I love making lists. There’s nothing more fun than when a friend on Facebook will ask what the best albums of all time were, top 10 concert experiences, best actors, best restaurants in countries they’ve visited, etc. I’m always the first to add my list (even if I’ve only been to a few countries).
When it’s the end of the year, movie critics talk to one another about what movies we’re going to put on our lists. There’s a younger critic in town who I’ve taken under my wing a bit, and he cracks me up. The last two years, his Top 10 list is 30 movies because he can’t bear to cut anything from it. I tried explaining that that’s the fun of making a list. You’re picking the best of the best, and sometimes you have to make some tough choices. And just as Martin Scorsese didn’t want to cut anything from his 3 ½ hour movie The Irishman (or from his two hour and 45 minute movie Silence a few years ago)…you have to, or your audience gets bored. Hell, my audience is probably bored already, wondering when I’ll get to my Top 10.
My criteria is simple — how entertained I was. A movie doesn’t have to be the next Casablanca. It just has to make me smile, laugh, cry, or be entertained for a few hours (preferably not 3 ½ hours, Marty!). I don’t want to do anything for 3 ½ hours. He can’t rant all he wants about how Marvel movies have ruined cinema, but it’s been an awful long time since he’s had a movie that blew me away.
So without further ado…the Top 10 movies of 2019. According to this critic, who has seen about 90% of the movies released.
- WAVES. It wasn’t a perfect movie and there were a few things the filmmaker did that drove me nuts. But, Sterling K. Brown as an overbearing father…Kelvin Harrison Jr. as the son (who is my favorite young actor this year), a great score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (as well as a great song from Alabama Shakes to close the picture). There’s also some frenetic camera shots that created the perfect vibe (something that Uncut Gems was surprisingly unsuccessful at).
- BRITTANY RUNS A MARATHON. It’s funny that I saw Jillian Bell and Michaela Watkins in a fun little indie picture called Sword of Trust (Marc Maron), and then a few months later in this. It was great seeing Lil Rel Howery (Get Out) in a serious role.
So, Joaquin Phoenix was getting all this credit for losing over 50 lbs for Joker [side note: that movie shouldn’t be on any critics’ Top 10]. Anyway, let’s give Bell credit for not only losing that much weight for this, but for showing that she can not only do comedy, but can pull off serious scenes.
- GOOD BOYS. Two Lil Rel movies in a row. But, he’s only in a few scenes. The boy who plays his son (Keith L. Williams) had me in stitches. And it’s nice to see Jacob Tremblay didn’t suffer any lasting effects from what he endured in Room. Oh, and someone needs to explain to me why movie critics rarely put comedies on their Top 10 lists. Everyone says they’re the hardest movies to do, so…why not show the good ones some love?
- YESTERDAY. No critic is going to put this on their Top 10 list (perhaps a few music critics will). I get that. Certainly it helps that I’m a huge Beatles fan. Director Danny Boyle surprised me with such a charming and fun movie. It seems the last few years, we’ve had these music bio-pics that aren’t all that great (Bohemian Rhapsody, Rocketman), yet everyone praises them. This is a much better use of the medium, making a fictional story that involves a band we all love. And I’ll bet you couldn’t find one person that didn’t leave the theatre after seeing this, with a big smile plastered on their face. Shouldn’t that be what going to the movies is all about?
- PARASITE. South Korean director Bong Joon-Ho has been giving us great movies for years. Don’t let the subtitles scare ya. This story begins as a wealthy family hires a tutor for their child. The tutor then tricks the family into slowly hiring other members of his family for various jobs and… hijinks ensue! It’s going to win the Oscar for “best foreign film” and it’s going to have that rare distinction of also being nominated for “best picture” (it still baffles me that Roma got that honor, when that movie was so boring). This film lives up to the hype.
- AMERICAN WOMAN. I hate the Guess Who song, love the movie. Sienna Miller better get an Oscar nomination for this. I told her that when I met her at a reception in L.A. a month ago, and we talked about our favorite movies and least favorites. I dug her candor. It was a great time. This is the story of a mom whose daughter disappears. There’s a solid supporting cast (Aaron Paul, Christina Hendricks, Sky Ferreira, Amy Madigan, and Will Sasso), but what really makes this movie is how the story is written, and how Miller carries it. I watched it a few times, and even when I knew what was about to happen, it moved me to tears.
- KNIVES OUT. I knew writer/director Rian Johnson was brilliant when he gave us the indie film Brick (Joseph Gorden-Levitt) 15 years ago. Johnson took a break from Star Wars, to give us a great whodunit that’s a blast. It has the best ensemble cast of the year. Daniel Craig is a hoot as the detective with a southern drawl. Christopher Plummer is still knocking it out of the park at age 90. At CinemaCon last year, I was sitting next to Jamie Lee Curtis at one point. She was there with Ana de Armas to promote this film. I handed her a note about how A Fish Called Wanda was the best comedy ever. She smiled and later on the stage, pointed to me and thanked me for the “little love letter” I passed her earlier in the evening. Well, if I’m ever sitting next to her again, I’ll pass her a note about this movie. It’s Agatha Christie done better than Christie. It reminded me of some of the movies I saw as a kid, that made me fall in love with film. It’s intriguing from start to finish [side note: we’ve all been praising Michael Shannon for awhile, but can we start saying Toni Collette is one of the best actresses working today?]
