Top 10 of 2019
Plus Meditations on Power and Love (seemingly incompatible)
Commentary and Reviews by Ken Burke
I invite you to join me on a regular basis to see how my responses to current cinematic offerings compare to the critical establishment, which I’ll refer to as either the CCAL (Collective Critics at Large) if they agree with me or the OCCU (Often Cranky Critics Universe) if they choose to disagree.
My approach will be a bit different this week, so I invite you to join me and my new
friends Sam and Evie from What Love Looks Like as we casually
wander through this posting. Do you bring a sandwich?
This week’s presentation will be a bit different than most from Two Guys in the Dark because I’ll begin with my long-delayed-choices for the Top 10 of 2019 followed by an obscure documentary available in very few theaters so far (soon coming to Amazon Prime) and an independent movie already showing on Amazon Prime (I get no kickbacks from Jeff Bezos, I swear, but he makes plenty off my wife's purchases), so I’ll also take a break from my usual What Happens, So What?, Bottom Line Final Comments review structure because it doesn’t work that well for docs anyway and the other review began as one for Short Takes but got a bit longer and I’m too tapped out from a 2-week-on-again/off-again-cold to redo it so onward we go, pinballing around, oh faithful readers.
Top 10 Films of 2019
You can scroll much farther down in this posting to the Related Links section if you like to see Metacritic’s collective critical consensus for 2019 releases along with specific individual lists, but now I’ve finally had a chance to see enough of the likely contenders for such honors (although not based on watching everything from 2019—especially Clemency [Chinonye Chukwu] nor Portrait of a Lady on Fire [Céline Sciamma] yet but soon I hope—as well as most contenders in the documentary and international areas) here are my choices, which have to begin with The Irishman because it’s 1 of only 14 films I’ve rated at 4½ or 5 stars of the 872 I’ve reviewed over the past 8 years of this blog:
1. The Irishman (Martin Scorsese; review in our November 21, 2019 posting [Rotten Tomatoes 96% positive reviews, Metacritic 94% average score])
Here’s the trailer: (Use the full screen button in the image’s lower right to enlarge it; activate that same button on the full screen’s lower right or your “esc” keyboard key to return to normal size.)
2. Marriage Story (Noah Baumbach; review in our December 11, 2019 posting [Rotten Tomatoes 95% positive reviews, Metacritic 93% average score])
3. Pain and Glory (Pedro Almodóvar; review in our October 23, 2019 posting [Rotten Tomatoes 97% positive reviews, Metacritic 87% average score])
4. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino; review in our August 1, 2019 posting [Rotten Tomatoes 85% positive reviews, Metacritic 83% score])
5. Parasite (Bong Joon-ho; review in our October 31, 2019 posting [Rotten Tomatoes 99% positive reviews, Metacritic 96% average score])
6. 1917 (Sam Mendes; review in our January 22, 2020 posting [Rotten Tomatoes 89% positive reviews, Metacritic 78% average score])*
7. Joker (Todd Phillips; review in our October 9, 2019 posting [Rotten Tomatoes 69% positive reviews, Metacritic 59% average score])
8. A Hidden Life (Terrence Malick; review in our January 9, 2020 posting [Rotten Tomatoes 81% positive reviews, Metacritic 78% score])
9. Rocketman (Dexter Fletcher; review in our June 6, 2019 posting [Rotten Tomatoes 89% positive reviews, Metacritic 69% average score])
10. Just Mercy (Destin Daniel Creton; review in our January 16, 2020 posting [Rotten Tomatoes 84% positive reviews, Metacritic 68% average score])
*A chief reason this stunning film ranks lower than it might on my list is my complaint (see the review) about how these seemingly-real-time-events (masterful editing to imply this chronological flow) which should have taken at least 6 hours to occur (given the distance the messengers had to travel on foot) all happen within the film’s 2-hr. running time, a major-conceptual-problem for me. However, my frequent correspondent, Richard Parker, notes Will's travel time could have been greatly reduced when he fell into the river, was carried along for quite some distance before he scrambled back on land, which might (?) give some clarity to this seeming-temporal-discrepancy, although Parker also notes the Allies had airplanes in the area so why wasn’t a pilot recruited to deliver this vital message in a fraction of the time it would take to carry on foot? Nevertheless, we both are impressed with this film overall. I had similar plot problems with Knives Out (Todd Haynes; see the review in our December 4, 2019 posting) although, in general, it's quite an enjoyable movie.
