Welcome to the JSHmoviestuff REVIEW OF 2019: “There is no punchline”.
I just really liked this particular line from Todd Phillips’s groundbreaking JOKER that made such a titanic impression on this year’s movie scene and easily earned its place in the JSHmoviestuff REVIEW OF 2019. Even in their most gleeful – yes, I mean you TOY STORY 4 – there is an undercurrent of darkness to the proceedings in all of the films I’ve chosen this year. From recreating one of the most awful true crimes of the last 50 years to the implosion of a once-loving marriage, from a cautionary tale of how society can bring about the creation of a frightening criminal to a person discovering the truth of their parentage, the stakes couldn’t be higher.
So, in release order, off we go. As ever, for my full reviews of the movies I’ve selected, just click on the film’s title.
The first on my list is TOY STORY 4 “You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll feel complete” I wrote and that’s exactly what I felt coming out of the cinema after watching it on a warm summer day. This bunch of memorable characters, among them Woody, Buzz Lightyear, Mr and Mrs Potato Head, Rex, Slinky, and Hamm, have really tapped into something very childlike in us. When watching their marvellous capers in these four wonderful films and seeing how they all come together to triumph when the chips are down just reduces me to an emotional blob. After leaving the story so perfectly at the end of Toy Story 3, a lot of people thought what else could they say? But those geniuses at Pixar charm us all over again with a slew of fabulous new characters and situations to challenge Tom Hanks‘ indomitable Woody and the gang. Don’t believe those naysayers that this isn’t as good as the previous three – it is.
My next choice couldn’t be more different – Quentin Tarantino’s ninth, amazing film, ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD. A spot-on, beautiful recreation of Tinseltown in 1969 (huge kudos to Mr T and his production designer Barbara Ling) we follow a pair of industry players: Leonardo DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton, a once well-regarded actor now in a career slide and his best friend and stunt double Cliff Booth, played by Brad Pitt, as they struggle to keep themselves in the Hollywood game. What an absolute joy it is to see these two megastars at the top of their acting game, giving pitch-perfect performances and also bringing to mind the fantastic chemistry Paul Newman and Robert Redford had in Butch Cassidy and The Sting. The way Tarantino takes us on this journey through a changing Hollywood as the arrival of new film-makers like Roman Polanski heralds a different kind of movie-making is glorious. Of course, there’s the trademark humour and violence that we love in a Tarantino picture and boy, will it surprise you with its turn of events. Don’t miss this one.
And then there was JOKER. Wow. That’s about the sum of my review for writer/director Todd Phillips’ amazing movie. Wow. Right from the first glimpse of a masterly Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck: part-time clown, wannabe stand-up comedian, and deeply troubled soul, way back in April in the film’s teaser trailer, it was clear this was going to be an unforgettable viewing experience. And indeed it was. Being the bell of the ball at the Venice Film Festival in September where it astounded everyone by winning the coveted ‘Golden Lion’ aka ‘Best Picture’. The sheer power of Phoenix’s transformation from the unassuming Fleck into a truly terrifying JOKER dancing in slo-mo down that flight of steps was something else and for many, including me, it signified the performance of the year. Phillips also brought us a top-notch supporting cast though, including a suave and slightly seedy Robert De Niro as talkshow host Murray Franklin and a beguiling Zazie Beetz as Arthur’s single mum neighbour. And this was another instance of a shout-out to the excellent production design as Mark Friedberg created a Gotham City akin to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. Finally, Hildur Guðnadóttir’s superlative score which used a cello to express Fleck’s state of mind is surely awards-worthy. This really was a comic book origin story the like of which you haven’t seen before and bravo to Phillips and his co-screenwriter Scott Silver for crafting such a brutal and brilliant character study. Don’t even think about missing this.
I always love to include a documentary in my yearly round-up if there’s been a standout one and for the JSHmoviestuff REVIEW OF 2019 and the best of the last 12 months was an easy choice – APOLLO 11. I absolutely love anything about the space race, from Philip Kaufman’s awesome The Right Stuff to Ron Howard’s terrific Apollo 13 and more recently Damien Chazelle’s superb First Man, I’m there. But this was a very special and unique film as it used never-before-seen footage and archival material to show us the behind-the-scenes story of that legendary APOLLO 11 trip to the moon in July 1969. Director Todd Douglas Miller must have trawled through hours and hours of film to select and fashion this almost real-time recreation of the edge-of-your-seat flight and the result is monumentally gripping. If you see one documentary from 2019, make it this one.
One of the absolute highlights of 2019 was my next movie, MARRIAGE STORY. In a year of great acting performances, watching a luminous Scarlett Johnasson and a barnstorming Adam Driver as married couple Nicole and Charlie Barber going through the painful process of a divorce, was almost the icing on the cake. What acting! And in one incredible moment Driver sings to (!!) giving a rendition of ‘Being Alive’ from Stephen Sondheim’s musical Company that will move you to tears. It’s almost an embarrassment of acting riches in writer/director Noah Baumbach’s tremendous movie as playing the couple’s divorce lawyers are a pit bull-like Ray Liotta (fabulous), a piranha-like Laura Dern (sensational), and a beautifully crumpled Alan Alda (magic). Perhaps you might think that watching a film about an increasingly bitter breakdown of a marriage isn’t a great choice for a night out but you’d be wrong – seeing such stellar performances as the ones you have here, delivering a script that is as funny, tender and from the heart as MARRIAGE STORY is a no-brainer. See this!
And what better way to end the year and the whole incredible saga of nine films than STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER, director J.J. Abrams staggering finale to the nine films in George Lucas’ epic fantasy. We wanted everything in this climactic part of the story of scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley in her best portrayal of this new trilogy) – who are her parents and is she really someone special? – ex-stormtrooper Finn (a splendid John Boyega) and the terrifically conflicted Kylo Ren (Adam Driver once again bringing ferocity and wry humour to the proceedings) and boy, do we get it. I felt an overwhelming sense of delight at what Abrams accomplishes with this movie, giving us action, spectacle, tragedy and emotion by the bucketload. To complete a story that began over 40 years ago and deliver its conclusion in such an epic way really does mark him aside as a director of remarkable skill. You kind of didn’t want it to end but for now, ended it has and in spectacular fashion. Just watch it, ok?
And there you have it, my REVIEW OF 2019. Before I sign off, I do want to make a couple of special mentions of other films that made an impression on me this year and, who knows, you may see posts on them sometime soon.
Les Retour Du Heros is a sparkling romantic comedy that sees Melanie Laurent and Jean Dujardin (both fantastic as ever) squabble and spar in Napoleonic France, in a story of an egotistical soldier who comes back from the war and meets his match in the sister of the woman he once loved and left. Each time I watch Captain Marvel (and I’ve seen it a couple of times now) I admire it even more. I’m a big fan of Brie Larson and she’s terrific in this origins story of Marvel Comics mightiest (and definitely coolest) superhero. Finally, James Gray’s space drama Ad Astra with a superb Brad Pitt (in his second knockout performance of the year) is one of those movies that I feel I’ll grow to love more and more with every viewing – I was impressed with its controlled power the first time I saw it and it could be a film I return to many times, along with all of the movies I’ve picked this year.