The Oscars are this Sunday. This is my traditional pre-Oscars post, and also my best of 2019 post. So there will be a high volume of opinions, recommendations and review links in this one.
Once again I saw all the best picture nominees. They were all things I had already seen or was planning to see, so they didn’t broaden my horizons at all. No homework necessary. I reviewed all of them:
I think this is a better than average batch, with almost none that could be considered “Oscar bait.” Many years there’s a nominee I hate (VICE, BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY) or I think is way too mediocre and bland to belong in there (DARKEST HOUR), and sometimes most people disagree with me and those end up winning (ARGO, SPOTLIGHT, THE KING’S SPEECH). This year there are enough truly great ones that I have a hard time ranking them (maybe something like ONCE UPON A TIME …IN HOLLYWOOD, PARASITE, JOJO RABBIT, LITTLE WOMEN, THE IRISHMAN and MARRIAGE STORY for the top slots), and the only one I kind of dislike (JOKER) is at least a well-made and unusual movie.
I predicted months ago that ONCE UPON A TIME… would win, for the following reasons:
1. It’s the movie I’ve heard the most people from a variety of backgrounds and age groups talk excitedly about.
2. It’s about the film industry and Hollywood, and you know how they love that shit.
3. It’s also a period piece, they love that shit too. Nostalgia and what not. The ‘60s, even!
4. It’s a well received and less divisive than usual movie from a great director who has never won the top awards and may only have one more opportunity if he really retires soon.
But things don’t seem to be going in that direction. Conventional wisdom points toward 1917. Its qualifications seem to me purely technical. It strikes me that THE REVENANT was a recent, better version of the immersive-long-take-historical-drama type movie, and it didn’t win. Although I liked 1917 I will be a little disappointed if it wins, because while best picture is rarely the best movie of the year it does often point toward what is going on in the world at the time or what the film industry considers important. To me it doesn’t seem like this one does much new artistically or in its statements about war, and I don’t see anything about it that applies specifically to the state of war today.
PARASITE is the choice that would say the most about the world of 2020, both because of its class themes and because it’s new for a South Korean film to have such impact internationally. I may be naive, but I see dark horse potential there. It’s the movie that most shares criteria #1 with ONCE UPON A TIME, but I initially discounted that because a foreign language film has never won best picture before. The reason I’m starting to think it’s possible is because it won the top prizes from the editor’s guild and the actor’s guild. Imagine that – Hollywood actors chose this ensemble over the incredible one playing Hollywood actors. That says something.
My friend Kevin Clarke from the podcast The Suspense Is Killing Us has theorized that the perfectly fine and unobjectionable FORD V FERRARI could actually win by being, like, everybody’s third choice. It would be weird and undeserving but I think the theory is sound and I have heard zero other people say that so I want to put it on the record for him here.
Some people who know this stuff better than me seem to consider JOKER at least a little bit of a contender. Its inclusion here is a mystery to me because it’s not great or mediocre, not universally acclaimed but definitely not something that should appeal to the infamous older voters, because it’s an ugly, fucked up movie. About a comic book character. I hope it doesn’t win, but if it does that will at least say something in a meta way about the world today. If you accept it as a sincere statement about discontent, apparently the only way we have to express that today is by remixing similar statements from the ’70s into the format of corporate owned comic book characters. That’s something.
I’m not very invested in who wins most of the categories, and haven’t seen quite a few of the nominated performances. I don’t have a problem with Joaquin Phoenix’s probable win for best actor, though it’s weird that there will be two people that won Oscars for playing versions of the Joker (and neither of them were Jack Nicholson!) He does do something unique with the role and has been giving very good, heartfelt speeches as he’s collected the other awards.
Something always bothered me about Renee Zelweger back in the day when she would collect all those awards and pretend to be so shocked every time. But maybe that was unfair, and I think she was doing Weinstein movies, so who knows what hell she was going through. Anyway, I watched JUDY last night and I don’t got a problem with her winning. It’s better than I thought it would be and her performance has a hamminess that’s appropriate to who she’s playing. But I reserve the right to laugh about her current don’t mind me I’m just a down home cowgirl, y’all, just like I always was, remember? shtick.
Brad Pitt seems to be the favorite to win supporting actor, which I like just because he’s so fuckin cool as Cliff Booth. But I kinda think Joe Pesci deserves it more for his uncharacteristically calm performance in THE IRISHMAN.
