Thank you all for coming.
We are gathered here today in remembrance of The Motion Picture. The Movies were born in March 1895. They lived a vibrant, storied life. It was not until 1927, at the age of 32, that they learned to speak. Soon after, they learned to sing, too. They became more colorful, and more adult. They got wider as they got older, as many do — and more lavish and expensive, too. They won awards, but still struggled to be taken seriously. They learned new tricks. They got discouraged, and sold out for a quick buck more often than not. Then they got inventive, finding cheaper, more innovative ways of expressing themselves. And then… they started slowing down. The people who used to love them died, or just stopped showing up. The Movies grew lonely, and stopped going out altogether; they preferred to stay at home instead. At last, The Movies died in 2019, at the ripe old age of 125. May they rest in peace.
Today we gather in celebration of Cinema. To bid it adieu, and to share some of our fondest memories from its final year. Thank you very much to Netflix for providing the catering at this difficult time.
The movies have been “dying” for decades, according to various metrics. With the advent of TV in the 40s and 50s, people no longer needed to leave their homes to see motion pictures. Ditto the VCR, which allowed people the option of watching what they wanted when they wanted, and then laserdiscs and DVDs and Blu Rays and 4K, all of which brought home viewing closer to the theatrical experience. Then, of course, there was the advent streaming. Now quality entertainment need not arrive in homes after a three or six or twelve-month theatrical window. It could premiere there.
Movies have never made more money than they’re making now, but their livelihood felt markedly different in 2019. After years of rumblings, streaming platforms finally broke into the mainstream cinematic conversation in a big way. Netflix is sure to rack up a slew of Academy Award nominations, and could very well take home the most coveted prize for Best Picture. This may be the first year that our “Best Picture” is one that was designed to be viewed in our living rooms. Sure, these streaming awards contenders had limited theatrical engagements in select cities — but that was for the sake of prestige, not commerce. So is the moment cinephiles have long dreaded finally here — the Day the Movies Died?
Maybe. There are a million reasons why that might be the case.
Here are the top ten reasons why not.
“I’m burning. Something’s kicking in…”
In a year such as this, a climax seems like a good place to start.
Gaspar Noé has been one of the arthouse’s most reliable provocateurs since 2002, when his breakout Irreversible first sent cinemagoers to the lobby demanding a refund. His films have been wild, daring, challenging, ultraviolent, borderline pornographic. But they’ve never been fun — until Climax.
The story opens on a French dance troupe, headed by Selva (a superb Sofia Boutella). They expertly execute her killer choreography, doing with their bodies what most film actors can only accomplish via CGI. Noé’s camera hovers above them, slurping up every move in one enthralling, unbroken take. Gradually, we come to know these dancers by their sexual predilections and personal dramas — and then we really get to know them when their punch gets dosed with LSD. Madness erupts, blood is spilled, everyone gets super horny, and one very bad parenting decision is made — but the dancing never stops.
Moreso even than last year’s Suspiria remake, Climax brings us true dance-horror, a genre I never knew I wanted until it was here. A French dance troupe is already about as sexually liberated as a group can be — the characters are straight, gay, bisexual, trans, black, white, mixed — so guess what happens when their base desires are unleashed? It’s total chaos. Noé’s “more is more” approach to moviemaking fits the material to a T, with multiple credits sequences and bobbing, weaving cinematography that makes us wonder if the DP is drinking the spiked sangria himself. Early scenes are long and talky, punctured by an occasional stylistic jolt. It’s French New Wave on acid, and it’s glorious.
Like a lot of Noé’s work, watching Climax is like having a bad trip yourself. He pulls out all stops available to an innovative filmmaker, who seemingly has no consideration of what’s acceptable, what’s commendable, what’s commercial. (Ah, to be French!) Some truly terrible things happen to these people, though this may the first film in which Noé actually shows some restraint, considering how this might have gone. The highlight, of course, is the dancing from Climax‘s wickedly talented performers, filmed in long takes from inventive angles so we know this crazy choreography isn’t just movie magic. It’s as real as can be. Climax is breath of fresh air in a year that saw the box office dominated entirely by comic books, sequels, and lifeless remakes. The more Disney takes over the film industry, the more we need Gaspar Noé as the antidote.
We’re on the cusp of a new year, a new decade — that has ended in a way no one could have predicted at the start. The 2010s taught many lessons and wrought a hell of a lot, with 2019 hopefully serving as the climax of this insanity. (Please, oh please, can we get some peace and quiet in 2020?) Climax is the ideal fucked up dance party to send this year out with a bang — for those of us who need more kick than Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve is likely to provide. Climax is a Republican’s worst nightmare, a bizarro, druggy, hedonistic, multiethnic, pansexual last hurrah for 2019… and for the 2010s… and maybe for the movies themselves.
At least we can take comfort in this — if cinema truly is dying, the films of Gaspar Noé will be the last to go, freaking us the fuck out until the bitter end.
“It was strange, but beautiful at the same time. And it was beautiful, but crazy at the same time. It was something from the belly, or something from the sky…”
If Climax is the ultimate cinematic send-off, Genesis takes us back to the start. It’s as quiet and unobtrusive as Climax is brash and loud.
Philippe Lesage’s coming-of-age drama follows Canadian step-siblings Guillaume (Théodore Pellerin) and Charlotte (Noée Abita) in separate but equally devastating tales of young love and heartbreak. There’s not much of a plot to hang onto. These characters’ paths reveal themselves gradually, as they do in real life. Guillaume begins to feel a longing for his best friend, Nicolas (Jules Roy Sicotte), a classmate at an all-boys boarding school. Charlotte’s boyfriend Maxime (Pier-Luc Funk) suggests opening up their relationship, signaling that his commitment to her may not be as strong as she thought. Charlotte decides to explore other options with Theo (Maxime Dumontier), an easy-going, slightly older guy she meets at a bar. Charlotte falls hard for Theo, in a way she probably didn’t for Maxime; Maxime and Charlotte’s relationship feels like a first, probably begun in high school, while Theo is her first crack at a more adult romance.
Guillaume and Charlotte are open-hearted and inexperienced, chasing their desires without protecting themselves. They make the kind of mistakes we all make when we listen to our hearts. In one of Genesis‘ strongest scenes, Guillaume turns a class assignment into a stirring confession of his affection for Nicolas, seemingly with the support of most boys from his class. But this conservative culture soon reverts to reinforcement of the straight male status quo, ostracizing Guillaume from every friend he has. Meanwhile, Charlotte finds Maxime’s callousness replicated in Theo to an even greater degree, and then in another guy she encounters at a party to a much greater degree. The more she seeks solace from damage done to her by other men, the further she is abused.
As Guillaume, the well-liked class clown, Pellerin is uncannily watchable and charismatic; he draws our eye in every frame he’s in. As Charlotte, Abita is more subtle; she feels like any girl you might meet crossing the street, but the more we come to know her vulnerability, the more we want to protect her from the men she meets.
Near the end of his story, Guillaume’s friendship with a younger student is misinterpreted, branding him a sexual predator. He, too, is punished for seeking comfort from the cruelties of a first love. And just when you think the thesis of Genesis might simply boil down to “straight men are the worst,” Lesage introduces a third protagonist named Felix (Édouard Tremblay-Grenier), a younger boy experiencing the first blushes of a crush at summer camp. Coming off of Guillaume and Charlotte’s calamitous flirtations, we can only imagine what crushing horror lies in store for poor Felix as Genesis winds down to its conclusion. But Lesage ends his story sweetly, because young love is often sweet — at first.
