Thursday, February 13, 2020

The Best of 2019 So Far

I have been lax in my Ten Best and Ten Worst of 2019 Lists, probably because I wanted to see more films. I'm sure many will disagree with some of my choices, but again: My List, My Rules.

As of today, I have seen 75 films of 2019, so if a film isn't on this list, I either didn't see it or didn't think it was worthy. With that, let us begin.

NUMBER 10: Judy

I figure Film Twitter will dislike this choice, but I found Judy a well-acted portrait of an artist wavering between triumphant comeback and total self-destruction. Renee Zellweger has been both lauded and trashed for her performance, some saying she "embodied" Judy Garland, others seeing it as a mere impersonation. I fall in the former category, though perhaps Zellweger should have lip-synced to Garland versus doing her own singing. I'm not going to bash a movie for enjoying it, and I enjoyed Judy. I would say Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows is a better exploration of Garland's extraordinary yet tumultuous life, but I thought Judy was good.

NUMBER 09: 1917

I might like 1917 more if so many people didn't keep pushing the idea that it was one of if not THE greatest war film ever made. To be honest, part of me is growing more disenchanted with 1917, and I think part of the reason it lost Best Picture was due to the idea that it had nothing going for it other than the "one-shot" look to it. I too feel the story was not as strong as it could have been and that too many people swooned over it due more to the overall look of it than to the characters. However, 1917 is visually impressive and a fine film on the horrors of "the war to end all wars".

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is both a tribute and perhaps a fond farewell to a bygone era, one where the world both in cinema and outside it underwent radical changes. This reimagining of the Tate-LoBianca murders also does something I have not seen: show a surprisingly soft side to Quentin Tarantino. With excellent performances from the cast in roles large and small, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is probably the kindest and most respectful portrait made of Sharon Tate, one of film's most tragic figures.

NUMBER 07: Harriet

I think it would be nearly impossible to cover the breath and scope of Harriet Tubman's life. Harriet feels quite long, but the film is absolutely inspirational and an excellent primer for this genuine American icon and legend. An extraordinary central performance from Cynthia Erivo elevates this biopic, and one marvels at Tubman's inner strength and courage. Harriet Tubman truly is A Woman for All Seasons, and Harriet, while not perfect, is a stirring portrait of one of America's greatest figures.

NUMBER 06: Ford v Ferrari

Ford v Ferrari is not really a tale of how one car company fought another for dominance in a car race. It is about friendship, male bonding and the pursuit of excellence. The film has top-notch performances from the whole cast, and even if one does not care about racing itself, you care about these men and yes, one woman, who are determined to be at the top of their field. Ford v Ferrari really to my mind is not about racing but about living the best life one can, valuing such things as hard work, determination, skill and family.

NUMBER 05: Joker

I'm sure Film Twitter won't like me ranking Joker high or placing it anywhere near the Top Ten, but I calls them as I sees them. Joaquin Phoenix' performance as Arthur Fleck, the troubled and abused man who descended into murderous madness, is chilling and frightening. I was astonished, even shocked by the film. Joker is the first film where I left the theater shaking in a mix of horror and fear, deeply troubled by its portrait of a crumbling, cruel and chaotic world. It openly draws from early Martin Scorsese films like Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, and just like Taxi Driver, I can admire the craftsmanship in Joker while simultaneously having no desire to see it again. Perhaps in the course of time I will revisit Joker, but I doubt it will be anytime soon.

NUMBER 04: Amazing Grace

The only documentary so far to make my Ten Best List, Amazing Grace is a surprisingly simple film: a visual recording of the late Aretha Franklin's performances of the eponymous live gospel album. However, Amazing Grace is more than that. It is a recording of Franklin at her finest, a portrait of the artist as Believer, in full control of Franklin's extraordinary gifts. It is impossible for even atheists not to be moved by Franklin's performance as The Queen of Soul pays homage to The King of Kings.

NUMBER 03: Richard Jewell

A film that should have done better box office-wise, Richard Jewell is more than just a biopic on the Atlanta Olympics security guard first hailed as hero then painted as villain for the Centennial Park bombing. It's also a riveting portrayal of how rumor and prejudice can create chaos and havoc on the innocent, how a hungry press can rampage through powerless individuals. Paul Walker Hauser's performance as Jewell is brilliant, making him simultaneously sympathetic and frustrating in his mixture of naivete and blind loyalty. Perhaps people were put off by the perception that Richard Jewell was a right-wing screed against the press, but I found it more a film about how quickly rumor, innuendo and flat-out falsehoods can come close to destroying people.

