The Best Movies of the Year
While a good year for movies, 2019 may end up being remembered as a year that many moviegoers won’t quite remember. That isn’t to say that the end of the decade didn’t have its share of fantastic releases, but how many will be seared into our brains as stone-cold classics remains to be seen; with studios increasingly focused on well-made but formulaic blockbusters that all tend to blend together, and a plethora of subscription platforms sporting exclusives, it’s getting harder and harder to find those cultural flashpoints that everyone has seen and seems to agree on. Nevertheless, the Sordid Cinema staff has managed to find a sort of consensus on our Best Movies of 2019, which shows off some of the wide variety of releases from Hollywood and around the world that made an impression (for now).
The votes were spread out quite a bit, with many films coming up just short in support, but below you’ll find an eclectic mix of some of the best of the year. Enjoy, and we look forward to more in 2020!
During the lead-up to Gaspar Noé’s most recent provocation, Climax, he released a one-sheet that’s one the more honest bits of film advertising ever created: “You despised I Stand Alone, you hated Irreversible, you loathed Enter the Void, you cursed Love, now try Climax.” Nothing it says is wrong — each film has its defenders and detractors, but few filmmakers can turn off viewers like Noé. What’s most amazing about his latest is how completely enjoyable it is for the first forty-five minutes or so. What follows is peppered with his standard touchstones: sex, sexual violence, regular ol’ violence, and hallucinogenic drug trips. Noé fans will find everything they like about his films here in Climax, but even his usual critics may be seduced by his style — at least until the drugs take hold.
Climax telegraphs where it will go in its opening minutes. After a quick flashforward to future violence, we see a series of interviews with dancers on an old TV circa 1996. The on-screen text suggests the film is based on real events from 1996, but it’s all a fabrication on Noé’s part. His performers are congregated in a dance hall with their choreographer (Sofia Boutella, the film’s only professional actor), who plans to take the troupe on a US tour. In Climax’s first section, they perform a choreographed dance soundtracked with incessant ‘90s dance music. Even the staunchest Noé critics will have trouble finding fault with the voguing (the actors are all professional dancers and YouTubers), but someone has spiked their bowl of sangria with LSD, and the stylish music video soon turns into an even more stylish nightmare.
Noé’s camera is as fleeting and energized as the dancers in front of it. His regular cinematographer, Benoît Debie, plays up the garish club lighting — a candy-colored rave nightmare. There’s a virtuoso sequence toward the end where the camera flips upside down (mirroring its acrobatics in Irréversible), which cleverly dehumanizes the dancers. When looking at faces upside down, our brains struggle to reorient them; we can figure out who characters are through isolated features, but they look foreign, alien. The LSD has warped them into panicky monsters, and the camera allows us to see them in this new light by actually transforming them.
There’s plenty that’s sickening and offensive, including the fate of a child unfortunate enough to be roped into the debauchery, but few Noé films allow the audience to sit back and revel in the music and images quite like Climax. His movies always sit uncomfortably at the precipice of horror, and this one is more delightful than anything in his oeuvre in its first half, and more destabilizing than any of his films (aside from Irréversible) in its back half. Chances are, you’ll have a much better trip than the unfortunate souls on screen — that is, if you don’t vomit first. (Brian Marks)
Ari Aster’s Midsommar centers on Dani (Florence Pugh) and the slow dissolution of her relationship with distant boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor), as they accompany his school friends to remote Swedish festival that soon spirals into a blood-soaked nightmare. The film deserves acclaim for its excellent cinematography, acting performances, and originality. The entirety is shot in a way that lends direct praise to the director of photography Pawel Pogorzelski, but there are several choice scenes throughout Midsommar that are pulled straight from Aster’s screenplay — evidence of how tightly his directing plays into his screenwriting.
For instance, a simple scene transition from a city apartment to an airplane bathroom is instantly transformed into a remarkable shot; the camera floats seamlessly overhead as Dani is transported onto a transatlantic flight. The direction works in tandem with Pugh’s performance, preventing her character from fully escaping the constant panic attack that threatens to overwhelm her. Later on, the effects of drugs used throughout the film are echoed in the scenery and camera movements, creating a disorienting climax. As characters’ faces blur and colors appear to ooze through the screen, Aster’s directing style is simultaneously powerful yet purposefully disconcerting, which might as well be the thesis for Midsommar itself.
Although the dialogue is less overtly dramatic than that of Hereditary (Aster’s film debut), the passive death of Dani and Christian’s relationship is painted with a delicate but knowing hand, and it’s also worth noting that Pugh’s portrayal of a young woman grappling with an anxiety disorder is visceral in every scene. Whether it’s shown through primal screams or a quiet, unending hum, Pugh embodies her anxiety — as well as her battle to dampen it at every turn — perfectly. When the climax finally allows Dani to fully feel everything and ultimately shed those worries for a new life, the moment feels earned. In short, Midsommar is by no means flawless, but it’s a welcome entry in an art form that’s quickly running out of creative corners to turn to. It’s beautiful, it’s disgusting, and above all it’s cathartic — all the traits of a modern horror film destined for cult status. (Meghan Cook)
13.) The Beach Bum
A lot of movies flopped in the first eight months of 2019, but the most inexplicable of those flops was probably The Beach Bum, Harmony Korine’s latest examination of slimy South Florida excess. This was one of those films in which the distributor clearly had no idea how to do sell it, so they just threw up their hands and gave up.
