2020 Oscars Prediction Ballot & Dinner Menu

The 92nd Academy Awards will air live on ABC Sunday, February 9th at 8:00 PM EST. Get in on the action by filling out a prediction ballot right here. I will be updating results live on Oscar night, so fill out a ballot and check my results page Oscar night to see how you did!

Also, speaking of Oscar night, what Oscar party would be complete without The People’s Critic’s Official Oscar Menu for 2020. Enjoy the party with perfectly paired menu offerings for this year’s nominees.

Oscar Menu 202
Oscar Menu 2020

Enjoy the show, and please share this post with all your favorite movie fans! Also, enjoy this free printable paper ballot for your party needs!

2020 Oscar Prediction Ballot
The People’s Critic’s 2020 Oscar Prediction Ballot

1917

1917 poster

Director: Sam Mendes

Screenwriters: Sam Mendes & Krysty Wilson-Cairns

Cast: Dean-Charles Chapman, George MacKay, Colin Firth, Andrew Scott, and Benedict Cumberbatch

1917 is first high profile World War I film since 2011’s…did you see that tracking shot? …uh, 2011’s War Horse directed by Steven…that tracking shot though… ahem, Spielberg – who has championed Mendes’s career since the beginning… I mean the first one was at least 30 minutes long right! Where did he even cut?… Now Mendes has emerged with his best film since 2002’s Road to Perdition….there are hidden cuts in there; there must be, but regardless – that tracking shot!

image of 1917 set
Don’t screw up…we’re doing this in one take!

Ok, have I drawn enough attention to the obvious elephant in the film? 1917, shot as one continuous shot, is not the first to attempt this style of narrative, but it is certainly one of the most ambitious and successful at it! Films as far back as Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope or as recent as Alejandro González Iñárritu’s films Birdman and The Revenant have executed this technique. Sometimes this method is used ironically or as a stunt, but in the case of 1917, it is used to accentuate the point that the events of this film are happening in real time. Brilliant and legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins beautifully implements Mendes’s vision, all but guaranteeing him his second Oscar in three years after having had 14 straight nominations go the other way.

The plot of 1917 is rather simple: A pair of soldiers are sent on a crucial mission to deliver orders for a Colonel MacKenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch) to stand down before walking into a trap that would cost 1600 soldiers their lives. It’s a race against time (hence the single-shot shooting style) as the two men cross enemy lines in an attempt to deliver the message in time. The two men are Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay), British soldiers selected by General Erinmore (Colin Firth) because Blake’s brother is part of MacKenzie’s command that will be decimated by the Germans if the message is not received in time. The movie painstakingly documents these men’s journey through the trenches and across enemy territory in the hopes of preventing a tragic tactical mistake.

Mendes does an excellent job of crafting a simple plot but giving us a powerful story, a story that is personal to him. The idea for the film, which is fiction, is based on a story Mendes’s own grandfather, a World War I veteran, told him. The story was one of another soldier tasked with carrying a message into no-man’s land during the war. Sam Mendes used that story as the basis for 1917 and dedicated the film to his grandfather and the many others like him who fought for our freedom. This gives the film an added layer of quality, but regardless, 1917 is a film that is certainly technically brilliant; it managed 10 Oscar nominations without a single one in any acting category, which is precisely what happened with another technical marvel from 2015, Mad Max: Fury Road. Like that film, 1917 is also narratively engrossing in all the best ways making it one of the best films of the year. A

1917 is rated R and has a running time of one hour and 59 minutes.

2020 Oscar Nominations [Full List of Nominees]

This morning at approximately 8:18 EST, the Academy of Motion Pictures announced the nominations for the 2020 Academy Awards. A full list of the nominees can be found below! The Ceremony for the 92nd Academy Awards will air Sunday, February 9th starting at 6:30 PM EST on ABC. The broadcast will once again go hostless. Stay tuned to The People’s Critics for my predictions on who will win each award as well as for the hotly anticipated Oscar 2020 Dinner Menu – sure to be (Laura) “Dern” good!

Best Picture

Ford v. Ferrari

The Irishman

Jojo Rabbit

Joker

Little Women

Marriage Story

1917

Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

Parasite

Best Actress

Cynthia Erivo – Harriet

Scarlett Johansson – Marriage Story

Saoirse Ronan – Little Women

Charlize Theron – Bombshell

Renee Zellweger – Judy

Best Actor

Antonio Banderas –Pain and Glory

Leonardo DiCaprio – Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

Adam Driver – Marriage Story

Joaquin Phoenix – Joker

Jonathan Pryce – The Two Popes

Best Supporting Actress

Kathy Bates – Richard Jewell

Laura Dern – Marriage Story

Scarlett Johansson – Jojo Rabbit

Florence Pugh – Little Women

Margot Robbie – Bombshell

Best Supporting Actor

Tom Hanks for A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Anthony Hopkins for The Two Popes

Al Pacino for The Irishman

Joe Pesci for the Irishman

Brad Pitt for Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

Best Director

The Irishman – Martin Scorsese

Joker – Todd Phillips

1917 – Sam Mendes

Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood – Quentin Tarantino

Parasite – Bong Joon Ho

Best International Feature Film

Corpus Christi (Poland)

Honeyland (North Macedonia)

Les Meserables (France)

Pain and Glory (Spain)

Parasite (South Korea)

