My Top Ten Movies of 2019

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10 – One Cut of the Dead

There is a twist midway through One Cut of the Dead that takes the film from pretty good to flat out wonderful. The twist not only reframes everything that comes before, it sets the stage for a completely different kind of movie – one filled with heart, humour, and irrepressible creative spirit. 

9 – Us

Jordan Peele’s previous film, Get Out, is the definitive American horror story, a terrifying tale that intricately weaves genre scares with razor sharp social commentary. His follow up, Us, attempts to do the same thing on a grander scale, and mostly succeeds. In widening its gaze, Us becomes a messier film than Get Out, and one that perhaps doesn’t entirely stick the landing, but it’s still a ridiculously good horror flick that stands out in a year filled with superb scary movies. 

8 – The Farewell

The core of The Farewell is a lie: a grandmother is dying and her family has agreed it’s best not to tell her about her illness. Billi, played by Awkwafina at her career best, is horrified by this plan and heads to Changchun, China to convince her family that what they are doing is wrong. Writer-director Lulu Wang takes what could have been a simple morality tale, and uses the trappings to take a deep dive into questions of family, culture, and the true nature of responsibility.

7 – Knives Out

Rian Johnson turns his introspective lense on the murder mystery genre, blending Agatha Christie and Alfred Hitchcock to create a tense, funny, and deliriously entertaining whodunnit. Like Us, and my number one movie of the year, Knives Out is very much a story about class. All but one of the suspects come from inherited wealth, and Johnson weaves this theme through every facet of the airtight plot. This movie proves fairly definitively that whether or not Rian Johnson ever revisits a galaxy far, far away, he’s going to continue making exciting, challenging, and wholly original art.

6 – Marriage Story

Divorce has never looked less fun than in Noah Baumbach’s honest, gut wrenching, and consistently funny Marriage Story. Adam Driver and Scarlett Johanson are phenomenal as a couple trying to finalize their breakup while continuing to raise a child together. Baumbach has always excelled at examining the little details that make up a personality, and the details here are unforgettable. Scarlett Johanson is constantly making tea she’ll never drink while Adam Driver obsesses over making the perfect Invisible Man Halloween costume. How these quirks inform their characters, and the long, painful story that unfolds will break your heart, stomp on it, carefully pick it back up, and try its hardest to mend it.

5 – Little Women

Greta Gerwig and Jordan Peele each released their debut film in 2017 – Peele with Get Out, and Gerwig with the Ladybird. Seeing where they each went in only two years time makes me impossibly excited for where they choose to go next. While Peele created a grander and even more grotesque hidden side of America, Gerwig chose to adapt a story that’s been adapted many times before. Her reasons for doing so, according to an interview cited below from The Atlantic*, was to give Amy March, one of the most hated characters in English literature, her long overdue fair treatment. She succeeds here as only Gerwig can, affording Amy the same compassion and honest examination she gave to Ladybird, and creating a rich, complex, and textured adaptation in the process. 

4 – Ad Astra

In James Gray’s monumental odyssey, the answers to life’s greatest questions lie four and a half billion kilometres away, orbiting the planet Neptune. At least that’s what Brad Pitt’s distant and haunted Clifford McBride believes, as he sets out on a journey to the heart of darkness, that can only end in death or a final confrontation with the man that made him. The film takes great inspiration from Apocalypse Now, but instead of exploring the horrors of war, Gray uses the quest to delve into what it means to be a man, and how the answer is most assuredly not what we’ve been told. Also there’s a car chase on the moon.

3 – Uncut Gems

If one is up for it, Uncut Gems provides an anxiety-enduring peek into the life of someone perpetually at his breaking point, who insists on pushing ever closer to terminal destruction. Through a pulsing score, frantic camera movements, and endlessly antagonistic characters the Safdie Brothers somehow succeed in maintaining an atmosphere of perpetual stress for the entirety of the film’s run time. Adam Sandler disappears into the role of Howard Ratner, a deeply layered degenerate gambler and a scumbag you can’t help but sympathize with. The countless bad decisions he makes over the course of three days are all understandable, given what the film tells us about the character. And it tells us a great deal without any fuss, speeches, or traditional storytelling devices, all while juggling a jaw dropping amount of plot threads and supporting characters. No blockbuster this year is able to replicate the pure adrenaline rush of Uncut Gems. This is 2019’s Fury Road

2 – Booksmart

Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut is a sublime comic odyssey. Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever are perfectly cast as two overachievers trying desperately to experience the carefree high school experience that exists only in fantasy. As they careen through the last night before graduation, searching for a sense of meaning, we gradually watch an entire world reveal itself to us. It’s a world where people are good, the future is bright, and all of life’s problems can be fixed, at least temporarily, with pancakes. There is no movie this year that filled me with as much joy as Booksmart. It’s pretty much the polar opposite of…

1 – Parasite

When I try to properly convey in a paragraph the power of Parasite I inevitably come up short. It’s impossible, at least for me, to describe how tragic and beautiful and simple and dense Bong Joon-ho’s greatest film is. It’s a work of singular vision, a capstone to a decade that’s illuminated the perils of our way of life more than any other. Instead of writing a thousand sentences about its brilliance, I will instead leave you with two quotes, and an urging to seek this film out and experience it for yourself.

“I can’t think of a film that made me sadder about the state of the world and more jubilant about the state of movies.” – A.O. Scott **

“When I made Parasite, it was like trying to witness our world through a microscope. The film talks about two opposing families, about the rich versus the poor, and that is a universal theme, because we all live in the same country now: that of capitalism.” – Bong Joon-ho ***

 

I Also Loved:

American Factory

Avengers: Endgame

Crawl

Hustlers 

I Lost My Body

The Irishman

The Last Black Man in San Francisco

The Lighthouse

Midsommar

The Souvenir

 

I Still Really Want to See:

1917

Apollo 11 

Atlantics 

Ash Is Purest White

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Her Smell 

High Life 

The Nightingale 

Pain & Glory 

Portrait of a Lady on Fire 

 

*https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2019/12/greta-gerwigs-little-women-finally-gives-amy-her-due/603886/

**https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/04/movies/best-films.html

***https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/bong-joon-ho-parasite-success-true-crime-steve-buscemi-1248655?utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter&utm_source=t.co&utm_medium=referral

My Top Ten Movies of 2018

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10 – Game Night

2018 was the best year in recent memory for comedies, and Game Night is probably the funniest of them all. It doesn’t contain the complexity of some of the other films on this list, but it’s well-written and acted, and surprisingly well crafted for a studio comedy. The camera often treats our players as pawns on a giant game board, and it’s consistently sidesplitting witnessing how the filmmakers move them around.

