MIDWEST FILM JOURNAL ROUNDTABLE — PART TWO

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 second part of this year’s Midwest Film Journal Roundtable, where questions selected through discussion are answered by every member of the MFJ team who wanted to volunteer an answer. (Did you make your way here without finding the first part? Look no further.)

Later today, we’ll close out our 2019 coverage with essays from MFJ guest contributors about movies they found moving and memorable from the past year. As always, thanks for reading!


Favorite Character

“I want to be great or nothing.” By the time Amy March (Florence Pugh) declares her ambitions in Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, she’d long since stolen my heart. But it’s those words that truly solidified her as my favorite character of the year. Previous adaptations of Little Women often lean in heavily on Amy’s youthful brattiness without capitalizing on the self-assured woman she becomes in the second half of the novel. What a revelation it is that Gerwig and Pugh finally do Amy justice. Although I’m a writer, I see myself more in Amy than in Jo; I don’t have Jo’s discipline or dedication, and since I’ve always wanted to be great or nothing, I’ve more often than not defaulted to nothing. Amy’s acceptance of the lack of room for her middling talent in a patriarchal world and the economic requirement for her to marry rich instead of pursuing her dreams is one of the more subtle tragedies of the movie, which is both wonderfully played by Pugh and deftly written by Gerwig. Given Amy’s treatment as a co-lead of Little Women maybe for the first time ever, her story resonates as it never has before and her character becomes a role model for those whose dreams and personality are a little more complicated than the more straightforward counterparts of others. (Aly Caviness)

Anyone unfamiliar with the Adult Swim web series On Cinema at the Cinema would likely end up confused if they were to dive straight into the spin-off film Mister America, at least not without first brushing up on that show’s last few seasons. Beginning in 2012 as a deadpan parody of Siskel & Ebert-style movie review programs, On Cinema gradually evolved into a deranged character study of its two hosts: the tyrannical Tim Heidecker and the insular Gregg Turkington (playing fictionalized versions of themselves). Mister America follows Tim’s disastrous campaign run for District Attorney of San Bernardino County, California, a victory lap after being acquitted for 19 murder charges. Heidecker is near-unmatched at playing assholes and man-children, and his talents are given a deserved spotlight here. But Mister America’s stealth MVP is Gregg Turkington — a self-proclaimed film expert who spends most of his waking moments watching big-studio mediocrities of the ’80s and ’90s on his VCR, stockpiling thousands of VHS tapes for his “archive.” He’s no doubt delusional, but those delusions are so arbitrary that his self-important demeanor is frankly kind of adorable. The mockumentary aesthetic also places Turkington in a real-world context that the show never could, and scenes of him digging through trash for old VHS tapes (“Ah, Bringing Down the House. One of the funniest movies ever. 105 minutes.”) are both unsettling and hysterical. Turkington trails behind Tim’s documentary crew throughout, dispensing valuable bits of film “expertise” to anyone willing to listen, including a lengthy explanation as to why Tim’s political campaign is like an unofficial remake of 1976’s The Shaggy D.A. Mister America captures everything that makes Turkington’s On Cinema persons so special: He manages to be sympathetic, hilarious, perplexing and magnetic all at once. (Mitch Ringenberg)

My gambling pinnacle is scoring $80 off $5 on a slot at the Venetian before cashing out. Thus, my love for Uncut Gems has less to do with its dazzling depiction of a dopamine-meets-doofus response to wild wagers and more to do with its analogies to my job — where long-dormant clients sometimes crash into my carefully curated schedule. The same aspect works for your job, too, whatever it is — in the sense that there are always some nagging people with whom you rarely concern yourself. So it goes for two balding noodges occasionally stalking the film’s lead for some small-time vig. But Uncut Gems so forcefully flings anxiety around every corner that I was sure the oily sleaze billed as Handsome Older Man was one of them in disguise. HOM is in the film for less than two minutes, but you’ll never forget his old-man-Kato-Kaelin hair, mottled features, fetid mannerisms … or unexpected niceness. There’s not much room for grace in Uncut Gems, but what you get from HOM’s final gesture — rather than the violent shoe you expect to drop — runs counter to its general bad-karma assertion of the worst we all want. And if you don’t like the movie … well, get a load of this interview with the guy who plays HOM. (Nick Rogers)

