Things I Liked (And Did Not Like) in 2019

Happy New Year! Recently, my brother Jay and I recorded our “Favorite Films of 2019” episode for Saints and Cinema. It is not really a best-of (though we thought the films were pretty good), because we have not seen everything put out last year. We are not the Golden Globes or the Academy Awards or paid film critics. We see a lot of movies, but we are limited (it should go without saying) to what we have time to see.

So, you can go over there and listen to us talk about what movies we liked and why. But since that episode was recorded, I have seen a couple more movies which were high on critics’ lists from last year. The first was Uncut Gems with Adam Sandler. It is a loud, stressful movie revolving around Sandler’s character, Howard Ratner, who is trying to juggle fire as he holds at bay numerous customers, friends, family members, creditors, while back-dealing and lying as much as possible. Throughout, he tries to get the one winning bet which will allow him to get back on firm ground, even while he is blind to how serious the players are around him. I cannot really say I liked it, and I am completely unconvinced Sandler should receive Best Actor nominations (let alone awards), but if you want to feel tense and grind your teeth for two hours, this is the one for you (and—though I never thought I would think or say or write these words—Kevin Garnett is a scene-stealer).

Then I watched The Lighthouse, with Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe as two lighthouse “wickies” living together, and alone, on a very small island. You know from the beginning it is going to be too much for one or both of them, and the insanity begins to take hold when Pattinson’s character, Ephraim Winslow/Tommy, gives in to Dafoe’s Thomas to finally take a drink of whatever clear liquor Thomas set aside for his time on the island. Again, this is not a movie I really liked, although the first half is often darkly funny (Dafoe and Pattinson are pitch-perfect) and the whole thing looks claustrophobically amazing. If you liked Robert Eggers’ first film, The Witch, you will like this. In fact, the plots parallel each other in many ways: isolation, beset by something terrible, with a main character finally giving in to the terror in the last shot.

Of the films Jay and I discuss on our end-of-2019 episode, I did not come back to it, but there seemed to be a theme running through my favorites. It might be because I turn 40 this year, or maybe not, but four-out-of-five on my list have some sense of looking back, reconsidering, or recalibrating based on the past. The Irishman is the most obvious, surveying a life of destruction and loneliness, unrolling the consequences of an entire lifetime which were not obvious at the time of the events.

Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood wonders about a long friendship and whether it can sustain the changes of age and generations, and (since it is Tarantino) suggests a different violent ending to a well-known event. Probably the one not going to be on many lists (and I would not argue too much) is It: Chapter 2. I am not claiming some high cinematic value for it, even in terms of plot, although it is scary enough, but when I watched it, the sadness and tragedy of the friends struck me more than anything else. While no one (that I know of) has been attacked in real life by a psychotic, alien clown, Pennywise could represent any childhood trauma. How does the trauma get worked out and still push through at unexpected times in a person’s life?

Probably, simply for the experience, I would put The Irishman or Once Upon a Time at the top of my list of favorites. But for originality, I choose The Last Black Man in San Francisco (streaming on Amazon Prime). Although its themes are not new (nostalgia, whether true or false; sense of place; un-righted—and un-right-able—wrongs), the way it presents them are. It has a sense of whimsy and light-heartedness I did not expect. The last shot left a strong impression on me, which carried back through the whole film.

Finally, at the top of my list for 2019 just for pure fun, I strongly recommend Knives Out for everyone, including older teenagers (I took my 13-year-old). It is full of strong performances, including Toni Collette (as usual), Chris Evans, Daniel Craig, and especially Ana de Armas.

I am looking forward to a couple films coming up in 2020: A Quiet Place, Part II and especially The Truth (La vérité), which is the new film from Hirokazu Kore-eda, maybe my favorite filmmaker. And I very much want to see Parasite and Terence Malick’s A Hidden Life, neither of which made it to theaters near me.

Thanks for reading in 2019. I would be happy to hear from you about your favorite films from last year.