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"Good Old JR" Jim Rutkowski weighs in with his picks for the TOP 10 films of 2019

2019-Streaming Comes on Strong

(011720) In this time of franchise sequels and stay-at-home streaming options, it’s hard to argue against the notion that movies no longer dominate the cultural conversation like they once did. As the ways in which we watch things evolve so do the films themselves, and it’s certainly no coincidence that our two most prominent, movie-mad American directors — Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese — this year both made films that felt like requiems for the ends of eras. (It’s also notable that the latter had to make his for Netflix after every studio in town turned him down.) Where this is all headed I have no idea, but I do know that 2019 was a terrific one for cinema in general, with the movies listed below proving that there’s still plenty of magic to be found in these flickering images, no matter what kind of screen you’re watching them on.

The other films that didn't quite make the list:
Uncut Gems
I Lost My Body
Long Day's Journey Into Night
The Farewell

As for the worst of the year, keeping in mind that I have not seen Cats:
X-Men: Dark Phoenix (The X-Men series wraps up in the worst way)
Hellboy (I may have been the only person to see this)
Dumbo (Disney cash grab #1)
The Lion King (Disney cash grab #2)
Joker (A maniacal smile without any teeth )

And now, the 2019 TOP 10 Countdown...

Director: James Gray

Early in “Ad Astra,” James Gray’s stunning space epic, Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) takes a fall from the International Space Antenna. As he plummets to earth, his heart rate slows and the whole world becomes quiet. This transfixing opening scene sets the stage for the contemplative movie to come. Considering “Ad Astra” includes moon pirates and space baboons, it is one of the quietest blockbusters in recent memory. The film explores what humanity loses as it ventures farther from the gravitational pull of the earth, and what it can take to send someone as level-headed as Roy spiraling back to that core. In this case, Roy has to travel as far as Jupiter to glimpse what’s important in his life back on Earth.

9.) APOLLO 11
Director: Todd Douglas Miller

It takes a lot of ambition to tackle one of the most iconic moments in history and find a way to make it fresh. The moon landing saga has the same kind of narrative inevitability as the Titanic sinking: You know how it winds up, so what’s left to explore? The dazzling feature-length montage of “Apollo 11” rejoices in the process: Director Todd Douglas Miller assembles a whirlwind of archival footage and radio communications into a taut real-time thriller about the suspense of technological advancement. As the movie zips from the breathless drama of mission control to the menacing scale of the launch pad (best appreciated in IMAX, where newly exhumed 70mm film works its magic), Miller deconstructs the mythology of the first moon landing by illustrating the sheer sophistication involved in getting them there. At the same time, “Apollo 11” often cuts away to crowds watching the accomplishments from afar, providing a reminder of just how much scientific achievements can take hold of the public’s imagination and become a unifying force unlike anything seen today. While it takes place in the distant past, “Apollo 11” practically unfolds like science fiction, given how many decades have passed since the last time we sent astronauts to our neighbor in the sky. By the end of the movie, one thing is clear: We have to get back out there.

Director: Claire Denis
The latest provocation from Claire Denis is an elusive, mesmerizing and often shocking sci-fi extravaganza whose oblique meanings seem to hover ever so tantalizingly out of reach. It takes place on a prison ship rocketing out of our solar system toward a black hole, where death row inmates — including Robert Pattinson’s surly, closed off convict — have volunteered as guinea pigs for all sorts of bizarre and perverted experiments at the hands of Juliette Binoche’s mad scientist. The movie is obsessed with the sticky building blocks of life, as semen, breast milk and menstrual blood jockey for screen time along with various other secretions. Denis has never been a filmmaker particularly fond of telling you what’s going on in her movies, and “High Life” is most assuredly not for everybody, but it's downright thrilling if you’re into this kind of thing. I am very much into this kind of thing.

Director: Joe Talbot
The wisdom of “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” is this: you can only hate what you love. Joe Talbot’s debut stands as a searing indictment of gentrification and how it’s changing the worlds that people love and ripping from them a sense of civic identity. But not even fancy froyo shops and grim, grinning, douchebag real estate agents can rip away their pride. The film holds its anger only as close to its heart as it does the swelling adoration for a place called home, with Emile Mosseri’s phenomenal score all at once serving as a rallying cry and celebratory serenade to the film’s whirlwind of emotions for The City by the Bay. Both leads — Jimmie Fails, who laid the groundwork for the story, and Jonathan Majors — function as empathetic conduits into this deeply personal story, one that rings with urgent truth.

