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CRITICAL MASS: Movies rallied in late 2019 for a strong finish

Film savored as intellectual nourishment isn't reliant on the first weekend’s box office take. by Philip Martin | December 29, 2019 at 2:28 a.m.
Sun-kyun Lee (left) and Yeo-jeong in a tense scene in "Parasite."

Sometime around the first of August, a friend asked what the best movies of the year had been so far. I texted back a few titles: Joe Talbot's Last Black Man in San Francisco, Alex Ross Perry's Her Smell and David Robert Mitchell's Under the Silver Lake. He asked about Jordan Peele's Us; I hadn't seen it yet.

"Don't have a great feeling about 2019 as a movie year," I added.

Now, I've seen almost everything. Not Cats, which our critic Dan Lybarger said was like Busby Berkeley in color and on crack (which also describes Gaspar Noe's Climax, which is pretty good, so let me make it clear that Dan did not care for Cats) and not Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, but a lot of things.

And I was wrong: 2019 is a strong year for movies. I had no trouble coming up with a Top 10, an alternative Top 10 and a bunch of other noteworthy films.

But don't ask how this year compares with other years or what (if anything) we might learn from looking at 2019's most prominent movies. The real test of a movie's importance has more to do with its persistence in the culture than its immediate impact.

I watched only two of the films in the Top 10 ballot submitted to my critics' poll earlier this month in an actual movie theater. For the first time, I watched most of the new movies on a personal screen -- iPad or computer, rather than in a theater or on a television. I suspect that's the way it's going for most of us.

Movies, like newspapers and heavyweight title fights, loom less large in the public consciousness than they once did. Though inflated ticket prices skew box office reports toward more modern films, there's no doubt that Gone With the Wind had more of a cultural footprint in 1939 than The Dark Knight did in 2008 or Avengers: Endgame has in 2019. While 2019 is the first year to have eight films cross the billion-dollar milestone, surpassing 2015's and 2018's record of five billion-dollar films, most people buy fewer than 10 movie tickets a year.

In 1928, when the population of the United States was 120 million, 65 million movie tickets were sold each week. More than half of Americans went to the movies every week. That rate had fallen off by 1939, the annus mirabilis which saw the release of the aforementioned GWTW; The Wizard of Oz; Stagecoach, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington; Ninotchka; Dark Victory; Goodbye, Mr. Chips; The Hunchback of Notre Dame; etc. Now, fewer than one American in 10 buys a movie ticket in a given week.

Robert DeNiro (from left), Al Pacino and Ray Romano star in "The Irishman."
Robert DeNiro (from left), Al Pacino and Ray Romano star in "The Irishman."

Most people see fewer than 50 movies a year, and most are probably

watched in a fairly desultory fashion. You turn on the TV to see what's on, watch 15 minutes of Animal House or Pretty Woman. Maybe.

A film critic might watch 300 movies a year, maybe more. The more movies you watch, the more conversant you become with the grammar and syntax of film. Ideally, you shouldn't be able to recognize a tracking shot or a Wilhelm scream, but if you watch enough movies you can't help but eventually grasp the conventions and in-jokes. Watching a lot of movies will make you fluent in a secret language you're not supposed to know.

Most modern movies aren't made to be watched critically; they're made for date-night couples and 13-year-old boys (or 40-year-old men with the sensibilities of 13-year-old boys). This isn't how it has always been -- the movies in the '70s seemed to have more at stake than movies today.

When Martin Scorsese said something like that earlier this year, he was received as an old man screaming at the clouds. But while there are plenty of movies made for grown-up sensibilities, they are not marketed to the general audience. If all you know about the movies is what's showing up on the marquee at your local multiplex, you might believe that a movie is an overt thing, loud and popping with color, blood and fanboy pageantry. You might understand them as pop kabuki art, with their own movie logic and physics. You might learn to love them for their mythologies.

