Ah, 2019, the year Thanos was finally defeated.
The ultimate victor?
That would be Disney, the studio that laid claim to six of the top 10 highest box office hits worldwide, including No. 1, Avengers: Endgame, which came close to making an astonishing US$3 billion at the global box office.
If Disney’s assault on the hearts of moviegoers was an unqualified success, movies that eschewed Disney’s comic book/animated remake formula won over our minds, a small consolation for the outright bombs that ended up on 10-best lists. (Hello, Booksmart.)
Free Press critics Alison Gillmor, Randall King and Jill Wilson divided the top 10 list among them and came up with the following entries, a few of which are available on Netflix, which proved again to be a cinematic force to be reckoned with in 2019.
From Bong Joon Ho, the director of Snowpiercer, comes an altogether different meditation on class divide. Very much set in the real world, Parasite is about how the impoverished but resourceful Kim family insinuates itself into the wealthy, supercilious Park family. Up to a point, the film could pass for a satiric class comedy. But things take a dark turn when the Kim family makes a discovery about one of the secrets of the Park’s huge modern house. And then, things get darker still... But Bong never lets the movie’s dramatic tonal shifts derail the narrative momentum. Indeed, it thunders along like that Snowpiercer train on the strength of a meticulously built plot, pristine production and some wonderful performances. In Korean with subtitles.
Here’s another class comedy, disguised as an Agatha Christie-style whodunit, wherein an aged mystery writer Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found dead and his entire parasitic family (including Michael Shannon, Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Toni Collette and Chris Evans) — as well as his private nurse Marta (Ana de Armas) — are viable suspects, at least in the eyes of southern-fried sleuth Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig). As the director of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Rian Johnson has gained a bit of grief from fans resentful of his penchant for colouring outside strict genre lines. Johnson does that here, too, but mystery fans cut him more of a break. The movie is tremendous satiric fun and that final shot is the most sublime in recent memory.
This three-plus-hour Martin Scorsese crime epic centred on the murder of union kingpin Jimmy Hoffa is based on the private confession of a mob killer — the ultimate unreliable narrator. It’s debatable if it is actually true. But it doesn’t matter. It’s Scorsese operating in the gangster genre, and even with newfangled digital de-aging employed on all the main actors, one can’t help luxuriate in the sordid Scorsesean splendour of it all. He’s a masterful filmmaker, the poet laureate of the devil’s bargain.
DOLEMITE IS MY NAME
In a way, director Craig Brewer’s delightful Dolemite Is My Name is a companion piece to Tim Burton’s Ed Wood. It, too, is a biopic scripted by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski that celebrates a movie-maker whose insatiable ambition enabled him to get some feature films made against nearly impossible odds. But the differences are fascinating, and certainly demand a reconsideration of Rudy Ray Moore (played by Eddie Murphy in a triumphant comeback) as a pioneer of contemporary black culture.
Honourable Mention: Midsommar, The Lighthouse and The Twentieth Century (which opens here in January).
It’s raunchy, hilarious and features all manner of underage shenanigans and sexuality. So why wasn’t this buddy comedy a box office hit? Could it be because its leads — Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever — aren’t stoner bros, but overachieving girls? Molly and Amy realize almost too late that they’ve neglected to have any of the de rigueur high school experiences before college; they set off on an epic night of forced fun that will test the bonds of their friendship. Booksmart is feminist, foul-mouthed and funny, turning the formulaic tropes of bawdy comedies inside out and giving us a couple of teen heroines who feel real and very 2019.
Observing the ordinary, everyday routines of the title character with detailed care, American writer-director Kent Jones demonstrates, with poignancy and power, how these little things add up to a life, a family and a community. Grounded in a quietly astonishing late-career performance from Mary Kay Place, this indie drama is bleak and wintry but edged with a flinty kind of hope.
PAIN AND GLORY
Highly personal without being self-absorbed or self-indulgent, Pedro Almodovar’s story of a film director in crisis (played with affecting vulnerability by Antonio Banderas) is a gentle and generous examination of time, age and the act of creation. Toggling between artful fiction and autobiographical fact, the Spanish master combines stylistic flair with tender, elegiac feeling.
Tracking a devastating love affair and a creative coming-of-age in a punk-posh corner of Thatcherite England, Joanna Hogg’s portrait of the artist as a young woman (Honor Swinton Byrne) is complex and contradictory — intense but delicate, intimate but detached, casually improvised but precisely constructed.
THE TWO POPES
With wonderfully wily performances from Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce, this (highly fictionalized) encounter between Pope Benedict XVI and the future Pope Francis might start off as a theological debate, but it finds common ground in the very human issues of age and frailty, loneliness and regret. Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles and British scripter Anthony McCarten manage to bring humour, style and tons of cinematic energy to what is essentially a series of ecclesiastical walk-and-talks.
Jordan Peele does it again with this smart, unsettling flick, which is at once a nutty parable about murderous doppelgangers and an urgently realistic examination of race, inequality and the state of the American (dis)union. With a harrowing double-double performance by Lupita Nyong’o and pop-culture riffs on everything from Hitchcock to, well, Key & Peele, Us is a bit of genre-stretching genius. Oh, and it’s really scary.
Honourable mentions: Marriage Story, Burning and the made-in-Manitoba hybrid doc El Toro.
Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.
Senior copy editor
Jill Wilson writes about culture and the culinary arts for the Arts & Life section.
In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.