9 – Eighth Grade

In the tradition of John Hughes and Amy Heckerling, Bo Burnham has created a modern teenage classic that mines humour from brutal honesty. Themes that Burnham has woven into his works since the days of Vine – isolation, anxiety, and the facades we show to the outside world – are sharpened here to a mortifying degree. Painful, hilarious, and ultimately hopeful, this is a film every teenager should see.

8 – BlacKkKlansman

The lense of the past is used to magnify the ugliness of the present in Spike Lee’s masterful return to the mainstream. The film uses buddy-cop tropes as a mechanism to guide us deep into the heart of whiteness, personified by Topher Grace’s putridly affable David Duke, Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. John David Washington is perfectly cast as our hero, giving a performance that is effortlessly commanding and laugh-out-loud funny. As ever, Lee offers few easy answers, opting to simply show the world the way it is, and asking us what we’re going to do about it.

7 – The Death of Stalin

The absurdity of fascism provides laughs and revulsion in equal measure in Armando Iannucci’s brilliant follow-up to In the Loop. Like BlacKkKlansman the past and present are blended together to create a terrifying look at a world gone wrong. Most farces fall short when it comes to an ending, wrapping up all their loose ends in minutes and hoping we don’t think too hard about it all. Iannucci solves this problem by drastically changing the tone in the final act, draining the film, and us, of mirth, and demonstrating definitively that certain things can only be funny up to a point.

6 – Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

If there was ever any doubt that firing Phil Lord and Chris Miller from Solo was a terrible idea, their next outing (as producers, with Lord co-writing) should assuage it. Into the Spider-Verse is a technicolor marvel. This is superhero filmmaking at its best – vital, astounding, and inspiring. Unlike a certain other movie this year featuring a plethora of heroes in spandex, Spider-Verse never loses sight of its lead character, the lovable Miles Morales. At its heart a celebration of comic books, the film captures the joy of movement the way few comic book movies do. This is a joyous experience that I can’t wait to experience again.

5 – The Favourite

Once again history is used as a backdrop for brilliant satire, this time taking us to 18th century Britain. Here the upper classes race ducks, play with rabbits, and binge on cake, while the country around them rapidly goes bankrupt – sound familiar? The men in the film are secondary to the trifecta of Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz, and Olivia Coleman, who portray their unlikable characters with total sincerity and sympathy. Fisheye lenses are used to give the opulence of the Crown a vastness bordering on obscenity, and the editing is the source of some of the film’s biggest laughs. This is a much more accessible piece than Yorgos Lanthimos’s previous films, but no less nasty and nihilistic. It’s a singular vision of humanity at its worst, and one I will be revisiting again and again.

4 – Mission: Impossible – Fallout

2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road threw down the gauntlet, challenging action filmmakers to do better. Mission: Impossible – Fallout is as close as anyone’s yet come, delivering a delirious series of escalating set pieces, all culminating in a final sequence that can stand proudly with cinema’s greatest action scenes. Tom Cruise plays/is Ethan Hunt, a loner who insists on repeatedly risking his life, much to the horror and amazement of everyone around him. Whether he’s HALO jumping from 25,000 feet, snapping his ankle jumping from one building to another, or corkscrewing a helicopter through a goddamn canyon, it is unquestionably him doing it, which adds a level of excitement that would be impossible to achieve otherwise. Luckily all of this is shot with the same kind of propulsive clarity that powered Fury Road, putting us right in the middle of the action, without ever feeling disorienting.

3 – First Reformed

Paul Schrader’s dreamy and difficult examination of modern religion is a film as hard to pin down as it is to forget. Defying almost every rule of conventional storytelling, Schrader asks a great deal from the audience, and rewards them mightily for it. First Reformed is a challenging journey, anchored by Ethan Hawke’s astounding lead performance as a priest whose eyes are gradually opened to the horrors of climate change. Like last year’s mother!, First Reformed ask us if we use things like religion to give ourselves a pass on our role in the destruction of the natural world. “Will God forgive us for destroying his creation?” is the question at the heart of the film, and it’s one that has haunted this staunch atheist long after the credits rolled.

2 – Paddington 2

Back in February I said that Paddington 2 could very well be my favourite film of 2018. This was a great year for movies, and though it didn’t quite make number one, Paddington 2 still came pretty damn close. On every conceivable metric this is a perfect film, but its underlying message of human decency and acceptance is what’s kept it in my mind. We are approaching dangerous levels of cynicism, and movies like this are an essential reminder that a kind word, a selfless act, or a marmalade sandwich never made anything worse.

1 – Nanette

With the exception of two films, my top ten of 2018 are all comedies, or at least dramedies. What better way to top it off than with a movie (stand-up special? One-person show?) that questions the very nature of the form. As Nanette begins, Hannah Gadsby lulls us into a false sense of security before gradually deconstructing everything I thought I knew about stand-up, trauma, homophobia, gender, hero worship, and art itself. If you’re only going to watch one movie this year, Nanette should be it. This is a film for our time, a knife-blade in the ribs of the patriarchy, and a plea for compassion in a world that isn’t quite beyond saving.

