The Edge of Democracy

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It’s the story of our world. A person decries the unethical actions of those in political power and then, years later, when the person has achieved political power for themselves, via the ballot or the gun, said person engages in the same type of behavior they used to criticize before.

What’s stupefying is not that men and women keep on doing this; it is in our fallen, human nature to be deceitful, after all. What surprises me is how everybody else keeps thinking that their candidate is the chosen one. Everyone thinks government sucks because it hasn’t been done right, but with their candidate, everything will be made right. Nobody learns, so we are doomed to repeat the cycles of history, and on and on until the world finally stops spinning, and God finally rescues us from this madness.

1917

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Jude Law, in one of the best performances of his career, says that he is weary of war and the way fools get sent off to it with a flag and a lie. The line is uttered in Cold Mountain, a decent movie that I somehow keep remembering. Maybe because of that quote.

What compels me is not that 1917 is a bravura feat of filmmaking, or how entirely suspenseful and engaging it is. What compels me is how it understands how the dead are the only who ever get to see an end to war. Our protagonist runs, jumps and hides. The people he meets along the way wish him luck before they too must carry on with their mission. Too often war movies make it a point to say “this was the most important battle of the war”, or something along those lines. Like what we are seeing was vital for the course of history.

1917 has no such pretenses. It just presents a soldier’s journey from point A to point B, and how he’ll have to do it all over again the next day, and the next day. It elucidates the futility of combat, and shines a light on what a sorry species we are.

A

Up in the Air

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George Clooney delivers one of the finest performances of his career as Ryan Bingham. Initially coming across as a vainglorious douche, Clooney slowly reveals more layers of his humanity until we’re left feeling melancholic over his eventual fate.

This is a smart picture, the textbook definition of a movie for adults. The dialogue is sharp, the banter is witty, but best of all is the combination of sadness and wisdom which informs the conversation between characters. They talk with the certainty that only being alive for a long time can bring. This is paired brilliantly with the idealism and naivete of young Natalie (Anna Kendrick), who views the world through an alternate lens than Bingham does. It’s a juxtaposition that many movies try, but few succeed. Up in the Air does not side with either protagonist’s life philosophy, rather inviting the viewer to partake in the conversation and realize they’re both just trying to do what we are as well. Make sense out of our lives. This is a phenomenal picture, and already one of my favorites.

Memorable Moments 2019

The following is a list of movie sequences, scenes, and moments that percolated in my mind long after the credits rolled. In no particular order:

 

VICE – We live in confusing times

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Vice lays out its thesis with enormous clarity in its opening minutes. We are all slaves to a system of governance that is sick and broken, and we are the only ones capable of doing anything about it. But we won’t because our jobs exhaust us, our bills stress us out, and it’s easier to chill with Netflix than to engage with our putrid reality.

 

THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES (NEW AND SELECTED) – Lunch

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A father sits across the table from his son, and they try to converse. But the father is too blinded by selfishness and delusion to truly connect with his son. The son knows this, and still he powers ahead, trying to make his dad notice him, be proud of him. It’s an extraordinarily moving moment in a film that zeroes in on father-children relationships like very few in recent memory. 

MIDSOMMAR – Intro

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This is the second year in a row a scene from Ari Aster shakes my very bones. Not even 10 minutes in and we are introduced, in a chilling way, to our heroine and the scars she’ll wear for the next two hours. Not only does the scene set the stage for the nightmare ahead, but it dives head on to the themes of loss and grief that the film explores, to varying effect.

JOKER – The Murray Show

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The most celebrated comic book villain of all time has always existed within the realm of fiction. Even Heath Ledger’s personification of the character in The Dark Knight did not step out of the screen into our real. Not so with this joker. The scene at the late night show, in which he comes clean to his sins, is chilling because you see this villain, for the first time, as existing in this very moment, perhaps somewhere close to you. It is a picture for our troubled times.

AS GOOD AS IT GETS – KITCHEN LETTERS 

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As aching, beautiful, and tender as cinema can get. Already wrote about this moment in my initial review, but it is worth mentioning again. A treatise on motherhood, singleness and loneliness that spans but a few minutes, this scene is one of the finest in years.

THE RETURN OF THE KING – DO YOU REMEMBER THE SHIRE, MR FRODO?

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Boasting an amount of gravitas that modern blockbusters can only fantasize about, the heroism of the hobbits Sam and Frodo is moving. In this moment, at the end of all things, it reaches its apex when a weary Sam literally carries a moribund Frodo on his back, on their way to a mountain of fire that may very well mean their doom. There’s a couple other sequences from this trilogy that could have made this cut, but I settled on this one since it concludes the story on an uplifting note. 

INCEPTION – GROW OLD TOGETHER

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“I miss you more than I can bear, but I have to let you go”. 