- MARRIAGE STORY. When it comes to divorce, I’ll take writer/director Noah Baumbach’s first movie The Squid and the Whale over this. And while everyone is praising the cast, I felt you could’ve easily replaced Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson and had just as good a film. That’s because it’s the writing and directing that made this. I also liked the supporting characters better. Lawyers played by Laura Dern and Alan Alda were terrific, and I wouldn’t want anybody else in those roles. There were lots of subtle things in this that were brilliant. It’s Kramer vs. Kramer for a new generation.
- THE MUSTANG. When the first nominations for award seasons were announced (Golden Gloves), everyone was upset no females were nominated for “best director.” Sorry but…Hustlers was awful. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood was okay, but Marielle Heller has done better work (find her movie Diary of a Teenage Girl). Little Women wasn’t that good (and I loved what Greta Gerwig did with Lady Bird). The female director that SHOULD have gotten a nomination this year, isn’t even being talked about and that’s a shame. Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre made a beautiful and moving story about prison inmates that catch wild horses (which is done in a handful of states) and tame them, then sell them to raise money for various prison programs. Underrated actor Matthias Shoenaerts is perfectly cast. Bruce Dern, one of my (and Quentin Tarantino’s) favorite ‘70s actors plays the tough prison guard in charge of this program. Jason Mitchell, who was so great as Eazy-E in Straight Outta Compton, has a nice role here. And Connie Britton was able to take the bad taste out of my mouth from her role in Bombshell, in a nice small part here. My two favorite ending shots on screen this year, was the girl in Waves riding her bicycle and the horse you see through the prison window in this film. I’m tearing up just thinking about it now.
- LUCE. Each year, there are one or two movies that I like so much, I watch them multiple times. Over the last few years, those movies included Ex Machina, Hell or High Water, Nightcrawlers, Lady Bird, Good Time, Green Book, Game Night, Manchester by the Sea, and The Rider. This year, I saw Yesterday multiple times, mostly because I kept bringing musician friends to see it. The movie I saw the most this year, simply because I loved it, was Luce. I saw it four times, and I might watch it another four times. Kelvin Harrison Jr. (who helped bookend my list by being in Waves) has this smug smile on his face, as he goes through this movie manipulating people. Yet it’s not that simple. Watch the movie and enjoy how your thoughts shift on which character you think is the bad guy. There’s great supporting work from Tim Roth and Naomi Watts as the parents who adopted Luce. It was nice to see Broadway talent Norbert Butz as the supportive principal. I could watch Octavia Spencer read the phone book and I’d be happy (hell, she took a little horror picture this year — Ma — and made it fun). Yet it was newcomer Marsha Stephanie Blake playing Octavia’s troubled sister that added some interesting heft. I met her at a party a few months ago for the show This is Us and when my wife pointed out she was the one who played Rosemary Wilson in Luce and I turned into one of those crazy fans that almost couldn’t contain my excitement. She was sipping a drink with her husband and I walked over and told her Luce was my favorite movie of the year. She was so thrilled, and we ended up talking for about 45 minutes. I asked her if she was bothered her mom would see the movie, and she’s nude in a scene. She laughed and told me about being on stage and naked and her mother being used to it. I found out the Jamaican-born actress went to UCSD. Hanging with her made for the greatest evening of this awards season. I was also lucky enough to talk to the writer of this film, J.C. Lee, when he was in San Diego for a play he wrote at the Old Globe. He’s obviously brilliant, but he was frustrating me by not answering a few lingering questions you’re sure to have about characters after the film ends. This movie barely made $2 million at the box office, which is a shame. Rent it, and thank me later. Oh, and Kelvin Harrison Jr., please don’t ever retire from acting. You’re a talented young man.
Honorable mentions: Jojo Rabbit, Auggie, Diane, The Art of Self Defense, Booksmart, Ford v Ferrari, and Disneynature Penguins (sorry, but it was adorable).
For the “Worst Movies of 2019” I was tempted to instead, do a list of the most overrated movies of the year. That’s because there were so many movies getting critical praise, that didn’t warrant it. That list would include The Joker, 1917, The Lighthouse, Pain and Glory, The Irishman, Hustlers, Bombshell, and a few others. But instead of complaining about all the pretentious film critics in the world that like artsy stuff even if it’s weak, I figured I’d stick with the worst of the year. Now, when compiling a “worst of” list, you can’t just put all horror movies on it. We know they’re bad, but they’re just made to scare all the teens that flock to them. I want movies on my list that had talented actors, and some director and studio thought the script would make for something good.
