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…

Why "Clemency" is Better Than "Just Mercy".

There’s a certain gestalt that seems to create similar stories that resonate with people at the same time. When it comes to movies, that can lead to two movies featuring volcanoes (Dante’s Peak, Volcano) released in the same month or an actor being asked to audition for very similar roles in two projects. This week saw the release of Just Mercy, an adaption of civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson’s memoir about Alabama’s Death Row. This comes on the heels (no-nonsense working woman heels) of the release of Clemency starring the talented Alfre Woodard as the warden of a prison that must oversee death row executions.

You’ll notice that both posters feature the leads; Michael B Jordan for Just Mercy and Alfre Woodard for Clemency. Just Mercy, directed by Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12) is more of an ensemble piece. Though Michael B Jordan turns in a nuanced performance as the young lawyer facing old boy racism, the film’s heart is Jamie Foxx’s riveting embodiment of Johnny D, a man beaten down by living under that unrelenting racism. The film spends time with some of his death row inmates, in the court room, with the extended family of Johnny D, and the office where Equal Justice Initiative is being ably run by Brie Larson’s no-nonsense passionate Operations Director. Just Mercy opens up to view the surrounding prejudiced world.

Of the 100 top films of 2018, only four starred or co-starred older women of color, according to the U.S.C. study. In 2019, Woodard had two such roles. Clemency is a more interior, locked down affair. Alfre Woodard’s buttoned-down Warden Bernadine Williams is respected and runs a tight ship. She’s in charge and her emotions are tightly controlled. The film focuses on interior shots of the prison and her home, with a few trips to a local watering hole where she tries to drink away her stress. As a lethal injection goes horribly wrong, we witness Bernadine’s composure slipping. Her marriage is suffering, she’s not sleeping and as her control over her life and job falters…then her supportive husband (Wendell Pierce) leaves her. The executions are shaking her convictions and the stress is destroying her life.

Two films that have executions and death row inmates–inmates that are predominantly black and often, unfairly imprisoned. The biggest difference is the method of execution: electric chair and lethal injection. Just Mercy is set in the early 80’s and looks at the cruel injustice of the justice system in Alabama. Michael B Jordan portrays Stevenson as a noble, caring young man on a crusade. Sadly, the heavy-handed musical score and polished speeches lend the film a preaching-to-the-choir feel. The film is saved by Foxx’s strong performance and that of his fellow inmate, Morgan (Herbert Richardson). The remorse, terror and misery that Morgan battles is heroic and witnessing his execution brings Jordan’s character a horrible wake-up call. Watching the film made me want to read the book and learn more about Stevenson and his human rights organization.

Clemency is restrained, much like the Warden. Bernadine’s quiet desperation is all the more powerful for Woodard’s expressive eyes; it’s a masterful performance. Written and directed by Chinonye Chukwu–she won the Grand Jury prize at Sundance for this directorial debut. Quiet, assured and powerful, Clemency is a film that can be watched multiple times for the performances and a message that might change hearts and minds. Both films condemn the death penalty and deserve to be widely-seen.

Drinks With Films Rating Clemency: 4 shots of whiskey to drink away the pain (out of 5) Just Mercy: 3 tall glasses of sweet tea (out of 5)

The Boss Inspiring Lives Across the Pond

The effects of music on our lives is hard to put into words but Sarfraz Manzoor, who was born in Pakistan and raised in Thatcher-era England, did just that. He can tell you exactly what kind of impact one musician — Bruce Sprinsteen — had on his once wayward life.

Do you love films inspired by true stories? Do you fancy a sweet teen romance with great production values and an inspirational plot? Blinded by the Light, is set in a small British town in 1987. Rebellious teens are shown sporting crazy hairstyles and listening to New Wave music. One young Pakistani teen is struggling with his identity under a strict Muslim father in a neighborhood vandalized by white nationalists.

Enter The Boss. When a high school friend gives our young hero two tapes of Bruce Springsteen music for his Walkman, the lyrics become the anthem that changes his life. Viveik Kalra stars as Javed; lip-syncing lyrics and shifting between rage and the joy of young love — smiling from ear to ear. He’s been writing poetry to express himself but is navigating two worlds. How to honor his father, face up to the racist bullies and pursue his dream of being a writer? Inspired by Springsteen’s lyrics about working class heroes, he begins to understand that the class warfare and racial intolerance are something worth fighting for. Gurinder Chadha, who also directed Bend it like Beckham, is a great fit for this material.

