Ivan’s Top Ten 2019

Here we are at the beginning of a new year and at the beginning of a new decade. Before we enter the new ’20’s, let’s look back at the year that was in film. It was a year teaming with quality films but, also, a year that we spent some time visiting classics we hadn’t seen before. Most of these came from the often praised 1970’s watching movies like “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “The Last Picture Show.” After padding my Letterboxd stats (follow me at ivansmoore), I’m probably of the mindset that with new techniques and technology, more distribution possibilities, and a more diverse community of storytellers, movies of our time keep getting better and better!

With that being said, I’d love to offer you the ten best experiences I had watching movies in 2019. Critics agree that this was an exceptional year. So first let me give you a couple more freebies in the form of some honorable mentions. You really can’t go wrong digging into the deeply spiritual A Hidden Life and The Two Popes or raising your blood pressure with Uncut Gems and Waves. We may also be in a Shia-ssance with the former Disney star offering his heart with The Peanut Butter Falcon and Honey Boy. I’d also invite you to add the female written and directed Booksmart and Queen & Slim to your watch lists. But there were ten movies that really hit me this year and here they are.

10.) The Dead Don’t Die (R – dir. Jim Jarmusch)

I walked out of the theater in absolute disbelief. What in the world had I just watched? I came to learn that this was pretty typical fare for director Jim Jarmusch. The Dead Don’t Die is a dead-pan social comedy zombie movie starring living legend, Bill Murray, and Kylo Ren himself, Adam Driver. When I say dead pan I really want you to understand there is nearly no emotion in this movie. The world is falling apart in front of the characters’ eyes while they go through the motions of life and that’s precisely the point. If an emotionless Bill Murray sighing through a zombie breakout isn’t enough for you, the movie sports an extensive supporting cast like Danny Glover, Selena Gomez, Tilda Swinton, and one catchy tune by Sufjan Stevens. Sitting in my car in the parking lot after, I was so perplexed I knew I wanted to see it again and again.

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9.) Rocketman (R – dir. Dexter Fletcher)

The award for most horribly marketed film of the year goes to Rocketman. Like many, I saw the ads for this Elton John biopic and felt the echoes of last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody. That movie was a straight forward, semi-boring snoozefest that relied solely on a trendy actor and the timeless music of Queen. Rocketman is a full-blown Elton John musical! It’s framed with Elton in a rehab group therapy session and deconstructs his life through whimsical, brightly colored, surreal musical numbers. As much as Rami Malek inhabited Freddie Mercury’s giant teeth, Taron Egerton tackled singing every song while cutting many a rug through some incredible set pieces. Rhapsody felt like a string of youtube videos of Queen performances, but Rocketman was Elton John taking us on a journey towards some of the most important revelations of his life.

8.) A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (PG – dir. Marielle Heller)

Do we really need a Mister Rogers movie? Like every kiddo my age growing up in Southwestern Pennsylvania watching our beloved mayor of make-believe hanging out with Lynn Swann and going to the crayon factory, I’m very protective of Fred. I was nervous about the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? but found it to be a delightful injection of common grace to everyone who saw it. Fred Rogers’ attitude and beliefs shined through as friends and family told his story alongside clips of the man himself. One of those friends was journalist Tom Junod. Beautiful Day is really his movie. Tom Hanks plays Fred in a supporting role. Junod wrote a now infamous profile of Mister Rogers for Esquire and it changed his life. He was known for cynical hit pieces and so came to Fred with a thirst for blood. Junod wasn’t ready for Fred’s hospitality or Joanne Rogers’ humility or Daniel Tiger’s hugs. We did need this movie and only Hanks could have done it. While you’re at it you can read Junod’s recent follow up where he talks about a life of being Fred’s friend.

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7.) Marriage Story (R – dir. Noah Baumbach)

Marriage Story hands down features the best acting performances of the year while, at the same time, being one of the least enjoyable to watch. Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver play Nicole and Charlie a couple working through a divorce. Watching the American divorce system on display and feeling Nicole and Charlie’s marriage crumble is heart shattering. Writer and director Noah Baumbach, who I usually find to be off-putting and pretentious, has probably crafted his masterpiece here drawn from his real life journey through divorce and his leads deliver his script like a decadent buffet. It’s salty, it’s sweet, and sometimes it’s just too much but I can’t stop eating.

