By John H. Foote
No fancy intro, just into it.
2019 will forever be remembered and celebrated as the year Netflix revolutionized the industry.
I begin with fifteen runners up to the top ten in what was an exciting, strong year at the movies. I get so tired of hearing movies are worse than ever, they are not, you just need to look. Look deeper than the mainstream, great films are there to be discovered. And sorry fanboys, Star Wars did not make the cut.
15 Runners Up — no order:
Les Misérables: A stunning French film, nothing to do with Hugo, well, sort of exploring crime in the great city of Paris. Electrifying.
Booksmart: Two high school friends realize their quest to get into great colleges has robbed them of the youth their friends and enemies had, and they too got into great colleges and six figure jobs. Superbly directed by Olivia Wilde.
Ad Astra: Brad Pitt’s other great performance as an astronaut who goes to find his father in deep space. Directed by James Gray, the film is demanding, but rewarding. Beautifully acted by the cast. Gray remains utterly fearless.
A Hidden Life: A beautifully crafted film from constant creator of works of shameless self indulgence and artistic masturbation Terrence Malick. This represents a fine return to form in the telling of the true story of a peaceful Austrian farmer, portrayed by August Diehl who refuses to sign allegiance to Hitler and the Nazi party, drawing unwanted attention to his family, earning the scorn of his village. Crafted with care, the film beautifully explores the connection to the land of the villagers, who plant, harvest and live off their crops and cannot imagine the Nazis in the midst like a plague of locusts.
Dolemite is My Name: Eddie Murphy gives one of the years very best performances as a real life blaxploitation pioneer who believed there was an audience for films about black Americans, starring black Americans, about black Americans. Murphy is brilliant, truly, doing his greatest onscreen work since Dreamgirls (2006) for which he was absolutely robbed of the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Very funny, but honest in its depiction of the rise of African Americans in film.
MIDSOMMAR: Ari Aster lays claim to new great horror Director with this bizarre film anchored by an absolutely astounding performance from Florence Pugh. She is Dani, mired in grief after the deaths of her entire family. Taken to Sweden by her boyfriend, the group enter a strange world of tradition, and cult like behaviour. Made more frightening by the fact the sun never goes down, there is literally no escape, nor any where to hide.
Apollo 11: If possible, see this on an IMAX screen. Using recently recovered footage, this movie traces the launch that climaxed with Armstrong walking on the moon. First Man (2018) did a brilliant job capturing the emotion of the event, this film captures the facts, but uses them in such a way to create a thrilling, informative work.
Yesterday: Danny Boyle directed this gentle fable about a young East Indian Brit musician who after a sudden power black out and bumping his head, awakens to a world where no one knows of the rock band The Beatles. In this new world, John, Paul, George and Ringo exist but were never the Fab Four from Liverpool. Our hero then starts singing their songs and passing himself as the writer. Overnight he is hailed the greatest songwriter in music. Represented by a blood sucking hellion he comes to realize he does not want the fame, but to live in a world where the Beatles do not Exist? That is unimaginable.
The Lighthouse: Robert Eggers directed this haunting film that might be a ghost story, might explore creatures from the sea of could just be a descent into madness brought on by loneliness and isolation. Robert Pattinson is superb as the young man escaping a past hoping the lighthouse provides him escape. As the crusty old sea dog who is his superior, Willem Dafoe is equally fine, cackling out his performance in a curious Melville-esquire speak. Stunningly photographed in crisp black and white, the sights and sounds become secondary characters.
Blinded by the Light: When a teenaged Pakistan Brit listens to Bruce Springsteen for the first time he feels the blue-collar rocker is speaking directly to him. Seeking something better, though he does not necessarily know what, the look on his face as Springsteen’s tunes enter his mind, the lyrics whirling about on the screen, he finds his own voice. Terrific little film that brings about greater understanding to the profound music of The Boss.