Best Documentary Feature

American Factory

The Cave

The Edge of Democracy

For Sama

Honeyland

Best Original Screenplay

Knives Out – Rian Johnson

Marriage Story – Noah Baumbach

1917 – Sam Medes & Krysty Wison- Cairins

Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood – Quentin Tarantino

Parasite – Bong Joon Ho & Jin Won Han

Best Adapted Screenplay

The Irishman –Steven Zallian

Jojo Rabbit – Taika Waititi

Joker – Todd Phillips & Scott Silver

Little Women – Greta Gerwig

The Two Popes – Anthony McCarten

Best Animated Feature

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World

I Lost My Body

Klaus

Missing Link

Toy Story 4

Best Original Song

“I Can’t Let You Throw Yourself Away” – Toy Story 4

“(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again” – Rocketman

“I’m Standing With You” – Breakthrough

“Into the Unknown” – Frozen 2

“Stand Up” – Harriet

Best Original Music Score

Joker

Little Women

Marriage Story

1917

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

Best Film Editing

Ford v. Ferrari

The Irishman

Jojo Rabbit

Joker

Parasite

Best Cinematography

The Irishman

Joker

The Lighthouse

1917

Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

Best Sound Editing

Ford v. Ferrari

Joker

1917

Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

Best Sound Mixing

Ad Astra

Ford v. Ferrari

Joker

1917

Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

Best Costume Design

The Irishman

Jojo Rabbit

Joker

Little Women

Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

Best Makeup and Hairstyling

Bombshell

Joker

Judy

Maleficent: Mistress of Evil

1917

Best Production Design

The Irishman

Jojo Rabbit

1917

Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

Parasite

Best Visual Effects

Avengers: Endgame

The Irishman

The Lion King

1917

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

Best Live Action Short

Brotherhood

Nefta Football Club

The Neighbors’ Window

Saria

A Sister

Best Animated Short

Dcera (Daughter)

Hair Love

Kitbull

Memorable

Sister

Best Documentary Short

In the Absence

Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl)

Life Overtakes Me

St. Louis Superman

Walk, Run, Cha-Cha

The Top Ten Films of 2019 (and the Three Worst)

The year 2019 was a pretty good year at the movies, and as the end of a decade, it really feels like a culmination of something and hopefully a fresh step forward to something new. If you haven’t already, read my Top Ten Films of the Decade post to get a sense of what the last ten years in movies can tell us about where we’ve been and where we’re going. However, the issue at hand is 2019. A lot of movies were released in 2019 thanks to the proliferation of streaming services and their dedication to releasing incredible amounts of quality content on top of the traditional studio and independent releases. So let’s get on to it. 2019: The good, the bad, and the ugly.

The Good…

10. Knives Out – This one wins the audience award for sure. Of all the films on my list, no film had the audience howling like this one. Billed as a Rian Johnson whodunit, an all-star cast is full of suspects after a wealthy mystery writer suddenly falls dead, and foul play is suspected. Queue two-hours of dark, maddening hijinks that keep the audience guessing but most of all amused. This is a modern-day Clue or Gosford Park full of suspense and laughs.  This movie feels like a subtle “jab” at one of the films in my worst of the year list, as one of his previous films was somewhat “sliced and diced” by another with diminishing returns. Well played, Mr. Johnson.

9. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood – I thought I knew what I was in for when I walked in to see this movie. After having seen the wonderful 2018 documentary about Fred Rogers, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, I expected a sentimental dramatization of the true events of Rogers’s life. That is not what this film is, and that is a good thing. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a perfect companion piece to the 2018 documentary rather than an adaptation of it by letting us see the power of people like Rogers and the impact a kind, contemplative person can have on all of us. Most will be surprised to find Tom Hanks’s portrayal of Rogers as more of a secondary role in this film. The main story follows Matthew Rhys as investigative journalist, Lloyd Vogel who reluctantly accepts a job to write a fluff piece on Rogers only to have his life changed immeasurably. A true heart-warmer, and an understated success for director Marielle Heller.

8. The Lighthouse – Two lighthouse keepers arrive for a four-week shift looking after a lighthouse. At night, there’s little to do but eat, drink, and talk and much of the film is dedicated to these activities, but that’s where we as the audience learn the most. These men have secrets. This actor’s journey of minimalist, psychological horror is one fascinating ride! Willem Dafoe puts out a vicious, raw, funny, and technical performance, and Robert Pattinson too gives a layered and impressive character. This is a challenging but amazingly engrossing film. 

7. Parasite – Word of mouth has been non-stop for this South Korean comedic horror satire. Writer/Director Bong Joon Ho has been quietly dominating critical and box office success with films like Snowpiercer, The Host, and Okja just to name a few. With Parasite, it seems like he’s broken through completely by creating a universally relatable parable of class and culture that begins one way and takes a dramatically fascinating turn. Both halves of the film are tremendously compelling and enjoyable, but for entirely different reasons. This is Ho’s masterpiece in a catalog full of near-masterpieces.

6. Midsommar – This is the most beautifully shot film on my list this year. Ari Aster’s latest film is a slow burn with some of the most unsettling horror seen on screen in some years. A group of students arrive in a rural and secretive Swedish community with the hope of learning about their culture and studying their anthropological presence. The beauty of the film starkly contrasts some truly terrifying stuff, and the result is a highly effective and deeply effective.