6.) Avengers: Endgame (PG-13 – dir. Anthony & Joe Russo)

Remember when the first footage dropped from Captain America: Civil War? Marvel fans rejoiced because there on their screens was a staple of cross-over, event comics come to life. Two big lines of characters charging at each other ready for battle. The comic book “splash page” was on film like never before, and we all thought, “Wow, they did it.” Directors Joe and Anthony Russo had reached peak nerdom by giving us a dozen heroes running in an empty airport. Little. Did. We. Know. That was just an appetizer. Avengers: Endgame marks the end of a film endeavor we may never see duplicated. I recently did a rewatch and still felt every single tingle as the ultimate superhero movie built to its splash page. The score hit perfectly, the portals opened, and every bit of investment I’ve given as a fan of these heroes for most of my life paid off.

Read my extensive thoughts on Avengers: Endgame here!

5.) The Farewell (PG – dir. Lulu Wang)

Is there anything kind of funny or weird about your family? I’m going to go out on a limb and say there probably is. Then you are going to relate deeply to this personal story Lulu Wang gives us from her own life. In The Farewell, Awkwafina steps in to represent Wang as Billi whose family is dealing with the grim cancer diagnosis of her grandmother. The thing is, as her family explains, it is customary not to tell their elders of such a diagnosis. So they concoct a family gathering for everyone to subtly say their goodbyes. I spent most of the movie holding my breath hoping Billi doesn’t let the cat out of the bag but then it would explode out when the movie turned wildly funny and again when pressure brings Billi to tears. She’s struggling as her whole family silently suffers shuffling around their matriarch with smiley facades. What does it mean to carry your family’s burdens? We probably all do it whether we want to or not. With The Farewell, Wang shows us that our load doesn’t always have to be so heavy.

4.) Little Women (PG – dir. Greta Gerwig)

There is so much life in this fourth feature adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s iconic novel. Sure I like Wynona Ryder and Christian Bale, but wow! Greta Gerwig built such chemistry and warmth in her adaptation that I wanted to jump through the screen. I wanted to have breakfast with the March sisters. I wanted to join the club along with Laurie. Gerwig’s lead is a familiar face to fans of her 2017 effort, Lady Bird. Saoirse Ronan is a great Jo and she might not even be the best performance in the movie! Florence Pugh caps off a career year making audiences love Amy for once in the character’s history. I might not be familiar enough with all of the adaptations to declare that this is the greatest of all time (though I still might), but I can say this was definitely one of the top five directed movies of the year.

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3.) The Last Black Man in San Francisco (R – dir. Joe Talbot)

Just going by the title, you might think that this is some post-apocalyptic sci-fi movie like The Omega Man or I Am Legend. Movies about men standing alone in the world dealing with all that they’ve lost. So in a way, it might be. Last Black Man is a whimsical retelling of life story of the film’s lead Jimmie Fails. He’s wrestling to maintain both his family’s history and the eclectic culture of one of America’s most colorful cities. Jimmie is on the cusp of losing something dear to him and he fights for it with such innocence and poetry that you can’t help but root for him. He’s our guide through his family’s narrative and the narrative of the city he knows and can barely recognize. As Jimmie brings us along, we go through the layers of his life with him. It is about gentrification, but it’s also about family, friendship, masculinity, and so much more. It’s about life, what we fear to lose, and what we must hold on to.

Read Heather’s full review of Last Black Man here!

2.) Jojo Rabbit (PG-13 – dir. Taika Waititi)

The task was simple. Make a movie about a boy in the Hitler Youth who has a comically zany imaginary friend version of Adolph that he confides in. Never mind, that sounds impossible. So impossible, in fact, that maybe only one filmmaker could do it, Taika Waititi. What the director brings to this story set on the tail end of World War II, is his unique humor and heartfelt dramatic sensibilities we’ve seen before in films like Hunt for the Wilderpeople and What We Do in the Shadows. He allows this context to be what it was. It’s ugly and scary. Jojo spews all the hate he’s been taught in his young life. But he is still young and so as you cringe there is still big hope and some big laughs. The movie is really about the tearing away of Jojo’s imaginary friend. How that happens is what makes Waititi one of the best filmmakers we have today.

Read my full review of Jojo Rabbit here!

