Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover: In 2019 I made 28 trips to the theater to see films made that same year. In Part 1 we ranked the majority from pretty-keen to The Worst. And now, the countdown concludes with the ten most relatively awesome:
10. The Lighthouse. The latest period-piece nightmare with assiduously antique dialogue from The Witch writer/director Robert Eggers is a black-and-white deathmatch between polar opposites, each in top fighting form. In this corner, upstart lightkeeper Robert Pattinson needs his new job as an escape from his murky past; in the other corner, Willem Dafoe is a crusty curmudgeon with no patience or mercy for any uppity novice unfit to call themselves a real lighthouse fan. If Moby Dick were 700 pages shorter, kept the man-vs.-nature theme, and replaced the whale with a million-watt halogen bulb, it still wouldn’t be anywhere near this traumatizing, as seaside duels-to-the-death go.
9. The Farewell. Comedy Central has been airing nonstop promos for Awkwafina’s upcoming sitcom Nora from Queens, really jarring to watch after her more complicated turn in Lulu Wang’s humorous, heart-filled tale of a well-intentioned family conspiracy to give their terminally ill matriarch the best final days possible without actually telling her she’s dying. Awkwafina believably captures the inner turmoil of a 21st-century young lady who’s not entirely on board with this old Chinese custom but also doesn’t want Grandma’s final days filled with time-wasting drama…so it’s a good thing Grandma is an unstoppable force of nature who never sits still and keeps everyone else too busy for pre-mourning. I’d be happy to see more stories from this clashing clan, though I’m a lot less interested in the sitcom with a wacky brother whose screech of “Gooood-BYYY-YYYY!” made for one of the worst TV ads of 2019.
8. Godzilla: King of the Monsters. Our family rarely pays for optional screen upgrades such as 3-D, IMAX, fake IMAX, or the Dolby Cinema at AMC, but my son and I couldn’t resist hitting up the latter for American Hollywood’s latest attempt at recreating Toho kaiju magic. Even without the slightly larger screen and speakers that turned up to 52, director Mike Dougherty apparently had a total “eureka” moment and decided, what if the human roles weren’t all featureless stick figures? What if some of the one-liners weren’t painful? What if we cared about a human or two or once? And, equally importantly, what if we decided not to save everything for some hypothetical sequels and went for all-out senses-shattering MONSTERS FIGHT insanity right here and now as if this were the grand finale of American Godzilla films? Only two of this year’s 28 films made me feel like a mind-blown 12-year-old again, and this was overwhelmingly one of them.
7. The Dead Don’t Die. I’ve been reading enticing reviews of Jim Jarmusch films for years but never had one cross my path until this, his deadpan lark of a zombie apocalypse that aptly portrays humanity’s collective poor reflexes, our shoddy problem-solving skills, our denial of imminent calamities until and unless they’re specifically murdering us to our faces, and the likelihood that the best and brightest among us — the truly gifted, not the Dunning-Kruger sufferers — would likely save themselves and abandon the rest without looking back. A fine vehicle for the nonchalant Bill Murray, beguiling Tilda Swinton eccentric #126, and one of the year’s sixty-seven best Adam Driver performances. After catching this in the theater, I’ve since watched Down by Law and Night on Earth, and am making a point of letting more Jarmusch into my life as soon as possible.
6. Parasite. Bong Joon-Ho’s multi-faceted satire of class warfare hits 100-point bullseyes in every direction and refuses to settle for tired generalizations — the rich aren’t evil, the poor aren’t saintly, and sometimes the differences are more about wants than about “needs”. Theirs is not a merely two-sided war, nor do the results declare a simplistic victory. Parasite has made such a powerful showing on multiple critics’ year-end lists that I’d burst with cheer to see it nominated for more Oscars than simply Best Foreign Language Film…and yet I knocked it down several pegs on my own list because compared to past Joon-Ho winners like The Host, Snowpiercer, and Okja, it’s arguably more “mature” and rather less gonzo than I’d come to expect from him. He got an A without trying, but I’m disappointed he didn’t go for extra credit, which is usually his thing.
