FAVOURITE MOVIES OF 2019 AND THE DECADE

Here is my list of my favourite movies of 2019, now that I have caught up with the late releases of December. And, while we’re at it, I feel I should list my favourite movies of the past decade as an addendum, so keep scrolling.

#1: 1917

I saw some good ones this year, but for me Sam Mendes’ 1917 was jaw-dropping in its execution of a seemingly single-take narrative of two soldiers tasked with delivering orders across No Man’s Land. The imagery is powerful and evocative, the cinematography astonishing (especially the city in ruins at night lit by rising and descending flares) and the performances by everyone are beautifully understated. I’ve seen it twice and the second time was even more powerful than the first. Truly awesome.

Trailer

#2: Toy Story 4

When I first heard they were making a fourth installment in a series that ended over a decade before on an impossible-to-beat note, I thought it was a terrible idea. Never in a million years would I have expected the filmmakers to top the untoppable, but I was wrong. Toy Story 4 did it with such heart and sincerity and empathy that I was completely floored. Whereas the third film saves all of its emotional power for the finale, this one is an emotional roller coaster from start to end that had me in tears as often as laughter. I adore this movie.

Trailer

#3: The Lighthouse

As much as I love traditional glossy Hollywod product, I love the other end of the spectrum at least as much. The Lighthouse is a dark, weird and minimal story about two men trapped together in a lighthouse, slowly descending into madness. The black-and-white cinematography and the square aspect ratio lend a lot to the oppressive atmosphere and Willem DaFoe is mesmerizing.

Trailer

#4: Parasite

This Korean film is a wicked satire about class antagonism which I loved. The tone is light until it starts twisting in truly unexpected ways as it progresses. I loved the dark sense of humour that toyed with my sympathies at first playfully, then more conflictingly as everything unravels toward the end. What I love most about it is how multi-faceted it is; there are a lot of ways to look at it and pick it apart which, to me, is the sign of real art.

Trailer

#5: Joker

Another film I thought was a bad idea from the outset but turned out to be just right. Humanizing a psychopath like the Joker is very dangerous, in my opinion, but the brilliance of the film is in the ways that it tests your sympathy. Initially, you feel sorry for the guy, but at a certain point he crosses a line. Where that line is for different audiences is interesting to note, but I do think the movie is good as an overall look at the narcissism and lack of empathy that poisons society. Also, after Heath Ledger, I didn’t think there was anywhere left to go with the character, but Joaquin Phoenix proved me wrong.

Trailer

BEST OF THE DECADE

This is not a list that can easily be arranged in any kind of order. Looking back at the movies that came out in the past ten years, it has been a truly astonishing decade for film. I could have simply put the movies from previous years’ favourites list, but instead I chose movies that have stuck with me for one reason or another since I saw them. Here they are chronologically.

