2019 Catch-Up: Mini-Reviews of Films We Missed This Year (Part 1)
[Insert joke about the year already being halfway over here.]
2019 has been an odd year for movies. Not terrible, but certainly not a banner year, either. The trick is that you’ve had to search a little harder to find the gems; mainstream Hollywood has seriously dropped the ball so far. There are more films being produced today than ever before, which makes it more difficult than ever to find smaller, noteworthy films. Sometimes, you might even forget that a few films even came out amid the chaos.
To help you on your film journey, I’ve highlighted a list of films released this year that haven’t had their own review on this very site in part 1 of our 2019 movie catch-up. Hopefully, you won’t have to waste your time with a few of these movies like I did…
Let’s take a look:
Ruben Brandt, Collector
Eat your heart out, Velvet Buzzsaw! Ruben Brandt, Collector is the good killer art movie of 2019.
Adult, non-comedic animation is hard to come by these days, which is why it’s so imperative that great films like Ruben Brandt, Collector get their moment in the sun. In the film, a psychologist has seemingly very real nightmares about thirteen historical paintings which threatened to ruin his mental state, which leads to a group of thieves stealing each of these paintings from their respective museums around the world to help fix the doctor’s ailments. Immediately, the wonderfully artsy (literary) animation style stands out as each character looks like a Picasso painting and can slightly bend the rules of reality in the name of high-stakes art thievery.
The film is incredibly European, sporting a wide variety of cultures in a story that is best described as a noir wrapped into an artistic, psychological freakout. It’s such an odd film with many allusions to the smokey detective thrillers of yesteryear, but it’s a great example of style elevating familiar content.
I felt like Greta was simultaneously trying to be too classy and too pulpy at the same time; it lacked both the elegance to provide any thought-provoking themes and the pure, juicy chaos to elevate the film to total exploitation status. For as f’d as it becomes, Greta always feels pretty safe and familiar.
But, this film still has the great Isabelle Huppert, and she is loving her role as the mentally stunted and psychotic title character. She quickly flies off the hinges, alerting the audience almost instantly that she’s a serious threat and that almost anything can happen. While everything around her is standard for such a thriller, Huppert is a demonic joy, and the main reason that Greta can be compulsively watchable if in the right state of mind.
Diane is the first narrative feature from long-time film critic Kent Jones. Naturally, I sought out the film for this very reason (we critics need to take care of one another!), and I was pleasantly surprised at the final product.
Though I find that Diane ultimately struggles in its pacing and scale, it contains a dynamite performance from Mary Kate Place, a mother who is constantly struggling to care for her drug-addicted son and just about everyone else…except herself. She spends her time volunteering at soup kitchens and checking on her sick friends in the hospital, but hardly any time on her own needs. Diane is rarely alone, and she’s also rarely fulfilled. The film is a powerful meditation on life and purpose; it’s last scene will send existential shivers down your spine.
Between A Vigilante and Booksmart, 2019 is Olivia Wilde’s coming out party. She’s always been a noteworthy force, but she’s never had the right material for it. It’s at this moment that I remind you of the comedy classic The Change-Up, a movie wherein Jason Bateman takes a moment to look at the freckles on his nether regions.
A Vigilante is the more honest telling of the woman-that-gets-revenge-on-men film in that it’s more interested in lasting effects that such horrid events would have on a person. However, that same person is also a doomsday prepper, so she has a certain set of skills that she can implement from time to time.
Wilde is a wild(e) animal in the lead role; she often stares with the rage of 1000 women in her eyes as she sizes up her opposition. While A Vigilante has its quirks as a thriller, Wilde is always fascinating to watch as the lead.
The Best of Enemies
Oh boy, another movie went to the Green Book school of explaining racism.
The Best of Enemies has a great cast and a few great performances including Sam Rockwell’s 1098th turn as a Southerner with a questionable cultural outlook. However, like most mainstream movies that tackle cultural divides, it gets the point of view entirely wrong. The Best of Enemies mostly follows Rockwell’s character as the main driver of the story, which makes the ultimate revelation and thematic point of the movie that racism is…wait for it…bad. There are no other pieces of depth added to this film other than that fact, making the film entirely too obvious to justify its own existence.
In an ideal world, Taraji P. Henson’s turn as activist Ann Atwater would take center stage, but not here. Instead, she merely pops in to make a few overpowering remarks and then promptly leaves the screen. The only impression made is how hilarious Henson looks in her fat suit.