5. Avengers: Endgame. In an industry where the average movie series can’t manage more than two installments without meddlesome studio execs injecting their egos into the mix and poisoning everything, reigning producer Kevin Feige convinced several cooperative directors to forgo personal style for the sake of sustaining a 22-part epic with only a few major missteps and a three-hour climax that was the payoff to end all payoffs. I’m opposed on principle to unconditionally endorsing any cinematic adoption of the excesses that have ruined most of Marvel’s current comic-book universe for me — i.e., the shameless marketing tactics that lessen enjoyment for any reader who sets money away for other companies and doesn’t consume ALL the Marvel products — and yet I can’t deny it’s been twelve-years of super fun super-heroics that should never have worked this well in their singular forays, let alone together as a cohesive whole. It won’t age well and will be unwatchable to future generations who don’t feel like sitting through the first 21 parts beforehand, but here in this very moment in time, it was supremely keen for what it was.
4. Jojo Rabbit. Taika Waititi. Anti-Nazi. Satire. They won me on the strength of all three of those categories. Many had their inarguable reasons for not feeling the same, and Waititi’s big farce wasn’t exactly a stickler for historical accuracy, but his daydream of what life might’ve been like for a Nazi fanboy in the Hitler Youth surgically skewers the mindsets of unquestioning dwellers in today’s fringe cliques, while at the same time clinging to an optimistic hope that they can be led back to reality and decency by shattering the faith in their false idols and leading them toward brighter lights in other directions.
3. Spider-Man: Far from Home. My favorite superhero film of 2019, the best Tom Holland outing yet, the other 2019 film that made me feel 12 again, and possibly my new favorite Spidey film, though I’ll have to see it again someday to confirm if it truly unseats Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2. Not only does it recapture all the classic tropes and motifs of the Spider-comics from my Spidey-reading heyday — the teen interplay, bouncy repartee, changing relationships, awkward moments, supporting cast’s secret pains, Peter Parker’s dumb excuses for going MIA — but director Jon Watts somehow got away with introducing the MCU’s most subversive villain yet: Jake Gyllenhaal’s bitter Mysterio, whose entire modus operandi is that of an overblown summer action blockbuster filmmaker. It’s like the Big Bad is literally an expensive Disney movie, and the only way Our Hero can win is by keeping it real.
2. Little Women. The Lady Bird team of writer/director Greta Gerwig and invaluable editor Nick Houy — along with some of the same cast — reunite to bring Louisa May Alcott’s classic back to big screens for the first time this millennium. They restructured Book 2 so that it foreshadows Book 1 with additional resonance, and gave the March sisters who aren’t Jo more time to inhabit their roles and seek their fates. Beyond the original themes of gender and class expectations (and defiance of same), more heft is given to their quests for excellence in art, to varying degrees of self-satisfaction. If you’re not the best there is at what you do, is your talent worth using? Will our talents outlive us when we die? Is it better to create what we think will sell or to create what our heart can most powerfully express? Once the two history tracks had wound down and the delightfully meta ending let every audience play Choose Your Own Adventure, I found myself with much to think about in my own forms of personal expression. Not just “Why do I do what I do, and should I keep doing it?” but also “Can I read some cynical internet user call this upbeat, encouraging film ‘saccharine’ one more blasted time without my head exploding?” I have my own jaded responses to pop culture at times, but Little Women wasn’t one of my instigators. At all.
1. Knives Out. If the big screen in this millennium has hosted a previous original, fully qualifying, eminently pleasing whodunit that was not adapted from a celebrated novel by an author who already did all the structural legwork, I’m unaware of it. After some noticed dalliances in other people’s toy boxes, Rian Johnson returned to his own drawing room to assemble a crackerjack mystery with an all-star cast (in the best complimentary way, not in the old “variety show full of has-beens” way), a beautifully designed mansion, characters ripped from today’s world for better or worse, an adroit touch of topical morality vis a vis spoiled aristocrats who see money as an inalienable right, and a bevy of clues and details that all mean something, all matter, and all get addressed by the very end in the best series of payoffs since Endgame. The deceptive, unconventional structure was irksome to a viewer rolling their eyes that of course Johnson was once again flipping tropes, but by the conclusion everything tied together so neatly that it was thrilling to see him refusing to play the audience’s game and proving why his rule-bending made for a much more invigorating narrative experience. Also, the sight of charming southern gentleman Daniel Craig singing along to Stephen Sondheim on earbuds was the pick-me-up we all needed at the end of 2019.
…and that was my 2019 at the movies. Check back with us in the months ahead and see how many times I can be cajoled out of my comfy living room for two hours of cinematic splendor out in the wild with other humans!