2019 Top Ten

I have been making these lists for two decades now, so if you are here, you probably don’t need me to remind you that these are my “favorite” film experiences of the last year rather than a list of those I objectively deem the best. One can and should expect some overlap, but it is near impossible to bracket out the personal baggage and biases that come into play when one tries to distinguish between the enjoyable and the meaningful, between films that are artistically accomplished and those that are personally meaningful.

What has struck me most about the films I valued in 2019 is their diversity. It is hard to make meaningful value judgments when choosing between comedy, drama, animation, and adaptation. For the first year that I can remember, no documentaries were in my Top 10, although I did find the profiles of Toni Morrison, Molly Ivins, and Linda Rondstadt equally informative and moving.

The films of the past year have felt particularly polarizing. Perhaps this is nothing new, but it certainly seems to me that negative campaigning has intensified. My pet theory is that studios and film critics have taken a page from politics: pick a front-runner, tear it down, and hope the film you care about is the last one standing. Given my indifference to some films that have been very highly esteemed (Parasite, The Irishman, A Hidden Life, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood), I understand the temptation to counter (what one perceives as) unwarranted adulation with scorn rather than shrugs. In the long term, however, I’ve always found the reasons people liked films (assuming they can articulate those reasons coherently) far more interesting than the reasons they didn’t. That feels like the right time to segue to my films and my reasons…

10) Toy Story 4 — Josh Cooley

The Toy Story franchise strikes me as singular in that it is the only series I can think of in which each successive entry has been better than the last. A large part of that success is that its writers and creators have pushed the concept beyond the original idea rather than simply repeating it. Had the initial offering been done by a different studio, I suspect that we’d now be seeing the fourth version of the same basic plot, plucking at the same basic themes, and relying on the same catch phrases. The first half of Toy Story 4 is funny and successful as Forky, a pitiful but beloved craft project supplants Woody (Tom Hanks) as the alpha toy. If the film had gone no farther than substituting Forky for Buzz as Woody’s rival, it would have nevertheless been a clever commentary on commercialization and commodities. But it does go further. Woody’s existential crisis in the second half of the film is far more interesting than the search and rescue plot. The decision he makes about how to pursue his own happiness and seek purpose outside of his proscribed role is both daring and touching.

9) Dark Waters — Todd Haynes

I spent most of Dark Waters fighting being grumpy. I resented what I assumed would be a feel-good story of a conscience-stricken individual catching a too-big-to-fail conglomerate in a lie and exposing them. It felt like the wrong cultural moment for an expose, since Americans seem more and more indifferent to the truth rather than shocked by or ignorant of it. Turns out the film was tracking the cultural moment just fine. The Dark Waters of the title refer as much to the wells of pain and guilt in our minds as they do to the polluted springs of West Virginia. It is important to the film’s meaning that Robert Billot (Mark Ruffalo) represents the viewer not as a plucky underdog taking on an evil corporation but as a representative of wealth and privilege who is increasingly confronted with the real world effects of his previously unexamined practices. From a Christian standpoint, I am convinced that Dark Waters is a “pro-life” movie, and it is high time that this label meant something more than simply anti-abortion. Robert’s crisis of conscience is as much about protecting his unborn child from threats that will outlive them both than it is about simply seeking social justice for a friend of his grandmother. Dark Waters is a deeply cynical movie, but its impact is probably more powerful for that cynicism. Whereas most scripts of this material would be structured around a triumphal ending, this one shows that wealth, power, and privilege do not go gentle into that good night even when they are exposed. That, too, is a message I think people of faith need to hear, especially in America where they seem to increasingly ally themselves with the forces of economic and political power rather than those that reflect the values, such as life and stewardship, reflected in the New Testament.