I guess Laura Dern is the favorite for supporting actress? I’d love to see it go to Scarlett Johansson – her whole role in JOJO RABBIT is incredible, but in particular the scene where her character performs a scene playing two different characters. Florence Pugh would also be very worthy for LITTLE WOMEN (even if MIDSOMMAR is my favorite performance I’ve seen by her this year). Way back I was sure that Margot Robbie would get it, but not for the one she was nominated for (BOMBSHELL). I still haven’t seen that or RICHARD JEWELL.
For costume design I’m rooting for Cliff Booth’s yellow Hawaiian shirt. I wish DOLEMITE IS MY NAME had at least been nominated for this, so that we’d hear the word “Dolemite” said at the Oscars. For directing I’m rooting for not Todd Phillips. I think editing will go to PARASITE, but I wouldn’t mind THE IRISHMAN as a fuck you to people who hate long movies. Did you know they renamed best foreign film as “international feature film”? That would be funny if PARASITE didn’t win that. All bets would be off.
In the screenplay categories I just hope it’s not JOKER, on account of my belief that “what if, instead of a diabolical super-villain whose permanent clown-like appearance from a chemical accident inspires him to commit elaborate crimes with comical props and gimmicks, he’s just a sad lonely guy who murders a couple people and sometimes wears clown makeup?” is not good adaptation. I think PARASITE will win original screenplay and people will say “How do you know? Do you read Korean?” Of course it could also go to QT or even Rian Johnson.
Sometimes original screenplay goes to movies too hip for best picture (PULP FICTION, FARGO, LOST IN TRANSLATION, ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND, DJANGO UNCHAINED, HER, GET OUT) but the past decade also gave it to best picture winners GREEN BOOK, SPOTLIGHT, BIRDMAN and THE KING’S SPEECH, so it’s hard to predict.
Anyway, everybody have fun if you partake. For themed foods I recommend IRISHMAN grape-juice-dipped-bread as an appetizer. ONCE UPON A TIME …IN HOLLYWOOD margaritas, macaroni and raccoon flavored dog food for dinner. PARASITE peach cobbler for dessert.
Now to discuss MY FAVORITE MOVIES OF 2019
The Oscars did pretty good. I think ONCE UPON A TIME …IN HOLLYWOOD and PARASITE might be at the top for me, but the non-best-picture-nominee that’s definitely in the conversation is JOHN WICK CHAPTER 3 – PARABELLUM. Being a continuation of an already great series is the only thing to really disqualify it. But it was the most viscerally thrilling action movie I saw. It has that huge shootout with attack dogs. It has John Wick getting kicked in the head by a horse. It has a good cover band version of the motorcycle sword fight from THE VILLAINESS. It has a snowball fight with knives instead of snow.
A runner up that is not a sequel is DOLEMITE IS MY NAME. I probly qualify as a Rudy Ray Moore superfan, since I own a box set, saw him live twice and have an autographed Dolemite backscratcher right next to my desk here, so it was cool to see this biopic with uninitiated people who found it just as warm and hilarious and inspiring as I did. We were lucky enough to see it in the theater. but you can see it right now if you have Netflix.
Another one I’ve continued thinking about throughout the year is Zhang Yimou’s SHADOW. It’s a Chinese palace intrigue movie with a gorgeous almost-black-and-white look, some stunning martial arts sequences and a whole lot of layers of meaning to chew on. Very distinct even among Yimou’s body of work.
I’ll get the other obvious ones out of the way here. Taika Waititi’s JOJO RABBIT was my biggest cry of the year. Maybe you read my review the other day. I didn’t necessarily think a Wes-Andersony comedy about a kid realizing he doesn’t belong in the Hitler Youth was gonna be my thing, but it was.
Noah Baumbach’s MARRIAGE STORY is also outstanding. I’m not usually gonna like a straight forward relationship drama as much as I did that one. I could say something similar for LITTLE WOMEN. I did not know I was a Little Woman man. You learn something new every day.
Martin Scorsese’s THE IRISHMAN is fuckin great, of course. I especially like “the boring part” at the end where you learn what the movie is about and why it’s different from previous gangster movies. UNCUT GEMS is a really intense one that stuck with me. That guy sure did make a mess for himself.
I have to consider this a good horror year, because there are three movies that I’m sure I will remember as great:
2. I personally think Jordan Peele’s US is even better than his debut GET OUT. It has as much going on under the surface but is more effective, stylish and imaginative on the straight-up-horror-movie level. And Lupita Nyong’o was in the #1 slot for “best lead performance” on my Muriels ballot this year.
1. I recently saw DOCTOR SLEEP again (this time in the 3-hour director’s cut) and liked it even better. I think Rebecca Ferguson’s Rose the Hat is just an incredible villain – evil enough to kill children, but interesting to watch as she struggles to keep the faith of her dying tribe. And I love her relationship with Zahn McLarnon’s Crow Daddy, who gently convinces her when he thinks she’s being too reckless.
