Mmm! Cinema! Love the stuff! To me, each movie is like a meal—I look at it for about 90 minutes, and pee halfway through when something important or fun happens. These were some of my favorite movies to pee during and miss part of in 2019.
10. The Good Liar
The hooks of The Good Liar feel like PR-massaged award-bait, but it literally is what it says on the tin: Ian McKellan and Helen Mirren are two extremely good actors whose talents are challenged by layers of subterfuge. It’s just a good movie! They just made a good movie. Though the takeaway from the film is far less complicated than the mystery it lays out, I appreciate that the film didn’t pull its punches—especially when it came to the fates of its characters, good and bad. Happy endings should all be a little more haunted
“Bad” movies are a testament to the nature of art, in that they prove the building blocks of a work can fit together wrong and still create something beautiful. Assimilate is bullshit on paper: Invasion of the Body Snatchers with some Gen Z “signifiers” screwed on (Wow! Livestreaming! YouTube! Amazing!) is, uh, okay. I guess. But the way every moment of this movie is at war with itself turns it into something unique.
It dismantles perspective by feinting out of found footage, only to plug back in for no reason; each silly plot point is invoked with deathly severity; and the SFX are fucking extraordinary. Also, I’ll say this: there are a few moments of genuine quality peeking out here and there. One of my favorite things to find in The Rough is a diamond or two, and here they be.
I acknowledge that taste for bad taste isn’t something everyone can get on board with, but this was—very genuinely—one of my favorite viewings from this year. Sometimes you want some fries with your lobster, y’know?
8. Ready or Not
I am a tree, and growing from my various branches are apples with “kill the rich,” “horror is pleasure,” and “Adam Brody is stupid fucking hot” carved onto them. One day, the people who made Ready or Not came and plucked from my fruits, distilling these ideas and more down into something that was then poured back into my roots, nourishing me, making me stronger.
Don’t get me wrong, I have no illusions that my radical proclivities were shaved down and simplified into uncomplicated catharsis, but what a catharsis it was! Executed to exquisite effect! And even within the boundaries of what the general moviegoing public is willing to swallow, there does exist some… delightful transgression within the activities of this film. Listen, this film isn’t The Literature, Theory, or even a coherent call to action, but it is about a class of people I despise getting what’s coming to them. I’m happy to be a pig in my own slop, and this is some sloppy, sloppy slop.
7. Blinded by the Light
Every single movie is about having a dad, because dads are—by nature of *gestures* society—complicated to have a relationship with. I myself am a gay person, so this goes triple for me. My papa, man that he is, is the son of two New Jersey Reagan Republicans, so the route by which he attempted to engender me to our repulsive country was through misinterpretations of Bruce Springsteen’s music. In short: I spent most of my youth wanting to fucking murder Bruce Springsteen. Imagine, then, my surprise when I watched this—very explicitly—antifascist movie about how his music is about and for the working class, the downtrodden, the marginalized. Completely, utterly fucking gobsmacked, I was.
Any uber-fan of any musician can tell you that one of the most difficult things you can try to do is make someone “get it.” It’s hard to distill the way a musician’s essence is expressed in your fandom into what amounts to a pitch, but Blinded by the Light knocks this out of the park. Not only did it unmake my lifelong revulsion for Bruce, I think I’m a fan of his now! This movie made me want to listen to his music, and that’s more than any review score or adulation has ever done. Under the circumstances, I don’t think there could’ve possibly been a better outcome. A moving, beautiful movie—one that I would have cried during, had my father not been seated next to me in the theater.
Like I said: Dads? Complicated.
6. Little Women
Despite having never read the book, I really enjoyed becoming aware of the ways in which this was adaptive. Its changes are obvious, even to someone like me (I don’t think I’m overstepping in assuming the original text wasn’t told non-linearly), and to watch Greta Gerwig tug and tie thematic beats from across Little Women’s story was fascinating. Even when a moment didn’t quite stick or land, it always made sense why it was woven as such. There’s a pleasant amount of warmth in this movie, and you can tell it’s the result of a crew that holds genuine affection for the source material. I give this movie four regular women out of five little women.
