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2019’s best (and worst) at the movies

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We’ve arrived at the end of another year, a year of films good, bad and in-between.

That means it’s time for a look back at what 2019 has wrought in terms of cinema. These lists – both best and worst – are accurate as of press time, though there are some highly-regarded movies that I simply haven’t yet had a chance to see. I imagine that films that have yet to see wide release – “Uncut Gems,” “Little Women,” “Bombshell” – would otherwise be in contention for this list.

(Special note should be made of the glaring absence of Bong Joon-Ho’s “Parasite” – a film that circumstances have prevented me thus far from seeing. I have little doubt that it would be prominently featured; every indication is that it is exceptional.)

And again – there’s no denying the subjectivity of lists such as these. In truth, things could break very differently depending on my mood when asked. Still, these are good, representative lists of movies that you should either a) see as soon as possible, or b) avoid at all costs. Check out full reviews of these movies and the rest of 2019’s slate at our website, located at www.themaineedge.com/movies. You can also find them at Rotten Tomatoes (www.rottentomatoes.com/critic/allen-adams/movies).

(All films listed alphabetically)

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BEST

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

I don’t care who you are – you probably have a fondness in your heart for Mr. Rogers. He is an icon, a man not just nice but Nice, a living embodiment of humanity’s innate love for our children. To so many of us, Fred Rogers is the Socratic ideal of a good human being.

“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” attempts to show us just how monumental an impact an encounter with such a person can have on our lives. Inspired by a 1998 Esquire profile written by Tom Junod, the film opens a window onto the one singular truth about Mr. Rogers that is both unbelievable and utterly expected – that he is precisely the man he appears to be.

“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is a thoughtful, well-made story about the power of the good. Fred Rogers is someone beloved by so many; it would have been easy to get tripped up in any number of ways. Instead, thanks to a fantastic performance by Hanks, Heller and company have created a lovely tribute to the memory of a lovely human being.

Booksmart

I’m an unabashed fan of teen comedies. From John Hughes on down, I have always loved stories of teenagers doing teenager stuff. I particularly love coming-of-age stories, whether they’re emotionally grounded stories of tentative steps into adulthood or broad “last night before graduation” raunchfests.

“Booksmart” is a heartfelt and thoughtful in ways that will ring true to anyone who is (or ever was) a teenager, capturing the challenges faced by a certain kind of student as they prepare to move forward from high school. But it is ALSO a foul-mouthed and unapologetically weird comedy, packed with high-minded jokes and lowbrow gags alike.

“Booksmart” is a crystal-clear and deeply funny look at female friendship, an exploration of the dynamic that isn’t often seen on the big screen. First-time director Olivia Wilde absolutely nails it – not only does she have a wonderful eye for scenic pictures and a sharp ear for dialogue, she’s possessed of a fearlessness that belies her inexperience behind the camera. This is a movie full of bold choices. And almost all of them work.

Seriously – however good you think this movie is, it’s almost certainly better.

Hustlers

Heads up, in case you forgot: Jennifer Lopez is legitimately good at everything. She is a talented pop singer, an excellent dancer and a gifted actress, a savvy businesswoman and social media savant, smart as hell and still hungry after more than two decades in the spotlight.

Those skills are on display in “Hustlers,” directed by Lorene Scafaria from a screenplay she adapted from a magazine article by Jessica Pressler. It’s an unapologetic look at what it takes to get ahead in a world where the deck is stacked against you, a story that refuses to condemn its characters for embracing the same tactics that the men of the world get rich employing. It’s a story about people who, instead of playing the hand that they were dealt, choose to change the rules to which they are expected to adhere.

“Hustlers” is a film made by women about women – and it’s sad how relatively rarely we get that. Particularly when the result is this good. At its heart, it’s a heist movie, only with a buddy comedy sensibility, all of it powered by the pop culture dynamo that is J-Lo.

The Irishman

“The Irishman” is an achievement in filmmaking, an American epic of the sort that many had simply given up ever seeing again. It is Scorsese embracing the sordid past of our culture’s underbelly, finding shadows in the sun. Over the course of its sprawling (and admittedly sometimes self-indulgent) 209 minutes, it shares a kind of secret history of the American dream.

