Looking Back at the Movies of 2019

joker19

There are no movies of 2020, so why not go back? I’ve often found that my thoughts and opinions on movies change a lot in the year-or-so since I first see them, which makes the idea that a review is most valuable when a movie is out in theatre quite frustrating. Anyway, here’s what I’ve come to think of some of the most popular movies of last year. I would like to apologize for the negativity in advance. If you want a more positive outlook on movies, let me suggest my Best of 2019 post.

Parasite
Bong Joon-ho did something I thought was impossible; he made a leftist movie wrapped around the perfect Hollywood package. It’s something the director had tried before, but Snowpiercer was too blunt and extravagant for modern audiences. Parasite, however, is a sort of perfect object in terms of how effectively it deploys the pyramidal dramatic structure that has come to dominate Hollywood (and popular international) cinema. But the movie’s unprecedented success brings a big question: if this is such an anti-capitalist film, how come everyone loves it? Is it that its narrative is too satisfying to resist through ideological means? Or is it that its message is being mistaken by reactionaries and conservatives? Maybe its message is not as revolutionary as some of us thought it was? In any case, the movie is so enjoyable I would gladly watch it many times in order to answer these questions.

Joker
It’s time to admit, as irritating as it may be, that Joker ended up the most emblematic movie of last year. Unlike Parasite, whose clear left-wing message might have been misread by audiences, the political ideology Joker – if it has one – is completely indecipherable. I must admit I was caught up in the outrage that preceded the movie’s release, which regarded the idea of an “incel Joker” as an ideologically repugnant idea. After watching the movie, I felt deeply embarrassed. “Really? You think this lame-ass movie is gonna break the world?” It’s not like Joker is devoid of interesting ideas – it is the only Batman-adjacent movie that sees Bruce Wayne’s fortune as a problem – but the movie is less interested in coherent politics than it is in empty provocations. Take for instance how the fact that Arthur Fleck is failed by a crippling public network that denies him healthcare is grossly muddled by the fact that the social worker who cuts off his meds is played by a black woman.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood
I wrote extensively about this movie and focused mostly on how it felt like the closest we’ve come to an autobiographical view at Tarantino – the thesis being that DiCaprio’s neurotic has-been represented the director, and Pitt’s violent stuntman stood in for his oeuvre. I pointedly avoided talking much about the historical context of Tarantino’s recreation of 1969 Hollywood on the eve of the Manson murders partially because QT’s vision feels at best disjointed and at worst offensive. Debate over the movie’s depiction of Bruce Lee, or its violence against women is a non-starter when we are dealing with an author who feels to be living in a fantasy world of his own creation – one ruled exclusively by his ego-centric cinephilia. Case in point, Tarantino’s most obvious attempt at social commentary became his most unwatchable movie.

Knives Out
Without a doubt the most overpraised movie of the year. I can’t say I’m surprised that many well-meaning liberals were taken by this movie’s faux-progressive messaging. A supposedly pro-immigrant movie, Knives Out casts Ana de Armas as the ‘ideal immigrant,’ white-passing, impossibly kind-hearted, passively accepting of the capitalist system. Almost as frustratingly, this woman’s success is derived from the actions of a noble, well-meaning millionaire who can see past his noxious family and recognize the most deserving heir. A paternalistic fantasy about Trump growing a conscience? Perhaps. But a good movie? Come on.

Avengers: Endgame
The Avengers travelled back in time and for a moment I forgot that Disney and other giant corporations have effectively colonized the cinema screen and are slowly enslaving us all.

Jojo Rabbit
I mostly stand by my Letterboxd review of the time, which I’ve slightly edited and re-posted below:

The best thing about Jojo Rabbit is its opening credit sequence. Set to the German version of “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” we see a montage of documentary footage showing the fanatical devotion of nineteen thirties Germany to Adolf Hitler. Comparing Beatlemania Nazi fervor isn’t mere juvenile provocation. The chill of seeing these joyful people waving and smiling at the sight of hatred and evil promises a movie ready to grapple with the grotesque reality that people will very, very easily fall in line with hateful ideologies as long as they feel like everything is in order. Sadly, Jojo Rabbit is not that movie. [Edit: I thought the footage shown in the movie was exclusively German, but a lot of it is literal Beatlemania footage, which strips this sequence of some – though not all – of its power]