The Top Five:

5. Avengers: Endgame – This movie is actually epic, and I use that term without hyperbole. The Russo brothers have assembled a true love letter that spans the entire run of the most successful film franchise in history. This is how a saga should end (a certain film in my worst of the year list should take notes). A strength of all four Avengers films is that even with such bloated cast of characters, every one of them gets a moment to shine. The heart, the humor, the excitement, and the impact of events is as strong as in any of the MCU films, and for my money this is the best Avengers film of the four, and it is also one of the best films of the year.

4. The Irishman – I had to sit with this movie for a while. I’m of the rare minority who when this 3-hour gangster volume ended, I wanted more. I knew I liked it, but I wasn’t sure if my nostalgia and good faith for what this film represented was why I liked it, or if it was truly good. Seeing Martin Scorsese revisit the mobster genre and direct Joe Pesci, Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, and a host of other notables is hard not to tickle the fancy of any fan of cinema. So, over a month has passed, and the jury is in; The Irishman is a great film (but only one peg higher than a superhero movie, Marty!).  

3. Marriage Story – Noah Baumbach has been a powerful force in telling human stories about the fallouts of the fractured family dynamic. His films The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the wedding, While We’re Young, and The Meyerowitz Stories all predominately explore this central theme, so it’s fitting that his latest film is simply called Marriage Story. Here Baumbach is in familiar territory, but never has been so keyed in on the complexities of coupling and then uncoupling in modern America. Baumbach teams up with Adam Driver for the fourth time in this crushing yet beautiful human drama about how marriage and family can be very different things.

2. Joker At its core, Joker is a character-driven story about Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a meager, struggling performer hoping to someday be a stand-up comedian. Phoenix is excellent in this film allowing Fleck’s struggles to feel very real and human. His decisions, as radical as they are, all come from a raw and authentic place within the character that Phoenix is able to capture and put on display in a very captivating way. Joker as a film also does an excellent job of pitting this dynamic individual against a society that is crumbling into chaos and compartmentalizing into a vastly unsettling class struggle, and what transpires is compelling and profoundly unsettling. Not because it is necessarily “shocking” but because of what it does to us as viewers who will no doubt be feeling a variety of conflicting emotions by the end – all worth examining.

1. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood What we have here is a modern-day auteur at the top of his technical game taking chances and making movies that still make an audience appreciate the medium and the experience it can offer. There’s tremendous atmosphere populated with thrilling takes on movies, dreams, American culture, music and the divisive nature of society. Plus there’s a bitching soundtrack! Many will cite this as being the least “Tarantino” of all of his films, whatever that means; however, while the plot is perhaps more loose than his previous films, Tarantino captures the atmosphere of this dynamic time with great success. There’s a lot going on in this film. On one hand, we have Rick Dalton’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) quest for fame, attempting to leverage some television notoriety into a film career without aging out, becoming typecast, or losing his game all the while battling an internal conflict about whether he is worthy of fame in the first place. Then we have Cliff Booth’s (Brad Pitt) ambiguous, deliberate sojourn through the land of broken dreams. While the two main characters are on two very separate personal journeys, Tarantino craftily balances this film on the relationship between the two men allowing the film to move along nicely despite their uniquely different paths. There’s no arbitrary cliché-constructed conflict dropped on the audience for cheap drama. There’s a sense of history between them both, and this comes through mostly thanks to the exquisite performances given by Pitt and most notably DiCaprio. I have almost nothing bad to say about this movie other than it’s not Tarantino’s best, which is to say it’s still the best movie of 2019 by a long shot, just not the best movie of 1994.

…the Bad and the Ugly

3. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker – Just writing these words under this heading fills me with great sorrow. Star Wars movies made my list of the best films of 2015 (The Force Awakens), 2016 (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story), and 2017 (The Last Jedi). All that being said, it pains me to have to put Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker on the list of the worst films of the year, but here it is. Just five short years after this critic touted J.J Abrams as the true geek-legend who will take the franchise light years beyond where it had been, he now ends it all by leaving me with a bad feeling about where the future of Star Wars once again sits. The film is action packed, but it is also, bloated, uneven, full of loose plotlines, and most of all it’s boring. The Rise of Skywalker did not just disappoint me as a film, but it actually made me like the previous two installments less knowing now where it all was heading.

2. Ford v. Ferrari Speaking of boring movies, let me give you exhibit B; Ford v. Ferrari. To me, this films is another installment in a troubling cinematic trend. Every year, a handful of “Oscar darling” films are released that follow a virtual template of style and perceived wit. Essentially odd-ducks are paired up to navigate an unkind social climate full of architypes and caricatures that must be thwarted. Upon examining these films, what you really have is a film where everyone is uni-dimensional except the principal characters, and the film progresses with a style that broadly spoon feeds audiences hearty portions of quippy one-liners and unlikely conversations practically winking at the camera instead of being in the moment. The style of this film matches those precisely. These historic, character-driven dramas shot with this disingenuous style ring so false to me, and I wind up caring less and less. Ford v. Ferrari, unfortunately, has little gas in the tank and more or less feels like it’s just going in circles, taking too many pit stops before ultimately just being totaled (puns intended).