I see your Handsome Older Man, Nick, and I raise you John Amos as John Amos, also in Uncut Gems. Second-for-second — and he’s only onscreen for, literally, seconds — it’s the most fun appearance of an actor in any film this year. OK, my favorite character is really Amy March (also referenced above). But still, that Amos moment was brilliant. (Lou Harry)


FAVORITE ORIGINAL CONCEPT

“Giant killer alligators” is hardly an original concept, but the way in which Alexandre Aja’s Crawl uses them is truly clever. Haley (Kaya Scodelario) is trapped in a rapidly-flooding crawlspace with her wounded father, Dave (Barry Pepper), and a whole family of hungry alligators. It’s a tense, terrifying thriller that had me from the first minute. Hands down one of my favorite movies of the year. (Evan Dossey)

Gaspar Noé, the notorious French director behind such feel-bad classics as Irreversible and Enter the Void, could care less if audiences love or loathe his films. One can imagine he’d savor a theatregoer puking on the seat in front of them just as much as rapturous applause. What matters to Noé is that you feel each one to the core of your being. Their woozy, free-floating cinematography and overwhelming sound design provide an experience as frightening and visceral as anything else in cinema. So he seems like the only one who could have made the premise of Climax work as well as it does: A dance troupe’s rehearsal after-party descends into a claustrophobic hell trip when their sangria is inexplicably spiked with massive amounts of LSD. What follows is a horror-show of depravity, all while the camera tracks each troupe member as they shed their humanity through stunning acts of cruelty. There’s no plot to speak of, just an inciting incident to give characters a reason to act upon their basest impulses. Sure the concept is slight. But in Noé’s hands, it feels brilliant. (Mitch Ringenberg)

Under the Silver Lake is a noir for the woozy and tectonically unsteady now, led by the sort of male doofus who can only assert and ascribe purpose if he’s saving someone or solving something before anyone else can get to it first. Like the genre’s most interesting protagonists, it’s not so much nobility as it is a sense of ownership to feed — and Andrew Garfield plays this walking sebaceous gland with a sort of Nicholsonian noxiousness that feels just dangerous enough. David Robert Mitchell returns after It Follows with idiosyncrasies on display at large scale and full sprawl, something like a stoner Zodiac or The Great Gatsby’s eyes of T.J. Eckleburg dilated from too much MDMA. The desire for answers often leads us to simply accept any theory that comforts us rather than challenges us … or, as Garfield’s Sam might think, if you can’t jerk off to it, what’s the point? (Nick Rogers)


FAVORITE PERFORMANCE

There were a lot of great performances this year. There are every year, I guess. Adam Sandler’s turn in Uncut Gems is notable, as are those from Adam Driver and Scarlett Johannson in Marriage Story. I wanted to take the time to mention Slyvester Stallone’s final (?) turn as John Rambo in Rambo: Last Blood, taking his violent icon to a finish line filled with pain, blood and regret. I’m not alone in my love for Last Blood but I know I’m a member of a very small club. Simply put, I think Stallone has a keen understanding of what his two most famous characters mean to audiences and himself, and he conveys it in breathtaking fashion. (Evan Dossey)

I’ve already written at length about Adam Sandler’s show stopping turn in Uncut Gems, a performance and film whose relevance I’m convinced will only grow with age. Nonetheless, I worry Florence Pugh’s layered work in Midsommar isn’t receiving its proper due. Pugh demonstrates a remarkable restraint as Dani, a young woman shell-shocked by grief following an unspeakable family tragedy. When her aloof boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor), casually informs Dani that him and his boys are about to peace out to rural Sweden for a month to attend a mid-summer festival, she tags along at the last minute. Once they arrive, Dani struggles to play the part of the complaisant girlfriend; meanwhile, creeping doubts about Christian’s loyalty start to take root. Pugh conveys these warring feelings through subtle gestures, letting her anguish peak out beneath her wide-eyed gaze and the strained smile she gives when trying to appear agreeable. As sinister truths about the mid-summer festival come to light, Pugh is required to let out all the despair that’s been festering inside her, and she makes you believe it. Midsommar ends with a shot of Dani giving a serene smile, and it’s the film’s only instance where we can see genuine happiness on her face. The meaning behind her serene expression, on the other hand, only leaves the audience with more troubling questions. (Mitch Ringenberg)

