25 Years of BAD BOYS, 25 Years of Michael Bay

It’s been an interesting quarter century of action cinema. Ever since the white heat of Jean Claude Van-Damme and Steven Seagal began to cool in the mid-90s, the genre has gone through a variety of phases. For a brief moment, the end of the millennium belonged to John Woo, who brought his balletic gunplay and white doves from Hong Kong with Hard Target, Broken Arrow, and Face/Off. In the wake of 9/11, action was no laughing matter, stone serious Bourne films and prestige, Oscar-winning war films. Then superheroes took over the market, until an indestructible merchant of death named John Wick grabbed his fair share.

Meanwhile, over in his own corner, unfettered and unchanging through it all, is Michael Bay. It’s been 25 years since the music-video workhorse took his talents to the big screen, with two pop culture sensations making their own respective leaps into the blockbuster stratosphere; things only got crazier from there. Bad Boys is tricky to analyze after all these years, after Michael Bay has reshaped much of the action landscape, and after a career full of insanely awful movies that still, somehow, manage to be so disciplined in vision and specific in style that they are exactly what they are supposed to be. There’s too much Michael Bay baggage to assess anything Bad Boys achieves or where it falls short, because what was once fresh and exciting and new is now old hat.

do have a distinct memory of seeing Bad Boys with my friend Corey at the United Artists 6 in town, having no prior knowledge of this music video director. I knew what that rushing desert road and the lighting strike announcing the presence of Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer meant, but Bay was just some hired gun in 1995, no Tony Scott. I remember being absolutely head-over-heels in love with Bad Boys as a fifteen-year old, because I was right at the sweet spot of the demographic. Martin Lawrence was hilarious, Will Smith was a badass, and the jokes rained down between the bullets and car chases. There are still some great chases in Bad Boys, and some of the jokes don’t feel corny as hell (though many do). At the time Bay was still operating like a music video director, barely free of that scene, and I was a satisfied teenager when I left the theater that day, no doubt. Little did I know Michael Bay would be front and center through my adolescence, for better or worse.

His next film, The Rock, may still be his best movie. It’s big and bold and every major player in the cast – Nicolas Cage, Sean Connery, Ed Harris – is on board with the absurdity, which sells everything. It plays like a James Cameron film, albeit one with a little more sleaze and swearing. The Alcatraz setting is fully realized, and it was an early indication that Michael Bay was going to have a signature style, one that… sort of mutated… more than it evolved over time. Two years after The Rock, he hit the jackpot with Bruce Willis and an ensemble of young stars in Armageddon – quite possibly the early, first peak of Michael Bay dumb insanity – to the tune of $554.6 million.

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That isn’t to say Armageddon isn’t fun, and surprisingly emotional… at least it was to yours truly as a teenager entering the world. Yeah, I may have had something in my eye during Bruce’s farewell to Liv Tyler, so what? Armageddon is a blast, and it’s loud and funny and it never stops moving long enough for anyone to consider what may actually be happening. In only three movies’ time, Michael Bay reached a level of obnoxious auteur audacity, forever impossible for any of his peers to emulate. He’d cornered the market on action cranked up to eleven, action overflowing with enough gags and stunts to mask the laundry list of flaws.

Bay took a shot at prestigious historical drama in May of 2001 with Pearl Harbor, a truly amazing piece of cinema Roger Ebert so perfectly labeled “a two-hour movie squeezed into three hours.” All Bay cared about was the attack sequence, a chaotic CGI smorgasbord of dogfights and explosions that fills nearly an hour of screen time. The bigger issue was the romantic triangle covering two more hours, a stodgy wannabe Titanic melodrama with a trio of ill-equipped actors (Kate Beckinsale? Ben Affleck?! JOSH HARTNETT!!!), of which I dare anyone to remember a single second.

Turns out, none of it mattered anyway, because the Japanese attack on our military was shown with such a bold, arrogant sensationalism, that it put butts in seats and earned $450 million worldwide. It was Memorial Day, of course this garish misrepresentation of American history would sell like gangbusters. Bay won in spite of making an indefensibly bad movie, but thankfully he was smart enough to realize historical epics weren’t going to be his bag (I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt here). His next film was Bad Boys II, the final stage in the evolution (or mutation?) of Bay as a trash action auteur with an endless budget and plenty of horrible taste to somehow transcend offensiveness and achieve untouchable autonomy.

Bad Boys II was a huge hit, of course, one I haven’t seen from start to finish since the theater. I understand there are fans out there, and while I do understand that this wild-ass sequel is a perfect distillation of everything Michael Bay represents, I simply do not have the time. It doesn’t offend me, there are just too may movies I haven’t seen to spend 150 minutes in that chaos. Taking offense to his work is a fool’s errand, and by never changing his stripes, Michael Bay’s brand has become bulletproof. It’s pretty racist, sure, it objectifies women and has a Klan rally and rats fucking, yeah yeah… nobody cares. Especially Michael Bay.

The sequel was a solid enough hit to justify its existence, but Bay was clearly ready to pivot, having poured everything but the kitchen sink into the bombast of BBII. He somehow quietly snuck The Island into theaters, a modest attempt to ratchet back and focus at least a little more on plot and storytelling. The Island was a decent enough thriller with an interesting cast, but it was an odd choice for Bay and a flop, and it has to be one of the most forgotten movies of the 21st century.

After his first financial stumble, an amazing feat when you consider the preceding candidates, Michael Bay launched the biggest, loudest, most obnoxious metal-crunching franchise in the history of cinema. The original Tranformers is a fun action movie with a dedicated Shia LaBeouf performance, and if there ever were a muse for Michael Bay it was early 2000s Megan Fox. The rest of the movies are impossible to discern from each other if you stumble upon one on TV and LaBeouf or Mark Wahlberg isn’t on the screen; even then, if you see Mark Wahlberg and his silly long hair, is there any way to tell if it’s the fourth or fifth movie? There isn’t.

Occasionally, in between increasingly frenetic and incomprehensible Transformers sequels, Michael Bay tried his hand at more “serious” action fare with Pain and Gain, a pitch-black comedy that has become shorthand for the “Bay being serious” defense. Pain and Gain is a fine enough movie, entertaining and some of the black comedy is an entirely different frequency than so much of Bay’s vapid tomfoolery, but nobody sits down to watch this again the same way they return to Bad Boys or Armageddon or even Transformers.

In 2016, the Year The Country Couldn’t Handle, Bay went serious again, deathly serious this time around, as he adapted the Benghazi book 13 Hours into a feature film starring newly-minted action star John Krasinski. It came and went, laughed off by smug media and only a minor blip on the radar in January of that year. It appeared that Michael Bay was receding from the top of the mountain, his brand of hyperactive juvenile action having run its course in the blockbuster space.

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Bay’s latest film, 6 Underground, found what appeared to be a sizable audience on Netflix last year, and it was a return to the early days of dumb jokes and assholes blowing things up. Ryan Reynolds is the perfect smarmy cypher for the director. This sort of action is where Bay is most comfortable, and most reliable. No matter how annoying his aesthetic has become, or how tiresome his movies grew as the years became decades, there is no denying he belongs in the same discussion as Scorsese, as Coppola, as De Palma, et. al., when it comes to auteur theory. Michael Bay’s films are so succinctly his, so unabashedly belonging to their author, that every wannabe Bay filmmaker is spotted and exposed almost immediately. Often imitated, never duplicated.

