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 ~ The Farewell

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A Chinese family discovers their grandmother has only a short while left to live and decide to keep her in the dark, scheduling a wedding to gather before she dies.

Stars: Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Ines Laimins, Diana Lin, Zhao Shuzhen, Lu Hong, Jiang Yongbo

Director: Lulu Wang

Rated: PG

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review: In recent years, I’ve come to be mighty skeptical of any movie that has buzz coming out of the Sundance Film Festival. Though the fest has produced several hits throughout its time, lately its been more infamous as a birthing place where great, good, and so-so movies without distributors get gobbled up by studios who then don’t know what to do with them. The great ones see their releases totally bungled, the good ones rarely find a wide-release, and the so-so ones usually get the most eyes on them.  Thankfully, most of the just plain bad ones disappear quickly into your streaming service library.

This year the two movies that I heard the most about were female-led and female directed. The first to arrive was the moderately well-reviewed comedy Late Night, starring Emma Thompson and Mindy Kaling. Though it was positioned well by Amazon Studios as counter-programming to the summer blockbusters that were in full swing when its June release date rolled around, it tanked. Big time. So big that its rumored jobs were lost at Amazon Studios and a complete revaluation of their film acquisition policies in progress. As much as I would have liked to see that film do better business considering the stars, I kind of get why it didn’t catch on. Though it had laughs, I didn’t leave the theater wanting to tell my friends about it.

The same can’t be said about the other Sundance favorite now arriving in theaters. I’m telling all my friends, family, co-workers, and even a few people off the street that look like they’d be up for it about The Farewell. Lulu Wang’s semi-autobiographical dramedy is the absolute most winning film I’ve seen all year, equal parts comedy and drama and never less than 100% authentic in its emotions. It’s a film that starts strong and just continues to build and take root in your heart over the next hour and a half. If a PG rated film like this can’t get families (with older children) into the theater and be a sleeper hit of the summer, then nothing can.

While waiting to see if her grant proposal is approved, a thirty-year-old struggling writer in New York City arrives at her immigrant parents house to do, what else?, her laundry. It’s here Billi (Awkwafina, Crazy Rich Asians) learns her beloved Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) is dying of terminal lung cancer. Her father (Tzi Ma, Skyscraper) is grief-stricken while her mother (Diana Lin) explains to Billi that the family has decided not to tell Nai Nai about her diagnosis but instead will gather in China to say their goodbyes under the pretense of a shotgun wedding for Billi’s cousin. What’s more, Billi can’t come along because she won’t be able to keep the secret. Recognizing this will be her only chance to say goodbye, Billi makes her way to China several days after her parents, surprising them and threatening to upend the plan.

Over the course of the multi-day wedding celebration, Billi gets an education about China’s cultural complexities of withholding a terminal diagnosis from a loved one and how it’s not just about “lying” but about showing respect for their final days. Additionally, she finds a greater understanding of her parents difficult immigration to America and grapples with the ripple effects it had on her upbringing. While Nai Nai stresses over crab being served at the wedding instead of lobster, her family is agonizing over making sure she doesn’t accidently see her test results and finding a way to say good-bye without actually saying it.  As the family participates in numerous traditions leading up to the big day, we get a small insider view of Chinese culture and, while certainly not comprehensive, it’s valuable to be a fly on the wall for many of these celebrations, discussions, and remembrances.

Though it sounds like the makings of a dreary, teary film (and trust me, there are tears), Wang’s film is overflowing with life and demonstrates an assured way with comedy as well, drawing laughs from unlikely places and characters. Much of the comedy comes from the differences between cultures and customs but there’s a fair share of one-liners that are howlinginly funny. Family reunions are stressful enough and with emotions dialed up, everyone is on edge and that leads to a number of funny sequences and some especially awkward wedding speeches.  All of the moments feel unexpected and off-the cuff, never straying into the saccharine areas we think they’re going to go and which they maybe might have the tendency to lean.

Known for her stand-up and previous comedic roles, Awkwafina does, if not a complete 180, then a 165 degree turn as Billi. Finding a way into the comedy without being the center of it, she also doesn’t grit her teeth to get into the drama of the film either. This feels like an actress taking on another role and knocking it out of the park, not simply a comedian stretching outside her comfort zone and achieving an unexpected bullseye. Tzi Ma and Diana Lin are wonderful as her parents, both getting key scenes with their daughter that tell us much about their life and love for their family, with Lin specifically tackling a difficult arc accepting responsibilities for how she raised Billi. The real standout here is Zhao Shuzhen in a performance that has Best Supporting Actress (or at least a nomination written all over it). Warm, wise, and always with a twinkle in her eye, each frame of film she’s in is enriched by her presence and each line of dialogue is of sage import. It’s fairly unforgettable, as is her final scene.

Sure to be the best film to come out of the lackluster summer of 2019 and absolutely the one of the top movies of the year, The Farewell is a real treasure to be treasured. I haven’t stopped thinking about it nearly a week after I’ve seen it, nor can I stop telling people how good it is. Opening in limited release before expanding wider, this is one to keep your eyes open for because I have the feeling this is the “little film that could” hit everyone has been waiting for.