2019 – Best of the Best, Worst of the Worst, Grand Totals

Hello!

It’s the 31st of December and I’m furiously typing away to put together my end of the year list.  Forget about me making a Best of the Decade list — I’d be working on it for weeks.  Instead, take a read at the movies that have sparked joy in me over the past twelve months and which have made my eyes glow red with anger. 

This year I made a promise to myself to review every new movie I had the good fortune to screen/see in theaters and I’m pleased to see that I kept that promise throughout.  It required more of my time and involved prioritizing some work but I feel the end result was worth it.  I hope to continue that as we approach the NINTH year of The MN Movie Man.  What a wild ride.

Although I’m slightly aghast at the amount of movies I saw this year (look below, I’m a bit horrified to reveal the number here), I’ve learned a lot by seeking out films that are off the beaten path and not just sticking to the mainstream releases.  Critics nowadays seem to be only bringing attention to movies that are easily accessible but I think we should all be working harder to push ourselves into highlighting and championing the smaller films that are being pushed out of theaters by an endless array of blockbusters (which I also quite like, by the way).  If you’re a critic and reading this — I challenge you to review on your blog/channel/page at least one movie a month that didn’t get a mainstream release.  It was a huge creative step forward for me this year — try it for yourself!

As always, I’ve appreciated your feedback, your patronage, and your general presence in my blog. Even if you read this everyday but have never commented or made contact I can still tell you’ve been here and that means a lot.  

If you haven’t already, make sure to follow this blog, follow me on Twitter (@joemnmovieman), follow me on Instagram, and like my Facebook page so you can help me continue spreading the news about The MN Movie Man.

Best Wishes to you and yours for a most Happy New Year!

~Joe (The MN Movie Man)

5. Us – It was just two years ago that Jordan Peele’s feature directorial debut Get Out landed on top of my Best of 2017 list. Fears of a sophomore slump were put to rest with the arrival of Us, a more straight-forward horror film from Peele that frightened me something good. There’s less of the social commentary that was present in Get Out but Us does have some interesting things to say if you read between the bloody lines. This was one of the few movies I saw twice in theaters and both times it was highly effective, thanks in no small part to Lupita Nyong’o’s incredible lead performance. Back in March I felt like Nyong’o could be an Oscar contender and hopefully in a few weeks it will happen – she’s part of an excellent cast telling Peele’s twisted tale. So good.

4. Apollo 11 – After the languid First Man in 2018, I thought I had had my fill of space movies for a bit and certainly didn’t think there was there anything more to learn about the Apollo missions that hadn’t already been covered. Then Apollo 11 snuck into theaters and sent me out of orbit with praise. A staggering documentary that features an astonishing amount of never before seen footage remastered so that it looked like it was filmed yesterday, watching this brought out the happy tears in me. Gorgeous to look at and filled with edge-of-your-seat moments, it’s one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen.

3. The Farewell – The good buzz on The Farewell followed it into theaters after it debuted to strong acclaim in Sundance. From director Lulu Wang and based on her real life family, it’s a sweet but not saccharine look at a different culture and the way they choose to deal with death. I appreciated there were so many opportunities for viewers like myself to learn more about Chinese customs in addition to watching a beautifully touching story unfold. Known for her more comedic work, Awkwafina logged an impressive dramatic debut but the movie belongs to luminous Shuzhen Zhao as the grandmother kept in the dark by her family about her recent diagnosis of a terminal disease. You’ll cry, but not for the reasons you’d expect.

2. 1917 – Among the many successes that 1917 can claim is keeping my attention during what is traditionally a rough genre for me. Diverting from your standard war film tropes, writer/director Sam Mendes (Skyfall) and his co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns side-step the landmines of recreating a well-known incident from the first World War and opt to go with something more personal. Shot to look like the entire two hour movie was filmed in one take, aside from its stunning achievement in cinematography it has two appealing stars and a moving story to tell. I was fully engaged from frame one until the last credit onscreen and once this opens wide in January 2020 I think audiences will feel the same way.