 

I Also Loved:

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Blockers

Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again

Private Life

Psychokinesis

Ralph Breaks the Internet

Searching

Sorry to Bother You

You Were Never Really Here

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

 

I Still Really Want to See:

Anna and the Apocalypse

Burning

Free Solo

If Beale Street Could Talk

Leave No Trace

Minding the Gap

The Other Side of the Wind

The Rider

Roma

Shoplifters

Summer 2018 – In Review

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Summer is officially over. The leaves are crisping, the air has that unmistakable chill, and movie studios are releasing junk that would have been swallowed whole amidst the summer blockbusters, but would also crash and burn during awards season. So instead of watching The Nun or The Predator, let’s grab a pumpkin flavoured something and reminisce about the summer that was.

I won’t be covering any movies I’ve previously reviewed, though I’ll provide links to those at the bottom of this article. So, instead of Infinity War or that Han Solo movie you probably forgot existed before I reminded you of it just now, let’s start with the first of June and a little movie called:

Upgrade

The anti-blockbuster, this is the rare kind of movie that looks like it cost ten times what it actually did. It’s a stylish, mean, and unrelentingly brutal sci-fi actioner that recalls the works of Paul Verhoeven and John Carpenter. Set in the near future, Upgrade follows Grey Trace who, after his wife is murdered, ends up upgraded with an AI chip that enables him to unleash violent retribution on his wife’s killers. Is it possible that this conspiracy goes all the way to the top? While everything about it (Grey Trace – really?) sounds generic as hell, the movie rises above its pedantic underpinnings, and delivers continuously exciting and distinct action set-pieces, nice cinematography, and wry humour. At the very least, it’s a good way to tide one over until John Wick 3 comes out.

Ant-Man and the Wasp

While I’ve cooled on Infinity War since seeing it a second time (the part of my review where I call it a masterpiece will haunt me forever), I still think it’s an impressive feat, and the decision to end it on such a downer note is bold by blockbuster standards. Unfortunately, this downer note seems to have directly inspired Ant-Man and the Wasp to double down on Marvel’s usual MO, which is telling a story that continually reminds you there’s absolutely no reason for it to exist. The characters don’t change, nothing really happens, and the third act is a messy combination of low stakes, grimy CGI, and humour that aims for a chuckle and mostly misses. The more I see of the Marvel Universe the more each movie seems like a smaller and less significant piece in a puzzle I’m not sure I want to finish.

Sorry to Bother You

Here is a movie so chock full of ideas it’s in constant danger of imploding. The mere fact that it doesn’t would be impressive enough, but, like a juggler adding ball after ball, Boots Riley creates a whole that is substantially more than the some of its parts (even if a few balls get dropped along the way). At its core a satire about oppression and the tools we can use to fight it, Sorry to Bother You also takes the time to examine virtually every problem facing America today. While it stumbles in it’s overly simplistic depiction of television and social media, and probably could have stood a few more drafts of the screenplay, the majority of the film hits, and hits hard. The movie’s depiction of code-switching is particularly nuanced, and the truly bonkers finale succeeds in portraying the absurdity of capitalism, and its deadly serious repercussions. It’s also fiercely funny and features a dream team of diverse actors playing interesting characters. Watch it, and watch it again.

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again

I try to avoid phrases like “If you don’t like this movie you may be broken inside,” but if you don’t like this movie you may be broken inside. Taking a page from The Godfather: Part II (!), Here We Go Again is both prequel and sequel, detailing Donna’s time in Greece in the 70s, and modern-day Sophie’s struggles to continue the family legacy. Lily James plays young Donna and delivers probably my favourite performance of the year, sparkling with emotion, a zest for life, and a goodness so innate it makes me smile just thinking about it. Director Ol Parker injects a surprising amount of flair into the proceedings, and with clever digital effects creates the dreamlike sensation that both storylines are taking place concurrently. Largely ignoring the continuity of the first movie, this film exists as an entity all its own; a delightfully polished entertainment machine that all but dares you not to love it.

Mission: Impossible – Fallout

The very definition of a summer movie, the absolutely epic Fallout attempts to answer the question: can anything kill Tom Cruise? Whether he’s plummeting towards the ground in a helicopter he’s piloting, plummeting towards the ground during a HALO jump, or plummeting towards the ground while falling from a helicopter, Cruise seems only to have the audience’s interests at heart. Luckily, director Christopher McQuarrie knows how to shoot and edit action so Tom Cruise’s terrifying daring-do actually looks as impressive as it is. The movie’s labyrinthine plot is merely a vehicle to justify why Tom Cruise is doing things like roaring down a Paris street on a motorcycle with no helmet, or breaking his ankle jumping across London rooftops. It all culminates in a final half-hour filled with enough tension, spectacle, humour, character moments, and madcap action to fill an entire movie. Mission: Impossible is one of the best franchises currently going, and Fallout may be its finest entry.

Christopher Robin

I would have trouble coming up with a more misguided premise than that at the heart of Christopher Robin. Essentially a blend of Atonement and Hook, this movie is every bit as awful as that queasy concoction sounds. The film begins with a dreary summary of Christopher Robin’s post-Pooh life, including, but not limited to, losing his father, watching people die on the battlefield, and neglecting his family so he can work harder at a luggage factory. Needless to say, at this point most of the children in the audience had started loudly asking their parents if they could maybe go home and have an early bedtime. By the time Winnie the Pooh reenters Christopher’s life at approximately the 900 minute mark I was debating an early bedtime as well. Pooh is once again gamely portrayed by the legendary Jim Cummings but the small amounts of humour he injects into the movie only serve to highlight how miserable the majority of it is.

BlacKkKlansman

Spike Lee is one of my favourite filmmakers, though I still have some catching up to do on his filmography. Do the Right Thing is a strong contender for the best film ever made, and Malcolm X is a full-on masterpiece. BlacKkKlansman isn’t quite on that level, but I think it’s every bit as good as Inside Man or 25th Hour. It features a bit too much of Lee’s trademark excess, but for every flourish that took me out of the movie (a scene involving two characters discussing blaxploitation films is exceptionally jarring), there’s another that simply blew me away with its audacity. There’s a sequence where Lee takes a filmmaking technique pioneered by D.W. Griffith in the horrifically racist The Birth of a Nation, and uses it to highlight the difference between black and white radical organizations. New York Times, take note.