1. The Lion King – All in all, The Lion King is very rote, stale, and unimpressive (aside from the visual effects, which are stunning). The decision to play it so safe with this film is a real disappointment and the result is a clunky film with no personality. It boils down to a forgettable rehash that could have been a wonderful update on a classic. When these films do not bring something new to the table, it is hard to see them as anything but a shallow attempt to take our money with familiar branding. And that may have been their goal all along with these films, but if you want me to have a Hakuna Matata attitude about these things, at least make me feel the love. My statement with giving this film the unhallowed designation of being worst film of the year is simply to say to Disney…stop. You had a good year financially, so why not take that green and invest in the new. You hung up Star Wars and The Avengers as we knew them, so use this decade to give us what comes next, not a warmed over reminder of what once was.

Well that does it! What did you think about 2019 or about the decade as a whole in regards to movies? I’d say as a movie year, 2019 fits snugly in the middle of the 2010s decade. Nothing with the explosiveness of 2017 or 2014, but also not a mediocre year. Let me know what you think in the comments.

Golden Globes 2020 Predictions

2020 is here, and so awards season is kicking into full swing. Tonight, the 77th Golden Globes presented by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association will air on NBC with host, Ricky Gervais. The show is at worst, a messy borefest, and at best a booze soaked glimpse at celebrities talking shop. Who knows what we’ll get this time, but regardless, the results have been known to influence academy nomination voting, which ends this Tuesday, January 7th (Academy nominations are announced February 7th). Prestige once again reigns supreme, but while box office hits like Avengers: Endgame hoping to cross into awards territory did not make an appearance, Joker on the other hand seems to have found a way in. So sit back, relax, and try your hand at some predictions on the ballot below.

The Top Ten Films of the 2010s!

Top Ten of Decade

For some reason, 2019 does not feel like the culmination of a decade. It never really occurred to me that we had reached this milestone until some of these “Best of the Decade…” lists started rolling out. Looking back personally, I’ve gotten married, changed careers, had two children, and bought a house, sold a house, and bought another …so I guess that’s about 10 years of life. As a whole, the society reflected in the cinema of the 2010s is one of reflection, nostalgia, and innovation. Reboots, sequels, comic books, and throwbacks were aplenty, but the best films of the decade rarely fall into those categories. Political unrest, the proliferation of the Internet, Social Media, and streaming entertainment as well as incredible strides for minorities, feminism, and civil rights were also a sparked that will continue to define the 2020s. I’ll admit, personally, 2019 carried with it some of the highest highs in my life as well as some of the lowest lows, and the same can be said about the films released this decade. That being said, let’s focus on the positives as we optimistically embark on a new decade. Here are The People’s Critic’s Top Ten Films of the 2010s!

Dark Knight Rises

10. The Dark Knight Rises (2012) – Appropriately, the best director of the decade starts this list off with the final film of Christopher Nolan’s phenomenal Dark Knight trilogy. There is no understating the impact these films had on cinema, most notably 2008’s The Dark Knight. With The Dark Knight Rises, we have a fitting end to one of the strongest trilogies in cinema history. There is so much to appreciate in this film. The menacing tone that lies beneath the surface of Gotham City is felt for all of its 165 minutes. For my money, the plot of The Dark Knight Rises is the best of the three. I think, taken as a whole, what Christopher Nolan can be most proud of is that he has captured the attention of a massive audience and taught them that escapist entertainment can be thoughtful and precise. He may present some of this grandiose and complex content in a simplified and somewhat self-important/preachy way, but he achieves his grand design of getting us all thinking about our own morality, our limits, and our duties. This is miles beyond what any other so-called “comic book” movie has achieved or has even been capable of so far (PS, this will not be the last we hear of Christopher Nolan on this list).

Baby Driver

9. Baby Driver (2017) – Is it uniquely original? On paper, maybe not so much, but it’s a different story on the screen. It is hard not to discuss Baby Driver in the context of other similar predecessors about getaway drivers and/or villainous lynchpins orchestrating a series of heists. But the execution of Baby Driver is unlike any of those films. On the surface this is a heist film about a getaway driver, but on a larger scale the driving is an instrument to explore music, or more accurately, the act of listening to music. It’s the music that helps push the narrative. Writer/Director Edgar Wright does a superb job using music, actually the act of listening to music, to drive an otherwise classical narrative structure. This film really invited me to analyze exactly what it is that makes movie narratives work, an analysis I further explored in my commentary piece, “It’s All About Choice.” Like so many classic narratives, we don’t learn much about Baby in the film, or about any of the other characters for that matter. Baby is a man of few words, denied the necessity of choice by Doc (a pre-self-destructed Kevin Spacy), and committed to no real set of values given his almost “island-like” existence. Like I mentioned in “It’s All About Choice,” knowing so very little about Baby actually drives the narrative because he is the ultimate individual who can form his own values and not be labeled or expected to act in any particular way. What a cool movie!

Blade Runner 2049

8. Blade Runner 2049 (2017) – Blade Runner 2049 is a visual achievement, but it is also a triumph of science fiction and exploration into the flawed emotionality of the human being. Denis Villenueve and original screenwriter, Hampton Fancher deepen the themes and ideas introduced in the 1982 original, creating a superb overall film that demands repeat viewings. Villenueve is the runner-up to Nolan as director of the decade. Catching my attention in 2013 with the exquisite Prisoners, and then putting out one great film after another with Enemy, Sicario, Arrival and then Blade Runner 2049, we have seen the evolution of an auteur and true visionary of cinema whose next film, an updated adaptation of Dune should prove to be even better!

