It’s hard to remember much about 2019. Indeed, what happened last year is already among the first things obscured by the immense anxiety of our present lives. But for all its forgettable, pre-pandemic innocence, 2019 was a wonderful year for film.
As you burn through your Netflix backlogs and wonder how to pace yourself and make it all last (“Tiger King” can only take you so far, after all), I bring you relief. There were so many great movies I didn’t get to discuss during awards season and I’ve been waiting ever since for just the right chance.
Last fall, Frank’s Film Festival, an annual cinematic staple in Jackson, featured an excellent roster of films. Few made a bigger impact than “The Peanut Butter Falcon.” It’s a road movie and an adventure story, yes. But it’s also an incredibly tender character study. Zach Gottsagen shines as the plucky runaway who wants to become a wrestling star. The rest of the cast is equally fantastic and Shia LaBeouf, in particular, is absolutely amazing as his co-star. This role is half the reason I think 2019 was the best year LaBeouf had in a very long time (“Honeyboy” was the other half). Available for rental on iTunes, Google Play and Amazon.
The gritty detective drama is one of cinema’s most well-worn paths. It’s hard to imagine there are any new ideas to be found there, but every year somebody gives it a go. “Motherless Brooklyn” doesn’t break the mold, but it does offer a rock-solid addition to the catalogue. Edward Norton directs and stars as the lonely, Tourette’s-afflicted gumshoe who sets out to solve the murder of his mentor. Based on a book by Jonathan Lethem, this movie features a great cast (I mean, Alec Baldwin as a predatory politician/robber baron? Yes, please!) and a stylish aesthetic that really works. Available for rental on iTunes, Google Play and Amazon.
“Knives Out” director Rian Johnson’s quirky, Pink Panther-styled crime romp was a runaway hit last year. And for good reason. Idiosyncratic caper flicks occupy another crowded cinematic field. So, if you want your entry to stand out, you have to cast it perfectly and lean entirely into what makes the genre tick. In other words, the house needs to be full of not just plausible suspects, but individually ridiculous caricatures that claw and scrape for the focus of every scene. And the investigator? Well, that person has to be larger than all of their lives together. It’s all here and it’s all perfect. Available for rental on iTunes, Google Play and Amazon.
One of the great (and also frustrating) things about Hollywood is its willingness to embrace disgraced or discarded stars. So long as you’re a man, the potential for a late-career role-of-a-lifetime is always right around the corner. Think Robert Downey, Jr. or Mickey Rourke in “The Wrestler” or Michael Keaton in “Birdman.” It’s high time for the industry to reward its non-male icons in equal measure with these kinds of mature projects. It happens, but not nearly enough. Eddie Murphy got his renaissance moment last year with “Dolemite is My Name.” The part isn’t a big stretch for him. In fact, the hilarious (and quite profane) true story of Rudy Rae Moore and his rise during the 1970s blaxploitation genre is perfect for a comedian of Murphy’s charisma and legendary irreverence. He was born to play it. Available on Netflix.
I doubt anyone is looking for new ways to be scared, but highly creative and unique horror stories can be wonderful escapes. Similar to “Get Out” back in 2017, “Midsommar” made its mark in 2019 by not giving itself away too easily. You have to watch it to really know what it is and, even then, you might not believe what you’ve just seen. The story details a rural Swedish festival that quietly devolves into a cultish nightmare for actor Florence Pugh (also recently in Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women”… see that too, if you haven’t). The building creepiness of the action and genuine discomfort of Pugh’s character Dani are impossible to look away from. Director Ari Astor also made “Hereditary” with Toni Collette in 2018. So, yeah, he knows what he’s doing. Available through Amazon Prime.
Last for now but far from least is “I Lost My Body.” The 2019 Animated Oscar class included juggernaut franchises like “Toy Story” and “How to Train Your Dragon.” But, like most seasons, there was a hidden gem in there as well. French filmmaker Jérémy Clapin crafted a gorgeous exploration of love and loss, with the latter theme depicted quite literally as a severed hand works its way across a dangerous city to reconnect with its host. It’s incredibly strange and beautiful how this journey reflects the love story at the center of the script, but to say more would spoil the charm. The overall experience is comforting and uncomplicated in that way only animation seems to pull off regularly these days. Even though it didn’t win its category, “I Lost My Body” is a perfect little guileless treasure of a movie. Exactly the kind of thing we need. Look for it on Netflix.