My Best Pictures

Before 2019, it was a sketchy proposition for a Very Important Filmmaker to Grapple with Their Own Mortality on screen. Because there are few people on earth as egomaniacal as a famous director having a midlife crisis. How can we expect them to resist the urge to wallow in their own pretentiousness? This is the urge that drove Stanley Kubrick to make Eyes Wide Shut, one last exercise in justifying his own perversions before his soul could be judged. The Tree of Life made us weigh the minutiae of Terence Malick’s childhood against the literal creation of the universe (I’m sorry that your dad was an asshole, but come on, dude).

But last year was different. It featured plenty of high-profile filmmakers tapping into that ol’ existential wrestling match, and at least three of them held their own egos in check, telling stories brimming with genuine, relatable pathos – along with all the tenderness and pain and humor and philosophical profundity that implies. Two of these, Martin Scorsese and Pedro Almodóvar, even racked up Oscar nominations. The third, David Milch, is a TV guy who used the unlikely return of his finest show to say something incredibly meaningful about endings.

So as we near the end of yet another Oscar season, praying to God that it doesn’t embarrass us too much (please Lord, don’t encourage the makers of Joker any further) and that the good art gets rewarded (Parasite, Antonio Banderas, Florence Pugh, The Lighthouse’s cinematographer), let’s focus on an unlikely, lovely fact – these 2019 films about old age and disease and death left me feeling especially alive, each in their own way. Now, without further ado, are My Best Pictures:

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Deadwood: The Movie

Thirteen years after HBO unceremoniously cancelled his signature show – the curse-jar-shattering Shakespearean Western Deadwood – showrunner David Milch was finally granted the opportunity to give us all a sense of closure, in the form of one made-for-TV movie. And he did it in the midst of unimaginable personal turmoil, having been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s a year earlier. Somehow, his script for Deadwood: The Movie packs a season’s worth of story into 120 minutes, without sacrificing the show’s penchant for loose banter and heavy soliloquy. A plot involving the return of the slathering wolf George Hearst, who discovers how he was hoodwinked a decade ago by our ragtag murderin’ pals, provides plenty of dramatic tension. But more importantly, it creates pockets of space for director Daniel Minahan to recreate the familiar, mud-smeared thrum of a town living on a knife’s edge. While giving almost every surviving cast member their own lovely curtain call. When Ian McShane delivers his final words as the abusive monster/loyal friend Al Swearengen, we get one last shot of profane, blasphemous poetry. And then it’s closing time, for good.

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Homecoming

Just like a great drama has to offer more than just drama, a great concert film has to give us more than just music. And Homecoming, Beyoncé’s tour de force documentary about her instantly iconic 2018 Coachella performances, is one of the greatest accomplishments of the genre. Because this supremely motivated superstar approached the task of directing with as much tireless effort and conceptual flair as she applied to the stage show itself. As the first black woman to headline White Privilege Woodstock, Beyoncé embraced a theme of education, employing the marching bands and color schemes and resilient legacies of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, amplifying how rare it is to see unfiltered depictions of black culture on stages this large in America. Via a riveting series of cinema verité-style behind-the-scenes interludes, we get a real sense of how much work goes into a choreographed production of this size, of how easy it could be for its star to forget about cultural impact and just focus on the Herculean task of recovering from her pregnancy and hitting those umpteen-thousand cues. But her whole point of showing these rehearsals, of giving a voice to her dancers and drummers and designers, is to show us how hard her community works. So when we inevitably see this impossibly talented person singing about being crazy in love, while being surrounded by her artistic, cultural, and biological families, that love feels all-encompassing enough to shelter us all.

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The Irishman

Like most mob movies, The Irishman is sprinkled with moments from the lives of practicing Roman Catholics – well-attended baptisms; ornate weddings; wrenched expressions of guilt; naked pleas for forgiveness. But the theology behind Martin Scorsese’s 26th feature is, if anything, more Buddhist. By following the corpse-strewn path of real-life hitman Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro, speaking volumes with every wince) in minute detail, the director asks his audience to meditate on the long-term damage of each heinous act. To consider the metric ton of bad karma slowly being amassed. And to consider, silently and unblinkingly, the wretchedness it causes. Sheeran’s hits aren’t captured with elegant tracking shots – they’re abrupt and impersonal, a decidedly inhumane transaction. Obituaries of random characters pop up from time to time, blunting any swagger they might have in that moment with the fact of their grisly demise. What little romanticization there is comes from Steven Zaillian’s crackling script, which makes these criminals much funnier than they likely were. Coming from the likes of De Niro and Pesci and Keitel, this dialogue, along with the walking-and-talking Chekov’s gun that is Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino, spittin’ mad), kept me rapt past hour three. Just in time for Scorsese to show us what comes of all that greed and political maneuvering and emotionally barren tough-guy bullshit. It sure as hell isn’t nirvana.

