The Two Popes
20 to watch for Oscar 2020
THE X-PAT FILES - Scott Garceau (The Philippine Star) - January 5, 2020 - 12:00am

We like to think that movies reflect our social mood, and if so, 2019 saw reflections on marriages coming apart, social classes at war, people going into space (or into remote lighthouses) to escape the world, or simply flipping their wigs. Just like real life, the movies of 2019 were immersed in estrangement and nostalgia, regrets and hopes… and just a little craziness. 

Here are some of the best and more interesting movies of 2019.

20 Transit. German director Christian Petzgold revisits WWII Paris occupation, though setting his crafty tale in modern-day Paris, where Jewish Franz Rogowski tries — and tries, and tries, and tries — to get the necessary paperwork to flee the Nazis (confusingly dwelling in a modern setting), while inextricably drawn to the past and his current location. Touches of Casablanca, Antonioni’s The Passenger and Franz Kafka abound.

19 I Lost My Body. With a story by Amelie co-writer Guillaume Laurant, Jérémy Clapin directs his animated existential horror tale in parallel views: a disembodied hand getting loose from a medical lab and tracking across Paris, while the events leading us here unfold through the travails of young pizza delivery boy Naoufel (voiced by Dev Patel in the English version). He meets a girl, naturally, and while the plot is a cautionary tale about observing safety around power tools, it works in the kind of nostalgic French imagery that made Amelie unique along with rather disturbing scenes of a hand fighting off subway rats, all in the service of finding your way in the world. Shown on Netflix.

18 High Life. Space convict Robert Pattinson grapples with the medical experiments of fertility doctor Juliette Binoche in Claire Denis’ deep-space sci-fi. Philosophical musings and social class warfare play out in a strangely barren world where lower-level passion may hold the key to humanity’s future.

17 Jojo Rabbit. Taika Waititi’s Wes Anderson-like take on Hitler Youth Camps during WWII is certainly audacious, with bright performances from Roman Griffin Davis as young Jojo, Thomasin McKenzie as a Jewish hideaway, Scarlett Johansson as a progressive mom in Nazi Germany and director Watiti himself as “imaginary friend” Adolf Hitler. But it suffers from tonal imbalance, clumsily juggling Waititi’s goofy humor with the more serious horrors enveloping them, and never really recovers, despite German versions of The Beatles’ I Want to Hold Your Hand and Bowie’s Heroes bracketing the soundtrack.

16 Pain and Glory (director: Pedro Almodovar). This is a placeholder spot for what is, no doubt, going to end up an Oscar Best Foreign Film finalist. Haven’t seen it yet, unfortunately. Waiting for an official screening.

15 Little Women. Same with Greta Gerwig’s umpteenth remake of the Louisa May Alcott novel set in 1800s New England. Sure to be among the “Best Film” finalists, it stars Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Timothée Chalamet and Meryl Streep. We shall patiently await an official screening.

14 Us. Jordan Peele revisits the horror genre to unearth dozens of familiar tropes — family invasion, zombies, cannibals and crazed cult killers — that he neglected to target in Get Out. The overall theme is the underclass and its relentless tap-tap-tapping on society’s moral nervous system, and as a metaphor, it’s pretty on the nose. But it’s gripping and, visually, creepy as hell.

13 Midsommar. Ari Aster’s follow-up nightmare to Hereditary takes newcomer Florence Pugh to faraway Hälsingland, Sweden, where she and college pals end up drugged to the gills andrawn into a cult-like pagan society. It’s nightmarish at times, obsessed with exoticism (those weird symbols!) and deeply drawn to the mysteries of private communities, haunting us in the way that Rosemary’s Baby or The Wicker Man once did.

Uncut Gems

12 Uncut Gems. Like Joker, Josh and Benny Safdie’s Brooklyn gem caper is held together by a nervy, live-wire performance, this time by SNL comic and fart-joke expert Adam Sandler playing a Manhattan gems dealer who just can’t seem to put a big score together to save his life. Like Joker, it relies on an annoying, braying performance to draw us into its intricate hustle, but the Safdies trick us into a dream of redemption, all along showing us how irrational, chaotic, and unexpectedly brief life can be.

11 Knives Out. Rian Johnson also explores the social classes at war in an Agatha Christie pastiche that stars Daniel Craig as a self-amused private detective in the deep south and a quietly steely Ana de Armas as the maid who might have an idea who done in successful mystery writer Christopher Plummer after he threatened to cut off his lazy, avaricious family from the estate. Lots of clever dialogue and more than a few hints of Trump-era observations make this a highly entertaining topical pleasure, if not a classic for the ages.

10 Apollo 11. On the 50th anniversary of the US moon landing in 1969, NASA released hours of unseen 65-millimeter footage to director Todd Douglas Miller, and he crafted an epic that simply puts us on the Cape Kennedy launching pad, deep into space, then to the surface of the moon with minimal voiceovers or even dialogue. Think of it as 2001: A Space Odyssey where everything goes miraculously right, instead of terribly wrong. In the process the images are awe-inspiring, the picture of humankind’s plucky desire to reach the heavens largely shielded from critique or rebuttal, and therefore magnificently impressive.

Ad Astra

9 Ad Astra. Brad Pitt is lost in space, trying to find his father and a connection to his home planet in James Gray’s allegorical trip that doubles as a therapy session. (Therapy was very much in this year; see Marriage Story.) Despite its jaw-dropping visuals, some found its meditative pace slow; but take a deep breath and it’s a fairly straightforward message about the perils of going it alone in life.