Other possibilities under consideration by me were (in probable order) The Two Popes (Fernando Meirelles; review in our January 2, 2020 posting), The Last Black Man in San Francisco (Joe Talbot; review in our June 12, 2019 posting), Booksmart (Olivia Wilde; review in our May 29, 2019 posting), although from what I’ve read about it I do think Clemency would also have been a solid contender (hope to know more soon)—other options frequently mentioned by others I thought about included Uncut Gems (Josh and Benny Safdie; review in our January 2, 2020 posting), The Lighthouse (Robert Eggers; review in our November 6, 2019 posting), The Farewell (Lulu Wang; review in our August 8, 2019 posting), Little Women (Greta Gerwig; review in our January 2, 2020 posting), and JoJo Rabbit (Taika Waititi; review in our November 13, 2019 posting), but in my opinion none of them (despite many successful aspects within these films) were rarely truly on my mind as being among the very best of the year. When you compare my choices to the Films Mentioned on Most Critics' Top 10 Lists you’ll find a mere 5 overlaps (1-4, 9 on that tally), just as when you match my Top 10 to those chosen for Oscar's Best Picture competition you’ll see 6 from me of their 9 (much more on the Oscars in next week’s posting when I list all the nominations along with my predictions for winners, my preferences in most of the categories [didn’t see any of the competitors in a few of them], plus how I’d have rearranged the nominees in some categories, all in preparation for the awards ceremony on February 9, 2020). Before that, though, here are my thoughts on a couple of other options you might like which I find to be worthy of your attention, either to enhance your understanding of what’s the chief focus of the ongoing impeachment trial against President Donald Trump or to help take your mind off that hot political collision completely, at least for awhile.
Citizen K (Alex Gibney, 2019) Not Rated
An informative documentary about Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once an oligarch of great influence in newly-capitalist-1990s-Russia then scorned by emerging dictator (my opinion) Vladimir Putin in the early 2000s leading to prison for 10 years, now murder charges forcing him into London exile (maybe not so safe for Russian dissidents either) where he continues to oppose Putin.
Here’s the trailer:
You’re easily excused if you’ve never heard of Citizen K (a play on the title of Orson Welles’ famous [still my all-time #1 cinematic triumph] Citizen Kane , but don’t confuse the 2 of them as the protagonist in this current documentary came to meaningful self-realizations and actions that the long-ago-fictional-lead in Welles’ story was never able to manage except in melancholy regrets, even as he died) because, despite being in release for 10 weeks it’s now only upped its presence last weekend from 1 to 7 domestic (U.S.-Canada) theaters (I was fortunate 1 of them was near me in Berkeley, CA or I’d still barely be aware of ...K), although once it finishes its theatrical run (sounds like that won’t be long as it’s taken in only about $55.7 thousand so far [$80.8 thousand worldwide], given such extremely-limited-availability) it’ll be streamable on Amazon Prime (who financed it) so you might want to seek it out—although the sooner the better in my opinion as it has useful relevance to the substance of the impeachment charges against Trump as far as how dangerous Russia’s become regarding international stability in recent years, especially in their ongoing threats/actions against Ukraine which gets to the heart of the concerns about the unnecessary withholding of Congressionally-authorized-U.S.-military-aid to our ally when there’s still warfare going on in the eastern part of that former-USSR-country. Even if the impeachment conflict’s over before … K’s up on Amazon Prime (as I know Senator Mitch McConnell’s attempting to push this trial to closure as fast as possible) I’d still recommend you give a look at Citizen K when you can if you need any further convincing about the dangers to Western democracy from Russian President Vladimir Putin, especially as he’s now in the process of changing his country’s Constitution (Trump wishes he could so easily change ours, I'm sure), therefore his rule will likely continue long after his mandated term of office ends in 2024 (just as he previously became Prime Minister for awhile, continued to pull the strings of government when he was lawfully required to step down from the Presidency for a few years back in 2008). What we get in this doc is essentially a fact-packed (yet reasonably-timed at 128 min.) history lesson (some in Russian, though; be prepared for subtitles) on what’s happened in Russia since the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union, beginning with chaos occurring during the early attempts at democracy and capitalism after centuries of autocratic rule: first from the Czars, then the theoretical-ideals-turned-to-dictatorship after the 1917 Communist Revolution.