Featuring a pair of all-time talents in frequent Scorsese collaborator Robert De Niro and Al Pacino supported by a Murderers’ Row of exceptional talent, “The Irishman” is an ambitious film – one that occasionally succumbs to the consequences of that ambition, but whose successes far outweigh the odd minor stumble. It is an intricate, immense memory play, driven by the vision of one of the greats.

“The Irishman” is one of the best films of the year, directed by one of film history’s best directors and featuring two of its best actors. It is a meditation on morality and mortality, a look at what it means to live a complicated life … and what it means to feel that life slipping away.

Knives Out

“Knives Out” is a delight. There’s really no other way to say it. It manages to accomplish that rare feat of being a throwback to the films of a Hollywood gone by while also being very much of the moment. There’s a wonderful complexity to the plot that allows plenty of room for the unexpected; it’s kind of great to watch a film that you know intends to fool you, yet still manages to find methods of misdirection that surprise and engage.

From the film’s opening moments to its dynamic conclusion, “Knives Out” is firing on all cylinders. The aesthetic is exquisite, packed with details both ornamental and load-bearing. The narrative is nuanced, with a twisty-turny plot that finds ways to both celebrate and subvert the conventions of the genre. And the cast is magnificent, a collection of top-tier talent welded together into one of the most entertaining ensembles to hit theaters this year.

“Knives Out” is a film both familiar and completely unique, an old-school whodunnit from a new-school filmmaker. It’s a razor-sharp mystery – one that cuts deep.

Marriage Story

When does the story of a marriage end? And how should it be told when it does?

That’s the fundamental question behind “Marriage Story,” the latest offering from writer/director Noah Baumbach. The film – which stars Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson – is a portrait of a marriage in dissolution, a relationship that has arrived at its expiration date. It is emotionally raw and darkly funny, driven by moments of passion and poignancy.

There are many reasons for two people to choose to be together. There are many reasons – some the same, some altogether different – for two people to choose to stay together. And there are many reasons – a surprising number shared with the previous choices – for two people to choose to break apart. And the underlying reality is that the story of a marriage has two sides … and the truth lives somewhere in the middle.

“Marriage Story” is unrelenting and discomfiting – and one of the year’s best films.

Midsommar

“Midsommar” is a bizarre and occasionally gruesome puzzle box of a movie rendered all the darker by the fact that it never actually gets dark. You wouldn’t think placing most of the action in bright sunshine would somehow make things more unsettling, but writer/director Ari Aster takes advantage of an unexpected truth – the brightest lights cast the deepest shadows.

Going into much detail about “Midsommar” would do the viewer a disservice – there’s a LOT of weirdness going on here, but knowing about it ahead of time robs the film of its visceral impact. Just know that stuff gets strange and occasionally gross, but all of it is rendered in a way that is both narratively engaging and visually stunning.

“Midsommar” surprised me. I knew it would be weird, but I had no idea it would be THIS weird. And here’s the thing – the more I think about it, the more I like it. If there’s a better indication of artistic merit, I’d love to hear it.

Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood

“Once Upon A Time … In Hollywood” – Quentin Tarantino’s ninth (Ish? Still not sure I’m buying the “Kill Bill” duology as one movie) film – is the culmination of a creative journey of sorts; a full-on love letter to the Hollywood of the late 1960s, the Hollywood that produced so many of the influences that impacted his creative development. At its heart, from the title on down, it is a fairy tale. It also might be the most sentimental offering of QT’s career.

While it unfolds using the Manson Family murders as a backdrop, “Once Upon A Time … In Hollywood” isn’t really ABOUT Charles Manson or his followers or even the doomed Sharon Tate. It’s about what it means to fade from a world that is itself fading away. It is about the ever-turning cogs behind the romance of Tinseltown and the notion that the end isn’t coming but has instead already happened without you noticing. It is about what it means to be a rising star and what it means to fall. It is a vivid reimagining of a tumultuous time, all viewed through the lens of one man’s battle against his looming irrelevance.

Toy Story 4

I didn’t want “Toy Story 4.”

Yes, I understand that sequels are valuable currency in the cinematic realm these days. And no, it’s nothing against Pixar – my admiration for their work is well-documented. I just remember being so fundamentally satisfied with how the trilogy wrapped up that the idea of another movie felt somehow … wrong.