The film stars Matthew McConaughey at his most Matthew McConaughey-est, playing a drug and booze-addled party boy known as “Moondog” who lives life as a perpetual party, supposedly immune from consequences or accountability.
Despite not being able to string a sentence together thanks to constant drinking and drug-taking, Moondog is also a respected man of letters — and also the kind of guy who can amble tardily into his daughter’s wedding, grab the groom’s crotch, and continue to be welcomed as a guest for the remainder of the festivities.
One can draw political allegories about what the movie means (and I certainly did), but The Beach Bum is also enjoyable on the level of watching performers like Martin Lawrence, Isla Fisher, and even Snoop Dogg get to shine in prominent on-screen roles.
It may have barely enjoyed a theatrical release, but The Beach Bum is now available for streaming on Hulu. It’s the only movie of 2019 in which the protagonist is on a boat with both Snoop Dogg and Jimmy Buffett. (Stephen Silver)
12.) Ad Astra
They don’t make movies like Ad Astra anymore. Then again, they never made movies quite like Ad Astra in the first place. A big-budget science fiction adventure that is as much about stunted masculinity as space travel, James Gray’s follow up to The Lost City of Z must be one of the best cinematic glow-ups in recent history. Whereas the former film failed to take off due to Hunnam’s energy-less performance, Brad Pitt excels as a depressed astronaut attempting to reconnect with his estranged father.
Its evocative storytelling calls to mind Apocalypse Now in scale, while its appreciation of beauty matches Contact‘s wonder, all the while remaining a psychologically rigorous exploration of what it means to be fully in contact with your feelings. Featuring highly memorable, achingly beautiful moments like the silent race on the moon, or heart-rending terror in the form of a killer monkey, Ad Astra is a singularly affecting film that demands to be seen on the biggest screen possible.
Viewers and awards groups weren’t so kind. Faltering at the Box Office, with no Golden Globe nominations and a lack of being shortlisted for a special effect nod at the Oscars, it seems that Ad Astra has not been appreciated in its time, leaving the future of thoughtful sci-fi in the balance. While undeniably weird, it is not an inaccessible film; Roy McBride’s travel logs and evaluations allow us to see how he feels in real-time. The brilliance and nuance of Pitt’s performance — and I contend he has never been better — is the disconnect between what he says and how it plays out on its face. James Gray bestows an unusual amount of trust in the viewer here, inviting us to join in on the film’s meaning, making for a truly meditative, unique and transcendent experience. Let’s just hope that this isn’t the last time Gray has this kind of budget to play with. (Redmond Bacon)
When Warner Bros. announced in 2018 a Joker origin story made by the man who directed the Hangover series, the idea was met with a resounding “Meh” by those who had already been burnt by the likes of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Justice League. DC’s attempts to create a cinematic universe akin to that at Marvel had been lackluster, both critically and financially; a stand-alone story based on one of the most beloved villains ever created, without a hero to go up against him, would make even the most die-hard of DC fans nervous.
The cynical may call it a cash-grab — a desire to create a hard-hitting drama about mental illness veiled with a pop-culture icon — but Joker is far more than that. A treacle-dark look at how we treat other people and the impact we have without even realizing, the movie is unrelentingly grim, with zero space for humour. It’s difficult to think of a more dour mainstream film in recent years.
Few actors can pull off the recent, gritty iterations of the Joker without looking like they’re trying too hard, but there is nobody better in today’s landscape to depict this deteriorating mental state than Joaquin Phoenix. He’s never phoned in a performance, but here it’s something else; he’s so deeply in tune with what this movie requires of him — an incredibly painful illustration of a man who was not only failed by the society around him, but by his own family.
There are some missteps — a reveal around his neighbor holds the viewer’s hand to really drive its point home — but much of the film remains ambiguous, drawing us in to further interact with someone who we could have let down in our own worlds, making us complicit in the breaking of a man. As it reaches its inevitable and disturbing climax, it cements itself as one of the more unforgettable films of the year, a (much) darker lesson in kindness than other recent fares. (Veronica Cooper)
Jordan Peele’s Get Out was a smashing hit back in 2017 — a biting satire on racial tension in America that won Peele an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, and was one of the most talked-about and commonly dissected horror films of the decade, catapulting the first-time director firmly into the spotlight. Now, two years later, Peel has returned with his sophomore effort, the physiological thriller Us, which pits an endearing American family against a terrifying and uncanny opponent: doppelgängers of themselves.
Where Get Out took a simple premise and turned it into a brilliant allegory for what it’s like to be black in America, Us structures itself as a home invasion thriller that touches on issues of class, capitalism, gender, and on the lasting effects of trauma and/or mental illness. It’s a smorgasbord of terrifying sights, sounds, and images, with a climax that will likely leave audiences with split opinions. For some, the reveal will enhance the experience, but for others, it will leave a bitter taste in their mouth. Regardless of where you stand, Us demands to be seen a second time, as it is the sort of film that will be over-analyzed for years to come — something the best horror movies all do. (Ricky D)
9.) Knives Out
While Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi has continued as a cultural lightning rod years after its release, the director turned around and made a completely different kind of great movie — an original story that plays delightful tribute to the whodunit genre, while also standing well on its own.
Knives Out, which Johnson wrote and directed, follows many of the tropes of the Agatha Christie genre, including a brilliant and eccentric private eye, a family full of characters who all looked varying degrees of guilty, and a unique space where it all takes place.
To that, Johnson adds contemporary political resonance, including arguments about immigration and an overarching attitude of contempt for the idle rich that’s very much in line with both the cinema and the attitudes of this year.