A movie that truly deals with the realities of Nazi indoctrination would be incredibly dark – if it were a comedy, it would risk coming as off as truly repugnant (Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers comes to mind). Taika Watiti does not want to risk coming off as repugnant. Instead of going for pitch-black satire, Waititi goes for uplifting sentiment, ending with a movie that is distasteful in a completely different way. This is not the story of Nazi indoctrination, but of a boy who is told by society to be a Nazi, but saved by the courage of his resistance-friendly mother and the Jewish girl she is secretly hiding in their attic. Because it wants to “inspire” people, Jojo Rabbit ends up focusing on the Germans who didn’t believe in Hitler. The Germans who fought back. You see, when it comes to Nazi fanatism, it is much more comfortable to deal with the fact that there were exceptions than with the reality that most people followed the rule.

1917
War is hell… but it looks so beautiful when photographed by Roger Deakins! Based on how Sam Mendes has found a second wind in his career by ripping-off Christopher Nolan, I expected a Dunkirk knock-off. Instead, the aesthetics of this movie fall much closer to The Revenant including a mix of increasingly ridiculous set pieces and straight-faced self-seriousness. What we have here are two protagonists making their way through a meticulously designed no man’s land in which the rotting corpses are perfectly arranged for maximum aesthetic pleasure paired up with bellicose sentimentality about fallen brothers and families back home. It might not be as reactionary and Nationalistic as Dunkirk, but it comes close!

The Irishman
For quite a few years I’ve been down on Scorsese. This was based on deep indifference for Taxi Driver and Goodfellas, but recent encounters with The King of Comedy, The Age of Innocence and Raging Bull, have made me reconsider. Scorsese’s recent work, however, keeps leaving me cold. I am not particularly opposed to either the de-aging effects or the length of the movie, but more disappointed by the fact that the movie ends up being totally fine and unremarkable. Much more alarming to me is Netflix’s involvement in the whole thing. I hope those who see the streaming giant as a sort of savior of cinema for its continuous financing of major movies by major auteurs are aware that Netflix will be more than happy to abandon Scorsese as soon as it is able to produce its own MUC-like franchise.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
A movie so bad it had me writing treatments on how I would have fixed it. I remain in disbelief at the absolute creative calamity of Disney’s sequel trilogy. Say what you will about the prequels, but they were movies about things – about entitled rage-filled boys, about the end of democracy, about George W. Bush. Even in its best moments, this sequel trilogy is about nothing except Star Wars itself. What’s more, the prequels were undoubtedly the product of one man’s vision – each was different from the other, and detoured to whatever (often misguided) path George Lucas wanted to go down next. The fact that Star Wars, one of the most powerful brands in the world, was synonymous with an individual’s thoughts and visions sounds idillic now, doesn’t it?

Podcast: Summer Movie Tournament

spielberg jaws

Usually, around this time of the year, I go on Rachel, my usual Criterion Project co-host’s, other podcast to predict what will be the biggest summer movies of the season. This year however, there is no summer movie season to speak of. Instead, my wife and I joined Rachel to determine once and for all: what is the best summer movie of all time? Jaws, Star Wars, Jurassic Park, The Dark Knight, all make an appearance, but only one of them will be crowned the best. You can listen to our conversation below, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Best of the Decade: First Cow

first cow

There is an internet quiz based on Gary Chapman’s self-help book The Five Love LanguagesAs far as internet quizzes designed to explain your personality go, it’s not half bad. The premise of the experiment is that different people express their love in different ways, and thus perceive certain actions as being more romantic or meaningful than others. When I took this quiz, I scored highest in the category labelled “acts of service.” This means that the most effective way you can show your love for me is to do me a favor, and that you should consider yourself loved if I’ve ever done the same for you. It also means that I’m wired in such a way that the moment in Kelly Reichardt‘s First Cow where a man decides to sweep his friend’s house reduced me to an uncontrollable puddle of tears.

