2019 Top Ten List – Revisited

I’ve mentioned before that one of the troubles with viewing films with the express purpose of assigning them a numerical rating and committing your thoughts to public scrutiny is that your tastes, preferences, and opinions are subject to change, sometimes very quickly. There are many films over the years that I’ve liked in the heat of the moment, only to forget about them within a few months as my enthusiasm waned. Conversely, there are numerous movies I was dismissive of or ambivalent toward upon release, only to grow to appreciate them the more I thought about them. This can make an annual Top Ten somewhat difficult to defend and even embarrassing to revisit, especially when you realize that you’ve only viewed your number one pick exactly once. 2019’s Top Ten is one such list. Though I penned it a mere three years ago, I was amazed and slightly appalled to see how I ranked the year’s best in show. As such, I thought it would be fun to revisit what I’d easily call that last good year in cinema before the world went barmy and see which films have held up in my mind. While the films themselves haven’t changed, the order in which they’re ranked has (or… has it??).

You can read my original 2019 Top Ten here.

10) Us

In light of Nope, Jordan Peele’s first pure sci-fi venture and overt M. Night Shyamalan tribute, Us seems even more convoluted and thematically cumbersome in retrospect. That being said, I still like it quite a bit (at least on a visual level), I just think Peele would do well to keep things as simple as possible moving into his fourth feature. The key to effective science fiction (if Us can even be called science fiction) is to ground the outlandish elements in believable characters and relatable situations so we don’t feel alienated when a space octopus squeezes through a temporal singularity and squashes Boston (or something). Suspension of disbelief is a real thing, and while audiences can stomach a lot of nonsense for the sake of a compelling story, there does come a point when the sci-fi elements are just too out there for even the most dedicated genre enthusiast. Though it defies real-world plausibility, we accept the surgical brain-swapping twist in Get Out because David Kaluuya’s sincere attempts to ingratiate himself to the Armitage family for the sake of his beloved girlfriend are both believable and relatable, as is the devastating betrayal he suffers toward the finale. Conversely, having hundreds of millions of genetic replicants occupying hidden tunnels spanning the entire contiguous US, where they shadow Americans’ every hiccup and fart, is probably asking a little too much from viewers – even if the twist still packs one hell of a punch. Ultimately, it comes down to scale – we can accept one UFO encounter in the middle of nowhere involving a handful of oddballs easier than a global alien invasion of Roland Emmerich proportions, and that’s where Us loses, well, us in the long run. Not only is the basic premise a tad too outlandish, it overwhelms the characters’ presences and robs us of a sense of intimacy with them because it’s the film’s focus. That being said, Peele’s strengths as an auteur lie in his eye for imagery, implementation of suspense, and cultivation of atmosphere. The man knows how to stage a creepy shot and imbue every scene with just the right amount of tension, and in this regard Us is still an effective modern horror. Alas, for me, it ranks third below Get Out and Nope.     7/10

Original ranking – 8th

Original rating: 8/10

9) The Irishman

Full disclosure, the main reason I wanted to call a mulligan on this Top Ten was because I couldn’t abide The Irishman being remembered as my official number one pick for 2019 (which I suppose invalidates my rather gushy original write-up to some extent…). It’s not that I don’t like The Irishman anymore – it’s a damn fine film and a great achievement for Scorsese and all his regular collaborators – it’s just that I’ve seen it exactly once since it hit Netflix. I suspect I only placed it in the top slot because I wrote my Top Ten shortly after watching it, so my enthusiasm for it was quite high at the time (what can I say – I was a highly impressionable twenty-nine-year-old). A month or two into the New Year, however? It’s like I forgot it existed. This is a damn shame, because there’s nothing really wrong with the film, per se (though I find three-hour movies daunting now that I’m firmly in my thirties). While many have criticized the quality of the de-aging effects, The Irishman contains some great performances, and the story of Jimmy Hoffa and the Teamsters Union is one worth exploring, especially if you’re a gangster flick aficionado. It’s a true love letter to the classic gangster films of days gone by, and it does stand out as a great piece of serious cinema that you really don’t see anymore. Directors like Scorsese are a dying breed, and today’s audiences just don’t have the patience or the attention spans for films like Mean Streets or Taxi Driver. While I still love me a good gangster movie, The Irishman sadly doesn’t resonate with me as strongly as Goodfellas or the Godfather films (or even The Sopranos). Still, I appreciate its old-school style and completely unromantic approach to its mobsters, whom Scorsese never fails to remind us are soulless murderers. Like most of Tony’s crew in The Sopranos, none of the men portrayed here go on to live long, healthy lives surrounded by loves one – they all either die in prison, perish violently, or lose it all, becoming doomed to spend their fading years alone in some musty care facility with nothing but their distorted memories of the good old days for company. While The Irishman is definitely worth watching, it lacks the infinite rewatch factor that makes Goodfellas so timeless.     7/10

