money’s worth from the theatrical experience.
This surprisingly good offering about a successful child star and his troubled father who uses tough love (sometimes a little too tough) to see his son succeed and avoid the mistakes he made in his life presents a story based on the life experience of writer-actor Shia LaBeouf and his own dad. Told through flashbacks, viewers see how a now-adult movie star dogged by substance abuse goes through rehab to deal with his past and seek resolution, a tale peppered with unusual and unexpected ups and downs, as well as a revelation that situations like this aren’t necessarily black and white. Excellent performances abound, especially LaBeouf’s portrayal of the father figure and by Lucas Hedges and Noah Jupe as the elder and younger actor. Inventive cinematography and creative musical montages help to set this one apart from other similar releases, evoking heartfelt but not manipulative emotional responses and earning the picture four Independent Spirit Award nominations. Think of this as a grittier, gender-switch, working class version of “Postcards from the Edge” (1990), and you’ve got the idea what’s behind this one.
Doing justice to an iconic performer can be a tricky proposition, but “Judy” does just that where legendary singer/dancer/actress Judy Garland is concerned. Golden Globe and Critics Choice Award winner Renée Zellweger absolutely knocks it out of the park in a touching, brings-tears-to-your-eyes, Oscar-nominated portrayal of the talented but tragic performer. While some elements might have been handled a little better (such as the pacing in the first 30 minutes), the film more than makes up for any minor shortcomings with Zellweger’s phenomenal singing and acting, capturing Judy’s sensitive but sad essence with gripping emotion and a superb rendition of her subject’s character. It may not be a perfect movie, but it absolutely gets it right where it counts.
“Just Mercy” (Full review to come)
Despite some occasional pacing issues and a storytelling approach that’s fairly conventional for films of this type, “Just Mercy” nevertheless reaches out and grabs viewers with an intensity that earns the genuinely sincere emotions it evokes from audiences. With fine performances by Michael B. Jordan and Screen Actors Guild Award nominee Jamie Foxx, this fact-based story of an idealistic lawyer’s efforts to exonerate an innocent African-American man on death row in Alabama touches in ways that movies of this stripe typically don’t despite similarity in subject matter and narrative. One would think in this day and age that we shouldn’t have to be shown films that embody stories such as this, but, given the prevailing conditions found in our ever-increasingly polarized society, it’s obvious the need is still there, and, thankfully, we have pictures like this to step up and fill that void.
What a treat it is to see a smartly written, intelligent, genuinely funny comedy these days, one that isn’t afraid to poke some major holes in the types of vehicles that claim to be funny but truly aren’t. While the film could use a little more development in certain parts of the back story, and while some elements are a little too predictable, this otherwise-spot-on tale delivers huge, often-scathing laughs and does so without necessarily having to rely only on one-liners. Mindy Kaling, John Lithgow and, especially, Emma Thompson turn in fine performances in a story that plays like “The Devil Wears Prada” (2006) set in the world of the TV comedy biz. And, by the way, pay no attention to the trailer for this one – it really doesn’t do the film justice.
This suspenseful, well-acted, well-directed biopic of an innocent man accused of a heinous crime at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics hits most of the right notes save for one very big one – the truth of how the reporter who broke the story actually got her information. This controversial story thread, which has drawn angry criticism from those who knew the journalist in question, seems to linger somewhere between possible truth and outright fiction, an element that undermines an otherwise-fine film, particularly the point about character assassination that it’s trying to make. However, even if this aspect of the film is a glaring error, there’s still plenty to like about director Clint Eastwood’s work, especially the excellent performances of its superb ensemble, including Paul Walter Hauser, Sam Rockwell, Jon Hamm, Olivia Wilde, and Oscar and Golden Globe Award nominee Kathy Bates, recipient of the National Board of Review’s award for best supporting actress. Granted, this one may have to be taken with a hefty grain of salt, but the picture’s many strengths more than outweigh its very large shortcoming, which, had it been handled differently, would have made this an otherwise truly great film.
“The Peanut Butter Falcon”
Despite some occasionally sluggish pacing and a narrative that’s more than a little predictable, this modern-day retelling of Huckleberry Finn is one of the sweetest, most heartfelt feel good comedy-drama-road trip offerings to come along in years. Shia LaBeouf and Dakota Johnson turn in some of their best work here, along with fine performances by newcomer Zack Gottsagen and veterans Bruce Dern and Thomas Haden Church. This may not be epic cinema, but it’s certainly satisfying, well-crafted, crowd-pleasing entertainment.
- “Lucy in the Sky”
What starts out as a promising tale of personal discovery regrettably turns hard to believe, almost campy, in the second half. Despite the film’s fact-based nature, its story line degenerates into an overwritten, overacted debacle that almost becomes laughable at times, the otherwise-fine performance of Natalie Portman notwithstanding. It’s truly a missed opportunity to tell a story with some depth and meaning in an unlikely setting.