Inception

7. Inception (2010) – He’s back. Nolan’s second films on the list of the best of the decade actually kicked the decade off in 2010 with one of the most visually complex and narratively multifaceted films of all time. Leonardo DiCaprio takes on a journey through time and mind in a trippy, wild mind heist. Nolan’s imagination is on full display with a film that is inspired and outrageously original. It’s said Nolan spent 10 years on this script, and it shows! Theories abound about what unfolds in this twisted story, but in true Inception style, the means justify the end.

La La Land

6. La La Land (2016) – I tried people. I tried not to toe the line. I tried not to be all “critic-y,” but goddamnit, my toes are still tap, tap, tapping to this beautiful, heartwarming, goosebump inducing, musical masterpiece. La La Land has the best first and last five minutes of any movie in the last 10 years! What puts it on this list is that between those amazing first five minutes and outstanding final five minutes are 118 exhilarating, beautifully crafted, musical minutes. La La Land is a simple story of Jazz musician meets struggling actor, Jazz musician loses struggling actress, etc., but that’s ok. If the plot were any more dynamic, it would take away from the sensory experience of this film. Gosling and Stone are captivating as the leads and while their voices may not be meant for Broadway, they are perfect for a film that “dances” between worlds. Half nostalgic and half prognostic, La La Land shows us that writer/director Damien Chazelle is more than the real deal. He’s the next big thing (next to Nolan and Villenueve)! La La Land puts a nice bow on 2016 as well as the decade as a whole.

Silver Linings Playbook

5. Silver Linings Playbook (2012)– The film that started the renaissance for director, David O. Russell. His movies are traditionally about passion, and none have better successfully illustrated that theme than Silver Linings Playbook. Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper play Pat and Tiffany, two people full of passion who have lost their way. Both turn out Oscar worthy performances, and while Lawrence won, Cooper was given the impossible task of facing a Daniel Day-Lewis performance. He would have won any other year for sure with this performance. This was the best acted film of the decade bar none. Furthermore, Russell’s screenplay is excellent as he also manages to give Robert DeNiro a role that could be indirectly related to his having such a prolific 2019 with Joker and The Irishman.

Django Unchained

4. Django Unchained (2012) – Django Unchained is void of any superfluous substance. From the opening scene of dialogue where Django and Schultz are introduced all the way to the final “showdown,” Django Unchained has momentum and remains in stride. Tarantino won his second Original Screenplay Oscar for this because no other film that can be nominated for this category combines such compelling dialogue with such a spirited and ambitions story. The film unfolds in a series of distinct acts. Furthermore, Tarantino takes his flair for the irregular timeline to a more subtle place by interjecting small contextual flashbacks at key points to reveal critical or entertaining pieces of background that enhance an approaching scene. Christoph Waltz gives Tarantino another Oscar winning performance as the film’s moral compass, Dr. Schultz. Schultz’s character also works to deepen and broaden Foxx’s turn as Django. Django has a goal, but lacks direction and Schultz literally provides that for him, which gives Foxx some real dimension and power. However, the film’s crown jewel is found in the film’s closing acts when Leonardo DiCaprio appears as Calvin Candie, owner of the massive and legendary plantation known as Candyland. DiCaprio’s performance is a sneaky one, and while initially campy, it becomes very real all too quickly. His character shows a severe authenticity as a symbol for the evils of supposed “gentlemen” during a deeply deranged time in American history. As fun as Django Unchained is to watch, it is still a Quentin Tarantino movie, which implies vulgarity and violence. It delivers on both of those qualities to excess, which is a good thing in this case. As part of the Western genre, a lot of justice is sought out against a lot of bad people, and a six-shooter is basically the only tool. The balance between good acting, strong writing, unpredictable circumstances, and sudden bursts of violence creates a suspenseful tone that could not otherwise be achieved.

Blue Jasmine

3. Blue Jasmine (2013) – While 2019 has been a tough year for arguably my favorite filmmaker and entertainer of all time, Woody Allen was still churning out classics in the 2010s. First in 2011, he had his greatest box office achievement of his career with Midnight in Paris, and then just two years later, he puts out one of his greatest films of all time, Blue Jasmine. Allen’s film may be contextually set within the confines of financial crisis; however, the film is actually about trust and fate. The strength of the story rests on the complex and fractured relationship between two adopted sisters, Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) and Ginger (Sally Hawkins). Jasmine and Ginger were separately adopted, raised together, but fate sent them on wildly different paths. Allen explores this element throughout the film while also examining Jasmine’s sense of entitlement regardless of the fact that she has no skills and simply fell into wealth. Furthermore, trust is a dynamic issue presented in the film. While mostly known for his impeccable ability to create fascinating female characters (and Blue Jasmine is no exception), Allen also presents the damage of deception through his uncharacteristically diverse set of male characters. Bobby Cannavale is especially indicative of this as Ginger’s current boyfriend, Chili. Michael Stuhlbarg, Louis C.K., and Peter Sarsgaard join Cannavale and Andrew Dice Clay in developing the vital effect of trust, or lack thereof, on the human condition.