8) Bombshell — Jay Roach

Bombshell is a messy movie. I mean that as a compliment. Truth rarely reveals itself in ideological absolutes. To the extent that I am tracking with the film — and if I were more confident I was, I would probably have rated it higher — here’s my interpretation of its message: Donald Trump is to Fox News as Roger Ailes is to Gretchen Carlson and Megyn Kelly. Something they think they can control. Something they don’t feel personally responsible for but they are willing to put up with in order to get what they want…until they are painfully confronted with the realization that giving power to corruption is always a blank check, never just a quid-pro-quo. That may be giving Fox News more credit for self-awareness than is warranted, but any positive take on the film does, I think, have to wrestle with the uncomfortable and unlikable fact that these women seemed okay with a perverse system up to a point, so long as they believed that they could navigate it to their advantage. That’s equally true of Kayla Popisil (Margot Robbie), the unconflicted Christian lesbian who naively stalks Ailes’ assistant for a chance to audition, and is happy to hike up her skirt and show off her legs. It’s all in good fun, and a small price to pay for stardom…until he says to keep going. Popisil is a composite character, and it doesn’t hurt the movies credibility that Robbie totally nails one type of young woman I’ve sadly seen many instances of in two decades of being around evangelical institutions — the pretty girl so anxious to be taken seriously that she makes herself believe that the pay off from her sugar daddy is actually a sign of respect. On the flip side, though, Popisil is the one who confronts her predecessors with the “why didn’t you warn us?” speech, forcing Kelly into the painful admission that ambition rather than ideology was what drove her. “I wanted to be on television,” she says, simply. Like Dark Waters, Bombshell undercuts what might be seen as a triumphal conclusion by noting that sexual harassers Bill O’Reilly and Roger Ailes were paid four times as much in severance as their victims were in damages. Perhaps the most painful truth in a movie filled to the brim with them is that money, while not buying happiness, does indemnify its possessors to exploit others with impunity.

7) 1917 — Sam Mendes

Something happens in the middle of 1917, and I am still not entirely sure that I am reading the film correctly because of it. I am not talking about the film’s first major twist: rather, I am referring to a a brief moment of particular darkness after which the film looks and feels stylistically quite different. Does it matter how we read this scene? In a formal evaluation, probably not. Roger Deakins is our greatest living cinematographer, and I’m convinced he could photograph me brushing my teeth and make is look poetic. It’s not just the gimmick of the illusion of one continuous shot. (A number of lengthy takes were edited together to create the impression that the film unfolds in real time.) The photography, along with the extensive sets, creates an immersive experience — but is that all there is? An hour into the film, I was all-in, finding it a totally satisfying and understandable fusion of style and content, executed perfectly. After the break, I was still enthusiastic, but I did think the film’s second half toyed with (but never committed to) make the film allegorical and anagogical. Perhaps I am, as my students like to say, reading too much into this. But for all the complaints I’ve heard about Jojo Rabbit not seamlessly meshing its comedic styles, this was the film I most wanted to tell to stay in its lanes. As one man’s story, it is exquisite; as shadows of some deeper story wrought in Plato’s cave…it’s still good…but…

6) Knives Out — Rian Johnson

Knives Out is so clever, so fun, and so sideways clever that it got me to break a long standing film critic promise: never endorse a film with projectile vomiting in it. The puker here is Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas)– the personal nurse of murder victim Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer). She throws up whenever she lies, which isn’t particularly funny except that the writing challenge of a murder mystery in which witnesses can’t lie and brilliant detectives (Daniel Craig) still can’t figure it out is probably on par with that of telling the entire 1917 movie in one shot. Marta is from Bolivia or Ecuador or Peru or whatever South or Central American country Harlan’s narcissistic family can dredge from the deepest recesses of their shallow brains. When the reading of Harlan’s will reveals he has disinherited the lot of them and left his fortune to his nurse, the film becomes a commentary on immigration, the American dream, and what it means to deserve something. Even with the cultural comedy, Knives Out may feel slighter and less important than some films on this lest. Nevertheless, it’s ultimate coda, is one that we can stand to be reminded of these days. Being committed to telling the truth and doing right, even when doing so appears counter to your best interests, is the clearest indication of someone’s moral maturity.