Eventually Khodorkovsky moves to London to avoid arrest for his supposed murder (or at least the hiring of a hit man for such) of a former mayor, Vladimir Petukhov, from where he continues to do what he can to support anti-Putin movements back home, hopeful but desperate as they may be in a country where protest movements and anti-government media are strictly controlled, keeping himself focused on the hope that “The darker the night, the brighter the stars.” Such is the essence of what goes on in the film, although you can read this article in The Nation for considerably more details on its contents, visit this Khodorkovsky website to learn about his activist involvements in the Open Russia Foundation, and/or explore biographical sites devoted to Khodorkovsky and Putin (extensively documented) for in-depth-info about these pivotal personages in this fast-moving, informative documentary (although it didn’t make the finalists for this year’s Oscar, so I’ll just have to hope the others that did—I’ve seen only American Factory [Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar, 2019; review in our September 4, 2019 posting]—are of the high quality they’d need to be to top what we get in Citizen K). The CCAL’s been supportive of … K, with a cluster of 94% positive reviews at Rotten Tomatoes (out of 47, so that’s low coverage for them, admittedly), a 77% average score at Metacritic, which is reasonably high for them although based on a mere 17 critics so both of these evaluation-accumulation-sites would be better defended in their scores with more evidence. (You know, like what should be presented at an impeachment hearings, especially when it’s attempted to be blocked by a President’s defense team; oh, you’ve heard about that, have you?) I knew almost nothing about Khodorkovsky going into this screening, had forgotten a good bit of what I knew from newscasts back in the 1990s-early 2000s about the difficulty of Russia’s transition out of Communism, the resulting-near-collapse of their economy (except for the riches of the oligarchs, their quasi-military protection teams, and variations of Russian Mafia), along with the early rise of Putin so this doc was extremely helpful in getting all that back in perspective again, providing a better framework for what I now understand all too well about Putin’s interference in as many Western societies as he and his hackers can pull off, getting us back to the political/military crisis in Ukraine last summer (but an ongoing international horror there since 2014) and our "stable genius"‘s involvement in it, getting worse to know about on a daily basis, depending on how much you believe John Bolton (I do, easily, even if I generally don’t care for the guy or his hawkish-stances, although I’m sure you’re clear on how I consistently feel about infamous “Agent Orange”).
So, with all that gritty stuff to consider, how about if I use my usual-review-concluding-Musical Metaphor for Citizen K to lighten up these proceedings a bit? What I have in mind is "Back in the U.S.S.R." (from the famous 1968 “White Album,” officially named The Beatles; this video with added visuals), an intended parody of that atrocious Commie state* when recorded (despite some right-wingers at the time not getting the joke, mistakenly thinking it was pro-Soviet), given further irony when Paul McCartney performed it in Moscow’s Red Square on May 24, 2003 (a time when there was a hopeful attitude of better relations between Russia and the West [I vacationed in St. Petersburg for a few days that summer, came back with a red T-shirt for “McLenin’s” hamburgers with a slogan on the back: “The Party’s Over”]). If lyrics like “the Ukraine girls really knock me out They leave the West behind [maybe Trump thought Hunter Biden wrote this song—2 years before he was born!] And Moscow girls make me sing and shout That Georgia’s always on my mi-mi-[…]-mind” don’t announce parody I don’t know what does (but apparently some GOP Senators don’t know what constitutes impeachment either). OK, if there’s little (if any) love in politics, maybe we can find some using dating apps, dogs, or sandwiches in an L.A. park. Wanna try? Read on, then.
*Further, this Beatles’ song’s also a parody of musical forerunner-hits "California Girls" by the Beach Boys (on their 1965 album Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!)), Chuck Berry’s "Back in the U.S.A." (a 1959 hit on his 1962 album More Chuck Berry; video from a 1959 TV broadcast), and the Beach Boys’ "Surfin' U.S.A." (on their 1963 album of that name) which takes its melody from Berry’s "Sweet Little Sixteen" (on his 1958 One Dozen Berrys album; video from 1958), led to various lawsuits/writer-attributions to “Surfin’ U.S.A.,” first to Brian Wilson, then Chuck Berry (Mike Love claims he should have credit too—that Transcendental Meditation sure has mellowed him out over the years, hasn’t it?), thus “… U.S.S.R” is so seeped in parody/irony it’s sometimes hard to just listen to its silly joy (especially when you realize Putin’s doing everything he can to restore some resemblance of those wretched Soviet years if not the full-blown Russian Empire of centuries past).