The film tells the sort-of-true story of black police officer Ron Stallworth who posed as a white man on the phone to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan. As a police procedural the film is solid, but as an examination of race in America it’s a knockout. Lee doesn’t shy away from police racism and brutality, and for every victory Stallworth and his team achieve, there is devastating defeat. The final minutes of BlacKkKlansman will probably stay with me for the rest of my life.

Stallworth is played by John David Washington and he makes for a terrific lead. He’s charismatic, vulnerable, and funny – expect an Oscar nomination. His partner is played by Adam Driver, one of the best actors working today, and he’s in full Driver mode here. His character poses as Stallworth when he has to meet the Klan face to face, and Driver does an incredible job acting like he’s acting. Laura Harrier plays the leader of Colorado College’s Black Student Union, and her and Stallworth strike up a relationship marred slightly by him lying to her about being a cop who tried to infiltrate her organization. Rounding out the cast is Topher Grace giving his best performance as friendly mega-racist David Duke, Grand Wizard of the KKK. Lee could not have picked a better actor to embody Duke’s putrid affability.

If you can’t tell from the amount of space I’ve devoted to it, BlacKkKlansman is my favourite film of the summer, and maybe the year. Highly, highly recommended.

Crazy Rich Asians

At its best, Crazy Rich Asians is a top notch romance. Constance Wu gives a star-making performance as Rachel Chu, a woman struggling with love, family, and identity, and when the film focuses on these aspects it’s wonderful. Unfortunately there are also a great deal of jokes that don’t land, disturbing amounts of wealth fetishization, and a disastrous subplot that serves only to set up an inevitable sequel. Michelle Yeoh plays a supremely worthy foe to Rachel in the form of her future mother-in-law, and can say as much with her eyes as most actors can with every tool at their disposal. Every scene with her and Rachel is impossible not to enjoy. The men in the film are largely forgettable, though Ken Jeong does get off a few good one-liners, Awkwafina leans into her usual shtick, and Jon M. Chu does a serviceable job directing, though he often seems more interested in filming the excesses of the rich than the rich themselves. Basically, it’s a rom-com – good stuff, bad stuff, occasionally troubling moral implications, all blended into a surprisingly enjoyable cocktail.

Searching

Our rapidly advancing technology has been a challenge for the thriller genre. Entire plots can now be solved with a phone call and tense scenes at libraries have been replaced by slightly less tense scenes of the protagonist bringing up Bing.com and carefully typing in the words “Northfield Killer.” Enter Searching, a thriller that not only embraces technology, but weaves it into every facet of it’s storytelling. The entirety of the film plays out on screens – laptops and phones primarily – and what could feel like a stunt in lesser hands never does here. Like all great “gimmick” films – Boyhood and The Blair Witch Project come to mind – the movie convinces us that there was simply no other way to tell this tale. John Cho gives a terrific performance as a father searching for his missing daughter in a maze of text messages, Facebook posts, and chat rooms. I don’t throw around the word “Hitchcockian” lightly, but this genuinely feels like the kind of experiment the Master of Suspense would rise to, and likely execute just as well.

And with that, the summer comes to a close. All in all, I’d say it was a pretty good one. Now excuse me while I go decide what horror movie to watch, because it’s officially scary movie season! 

PS: as promised, here are the links to the rest of my summer reviews:

Avengers: Infinity War

Solo: A Star Wars Story

Deadpool 2

Hereditary

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Incredibles 2

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

Eighth Grade

Teen Titans GO! To the Movies

Top Five Netflix Original Movies

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Netflix original TV shows are a fairly safe bet, as are their comedy specials (if you haven’t seen Nanette yet, stop reading this and go remedy that). Their original movies, on the other hand, tend to conjure vague recollections of Will Smith yelling at orcs and Adam Sandler being racist. Just in 2018 we had: The Cloverfield Paradox, notable for being released with no warning as a kind of surprise attack on unsuspecting viewers, Mute, a movie that imagines a future where nothing interesting ever happens, The Kissing Booth, a rom-com with neither rom nor com, and A Futile and Stupid Gesture, the rare film that is completely honest with the viewer up front.

It’s a minefield out there, so I’ve created this helpful guide to five movies that won’t make you want to cancel your subscription and bury your TV:

5 – To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before

The film that inspired me to write this article. After getting burned over and over again this year, I finally stumbled across something not just good, but great. Based on a novel by Jenny Han, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before takes tropes we’ve seen in romantic comedies, and injects them with a freshness and warmth that is sorely lacking in most. Every character is absurdly likeable, but Lana Condor steals the show as the protagonist Lara Jean. When her little sister (played by the almost-as-lovable Anna Cathcart) mails all the love letters Lara Jean never intended to send, she has to confront the feelings she’s cocooned in the safety of her imagination. The film is optimistic without being schmaltzy, funny without a hint of irony, and smart without taking itself too seriously. Han clearly remembers what it was like being a teenager, and writer Sofia Alvarez and director Susan Johnson have adapted her book into one of the most delightful teen movies I’ve seen in years. Be sure to watch through the credits!

4 – Gerald’s Game

I may be in the minority here but I find the supernatural to be the least interesting thing in Stephen King books. Give me The Body over It any day, because when King is at his best he’s letting his characters, rather than his monsters, do the work. There’s a hint of the paranormal in Gerald’s Game, but this adaptation expertly captures the essence of what has made King such an enduring literary voice: characters. There are only two here, and one is mostly in the head of another, but the film is never anything less than compulsively watchable. It’s got a plot as urban legend you can get – a handcuff sex game goes horribly wrong – yet King uses this framework to explore some of the most mature themes of his career. Carla Gugino turns in her best performance yet, as Jessie, a woman trapped both figuratively and literally by the men in her life. It’s a story about the longing for freedom, and the sacrifices that have to made to achieve it; and what sacrifices! There’s a shot late in the film that will stay with me for the rest of my life, and the way everyone involved with the film builds to it is something you simply have to see to believe.