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The Lighthouse

When my wife and I moved in together, it was into a studio apartment that would’ve been cramped for one person. The “bedroom” was a ladder to a wooden pallet installed a foot below the living room ceiling. The shower was like a leaky coffin. There were rats, and those rats had fleas. In case I ever forget how lucky I am to have found someone who could live in such a shithole with me without killing me, I will watch The Lighthouse and let the waves of gratitude pour over me. Robert Eggers’s ominous, patient, quite-funny masterpiece of psychological horror shows us what happens when two incompatible people get thrown into close quarters with no chance of escape. When Ephraim (a briskly mustachioed Robert Pattinson) lands on an isolated New England island to work as an assistant to the head lighthouse keeper (Willem Dafoe, a bug-eyed, farting Lear with a beard like a cartoon lion), they pass the time by getting plastered, telling stories, and generally trying their hardest to manage how annoyed they are. When it becomes clear that their scheduled transport off the island is not arriving anytime soon, things get a whole lot weirder. The actors both do some incredible work depicting how need can so easily turn to resentment, which slowly pickles into rage. Often, it’s unclear if they are going to kiss or kill one another. By the end, they’ve broken all kinds of leases, including the one so cruelly granted to them by God.

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Pain & Glory

I don’t know if I’ve ever heard a more moving encapsulation of the relationship between pain and religion than this line from Pain & Glory, Pedro Almodóvar’s nostalgic, bittersweet, overwhelming visual feast of an autobiography: “The nights that coincide several pains, those nights I believe in God, and I pray to him,” shares Almodóvar stand-in Salvador Mallo (played with electrifying vulnerability by Antonio Banderas). “The days when I only suffer a type of pain – I’m an atheist.” The film follows Mallo around Spain as he reconnects with old colleagues and lovers, his nostalgia receptors sparked by a local revival of one of his earliest feature films. Reminiscing all the while about his complicated relationship with his mother – the person he worshipped as a child, whose stubborn homophobia caused him great pain as an adult – Mallo feels finished, a husk of what he once was, assaulted from all sides by headaches and back pain and choking fits. Even at his lowest, Almodóvar can’t help but make every shot feel like a painting that would change your life if you stumbled across it in a gallery window – everything from Mallo’s kitchen cabinets to the color palette of his nightly pills feels injected with the luminescence of an endangered sea creature. By the end, our hero is writing again. He doesn’t know if this new work is going to be a comedy or a drama. He only knows that it’s alive.

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Parasite

Usually, when something is deemed to be “too on the nose,” that’s a diss. A criticism of a pedantic piece of art that doesn’t trust its audience to get the point. But when I say that Bong Joon-ho’s dark comedy Parasite is on the nose, it’s a compliment. I’m not sure what the income inequality problem is like in Bong’s native Korea, but America was in desperate need of a whip-smart story about the ever-growing chasm between the rich and the poor, full of metaphors that hit us over the goddamn head. Parasite follows a poor family of four who lives in a basement apartment – huddled together watching drunks piss in an alley like it’s an FDR fireside chat. When they get a once-in-a-lifetime chance to infiltrate the gorgeously outfitted confines of a wealthy household, their hopes are sparked, and their fates are sealed. The instant-classic scene of the son and daughter (Choi Woo-shik and Park So-dam, witheringly sarcastic) practicing their fake art teacher backstory establishes the first half of the film as a class caper that hits that age-old snobs-vs-slobs pleasure center. But the family didn’t really have an exit strategy, and unfair class systems are constructed to destroy those who try to climb too high. So as Parasite transitions into the horror movie it was pretending not to be, and our smiles curdle into grimaces, we realize that we’re witnessing a brutally efficient takedown of the American dream. One that’s so on the nose, we have to breathe through our mouths.

