THE LAST FEW MOVIES: EPISODE XXXVII – A Pretty Good Year

Happy holidays. Watch some movies.

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16. Disney once again saps all energy, magic, and joy out of another stone cold classic with their remake of The Lion King (2019). It’s a hollow, dour, boring slog. The photo-realism is technically impressive but lacks style and emotional resonance. I’m not  against this concept working. It just doesn’t work. Great voice cast on paper, but they all sound half asleep (with the exception of maybe Billy Eichner).

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15. Holiday Inn (1942) has Bing Crosby in blackface and was still better than The Lion King. Fred Astaire has a couple dance numbers and it features the cozy holiday anthem, “White Christmas” (and other songs from Irving Berlin). Holiday Inn was later turned into White Christmas in 1954 with Bing and Danny Kaye, which is a better film that I also don’t particularly care for.

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14. Gave an old Bill Murray classic a re-watch. Ivan Reitman’s Stripes (1981) may be better remembered fondly than re-experienced. There are some very funny bits and lines, but overall the film is disjointed, hasn’t aged the best, and I never got the attack RV. You could re-watch the wacky hijinks of a schlubby bunch of dudes bumble and smart-mouth their way through boot camp or you could watch some of the better movies with Bill Murray or Harold Ramis or John Candy, etc.

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13. Finally saw Joker (2018). It was pretty good. What I hate about movies with so much public tug-o-war over if it’s the best thing ever or the worst is that the fuss usually diminishes the experience of the film itself. As an homage to Scorsese’s King of Comedy, it’s pretty decent. As a mainstream film approaching the conversation on class struggle, it’s blunt but not bad. As a movie about the iconic Batman nemesis, it’s kind of bewildering. Had the movie had zero connection to the comic book Joker character, it would have been far more interesting (to me, anyway) but it would have had a harder time getting seen. As a movie about mental illness, it’s iffy. Joaquin Phoenix is good and the cinematography is gritty and saturated with the right combination of colors. Maybe the trouble I have with telling a story about the vulnerable and tragic beginnings of the clown prince of crime is that it strips him of his anarchic mystique.

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12. Stunning animation, meticulous art direction, and a clever script all serve to make Sergio Pablos’ Klaus (2019) an instant holiday classic. When a freeloading postal flunky gets sent to the remotest outpost on the map, he discovers a village at perpetual civil war (think a Scandinavian flavored Hatfields vs McCoys type thing). In order to reach his mail quota, the postman teams up with a reclusive woodsman who used to make toys. The rest is Christmas magic. Klaus is wacky but restrained. It has humor and heart in equal measure. The attention to detail and the groundbreaking animation techniques really showcase the unique energy of 2D animation. It’s an original film that will definitely be worth revisiting every year. Featuring the voices of Jason Schwartzman, J.K. Simmons, Joan Cusack, Rashida Jones, Norm Macdonald, and more.

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11. Martin Scorsese assembles the most iconic Italian American actors to give us a movie called The Irishman (2019). Robert DeNiro plays an Irish enforcer to the Italian mob (run by Joe Pesci) and winds up being chums with union leader, Jimmy Hoffa (played by the irascible Al Pacino). It’s a slow-moving period piece that’s a pleasant pastiche of the director’s earlier works (most notably Casino and Goodfellas). Simply let the narrative wash over you scene to scene. While not my favorite Scorsese flick, it’s a smooth ride that goes down easy. I may wish it had a bit more bite to it, but it was great seeing Pesci and the gang again.

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10. Fernando Ferreira Meirelles (City of God) directs Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce in The Two Popes (2019), a quiet drama about Pope Benedict XVI’s abdication of his role to Cardinal Bergoglio. It’s an abstract sort of world, this film invites you in to observe. It’s a world of ancient, ornate artwork and old men pontificating on different ideas. And the differences in values are treated with intelligence and sincerity. Hopkins and Pryce give excellent performances. I enjoyed watching the relationship between the two men evolve.

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9. Just as I had hoped, Eddie Murphy is back. Murphy plays blaxploitation legend Rudy Ray Moore in Dolemite Is My Name (2019). Perhaps it paints Moore’s work in a light that is more profound than his oeuvre merits, but that’s part of this behind-the-scenes fantasy’s charm. It is satisfying to watch Murphy’s portrayal of the man cracking the code to his comedy, discovering this flamboyant character, and, in the face of adversity, sticking to his guns and doing it all his way. Fans of Rudy Ray Moore, blaxploitation, film history, or any member of the star-studded cast won’t be disappointed. Features Wesley Snipes, Craig Robinson, Titus Burgess, Keegan-Michael Key, Da’vine Joy Randolph, Snoop Dogg, Mike Epps, and Chris Rock.

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8. Taika Waititi follows in the footsteps of Chaplin, Lubitsch, Brooks, and Benigni with a film that lampoons the utter absurdity of the Third Reich in Jojo Rabbit (2019). The film follows a young boy (Roman Griffin Davis) who is brainwashed into the Hitler Youth and discovers his mother (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding a Jewish girl (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) in their house. Most similar to Waititi’s earlier film, The Hunt for the Wilderpeople (a classic on its own), many may find it reminiscent of the films of Wes Anderson. Unlike Anderson, however, Waititi isn’t afraid of being tender or showing emotion. While the setting and subject matter may be serious, the comedy lands with zing and crackle. Taika Waititi is fun as a camp Hitler imaginary friend, but Sam Rockwell steals the show as a thoroughly disenfranchised alcoholic soldier. Rebel Wilson and Stephen Merchant are also great in their small roles. Johansson, as Jojo’s mother, is the heart of the film.