VOX LUX – AMBULANCE RIDE

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Vox Lux begins with a student walking into his classroom, taking out a shotgun and shooting all his classmates. One of the students is put into an ambulance, and for the next five minutes (I timed it) the camera stays there. It shifts from an exterior to an interior shot, the camera swirling around the vehicle, capturing the highways, the vegetation next to it. Then it captures the young victim, as the first responders attempt to keep her alive. Meanwhile, Scott Walker’s mournful score plays over all. 

THE DEATH OF STALIN – I HAVE PAPERS ON ALL OF YOU

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Were this not played for laughs, a sharp satire shining a light on the events occurring immediately after Stalin’s death in Soviet Russia, it all might be too horrific. It’s more bearable and entertaining this way, since we get to mock the disgusting human beings who were in power then, without having their atrocities in the foreground. But then there’s this scene, in which one of the leaders confronts the rest of the committee with all the nasty things everyone else has done. There’s still some jokes here and there, but you cannot help but be in awe at the lengths our species will go to for power’s sake. 

THE LAUNDROMAT – PRAYER OF DELIVERANCE

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I think most genuine believers, at one time or another, have prayed or will pray a supplication similar to the one delivered by Meryl Streep here, as she sits in a church pew. This moment only works because of what precedes it: 2 wealthy bankers say that the prayers of the rich and powerful are monetary contributions to political campaigns. Only suckers, and the rest of us, attend church to make our prayers. And right now our prayers aren’t being heard. Or they are being answered in a way not of our liking. Whatever the case, please God, deliver your perfect justice. Amen. 

Uncut Gems

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Making movies requires talent, but so does watching them. As of this writing, Uncut Gems holds a C+ Cinemascore. For the uninitiated, Cinemascore is the holy grail of movie ratings. Beyond IMDB, beyond Letterboxd or Rotten Tomatoes audience score, Cinemascore adheres a letter grading to every wide release weekly. It does this by polling the most average joes and janes they can find the minute they walk out of the cinema, providing the most honest insight I’ve ever seen about what regular people like and dislike. It’s actually a bit amazing, and you should check out their screening process and everything. It’s also super disheartening.

Cats, that diabolical abomination that’s more joke than actual movie, also holds a C+ Cinemascore. I should not be so upset, as this happens every other week, but by God, Uncut Gems is terrific. Filmmaking of the highest order, the camera frenetically swooping around, the throbbing score getting into your system, Uncut Gems is a nightmare inducing frenzy of a picture.

A+

Little Women

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Like Keira Knightley before her, Saoirse Ronan appears to have been typecast. While Knightley shone in period pieces, a vision in lavish costumes, Ronan is but a couple of centuries ahead of her. A reason for this might be her face. Saoirse Ronan has sad eyes, eyes that tell you a thousand tales by just staring at you. Her face projects weary innocence and unexpressed dreams. Maybe that’s why she keeps appearing in films about early America and Britain: she’s the personification of those countries during those periods of time. Where everything seemed possible if we could but put the past behind us.

In Little Women, she’s as good as always. There’s a moment in which she delivers a heartfelt protestation on the expectations of women, while mourning her own loneliness, that is deeply genuine and so sad.

A-

Best Films 2019

My mom watches movies in segments. She divides her attention between her phone, the screen, the kitchen, the weather and the neighbor’s dog. It takes her literal days to finish watching movies sometimes. My dad watches one movie every month, sometimes every two months. I joke with them by asking how I can possibly be related to them when our movie watching habits are so dissimilar. But sometimes I don’t joke. Rather, I look Godwards in gratitude. Surely I’ve done nothing radically different from my parents that would cause me to live cinema in a way that breathes vigor to my bones. Yet here I am again with the yearly list of the best films watched in 2019. 160 they were, a surprisingly high number considering I spent many months traveling. There must have been some nights in which I watched more than one, more than two. I recall these moments very, very fondly. And the following films even more so. 

 

HARRY POTTER SAGA

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Simultaneously a tender look at being a teenager and a parable of the biblical story of Jesus and Satan, the Harry Potter series is unlike anything I have ever experienced. Watched over the course of four spellbinding days, the level of engagement it stirred within me is unparalleled. Unmatched too are the echoes of the Gospel story present throughout, from the Messiah-like Harry to the astute ways the evil one assails our commitment to the cause. I won’t soon forget the night in which, after finishing my dinner, I rushed to my bedroom to watch Order of the Phoenix and Half-Blood Prince. I sat in bed for five hours, bewitched by every little thing. The next day I told my mom that I was going to finish watching Harry Potter that night, and she apologized for not allowing me to watch them years before. I told her there was no need for an apology because it had turned out to be for the best. I discovered Harry Potter at just the right moment in life. 

THE FOUNTAIN

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Here’s something I’d never done before. Once the credits started to roll, I hit play and watched The Fountain all over again. A feast for the senses, The Fountain is a tragedy of lost love. It is also a triumphant reminder that one need not be crippled by the fear of death, for together we will live forever.

