Now that we’re squarely into a brand new decade, and I’ve had enough time to reflect on the films and flicks from the past year and draw up a preliminary Top 10 List for the year. Plot and Theme turns five years old in 2020, and while I am sure that some of my opinions from those first few reviews have changed a bit by now, I still like putting forth a contemporaneous “Best of” list while still grappling with what these newest films have to show us. So, that’s what we get here.
First, a few films that I mention for the sole purpose of giving an “incomplete” grade to. These are flicks that I haven’t seen yet, but I really want to, and I think may belong somewhere on this list for various reasons. Right now, that list is: Jojo Rabbit, Uncut Gems, and Joker. So, if you think one of these belongs, put down your pitchfork and let me see the movie in the next month or so.
But now, let’s to the actual list. As per usual, I’ll have a brief recap, and then also mention a particular grander theme in the world of film that I think the movie indicates. Let’s do this.
#10 – Midsommar, directed by Ari Aster
Oh, boy. Ari Aster’s Hereditary is probably my favorite horror movie released in this century (if not, it’s The VVitch, and don’t worry – Robert Eggers shows up later. Spoilers). This follow-up takes a very different path, but the ultimate result is still the pinnacle of what can be accomplished with a genre film. On the surface, if I were to try to sell this film to an unwitting audience (oh my, what a mean thing to do!), I sell it like this: an on-the-rocks couple accompanies a group of anthropology grad students to a ritualistic festival in Scandinavia in an attempt to reconcile and deal with some trauma. And, as much as I try, Midsommar defies any easy packaging. Is it an allegory of the death of a relationship, or maybe the evils of sitting on the fence? Is it a drug-fueled assault on the senses? Is it a slasher focused around a peculiar religious cult? Hell, maybe it’s all of those things.
The single aspect of Midsommar that stands out to me is the style. Visually, it is clear that Aster knows exactly what he wants to appear onscreen at any moment. It’s all very bright and colorful, but has a lot of moving parts to it (sometimes, quite literally). And, here’s the point: I probably liked Hereditary better than this follow-up, but I would rather watch an ambitious attempt at something special than some rote attempt at re-packing previous success, especially if it is as distinctive as we saw here.
#9 – Apollo 11; directed by Todd Douglas Miller
The lone documentary on this list is an absolute thing of greatness. Apollo 11 celebrates the 50th anniversary of the moon landing by allowing the people, pictures, and sounds of 1969 to tell this triumphant story. There are no talking heads reflecting on the historic meaning, no droning voice-overs commenting with hindsight, no CGI nonsense at all. Instead, archival footage, interviews, and newscasts practically transport you back to a world where humans had been relegated to the Earth alone. I was lucky enough to see this in IMAX, and it was a fantastic experience.
Apollo 11 does a great job of letting the material tell it’s own story, which I think is a crucial part of creating an engaging documentary. Stylistic choices are just as important for nonfiction films. Far too often, I’ve seen a documentary on an intriguing subject positively ruined by a few rote choices for how to tell the story.
#8 – Little Women; directed by Greta Gerwig
Greta Gerwig’s Little Women is a stunning sophomore offering (following the magnificent Ladybird), and like her previous film, this again deals with some intimate women-centric coming-of-age drama. As an adaptation, the story is much more familiar, but Gerwig instills her version of the story with some interesting nuance by playing with the structure of the film. It is an impressive bit of non-linear storytelling, and never felt intrusive of show-boaty. One more item of note: the performances here were outstanding – one of the best ensembles I’ve seen in recent years (and this is a good year for ensembles, as you’ll see).
Gerwig’s direction is likely the biggest Oscar snub of the year. There are aspects of Little Women that really allow Gerwig to flex a bit, and it is pretty remarkable that she didn’t make the cut. This is a stacked year, but it still seems that there wasn’t room for something like this.
#7 – Knives Out; directed by Rian Johnson
Oh my, Knives Out! This brilliant little whodunnit sports a lot of stylistic flare and plenty of popular faces forming another excellent ensemble. It is basically an old-school murder mystery with a little modern window dressing. And, like the best examples of the genre, Knives Out displays a genius mastery of plot, with twists galore. Impressively, Johnson also manages to manufacture a specific tone with this film and carry it throughout the proceedings. It’s kind of tongue-in-cheek, kind of farcical, but still grave and important. It’s pretty awesome.
If I had to put forward one argument for why a movie-goer needs to branch out beyond the Star Warses and the Marvels and other such popcorn flicks, it would be because things like Knives Out exist. Rian Johnson’s previous film was The Last Jedi, which I actually like quite a bit more than most people did. When Johnson and others who helm super popular franchise films get a chance to tell their own story there’s all that grand baggage that comes with a movie like that. When you see what these people can do with their own stories, it’s a whole new world!
#6 – The Irishman; directed by Martin Scorsese
The Irishman — What an epic! Scorsese’s latest effort is another in a long line of masterpieces. There’s a bit of a “getting the band back together” vibe here, what with DeNiro, Pacino, and Pesche, but the total package is something wonderful to behold. The story sprawls a bit, but at it’s heart it is another foray into the morally challenging world of organized crime, this time focusing on the legendary Jimmy Hoffa. The plotting is perfect, the acting astounding, and the overall package worthy of multiple repeat viewings in order to tease out the subtleties.
When The Irishman popped up on Netflix with it’s 3+ hours of runtime, I know a lot of people balked. Don’t. We don’t have Scorsese for much longer, everyone, and this kind of titanic offering from an absolute master is uncommon. I think some of his best work has been in the last few years, this film included.