1.) Parasite (R – dir. Bong Joon Ho)

I hesitate to say much about my number one movie of the year. I purposefully avoided reviews and trailers before watching. All I had heard was the buzz around the new film from the same filmmaker that brought us Snowpiercer, The Host, and Okja. So I went in blind and was so glad I did! The story is so interesting and thrilling. It kept me guessing throughout its runtime about where the story was going and even what genre the film falls into. It was the best experience I had in the theater this year. I’m hoping that is enough to get you to watch it but, for those who need a little more, I did a spoiler-free review you can read here that talks about the themes it shares with Downton Abbey.

Parasite Jessica Song GIF

Heather’s Top Ten Movies of 2019

This year I was drawn to movies that tried new things or told stories I hadn’t seen before. There ended up being multiple autobiographical films in the bunch, reflecting writers/directors going to places of vulnerability and authenticity. I have always loved the way movies can help us make sense of our stories or enter into the experience of others. All of these do just that.

10. Endgame

I had my issues with Endgame, which I wrote about. But I also think Marvel accomplished something really difficult, which was to create a (mostly) satisfying finale to an intricate and beloved franchise. The expectations were incredibly high, and they delivered. I’ll write more about the Marvel saga in my top ten of the decade, but for now Endgame deserves some recognition.

9. Frozen 2

The music is still pretty good, the cast receives some welcome additions, sisterhood remains strong, but Frozen 2 is about much more than that. At its heart, this installment is about the treatment of indigenous peoples and confronting our past. It’s about interrogating the narratives we’ve been given about who is in power and why. About reexamining relational dynamics and shared history. About willingness to make sacrificial changes in order to resolve deep wrongs. And about not being able to move forward until we tell the truth about history. Frozen 2 was much edgier than I expected, and much more impactful as a result. Disney still fell short in some of the voice casting, not matching the ethnicity of the characters with that of their voice actors. But they also took some better steps to incorporate and honor the input of Scandinavian indigenous artists and historians. All in all, putting forward some important lessons for the next generation.

8. Waves

What is it like to be young and reckless? How does it feel to be at once invincible and also deeply fragile? How do we process the impact our actions have on others? How do we move towards forgiveness? Waves is a family drama that beautifully explores these questions. Helmed by a stunning cast, the family navigates the volatility of their teenaged son’s dating relationship, multiple forms of loss, anger and rebuilding. The first half is frenetic and chaotic, embodying recklessness, anger and fear. The second half is quiet, withdrawn, cautious. It’s a look at what can break a family and what can hold them together.

7. Queen and Slim

On the surface this movie is about police violence against unarmed black people, but it quickly becomes an exploration of the breadth of the black community. From the emerging creative powerhouse of Lena Waithe, this first screenplay takes the catalyst of a police shooting and uses it to launch a complex story about survival, community, vulnerability, protest, and nuance. As the title characters (played deftly by Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith) go on the run, they must learn to trust each other and observe the complexity of the black community’s response to their situation. It has generated mixed reactions from audiences, but it is undoubtedly unique and poignant.

(Content warning: the film contains an explicit sex scene. The encounter is tender and is used in the story to convey healthy vulnerability and trust. However it will not be appropriate for all viewers.)

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6. Honey Boy

I have seen a willingness and I believe a level of courage in Millennials to confront our past traumas and work towards emotional/mental health. That often includes processing the trauma of one’s parents, both theirs and the ones they have inflicted. Honey Boy does this is an unprecedentedly vulnerable way, with writer and star Shia LaBoef playing his own father. In a semi-autobiographical take on his own experiences, the story is set during what very much resembles the Even Stevens era, overlaid with his young adult stay in rehab. Young LaBoef is playing heartrendingly by Noah Jupe and the young adult version by Lucas Hedges (who, can we just acknowledge somehow ends up in all indie darlings?!) LaBoef literally steps into his father’s shoes and his perspective, embodying all his toxicity and abusive behavior, all his volatility and unrealized dreams. It is an emotional and disturbing story. It is also a brave exploration of the humanity of our parents. LaBoef demonstrates unflinching honesty combined with generosity towards his emotionally broken father and his isolated childhood self. That is the journey of healing, honesty and generosity. Honesty to name that which was deeply damaging, and generosity to also name the ways we all do the best we can with what we’re given at the time. We get to be witnesses to LaBoef’s process of healing, and we might be inspired to keep engaging our own healing along the way.

