Movies

My Favorite Films of 2019

*Spoilers abound*

10. Judy

Reneé Zellweger’s performance was all it was hyped to be. She adds a new dimension to a star that is sadly fading from the pop culture canon. Zellweger captures tragically the agony of Judy Garland’s last stages in her career. Her eyes convey someone broken, and fully aware she cannot be fixed. Zellweger endears us to Garland with the devotion she has for both her children and her fans. The climatic scene of her pouring her last drops of energy into a final rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” a last shared moment between her and the fans that gave her meteoric rise and devastating fall purpose, was one of the most heartbreaking scenes in film this year. Zellweger fully deserves the Oscar that is hopefully heading her way.

9. They Shall Not Grow Old

I don’t think there was a grander feat attempted in film this year than Peter Jackson’s efforts with this World War I documentary. First off, Jackson and his crew sifted through 600 hours of interviews from soldiers collected by the BBC and International War Museum. Jackson then took the distorted footage that remains from almost a century ago, colorized it, used modern production to create more animation, then added sound effects that resulted in one of the most authentic war documentaries to date.

8. Midsommar

The boldest and most imaginative horror film premise on record. The newly crowned king of horror, Ari Aster, takes never ending daylight and transforms it to sinister effect. Florence Pugh kicked off her moment in the spotlight with a good breakout performance as the grief stricken Dani. Unfortunately, Aster wasn’t able to get the most out of his characters like he did in his debut Hereditary. The gang of caricatures in Midsommar don’t produce the same complexity as Toni Collette’s internal fight between grief, anger, and motherhood. Aster should be praised for this brave attempt to revolutionize the horror genre, but I just wish the execution could’ve been better.

7. The Farewell

There is not a single character in Lulu Wang’s family memoir that I do not love. Zhao Shuzhen’s performance as Nai Nai, the family matriarch who is diagnosed with cancer but unaware of her diagnosis because of the family’s cultural practices, is brilliant and if there is any justice in the world should sweep up any best supporting actresses awards (she’s nominated for a Independent Spirit Award in that category). She’s sweet and witty, but also the epitome of toughness that main character Billi (played by Awkwafina) needs in her navigation of the quickly approaching adult world. The other family members deserve their praise as well, from the stoic but secretly hurting son Tzi Ma (played by Haiyan Wang) to Hao Hao (played Chen Han), the grandson and groom lost inside his own culture. The camera swivels rapidly as the family downs shots at Hao Hao’s wedding, each character completely unique from the next but a perfect fit together.

6. The Lighthouse

I’m a sucker for a film heavily packed with allegory and symbolism, and Robert Eggers makes sure to shove as much of those aspects into his sea-epic. Willem Dafoe plays a lighthouse manager, who doubles as a shepherd-like figure for the vengeful god of the sea Neptune. Robert Pattinson is quite literally a lost soul at sea, looking for four weeks of work, but more importantly for salvation from past transgressions. A nasty storm hits that tests Pattinson’s desire for penance, and puts him on the tipping point between heaven and hell. It’s a film that opens itself to multiple interpretations, but regardless of your takeaways the last 30 minutes will leave your jaw dropped.

5. Knives Out

A fun and light murder mystery that also is a politically astute commentary on American politics is a hard thing to pull off, but Rian Johnson nails it. The descendants of Harlan Thrombey’s (Christopher Plummer) self made wealth are a murderers row of everything wrong with our current political landscape: the rise of the alt-right youth, trust fund babies, and lifestyle gurus. Daniel Craig relished the opportunity to get his Atticus Finch on, and delivers a great performance as the righteous Southern investigator. The true star of the show is Marta (Ana de Armas), Thrombery’s nurse living with her undocumented mother, who against her will finds herself up against these scourges of America. Johnson gives his main character a happy ending, and instills in the audience the fantasy of justice that allowed us to escape the unfortunate reality of our current American society.

4. Uncut Gems

This film never gives you a moment’s peace. Adam Sandler never stops screaming as a jewelry salesman and overall asshole Howard Ratner. The noise continues to build as Ratner weaves his bullshit across New York. You’re anxious, you’re irritated, but also somehow rooting for Ratner. The Safdie Brothers did what they set out to do, drain you of all your emotion and leave you dumbfounded. You might leave the theatre not sure what the hell just happened, but you’ll have definitely felt the entire 2 hours right in your pulse.

3. Waves

A true coming-of-age drama that leaves all the sappiness at the door. Tyler Williams (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) faces the real challenges of American youth that can’t be overcome with light-hearted romps. He’s weighed down by the expectations not only of family, but of the pre-defined notions of masculinity and our ill-fated attempts at perfection. He faces the reality of human limitations without the copings mechanics to come to terms with his humanity. Mix in the opioid epidemic and you have a powder-keg of youthful frustration that has no healthy chance to escape. We are hit with a harrowing end to act one, but are thankfully given an optimistic second act that gives a tad of reassurance. Themes of love, honesty, and acceptance through the lens of Emily, Tyler’s sister (Taylor Russell), and her positive relationships with her father (Sterling K. Brown) and boyfriend (Lucas Hedges) provides the next generation a blueprint to climb out of that dark hole that often faces us.