The Lighthouse

8 The Lighthouse. Director Robert Eggers loves putting people into remote places and watching them lose their shit. See his earlier The Witch for evidence that we have met the enemy, and it is us. Here, Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson compete to see who can go crazier faster in a tight space. Shot in square ratio on a remote Nova Scotia island for maximum tension, it’s a two-hander that relies on its unusual focus on language (Dafoe’s lengthy screeds are a gas) and Pattinson’s dead-eyed gaze into the abyss to carry us through to a nightmare confrontation.

7 Joker. Under director Todd Phillips, Joker goes for a gritty ’80s Manhattan feel and relies on a character who is repellent yet sympathetic to hold our interest. Joaquin Phoenix nearly does the impossible: pushing us away and drawing us in with a sinewy, serpentine performance that somehow never really gets beneath the skin of the DC arch-villain; yet it does service the comics fans who can’t seem to get enough of this guy’s back story. Its dark tone seeks to mesmerize, but audience reactions, as with most things these days, are strictly divided. 

6 The Two Popes. One pope likes ABBA. The other likes classical piano and Austrian TV shows about dogs. The wacky combo of Pope Benedict and Pope Francis — in the hands of actors Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce — is all that’s needed to make this Netflix film an enjoyable ride. Sometimes touching in their trivial exchanges, though often at odds about the nature of the Church, God, and yes, pop music, abdicating Pope Benedict and incoming Pope Francis grapple with their own complicated back stories (though much less light is shone on Benedict’s past). Director Fernando Meirelles (City of God) keeps the camera tight, and we just explore the mysteries through these two actors’ wizened faces.

Ford v. Ferrari

5 Ford v. Ferrari. James Mangold directs a bromance between Matt Damon and Christian Bale, as (respectively) car engineer Carroll Shelby and British driver Ken Miles, bent on building a car for Ford Motor Company that can beat Ferrari’s team at the 24 Hours of Le Mans race in France. Excellent racing action and understated (for him) work by Bale overcome an absence of meditative depth; rather, we are swept up in old-fashioned, effective moviemaking to tell the tale of underdogs deploying gut feel and ingenuity to build a better machine.

Marriage Story

4 Marriage Story. Netflix continues to show its advantage over big Hollywood studios by funding Oscar-bait end-runs like this Noah Baumbach dissection of a divorce starring Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson. Both are excellent in different ways in a semi-autobiographical tale by Baumbach that shows just how difficult it is for a couple to grow apart, rip themselves apart through lawyers, yet still retain a shred of friendship after it all. Some of the best, clearest storytelling from Baumbach in years, devastating acting by both principals, with special nods to Laura Dern and Alan Alda as competing lawyers. Turns out Neil Sedaka was right: breaking up is hard to do.

Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood

3 Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. Auteur Quentin Tarantino may take flak from some, but he definitely shows no signs of swerving from his own vision in this shaggy-dog story set in late-‘60s Hollywood. Starring Leonardo Di Caprio and Brad Pitt as second-tier industry types who are trying to hang on before sunset descends, it crash-bangs into the Manson Family while dwelling on a Princess in her Castle (Sharon Tate, played just right by Margot Robbie) who is inadvertently rescued by two princes (despite their respective chemical impairments). Mostly it’s a long, wistful and not unmoving sigh over the loss of many things — the shift from Old Hollywood to New Hollywood, as well as from innocence to a ’70s cynicism — wrapped up in third act explosion of revenge revisionism, the likes of which Tarantino has been dead-set on examining in his last four movies. Will it be a horror movie next for Quentin? And what historical space will he reimagine for that one?

The Irishman

2 The Irishman. As mentioned, Netflix is on a roll. After Roma’s Oscar win last year, they’ve bankrolled prestige projects like this lengthy historical gangster pic from Martin Scorsese that reunites Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci, plus brings Al Pacino into the bargain. Your mind nearly melts down, trying to cope with all the seasoned acting here in a Scorsese epic that’s also wistful, mournful and elegiac. De Niro is masterfully restrained, even in CGI throwback version, allowing a wealth of moral ambiguity to just pour through his facial expressions; Pesci is a reborn revelation, dialing down his patented craziness to explore a deadly father figure; and Pacino, at first a little lost at sea, quickly digs down deep into his Jimmy Hoffa, painting a character who’s simultaneously the crazy wild card, and the sympathetic Teamster leader who just really likes ice cream.

Parasite

1 Parasite. Sight unseen, there’s just no way you can predict how the light humor opening Bong Joon-Ho’s latest — a lowly South Korean family trying to leech Wi-Fi from their neighbors — will eventually end up in bloody mayhem. It develops into a devastating commentary on social classes in South Korea and a reflection on our world order, yet never wears its messages on placards. Rather, the way of the world is reflected in matter-of-fact dialogue between wily family members trying to get a leg up in the world. In this way, Parasite transcends easy categories such as “social horror” (the name thrown at movies like Get Out or Us that deliver social critique within a scary package), comedy, tragedy or even “foreign film.” It might be the one that crosses over to bag the Oscar Best Picture trophy. Director Bong Joon-Ho has explored family dynamics in The Host, but Parasite is a master class in how to walk the tightrope between — on one side — humor, warmth, sympathy, and — on the other — disgust, outrage and heart-stopping horror. Bravo.

CHRISTIAN PETZGOLD FRANZ KAFKA
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