Although each member of the Midwest Film Journal is encouraged to publish an individual Year in Review (and many have), we thought that the structure of a traditional list or top 10 alone was limiting. Every year, there are at least a half-dozen movies that everybody wants to include on their lists and some additionally interesting choices get left by the wayside.
So here is the first part of this year’s Midwest Film Journal Roundtable, where questions selected through discussion are answered by every member of the team who wanted to volunteer an answer.
Tomorrow we will present the second part of the Roundtable, which will feature more answers to questions from MFJ staff writers. On Tuesday, Dec. 31, we’ll feature essays from MFJ guest contributors about movies they found moving and memorable from 2019.
Best Streaming / VOD Release
Mister America brought the ongoing saga of On Cinema at the Cinema into the feature-length realm with a political satire so steeped in the truly pathetic nature of impotent men that it remains a highlight of my entire year. On Cinema is an obsession cultivated over the course of 2019 — I watch and re-watch episodes frequently — and it felt like Mister America was made just in time for my entry into the family. (Evan Dossey)
I can’t really explain how Marriage Story makes me feel. On the one hand, it’s an utterly devastating and frank portrayal of a couple as they go through a divorce. On the other hand, I’ve watched it twice since its release on Netflix because I find it … weirdly comforting? There’s a difference between wanting to live in a movie versus wanting to live it, I suppose. As a married person, I never want to live Marriage Story, but its atmosphere, its characters, and its script are so complete that I would happily live in it. Noah Baumbach created a movie that will stick with me long past awards season — not an easy feat these days. (Aly Caviness)
Yes, I’m cheating by including a TV miniseries on a list for films. Still, someone has to throw praise at Nicolas Winding Refn’s Too Old To Die Young, the unhinged result of Amazon Studios handing Refn a blank check to be as perverse, uncompromising and downright excessive as he wants. The season’s 10 episodes take what’s maybe 2 hours of actual plot and douse it in a thick vat of cough syrup to create a 13-hour abstraction of a crime saga. Do you prefer movies where characters exchange dialogue with one another? Well, look elsewhere. The criminals and crooked cops populating this hypnotic deathdream take eternal pauses before speaking. That absurd pacing is one of Refn’s storytelling trademarks, where hard-boiled noirs are chopped and screwed into bizarre, blood-soaked fairy tales. Plot and characters take a backseat to smothering style. Self-indulgent isn’t a strong enough term. But once you key into the dronelike rhythm of his universe, you’re hooked for life. When these characters aren’t standing around while gazing mournfully into the distance, they’re typically getting murdered in some unspeakable fashion. And nobody fetishizes violence quite like Refn, shooting every severed limb and crushed skull with the worshiping gaze of a perfume ad. As for the plot? It doesn’t really matter. Miles Teller plays a crooked cop, Jena Malone is a weird vigilante psychic (it’s never entirely clear?), John Hawkes has a ludicrous turn as a terminally ill hitman who only speaks in cryptic poetry, and in one subplot a female cartel boss ignites a brutal vendetta against sex traffickers under the self-proclaimed moniker Goddess of Death. Too Old to Die Young is like pornography for dipshit film geeks — jaw-dropping displays of visual poetry interrupted by bursts of empty violence. It’s pretty wonderful. (Mitch Ringenberg)
High Flying Bird might be the most conscientious and culturally thoughtful films ever made about sports as a body of identity politics — suggesting it can, and should, crumble under a sneaker heel of disruption. A superb script from Tarell Alvin McCraney and note-perfect work from the entire cast, too, especially Bill Duke — whose sage-wisdom smartassery goes WELL beyond shtick and ties together the entire film. It’s also a strong endorsement of those new-phone-for-life deals all the carriers are offering — as it’s the second film in as many years Steven Soderbergh shot on an iPhone. He used the 7 for Unsane’s fish-eyed unease and the 8 for this film’s stunning steel-and-glass fortress. High Flying Bird is another unmistakable masterwork from a director who’s never afraid to heave from half-court and who almost always drains it. (Nick Rogers)
Although it did have a limited theatrical release, most people probably watched Sword of Trust via Amazon or YouTube. I watched it with my love, Jenn Marie, on the day our cat Larry David died. This movie was like chicken soup for our souls. I was bound to love it given my fondness for its star, Marc Maron. He plays a pawn-shop owner who teams up with his assistant (Jon Bass) and a couple (Jillian Bell and Michaela Watkins) to sell a Union Army sword that proves the South actually won the Civil War. To that end, Trust is a perfect movie for the moment, as it revolves around vulnerable people navigating a world steeped in conspiracy theories and contentious conjecture. As the quartet of con artists rides in the back of a truck heading toward the home of their mysterious buyer, everyone reveals what led them to this point. Mel opens up about the rocky road he took to become a pawn-shop owner. It’s the kind of story that unfolds every week on Maron’s podcast, WTF with Marc Maron, which I’ve been listening to religiously for the past three years. When Mel talks about recovering from alcohol and drug abuse, I could feel the weight of Maron’s own history of addiction. Director Lynn Shelton has said that Maron served as her muse for this film, which definitely mirrors the intimate mood of his podcast. Like WTF, Trust swept me away with the simple magic of people connecting. My review of the film ended up being a love letter to Maron, and his retweet of it is one of my high points of the year. (Sam Watermeier)