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Us

“It’s us.” Of all the indelible one-liners in the history of horror, this might be the most economical. Because when you take away all the clever flourishes and dynamic performances from Jordan Peele’s second feature, what’s left is a multi-layered metaphor anchored in a stark, preternatural fear – that, unlike what so many well-meaning parents and teachers have told us, we’re not special. Us pits the Wilson family, led by matriarch/superhero Adelaide (Lupita Nyang’o, Best Actress), against their own bloodthirsty doppelgangers, clad in red jumpsuits and wielding beautiful vintage scissors. As Adelaide discovers the origins of this mysterious legion of doubles, and does the math to connect them with a certain House of Mirrors-related childhood trauma, Peele’s ultimate points also emerge, fully formed. We might not be able to see the strings, but the haves and have-nots of our society are inexorably connected. When a smirking California doofus “earns” enough money to buy a hideous modern home with a boat out front, there is an equal and opposite impact on the guy who works at the factory that processes marine supplies. That doofus may think they live in different worlds. But no. It’s us.

Honorable Mentions: Annabelle Comes Home; Escape Room; Glass; The Great Hack; Happy Death Day 2U; I Lost My Body; The Intruder; Jojo RabbitThe Last Black Man in San FranciscoLittle Monsters; Little Women; The Nightingale; Ready or Not

My Best Pictures

Here we are again, dear reader. Another Oscars is upon us. And you know what that means – I’m gonna nominate my own best pictures. Even though I’m a music critic. And even though I own the expanded editions of the Hobbit trilogy on Blu-Ray (there are two really good movies hidden in there!). Why? Because these eight films got to me in 2018, and I would like to share those feelings. What, you’re against SHARING now?

The envelope, please…

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The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

The Coen Brothers had been off their game this decade, mythologizing subjects that had already been beaten to death on film – e.g. white guys with guitars; the golden age of Hollywood. So the first time somebody is literally beaten to death in their existential Western anthology The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, it’s like welcoming home a nihilistic, hilarious old friend. 22 years after Fargo, these brothers are still unbelievably good at wringing poignancy from the casual depravity of human beings. Staring into the void like a grizzled old prospector, searching for gold.

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Blindspotting

Within the boundaries of a small narrative window – the last three days of an Oakland man’s probation – Carlos López Estrada’s debut feature tackles issues of racism, police brutality, gentrification, corporate branding, gun control, and cultural appropriation. And it does so with a mixture of humor and high theater that underlines how little things have changed since the 1989 release of one of its clear inspirations, Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. Daveed Diggs plays the mild-mannered Collin, a black man who works for a moving company with his white, hot-headed friend Miles (Rafael Casal). Their interplay, written by Diggs and Casal themselves, undulates between tension and release, hard-won bonds and deep-seated divisions. In other words, it’s American.

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Can You Ever Forgive Me?

In the most prominent antihero narratives of this century, we were given permission to cheer on the acts of violent men, thanks to contrived character devices – they need therapy; they have a disease; they only hurt bad people. Marielle Heller’s film Can You Ever Forgive Me? lets us root for a rule-breaker too, but this time it’s a real person, with nuanced motives, who isn’t hurting anyone but themselves. Melissa McCarthy gives a brilliantly layered performance as Lee Israel, the down-on-her-luck biographer who got busted for selling forged letters from literary greats in the early 1990s. As Heller shows how much the cards were stacked against a middle-aged lesbian writing about what interested her, McCarthy lets us feel the depth of Lee’s frustration, as much through humor as anything – her wit is so sharp, it hurts.

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The Endless

With The Endless, filmmakers Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead prove it’s possible to make a low-budget, high-concept sci-fi original that’s way better than a SyFy Original. And they do so by turning their limitations into assets. Because it was cheaper, they cast themselves as the leads – two brothers who decide to go back and visit the bizarre sky-worshipping cult where they were raised. They’re convincing as people trapped in an impossible situation, probably because they really felt that way. They successfully build a compelling, creepy atmosphere, using little more than intimations and clues –getting more scares from a scene with a rope than 1,000 CGI zombies. And the unexpectedly moving moral they lay on us, about the value of communicating with the ones you love? Priceless.