Director Christian Petzold’s meandering, pretentious, inarticulate screen adaptation of Anna Seghers’s novel is a mess almost from the outset. This tale of refugees trapped in Marseilles trying to flee the Nazi occupation of France retells this historic saga in a contemporary time frame, a half-baked attempt at commenting on Germany having to come to terms with its past while simultaneously speaking to the current European refugee crisis. One could say that it’s attempting to be “Casablanca” (1942) for the 21st Century. Unfortunately, the film’s convoluted mishmash of plot lines and undeveloped characters is presented with virtually no back story, jumping into its narrative without any context, meaningful character identification or hints about the confusingly anachronistic elements intertwined here. All in all, a poorly conceived offering feebly attempting to pass itself off as lofty arthouse cinema. Skip it.
- “Captive State”
This well-intentioned but regrettably poorly constructed alien invasion story is riddled with relevant but all too obvious and heavy-handed sociopolitical symbolism. In a film that’s part “War of the Worlds” (2005), part “District 9” (2009) and part “Divergent” (2014), along with other all-too-familiar sci-fi allusions thrown in, viewers are handed a story that’s a little too crammed with ideas, characters, technologies and events to adequately keep track of things given the blistering pace of the story (a quality that, ironically, makes the picture somewhat tedious to watch). This could have been a lot better with some retooling – and maybe a few more drafts of the screenplay.
- “Ad Astra”
This amalgamation of half-baked, underdeveloped, disjointed scientific and philosophical notions translates into a film whose narrative has more plot holes than a wheel of Swiss cheese. The lackluster, deadpan dramatic performance of Brad Pitt (who really should stick to comedy), combined with sluggish pacing, underwhelming special effects and a poorly written, poorly executed script, leave viewers wanting for much more than what this package delivers. What’s worse, though, is that there were ample opportunities to salvage this story and to take it in surprising, refreshing and enlightening directions that would have made for a much, much better picture. Pay no heed to the critics on this one; all hype aside, it’s a major disappointment and far from the epic masterpiece status that has been so undeservedly lavished upon it.
- “Being Frank”
Despite a fine lead performance by Jim Gaffigan, this dark comedy about the misadventures of a philandering middle-aged dad with two families often falls flat thanks to a screenplay that misses opportunities for wicked laughs, attempts to make light of situations that aren’t funny and tries too hard to generate sympathy for a protagonist undeserving of it. What’s more, the film at times verges on becoming too complicated for its own good, mistakenly confusing excessive complexity with screwball pacing. This picture’s premise had a lot of potential but, regrettably, just can’t pull it off successfully.
Although beautifully filmed and chock full of surprisingly grabbing humor, this meandering, overlong, frequently predictable smart horror offering tries the viewer’s patience early on in the first act, a shortcoming that relentlessly carries through to the end. While presented as a story about psychological health and well-being painted on the canvas of an allegedly suspenseful thriller, the picture comes up woefully short in the fright department (even though it tries to compensate for that with ample gratuitous gore), largely because, at a 2:20 runtime, it takes far too long to reach its final destination (which is easily visible from miles away). Florence Pugh’s often-overwrought performance becomes tiresome, almost laughable, as the story wears on...and on...and on as it inches toward its wholly unfulfilling conclusion. Save your money.
- “Doctor Sleep”
This jumbled, overlong, often-boring, frequently silly sequel to the Stanley Kubrick horror classic “The Shining” (1980) misfires so much and so often that it’s an utter embarrassment to all involved. With a painfully protracted runtime of 2:32 and a storytelling approach that inexplicably vacillates between campy romp and trite horror fare, filmmaker Mike Flanagan’s directorial skills simply aren’t up to paying homage to the artistry of the predecessor picture’s creator, especially in one particularly grotesque sequence that’s in stupendously bad taste. Moreover, the writing and acting are frequently comical, so horrendously awful that I often found myself chuckling over material that I probably wasn’t supposed to be laughing at. You know you’ve got a stinker on your hands when you see, as I did at my screening, viewers getting up and leaving not even halfway into the movie. Here’s hoping Stanley wasn’t watching.
- “The Souvenir”
Handily one of the most empty, tedious and flat-out dull movie experiences I’ve had in quite a long, long while, this English romantic drama about the perils of toxic relationships satisfies about as much as a brew made from yesterday’s leftover teabag. This story (if one can even call it that) never gets off the ground but instead wallows in a collection of disjointed incidents mixed in with pseudointellectual discussions about filmmaking and other obscure, esoteric topics. For the life of me I have no clue what director Joanna Hogg was going for here, and, based on the results, I suspect she didn’t, either.