Genesis‘ structure is, at first, confounding — stranding Guillaume and Charlotte in an unresolved dark moment, with only a faint glimmer of hope that they’ll find the comfort they’ve sought elsewhere in each other — only to begin an entirely new story in its final act. It’s as if a thematically and stylistically similar short film has been programmed alongside the first story, at the end of instead of the beginning. But this all clicks into place when viewed as a spiritual and somewhat literal sequel to Lesage’s The Demons, a 2015 film that was only made widely available along with Genesis this year. Felix is The Demons‘ protagonist, portrayed by the same actor; in it, he confronts the real and imagined horrors of childhood the same way Guillaume and Charlotte face the pain of first love. In this pair of films, Lesage walks us through significant stages of adolescence, using many of the same actors in both — like a colder, crueler take on Linklater’s Boyhood. Each film is great on its own, but they’re most powerful viewed in tandem.
Genesis suggests, perhaps, that every heartache leads the lover down an ever-darkening path. Charlotte and Guillaume follow their hearts, and are ultimately punished for their innocence. Love has painful moments in store for all of us, but by ending the film on Félix’s story, Lesage reminds us what’s been driving Guillaume and Charlotte this whole time. Genesis is a mighty title for such a small and assuming film, but it spells out Lesage’s intent — it’s less about beginning or ending any particular character’s story, and more about exploring how love motivates so many of the actions that shape us, so much of who we are. Boil any person down to their core, and you’ll find a need to be loved driving their every move. Too often, it ends in pain — but it’s pure at heart.
Lesage’s narratives are largely autobiographical. Genesis recreates his own origins as an artist, how heartbreak shaped him as a storyteller. In this way, Genesis is as elemental as films come. As much as blockbusters try to dazzle us with big budgets and special effects, the foundation of filmmaking is still well-drawn characters living relatable lives, suffering personal struggles, trying their best to persevere. Lesage’s film is the perfect reminder of why we go to the movies in the first place — to connect with an artist, to feel what they feel, to see through their eyes for a couple of hours. The rest is just noise.
8. AD ASTRA
“Now we know. We’re all we’ve got.”
In 2019, Netflix dominated the awards conversation while Disney gobbled up an unprecedented percentage of the box office. Disney also gobbled up 20th Century Fox, leaving Ad Astra as one of the last films produced by the studio without Disney’s oversight. That’s notable because Ad Astra is the exact sort of film risk-averse Disney itself wouldn’t make — a downbeat drama aimed at adults, based on an original screenplay, from a filmmaker who’s never made anything close to a crowd-pleasing hit.
Writer-director James Gray takes us from Earth to the moon to Mars all the way to Neptune, each location more alien than the last. His most show-stopping sequence unfolds fairly early on, as Roy and his escorts are ambushed by moon pirates. It’s one of the most thrillingly cinematic sequences of the year, an instant classic. Brad Pitt proves he’s still a magnetic leading man as Roy McBride, an eager-to-please astronaut tasked with reaching his long-lost father Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones). As we meet him, we learn Roy has drunk all the Kool-Aid about being a stoic hero type. His pulse never rises above 80, his emotions never flag a warning in the virtual psychologist who must approve his mission-readiness. He gladly, dutifully follows orders. He’s strong and silent, like any other leading man — but Gray doesn’t revere these qualities the way a typical action film would.
Ad Astra may look like a big budget, star-driven space saga on the outside. But at heart, it’s a somber, reflective drama built around big existential questions. Gray uses the massive scope of the universe as a metaphor for Roy’s isolation, the distance he feels between himself and the rest of his kind — especially his estranged wife (Liv Tyler). The further he delves into the unknown, the more he craves the comforts of home. For all its otherworldly splendor, Ad Astra ends up telling the most intimate, personal tale imaginable — a man’s journey back to himself.
As with Gray’s The Lost City Of Z, another film that was more thoughtful and esoteric than its adventurous setting might suggest, mainstream audiences took Ad Astra at face value and were largely underwhelmed by it as a space thriller. That’s because Gray’s films work on two levels, and the deeper, more mythic level hits hardest. In the breathless opening sequence, Roy plummets from the outer reaches of Earth’s atmosphere all the way back down to terra firma. Beyond being a dizzying, dazzling action set piece, it’s an apt metaphor for what this film is about — man’s inherent urge to reach for the stars, and the gravitational forces that thwart our best efforts, yanking us back down to solid ground. We soon learn Clifford McBride may responsible for these powerful electromagnetic pulses from deep space that threaten life on Earth. That’s no mere convenience or coincidence. Roy McBride has reached great heights, physically and figuratively. Through a thrilling action sequence, Gray tells us that his father has the power to knock him back down to Earth. What metaphor could be stronger than this?
Roy McBride’s voyage takes him into the heavens to literally meet his maker — his father, who made Roy in his image, then disappeared. With mankind facing a potential extinction, this story echoes the looming threat of climate change. On a literal level, Ad Astra is about a man going into space to seek his father’s mercy. On an allegorical one, it’s about a man taking to the skies to talk God out of killing us all.
Gray refuses us the luxury of getting lost in the splendor and majesty of space. His vision of the heavens more closely resembles hell, a yawning void that seemingly swallows more lives than it preserves. It’s an apt approach for science fiction in 2019, at a time when we can’t trust our leaders to act with our best interests in mind. Now, the men we used to look up to may very well get us all killed. When paired with last year’s First Man, Ad Astra reframes a journey that once looked heroic for what it is — grandiose male folly, with no tangible benefit to those of us left on Earth.
Ad Astra is full of these rude awakenings. Whether we strive to live up to God’s will, or just our father’s, it’s a futile undertaking. How many lives have been lost in pursuit of greatness? How much misery could be spared if we just said, fuck our fathers? Ad Astra readjudicates the legacy of epic space sagas like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. What if, instead of the mystery and majesty previous film explorers found out, there’s… nothing? What if there’s no greater intelligence than us? No higher power?
Gray/ inverts the hero’s journey, rendering it utterly meaningless. Heart Of Darkness, Apocalypse Now, and 2001: A Space Odyssey are compelling stories, but wouldn’t their protagonists have found greater meaning if they’d just stayed home? Here, James Gray asserts that the patriarchy won’t save us; these institutions don’t exist to protect us anymore. He kills the mythos surrounding old white men and lofty ideals and the pursuit of greatness, where Roy’s true act of heroism is showing up for his wife and being a better man.
Ad Astra can be read as an atheistic text about realizing there’s nobody out there worth finding, or a timely tale for the #MeToo era about how not all “great men” are all they’re cracked up to be. It’s about killing our heroes — whether that’s a wrathful God or our literal fathers — or, at least, not becoming them. And it ends with the realization that we’re all we got. The more we ascend, the more we explore, the further we are from what matters. There is no greater glory than human connection — at least, not within our grasp.
7. QUEEN & SLIM
“Can I be your legacy?”