Throughout every step of the action movie evolution, Michael Bay has been around, doing his own thing, because he reached the final form of what Tony Scott and the Bruckheimer/Simpson steamroller started in the 80s. It’s easy to dunk on Bay because he’s a towering, world-renowned douchebag and he’s a little sexist and he’s a poisonous potion of smooth-brained American alchemy… but for any film fan in or around my age to claim they weren’t in a seat opening weekend for The Rock or Armageddon, lapping up every ounce of raunchy juvenile wit and absorbing the thump of every fireball shooting a car ten feet in the air, that’s revisionist history. Plain and simple.

People have tried to emulate what Michael Bay is doing for 25 years, but they’ve failed, washed up on the shore of imitators while the brash adventurer soldiers on, leaping from tough action auteur to prestige epic absurdity to robots in disguise, and never slowing down, never giving a damn what one single critic says about his movies. Currently, he’s tied to the long gestating Robopocalypse adaptation, but that’s bounced from one director to another, and who knows what will become of that. Who knows what will be next for any of us, but whatever comes out on the other side, I imagine Michael Bay will still be there, doing his thing, like it or not.

NIXON is Oliver Stone’s Greatest Film

For almost a decade, by 1995, Oliver Stone had firmly secured his share of the zeitgeist as the angst-ridden, conspiracy-fueled, brilliantly bilateral cinematic voice of American politics and culture. He won his Oscars in the spring of 1987 for his Vietnam melodrama Platoon, and he’d seen acclaim and financial success in equal measure with his 1991 hit, the conspiratorial kaleidoscope JFK. A few years later, Stone managed to win the box office with a true work of madness, the hyper-violent (and styled within an inch of its life) indictment of media sensationalism, Natural Born Killers. Stone was on a roll with critics, and had been somewhat reliable at the box office, so news of a film on the tumultuous life and presidency of Richard Nixon sounded like another homerun for a man who had been putting his own tensile spin on the timeline of our country.

It may have been too late. Nixon was released in 1995 and was an immediate dud. Reviews were mostly positive but uninspiring – Ebert praised it as “one of the year’s best” – but general audiences had moved on from Stone’s freewheeling historical narratives, especially in the aftermath of JFK, a film that’s entire existence is fueled by the endless reach of paranoia that had shaped the narrative of the Kennedy assassination for three decades. With Nixon, it appeared Stone was getting docked for speculation, but the speculation was part of the story with the Kennedy assassination, and perhaps even more a part of the story when it comes to Nixon.

Of all Stone’s films – some terrific, some trashy fun, some downright terrible – I keep coming back to Nixon, and am now convinced of its greatness. It’s the sweet spot for Stone, where his impulsive youthful urges are still prevalent, but tamped down slightly in order to focus on a proper character study. The story of Richard Nixon was the perfect material for a 48-year old Stone; too perfect, perhaps many decided. Stone spinning yarns about the rise and fall of a paranoid, crooked Republican president through the lens of a dozen different film stocks and manic cuts and spiraling conspiracies may have been too on the nose for audiences, so they passed, and Nixon stumbled across the finish line with a paltry $13.6 million domestic gross. International sales bumped the take to $34 million, which was still more than $10 million shy of its budget.

Time can not only improve some films, it can quickly erase the failures of their opening weekend and how much money they made. A film is only a flop for a short while, but if it’s good enough, it will transcend financial shortcomings and stand on its own as a piece of art. Nixon is the rare epic that is able to overcome a stigma of failure, because it’s Oliver Stone at his most balanced, and most considerate. His film follows Richard Milhous Nixon – played by Anthony Hopkins, who wisely sidesteps physical mimicry in his performance – as he rises and falls over his political career. His Quaker upbringing and the death of two brothers at the hands of tuberculosis is visited in flashback, and his defeat at the hand of handsome young John Kennedy in 1960 is an early focal point.

The meat of the picture – Nixon’s presidency, his mishandling of Vietnam, and the Watergate scandal –  is the most compelling stretch of filmmaking in Stone’s career. It begins hopeful and energetic, but along the way as the bombs fall and the evidence against an increasingly manic Nixon mounts, that positive energy seamlessly transitions to an ominous, threatening collapse of one man’s idea of America, and of the America he could have shaped. The shadows grow tall and the walls narrow on Nixon. This second act evolution moves like a montage into the third, but it stays focused and engaging, thanks to the richness of Robert Richardson’s cinematography, and to the rousing score from John Williams, a symphony of hope buried beneath inescapable sadness.

On all sides of Anthony Hopkins are marvelous supporting performances, but that almost goes without saying when it comes to Oliver Stone and his brand of epic. James Woods is great as Nixon sycophant and political strategist, Bob Haldeman. Paul Sorvino is saddled with the toughest role as Henry Kissinger, whose mumbling delivery has been parodied into infinity, but Sorvino steers through as best as anyone could. Ed Harris, E.G. Marshall, David Paymer, David Hyde Pierce, and J.T. Walsh fill in the margins, and Mary Steenburgen lingers over the entire picture as a spectral Hannah Nixon, Richard’s domineering and deeply religious mother. Bob Hoskins has a handful of scenes as J. Edgar Hoover, and he’s never not unsettling.

Joan Allen plays Pat Nixon as an enigma who was never on board with her husband’s political career, though she always managed to come around because she loved her husband. Their relationship is the b-plot of Nixon, a strange romance that evolves and devolves over the years. Stone’s film is as emotionally complex and unsettled as its subject, and Anthony Hopkins knows how to pull us in without veering into parody. Hopkins isn’t wearing a prosthetic nose or some elaborate makeup to look exactly like Nixon. Instead, he’s representing Nixon’s energy, always nervous and always moving, like a shark, and he nails the voice. There are a number of great moments for Hopkins scattered throughout, where Stone shines a light on Nixon’s jealousy of Kennedy, his rich historical knowledge of the office of the president, his anger at the press and his disdain for the youth in revolt, but the scene where he chats up Vietnam protestors outside of the Lincoln Memorial tips the scales. It’s a brilliant moment, and it informs the rest of the film in both directions. Set in tight and medium shots, with bright white lights washing out the edges of the frame and painting the entire monument in a mournful silver/gray, Stone and Richardson capture the surreal nature of this night. There are different variations on this tale, and it’s certainly been sensationalized over the years. Such is the case with the history of Richard Nixon, and history in general, which makes many of the 1995 criticisms of Nixon more irrelevant now than ever.

Consistent criticisms of Oliver Stone have always revolved around his “irresponsibility with the truth,” or something along those lines. JFK was derided by some for spilling all these conspiracy plots out into the screen while masquerading as a pseudo-biopic on Jim Garrison and his infamous trial. But JFK was always about the conspiracy theories, not about what really did or didn’t happen. It’s a film whose only fuel is conspiracy, which is why Nixon, while it plays fast-and-loose with documented history, has the advantage over JFK. The conspiratorial narratives pile on top of each other in JFK until the story underneath becomes impenetrable. It’s easy to lose sight of Kevin Costner by the end. In Nixon, however, Stone has the advantage of one central character who is practically in every scene, and who keeps the center from spinning out of control. Hopkins is never off camera, or so it seems, and the decision to allow Hopkins’ acting abilities convey character in lieu of makeup effects eliminates any and all opportunity for distraction or mockery.