Original ranking – 1st

Original rating – 9/10

8) The Lighthouse

Like Jordan Peele, it’s been a delight to watch Robert Eggers grow and develop as an auteur. Its seems to me that we’ve been experiencing something of an Indie horror renaissance the past few years, with some very talented up-and-comers (a class of visionaries that includes Ari Aster and – hopefully – Rose Glass) delivering some pretty stellar films. Even after The Northman failed to hurdle the bar of quality set by The Witch, I remain excited to see what direction Eggers ends up going in the future (especially if he does indeed remake Nosferatu in 2024). Unlike Jordan Peele’s Us, I like Eggers’ second film more than his third (but still not as much as his first – Peele and Eggers seem to Tethered in some respects, don’t they?). The Lighthouse stands out very clearly in my mind, so much so that I haven’t taken the time to properly revisit it since I first saw it in theaters (though I do find myself watching clips of it on YouTube every once in a blue moon). Every stylish frame and eerie establishing shot is seared into my brain by virtue of sheer weirdness and Willem Dafoe’s crisp voice continues to echo through the murky recesses of my subconscious mind even now (“Why’d you spill your beans?”). While my appreciation for The Lighthouse wasn’t waned any, it’s one of those films that I struggle to recommend to people, because while I certainly enjoyed it, I know it’s simply not for everybody. For every scene involving Dafoe delivering a riveting drunken monologue in which he invokes the name of Poseidon or a poop-splattered Robert Pattinson screaming into the tempest, there’s a shot of a mermaid vagina or Pattinson violently masturbating in a shed (hey, it happens). To me, it’s all part of the weirdness – it’s just not something I’d be comfortable endorsing to grandma. In any case, The Lighthouse is one of those films that I continue to appreciate solely for existing, and unlike Robert Pattinson’s Winslow, I’m a better man for having visited.     7.5/10

Original ranking – 10th

7) The King

Unlike The Lighthouse, The King is one of those films I do find myself recommending to people in need of something to plug in for Movie Night. Besides being a solid, solemn drama piece, it hits on one of my greatest loves (besides writing, reading, and cinema) – history. Yes, I realize this is based on Shakespeare’s Henriad, but viewing The King back in 2019 reignited my long-dormant interest in the Middle Ages, particularly the timeline of English kings. For all you readers who played Yu-Gi-Oh! cards during history class, King Henry V’s conquest of France came relatively late in the Hundred Years’ War (named so because it lasted 116 years, specifically from 1337-1453), a fascinating period with a royal turnover rate that makes Game of Thrones seem uninspired. Of course, many liberties were taken in order to tell a coherent story in a two-hour window – timelines are condensed, motivations are simplified, historical figures are omitted (or fabricated), and events are shuffled around for the sake of drama. For instance, the film leaves out the fact that there was a civil war raging in France during Henry V’s 1415 invasion (between the loyalist Armagnacs in the south and the more Anglo-leaning Burgundians in the north, incidentally), as are most of King Charles VI of France’s other children (the other dauphin, the future King Charles VII, is not featured). Furthermore, the Battle of Agincourt is toned down considerably, with the film leaving out the fact that most of the men fighting were suffering from raging dysentery (medieval battle conditions were rather shitty). Despite its inaccuracies, The King remains a damn fine film, and I hope for more historical adaptations of its caliber – in fact, a spiritual sequel centered on Joan of Arc (who rose to prominence during the political turmoil besetting France following the sudden death of Henry V when his son and heir was still an infant) would make for a worthy follow-up (or perhaps even a miniseries – call me, Netflix). Verily, The King holds up very well and gets serious points for inspiring some interesting reading during the pandemic. If you’re interested in learning more about the English kings of olde, I’d recommend checking out The Plantagenets: The Kings Who Made England and The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses and the Rise of the Tudors, both by Dan Jones.     8/10