Director: Jia Zhangke
Another sprawling crime epic, this one spanning two decades in modern mainland China. Zhao Tao gives one of this year’s most indelible performances as a low-level gun moll who takes a firearms rap for her boyfriend and emerges from prison five years later to a country radically transformed. China’s economic miracle has turned all the gangsters into businessmen and bureaucrats, with her old swindler pals parked in cushy desk jobs at the Chamber of Commerce. Even the landscapes are unrecognizable thanks to the Three Gorges Dam Project, a mainstay of director Jia Zhangke’s work. It’s a profoundly ambivalent movie about the march of progress, the diminishment of time and codes of chivalry that may have only ever existed in the movies.

Director: Ryan Johnson
A classic parlor mystery whodunit with Agatha Christie sensibilities mixed with 2019’s sociopolitical landscape, “Knives Out” isn’t just coming to entertain, but to indict. Like his debut feature, “Brick,” director Rian Johnson is both reveling in and subverting classic genre tropes here, using the mechanics of the murder mystery as the nourishing entrée while allowing for time and place-specific improvisations to dazzle as the side-dishes. This isn’t just for show, though. Aside from being a damn good time and a crackerjack mystery, the film deploys its genre deviations with surgical precision, both delighting its audience as well as forcing them to question their own values along the way.

Director: Greta Gerwig
Writer-director Greta Gerwig’s phenomenal reworking of the oft-adapted Louisa May Alcott mainstay shakes up the structure by starting out in the middle, after adulthood’s already underway, thereby adding an additional layer of melancholy to the beloved adventures of the March girls. Childhood’s gone, revisited in golden-hued flashbacks and put to purpose for a novel-in-progress by Saoirse Ronan’s feisty spinster Jo. As in her terrific “Lady Bird,” Gerwig puts a screwball spin on the dialogue and paces the movie like it’s strapped to a rocket. Fussy period pieces with such lovely cinematography and fine production design can often feel embalmed, but this one’s bustling, funny and intoxicatingly alive. A breakout performance by Florence Pugh suggests that Amy might have been the most interesting March sister all along, and the ingenious fix Gerwig finds for all that yucky Professor Bhaer stuff is some of the year’s sharpest screenwriting.

Director: Noah Baumbach
 “Marriage Story” brings a lot of baggage to the table: It’s a divorce saga about a wealthy showbiz couple that burrows into the emotional turmoil of their split, and the plight of whiny, privileged white people is not exactly in vogue. But the power here stems from the way it transcends the simplicity of its premise, with writer-director Noah Baumbach matching the material for his most personal movie with film-making ambition to spare, and a pair of devastating performances from Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson that rank as their very best. It starts from a familiar place, then sneaks into transcendence. The irony is that the story has more to do with the particulars of the divorce process — the way the intricate legalities unfold in bland meeting rooms and harsh courtroom exchanges at odds with the fragile circumstances. Over the course of 136 absorbing minutes, as the movie navigates dissolving couple Charlie and Nicole’s clashing perspectives, Baumbach doesn’t attempt to reconstruct the path toward divorce so much as the complex psychological turmoil it instigates for his protagonists. It extends beyond the obvious merits of Baumbach’s screenplay. This establishes Baumbach as a major auteur who knows how to use the medium to convey the conflicted mindsets of self-absorbed characters he’s been writing about for decades. This is the apotheosis of his vision, a striking ability to empathize with people on both sides of an unresolvable dispute.

2.) the IRISHMAN
Director: Martin Scorcese
The last gangster movie, or it might as well be. Martin Scorsese brings his career-long collaborators Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Harvey Keitel (with an assist from the godfather himself, Al Pacino) to the end of the line. It’s the mob movie equivalent to John Ford’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” or Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven” in that it finds a filmmaker reflecting on the genre he helped define, issuing what feels like a final word on the subject. Though at times quite unexpectedly hilarious, “The Irishman” has none of the swagger of Scorsese’s earlier gangster pictures. The exhilaration of “Goodfellas” and strutting peacock energy of “Casino” have here been pared away into something more meditative and grave, particularly in the film’s extraordinary final hour when loneliness and the indignities of old age come to collect in ways this character’s conscience never allowed.

Director: Bong Jun Ho
Bong Joon Ho makes genre films about ideas. He’s often called the South Korean Spielberg but there’s a lot of Noam Chomsky in there, too. His return to Seoul after two English language adventures with international casts is the filmmaker’s cleverest, most formally controlled picture yet. It’s also one of his angriest. This sly, Hitchcockian thriller seethes at systemic inequality, dazzling the audience with its seriocomic suspense sequences before slipping you the shiv. Wickedly delightful, the movie has more laughs than most comedies and jolts that leave you gasping for breath. But more than that, Bong’s films turn ideology into action. He visualizes the social hierarchy quite literally here, with the haves on top and have-nots down in the basement. His stories are his political stances, and every shot in “Parasite” is some sort of argument.


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