James Gray’s space epic is one of several 2019 films about killing our heroes — who, more often than not, are white men in a position of some authority, like the grizzled astronaut in Ad Astra. Queen & Slim is another inversion of this archetype — casting the white man with the badge not as a hero, but a menace. Meanwhile, we’re rooting for the duo we’d typically think of as “bad guys” — cop killers on the run — to get away with murder.
Of course, headlines of recent years have reframed the way many of us view this scenario. Queen and Slim are pulled over for no good reason on a chilly winter’s night, following a mediocre Tinder date that is unlikely to lead to another. Nothing about them signals wrongdoing — except the color of their skin, in the eyes of a racist cop. Slim ends up shooting the police officer in an act of self-defense. Queen, a savvy defense attorney who just watched an innocent client be put to death, knows there’s no way the law will come down on their side. So they do what they can — they run.
Queen & Slim could have gone in several directions — a tense getaway thriller, a road trip dramedy, or a crime-tinged romantic caper. It nods in those directions, satisfying the requirements of each. But at heart, it’s a political powder keg, the most potent dramatization of police violence against African-Americans we’ve seen recently. It supposes that the victims of racial profiling and police brutality get the upper hand for a change. It allows us to go beyond feeling angry and helpless, inviting us to experience an array of other emotions — hopeful, empathetic, apprehensive, exhilarated — before Queen and Slim’s journey comes to an end.
Writer Lena Waithe and director Melina Matsoukas take current events relevance to the next level by staging Queen & Slim as a fantasy, like a noble inversion of Natural Born Killers, or a gender-balanced version of Breathless, substituting soul for Godard’s French New Wave attitude. To white folks watching the evening news, Queen and Slim are cop killers — armed and dangerous. But to most of black America, they’re legends in the making. Young teens are honored to meet them; their photo adorns T-shirts; most black people they encounter will help them any way they can. Queen and Slim are hunted by the authorities, but find safe havens in black communities.
In other eras, it might be difficult to understand how the shooting of a police officer could become an act of political heroism. It might be hard to cheer on Queen and Slim, hoping they evade the police and make it out of the United States and live happily ever after. But Waithe and Matsoukas are fed up with old school patriarchal institutions that allow cops to kill unarmed citizens without consequence, and they know a lot of the audience is fed up, too. As this decade comes to a close, I’m tired of seeing this story play out the same way, again and again. Excessive force has seen a lot of action on the big screen lately — in Blindspotting, The Hate U Give, Monsters & Men, Widows, and Detroit, to name a few. It always ends in tragedy that echoes what we’ve seen on the nightly news. By now, I’m more than ready to cheer on something — anything — that might give these stories a different ending.
The film has been touted as a black Bonnie And Clyde, but that’s not a fair comparison. Bonnie and Clyde chose their life of crime, and killed over a dozen people. What happens in Queen & Slim is a matter of self-preservation. The film is unabashedly romantic amidst these tragic circumstances, ultimately more Romeo And Juliet than Bonnie And Clyde. Queen & Slim makes heroes out of characters who are usually casualties. It makes the daring decision to mythologize itself. By the time the film ends, Queen and Slim are household names in America — symbols of hope and defiance against an unjust political system for African-American communities.
Queen & Slim goes big and goes for broke, and in doing so, allows us to invest in the dynamic between these characters the same way we get caught up in the romance between Jack and Rose in Titanic, or Rick and Isla in Casablanca, or Scarlett and Rhett in Gone With The Wind. Those may seem like unusual comparisons, but Matsoukas imbues Queen & Slim with a similarly epic scope, framing the execution of minorities by police as a tragedy equal to the historic backdrops of those films. And that’s justified — we’ve gotten to that point in America. It’s time for a narrative film that calls out police brutality for the widespread epidemic it is. Matsoukas burrows into the skin of the men and women our justice system is so egregiously failing; Queen & Slim isn’t nearly as stark or harrowing as 12 Years A Slave, but it similarly sets up these chilling circumstances so everyone in the audience — even a white guy like me — relates to what it’s like when a perfectly fine evening turns into a horror show at the hands of those who are supposed to serve and protect. Waithe’s characters are as innocent as can be; if it could happen to them, it could happen to anyone.
Queen & Slim enters the pantheon of great getaway stories, joining the ranks of (mostly white) heroes and heroines in films like North By Northwest, Badlands, Thelma & Louise, and The Fugitive. But its premise practically burns with current events resonance. For most of its running time, Queen & Slim offers those who’ve grown weary of 2019 an escapist fantasy — as romantic, moving, thrilling, and thought-provoking as you’d hope. It embraces implausibility, favoring emotional truth over stark realism, sweeping us up in its Tarantino-esque revision of history, where victims of police violence live to see another day, and leave behind the legacy they were robbed of in real life.
This isn’t the way it really happens. But that’s what the movies are for — to imagine the possibilities, to give life to legends, to immortalize the silenced.
“Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?”
Todd Phillips’ Joker is more than just another comic book blockbuster. It’s a pastiche, a throwback, a carbon copy of better films. It’s a Trojan horse arthouse discussion piece, sneaking into the multiplex disguised as a Batman film. It’s a poke in the eye of Trump’s America, a pity party for the undereducated white American male who’s been edged off center stage in recent years. It’s a movie about a troll that is, itself, a troll. It is as nakedly narcissistic as a gym selfie, as eloquent as a Twitter rant, with an iconic stairway dance set to Gary Glitter’s stadium-friendly “Rock and Roll Part 2” that might as well be a TikTok. The Joker character has delusions of grandeur, and so does Joker.
In other words, Joker is the definitive film of Our Times. No wonder so many people call it empty, irresponsible, dangerous, useless, and shallow.
Like Queen & Slim, Joker puts us in the shoes of a killer whose questionable act of self-defense results in media infamy. Unlike Queen & Slim, it’s not entirely clear how Phillips wants us to feel about that. Arthur Fleck is attacked by three jackass Wall Street bros the same night he’s fired from his clowning gig. (Bringing a gun into the pediatric cancer ward at a hospital is, apparently, frowned upon.) The provocation leaves three rich pricks dead, and though the nightly news sensationalizes the “clown killer” as a serious threat to public safety, the Gotham City underclass embraces him as a symbol of their discontent. Like Queen and Slim, Arthur Fleck unwittingly starts a movement against the establishment. Unlike Queen and Slim, he’s a deranged sociopath.
But does that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s wrong, does it?
The Joker is one of the most enduring villains of the past century. We’ve loved to hate him in DC Comics, on the campy 60s Batman series, as embodied by Jack Nicholson in 1989, as portrayed in 2008 in Heath Ledger’s posthumous Oscar-winning performance. The colorful master of chaos is the perfect foil for dour, drab Batman. Their yin-yang dynamic is the quintessential hero-villain relationship, the best in any superhero saga. But there’s no yin in Joker — Phillips’ film is two hours of pure, unadulterated yang, with only a handful of connections to larger Batman lore. It’s missing the conflict, the stakes, the epic showdown — all the stuff that’s made Marvel movies the box office titans they are. What’s a superhero movie without the superhero? What happened here?
Well… something strange happened in the latter half of this decade. A lot of Americans started rooting for the bad guy. Greed, corruption, and bullying became admirable qualities in a leader. Bigotry and oppression were deemed acceptable side effects of putting a clown prince in the White House. Joker is a movie that fully embraces this ethos. It doesn’t ever wink to let you know it knows it’s in on the joke. Leaving many to wonder… is it? And the rest of us to counter… who cares?