Follow me on this. WNET in New York has a streaming program called Theatre Close-up. On it, you’ll find shot-from-the-stage theater productions, mostly from off-Broadway. They are, for the most part, exceptional — some of the best stuff I’ve seen come out of my computer in years. This year’s highlight was Uncle Vanya, Anton Chekhov’s play given a fresh coat of paint by adaptor Richard Nelson. Now, even though I’m a theater junkie, I have never seen Vanya on stage (although I hope to remedy that with an Indianapolis production in January). So I was kicking myself for missing this production on stage in 2018. Reviews raved, particularly about actor Jay O. Sanders (whom I had previously seen and been blown away by in other Theatre Close-up presentations; you might recognize him from his recurring roles on Sneaky Pete and other TV shows, as well as his long film resume). Thanks to WNET, I got to see it and, yes, it’s deserving of all of the praise, hitting the painful and surprisingly funny truths of Chekhov in bright, intimate staging that doesn’t hide its audience. And the skill by which such theater productions are filmed has evolved by leaps and bounds over the past decade. Unfortunately, there’s a downside: You can only stream Theatre Close-up if you are within WNET’s broadcast signal. Otherwise, the recordings are blocked. It sucks, I know. But next time you are in the New York City area, do yourself a favor. Check this out this season’s other highlight, Joceyln Bioh’s School Girls; or, The African Mean Girls Play. Or previous seasons’ Apple Family quartet of plays. Or Marin Ireland’s one-woman performance in On the Exhale. Or… (Lou Harry)
Best Theatre Experience
I had three theatrical experiences with Mitch Ringenberg this year on which I really look back fondly: Serenity, Hellboy and In Fabric. I’ll take the first: Seeing Serenity, this year’s first mind-numbingly stupid movie, was an experience in and of itself. But knowing the twist going in while Mitch was in the dark only made it more sublime. Serenity is so stylish and so goddamn dumb that I’ll always treasure the fact that we got to see it in an almost empty house, which meant we could laugh and make fun of it as we went. The nice epilogue to our screening was enjoying Nick Rogers’ similar, but solo, experience an hour north of us — via Facebook Messenger as he provided us choice screencaps of Matthew McConaughey’s facial expressions, taken on his phone in a similarly empty theater. Perfection. (Evan Dossey)
When I found out I was pregnant, I did the math and laughed at my luck. Of course there was a possibility I’d miss seeing the first female-led Marvel movie because a baby might come first. Throughout my entire pregnancy, I tried to bargain with that baby — you know, “just let me see Captain Marvel, and you can do whatever you want!” Priorities, right? Thankfully, my baby really is my baby; he listened, and he even let me see Captain Marvel twice before he arrived. The first time was five days before I went into labor; the second was eight hours before. Both times, I was about as physically uncomfortable as a person could be (that second time in particular was rough), but no other theater-going experience tops them. I’ve got the dorkiest birth story of all time. (Aly Caviness)
Plentiful options this year. Two women who thought I was a detective at Knives Out because I was taking notes, then teamed up with me to solve the mystery of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s role in the film. Watching a gloriously restored Matrix trilogy back-to-back-to-back. Enjoying an IMAX double-feature of Superpower Dogs and John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum. Cackling on the inside as a half-dozen people stormed out of Uncut Gems. A 69-year-old woman stalking us in the parking lot to tell us In Fabric — the screening of which we had sponsored — was the worst film she’d ever seen. But I’ve got to go with my wife gathering a passel of friends to see Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw. What better way to celebrate my 40th revolution around the sun than with a film that brings the sun out at, what, like, 4:53 a.m. in Samoa? I was surrounded by people I love — some of them F&F acolytes, some of them newbies to the franchise. Those newbies will be joining me for an F&F catch-up session ahead of Fast 9, by the way. When I see that next year, I’ll be the one wearing a commemorative shirt with my own face on it … adorning the bodies of Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham. (Nick Rogers)