  • Inception (2010) – What a way to start the decade! Inverted heist movie with a star-studded cast under Christopher Nolan’s masterful direction.
  • Bridesmaids (2011) – Great comedy, gut-bustingly funny stuff with a really sweet heart at its center.
  • Cloud Atlas (2012) – Unbelievably ambitious narrative, packing six stories spanning several centuries into a single movie that I found to be so compelling I had to put it on my top ten all-time favourites list.
  • Gravity (2013) – The most thrilling ride I’ve ever had in a cinema, I had to see this one five times and it is one of only two movies I believe are enhanced by the 3D experience.
  • 12 Years A Slave (2013) – Quiet, understated but tremendously moving for all its subtlety. The poetry of its images is still strongly in my mind.
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) – Absolutely delightful comedy that balances whimsy and tragedy like no other. And what a cast!
  • X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) – The best X-Men movie, in my opinion, with character motivations as compelling as the plot is complex.
  • Birdman (2014) – Wonderful characters and hilarious situations are everywhere in this story of showbiz madness, ego and death told in a single take.
  • Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) – Phenomenal. Wall-to-wall action, mind-blowing production design and eye-popping stunts combine to make this quite possibly the greatest action movie ever made.
  • Arrival (2016) – It’s hard to think of another sci-fi film that approaches alien contact so intelligently, but the real power in this movie is its emotional core which squeezes tears out of me every single time I watch it. Absolutely beautiful.
  • Moonlight (2016) – One of a handful of movies I’ve seen that truly made me feel transported into another person’s life, this is one of the most amazing exercises in empathy I’ve ever seen.
  • La La Land (2016) – A really sweet story of love and respect that swept me away with its charming leads and the most surprising and satisfying ending of any rom-com ever.
  • Toni Erdmann (2016) – This German film about a practical-joking father trying to reconnect with his estranged daughter swings the pendulum from the ultimate in cringe-humour to the most heart-breaking empathy. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed and cried so hard in one movie.
  • mother! (2017) – This movie is black as pitch in its scathing portrayal of humanity’s confused struggle with nature and religion. At least, that’s what I got out of this surreal, oppressive, incredibly dark fever dream that is unlike any other movie I’ve ever seen. Intense.
  • Blade Runner 2049 (2017) – That rare beast of cinema, a sequel that improves upon the original. Tonally consistent with its predecessor but with a far more satisfying emotional payoff.
  • Sorry to Bother You (2018) – This movie is full of surprises and is a wonderful example of scrappy indie spirit making the most of meager resources to create something really different, funny and smart.
  • Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018) – The best Spider-Man movie ever, in my opinion, told with a really fresh and dynamic animation style.
  • Eighth Grade (2018) – Simultaneously hilarious and heart-breaking, I was amazed at the universality of the story: no matter the era, being 13 is the worst time of your life.
  • Hereditary (2018) – The most fascinating horror movie I’ve seen in a very long time, this movie has a terrific story with some truly shocking turns, but it’s Toni Collette’s performance that is really something to behold.
  • 1917 (2019) – Single-take journey across the war-torn fields of Europe in World War I, this movie shows you things you’ve never seen before and has some of the most rousing moments in any war film.

And those are just twenty examples of the amazing movies of the past decade. Here’s hoping the next decade is as exciting!

Review: Black Mirror – Season 5

I love Black Mirror and have been a fan ever since discovering it around season 3. The show is dark and twisted but also has its lighter moments and the three new episodes that constitute season 5 are exemplary of the show’s varied imagination.

Striking Vipers is a story about two friends (Anthony Mackie and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) who reunite after years apart and bond over a sophisticated VR fighting game which soon becomes a conduit for unrequited feelings the two friends have. I was genuinely surprised by the early twist in the storyline and I really appreciated its maturity and sensitivity in dealing with the subject matter. I also loved the ending.

In Smithereens, Andrew Scott plays a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown who takes hostage an employee of the tech giant behind Persona, a Facebook-like social media platform, demanding to have a phone call with its Zuckerberg-esque creator. I found it struck an astounding balance between tragedy and comedy, making me laugh out loud several times as well as shed a tear at one point.

Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too features Miley Cyrus as a pop sensation whose new AI doll becomes the prized possession of Angourie Rice’s Rachel, but her sister Jack (Madison Davenport) has concerns about its influence. This episode is much more light-hearted in its execution, even if it has some dark material, striking and almost Scooby-Doo vibe at times, but I found it quite fun and well-earned after the seriousness of the previous two episodes. Plus, it gave me a new respect for Miley Cyrus.

Black Mirror is probably my favourite TV show. I love how intelligent and mature it is and how the series is more about quality than quantity, as each season is pretty short. The best thing about the show, in my opinion, is its anthology nature. Every episode is its own self-contained story and you can start anywhere; the quality is such that you will know in one or two episodes if this show is for you or not. Personally, I love it.

The Matrix: 20th Anniversary

Still Great Entertainment 20 Years On

I managed to catch a screening at the Rio of this sci-fi masterpiece which has aged very well, in my opinion. It’s a little clunky in places and the dialogue is largely bad, but the story is so well plotted that there is a constant state of anticipation throughout, punctuated by beautifully executed action sequences. It is still a great movie.