As much as I love the melodrama of Platoon and the time-capsule style of Wall Street, as much as Talk Radio and JFK stir the senses, as captivating as Natural Born Killers is, I never revisit any of Oliver Stone’s films as much as I do Nixon. There is something cathartic about its lengthy runtime where everything, fact or fiction, is laid out on the table. At the time of its release, another knock on the film was the fact that an outspoken liberal with conspiratorial inclinations would certainly tell only one side of the story; however, much like he did to a less-successful degree with W. in 2008, Stone took one of his longstanding targets of criticism and muted his anger to allow room for sympathy. Nixon has a level of humanity in Stone’s film that the real man never had in the news clips I saw growing up or in the historical texts, a humanity which makes his flaws hit harder, and cut deeper. Had Nixon been played as a sweaty, smiling, out-of-control madman, the film would buckle under that weight.

Stone’s desire to put everything he can into a fully-formed biopic makes it forever re-watchable, and as the Williams score swells and subsides, I find myself pulled into the vortex of a complicated man in complicated times. There are certainly parallels to the modern political landscape, and mileage may vary depending on what you think of the president or the media, but there’s little value in applying a dramatic retelling of another era of American history through the lens of 2020. Everyone gets it, we don’t have to tie it all together. Don’t we do that enough already?

STRAIGHT TIME, the Perfect Double Feature for UNCUT GEMS

New movies can be invigorating because they’re original, or because they’re a welcome change to the status quo, or they spring from the imagination of a thrilling new filmmaker; but even with originality, there will always be the perfect double feature pairing somewhere in cinema’s past. Every movie shares an unshakable bond with another movie, or movies, from another time. Part of the beauty of film is recognizing the references and spotting thematic and visual overlap, even in the most inventive new works. Linking DNA as it spans decades is an important historical exercise, and one of the best ways to examine the connective tissue of film history is to screen two movies – maybe even three, maybe four, maybe a dozen for a marathon – back to back, to appreciate the influence the past has on the present. Often times, seeing two films together enriches the experience of both.

There are plenty of films that might pair well with Uncut Gems, the Safdie Brothers 2019 high-wire follow up to Good Time starring Adam Sandler in a career best performance. Sandler’s Howard “Howie” Ratner is a jeweler addicted to the chase in all its many forms, robbing Peter to pay Paul until all the apostles are on his tail. He’s hooked on gambling, whether it’s with his money or his life, and he has a tough time getting out of his own way. His wife doesn’t trust him, his kids hate him, his peers are frustrated with his excuses, and his new pal Kevin Garnett doesn’t exactly respect his wishes. And yet, all Howie wants in the world, all he needs, is for this one last winning bet to pay off, so he can square his debts and hit the road and be set free of this hamster wheel on which he’s trapped.

None of the potential Uncut Gems double feature ideas share the same burning desire for deliverance, or revel in the same theater of desperation, as Ulu Grosbard’s hardnosed reform story gone awry, 1978’s Straight Time. In Grosbard’s story, adapted from Edward Bunker’s novel of the same name, our hapless Sisyphus is Dustin Hoffman’s Max Dembo, an ex-con who can’t catch a break no matter how hard he tries. Fresh out of prison for burglary, Max is in The System now, the institutionalization showing in his thousand-yard stare, but prison hasn’t killed him yet. He still wants a normal life, and he’s determined to find a way.

Max is trying his best to slide through on the straight-and-narrow with a job and an apartment, all the while obstacles pop up in front of him like the springboard bad guys on a shooting range. No matter how earnestly he pleads or how hard he tries, he’s always running uphill, always fighting to avoid incarceration. His parole officer (M. Emmet Walsh) doesn’t believe in him, his friend (Gary Busey, at his most southern) is a fuckup who only gets him in trouble, his partner (Harry Dean Stanton) is a complete wild card, and all the straight gigs in the world can’t keep Max’s eyes off the quick score. Eventually, out of desperation, and after some impulsive decisions, he falls back into his old ways.

Max and Howie share the common bond of men who have let their world get away from them, who walk the razor’s edge between life and death – or at least a hefty prison sentence – from sunup to well beyond sundown. It’s not a stretch to imagine Hoffman’s hangdog loser and Sandler’s two-bit hustler cooking up a scheme together in some parallel universe. Straight Time and Uncut Gems are kindred cinematic spirits, no doubt, both portraits of men unraveling and pressure mounting, but where they truly connect is where the women come into play.

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Both films have a touching romance beneath their escalating, chaotic narratives. In Straight Time it is Theresa Russell’s Jenny, the employment office clerk, who sees the good in Max; she also sees some of the bad, which is probably why she’s drawn to him in the first place. When Max backslides into his life of crime, Jenny doesn’t flinch, not at first. She sticks with him, excited by the prospect of adventure and pulled into this sad man’s world, a naïve young girl without life experience, imagining herself as Bonnie Parker. Jenny is helplessly charmed by this hapless underdog, and that sort of carefree romanticism permeates both stories.

The biggest surprise in Uncut Gems is not Adam Sandler, but Julia Fox as Howie’s doting mistress, Julia. She works with him, she sees him struggling, but she loves and supports him at every step, a bright young beacon of hope exhilarated by her man’s unstable lifestyle. Fox is the beating heart of the film, a vibrant and crucial detail to Howie’s plight, as is Jenny for Max. These are smart, beautiful women entranced by men on the edge, fighting to stay afloat. The fact that both of these anxiety-ridden crime dramas take the time to develop such similar romances – albeit ones with different endings – is enough to forever link them.

The Safdie Brothers only mentioned Straight Time once, in passing, during their round of interviews for Uncut Gems, but it’s undeniably a neon, late-night cousin to Ulu Grosbard’s daylight desolation. It’s the flipside of the coin. That’s why it fits so perfectly as a double feature. Play Straight Time first, in the evening slot, then roll the reels on Gems right after, as the clock flirts with midnight, and the similarities will shine. Not only that, but the differences between the two movies will compliment each other in all the right ways, namely in the aesthetics and energy of direction. As Max’s world spirals out of control, the city expands and abandons him; when the proverbial shit hits the fan for Howie, the sidewalks narrow and the oppressive walls of Gotham close in. Almost all of Straight Time takes place in the bright SoCal sunshine, while Uncut Gems revels in the night.

One film is also decidedly more cynical than the other, but even that analysis involves the subjective experience, and could change from person to person. In both films, the essence of their respective final scenes and our protagonist’s outcomes can be taken in one of two ways, as a net gain or a net loss. We root for Howard and Max, and dismay at so many of their choices, but we likely absolve both of them with varying degrees of empathy. The glass if half full, or it’s half empty, and seeing Straight Time and Uncut Gems in a double feature may even have the power to change the way you feel about Max Dembo, or Howard Ratner, while you watch them ice skate uphill.

1917: From Afterthought to Awards Contender

The deck seemed stacked against Sam Mendes’s 1917 from the get go. The trailer for the World War I thriller bared a heavy resemblance to Christopher Nolan’s recent time-centric WWII thriller, Dunkirk, and the big marketing buzz focused on the fact that Mendes and legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins made the film to appear as if it were all in one continuous shot. The gimmickry of this idea, combined with the focus on the importance of the clock and the anonymity of the lead actors all made 1917 feel like a derivative imitation of other, likely better, war films.