I generally dislike year-end lists, but I do keep a list of my yearly favorites over on Letterboxd. A quick glance that way will tell you I’ve got one very clear MVP of the year: Indiana’s own Adam Driver. (I say “Indiana’s own” because literally every single profile of Adam Driver this year opens with a sentence that boils down to, “Can you believe this weirdly hot bucket of talent comes from such a backwater state? Neither can we!”) Driver had a fairly uncomparable year between his award-winning turn in Marriage Story and his final performance as Kylo Ren / Ben Solo in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. As if that weren’t enough, though, he also threw in memorable roles in The Dead Don’t Die and The Report, which proves that he can do… pretty much anything? And I would follow him anywhere. (Aly Caviness)

An Oscar will never guarantee visibility. Lupita Nyong’o walked away with one after her debut film (12 Years a Slave) and then … well, kind of walked away — at least in a live-action sense. Nyong’o gave her voice to a passel of profitable properties for Disney but did nothing as herself until 2018 outside of a nothing bit in a Liam Neeson thriller and a blip of a Disney sports film. Of course, the 2018 film was Black Panther, whose big business boosted Nyong’o back into territory she reclaimed with ferocity this year with a commanding, chilling dual performance in Us. Nyong’o perfectly cleaves the roles of Adelaide and her homicidal doppelganger, Red, into distinctly familiar and frightful forms … but with a mean crossover. While Us gets its power from casting off connotations of its story to your own imagination, Nyong’o almost singlehandedly powers its exploration of the pain in life’s revisions and restrictions. Well before Nyong’o physically wrestles with herself, she shows us the struggle of a wife and mother who feels all that is so joyously present in her life has been somehow unearned. But we find she is as much her family’s ringleader and fiercest protector as Red, her double — who issues her demands in a halted, wheezy rasp that feels like the barely choked-back glee of a predator discovering, for the first time, an upper hand on its prey. It only took six years, an MCU invitation and a dual role to do it, but I’m glad to see Nyong’o again. (Nick Rogers)


FAVORITE SOUNDTRACK

Bear McCreary nailed it with his score to Godzilla: King of the Monsters, but I’d like to highlight Norihito Sumitomo’s work on Dragon Ball Super: Broly. I’ve not seen much Dragonball before — none, in fact — but the score to this film blew me away. It’s as big, bombastic and insane as the animated action it accompanies. I particularly love how the score features a choir chanting the names of the fighters during big moments. GOGETA! GOGETA! BROLY! BROLY!. Last, but not least, I have a deep and abiding love for Idris Elba’s turn on the Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw soundtrack with his Cypress Hill collaboration called “Even if I Die.” These pump me up! (Evan Dossey)

Minuets of madness. Threnodies of terror. Symphonies of synesthesia. Whatever you call what Peter Strickland does in films like Berberian Sound Studio, The Duke of Burgundy and 2019’s In Fabric, there’s no mistaking the necessity of their malevolent musical qualities to get under your skin. The composer for In Fabric goes by Cavern of Anti-Matter, so you know an overwhelming burble of discordant delights is in store. Indeed, the film’s jingle for Dentley & Soper’s (a department store run by a coven / cult) plays like the Saks Fifth Avenue version of the Silver Shamrock song from Halloween: Season of the Witch. Its eighth-note run punctuated by a digital squawk has been carved into my mind as though with a dull utility knife. The film, and its music, is insidious — and indelible — that way. (Nick Rogers)

Since Nick Rogers has already spoken more eloquently than I ever could about Cavern of Anti-Matter’s soundtrack to In Fabric, I’ll go ahead with the year’s second best horror-movie score: Hildur Guðnadóttir’s elegiac cello arrangements in Joker. The mournful strings tremble as if they could erupt into chaos at any moment, and Guðnadóttir’s masterful cello playing straddles the line between melody and dissonance. That sonic contrast communicates Arthur Fleck’s (Joaquin Phoenix) precarious mental state better than the movie’s underwhelming screenplay managed. As a film, Joker is more pastiche than prestige, but man does that haunting score come close to convincing you otherwise. (Mitch Ringenberg)

I’m not big on soundtracks, but I’d happily put any of the songs from Wild Rose on my playlist. And if Jessie Buckley and a kick-ass country band aren’t playing “Glasgow” at the Oscars, I’ll, well … I’ll be mad at the Oscars again and still watch because it’s what we do. (Lou Harry)


LEAST FAVORITE FILM

There were a lot of lousy films in 2019. There are every year, but I think the movies that stick in my craw the most with distance are Glass and The Fanatic. Nick has Glass covered, so I’ll just say what I said during my official review: The Fanatic is wrongheaded in so many baffling ways that it’s truly risible and should call into question the already-rocky VOD era of its star, John Travolta. The man needs a big role, fast — one that lets him do more than play broad, sometimes offensive caricatures. (Evan Dossey)