Original ranking – 9th

6) Midsommar

Like The Irishman, Midsommar is a film I haven’t seen since it was first released in theaters. Unlike The Irishman, this is because I won’t need to see it again for a very, very, VERY long time. Every frame of this film is etched clearly into my brain, even – or rather, especially – the parts I’d rather not relive (you know the ones I mean). I remember this film very clearly, from the opening shot of Florence Pugh wailing inconsolably after her sister commits a murder-suicide with their parents to the mid-point cliff-jumping/splat sequence all the way to the final scene involving a catatonic Jack Reynor burning to death in that bear suit. This is the kind of film you recommend to grandma only if you stand to inherit a lot and are hoping the shock will kill her. It’s not an experience you forget anytime soon, which is hardly a bad thing – hell, it’s part of what I love about it so much. Everything from the vibrant colour palette to the grotesque violence is all so vivid, and this speaks to Midsommar’s sheer effectiveness as a horror piece. Besides the comedy genre, horror perhaps suffers the most in terms of having completely forgettable movies saturating the market ever year. Every January there’s another Truth or Dare or a Bye Bye Man or a Smile or an Escape Room or a bizarre Fantasy Island remake that my brain can’t seem to retain for more than five minutes after exiting the theater, but the fact that I can still clearly remember everything from Midsommar nearly four years later speaks to its lasting impact and positive contribution to the genre. Ari Aster is clearly doing something right as an auteur, and like Peele, Eggers, and Glass, I’m eager to see where he goes next (though I approach Beau is Afraid with fear and trepidation – seriously, can’t anybody make a ninety-minute movie anymore?).     8/10

Original ranking – 4th

5) Ready or Not

The greatest enduring strength of Ready or Not is its characters – not just Samara Weaving’s resilient bride as she navigates the worst wedding night ever, but the entire too-complex-to-be-completely-villainous le Domas family. In light of 2020’s The Hunt – another film in which extravagantly rich people hunt lowly commoners for one reason or another – it’s remarkable how three-dimensional and knowable every member of this mansion-dwelling clan is. They’re all presented with their own quirks, strengths, weaknesses, and complexities, which is refreshing because they could easily have been cardboard cutouts like most of the Thrombeys in Knives Out (a movie that has yet to grow on me as the years pass). The modern approach to writing characters who represent the loathed one-percent seems to be ‘make them cartoonishly awful mustache-twirling clichés,’ which is frankly just lazy and an insult to viewers’ capacity for intelligent thought. If you want to script a corrupt politician for viewers to rally against, the easy path is to give him a bad wig, an orange spray-on tan, a red power tie, and a mouth that spouts chauvinist drivel; the difficult path involves giving him appropriate motivations and complexity, which is why most writers spring for the bad wig, spray-on tan, and power tie. The key to writing a compelling villain or antagonistic character is to give them substance, to make us understand either where they’re coming from or why their actions or behavior makes sense to them. I’m not talking about making them sympathetic, mind – just knowable. In this regard, Ready or Not succeeds where other similar films fail by giving us reasons to understand the le Domases without necessarily sympathizing with them or letting them off the hook for their actions (okay, we can kind of sympathize with some of them – even though they’re not the sort of family you’d want to marry into, they’re only out for Samara Weaving’s blood out of desperate self-preservation). In all, Ready or Not is bloody good fun because it goes the extra mile with its characters, and this makes it memorable and rewatchable almost four years later.     8/10