But what I got was a shockingly worthwhile addition to the series, a film that moves the saga forward in a way that is both respectful of what has come before and enthusiastic about exploring new directions. It is consistently hilarious, of course. Prepare for things to get dusty a couple of times – standard operating procedure with Pixar – though it does pull its punches just a bit.

“Toy Story 4” is legitimately great. Smart and funny, it tells a meaningful story in a meaningful way, expounding on its ideas and engaging with our emotions without ever coming off as calculated or manipulative. The vocal performances are outstanding, and the narrative development is on point.

It’s just about the best possible follow-up to a movie that seemingly needed no follow-up.

Us

“Us” is Jordan Peele’s sophomore effort, a follow-up to his acclaimed debut “Get Out.” The horror thriller delves into the tropes of home invasions and evil twins and more, using those genre touchstones as part of a meaningful conversation about social stratification and class warfare and other important issues confronting the America of today. “Us” could easily be read as “U.S.” … and that’s certainly not a coincidence.

This film is driven by Peele’s burgeoning confidence as a filmmaker, rife with the cultural references that marked his earlier work while also leaning into the development of a striking and compelling visual aesthetic. The director’s technical proficiency has grown significantly; that, plus a much larger budget, has resulted in some absolutely stunning screen snapshots. It is smart and thoughtful, a straight-up thriller that just happens to have something to say.

“Us” is the sort of thematically challenging and compellingly constructed film that we rarely see spring so fully into into the mainstream. It is a horror movie and it is more than a horror movie. This is “Us.” And this is us. See it for yourself.

Bonus pick – Avengers: Endgame

As a dyed-in-the-wool Marvel lover, I couldn’t in good conscience NOT talk about “Avengers: Endgame.”

It’s the culmination of more than a decade spent weaving a narrative and building a world around the heroes at the center of the Marvel Universe. Sprawling across well over 40 hours in total, the MCU is MASSIVE. And regardless of where you come down on how you feel about these movies, there’s no disputing that thus far, this has been one of the most ambitious and impressive feats of filmmaking in the history of the medium.

The film is a beautifully-constructed piece of popcorn cinema. It is a heartfelt goodbye packed with emotion; anyone who gave their time to this world will find it to be a rewarding and effective payoff. Often, an ending is nothing more than an ending. Sometimes, however, an ending is also a beginning.

We’ll see what’s next in the MCU, but this chapter is closed.

(Honorable Mentions: “Ad Astra;” “Brittany Runs a Marathon;” “Dolemite is My Name;” “Dark Waters;” “Ford v. Ferrari;” “John Wick 3;” “Harriet;” “High Flying Bird;” “Joker;” “The Laundromat;” “The Lighthouse;” “The Peanut Butter Falcon;” “Ready or Not;” “Rocketman”)

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WORST

Angel Has Fallen

“Angel Has Fallen” is happy to lean into the assorted tropes and clichés of the genre, featuring a convoluted narrative packed with inexplicable decision-making, totally telegraphed betrayals and meaningless technobabble jargon to go along with loads of grim grimaces and steely glares. It did manage to at least improve upon its execrable (and kind of racist) predecessor “London Has Fallen,” the follow-up to “Olympus Has Fallen,” best known as the “Deep Impact” to the “Armageddon” of the Channing Tatum/Jamie Foxx team-up “White House Down.”

Let’s be clear – there is a lot in “Angel Has Fallen” that just doesn’t make any sense. Almost from the beginning, the internal logic of the narrative is shown to be questionable at best – and it only goes downhill from there. There’s never any doubt who the bad guys are; the movie seems content to just ask the audience to play along and act surprised when the time comes. The action sequences are ludicrous across the board, from basic physics right on up.

It’s not good – never good – but it’s better. A low bar, but there you have it.

Countdown

The latest iteration of the “internet is evil” horror subgenre is “Countdown,” a nonsensical supernatural thriller whose basic conceit seems to be that ignoring the terms of service will kill you. It’s a slapdash attempt to mine the internet for scares, throwing a filter over the standard “evil curse” narrative and calling it a day. It meanders and flails, jumbling together a mess of clichés and assorted tropes without ever committing to anything. In fact, the only thing consistent about this movie is its unrelenting stupidity.