There are also movies that might be bad, but…if they had a few things about them I liked, they wouldn’t make my list (for example, The Lighthouse). There are also a number of movies I thankfully, didn’t see. This year, I was lucky enough to escape the latest Tyler Perry, Adam Sandler teaming up with Jennifer Aniston, new versions of Hellboy and Rambo, and a number of bad animated pictures like Ugly Dolls.
So my list of the worst, of the many bad movies I saw this year:
- THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO. The performances are all solid, and it was a nice role for Danny Glover; but this movie was a mess, and had a dopey premise that made little sense.
- GRETA. It’s a shame you have two leads that are terrific actresses (Isabell Huppert, Chloe Grace Moretz), and you can’t do a Single White Female story well. It’s also a shame that Huppert makes my list twice this year (her movie Frankie was shot beautifully, but it’s a snore).
- LIGHT FOR LIGHT. A small picture with a woman that goes into houses looking for ghosts. She never found any, which left us just scratching our heads, wondering what the point of sitting through this was. Thankfully, it was only an hour and 20 minutes [side note: Rotten Tomatoes continues to be untrustworthy, as this got 92% good reviews]
- FAMILY. This had a few good scenes, but ultimately, the story of a businesswoman that is forced to watch her niece (who loves Insane Clown Posse) for a few days, doesn’t work. It’s filled with a bunch of unbelievable scenarios. I’m still on the fence on whether I liked SNL’s Kate McKinnon as the snotty neighbor always coming over to lecture the family about what they’re doing wrong with their trash cans. It’s strange because I didn’t like McKinnon in this and her character was poorly written in Yesterday, but I loved her in Bombshell…even though I hated that movie. Go figure.
- FAST AND FURIOUS PRESENTS: HOBBS & SHAW. Watching the Rock and Jason Statham diss each other the entire movie, got old after the first 38 seconds. Watching the ridiculous stunts would only be entertaining if you were a 12-year-old boy.
- SERENITY. You know how much we make fun of Matthew McConaughey car commercials? Imagine him having those musings, but on a boat. And Anne Hathaway is awful in this, too. I won’t spoil the ending, but when you find out why all of the shenanigans are happening on this island, it easily becomes the most frustrating ending to a movie all year. Our entire audience all audibly expressed their outrage when it finished.
- HER SMELL. The studios were pushing for Elizabeth Moss to get some award consideration, playing an unlikable punk rocker. My wife and I turned it off after 15 minutes, it was so bad (and unrealistic). When I told a film critic in L.A. about how critics were upset I only reviewed a movie based on 15 minutes, he laughed, telling me, “Just last night, I was walking by a movie theatre and a few of my friends were walking out. I asked them what they saw and they said, ‘We were in the middle of Her Smell but it was so bad, we just decided to leave instead of wasting any more time.”
- THE DEAD DON’T DIE. Best cast that’s in a bad movie — Adam Driver, Bill Murray, Chloe Sevingy, Steve Buscemi, Tom Waits, Danny Glover, Iggy Pop, Carol Kane, Caleb Landry Jones, and Tilda Swinton, who I think is one of the Top 5 actresses working today (and it’s a shame that she makes the worst list twice this year). Jim Jarmusch, who usually gives us interesting films, let us all down with this terribly unfunny and slow zombie flick.
- THE SOUVENIR. Tilda Swinton and her daughter star. The girl is a film student with a boyfriend that’s a heroin addict. It’s funny how on their first date, she doesn’t notice the track marks on his arm. This film is filled with such stupid choices by the characters that you stop caring early on. It’s hysterical that 90% of the critics on Rotten Tomatoes liked this, and on a Facebook page the movie had going, about 90% of the people that saw it, called it the worst movie of the year, or the worst movie they had ever seen. It was at least an enjoyable half an hour reading all of those comments, knowing they had to suffer wasting the two hours to sit through it. At least we all got to vent about the experience.
- POMS. I told my wife that it feels like I saw all these bad movies two or three years ago, and the movies on my “best of” list feel like I saw them just months ago. She said, “That’s your brain trying to protect you.” After seeing this, I can now say — I’m officially tired of Diane Keaton. For years, we all just adored seeing her pop up on talk shows, with her wacky outfits, scarves and hats, and acting goofy. I’m done with this act. She was cute, but she’s now just silly. And doing a movie about older women that form a cheerleading troupe, was just so idiotic. It’s also a horrible offense that they wasted the talents of Pam Grier.
DISS-Honorable Mentions go to: Cats (a purr-fect way to start the list), Miss Bala, Frankie, High Life, Last Christmas, Bombshell, Crawl, Hustlers, Black and Blue, Jumani: The Next Level, and Cold Pursuit (seriously, can’t Liam Neeson use his special set of skills for something else already?).
If you Red Box or Netflix any of these…don’t say you weren’t warned.