I’m not sure when I first became aware of the website Extension 756 but of the features listed on the site, “The Soderblog” is my favorite. Each year Steven Soderbergh publishes a list of the things he’s watched and read the year before and in 2016 I decided to start doing the same. Unlike him I do not keep track of the books I’ve read, which is weird, but for some reason the idea of doing so is repellent to me.
Unlike Mr. Soderbergh I’ve never wanted to share my list with anyone. I find it interesting to look back and review what I’ve seen every few months, often noting the films or television shows that I do not recall watching.
At present social media is full of everyone sharing their lists about the past year or decade and given that I have not posted anything to this site in some time I thought I would follow suit.
Below is a list of films and television shows I saw this year. These are the ones I enjoyed and felt compelled to say something about.
The Punisher (Season 2)
Now that the Marvel shows on Netflix are finished it is easy to look back and mentally rank them. In the middle of their airings I was often confused as to how I felt about them.
The final addition to the group was The Punisher and my expectations were low. This was in part because the Punisher comic books I had read were forgettable. Also, I ‘ve seen the three Punisher movies and they, too, were forgettable.
The first season of The Punisher was interesting in places but it wasn’t compelling television. The second season, however, went in different directions and became a better show. Jon Berenthal made me believe, in many unbelievable moments, that he was not only capable of extreme violence but that he could endure all that was thrown at him. That his pain and anger were enough to get him through moments of extreme duress and injury. That he was able to overcome his adversaries because of his loss and desire for vengeance.
The Punisher was a difficult show to like, when I think of who I would recommend it to I am unable to think of anyone. That being said I’m glad I watched it, and with the exception of Daredevil, it is the show I wish could continue for another season.
I find Noomi Rapace to be such an enjoyable actor that I have sat through a number of truly unpleasant films despite my discomfort with the subject matter on the screen (looking at you Girl with the Dragon Tattoo).
Close is a small, self-contained film. It doesn’t have big ambitions. I do think it achieves what it sets out to do.
Like many of Ms. Rapace’s recent films I wish it was a bit better and more deserving of her talents. That being said it is different. I imagine that part of this is because it was based on a true story and that the director is a woman. There is a feeling to the film, the way the you perceive the characters and how action sequences are handled, that is unique and unexpected.
I watched this in January and it still is quite fresh in my mind, which is one of the better endorsements I can give.
The marketing of Molly’s Game was bizarre. Look at the poster. What is this movie about? If you watch the trailer –
You get the sense that the film is about poker, women is slinky dresses, a lawsuit and something about the Russian mob. It’s all a bit unclear and you don’t really get a sense of Idris Elba.
My point being that going into this film I was not really sure what I was about to see. It’s an excellent movie, based on a true story, about a woman with integrity navigating dangerous waters. I don’t want to say much more than that except – so much of what seems titilating or sensational in the promotional materials makes sense in the context of the film.
There are wonderful performances and a story that you become emotionally invested in. I wish they had figured out how to promote this film better because it deserved it.
High Flying Bird
I’ve already written some about this film but it needs to be on this list. Billed as another iPhone movie from Steven Soderbergh this is one of my favorite films I saw in 2019. I went into this thinking it would be a basketball movie and instead watched something more complex.
To my surprise this was not the other kind of Soderbergh film (ala The Laundromat) that is based on a true story and gets really tricky and clever with the narrative. This is the stripped-down, straightforward Soderbergh film that tells the story simply and well.
After ten minutes I stopped paying attention to it being an iPhone film (which is an impressive feat and something I am interested in – my previous posts might give this away) and found myself immersed in the story, trying to keep up with the strategies of sports agent Ray Burke.
I saved myself from some heartbreak, with only seconds to spare, when I remembered who was directing and knew he would cut before giving us the one-on-one basketball game we desperately wanted to watch. Hopefully if you haven’t seen the film this warning will do the same for you.
I like movies and despite the weird debate that has been raging online the past few months I don’t make a point of distinguishing between movies and films (or cinema). I am happier this way. That being said my expectations for Aquaman were low (regardless of how you classify it).
I liked the Justice League movie, in no small part because of Jason Momoa’s performance. I knew nothing of the director or the story they planned to tell and truthfully the trailer for the film did not convince me it was going to be a great movie.
Imagine my surprise when I watched the film, found Mr. Momoa as charming as ever and the sprawling story interesting/fun/rewarding. This is a film that I think most screenwriting instructors would tell you should not work. Yet it does, beautifully.
Even those who poke fun at the “problems” of the film, like Screen Junkies with their Honest Trailer –
Seem to be making an effort to find flaws. In short this is exactly the kind of film I wanted to see and I was so pleased when I watched it. Aquaman, especially the one I grew up reading about in comics, was not cool. Mr. Momoa has given us probably the coolest superhero ever with this character and he has made the film fun and enjoyable. What more can you ask for?
This is another film that should not work. At all. When I first watched the trailer I did not bother finishing it because I was convinced this was a terrible movie.