What I remember most from seeing it 20 years ago is the sense of how much story is packed into it. I distinctly recall the scene when Neo wakes up from the Matrix into the real world and thinking “Holy crap! That’s just the first act!” What would typically have been saved as the big reveal at the climax of an ordinary movie was merely the first major plot point. And the rest of the movie is structured magnificently, with every scene carrying the story forward at such a speed you don’t really have time to stop and look around and question things. You just want to know what happens next, always against a backdrop of rising tension until you get to the action-packed third act that hardly rests for a second.

The movie does have a very 90s feel to it, but in a good way and without feeling actually dated. Much like ALIEN (1979), there is very little on screen that actually betrays its time of origin, yet The Matrix manages to distill the esthetic and tone of 90s cinema perfectly. The gunfight in the lobby that opens Act 3 is a perfect example. It still manages to be exciting as hell, and the entire movie is put together exceptionally well in every department, from production design to fight choreography to editing and many in between. The Wachowski siblings who conceived, wrote and directed it achieved something unique with this movie.

The film’s only weak point is its dialogue and one or two performances, although Hugo Weaving and Laurence Fishburne deserve special mention for their awesome charisma. There were many lines that got a groan from the audience I saw it with and I can’t blame them, some of the lines the actors have are dreadful. It’s a lot like Star Wars (1977) in that the dialogue is very poor but the plotting is excellent, with characters who are basically just there to advance the story. I like the way the filmmakers sprinkled little tidbits of philosophy throughout the film, but they are mostly the ones that are visualized (the metaphor of the Matrix is brilliant) and not so much the ones that are spoken aloud. It still manages to be a thinking person’s sci-fi/action movie, at any rate, with elements so perfectly balanced that there never feels like an excess of anything.

It’s a hell of a fun ride. Twenty years later and it hasn’t lost any of its appeal. I think The Matrix is a genuine classic of sci-fi cinema with big ideas and big set-pieces to keep you interested and entertained and is still a great film.



Film Review: Sorry to Bother You

This movie was an absolute delight. I had heard some good things but missed its initial release, so when I made the effort to see a one-night screening at the Rio, in spite of wanting to stay home and watch the new Black Mirror, I was very surprised and elated to discover one of the most original movies of the year. Sorry to Bother You made me laugh, made me think and made me go “WTF?” with its truly unpredictable plot twists. I loved it and I think it is one of the best movies of 2018.

The movie opens with Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) interviewing for a telemarketing job at Regalview, part of a huge multifaceted corporation run almost as a personality cult by Steve Lift (Armie Hammer in hilarious form). The job sucks and there is discontent between workers and management with a move to unionize led by Squeeze (Steven Yeun), but when Cassius starts using his “white voice” (dubbed by David Cross) to connect to clients he rises through the ranks leaving his friends behind when he becomes a star “powercaller”. But Reglaview has a dark side which is only revealed as Cassius climbs higher and it only gets darker and funnier and flat-out weirder as the film approaches its conclusion.

The first thing I loved about this movie was its tone. It is very relatable with a fine supporting cast of rich and diverse characters, and it definitely plays to a mature audience with grown-up sensibilities. It’s not an overt crowd-pleaser (although the large audience I saw it with did sound very amused throughout). I also really loved how it’s one of those kinds of science-fiction movies that creeps up on you. There is already a heightened sense of silliness in a lot of what we see, but the real world is also very silly when looked at in certain ways and it’s only the gradual accumulation of details that clues you into the fact that this is not the real world. That is, until a crazy plot twist late in the movie that is pure sci-fi but works because of all the subtle groundwork laid in.