Just Mercy: Rock solid courtroom drama based on a true story featuring stellar performances from Michael B. Jordan, an extraordinary Jamie Foxx and in a supporting role which fits her like a well-worn glove, Brie Larson. Jordan is an idealistic Harvard grad who, rather then go for big money in cities, gets a government grant to defend those who cannot afford good legal presentation. Foxx is alarmingly good portraying an innocent man on death row, living in a southern town predominantly white, meaning he stands no chance. A biting indictment of racism and fine exploration of humanity.
Richard Jewell: Clint Eastwood directed this solid, powerful film of a man very nearly destroyed by the FBI and media. Jewell, portrayed beautifully by Paul Walter Hauser became the prime suspect of planting a bag which exploded during the Olympics after reporting finding it. The media went to work on ruining him, until a cocky lawyer, superbly acted by Sam Rockwell gets involved. Kathy Bates is sublime as the mother of the accused man. Not the greatest of Eastwood’s career, but very good.
ROCKETMAN: Taron Edgerton is electrifying as pop star Elton John in this sort of biography that uses the music of John like a juke box musical, commenting throughout on his life. The film explores his long relationship with Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) who wrote the lyrics to his early work, that triumphant debut in LA at the Troubadour, his rise to fame in wild costumes and ever changing and more flamboyant sun glasses, addictions and his suicide attempt. Edgerton is stunning as Elton, doing his own singing, which last year’s Oscar winner, as Freddie Mercury did not do. Deserving of at least a nomination for Best Actor, it would be tragic if he were left out just because an inferior performance won last year portraying a rock star.
Motherless Brooklyn: A sprawling film noir, not perfect, nicely acted, directed and written by Edward Norton. His performance as a young investigator with Tourette’s syndrome is among the finest work of his career, a jittery, verbal explosion of sounds and tics he cannot control. Seeking answers to the murder of his boss and friend takes him high into the corrupt world of fifties New York City. Alec Baldwin is a force of nature as a potential villain, but the film belongs to Norton truly one of the greatest actors in movies. I saw the film at TIFF and a few cuts were necessary, but over all I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Western Stars: A lovely, thoughtful documentary about Bruce Springsteen and his latest album, Western Stars. The Boss co-directed the film, which explores where the songs come from, his past, America, life, love as Springsteen sees it, writes about it and sings it. Brutally honest about his lifelong bout with depression, he frankly opens up about his own self-destructive nature, finding a degree of peace with his wife, long-time band member Patti. Singing for family and friends in a century year old barn, renovated as a studio, his songs are about us, for us and they celebrate blue collar roots, that sense of yearning for more, as he did. Outstanding.
And the 10 finest of the year in declining order:
10. (Tie) UNCUT GEMS
Adam Sandler is revelatory as Howard, a corrupt, degenerate gambler, a scheming jeweller running from his debtors, chasing a very valuable gem, in the process of fighting his wife for a divorce while keeping his mistress happy, and trying to stay alive, suffice to say he has his hands full. It is an astonishing performance from the comic, brave, fearless, his finest dramatic work and if there is a God, truly Oscar bound. Sandler does the kind of courageous work De Niro and Pacino did in the seventies and early eighties, electric, you cannot take your eyes off them. The Safdie Brothers once again create an electrifying film about an unpleasant character who you just cannot get enough of, but who you would never want to encounter. I will never slag Sandler again, not after this. Fast paced, laced with energy and an inner heartbeat, often violent in a swift shocking manner and lied with unpleasant characters you would never wish to bump into, Howard at the top of that list.
10. (Tie) BOMBSHELL
The sexual harassment explosion that rocked Fox News right to its foundation, bringing down powerful CEO Roger Aisles for his near constant harassment of attractive young women seeking a career in new. John Lithgow portrays Aisles as a grandfatherly mentor masking the mind of a predator, but once we realize what he is, his character becomes repellant, a monster. Though Lithgow is outstanding in a difficult role, the film, rightly so, belongs to the women. Margot Robbie is heartbreaking as a pretty and ambitious woman, recently hired, seeking a big career at Fox and willing to do the unthinkable to get there. As Gretchen Carlson, the woman who put in motion the actions that destroyed Aisles, Nicole Kidman is brilliant. Angry, defiled, seething she quietly lashes out at him, lighting a match that becomes an inferno as the women Aisles has tormented fall in line. Charlize Theron is astonishing as Megan Kelly, the most well known of the group to go after Aisles for harassment. Angered at the blatant harassment at his hands she is also furious he will not permit Presidential candidate Trump to be questioned about his misogynistic comments about women, when she lashes out she does so full bore, fearing nothing. Nicely directed by Jay Roach, with Kate McKinnon fine as an outspoken lesbian, until her voice counts. Count on Oscar attention.