Arthur Fleck longs to be adored by a TV audience, but he can’t — so he substitutes being hated and feared, which is almost as good. What kind of man spews self-pity and turns the rage of the masses against the elite, merely to settle his own personal vendettas? What kind of monster regurgitates every vile, hateful thought that crosses his mind, just to elicit applause from the lowest common denominator? It’s hard to imagine anyone as problematic as Arthur Fleck could inspire a movement of deluded followers to wreak havoc in his name — but guess what? It’s happening.
In so many ways, Joker is the defining film of the latter half of this decade, a film in which the bad guys win or nobody wins. There’s no other option. We may enjoy seeing Spider-Man, Black Panther, and Captain America save the day in Avengers: Endgame, but that’s escapist fare. Todd Phillips has made a comic book movie about the world we actually live in… the one where villains unleash hell on earth, and nobody stops them.
Joker isn’t a response to our senselessly violent, woefully corrupt, irreparably broken reality. It’s merely a reflection. Many don’t like what they see, but it’s not the mirror that’s cracked — it’s us. In any early scene, Arthur tells his social worker that “it’s getting crazier out there,” echoing what so many of us have been saying for the past three years. The world we live in seems like a funhouse reflection of what we once knew, distorted beyond recognition. There are no heroes anymore. There are only villains who put on crazy clown makeup and go on shooting rampages, and villains who don’t. Only a society as broken as ours could produce a nasty piece of work. Only a society as broken as ours could stomach it. It’s a bitter pill to swallow — but that’s life! Joker is a sneering, ugly, awful fucking movie, but it’s the movie we deserve. So maybe it’s a masterpiece.
Like a punk cover of a classic pop song, Joker is shrill and bratty and lacking in originality — but it’ll get stuck in your head, just like the original. When was the last time a major studio spent over $60 million to make a film as divisive and unpleasant as this? The 70s are long gone, and so is the era when Hollywood enabled Taxi Driver and The King Of Comedy to see the light of day. The only way to make a movie like that now is to smuggle it into theaters wearing clown makeup. Either it’s one of the year’s most provocative, discussable, essential movies, or it’s one a hell of a joke. Aesthetically, the film is beautifully made, from Lawrence Sher’s suitably off-kilter cinematography to Hildur Guðnadóttir’s moaning, dirge-like score. Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is… a lot. (That’s the best I can do to describe it.) Phillips and Phoenix and Fleck are so inextricably fused into one cohesive shit show, it comes off feeling somehow like a Joker autobiography. And it’s every bit as off-putting as that would be.
Joker ends with Arthur Fleck where he belongs — locked up in Arkham Asylum. He chuckles at a “joke” he’s just thought of. When asked to explain, he replies: “You wouldn’t get it.”
That “joke” is the movie we’ve just watched. And Arthur’s right — a lot of people “didn’t get it.” Are the events of Joker meant to be taken literally, or was it all the manic fantasy of lunatic who reimagines his pathetic life as an operatic comic book villain origin story?
Like it or not, Joker takes us about as far as we can get inside the mind of a sad sack who turns to grandiose violence as self-expression. Scorsese’s Taxi Driver examined a killer’s psyche following a real-life rash of assassinations in the 60s and 70s. Joker evokes something similar with the “lone wolf” mass shooter archetype — an angry white male who rants to anyone who will listen about the raw hand he’s been dealt, who feels entitled to sex and money and respect, who “practices” violence against women before taking his rage to the world stage. We see guys like Arthur Fleck on the news every day, shooting up a school or a church or a movie theater. We grin and bear it. Find me the hero who stopped any of that from happening… or who did anything to prevent it from happening again.
So that’s the state of the union heading into 2020. Our current outlook is so bleak that Batman movies don’t even have Batman in them anymore. We, the citizens of Gotham, have waited too long for a masked hero to show up and do something about this mess we’re in. Collectively, we now agree… he’s not coming.
It’s 2019. Our heroes are dead. Long live the villains, I guess.
5. THE IRISHMAN
“Everybody’s dead, Mr. Sheeran. It’s over. They’re all gone.”
In the opening lines of Goodfellas‘ voiceover narration, Henry Hill says: “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.” The Irishman is a three-and-a-half-hour refutation of that sentiment. Martin Scorsese’s acclaimed 1990 mob drama certainly depicts the downside of gangster life, but it’s largely an escapist fantasy. It lets us be made men for a couple of hours, and it’s fun.
Like Goodfellas, 2019’s The Irishman is slick, stylish, nimbly paced, and often mordantly funny; its epic running time is hardly a slog. But it’s no lark. Scorsese knowingly emulates his past filmography, but there’s more than repetition of triumphs past on his mind. The 77-year-old auteur rethinks the gangster genre his career is largely defined by; reexamines the wise guys and tough guys nearly every one of his films is about; and ruminates on the past, present, and future of cinema itself. (“Cinema” being defined as “anything but Marvel,” of course.) Here, again, our narrator is mobster in question. Robert De Niro plays Sheeran as a cipher; he doesn’t go looking for a life of crime, but he doesn’t resist it, either. He’s loyal to his friends — until he’s not. Frank is cool-headed enough to know that the only way to survive the gangster’s life is to do what the higher-ups tell him. He likens it to being in the army — and he is the perfect solider, never questioning the orders he’s given, even when he’s asked to kill a high-profile family friend. Scorsese occasionally pauses the action to tell us how tertiary characters will die, highlighting the disproportionate number of early, ugly trips to the grave occur in this line of work. These men let greed and glory get the better of them, but Frank never does. That’s why he outlasts them, long enough to learn what happens to a gangster in his twilight years — the same thing that happens to everybody else.
Sheeran ends the film in denial of his impending demise, even while shopping for his own casket. He can’t believe that what’s done is done, that “it’s what it is.” (But it is.) He insists that the door to his room be left open, though it’s clear that no one will be stopping by — except maybe the reaper himself. It recalls an earlier moment, during Frank and Jimmy Hoffa’s first meeting, as a trusting Hoffa leaves his bedroom door open while Frank sleeps just outside. Ultimately, Hoffa is too trusting — but this small gesture may be the closest thing to a true connection Frank will ever have. But he won’t understand that until it’s much too late — if he ever does understand that.
Late in life, Sheeran is approached by a couple of FBI agents seeking closure for Hoffa’s family. Everybody who could be incriminated is dead and gone. Frank’s confession would have no consequence but to give Hoffa’s family some peace of mind. Scorsese could have framed The Irishman with Sheeran talking to these authorities, which would give Frank’s tale some credibility. Instead, he has Sheeran confess directly to us. He’s a rambling old fogey in a wheelchair; does any setting scream “unreliable narrator” like a nursing home? Frank is certainly telling the truth, as he sees it. Why would he lie to us? But he’s stripped of dignity, shorn of glory, and missing any perspective he wasn’t privy to at the time. Scorsese has gone out of his way to minimize Sheeran, even while giving his questionable confessional I Heard You Paint Houses the most sprawling and prestigious canvas he could. In a strange way, perhaps only a three-plus-hour film could take the time to make its subject so mundane, so workaday, so ultimately pointless.