Life of Pi

2. Life of Pi (2012) – First of all, if you like to enjoy a film in its purest and unanticipated sense, just know Ang Lee’s Life of Pi is a spectacular cinematic experience. Now stop reading and go see it. From the moment the map of the Mariana Trench appears on the screen, hold on to your seats! No film, including Avatar, has achieved this level of visual grandeur with 3D technology. What is more, Life of Pi exists right here on our own planet. Lee’s careful precision as a director, takes full advantage of every opportunity to amaze the audience with wonder. Many films have explored the survivor element of what the limits of human endurance are. What allows Pi to rise above those is the spiritual depth that is created from the film’s opening act and the awe-inspiring visual effects that are second to none. Life of Pi is a low-key masterpiece. It sneaks up on you and while not complicated, welcomes multiple viewings. The opening credits depicting animals happily living in captivity holds new meaning after experiencing the film for the first time. Lee presents a very enjoyable and thought-provoking version of Martel’s widely admired source material. It was said that Life of Pi was one of those unfilmable stories- that it can exist in the mind of the reader and nowhere else. Lee has proven those skeptics incorrect; however, this film is more than a companion or adaptation of the novel. It has surpassed that into something much more special and distinctive. 

Interstellar

1. Interstellar (2014) – This is it; the big one! For six years, I’ve been waiting to see if anyone can take this film down as best film of the decade. No one came close. Interstellar is a phenomenal film. It is the most immersive film of the decade. Nolan does not treat the audience with kid gloves and allows us to observe and appreciate the film without needless exposition or over-explanation. Clocking in at 3 hours in running time, the film actually moves with a deliberate and intrepid pace. Like successful cinematic space operas of the past such as 2001: A Space Odyssey or even Star Wars, Interstellar is enriched with thoughtfulness, theoretical rhetoric, and intensity! The film is also quite beautiful and awe-inspiring. Nolan, one of the last filmmakers still shooting on 35mm film, uses the technique to his stunning advantage. Darkness, color, perspective, and beauty are all heightened by Nolan’s camera work, and the film resonates with a voracity that feels appropriate for a quality depiction of interplanetary space travel. Like Steven Price’s Oscar winning score from Gravity, the score in this film, composed by Has Zimmer, plays an equally pivotal role. Swells and crescendos of synthesizers and pipe organs counter-balance equally ominous moments of complete silence, all of which emphasize the overall mood. Like most Christopher Nolan films, the true strength of Interstellar is not in its cast but in its atmosphere and ambition. For a science-fiction film, Interstellar feels very authentic and while the film’s final act may challenge some viewers, everything works. It’s a masterpiece.

Well that’s it. 2019 is not yet finished, and some great films are slated to release at the end of the year, so if somehow something blows me away, I will update this list post-haste. That being said, it is just about time to start looking forward to what a new decade of film will bring, and I for one am encouraged and excited to find out!

Ford v. Ferrari

Director: James Mangold

Screenwriters: Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, and Jason Keller

Cast: Matt Damon, Christian Bale, Jon Bernthal, Caitriona Balfe, Josh Lucas, and Tracy Letts

Ford v. Ferrari was released November 15th, and that makes sense because it’s a finely set table of exactly what you expect in heaping quantities with few surprises, and when you’re done you need a nap.

Matt Damon and Christian Bale headline this cinematic slog through the American pastime of driving cars fast. Damon plays Carroll Shelby, a famous race car driver and designer who finds himself with a heart condition that forces him to end his driving career. Of course, you can take the driver out of the car, but you can’t take the car out of the driver, and soon Shelby is busy working for Ford to deliver a car fast enough to defeat Ferrari at the world renowned race at Le Mans. Shelby selects hot-tempered British mechanic Ken Miles (Christian Bale) to be his driver to the chagrin of Ford President Henry Ford II and VP Lee Iococca. Nonetheless, Shelby and Miles must work together with little to gain and everything to lose.

Ford v. Ferrari is this year’s Green Book. Now depending on who you are, that statement will mean different things. To me, it’s another installment in a troubling cinematic trend. Every year, a handful of “Oscar darling” films are released that follow a virtual template of style and perceived wit. Essentially odd-ducks are paired up to navigate an unkind social climate full of architypes and caricatures that must be thwarted. Movies like The Help, Green Book, and Driving Miss Daisy all fall into this category. Now like I said, you may see that list and say, well that’s a pretty good list! What’s the problem? To that I say, that upon examining these films, what you really have is a film where everyone is uni-dimensional except the principal characters, and the film progresses with a style that broadly spoon feed audiences hearty portions of quippy one-liners and unlikely conversations practically winking at the camera instead of being in the moment. Obviously, Ford v. Ferrari does not contain the racial subject matter that the other films I mentioned have, but the style of this film matches those precisely. These historic, character-driven dramas shot with this disingenuous style ring so false to me, and I wind up caring less and less.

We do have the essential ingredients to a film like this in spades though. The main characters of Shelby and Miles are portrayed strongly by Damon and Bale respectively. They ground the movie as best they can, especially through the racing scenes, of which there are many.

Director James Mangold is generally not guilty of producing these kinds of films. In fact, his 2017 film Logan was raw and exporative despite being a “comic book” movie. Ford v. Ferrari, unfortunately, has little gas in the tank and more or less feels like it’s just going in circles, taking too many pit stops before ultimately just being totaled (puns intended). C-

Ford v. Ferrari is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 32 minutes.

Doctor Sleep

Director: Mike Flanagan

Screenwriter: Mike Flanagan

Cast: Ewan McGregor, Rebecca Ferguson, Kyliegh Curran, Cliff Curtis, and Carel Struycken

When I heard that a film adaptation was in the works for Doctor Sleep, Stephen King’s sequel to his 1977 novel The Shining, I admit I was worried. When I read the 2013 novel, I remember immediately thinking, “Well, this will never work as a film.” Then, to my surprise, within a few years, it’s announced that it’s already in production, and with the talented horror-guru Mike Flanagan (Haunting of Hill House, Hush) as writer/director. That’s enough to get me in the theater, and fortunately, Doctor Sleep does not disappoint.