2. Parasite

A suspense film masterpiece. Director Bong Joon-ho moves gracefully from comedy to tension, tragedy to vengeance, in his metaphor of class struggle between the working class Kim family and ruling class Park family. The images within the film of that struggle are poignant. The Kims find themselves stuck in the Park family’s house, trapped underneath their luxurious living room table, as the Park couple find sexual gratification in their employee’s poverty. Never will you want to eat the rich more. It’s probably the most complete film of the year, and should clean up come award season.

1. The Last Black Man in San Francisco

I didn’t identify with a character more this year than Jimmie Fails’ fictionalized version of himself in Joe Talbot’s commentary on gentrification and cultural displacement. Jimmie Fails is struggling to find his place in the city he loves. He holds his hope in his childhood home that his family was priced out of. Jimmie maintains the home that he no longer possesses, continuing to paint and garden so the cracks don’t start to show. As the film moves forward, the cracks inevitably do show. The idealized version of his childhood starts to show its true face. Jimmie has built a new family network involving his best friend Montgomery (Johnathan Majors) and Mont’s father (Danny Glover), insulating him from the dissolution of his relationship with his own father. The scene that will stick with me the most from this year sees Jimmie on the bus, eavesdropping on two transplants bad mouthing San Francisco. Jimmie sharply interjects:

“You don’t get to hate it unless you love it.”

It spoke so much to my feelings with Pittsburgh. I hate the problems this city faces, and look nowhere near close to changing. Racism is prevalent throughout the city, its cultural charm disappearing institution by institution. As yes there are some elements I can never understand when it comes to the systemic racism of inequitable development, but Jimmie Fails and his search for his small pocket exclusively his own in the city he loves represents all us city dwellers that are worrisome about where they belong in the future of the city we love wholeheartedly.

Standard
Movies, Uncategorized

Yet Another Star Wars Review

*This article contains huge spoilers, so if you somehow stumble on this without having seen The Rise of Skywalker, it would probably be in your best interest to steer clear.* 

Star Wars opinions: it seems like everyone has one on the Internet these days. Disney sucks. Rian’s fault. JJ’s fault. The inundation of reviews has made it almost impossible to determine whether I even think the trilogy are good movies. It’s all swirling around up there, ready to be synthesized. There is only one possible solution to it all… one more hot take to throw into the fire. Head deeper into the Disney content vortex, in hopes I can sail the ship out the other side with some conclusion.

The only way this can be achievable is if I scale things back and determine what actually matters in a Star Wars film. The biggest problem I’ve had in analyzing these films is that the passion I have for the franchise consumes me (much like the passion Anakin had for Padme consumed him… see, here I go). Once the characters were established for this trilogy, I started to build the vision in my head. Then the plot starts to steer off the course I plotted, and I got upset the Star Wars world I built wasn’t realized.

Thinking about what could have been will get me nowhere. Instead, I need to look back at what started this passion and understand what made those first three movies great to a young nerd. I boiled down the original trilogy to three core elements that carried them into the pop culture pantheon: character development, world building, and story. When scrutinizing the new trilogy on these terms, I think I finally might find clarity.

Character Development

Ah, what a motley crew that greets us in the beginning stages of A New Hope. We immediately receive the groundwork for an epic space opera that’s on a direct beeline for immortality. Darth Vader epitomizes villainy perfectly. Luke is a boy about to embark on the journey of a lifetime, certainly an idea that a young imaginative mind can embrace. Then surround that main character (aka yourself) with the coolest best friends ever. It’s hard not to immediately get lost in that world.

Going forward, they search for love, friendship, and salvation in one another. All of these are achieved for the most part in a group dynamic. That togetherness provokes a familial element that reaches into our inner desires. Watching the bonds of family and friends conquer intergalactic adversity gives us hope that our personal networks we build can achieve the same.

Here we find my first flaw in the trilogy, and the blame for this one lies mostly with The Last Jedi, the film that produced the most inner strife for myself. The Force Awakens regenerates new great characters in Rey, Finn, and Poe, and the film ends placing them all in interesting attack positions on the chessboard. The Last Jedi takes those pieces and with a giant swipe sends them to the dark corners of the galaxy.

These three characters share almost zero screen time in the film until the final moments. Poe and Rey actually meet for the first time at the end of The Last Jedi. Finn spends the movie on a do-nothing mission with a pawn on the character chessboard. Two and half hours dribble by, and the opportunity to build that group rapport is squandered.

Writer and director Rian Johnson took a similar risk that The Empire Strikes Back managed to pull off. By isolating the major players, the characters embark on inner discovery that shapes them for the rest of the series. However, Johnson failed to recognize his positioning within the entire Star War series. Seven films came before him and a whole universe has already been established by the introduction of his chapter in the saga. More works needs done to chip away at the old guard of the first six films and create a new group dynamic that the audience wants to invest in.