9. FORD VS. FERRARI
Another great Christian Bale performance as hot-tempered British race car driver Ken Miles, struggling to eke out a living as a high-end mechanic, with few customers. When Ford attempts to buy the Ferrari auto company, and are rebuked, Henry Ford II (Tracey Letts) orders his racing division to build a car to defeat Ferrari at Le Mans. Hiring visionary Carrol Shelby (Matt Damon) to head the division, his first move is to bring in the difficult Miles, who is brilliant but had a penchant for annoying everyone near him. They build the car, but Ford does not want Miles driving, however after Shelby takes Henry Ford II for a test drive, reducing the man to tears, Miles has the job. The racing sequences are superbly shot and edited, placing us right in the driver’s seat, on display the intense danger these drivers place themselves in. Nicely directed by James Mangold, this is the finest film of his career. Bale and Damon are superb.
8. LITTLE WOMEN
After the confident, very fine Lady Bird (2017) for which she was nominated for Oscars as Best Director and for her very exceptional screenplay, Greta Gerwig decided to use her new-found power to adapt the classic novel Little Women, last filmed in 1994 to the screen. A lush, handsome production, Gerwig makes very clear she is indeed “the real thing” as a filmmaker, confidently creating a film set during the Civil War but that speaks to today’s women. An extraordinary cast brings to life the well-known characters with especially fine work from Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Timothee Chalamet, Laura Dern, Tracey Letts, and Meryl Streep. Ronan as Jo might just surpass her earlier work in both Brooklyn (2015) and Gerwig’s Lady Bird, with a brilliant performance of an independent thinker, when women were not permitted to be so. As her wealthy Aunt, who sees much of herself in Jo, Streep is dazzling, stealing every scene she is in. Truly outstanding.
7. THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD
Released early in the year, this film left me stunned, both for its technical wizardry and the heartfelt emotion of the men on screen, all long dead. Academy Award winning director Peter Jackson was hired to make an archival documentary for the War museum in Great Britain but decided to do much more. Utilizing ancient, 16mm scratched footage, he digitized it, restoring and colourizing it to pristine condition. FBI forensic lip readers were brought in to decipher what the men were saying in the old silent films, with voice actors hired to give the images voice. The results are a galvanizing experience, like seeing aspects of the horrific First World War for the first time. Soldiers, young and old, fresh faced and haunted, they are, for the running time of this astounding work, alive again. The scenes of combat are fleeting as Jackson chooses to focus on the men fighting. Brilliant, one of the finest documentaries ever created and an extraordinary technological achievement.
6. MARRIAGE STORY
Great writers write what they know, their lives. Tennessee Williams did it, Arthur Miller, and Woody Allen have deftly turned their lives into art through the years. While brave, it is also potentially dangerous, setting yourself up for attack and failure. Truth conquers, always. Noah Baumbach revisits divorce after his superb The Squid and the Whale (2005) but this time with greater insight because he is exploring his own marriage and divorce from actress Jennifer Jason Leigh. With gut wrenching honesty and raw, visceral power, he guides the brilliant Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson as Charlie and Nicole through the agonies of a dying marriage, and horrific divorce, exposing raw nerves left bare onscreen. Driver is astonishing, bringing what Marlon Brando brought to the screen early in his career, an authenticity and purity that is shattering. Bewildered by what is happening, eventually enraged, finally heartbroken he gives the performance that could win him the Academy Award for Best Actor. Scarlett Johansson, in the more difficult role as the aggressor who wants out of the marriage, but without flesh on her teeth, is equally superb, breaking new ground as an actress. What a year for this exceptional young woman. The emotional violence of the huge argument they have will leave you gutted. Laura Dern is outstanding as Nicole’s aggressive, quietly vicious lawyer Nora, and Alan Alda and Ray Liotta have small roles as Charlie’s lawyers. The film joins Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), An Unmarried Woman (1978) and Shoot the Moon (1982) as one of the finest studies of a marriage breakdown and subsequent divorce, though here we are left with a shred of hope, as there is never any doubt they love each other. Austere, raw, superb.
