Gus and I are back with our yearly list of favorite films. We have some similar choices and also some very different ones!
GUS EDWARDS: Favorite Films of 2019
This is my number one choice because of the way it grips you from the very beginning and holds you close to its chest until the very end through cinematic technique, fine screen writing, and engrossing performances.
2. Uncut Gems
This is a film that polarizes its audience. I know many who love it. And an equal amount ( maybe even more) who hate it. But I don’t know anyone who thinks that it’s just all right. The main reasons from what I can tell are the story, the main performance and the ragged, unnerving style of the direction and presentation that keeps the audience off balance until the very end. This is not a film you can comfortably sits through. It’s too rough, too brutal and too uncompromising in the manner in which it presents this story of an obsessive gambler who just keeps going and going. I’ve seen many films that attempts to dramatize the nature of obsessive gambling. This is the most successful in my movie going experience.
3. The Irishman
To me this is a long, sad and melancholy meditation on aging, the burden of friendship and the price we have to pay for the things we do. Its director Martin Scorsese described the film as a “Chamber piece” and after seeing it I think I know why. It plays out ( or unfolds) as a somber, quiet sonata involving three or four characters doing mostly individual solos and occasionally merging together as a deadly ensemble. A kind of gangster story that’s not been seen in a long while, if ever.
4. Marriage Story
For me it’s the only film of the year where the script, like that of a play , takes precedence over everything else. In other words it’s a film that totally depends on the words spoken and the way in which they are delivered. And like a play it demands full performance commitment by its actors and direction that is virtually invisible. Marriage Story gets all of this and more from its actors and its writer/ director Noah Baumbach. The best American film about the confusion of big city male/female relationship I’ve seen since the mid- career work of Woody Allen when he did things like Interiors, Annie Hall, Manhattan and Hannah and Her Sisters.
5. The Two Popes
This film took me into a world I knew existed but knew very little about. I went to a Catholic School, have been to the Sistine Chapel and know a fair amount of its history in an overview sort of way. But what this film did for me like no other on the subject, was to take me behind the scenes and present a somewhat fully rounded portrait of the men who sit on the Papal throne. This movie is in effect it is a two-character story of men whose characters and ideas are widely apart in outlook and philosophy. But what makes it fun as well as instructive is the sly, subtle interplay between the men as they play their game of power and submission. In this it resembles a chess match between two equally matched masters. Equal credit must be given to the screen writer Anthony McCarten, the director Fernando Mierelles and the two leading actors Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins who at long last are performing roles that are a match to their talents.
6. Dragged Across Concrete
Another S. Craig Zahler film that was pretty much ignored or dismissed by the mainstream critics. The reason for this I believe is a kind of elitism that quietly exists among the members of the press and a lot of the middle class audience who deem films like this ( crime stories without glamour) aren’t worthy of their time or money. Its content and the in-your-face manner in which they’re presented is just too raw for their delicate sensibilities. And adding insult-to-injury, it stars Mel Gibson, who we know is totally out of favor due to the bad press he received some years ago. Yet once again (As he did in Blood Father in 2016) Mel gives one of the best performances of the year. Films like this are often referred to as” Grunge cinema”. To me it’s a legitimate genre that should be accorded the same respect as the others.
7. Official Secrets
The best film about journalism and politics since All the President’s Men (1976).For reasons unknown to me it passed through without much applause from our critical fraternity. I found it revealing and informative. Also tightly written, directed and acted. In fact I liked it so much I went and saw it twice.
8. Spiderman: Far from Home
I’m not one for Super hero movies. Or anything resembling that genre at all. Yet surprisingly I see quite a number of then due to the auspices of a pre-teen youngster I know who is a canny observer of films in general. And of this genre in particular. So I’ve seen virtually all the ones released this year. Far and away the best to me was Spiderman: Far from home. The action was fast but not so fast as to make you partially blind or give you a headache. The script was lighthearted. The action moved to several European cities which provided a refreshing visual change every 15 to 20 minutes or so. And the script as well as the action made sense within the context of the story. All in all , a completely painless and often amusing movie experience for an old grouch like me.
9. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood
This is a film that’s getting a lot of praise across the board. I saw it and liked it well enough. But I wasn’t overwhelmed in any way. Yet going back over what I’ve seen this past year this was one of the best because it was relaxed and casual in a way films aren’t anymore. In so much of today’s cinema mostly through flashpoint editing everything seems to be on an adrenaline high. I also appreciated the two main performances by DiCaprio and Pitt. Tarantino as a writer/ director to me who (perhaps unconsciously) is always trying to show off his cinema- going smarts. This is a mannerism that I find distracting and sometimes really off-putting. There were some in this film but not that many. Maybe that’s why I like this best since Jackie Brown (1997).
10. Ford v. Ferrari
An old fashioned style film in the best tradition of the term. Its story telling is conventional but well- presented and absorbing. The acting is first rate. Both Matt Damon and Christian Bale are at the top of their game. Damon to me is one of the most under-rated actors working in movies at the moment. He reminds me of Henry Fonda in the old days whose acting was so low key that it often looked like he wasn’t acting at all. Which of course is the hallmark of very good and possibly great acting. The title tells it all. It’s all about a racing competition between the heads of the two companies and the two men , one American, the other British, who are tasked to make it happen on the American side. All-in -all the film is a good ride.
To me it’s a tie between Sam Mendes for his virtuoso handling of the physical and technical logistics in bringing 1917 so convincingly true to the screen. And…
Benny & Josh Safdie (Uncut Gems) – for the breathtakingly chaotic and crazy way they visually created car crash of a movie that kept me mentally at the edge of my seat until its shocking and unexpected end.
Scarlett Johansson (Marriage Story) – I’ve seen her quite a bit in everything from super hero nonsense to several of Woody Allen’s later works. And she was always very good in them. But this film revealed a maturity I hadn’t thought she’d arrived as yet. But I was wrong. It is blazingly there and fully on display in this film.
Adam Sandler (Uncut Gems) – As an audience, we’re always complaining when actors play the same ( or variations on the same) characters all the time. Yet when they attempt to go against what we expect we then complain that they’re not giving us what we want. I’ve heard this several times about Sandler in this film. But to me he gives the breakout performance of the year. And thus far, the best performance of his career. It is so raw and so emotionally open that we’re sometimes embarrassed to witness what the character is going through. This is an Adam Sandler I’ve never seen and never thought I would see. It deserves praise and a lot of respect.
Julia Fox (Uncut Gems) – No one among the critics has mentioned her performance in this film. But to me it is the best supporting performance of the year. In it she is wonderfully alive and funny yet touching and nicely sensitive in a role that could’ve been played in a clichéd dumb blonde manner. But she doesn’t. She brings dimension, color and humanity to the character. And it’s all the more impressive because this is her first performance in a full length film.
Best Male Supporting
Joe Pesci (The Irishman) – I very much like Brad Pitt in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood. But I liked Pesci more because this a Joe Pesci that I haven’t seen before. Thoughtful, subdued and still. It has been often said that stillness is one of the great attributes of acting. If this is so, Pesci in this film achieves it.
Uncut Gems (Bennie & Josh Safdie and Ronald Bronstein) – Because it doesn’t seem like writing at all. The whole film feels disorderly improvised. But it was written and rewritten multiple times over the 10 years it took to get this film made. So for it to appear improvised is a great tribute to its script and those who wrote it.
The cinematography of Roger Deakins (1917)
The editing of Ronald Bronstein & Bennie Safdie (Uncut Gems)
A fond remembrance of Eddie Jones (Actor and friend.)
Eddie Jones, a character actor who died last July was one of those actors whose face the audience knew but not his name. Yet when I tell them that he’s the one who taught John Cusack how to grift in The Grifters (1990) or was the father of the supposedly unattractive girl in A League of their Own (1992) or was Superman’s father in the TV series The Adventures of Lois & Clark, they know exactly who I’m talking about.
Eddie and I were friends for somewhere around 45 years. We met when we worked waiting tables in a restaurant in New York where he did something I’ll never forget. He quit that job in protest because he thought that I was unfairly fired. Later on we worked in another restaurant where he was a waiter and I was behind the bar. We were both showbiz aspirants. Me playwriting, him acting. I saw him in a number of plays and watched him develop and master his craft in stage works like: Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?, That Championship Season. Gingerbread Lady, Curse of the Starving Class and Death of a Salesman. Later on he moved to Los Angeles quickly getting work in films. Between theatrical films and TV, he accumulated 79 credits. Some highlights include: The Terminal (2004), Seabiscuit (2003), Dancer, Texas Pop.81 (1998), Sneakers (1992), Fighting Tommy Riley (2004) along with the TV series Lois & Clark (1993 – 1997), and The Invisible Man (2000 -2002).
