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The best and worst films of 2019

Scott Marks’ picks

Of the nearly 250 films I viewed in 2019, here are the front-runners and slopsuckers. For more on this year in film, visit the Big Screen.

Favorites:

10.) Last Letter

A romantic drama void of romance? There is enough handwritten communication exchanged in Shunji Iwai’s deceptively uncomplicated story to fill a small post office branch. But for all its talk of love, at no point in the film, not even in the flashbacks, is there any display of romantic attachment on the parts of the characters.

9.) Honey Boy

At its heart, a film about a boy who both wants and deserves a better father, and the inescapable reality that he will never get one. When it comes to cinema as therapy, screenwriter and star Shia LaBeouf and director Alma Har’el put their time (and ours) to superb use here.

8.) The Death of Dick Long

Don’t let the title of this ultramasculine comedy put you off. It’s very difficult to make cretins credible, let alone compassion-worthy, but the actors get lost in the characters here, while director Daniel Scheinert and screenwriter Billy Chew make it a point to not condescend. You may not like where the movie takes you, but damn if you won’t enjoy the ride.

7.) American Woman

It’s a mother’s worst nightmare, and a story that for all intents and purposes should have required a Lifetime logo branded in the lower-right corner of each shot. Writer Brad Ingelsby and director Jake Scott instead walk us through a process of redemption too powerful and blissfully saccharine-free to be deemed cable-ready. Sienna Miller’s career-topping performance touts a stronger, more determined female than any we’ve seen this year.

6.) Dolemite Is My Name

The funniest movie of the year is this example of the rare biopic that’s bound to leave a stronger impression on viewers than any of the subject’s actual offerings. Screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski have gifted Eddie Murphy with the film of his career, a deeply observed and felt characterization of Rudy Ray Moore, a marginal comedic talent who would not let his vision down, no matter how warped it might have been.

5.) The Sun Is Also A Star

Natasha (Yara Shahidi) believes that love isn’t a provable fact; Daniel (Charles Melton) vows to get her to fall for him scientifically. A single, stunning pan inside of Grand Central Terminal first unites our lovers in the same shot, if not in the same frame. Director Ry Russo-Young and screenwriter Tracy Oliver offer a lucid argument for fate, not lazy plotting, as the prime motivating force behind this fetching update of Brief Encounter.

4.) Burning Cane

Beefy slices of life carved out of three characters in the outlands of Louisiana. This gritty, debut feature from 19-year-old Michael Youmans is nothing if not ambitious, particularly in its depiction of seemingly helpless female characters. Dark lighting to supplant meaning and some pay-attention-to-me camerawork can distract from the realism, but not enough to diminish the overall power of the piece.

3.) The Wedding Guest

A 20-minute, near dialogue-free opening passage presents us ample time to observe our inscrutable traveller (Dev Patel) before he plucks the bride (Radhika Apte) from her sleep and stows her in the trunk. Director Michael Winterbottom’s enusing odyssey will climax light years from whence it began, along the way encountering more twists and turns than a whirling dervish in a pleated skirt.

2.) Ash Is The Purest White

If it’s a strong female character you’re after, have I got a movie for you. In a performance that spans nearly two decades, Tao Zhao will leave you breathless. According to her character Qiao, “Anything that burns at a high temperature is made pure.” Writer-director Zhangke Jia’s boat trip up the Yangtze in search of romance past finds Qiao hotter than a carbon arc.

1.) Richard Jewell

Clint Eastwood masterfully mounts a savage criticism of the media’s rush to judgement in this fact-based tale of a hero turned heel to sell newspapers. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution mounted almost as big a smear campaign against this picture as they did its subject. The paper was wrong in both cases.

The basement:

10.) The Nightingale

For people unaware of the rape culture rooted in our patriarchal society, or those who have trouble grasping the inhumanness inherent in infanticide and racism, I heartily recommend this movie. All others stay far the hell away.

9.) Charlie’s Angels

A word to anyone in Hollywood thinking of casting Kristen Stewart in an action comedy: don’t. The jiggle-series upon which it’s based was better. How’s that for an insult?

8.) Booksmart

And cine-illiterate. Children shouldn’t be allowed to improvise dialogue.

7.) The Dead Don’t Die

Jim Jarmusch’s smug zombie satire turns up twenty-years too late and DOA.

6.) Midsommar

I am all for a horror satire that posits an inbred, mentally defective child as the god of a group of Clorox-white religious zealots — anything but a 140-minute snooze that eventually settles on sex and gore as a substitute for meaning.

5.) Greta

Someone kidnapped Neil Jordan and is using his name to sign movies.

4.) Wild Nights With Emily The only thing flatter than the lighting is filmmaker Madeleine Olnek’s exposition-burdened narration and the manner in which she directs characters to speak directly into the camera.

3.) Ready Or Not

Girl-power my Aunt Fanny! The outcome of the film is not determined by any signs of skill or intuitiveness on our heroine’s part, but by pure dumb, and I do mean dumb, luck.

2.) Dumbo

The artistry and emotion inherent in Walt Disney’s original is lost on goth babysitter Tim Burton’s pixelated pachyderm. A more unnecessary (and awful) remake has yet to be made.

1.) Peterloo

You’ll need Cliff’s Notes, surveyor’s instruments, and a pound of crystal meth to get through this. I bailed after 90 minutes.

