Top Films in 2019

I like to say that film appreciation is akin to wine appreciation. I can’t tell YOU what your favorite wine will be as it’s a matter of so much more than just palate. You judge things by bringing your experiences, your emotions, your predilection for what’s new as opposed to tried and true.

My favorite films are the ones released this year that I managed to see, either at theaters or festivals. That leaves out many smaller films that are getting a 2020 release and many films that I didn’t find warranted a long drive. Living in the mountains limits what films I can get to…especially since we no longer have a movie theater in Telluride, Colorado while it’s under construction. I also don’t consider terror or violence to be entertainment. So if you’re looking for accolades for war movies, mobster films or Horror…look elsewhere. Yes, I know US was amazing. I’m sure 1917 and Midsommar were too, but I won’t be seeing them or making time to watch The Irishman. You all enjoy.

The Film that made me Swoon

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (PORTRAIT DE LA JEUNE FILLE EN FEU)
Director: Céline Sciamma, limited release Dec 6, US release Feb 14th (how perfect!)

At once moving and mysterious, Portrait of a Lady on Fire has a wonderful soundtrack, gorgeous cinematography and an unusual love story. An 18th century French portrait painter must paint a young woman’s image without her knowledge. When romance blossoms, she must use her talent knowing she will lose her lover to another. A sublime romance; French writer/director Céline Sciamma won the Best Screenplay award at Cannes. This is a gorgeous romantic film and the chanting of the women gathered around the fire will linger in your mind. This is one film to seek out.

The Funny Sad Film that will make you hug your Grandma

The Farewell, Director: Lulu Wang, now re-released in certain cities to take advantage of award season

Director and Writer, Lulu Wang won accolades for her touching, personal film. The Farewell won Audience Favorite at last year’s Sundance Film Festival. The emotional story follows a Chinese American family traveling from America for a fake wedding. The immediate family have decided to hide the truth about their matriarch’s diagnosis and the wedding is an excuse for everyone to say goodbye. Awkwafina is perfectly cast as the American daughter straddling two cultures; her character is a fictionalized Wang. The Farewell is based on a true story about Wang’s family which the director first shared as a story in a 2016 episode of This American Life. It was released early in 2019 and now re-released and I’m glad that some audiences will get to discover this gem of a film.

The Stand Out Rock Film of the Year

Rocketman, Director: Dexter Fletcher

Yesterday, Blinded By the Light and many great rock documentaries and movies about music were made this year. What sets Rocketman apart is the amazing performances and costumes that make you want to dig out your platform shoes and join the fun. Both the young boy, Matthew Illesley and Taron Egerton are outstanding. One weak supporting role is Bryce Dallas Howard. Undone by her reputation as a sweet person, she comes off as a caricature and isn’t helped by poor old-age makeup. There are some dark moments in this Elton John biopic and there’s no sugar-coating depression and suicide. Having the story unfold thru flashbacks from a counseling session at an addition facility is brilliant. It’s nice to see a tale of triumph as opposed to a rock star biography that ends in death. Taron Egerton does all his own singing and Elton John has applauded his performance. I hope Egerton gets an Oscar nomination.

The Quietly Profound Film

Queen & Slim, Director: Melina Matsoukas, in theaters now

An amazing directorial debut from Grammy award winner, Melina Matsoukas. Her skill directing music videos like Beyonce’s Formation, was likely good training for this powerful film of a couple on the run. Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out) and Jodie Turner-Smith navigate an awkward first date that ends tragically and forces them to flee the country. Days spent on the lam create an intimacy to their relationship, and Matsoukas use of voice-over to share their thoughts reveals another level of nuance. This is not a violent film (save for the key scene and ending) and as the couple travels across the country, they encounter a need for urban heroes and a reckoning of the awful toll of American racism. This is a drama that feels like a documentary. This is an important film.

The Film I’m seeing more than once

Little Women, Director: Greta Gerwig, in theaters now

There have been many versions–both stage and screen adaptations–of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved novel. This is the definitive version. A perfect melding of superb cast, a screenplay that does justice to Alcott’s intention (she never wanted her lead, Jo March to marry) and intimate cinematography that brings the audience right into the family fray. A period drama both funny and touching, that allows each of the March girls a voice. Little Women is charming, beautifully realized and a feminist retelling.