5) The King — David Michôd

Three months after watching The King at Filmfest 919, I still don’t have an answer to my most pressing question: will viewers who don’t know Shakespeare’s Henry V understand or care that this film is a brazen and bold deconstruction rather than simply another retelling of a familiar tale? Will they care? The transformation of young Prince Hal to heroic Henry V is at the core of what is arguably Shakespeare’s most pro-military, nationalistic play. Like many of Shakespeare’s plays whose cultural or political messaging is inconvenient — think The Taming of the Shrew or The Merchant of Venice — there are ways of playing certain scenes to make them more ambiguous. To cite one example, Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 production underlines that Henry’s sadistic threats during the siege of Harfleur are a giant bluff. He orders “gentle” treatment of all prisoners the moment the mayor surrenders, and his company of gallant and enlightened soldiers are like-minded in their purpose. But the notion central to Branagh’s film, that torture must be a bluff because we [White-Anglo-Saxon-Protestants] are good and we don’t do those sorts of things, is no longer something that I think can just be posited to historically and accurately informed viewers as a given. Laurence Olivier made Henry V in 1944 to rally English spirits during some of the darkest days of World War II, and one doesn’t have to be pro-Nazi to raise questions about the thin line between art that celebrates great moments of our national, cultural, and military history and propaganda that exploits the feelings that such art so often engenders. The King, on nearly a scene by scene basis, inverts Henry V. Hal is already mature and a warrior. He is not enraged by the insulting gift of tennis balls, and he brings back Falstaff (Joel Edgerton) as a trusted adviser. The “band of brothers speech,” promising equality to all commoners who stand with the king, is changed for different effect as is Henry’s emotional reaction to the English traitors. (About the only scene the film can’t invert is the French slaying of the English pages.) If The King channels the political sentiment of any film of the last generation, it isn’t Henry V so much as JFK. Young Hal is put upon by the military-industrial-church complex, all pushing him to war. His maturity is that he sees them for what they are. I worried through much of the film that Hal would become a Rocky/Rambo figure, reluctant to fight until left with no choice. I normally detest the cultural work of such movies since I think they try to influence us against our conscience and morals and by insisting there is a clear line between just/necessary war and war for profit? Isn’t there? Are there not some instances of evil so horrible that the only rational, moral response is violence? Perhaps, but The King is also smart enough to ask us to consider who gets to make that call and on whose authority we accept the evidence that our power is used justly and all power that opposes us is not.

4) Little Women — Greta Gerwig

I do not like Louisa May Alcott’s novel. I find it plodding and pretentious. That’s odd given how much I revere George MacDonald, who I concede is equally as “preachy” as Alcott, but I think the Scot actually looks past the religion of his day to forms and shadows of true morality, while Alcott more just channels the preaching of her time period and region. I don’t much care for the previous works of Greta Gerwig — Lady Bird and Francis Ha — studies of characters I found so unlikable and narcissistic that I suspect they would they would hold people like Marmee or Beth March in utter contempt. So I did not go into this exercise with high hopes. I was wrong. Gerwig nails all the emotional aspects that makes Little Women compelling, nay essential, and she improves upon Alcott’s leaden style by playing with timelines and judiciously extending or compressing certain episodes to give a fuller, richer portrait of family life. Thus, for example, Marmee’s moralism is communicated quickly (she tells the girls she has given away their Christmas dinner, she puts a scarf in a bag for a wounded soldier), while the sibling rivalry between Amy and Jo is given time to stew. More than any other iteration of Little Women that I’ve seen, this one feels like each character is essential; it’s not just Jo and Jo-rdanettes. Even Beth, the prissy good girl, makes more sense as Jo’s shadow. Of course, the history of American literature typically offers the light and dark woman as Romantic rivals to the same male, and one of the most counter-cultural things about this material is how even a moralist like Alcott sees the need for women to put to death the “saintly good girl” expectation in order to become fully individuated. Mom says that Jo’s spirit is too great to be tamed. The godly mother doesn’t reflexively prefer the pious daughter. She sees each as an embodiment of a positive aspect of femininity, to be cherished and treasured. The acting here is uniformly great, too, with Ronan and Florence Pugh doing such good work that you almost overlook the precise and perfect performances from Chris Cooper and Meryl Streep. Guys, take your girlfriends and then — here’s a thought — ask them to reflect on the material and just listen. Dads, take your daughters, and ask them about their dreams and aspirations.

3) Portrait of a Lady on Fire — Céline Sciamma

Because my own education and development as a film lover has been so deeply rooted in neorealism, I have developed some particular artistic preferences. While I don’t object to professional actors, I prefer the blank canvass of the human face on which I can project–Kuleshov like–my own emotions. That’s why my second viewing of Sciamma’s film was so surprising. Relative to Hollywood productions, this is a quiet, slow film. But these characters (and the actresses who play them) do express emotions. It’s just that they are trained to suppress the particular emotions they feel. As a result, Portrait of a Lady on Fire makes you lean in, take notice, look hard. The characters don’t immediately open up to you. In an early scene, the characters reveal how closely they have been watching each other by cataloging their external gestures and what they mean. So far, so good, but a lot of films depict the oppressive conditions that women or gays must live in. The second half of this film offers the lovers temporary freedom. One might expect their emotions to break through like a flood, but years (indeed lifetimes) of repressing emotions makes venting them feel unnatural. These women don’t have to learn how to love, but they do need to learn how to express love, and the film is very, very perceptive in showing that any new action, even if it is freed from external censure, has a learning curve. That learning curve creates a sense of urgency because these characters know as well as we do that their freedom has a time-stamp on it even if their love doesn’t. The final scene of Portrait of a Lady on Fire was 180 degrees different from what I expected. It wasn’t about the pride of knowing who someone was beneath her public mask; it was about the utter desolation of having to put the mask back on after having revealed and been loved for your true self.