Let me explain a little more. Cookie, as played by John Magaro, is a gentle soul. We meet him as he’s traveling with a company of rugged fur trappers toward the Oregon territory. He’s the company’s cook – hence the name – and as we see him bullied by the men who expect him to provide good meals no matter the circumstances, we wonder how a delicate and sensible man could survive in an environment as tough as 1820s Oregon. One day, as he is foraging the forest, Cookie encounters a Chinese man. Risking the ire of the irritable trappers, Cookie provides the man some food and shelter. Week later, once the company has arrived at their destination, Cookie once again runs into this man. Happy to see the man who showed him kindness, King Lu (Orion Lee) invites Cookie over to his place – a humble shack in the woods. As King Lu steps out to chop some firewood, Cookie observes him for a moment, then picks up a broom and begins to sweep. In most American movies such a scene would be the smallest moment in the whole picture, in Kelly Reichardt‘s hands it comes across as monumental. Can’t you see this is the moment in which Cookie and King Lu become best friends?

Most people may have never heard of Kelly Reichardt, but in certain circles (such as the pages of Cahiers du Cinéma) she is one of the most celebrated directors in the world. Her movies are at first glance slow and simple, but upon further reflection reveal themselves to hold immense ideas within them. First Cow* might be my favorite of them all, not least because it so clearly speaks my (love) language. It’s a story about a tender, genuine friendship between two gentle men trying to survive in a rough and violent world. It is also a story about how that seemingly untamed world is already dominated with the forces that corrode American life. The movie was released in American theaters earlier this year, until its run was interrupted by the Coronavirus pandemic. I am taking advantage of the technicality that the movie played at last year’s Telluride and New York Film Festivals to include it on a list of the best movies of the 2010s – even though it would earn its spot among the best movies of any decade.

* The movie’s title refers to a literal cow, the first and only cow in the territory Cookie and King Lu settle in, which ends up playing a pivotal role in the men’s relationship.  

Best of the Decade: Support the Girls and Hermia & Helena

maci and shayna

As part of this Best of the Decade project, I’ve unearthed and revised a couple of full-length reviews of two of my favorite movies of the last ten years. I hope you enjoy.

Support the Girls
Andrew Bujalski’s new movie, Support the Girls, is an American masterpiece. If you think such a claim sounds ridiculous given this is a low-budget comedy about the waitresses of a Hooters knock-off, you are forgiven. However, if you pass up the opportunity to see this movie while it’s still in theaters, you might not be able to forgive yourself. Support the Girls is a tiny movie – most of it takes place over 24 hours in a single location – but it feels gigantic. It has enormous things to say about women, labor, race, class, and humanity. It moved me profoundly, the way only one or two movies do every year. It is also hilarious… continue reading

Hermia & Helena
Anyone who has so much as tried to move to a different country knows it’s not an easy thing to do. From needless amounts of paperwork to ridiculously restrictive laws, reality will put a quick check on anyone’s fantasy of packing things up and starting anew. And that’s not even taking into account the desperation of those who not only want, but need to emigrate. Simply living in another country is a weird thing. The more you stay there, the more your life back home feels like a dream. You might as well have moved to a different planet. And yet, life does not stop, and the people back home keep on living and informing who you are and what you do. This push and pull between two places you know to be real but feel entirely fake is explored playfully and honestly in Matias Piñeiro’s wonderful new movie, Hermia & Helena, which opened in (very) limited release this Friday… continue reading

2003: The Greatest Movie Season of Them All (for Alternate Ending)

pirates

The following article has been published at Alternate Ending

With movie theaters closed and all major studio movies delayed indefinitely, the 2020 summer movie season is a no go. Those who wish to recreate the experience of going to see the latest blockbuster are stuck looking back at the summer seasons of the past. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. If you’re like me, you spend most summer seasons complaining about the decline of the American blockbuster. How beautiful is it, then, to be able to pick and choose from your past favorites. For me, looking back at past summer favorites has resulted in a newfound appreciation for the class of 2003, an unlikely contender that is creeping up on me as a damn solid summer. Let’s take with a grain of salt the fact that I was eleven years old back in ’03 (the perfect age to fall in love with flashy Hollywood spectacle) and let me submit for your consideration: the great summer of 2003…

CONTINUE READING AT ALTERNATE ENDING.

Smoked Paprika

This is mostly a criticism and analysis blog, but I want to share a short film I just made with y’all. I think it illustrates what I look for in a movie. I hope you enjoy!