#5 – Marriage Story; directed by Noah Baumbach
Speaking of masters — is anyone better at muted melodrama than Noah Baumbach? He’s not always my cup of tea up, but I was ready to sign up for this one based off of Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson alone, and they definitely came through. The subject matter is a bit challenging, and definitely not the most pleasant, but the brilliance of these performances pushed Marriage Story into something beautiful — much more than a simple sadistic story about a difficult divorce.
Now that we’re through Netflix corner here on the Top 10 list, let’s take this opportunity to do the Netflix thing. I know that the shadowy studio figures and others of the Hollywood intelligentsia have real issues with Netflix and it’s ilk of direct content providers, but the track record of these newer players is starting to add up. Very soon, the squabbling will become completely petty and ridiculous (if it isn’t already).
#4 – The Lighthouse; directed by Robert Eggers
I feel a bit like The Lighthouse is the film that Midsommar wanted to be: the perfect mixture of tone, atmosphere, visual weirdness, and metaphor/allegory. The Lighthouse feels like isolation come to life, and the two main characters are absolutely consumed by it. The acting from Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe is off-the-charts engrossing, and some sequences are like living trainwrecks: you don’t necessarily want to see what’s going to happen, but you can’t look away. What a unique film, from a unique burgeoning voice.
The Lighthouse is the last of the three sophmore offerings on my list, and the best of them all (plus, one will show up in honorable mentions). Look at all the wonderful people we have working today in film, and how many of the most exciting ones are early in their careers. It is amazing, and shows no signs of abating. I really trust Robert Eggers with almost anything now, and like his first film, this is one of those films that might end up climbing the ranks as we have more time to pour over it and experience it multiple times.
#3 – Once Upon a Time in Hollywood; directed by Quentin Tarantino
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a great entry into the Tarantino cannon. All of the Tarantino hallmarks are here: non-linear storytelling, fractured storylines, flexing character actors, weird stylized violence, historical fantasy, and ambiguity. I’ve loved a lot of his stuff, but this one nails the history-as-fantasy idea perfectly, and there are a number of specific scenes that are jaw-droppers. I particularly like Leonardo DiCaprio’s character arc in this one, as he plays a has-been actor aging out of the limelight and struggling with his own obsolescence.
This film has a bit of an ensemble feel to it, but in actuality this is a showcase for DiCaprio and Pitt. And, while you can’t really bank on a “Big Name” to open a movie to resounding commercial success anymore, when the performers bring good chops to a project, they add so much to the story. Masters like Tarantino are great at pulling those kinds of performances from A-listers.
#2 – 1917; directed by Sam Mendes
To be honest, when I was first exposed to this one, it looked like a fairly pedestrian war film. You know, missions and heroics and all that. And, I haven’t been crazy about Sam Mendes’s recent projects. But, this was before I heard about what Mendes was trying to do with the film. Spurned on by the success of the opening Dia de Los Muertos scene from Spectre (easily the best sequence in that otherwise forgettable Bond film), Mendes wanted to tell a story from World War I in one long continuous shot. Well, let me say, he pulled it off with aplomb. This is an astounding achievement, totally engrossing and wonderful. The story itself is also great, and it is clear that Mendes is paying homage to many previous masters (including, I believe, at least three Kubrick films).
This is my odds-on favorite for Best Picture. It has everything that the Academy so often champions: historical importance, technical achievement, and impeccable workmanship and performances. In any other year, I think 1917 would be a slam-dunk for my favorite flick. But, then a South Korean allegorist decided to craft his masterpiece.
Before we get to that, though, let’s go through a couple of films that just missed this list. It was a remarkable year for film, so I wanted to make sure these near-misses got their due.
Honorable Mentions: Us, Ad Astra, Booksmart, The Report, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
I feel like it is a stronger list than usual, and that 2019 was a meaty year overall. First, a couple of genre flicks: Us and Ad Astra. Jordan Peele’s follow-up to Get Out got the closest for me, and I definitely bought in to the story that Peele was telling. Lupita Nyong’o crushed this performance, but if Toni Collette didn’t get an Oscar nod for Hereditary last year, then there was no way it would have gone differently for the horror fans out there.
Ad Astra was a weird one, but I really liked the vision and the execution of the film. It probably would have made my list if I wrote it in early November, but Awards Season came knocking.
Booksmart was my favorite comedy of the year, a nice little entry in that raunchy coming-of-age space that is usually reserved for boys. Films like these need strong performances that convince you to buy-in to the main relationship, and Booksmart definitely achieved that.
Now, two quick thoughts on dramas: The Report and A Wonderful Day in the Neighborhood. The Report was notable for the performances, a strong procedural script, and a deft telling of a complex subject matter. And, the Mr. Rogers flick was actually most interesting for what it wasn’t: it was not a bland rehashing of Mr Roger’s life. I know some people didn’t like how it focused on another character, but I think that was a real strength of the film, to show the effect that Fred Rogers had on whomever came into his life.
Now, for my favorite film of 2019:
#1 – Parasite; directed by Bong Joon-Ho
Parasite is part parable, almost on the fringe of fantasy, but it is also gritty and realistic and grueling. Bong Joon-Ho is well-travelled in the world of allegory, and I’ve reviewed his films on this blog before, but none of them are anything like Parasite. Most often, his films couch some grander idea into a genre-based concept (usually sci-fi). This film has some of that, but there is also such weight to the ideas and the way Bong handles them that this latest film is something grander than mere allegory (and I LOVE allegory). A plot recap would do more harm than good, so go in as blind as you can and prepare yourself for a lot of twists and turns, but also surprising bits of poignancy, often hidden in minute details.
Too much went over my head while watching this, partly due to the cultural distance, but also because I believe that practically every detail in the film informs the overall effect that Bong is looking to create, and it simply isn’t possible to take that all in on a single viewing. I’m looking forward to frequent viewings of this magnificent film.
And now, for quick reference:
Plot and Theme’s Favorite Films of 2019
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood