Nick’s 2019 Year in Review

Quantity down, quality up — the story of 2019, in which I saw just under 190 movies (off by about 7% from last year) but enjoyed more than half of those (a better track record than 2018).

The following article includes:

  • My five favorite documentaries of 2019 (plus one more)
  • My 10 favorite needle-drops of previously recorded music on a film’s soundtrack
  • 11 pieces of garbage that I will regret on my deathbed
  • 28 solid recommendations
  • My top 25 films of 2019

You can find all of my formal reviews here at Midwest Film Journal and, if you’re so inclined, follow me on Letterboxd for real-time rankings and repartee. As applicable, I’ve included links to my Letterboxd reviews on films that I did not review for the MFJ. I’ve also listed where you can (or soon can) watch the good stuff, starting with subscription streaming services first where applicable. And yes, I reserve the right to reorder all of this later. 

Before we herald a new decade, here’s my look back at the last year of this one.


TOP FIVE DOCUMENTARIES *

5. THE MAKING OF DOUBLE IMPACT

The crown jewel of any 2019 Blu-ray release was this perversely fascinating and sometimes profoundly earnest making-of documentary that chronicles this Jean-Claude van Damme brain-bashing buffet’s beginnings as an adaptation of The Corsican Brothers (“It was by some big French writer, but that didn’t matter,” says van Damme) to its release, reception and legacy. Stuffed with sublime, hilarious anecdotes that span everything from Federico Fellini to Winston Churchill, it also reveals a basic, sometimes sad truth: Let people ramble enough and they’ll expose more of their peccadilloes than you could ever predict. You could watch this unexpectedly outstanding documentary independent of the main feature and truly, as the end-credits song insists, feel the impact. (Blu-ray)

4. HONEYLAND

Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

With its transfixing push and pull of pride and prejudice, Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov’s documentary carries the suspense of a narrative feature. Their camerawork embodies a scale and scope that forces you to reckon with the enormousness of ecosystems you might have never considered before … and the enormity that can come from monkeying with them. The Malickian sense of violence in nature and stressful sound design are overwhelming in its depiction of what’s vanishing in the world, but Honeyland also does a persuasive job of showing us why it’s all worth preserving. (DVD / VOD)

3. AMERICAN FACTORY

Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Grim face meets Jim face in this documentary about the cultural clashes — and economic realities — that occurred when Fuyao, a Chinese auto-glass manufacturer, set up shop at an abandoned General Motors plant in Ohio. The players presented in Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar’s documentary move along the continuum of millionaire CEOs to minimum-wagers, and it evokes a palpable sense of desperation in them all — from Fuyao’s thirst for a dominant position on the global stage to mid-level managers who either go along (or can’t keep up) with the demands and line workers forced into taking pay cuts they can’t possibly sustain. American Factory earns the cringe comedy as well as it does its cutting final thesis: You know who will never demand unions or better pay? The machines. (Netflix)

2. APOLLO 11

A Qatsi-level bliss-out of transfixing tranquility from start to finish. Even on a smaller screen, the 70-millimeter footage is as jaw-dropping as advertised — itself a preservation of clarity and tenacity for what is hard rather than a capitulation to cost-effective convenience. To watch it and observe the camaraderie of common purpose is to rustle up resolve that maybe things won’t always be as rotten as they seem. And even if their context isn’t always clarified by editorial rigor, the countdowns here accelerate the heart more than a lot of the action films this year (along with Matt Morton’s score, which seems to pulsate in time with your biological readout). Apollo 11 is a story about collisions of the gentle and violent variety — both of them capable of shaping hearts and histories. (Hulu / Blu-ray / DVD / VOD)

1. FOR SAMA

There have been umpteen Aleppo documentaries over the last few years — all saturated with so much verité carnage to which you eventually grow numb and / or compartmentalize to carry on. More than any other, For Sama understands, and forces us to face down, the notion that most of our nightmares, whatever form they take, are a luxury compared to those who face such persistent threats of disappearance and death. It’s full of grace, but never patience; that’s a place of placation these filmmakers can never find. Rarely would I consider anything a heroic act of filmmaking, but this feels like a necessary act of rebellion, expression and persistence not just for the child of its title but for everyone. (Kanopy / DVD)

* SUPERPOWER DOGS

Once again I say: Who’s a good documentary? WHO’S A GOOOOOD DOCUMENTARY? Beautiful IMAX cinematography, Chris Evans narrating AS the voice of a rescue dog, and an extremely well-trained boy named Reef doing his thing in Italy to the strains of Ennio Morricone. If you don’t enjoy this, well, you probably don’t enjoy anything. (Currently playing at the Indiana State Museum IMAX)


TOP 10 NEEDLE-DROPS (alphabetical order)

“CRAZY” by JULIO IGLESIAS in FOR SAMA

The scene: Hamza and Waad enjoy their first dance as husband and wife.

Key lyrics: “I’m crazy for trying / And crazy for crying / And I’m crazy for loving you”

“CRIMINAL” by FIONA APPLE in HUSTLERS

The scene: Ramona makes her entrance.

Key lyrics: “Heaven help me for the way I am / Save me from these evil deeds before I get them done / I know tomorrow brings the consequence at hand / But I keep livin’ this day like the next will never come”

“DANCING IN THE DARK” by BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN in BLINDED BY THE LIGHT

The scene: Javed listens to Bruce Springsteen for the first time.

Key lyrics: “They say you gotta stay hungry / Hey, baby, I’m just about starvin’ tonight! / I’m dyin’ for some action / I’m sick of sittin’ round here tryin’ to write this book / I need a love reaction / Come on now, baby, gimme just one look”

“LES FLEURS” by MINNIE RIPPERTON in US

The scene: A strong bond takes hold across the country.

Key lyrics: “Light up the sky with your prayers of gladness and rejoice for the darkness is gone / Throw off your fears, let your heart beat freely at the sign that a new time is born”

“JUST A GIRL” by NO DOUBT in CAPTAIN MARVEL

The scene: Carol Danvers finds her true self just before she kicks the Starforce’s asses.

Key lyrics: “Oh, I’ve had it up to here! / Oh, am I making myself clear?”

“MOON RIVER” by FRANK OCEAN in LONG SHOT

The scene: Fred and Charlotte gaze onto the Manila Bay after their first night together.

Key lyrics: “Two drifters off to see the world / It’s such a crazy world, you’ll see” 

“SLIP AWAY” by PERFUME GENIUS in BOOKSMART

The scene: Amy jumps into the deep end to pursue her crush.

Key lyrics: “Don’t look back / I want to break free / If you never see ’em coming / You’ll never have to hide”

“STRANGE CURRENCIES” by R.E.M. in UNDER THE SILVER LAKE

The scene: Sam casts an ominous gaze at a symbol painted on the wall of his apartment.

Key lyrics: “I need a chance, a second chance, a third chance, a fourth chance / A word, a signal, a nod, a little breath / Just to fool myself, to catch myself, to make it real”

“THE STRANGER” by BILLY JOEL in UNCUT GEMS

The scene: Howard makes a stop at his apartment in the city.

Key lyrics: “You may never understand how the stranger is inspired / But he isn’t always evil and he is not always wrong / Though you drown in good intentions, you will never quench the fire / You’ll give into your desire when the stranger comes along”

“YOU KEEP ME HANGIN’ ON” by VANILLA FUDGE in ONCE UPON A TIME … IN HOLLYWOOD

The scene: Cliff and Rick confront the conditions of their friendship … and some unwelcome guests.

Key lyrics: “Why don’t you get out of my life and let me make a brand new start?”


SCREW THESE MOVIES: THE 10 WORST OF 2019

10. SHAFT (2019)

Who’s the wack transphobic dick that acts porcine with all the chicks? 2019’s Shaft? You’re damn right. Who is the man who would piss on the work of John Singleton? Tim Story. Can ya bigot? One of Singleton’s villains in the 2000 version was a proxy for Donald Trump, Jr. This one plays like a performative, provocative and pejorative tweet the real Don Jr. would like and share, furthered along by dudes with default avatars or 12-follower jabronis. The movie’s jokes are like fifth-rate Maher material that mistakes jumping in the moat for storming the castle.

9. POLAR / RIM OF THE WORLD

Netflix’s most voluminous fecal cultures for 2019 constitute a pair of puerile putrefactions from once-prominent music directors. Long, laborious and generally loathsome, Jonas Åkerlund’s Polar played like Uwe Boll’s John Wick — suckish where it thought itself puckish. With so many butt shots, an action film has rarely felt so much like cover for a proctological exam. Or, for that matter, featured a proctological exam … after which the recipient enjoys a piece of fresh peach pie. (Oddly enough, one of the best films this year features a proctological exam, too. Get checked regularly, fellas.) Meanwhile, McG’s Rim of the World offered myriad racist, sexist, oddly sexualized and generically violent miscalculations for a story about pre-teens saving the world from generic turd-looking aliens that seem to ejaculate dog lackeys. You could go on at length about how stupid it is or just ask the question: What is wrong with the people who made this?

8. POKÉMON: DETECTIVE PIKACHU

This is just Who Framed Roger Rabbit? if it was written by the worst marketing team you can imagine. Bumped up from “terrible” to “merely bad” because I chuckled a few times at Psyduck and Mr. Mime. That the Pokémon Company apparently didn’t want the latter Pokémon in the movie speaks to its utter cluelessness about branching out to a larger audience. I acknowledge that I’m on the very fringe of said audience with “enjoys Ryan Reynolds,” but not even that is a decision that works to this film’s advantage.

7. DARK PHOENIX

I would’ve enjoyed this more if it were just two hours of Michael Fassbender and Sophie Turner making straining-poop faces and jutting their arms out in front of them. Instead, it’s two hours of a movie making a straining-poop face before expiring on the toilet. RIP, Fox Forest. Probably no place for you in the new Disney regime.

6. CHARLIE’S ANGELS (2019)

Only someone who directed a film this boring, desperate, miscast and unfunny would condemn the public for its financial failure. At least this one has two minutes of good action, which is more than can be said of Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle (speaking of McG). Nothing speaks to the empowerment of independent women better than a soundtrack that has been executive-produced by the dude trying to fuck over Taylor Swift by making claims to the songs she’s written. Good job, everyone.

5. NOELLE

I’ve never endeavored to watch one Hallmark Christmas movie let alone the 72 new ones pumped out each year like that pink-slime meat byproduct used to make our chicken nuggets. However, I have a hard time imagining they are somehow more incompetent or insincere than writer-director Marc Lawrence’s high-concept, low-reward Christmastime concoction. A Z-grade Elf, Noelle further traps Anna Kendrick into her annoyingly stereotypical mode of arrested adolescence, wastes Bill Hader and Billy Eichner (who at least musters, as he did in The Lion King, one mildly funny line), and wastes a rare appearance from Shirley MacLaine on reaction shots that most movies like this would give to a dog. Throw in a hilariously ill-disguised Vancouver-as-Phoenix setting, and it’s easy to see why Disney scuttled this to its streaming service with little fanfare.

4. GEMINI MAN

Ang Lee continues his freefall into fancy-technology fart-arounds with a film about an enemy who has the hero’s face that’s more like Face/Plant than Face/Off — its main selling point what happens when Fresh Prince-era Will Smith punches Collateral Beauty-era Will Smith. Between this and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, have there been worse consecutive films from an Oscar winner for Best Director? Maybe instead of following this frame-rate folly to his grave, Lee could get back to cloning the things that made him a great filmmaker.

3. ZOMBIELAND: DOUBLE TAP

Given the options to nut up or shut up, the choice is clear on this depressingly lazy and lousy sequel to what remains one of the higher points of zombie pop-culture. This film’s flabby middle section is devoted to one long, stupid joke about mirror-image characters to those played by Jesse Eisenberg and Woody Harrelson. It’s about as funny as those skits they sometimes put Terry Bradshaw in on Fox NFL Sunday.

2. MEN IN BLACK INTERNATIONAL

Hey, everybody, it’s Liam Neeson again — with his third movie on such a list in three years. (Yes, I’m going to count his voice cameo in Daddy’s Home 2 against him, and so should you. Cold Pursuit was also bad, but Neeson can thank Noelle for booting that off the list at the 11th hour.) I know it’s an obvious joke, but I wish I had a Neuralyzer to use as a weapon with which to rap the knuckles of everyone involved with this witless, charmless, hopeless piece of IP-revival garbage. No jokes no chemistry, no plot, no zip, no zing, no pep, no step, no point and a negative googolplex of fucks given by Neeson in what is assuredly his worst performance ever.

1. GLASS

A pedantic, dreary, dunderheaded waste of waiting two decades, Glass betrays the elegant narrative potential of Unbreakable and James McAvoy’s command performance from Split. This sequel to both films is as bloodless as its ideas and lethally verbose in its risible rambling-on about comic-book storytelling. The aphorism says you either die the hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain. We all know how vain M. Night Shyamalan is by now, so he should have no problem stepping up to that particular mirror.


SOME MOVIES THAT ARE FINE. OR BETTER THAN FINE. THEY’RE JUST OTHER LITTLE ADVENTURES WE’RE ON. (ALPHABETICAL ORDER)

6 UNDERGROUND: MFJ review (Netflix)

ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL: Letterboxd review (Blu-ray / DVD / VOD)

ARCTIC: Letterboxd review (Amazon Prime / Blu-ray / DVD / VOD)

THE ART OF SELF-DEFENSE: Letterboxd review (Blu-ray / DVD / VOD)

THE BEACH BUM: Letterboxd review (Hulu / Blu-ray / DVD / VOD)

CAPTAIN MARVEL: Letterboxd review #1 and Letterboxd review #2 (Disney+ / Blu-ray / DVD / VOD)

CRAWL: Letterboxd review (Blu-ray / DVD / VOD)

THE DEAD DON’T DIE: Letterboxd review (Blu-ray / DVD / VOD)

DRAGGED ACROSS CONCRETE: Letterboxd review (Cinemax / DirecTV / Blu-ray / DVD / VOD)

DRAGON BALL SUPER: BROLY: Letterboxd review (Starz / Blu-ray / DVD / VOD)

THE FAREWELL: Letterboxd review (Blu-ray / DVD / VOD)

FAST & FURIOUS PRESENTS: HOBBS & SHAW: Letterboxd review (Blu-ray / DVD / VOD)

FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY: Letterboxd review (DirecTV / Epix / Blu-ray / DVD / VOD)

FIRST LOVE: Letterboxd review (Coming to Blu-ray / DVD / VOD Feb. 11)

FROZEN II: Letterboxd review (Currently in theatres)

THE IRISHMAN: Letterboxd review (Netflix)

JOJO RABBIT: Letterboxd review (Currently in theatres; coming soon to Blu-ray / DVD / VOD)

LITTLE WOMEN: Letterboxd review (Currently in theatres)

LONG SHOT: Letterboxd review (HBO / DirecTV / Blu-ray / DVD / VOD)

LUZ: Letterboxd review (DVD / VOD; coming to Blu-ray March 10)

MISSING LINK: Letterboxd review (Hulu / Blu-ray / DVD / VOD)

THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON: Letterboxd review (Blu-ray / DVD / VOD)

SHADOW: Letterboxd review (Netflix / Blu-ray / DVD / VOD)

STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER: Letterboxd review (Currently in theatres)

STUBER: Letterboxd review (Blu-ray / DVD / VOD)

TOY STORY 4: MFJ review (Blu-ray / DVD / VOD)

VELVET BUZZSAW: MFJ review (Netflix)

WAVES: Letterboxd review (Coming soon to Blu-ray / DVD / VOD)


TOP 25 FILMS OF 2019

25. SHARE

Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Is it better to shine an eternal light on a terrible thing that happened to you or to lock it inside lest it define you forever? This persistently agonizing, spectacularly edited film about sexual assault understands the Faustian bargain in the bromide about being yourself and where that can lead you. It also makes the shrewd choice to keep its focus on everyday people and render faceless at nearly all times the voices of authority, adjudication and process — still nevertheless arduous, frustrating and dehumanizing. My only complaint: The final revelation does reinforce the agency that its lead character discovers but it also robs the film of some power — feeling more like its own cheap invasion of privacy rather than a necessary disclosure. (HBO)

24. A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD

If you were a superficial pessimist, you’d think director Marielle Heller taking a PG-rated movie with Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers represented an easy paycheck after time spent in the indie-boutique trenches of The Diary of a Teenage Girl and Can You Ever Forgive Me? But if you were a superficial pessimist, you probably wouldn’t be familiar with Heller’s work anyway — which is no less wondrous to behold with full-studio backing than it was with Fox Searchlight cachet. Heller’s work with aspect ratios and aesthetics announces itself as pleasant whimsy, becomes disarmingly contemplative and, eventually, feels as organic as the film’s (and Rogers’) message that someone’s present-day and potential behaviors are not mutually exclusive. Hanks and Matthew Rhys (as the journalist profiling Rogers) each have more fun than you’d expect attacking the angles of their characters. Rhys conveys a bemusement and desire to become a better person … as well as the palpable possibility that all this earnestness surrounding him is some sort of Truman Show prank. Hanks shows how Rogers, too, hid behind his puppets and realized even he always had room to grow into someone more tolerant than he was the day before. Plus, the film has one of the year’s loveliest codas. (Currently in theatres; coming soon to Blu-ray / DVD / VOD)

23. THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO

Director Joe Talbot identifies himself as a talent on whom to keep tabs with this tone poem about gentrification, opportunities offset and the diverse ties that bind, or sever, a community. Talbot’s film alternates stanzas of bliss and melancholy without losing its meter. Occasional flirtations with magical realism threaten to unspool the tapestry woven here, but it supports the story’s themes about the fictions that spring up in reality — that playgrounds are where you plant them, prosceniums appear wherever you dream big, and that homes become things of wonder and imagination when walls and ceilings turn into canvases and canopies for dreams. (Amazon Prime / Blu-ray / VOD / DVD)

22. JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 3 — PARABELLUM

If John Wick spun an amusingly louche variation on Orpheus in the underworld and Chapter 2 artfully aestheticized pain on par with Edgar Allan Poe, Parabellum envisions The Divine Comedy as inspiration for a Wick-themed edition of Chutes and Ladders. It careens the titular assassin from paradise’s zenith to hell’s gutter across 131 minutes … and, in its assertion of literary knowledge as power, even lets John snap a human spine across the sturdy binding of Dante’s work. This series has evolved into a thrilling, morbid meditation on mortality that mimics the movements of modern dance while rendering explicit that medium’s inherent abject violence. Even though this installment winds down with a bit more enervation than energy, you remain invigorated by where the next chapter — already slotted for 2021 — could go. (Blu-ray / DVD / VOD; coming soon to HBO)

21. JUST MERCY

It has been 19 (!) years since Erin Brockovich and 16 years since the John Grisham adaptation genre ran its course. So it takes director / co-writer Destin Daniel Cretton’s film a little bit longer to re-acclimate us to the language of socially conscious courtroom dramas. Just Mercy utilizes tactics we’ve seen before, rarely with such skillful or soulful confidence. Cretton sidesteps the temptation to be overly showy, internalizing the injustices of this true-life capital-punishment story rather than treating what happened like incidents to incite our ire. The film is more interested in precise characterization than broad strokes of social justice. But there is still a devastating close to the second act here — one which evokes the ultimate level at which systems fail society in a way that, quite frankly, makes the same studio’s Joker feel ever more embarrassing by comparison. A few too many easy laughs down the stretch minimize the momentum here, but Just Mercy is a film in which you’ll feel the satisfaction of dignity reinstated and the weight of how far we’ve yet to go in equal measure. Also: Rob Morgan delivers one of the decade’s best performances that will be nominated for nothing. (Coming to theaters in wide release on Jan. 10, 2020)

20. HUSTLERS

Give Jennifer Lopez the Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination she deserves. Throw one in for the sound team, too. If I’ve seen a movie that features a sting in which the audio mix marries the shitty, tinny playback they’d hear in the surveillance van to the visuals of what’s going down, I don’t recall it. Unexpectedly one of my favorite moments this year. As my colleague Evan Dossey said after seeing it, Hustlers is the superior Scorsese-reminiscent film of fall 2019 (sorry again, Joker), and it solidifies writer-director Lorene Scafaria as an exciting and energetic talent behind the camera. (Blu-ray / DVD / VOD)

19. UNDER THE SILVER LAKE

A noir for the woozy and tectonically unsteady now, fronted by the sort of male only capable of finding purpose if he can save someone or solve something before anyone else can get to it. Like the genre’s most interesting protagonists, this is not so much out of a sense of nobility as it is a sense of ownership to feed. Andrew Garfield plays this walking sebaceous gland with the sort of Nicholsonian noxiousness that feels just dangerous enough. With idiosyncrasies on display at large scale and full sprawl, David Robert Mitchell’s follow-up feels like a stoner Zodiac or The Great Gatsby if the eyes of T.J. Eckleburg were dilated from too much MDMA. But it also grooves into its own distinct ideas about how our desire for answers often leads us to simply accept any theory that brings us the greatest comfort. (Amazon Prime / Blu-ray / DVD / VOD)

18. THE LIGHTHOUSE

In the annual end-of-year crush to vote for Indiana Film Journalists Association awards and get a strong-enough sample size for this list, there’s always a film or two that would probably rise on reappraisal. Robert Eggers’ follow-up to The Witch is almost certainly that title for 2019 — a film that’s simultaneously about the dangers of swimmin’ with no-legged women, the self-flagellation of self-imposed purgatory, the perils of a job that requires you to bunk up with your boss 24/7, the grim tissue that binds together folklore and fairytales, and probably a half-dozen other things I didn’t catch in the initial experience. One thing is certain about this ferociously shaken snow-globe of madness and paranoia: I’ll never be able to look at Robert Pattinson or Willem Dafoe in anything ever again without the monochromatic mania they manifest here flashing upon my brain. (Now available on VOD; coming to Blu-ray and DVD on Jan. 7, 2020)

17. THE STANDOFF AT SPARROW CREEK

When your métier is preparing for violence, will you truly recognize the flashpoint? Is it something you’d act on in full-throated belief or just a convenience to which you’d cling as an assertion of your own “uniqueness” in a world that refuses to acknowledge that you are “special”? Not the sort of pulp you expect to chew on in early-January VOD fare, but writer-director Henry Dunham’s tale of modern-day militiamen delivered a powerful, punchy provocation that played like Playhouse 90 for the age of modern paranoia — dissecting the interchangeability of “all the smartest ways to hate the world and all the fastest ways to go insane.” One of the best ensemble casts of the year to boot, led by perpetually impressive journeyman James Badge Dale. (Hulu / Blu-ray / DVD / VOD)

16. US

Jordan Peele’s Jurassic Park, in which the fear of monsters learning how to open doors takes on a chilling new dimension. Largely powered by Lupita Nyong’o’s commanding, chilling dual performance — one she perfectly cleaves into distinctly familiar and frightful forms but with a mean crossover — Peele’s film explores the pain of life’s revisions and restrictions revealed by its doppelgänger conceit. Its final moments also reject the relief of a return to normalcy that some horror stories provide. In Us, wounds open. Blood stains. Things can never truly be the same again, no matter how much we repeat that to ourselves. What happens in Us is anyone’s allegorical guess, perhaps even Peele’s. But great horror is great horror, and the connotations we concoct are eminently more frightening. (HBO / Blu-ray / DVD / VOD)