And while the mystery is compelling and the political points all land, the film is also consistently hilarious, featuring a laugh-out-loud lead performance from Daniel Craig as private detective Benoit Blanc, and a long list of talented performers — Christopher Plummer, Ana de Armas, Toni Collette, Jamie Lee Curtis, and especially Chris Evans — acting against type.
The film has got an ear for how these sorts of people talk, such as how a mystery novelist might write down an odd method of murder for use in a later book, or the way that smug rich people like to one-up each other on how much they love Hamilton (“I saw it at The Public!”).
Overall, Knives Out is a film that people on both sides of The Last Jedi Wars can appreciate. Even Yoda (Frank Oz) appears in one scene.
The Philadelphia Film Critics Circle, of which I’m a member, voted Knives Out the best film of 2019. While it’s far from an Oscar favorite, I can see it becoming one of the films this year that’s looked back on most fondly in the years to come. (Stephen Silver)
8.) Marriage Story
Noah Baumbach’s newest film, Marriage Story, is partly inspired by his divorce earlier this decade from the actress Jennifer Jason Leigh. Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson star as Charlie and Nicole; he’s a renowned theater director in New York, and she’s an actress best known for starring in a popular teen comedy — though in recent years she’s starred in her husband’s productions.
The film opens with a touching set of dueling montages, as both characters recite their favorite aspects of their partners — only to reveal that they’re separating, and this is just an exercise cooked up by a mediator to keep their relations positive. Driver and Johansson are at the top of their game, and Baumbach has never been better. He keeps his camera work reserved so as not to distract from his airtight screenplay and the moving performances. No film can convey all the heartache and longing that comes with divorce, but Baumbach may have gotten closer than anyone else. (Brian Marks)
7.) Under the Silver Lake
David Robert Mitchell’s third feature is a mess of a film, but it’s also an incredibly entertaining mess that had me glued to the screen from start to finish (despite the two-and-a-half-hour running time). It’s a movie that shifts between so many characters, themes, and subplots that it will leave most audiences confused — and who can blame them? There are so many ideas sliding into Mitchell’s whirlwind of pop culture overload that it’s understandable not to find coherence in it. Some storylines conclude, some intersect, others squander, and some scenes feel like they were lifted from another film and accidentally spliced in. And yet, that might be why Under the Silver Lake is destined to find a huge cult following in years to come.
Mitchell is aiming big with his latest feature. He’s not just trying to hit a home run — he’s looking for a grand slam. Some things work and some things don’t, but in a world littered with mediocre, formulaic fare, Under the Silver Lake at least stands apart from most movies coming out of Hollywood. It’s a bold, bewildering tale about obsession and paranoia, and much like his 2014 indie-horror hit, It Follows, Under the Silver Lake is a movie in which the main character is either being followed or he himself is following others. Only this time, he’s made a detective story! (Ricky D)
As much as cinema exists to be a source of mass entertainment, it’s also an art form capable of supporting social and political passions. But navigating those sometimes tricky topics can be torturous; addressing an issue too directly can lead one to be labeled a hack lacking in style and subtlety, but disguising the issue through symbolism or allegory can make one seem too distanced or afraid to offend. Christian Petzold’s Transit considers these difficulties and charts a nearly miraculous course between allegory and head-on depiction that’s both subtle and intensely moving.
Petzold sets his sights on the mass migration of refugees across the globe, as well as the ways certain nations have done everything in their power to keep them out. The film is loosely based on Anna Segher’s 1942 novel of the same name, though the writer and director has crucially shifted the film’s milieu to the present day. Franz Rogowski stars as Georg, who has fled from Paris to Marseilles in hopes of getting passage out of Europe in the early days of World War II. He has assumed the identity of a famous writer who recently killed himself, so the new papers should make it easy for him to escape to Mexico. While waiting for a visa to go through, he does his best to lay low in Marseilles, mostly frequenting a local bar. It’s there that he meets a woman who may have known the dead writer whose identity he has assumed.
The identity themes instantly draw comparisons to Petzold’s previous film, the exquisite WWII-era Vertigo-redux, Phoenix. But the director, perhaps fearing that viewers would be too content to leave Transit’s story in the past, has done something unexpected: he’s dressed everything in completely modern style, even as the story still takes place in WWII. Georg and the denizens of Marseille all wear what they would have worn in 2019, live in buildings with contemporary design, and drive modern cars. On first viewing, it took a few minutes to confirm that the film was indeed set during the Nazi occupation of France, and not in some kind of alternate timeline in which fascists had regained control of Europe. Petzold’s story is full of longing and loss, but the modern garb makes it impossible to dismiss his story as irrelevant. Aided by appropriately minimal performances from Rogowski and Paula Beer, Transit manages to make its audience pay attention to the plights of those being shoved around the globe. If it appears to be cool in style, it’s only a deception to hide its red-hot passion. (Brian Marks)
5.) The Souvenir
There’s a version of Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir that uses its basic storyline, but instead of an aching evocation of the mistakes of early adulthood, it would be a cringe comedy about a woman making all the wrong decisions in life and love. But there’s not much to laugh at in the film as it exists, as it’s loosely based on Hogg’s own experiences of starting film school while in a relationship with a man addicted to drugs. She deftly mines her own growing pains, while charting a course for other aspiring artists. It also doesn’t hurt that her film is one of the most gorgeous films released in the past year.