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The Favourite

Films about British monarchs are always Oscar favorites. But Yorgos Lanthimos’s latest makes The King’s Speech look like a box of stale crisps. It’s 1708, and Queen Anne (Olivia Colman, who should win everything) is in ill health, relying more and more on her friend, political advisor and lover, Sarah the Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz, not fucking around). When Sarah’s cousin Abigail (Emma Stone, convincingly conniving) arrives at court looking for work, the film becomes a no-holds-barred power struggle between the three women. Full of blood and dirt and shit-talk and hilarious parodies of cotillion dances, The Favourite almost feels like a spoof of prestige palace intrigue dramas. But the acting is too damn good for that. When we see the ache in Colman’s eyes as she explains why she owns 17 rabbits, we see human need. And the understanding that there will always be people lining up outside her chambers, waiting for their chance to exploit it.

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Hereditary

When I reviewed The Shining as part of my ongoing series about Stephen King, I was struck by something the novel did better than the movie – explore how horrifying the idea of heredity can be. In 2018, first-time director Ari Aster came along and picked up those threads that Stanley Kubrick ignored. Hereditary is an intense, visionary horror story about a family with inescapable darkness in its DNA. Anchored by a riveting performance from Toni Collette, who plays a mother torn apart by grief and haunted by ancestral evil, Aster is free to absolutely drench his movie in dread. Small things like candy bars, doormats and clucking noises become unforgettably corrupted. Even scenes that happen in broad daylight are not reprieves. And why would they be, when the call is coming from inside your genes?

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Mandy

As a fan of Clive Barker, Ash Williams, and the most committed actor on the planet – Nicolas Cage – I probably would have enjoyed Mandy even if it was directed by some hack. But filmmaker Panos Cosmatos has made a psychedelic horror revenge spectacle, alive with mesmerizing, satanic-Lisa-Frank energy. In just one early scene where Red (Cage) and Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) are lying in bed, talking about their favorite planets, Cosmatos wholeheartedly establishes their deep, quiet love. So when disaster strikes at the hands of a druggy, demon-summoning cult, the stakes are real. The ensuing long take of Cage crying in his underwear is probably what Mandy is most famous for – but it’s not a moment to rubberneck at weird ol’ Nic. It’s genuinely heartbreaking. As Red sets out for revenge on humans and hellspawn alike, we get a full hour of the best kind of B-movie thrills, elevated by A+ artistry.

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Support the Girls

Support the Girls may be officially categorized as a workplace comedy, but make no mistake – this is a superhero movie. Over the course of one workday as the manager of Double Whammies, a locally owned “breastaurant” mired in a thicket of Texas highways, we follow the unflinchingly optimistic Lisa Conroy (Regina Hall, nominated for Best Actress in an alternate dimension more just than our own), as she deals with one shitty situation after another – an attempted robbery, a cable outage, a racist boss, an alienated husband, a staff under constant threat of harassment. Writer/director Andrew Bujalski establishes a heartbreaking pattern: Lisa puts love out into the world, then the world throws it back in her face with onion-ring-slurping indifference. Each time, Hall’s smile slips just a little bit more. Until eventually, it’s Lisa’s turn to be supported. In the final scene, women that Lisa loved and protected help her process her outrage. Standing side by side, on a roof, as forces for good.

Honorable Mentions: Apostle, Black Panther, Breaking In, Chappaquiddick, Crazy Rich Asians, Eighth Grade, Ghost Stories, Halloween, Minding the Gap, Mom and Dad, Proud Mary, A Quiet Place, Shirkers, Sorry to Bother You, Suspiria, Unsane

My Best Pictures

Hello, Oscar junkies! We’re only two days away from that global TV event that’s just like the Super Bowl, except you watch what’s in between the commercials instead! Usually this is the place where I bemoan the bland/whitewashed/Hollywood-worshipping nature of the odds-on favorite. But I have some reasons to be hopeful this year, and goddammit I’m gonna make the most of it.

Reason #1: Upsets are a thing now

For two years running, the expected winner has lost. Spotlight beat out The Revenant in 2016, and last year, Moonlight upset La La Land.

Reason #2: Celebrating diversity in Hollywood is kinda sorta starting to become a thing now

It would be ignorant to expect Academy voters to be seriously swayed by the #TimesUp, #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements. One Moonlight nod does not erase 89 years of American Beautys. But notions of equal representation in film have never been so prominent. An optimist could assume that in this revolutionary new context, one might think twice about voting for Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri, the movie version of every think piece that told us we need to empathize with blue-collar Trump voters.