3 – 13th

Ava DuVernay follows up her magnificent Selma with a documentary that exposes just how racially biased the United States prison system is. The title comes from the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution that states: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” The key words here are “except as punishment for a crime” and 13th makes a case impossible to ignore that slavery still exists in the USA. DuVernay is an immensely skilled filmmaker, and her ability to work in both narrative and documentary filmmaking with equal proficiency is staggering. 13th filled me with a kind of rage impossible to describe in words – a hopeless, hollow anger that can’t be forgotten, even two years removed from watching the film. This should be required viewing in every high school in North America.

2 – The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)

It’s hard to believe that the Sandler of Punch Drunk Love and Funny People is the same person who who played both Jack and Jill. Perhaps he’s an Andy Kaufman level genius who delights in torturing his audience, or maybe he just likes to go on vacations with his friends and get paid millions of dollars to do so. Either way, my familiarity with Bizzaro Sandler can only enhance my appreciation for the real deal, and in Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories, he’s as good as he’s ever been. Here he plays the son of a semi-successful sculptor, who moves back in with his dad after separating from his wife. What follows is a complex, hilarious, and frequently moving examination of how families grow apart, and, occasionally, come back together. Broken into a series of vignettes, the film’s literary sensibility evokes the artistic aspirations, and failures, of Sandler’s Danny and Dustin Hoffman’s Harold Meyerowitz. Frequent Baumbach collaborator Ben Stiller shows up as Danny’s wealth manager brother, and all three men’s cycle of failed relationships, blame, and resentment is approached with the kind of realism and comic observations that Baumbach can do better than almost anyone else.

1 – Okja

Every once and a while a director shows up whose understanding of film language is so complete that every frame of their films seems to be exactly as they want it to be. So it is with Bong Joon-ho, an artist of such perfectionism that each film he makes exists as a kind of self-contained work so airtight and precise they would be intimidating if they didn’t have such an enormous heart.

Okja is a modern day fable that casts Tilda Swinton as the wicked witch, Ahn Seo-hyun as the child, and an extraordinary CGI creation as her animal friend. Seo-hyun’s Mija embarks on an epic journey to save her super pig Okja from certain death at the hands of Swinton’s sickeningly sweet CEO Lucy Mirando. Okja is a film that forces viewers to confront their own relationship with the meat industry, yet it is so much more than just that. It’s a supremely confident work, by turns funny, heartbreaking, and inspiring, by one of our very best filmmakers. Featuring fascinating supporting roles from Paul Dano and Jake Gyllenhaal, Okja is movie making at its best – fluid, poetic, and achingly empathetic.

Honorable Mention – i don’t feel at home in this world anymore

I just had to include this one. Macon Blair’s debut film is a wonderfully original dark comedy about a woman who’s finally had been pushed too far. Melanie Lynskey delivers another powerhouse performance, and Elijah Wood has a ton of fun playing her more-than-slightly unhinged neighbour. I’ve been a fan of Lynskey since I first saw her in Peter Jackson’s masterful Heavenly Creatures; here she mixes that sullen anger with her usual compassion, resulting in a fascinatingly uncertain protagonist who I cheered for from start to finish. Blair clearly learned a lot working with Jeremy Saulnier on Blue Ruin and Green Room and this film is unafraid of depicting violence in all its ugliness. And like those movies, the reason the brutality hits so hard is because we love the characters so much.

So there you have it, five movies (and one bonus!) that will always be on Netflix, and are most definitely worth watching. I didn’t notice until just now, but only one of the above movies has a male lead, and all were advertised by Netflix just as heavily as The Ridiculous 6. For better and for worse, this company is willing to give a diverse group of filmmakers free reign to do whatever the hell they want. Sometimes you get Mute, and sometimes you get Okja. And for that reason, though it will surely mean watching some pretty rough stuff, I’ll keep hitting play on Netflix originals.

I should also point out that I haven’t yet seen Mudbound but I’ve heard from a great deal of people I trust that it’s the best thing Netflix has ever made. And, seriously, watch Nanette.

Eighth Grade Review

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As a horror fan, I’m always looking for that truly terrifying experience – sinking lower and lower into my seat, hands clutching the arm rests, whispering “make it stop” over and over again. No, I didn’t accidentally mistitle my review for The Nun – this is a review of Eighth Grade, the first feature from Bo Burnham, and the scariest movie of the year.

Eighth Grade follows protagonist Kayla’s final week of middle school, and it does so with such unflinching honesty that I had to watch entire scenes through my fingers. Take a sequence where Kayla is invited to a popular girl’s birthday party…by the popular girl’s mom, who really wants to hang out with Kayla’s dad. Kayla’s dad, Mark, can’t make it, but he encourages his introverted daughter to go and try to make some friends. The entire sequence plays out in excruciating detail, but the scene that made me debate leaving the theatre entirely was when it was time to open birthday presents. Watching the popular girl open perfect gift after perfect gift, and waiting for her to unwrap Kayla’s so closely mirrored experiences I’ve had that I wasn’t sure if I was watching a movie or just having a bad dream.

Bo Burnham is one of my favourite comedians. His special, what., is a brilliant piece of performance art that expertly weaves bizarre gags with achingly personal revelations. With Eighth Grade he leans much more heavily into the latter territory, to great effect. Burnham got his start as a YouTube sensation, so it’s no accident that Eighth Grade is one of the few movies out there that actually understands the internet. Kayla’s passion is making inspirational YouTube videos, which usually hover between zero and two views apiece. The film uses these videos as a way of tracking Kayla’s character arc, but instead of narrative shortcuts, these provide a fascinating look at the way Kayla desperately wishes herself to be seen and the nature of internet performance.

The film occasionally leans too heavily into jarring explosions of music, but that is the only complaint I could possibly level at Eighth Grade. Burnham’s script is airtight, with nary a wasted moment or false beat to be found. There is some comedy, but it is almost always used as much needed relief, and never feels out of step with the world that Burnham so meticulously creates.