Honor Swinton Byrne (daughter of Tilda), plays the autobiographical lead role, here named Julie. She’s the daughter of an upper-middle-class family who is starting her first year of film school. Despite having lived a comfortable life and have never wanted for anything material, she’s determined to make her first film about less fortunate, working-class characters. While at a party, she meets Anthony (Tom Burke), a pompous yet charming civil servant who works for the Foreign Office. The two engage in scintillating conversations on the kind of art she’s hoping to create, though he often dominates and dismisses her ideas. Anthony also happens to be addicted to heroin, something Julie is initially ignorant to. Their early combative relationship becomes increasingly toxic as he sinks deeper into his addiction, all while Julie struggles to find her own artistic voice.
Such an autobiographical work is by definition personal, and there’s something exhilarating about watching The Souvenir, even when it’s at its slowest or driest. It’s as if we’ve been let in on a secret about Hogg’s life, and the glimpse behind the curtain makes things that might seem boring or commonplace suddenly intriguing. It’s also a film that uniquely understands the irrationality of its young protagonist. Teens and twenty-somethings are often depicted as oddly wise, despite the human brain not being fully developed until around age 25, so rather than cleaning up her own story, Hogg emphasizes every irrational misstep she took, without trying to make sense of it.
It helps that Swinton Byrne gives the best performance of the year as Julie. Despite having a famous mother (who plays her mother in The Souvenir), Swinton Byrne had never seriously acted, so everything she does is fresh and unstilted. When she seems shy or uncomfortable, it’s because she’s shy and uncomfortable in real life. Burke is an able partner for her, an actor who’s able to make us (and Julie) forget his many betrayals, while also pointing toward the more decent person he might have been if heroin weren’t constantly nipping at his heels. There’s much in The Souvenir that’s painful and hard to watch, but when these artists are working at the top of their game, you’d never want to look away. (Brian Marks)
4.) Uncut Gems
With their sixth feature, Uncut Gems reaffirms the Safdie Brothers (Benny and Josh) as two of the best filmmakers on the planet. Uncut Gems is one of the most anxiety-inducing features in recent memory thanks to the skill behind the camera and the heart-stopping performances from the entire cast comprised of mostly non-professional actors and Adam Sandler who plays Howard Ratner, a diamond-district hustler and compulsive gambler who’s racing the clock to pay off his colossal debt.
Uncut Gems proves Sandler remains a formidable dramatic actor when given the right material (also see Punch Drunk Love). He’s so good here, I’d wager he’ll finally win an Oscar. Even more surprising is Sandler’s costar: NBA Hall of Famer Kevin Garnett, who plays himself, in his final year with the Boston Celtics during their grueling playoff series against the Philadelphia 76ers. When Garnett becomes convinced an uncut opal that Howard has procured will bring him and his team good luck and help them win the series, he does everything in his power to buy it from Howard. Meanwhile, Howard does everything he can to move around plenty of expensive jewels, a couple of NBA Championship rings, and some heavy cash in order to score big with a local bookie (played with by NYC sports talk legend Mike Francesa). From there, things escalate further out of control.
Uncut Gems is part thriller and part character study and like thier previous work, Uncut Gems feels like a throwback to ’70s crime pictures and yet seems wholly original. The film is designed to keep viewers unsettled; it almost never stops moving; Sandler almost never stops talking— and by the time the 135 minutes of the running time is over, you’ll find your pulse pounding. It’s excruciating and exhilarating and the biggest surprise of 2019. (Ricky D)
3.) The Irishman
Is Martin Scorsese a hack who only makes mob films? Well, no, of course not — no matter what the most defensive fans of filmmaking-by-committee might want to believe. But one wouldn’t be wrong to attribute special importance to his mafia and crime films, which often attempt to sum up periods of lawlessness in the United States’ checkered past. With The Irishman, he has made one of his most elegant and moving surveys of the influence of organized crime — a movie that easily belongs in the same category as Goodfellas, the criminally underrated Casino, and his previous crime epic, The Wolf of Wall Street.
Yet, what separates The Irishman from those earlier masterpieces is the sense of regret that suffuses it. Those films are all stories of inevitable failure (and the success that briefly forestalls it), but never has Scorsese zeroed in so closely on the way a man has chipped away at his soul, bit by bit, until nothing remains. Ironically, the de-aging technology that some viewers have derided helps illustrate that internal and external decay. Robert De Niro’s wrinkles and jowls can be smoothed out with the aid of computers, but he still has a 76-year-old’s hunched-over frame, as if he’s weighed down by his own sins.
De Niro and his costars Al Pacino and Joe Pesci are all doing some of the best work of their careers (though Pesci had been unofficially retired for years before Scorsese pulled him back in). De Niro and Pacino have often given in to their laziest inclinations, especially with less talented directors who weren’t able to rein them in or keep pushing for gold, but Scorsese knows what makes them tick — even with someone he’s never worked with before, like Pacino.
What’s most surprising about The Irishman is how plain enjoyable it is, at least for the first two hours or so. It’s funny, even uproarious at times, like the best parts of Goodfellas. But it’s the soul-crushing final section that elevates the film to the top tier of his already stacked filmography. (Brian Marks)
2.) Once Upon A Time in Hollywood
Quentin Tarantino’s latest belongs right up there with his greatest, depicting an indelible fantasy version of a bygone Hollywood era that ushered in a changing of the guard. Mostly following a few days in the life of an aging TV star and his buddy/stunt double, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood may not capture a place and time as it really was, but like much of the writer-director’s work, it’s the product of a passionate imagination. It’s also a soothing balm for those who relish flowing dialogue, and who aren’t impatient at getting lost among the tumbleweeds of dusty back lots and hillside pool parties.
