The Fast and Fentress Best of 2019

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Hot on the heels of my 2018 lists, here’s my roundup of my favorite movies from last year.

10. Ready or Not

Ready-or-Not

On the night of her wedding, Grace (a very game Samara Weaving) participates in her new in-laws’ strange tradition of playing hide and seek in their lavish mansion.  What they fail to tell her is that upon being found, she is meant to be sacrificed as part of an occult ritual.  Though this premise somewhat classifies Ready or Not as a horror movie by default, it’s just as much a comedy, if not more so.  Offering little in the way of out-and-out scares, but good at maintaining a tense atmosphere, Ready or Not’s greatest pleasures come from its biting sense of humor.  Weaving and the rest of the ensemble make the most of their larger-than-life roles, and the script is smart enough to be worthy of their efforts.

9. Shazam!

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Like its DC contemporary Aquaman, this breezy superhero flick understands that escapism is what comic book movies do best.  Shazam! follows Billy Batson, a fourteen-year-old foster kid who stumbles upon the power to transform into the titular champion.  Thanks to director David F. Sandberg’s light touch, the movie ends up being tough to beat in terms of sheer fun.  Zachary Levi is a blast in the title role, and supporting turns from Jack Dylan Grazer and Mark Strong are equally entertaining.  Sincere and goofy in the best way, Shazam! is a welcome reminder of how enjoyable its now-glutted genre can be.

8. Midsommar

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Ari Aster’s Hereditary follow-up tells the story of Dani and Christian (Florence Pugh and Jack Reynor), a flagging couple who joins Christian’s friends on a trip to rural Sweden to attend a traditional pagan festival.  But the hospitable locals are not what they seem, and the group of Americans soon finds themselves in mortal danger.

Midsommar isn’t without its flaws, chiefly its unearned 147-minute runtime, but it’s still a horror movie to be reckoned with.  Creating an atmosphere of queasy dread underneath its beautiful pastels, it ratchets up the tension to an almost unbearable level before the full-blown horror begins.  It’s also refreshingly intelligent, offering up some cutting commentary on toxic relationships.

7. Crawl

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This Alexandre Aja creature feature boasts an irresistibly high-concept hook: at the onset of a violent hurricane, college student Haley (Kaya Scodelario) goes to check on her unreachable father (Barry Pepper), only to find him trapped in his house’s crawlspace – and surrounded by ravenous alligators.  Naturally, this movie had me at “ravenous alligators,” but where it really impresses is in its execution.  It clocks in at a ruthlessly efficient eighty-seven minutes, not wasting a single moment.  The CGI gators are frighteningly convincing, and the two leads deliver gritty, physical performances.  With merciless scares, terrifying monsters, and no shortage of gore, it’s a first-class entry in the killer-animal genre.

6. The Lighthouse

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Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe bring their A-game in this trippy two-man showThey play a pair of lighthouse keepers stranded by a violent storm, whose initially amiable relationship begins to deteriorate with their living conditions.

The Lighthouse is hauntingly cinematic, its rich black-and-white visuals and authentic period touches fully evoking its setting.  Though it occasionally succumbs to pretension and indulgence, it achieves its artistic goals far more often than not.  With two committed performances at its center and plenty of delirious style, The Lighthouse is a disturbing and often hilarious descent into madness.

5. Uncut Gems

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Adam Sandler shines in the latest movie from the Sadfie brothers, the minds behind 2017’s similarly stress-inducing Good Time.  Sandler plays Howard Ratner, a self-destructive jeweler in debt to loan sharks who decides the best course of action is to spend his borrowed money on a series of highly risky gambles.  Uncut Gems is a hopped-up fever dream of a movie, moving at an unrelenting clip and held together by Sandler’s lived-in performance.  His charisma makes Howard a human train-wreck: brutal to watch but impossible to look away from.

4. Dragged Across Concrete

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The latest from grindhouse maestro S. Craig Zahler is a crime thriller that follows two suspended detectives (Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn), both desperate for cash, as they attempt what seems like an easy illegal score.  Just as with his last film, Zahler manages to find artistic flourishes in an otherwise lowbrow genre, writing three-dimensional characters and snappy dialogue.  Gibson and Vaughn are in fine form as the two corrupt cops, as is Tory Kittles as good-hearted criminal Henry.  Though its hefty runtime may scare some away, Dragged Across Concrete is never boring, and displays a deft sense of pacing between moments of introspection and explosions of violence.