Whenever I was in LA we would have dinner together. For Running Wild Films he did a cameo in The Big Something (2011) and a monologue Absolution (2010). Eddie was a quiet easy-going guy who was never inflated by praise or his success in films. Whenever I would tell him how much I liked something he’d done his response was always a shrug and the sentence “It was a job.”
I’m going to miss Eddie. I’m going to miss him a lot.
TRAVIS MILLS: Favorite Films of 2019
1. The Nightingale
No film I saw this year had as much power, intensity, and heart as Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale. I missed her first film and approached this one mostly as a “Western”, which it is but it’s also so much more. I only recommend this film to the kind of people who would never say, “I don’t like sad stories.” All yours, please proceed.
2. Dragged Across Concrete
Mel Gibson’s best performance in years, maybe ever. The best cops & robbers film to come out since Heat. Zahler’s best film yet, one that pulls no punches and does all the things a Hollywood movie would never do.
3. The Kid
Another Western and one of the strongest in recent years, D’Onofrio shows an incredible handle on the genre and directing in general. Hawke is fantastic as Garrett, DeHaan is an odd but winning choice for Billy, and the whole twist of telling the much-told story worked so well for me.
This is a film I didn’t like as much while watching as I did with time to let it digest. The new Assayas movie is full of debate and philosophy. It plays more as an essay than a story, an assessment on the current state of literature, words, and how humans use them. The more I think about it, the stronger this film gets.
5. Uncut Gems
My first Safdie experience, having missed Good Time and their previous efforts. I’m impressed but the real driving force in this film is of course Sandler, who we’ve always known is capable of such amazing work. He probably won’t get the credit he deserves and may never make a movie like this again but at least he made this film.
6. The Standoff at Sparrow Creek
Cinestate is my favorite production/distribution company right now. They make and release the Zahler movies (one of which is higher on this list) and they’re expanding to films like this one. Their work is consistently muscular and intense yet it lacks the flashiness of most genre efforts (that’s a good thing). They’re taking the genre film, especially gritty crime, back to its roots.
Petzold returns with his most assured work yet. Barbara may be his masterpiece, but this German filmmaker continues to mature in the most fascinating directions. The way he transposes a WWII story to modern day without being on-the-nose about it is powerful and ultimately terrifying.
8. Dolemite is My Name
Eddie Murphy’s new effort is a work of pure joy. I think a smile was stuck to my face from beginning to end. It captures the spirit of the independent filmmaker/creator better than perhaps any film and it’s a hell of a lot of fun.
9. Richard Jewell
If you overlook the controversy surrounding the portrayal of the female reporter, which is a valid concern blown out of proportion like most reactionary causes these days, you will find an incredible film here, Eastwood’s best work in years. I love his directness, his simplicity, and his strong, straight forward way of storytelling. Don’t listen to the drama, watch this film.
10. The Peanut Butter Falcon
Another work with heart and joy like Dolemite, this movie would have been a huge hit in the 80s. It has touches of the best 80s and 90s hits, the kind of story-based popular films that don’t get made any more. Shia keeps getting better and better. By the time he’s in his 50s, he’ll be the best working actor in America. You heard it here first.
I Heard You Paint Houses (the true title for Scorsese’s latest), Meeting Gorbachev, The Highwaymen, Never Grow Old, The Perfection.
Films I wanted to see but ran out of time or were not playing near me:
Martin Eden, Dark Waters, Motherless Brooklyn, Love Antosha, In Fabric, Liberte, Above Suspicion, Waiting for the Barbarians, The Painted Bird, Honey Boy, The Whistlers, The Professor and the Madman, The Souvenir, Family Romance LLC, Nomad, Ash is Purest White, American Dharma, The Golden Glove, The White Crow, Monos.
Most Disappointing Films of the 2019:
Crawl, The Mustang, The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot, The Lighthouse, The Great Alaskan Race