So the winter of 2019/2020 has kind of gotten away from me a bit, and as a result I didn't have the chance to write full reviews of some of the most talked about films of the year. However, I wanted to take a quick moment and give you my brief thoughts on three of them. Enjoy!
The Two Popes
Why Does This Exist?
The Two Popes (2019): Behind Vatican walls, the conservative Pope Benedict XVI and the liberal future Pope Francis must find common ground to forge a new path for the Catholic Church.
Ok, before I really dive into this one, I should preface with this: I am not one to talk about the Catholic Church. I have come to loathe the institution over the years, mostly because of its hubris and gross malpractice around the handling of the millions of sexual assault claims levied at priests over the last two decades, so a story about an uber conservative pope handing the reins of the church over to a slightly less conservative pope won't particularly interest me. That said.... if you're not a diehard Catholic, there is very little here to keep you engrossed. This entire film feels rushed and unkempt, particularly with its over-the-top handcam (this feels like your dad holding a 90s camcorder for most of the film) and uncomfortable close close-ups. This film is supposed to highlight the acting prowess of Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce, but I couldn't stop marveling at how bad this film looked. Which is kind of amazing to do since most of this film is those two titans of the acting world. Also, we get an origin story on Jorge Bergoglio (the "liberal" Pope Francis) which..... eh. Again, not sure why this is here. If you're a devote member of the Catholic Church, you're probably screaming at your computer screen right now, but everyone else? There's nothing for you here.
My Number: 4/10
The Two Popes is available to stream on Netflix.
Genuine Heartbreak Manifested
Marriage Story (2019): Noah Baumbach's incisive and compassionate look at a marriage breaking up and a family staying together.
The latest story from Noah Baumbach was a touching, semi-autobiographical, emotionally powerful look at divorce and the messiness of attempting to untangle yourself from someone you've shared several years of your life with. (And a child.) I loved every second of it. It's relatable, palpable, and an emotional rollercoaster that made me ugly cry on several occasions. The acting is amazing, (easily the best performance of ScarJo's career, and Adam Driver is pretty dang great, too) the dialogue is sharp and witty, and this is simply a perfect film. From its simplistic set design to its touching score, to the overall quiet nature of the film, Baumbach delivers a masterful display of minimalist storytelling to maximize the emotional impact. And maximized, it is, as this is one of the most emotionally charged journeys 2019 had to offer.
My Number: 10/10
Marriage Story is available to stream on Netflix.
Technical Mastery, but Little Else
1917 (2019): April 6th, 1917. As a regiment assembles to wage war deep in enemy territory, two soldiers are assigned to race against time and deliver a message that will stop 1,600 men from walking straight into a deadly trap.
This film is pretty simple. It's a technical behemoth, a masterclass of camera skills from cinematographer Roger Deakins, and one of the most ambitious undertakings in cinematic history in this regard. The tentpole sequences of this film are nothing short of breathtaking, led by a STUNNING nighttime sequence that used flares for temporary, moving, lighting pieces. The final gargantuan sequence, the battle charge, was mesmeric and pulse-pounding, exactly what boundary-breaking cinema should look like. However.... what was that story? The script surrounding the technical achievements makes Gravity look like a masterpiece, as it tries (and fails) to integrate several very real wartime themes into its 120 minute runtime. This film has as much deeper meaning as a McDonald's hamburger, and is just as thin, too. The dialogue some of these iconic actors are forced to utter is straight cringe-worthy, from Mark Strong's "Some men just want the fight" line to Benedict Cumberbatch's "Last man standing" line. And you want to see a thesis on what bad chemistry between two leads looks like? Look no further than Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay. I like both of them as people, but.... man. Their one-on-one sequences were boring and slowed the entire film down. In short, watch this marvel in a theater to appreciate Roger Deakins incredible work, but do not search it out anywhere else. You will be bored AF watching this on a TV screen.
My Number: 7/10
https://m.media-amazon.com/images/M/MV5BYTQ1NjRmNzYtODZiNy00MmZhLTlmOTItMWQwOWM1ZWRiOGVjXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTkxNjUyNQ@@._V1_.jpg (The Two Popes)
https://m.media-amazon.com/images/M/MV5BOWIzMzU3YzAtNWNkZC00MGJkLWI1NjMtZDVjOTIxZDNjODlkXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTAyMjQ3NzQ1._V1_.jpg (Marriage Story)
Chaos for chaos's sake
Uncut Gems (2019): A charismatic New York City jeweler always on the lookout for the next big score, makes a series of high-stakes bets that could lead to the windfall of a lifetime.
What a wild and insane film. The latest from the Safdie Brothers, (who have been around for a while but burst on to the scene with 2017's Good Time) Uncut Gems follows the crazy, chaotic life of Howard Ratner in NYC. (Adam Sandler) Howie is a rather stereotypical New Yorker, a Jewish jeweler living in the heart of Manhattan who likes to bet big on sporting events. He's a cunning salesman, able to (or at least attempt to) talk himself out of any situation and completely addicted to the life he leads. There are girls, collectors, insane schemes, plenty of booze, and of course, Kevin Garnett. I love it, and I'm so here for it.
There's a fiery sense of palpability to the Safdie Brothers' filmmaking. I've only seen two of their films, Good Time and this, but their handiwork is instantly distinguishable. Their prophetic use of colors and closeup to elicit heightened emotional responses are at the forefront of this style. While I would say Good Time leans into these aesthetics a bit more than Uncut Gems, the later makes up for it with some utterly insane dialogue. This film is chaos, for chaos sake, and nowhere is that more prevalent than in the dialogue. A great double feature to see the power of dialogue firsthand would be this film and Little Women. Both use a stacked dialogue style to tell their respective stories. However, whereas Greta would use stacked dialogue in an elegantly chaotic sense, to elicit a sort of organized, controlled chaos in Little Women, the Safdie Brothers use stacked dialogue in a totally destructive way. Everyone is talking over one another, constantly upping the ante to eleven to try and get their point across. (Very New Yorker of them, right?) This dialogue is chaos for chaos sake, in a very unrefined sort of way, which does have its downsides from time to time.
When you have a film as raw as this, there will be some imperfections. Certain scenes can be hard to follow, particularly when you add Howie's superfluous lifestyle into the equation, (the sound design struggles to keep up when you're talking over each other in a loud night club) but it's nowhere near enough to detract from the wild ride this film is. And, at its core is some of the craziest pairings I've ever imagined in a film. Who woulda thought you'd see Idina Menzel, Kevin Garnett, LaKeith Stanfield, and The Weeknd in a film led by Adam Sandler? Makes perfect sense, right? And who woulda thought Adam Sandler would be so good? The long-standing actor puts in possibly the best performance of his career, (certainly the glitziest) a jarring reminder that the dude who is making money off the likes of Grown Ups 2 and The Ridiculous 6 can also act when he feels like it. It feels like Sandler just needs to remind us every few years that he can act so he can make three more crappy movies, but hey. If what we get in this theory is the likes of Uncut Gems, I ain't complaining.
It also helps that Howie is an incredibly interesting protagonist. He's wild and unpredictable - incapable of thinking more than a few seconds ahead, while also having the undeniable charm of a snake oil salesman - with a hilariously depressing home life and hordes of collectors / adversaries closing in. Howie is the reason you watch Uncut Gems, as his character arc is as fascinating as it is harrowing. The Safdie brothers grip you to the edge of your seat from the first moment to the film's completely unexpected ending. (May be the best ending of the year, by the way. Certainly in the conversation.) Find it and experience it, as this journey is as wild a journey you can find to come out of 2019.
My Number: 9/10
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