Disney, that benevolent corporation reviving the beloved stories of your childhood with great patience and frugality, made a rare misstep with this year’s Aladdin — which is not only a steep downgrade from the 1992 original in every aspect but also hints that just maybe there’s a cynical motive behind all these live-action remakes. It’s difficult imagining a director as peerless as Guy Ritchie not having anything new to add with his interpretation of the beloved fairy tale … besides the abundance of crude CGI. Make no mistake, the 2019 Aladdin is the ugliest-looking blockbuster of the year, an endless assault of eye-searing colors and garish set design that makes the end product feel like a filmed community-theatre production of the original with the motion smoothing turned all the way up. The story is the same one you know, but the unbearably bright and lifeless visuals are all-too-new. (Mitch Ringenberg)

Because you can’t spell Glass without “ass,” M. Night Shyamalan’s conclusion to the Eastrail 177 Trilogy — which sounds like something ghost-written for James Patterson — has firmly had its cheeks planted on this throne since January. It rips the soul out of everything that worked in Unbreakable, squanders the sole asset of Split and sloppily grafts them both into new genetic scaffolding — caring little about the life-sucking hole left behind. It’s got an open contempt for Unbreakable in particular as it reveals the real interest Shyamalan had in revisiting these characters — a reclamation of swagger as a profitable filmmaker again after consecutive hits, a dais from which to deliver another thinly veiled diatribe about his own insecurities. You’ve heard this bloviating from Shyamalan before, only there’s no Paul Giamatti presence here to soften the blow: Like Mr. Glass, Shyamalan’s genius is perpetually unappreciated. Those who would challenge him inherently discourage him from something special. (Yes, this means Shyamalan tries to rehabilitate the reputation of a character who killed thousands of people to find one hero.) I joked afterward that I’ll always have Unbreakable — certain to stand as Shyamalan’s best work — and that I could pretend this didn’t happen as easily as I do that a fifth Die Hard never happened. I have to laugh about it. The alternative is too depressing. (Nick Rogers)

Because I’m not in a position where I’m obligated to review everything, I can dodge most stuff that would likely be a waste of time. So “Least Favorite” doesn’t mean the worst film of the year, just the one that I saw about which I retain the most frustrated feelings. That honor goes to Star Wars: Episode IX — The Rise of Skywalker. Not nearly as disappointing, for me, as Episode VII — Redundancy Strikes Back, it nonetheless put an awkward, ill-fitting cap on a saga I’ve been following since a long time ago (1977) in a state far, far away (New Jersey). Back then, I went to the Hunts Shore Twin theater solo on opening day and enjoyed a very special film so much that I stayed and watched it a second time. (Lou Harry) 


MOST UNDERRATED MOVIE

I’m still perplexed by the response to Godzilla: King of the Monsters, a film that delivers precisely what it advertised to a phenomenal extent. It is just like a Showa-era Godzilla classic with upgraded graphics and effects, right down to the white-guy protagonist being boring as shit. My love for this movie knows no bounds, and it’s one of the only times this year I really felt like audiences were just shitting on something for the sake of it. The 2014 Godzilla film was a chore and a bore compared to King of the Monsters, but is suddenly a classic now? Give me a break. (Evan Dossey)

To a lesser degree, The King hits me in the same place as Ophelia — loosely based on Shakespeare and loosely historical, with excellent performances from some of my favorite actors to round it out. I’m actually still surprised by the tepid response to this movie. Is it slow? Sure. Is anything in it new? Not really. But Timothée Hal* Chalamet’s icy turn as Henry V completely sets alight David Michôd and Joel Edgerton’s de-mythologizing script to the point where it’s almost hard to believe this same actor played Laurie to an equal degree of perfection in Little Women this year. I also have a lot of admiration for the space this film gives to the women of Henry’s life. This isn’t a movie about women, but it takes great care to make both Henry’s sister Phillippa (Thomasin McKenzie) and his future wife Catherine (Lily-Rose Depp) key and keen players in both of their short scenes. Also, this movie gave me Robert Pattinson with Lestat hair, so that’s great for me.