Everything you see in this movie is something that you’ve seen before in an almost-certainly better movie in the past. The narrative is flimsy, offering little rhyme or reason regarding what’s happening. Explicit explanation isn’t necessary, but some degree of basic storytelling coherence would be nice. Character motivations are unclear and underdeveloped; people make decisions for nonsensical reasons or simply no reason whatsoever.

“Countdown” is sloppy, dull horror, a whole lot of nothing. The story is incoherent, the performances are lackluster and the tone is muddled. The most frightening aspect of this movie is the fact that people paid money to see it.

Dark Phoenix

Despite extremely low expectations, “Dark Phoenix” still managed to disappoint me. One could argue that this latest installment – the last before the characters pass from 20th Century Fox into the control of the Disney machine – represents the nadir of the franchise.

It’s not even that “Dark Phoenix” is bad – although it is, boring and meandering and occasionally incomprehensible – so much as that it is bad in the EXACT SAME WAYS that the last effort to tell this story was bad. “Hey, we really blew it the last time we told this story. Maybe this time, if we do pretty much the same thing, people will like it more.”

It’s the second effort by the franchise to tell perhaps the most important arc in the history of the X-Men – and the second failure. This is an iconic storyline, not just for the X-Men, but for all of comicdom. And yet it is peppered with sloppy storytelling, disinterested characterizations and unclear decision-making.

We’ll have to wait and see how Disney folds the characters into the greater MCU, but hey – it’s almost certainly going to be better than this.

Five Feet Apart

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a soft touch, emotionally speaking. My buttons can be pushed pretty easily. If a movie wants to make me cry, it will have little problem doing so. Whether or not that emotional manipulation is earned, well … it doesn’t really matter. It will work. However, just because my emotions are impacted doesn’t mean I’m unaware of the strings being pulled.

“Five Feet Apart” is nothing BUT strings. It is almost cynically manipulative, with a star-crossed love story featuring terminally ill teenagers falling for one another yet being kept apart by forces beyond their control. It is so formulaic, so boilerplate, that it almost feels algorithmically-generated – a product of maudlin mathematics.

“Five Feet Apart” knows precisely who its true audience is and homes in on it with a sharp, almost cynical precision. The beats are familiar and formulaic, but the target viewers could not care less. It’s what you get when you clone a John Green book, only to immediately clone the clone; a faded photocopy of teenage terminality.

Hellboy

One of the things that people sometimes forget about comic books is that they can (and do) get a lot weirder than your standard superhero business – and that that can be a good thing.

Mike Mignola’s Dark Horse Comics creation Hellboy is that kind of weird, yet the character preceded the MCU to the silver screen, with movies in 2004 and 2008. And thanks largely to director Guillermo del Toro and star Ron Perlman, they worked.

With the new “Hellboy,” we get Neil Marshall and David Harbour, respectively – talented, yes, but they wind up swinging and missing. It’s a big, loud, gory mess, a jumbled-up and chaotic slog that can’t be salvaged despite the game effort put forth by Harbour, whose delightfully slovenly dad-charisma is undermined by prosthetics and CGI.

You’d think that in the current climate of constant comic book content, this movie would be even more successful than the ones that came before. Instead, it is far less so, a blaring, boring slog that should have been better. While the stage was set for a sequel, it might be best for everyone to simply walk away.

The Kitchen

Based on the comic book series of the same name, “The Kitchen” tells the tale of three women forced by circumstance to team up and fill the void left by their absent husbands, who have been sent to prison. The leading trio is wildly talented, as is much of the supporting cast, but it isn’t enough; first-time director Andrea Berloff – directing from her own script – can’t seem to avoid the pitfalls of returning to such thoroughly excavated territory.

That’s perhaps the biggest problem faced by the 1970s-set film; it tries to venture down some different and interesting paths, but other than a few flashes, winds up largely bogged down in the clichés and tropes of the subgenre.

“The Kitchen” is a deeply flawed movie that can’t take advantage of its strengths. Thanks to an inexperienced director and a muddied screenplay, the talented cast is left to flounder and make the best of a less-than-ideal situation. It honestly doesn’t matter if you can stand the heat or not – you’ll want to get out of “The Kitchen.”