Original ranking – 6th

4) Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

I recall some individuals occupying the periphery of my social circle expressing disappointment in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood when it was first released, negative reactions I suspect stemmed from high expectations or the vain hopes of another Pulp Fiction. I admit, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood wasn’t what I was expecting either, but I remain delighted with the result. Whereas the gritty, subversive, crime-centered Pulp Fiction took the world by storm and came to epitomize Indie cinema in the 90s, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is more a love letter to cinema itself, not to mention the culture and music of the 60s. It’s less plot-driven than even Jackie Brown and functions like a time capsule to a bygone era – it’s a sensory experience, inviting you to relive (if you’re old enough) or taste the sights and sounds of the Los Angeles Tarantino grew up in (and in many scenes, you get a sense of how it must have smelled, too). This film clearly means a lot to Tarantino, so much so that he personally penned the tie-in novelization (which I have yet to summon the fortitude to read). I’ve rewatched OUATIH two or three times since its initial release, and my appreciation for it has only grown stronger as the years pass – in fact, I miiiiiiiiiiight like this film more than Pulp Fiction… (I’m undecided – at any rate, they’re neck and neck). What’s most amazing to me about Tarantino is his ability to draw compelling performances out of actors that I don’t normally care for, the one in this case being Leonardo DiCaprio. While I like many of DiCaprio’s movies, I’m afraid I don’t always like him in them; however, there’s something about his presence in Tarantino’s films that I can’t get enough of. Whether it’s the gleefully malevolent, loquacious plantation owner Calvin Candie or the washed-up, self-pitying, blubbering alcoholic Rick Dalton, Tarantino casts DiCaprio against type, and the results are uniquely riveting. Like the rest of the world, I wait in eager anticipation for Tarantino’s tenth and final film. Until that film arrives, I may just watch Once Upon a Time in Hollywood a fourth time.     8/10

Original ranking – 3rd

Original rating – 8.5/10

3) 1917

Back in 2019, I waffled for a good long time over which film to place in my annual list’s top slot: The Irishman or 1917. While 1917 was the hands-down favourite amongst most of my friends, I ultimately went with The Irishman out of love for Scorsese and the gangster films I grew up with. A large part of my enthusiasm for The Irishman, I suspect, stemmed from my affinity for the gangster genre in general, which I favour more than war films (it’s not that I don’t like war films, I just happen to like classic gangster pics better). In any case, it’s obvious to me now that I allowed my preference for the crime genre to colour my judgment, which is how I justified ranking Sam Mendes’ modern cinematic masterpiece in second place with a sheepish grin and a desperate apology. Anyway, now it’s been bumped down to number three… sorry, Mr. Mendes. It’s not that my respect for this film has waned whatsoever in the three years since its release, it’s just that the films occupying the top two slots are nearer and dearer to my heart (if you read my first list and have been paying attention, you can probably guess). Anyway, 1917 is a film I not only find myself recommending to others, but rewatching annually – since its release, it’s replaced Saving Private Ryan as the go-to film to congregate around on Remembrance Day. Returning to my love of history, WWI has been grossly underrepresented in cinema (largely because WWII and its clearer objectives and unrepentantly evil despots lends itself better to ‘good vs evil’ narratives), which is a damn shame because I personally find it more interesting than WWII by virtue of being such a fustercluck. 1917 made me hopeful that we would begin to see more films set in the European trenches (or even the Middle Eastern theater) soon, and while 2022’s All Quiet on the Western Front wasn’t all that I hoped it would be, it still represented a step in the right direction. While I don’t naturally gravitate toward war films, I can confidently say that 1917 – despite being in third here – is easily the finest of the bunch, followed closely by Platoon, Saving Private Ryan, and – of course – Kelly’s Heroes.     9/10