Easily the most unsettling film of the year and the happiest unexpected surprise of the year. When a film this angry, subversive and explosive makes more than a billion dollars it means audiences have connected with it or are least willing to try. I was very surprised when it was selected to play TIFF because it did not strike me, being a super villain film as a festival entry. As Nick and I watched it together it became very clear it was not a super hero nor super villain film at all, it was something entirely original, yet oddly familiar. Watching it a couple months later with my brother Steve, its greatness became clearer. In the performance of his lifetime, Joaquin Phoenix is simply astounding as a deeply alienated, lonely, possibly insane young man, slipping over the edge into insanity, into becoming the Joker. Cursed with an affliction that causes him to break in uncontrollable fits of laughter, his face contorts into that familiar clown mask he later draws on his face. As the madness overtakes him, or as he embraces his murderous ways, he is liberated in body and soul, which evolves his movements, his voice, everything about him. Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger previously portrayed the role to great acclaim, and an Oscar for Ledger. It seems to me Phoenix could step into The Dark Knight (2008) seamlessly by the end of this dark masterpiece. Todd Phillips directs flawlessly, taking the same sort of risks Stanley Kubrick took with A Clockwork Orange (1971), and Robert De Niro is excellent as a talk show host who teases the wrong guy. Phoenix…soars.
A welcome return to greatness for Academy Award winning director Sam Mendes who 20 years ago was the toast of the film world with the searing black comedy American Beauty (1999). His war film 1917 brings WWI to the screen with remarkable power and realism, exploring in grim detail why this was called the Great War. Told miraculously with one continuous shot, the film explores how two young soldiers, portrayed by George McKay and Dean Charles Chapman follow orders to move through no man’s land to warn a British troupe they are walking into a well-planned German trap, and will be slaughtered. Their journey, on foot, immerses us in every way in the horror this war must have been for those fighting it. The landscape is barren, tree stumps dot the horizon, the earth is scorched and littered with bodies, both man and horse, and in some cases just parts of both. Mud and blood are everywhere, the trenches overrun with vermin, rats feasting on the dead, decaying, maggot filled bodies, which we can all but smell with just the visual. It is as though he’ll burst through from the bowels of the earth and settled here in no man’s land. Movement is everything in this Film, and the camera follows the two men in great detail, but also sees ahead for them and sometimes soars high above them, giving us a view from Gods eyes. Unsettling, filled with despair, the horror of war without a single cliché, Mendes has created the definitive film about the First World War and a cinematic masterpiece. Technically superb, Roger Deakins seems likely to win his second Oscar for Cinematography. Darkly magnificent.
3. ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD
The title makes it clear that this is another history bending fairy tale from the gifted filmmaker Quentin Tarantino. This time he sets the story in the sixties, 1969 specifically, when neon signs ruled downtown Hollywood. The film focuses on Rick Dalton (Leonardo Di Caprio), a fading TV star and his best friend, driver and stunt double Cliff (Brad Pitt) a dangerous ex-military who is utterly fearless. Living next door to Rick is luminous Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) a sunny Ray of light who lights up whatever room she is in. Seen throughout the film are members of the Manson family, seen foraging through garbage bins for food tossed out, or selling acid dipped cigarettes on the street. Cliff makes a trip to Spaun’s Western Ranch, once a popular location for TV westerns, where the Manson clan is living, to check in on the elderly George (Bruce Dern). The presence of the clan is ominous, they radiate danger and menace everywhere they go, which unnerves, but does not scare Cliff. When he and Rick return from Italy, Dalton’s home is invaded by members of the clan, where all hell breaks loose, and we are witness to just how deadly Cliff is. Rewriting history, the clan are slaughtered by Cliff and Rick, sparing Sharon Tate and her guests. So many great moments. The child actress talking acting theory with Rick, who later rages and breaks down in his trailer about blowing lines. Cliff beating the hell out of pompous, strutting Bruce Lee, Sharon gleefully watching herself onscreen at a matinee, the unsettling danger in the air at the Ranch as the family lines up. Wildly entertaining, superbly acted, and with a dash of gruesome violence, it ends like a ghost story. With Rick quietly greeting his neighbours, living but who we know were slaughtered. Another brash, confident knockout from Tarantino.