Worst Movie of the Year: Brightburn
Ah, the dreaded WMOTY, here to bisect this list. What a horrid stew of loathsome filmmaking. The clear nepotism on the part of James Gunn; the agonizingly obvious script, framing, and costume/set design; the complete lack of scares; the incoherent world-building, self-contradictory plot, and nonsense theming; the list goes on. Every single element of Brightburn sucks outside of some well-done makeup and SFX, and I’m sorry, but meat does not a movie make. I’m a person who loves horror movies, to the point where I hold genuine affection for ones that are, objectively, not very good. A film unable to even ride on the coattails of bias is a failure of impressive magnitude, so laud it for that I guess.
5. Alita: Battle Angel
Something Robert Rodriguez has always excelled at (but, as far as I’m aware, never really been given credit for) is selling things that are not real and cannot look real. Seriously, stop and think about his oeuvre. If you’re a fuddy-duddy who doesn’t like feeling happy, you probably paused Spy Kids and said “well this is all obviously fake;” but you didn’t, because you’re reading this blog, which means you have exceedingly good taste and a zest for life and the living of it. When Robert Rodriguez makes a movie, he masterfully plucks you from your seat and sets you down inside his world. For all the ado about the big anime eyes (not everything needs to be a discourse, jesus christ), this movie looks and feels incredible. It’s expressive, it’s weighty, it’s present—which is important, because this story is fundamentally about bodies.
Unfortunately, this means I have to talk about the reception to the movie more than the movie itself. Given the revilement the mainstream critical body heaped on this movie, I went in expecting utter disaster. Turns out, this movie’s pretty good with the exception of some structural story issues that stem from the fact that it’s adapting a manga and chose not to compromise its arcs to fit a movie. I chalk this disconnect up to two elements:
- For some terminally irksome reason, the world is still full of dipshits who, in 2019, think “Ugh, anime” is a personality trait or valid critical stance. Not everyone has to like all types of art, but you know the type of shit I’m talking about here and you know artistic medium has nothing to do with it.
- These critics are all cis folk, and their derision belies a profound, ugly ignorance to extremely basic concepts that are foundational to those who are not cis, not to mention entire genres of fiction. A critical body that not only fails to account for these things but reacts to them with ridicule is not to be trusted and should, imo, be treated with the same dismissive enmity they deigned this perfectly fine movie deserving of.
You don’t have to like Alita: Battle Angel, but you should at least understand it. Here’s some homework for you. Read up, my friend.
4. One Cut of the Dead
I’m not a fan of “spoiler culture.” Catharsis comes from more than shock and awe, so when I tell you things like “Alita’s love interest dies,” I’m not actually telling you things that will affect your enjoyment of an emotional beat. The tension in the uncertainties preceding these moments isn’t derived from your lack of knowledge or the possibility that the film will break from formula—it’s derived contextually from within the movie itself. If you have ever rewatched a movie and felt the same emotions you did the first time—even if you don’t feel them quite as strongly—congratulations, you have just invalidated spoiler culture. That said, there are exceptions to every rule, and One Cut of the Dead is one of them.
I’m not shoehorning my grouchy thoughts on spoilers here without cause; they are integral to this film’s place on this list. One Cut of the Dead’s twists surprised me in a way that extended beyond “something new is happening in the plot,” making it quite difficult to discuss without giving everything away. It’s equal parts frightening, an incredibly impressive achievement of coordinated filmmaking, and a movie about making movies that’s actually endearing and heartfelt instead of egotistical navel-gazing. What makes the turns in One Cut of the Dead so special is how they shift your understanding of what this movie is trying to do on a formal level. It’s technically linked to the plot, but really what’s happening is a conceptual metamorphosis. If you want to spoil yourself, feel free—I stand by my principles—but even then, the raw execution of this beast is more than enough to merit a fully-spoiled viewing.