There are stock elements to the story, about two British soldiers tasked with getting across a dangerous stretch of enemy-occupied countryside in France in order to deliver a message that could save thousands of allied troops, but Mendes manages to rise above the cliches. He delivers an immediate, compelling story that is definitely driven by plot, but elevated beyond its undeniable technical merits by the humanity of it all, and a breathless central performance from George MacKay.

MacKay plays Lance Corporal Schofield, who is unwittingly pulled into the story by his friend, LC Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman). Blake and Schofield are summoned to the desk of General Erinmore, played in a beefy cameo by Colin Firth. General Erinmore orders the two young men to deliver a message to a battalion preparing to invade the German enemy some ten miles away: they’re walking into a trap set by the Huns, and if they don’t stand down then there will be untold casualties. For an added bit of motivation, Blake’s older brother is among the men who will be sent to their certain death. They have until morning to get there, and the ten miles between them and the battalion is beyond treacherous.

The clock is ticking, and the plot is in motion, and now we are with these two men as they traverse trenches full of tired soldiers, and a wide-open landscape littered with dead men, dead cattle, and buildings destroyed by explosion and gunfire. They are exposed, and you can feel the looming possibility of death lurking around every ridge. It’s a bleak stretch of land, one Mendes and Deakins show with great detail and texture. Decomposing bodies jut out from muddy craters, rats feast, and razor-wire fences add severity to what was certainly beautiful French countryside before the Great War destroyed the earth with bombs and blood.

Anyone who knows this movie exists has seen the virtuoso shot of MacKay running across an open field as bombs explode at his back and bodies fall, but 1917 is so much more than technical wizardry. A great deal of the film’s first two acts work efficiently to give our grunt soldiers depth and humanity. Through brief, mundane conversations, mentions of family, of duty, we get a sense that these are three-dimensional human beings in unimaginable circumstances. World War I is generations removed from modern society, over 100-years in the past now, and Mendes captures the foreign nature of this world in every frame.

As for the one-shot decision, it is far more than just technical schadenfreude. The tracking shot, which is clearly broken up at certain points and movements, lends an immediacy to the mission at hand, and makes everything feel more urgent than it already is. Personally, I forgot about the tracking shot, or trying to spot the cuts only a few minutes in. That’s the power of 1917. What stands out more than any cinematography – which is great, make no mistake – is the performance of MacKay, the heart and soul of the story. The wide eyed young man, whose largest role prior to this was playing Viggo Mortensen’s son in the silly Captain Fantastic, is a strong presence at the core of this exhausting journey. He may not get an Oscar nomination, but he will absolutely start to show up in bigger roles, in bigger films moving forward.

The confounding thing about 1917 is that just a week ago, the film felt like a whiff. It was an afterthought, “Mendes copying Nolan,” et al., and nobody really gave it a chance. Then it won best picture at the Golden Globes, and it opened some eyes. Not that the Globes are any indicator of how the Oscar nominations will shake out this Monday since the voting bodies for the two awards are different, but it’s definitely an indicator than general audiences slept on this film and it’s almost a shoe in for a half-dozen nominations, including Best Picture. After last weekend’s success, and a likely nomination this Monday morning, 1917 has become a deserving Oscar frontrunner.

My 50 Favorite Movies of The Decade

This was an impossible task, one where great films likely didn’t make the cut, and personal films triumphed. As I reached the top ten, I could feel the personal connection to the films I was discussing growing stronger, so I can attest this is definitely a favorites list more than some line drawn in the sand definitive Best Of. Some years in the decade rose above, some were hard to remember (2012 seems particularly lean in hindsight). I worked on this for a few weeks, films moved up, moved down, disappeared and reappeared, and tough choices had to be made. Here goes nothing…

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50. Everybody Wants Some!! (2016) – Richard Linklater lowest of low-key hangout movies is nothing but a delight to sit back and watch. There isn’t much substance here, which is exactly the point, because what sort of substantive material would exist in the lives of Texas college baseball players in the 1980s beyond the diamond?

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49. The Place Beyond The Pines (2012) – Derek Cianfrance’s 2010 melodrama Blue Valentine somehow gathered more awards buzz than his sprawling, lo-fi family epic follow up. This is a strange, flawed, fascinating movie that takes supreme risks time and time again, and for that it should be recognized.

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48. American Honey (2016) – Easily the better of Shia LeBeouf’s Honey films from this decade, American Honey is a meandering mess of a film, full of love and ambition and anchored by marvelous performances from LeBeouf and newcomer Sasha Lane.

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47. Force Majeure (2014) – An avalanche, or at least the very real threat of an avalanche, approaches a deck outside a ski resort, where a family is eating. In a panic, the father jumps up and flees, leaving both children and wife behind. The rest of the picture is the fallout from this decision, told with wonderful humor and sadness and regret. See this before you see the Will Ferrell/Julia Louis-Dreyfus American remake.

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46. Spring Breakers (2012) – It took yours truly several years to come around on Harmony Korine’s obtuse, impressionistic, neon-bathed crime thriller, but there is no denying James Franco’s hypnotic performance, or the work from the three girls caught in his web. “Look at all my shit.”

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45. The Nice Guys (2016) – The most Shane Black movie ever made, thanks to the fact he not only wrote it, but directed it as well. Gosling and Crowe are a perfect mismatching pair of PIs, the sight gags are top tier, and the twisting noir plot is fun and just as breezy as LA in the 70s.

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44. Green Room (2015) – A punk band must fight their way out of a Nazi bar, led by a sadistic neo Nazi played by… Patrick Stewart? Yes, that Patrick Stewart, who is a block of bloodthirsty ice in Jeremy Saulnier’s unforgiving thriller, sadly one of the last performances from the late Anton Yelchin.

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43. Moonlight (2016) – Barry Jenkins’ dreamy exploration into the sexual evolution and personal struggles of a young, gay, black man is documented over three points in time in the protagonists life. All three of the actors do great work with the section they’re given, and all three of them are surrounded by a variety of heartfelt supporting performances.

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42. You Were Never Really Here (2017) – When I first saw this, I dismissed it. Then I was drawn back to it and began to love it. Then, I couldn’t avoid a third glance, and it evolved even more. This is a slow, simmering nightmare unfolding in front of our eyes, regardless of how you interpret the story’s end result.

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41. The Favourite (2018) – Yorgos Lanthimos’s cool detachment is right at home in this odd victorian chamber piece, a story of sexual obsession and power struggles among three women, each of varying degrees of intelligence, ambition, and desire. Like a horny  Barry Lyndon with more rabbits.

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40. What We Do in The Shadows (2014) – Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi’s Real World Transylvania is so much fun, and each time I watch it something different makes me laugh the most. The idea is so simple and the execution so practical, that it allows room for the jokes to build all the way through, never losing steam.

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39. Spotlight (2015) – Speaking of practical execution, Tom McCarthy’s journalism procedural is a brilliant step-by-step dive into an investigation that shook the foundations of Catholicism across New England, it’s oldest home in this country. All performances are excellent, muted and real, and able to draw you in with precious few words or a sideways glance.