15. AD ASTRA

What James Gray understands about our earthbound-misfit fascination with stories about space or aliens — and sends topsy-turvy in Ad Astra — is the folly of how we fold that fascination into our yearning for a more borderless state of being. It’s easy to feel like simply untethering from our self- or society-imposed boundaries and burdens will bring a deeper clarity of conviction — that we could corral the entropy of human purpose if we could just cast off everyday drudgery. Few of us consider how our inherent biological faults would still confine us even if we ever did reach the galaxy’s widest, most open spaces. With considerable powers of wonder, wit, weirdness and woe, Gray has given all of this deep thought — delivering a film adventurous enough to forgive its occasional fumbles as it threads a needle of insanity, absurdity and humanity. (Blu-ray / DVD / VOD)

14. HIGH FLYING BIRD

One of the most — hell, maybe THE most — conscientious and culturally thoughtful films about sports as a body of identity politics — suggesting it can, and should, crumble under a sneaker heel of disruption. Another indisputable masterwork from Steven Soderbergh. It’s also got note-perfect work from the entire cast, but especially Bill Duke — whose sage-wisdom smartassery goes well beyond shtick and ties together the entire film. Tarell Alvin McCraney’s script is superb. Higher-profile options might shove this one to the sidelines, but it’s a half-court heave that Soderbergh drains. (Netflix)

13. GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS

The sky is aliiiiiiiiive with the roars of kaiiiiiiijuuuuuuuu! The best blockbuster of the summer season proper is beautiful, bonkers, bombastic and badass. You need to believe that the very composition of the planet is changing as these titans fight, and the film makes you buy it. It wasn’t at all fair that this installment commercially and critically paid for the sins of its most immediate (and sonorous) predecessor. The subtextual heft of zealotry and fervor surrounding man’s relationship to, and puniness alongside, these creatures also is a strong selling point; one particular temple-ascendancy moment (calling back to the original Godzilla) is quite astonishing in particular. Plus, Rodan’s attack is one of the year’s most stunning sequences. Hail to the goddamn king. (Blu-ray / DVD / VOD)

12. IN FABRIC

Peter Strickland’s most supremely bizarre and surprisingly beguiling film yet elevates garden-variety consumer satire into a rarefied air of exquisite laughter and explosive shock value … while also exploiting the basest pleasures of a movie about a dress that kills people. But what’s most horrifying about In Fabric is its bone-deep understanding of just how lonely all of life’s everyday assignations and indignities can sometimes feel. It recognizes commerce as a chasm into which we so often willfully hurtle ourselves to feel some sort of communion. It’s a film about a department-store coven / cult that asks: What is capitalism if not a lifelong sacrificial transaction for ephemeral things — cash for happiness, comfort, appearance, status, vanity, leisure? Strickland’s film takes a visual page from kaleidoscopic Italian gialli films of yore. Only here, the gloved killer’s hands are our own and turned on our own throats. But oh my, our hands look so lovely in them. (VOD)

11. BLINDED BY THE LIGHT

Gurinder Chadha’s film understands we’re all fine with fiction using us a little bit. Music does the same thing. It’s a helpful exploitation as the soundtrack to sorting out who we are and who we aspire to be. These moments — where you sit up straight for a teacher, a song, a stance, a future — are given visual eloquence here by the onscreen presentation of lyrics that feel like daydream reveries projected at escape-velocity speeds. Ditto the electricity when the protagonist, Javed, realizes that his words might not yet be brilliant but they are his alone. And when you use them to stand up to someone you love, that’s always more difficult than using them against those whom you know never will care about you. There’s a price inherent to every choice, an opportunity cost to every stolen moment. These are the things Bruce Springsteen sings about, and these are the things that Chadha’s unforgettably delightful film gets so very right. (Blu-ray / DVD / VOD)

10. UNCUT GEMS

The Safdie Brothers work with more of a nest egg but no more of a net in their Martin Scorsese-blessed follow-up to Good Time — to which Uncut Gems pays a weird intersectional homage with one of the year’s most bizarre cameos. This is an insistent 135-minute incursion into the insane brain — and, in the year’s craziest opening sequence, membrane — of a self-destructive gambler. As Howard Ratner, Adam Sandler seems to have been paying attention to all those films his buddy John Turturro made without him, and brings his batting average to .500 in his bids for dramatic legitimacy. (Everybody remembers Punch Drunk Love. Everyone should remember The Meyerowitz Stories [New and Selected]. And there are reasons why next to no one remembers Reign Over Me, Spanglish or Funny People.) As my colleague and friend Mitch Ringenberg so astutely observed, it’s Sandler’s inherent charm that makes Gems so incendiary: You like Howard even as you can’t believe his incredible idiocy. Like Good Time, this is an exercise in stress, compulsion and stupidity — only at the opposite end of the economic spectrum and with a dash of karmic mysticism and spiritual punishment. Just don’t mistake it for penitence. Cosmic forces are always compelling and conspiring against us. And if we’re being honest with ourselves: Boy, do we fucking love it. (Currently in theaters)