As I mentioned, Doctor Sleep is Stephen King’s long awaited follow up to his horror classic, The Shining. The original film version of The Shining from 1980 directed by Stanley Kubrick has taken on a life and mythology of its own being hailed as one of the greatest horror films of all time as well as inspiring countless stories and documentaries about some of the strange occurrences associated with the production. Doctor Sleep picks up 30 years after the events at the Overlook Hotel from the original novel. Danny, now going by Dan (Ewan McGregor), is a fully grown, recovering alcoholic, and still has the shine, a term referring to his psychic abilities. Dan’s pretty messed up as one tends to be after a haunted hotel possesses your dad leading him to chase you and your mom around with an axe and just murder a bunch of people before freezing to death in a hedge maze. Oh…spoiler alert.

Now, Dan is sort of a lost soul leading him to taking a job as a hospice nurse, a job that puts his abilities to good use, as his shine gives him an uncanny ability to help soothe the dying in their final moments – subsequently earning him the nickname Doctor Sleep. The shining is a pretty valuable thing – even more so to a group of steam-punk looking, cultish demons known as the True Knot. Lead by ancient matriarch, Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), the True Knot travels by RV across the country seeking out those with the shine, torturing them, and then devouring their essence, which they call steam. It’s a motley crew of weridos with weird names to say the least (a tip of the cap to Twin Peaks’s Carel Struycken as Grandpa Flick). They survive on steam and it must be extracted through pain and torture, which results in some very unsettling scenes in the film.

When the True Knot sense the presence of a young girl named Abra (Kyliegh Curran) who possesses incredibly strong abilities, Rose and her band of scoundrels look to hunt her down. Abra reaches out to Dan asking for his help to stop the True Knot from capturing and killing more people in their caravan of death!

I enjoyed Doctor Sleep much more than I expected I would. The performances are good, especially by Rebecca Ferguson as Rose. The horror is quite terrifying in parts, and while The Shining is on a different plane in terms of achievement and experience, Doctor Sleep is a well-told, strongly designed sequel. The nods to the first film are appropriate, but this is a fully realized, complete story all on its own. The adaptation from the source material is extremely faithful in most respects, but Flanagan also takes some massive left turns in other places, most notably with when Abra’s powers manifest and with the film’s ending. Stephen King said in an interview that it is important for readers to understand that the novel Doctor Sleep is a sequel to the novel The Shining and not the film. I think Flanagan took to that approach with this film in that the movie Doctor Sleep is a sequel to the movie The Shining and not the book, therefore the choices he made to deviate from the book make sense to the characters as we know them from the movie (even though I would have loved to see the novel’s ending play out in the film).

Doctor Sleep does what it set out to do very well. It invokes the spirit of The Shining without needlessly relying on it to stay above water. The inexplicable 152-minute running time does unsurprisingly result in the occasional drag here and there, especially in the first act. Still, there’s plenty that works and more than enough play in this film to keep Doctor Sleep from being a dull boy. B+

Doctor Sleep is rated R and has a running time of 2 hours and 32 minutes.

The Lighthouse

The Lighthouse Poster
The Lighthouse (2019)

Director: Robert Eggers

Screenwriters: Max Eggers and Robert Eggers

Cast: Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson

Arrr – ye all be a scurvy lot, boastin’ a tall tale of the sea be ye? That is not a line from Robert Egger’s 2019 film, The Lighthouse…but it could have been! The Lighthouse is Egger’s follow up to his film The VVitch: A New-England Folktale, which gained the director a lot of attention in 2015. Now Eggers is back with a film about two lighthouse keepers that will no-doubt have people talking…like a pirate!

The Lighthouse stars Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson as two lighthouse keepers off the coast of Nova Scotia sometime in the mid-to-late 19th century. Dafoe plays Thomas Wake, a grizzled, weather-beaten veteran and foil to Pattinson’s young, idealistic Ephraim Winslow. Wake and Winslow arrive for a four-week shift looking after a lighthouse as wickies, the colloquial term for this occupation. It’s isolating, hard work, as you can imagine, especially given Wake’s insistence that he is the only one who gets to keep the light atop the lighthouse, leaving Winslow to most of the hard labor and grunt work. At night, there’s little to do but eat, drink, and talk and much of the film is dedicated to these activities, but that’s where we as the audience learn the most. These men have secrets.

Dafoe and Pattinson in The Lighthouse
Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson star as sparring lighthouse keepers who drive each other mad in Robert Eggers’s “The Lighthouse.” Image Credit: A24 Pictures

As the film progresses, we get quite a bit of insight on these men. Both have questionable pasts that have brought them to this “rock” as Wake calls it, and both are dealing with inner struggle that slowly reveals itself. That slow burn could result in a slog of a film; Eggers’s dialogue through the mouths of Dafoe and Pattinson goes a long way. First, a word about Dafoe. Whether you know it or not, Willem Dafoe has been quietly scooping up Oscar nominations left and right. Assuming he is nominated for this role (which in my opinion is a sure thing), he would be receiving his third nomination in as many years, placing him on the shortlist of actors like Meryl Streep, Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson, and Marlon Brando who have accomplished such a feat! Dafoe puts out a vicious, raw, funny, and technical performance as the gritty Thomas Wake. The credits express thanks to the dark Romanticist, Herman Melville for inspiring much of the dialect and language for the film, and Dafoe masterfully spits this lugubrious, Melvillian prose in such a captivating way that I searched in vain for the screenplay for this film just so I could read and treasure every syllable of exactly what resulted when poor Ephraim Winslow expressed disfavor with Thomas Wake’s prepared lobster dinner. It is a scene for the ages.