None of this would work without Elsie Fisher, the actor playing Kayla. I haven’t seen her in anything else, which only serves to enhance the realism of her performance. She portrays Kayla with a fearlessness that is rarely seen on screen, especially in young actors. She dives so deeply into her character’s ticks and anxieties that I kept having to remind myself, “it’s just a movie.” I haven’t seen a better performance all year. Josh Hamilton more than holds his own as Mark, Kayla’s loving, painfully uncool Dad. The relationship between the two culminates in a scene so cathartic and true that the agonizing tension I’d been feeling for an hour and a half suddenly evaporated and I immediately burst into tears. It’s rare that a movie has the courage to put an audience through the ringer as much as Eighth Grade, but as that scene demonstrates the results can pay off in spades. It’s one of the very best movies of the year.

Teen Titans GO! To the Movies Review

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I am officially sick of superhero movies. A few weeks ago I watched Ant-Man and the Wasp with the kind of grim determination one usually reserves for assembling furniture. As I left the theatre every mild joke and barely coherent action scene vanished from my brain, as, truth be told, most superhero movies do.

Enter the Teen Titans. Specifically Teen Titans GO!, a deliciously bonkers TV cartoon that serves up demented superhero stories in jam-packed ten minute servings. This is one of those shows that feels like it was created with little to no adult supervision; for example there’s an episode solely devoted to Robin teaching the rest of the Teen Titans about building equity. Another sees Beast Boy, who can turn into any animal, turning into an adult man, and discovering the horrors of having a job.

The Teen Titans consist of Robin (who we all know), Cyborg (who anyone subjected to Justice League kind of knows), and Raven, Starfire, and Beast Boy (known only by those well versed in DC comics). They are the lowest of low-rent superteams, which stands as a direct refutation of Marvel’s everyone-is-awesome philosophy and DC’s everyone-is-sad mantra. The Teen Titans are usually more interested in dropping sick rhymes than fighting evil, and when they do go up against a big bad it’s often purely for personal gain.

As much as I love the Titans, I was a little skeptical that directors Peter Rida Michail and Aaron Horvath (who also co-wrote) could stretch ten minute shorts into a 90 minute feature. I needn’t have worried – this movie works like gangbusters from the opening shot to its end credits scene. It’s funnier and more inventive than Deadpool, more coherent than Infinity War, and, yes, darker than everything the DC Extended Universe has yet offered us. Seriously, there’s a sequence involving going back in time that is so deranged I genuinely have no idea how it ended up in a kids movie – it’s wonderful.

The plot in brief: The Teen Titans head to the theatre to watch the new Batman movie, Batman Again. The director (voiced by Kristen Bell) introduces the film as well as the hundreds of other superhero movies in the works. Every hero from Atom to Night Owl is getting a movie – everyone except for Robin that is. The team suggests that what they need to secure a feature film is an arch-nemesis, so that’s what they set out to find. From here, the movie bounces from one unhinged set piece to another – from parodies of the Lion King, to an 80s power ballad, to the aforementioned time travel on sweet timecycles powered by radness.

If you, like I, are getting a bit rundown on superheroes, Teen Titans GO! To the Movies is just what the doctor ordered. DC and Marvel are skewered with equal mercilessness, but what deals the biggest blow to each franchise is how little regard the Teen Titans have for traditional superhero movie plot structure. While Deadpool bafflingly insists on plodding through the expected beats, this movie effortlessly rockets along with Robin’s surprisingly engaging arc as the only real tether.

Sadly it looks like this movie has already left most theatres, but I recommend watching it on VOD as soon as humanly possible. If you’re only going to see one superhero movie this year, watch Black Panther. But if you’re going to see two…Teen Titans are the heroes you deserve.

 

Mission: Impossible Review

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Have you seen the Mission: Impossible – Fallout trailer? And watched that crazy featurette where Tom Cruise risks his life, over and over again, for our entertainment? If the answer is yes, you’re probably wondering, “Where can I get more high-octane Mission: Impossible action before Fallout hits theatres?” Well, did you know that there are FIVE other Mission: Impossible movies that you could watch right now?! Probably. But if you haven’t watched them in a while, they really are worth your time. The entire series is an absolute blast, and my favourite YouTuber, Patrick Willems, has a great rundown of how great they are:

Seriously, this franchise rules. But something that I hear more often than I’d expect is that “It only really gets good with the third one.” Now don’t get me wrong; I love M:I-3. But I think saying that that’s where the series gets good is ignoring one very important fact: the original Mission: Impossible is a fantastic movie. It’s a twisty, paranoid thriller directed with Brian De Palma’s trademark precision, and features one of the series’ most suspenseful setpieces. It’s not quite Rogue Nation good, but if pressed I’d probably have to say that it’s my second favourite of the franchise.

The movie begins with an elaborate sequence, showcasing the IMF team working together to complete one of their impossible missions. SPOILER ALERT – within about fifteen minutes the entire team is dead, save for Tom Cruise AKA Ethan Hunt. The scene works perfectly for two reasons: 1) as mentioned before, we get the pleasure of seeing a bunch of pros pull off a job in a really clever way. There are disguises, gadgets, and crazy 90s hacking devices, and De Palma is a master of showing us where everyone is in relation to everyone else. And then we get to 2) where everything goes to hell and everyone gets killed in fairly shocking ways (seriously, Emilio Estevez gets his face crushed by a freakin’ elevator). Suddenly everything goes from beautiful meticulousness to absolute chaos, and we see it all from the point of view of Cruise, who completely sells the horror of what he’s witnessing.

From here we get some really fun man-on-the-run stuff, before Ethan is able to scrape together a new team (it’s Ving Rhames and Leon the Professional!) and try to clear his name. We get the famous sequence where Cruise is lowered into a room, where literally anything will trigger an alarm – body heat, sound, and, of course, touching the floor. There’s an amazing reveal of who the bad guy is that almost has to be seen twice to fully comprehend. The finale takes place in, and on, a speeding train, and, though it isn’t the stunt show the series would evolve into, it’s still an absolutely incredible action scene. Danny Elfman’s score is wonderful – every subsequent film in the series would be indebted to it – and the editing by Paul Hirsch (of Star Wars fame) is top notch.