9. MARRIAGE STORY

Acknowledging that Twitter is often an echo chamber — and Film Twitter more like an echo amphitheater — it was disheartening to see so much discourse about this drama of palpable ache and perverted altruism boil down to Team Charlie or Team Nicole. Worse yet? People who hadn’t seen the movie judging an excerpt of their verbal fight based on what would fit in a Twitter clip rather than an accrual of animosity that made it such a shattering moment in the context of the full movie. There has been no filmmaker on whom I’ve turned around this decade as much as Noah Baumbach, who has moved on from pinky-up provocations of overpraised sludge like The Squid and the Whale or Margot at the Wedding to earnest, genuine examinations of human foibles like Greenberg, Frances Ha, While We’re Young, Mistress America, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) and now this. Marriage Story is not some ironically titled movie about what we’re willing to scorch to exact revenge. Through the lens of an unexpectedly contentious divorce, Baumbach’s latest chronicles the way that love lingers and is lost, how comforting spaces shift and morph into something foreign, how microscopic faults and indignities can be magnified, and how the world can sometimes feel drained to beige functionality until the unexpected moment when the color comes back. (Netflix)

8. KNIVES OUT

Speaking of someone who could be a test case for withstanding Twitter’s full assault and emerging unscathed: Rian Johnson fills in the back half of what could be the most erudite, elfish and enlightening drive-in double-feature with a film to come on this list. In lesser hands, this would have been a palatable piss take on Agatha Christie whodunits. In those of someone who has seen the worst of what we have to offer in regard to our interactions, it becomes a metaphor for the default stance we tend to take with opposing perspectives and people. Like the rest of the films in which Johnson has sent a genre topsy-turvy, this murder mystery (again, damn funny and fiercely plotted on that subset’s time-tested terms) finds fresh meaning in the notion that everyone is suspect … and its final shot is a doozy. May its financial success mean that we get a Benoit Blanc mystery every few years once Daniel Craig is done with Bond. (Currently in theaters)

7. BOOKSMART

It’s not at all hyperbolic to say that Booksmart immediately inks its place in the last-night-of-school canon with a visual sophistication and breadth of character rarely brought to such films. Olivia Wilde’s aesthetic as a director, particularly in the seismically impressive second half where the friends’ splinters burrow deep, is high school’s fog of war — so much, too much, of it caked by friendly fire. And yes, it was an absolute bummer that a film which so clearly benefited from big-screen presentation was so swiftly robbed of that exhibition in a crowded summertime marketplace. Airplanes and musicals, indeed — the velocity of the former and the grandeur of the latter. (Hulu / Blu-ray / DVD / VOD)

6. AVENGERS: ENDGAME

“Would you be able to rest?” It’s a question asked during the first act of Avengers: Endgame — a gloriously gargantuan conclusion to 10 years of narrative that digs deep on the components crucial to the crux of that question, and doesn’t exclusively root them in reversing Thanos’s destructive acts from Infinity War. How the heroes left in that wake choose to answer the question, and at what cost, gets rolled up in a surprisingly somber reflection on the passage of time and the domino effect of years we waste to petty grievances. Is Endgame narratively cluttered? How could it not be? (Untrouble your mind and let all those time-travel explanations just wash over you.) But it’s cluttered in the way reality can be — embodying the problems of people who fight to get back something they’ve lost while keeping everything important they have gained. It’s the very conundrum of life itself … and something to which not even the mightiest heroes from Earth or elsewhere are invincible. (Disney+ / Blu-ray / DVD / VOD)

5. FORD V FERRARI

Big-blue yonder filmmaking with a blazing beauty to both its intensity and intimacy — from sweeping exteriors that feel like a lightning strike on an IMAX canvas to introspective moments where Matt Damon and Christian Bale (as the men at its center) convey, and sometimes combat, the fragility that both confuses and defines them. Like Tucker: The Man and His Dream or The Right Stuff, director James Mangold’s masterwork is an acutely observant examination of the holes that an obsession with the envelope, the edge, the very line of what’s possible can leave and the ones it can fill. It’s also a damn fine racing film whose supple and superb final act makes room for roars and whispers. Industry is mercurial. Image is paramount. Consensus and comfort often win out over leadership and legacy. This furiously entertaining, exceptionally thoughtful work of force and finesse comes to feels like both purring vision and pyrrhic victory. (Currently in theaters)