Original ranking – 2nd

2) Parasite

Prior to Parasite, the only Bong Joon-ho film I’d seen was Snowpiercer – which I didn’t much like. Now I’ve seen all his films, some of them multiple times (in fact, 2003’s Memories of Murder now ranks in my top ten favourite films period). When it comes to the comedy genre, I’m notoriously picky, often finding myself underwhelmed by most mainstream offerings. While there’s a few modern comedies that are still able to make me laugh (The Other Guys, Hot Rod), my tastes lean more toward comedy subgenres or other variants, namely quirky Indie or oddball comedies (such as the works of Wes Anderson and the Coen Brothers), British comedy (Monty Python, Edgar Wright’s Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy), older comedies (Animal House, Airplane!, Naked Gun), horror comedies (Cabin in the Woods, Scream), and dark comedies like Parasite. In my Top Ten for 2022, I praised The Menu’s ability to strike a balance between humourous and horrific tones, keeping the right elements and moments lighthearted without ever undercutting the seriousness of the situation. Parasite accomplishes the same feat, expertly maneuvering between tones without feeling jarring, which is impressive because the tonal shift at about the mid-point is incredibly jarring. In a lesser director’s hands, the shift might have alienated viewers instead of drawing them in deeper, but Bong Joon-ho is highly adept at making the most startling of transitions entirely seamless. In fact, I’d say the tonal balance is the thing I admire the most about Parasite, not to mention its visual splendor and Song Kang-ho as an actor. While I recall liking Parasite quite a bit when I first saw it, it’s one of those films I became more enthusiastic about as time went on, especially once I began exploring more of Joon-ho’s filmography during the pandemic. Now, it’s a film I revisit periodically and invariably end up recommending to others, especially those who are interested in exploring the wealth of excellence that is South Korean cinema (if you’ve never seen them, I highly recommend Inside Men and A Bittersweet Life, both starring Lee Byung-hun, as well as The Good, The Bad, and the Weird,starring both Byung-hun and Kang-ho). And so, Parasite remains an incredible film that only ranks second on this list because Jojo Rabbit exists (incidentally, it also ranks second on my list of Bong Joon-ho films under Memories of Murder, followed by Mother, The Host, Barking Dogs Never Bite, Snowpiercer, and Okja). Here’s to Mickey 17 in 2024…     9/10

Original ranking – 5th

Original rating – 8/10

1) Jojo Rabbit

Jojo Rabbit was a film I saw very, very late in 2019 (now that I’m thinking about it, it may have even been early 2020). In fact, by the time I saw it, my Top Ten was already written with Yesterday occupying the 10th slot (while enjoyable, I only included Yesterday on the ol’ Top Ten for lack of anything better – as such, I was quite happy to see it bumped). As such, my decision to include Jojo Rabbit on my annual list was a last-minute one and the blurb I typed up was hasty, borderline frantic. While I liked it quite a bit, it was only when it was released on DVD the following spring that I truly fell in love with it. It was during this time that the periodic rewatches and mass recommendations commenced – because we were smack-dab in the middle of COVID, everyone I recommended Jojo Rabbit to actually heeded the recommendation and viewed it promptly (including grandma). The reactions that came back were all highly positive, and it was the ensuing conversations that really solidified my zeal for the film and helped me appreciate its nuances even more. Like Parasite, Jojo Rabbit strikes a perfect balance between tones – everything is lighthearted, whimsical, and silly for the first hour and a bit because we’re seeing everything from the perspective of a naïve ten-year-old boy who thinks the Nazi Party is a cool kids club, not a murderous death machine. As in real life, it’s all fun and games ‘till the gestapo show up, at which point the film grows up rapidly in tandem with young Jojo, whose disillusionment and heartbreak are devastating to witness. As an aside, I recall reading an early review for Jojo Rabbit in the summer of 2019 that was fairly dismissive, claiming the film dragged in the middle, couldn’t pick a tone, and was ultimately not worth watching because Hitler wasn’t in it all that much (nowhere else will you see a film criticized for not including Hitler enough). Having grown to appreciate Taika Waititi’s films up to that point, I remember feeling dismayed after reading that review, which may have been the reason I put off watching it as long as I did. Who knows – had I not read that review, I might have seen it in theaters, grown to love it sooner, and slated it in the top slot to begin with instead of The Irishman. Whatever the case, this retrospective is officially concluded, so go watch Jojo Rabbit.     9/10

Original ranking – 7th

Original rating – 8/10

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