I would of course recommend watching all the Mission: Impossible movies before Fallout (well, maybe you could skip M:I-2) but if you don’t have the time for that, I would seriously consider giving this one a try, especially if you haven’t seen it. It’s a far cry from the smorgasbord of delights the series would become, but there’s a heck of a lot to love.

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom Review

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I’ve gone on record multiple times saying how much I dislike Jurassic World. It’s a mess of a movie (which isn’t unusual for a Jurassic Park sequel), but it’s also shockingly misogynistic and cruel, actively hates itself, and features the ugliest special effects of any Jurassic film. It’s just the worst.

Needless to say, I didn’t go into Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom with high expectations. New-to-the-franchise director J. A. Bayona was pretty much the only thing that got me to fork over 1,500 SCENE points and awkwardly place 3D glasses over my regular ones. Two hours later I was watching the credits roll with a big grin on my face, realizing that for the first time since The Lost World I’d enjoyed a Jurassic Park movie.

The sexism and mean-spiritedness are gone, and criticisms of corporate greed, which came off as pure self-loathing in Jurassic World, actually have some resonance here. This is the first film of the series to feature entirely villainous characters, and Toby Jones has a great time chewing the scenery as a Trump-like sleazeball who auctions off dinosaurs to cartoonishly evil billionaires. Chris Pratt is significantly less insufferable this time around, and Bryce Dallas Howard’s character, who was treated so horribly in the first one, is now every bit the hero that Pratt is. Zach and Gray, the truly awful kids from Jurassic World, are nowhere to be seen, and are replaced by Isabella Sermon giving a decent performance as a strange British child. Ted Levine gives a fun, Ted Levine-y performance, and Jeff Goldblum’s legendary Dr. Ian Malcolm has a line that made me quietly pump my fist and whisper “Yes.”

The special effects are a mostly excellent blend of practical and CG, and Bayona knows how to utilize them much better than Colin Trevorrow did in the previous film. He directs with the same stylish flair that elevated The Orphanage and A Monster Calls, and turns what could have been another creaky franchise entry into something more. The film’s biggest weakness is the script, which, unsurprisingly, was co-written by Colin Trevorrow. It actually works quite well from a plot perspective, but mostly fails when it comes to presenting main characters that are anything more than objects to get chased by dinosaurs. Luckily the dinosaur chasing is incredibly entertaining, and the film leaps from set piece to set piece with enough gusto that I was never all that put off by the lack of compelling protagonists.

The story this time around sees Howard’s Claire heading back to the island to rescue the dinosaurs before a newly re-active volcano wipes them out. She brings Owen along for this terrible idea because he loves a velociraptor on the island named Blue – a subplot that I think works a bit better this time around. They bring with them a tech wiz played by Justice Smith, and a dino-veterinarian played by Daniella Pineda, who has apparently never even seen a real dinosaur, let alone operated on one; as I said before, not a great script. Based on the rest of the series, I was expecting the entire movie to take place on Isla Nublar, but without spoiling too much, we don’t actually spend much time in a familiar setting. The entire second half of the film shifts gears fairly effortlessly into a Gothic horror inspired scare-fest that takes the franchise somewhere completely new, and then leaves it there, leaving me legitimately excited for the next entry.

Which I’m just learning is going to be directed by Trevorrow again.

Goddammit.

Anyways, Fallen Kingdom is a really entertaining summer blockbuster that demands little from the audience except a willingness to come along for the ride. Bayona’s horror background is very much on display, and this movie makes the dinosaurs scarier than they have been since Spielberg was directing. You won’t care much about the characters, but watching them escape increasingly dire situations, all staged with inventive and suspenseful camera work and editing, and set to a bombastic score by Michael Giacchino, is some of the most fun I’ve had with a blockbuster all year.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Review

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When I’m feeling down, there’s a video on YouTube that I like to watch. It’s Fred Rogers AKA Mr. Rogers speaking before the U.S Senate Subcommittee on Communication, asking them to reject Nixon’s proposal to slash funding for public television. Here, he explains exactly what he thinks his program offers:

“This is what I give. I give an expression of care every day to each child, to help him realize that he is unique. I end the program by saying, ‘You’ve made this day a special day, by just your being you. There’s no person in the whole world like you, and I like you, just the way you are.’”

Ok, you just have to watch the video; it’s so great. Here it is:

Now that we’ve all had a good cry, can we acknowledge that something pretty magical happened there? I can hardly think of a more perfect example of kindness winning out over cynicism than the chairman of the subcommittee, Senator John Pastore, granting PBS the $20 million they were asking for before presumably standing up, stepping into the afternoon sun, and dancing off down the street.

This scene is shown in the wonderful documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, but in the context of the film, and the year 2018, that feeling of pure happiness I get watching the clip on YouTube becomes mixed with a much more sobering sentiment: what did that $20 million really buy?

This isn’t to imply Mr. Rogers wasted the money – good lord, no. As the documentary shows, Fred Rogers was a legitimately amazing human being. He poured his soul into his art, and every episode of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood showcases the work of a kind, thoughtful, and heart-wrenchingly genuine man. My question is, “What did we do with the money?”, and when I see where we’re at right now, I’m worried the answer may be, “Not a whole lot.”

But let’s let that darkness be for a bit, and talk about what a terrific movie this is. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a relentlessly engaging portrait of a man’s life, one that is unafraid to show us Mr. Rogers at his most vulnerable, his most doubtful, and his most misguided. Rogers’ unwillingness to let François Clemmons, who played Officer Clemmons on the show, come out as gay, reminds us that even the best of us can be completely wrong sometimes. As Clemmons reveals in interviews, Rogers was personally accepting of his sexuality, and his willingness to put a black man on television in the 60s, and have him play a police officer no less, displayed a lot of courage. Regardless, the fact that the documentary addresses and gives adequate time to this less-than-flattering detail about Mr. Rogers’ life is to be commended.

There are moments in the film that are laugh-out-loud hilarious. There’s a brilliant montage of clips showing how willing Mr. Rogers was to embrace slowness on TV – watching a timer count down a full minute, feeding fish, and of course, changing both his sweater and his shoes in every single episode. There are also some great anecdotes about the behind-the-scenes shenanigans that went on, and a delightful clip of Eddie Murphy’s Mr. Rogers send-up, Mr. Robinson.