Other notable horror: I liked the straight-forwardness of Alexandre Aja’s gators-in-a-hurricane movie CRAWL. I kind of liked Rob Zombie’s 3 FROM HELL even if it’s no DEVIL’S REJECTS. Another interesting much-later-sequel-that-most-people-didn’t-notice was DARLIN’, in which Pollyanna McIntosh writes, directs and returns as her character from Lucky McKee’s THE WOMAN (which I have decided is my favorite horror movie of the 2010s). I enjoyed two straight to streaming titles: the simple castaway vs. monster movie SWEETHEART and the twisty, messed up violinist adventure THE PERFECTION. And although I claim not to be big on horror comedies I did like READY OR NOT (with the outstanding Samara Weaving).
FAVORITE MARTIAL ARTS MOVIES NOT INCLUDING SHADOW
2. I’m glad I finally caught on to Vietnamese star Veronica Ngo in FURIE. It’s a pretty traditional badass-rescuing-kidnapped-daughter story, but I like that sort of thing, and I was really impressed by her combination of martial arts skill and genuine acting chops. She made it much more emotionally effective than most other people would’ve.
1. You would think the best would be IP MAN 4: THE FINALE, with Donnie Yen’s Ip Man taking on Scott Adkins. I enjoyed that, but my favorite is Yuen Woo Ping’s MASTER Z: IP MAN LEGACY, with Max Zhang’s character from IP MAN 3 taking on Dave Bautista. Some of the melodrama about parenting is not the best but it’s so full of energetic fights with great choreography coming out of character and emphasizing their varying physiques. Michelle Yeoh is in it, and when she starts fighting – and gets a sword! – I hope you all stand up and put your hand over your heart. Tony Jaa also makes a small, memorable appearance that made me hope he’d have his own IP MAN LEGACY movie.
FAVORITE DTV/LIMITED RELEASE ACTION
Undoubtedly director/sometimes-writer Jesse V. Johnson is the reigning king of DTV action. He had three movies this year, all good:
3. THE MERCENARY starring his longtime collaborator Dominiquie Vandenberg as a mercenary who is betrayed, left for dead, and healed at a small church, where he changes his philosophy.
2. TRIPLE THREAT somehow stars Tony Jaa, Tiger Chen and Iko Uwais, going up against Scott Adkins and Michael Jai White, with Celina Jade and a special appearance by Jeeja Yanin. And all of those people have done better movies but god damn if it isn’t fun to see them meet up in an international co-production and fight in various combos. I need to watch that one again.
1. AVENGEMENT might be my favorite partly because somehow it ended up playing at The Beacon here in Seattle so my second viewing was on the big screen. This is Johnson doing a British gangster movie with Adkins in a grimy, transformative role. Tightly written, more nuanced than necessary, grim but sometimes funny, good shit.
New category: FAVORITE STRAIGHT-TO-NETFLIX ACTION
I’m sure there are plenty I missed (no, I haven’t watched 6 UNDERGROUND yet), but there are actually several actiony movies that went straight to Netflix that I enjoyed. Credit where credit is due.
5. THE HARD WAY is like an early 2000s DTV but for some reason there’s no DVD release. It’s kind of cheesy and shoddily put together but it’s powered by the swagger of Michael Jai White with some good lines and flying kicks. (The rest of the movies in this category are bigger budget movies that could’ve been released theatrically.)
4. POINT BLANK is directed by Joe Lynch (EVERLY) and it’s a remake of the French movie by the same name. He’s going for a ’70s Friedkin vibe and it’s not quite that gritty, but it benefits from the teaming of Anthony Mackie and Frank Grillo, plus a great supporting performance by Marcia Gay Harden of all people.
3. CLOSE is an inspired-by-a-real-person one with Noomi Rapace playing a bodyguard for an heiress who’s a high risk for kidnapping. I was hoping this would catch on and become a series but I guess I’ll just have to catch up with all the other Noomi Rapace movies.
2. POLAR is Jonas Akerlund’s comic book adaptation with Mads Mikkelsen as a retired assassin. It’s very JOHN WICK alternating with a spastic SMOKIN’ ACES kind of vibe with colorful assassins and a villain played by Matt Lucas who I described in my review as “Paul Williams with a sword and yellow nail polish.”
1. Man, I don’t know how TRIPLE FRONTIER didn’t catch on. Mercenaries doing a heist that goes south in much the way of a foreign occupation, slowly getting further and further off mission, and abandoning their values along the way. Excellent chemistry among the team and great performances including a regretful Ben Affleck and a movie-stealing Pedro Pascal (now better known as Mando).