What Love Looks Like (Alex Magaña) Not Rated
A whimsical, independent feature set in L.A. where 5 couples (eventually, not immediately) deal with realities of present-day-love where age-old problems of fear, rejection, misunderstandings, logistical difficulties are sometimes enhanced with complications from cell phones and dating apps; cleverly cut together, situations easy to relate to, no matter what your age.
Here’s the trailer:
If you can abide plot spoilers read on, but as this blog’s intended for those who’ve seen the film—or want to save some bucks—to help any of you who’d like to learn more details yet avoid important plot-reveals I’ll identify such give-away sentences/sentence-clusters thusly:
⇒The first and last words will be noted with arrows and red.⇐ OK, now continue on if you prefer.
A couple of years ago director/screenwriter Magaña contacted me with a request to review his movie, 29 to Life (2018), which I did, found it mostly a pleasure to watch (still available on Amazon Prime) although with some limitations (as can be expected with an independent, low-budget project), so I was pleasantly surprised recently to hear from him again with an offer to review his latest work (also found on Amazon Prime, but there's little other information available except at IMDb where there’s a full cast list and a link to a few reviews, mine now included, and the official Facebook site), which I accepted, am glad I did, overall enjoyed watching this new arrival from a growing talent (with one notable complaint, but even there I might be in the minority), and actively encourage your awareness of What Love Looks Like (assuming you have membership in Amazon Prime—doesn’t everyone?—or are willing to pay for a rental, considerably cheaper than a first-run movie ticket, with no intended conflicts of interest for me [despite supporting all efforts to keep actual movie theaters in business; in this case you can see it only in streaming anyway] along with no remuneration in any manner to Two Guys in the Dark, just a sincere encouragement you’d likely find … Love … to be enjoyable, especially when shared with a romantic partner of your own—or if you don’t currently have one, maybe there are some useful tips here on how to make a desired connection, although getting a cute dog as a furry-icebreaker [as well as providing guaranteed companionship anyway] might be safer in the long run than trusting your luck with a ridehailing-driver). The premise isn’t complicated but does require attention to keep up with the actively-intercut-presentation of 5 contained, unconnected stories because if you don’t get initial clarity on the characters who inhabit each realm of this L.A. location (where these various folks could have run into each other, given the common setting of a public park where a good bit of the activity takes place) you might well confuse motives, actions, intentions, which would be your fault, not the filmmaker’s, because when watched attentively it all easily makes sense despite the frequent shifts from one storyline to another. Essentially what we have here (after some quick opening vignettes on cuddly-love-situations) are narratives about how 5 romantic pairs come about (with a couple of lost participants along the way) so I’ll begin with a quick summary, in the order in which we meet everyone on screen, of what the situations are for all of them (without attempting to cite how these plotlines are constantly, actively edited together), then I’ll shift into beware-of-spoilers-mode to note how they all end up with my advice not to ruin what you don’t yet know about … Love … until you see it for yourself, which I don’t think nearly enough potential viewers have done yet based on the scarcity of reviews at IMDb or actual comments beyond promo materials at the Facebook page.
We start with Nicole (Kate Durocher) and Owen (Josh Gilmer)—above—living together but hardly connected as he’s always face-buried into his phone, giving her constant frustration but reason to go have good times without him (all he cares about when she leaves is whether she’s left food for this lazy ingrate to consume), ultimately allowing her to meet ridehailing-driver Jace (Trevor Sean), whom she kisses at one point, then feels guilty about although Owen can’t stop engaging with his phone long enough to even warrant any dialogue about it. Next we find Summer (Jamie Sheinitz) and Calvin (Connor Wilkins) in bed after meeting on a dating app, but he’s leaving due to early work next morning which offends her, leaves him calling her a “psycho”; through encouragement by his buddy, Calvin uses another, more-anonymous, no-photo app leading to increasingly-connective-texts culminating in a planned lunch, but when Calvin peeks into the restaurant he sees his date is Summer so he leaves with no explanation. We may be a bit confused about Sam (Nathan Kohnen) at first because he seems to be with Willow (Gabriella Wisdom), then she’s gone, clarity restored when we learn they were married but she suddenly died; he eats his daily lunch at a nearby park where a connection around sandwiches and friendly chatter develops with Evie (Ashley Rose McKenna) until Sam backs off, unready for a new relationship but not explaining anything to Evie. That same park’s a crucial setting as well for Theodore (Jake Menzies) who desperately wants to meet Bailey (Ana Ming Bostwick-Singer), finally happens through their mutual dogs, leading him to contact her, go to dinner, where he’s so nervous he can barely eat. Finally, at