And of course, the film has its share of moments that are purely heartwarming. Mr. Rogers talking with Jeff Erlanger, about his life and why he uses a wheelchair, and then singing It’s You I Like with him may be the most I’ve ever cried in a theatre. Erlanger would go on to become an advocate and activist for disability rights, and he presented when Mr. Rogers was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame. That’s another video you have to watch:

Fred Rogers believed that everyone deserved to be treated with love and respect. Everyone. I’ve heard a lot of people say things like “We didn’t deserve him,” but that’s exactly the kind of thinking that Mr. Rogers spent his entire life peacefully opposing. To go back to what I was saying earlier, this movie really does make you wonder if Mr. Rogers’ philosophy worked. He would often try to explain the terrible things that go on in the world, in ways children could understand, but towards the end of his life, when he was asked to return to television to address the nation after 9/11, even he was having his doubts. No matter what he did, or how much kindness he broadcast to the world, terrible things keep happening.

When I go online, something I’ve been trying to avoid as much as possible lately, I see so much anger from every possible side that I genuinely wonder if there’s any coming back from this. Mr. Rogers spent his life trying to be kind, trying to spread kindness as far as he possibly could…and now he’s gone. And when the documentary shows footage of people protesting his funeral, forcing their kids to hold up signs saying “God Hates Mr. Rogers” because of how accepting he was, something in me broke a little bit. Our anger at the world doesn’t end with everything magically being fixed – it ends with everything inevitably being broken.

But then the documentary does something amazing. It pulls back, and spends a full minute (Mr. Rogers loved his full minutes) watching every person who was interviewed think about someone who helped them become who they are today, something Mr. Rogers would often encourage people to do. This minute also lets the audience think about those people who inspired us, who showed us love, and took care of us even when we thought we didn’t need it. It’s not a showy moment, but it’s one of the most powerful examples of healing I’ve ever seen on screen. Because we weren’t thinking of people at their worst; we were thinking of them at their absolute best. We were thinking of them at their Mr. Rogers. I’ve heard a million arguments as to why treating people with pure love won’t solve anything, but I just don’t buy it – and this movie doesn’t either. This is a movie that leaves you drained in the best possible way, that shows the world in all it’s beauty and ugliness, and then begs you to not give up on it. We deserved Mr. Rogers – we deserve Mr. Rogers.

Incredibles 2 Review

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Let me preface this review by saying that it’s worth seeing Incredibles 2 just for Bao, the short film which precedes it. Bao is written and directed by Domee Shi, and tells the story of a woman who makes a bao bun that comes to life. I will tell you nothing more about it, except that its Pixar’s best short since Geri’s Game.

Incredibles 2, unfortunately, isn’t of the same caliber. The movie opens with an introduction from director Brad Bird and members of the cast assuring us that while the film may have taken a while -14 years – the results will be well worth it. I have no idea why they needed to include this, when literally every other film is content to just let us watch and decide if it was worth it or not. My dismay with this weird peek behind the curtain didn’t dissipate as the movie opens in earnest. Rick Dicker, the government agent who takes care of the Parr family, is erasing the memory of a boy, Tony, who saw Violet without her mask on. It’s a stilted, strange scene that only serves to set up a tiny side plot – not a great way to start your movie.

Finally, after five minutes of false starts, the film actually begins. We get to see the entire Parr family working together to stop the threat that arose at the end of The Incredibles – the Underminer! He’s a fun, goofy villain, and the chase that his plan to rob a bank leads to is masterfully executed. It made me wish that Marvel could conjure this much excitement with their superpowered action scenes. The sequence perfectly encapsulates the promise of the premise teased at the end of The Incredibles. Sadly, the movie has no idea what to do with the whole family as a superhero team, so it simply does what the first movie did: make superheroes illegal again.

It’s an incredibly frustrating reset, and one that only intensifies as Helen Parr gets hired to be Elastigirl by a rich benefactor, which just so happens to be exactly what happened to Bob Parr AKA Mr. Incredible in The Incredibles. This leaves Bob at home with the kids, playing out an episode straight out of a 90s sitcom where *gasp* a father has to take care of three kids alone. Both of these tired plot developments actually lead to some fun scenes – a great motorcycle chase and Jack-Jack vs a racoon come to mind – but there’s such a sense of sameness and lack of direction to the proceedings that it’s hard to get invested in anything that’s going on. Then there’s a small storyline involving Violet and the aforementioned Tony that never really goes anywhere, and a twist that will be painfully obvious to anyone who’s seen The Incredibles, or, you know, a movie. Characters also get possessed a lot, which is a trope that needs to end, unless your movie begins with the words The Exorcist. There is nothing interesting about watching a character do things they have no control over…nothing.

Then there are the politics. I hadn’t really thought about it much, but Brad Bird is pretty into objectivism. Every one of his movies, to some degree, is about being special. My favourites, Ratatouille, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, and The Iron Giant, deal with the public’s tendency to view the other as scary and something to be destroyed. Both these films, however, ultimately come down on the side of the everyman. The same cannot be said for Tomorrowland and The Incredibles, both of which display significantly more Ayn Randian views towards being special. These films, and Incredibles 2, have moments of unbridled contempt for the everyman, who is cursed to live out their days in mediocrity, attempting to drag those that are special down with them. Both Incredibles movies feature villains whose goal is to eradicate the world of superheroes simply because of the threat they pose to humanity’s independance – not the typical goals of supervillains. Of course, in the end, both films return to the status quo, with superheroes comfortably returned to their rightful place of physical and moral superiority.

Incredibles 2 is a movie that gets worse the more I think about it. I was reasonably entertained while in the theatre, but writing this review brought on more vitriol than I thought it would. There’s fun to be had, but on the whole Incredibles 2 is a less focused, and less fun, retread of The Incredibles, and one that continues to espouse that movie’s troubling philosophy. Bao though…Bao.