Cowboy sheriff Woody (from left), Buzz Lightyear, Jessie and Forky embark on a new adventure in "Toy Story 4."
Cowboy sheriff Woody (from left), Buzz Lightyear, Jessie and Forky embark on a new adventure in "Toy Story 4."

Fair enough. But I grew up watching The King of Marvin Gardens, The Conversation and Mean Streets. I get why so many of my film critic colleagues seem to prize the post-Jaws cinema of the '80s and why other generations have their own touchstones. But as far as I'm concerned, popular culture hit its peak when I was 12 years old. I love the movies of the late '60s and early '70s. I probably overrate them.

I also overrate movies that seek to do more than divert, that aspire to tell us something about ourselves. I operate on the assumption that movies are at least occasionally important. They are more than business ventures, more than commodities looking to attract the disposable dollars of titillation seekers.

Some critics may see Hollywood for the factory town that it is -- while they may understand most of the people who go to cineplexes don't care about directors, deep structure or what a particular movie might tell them about their world -- they still retain a touchingly naive faith in the existence of their constituency, a small band of thinking moviegoers, who enjoy intellectual play and testing their notions of art and art-making against other interested opinions.

It is easy to believe in this constituency when one sees it in action. It warms a critic's cold heart when crowds turn out for "art house" movies, or when college students email to ask what movies they should see and what writers they might read in order that they might prepare themselves to take part in the conversation. If most people are indifferent to the movies, there are still those who care about film as intellectual nourishment. There are people interested in more than the attendant celebrity gossip and hoo-hah offered to entertainment journalists by "the cinematic apparatus."

As long as this minority of thinking moviegoers exists in sufficient numbers, film critics will be able to justify their existence. Now allow me to justify mine with our annual survey of some of the best movies of the year.

Brad Pitt earned positive reviews for his performance in "Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood."
Brad Pitt earned positive reviews for his performance in "Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood."

TOP 10

This is the ballot I turned in to the Southeastern Film Critics Association earlier this month. I thought about revising it for this piece since I voted before I saw several prominent films, but nothing I've seen since voting demands a spot here. I'm still happy with these rankings, though I probably should have found a place for Greta Gerwig's Little Women.

1: Parasite -- South Korean director Bong Joon-ho's remarkably entertaining movie about social mobility seems like the critical choice for picture of the year. It tops a lot of year-end lists, and I don't know of a single person who has received it coolly. Even if you already know some particulars of the plot -- which in some ways mirrors Jordan Peele's Us -- you'll have a exhilarating time at this dark comedy.

2: Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood -- The criticisms are valid: It's too long and the spasm of violence at the end feels like pure fan service. And you had to have been there to fully appreciate the Proustian play of the selective details. I'm generally a Tarantino skeptic, but I was charmed and soothed by this warm memory play. There once was a land called California ....

3: Marriage Story -- My proposed DVD cover blurb for Noah Baumbach's lacerating film is: "See it with someone you love, but keep your eyes straight ahead." Brilliant, precisely calibrated performances from Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson as a creative couple coming apart.

4: The Irishman -- Martin Scorsese's film is not without problems; its length makes it one of the few films I'd advise watching in an environment where you can pause it. The anti-aging technology works fine for the actors' faces but doesn't keep them from looking like stolid old men when they move. And Al Pacino somehow feels like stunt casting, though eventually you do get used to his blustering Jimmy Hoffa.

Yet it's a genuinely moving picture about a certain kind of American male archetype, one we might mourn even as we understand its destructiveness.

5: Portrait of a Lady on Fire -- I'll save my thoughts on Celine Sciamma's rich historical romance for a review. It's likely to open in Arkansas next month.

6: Uncut Gems -- Some movies are like thrill rides. This movie -- the best about gambling since Paul Thomas Anderson's Hard Eight in 1997 -- is like being grabbed by the collar and dragged through an urban minefield of dangerous street characters and hard men with Gilbert Gottfried (a terrific Adam Sandler, who should get an Oscar nom for this) riding on your back noisily providing play-by-play. My nerves are shot.