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38. The Revenant (2015) – It’s amazing how much backlash this film accumulated during Awards Season, 2015. There’s not room for a full defense here, but DiCaprio deserved the Oscar and Tom Hardy is wonderfully weird and this is a captivating, physical film that seems to be knocked down a peg for its physicality, and the pretentiousness of director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu. Whatever, he might be a tool, but this is still a terrific frontier thriller.

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37. Phantom Thread (2017) – Paul Thomas Anderson’s story of an obsessive dressmaker and his latest, most challenging muse, is a surprising romantic comedy at its core. More funny than intense, more charming than cynical, the chemistry between Daniel Day Lewis and Vicky Krieps (brilliant here) is offbeat and never saccharine.

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36. Get Out (2017) – Jordan Peele’s social horror landed like a stick of dynamite in the winter of 2017. The timing was perfect, and the surprise of Peele’s craftsmanship as a filmmaker supercharged audiences. This announced both Peele’s arrival, and the introduction of Daniel Kaluuya as a sturdy leading man.

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35. Melancholia (2011) – There’s no better filmmaker to portray the end of the world in a way that is somehow more depressing than the actual end of the world would be, than Lars Von Trier. Kirsten Dunst is an absolute force, a black hole of resignation and despair absorbing all the lives around her in a beautiful, apocalyptic symphony.

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34. Upstream Color (2013) – No film in the decade kept me off balance and upended in quite the same way as Shane Carruth’s labyrinthine thriller, about an organism a thief uses to manipulate a young woman (Amy Seimetz) into turning over all her wealth. Her story, and the story of Carruth’s character, begin to intertwine in one of the most unique films of the 21st century.

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33. Under the Skin (2013) – The alien stalks its prey, unflinching and without remorse, pulling them into a black pit of… nothing? But then, morality finds its way into her brain, and everything falls apart. Jonathan Glazer is a brilliant filmmaker who is 3 for 3 after this, Sexy Beast, and Birth, and Scarlett Johansson delivers easily the most unique performance of her career.

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32. The Tree of Life (2011) – Terrence Malick’s oblique meditation on his own Central Texas upbringing, on fathers and mothers and their place in our own lives, was a strange new way of storytelling in 2011. Spanning from the beginning of time to the edge of the afterlife, Malick’s film never bows to convention. His drifting style has since turned into self parody, but The Tree of Life is where it still worked, and worked well.

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31. Whiplash (2014) – Damien Chazelle’s 2014 tale of obsession and precision is fierce and surprisingly emotional. Miles Teller and Oscar winner J.K. Simmons have an electric chemistry, like opposite poles meeting in the battle ground that is an elite jazz-band ensemble.

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30. Dragged Across Concrete (2019) – One of the great new surprises of the decade was the arrival of S. Craig Zahler, courtesy of Dallas-based Cinestate. After Bone Tomahawk and Brawl in Cell Block 99 (more on that later), Zahler took us deep into the bowels of street-level crime, crooked cops, murderers and thieves, all in a sparse, stylized world of nastiness. The cast is superb, and Zahler’s words are deliciously noir-ish.

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29. First Reformed (2018) – All of Paul Schrader’s lifelong anxiety about the future, about relationships, about loneliness and God and everything on his busy brain spills out in Ethan Hawke’s biggest, boldest performance of his career. Fears of the environment compound for Hawke’s anxious priest, and the final moments are equal parts daring and shocking.

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28. Brawl in Cell Block 99 (2017) – And right back to Zahler we go. This second film from the new provocateur remains his best, a thrilling adventure into the depths of hell, bolstered by Vince Vaughn’s most interesting performance to date. It’s shocking and gruesome, but it also deftly sells the emotional weight of Vaughn’s plight as the put upon Bradley Thomas.

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27. Inception (2010) – Christopher Nolan’s obsession with time shaped one of the most inventive blockbusters of the 21st century. Ironically enough, it’s time that has lessened the pictures impact, but there is still a brilliant cerebral heist film at its core, and the visual effects were greatly influential for the rest of the decade.

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26. John Wick (2014) – As much fun as the sequels are, the original John Wick remains the best because of it’s free-wheeling, anonymous existence. Nobody much cared about Chad Stahelski’s balletic action spectacle in the weeks leading up to its release. Fast forward a few years, and John Wick is now one of the biggest franchises in Hollywood. The original still has the best baddie of the bunch too in Michael Nyqvist.

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25. Good Time (2017) – Ever since Robert Pattinson played the glittery vampire, he’s been trying to shed that matinee idol skin and transform into the rarest of birds: the character actor as leading man. Here, Pattinson disappears into the Safdie Brothers’ breakout picture, a breathless, nerve-frying chase through the sweatiest, scummiest neighborhoods in the Big Apple. It is mounting dread of the highest order.

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24. Her Smell (2019) – Alex Ross Perry is not a household name, but his uniquely structured tale of a rock star (Elisabeth Moss, as brilliant as ever) falling apart and trying to pick up the pieces again is episodic, difficult to stomach at times, but engrossing from start to finish.

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23. 12 Years a Slave (2013) – This Best Picture winner has fallen out of the zeitgeist these last few years, but Steve McQueen’s tale of a kidnapped free man sold into slavery is emotionally devastating, emotionally draining, and ultimately an inspiring look at the triumph of the human spirit.

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22. The Master (2013) – Paul Thomas Anderson’s not-so-subtle sideways biopic of L. Ron Hubbard and his mass of cult members is less an indictment on Scientology than it is the portrait of two men falling in love. It’s unconventional and disturbing because of the two men in question, and this enigmatic exploration into damaged people is spearheaded by two remarkable performances from Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix.

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21. Dunkirk (2017) – This is Christopher Nolan’s obsession with time pared down to its most primal elements, a Swiss Watch of a thriller placed in a very real, very tense setting. It’s one of the rare modern motion pictures that could honestly work as a silent film, and it’s the second best mostly-masked performance from Tom Hardy of the decade.

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20. Uncut Gems – The Safdie Brothers second “commercial” film, or their second “mainstream” film, for lack of a better term, is a dreamlike journey into an era that seems like it barely exists anymore: 2012. Adam Sandler is great, and Julia Fox is truly special as his mistress. She could have been a dumb annoying character, but she is the exact opposite, because the Safdie Bothers know how to tell honest tales.

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19. Black Swan (2010) – Darren Aronofsky’s new-age riff on The Red Shoes is still one of Natalie Portman’s best, most dedicated performances. It is, much like Leo DiCaprio in The Revenant, more physically demanding than anything else, and Portman puts her thin frame through the ringer. Where have you gone, Vincent Cassel?

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18. Gone Girl (2014) – An electrifying mystery novel becomes the ultimate trash masterpiece for David Fincher, in a marriage of material and director that is off the charts perfect. Ben Affleck is perfectly tuned into the doughy midwestern doofus hubby, and Rosamund Pike has an uncanny ability to switch from entering to icy cold in an instant. A salacious story right up Fincher’s dark-heart satirical alley.

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17. Drive (2011) – Nicolas Winding Refn’s breakout picture has endured endless cycles of backlash, then backlash to the backlash, for almost a decade now. I don’t much care for what “the important people” online think about Refn’s loose adaptation of Walter Hill’s The Driver, I just know what I like. And I still like this, for all its pretentiousness and weird detours. Make fun of people wearing the scorpion jacket online all you want, the movie still rules.

