Richard takes a look back at the year that was at the movies. From de-aged old-school superstars and the return of a comedy icon to astronauts sans adult diapers and more plot twists than you could shake a Syd Field book at, the movies have gifted us the best and worst–the naughty and nice, the champagne and lumps of coal–of what Hollywood and elsewhere has to offer.
Here is the Nice List, a compendium of the very best films of the year, presented alphabetically.
1917: “1917” is a simple story of duty wrapped up in a high gloss technological package that delivers a vividly immersive look at life during wartime. The horrors of war are duly represented—there’s barbed-wire, dead, rotting bodies litter the landscape and a bombed-out town is nothing more than the skeletons of buildings—but “1917” doesn’t focus on that. This is a contemplative story of a mission and the men who sacrifice their own safety for the greater good. It highlights the ever-present danger of attack but it’s the character’s emotional journey that makes for the compelling story. Blake wants to stop his brother from walking into a trap while Schofield is driven by a sense of duty. Both men are working for the collective, which in our era of the individual, is a potent reminder of the importance of cooperative effort. “1917” is a beautifully grim movie. Death lurks around every corner and the success of Blake and Schofield’s mission is never assured. Hope is a remote, elusive concept in the theatre of war but Mendes weaves in enough humanity—the relationship between the soldiers, a scene with a French mother and her daughter—to give us a window into the horrors of war.
APOLLO 11: You’ve seen the moon landing before but you have never seen it like this. To create the eye-popping new documentary “Apollo 11” director Todd Douglas Miller, along with a team of folks from NASA and the National Archives, catalogued and restored 11,000 hours of film that had been languishing in dusty archives since 1969. Just in time for the mission’s fiftieth anniversary comes a new look at an old subject. “Apollo 11” ignores the Cold War politics of beating the Russians to the moon. Instead it celebrates the achievement, leaving the viewer with a sense of awe at the precise work that created one of the most dramatic events in (out of this) world history.
DOLEMITE IS MY NAME: Rudy Ray Moore may be the most influential entertainer who is not exactly a household name. The actor, comedian, musician, singer and film producer is best known under his stage name Dolemite, his motor-mouthed pimp persona from the 1975 film “Dolemite.” Featuring a mix of clumsy kung fu action, flashy clothes and sexually explicit dialogue and action, it has a well-earned a reputation as one of the best bad movies ever made. No one will ever confuse the “Dolemite” movie or its sequels “The Human Tornado” and “The Return of Dolemite” with great art, but the character, vividly brought to life by Eddie Murphy in the new biopic “Dolemite is My Name,” was a trailblazer. His vocal delivery, a blend of braggadocio and raunchy rhymes, was a direct influence on hip hop pioneers like Snoop Dogg, Busta Rhymes and 2 Live Crew, setting the template for a generation of rappers. “Dolemite is My Name,” from its wild costumes by Oscar-winning designer Ruth E. Carter, to the fun performances from Murphy, Wesley Snipes, Chris Rock, Keegan-Michael Key, Snoop Dogg, Craig Robinson and Da’Vine Joy Randolph in supporting roles, to the music and the comedy to the evocation of the 1970s, is an entertaining and heartening story of a life lived large.
THE FAREWELL: “Based on an actual lie,” reads the opening title credit of “The Farewell,” a new dramedy with “Crazy Rich Asians” breakout star Awkwafina. It’s a funny reminder that the story is actually taken from director Lulu Wang’s life experience of visiting her terminally ill grandmother under false pretenses. “The Farewell” is a lo-fi family drama that brims with heart and humour. Wang maintains focus, never veering from the central premise of a family taking on the burden of pain, sparing their much-loved Nai Nai any feelings of distress. There isn’t much actual drama, no screaming matches, very little interpersonal conflict; just nicely observed naturalistic behaviour. It’s a slow burn, a movie that builds to a poignant climax that not only feels earned but deserved.
THE IRISHMAN: “The Irishman,” starring septuagenarian powerhouses Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Al Pacino, is based on “I Heard You Paint Houses” Charles Brandt’s book about a man who claims to have offed mobster Crazy Joe Gallo and Teamster Jimmy Hoffa. It’s familiar territory for the trio of stars, all of whom have made a career out of playing wiseguys, and for director Martin Scorsese, but it feels different. The heady, rambunctious filmmaking of “Goodfellas” and “Casino” is gone, replaced by the richly, contemplative tone of a man at the end of his life wondering if he did the right thing. The holy trinity, De Niro, Pesci and Pacino, hand in late career work that feels like the culmination of a lifetime of character studies. This is an examination of men who live by a brutal code that leaves little wiggle room for mistakes and disrespect but each actor find ways to humanize their characters. Rich in detail, these actors riff off one another, finding internal rhythms in the repetitious way they speak to one another. “The Irishman” is an event, a movie that feels like the obvious conclusion to the gangster stories the director and cast have been telling for decades.
THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO: “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” a captivating new drama starring Jimmie Fails and Jonathan Majors, wonders aloud if Thomas Wolfe was right when he wrote, “You can’t go home again.” “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” is about many things. Nostalgia. Love of friends and city. It’s about how gentrification in San Francisco has marginalized people of colour creating housing inequality. Mostly, though, it’s about the bittersweet romanticizing of the past with a healthy dose of reality. Perhaps Wolfe was right, but simply because the home in question is four walls and a roof, not a panacea to Jimmie’s feelings of emotional displacement. Jimmie’s expectations linked to the idea of home, in this his case feelings of family unity, are likely never to be met. It’s melancholic and beautifully rendered in a film that feels like a tone poem of love and loss.
THE LIGHTHOUSE: “The Lighthouse,” an expressionist nightmare captured in shadows and light by director Robert Eggers, is a period piece that pits Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson against the primal forces of paranoia and pathological behavior. Despite the presence of two very popular actors “The Lighthouse” is not exactly a mainstream movie. Instead it is more of an expertly rendered gothic slow burn that brings with it an atmosphere of dread shrouds the film like fog rolling into shore.
LITTLE WOMEN: Director Greta Gerwig keeps the bones of Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” in the new big screen treatment of the 19th century story, but reshapes the March sisters’ coming-of-age in fresh and exciting ways. Told on a broken timeline, “Little Women” forgoes the linear structure of the novel to jump back-and-forth in time. It’s a clever device that takes some getting used to—at first it’s not immediately obvious the story is skipping around like a flat rock skimming across a lake—but ultimately it provides insightful perspective on the characters and why they make the decisions they do. Gerwig has fiddled with the story’s collision of feminism, romance and family dynamics just enough to amplify its resonance for a modern audience. Playing around with a well loved and well-worn classic is risky, but Gerwig pulls it off with panache, aided by an extraordinary cast who bring the material to vivid life.
MARRIAGE STORY: “Marriage Story” is not a first date movie. It is a three hankie, emotionally fraught movie about appealing but damaged people whose divorce is filled with a sense of loss and a growing shroud of incivility. On my way into the press screening for “Marriage Story” a publicist handed me a small package of Kleenex branded with the movie’s logo. “I won’t need these,” I thought. “I’m a professional, here to dispassionately judge this film on its merits. I made it through ‘Kramer vs. Kramer’ like a dry-eyed superman and if I can do that, I can do anything.” I’m not too proud to tell you that I was glad I had the Kleenexes. “Marriage Story” is so agonizingly vivid, so without melodrama, that I felt at times as though I was a voyeur, that I shouldn’t be watching some of these emotionally charged scenes. As Charlie and Nicole drift apart and lawyers, like the ruthless Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern in full beast mode), become involved the idea that they might have a chance of staying friends once this is all said and done becomes heartbreakingly remote.
ONCE UPON A TIME IN… HOLLYWOOD: There will be no spoilers here. I can say the various narrative shards dovetail together in a frenzy of grindhouse violence near the end, but “OUAT… IH” isn’t story driven as much as it is a detailed portrait of a time and place, the moment when the sea change was coming. Piece by piece Tarantino weaves together a nostalgic pastiche of b-movie tropes and expertly rendered sights and sounds to create a vivid portrait of a time and place. With the setting established, he plays mix and match, blending fact and fiction, creating his own history that feels like a carefully detailed memory play. “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” is unique in its feel. Tarantino has always been singular in his filmmaking but this one feels different. It’s clearly rooted in the b-movies that inspire his vision but here he is contemplative, allowing his leads—DiCaprio and Pitt in full-on charismatic mode—to channel and portray the insecurities that accompany uncertainty. The film is specific in its setting but universal in portrayal of how people react to the shifting sands of time. Funny, sad and occasionally outrageous, it’s just like real life as filtered through a camera lens.