7: The Souvenir -- Joanna Hogg's semi-autobiographical romance won the world cinema jury prize at Sundance Film Festival but didn't get a wide theatrical release. It's streaming on Amazon Prime now.

8: The Farewell -- Lulu Wang's story is so specific, her characters so deftly sketched and believably contradictory that we take for granted they've been drawn from real life. It features a breakout dramatic performance from Awkwafina.

9: The Last Black Man in San Francisco -- Stylish and precisely crafted, Joe Talbot's elegiac film about friendship, displacement and gentrification feels like a poem.

10: Toy Story 4 -- General Pixar excellence; the technological marvels are well balanced against the story, which never veers into schlock. This is the sort of movie children deserve.

Elisabeth Moss gives a fierce performance as a grunge rocker in "Her Smell."
Elisabeth Moss gives a fierce performance as a grunge rocker in "Her Smell."


I'd have no problem with any of these being considered part of my Top 10.

1: Little Women -- I don't know why I wasn't excited about seeing Greta Gerwig's take on Louisa May Alcott's classic. But it turned out to be an utterly charming, deeply entertaining film. I suppose every generation deserves its own telling of the story, and Gerwig may well be the storyteller best suited to telling it to today's children.

2: A Hidden Life -- I never stopped admiring Terrence Malick, but this film ought to redeem him in the eyes of those who thought he'd become too woolly and esoteric. I haven't written my review yet so will save my comments.

3: Ash is Purest White -- A sprawling crime epic that would serve as a perfect introduction to the world of Chinese master Jia Zhangke. Zhao Tao delivers a commanding lead performance.

4: The Nightingale -- Jennifer Kent's follow-up to her startling debut, 2014's The Babadook, is a dark and brutal revenge drama set in 1825 on the island of Tasmania (then known as Van Diemen's Land) during the Black War that pitted aboriginal Tasmanians against British colonists. This is a darker version of the stories told by Huckleberry Finn and True Grit, and some will find the violence repellent. But that's how violence should be, right?

5: Her Smell -- Alex Ross Perry's film tracks the progress of a Courtney Love-esque indie rocker named Becky Something (Elisabeth Moss) as she falls from her professional heyday in the early '90s through a drug-addled crackup and re-emerges as a sober cautionary tale. But it's not the predictable path that's compelling; it's Moss' tender and fierce performance.

6: The Lighthouse -- Robert Eggers' follow-up to 2015's The Witch is another expertly constructed synthetic folktale that cultivates a palpable atmosphere of dread.

7: Ford v Ferrari -- Rip-roaring movie fun from the underrated James (Stand By Me) Mangold. Tracy Letts' portrayal of Henry Ford II is a treat.

8: Pain and Glory -- Antonio Banderas and Penelope Cruz are superb in this minor key semi-autobiographical film from Pedro Almodovar.

9: Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound -- Midge Costin's documentary is purportedly the first documentary ever about Hollywood sound design. It's a deeply interesting film that's a must-see for anyone interested in the sound that accompanies the fury.

10: 1917 -- Sam Mendes' movie didn't impress me as much as it did some critics, but that might have been because I had such elevated expectations. But it's worth seeing for its technical achievements alone -- it's shot by legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins and is edited by Lee Smith (Dunkirk) to seem to be one continuous shot. It's either a major achievement or a gimmick film, but let's let it steep a while before deciding.

Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver play a creative couple in crisis in "Marriage Story."
Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver play a creative couple in crisis in "Marriage Story."