4. The Lighthouse
Hear this, know this: 2020 is the year we abandon “Hoo-hoo-hoo, did you know [NOT A COMEDY MOVIE] is actually……. a comedy???” It’s just not a very useful mode of thought—it’s stunt crit, something said for hollow shock and awe—nor is it ever as perceptive as it purports to be; case in point: The Lighthouse. Does it include jokes? Yes. Slapstick? You betcha. Humorous performances? You fuckin’ know it. Could it be considered a comedy? Not in a million years.
Humor exists in this movie specifically to cultivate dread. Every minute these two men joke and laugh and dance and fart, it’s because they’re papering over their unrelenting desire to fucking destroy each other (and maybe have sex too, though I’m not sure the order really matters to them). The comedy directly serves the dread, building in the disturbingly recognizable way dudes Like That socialize. There’s a reason why I fully yelped in the theater—because some things? They just aren’t funny.
3. Uncut Gems
Jesus fucking christ Howie, my heart. My heart can’t fucking take this. I had to see this movie twice because it was so exhausting that I fell asleep during my first viewing and missed the ending (it was also very late and I am baby). This movie is two hours and fifteen minutes of me begging Howard to stop. Please, god, no more. If I met this man in real life, I would crave his comeuppance, but Uncut Gems makes me pray he comes out on top so that no one gets hurt. It’s like watching a child running across a freeway—you fear the lesson a successful run will impart, but it beats watching a kid get hit by a fucking car. JESUS.
2. Portrait of a Lady on Fire
There’s a particular bit of play deployed in Portrait of a Lady that is amongst my favorite cinematic flourishes of the year. It appears, repeats, and takes the stage one last as a sort of gut-punch coda. Prior to hurting you, there’s very little context as to why it manifests in this particular way; it’s the most directly abstract element in the film, and yet I was completely sure what to feel when it appeared: dread.
For a movie like this to really stick the landing, it needs to capture the subtleties found in the medium of portraiture it invokes. This means more than reliance on rich performances; the abstraction of stillness is not and can not be found in reactive bodies. The above motif, however, lives statically without missing a beat, accomplishing the evocative work of portraiture before even providing the viewer with the concrete answer of its meaning. An unbelievably deft movie that caused the woman behind me to, quote, “Cry more during this than in any other movie.” Good work everybody!
One of the worst parts about being alive is how all the unlearning of harmful, reinforced norms—all the work done to hammer myself towards constructive, challenging ideology—cannot quiet that anxious, nail-biting worry that those I’ve positioned myself against are capable of better than I believe them to be. That doesn’t make this worry true, it’s just a festering ideological wound I live with.
I think this fear—as well as the precarity of our positions in life—infuses doubt into our fucking bones, affecting everything from our ability to get out of bed in the morning to our desire to act for change. By virtue of how popular conceptions of a “better life” look to the secure, the wealthy—the enemy—for inspiration, the guilt we’ve been raised to feel for wanting more compounds itself; there is a touch of us that wants what they have, our learned desires making traitors of us all.
There’s a lot at play in Parasite, but this grotesque seduction is particularly dear to me. It’s why Kim Ki-woo is my favorite film character of the year. We watch him stumble around, often wholeheartedly embracing the world that would leave him to starve. He’s deeply flawed in a way that reflects the ugly-yet-relatable parts of ourselves that crave the compromised comforts of the only system we’ve ever known. Ki-woo’s relationship with the villains of Parasite—personified and systemic—often reflects poorly on him. To see the dark of the black pit he fumbles in, however, provides a bleak surety that my own mind cannot; and so my doubts are silenced momentarily.
There’s more, of course, but it’s all too much for a single blurb. This movie makes me sick and sad; it makes me feel heavy. It’s an incredible deployment of quashed hope and the truth inherent in it. Watch it.
“The only way to survive is… DEHUMANIZE YOURSELF AND FACE TO BLOODSHED.”