The Haunting of Sharon Tate
I think the title of this film perfectly explains how exploitative and tasteless it is, doesn’t it? The Haunting of Sharon Tate does my job for me!
If you’re shocked to learn that there was a Mary Magdalene movie starring Rooney Mara as the title character along with Joaquin Phoenix as Jesus that came out this year, you’re not alone. Mary Magdalene was initially due out in 2017 before it became an unfortunate casualty of the Weinstein scandal, which left the film in limbo for quite some time while it found a new distributor.
For more reasons than the one explained above, Mary Magdalene feels like a vestige of older times in Hollywood, a time when big-name, Caucasian stars were tapped to star in biblical epics without a single thought for the cultural insensitivities that those choices would cause. The very sight of Phoenix and Mara, while the calling card of the film, is odd and off-putting to say the least.
And yet, Mary Magdalene still has some great moments. The film chooses to center around the spirituality of Jesus, Mary, and his followers rather than the in-depth teachings of Christianity, which make this story a far more universal and palatable retelling of the Christ story. Garth Davis thoughtfully directs the film, dialing in on the meditative elements of the film as Jóhan Jóhannsson’s final score wisps you away on an elegant journey.
Long Day’s Journey into Night
China’s most successful arthouse film in history — even if many audiences felt like they were tricked into seeing it — has two of the biggest flexes I’ve seen since I started reviewing movies: an almost hour and a half title sequence followed by an hour-long tracking shot. To director Bi Gan, I salute you for your courage…and your cajones!
Long Day’s Journey into Night follows a man returning to his hometown in search of a woman that he could never forget. The man’s journey unfolds like a fever dream, bending reality as he hopes to find his sense of purpose and fill what appears to be a continuously empty feeling in his life.
I’m incredibly impressed by Long Day’s Journey into Night both thematically and structurally. It takes unbelievable skill to tackle such an intimate subject with such craftsmanship. The entire film feels like a dream, ramping up speed and its own internal logic to mirror that of a lucid fantasy. As for its presentation, however, the film consistently tried my patience. For almost two and a half hours, each character barely talks over a whisper as the gentle strum of the score lulls you into a haze from which you may not recover. I see how Bi Gan is connecting the dots to tell an incredibly thoughtful story of longing, but as constructed, I don’t think I’ll ever want to see the world he constructed here again. This film is for the strongest of cinephiles, not for general audiences.
Seeing Tessa Thompson and Lily James play off each other in Little Woods is such a treat. Although the two actresses could star in just about anything they want after a string of successful, noteworthy movies in their respective careers, they chose to align with first-time director Nia DaCosta to tell the story of Little Woods, a fictional town in North Dakota near the Canadian border.
You can see why they chose to sign on to this film; although the town is fictional, the story encompassed within it certainly applies to many blue-collar towns around the country where hard working people can’t even live paycheck to paycheck because they don’t even make that much. Through riveting character studies, we understand why reasonable people such as Thompson’s would turn back to crime for money; they wouldn’t be able to live without it.
I’m shocked that this film isn’t getting more praise from the film community. Little Woods is one of the better character studies of 2019.
Knock Down the House
Regardless of political affiliation, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a fascinating figure, and worthy of her own documentary in some form. When AOC is the center of Knock Down the House, the documentary plays out almost like a sports movie with the young politician as the scrappy upstart from humble beginnings, brimming with idealism up against a seemingly complacent incumbent (Joseph Crowley). Knock Down the House is at its best when showing how the 29-year-old simply wants to make a difference; she’ll do anything to accomplish her dreams. I truly admire that tenacity.
But the documentary also covers other women running for seats in the House of Representatives, showing the general stagnation in government and the wave of new voices that hope to disrupt it. Knock Down the House jumps from politic hopeful to politic hopeful, and other than AOC, none of the other candidates make an impression. It often felt as if the producers wanted to make a film about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez but didn’t have sufficient footage to make a worthwhile, feature-length film about her in their given timeline to crank one out. Unfortunately, the other candidates are portrayed as one-note and inconsequential.
What a waste of good talents!
After watching The Hustle, I’m out on Rebel Wilson. Her career has played out similarly to Melissa McCarthy’s in that she rose to fame quickly after an awesome supporting performance in a comedy to later take on roles where she is overly reliant on her improvisation skills and is forced to make up for terrible screenplays. The only difference is that McCarthy reminds you that she’s an incredible actress with a few great choices now and then whereas Wilson continues to make comedies that stoop to the lowest common denominator. Until proven otherwise, I will not be enthused when promotional material boasts that the film stars Wilson.