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16. Before Midnight (2013) – The finale to a trilogy spanning three decades is also the best entry in three incredible achievements. The fact that Richard Linklater assembled roughly six hours of people walking and talking, and pulled us into this summative picture so deftly, is a true testament to his ability to find fascinating points of discussion all around us, in every aspect of our lives. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy feel like this married couple, through and through.

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15. Arrival (2016) – It was a busy decade for Denis Villeneuve, a new auteur breakout with an impressive stretch of films. Arrival is probably his quietest film, but it’s also powerful and moving to levels I never expected an alien-invasion film to be able to reach. Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner are sturdy hands at the wheel, and the final moments are transcendent.

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14. Ford v Ferrari (2019) – James Mangold’s ultimate dad movie is a throwback to an era not long ago: the 90s. These kind of men-doing-car-things movies used to have their place in Hollywood, in the last fruitful decade, and maybe the incredible effort from Mangold, Christian Bale, Matt Damon, and a superb ensemble will prove there is room going forward. It’s certainly a great sign.

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13. Hell or High Water (2016) – This delicious Texas noir snuck up on just about everyone in 2016. The cast couldn’t be better, all the way down to the salty old waitress asking “what dontcha want.” David Mackenzie’s direction is sound, and Taylor Sheridan screenplay tapped into a certain rural American anxiety in 2016, which may have been a subtle indicator as to the fate of… future events… in 2016.

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12. Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018) – There are three… THREE… incredible candidates for this list across the 2010s. Ghost Protocol is awesome, as is Rogue Nation, but perhaps a mixture of recency bias and wanting to celebrate the entire run of M:I sequels by recognizing the capstone to an incredible decade of action spectacle steered me towards Fallout. That, and the fact it’s probably the best one of the group.

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11. Annihilation (2018) – It is well known that Alex Garland took incredible liberties with his loose adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s novel; rumor is he read it once, then wrote the screenplay from memory some years later. This makes the film all that more fascinating, a blend of VanderMeer’s intent and Garland’s own kaleidoscopic brain. The collaboration works like The Shining, but with an even more terrifying humanoid bear thrown into the mix, and a hypnotic supporting turn by Jennifer Jason Leigh.

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10. The Irishman (2019) – Even though he isn’t going anywhere any time soon, Martin Scorsese’s latest – a three-and-a-half hour eulogy of the crooks and killers he gave us over the decades – feels like a farewell to a part of his professional life. The meta quality to De Niro, Pacino, Pesci, and Keitel all teaming up for one last run in a film about dying off and what sort of legacy you do or don’t leave behind is too much to deny.

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9. The Invitation (2015) – It takes a great deal for a movie to surprise me anymore, but Karyn Kusama’s intense, disarming exploration into grief and what it can do to otherwise sane people takes a dark and sinister turn with a final shot that’s an all timer. Logan Marshall-Green is revelatory in the role that showed me he was more than just a Tom Hardy clone.

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8. Sicario (2015) – Denis Villeneuve is back in the fold with what is my favorite movie in his filmography, a searing thriller that is exciting and bleak and scary and sobering, sometimes all within the same scene. Villeneuve tapped into what makes Emily Blunt such a terrific female action star, and her pushback against Brolin and del Toro is a crucial part of an all around brilliant border crime drama.

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7. Boyhood (2014) – Setting aside the mind-blowing risk of filming the same movie with the same actors over more than a decade, Richard Linklater’s epic ode to growing up is rich in details and emotions, contemplative and honest in its emotions. I never consider Richard Linklater one of my favorite directors, but here we are, discussing his third film of the decade.

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6. Interstellar (2014) – Reception to Christopher Nolan’s heady space adventure was surprisingly middling in 2014. Perhaps there are warts on Interstellar, but it really feels like you have to do a back bend to point them out. If you let this story in, it’s easily Nolan’s most emotionally devastating picture, and McConaughey is a fascinating cypher for the Brit filmmaker.

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5. A Quiet Place (2018) – John Krasinski’s directorial debut benefited from having his wife, the amazing and versatile Emily Blunt, on board. Beyond the peak tension and suspense, this is a film about a family, any family, thrown into the most extreme of circumstances, and it never loses sight of the familial drama that makes the film more than what it could have been in lesser hands.

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4. A Star is Born (2018) – This is easily my most unexpected entry on the entire list, at least it was before I saw Bradley Cooper’s sublime remake of one of the most familiar stories in Hollywood. It’s a stunning film, the fact that it even exists and is executed with such perfection is unlikely. Emotional, exciting, funny, and ultimately sad, this was the biggest eye-opening cinematic experience of the decade.

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3. The Social Network (2010) – The best movie of the decade almost came out right off the top. David Fincher’s dead-serious examination into the egos that fueled the earliest days of Facebook and social media is perfect craftsmanship. It just so happens to be paired with a story of a total scumbag cyborg human who create a cultural mess with a website people can’t seem to shake. More fascinating now that it was then, and the performances are still top tier.

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2. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019) – Claim recency bias, that’s fine, but in two more decades I seriously doubt my position will change on Tarantino’s love letter to late-’60s Hollywood. Brad Pitt and Leo DiCaprio are sublime, two best friends whose relationship somehow feels authentic from the moment they appear. This is a dream of a film, one with an happier ending than the reality in which it was initially placed. Brandy is a good puppy dog.

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1. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) – This was never supposed to work. George Miller hadn’t been to the world of Max Rockatansky in thirty years, and the last visit was a Tina Turner-infused mess. Production on the new one seemed troubled from the start, it went on for ages, all signs pointing towards disaster. But then, George Miller pulled off the rarest of Hollywood miracles, because when all the bad buzz and feuds and delays were over, he’d made a modern masterpiece.

 

 

 

 

My 10 Favorite Movies of 2019

Recency bias is a tough firewall to fight through, but even if you keep your wits about you when digesting the year that was 2019, curbing your desire to be superlative about things you’ve just seen, it sure seems like this is a special year and a capstone on a strange, transitional decade of film. It feels like the perfect end-of-a-decade year, like ’89 and ’99, specifically. Big movies wobbled, adult movies surged, and it appears some sense of balance may be returning to the theaters as the Avengers and the Skywalker’s exit stage left… for a little while, anyway. It’s not all doom and gloom, especially when I consider my ten favorite movies of the year and have to make some tough cuts. A lot of years, especially recent years, getting to ten has been a chore. 2019, however, seems to have just about anything for anyone; here are my ten favorites…


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10. Ad Astra – Sad Brad Ad Astra may not be able to pull itself free of James Gray’s dour tone, but it has a tremendous amount going for it. Brad Pitt’s performance is, honestly, more than just looking downtrodden; his son-of-a-legend, Roy McBride, is barely keeping it together. His father, H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), left him behind, and pursued intelligent life beyond Neptune, and it clearly isn’t setting well with him. The business of Roy’s journey from the commercialized moon to the eerily occupied Mars is hypnotic, and the best part of the film.

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9Richard Jewell – Once again, Clint Eastwood has expertly snuck openhearted empathy into his story of a common citizen under threat of authoritative power. This time, it’s Paul Walter Hauser playing Eastwood’s unlikely hero, a law enforcement bootlicker we all recognize from times in our own life. The difference here is, Hauser and Eastwood work hard to earn Jewell’s sympathy, and it works in a film that is frustrating and emotionally upsetting from start to finish.