J.J. Abrams, the creative point for the new trilogy, tried to right this mistake in his direction of The Rise of Skywalker. While Abrams has taken flak for contradicting The Last Jedi and making Johnson’s contributions to the saga obsolete, the decision to have Rey, Finn, and Poe share the screen for a huge chunk of the film was a needed fix. Watching the new crew sleuth around the Star Destroyer harked back to the adventurous and amusing nature that made you want to root for the OGs.

The chemistry was simmering between the three, but because of the separation caused by The Last Jedi it never reached a full boil. There just wasn’t enough experience shared between them to fully commit to them being lovable successors to their Resistance elders. Part of that is due to the group never encountering meaningful conflict (more on that when I get to the story discussion). Watching the characters work together to overcome their misfortune is what truly bounds the audience to them. As we enter into the final chapter without that redemption arc in place, the trilogy feels more like a cute Meetup session between a pilot, fighter, and Jedi than a family’s journey reaching its satisfying end.

World Building

Tauntauns, AT-ATs, Cloud City… the original trilogy brought us new concepts that revolutionized science fiction cinema. You fell head first into a universe that captured imagination, but left room for you to build more in your head. For the most part, the new trilogy succeeds at this as well.

Here is where Johnson deserves praise for his bold attempt at branching away from the already established and much loved Star Wars universe, and chartering off into his own territory. The planets he creates are unlike others from the series, but my favorite thing about them is they are functional in understanding how the universe operates. This is one of the complaints I have about the world building additions made in the prequel trilogy. The planets created serve no purpose other than for Lucasfilm to flex their CGI capabilities.

Canto Bight is the best example of using a planet to glimpse into the culture and problems that arise from intergalactic governance. Within the Canto Bight scenes, we see capitalist greed, police over-surveillance, and a fight for animal (species, creature?) rights. These are issues we never contemplated occurring within space, but make incredible sense considering the always present themes of imperialism and rebellion within the entire saga. We also receive snippets of religion (the nuns of Ahch-To) and industry (the mineral mines of Crait), all elements that take a universe and mold it into a society.

Sadly, Abrams seemed unwilling to venture into the darkness of the Star Wars universe and discover his own worlds like Johnson did. He retreated into the comforts of the already existing. The climatic scenes of The Rise of Skywalker involved X-wings, Star Destroyers, and the Millennium Falcon. It all felt repetitive and stale. While perhaps there was a vocal group of Star Wars fans that wanted to stay in their nostalgic bubble, I wanted a new adventure that sparked the joy that started this obsession. While there were many flaws to Johnson’s film, at least his universe made us curious about what else laid inside it.

Story

What film can succeed without a coherent story? The original trilogy’s storyline was simple, easy to identify with, and captivating above all. This new trilogy is none of those three.

It could’ve been. The Force Awakens ends with character arcs that should guide them through the rest of the series. Kylo Ren dealing with his inner conflict between light and darkness. Rey set to embark on her difficult journey of self-realization. Johnson’s duty with The Last Jedi is to take these character arcs and develop deep conflict by the end of the film that the characters must resolve in the final chapter. It’s what makes The Empire Strikes Back the greatest film in the franchise. The characters encounter their limitations and face the dire consequences because of it. You worry not only about how they will come on top, but how they will grow as characters. It’s the perfect bridge between beginning and end. Perhaps Johnson tried doing this, but I feel he failed miserably. The characters are in no greater danger than how they began The Last Jedi. Even worse, our main character Rey has no personal crisis that will propel her forward to her coronation as trilogy hero.

The lack of a cohesion between the visions of Johnson and Abrams derails the story completely off the tracks. Abrams gives every impression in his script for The Rise of Skywalker of feeling pressured to correct Johnson’s mistake, scrambling towards some sort of conflict that can carry his film. Once again, he rests on the ideas of George Lucas with a half ass attempt to write Emperor Palpatine back into the universe. Then gives Rey her personal crossroads by an even lamer decision to bind her and Palpatine by blood. It’s lazy writing that lacks a single drop of creativity. When we reach our ending, I hardly cared. The story had been twisted and mangled to the point where the crux of any good action film, your beloved characters overcoming their struggles and affirming our utopian dream of good always defeating evil, was incapable of any satisfaction.

If you leave the theatre after the last film of your favorite film series devoid of any satisfaction, I guess you have no other choice to label the new trilogy not good. After looking past the gut reactions and embroiled debate between friends, I think I now understand why. It comes down to the lack of a unified vision with how this trilogy was to unfold. There were moments in the three films that had the three great elements of a Star Wars film, but never were they working in sync. Abrams built the bare bones for a good story and Johnson buried those bones so Abrams could never find them again. Johnson built a new captivating universe and Abrams blew it up with a Star Destroyer. In the end, I will view this new trilogy as a story of unrealized potential and an inability to work together. And when you consider that Star Wars is a series dedicated to fulfilling your destiny and the power of fellowship, a trilogy that is drastically missing these elements can only be seen as a dishonor to those original films I hold so dear to my heart. 

Standard