The Most Fun Film

Captain Marvel, Directors: Anna BodenRyan Fleck

Not all film-going experiences have to be about changing the world. Sometimes you just want to go cheer on a hero! I like my heroes to be women in women-directed films if I have a choice and thankfully, this year we had Captain Marvel. I enjoyed Brie Larson‘s performance and the otherworldly nature of the story. Her chemistry with Samuel Jackson was hilarious and it was a fun ride.

The Charming Animated Film we didn’t know we needed

Klaus, Director: Sergio Pablos, on Netflix

An Animated Christmas film that has a refreshing sensibility, Klaus is a retelling of the Santa legend. This time we’re on an island where a postman must prove his worth amid warring clans. The Klaus of this tale is a woodsman in a beautiful snowy retreat. The animation is gorgeous, the dialogue equal measures witty and snarky and the resolution is delightful. A new classic for families to share.

The Most Audacious Film

JoJo Rabbit, Director: Taika Waititi, still playing in some theaters

Who makes a dramedy about a little boy who’s imaginary friend is Hitler? Who can walk that fine line between slapstick and pathos? Taika Waititi created this film of wild emotional swings and exuberant performances. The children are amazing actors and Sam Rockwell seems dropped in from a Wes Anderson film but also perfectly cast. This film is astonishing.

The Film I thought would bore me but was intriguing

The Two Popes, Director: Fernando Meirelles, Netflix

The performances by Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce are mesmerizing but it’s the fascinating look at the politics and intrigue of the Vatican that make this film thought-provoking. I expected pomp and politics, instead it’s a warm humane look at two public figures and their unexpected friendship.

Two Films that I’d have liked much more without their last 15 minutes

Parasite, Director: Bong Joon-ho — Brilliant film with crazy twists but the violence left me reeling.

Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, Director: Quentin Tarantino — Awash in nostalgia (and close-ups of feet), I loved the central performances by Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio. If I’d left the film 15 minutes before credit roll…

And Now For Something Completely…similar to the previous remake…

Did we need a remake of Aladdin?

I get it. You have little ones at home. Summer Camp is out. You’ve made so many trips to the ice cream place that you’re hoping you don’t have to put on a swimsuit again till next year. There are many families that will look forward to going to see the NEW Aladdin; a family film that can be enjoyed together. This might replace the worn out DVD at home and give someone in the family ideas for a Halloween costume. Dad and Mom might appreciate that the casting is more ethnically-appropriate and the animation is lovely. Everyone can enjoy the songs that are now so well-known. Directed by Guy Ritchie, I expected a more updated version of this tale from 1001 Arabian Nights. The story sticks pretty close to the 1992 version featuring Robin William’s Genie. Will Smith is a good replacement, there’s a Bollywood number and beautiful sets and Aladdin is a good end of summer film to enjoy.

If however, you’re itchin’ for Fall Films and something that’s a little more challenging or unique than this summer’s spat of sequels, superhero films and remakes…there’s hope for you. Director and Writer, Lulu Wang has already been winning accolades for her touching, personal film. The Farewell was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and the film won Audience Favorite. This delightful film, based on a true story, presents a Chinese family hiding the truth about the grandmother’s diagnosis. One of the most popular Indie Films of the summer and I’ll review it next week.

There are lots of great films released this summer that fit the bill as entertaining but also breaking the mold of the typical summer fare.  For a twist on the high school party film, see the female-centric comedy, Booksmart. The young stars are self-assured in their nerdiness and it’s a great portrait of true friendship even if it’s for mature teens with fumbling teen sex and crass language. If you’re an action film lover, I’d suggest Stuber, the fight scenes are funny, the actors, Kumail Nanjiani and Dave Bautista have great chemistry and though the plot is ludicrous the concept of an Uber driver fighting crime is original.

Looking for an unusual and lyrical take on San Francisco’s gentrification? A great cast was assembled to tell this tale of two men trying to find home and family. The Last Black Man in San Francisco is artfully-shot and directed. Local childhood friends, Joe Talbot and Jimmie Fails wrote this paean to SF and to male friendship. It’s a quiet film with an insider’s look at some thorny issues and I’m betting that it’ll win some awards. The NY Times published a “The Best Movies of 2019 So Far” list as have many other publications. Look for lists that don’t consist of blockbusters and Disney films and you’ll find many great films you may have missed. Many of these films are now available to stream and there are some new films and series for Fall Season on television now.