5. Little Women

First of all, there’s very little I can say that hasn’t already been said by Be Kind Rewind in her excellent video comparing the 4 primary iterations of this beloved classic (contains spoilers). But I loved Greta Gerwig’s adaptation! The book is split into two parts, following the March sisters as children/teens and then as young women. Gerwig splits the timeline in the film to place events side by side rather than strictly chronologically. This will be startling for some who are used to the previous adaptations, but it lends more depth and insight into why their lives and decisions develop as they do. The scenes of childhood are shot with a golden glow, while the more challenging and somber adulthood scenes have a colder and flintier feel. Gerwig taps into the angst so many young people feel about becoming adults and leaving behind the carefree ways of youth. We get to watch Jo experience that same transition and navigate her process of owning her life and her future and her art and her place in the world. It is a much-needed window into the difficulties of young adulthood and also the rewards of taking risks and pursuing meaningful relationships as an adult.

Gerwig clearly has a deep respect for the source material and the life and work of Louisa May Alcott. She blends more elements of Alcott’s real story into Jo’s arc, which was already semi-autobiographical. Alcott was an abolitionist (her family participated in the Underground Railroad and she even met Frederick Douglass), and she remained unmarried. Those themes are subtly worked into the film, giving it a more robust reflection of the original author and allowing Alcott to express what she was unable to during her own cultural/societal time. Gerwig also totally reimagines Amy, retaining her childishness in early life but allowing her character to demonstrate more complexity and purpose. Florence Pugh plays her perfectly, and nearly steals the whole movie which is quite a feat considering the already all-star cast. The relationships between the sisters take on new warmth and vibrancy in this version, their interactions are bursting with life and love. It is a lovely coming-of-age story that will inspire both men and women to take hold of the things that matter most and engage life with courage and hope.

parasite

4. Parasite

Let’s take a minute to talk about how South Korean filmmakers are creating some dynamite movies! From the twisty and insightful Burning last year (available on Netflix, check the content guide for viewer discretion) to this year’s stunning festival favorite, Parasite, South Korea is asking big questions about class, income inequality and the role of Millennials in society. Parasite works best if you don’t know much about it, so I’ll let the film speak for itself. Suffice it to say that it’s a drama/heist/thriller genre-bender about a poor family and a wealthy family, how their lives intersect, and how social class impacts the ways we live and treat one another. Ivan wrote about its unexpected parallels to Downton Abbey, check out his review and don’t miss this wild work of storytelling.

3. The Last Black Man in San Fransisco

I wrote extensively about why this film is so powerful in my review earlier in the summer. This is a semi-autobiographical story about a young black man in San Fransisco who is wrestling with themes of ownership, belonging, home, gentrification, and what it means to be part of a place. It is beautifully filmed and acted, and stuck with me long after the credits rolled. It had a relatively short theatrical release so check it out streaming on Amazon Prime.

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2. The Farewell

What started as a This American Life episode became a powerful film about family and culture. Written and directed by LuLu Wang, (also semi-autobiographical) The Farewell follows a young first generation Chinese-American woman (played wonderfully in a dramatic turn by Awkwafina) who travels back to China with her parents to visit her grandmother who has just been diagnosed with cancer. The thing is, her grandmother doesn’t know about her diagnosis and it is Chinese tradition not to tell her. The family all knows and invent a reason to all gather and, unbeknownst to her, give her their last goodbyes. The film is an exploration of the experience of being bicultural, trying to find out where you fit and what you want to embrace and what you want to reject. It’s about the loneliness and potential isolation of being separated from your family in a new culture. It’s about family and the ways we carry one another’s burdens. It’s about seeing the value in what initially feels foreign but is driven by a deep commitment to connection and selflessness. Now available to rent or buy, make sure to check this one out.

1. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

I was reluctant to see this one. I LOVED the Mr. Rogers documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor and had a hard time believing anything could top it. But director Marielle Heller proved me wrong. Rather than broadly being about Mr. Rogers, Beautiful Day draws from Fred’s real life friendship with journalist Tom Junod which began when Junod interviewed him for an Esquire profile in 1998. You MUST read this incredible piece which moved me to tears multiple times, and the follow-up that he wrote this summer in advance of the release of the movie. Junod was a man struggling with anger and bitterness, and Mr. Rogers changed him forever. The film follows their meeting and the ways that Fred chose Tom to be his friend (renamed Lloyd Vogel for the movie) and entered his life. The film is loosely formatted like an episode of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, and Tom Hanks does a wonderful job of capturing Fred’s personality and aura. Heller has said in interviews that one of her hardest jobs as director was to get the actors to slow down to Fred’s pace of life. His conversation and relating were so slow and deliberate, making whoever was in front of him feel important. Hanks translates the look of delight that would come to Fred’s face so easily anytime a person did something that was significant to them and that they wanted to share. But the movie is not just about Mr. Rogers, but about the impact of who he was and the way he lived. To learn to process our anger and hurt so that we can move towards forgiveness and healing. (As he said, “If it’s mentionable then it’s manageable.”) To live with intentionality and compassion is to effect the people around you for the better. And I think Mr. Rogers would be the first to say that’s something all of us can do.