Of course, this is a Tarantino film, so confrontation is expected at some point. And it will probably be bloody. Tension in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is supplied by the Manson Family, a commune of ominous hippies who have taken over a former film lot outside the city. Though their infamous leader is only briefly seen, actual history is a constant cloud hanging over the proceedings, especially whenever the bubbly, carefree, force-for-positivity that is Sharon Tate appears on screen. Her fleeting moments portray a refreshing zest for life and optimism that we’d rather not see tragically snuffed out; Hollywood can be unkind enough as it is.
But this is a fairy tale, and so the wrongs of the past have the chance to be righted. Yes, it takes a while for that head-squishing, flame-throwing assault to happen, so it’s best to sit back and enjoy the cruise; this story is more about the journey than the brutal, cathartic final battle. With its fascinating peek into the lives of rising and setting stars, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is ultimately a ballad to the love of movies, a chatty symphony of wishful thinking that the old and the new can coexist in some kind of happily ever after. (Patrick Murphy)
The last few years of the 2010s have been, shall we say, tumultuous. It seems impossible to turn anywhere online without stumbling upon a fiery political debate, tirade, or angry late-night tweet from unnamed world leaders. Films are often used to reflect the times, and very few films in the last few years have managed to capture the spirit of the time without getting too overtly political quite like Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite.
As Kim Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) and his family struggle with living in a basement and folding pizza boxes in order to make ends meet, he humbly accepts an opportunity from his college student friend to be a tutor for an affluent family, despite not having the education or credentials. It doesn’t take long for him to fall in love with the lavish lifestyle of the gullible and over-privileged Park family, and he slowly sneaks his entire family onto the staff in various positions. The film starts as a black comedy about a working-class family lying and scheming its way into taking over a household, but as it progresses, Parasite becomes a dark story focusing on the egregious difference between the socioeconomic statuses. The Park family is a seemingly pleasant and gracious family, particularly the clueless matriarch, Park Yeon-gyo, but she and her husband, Dong-ik, still display elitist “Let them eat cake” levels of naivety when it comes to the working class. Before long, the story develops twists and turns that turn a simple social satire into a genre-defying thrill ride.
Bong Joon-Ho’s engaging and insightful direction depicts a clever and eye-opening story about the codependent relationship between the classes. It is a universal cautionary tale about the cloying struggle to the top and the blatant poverty problem in a flawed capitalist society, and certainly has proven itself as one of the best films of the decade. (Sarah Truesdale)
‘Weathering With You’ Isn’t Quite the Storm It Wanted to Be
Makoto Shinkai’s Weathering With You delivers a gorgeous film that doesn’t quite resonate as much as it wanted to.
Climate change and global warming have been topics of concern and discussion for years now, with melting ice caps and rising ocean temperatures being some of many signs. Director Makoto Shinkai — acclaimed the world over for his 2016 work Your Name — aims to show just how at the mercy humans are to the weather with his newest animated film, Weathering With You. Although he presents a visually stunning depiction of Mother Nature in all her various moods, Weathering With You ultimately lacks the storming power it seeks to bear upon its audience.
Tokyo has been having a particularly rainy year, seeing precipitation almost every day and nary a sight of the sun or clear blue skies. It’s during this unusual time that high school boy Hodaka arrives in the metropolis seeking escape from the suffocating life he had on his island. The young teenager naturally has trouble finding his bearings on his own in the oftentimes unforgiving hustle and bustle of the city. It’s in these early scenes that Weathering With You has some of its strongest moments, depicting the uglier side of Japanese society not often seen in anime, while also highlighting Hodaka’s strength of character to make it on his own.
As Hodaka gradually carves out his own place in the city, he eventually has an encounter with a young girl named Hina. Matching her sunny and cheerful disposition, Hina has the ability to make it stop raining and have the sunshine in very localized spots by praying to the sky. In a place where the rain never ceases, it’s easy to see why Hodaka latches onto Hina to use for the greater good (while also making a little pocket change along the way).
“The hand-drawn rain is downright mesmerizing in all its forms — fierce and calm — while the sunshine that follows seems to hang in the air caught by the leftover humidity.”
Gloomy skies and damp grounds can take their toll on one’s mood and psyche, which someone who lives in such a climate can surely relate to. Even the briefest moments of sunshine revitalize us and give a glimpse of the “light at the end of the tunnel.” Hodaka and Hina’s “100% Sunshine Girl” services to those in need of that light boldly underscore that fact, and make for a strong argument for how the weather affects us all beyond its objective physicality, along with providing some much-appreciated levity to the story.
That power of weather is beautifully illustrated by CoMix Wave Films’ stupendous animation efforts. The hand-drawn rain is downright mesmerizing in all its forms — fierce and calm — while the sunshine that follows seems to hang in the air, caught by the leftover humidity. Tokyo itself isn’t to be outdone either, with its streets running the gamut between peaceful neighborhoods to grimy and dark back alleys with dilapidated buildings. The animation is punctuated by the return of Japanese band RADWIMPS, who create numerous memorable tracks to complement the wild swings in mood that weather can elicit.
That makes it all the more unfortunate, however, that the greater narrative is so weak.
The progression of Weathering With You is made painfully obvious right from the outset of the story — so much so that it’s hard to wonder if it’s actually the set-up for a bait-and-switch. As a result, much of the first half of the film is simply waiting for the other shoe to drop, making it difficult to really settle in and become intimate with its characters.
