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 ~ Luce


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A married couple is forced to reckon with their idealized image of their son, adopted from war-torn Eritrea, after an alarming discovery by a devoted high school teacher threatens his status as an all-star student.

Stars: Naomi Watts, Octavia Spencer, Tim Roth, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Norbert Leo Butz, Astro, Marsha Stephanie Blake

Director: Julius Onah

Rated: R

Running Length: 109 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  If there’s one thing that’s been plaguing many recent theatrical releases, it’s an infestation of predictability.  Used to be that curse was relegated to the big budget franchise blockbusters that operated on formula as part of their plan on delivering exactly what an audience expects but I’ve noticed a lack of creativity creeping into the smaller films arriving as well.  Blame it on an industry more averse to risk than ever before, hardly willing to gamble on not quite a sure thing.  Yet it’s these roll of the dice titles that do make their way into theaters that remind you how fun it can be to not know what’s going to happen next, to not arrive at the conclusion a half hour before the characters do.  Films like Booksmart, The Farewell, The Kid Who Would Be King, and, yes, Crawl are all part of the 2019 unpredictable list.  All from different genres, but all are going after something off the beaten path.  You can go ahead and add Luce to that roster now.

Based on JC Lee’s play that had been well received in its 2013 NYC premiere at Lincoln Center, it’s been adapted for the screen by Lee and director Julius Onah (The Cloverfield Paradox).  I was unfamiliar with the play and had managed to screen the film without seeing the preview and I’d encourage you to do so as well.  Besides, there’s something pleasant about going into a movie with no expectation because you’re letting the film set its own bar it has to jump over.  It’s clear from the start that Lee and Onah know they’ve set their stakes high and are confident enough to traverse the increasingly barbed terrain introduced over the next two hours.  What they have is a tense, at times terrifying, look into the dark recesses behind privilege and the expectation of excellence.

When Amy and Peter Edgar adopted their son Luce as a young boy from Eritrea, one of Africa’s poorest countries, they wanted to give him a better life and over the last ten years they think they’ve done a good job.  Luce is a star athlete and an honors student, a polite and sensitive young man with a bright future and, after years of therapy to help resolve the trauma he suffered before he was adopted, reasonably well adjusted.  As the film begins, Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr., The Birth of a Nation) is giving a speech at a school function after which his parents are introduced to Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer, The Shape of Water), Luce’s world cultures teacher.  The tension is evident and when pressed by Peter (Tim Roth, The Hateful Eight) later about Miss Wilson, Luce dismisses her to his parents as a “bitch”, much to the dismay of Amy (Naomi Watts, Allegiant) who knows her son has more respect than that.

This is the first crack in the relationship not only between mother and son but between husband and wife. While Peter initially sides with Luce over his caustic relationship with an overly difficult teacher, when Miss Wilson makes a further claim about a concern she has observed and Luce’s behavior toward her, the loyalties switch and suddenly Amy is the one defending her son while Peter takes the opposing view.  Turns out the minor concern Miss Wilson has is only the tip of an iceberg of secrets involving the school that provide some surprising twists and turns for all involved.  At the center of all of it is Luce, and though his past positions him to be someone we want to root for and believe in, could he harbor the dark side Miss Wilson observes or is he the golden child being misunderstood by a teacher holding him to a different standard?  Or perhaps he’s neither and no one, not even his involved parents, knows the real Luce.

These questions are posed with skill by Lee and Onah, creating shifting allegiances not just with the characters on screen but with audiences trying to decipher it for themselves.  One moment you think you’ve figured things out and the next Lee has thrown a curve ball and perhaps you’ve jumped to a conclusion that’s too easy and also…why was it so easy for you to jump to that conclusion in the first place?  Questions of nature vs. nurture are explored as well as racism not just between blacks and whites but within the same rice.  Films adapted from a play can often have the feel of being too talky and stage-y and Luce does have its fair share of scenes that I’m sure were lifted verbatim from the original text but it never feels stage bound.  Lee and Onah have opened up this world to include all.

The performances across the board are outstanding and it reinforces the already strong material with an extra layer of steel.  It’s a long standing joke that Watts often gets the roles that her best friend Nicole Kidman passes on because they look so similar and Watts can seem like Kidman-lite but I can’t imagine anyone tackling this role and displaying the nuanced layers brought forth as well as Watts does.  I’m often very on the fence with Roth but he’s paired believably with Watts and handles a late breaking personal revelation with the appropriate amount of inward turmoil.  As Luce, Harrison has a tricky line to walk because he can’t ever show his cards too much or else the audience will finalize their conclusion about him.  By keeping us off-balance with his charm one minute and his Bad Seed-iness the next, we know not to get too close to Luce…but also not to take our eyes off of him.

Octavia Spencer was working long before she won her Oscar for The Help and has continued to show up in an impressive amount of movies every year.  They aren’t all winners but she has a way of rising to the top of any project she’s working on…even serving as producer of last years’s Best Picture Oscar Winner Green Book.  Sometimes her performances get a little campy but, if marketed and promoted right, her role in Luce could get her another Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress.  I’d argue Lee has made Miss Wilson the most multifaceted of all his characters in the film because not only do we see her dealing with the Luce situation, we observe her trying to take in her mentally disabled sister (Marsha Stephanie Blake) who has her own set of devastating challenges.  That Spencer gets the absolute best moments in the movie doesn’t hurt her chances of staying in the Oscar conversation.  No actress working right now can convey so much with just a shift in her eyes.

The summer days are dwindling down and the “big” movies are largely behind us.  While the kids go back to school and we all have a little more free time on our hands and breathing room in the theaters, here’s hoping theaters find space to include Luce and you seek it out.  It’s well worth your time and provides edge of your seat entertainment that even the best of the 2019 supposed summer thrill machines couldn’t muster.