1. A Hidden Life – I’ve spent the last two months since I saw A Hidden Life thinking about it almost daily and while I knew it would be in my top five of the year, it’s ability to stay so emotionally fresh with me kept pushing it higher up in the ranks. I honestly could have flipped a coin between this and 1917 but in the end writer/director Terrence Malick’s magnificent film was the only choice for me. Though it has disappointingly been given a paltry release, I’ve been urging everyone to get to the theater and see this pronto because it has some truly majestic moments that deserve to be viewed on the big screen. Malick’s film centers around a Austrian conscientious objector during WWII and the devastating effect it has not just on him but his family struggling to keep going in his absence. It’s a somber film but filled with some of the best views I saw all year and two quietly powerful lead performances that hold it all together. It will still have an impact on the small screen but if you have any chance to see A Hidden Life at your local moviehouse…do it. It’s my favorite film of the year.

Honorable Mentions: Parasite (2019), Ad Astra, Avengers: Endgame, Bombshell, Crawl, Doctor Sleep, Knives Out, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, Premature, Queen & Slim, Ready or Not, The Irishman, Saint Frances, The Kid Who Would Be King, The Mustang

5. Dumbo (2019) – Even though Disney will wind up the year the most profitable studio thanks to their owning most of the big franchise pictures that made billions, they can’t escape that they released some stinkers in 2019 as well. You’ll notice their live-action remake of Aladdin is down in Dis(Honorable) mentions and while a live-action The Lion King didn’t totally sully the memory of the animated original it didn’t make the kind of money it was predicted to. I actually enjoyed the new Lady & The Tramp on Disney+ but Tim Burton’s update of Dumbo was a real mess. Adding new characters, taking what was a simple story, and drowning it in excess, it was an eye-sore and it made my butt-sore. They say an elephant never forgets but they’d definitely make an effort after watching this three-ring disaster.

4. Serenity (2019) – One of the first movies I saw in theaters last January was the much-delayed Serenity. Boasting a bevy of A-list Oscar favorites, this mystery wanted to be steamy and twisty but would up being a laughably bad attempt at meta-filmmaking that was sunk quickly after opening. Relying on one totally crazy twist that isn’t hard to spot, actually, viewers didn’t watch the movie as much as they sort of just bore witness to it all falling apart in front of them. I like almost everyone in this and would never turn my nose up at a modern day noir, but the route Serenity travels on is too far-fetched. Jump ship on this one fast.

3. Her Smell – Numerous critics I respect have Her Smell on their Best of the Year list and would probably be wide-eyed to see it as my #3 worst of the year but this experience in agony was too much to handle. Star Elisabeth Moss earned praise for diving head-first into the role of a self-destructive singer whose years of hard living alienate her from everyone she loves but it comes off like Moss was just riffing in rehearsal and it was caught on camera. The move alienates you almost from the start and spends it’s first hour following Moss as her character embarks on a repulsive spiral into darkness. Full disclosure – I watched this for about twenty minutes before fast-forwarding to the latter half which I had heard made the first part worth the wait. It didn’t.

2. Aquarela – I honestly have never tried so hard not to fall asleep in the middle of a movie than I have watching this documentary. Boasting new filming techniques and shown with a frame rate to create images that felt close to lifelike, the bells and whistles can’t mask this is a supremely boring film. Charting various forms of water, it’s almost entirely dialogue-free and set to a score that will have you plugging your ears if you haven’t already run for the door. About halfway through, I got the feeling audiences were being tested on their stamina in finding the end purpose and eventually allowed myself to close my eyes. I didn’t fall asleep but could have easily conked out – yet I kept one eye open just so can say that “I Survived Aquarela”.

1. Child’s Play (2019) – Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking the original Child’s Play from 1988 was some untouchable classic – because watching it again shortly after seeing this heinously awful remake (as a palate cleanser) reminded me the one that started it all has its share of clumsy moments. Yet it remains a well-oiled machine of a film, occasional issues aside. That’s not the case with this ill-advised update that’s almost insulting to watch. No real thought went into this, including the performances. Aubrey Plaza should be fined some sort of audience taxation for her dreadful acting – the crummy new doll is even a better actor than her. I was so mad coming out of this movie…and I’m still mad today. Worst of the year, no question about it.