This would be less of an issue if the cast had smaller interactions that were a delight to watch, but they fall short in that regard as well. All of the characters have a charm to them for sure — with Hina’s younger elementary school brother, Nagi, putting modern playboys to shame being a particular standout — but the story never quite makes a compelling case as to why they are as close as they are, especially Hina and Hodaka. They’re fun enough to watch be together, but don’t quite make that emotional attachment with the viewer that the story wants to create.
That lack of an emotional connection is distinctly felt in Weathering With You’s second act, when unnecessary confrontations and bizarre plot directions converge to create an artificial sense of stakes amidst a central conflict that would have been fine on its own. What’s meant to strengthen the impression of the characters’ bonds instead cheapens it, undermining the already faulty progress the first half did make. The result is a narrative that’s hard to care about, although its ending does leave the viewer with some potentially interesting questions to ponder.
Weathering With You is far from a bad movie, however. It has a clear direction and vision with a message to say about our climate crisis. The characters are endearing enough, and there are a handful of heartfelt scenes because of that. It also cannot be understated just how drop-dead gorgeous the animation is. The story, however, is simply too straightforward for its own good, resulting in an experience that is at times enjoyable, and at others plain boring.
And that’s only when being judged in a vacuum on the movie’s own merits. When compared to Shinkai’s recent masterpiece that is Your Name, it’s hard to see Weathering With You as anything but a disappointing follow-up. That’s perhaps the film’s greatest weakness, but fortunately, it’s one that Shinkai’s next work won’t have, and we can still look forward to it because of that fact.
Let’s Remember Why ‘Tremors’ is a Beloved Cult Hit
The monster movie that breaks new ground.
Tremors, 30 Years Later
Thirty years ago, this week, one of the best films of 1990 was released.
Tremors didn’t make a big splash in theaters. The film ended up grossing $16,667,084 at the domestic box office, which while making a profit due to its $11 million budget, was still below projected numbers. To be fair, this was a film about carnivorous subterranean worms— and it didn’t help that it was dumped in the cold of winter during what is arguably the slowest time of the year for the box office. Thankfully, however, Tremors found a second life on VHS where it became one of home video’s biggest success stories. More importantly, Tremors become a beloved cult hit.
Much has been said about the cast of Tremors which I’ll get to shortly, but what stood out the most watching it again, is the screenplay from S.S. Wilson and Brent Maddock, who both previously penned Short Circuit and Batteries Not Included. Sure, Tremors is a B movie, but it also boasts a tightly-knit script in which every scene; every action; every story beat; and every line of dialogue sets up a chain of events that gives every character a motive and reason to react the way they do. And despite one poorly executed sequence (I’m referring to the pole-vaulting montage), Tremors is a lean, mean movie without an ounce of fat to be found anywhere else.
The plot isn’t complex per se, but there’s something oddly comforting in the simplicity of it all. Tremors takes place in the Nevada desert near a small town called Perfection with a population of only 14 residents who are left to defend themselves against the deadly subterranean creatures. It’s the perfect setting for a monster film since the town itself is isolated. And with only one road leading to civilization, the openness of the desert landscape enhances the desolation of it all. And since the town of Perfection is so far removed from the rest of society, it soon becomes clear that nobody will ever come and save them. Instead, the townsfolk must work together; overcome the odds, and destroy the creatures. And when that fails, they must attempt to scale the rocky mountaintop where the worms are unable to travel underground. It’s getting there that becomes the problem.
Val and Earl
At the heart, and at the center of the eccentric cast of characters is Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward playing Valentine McKee and Earl Bass, a pair of modern-day cowboys working as handymen who become would-be heroes when they stumble upon the shock-sensitive killer worms. Over the years, the two actors have become less renowned for their comedic roles, but Tremors if anything, showcases their talent and range. And while Kevin Bacon with his sexy smile and pretty boy looks is by far the biggest star; it’s their irresistible chemistry that brings their characters to life. They make such a great comedic team and if you replaced Ward with any other actor at the time, there’s no guarantee that Tremors would have been this much fun to watch.
In fact, the two actors work so well together that Fred Ward provides a much better foil for Kevin Bacon than Finn Carter’s Rhonda, a.k.a. the underwritten love interest who is assigned to travel to the town and monitor the seismology readings in the desert. Not long after Rhonda arrives, the people in the town start disappearing – or worse, they end up dead, leaving very little time to establish any chemistry between her and Val— thus making the big kiss, in the end, feel a little out-of-place. But don’t blame the screenplay writers— the original ending of Tremors featured Val and Earl riding off into the sunset, with no hint at any potential romance between Val and Rhonda. Unfortunately, test audiences were not pleased and somehow the producers convinced the filmmakers to quickly reshoot the final scene— just another one of many examples of why studios should not rely on any focus group to provide feedback. In the end, the love interest feels somewhat lost in the shuffle.
The Gummer Family
It doesn’t take long before it becomes apparent that there’s something unnatural roaming the desert and feeding on human flesh. Once Rhonda checks her readings and determines that the threat is coming from underground, Tremors begins to slowly open up and introduce us to the supporting cast which includes Reba McEntire and Michael Gross as the Gummer family, a pair of overzealous, gun-crazy survivalists. McEntire and Gross are so good here, they essentially steal the spotlight from the rest of the cast. In one of their most memorable scenes, the two are forced to take shelter in their basement and defend themselves against one of the giant man-eating worms— and just when it looks like they are going to run out of ammunition, the camera pans left to reveal the bunker holds enough guns and firepower to accommodate a small army. It’s just one of many examples of how Tremors takes a simple concept and maximizes it for full effect.