 

REVIEW: Parasite

Tens of millions of television viewers recently rejoiced at the big screen return of a silver screen favorite. For four years, fans just couldn’t wait to once again walk down that gravel path to Downton Abbey. It’s a classic story of a society in transition and the ways progress affects or stifles characters throughout the different classes. Downton’s following were swept up in the romance of the extravagant traditions of the upstairs family and rooted wholeheartedly as the downstairs characters attempted to climb their way out to various success.

In all honesty, the film installment of Downton Abbey served more as a special episode of the show than it did a movie that might make awards moves, but a similar story is already being dubbed one of the year’s best! Imagine if Downton Abbey was set in modern day South Korea and helmed by one of world cinema’s most creative filmmakers. Well, that’s what you get in the genre bending heist-suspense-thriller-horror-political-comedy, Parasite.

Parasite Phone GIF

There are many reasons that Parasite is getting its praise. The movie excels in the major components to any movie: acting, writing, editing, sound, cinematography, etc. What makes it so uniquely special, though, is the vision and voice of its director. It is almost always hard to say what genre Ho is playing with in any given movie, and he often covered several. What’s more important is what he’s trying to say and how he’s using the medium to say it.

Like Downton, Ho often focuses on themes of class, exploitation, and society’s woes. In Snowpiercer, he depicts a future where the survivors of a global freeze are confined to a moving train with each car representing different class positons. In Okja, Ho tells the tale of the daughter of a lower-class farmer who raises and then must protect a genetically engineered future pig. Most would say these are strange movies, but there really is something unique and gripping about Ho’s vision. They manage to be weird without being inaccessible. They manage to have a dark edge but with a light of life. They exist in fictional universes but somehow evoke extremely real feelings. With Parasite, though, he’s doing something a little different. It features characters, a setting, and a premise that’s fairly normal. Yet, in perfect Ho fashion, the film manages to be anything but.

Parasite Jessica Song GIF

Parasite follows one of the downstairs families of South Korea. They live in a subterranean apartment where they fold pizza boxes for grocery money and huddle into the highest corners for just a taste of nearby WiFi. Fortunes change when the son is hired as a tutor by a very upstairs family and from there Ho takes his audience through somewhat of a genre obstacle course. This is just not a film you can stay ahead of. There’s no typical roadmap to follow through its narrative. In the year of our Lord 2019, that is such a rare gift.

What you will feel throughout the film is Ho’s ability to reach into your body and spark a reaction. It’s a visual medium but he orchestrates a sensory experience that you can smell and feel. It’s beyond the visceral feeling of texture and stretches into your involuntary bodily reactions to make you feel what the characters are feeling. At times, I was relaxed and confident. Ten minutes later I was suspicious and nervous. A few seconds pass and I’m breathless and shaking, and as it continues I’m uncontrollably sad.

I was exhausted. Ho wants you to feel what it is like to be those downstairs people trying to climb. It is reminiscent of another incredible film recently released from South Korea, Chang-Dong Lee’s Burning. Both films highlight a younger generation of South Koreans experiencing an ever expanding gap in the classes, and both films do so by focusing on what the lives of the lower class are truly worth. They explore the highs and lows of a life lived at the bottom of the stairs.

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The downstairs family gets so close to the life of the upstairs family, but it is all an illusion. What is a minor inconvenience to our upstairs characters, alters the life of everyone in the downstairs community. At the peak of their maneuvering to ascend into greater flourishing, the downstairs family feel a small measure of control and power only to have their schemes descend into pure chaos. The upstairs family maintained power the entire time. Our protagonists were only ever one squish or slap away from losing connection to resources and a better life. Thus is the life of a parasite.

*I’d love to say more, but I don’t want to ruin the experience. Snowpiercer, Okja, and Burning are all currently streaming on Netflix and including Parasite should all be watched with viewer discretion as ratings vary. But they should be watched!