Based on the book, Greetings from Bury Park: Race, Religion and Rock N’ Roll; by Sarfraz Manzoor, the film uses Springsteen’s lyrics in a wonderful way. They become alive when the words are superimposed on the neighborhood buildings as Javed listens to them. The lyrics even swirl about his head as he absorbs them. By showcasing the lyrics this way, the meaning of the words and how they resonate for this conflicted young man are made real for the audience as well.

Many scenes are set inside Javed’s room as he writes away his frustrations or tries to style himself in The Boss’s image. Keeping the focus of the film on his home life and his interactions with his family gives this film an intimate feel — you are brought into the family dynamic. There’s a fun scene where the boys sneak a Bruce Springsteen record unto the turntable at the high school music station and that soundtrack follows the friends as they travel through town. As they travel past striking Union workers, a dance crew in the town square and their fellow students, everyone starts to dance to the music. This is a sweet teen film that tells the hero’s journey in a unique way. Blinded by the Light celebrates family and hard work and though it’s set in 1987 England, it’s sadly relevant for today’s America with our class division and intolerance.

Viveik Kalra, Nell Williams and Aaron Phagura appear in Blinded by the Light by Gurinder Chadha, an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Nick Wall.

Drinks with Films Rating: 3 cups of Marsala Chai (out of 5)

One of my favorite films from 2016 is a messier version of this film — set in Ireland and also featuring a protagonist inspired by music and bullied by white nationalists — Sing Street was nominated for a Golden Globe but not seen by many people. If Blinded by the Light makes you smile but you’re more of an 80’s New Wave music fan…check out Sing Street. Not as much smiling, lower production values and more eye make-up — but also a lot of heart.

Men. In cars. Bonding. “Green Book” & “The Upside”

Green Book
The Upside

My favorite film at the Denver Film Festival this year was The Biggest Little Farm.  I’m excited for people to see this beautiful documentary when it comes to theaters in April. Oddly enough, it was two films with major stars that tied as my other favorites…and both films haven’t been getting much love from the critics.

Green Book and The Upside both feature actors at the top of their game playing characters that are extreme opposites. Based on true stories, both films have scenes that show the characters finding common ground while driving in cars.  And the similarities keep coming. While writing love letters to a woman, both sets of characters reveal their softer, sentimental sides. Black and white, rich vs poor, educated vs street smarts…even the conversations about music play out similarly. They may be set in different time periods and in different cities but where Bryan Cranston’s character loves opera–Kevin Hart is a fan of Aretha Franklin.  Mahershala Ali’s pianist, Dr Don Shirley teaches Viggo Mortenson’s working class stiff, Tony Lip to appreciate classical music and in turn, the refined Dr Shirley learns to appreciate 70’s soul music.

A remake of the brilliant French film, The Intouchables, The Upside has not received a wide release. On-hold since 2017 due to Miramax and #metoo villian Harvey Weinstein’s involvement—is it throwing the baby out with the bath water to stall this film? I really enjoyed it. There are some wicked funny moments between Bryan Cranston and Kevin Hart and there are touching scenes that reveal both character’s grief. Though Nicole Kidman has a small role here…her presence of gentle guidance and respect give the film a sure footing. I loved the refection on how wealth changes ones approach to art (both good and bad) and felt that this version based on the real lives of the ex-con and the quadriplegic has something new to say.

Green Book melted my heart. Critics have been calling it trite or sentimental, even complaining that it’s predictable. I found it charming and frightening in places and yes, some of the scenes we’ve seen before. But aren’t stereotypes, stereotypes, because of an endearing trope that has some basis in truth? A tale of two men, but also of two cultures and the racism and bigotry of the South that resonates with our own troubled present. Viggo Mortenson’s Tony Lip is a charming ruffian with a heart as big as Kansas but little opportunity or skill to express it and limited options for betterment. His role as bodyguard and driver to the refined and reserved Dr Don Shirley changes both of their lives. The juxtaposition between concert hall and juke joint, between Dr Shirley’s ornately-decorated penthouse–beautiful ye cold and empty, and Tony Lip’s loud, happy family home…these moments provide both the blues and the joyful jazz to this film.