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8. The Lighthouse – Dirty and messy and short and noisy, Robert Eggers’ follow up to The Witch is another period specific journey into hell. Eggers whips up a Herman Melville fever dream swirling around our two stars (and the only people in the movie) Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe, the latter of whom totally disappears into the role so deftly you almost feel as if the actor himself was left stranded in a lighthouse at the edge of the world for three months leading up to filming.

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7. Dragged Across Concrete – S. Craig Zahler’s provocative cop noir has much to say, and says it at its own pace. Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn are perfectly paired as a couple of detectives who find themselves suspended after a video of them roughing up a suspect goes viral. They decide, then, to track down some illegal funds from a criminal enterprise and make up for their lost wages. Of course, things go oh-so-very wrong, but they go wrong in that sick and twisted Zahler way, with rich dialogue and shocking moments of violence.

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6. Parasite – So many films aspire to be what Parasite truly is, which is a film that totally changes pace, tone, and arguably changes genre on the audience right in the middle, upending everything and starting anew. Any general description of the film cannot prepare an audience for the twists and turns that lie within. It’s the most surprising film of the year, one of the best, and should be recognized as such this spring.

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5. Uncut Gems – The Safdie Brothers have officially become the fresh new Big Apple Auteurs with Uncut Gems. Much like Parasite, The Safdie’s film keeps the audience off balance, never able to predict the direction it’s going, or why.  Daniel Lopatin’s score, a mixture of melodic and low-buzzing techno, is serene, and as good as Adam Sandler is as the shifty jeweler Howard, Julia Fox is better. She deserves a supporting actress nomination as Howard’s devoted and disarmingly intelligent Julia.

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4. The Irishman – It seems that Martin Scorsese’s entire career – or perhaps more specifically his career of directing gangster stories – had led to this. The Irishman captures an epic scope, but tells a devastatingly human tale of obligations on a much smaller scale, and the meta quality of these acting legends all joining forces – probably for one last time – cannot be overlooked. De Niro and Pacino are brilliant, but Joe Pesci’s quiet turn as Russell Bufalino is a complete about face from everything he’s done with Scorsese in the past, and it should be recognized as one of the best performances of the year.

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3. Her Smell – I didn’t expect much of anything when I sat down to watch Elisabeth Moss in Alex Ross Perry’s intimate, structured look at the evolution of a troubled rock star. Two plus hours later, I think I finally blinked. Elisabeth Moss is transcendent as Becky Something, in a role that should, one day, in a fair and just world, become a grunge pop icon among certain circles. From exhaustive to upsetting, to eventually hopeful yet hesitant, every emotion has its chance to shine through in Moss’s dominant performance.

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2. Ford v Ferrari – Yes, it is a dad movie, so I’m predisposed to fall in love with the pure mid-century American nostalgia that is coursing through the very alive, very thrilling veins of James Mangold Hollywood throwback. Both Damon and Bale are so great, you take them for granted, and you’re swept up into the propulsive action from the opening shot. Beyond our two very strong leads, though, is easily the second best supporting cast of the year, with stellar turns from Tracy Letts as Henry Ford (Just the second), Jon Bernthal as Lee Iacocca, and Caitriona Balfe breaking up the boys club marvelously as the strong Mollie Miles.

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1. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood – We begin and end with Pitt. When I walked out of the theater in late July, I knew no matter what came out down the road, it wouldn’t top Quentin Tarantino’s revisionist ode to late ’60s Tinseltown. It’s a lived in movie, a “love letter” for lack of a better term; but Tarantino is more equipped to pen this letter for this era than just about any filmmaker out there with the desire to reach back into their childhood and honor the cinema and television that shaped their lives. Pitt and DiCaprio are special, and everyone in this endless roster of talents old and new is absolutely in sync with the special, textured world of Tarantino’s world. It’s a landmark achievement.

Goodbye Stranger: MAGNOLIA at 20

“I know this sounds silly… like this is the scene in the movie where the guy’s trying to get ahold of the long-lost son, you know… but this is that scene. And I think they have those scenes in movies because they’re true, you know? Because they really happen. See, this is the scene in the movie where you help me out.” 

                                             – Phil Parma

Magnolia begins as if it were shot out of a cannon. The three outlandish historical accounts spill right over into a rolling montage, set to Aimee Mann’s melancholy rendition of “One,” where we meet all of our players in varying degrees of distress or confidence. The busy mind of a then 30-years young Paul Thomas Anderson explodes into a symphony of sadness, regret, and an exploration into the damage fathers can cause on their children. It’s all very heavy, and immediate, but once the story settles in, and despite its continuous messy tangents into the surreal, Anderson’s follow up to his flashy porn opus Boogie Nights is an energetic look at heartbreak in all its forms, and one that caught me at the right place in my own life.

Time has lessened the impact of Anderson’s three-hour tour of the outskirts of Los Angeles, maybe just a little. Cracks have begun to show… it happens… and the narrative goes for the big reaction at times when a subtler provocation would do; Anderson would probably be the first to tell you Magnolia would be an entirely different movie if he made it now, pushing fifty, but witnessing this idiosyncratic journey into emotional depths unknown, watching in amazement as frogs rained down from the sky, there was no other film from that magical year of 1999 that stirred my soul the same way.

It’s difficult to list or rank any of the performances, because whenever any of the characters are on the screen you’re easily convinced it is them who is the best part of the picture, even if their story has been collecting warts these last two decades. There is John C. Reilly, one of the moral centers of the film, as the just-okay cop with a gaping hole in his heart; there is Claudia (played with an aching, angry sadness by Melora Walters), the troubled daughter of game-show legend Jimmy Gator (Phillip Baker Hall), a scumbag celebrity host trying to right the wrongs in his life after a terminal cancer diagnosis; there is Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman), the genius kid contestant on Gator’s What Do Kids Know? program, and his terrible exploitative father (Michael Bowen); preceding Stanley in the game show’s lore was “Quiz Kid” Donnie Smith, who took the game by storm as a kid before also being exploited by his parents, losing his fortune, being struck by lightning, and falling into a pit of personal despair as an adult. Donnie Smith has become a hapless loser now, an alcoholic teeming over with love to give, played by William H. Macy in an intentionally bad dye job and red glasses.

These are the stories swirling all around us in Magnolia, and each of these peripheral tales have their moments, but these sections are also where the film shows its age. So much of Macy’s story is meandering and driven by raw emotion that the scenes inside the bar sometimes lose focus. Reilly and Walters’ calmer scenes together are quite touching, but the investigation Reilly’s Jim Curran takes on – and the subsequent gun loss – never really worked from the start.

Where Magnolia still retains its impact after all these years, where it makes up for all the youthful misgivings, is in (arguably) the central plot, involving TV icon Earl Partridge (Jason Robards), a man in his very last moments of life, his unhinged younger (former trophy) wife, Lily, played by Julianne Moore as a desperately regretful harlot too deep in the throes of pill addiction to fix her clouded mind, and Phil Parma, his nurse, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in the film’s most touching and humane performance. Hoffman’s Phil Parma is tasked with locating Earl’s estranged son, Frank, who became Frank “T.J.” Mackey, a misogynistic self-help guru for lonely men.