This may seem like a cheat pick, but The Matrix was re-released this year in honor of its 20th anniversary. The first time I rewatched it this year was before it officially hit theaters. I joined my friends and fellow MFJers Evan Dossey, Mitch Ringenberg and Nick Rogers for IU Cinema’s screening of the Matrix trilogy. The first one has been my all-time favorite movie since I was a kid, and I still get goosebumps whenever I watch it. The opening chase sequence is so exciting. The revelation of the Matrix remains disturbing. The heroism in the third act always makes me want to stand up and cheer. Twenty years later, The Matrix still fills me with a sense of childlike wonder and discovery. The Matrix Reloaded has an embarrassment of riches: an inspiring portrait of a diverse civilization fighting for survival; a look at the power of love; action sequences with swords, cars, motorcycles, ghosts and multiple Agent Smiths. This time around, The Matrix Revolutions broke my heart. Neo and Trinity’s love is so pure and powerful. Their trip to Machine City is harrowing yet hopeful. When Neo goes to meet the Machine God, he walks through what looks like Philip K. Dick’s version of a Grimm’s fairy-tale forest, complete with mechanical creepy crawlers. Dark magic. Beautiful. Of course it has amazing action and fascinating philosophical ideas, but the Matrix trilogy is ultimately a touching testament to believing in yourself and others. Seeing these movies on the big screen again with buddies really drove that home. When The Matrix officially hit theaters late this summer, I saw it with the love of my life, Jenn Marie. She had seen it before but never on the big screen. Experiencing it in Dolby Digital with rumble-pack seats was awesome. I gazed at the screen with wide-eyed wonder just like I did as a kid back in 1999. Jenn giggled during the lobby shootout sequence, and I playfully whispered, “This is serious,” to which she responded, “Oh, come on. It’s ridiculous!” It kind of is, but it’s still so boss. (Sam Watermeier)
This may be controversial, but the more distance I have from it, the more Avengers: Endgame disappoints me. I love so much about it, but the little problems have festered. Why is their depiction of time travel so damn convoluted? Why did they have to come up with such a shallow pretense for Thanos to menace them again, just to have a big beat-’em-up? Why does Cap’s character arc end in regression and contentment rather than growth? I love most of the movie’s emotional beats, even the ones I have some difficulty squaring away. Still, Endgame isn’t an entry in the saga I have a desire to casually rewatch, and thinking about it bothers me more than Infinity War or the other films. Not nearly as disappointing as Spider-Man: Far From Home, which I find unwatchable. But maybe it’s the fact that I really do love a lot of Endgame that makes the mental itch linger. (Evan Dossey)
I can’t say I didn’t see this one coming. When Guy Ritchie was announced as the director of the live-action Aladdin, we all knew it was going to be straight garbage. Disney and Ritchie don’t exactly mesh, and the result was one of the most uninspired live-action remakes of the last few years. Ritchie’s distinct style is nowhere to be found, and the over-reliance upon CGI throughout is almost as embarrassing as the truly atrocious costume and set design. In the end, though, it’s a shame. Mena Massoud and Naomi Scott make for an excellent Aladdin and Jasmine, and one can only imagine how much more successful this movie might have been if it had actually been a vehicle for them rather than a culturally questionable cash-grab. Here’s hoping Mulan is as good as its trailers. (Aly Caviness)
2017’s It felt like the first Stephen King adaptation since The Mist to really feel like anything let alone its own thing. It was the rare movie that played both to people who know a Stephen King adaptation would give them the jump-scares they crave but would never crack an 1,100-page book … and those who have bent the spine of said book with multiple revisits and seek more deep-boned melancholy and existential dread. At the time, I asked for the sequel sooner rather than later. Knowing what I know now, I’d take “later.” Much later. How much later? However much time it would take to avoid It: Chapter Two being a Harry Potter movie with blood in it. Endless quests for bullshit tchotchkes might be shrewd from a financial standpoint, but it’s creative anemia. I wonder if the proposed supercut will have 85 more cuts to the anxious face of that dude who looked like the love child of Benedict Cumberbatch and Channing Tatum. Really could’ve used more of those. (Nick Rogers)
Dan Gilroy’s directing debut, Nightcrawler (2014), was a mesmerizing showcase for Jake Gyllenhaal’s turn as Lou Bloom, a ghoulish sociopath whose lack of empathy propels him up the ranks of a Los Angeles news station. Nightcrawler’s critiques of capitalism and media were rather silly, but the tight pacing and unforgettable monster at its center made up for any moral hand-wringing. Unfortunately, Gilroy’s latest doubles down on the smug satire of his first film while also lacking a single engaging character. Taking aim at the world of modern art, Velvet Buzzsaw is a horror-comedy populated by caricatures of artists and art dealers, each of whom runs afoul of a cursed collection of paintings. A premise that goofy, along with another gonzo Gyllenhaal performance, implies Velvet Buzzsaw should be a hoot. Instead, it’s a parade of witless art-world gags and surprisingly unimaginative death sequences. Early on, a character compliments what he believes to be a found-art sculpture only to be told it’s not part of the gallery’s exhibit, but an actual pile of trash! Such is the level of satire Gilroy brings to the table here. Sadly, that’s all he’s bringing this time around. (Mitch Ringenberg)
My biggest disappointments came not from entire films but from the last third of a batch of flicks, including Midsommar and The Lighthouse (you took us through all of that to arrive at this?), Ad Astra (seriously, it’s just about your daddy issues?) and Once Upon a Time …in Hollywood (QT, you’ve already told us in previous movies that you think we all get off on violent revenge against horrible people. Well, some of us don’t). (Lou Harry) (who uses too many parentheticals)