Dis(Honorable) Mentions: Aladdin (2019), Yesterday, Vox Lux, Trick (2019), Lucy in the Sky, Climax, Brightburn

Most Misunderstood: Alita: Battle Angel – this is one that had so much potential but perhaps was too big of a reach even for it’s high-flying filmmakers. I enjoyed this overblown sci-fi film boasting impressive visuals and a motion-captured leading actress. True, this was adapted from an Asian source and the American-ization of it didn’t help, but I have a feeling this is one that people will discover as time goes on and wonder why the hinted at sequel never materialized. A disappointing box office take likely means we won’t get a follow-up on the same scale…but perhaps goodwill will win out.
Honorable Mention: Black Christmas (2019)

Joe’s Humble Pie Award of 2019 (movies that turned out differently than I expected going in): Angel Has Fallen – A silly Gerard Butler vehicle gets some extra attention on my end of the year list? Well it deserves it for being an entertaining entry in Butler’s surprise franchise that casts him as a government agent protecting our national security. The first film, Olympus Has Fallen, was mediocre but fun while the sequel, London Has Fallen, is ghoulishly terrible. I didn’t have high hopes for this one because it seemed to come out of nowhere, but the sneak attack worked to its advantage. Totally was better than I ever thought it would be.
Honorable Mention: Midway (2019)

Two Movies You Probably Haven’t Seen But Should: Wild RoseLuce – I already feel like I’ve been talking about Wild Rose too much and I’m building people up to be let down but it truly is one of those rare indie films that has the goods but not many people have caught on yet. Star Jessie Buckley (Judy) turns in one of my favorite performances of the year, her acting is grand but her singing is off the charts. She could record an album tomorrow and have an entirely other career if she wanted. Sort of in the vein of A Star is Born but not nearly as tragic, it’s my new “go-to” when people ask me what they should watch.
Special mention to Luce for featuring Octavia Spencer’s best performance to date, which ironically isn’t getting any attention in the end of the year awards. What Spencer does in this adaptation of a play is nothing less than extraordinary and coupled with star on the rise Kelvin Harrison, Jr. (Waves), Naomi Watts, and Tim Roth you have a recipe for a movie that’s challenging and will spark discussions after. Absolutely keep your eye open for this one to show up on streaming services soon.

Others to Consider:

Absentia
American Factory
Border (Gräns)
Capernaum (Capharnaüm)
Fighting with My Family
Food Coop
Haunt
Juliet, Naked
Minding the Gap
Science Fair
Secrets & Lies
Swallow
Sweetheart
Tea with the Dames
The Boys from Brazil
The Invitation
The Lost City of Z
The Slumber Party Massacre
The Wedding Banquet (Xi yan)
To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before
Vampire Circus

Click HERE for a full listing of films seen in 2019
Total Movies Seen in the Theater: 150
Total Movies Seen at Home: 286
Grand Total for 2019 (not counting films seen multiple times): 430
Where I Saw the Most Movies – Showplace ICON (46!!)

Movie Review ~ A Hidden Life


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Austrian farmer Franz Jägerstätter faces the threat of execution for refusing to fight for the Nazis during World War II

Stars: August Diehl, Valerie Pachner, Matthias Schoenaerts, Michael Nyqvist, Jürgen Prochnow, Bruno Ganz, Alexander Fehling

Director: Terrence Malick

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 173 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9.5/10)

Review:  For a while there, it seemed like director Terrence Malick was going to be gone forever.  After directing the well-liked Badlands in 1973 and oft-revered Days of Heaven in 1978, he went into a self-imposed exile for twenty years before returning with The Thin Red Line.  Meticulous with his details and often giving more weight to the visuals of his work than the overall narrative, Malick’s films are instantly recognizable and can sometimes be heavy handed explorations of introspection, nature, the universe, etc. Reaching a kind of zenith with the polarizing The Tree of Life, his recent films have been less structured and more free-form experiments…and they haven’t achieved the same kind of critical or box office success as his previous efforts.

Malick has returned to his narrative storytelling in A Hidden Life and it shows why, with only a handful of films to his credit over the past forty years, he’s still one of the greatest directors we have.  Jettisoning the loosey-goosey triviality of his last films, this represents a more determined focus on finding strong characters and putting them up against seemingly impossible obstacles to overcome.  The Malick we know is on display in the breathtaking cinematography and attention to small interpersonal moments but there are also new discoveries aplenty showing the filmmaker embracing this difficult tale of hardship and sacrifice as more than just a sorrowful chapter in history.