Great performances: Elisabeth Moss (Her Smell); Adam Sandler (Uncut Gems), Joaquin Phoenix (Joker), Antonio Banderas (Pain and Glory); Brad Pitt (Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood); Scarlett Johansson (Marriage Story); Adam Driver (Marriage Story, The Report); Florence Pugh (Midsommar, Little Women); Awkwafina (The Farewell); Julianne Moore (Gloria Bell); Taika Waititi (Jojo Rabbit); Joe Pesci (The Irishman); Laura Dern (Marriage Story); Margot Robbie (Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood); Mary Kay Place (Diane); Eddie Murphy (Dolemite Is My Name); Zhao Tao (Ash Is the Purest White).


1: Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound

2: Apollo 11 -- Never-before-seen behind-the-curtain archival footage of NASA's moon mission. A great, and somehow intimate, reminder of the way we were.

3: American Factory -- Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert talked themselves and their camera inside an Ohio-based auto glass factory owned by a Chinese billionaire just as the workers were laying the groundwork to form a union.

4: One Child Nation -- The programmatic horrors of China's now-defunct one-child policy are recounted, sometimes in chillingly deadpan fashion, by the people involved. Directors Nanfu Wang and Zhang Lynn grew up in rural China; their film recounts the disturbing propaganda used to sell the dubious idea and the sometimes draconian measures used to enforce it. The film received the Grand Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival.

5: Flannery -- The opening night film at this year's Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival not only recounts Flannery O'Connor's influential stories but investigates how her Catholicism and health problems informed her work.

6: David Crosby: Remember My Name -- Crosby presents as a prickly but determinedly intelligent and self-aware man whose motives have often been obscure to himself. He's also a surprisingly droll storyteller, candid, free of self-pity. I think I like him, but I wouldn't want to be in a band with him.

7: Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice -- Like a lot of enjoyable music documentaries, The Sound of My Voice isn't exactly hard-hitting, instead affirming the validity of decades-old crushes and the power of song. In this case, that's enough.

8: Amazing Grace -- One of the best concert films ever made. Put it on the shelf with Stop Making Sense, The Last Waltz and Prince's Sign O' The Times. It's a remarkable snapshot of Aretha Franklin on a couple of days in early 1972 when the Queen of Soul sang with collaborators the Southern California Community Choir led by Rev. James Cleveland in front of the congregation (and special guests that, on the second night, included Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts and Franklin's father, Baptist preacher C.L. Franklin) of New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Watts.

9: Hail Satan? -- Director Penny Lane's dry verite style exposes the Satanic Temple as a bunch of playful performance artists concerned with civic hygiene that only the literal-minded might find scary. Temple founder Lucien Greaves (not his real name) started the church as a means to promote values he cherished like egalitarianism, social justice, and the separation of church and state. The group is organized as a church for the purposes of tax exemption, an irony which shouldn't escape those who reflexively attack it. The Satanic Temple excels at a kind of political jujitsu, disingenuously taking advantage of the unintended consequences of mingling politics and religion.

10: Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese -- A great watch but, like most things that have to do with Dylan, not entirely reliable. This meta-fictional documentary features Jack Tanner, a fictional congressman first played by Michael Murphy in Robert Altman's HBO series Tanner '88, Sharon Stone pretending to have been a 19-year-old groupie who dropped out of school to follow Dylan, and a fictional movie director played by Stefan van Dorp who isn't a real person. A future Paramount Pictures CEO was not the tour promoter; Dylan's childhood friend Lou Kemp was.

I understand why Scorsese included these Easter eggs; they are a playful acknowledgment of Dylan's insistence on taking poetic license. He is after all just a song-and-dance orphan from Oklahoma. You guys can argue about whether it's a real documentary or not.

The Biggest Gap in My Education: I've yet to see Knives Out.

Nice enough movie I guess I didn't get: Booksmart.

Honorable mention: Burning Cane, Diane, Dolemite Is My Name, High Flying Bird, High Life, I Lost My Body, Joker, Jojo Rabbit, Les Miserables, Transit, Under the Silver Lake, Weathering With You.


Style on 12/29/2019

Print Headline: A strong finish


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