Reason #3: Reasons to have Oscar optimism don’t come along every day.

I’m still smarting from Crash beating Brokeback Mountain over here. So let me have my moment and predict a win for Get Out, the most relevant, intensely entertaining movie I saw in 2017. I really think it will happen! What the hell is wrong with me?

While I’m surfing this newfound wave of Oscars optimism (a.k.a. “riding the golden man”), why not talk about the movies that I’d nominate for Best Picture? Here’s the list, in alphabetical order:

Call Me By Your Name

Call Me By Your Name looks like how falling in love feels. Luca Guadagino’s sumptuous coming-of-age story wrenches every drop of chlorophyll out of its Italian countryside setting. As our main character Elio finds strength, encouragement, and exhilarating joy in his budding relationship with his father’s assistant Oliver, Guadagino fills our eyes with lush vegetation, fresh water and bountiful fruit. Their happiness is palpable, and Elio’s father notices. And what he eventually tells his son is a lesson in how all such love should be treated – as a precious resource, given all the freedom in the world to grow.

A Dark Song

This slow-burn Irish horror film is like its protagonist Sophia – determined, patient, and in search of something extraordinary. Writer/director Liam Gavin spends a majority of his first feature letting us wonder about the schlubby occultist hired by Sophia to summon her guardian angel, using a real-life ritual called the Abramelin Operation. Is it all for real? Or is he just some creep? When we finally get our answer, so does Sophia, who rises like a phoenix from her grief, surrounded by a level of visual splendor that must’ve taken a lot of willpower to save for the end.

Get Out

Every horror fan has found themselves urging a character to leave the dark basement/ancient burial ground/abandoned mental hospital they’re bravely wandering around in. In Jordan Peele’s prescient “social thriller” Get Out, that dangerous, haunted place is America. It’s the story of Chris, a black man meeting his white girlfriend’s parents for the first time. What happens on this family’s finely manicured home turf is a terrifying, crystal clear allegory for our country’s twisted obsession with the cultural and physical appropriation of an entire race. In this idyllic little hamlet, there are most definitely not very good people on both sides.

Happy Death Day

“What if Groundhog Day was a slasher movie?” sounds like one lazy-ass pitch. But that perfectly describes Happy Death Day, which turned out to be a clever rumination on the weight of social pressure on young people. As our main character Tree finds herself in a time loop that always ends in murder, she gains more self-confidence with each repeated day. She’s more true to herself in public; she takes time to process her grief; she investigates, and successfully unmasks, her murderer. Refreshingly unpredictable, empathetic and self-aware, this is something I’d happily experience again. And again.

John Wick: Chapter 2

Gone are the days of Commando, where the relationship between John Matrix and his daughter is established by the end of the opening credits, leaving as much time as possible for quippy, campy carnage. But the second installment of the John Wick series contains some echoes of that 1980s no-nonsense muscle. Keanu Reeves returns as the titular grieving husband and dog lover, and it only takes a few minutes for him to be on the run from hundreds of highly trained, heavily armed vigilantes. It’s one extended action sequence after another, blocked with the style and precision of ballet – bodies undulating through space, armories akimbo.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer

Director Yorgos Lanthimos makes this list for the second year running, with this deeply disturbing tale of a troubled teen leveraging a doctor’s warped priorities to wreak havoc on his family. Lanthimos’s characters all talk in stilted, disinterested monotones, resulting in a funhouse mirror abstraction of suburban life that shifts from awkwardly hilarious to intensely chilling as the film unfolds. Barry Keoghan gives an unforgettable performance as the vengeful, blackmailing, child-poisoning Martin. Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman relish their chance to play Martin’s socially stunted victims. By the end, the story gets as dark as anything I saw in 2017, without ever striking a tone that wasn’t completely its own.

Phantom Thread

The main character of Paul Thomas Anderson’s intoxicating eighth feature is Reynolds Woodcock, the head of a couture fashion house in 1950s London. Or at least, that’s how most people see him. Until he meets a waitress in a country pub named Alma, who sees him entirely. There’s a reason why a central crisis in Phantom Thread involves a wedding dress. It’s a story about marriage, and the very specific kinds of human synergy that make the the most successful ones work. Anderson gives Alma and Reynolds a push-pull narrative that reaches a level of intensity others could see as grounds for divorce. But for this particular husband and wife, there couldn’t be anything more nourishing.