FAVORITE GLOOMY, SERIOUS REVENGE MOVIES
2. I would be more into A VIGILANTE if it turned into a full-on action movie, but I was still impressed by Olivia Wilde’s performance as a victim of domestic abuse who trains herself up into sort of a The Punisher who helps other women screw over the men who abuse them. I mainly know her as a computer lady from TRON LEGACY so I didn’t know she was that good.
1. THE NIGHTINGALE is Australian director Jennifer Kent’s long-awaited followup to THE BABADOOK. I saw it very early when it played SIFF, but it has stuck with me. It’s honestly like TRUE GRIT meets I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE with a whole lot of anger about misogyny, racism and colonialism. Seems to be too heavy for many people, but I think it’s very good.
BETTER THAN EXPECTED
Okay, I was kind of hyped for ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL because it was a long-awaited James Cameron production, but the look of the first trailer nearly scared me off. I really enjoyed this one other than the abrupt ending, which won’t be a problem if they make another one.
The tone of HELLBOY seems wrong, too jokey, too electric-guitar, it’s much cheaper looking than the Del Toro movies and his makeup is way uglier, but also this was a funny movie with lots of cool monsters, crazy folklore and Milla Jovovich having a hell of a time playin a wicked sorceress. I gotta admit I mostly dug it.
MOVIES I LIKED QUITE A BIT BUT DIDN’T REVIEW FOR SOME REASON
BOOKSMART is directed by the aforementioned Olivia Wilde and yes, it’s pretty much a girl version of SUPERBAD, but I love that mix of raucous humor and warm-hearted friendship. And I like this premise of the overachieving good girls tryin to let loose. Points for having a Warren 2020 bumpersticker way ahead of schedule.
TOY STORY 4 gives Bo Peep a chance to shine (and have legs!), has a funny Canadian-Evel-Knievel character played by Keanu Reeves, some very creepy old timey dolls and impressive detail in its dusty world behind the shelves of an antique shop. But what’s amazing is that it actually took the character of Woody to a place that convinced me TOY STORY 3 wasn’t a perfect ending after all and this is actually a better one.
I’ve been all in on Awkwafina since seeing her in OCEAN’S 8 and then looking up her videos (below is my favorite, and I didn’t even notice her THE BROWN BUNNY t-shirt until like the sixth time I watched it) but it’s great to see how winning she is in THE FAREWELL, a more serious and emotional (and also bi-lingual) movie.
THE OUTLAWVERN.COM YEAR-OF-MOVIE-REVIEWS YEAR-IN-REVIEW REVUE
This year I decided to apply for a local critics’ group, but I got rejected because of a requirement that within 12 months you have reviewed 48 movies within 7 days of theatrical release in Seattle or premiere on streaming or cable (but not DVD). So here are some statistics to measure how bad I failed at criticism this year: according to my count, I wrote 198 full length movie reviews (not including columns, freelance articles and TV reviews), only 86 of those were recent movies and I think only 29 of those would be considered eligible toward the 48. So I’m only about 60% critic. But I’m not bitter. Do I seem bitter?
MY BEST PIECES OF 2019:
I like my DRAGGED ACROSS CONCRETE review where I struggle with the conflict between my love for S. Craig Zahler’s filmmaking and my disgust with what seem to be their politics. Somehow it didn’t stop me from getting a column on Rebeller.
I fucked up a little by forgetting THE ADDAMS FAMILY and PRINCE VALIANT, but otherwise I’m very proud of my Polygon list ranking “all” the comic book movies of the ‘90s.
I’m still proud of how the first line of my SHADOW review is a corny joke that then ties into the end of the review and my entire interpretation of the movie. I would like to win an award for that, thanks.
The IRON EAGLE saga, Steve Wang Week (starting with GUYVER) and then Mark Dacascos Week (starting with KICKBOXER 5: THE REDEMPTION), The Films of John Liu (starting with AVENGING NINJA), the STREET FIGHTER series, the THUNDER WARRIOR trilogy.
And of course my biggest Outlawvern Special Presentation this year was HIGHLANDERLAND, starting with HIGHLANDER, although The Last Summer of ‘80s Action (starting with RED SCORPION, building up to BATMAN and ROAD HOUSE and concluding with KICKBOXER) was also really fun to write.
If you’re on a long flight or something and need even more shit to read check out my 20th Outlawversary Excellencefest, a retrospective of my 20 years so far reviewing movies online. Jesus christ man what the fuck.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.