Yes, Jimmy Hoffa’s disappearance was one of the more captivating headlines of the 20th century, and yes, the gangsters depicted did a lot of damage to a lot of lives. But, as Frank Sheeran’s daughter Peggy asks: “Why?” In the end, all this moving and shaking and wheeling and dealing just left a lot of bodies in the ground. The inner workings of labor unions are discussed in great detail throughout The Irishman, but nothing we see these men do elicits a tangible outcome. It’s tough guys going about their business for business’ sake, because it makes them some money and boost their egos. What really matters — the love of their wives and children — fades into the background. Scorsese’s film isn’t just a critique of gangster life, it’s a screed against all kinds of macho posturing.
Though Scorsese’s oeuvre contains plenty of juicy roles for women, nearly all his films center on men. The Irishman has faced some backlash for the way it sidelines female voices, moreso than even Goodfellas did nearly thirty years ago. As Peggy, Anna Paquin is present in several scenes but speaks audibly in only one — to ask: “Why?” What The Irishman‘s critics don’t seem to understand is that this is the most important line in the film. That one word is an indictment of generations of men, an entire crooked industry — and a whole genre. Women are background dressing in The Irishman, mute and inconsequential to the mob’s dealings. But Scorsese means us to feel their absence. The Irishman delivers on what a Martin Scorsese crime saga promises — slick cinematography, tough guy banter, plentiful dark comedy, bursts of bloodshed, an ironic use of period pop music, and a heaping helping of regret. But this time around, it’s the regret that lingers longest.
Like Ad Astra, The Irishman questions masculine institutions and condemns the tough guys who neglected their families in pursuit of power and prestige. It suggests aching loneliness as the endpoint for such quests. It has serious doubts about the ultimate value of patriarchy. In Joker, Arthur Fleck transcends to mythic villain status by killing his idol, late night TV host Murray Franklin, played by Robert De Niro; in The Irishman, it’s De Niro’s Frank Sheeran tasked with killing the man he looks up to, Al Pacino’s Jimmy Hoffa. Check out any 18-year-old boy’s dorm room Scarface poster for proof that gangsters are idolized; in The Irishman, Scorsese kills off the heroes he helped mythologize in the first place. Taxi Driver was a whippersnapper. Goodfellas exuded middle-aged confidence. The Irishman shrivels up and hunches over before our eyes, emulating the uncertainty that creeps up on us as we age. Only a film this long could carry the weight of a lifetime, and leave us with so many questions about what it all meant.
Netflix is credited with destroying the theatrical experience, and in the long run, that may wind up being true. But at the moment, it’s one of few Hollywood players willing to give us a movie like this. The Irishman cost a lot of money; it looks and feels that way. It is sprawling — not a single moment feels truncated, or in deference to a studio note. There is no concession to dwindling attention spans, or how it might play on our phones. This probably doesn’t make strict financial sense — Netflix is playing the long game, willing to take a loss to nab some Oscars and the ensuing prestige. The Irishman sees an aging auteur reckoning with his legacy, a genre reckoning with itself, and perhaps cinema’s last gasp before home viewing swallows the theatrical experience whole. It’s a film that demands to be seen in a theater, brought to us by a company that would prefer us to all stay in and watch it at home.
Maybe the movies are dying. Maybe Netflix is just pretending to be their friend, so it can lure them into an empty house and kill them off for good when they least expect it. For now, I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt. Here’s hoping the streaming giant will keep making ’em like they used to — and putting them in theaters, too.
4. PAIN & GLORY
“Your eyes have changed, darling. The film is the same.”
At times, the films of 2019 felt more like a eulogy than a multibillion dollar industry’s commercial output. Scorsese’s The Irishman seemed to rethink and perhaps even regret the filmmaker’s whole career; Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood mourned a bygone era in Tinseltown; Joker danced on the graves of some of the best films ever made. Massive sagas came to an end with Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker and Avengers: Endgame. Disney trotted out zombie versions of past hits in lieu of anything remotely original. And then Cats killed cinema for good; after viewing it, critics and audiences agreed — there should be no more movies.
But no film provided as funereal a self-examination as Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain & Glory, casting the usually charismatic Antonio Banderas brilliantly against type as Salvador Mallo, physically weary and emotionally scarred. Like many Almodóvar films, Pain & Glory offers layers of storytelling — personal essays, theatrical productions, and fictional films that feed into Almodóvar’s larger narrative. What’s distinct in Pain & Glory is the melancholy weighing down the filmmaker’s normally jubilant tone. Pain & Glory still has the vivid color palette and playful energy present in films like All About My Mother, Volver, and Bad Education, as well as a lot of recurring actors, but here, it provides a contrast to our protagonist, who is so drained of passion and verve.
Critics read The Irishman as Scorsese’s reexamination of his previous work. Pain & Glory takes that one step further, as Almodóvar’s proxy Sebastian Mallo literally reconsiders a film he made decades earlier for an upcoming revival. Mallo seeks out the film’s star, habitual heroin user Alberto (Asier Etxeandia), with whom he had a massive falling out. This beef has always colored Mallo’s opinion of the film, prompting Zulema (Cecilia Roth) to tell him that it’s his perspective that’s changed — “the film is the same.”
Changing context and reframing the way we look at the movies of the past is a big theme of the past year. How does today’s viewer respond to a fresh take on Taxi Driver and The King Of Comedy? How would Scorsese make GoodFellas three decades later? What kind of Bonnie And Clyde story resonates with 2019’s more diverse moviegoing audience? How do the halcyon days of 1960s Hollywood look in the wake of this decade’s massive disruptions? Almodóvar turns this level of analysis inward, highlighting how different one’s work — and one’s life — looks from a later vantage point. Alberto’s substance abuse is more understandable, now that Sebastian his own pain to alleviate. His mother becomes a movie star beauty struggling to make the best of tough circumstances (embodied by Penélope Cruz), not the sharp-tongued critic she is in real life (played as an older woman by Julieta Serrano). The painful details of a romance with Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia) that ended decades ago melt away with time, leaving two greying men who still care deeply about one another, though their paths have diverged too widely to intersect again for good. Sebastian and Federico share just one scene in Pain & Glory, but that sense of loss reverberates throughout the rest of the film. No other scene from 2019 conveys such a lifetime of feeling in so little time; Almodóvar has magically, expertly compressed the entire weight of The Irishman down to one single interaction.
Pain & Glory is as much an origin story as Joker is, though here, we witness the birth of a creative master instead of an evil son of a bitch. Like Genesis, it’s largely an autobiographical artist’s tale, but Almodóvar makes it as meta as he’s ever been. Young Sebastian meets Eduardo (César Vicente), an older neighbor boy that Salvador teaches to write and read. Though Eduardo is illiterate, he is beautifully expressive through his drawing, which ends up impacting Sebastian’s own trajectory as an artist. Almodóvar acolytes may expect this relationship to grow more fraught or lurid, but that’s another place where Pain & Glory deviates from the filmmaker’s previous work. Almodóvar leaves his threads loose, setting us up for graceful gut punch in the film’s final scene. It’s the most elegant ending in any movie this year.