Dafoe as Thomas Wake

Pattinson too gives a layered and impressive performance. While his character has fewer eccentricities with which to chew the proverbial scenery, his performance is solid and aggressively mysterious.

For a movie with really only two characters and one principle setting, The Lighthouse is actually quite confusing; however, I would preface this with the understanding that this confusion is mostly deliberate. Writer/Director Robert Eggers layers the film with texture. Shot entirely in black and white with an aspect ratio of 1.19:1, the film resembles something out of German expressionism resembling films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu (coincidentally Dafoe played Max Schreck, the actor who portrayed Nosferatu, in the 2001 film Shadow of the Vampire). This places us as viewers in bizarre territory as madness and insanity are tropes often associated with films that look like this, and The Lighthouse, it seems, is no exception. Eggers uses Expressionist qualities to tell a fable-like story full of mystery and mythology that takes some serious unpacking upon its conclusion.

The Expression I get

I certainly cannot say I got every bit of this film, but I can say that I enjoyed the ride from start to finish, and I look forward to reunitin’ with this salty cinematic saga again one day if the sea-god Triton grants it be so. B+

The Lighthouse is Rated Arrrrr as has a running time of 1 hour and 5 minutes.

Joker

Joker Poster

Director: Todd Phillips

Screenwriters: Todd Phillips and Scott Silver

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Frances Conroy, and Zazie Beetz

Todd Phillips’s dark origin story of the nefarious, titular Clown Prince of Crime is a moody film that feels much closer to the Christopher Nolan vision of Gotham City’s milieu than any of the most recent efforts in the DC universe. And by universe, I mean adaptations of material from Detective Comics because the makers of Joker have made it quite clear that this film is not part of what has been called the DC Extended Universe, which includes films like Batman v. Superman, Wonder Woman, and Aquaman

Joker is drawing comparisons to Martin Scorsese’s 1976 thriller, Taxi Driver as well as to his 1983 dark comedy, The King of Comedy. These comparisons are quite justified as all three films explore celebrity, sub-cultural unrest, and showcase the talents of Robert De Niro. These comparisons come ironically on the heels of Scorsese’s own recent public comments in Empire magazine that other comic book movies are “not cinema.” Whether or not Scorsese has seen Joker remains to be seen, but there’s no doubt the film is heavily stylized and inspired by his early works. But this film is much more than a Scorsese tribute; it is actually quite an astute commentary on some very difficult issues to discuss, making it one of the most necessary films produced this year.

At its core, Joker is a character-driven story about Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a meager, struggling performer hoping to someday be a stand-up comedian. Fleck also has a “condition” which manifests as uncontrollable laughter at inappropriate times. The film quickly establishes that this is a film about man vs. society where Fleck’s numerous mental illnesses result in a rejection from society regardless of his desire to be part of it. Fleck is literally beaten at one point by some kids simply because he stands out. This significant but minor violent experience results in a series of events that eventually see Fleck unemployed, unsupported, and friendless.

To make matters worse, Fleck, who lives at home with his mother Penny (Frances Conroy) discovers that he may be the illegitimate son of billionaire Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) who ultimately abandons both Penny and Arthur. The film is quite ambiguous on this point, and so I leave it up to your interpretation on exactly what is going on here, but suffice it to say, just the idea of it would certainly contribute to Arthur’s coming unhinged. Phoenix is excellent in this film allowing Fleck’s struggles to feel very real and human. His decisions, as radical as they are, all come from a raw and authentic place within the character that Phoenix is able to capture and put on display in a very captivating way.

Phoenix as Joker
Joaquin Phoenix as ‘Joker.’

Joker as a film also does an excellent job of pitting this dynamic individual against a society that is crumbling into chaos and compartmentalizing into a vastly unsettling class struggle. There is no need to underscore the parallels director Todd Phillips is attempting to draw between Gotham and say New York City. The rich are getting richer, the poor are being underserved and beaten down. Fleck simply wants his chance at the American dream, but the more he looks around, the more he notices that the dream is not attained, it’s taken by whoever wants it most by whatever means – which in itself distorts the “American Dream” into something entirely different. You can be rich and famous in America if you’re lucky enough to have it already or if you’re bold enough to destroy others to get it. Jesus Christ – that’s a scary thought! Fleck’s one dream is to be a stand-up comedian and perform for his favorite late-night talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). The film wisely frames the film’s climax on this notion, and what transpires is compelling and profoundly unsettling. Not because it is necessarily “shocking” but because of what it does to us as viewers who will no doubt be feeling a variety of conflicting emotions by the end – all worth examining.

The film does wind up in some familiar territory at the end that on its surface feels a bit unnecessary; however, when reflecting on the film as a whole, and depending on where you sit on certain interpretations of events, the significance of the film’s final scene is quite subjective. Joker is at its worst, a conversation piece, and at its best the most socially significant American film released this year.  A-

Joker is Rated R and has a running time of 2 hours and 2 minutes.

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