“… Despite The Immigrant‘s initially decided branding of Bruno as its antagonist and Orlando’s obvious foil, it becomes clear that these gentlemanly books aren’t meant to be judged by their covers. Like most people, these men possess discernibly muddy track records that paint them as imperfect individuals. While they’ve both made mistakes, it’s still entirely possible that either one’s possession of Ewa’s sentiments wouldn’t be in her best interest and, because of this, The Immigrant soars above the typical insipid period piece.” Original review here.
A lean procedural work from To that puts other familiarly staged morality plays to shame thanks to his deconstructionist tendencies and overall sense of style. It’s an appropriately tense, even brutal masterwork from the prolific Chinese auteur.
Blind Detective is Johnnie To’s screwball crime procedural laced with equal parts slapstick and earnestness of character and chemistry between leads. Its accessibility is undeniable as is To’s ability to mold the proceedings in an effort to procure a true sense of self amid broader elements. Original review here.
2019 has come and gone thus rendering another entire decade gone but not forgotten. As I’ve touched upon throughout several musings the years spanning its breadth were vital and formative for me. I attended my first film festival in 2010 – one for a film that easily glided onto this very list – and I was grateful for a newfound niche of fellow cinephiles and friends that frequently engaged in conversation about film as a timeless beloved art form. In 2012 and 2013 I traveled to Toronto for TIFF with a few of these individuals and marveled at the enormity and impact of the entire experience. From world and North American premieres to celebrity and director Q&As, tackling 10 or more films in a 3 or 4-day span was gleeful, taxing and bittersweet as both years’ events came and went far too soon.
The latter half of the decade was plagued with infrequency as 2015 reigned supreme as my most prolific year of viewing, followed closely by 2016 then petering off dramatically throughout 2017 and beyond. Even still, having saw what I’d seen further solidified the decade as a whole as one of particular note albeit not without its cataclysmic duds and disappointments. Narrowing this list down to 100 entries (and ranking them) was a borderline nightmare and I’ve still yet to blot out some glaring blindspots, however I’m proud to call this list my own and will most likely fret over and alter it before frustration prevents further intervention.
Although David Mackenzie’s output post-Perfect Sense is arguably more polished and palatable I couldn’t help but be enamored of his emotionally-steeped antithesis to Soderbergh’s Contagion. Whereas Soderbergh expertly illustrates the plausibility and widespread panic coinciding with the viral outbreak-as-impetus angle, Perfect Sense tugs on the reins a bit as it places the disintegration of its core relationship front and center. Its overt wistfulness places this in a league of its own despite flying under many a radar. Original review here.
The synopsis for Snatch on Letterboxd states that it “tells an obscure story similar to his [Ritchie’s] first fast-paced crazy character-colliding filled film” – a tidbit that can also be applied to 2005’s Revolver, 2008’s RocknRolla and – of course – The Gentlemen. Having devoted his efforts to the commercial adaptation/reboot market for about a decade, Ritchie struck gold albeit briefly with Sherlock Holmes and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. before making a lucrative lateral move to Disney for last year’s Aladdin. With The Gentlemen being his purportedly “triumphant” return to the realm of the British gangster comedy, it’s a relief to see that Ritchie hasn’t lost his touch even if it’s just another familiarly overstuffed romp through a quirky criminal underworld of the filmmaker’s own devising.
Focusing on American expat-turned-marijuana-overlord Mickey Pearson (Matthew McConaughey) as he ventures to offload his empire and get out of the game, things become complicated as excessive third parties play a game of “Whodunnit?” amid many a double-cross and cock-up. Ritchie’s penchant for snappy, sometimes tasteless vulgarity in his dialogue is front and center as is a habit of overcomplicating things and mistaking convolution for intelligence. The opening moments do well enough in allowing Hugh Grant’s shady tabloid journo-type to lay down the groundwork for what’s to come through some self-indulgent narration-as-blackmail, however things get a bit muddy from there.
As with the other entries in Ritchie’s British gangland canon, key players’ true motives remain questionable until another twist renders the two or three preceding it utterly moot. This isn’t so much a tawdry gimmick as it is a tried and true means of keeping things fresh throughout something narratively disparate but familiarly steeped in Ritchie’s way of doing things. All things considered, The Gentlemen is merely another well-acted ensemble caper indicative of this auteur’s proclivities that basically engages as another complex deep-dive into this fictional macrocosm of gang culture. It’s serviceable surface-level stuff at best and above average compared to the rest of the typical January dreck.
Eastwood’s latest can be considered both straightforward and straitlaced in its dissection of the titular hero’s involvement in the 1996 Centennial Olympic Park bombing. Richard Jewell isn’t so much complex or controversial as it is earnest in honoring Jewell’s efforts and alerting us to the toxic cynicism and shallow-mindedness of those looking to take him down without truly knowing the man himself. Calling it an unsubtle takedown of the media and unjust (albeit inevitable) slants on headline material wouldn’t be far off either, taking certain liberties with an unpleasant portrayal of journalist Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) that’s churned up some warranted backlash.
Given how ostensibly Ray’s script wears its sensitivity toward Jewell and core relationships with mother Bobi (Kathy Bates) and attorney Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell) on its sleeve, it’s no surprise that certain scenes work as well as they do in dramatizing at-home/behind-the-scenes turmoil. Outside parties are excessively demonized, Wilde’s Scruggs most egregiously and Hamm’s Tom Shaw so as to hammer home just how oppressed and cruelly regarded Jewell was at the height of this fiasco. A lot of it can be construed as shallow or even inept, however Eastwood manages to bring everything to an agreeable head regardless of these missteps.