4. ONCE UPON A TIME … IN HOLLYWOOD

A haunted, harrowing and often hilarious odyssey that is, in its cumulative effect, far beyond any playful provocation Quentin Tarantino has made before or that you might expect. It’s a film that represents the filmmaker’s own introspections and projections about his cultural relevance. That interrogates our demands of popular fiction and the decay from overindulgence of stories we find so sweet. That investigates a tipping point of American culture. And that intersects fact and fabrication so skillfully and with such immaculate visual immersion into its era that you’ll constantly wonder how they did it. Leonardo DiCaprio puts a perfect patina of paranoia and pathos atop his preeminent comic instincts. Brad Pitt rides a line of swagger and scruples playing a character who may be his own most unreliable narrator. As Sharon Tate, Margot Robbie embodies the wistful and spectral side of Tarantino’s themes with subtlety and sadness. The final moments here are unexpectedly moving and mature — baleful music, narrative decisions and pensive camera placement throwing even the third act’s rowdiest and most rollicking bits into a sort of contemplative relief to observe. (Blu-ray / DVD / VOD)

3. PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE

Writer-director Céline Sciamma has delivered the rare dramatic romance that understands there is as much power in conveying playfulness as there is portent. That’s important to making the two women at this film’s center feel like real characters rather than pawns in a prototypical period-piece romance. Sciamma also makes the island on which these characters (and a couple of others) are staying feel like its own little world away from the oppressive, misogynist burdens of society — however briefly — while understanding that those burdens will almost always intrude until the very pillars of society fall. Relative to the resolve these women build, such burdens represent comfort and affliction. Meanwhile, on the technical front, Sciamma brings such poise and precision to her direction that Portrait boasts several major wallops of visual and emotional intensity — from hard cuts to heart-shattering long takes — and the final scene is unforgettably, and necessarily, overwhelming. (Coming to theatres in wide release on Feb. 14, 2020)

2. HIGH LIFE

The most superficial and reductive description of Claire Denis’s film is that it plays like Event Horizon and Interstellar if they had ejaculation on their minds and were smashed together. Thing is: High Life gets as much titillation from the sex it shows as one would from a repetitive stress injury. This is an insidiously persistent, unquestionably unnerving and unexpectedly heartfelt saga that starts in a darkness where the devil whispers all around you and ends with a dawn you’ve survived to witness. It’s a transfixing tango between coven-like incantations and clinical detachment, from thick snarls and raised scars into ethereal sights. Like the best science-fiction, it casts a harsh light on the transformation of our best impulses to explore into fetid systems and corporate outcomes. Through some brutal editorial cuts, High Life also undermines the idea, on which capitalism has perhaps reached a natural endpoint of building its back, that youth and vitality are hand-in-glove. And then there’s Robert Pattinson delivering another stunning performance of rigor, discipline and danger as a man confronted by all his own conflicting impulses — so preoccupied with subverting his bloodline’s sustainability that he’s never stopped to consider that his nurture could topple his nature. “Break the laws of nature and you’ll pay for it.” Those are early words of warning from a father to his son, ostensibly a scare tactic to maintain order and obeisance. But they accumulate treacherous intergalactic meaning. (Amazon Prime / Blu-ray / DVD / VOD)

1. PARASITE

We see what we want. We want what we see. Woe unto the collateral damage we leave. We laugh at Parasite because we’re nervous that what transpires within it could happen to us … or be us. Even going in cold, as it’s best to do, we presume (not incorrectly) where director / co-writer Bong Joon-ho’s film is going even as it finds a supremely delightful path to that direction. Then, we sit agape at its ascension into an entirely different stratosphere of film — one with a sense of humor that would make the Coens jealous, carotid-severing satire, dramatic weight of diabolical stealth, socioeconomic realism that presents the choice of entropy or empathy better than any of its contemporaries, echoes of Gothic horror and stunning, screen-filling compositions that come to feel like a moral mousetrap with a lifetime supply of bait. Parasite juggles its capacity to entertain, engage and enrage better than any other film from 2019 — a story about the cost of unchecked inflation, both in ego and currency, that causes the narrative to swing wildly from symphonic precision to freewheeling chaos … much in the way our world seems to work now. People tend to think money is the iron that can smooth all creases. But too firm a press of heat and steam can cause the artifice to crack, the facade to fall, the reality to intrude. There may be no more original schemes, but the best movie of the year is more fascinated by original sins and the shapes they take in the here and now. (Coming to Blu-ray, DVD & VOD on Jan. 28, 2020)


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An award-winning film critic and features reporter, Nick has professionally written or gabbed about movies for Illinois newspapers, national syndicates, Playboy, The Art Immortal, The Film Yap and Midwest radio stations. He once drummed in a Billy Joel cover band known as Silly Joel and freely presents his Letterboxd page to engage and mock if you wish: https://letterboxd.com/ragekage79/


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