There are some rough edges to the movie (the film’s lack of budget is very apparent in one sequence involving a riot) but that is part of its charm. It’s a scrappy underdog of a movie, about working class heroes and featuring a fairly socially progressive point of view (the union subplot being a perfect example). That’s the kind of real community justice you don’t see in most movies, probably because most movies tend to reinforce the status quo instead of challenging it. The film has many little touches that tip you off to its subversive nature which had me grinning when I wasn’t outright laughing, and that is the most important thing of all – the film avoids being preachy by making you laugh.

Boots Riley deserves special mention for his writing and directing, the movie is full of wildly inventive visual ideas that match the story perfectly, and the cast is terrific. Lakeith Stanfield is immensely sympathetic, keeping you on his side even when he’s selling out, and Tessa Thompson is wonderful as Cassius’ performance artist girlfriend Detroit. Terry Crews has only a couple of scenes as Cassius’ uncle Sergio but he’s always a gem. I really enjoyed the mostly non-white casting because I love seeing other faces and voices on screen. The movie is incisive in its comments about race and one sequence in particular had many in the audience at the screening I attended squirming with discomfort, myself included. I love it when a movie can make me squirm and laugh and think.

Sorry to Bother You is very high up on my list of best films of 2018. I thought it was highly creative and original with many genuine surprises, but also that it was smart and funny – very, very funny. I was smiling almost from start to finish and for a long time after it was over. I really can’t say enough good things about it, I thought it was truly unique and special. I loved it.

Film Review: Spider-Man – Into the Spiderverse

Best Spider-Man movie since Spider-Man 2

Sony Animation has produced this slick piece of eye-popping animation that is a lot of fun to watch. I found it to be tremendously entertaining, fun and funny but with emotional weight where it needed it. I think it is the best Spider-Man movie since 2004’s Spider-Man 2.

One of the many things I loved about this film was how progressive and positive it was. The whole film really captures the essence of Spider-Man in ways that pretty much every other film in the past 14 years has failed to do, and Spidey is a relentlessly positive, optimistic character despite his tragic origins and his outsider status. This movie captures the correct tone to convey that spirit while also being a lot of colourful fun, just like the title character.

The story here centers on young Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore), a New York teenager who somehow gets bitten by the same (or similar) spider as the one that bit Peter Parker. The Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) is the main villain of the piece whose experimental particle collider creates a crossover of parallel universes that delivers different versions of Spider-Man from those worlds into ours before it is damaged in a fight that kills our resident Spider-Man (Chris Pine). The multiple versions of Spider-Man have to work together to find a way to get back to their own universes and then destroy the collider before it destroys everything. Along the way, Miles faces challenges and comes to terms with the responsibility of being Spider-Man.

First and foremost, I loved the animation. That was the principle thing that got me interested, because I am very unimpressed by most animation for its lack of novelty. Rarely does an animated film present a style that I haven’t seen before, but I really think this movie did show me something new. I loved the characterizations of everyone, particularly Miles, but I also really liked Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson) and Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld) as his peer support. I thought Nic Cage was an unexpected pleasure as Spider-Man Noir from a hard-boiled 1930s universe and I have always loved Spider-Ham, who I was afraid would be just a sight gag but turned out to be a fun side-character.

In a lot of ways the movie reminded me of the Lego Batman Movie. It has a very similar sensibility of reverence as well as humour about the legacy of the character. I think Spider-Man’s appeal is in his misfit status and the total anonymity of the suit – anybody could be under the red and blue spandex, and that is what a lot of the movie’s underlying substance is about. It’s part of the reason why the film has so many different versions of the character and gives us the lesser-known Miles Morales as our central protagonist instead of the familiar Peter Parker. I found the story quite soulful in its presentation of what it means to be a hero – it’s not the suit, its the person wearing it and the choices he or she makes. I found the movie unexpectedly moving in parts, much like Spider-Man 2, and its closing coda by Stan Lee about heroism was very touching in light of the man’s passing earlier this year.

If there is anything negative to say about the film, it has to do with the presentation in 2D. I haven’t seen Into the Spiderverse in 3D but I would like to despite my overall misgivings about the medium. I think the cityscapes and web-swinging could be enhanced by the 3D, but what bugged me about 2D was that a lot of backgrounds had a blurry look like I was watching a 3D movie without glasses (except the foreground characters were clear), almost as if the studio did a half-assed job of making a 2D version.