Further benefiting from stellar performances while serving as a serviceable reminder of its late subject’s selfless efforts, Richard Jewell is merely an above-average topping of his tepid recent output. Questionable writing remains an issue as details are either glossed over or excessively embellished upon as we’ve come to expect from similar true story fare, however the focal acuity in chronicling Jewell’s journey is very admirable. It may be one of very few things going for it but at least it’s enough to honor the late hero and speak to what’s inherently wrong with media then and now.
Noah Baumbach’s work has rarely if at all suffered from diminishing returns in my opinion, what with The Squid and the Whale solidifying his mostly sterling reputation as succeeding efforts ranged from good to great to marvelous with his latest and most affecting work to date. Marriage Story – as you’ve assuredly heard – chronicles the arduous divorce proceedings of ones Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson). What ensues throughout is an especially emotional and intimate dissection of these individuals’ respective hardships in amicably coming to grips with harsh realizations, new realities and reinvention of themselves for better or worse.
I’m sure everyone can agree that the dissolution of a long-term relationship can often be messy, cataclysmic even when every aspect of the separation is taken into consideration. Everyone can also agree that this subject has been tackled time and again as many an effort either does or doesn’t sell a narrative chock full of banality, of which either is or isn’t combated thanks to uniqueness of vision. Given Baumbach’s proclivity for spinning yarns heavily steeped in humanity shot through with trademark wit, Marriage Story very competently strikes a chord early on as it sets the stage for a staggering portrait of love on the rocks with no means of reconciliation in sight. It’s appreciably bleak in scope and pithy when it counts so as to not detract from the overarching woefulness permeating each and every scene and Driver and Johansson sell this very convincingly.
Baumbach makes sure to hit all the right beats in considering what’s at stake during the divorce process: custody of an only child, messy legal know-how, loopholes and technicalities and divvying up or termination of relationships with mutual friends, family or acquaintances. Each and every aspect of the script fuses impeccably with Charlie and Nicole’s individual worldviews that help add insight into just why this whole mess was a long time coming. The chemistry between the two leads is excellent depsite Johansson detractors as are performances across the board, further exemplifying the script’s adroit adherence to minutiae that makes this story one for the ages.
This is a prime example of one of the many films that far exceed my ability to properly articulate its greatness. I venture to say that comparisons to 2017’s almost equally as impressive The Meyerowitz Stories are unfair given differing degrees of familial dysfunction and distress but Baumbach’s certainly on a roll despite one’s personal preference. Marriage Story teems with obvious albeit affecting emotionality, an appropriately distressing breakdown of legalism in the divorce process and stellar efforts from all key players that help make this one of the best films of 2019 and Baumbach’s career.
Say what you want about Shia LaBeouf but I’ve always managed to separate the art from the artist. Granted, his track record in letting the two bleed together along with an agreeably tumultuous personal life has been… spotty, however he’s easily one of our more consistently impressive working talents. Honey Boy is his latest and most personal effort to date, mustering the strength to portray the abusive father to a loose interpretation of his young up-and-coming self (Noah Jupe).
The film opens with an older Otis (Lucas Hedges) indulging in another of a string of alcoholic benders, eventually landing himself in rehab and struggling to address the key factor influencing a PTSD diagnosis. From here Otis reflects on the strained relationship between his 12-year-old child actor self and hot-headed father, charting a period when the two were at odds and forced together at the behest of Otis himself. Chemistry between Jupe and LaBeouf is especially fantastic throughout, each interaction yielding young Otis’ desperation in molding a true father figure out of James through monetary coercion.
While it’s evident James may (or may not) want to do the right thing as a could-be role model, the character at one point states how he can’t get out from under the past – a fact that continually supports his erratic behavior and half-hearted attempts at doing the right thing despite never reciprocating an ounce of affection. Honey Boy decidedly hinges on the character moments that exemplify this, illustrating young Otis’ slow-burning futility with heartbreaking aplomb as Hedges’ twentysomething version grapples with acceptance and separation of himself from his father’s infectious and toxic shortcomings.
Minor players come and go but Honey Boy thrives thanks to its deft dissection of the core father-son dynamic. LaBeouf and Har’el’s creativity in conveying this otherwise straightforward narrative pairs well with chemistry between leads and the authenticity complementing such a personal narrative. It’s a truly touching, even cathartic experience for some, charting relatable territory in a manner indicative of its’ star’s talents and uniqueness of vision.
There’s certainly no shortage of ethically-inclined “Based on a True Story” fare to tap into regarding many a sect of global and national history. In the case of Todd Haynes’ Dark Waters, Mark Ruffalo portrays defense attorney Robert Bilott as he tirelessly works to expose DuPont’s decades-long ineptitude in properly disposing of chemical waste. The efforts of Bilott are inevitably met with fierce opposition as the corporate juggernaut employs its afforded resources to combat the scandal in every which way.
The appeal of so-called “eco-thriller” fare is typically contingent upon how liberties taken with source inspiration manage to engage us as viewers while articulating actual truths. Dark Waters fortunately hits most of the right beats in both areas, remaining appropriately morose in its David and Goliath sensibilities while charting Bilott’s taxing years-long efforts in procuring justice for the individuals affected. A competent balance also exists between Bilott’s juggling of his increasingly tumultuous home life and the paranoiac living nightmare his work has thrust him into, even if a lot of it’s forced to play things a bit too safe given familiar thematic throughlines.
Dark Waters is ultimately a small triumph for Haynes, reminding us all of DuPont’s thunderous negligence and how one individual bravely fought to ensure humanity’s safety following the corporation’s grave continued missteps. Like its countless predecessors, the film relies solely upon how effectively the central story’s told, what aspects of it remain most provocative and the impact of the central performances. This is a different direction for Haynes for sure, and although it’s far from his creative norm, he manages to take the script from Matthew Michael Carnahan and Mario Correa and transform it into something compelling despite inevitable adherence to formula.