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 ~ Midway (2019)


The Facts
:

Synopsis:  US soldiers and pilots change the course of World War II during the Battle of Midway in June 1942 when US and Imperial Japanese naval forces fought for four days.

Stars: Ed Skrein, Patrick Wilson, Luke Evans, Aaron Eckhart, Nick Jonas, Mandy Moore, Darren Criss, Woody Harrelson, Keean Johnson, Luke Kleintank, Dennis Quaid,  Tadanobu Asano, Alexander Ludwig

Director: Roland Emmerich

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 138 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: With the rise of the franchise action film, I’d forgotten what going to a Roland Emmerich movie was like.  The one-time master of the big event film made an impressive debut with Universal Solider in 1992 before going bigger with Stargate in 1994 and fully graduating to epic size with Independence Day in 1994.  In the years that followed, Emmerich struggled with maintaining the scale of his films and had trouble balancing the rising budgets with finding a strong narrative.  By 2013 he was directing White House Down which was similar in plot to Olympus Has Fallen and then he proceeded to go back for seconds on the critically reviled Independence Day: Resurgence.

It was a bit of a surprise for me, then, to see Emmerich’s name attached to Midway because I hadn’t thought the director would want to go for a historical film that would require him to stay within the lines a bit more than he was used to.  Turns out this was exactly the project he needed because aside from a handful of iffy performances and a walloping heap of bad dialogue, Midway emerges as the best effort from the director in years.  Yes, it has your standard roster of rousing speeches and that one impassioned pep talk that comes right before a character is unceremoniously killed off, but it also makes good use of its visual effects budget which helps to snare you into each high-flying fight scene that gets bigger with each battle.  I went in expecting a loud and obnoxious war movie along the lines of the loud and obnoxious Pearl Harbor from 2001, but I wasn’t anticipating coming out the other side having been fully engaged for the majority of Midway’s healthy running length.

Following the military action that took place between the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December of 1941 and the Battle of Midway in June of 1942, first time feature screenwriter Wes Tooke mixes historical figures with composites of the men that participated in these battles on the ground and in the air.  From a history lesson perspective, Tooke’s script is fast moving and filled with the kind of military jargon war junkies will find enticing, yet it isn’t such a deep dive that others will be lost.  Most of the time it’s clear where we are and what’s happening, though when the movie goes into it’s hyper-kinetic final hour it does help to keep mental notes of what is transpiring.  Not being a huge history stickler, I can’t tell you how well-researched Tooke’s script is or if it’s aligns perfectly with the timeline of events but certain accomplishments that seems too coincidental to be true seem to be backed up by historical fact as evidenced in post-credit character wrap-ups.

Where Tooke’s screenplay is lacking is when the characters have to, you know, talk about normal everyday stuff.  It’s here that his newbie-ness shows and it didn’t surprise me to learn he got started writing for a serialized podcast – much of the dialogue is expository that, while directed toward someone on screen, could just as easily be spoken directly into the camera for all the weight it’s given in relation to the combat-zone speak.  Characters that come off as phony baloney talking about their lives outside of the service suddenly take on a tone of authority when discussing the plans for their next air strike.  With only one actress in the main cast, it isn’t surprising the female characters are barely there and what we do see of them are as supportive wives that just want their husbands to come home safely or are standing by ready to cook a late night sandwich.  It’s a bit embarrassing that Tooke couldn’t have given any female something to do in the film other than play a sturdy rock to their more verbose spouse.

It also could be that Emmerich hasn’t cast the strongest actors either, with British Ed Skrein (Maleficent: Mistress of Evil) struggling to maintain his East Coast drawl as hotshot pilot Dick Best.  Try as he might, Skrein never can quite convincingly get through one of his anthemic speeches to his fellow brothers in arms, to say nothing of the complete lack of chemistry he has with his wife, played by an equally vacant Mandy Moore (47 Meters Down).  Yet when Skrein is flying his dive bomber and pushing the limits to victory, he totally had me cheering him on.  In similar boats, or planes, are Luke Evans (Ma), Nick Jonas (Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle), Darren Criss (Girl Most Likely), Aaron Eckhart (Sully), Luke Kleintank (The Goldfinch), and Keean Johnson (Alita: Battle Angel).  While I’d argue that few of these chiseled actors looks like they would have passed basic training (especially Criss…as a fighter pilot? I think not.) as a unit there is something that gels as the movie progresses.

If there’s one bit of non-action sequences work the best in spite of the thin dialogue, it’s the scenes between Admiral Chester Nimitz (Woody Harrelson, Venom) and Lieutenant Commander Edwin T. Layton (Patrick Wilson, Annabelle Comes Home).  After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Nimitz was assigned to take over command of the post and turned to Layton to use his expertise to help predict where the Japanese would attack next.  Layton then sought assistance from a codebreaker who had intercepted Japanese communications, helping them plan for the Battle of Midway.  While there are some hokey bits here and there, by and large these are the moments that land the best and it’s thanks to Harrelson and Wilson’s assured screen presence.  Coincidentally, these are also the passages of the film that are easy to get a bit turned around in — so best to stay alert when Wilson is laying out the game plan.

Where the movie really earns its stripes are the well-staged and skillfully rendered battle scenes featuring air strikes between the US and Japanese forces.  While I normally go a bit cross-eyed with excessive amount of green screen and CGI usage, it didn’t bother me as much in Midway as it wound up enhancing the experience, having the effect of putting the audience right into the middle of the action with alarming intensity.  Far from feeling like an overblown cartoon like previous Emmerich efforts, the visuals are nearly all expertly designed and beautifully executed, culminating in a deluxe finale that actually had me biting my nails.  Sure, it may be a bit chintzy at times but it’s the best kind of gobble-down-your-popcorn kind of fare.  Perhaps the editing could be tightened up a tiny smidge to assist in our tracking of the pilots and to avoid a few repetitive bits but there’s not a lot of the action that I’d want to see trimmed down.

Feeling like it was made with a great sense of honor and respect, I appreciated the gestures Tooke’s script made to Japanese customs as well.  Though dealing us a terrible blow and also being responsible for the deaths of thousands of Chinese that assisted American forces, the Japanese had a sense of nobility in their strategy as well.  It would have been easy (especially in the time we currently live in) to make this an All-American Apple Pie movie but taking a brief moment to acknowledge the losses on both sides doesn’t make any excuses, it simply recognizes the fallen.  If anything, Emmerich could have spent a little more time with the Japanese in the first half of the movie and I imagine he did but felt he could sacrifice those scenes when the movie was running long in his original cut.

Releasing just in time for Veterans Day, I’ll be interested to see how Midway plays with audiences during this quieter time before the busy Thanksgiving holiday draws near.  Though the Battle of Midway has been filmed before (check out 1976’s Midway starring Charlton Heston and Peter Fonda for a less visual effects heavy telling) and there’s more to the story than can be told in 138 minutes (again, there’s absolutely no stories involving women which was disappointing) I appreciated that Emmerich was restrained enough to save his big guns for when he needed it most and let the quieter moments play out.  Even if the quieter moments were clumsy, at least they were there.  For that, I give the movie a lot of credit for exceeding my expectations and providing more entertainment than I could have predicted at the outset.  Very much worth seeing on the big screen.