THE IRISHMAN

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The most elegiac film of Martin Scorsese’s storied career, The Irishman mourns the lives that are lived in service of all that is ultimately inconsequential. Subverting the expectations created three decades ago with his masterpiece Goodfellas, in which crime was glamorized and life was fast paced, The Irishman is a film only an old man could make. Rueful, wise, patient. Scorsese, pushing 80, has never shied away from his faith. The confession scene is not only for his protagonists, not only for his audience, but also for himself.

SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK

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“Everything is more complicated than you think. You only see a tenth of what is true. There are a million little strings attached to every choice you make; you can destroy your life every time you choose. But maybe you won’t know for twenty years. And you’ll never ever trace it to its source. And you only get one chance to play it out. Just try and figure out your own divorce. And they say there is no fate, but there is: it’s what you create. Even though the world goes on for eons and eons, you are here for a fraction of a fraction of a second. Most of your time is spent being dead or not yet born. But while alive, you wait in vain, wasting years, for a phone call or a letter or a look from someone or something to make it all right. And it never comes or it seems to but doesn’t really. And so you spend your time in vague regret or vaguer hope for something good to come along. Something to make you feel connected, to make you feel whole, to make you feel loved.”

MARRIAGE STORY

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2019 delivered some of the best acting by men I’ve seen in a while. You couldn’t take your eyes off Joaquin Phoenix in Joker. Robert DeNiro was phenomenal in The Irishman. And Adam Driver was absolutely superb, the best he has ever been, in Marriage Story. You watch him slowly disintegrate as the film progresses. The scene in which he pretends he’s fine after cutting himself by accident is a marvel. 

LISTEN TO ME MARLON

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Ten months ago, reviewing this documentary for the first time, I wrote that “Brando’s story is our story, the small details varying but the overall picture looking the same: a life in a world with pain as its principal currency, with every soul aching for a more permanent release than wealth, or family, or sex”. No more needs to be said.

INGLORIOUS BASTERDS

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His films tend to be fun and easy to watch, but Tarantino outdid himself with this one.

COLUMBUS

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It happens, almost imperceptibly and not to everybody, but it happens. The moment you discover your parents, the people who were meant to nourish and see you thrive, are suffocating you. They don’t do it out of any ill will; they love you, after all. And you love them, and now you’re compelled to see them thrive, compelled to nourish them. It’s a reversal of the natural order, and it hurts your little heart. But it cannot be this way forever for you are young and you must leave them behind. This hurts your little heart some more. Columbus is a perfect distillation of this. 

SET IT UP

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In an age in which the rom-com is all but dead, here comes Zooey Deutsch to breathe new life into it and make it soar, soar, soar. 

SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE

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To call this the best superhero movie I’ve seen might be faint praise, considering my slight indifference towards most movies of its ilk. But it is anything but. Into the Spider-Verse is a colorful, hilarious, inventive and strangely moving picture about the hero’s journey. One, it turns out, we’re all in. 

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

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The word “fan”, short for “fanatic”, is derived from the Latin “fanaticus”, meaning insanely but divinely inspired. No wonder then, that the most common use of the word is associated with religion. Indeed, “fanaticus” originally pertained to a place of worship, a temple, places marked by intense, uncritical devotion.

To be a fan is no bad thing. We should all be so lucky to have something or someone we deem worthy of our loyalty. History shows certain fans’s troubling behavior towards others, albeit usually in a small scale. Fandoms, general wisdom goes, are pretty harmless. It is not until the advent of the internet when cracks begin to crumble the facade.

I’ve written elsewhere how the internet has exacerbated virulent behavior in our species, but I now wish to revise that statement. By itself, the internet is a wonderful tool. Bullying, harassment, threats and violence are the result of our own failings, not some coding problem within the system. There’s a quote that goes something like, if you give a man enough power to do whatever he wants, and he ends up using that power for evil, then you’ll know evil is what he’s always wanted to do.

At this point you might be wondering, what does Latin, the internet and moral failings have to do with Star Wars?

Reddit and Twitter run the world. Perhaps one of the most baffling turn of events in this young century has been the capitulation of corporate America to the tumult of the internet. No sooner has a user lifted a complaint about anything, and there go multi billion dollar companies vowing to do better next time, swearing to make them happy in just the exact way they demand. There is no accountability in this process, just an endless litany of requests. This reveals corporations as spineless and amoral, breathing just to make a buck, and users as grandstanding self-appointed arbiters of good taste.

The Rise of Skywalker illustrates just how pathetic this new order we inhabit really is. Disney has destroyed every good thing that was built by The Last Jedi, not because it was bad but because some people kept making Reddit threads about how their immaculate childhood had been obliterated by a movie. Film insiders chose to appeal to angry people rather than continuing the threads of a good story. This movie means nothing, it stands for nothing, it is vacuous and soulless, a monument to cowardice. Any redeeming value it might have comes in the form of a warning. Today it was a movie that was dictated by the whims of social media. What’s it going to be tomorrow?

C