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"Did you see Marks' favorites list? The Irishman didn't make the cut.”
"Did you see Marks' favorites list? The Irishman didn't make the cut.”

Of the nearly 250 films I viewed in 2019, here are the front-runners and slopsuckers. For more on this year in film, visit the Big Screen.

Favorites:

10.) Last Letter

A romantic drama void of romance? There is enough handwritten communication exchanged in Shunji Iwai’s deceptively uncomplicated story to fill a small post office branch. But for all its talk of love, at no point in the film, not even in the flashbacks, is there any display of romantic attachment on the parts of the characters.

9.) Honey Boy

At its heart, a film about a boy who both wants and deserves a better father, and the inescapable reality that he will never get one. When it comes to cinema as therapy, screenwriter and star Shia LaBeouf and director Alma Har’el put their time (and ours) to superb use here.

8.) The Death of Dick Long

Don’t let the title of this ultramasculine comedy put you off. It’s very difficult to make cretins credible, let alone compassion-worthy, but the actors get lost in the characters here, while director Daniel Scheinert and screenwriter Billy Chew make it a point to not condescend. You may not like where the movie takes you, but damn if you won’t enjoy the ride.

7.) American Woman

It’s a mother’s worst nightmare, and a story that for all intents and purposes should have required a Lifetime logo branded in the lower-right corner of each shot. Writer Brad Ingelsby and director Jake Scott instead walk us through a process of redemption too powerful and blissfully saccharine-free to be deemed cable-ready. Sienna Miller’s career-topping performance touts a stronger, more determined female than any we’ve seen this year.

6.) Dolemite Is My Name

The funniest movie of the year is this example of the rare biopic that’s bound to leave a stronger impression on viewers than any of the subject’s actual offerings. Screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski have gifted Eddie Murphy with the film of his career, a deeply observed and felt characterization of Rudy Ray Moore, a marginal comedic talent who would not let his vision down, no matter how warped it might have been.

5.) The Sun Is Also A Star

Natasha (Yara Shahidi) believes that love isn’t a provable fact; Daniel (Charles Melton) vows to get her to fall for him scientifically. A single, stunning pan inside of Grand Central Terminal first unites our lovers in the same shot, if not in the same frame. Director Ry Russo-Young and screenwriter Tracy Oliver offer a lucid argument for fate, not lazy plotting, as the prime motivating force behind this fetching update of Brief Encounter.

4.) Burning Cane

Beefy slices of life carved out of three characters in the outlands of Louisiana. This gritty, debut feature from 19-year-old Michael Youmans is nothing if not ambitious, particularly in its depiction of seemingly helpless female characters. Dark lighting to supplant meaning and some pay-attention-to-me camerawork can distract from the realism, but not enough to diminish the overall power of the piece.

3.) The Wedding Guest

A 20-minute, near dialogue-free opening passage presents us ample time to observe our inscrutable traveller (Dev Patel) before he plucks the bride (Radhika Apte) from her sleep and stows her in the trunk. Director Michael Winterbottom’s enusing odyssey will climax light years from whence it began, along the way encountering more twists and turns than a whirling dervish in a pleated skirt.

2.) Ash Is The Purest White

If it’s a strong female character you’re after, have I got a movie for you. In a performance that spans nearly two decades, Tao Zhao will leave you breathless. According to her character Qiao, “Anything that burns at a high temperature is made pure.” Writer-director Zhangke Jia’s boat trip up the Yangtze in search of romance past finds Qiao hotter than a carbon arc.

1.) Richard Jewell

Clint Eastwood masterfully mounts a savage criticism of the media’s rush to judgement in this fact-based tale of a hero turned heel to sell newspapers. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution mounted almost as big a smear campaign against this picture as they did its subject. The paper was wrong in both cases.

The basement:

10.) The Nightingale

For people unaware of the rape culture rooted in our patriarchal society, or those who have trouble grasping the inhumanness inherent in infanticide and racism, I heartily recommend this movie. All others stay far the hell away.

9.) Charlie’s Angels

A word to anyone in Hollywood thinking of casting Kristen Stewart in an action comedy: don’t. The jiggle-series upon which it’s based was better. How’s that for an insult?

8.) Booksmart

And cine-illiterate. Children shouldn’t be allowed to improvise dialogue.

7.) The Dead Don’t Die

Jim Jarmusch’s smug zombie satire turns up twenty-years too late and DOA.

6.) Midsommar

I am all for a horror satire that posits an inbred, mentally defective child as the god of a group of Clorox-white religious zealots — anything but a 140-minute snooze that eventually settles on sex and gore as a substitute for meaning.

5.) Greta

Someone kidnapped Neil Jordan and is using his name to sign movies.

4.) Wild Nights With Emily The only thing flatter than the lighting is filmmaker Madeleine Olnek’s exposition-burdened narration and the manner in which she directs characters to speak directly into the camera.

3.) Ready Or Not

Girl-power my Aunt Fanny! The outcome of the film is not determined by any signs of skill or intuitiveness on our heroine’s part, but by pure dumb, and I do mean dumb, luck.

2.) Dumbo

The artistry and emotion inherent in Walt Disney’s original is lost on goth babysitter Tim Burton’s pixelated pachyderm. A more unnecessary (and awful) remake has yet to be made.

1.) Peterloo

You’ll need Cliff’s Notes, surveyor’s instruments, and a pound of crystal meth to get through this. I bailed after 90 minutes.

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