It’s early in 1939 and nestled in the Austrian mountainside is St. Radegund, a small hamlet that has provided shelter and quietly solid living far from the pains of the distant developing cities for generations.  The supportive community shares a special bond of respect and it’s where Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl, Allied) has always called home.  Married to his sweetheart Fani (Valerie Pachner, The Ground Beneath My Feet) they work their land and have carved out a good life for themselves, which is all they have ever wanted or asked for.  The outside world has other plans for them, though, and when war comes to Germany, Franz performs his civic duty and signs up for service.  While Franz is in basic training, Fani keeps the farm going with the assistance of her neighbors and relatives.

During that brief moment in time when it seemed the war was coming to an end, Franz returns to his wife and three young daughters but their time together in their bit of heaven is all too brief.  He’s called back to his responsibilities in the army but now is asked to swear an allegiance to Hitler, an oath he cannot give.  Franz can see where his country is heading and objects to the path he’s being asked to tread, by rejecting this statement he is in effect rejecting Germany.  Before returning he asks the advice of Bishop Fliesser (Michael Nyqvist, John Wick) only to find the religious figure has already made questionable allowances for his own survival.  Deciding to lead with his heart, Franz refuses to comply with the promise and is swiftly jailed for being a conscientious objector, a crime punishable by death.

As Franz awaits trial, Fani tries push through new hardships at home but is increasingly ostracized by the villagers who have heard about her husband.  Friendships turn cold, professional relationships sour, loved ones become bitter enemies; yet the love between Fani and Franz endures, even during the darkest times.  Numerous people meet with Franz during his time in jail in order to sway him to change his mind.  His lawyer (Matthias Schoenaerts, The Mustang), growing impatient, wants nothing more than to get him to simply sign a statement and free himself of a certain fate.  A Nazi judge, portrayed with almost a Pontius Pilate edge by the late Bruno Ganz (who, like Nyqvist, passed away before this movie was released), gives Franz an opportunity to make him understand his reasoning…but would it really make a difference?

There’s a haunting feeling hanging over A Hidden Life from the start.  Even though Malick and cinematographer Jörg Widmer (The Girl in the Spider’s Web) fill the screen wall to wall with some of the most gorgeous images you’ll see all year, there’s a semblance of sadness to it all.  The first hour before the war truly intervenes in the happy life of Franz and Fani, the camera lingers over the daily mundane work and bold promise of a rich harvest.  Then, when Franz is called away and life takes a turn the views stay on an epic scale, but you feel the empty space far more than you did before.  The final hour is when Malick slips a bit with a few scenes/characters that feel extraneous and slightly too inward facing but it’s shored up sharply in anticipation of its poignant finale.  Without spoiling anything, there’s a solemnity to the final act that’s handled with respect but a certain frankness of reality that Malick has never shied away from.

What Malick winds up with is one of the most moving and stunningly beautiful movies I’ve seen.  Along with a gossamer score from James Newton Howard (The Nutcracker and the Four Realms), this is the kind of film you’re so grateful to get the chance to see on a big screen in all its glory.  I can’t even imagine seeing this for the first time on a small screen because the way it’s constructed it’s essentially meant to be experienced on this grand, almost overwhelming scale.  It helps that Diehl and especially Pachner are excellent in their roles because with all this scenic beauty it would be easy to forget there is a story about real life humans happening in front of it all.  Diehl’s soft-spoken sensitive soul could have been a bit milquetoast, but he makes it work by demonstrating a balance between internal struggle with dedicated resolve.  I loved Pachner’s performance, probably more than some of the Best Actress nominees that have been gaining a lot of attention these past few weeks.  Most of her dialogue is in voiceover so it’s her face that we rely on to inform where her emotions are taking her.  When she’s shunned by the town and ignored by those she trusted, her dignity in soldiering on is as strong an act as anything her husband is going through.

Don’t let the running length scare you.  I am the king of seat squirming and watch checking and I was so enraptured by this that the first time I glanced at my watch was around two and a half hours in.  Though it debuted strongly in Cannes earlier in 2019, A Hidden Life is arriving in theaters with little fanfare and that’s a real pity.  I know it’s a crowded season with a host of well-reviewed and, let’s face it, happier and shorter films to catch but to miss this one (and especially to miss it in a theater) would be a big mistake for any fan of movies, Malick, or plain old good storytelling.