that park again Finn (Kyle Meck) wanders away from a birthday party for his little sister, is smitten by seeing Penelope (Taylor Alexa Frank), a study-abroad-college-student from London scheduled to return home the next day. Once we’ve become incorporated into the lives of these mutually-exclusive-minigroups, much of how each story began continues similarly until their situations wrap up as follows. ⇒Nicole finally decides to move out leaving Owen surprised but still connected more to his phone than his feelings; by chance—and a lot of hustle on her part—Jace is back as her driver but obviously much more than that. Summer and Sam finally meet at night in that fateful park, lovingly resolve their differences. Willow somehow sends a written note to Sam, then appears again, encouraging him to move on which he does the next day with Evie, once again over sandwiches. In a very clever interlude, Theodore and Bailey simply have pizza at her place, watch Casablanca (but with young actors Kylee Wofford and Ian Nemser taking the place of Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart in the airport farewell scene, apparently with rewritten dialogue as these Millennials would hear/interpret it—as best as Boomer me understands what’s going on here)—then fully connect. Finn sells everything he can, hops a plane to London, makes a connection as well with Penelope.⇐
|Despite their similar long, brunette hair and denim jackets, don't confuse Penelope |
(shown here kissing Finn) with Evie (back in that first photo at the top of this posting).
*When I met my much-better-wife, Nina, almost 33 years ago our situations could have been similar to that of Finn and Penelope because she was seriously considering moving from Berkeley to London to start a new chapter in her life, a situation I’m not sure I’d have been able to respond to as decisively as Finn does because Nina had investigated job prospects there so she had a plan while if I’d been challenged with following her all the way across the Atlantic Ocean it would have been very difficult as I was 39 with no immediate skills to pursue in terms of employment in England (as best I knew) so I’m ever-grateful she chose to stay in the U.S. to see how things might develop between us (thankfully, she’s still here). Now, what Finn intended to do once he crossed “the pond” I’m not sure, but at a much younger age than I was in that circumstance maybe he would have had more possibilities (unless the almost-official-Brexit “divorce” from the European Union causes financial chaos, but that’s not among the topics What Love Looks Like wants to explore, now is it?).
|Don't adjust your screen! This is the version of Casablanca used in What Love Looks Like,|
not the original classic version starring Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart.
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AND … at least until the Oscars for 2019’s releases have been awarded on Sunday, February 9, 2020 we’re also going to include reminders in each posting of very informative links where you can get updated tallies of which 2019 films have been nominated for and/or received various awards
and which ones made various individual critic’s Top 10 lists. You may find the diversity among the various awards competitions and the various critics hard to reconcile at times—not to mention the often-significant-gap between critics’ choices and competitive-award-winners (which pales when compared to the even-more-noticeable-gap between specific award winners and big box-office-grosses you might want to monitor here)—but as that less-than-enthusiastic-patron-of-the-arts, Plato, noted in The Symposium (385-380 BC)—roughly translated, depending on how accurate you wish the actual quote to be—“Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder,” so your choices for success are as valid as any of these others, especially if you offer some rationale for your decisions (unlike many of the awards voters who simply fill out ballots, sometimes for films they’ve never seen).
To save you a little time scrolling through the “various awards” list above, here are the current Golden Globe nominees and winners for films and TV from 2019 along with the Oscar nominees for 2019 films.
Here’s more information about Citizen K:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vHfvQ7kSaPE (30:54 interview with director Alex Gibney)
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If we did talk, though, you’d easily see how my early-70s-age informs my references, Musical Metaphors, etc. in these reviews because I’m clearly a guy of the later 20th century, not so much the contemporary world. I’ve come to accept my ongoing situation, though, realizing we all (if fate allows) keep getting older, we just have to embrace it, as Joni Mitchell did so well in "The Circle Game," offering sage advice even when she was quite young herself.
By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile. Ken
P.S. Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker. But wherever the rest of my body may be my heart’s always with my longtime-companion, lover, and wife, Nina Kindblad, so here’s our favorite shared song—Neil Young’s "Harvest Moon"
—from the performance we saw at the Desert Trip concerts in Indio, CA on October 15, 2016 (as a full moon was rising over the stadium) because “I’m still in love with you,” my dearest, a never-changing-reality even as the moon waxes and wanes over the months/years to come.
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