As much as Tremors is remembered today for the performances of Bacon and Ward, it’s the work of the entire cast that brings the movie to life. It really is great casting considering the small budget, and everyone pulls their weight, serving up the quick-witted dialogue in a way that makes it all feel more natural– and yes that even includes Robert Jayne as the annoying teenage brat, Melvin Plug. I especially like the performance by Victor Wong, a character actor who had roles in films like 3 Ninjas and Big Trouble in Little China. Here he plays the ill-fated Walter Chang who is killed in a scene that features some of the film’s best special effects.
Director Ron Underwood
Tremors was the first movie Ron Underwood directed and by far his best. Now known as a go-to director for many successful TV shows, Underwood keeps things moving briskly and finds new clever ways to draw out tension with impressive camera work, especially the shots that show the point of view of the creatures as they stalk their victims. Along with Cinematographer Alexander Gruszynski, Underwood frames his exterior shots in a way that constantly reminds viewers how small the town is and how isolated it is. It’s also worth noting how difficult it is to shoot a horror movie outside in the middle of the desert where you can never truly escape the sunlight, and yet director Ron Underwood uses the setting to his advantage and frames his actors in such a manner that the landscape emits a general feeling of emptiness, which both mirrors the town’s small population and the people themselves who are desperate for a change.
Tremors evokes the populist spirit of ‘50s and ’60s B-movies without ever resorting to parody, nor does it ever feel familiar. Instead, Underwood reinvigorates its genre tropes with a finely balanced combination of horror and humor— and despite its tongue-in-cheek script, Underwood never allows it to venture into full-on camp. There is tension and suspense in every one of the action scenes and like many classics that came before it, Tremors focuses less on its oversized monsters and more on their victims and how these people react to attacks by these giant creatures. Even in the bright daylight, Tremors manages to create enough suspense to keep viewers at the edge of their seats.
Apart from taking inspiration from classic monster movies, Tremors owes a lot to Steven Spielberg’s Jaws— so much so, that the original title for Tremors was actually Land Sharks. Much like how the shark in Jaws travels underwater while stalking its prey, in Tremors, the 30-foot-long carnivorous worms known as Graboids, travel underground. And like Jaws (arguably the quintessential B movie), the creatures in Tremors are rarely seen. Instead, the largely invisible creatures can burrow fast enough to devour the entire town if given the opportunity— making them deadly and genuinely menacing.
Another clever inclusion by the screenplay writers was the idea to have these Graboids respond to seismic vibrations. While blind and unable to track their prey’s scent, they do have acute hearing, which means any slight movement or sound can cost you your life. In arguably the best scene of the entire film, Kevin Bacon’s Val is left to stand completely still and silent while the worm-like creatures who circle his feet reveal their razor-sharp fangs as they desperately search for their next victim.
It’s a credit to the creature design that I never once questioned the reality of the Graboids. Along with a team of over 50 visual effects wizards, the filmmakers were able to bring their creations to life with a mix of old school prosthetics, animatronics, and computer-generated imagery. Tremors may be at times funny, but this isn’t the sort of film that has viewers pointing at the screen and laughing at obviously cheesy effects. Make no mistake about it: the monster effects by Tom Woodruff and Alec Gillis (who previously worked on Alien and The Terminator) is truly impressive, especially given the limited budget they had to work with.
The one and only aspect of Tremors that I’ve never liked was the music heard at the start and at the end of the film. To my surprise, I later learned that composer Ernest Troaost’s musical score for the film went mostly unused since the studio didn’t like it and, later they hired composer Robert Folk to write a new score. Only a few of Troost’s country-themed songs made it into the final cut and sure enough, they are the songs I dislike. That said, Folk’s compositions perfectly match the visuals and heighten the suspense during the film’s most action-packed scenes.
Tremors wasn’t in any way groundbreaking since it borrowed liberally from many other monster movies, yet somehow the film became such a hit, that it spawned four direct-to-video sequels (Tremors 2: Aftershocks, Tremors 3: Back to Perfection, Tremors 5: Bloodlines and Tremors: A Cold Day in Hell)— a direct-to-video prequel (Tremors 4: The Legend Begins), and even a television series. More so, the success of Tremors resulted in many copycats but none of them (save for James Gunn’s Slither) have been able to perfectly match the potent mixture of sharp dialogue, deadpan humour, and horror.
It’s easy to see why Tremors ultimately became a success and why it remains a fun and engaging experience, decades later. The plot is fully realized constantly keeping things exciting. It has plenty of spectacular set-pieces, thrilling action scenes, and plenty of quotable throwaway dialogue. Along with the charismatic cast, superb direction, great script and terrifyingly real effects, Tremors stands the test of time. Many have tried to match Tremors but most have ultimately come up short. Movies like this come around once every few years.
- Ricky D
The Career of Tony Scott and His Influence on the Film Industry
In the late 1970s and 1980s, composer Giorgio Moroder was often accused of trying to replace the orchestral movie soundtrack with high-energy, synthesizer-heavy disco-pop laid on with a trowel in movies like Thank God It’s Friday (1978), Flashdance (1983), Scarface (1983), and Top Gun (1986). I remember a magazine story on Moroder which quoted one of his many critics as saying, “The day the music died, Giorgio Moroder was brought in for questioning.”
I think some people had the same opinion about movies and Tony Scott. Full disclosure: I’m one of them. But it would be greatly unfair to Scott, who died in 2012, not to admit that, for good or for ill, his 1980s feature work had an enormous impact on commercial filmmaking.