2) Jojo Rabbit — Taika Waititi

Almost immediately after Taika Waititi’s film won the People’s Choice award at TIFF, the push back began. And since I didn’t go to TIFF this year, that means I heard the push back before I even saw the film. Film criticism is what it is, and I’ve said what seems like a million times that nobody ever made a reputation as a film critic on the Internet by saying “me too!” So the very nature of where we are at is that any early viewer’s affinity invites the inevitable take downs. That is what it is, but if my Twitter or Letterboxd feed were a true indication, I think I was the only person in North America who liked this movie. I haven’t heard social media this united in its contempt for a film since…well, Green Book. There’s a very early scene in the film in which Jojo throws a live grenade against a tree and it bounces back, blowing up and scarring his face. It’s funny, and, importantly, in depicting a child (even a Nazi) in pain, the film projects that anything can happen. Comedy is hard, and there are a number of laughs of different kinds here. A group of soldiers enter a house and we get a round of “Heil Hitler”s that finally subsides only to have a new character enter and start the round robin again. In one sense, this is just Comedy 101. Listen to any early season commentary track of The Simpsons and you’ll hear it as an axiom that if a joke isn’t funny, just keep repeating it enough times and it will be. The emotional heart of the film though, is the realization, easy-enough I would think, that the Hitler of Jojo’s imagination is nothing at all like the actual, historical Hitler. Once you start looking at Hitler as the manifestation of Jojo’s emotional needs, you can, like his mother, see the boy who is still in there somewhere. In perhaps the film’s most on-the-nose moment, Elsa insists that Jojo isn’t really a Nazi, he’s just a boy who likes swastikas and wants to be in a club. It is, I guess, pop-psychology of the most superficial kind to point out that nobody (even the imaginary Hitler) is who he or she is pretending to be. The ability of war, fascism, and oppression to force us into pretending may not be the greatest damage it does to our souls, but it isn’t the least. Plus there’s that Rilke poem. I tear up every time I read that.

1) By the Grace of God — François Ozon

There will be — if there aren’t already — plenty of essays written comparing Ozon’s By the Grace of God to McCarthy’s Spotlight. For my money, the better comparison would be Roger Spottiswoode’s masterful adaptation of Randy Shilts’ And the Band Band Played On. Both films tell true stories of horror and suffering unimaginable in scope while resisting the understandable urge to reduce and concentrate that story into a single, representative example. The result in this case is that we have a story about the impact of clergy sexual abuse that allows us to see the damage it does not just to the souls and bodies of the immediate victims but also how that damage ripples outward, affecting their relationships and the beliefs, values, and souls of those they come in contact with. Like John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary (a film I am starting to think I underrated) and Paul Greengrass’s 22 July, By the Grace of God is able to position its underlying trauma as a national tragedy without losing sight of the particular suffering of the particular victims. That takes time and work, and for the first hour or so, the film is structurally difficult. At first we think it is, or will be, the story of Alexandre, a devout Catholic who is trying to raise Catholic boys and starting to question the church authorities about their inaction when informed about such abuses. But gradually his story grows, and he and we become aware of other victims. Each is allowed the opportunity to tell his story and catalog its effects. Some are more angry. Some are more sad. Parents and spouses respond differently. Some want to scandalize the Church; others want to restore it to health. Some are more angry at the priest who abused them, but many have more contempt for the Bishops, Cardinals, and Popes who they feel protected their abuser and even now care more about “forgiveness” than justice. “Do you still believe in God?” one victim asks another towards the end of the film. We don’t get his answer, but it is to the film’s credit that it could ask the question and not simply assume the answer. I do. I want to. But sometimes the actions of those who claim to represent Him make that belief more difficult. By the Grace of God is a painful film because it forces you to acknowledge that no institution or corporate expression of human value is exempt from the possibility of being co-opted, corrupted, or exploited. Yet is also a tender and beautiful movie about just how much people who have suffered can help one another and how every corruption, perversely, reminds us that good actually exists by pointing to the thing that has been corrupted and asking us why we still care about it.

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