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.
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 Haiyan (Tzi Ma) to Hao Hao (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.
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.
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. And 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.