Tom Cruise plays Frank Mackey as a hardened, sexist shell of a human being whose teenage trauma has informed the rest of his cynical existence, the long flowing locks exposing a feminine side he’s always resented. Only gradually, through interview scenes with a plucky female reporter, do we see the layers of confidence stripped away from Frank, piece by agonizing piece. It’s incredible to see him shrink and wilt throughout the picture. 1999 was quite a year for Cruise; he released two features in ’99, this and Eyes Wide Shut, and both deconstructed the superstar’s heroic persona that had helped him define an entire decade of cinema. The nineties belonged to Cruise, and here he was, tearing all that machismo apart with wonderful complexity and depth. It’s a remarkably vulnerable performance, unlike anything we would ever see again from Cruise, and it should have culminated in an Oscar victory.

The frogs. The frogs still work, and the event was one of the more stunning left turns in cinematic history at the time. After almost three hours of watching these hopeless, lost souls careen off one another over the span of one long Los Angeles day, everything everywhere stops. It’s a moment of confusion and bewilderment, but it’s an event that seems to allow us – and the characters – to add perspective to the situation in which they find themselves. It’s a hard reset, a bombastic move from a young filmmaker with final cut and so much love and energy bottled up inside him he couldn’t help but pour it all out into his LA opus.

Critics mostly adored Magnolia when it hit theaters, though general audiences were scratching their heads about the frogs in the final act, as well as everyone in the cast pausing inside their respective stories to sing along with Aimee Mann’s Oscar-nominated song, “Save Me.” The singing scene is a powerful moment of respite amid the chaos of these people lives, a unifying voice of reason, albeit fleeting. Anderson’s bombastic choices don’t feel as absurd in our postmodern world, but in the final days of the 20th century they were fresh and exciting for some, confusing and alienating for others.

With the help of overseas box office numbers and the momentum generated by Boogie Nights, Anderson’s picture gathered almost $50 million against a $37 million budget as it finished out the year and the decade. Mann’s song, Cruise, and Anderson’s original screenplay were all nominated for Academy Awards, though none would win.

Sometimes, it’s the flawed movies that make an impact on us most. Not because they are “Perfect” or timeless, not because they are a certain filmmaker’s bona fide masterpiece, but because they grab ahold of our emotions in a unique way, and they linger in our mind for some time after. Or maybe they even help us; because their flaws feel like the imperfections in our own lives, and we can see through the style to the human. Magnolia touched me in 1999, as an 18-year old set loose in the world, unable to control my impulses, veering dangerously close to a path of addiction and failure. When I saw Magnolia for the first time I felt at home in the chaotic mental space of so many of these people, even though I never experienced such trauma in my own life. Nevertheless, my life felt out of control at the time, and Anderson’s film gave me an unexpected avenue for catharsis.

It’s no surprise, then, that a film about truly broken people in legitimately dangerous situations reset my brain, and helped redirect my priorities. It helped fix me. Just as Phil Parma says in the movie, “this is where you help me out,” these three hours of messy melodrama will forever stick with me, no matter how strange or clumsy it may seem in another twenty years.

Ignore The Bad Takes, Anna Paquin is a Crucial Part of THE IRISHMAN

The bigger the movie, it seems, the worse the think pieces. It certainly seems to be the case in 2019, with everyone able to voice their opinions on a film at a moment’s notice. This fall, once the (mostly positive) Tarantino discourse died down after Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, it was time for the social media hive to descend on Martin Scorsese, his thoughts on Marvel movies and the state of cinema, and his latest epic film, The Irishman. Scorsese’s latest gangster epic, a mournful meditation on death and duty, on family and business, on love and isolation, has been met with almost universal praise, save for a few complaints from philistines about the film’s 3.5 hour run time or – what is arguably the weakest, most feeble take on the peripheral elements of the picture – criticism of Anna Paquin’s role.

In The Irishman, Paquin plays Peggy Sheeran, the adult daughter of Robert De Niro’s Frank, the Irishman in question. We see Peggy through the years, at different ages, and as the film unfolds at its languid, deliberate pace, laying out all the criminal activity of its three main stars (De Niro, Joe Pesci in an absolutely remarkable, restrained performance as Russell Bufalino, and Al Pacino as the firebrand teamster leader of lore, Jimmy Hoffa), we witness Peggy, witnessing these men. Peggy has very different reactions to Russell and Hoffa, and is mostly silent as a youngster in the film. Roughly halfway through, we meet Paquin as an adult Peggy. And yes, her role is mostly silent. This is where some fools looking for clicks and not bothering to properly engage with art and what it’s trying to say decided to pounce on the Paquin role, and its very deliberate lack of dialogue.

Most of the controversy is drummed up out of bad-faith arguments, like Ira Madison, the absolute king of trash opinions based solely on wokester double talk. But the issue, that Paquin has only seven lines of dialogue, has been kicked around enough to garner responses from the likes of De Niro and a handful of major entertainment outlets, al positioning the story as if Paquin should be upset and amazingly, she is not. Writers are taking the bait, sadly giving this disingenuous discourse on one of the best films of the year more oxygen than it ever deserved.

Lucy Gallina, who plays the younger Peggy in the film, has very little dialogue and much more screen time than Paquin. It is her interpretation of the character we see giving Russell the cold shoulder and warming to Hoffa immediately. We see Peggy on the sidelines, like the wives of our trio of power-hungry killers and thieves, an afterthought for men who are so consumed by their evil work that they ignore their loved ones along the way. That’s what some may call… the point.

Seeing that Paquin has seven lines of dialogue is surprising because it feels like less. But, the trick, and part of the reason Scorsese is a master storyteller, is that with almost no dialogue he can make her moments on screen drive home the entire emotional resonance of the story. Anna Paquin was hired for her black-eyed stare, one that can go cold and cut right through even the most hardened killer. This is the stare in Paquin’s most critical moment in the film, which also happens to be the biggest catalyst for the final act. For those who haven’t seen it, I will say no more; for those who have seen it, they know exactly the moment to which I am referring, not because of anything else other than the way Paquin plays the scene.

Anna Paquin is not only great in a limited role in The Irishman, she is essential to the success of the story. Like all of the women in the lives of these cursed men, they are relegated to the background of life, a mere witness to their powerful husbands and the ruin they bring on everyone in their lives. They are important because they are portrayed as precisely not important. the very point of their roles is to seem marginalized, so when they do speak up against the patriarchal poison, their words matter. Seeing Paquin’s face go cold and ask a simple question of her father, “why?”, packs more of a punch than any Danial Day-Lewis monologue. This is a deliberate criticism of the corrupted men in this world, and a harsher criticism of their sordid lives than any murder scene could convey.

Once again, however, a minimal facet of The Internet reacts in bad faith to something permeating the culture, and stirs up idiotic talking points to try and create controversy from nothing. Anyone who has ever seen a film, or a television show, or a play, or understands the basics of dramatic storytelling, could likely figure out Scorsese’s intention with the Peggy character. Unfortunately, showing off your depth of intelligence on a subject isn’t as important as getting the woke points. And yet, even pausing for a moment to consider that side of the argument, it doesn’t hold water either. You are defending Paquin against evil patriarch Scorsese because she doesn’t have any lines? That seems to be minimizing the work she’s doing in the role, as if she only has value if she speaks, and her physical performance isn’t good enough for YOU to understand.

Perhaps the culture warriors should take a page from Steven Zaillian’s brilliant screenplay and cut their own dialogue; let the rest of us engage with art in an honest way, and stop cluttering up the discourse with useless garbage.