The younger brother of Ridley Scott by seven years, he was gifted – like his brother – with an outrageously good eye; a taste for the visual strong enough to earn him his master’s degree from London’s Royal College of Art (which he’d attended on scholarship no less). But painting didn’t pay well, so he joined with his brother in Ridley Scott Associates where, from the 1970s into the 1980s, he applied that eye to moving pictures, directing thousands of commercials, some of them still-talked-about all-time classics in the U.K.
His first feature was the visually sumptuous, dramatically wispy attempt at erotic vampirica, The Hunger (1983), and it was such a lambasted flop it’s a surprise Scott’s feature career didn’t end right there. But three years later, producer Jerry Bruckheimer tapped him to direct Top Gun and movies would never be the same.
It was a perfect marriage of sensibilities (along with Michael Bay, Scott would remain one of Bruckheimer’s go-to directors). Bruckheimer, whose youthful interest in photography had led him to his own career in commercials before turning to movies, had the same affinity for striking imagery as Scott.
The timing of the union was just right, too. MTV was only five years old, and the non-stop near-abstract visuals of music video were not only still hypnotically novel, but on their way to becoming the defining visual sensibility for a new movie-going generation. With Giorgio Moroder (another ideal wedding of sensibilities) supplying a Pop’s Top Ten-nish soundtrack, Scott put together montages that were, essentially, music videos woven into the narrative of the film (some critics carped that the whole movie was little more than an extended music video).
Striking visuals, a pulsing, toe-tapping score, and a super-patriotic story that made a hero of a young, cocky, mouthy, go-my-own-way fighter jock made for a flick which hit a big, fat sweet spot with MTV’s first generation of ticket-buyers: Top Gun scored a whopping $176.7 million domestic. I did the math: at today’s ticket prices, that would translate to almost $390 million. Love it or hate it, you have to respect that kind of box office muscle.
Top Gun set the template for Scott: high-octane visuals, rapid-fire editing (often at the hands of Chris Lebenzon), an MTV-friendly soundtrack, and a story simple enough to absorb without having to pay too much attention.
It also set the template for so many of the box office winners of the next few decades, movies that moved fast, piled on the action, featured characters who were often little more than catchphrases with biceps, offered music video fodder (at least back when MTV still played music videos), and where plausibility – even under Hollywood’s extremely elastic definition of the concept – was irrelevant. Think Lethal Weapon, Speed (1994), Twister (1996), and anything by Michael Bay.
Though his brother Ridley often took the same rap of favoring looks over substance, their styles, though both highly visual, were strikingly different.
Ridley’s films — good and bad – play out like classical music: stately, elegant, unrushed, somber.
Tony’s movies are rock ‘n’ roll: fast, loud, exhausting, sometimes painfully bright.
It’s hard to imagine Tony doing something as subdued as Ridley’s Napoleonic-era The Duelists (1977), or even pulling off the brooding sci-fi Gothicism of Alien (1979). By the same token, Ridley would have seemed a poor fit for Top Gun or all the running back and forth in Crimson Tide (1995).
Despite being regularly slammed for his storytelling, Scott did care about plot and character. Explaining the failure of Days of Thunder (1990) – Top Gun cloned to the NASCAR circuit – Scott diagnosed the problem as having started production without a finished script. “(You) always have to get a story,” he said, “and you’ve got to get character first…”
But it wasn’t a sentiment that quite squared with his execution. In an Entertainment Weekly story about a trending flimsiness in big-screen storytelling, The Fan (1996) screenwriter Phoef Sutton told the story of shooting the movie’s climactic baseball game in a torrential downpour. Sutton and others tried to argue Scott out of it pointing out that baseball games are called on account of such weather. The rain stayed. Said Sutton: “…I don’t think Tony cared about the plausibility of it.”
In his later years, he seemed to be trying to reach for the kind of substance his early films were often accused of lacking, but he remained better at taking a good picture than giving it meaning. Enemy of the State (1998) was entertaining enough, but it was like Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) with the poetry removed and replaced with explosions and chases; Spy Game (2001) was an anemic John LeCarre wannabe; The Taking of Pelham 123 replaced the local color which had made the original so memorable with a needlessly busy yet flavorless plot.
Like his brother, Tony also produced, and in those projects, one could sense an ambition to do something of substance. There were such laudable efforts as the HBO movie RKO 281 (1999) about Orson Welles’ fight to make Citizen Kane; The Gathering Storm (2002), another HBO feature, this about Churchill’s attempts to prep England for WW II; Gettysburg (2001), a cable documentary about one of the most pivotal battles of the Civil War; and the lovely, elegiac (if sadly little-seen) Western, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.
Though Scott would continue to turn out some respectable earners in his later years (Déjà vu , The Taking of Pelham 123, Unstoppable ), after the 1980s, he’d never hit Top Gun heights again, and, in fact, after Beverly Hills Cop II (1987) only ever crossed the $100 million domestic mark one more time with Enemy of the State (1998). Perhaps the problem was that Scott’s eye-tickling rat-a-tat-tat style had, by the 1990s, become so widely copied that his often dramatically weak films had little else to offer; the trendsetter had become just another member of the pack.
But give him this. Few filmmakers make a lasting impact. Most directors and most films come and go, cinematic mayflies fluttering around the box office for a few weeks before disappearing. The same can’t be said of Tony Scott. Love ‘im or hate ‘im, it’ll be a long time before anyone forgets him.
– Bill Mesce
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