I’m looking forward to the Telluride Film Festival over the Labor Day Weekend. I often see some of my new favorite films of the year…that likely won’t be released till NEXT year. Oh Hollywood…

Summer is for Sequels

MIB 4 to Toy Story 4…summer sequels abound at the movie theaters right now. If it’s not a sequel; it’s a remake. Was anyone dying to see a new Aladdin? Or breathlessly awaiting the live action remake of The Lion King? Yes, perhaps there are families that are glad to have new versions of these films so they can stop watching the originals play non-stop at home…or any age-appropriate film to take the little ones to on a hot summer day.

Reviews of such films are not really necessary. If your family loved the first one, they’ll likely all go see the next three or four with diminishing interest and often, with lackluster stories. The joy of the Toy Story films was that Pixar Studios seemed to invest more time and care with each sequel to make it fresh and awarded the audience films that contained some of the wonder of the first film and new characters that everyone loved. So it is with sad heart that I report that this final of the series, Toy Story 4, bucks that narrative.

In trying to reinvent the story to provide us with new dimensions to a few of the characters, the animators send the toys on a road trip. If you’re going to create a film that features a spork, we needed an empowering story or ground-breaking animation…something riveting to justify this journey of an eating utensil and the girl who loves him. Most of the film centers on the interactions between Forky and Woody…and later, Woody and Bo Peep. While I applaud the feminist take on Bo Peep’s character, it also crossed my mind that she’s not really a “toy”. She’s part of a lamp. How did she become the love interest? But my mind wandered. I blame the lackluster writing in the film.

The animation to show Bo Peep’s shiny porcelain surface and the well-drawn interior of the Thrift Shop with it’s antique toys show the Pixar attention to detail. There’s a wonderful villain in the lovely damaged Gabby Gabby doll with her army of mechanical Dummies that move in a herky-jerky motion to make them more scary. It was fun to have Keanu Reeves show up as the Canadian Daredevil, Duke Caboom, but why have an actor who grew up in Canada not give the toy a Canadian accent? Odd choice.

As the action sequences roll along creating little tension, there’s less time for character development and the toys become less interesting. The story grows more preposterous as the Dad is forced to drive the RV back to the rescue at the small town carnival. In this Pixar film, the “real characters” are the ones with the blandest personalities. The only human with any dimension is the carny that has a few funny scenes with the toys.

When Woody makes a choice for love over becoming a forgotten toy, the other toys seem to easily accept the change. There’s little fanfare and off the other toys ride into the night. No tears, no tug at the heartstrings…just a sigh that that the studio let these beloved characters have a swan song that wasn’t deserving of them.

Stay for the credit sequence if you want more of the same poor writing and character development…or flee the theater and find some ice cream to comfort your inner child.

Drinks with Films Rating: 1 old fashioned phosphate drink (out of 5) and I’m sorely disappointed in the lack of an animated Short to go with the film. Often one of the best animated Shorts of the year, this lackluster production didn’t include one.

Christmas Nostalgia

The Misfit Toys from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

Some people get in the holiday spirit by decorating a tree, polishing the menorah or baking something from an old family recipe…I pull out the movies!

For me, nothing says Christmas like the old stop-motion animated cartoons from the early 70’s. The Little Drummer Boy (1968), The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974) and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964) come to mind. Even though I couldn’t remember the title of one of my favorite cartoons from childhood, I could hum the theme “Put One Foot In Front of the Other” — finally I had to go search the interwebs. The film is Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town.  

There’s a charm and simplicity to these Rankin/Bass Productions. They’re endearing. There are catchy songs, And they feature a hero’s journey….sometimes all the way to the Island of Misfit Toys! All of them are about the outsider; the individual that doesn’t fit in, who triumphs over adversity. Though there’s an up-lifting moral, the characters must face the villains. Back in the day, there seemed to be little worry about scaring the kids with The Abominable Snowman or the Heat Miser. Of course, everything turns out alright in the end.  Bad guys lose their teeth or are forced to stay in their own realms and the hero saves the day.

The Heat Miser Song — The Year Without Santa Claus, 1974

Heat Miser from The Year Without Santa Claus

Watching them again as an adult, I was struck by how many similarities there are between these older cartoon specials that aired on television and some of our popular animated films of today. There are super-star vocal talents featured (Fred Astaire, Mickey Rooney), quirky side-kicks and musical interludes that were popular when the cartoons aired. I was reminded of the cartoons when watching the beautifully-animated Klaus (Netflix, 2019) with it’s origin story of Santa Claus. Would children used to faster pacing and slicker animation still enjoy these simple stop-motion features? I don’t know but I hope some parents will pull out the Holiday Classics and share them with their kids.