 NUMBER 02: Parasite

Parasite has earned a place in history as the first foreign-language film to win Best Picture. It is also a well-crafted film. I figure some of my colleagues are put off by this allegory on capitalism, but I thought Parasite was pretty even-handed on the unofficial war between the rich and the poor. In fact, I found myself sympathizing more with the wealthy Park family than the poor Kim family, though I figure Parasite wanted me to look upon the latter as if not the heroes at least the antiheroes. I think Parasite did not give the viewer an easy answer as to whom to look on as the actual "parasites", leaving it to him/her to decide. At times funny, at times crazy, Parasite is a brilliant film even if it would not be my choice for Best Picture of 2019.

NUMBER 01: The Irishman 

Forgive me, but I'm going to go on a tangent before speaking of The Irishman per se.

Jacob Airey, self-proclaimed "conservative" and "Christian" film reviewer, is a bitter, spiteful, vindictive, hateful man. I say this neither lightly or with any sense of joy. I say this because of Airey's almost pathological hatred for both The Irishman and its director, Martin Scorsese.

Airey listed The Irishman as one of his Ten Worst Films of 2019. He was delighted that The Irishman went 0-10 at the Academy Awards. He's perfectly free to do so. My issue with him, however, is that I think his disdain for The Irishman is built on emotion rather than thought. I am convinced he was going to despise The Irishman no matter what, and that his negative review is built not on the actual film itself, but on how he feels about Scorsese and what he represents to Airey: a dismissing of his own personal fandom.

Ever since Marty said he didn't think comic book films, specifically Airey's beloved Marvel Cinematic Universe, was "cinema", Airey's rage became unabated. Scorsese's views were seen by Airey and his fellow fanboys as a personal attack on them and him personally, and as such, Airey's blind rage at Scorsese's heresy merited punishment. Hence, his negative Irishman review, calling it "self-righteous, overly long, poorly edited, (with) a convoluted plot". YIKES!

In his view, The Irishman is on how "Once again, Scorsese loves to glorify men who steal, intimidate, cheat on their wives, are bad parents, and even commit the most gruesome murders, only to end on a flippant 'crime does not pay' at the climax" (emphasis mine). Though I don't think he mentioned it, I figure the "once again" refers to Goodfellas. In regards to "glorifying" these types of men, as my colleague Jacob Smith at Society Reviews (who like me was blocked by Airey on "the Twitter" for siding with Scorsese) said to me, "Talk about missing the point!"

The Irishman is nowhere near a glorification of awful men, which makes me wonder what film Jacob Airey actually saw or if he predetermined what Scorsese's oeuvre is and decided to prejudge the film regardless of the merits. In reality, The Irishman is a film about regret, a man who metaphorically gained the whole world and lost his soul. Frank Sheeran (the title character) lost his family, he lost his friend, his honor, his self-respect, he ends up alone and unloved, all for what? It's a meditation on loss and the fall of an essentially good man done in by his own actions. The Irishman has just exceptional acting from Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci, and despite its three-plus hour running time (about the rare point of criticism), moves remarkably quickly.

However, since its director dared to suggest the Marvel Cinematic Universe was the equivalent of theme park rides, our Defender of True and Pure Cinema had to strike back against this "bitter, jealous, elitist" auteur.

If Airey genuinely believes the MCU is on the same level as the introduction of sound and color to cinema, that is again his right. If he wants to name Avengers: Endgame his Second Best Film of 2019 and rank it among the great turning points in cinematic history, he is free to do so. If he wants to think Endgame should have been nominated for Best Picture, again he is free to do so. I think all that is irrational, bonkers hyperbole, but to each his own.

"(Avengers: Endgame) was a bold movie. After the events of the previous film (Avengers: Infinity War), no one knew where this new entry from Marvel Studios was going. They had so many loose ends to tie and a hard road to pave ahead. Yet, they did it. They pulled off one of the greatest triumphs, not only in for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but also for cinematic history. It is stunning, inspiring, amazing, spectacular, and truly great" (emphasis mine).

I suppose when you see the resurrection of a talking tree in such lofty terms and think Endgame is on the same level if not superior to such films as Citizen Kane, Casablanca, 8 & 1/2 or any of the Apu Trilogy, The Irishman would look like junk.

One last point before closing. Should Mr. Airey ever opt to unblock me, he might learn that I named Wonder Woman my Number One Film of 2017, so I'm hardly anti-comic book films.

Next time, My Ten Worst Films of 2019.

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