PARASITE: Described as a “pitch black fairy tale,” Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite” is the story of two families on either side of the economic divide. The wealthy Park family and the street-smart Kim clam. Fate (and some very ingenious scams) brings them together but when the fragile upstairs-downstairs relationship between the two is threatened class warfare erupts. A study in hubris and greed, this satire is ripe with dark humor, suspense and social commentary.
RICHARD JEWELL: For a short time Richard Jewell was a household name, first for being a hero, then a villain, then a curiosity, a man who was railroaded by the press and the very people he revered, law enforcement. “Richard Jewell,” a new film from director Clint Eastwood looks at the man behind the headlines. This movie belongs to Hauser and Rockwell. The chemistry, obvious affection and occasional exasperation between the two is winning and authentic. Rockwell brings his usual offbeat charm to the role of the dogged attorney but it is Hauser who leaves the lasting impression. In what should be his breakout film, the actor, best known for a supporting role in “I, Tonya,” gives an indelible performance. Jewell is an underdog, a Paul Blart with a heart of gold nearly crushed under the weight of powers far more powerful than him. His growing sense of frustration at his treatment by the FBI comes to a crescendo in a scene that allows him to win back some of the dignity that has been stripped away from him. In Hauser’s hands a character that could have been played as a bewildered screw-up becomes a likeable man with both pride and a sense of purpose. “Richard Jewell” is the best film of 2019 to include a Macarena dance scene. It’s also a timely and searing indictment of the abuse of trial by media; of how an everyman’s life was almost ruined at the hands of people who traded on misinformation. Eastwood gives Jewell his due, humanizing a man who was treated like a tory and not a person.
UNCUT GEMS: It has been a long time, possible forever, since anyone has written that one of the year’s very best movies stars Adam Sandler. Nope, it’s not a rerelease of “Billy Madison” or the director’s cut of “Happy Gilmore;” it’s a crime thriller from acclaimed indie filmmakers Josh and Benny Safdie called “Uncut Gems.” Watching “Uncut Gems” is an exhausting experience. Howard’s jittery personality is brought to vibrant life by Sandler. For two hours he’s like a NYC traffic jam come to life, complete with the shouting and jostling. He’s the architect of his own misfortune, constantly in motion, bringing chaos to all situations. With handheld cameras the Safdies capture Howard’s gloriously scuzzy behavior, luxuriating in the character’s foibles. Sandler has breathed this air before—most notably in “Punch Drunk Love”—but he’s rarely been this compelling. He brings his natural likability to the role but layers it with Howard’s neurosis, frustration, conniving and even joy. It’s a remarkable performance, powered by jet fuel, that, by the time he is locked in the trunk of his own car, naked, will draw you into “Uncut Gems’” dirty little world.
US: Director Jordan Peele followed up the Oscar-winning success of his social thriller “Get Out” with a trip to the “Twilight Zone.” No, not his reboot of the famous anthology series (that will come to small screens later this year) but to a storyline he says was inspired by an episode of the Eisenhower-era show called “Mirror Image.” According to Rod Serling’s original opening monologue when look-a-likes torment a young woman, “circumstances assault Millicent Barnes’s (played by “Psycho’s” Vera Miles) sense of reality and a chain of nightmares will put her sanity on a block.” Peele updates the doppelgänger danger premise but also ups the horror elements to tell the story of a trip gone wrong for the Wilsons, overprotective mom Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), goofy dad Gabe (Winston Duke) and young kids Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex). Peele proves, as if there was any doubt, that “Get Out” was not a fluke. He skilfully navigates “Us’s” story, establishing the Wilsons as a regular, likable family with a teen daughter prone to rolling her eyes and a father who’s always quick with a dad joke. When the going gets grim Peele uses ingenuity, humour, a creepy kid choral score and some very scary images to add life to what might have been a simple home invasion movie. From the opening scenes in a California carnival to an audaciously choreographed climax, Poole crafts a memorable horror film with a message.
WAVES: “Waves” feels like two movies in one. The first a story of teen angst writ large with a tragic outcome. The second is a tale of reconciliation and compassion. They dovetail to form one of the year’s best films. No spoilers here. The beauty of writer-director Trey Edward Shults’s film is the discovery of it, being drawn into the story and the characters. Shults doles out emotional moment after emotional moment and yet there isn’t a melodramatic second to be seen. That’s partially due to the uniformly wonderful, naturalistic performances but also from a story that feels grounded in real life. Fueled by a soundtrack by from Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor, “Waves” details the hardships that come with difficult decisions but also the redemption that can come with forgiveness.