Anne Hathaway doesn’t help her cause with a terrible British accent, but the main culprit here is the screenplay. The Hustle spins its wheels for an hour and a half, and then it ends.
The Sun is Also a Star
The Sun is Also a Star, or, as I like to call it, The Fault in Our Sun Which is Also a Star and is Five Feet Apart, is an amalgam of just about every other modern movie about star-crossed lovers, only with deportation issues swapping in for the normal terminal disease trope.
With her family facing imminent deportation from the U.S., Natasha (played by Yara Shahidi) runs into the city in hopes of getting a public defender to pick up her case. Naturally, while in the city, she runs into the handsome love interest (Charles Melton) who tries to get her to fall in love with him in a day.
The Sun is Also a Star‘s first problem is this: if you’re falling in love with people in a day and spilling all of your secrets and troubles to them, you are in no shape to date and should find someone to help you with your stage four clinginess.
Secondly, “The Sun is Also a Star” isn’t profound like you want it to be; it’s just a fact.
Do better, teen romances.
I still can’t tell if Ma is beautiful, beautiful trash or just terrible. But hey, at least Octavia Spencer offers a great performance!
The film has already been at the center of plenty of memes — by design, there are enough “holy shit” moments in the film to warrant such metamodernism — yet it’s going for a deeper exploration of arrested development caused by serious trauma suffered in one’s youth. In this particular case, mixing elements of a trashy teen horror movie with the psychoanalysis of the titular Ma never mesh together, resulting in wild shifts in tone that work just about as well as adding sardines and mint chocolate chip ice cream to a dinner dish. The pacing also struggles as Ma finishes before it ever truly gets going.
Late Night takes us all into an alternate reality of late night television where a woman was already given a late night show and she is now stagnating after years of success as a comic due to a strong bout of complacency.
Emma Thompson does her best to emulate Miranda Priestly with an icy personality that is difficult for the people working around her to handle, leading to some strife in her writer’s room that is completely populated by white men. Enter Molly played by the talented Mindy Kaling, who works to shake everything up and improve the show while struggling to conform to general office guidelines.
Although I’d ultimately recommend Late Night to most people (especially older audiences), I struggle to call it “exceptional” in any way. It’s a familiar setup with an outsider coming in to change a curmudgeon who is stuck in their ways, and the film is never close to being as revolutionary as its characters believe it is. It’s breezy fun. Nothing more, nothing less.
The Black Godfather
The Black Godfather touches on Clarence Avant, a trailblazer in the entertainment and political worlds but somewhat of an anonymous individual to you or me.
Astoundingly, figures such as Jamie Foxx all the way to Barack Obama comment on Clarence’s legacy and his savvy, charmingly money-grubbing ways, as he built empires and broke barriers while staying behind the scenes and letting generational personalities do their thing. The Black Godfather is perfectly interesting, never reaching great heights while also being too competent and fun to disregard.
Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story
I have a feeling that Bob Dylan fans will go absolutely nuts for Rolling Thunder Revue, a documentary from legend Martin Scorsese that essentially amounts to one big troll job.
The doc follows Dylan through his Rolling Thunder Revue tour, highlighting plenty of concert footage that shows off Dylan’s signature style and energy. Curiously, the film also has many pundits, some of whom are completely fabricated, attribute entirely fake information to Dylan and his mythos. If you’re not a Dylanite like myself, you’ll have trouble knowing what to believe more often than not.
But Dylan fans will get it; the singer has always been about creating a mythology around him, perpetuating a myth to add to his mystery. This purposely fake doc will do just that. But for those that aren’t entirely into Bob Dylan, this film may seem a bit obtuse.
Luc Besson is a controversial figure in Hollywood these days, so I wouldn’t blame you if you rejected Anna outright for that very reason. Even so, Anna isn’t a good movie regardless of what you think of him.
For better or for worse, Besson loves to return to the sexy spy thriller subgenre any chance he can get; Anna is his latest derivative foray into a subgenre that he helped to popularize decades ago.
Aside from one great action scene that was spoiled in the trailer, Anna follows model-turned-actress Sasha Luss as the title character as she gets caught between the KGB and US intelligence in what is largely a dull and muddled tale. It doesn’t help that Luss isn’t very convincing in the lead role as she too often appears wooden as a defense against being exposed as a lackluster actress in most of her scenes.
Chances are you’ll forget Anna within minutes of reading this sentence.
Thank you for reading! What are your thoughts on Part 1 of our 2019 movie catch-up? Comment down below!
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