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7. Music! Magic! A donkey that shits precious jewels! Incest! It’s Donkey Skin (1970). Catherine Deneuve stars as a princess who flees the kingdom where her weird, horny father wants to marry her in this bonkers and very French fairy tale. Sumptuous costumes, lush sets, eye popping colors, acerbic wit, and a healthy dose of comic surreality make this musical fantasy one you’ll want to experience again. Wonderfully weird.

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6. Souleymane Cissé’s fantasy epic from Mali, Yeelen (1987), operates on its own logic. Young Nianankoro (Issiaka Kane) leaves his elderly mother to go on a quest to face his father, an evil wizard who wants his son dead. Nianankoro is blessed with magical powers of his own, and these powers serve him well on his journey as he meets kings, warriors, his uncle, and a hyena man who knows the future. Yeelen is a wholly unique cinematic experience that fans of world cinema cannot miss.

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5. Regardless of to what degree you disliked The Last Jedi, Rian Johnson is a filmmaker. Knives Out (2019) doesn’t reinvent the whodunit mystery genre, but it perfectly gels all the typical ingredients with such grace and style that it makes for a delicious outing to the theater. A sly gentleman sleuth (Daniel Craig with a Southern drawl) investigates the mysterious suicide of a wealthy novelist and patriarch (Christopher Plummer). The grieving family members are interrogated and as the plot continues to twist, their temperaments are pushed to reveal their true colors. Very Agatha Christie. Very wry. Very clever script and enjoyable performances. Stellar cast includes Ana de Armas, Jamie Lee Curtis, Toni Collette, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Lakeith Stanfield, Frank Oz, and more.

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4. The Host director, Bong Joon Ho tackles class struggle in the brilliantly bleak South Korean satirical thriller Parasite (2019). The poor Kim family seek to exploit the filthy rich Park family. Loaded with twists and tension, it’s best you don’t know too much. Stars Kang-Ho Song, Cho Yeo-jeong, and Park So-dam.

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3. Since Z (1969) is one of my all time favorite movies, it seems logical I would love Costa-Gavras’s equally politically frustrating State of Siege (1972). And I do. An American diplomat is found dead in Uruguay. The rest of the film plots out the web of complicated events and taut political climate that led to this tragic bookend. From its gritty aesthetic to its unapologetic portrayal of right-wing fascism and leftist terror response, its a movie for grownups that sucks you in, bludgeons you with its pessimism, and leaves you grasping for what to do. Much like Z, there are no real main characters. Everything is presented from a cold, almost documentarian, distance. Features Yves Montand, O. E. Hasse, Jean-Luc Bideau, and Jacques Perrin.

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2. It may not be the best movie technically, but for sheer enjoyment nothing can top Neil Breen’s fifth feature film, Twisted Pair (2018). Cade and Cale are identical twins (Breen in a dual role) who get abducted by aliens and made into humanoids (he means robots) and return to Earth with markedly different ideas about how to save humanity from itself. Twisted Pair contains most of the Breen hallmarks you come to expect, but in putting himself against himself, it’s as if he is examining his Messiah Complex with a more introspection than ever before. Breen’s the kind of writer-producer-director-star-caterer you wish for; a brilliantly incomprehensible narcissist whose insistence on writing himself as the most misunderstood yet intelligent, physically strong, sexually desirable, morally superior, and, now, more conscious human being alive that belies his incompetence as a filmmaker and his childlike understanding of reality. Paradox of paradoxes, all of these outwardly negative descriptors aggregate into something truly hypnotic and confoundingly pure. Perhaps his most personal work yet. He doesn’t ask what it means to be human. That question is too small. In Twisted Pair, he dares to ask the ultimate question: what does it mean to be Breen? I can’t thank Neil Breen enough for bringing these blessings of cinematic joy into the world.

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1. Fanny and Alexander(1982) is like the ultimate Ingmar Bergman film and one of the very best Christmas movies. Yes, even better than Die Hard. I had seen the 188 minute theatrical cut years ago at the New Beverly Cinema, but this holiday season I strapped in for the full length 312 minute mini series version. And what a marvel of filmmaking it is. Despite its intimidating length, I’d say it’s more accessible than say Persona. The story follows the affluent Ekdahl family, in particular the youngest children of the sickly theater director and his smoking hot wife. And what a gaggle of complex characters and deep, dark themes the legendary Swedish auteur has collected. Gorgeous to look at with each frame and peppered with laughs of whimsy and gasps of horror, this might be my favorite Bergman.

BONUS SHORT

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Anna Biller’s unique knack for recapturing the aesthetics of the days cinema past (this time, classic 1950s westerns) and juxtaposing them against feminist themes is on display in A Visit from the Incubus (2001). A woman (Biller) is being harassed every night in her sleep by a lascivious sex demon, so she takes him on the only way she can: by outperforming him on the stage at the local saloon. Colorful and tongue-in-cheek.

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