I really loved Spider-Man – Into the Spiderverse a lot more than I tought I would. I laughed out loud many times and I appreciated its sense of Spider-Man lore, not just in the easter eggs sprinkled throughout for hardcore fans to giggle over, but for its authentic understanding of what the character means and stands for across multiple interpretations. An amazing movie.

Film Review – 2001: A Space Odyssey 50th Anniversary IMAX

I recently had the good fortune to stumble upon a screening of the 50th anniversary Imax edition of 2001: A Space Odyssey, one of my top ten favourite films, and I am very glad I caught before it left theaters. What was mostly luck of circumstance turned out to be one of the best cinema experiences I’ve ever had.

First of all, the restoration was amazing – the movie looked freshly made. That and the mastery of Kubrick’s eye makes the movie feel very modern and accessible. There are very few details that date the film, which is more than one can say of most science-fiction movies. Speaking of details, the massive Imax image was a revelation for someone who has only ever seen the movie on television screens. For example, I was stunned by the number of shots where I was able to see people moving around inside the windows of the spaceships – and this was produced in the 1960s! I really didn’t think that kind of special effect was even possible at that time.

The magisterial pace and the minimal dialogue of the film make for a story that relies heavily on imagery. I understand why many people find it inscrutable when they see it, as I was one of them, but with repeated exposure and learning other perspectives the movie came into full flower for me. Without characters explaining things for the benefit of the viewers, they are left to themselves to decode the pictures and I know there are many different interpretations of what it all means. For myself, I think it is the best story about encountering a superior alien intelligence ever put on film. I appreciate truly alien aliens, and in 2001 they seem to be a species that exists outside space and time as we understand it, appearing to us only in the form of an absolutist black monolith of perfect mathematical proportions. That is pretty far out, man.

Of course, the best parts of the movie are the space ballets set to Strauss’ The Blue Danube and the pure spectacle of the Stargate sequence, but on a screen this size with all-enveloping sound every part of the movie dazzles. The landscapes of the Dawn of Man sequence and the dizzying interiors of the spaceship Discovery are equally spell-binding and even lesser moments like conversations held my attention completely. The screening included a 20 minute intermission which I felt unnecessary (the movie is two and a half hours, not three, which is easily manageable in my opinion) and might have even disrupted my trance a little as I had a feeling the post-intermission part of the film felt a tad draggy. I still loved it, anyway.

Kubrick was the ultimate film maker, in my opinion. His movies are the ultimate in each genre he tackled: The Shining is the ultimate horror film, Full Metal Jacket is the ultimate war film, Dr. Strangelove is the ultimate political satire and 2001 is the ultimate science-fiction film. I already love this movie, so I’m obviously biased, and seeing it in crystal clarity on a giant screen while seated basically dead center in the auditorium was pretty electrifying and I know I sat there with big eyes and a smile for a lot of the movie.

Retro-Review: City of Lost Children (1995)

Last weekend I had the opportunity to go to a screening of The City of Lost Children, a gem of French cinema from the 1990s which I have long adored. I love it for its baroque production design, the casting of fabulously unusual faces and an overall cartoonish sensibility that makes it a dark fairy tale adventure full of surprises and laughs.

I’ve seen the film several times but it is only now that I feel I comfortably have a grasp of the plot, because it is serpentine with endless detours into side-gags. Broadly speaking, in the fable-like setting of some dark quasi-early-20th century sea port town, children are being abducted by a mad scientist living in an off-shore laboratory where he drains them of their dreams in order to stay young. I think. Honestly, I’m still not sure if that’s entirely accurate, but our central protagonist, One (Ron Perlman), is a fairground strongman whose little brother is stolen, triggering a quest to find him, aided by 10 year-old Miette (Judith Vittet), a street-urchin and sort-of leader of a gang of child street thieves.