Gemini Man

What could be better than a blockbuster movie starring Will Smith? How about TWO Will Smiths?

That’s what you get with “Gemini Man,” a sci-fi clone thriller featuring Will Smith doing battle against a digitally-deaged Will Smith. Adding to the fun is the fact that the film is directed by Ang Lee, who has plenty of Hollywood juice of his own; Lee continues his embrace of bleeding edge cinematic tech as well.

And with all that … you get a ho-hum movie. “Gemini Man” tries to use the charisma of its star and the innovative nature of its filmmaker’s technology and techniques to push past the film’s shortcomings, but instead, we get a lackluster performance from Will Smith(s) and an aesthetic that often reads more mid-tier video game than top-tier Hollywood blockbuster.

“Gemini Man” is too serious to be silly and too silly to be serious, and no amount of Will Smith (and there’s a lot) or fancy camera tech (and there’s a lot) can fix it. As far as this film’s success is concerned, two Wills make a Won’t.

Rambo: Last Blood

“Rambo: Last Blood” is … a lot. It is almost defiantly dumb, its bare-bones narrative existing solely to move us from mumbled Sylvester Stallone monologue to preparatory montage to explosively violent outburst, rinse and repeat. It feels less like a story and more like a checklist, boxes being ticked with every knife sharpening and grimacing close-up.

With a disinterested and generic script co-written by Stallone and Matthew Cirulnick and bland direction from Adrian Grunberg, this fifth installment in the series brings nothing new to the table. Instead, it seems to exist solely to give Stallone a chance to flail around in his blood-soaked sandbox; it is visceral in its violence and largely absent of anything resembling real connection. The body count isn’t as high as the last installment, but “Last Blood” offers plenty of, well … blood. The violence is so over-the-top as to become absurd.

At this point, all we can do is hope that “Rambo: Last Blood” is true to its title, because no one needs any more of this. Time for Stallone to let Rambo bleed out.

Replicas

Full disclosure: I had definitely forgotten that this movie existed. Happily, this list me back to it, because … wow.

“Replicas” is so bad as to be baffling. The story is nonsensical, a jumble of illogical decision making and word salad jargon. The effects border on the laughable; the CGI work would have been bad a decade ago, let alone today. And the performances are wooden to the extreme, with the shocking exception of star Keanu Reeves, who might be the most emotive performer in a cast for the first time in … ever.

Where to begin? How about nothing makes any sense. The timelines, the processes, the aftermath – none of it adds up in the least. Logical leaps and staggering stupidity are on display throughout; I don’t need full-on verisimilitude for an off-brand sci-fi movie, but it should at least make some kind of sense.

“Replicas” should have quietly come and gone on Netflix rather than receiving anything like a wide theatrical release. It is poorly conceived and poorly executed on every possible level. This is not a “so bad it’s good” situation. No, this movie is so bad it’s … bad.

Serenity

Every once in a while, you get a movie so inexplicable, so bizarrely conceived, so bats—t crazy that the binary is out the window. It isn’t “good,” it isn’t “bad,” it’s “what in God’s name did I just watch?”

“Serenity” very much falls into that third category.

For its first half, “Serenity” is nothing special, a sort of beach noir thriller. The pieces are a little ill-fitting, but it’s all fairly conventional. Meanwhile, the second half of the movie hinges on a Shyamalan-on-acid twist, one of the weirdest narrative turns I’ve seen in a mainstream movie in years. Maybe ever.

I still don’t know how to feel about this movie. One minute, I think it’s one of the dumbest movies I’ve ever seen. The next, I’m considering whether it might be subversively brilliant. I’m leaning toward dumb, but it’s all very confusing.

You might be saying to yourself “Really? I saw the trailer and it looked pretty straightforward to me.” And you’d be right, as far as that goes. The trailer DOES make it all look pretty straightforward. But rest assured – it is not. At all.

(Dishonorable mention: “The Goldfinch;” “Greta;” “The Hustle;” “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil;” “Men in Black: International;” “Miss Bala;” “Shaft;” “Stuber”)

Last modified on Tuesday, 10 December 2019 06:42

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