*This is actually his middle name. I did not make this up. (Aly Caviness)

Science determined my response this year. Or scorn. Or stupidity. On any given day, there’s probably a good amount of all three that power Letterboxd. Regardless, I looked at what my highest-rated film of 2019 was relative to its collective community rating on the site. Shouldn’t be at all surprised to find — by a 1.5-star margin — it was Netflix’s Velvet Buzzsaw. Dan Gilroy’s playfully punitive horror-satire feels like an Olivier Assayas Tales from the Crypt episode — as much about the search for essential meaning in art as it is about monkeys in a painting coming to life and killing someone. It is also very much of a piece with his previous examinations of ethics and ideals on the slag heap (Nightcrawler and Roman J. Israel, Esq.), and features another opus of outstanding comic timing from Jake Gyllenhaal (as a critic named Morf Vandewalt whose articulations get sassier and gesticulations get sweatier as the movie goes along). Velvet Buzzsaw is never subtle, but it also doesn’t just stop at a clunky caricature of modern art as an incestuous, insipid space worthy of derision. It ponders the value, or virtue, of art for the artist’s sake while having a high time with its self-flagellant sense of humor. Thank me when you roll the dice on it someday. Or harangue me. To paraphrase Mort: The admiration I have for you will not completely evaporate. (Nick Rogers)

Not your typical issue-of-the-week drama, Frances Ferguson takes an unusual — and effective — approach to its briefly notorious title character. She’s an unhappily married woman (Kaley Wheless) raising her child, who doesn’t interest her much. There’s not much on the horizon that looks like it’s going to make her enjoy her life much more, and a brief affair develops with a student at the high school where she’s substituting. Wheless’s lack of affect, the matter-of-fact director by Bob Bynington and the knowing narration provided by Nick Offerman form the key relationship here. And it works. And it pretty much disappeared without ever making a dent. A shame. (Lou Harry)

I’ve spent so much of this year professing my love for The Beach Bum and I don’t regret a second of it. I’ve probably grown desensitized to Harmony Korine’s aggressively abnormal worldview because the lack of conversation surrounding his latest (and most accessible to date) movie leaves me mystified. Who needs plot or character growth when you can just ramble alongside a delightful Florida man like Moondog (Matthew McConaughey), forever adrift in a fog of cannabis and Coronas? Look, you can either unplug your mind and join the party, or kindly look elsewhere. Sorry, I don’t make the rules. (Mitch Ringenberg)


WORST THEATRE EXPERIENCE

I think my worst theatre experience this year was Midsommar, a movie I entered expecting to love but unfortunately did not. I felt trapped inside it, frustrated and bored. Florence Pugh was great, however. (Evan Dossey)

The inverse relationship of ass-numbing length to assumed importance was awfully strong in 2019, and there were any number of moments rendered inescapable by idiotic decisions to see something in an auditorium. Midway’s dollar theatre of war droned on well past the two-hour mark. Motherless Brooklyn rode the line of intoxicant and irritant (IF!) to mostly feel interminable. It: Chapter Two felt like it was told to me by someone learning to read and doing so aloud with that book. At the point in Doctor Sleep when Ewan McGregor turned into some sort of antique-firearm assassin of allegedly immortal vampires, I checked out. Dumbo was certainly shorter than the aforementioned misfits, but its punishment felt the most cruel and … well, for modern-day Tim Burton anyway, usual. Enjoy the intrusion of influenza epidemics, war injuries, animal cruelty and murderous capitalism into the story of an adorable, floppy-eared flying elephant. Quite frankly, this was exhausting when elevated to IMAX presentation — Dumbo’s sweet trumpet just shy of Gabriel’s-horn levels and the visual enormousness swallowing whole whatever small semblance of sweetness was able to escape. (Nick Rogers)

Honestly, there weren’t any movies I completely hated this year. But Yesterday left me quite annoyed. I fidgeted in my seat as a lame love story unfolded amid the fun yet razor-thin concept of a musician blessed with knowledge of the Beatles in an alternative universe where the band doesn’t exist. “You’ve had 10 years to make your move,” the musician’s longtime friend / surrogate sister says. Here, like many male-written romances, the film embraces the bullshit idea of the friend zone, portraying their platonic relationship as some kind of purgatory they have to trudge through before one of them sweeps the other off their feet. Apparently screenwriter Richard Curtis and director Danny Boyle thought all they needed was love to make this film work. They were wrong. There’s also a sort-of Beatles cameo near the end that feels gross. Maybe I did hate this movie. (Sam Watermeier) 

Paying for a $5 soda at Studio Movie Grill. (Lou Harry)


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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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