2. JO JO RABBIT
A blistering, brilliant black comedy about a ten-year-old Nazi zealot, Jo Jo (Roman Griffin Davis) happily decorates his room with images of his beloved Hitler and joyfully marches off to a Hitler Youth Camp in the waning days of the war. His exasperated mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) tolerates his behaviour because he is just ten, and she is very aware the Germans are about to lose the war. What she does not know is that Jo Jo’s imaginary friend is none other than Hitler (Taiku Waititi) though a very different Hitler than we have seen before. This Hitler is a wide eyed, supportive best friend, who jumps and runs with Jo Jo, and is as goofy as a ten-year-old boy. When Jo Jo finds Elsa (McKenzie Thomasin), a young Jewish teenager being hidden in his mother’s closet, he realizes his cheery, sunny mom is a freedom fighter and despises his beloved Nazis. As the Americans and Russians draw closer, Jo Jo becomes more aware of the Jews and the Nazis and finds the girl is not a monster after all! When tragedy strikes the boy, it is the girl he turns to for comfort and support. Eventually his imaginary friend becomes the maniacal Hitler we know and despise, and in an instant, Jo Jo grows up, evolves. A scathing black comedy with elements of darkness, Taiku Waititi has created a divisive film with strange mainstream appeal. I laughed out loud, often, but also wept for Jo Jo. The performances of Davis, McKenzie, and Sam Rockwell as a Nazi with a heart are wonderful but Johansson is luminous, brilliant with Waititi superb as Adolf.
1. THE IRISHMAN
Surprised? It’s Scorsese at his finest with Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci in a melancholy crime saga adapted from the book “I Heard You Paint Houses”, the life of Mob hitman Frank Sheeran. While a companion piece to his masterpiece GoodFellas (1990) and Casino (1995), this film has a very different tone, often filled regrets, and the knowledge that the life we lead, the decisions made throughout our life have consequences. Those very consequences govern how our later years are lived, in this case for Frank, alone, left quietly in the lonely hallways of a retirement home where he will most certainly die a very lonely death, alone. Hired by Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) as both body guard and hit man, the two become best friends, brought together by the quiet mafia chief Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci). Hoffa has made deals with those in organized crime, and when the favours are called in, he rages, not realizing the position he has put his friends in. It falls on his best friend, Frank (De Niro) to execute him which with great regret he does at the behest of Russell, a far more loyal friend than he ever realized. De Niro has not been this compelling in years, truly finding the soul of Frank and allowing us to see. Pacino gives the film a furious boost of energy when he makes his first appearance and is electrifying throughout, doing his best work since Donnie Brasco (1997). Best of all is Pesci, unlike anything he has done before, light years from his work in Goodfellas and Casino. Russell is confident, absolutely in control and very aware of his power and what he is personally capable of doing. Never once does he raise his voice, showing surprise only when during their first encounter when Frank honestly does not know who he is. This is the finest work of Pesci’s career. Scorsese boldly explores the lives of men in organized crime who make it through life to old age. Haunted by their deeds, ashamed by the actions their children are aware of, and missing old friends, Frank has a lot to think about alone in that home. How can he have peace with so many ghosts around him? There have been criticisms about the seventy-year-old actors not moving like young men, but I saw just one awkward moment. As Frank beats the grocer who touched his daughter, he does not move like a forty-year-old man, but rather, like a seventy-year-old afraid of falling. Such a small quibble for such a gigantic achievement from the cinema’s finest director. The Irishman is a film for the ages. Bravo Netflix and shame on every studio to turn down Scorsese.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.