- “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood”
When this film was initially released, my gut instincts told me not to waste my time. However, with all of the awards buzz swirling around it (including 10 Oscar nominations, four SAG Award nominations, three Golden Globe wins and four Critics Choice awards), I decided to give it a look, after which I realized my initial reaction was right: Absolute utter garbage, overrated in virtually every respect (except, perhaps, for Leonardo DiCaprio’s fine Oscar-nominated lead performance). What praise is there to be given for two dragged-out hours of boring, mundane activity, followed by a gratuitously grotesque conclusion that’s supposed to be...funny? My only takeaway from this is that director Quentin Tarantino may be a master of nostalgia in his authentic re-creation of past pop culture but little else, an accomplishment that, frankly, makes me wonder, “Who cares?” The director has hinted that his next picture will be his last; let’s hope he keeps his word.
If “pornography” is accurately defined as “having no redeeming social value,” then this positively repugnant release would most certainly qualify on that score. The film’s simplistic, virtually nonexistent plot, endless fight sequences that quickly become repetitive and boring, excessively wanton violence, and monotone acting by the protagonist combine to transform what should have been a compelling action thriller into a tasteless snooze that had me checking my watch more than a few times. With the exception of a few intriguing supporting performances and the occasional infusion of humor, this one has nothing (and I do mean nothing) else to offer. Many dissenting critics have said this plays like a video game version of the franchise, which seems like an all-too-fitting description. Unless you have a fetish for leering over senseless, recurring, brutal violence run amok, steer clear of this one.
- (tie) “Gloria Bell”
An eclectic collection of singular moments and notions worth pondering, unfortunately, is not enough to make a story, the principal downfall of this ultimately tiresome offering, a sort of present-day remake of “An Unmarried Woman” (1978). I kept waiting…and waiting…and waiting for the dots of this story to connect, but they never really do except in the vaguest of ways, making for an experience almost as unsatisfying as that of the life of the protagonist. Julianne Moore’s earnest though somewhat overrated performance helps to maintain a modicum of interest, but it’s not enough to save a picture that’s desperately searching to validate its existence, a truly disappointing effort from acclaimed director Sebastián Lelio.
- (tie) “The Last Black Man in San Francisco”
I suppose there’s a good story hidden somewhere in this film, but it never surfaces. And the picture’s reliance on gorgeous cinematography of a beautiful city, along with some capable acting, are far from enough to save this cluttered, unfocused mess. Perhaps the biggest issue is that the film tries to cover too much ground and doesn’t do most of its many, many, many themes justice as a result. From gentrification to white privilege to black-on-black violence to busting the balloons of unrealistic pipe dreams, the film raises more questions than it answers or fleshes out. “Last Black Man” may be pretty to look at, but it clearly needed a few more rounds of script review to pull off whatever it was attempting to do.
- “High Life”
This meandering, convoluted attempt at merging space-based sci-fi, edgy eroticism and the fallout of a dystopian existence never finds its legs, leaving viewers scratching their heads more often than not. Poor sound quality, cheap-looking sets and an inexplicably nonlinear script don’t help matters as the characters and the story hopelessly seek to find themselves. The hype here is definitely ill-deserved, and protagonist Robert Pattinson definitely needs to pick better scripts.
- “The Dead Don’t Die”
The filmography of director Jim Jarmusch is characterized by hits and misses. Unfortunately, his latest offering is more the latter than the former. This social/political satire, wrapped up in an homage to George Romero’s horror classic “Night of the Living Dead” (1968), frequently falls flat, playing like an unedited first cut of an unedited first draft screenplay. Jarmusch’s latest seems like an attempt to imitate the work of Jordan Peele, but it lacks the airtight narrative foundation to effectively pull it off. That’s too bad, too, given the stellar cast here, most of whom (except for Tilda Swinton) are underutilized and given precious little to work with. What’s more, the story takes far too long to find traction, something that it finally starts to do in the second half but never quite catches fire due to some of the same pacing, editing and lackluster writing issues that plague the entire first half. With what Jarmusch had to work with, this is a very big missed opportunity indeed.
Is it a psychological thriller? A campy romp? Well, that’s what the film itself is unable to decide. While it does each of those things well, it doesn’t effectively mesh them together, abruptly switching gears from the former into the latter in the final act. Had director Neil Jordan decided which of these approaches he wanted to use, he would have had a much better picture on his hands. Alas, though, viewers are left with a film that’s almost as schizophrenic as one of its two principals. Despite these issues, one can’t help but commend Isabelle Huppert for her moxie in being willing to yet again take on a part where she’s willing to do anything (and do it well). It’s too bad, though, that she didn’t have a better vehicle to show off what she can really do.
Despite excellent cinematography and fine film editing, this would-be epic saga of a group of adolescent rebel commandos harboring an American hostage in the mountains and jungles of Latin America aspires to heights of profundity that it never quite attains. With an almost complete lack of back story, an episodic, meandering narrative, and unresolved plot lines at movie’s end, this film seems to strive at making a statement it can never articulate. This is yet another case of hype trying to outmuscle quality and failing miserably.
Copyright © 2019-20, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.