As other filmmakers punctured holes in the mythos surrounding stalwart heroes, taciturn gangsters, and pissy clowns, Almodóvar stripped away his own mystique, laying his thoughts and fears surrounding aging bare for all the world to see. In Pain & Glory, one of our modern era’s most dynamic international filmmakers grapples with his life and legacy in a way that is intimate and revealing, not self-celebratory or grandiose. Almodóvar’s films have never been shy on emotion, but this one in particular self-consciously bares its beating heart. When we meet him, Sebastian Mallo is done making movies; he won’t even attach his name to a small one-man play he wrote. Thankfully, Almodóvar chose the bolder path in making Pain & Glory. It’s so true, it hurts.
I seriously doubt that this is Almodóvar’s last film, but it’s a crowning achievement all the same. Like The Irishman, it feels like a filmmaker’s final word on a storied career — the kind of film that only auteurs with their expertise and experience could conceive.
In the end, everything is distilled down to one of two things — pain or glory. It’s the way they intersect and complement each other that makes each of us unique, and gives each of us our own story to tell — or let die with us.
3. ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD
“He’s not the best anymore. In fact, far from it. He’s coming to terms with what it’s like to be slightly more… slightly more useless each day.”
Filmmakers in 2019 ruminated on cinema history, from Joker‘s knowing Scorsese pastiche to Scorsese’s own reexamination of the gangster genre in The Irishman. Of course, nobody did it quite like the maestro of homage, Quentin Tarantino.
Tarantino films have always winked at the audience, calling attention to the ways they pay tribute to and diverge from movies of the past. So it comes as a bit of a surprise that this ninth Tarantino film is the first that’s actually about filmmaking. It turns out to be a surprisingly rich sandbox for the auteur to play in — it’s hard to imagine any other filmmaker capturing the sun-drenched spirit of ’69 quite like this.
Leonardo DiCaprio plays Rick Dalton, a past-his-prime TV cowboy now reduced to playing “the heavy” in one-off appearances on other stars’ shows. Though his latest gig, the pilot for Lancer, is a 60s TV Westerns, it’s shot like a Tarantino movie, because that’s how it feels to Dalton — how any performance feels to an actor in the moment. Dalton is giving us Shakespeare, even if viewers at home won’t see it that way. (“Evil, sexy Hamlet” is the motivation he’s given by the director.) Between takes, Dalton chats with a precocious 8-year-old actor (she finds the term “actress” nonsensical) played by Julia Butters. She’s a rising star opposite Rick’s fading one, all idealism and work ethic, and a symbol of the approaching self-seriousness of method acting that would become popular over the next decade. Dalton is washed up in a dying genre, soon to be eclipsed by Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in the coming wave of nervy auteur cinema of the 70s.
Dalton is both a try-hard and a fuck up, memorizing his lines over one too many whiskey sours and exploding with rage and self-pity when he’s not as sharp as he should be on set the next day. (It’s great fun to see an actor as fastidious as DiCaprio let loose with broad comedy. He shows a whole new skill set as a performer here, while still bringing his A-game as a dramatic leading man.) Brad Pitt plays Dalton’s “gopher” — stuntman Cliff Booth, reduced to driving Rick around now that he’s also a Hollywood outcast. He’s the steady, cool breeze to Rick Dalton’s fragile hothead; nothing would delight me more than learning Tarantino’s next project was a revival of The Odd Couple starring Brad and Leo. (Or better yet, Cliff Booth and Rick Dalton.)
Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is chockfull of pretty boys and leading men past their prime — not just DiCaprio and Pitt, but Kurt Russell, Luke Perry, and Timothy Olyphant, too, all more worn and craggy than they were in their heyday. In a meta way, it adds resonance to a story that’s all about reckoning with obsolescence. Meanwhile, the free-spirited Manson family looks fresh as a daisy — populated largely by second-generation Hollywood talent like Margaret Qualley, Maya Hawke, and Harley Quinn Smith. They’re the revolution, aiming to teach stale old Hollywood a lesson or two.
Tarantino’s Ninth is surprisingly conservative, despite the foul language and extreme violence. Cliff Booth is a lot of fun — but he’s also an embodiment of pure white male ego, kicking ass and taking names (and killing wives?) without consequence. Some critics have seized upon the film’s jokey take on Bruce Lee and violence against women — both involving the Booth character — as signs that Tarantino himself needs to get with the times. Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is, in so many ways, a celebration of an era when privileged white men ruled the roost. The hippie movement threatened that establishment — and though Manson himself was a vile racist, the murders he ordered certainly coincided with changing tides in Hollywood (and, in part, caused them).
Cliff and Rick both dislike and distrust hippies (though Cliff enjoys flirting with some). That’s fair, since the hippies we meet in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood belong to the Manson family… but nobody knows that yet. In this latest film, Tarantino is oddly cranky and awfully square; certain lines sound like they were written by Clint Eastwood instead of the man who brought us Pulp Fiction. Like Pedro Almodóvar and Martin Scorsese, the auteur is suddenly showing his age, and making it part of the text of his films. But in lieu of revision or remorse, Tarantino ignites a flamethrower and burns everything he doesn’t like to a crisp. Once again, he flips an unthinkable tragedy on its head, mining comedy from violence inflicted on the perpetrators rather than the victims.
It’s beginning to feel like an easy out for Tarantino, his way of not dealing with the very real consequences of the brutal stories he’s telling. But there’s one crucial difference here. Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, punished Nazis and slave owners for their crimes against humanity, but it didn’t undo those sins. The deep damage of the Holocaust and slavery had been done. Unlike the vengeful reversals of fortune in those films, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood‘s revisionist history erases its evil completely. Here, as far as we know, the Manson murders never occur in the first place.
Sharon Tate lives. She’ll have a career. She’ll have her child. She’ll have a whole life. Meanwhile, the police will probably head out to Spahn Movie Ranch, learn that Manson ordered the attacks on Cielo Drive, and prevent further Helter Skelter. Tarantino, a filmmaker known for reveling in bloodshed, here stops some of the last century’s most grisly murders from happening. He undoes a notorious crime. It’s a surprisingly lovely gift to the slain actress, remembered almost exclusively by her death. It’s a far more ambiguous rewriting of history than Inglourious Basterds or Django Unchained explored. What would the 70s have been like with Sharon Tate in them? What if the world never heard of Charles Manson? With Tarantino’s wishful thinking, the cheesy TV cowboys of yesteryear get another day in the sun. And so does Sharon Tate.
Though the specter of the Manson murders looms large in the background, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is first and foremost a love letter to people who make movies — the actors, the stuntmen, the producers, the directors, the costumers — and the audience. In one of its most delightful moments, Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate spends a leisurely afternoon watching her own performance in The Wrecking Crew at Westwood’s Bruin theater. It’s a surprisingly compassionate tribute to an actress whose career was cut short — to a woman who is known for how she died, not what she contributed to the medium. But it’s also a tip of the hat to the pure pleasure of going to the movies, of sitting in the dark with strangers in mutual delight of what’s unfolding up on the big screen.
Once Upon A Time In Hollywood lets us sit with these stars, and these performances, for a long while, showing the work and care that actors put into their performances, and the joy they feel after a great take, or when their film makes the marquee. It’s a thoughtful tribute to the craft, one we rarely see — even when actors take center stage as protagonists on film. These characters are big and broad, but they’re real people — they may be movie stars, but they’re at least a little more relatable than the assassins and bank robbers and underground Nazi-killers we’ve met in Tarantino’s previous work. Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is his most grounded story by far, slavishly recreating certain true-to-life details and carefully fabricating others. In many ways, it fits right in with what he’s been doing all along; in others, it is his biggest departure yet. It signals growth and a newfound maturity in a filmmaker who rarely deviates from his winning formula. (It’s a cranky, “get off my lawn” kind of maturity, but hey — it works.)
Of course, he doesn’t just leave it at that. One way or another, Tarantino does insist on getting his blood-soaked, skull-bashing ya-yas out. Through a gleefully tripping Cliff Booth, he kills three nobody hippies who would be famous if they’d followed through on killing Sharon Tate. Somehow, Quentin Tarantino’s 1969 is a safer, happier place than the 1969 that actually happened, where bad guys get what’s coming and the good survive. It’s a place we’d like to visit (as long as we steer clear of Spahn Ranch). Tarantino has threatened to quit directing after his next film, perhaps because the rapidly-changing industry is leaving him in the dust the same way it failed guys like Rick Dalton back in the 60s. Back in the 90s, Tarantino was the disruptor, shaking the Hollywood establishment with daring, unconventional films; now, he’s squarely on the side of the grumpy old men, shaking his fist at those damn hippie kids. While other 2019 standouts are about challenging the rich white guys and their establishment — The Irishman, Ad Astra, Joker, Queen & Slim — Once Upon A Time In Hollywood sees the establishment fight back and quash the revolution. These other films kill off problematic heroes. Tarantino lets them live to see another day.
Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is a surprisingly sweet tribute to a long lost era. In 1969, change was coming for the fat cat studios and TV stars, giving way to young and daring moviemakers who had deeper, darker ideas to explore. Exactly 50 years later, the movies themselves are in jeopardy — the fat cats and TV stars are on the rise again, with Disney and Netflix dominating both the box office and the awards conversation, respectively, and TV becoming the dominant visual medium. Quentin Tarantino is one of our foremost champions of the theatrical experience, of movie history that could easily be lost, of truly original storytelling, of shooting on film, of making movies the old fashioned way.
In Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, the movies triumph. A rising star evades an early death, living out the life and career she should have had. She has a fateful encounter with a TV has-been, which may very well rejuvenate his career. Even Roman Polanski may be redeemed, in an alternate timeline where he may not sexually assault a minor. (Then again, he may still.) The film echoed that narrative in real life.
In 2019 — which, as far as I know, Quentin Tarantino did not write — the movies also triumphed. An original, intelligent, adult-oriented film busted the block, grossing close to $400 million worldwide. Who would have guessed that Quentin Tarantino, of all people, would be behind 2019’s happiest ending?
2. UNCUT GEMS
“This is me. This is how I win.”
2019 was a very good year for movies. It was also a very Scorsese year at the movies, which is no coincidence. Scorsese directed The Irishman, executive produced Uncut Gems, and was formerly attached to Joker — all of which borrow liberally from his past body of work.
Fittingly, Uncut Gems is the crown jewel of the bunch, one of the best, and most deviant, takes on greed and excess in the American economy since Scorsese’s The Wolf Of Wall Street. Its protagonist, Howard Ratner, hurtles toward self-destruction at an alarming pace, like Taxi Driver‘s Travis Bickle or Raging Bull‘s Jake LaMotta on speed. Benny and Josh Safdie’s unlikely Robert De Niro is Adam Sandler, an actor many of us wrote off decades ago despite a handful of solid turns in worthy projects. The comedian’s goofy charisma ends up being the perfect ballast for the Safdies’ seedy manic energy. It’s impossible to imagine the film having the same effect without him as the lead.
Appropriately, we first meet Howard Ratner from inside his colon (which may be a cinema first). He’s anesthetized, which is the only moment of peace we’ll have in this entire movie. From there, Uncut Gems follows Howard through a dizzying labyrinth of get-rich-quick schemes. It would take thousands of words just to cover these twists and turns, to log every reversal of fortune. Fate seems to have it out for Howard this week, but every time he narrowly escapes one pitfall, he digs a brand new hole for himself. It’s excruciating to spend two hours alongside Howard Ratner, who has so many opportunities to come out just barely ahead, only to squander them again and again in pursuit of a jackpot. Howard is a gambling addict, but he never seems to know when he’s won; he immediately jettisons any good fortune that comes his way so he can win bigger. Watching Uncut Gems is like sitting next to a poker player who’s constantly betting everything he’s got, and playing badly. You desperately hope that after every round, he’ll call it a day and go home. But he doesn’t, does he?
Uncut Gems isn’t exactly a thriller — some tough guys show up to collect every now and then, but Howard could pay them off and be done with it. He just doesn’t want to, because he’s convinced he’s going to score, and that this big win will somehow absolve him of every sin he commits along the way. That belief is so intoxicating, we fully buy in to Howard’s insane fantasy in the film’s killer climax. We want this impossible reward as much as he does in the end. We’re gamblers by proxy, risking it all, consistently raising the stakes, with everything on the table. It’s a hell of a rush.
It’s also a big ball of apprehension, with tension in every scene ratcheted up to 11 via Sandler’s performance. The actor circles scenes with the ferocity of a shark that can’t stop swimming. We are constantly on alert. Uncut Gems is one of the most chaotic, neurotic, anxiety-inducing films ever made, and not for the reasons you’d think. Howard’s luck ebbs and flows, only occasionally placing him in real danger. But just spending time in Howard’s orbit is impossibly draining — we totally get why his harried wife (Idina Menzel) is seeking divorce. We’re right there with her; I’ll file a restraining order against Uncut Gems if it ever comes near me again.
Uncut Gems features a career best performance from Adam Sandler, a star-making turn by Julia Fox (reminiscent of Margot Robbie’s scene-stealer in The Wolf Of Wall Street), and it cements the Safdies as some of America’s most exciting new filmmaking talents. It only works thanks to their deft casting of Sandler as their pitiful leading man. Only an actor this inherently likable could make make Howard’s consistently ignorant missteps palatable. We wince, we cringe, we realize that everything he’s done is despicable and self-sabotaging — and we still want him to get away with it. It’s like Scarface with Tony Montana played by Billy Madison. The Safdies showed tremendous promise in 2017’s Good Time, starring Robert Pattinson as a hapless bank robber whose fate is sealed from the moment we meet him. Uncut Gems is a natural progression, but more layered, more of a character study than a crime caper. We are gradually brought in to Howard’s life, given glimpses of hope that he’ll find a way to work it out. We know what he stands to lose with all his bad decisions, so the suspense ratchets up exponentially. And he never… stops… fucking… up!
Uncut Gems crackles with vitality, a New York nightmare as lived-in and sleazy as Taxi Driver — or Joker, for that matter. (Howard Ratner is roughly two more bloody noses and a vat of acid from going full-on Arthur Fleck.) As a dark comedy and lo-fi heist thriller, it’s tremendously entertaining. But it’s also haunting, digging under our skin in its unforgettable denouement. It’s perhaps the closest a film can get to smooshing the entire run of The Sopranos down into two hours — there’s a lifetime of waste contained in its running time. Like the mobsters in The Irishman, Howard chases small victories but remains completely blind to the ultimate cost of the life he’s chosen. He’s so obsessed with becoming one of the lucky few, he doesn’t realize he already is. Sooner or later, he’ll get what’s coming. We can only hope he has the good sense to cash in his chips before it happens. Because losers seldom win in America.