There are a lot of subplots running parallel to one another throughout the film’s running time, so much so that I can’t really explain any more of the plot because it would take too long and it’s more fun to discover for yourself. The show moves along at a good clip and never really lags, with loads of detail in every frame. The filmmaking team at the helm, Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro, would later go on to make Amelie (2001) which is a great example of their flair for fantastical elements and buoyant humour, though City of Lost Children is much darker in tone. Along with Delicatessen (1991), the duo have made three fine films which made me fall in love with French cinema.

I also want to make special mention of the casting of this movie. It is full of the most interesting looking people you’ve ever seen in a single film. The only pretty people are the children, almost as if to suggest that we all start out pretty until life twists us into broken adults. I also love how Miette plays as the classic fatalistic French femme, cynical and world-weary, yet tagging along with the vaguely simian strongman, One, focused on his quest. They make an endearing pairing of brains and brawn.

I love The City of Lost Children. I think the way its whimsy plays off the darker undertones is delightful. Wonderful cast, a pleasantly convoluted plot, gorgeous production design and flashes of humour make it a joy to watch. Thanks to this and the other works of Jeunet & Caro, I am a confessed fan of French film. Great fun.

Stars Trek Versus Wars

In the realm of popular sci-fi entertainment, Star Trek and Star Wars are the titans. Despite superficial similarities, the two are really designed for different audiences whose qualities come out in their respective fandoms. I think that Star Wars, with its simplistic good-versus-evil morality tale, is really more for children, while Star Trek skews toward a slightly more mature audience. Allow me to elaborate.

I think concepts like “good” and “evil” are basically childish. They are code for “us” and “them”, promoting a closed-minded tribalist attitude and enacting power fantasies of vanquishing the wrong and making everything right. As people grow and mature they should come to learn the complexity that attends life and how choices are not always so clean-cut.

Star Wars does touch upon the themes of point of view, but barely. It is still centrally and essentially a simplistic morality play in every iteration. Star Trek, on the other hand, tells a wider range of stories, some pulpy, some political and some just weird enough to challenge the way you think about your perceptions. One other key difference that distinguishes Star Trek as being for older audiences is the sexual content: Kirk and others are often in romantic liaisons whereas kissing is about as racy as Star Wars gets.

Writing this in the wake of Kelly Marie Tran’s on-line harassment by the worst elements of Star Wars fandom, I can’t help but think how basically immature they are. Personally, my favourite aspect of the new Star Wars movies is their on-screen diversity. I am all for seeing more faces and hearing more voices, but it is apparently a threat to some who are maybe not as secure in their own being. Of course these trolls exist in all forms of fandom, but I can’t imagine even the worst Star Trek fans being so loudly and vocally hostile that a cast member would remove him or herself from all social media.

Obviously, the trolls in this case are not representative of Star Wars fans in general and, as I say, Star Trek has it’s trolls too, but I can’t help but think there is something in the material they obsess over that fails to challenge their childishness because it is itself for children. I don’t think Star Wars fans have ever had the necessary humiliation that Trek fans were dealt by William Shatner’s “Get a Life” sketch on Saturday Night Live. That kind of public calling-out to stop taking it so seriously is precisely what Star Wars fans kind of need, certainly the cretins who attacked Kelly Marie Tran. I might even argue that The Phantom Menace was just that, but nobody seemed to get the point. They just got angry and bear the grudge to this day.

I’m not calling Star Wars fans immature, just the trolls. However, I do think being overly obsessed with a children’s entertainment might be bad for a person’s perspectives. I think it’s good to obsess over something until you figure out what it is about it that turns you on, but then you ought to pursue that quality in something more challenging, to test your assumptions and refine your perspectives instead of blunting them with endless repetition of the same thing and then getting upset when new product doesn’t meet your demands.  I’m still deeply in love with sci-fi, to which Star Wars was the gateway when I was a kid and  Star Trek sustained me as a teen. I just find they can’t deliver what I want from the genre anymore.