3. 1917

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Far and away this year’s purest piece of cinema, this thrilling World War I movie demands to be seen in theaters.  It tells the bracingly simple story of Blake and Schofield, two young soldiers tasked with delivering a key message to the British front line.  After a brief prologue, the movie becomes an exercise in sheer immersion; plunging the audience into the shoes of its imperiled heroes and refusing to let up until its poignant conclusion.  Sam Mendes handles the (artificial) single-shot conceit with technical mastery, but never lets the spectacle get in the way of the movie’s humanity.

2. Parasite

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Bong Joon-ho takes on class warfare in his most ambitious, most fully-formed project to date.  Deftly melding disparate tones, this label-defying movie chronicles a poor Seoul family as they ingratiate themselves into one of the city’s one-percent households.  What begins as a fairly straightforward culture-clash comedy quickly takes dark and unexpected turns, becoming something far greater in the process.  Technically, the movie is impeccable, with understatedly stunning visuals and a playful, insinuating score.  The cast is uniformly excellent, with Bong mainstay Song Kang-ho and Yeo-jeong Jo the clear standouts.  Though it lacks the idiosyncrasies of Bong’s other movies, Parasite is still a true original.

1. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

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Quentin Tarantino’s epic vision of 1969 Hollywood is a joy to behold, far more concerned with capturing an idealized feel of its time and place than dull notions of “historical accuracy,” and completely free of the self-parody that has marred his other recent films.  Leonardo DiCaprio and Margot Robbie are excellent as Rick Dalton and Sharon Tate, but the movie’s undeniable MVP is Brad Pitt, radiating low-key charisma as Rick’s unflinchingly loyal best bud Cliff Booth.

With just enough plot to keep things chugging along, but never too much to sacrifice its evocative style, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood weaves a spellbinding fairytale that builds to a perfectly-pitched, wholly satisfying ending, with Tarantino’s trademark ultra-violence both fitting and completely earned.  Nostalgic, funny, and surprisingly tender, it’s his best work since Kill Bill.

 

Honorable Mentions

Joker:  Cribbing a bit too much from Taxi Driver and unable to live up to its colossal waves of hype, Joker is a nonetheless a gripping and admirably risky – if not particularly deep – take on its iconic title character.  Joaquin Phoenix, as always, delivers a powerhouse performance.

High Life:  Robert Pattinson makes for a compelling lead in this artsy space drama.  Sometimes the movie bites off more than it can chew, but on the whole it’s a thought-provoking, visually impressive piece of sci-fi.

Happy Death Day 2U:  This hyper-ambitious sequel abandons all pretenses of horror and instead opts for nutty sci-fi comedy.  Though not as satisfyingly tight as its predecessor, it makes up for it in laughs and imagination, plus another killer performance from Jessica Rothe.

The Beach Bum:  This Harmony Korine-directed hangout movie follows Moondog (Matthew McConaughey), a hedonistic poet, on a drug-fueled odyssey through Miami.  Trading all but the most basic of plots for a series of vignettes with a host of colorful characters, it works chiefly because of McConaughey’s laid-back charm.

The Irishman:  In spite of its excessive length and iffy de-aging effects, Martin Scorsese’s latest crime epic still boasts deft craftsmanship, as well as strong performances across the board.

Marriage Story:  This domestic drama isn’t without its tonal missteps, but its unglamorous depiction of divorce largely rings true.  Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson give ego-free, recognizably human performances.

Ford v Ferrari:  It’s too long and too predictable for its own good, but this future dad-classic is still a good time thanks to its rock-solid leads and exhilarating racing sequences.

Richard Jewell:  Clint Eastwood’s ripped-from-the-headlines drama is as compelling as it is enraging.  Paul Walter Hauser, stellar in the title role, was robbed of an Oscar nomination.

Cold Pursuit:  Liam Neeson’s latest foray into geri-action does perfectly fine in the thrills department, but its best quality is its dry sense of humor.

The Prodigy:  This workmanlike horror movie is an uncommonly competent execution of the bad seed subgenre.  Read my review for more.

Fighting with My Family:  This feel-good sports story doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it works thanks to Florence Pugh’s appealing lead performance, as well as a very funny script.

Hope you enjoyed the list, everyone.  My Worst of 2019 won’t be far behind.

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