The Safdies’ perversion of the American dream is a scratch ticket of a film — providing the rush of a get-rich-quick fantasy and the inevitable disappointment of being taken for a sucker. Nearly everyone who plays the lottery ends up poorer as a result, but people ignore the odds with dollar signs in their eyes. Howard Ratner is already living the American dream — a lovely family, a big house, his own business. He even has a hot mistress on the side. He’s doing fine… but he wants more. He’s addicted to it. Uncut Gems digs deep into the rotten core of capitalism, how it drives us to loss after loss with the promise of the next big score. (It’s always just around the corner.) Anna Paquin ought to drop by and ask: “Why?” How many lives are lost in pursuit of cold, hard cash? How much of our time and energy is sucked up by it? Uncut Gems joins Ad Astra and The Irishman in chiding men who seek power and glory at the expense of their loved ones back home. What is a gem, anyway? Who says it has value? It’s all imaginary, all arbitrary, but it’s the system we’ve bought into. We all have a little Howard Ratner in us.
Look deep into the diamond — or is it a colon? There’s a lesson to be learned.
Capitalism is a killer. There’s no way to win. Go home, Howard, and kiss your kids goodnight.
“There is only one way this war ends. Last man standing.”
Critics are citing 2019 as one of the strongest movie years of the decade. The kind of year like 1939, 1976, or 1999, that comes around only every so often, breaking new ground with innovative, original, thought-provoking cinema. (They often end in 9s, apparently.)
I’m inclined to agree. It’s the strangest thing. The top ten films at the box office are depressing, all remakes and sequels and superheroes (and Joker). Many awards contenders were made by Netflix with home viewing in mind, and that’s how most people are watching them. Earlier this year, The Mouse swallowed The Fox, signaling that several of the “Big 6” studios aren’t big enough to compete anymore. And there’s so much goddamned TV. All the harbingers are there — we have every reason to throw our hands up and mourn the movies, may the rest in peace.
But then Joker brought controversy, dissent, and serious discussion to the comic book blockbuster. And Climax provided a trippy theatrical thrill ride the way only a Gasper Noé film could. And Ad Astra delivered the year’s most exhilarating action sequence, and then sent me ruminating for hours on patriarchy and God. And Queen And Slim reframed the getaway thriller as a potent and oh-so-relevant political statement. And Pain & Glory revealed new depths of feeling and vulnerability in one of my favorite filmmakers. And I was able to see an obscure French-Canadian film called Genesis in theaters, even though it only grossed a reported $6,784.00 in the United States. And an Adam Sandler movie twisted my stomach in knots for two hours. And Once Upon A Time In Hollywood delighted me the way Tarantino films have been delighting people for decades — but, until 2019, I’d missed out on that. And one weekend morning in November, I went to the theater at 10 AM, careful not to take so much as a sip of anything — not even my precious morning coffee — so I could sit through all three-and-a-half hours of the new Scorsese movie on the big screen uninterrupted, instead of waiting a month to watch it at home for free (with a handy pause button).
I saw all of these films in the theater. That’s not a requirement — sometimes, I end up seeing a couple of my favorite films of the year at home — but 2019’s movies are a particularly miraculous mix of big budget studio efforts and streaming awards contenders, small-scale independent foreign dramas and mass-marketed star vehicles, throwbacks to the past and thrillingly fresh originals, epic and intimate, and things I don’t often love, like Tarantino and comic books and Adam Sandler. If we can have all this and more in theaters in the space of one year, what are we all so worried about?
I considered all of these films for my #1 slot at one point in time. Uncut Gems and Once Upon A Time In Hollywood came particularly close. But I’d be lying if I said 1917 wasn’t the obvious choice for this spot from the moment I walked out of the theater. The reason is simple. For as much as the rest of these films moved me, amused me, or made me think, 1917 is the first film in a long time to completely enthrall me at an elemental level — through sheer filmmaking.
Sam Mendes’ World War I thriller is, first and foremost, a stunning technical achievement, a war epic unfolding in a single continuous shot, with only one temporal interruption in the narrative (when our lead character blacks out). The “one-take movie” trick has been performed before, in everything from Rope to Birdman, but it’s never felt so seamless, so much like pure movie magic.
The idea of a film unfolding in real time itself isn’t novel, but Mendes’ execution is. 1917 is so immersive, so wholly absorbing, it brings an entirely different mode of empathy to the kind of war story we’ve seen so many times. Just as Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan made the horrors of battle more visceral than it had ever been before, 1917 roots us in the experience of two soldiers and strands us there for two hours, without so much as a cut providing a moment’s escape. The veil of artifice is never lifted, the way it usually is when a filmmaker cuts to the next scene. The result is mesmerizing, dream-like, a true cinematic thrill ride. The craft it took to create is feels impossible. 1917 shouldn’t exist.
The film follows two corporals in the British Army, Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), on a dangerous mission behind enemy lines. There’s a high likelihood they’ll be killed. There are moments of downtime, when there’s no visible threat, but we’re constantly on alert just the same — like soldiers at war. The tension builds the way it does in a horror movie. 1917 isn’t about the hell of combat, the way Saving Private Ryan is; it’s not as grim or graphic. It’s about the way time unfolds when there’s a good chance you could be killed at any moment; about how moments of levity and friendship feel when they’re tucked so precariously into the greater context of war. It may not be the most definitive war film ever made — there’s a hell of a lot of competition — but it framed the experience in a way that felt entirely new, seen not through the eyes of a band of brothers but through one primary character, who is brave and dutiful but still seems quite sensibly like he’d rather be anywhere else.
Roger Deakins’ cinematography is, once again, simply breathtaking. It’s matched by Thomas Newman’s rousing score, and MacKay and Chapman’s empathetic performances. The film is flawlessly choreographed, at a degree of difficulty that’s hard to fathom. But 1917 delivers more than just technical prowess and white-knuckle suspense. There are moments of grace. Moments of tenderness. Moments of surreal, nightmarish dread. Moments of dizzying grandeur. Moments to contemplate the futility of war, to mourn this senseless disposal of youth. 1917 nimbly flows from one note to the next with effortless ease, engaging the heart and mind as much as our base senses.
In a year that’s largely about killing heroes, 1917 is an old-fashioned war story in which brave young men summon tremendous courage and risk their lives for a greater cause. It’s an almost embarrassingly old school story to put at the top of this list, especially in such a rich, dynamic year for cinema. It’s more spectacle than story, going starkly against my general preference for rich characterization and striking themes. But… “it’s what it is.”
I’ve seen a lot of movies. I wouldn’t say I’m difficult to impress, but I’m only completely entranced every so often. Many movies got me there in a scene or two this year, but 1917 enthralled me throughout its running time. In the end, that spectacular theatrical experience floored me just a little more than anything else this year.
The big screen has never been in greater jeopardy. Original stories have never had a harder time fighting their way into theaters. Ingenuity is a relic the studios gave up on long ago. Streaming is killing the movie star.
All that is true, but in 2019’s final hours, Sam Mendes dropped a hell of a counterpoint, blowing all my fears and doubts about the future of cinema wide open. If there’s one thing I’m certain of heading into 2020, it’s this.
The movies will live to fight another day. See you in the next decade.