If you watch the trailer you will discern that the majority of this film is a bunch of people, in a warehouse, shooting each other. I feel like a broken record here but, again, this should not work.
Yet somehow it does. The film is funny and sad and engaging. The cast managed to create somewhat memorable characters from…shooting each other? Quipping across the battlefield? I don’t really know. The film works it magic in a way that snuck past my defenses and I am pleased that it did.
If you feel like watching a black comedy with a fair amount of absurdism, Free Fire is the film for you.
I had been hearing about the show for some time but I hadn’t watched season one until January. With prior attempts of watching I found the fourth wall breaking annoying and gimmicky. It was only after watching season one of Killing Eve that I was properly prepared for what Phoebe Waller Bridge was offering.
Full confession – I watched both seasons this year I can say without hesitation that I found season one to be more interesting and fulfilling. I don’t say this to be controversial or to annoy anyone. It is just how I feel. I have found it baffling to watch everyone pile on about how great season two is and have no one mention how great the first season is (or even attempt to point out that they like it better). Perhaps everyone got it out of their systems when season one aired and I missed the praise but I get the sense that most, like me, are late to the party.
Season one was unexpected, strange and filled with so many wonderful moments that made me laugh. Of the many things I liked I think the episode that showcases the difference between the retreats of men and women is my favorite. The women silently clean and do household work while the men shout and set fire to things. It’s so far from subtle and so terribly poignant.
It also has this moment which made my year –
The Poet and Singer
May brought The Criterion Channel into my life. The biggest unexpected perk of the channel has been the short films. I was not aware, let alone to view so many of these films prior to joining the channel and this alone has been worth the price of admission.
I had not been aware of Bi Gan prior to seeing The Poet and Singer (although immediately after I was reading about Long Day’s Journey into Night everywhere). It’s an interesting short film and I think I enjoyed it more than Kaili Blues (but it’s hard to say because my mind wandered with both and sections of each continue to haunt me). This film and Kaili Blues are just different and unexpected. When Martin Scorsese speaks about “cinema” I know he is referring to films like these and while I do not agree with the need to differentiate I fully appreciate the point he is making.
Too Old to Die Young
If asked to state the film/show that deserved more attention in 2019 it would be Too Old to Die Young. In the numerous interviews and articles I’ve read concerning Too Old I found Mr. Refn’s comments to be interesting and illuminating.
Regarding the way the story is structured, in that there seems to be no end or beginning he offered the following –
“What’s interesting about streaming for me — because television is dead as a doornail — but streaming is like a whole new opportunity,” he said. “And if it’s a different concept, in a way, because it’s uncontrollable. You just log on [and] log off. It’s a coexistence now. Episodic television was designed when television was once a week on an analog channel. Why do we still retain the same narrative and constructions from a time that doesn’t even exist?”
He further elaborated that the show is designed to work however you wish to view it. Start in the middle, start at the end – watch all of it or only watch one episode. At a time when people are fiercely debating whether Disney is destroying the film viewing experience and whether or not the movies they are putting out have value you have a filmmaker putting up a ten episode series on Amazon and saying, “Do what you will.”
After watching the show I can see how many people will certainly partake (or not) in their own ways. It’s long, it is strange and it is deeply unpleasant. Things happen that fly in the face of conventional storytelling. Story arcs are disassembled or forgotten or altered in ways I am not accustomed to.
Too Old To Die Young is certainly not for everyone but it deserves more attention, more review. I wish the heated discussions happening now were about this show because it is terribly interesting.
Stranger Things Season 3
I would be remiss not to write something about Stranger Things – the show that has surpassed all expectations three seasons running. I don’t have anything to add to what has already been said. The addition of Robin, the expansion of Erica (who may well take over the show in season four and I am fine with that) and the continued redemption of Steve Harrington all made my heart feel warm and fuzzy. It’s an excellent show and I love that it continues to receive the success it deserves.
Another short film I found courtesy of The Criterion Channel, Logorama is an unexpected gem. I’ve watched it once, I imagine I need another five or six viewings to try and give this any kind of proper review. It’s a complex film with a bizarre plot that immediately sucked me in. This is an overwhelming short film, they packed so much in to its short running-time but it is rewarding. When it ended I wanted to tell everyone I know they have to watch it – so here it is, go watch this film.
Before I started writing this I thought that Vice was a poorly reviewed, barely seen film. I had thought only Christian Bale was nominated for an Academy Award (not true it was nominated for eight awards and won one) and that basically no one liked this movie.
I stand corrected, it seems like most everyone liked this movie but it lost money at the box office (domestically) – which for some reason a lot of people care about and report. All of this nonsense being said I watched Vice and I think it’s a great movie. I liked the way they put the film together and told this story, the narrator and his reveal were clever, and I feel like the filmmakers had something they wanted to say.
I enjoyed everything about this film. I know I’m not writing anything clever here but this is such a solid film it doesn’t need me. Watch it, it is good.
I’m not sure when a new Luc Besson film stopped being BIG news but it is a shame. I only learned of Anna’s existence because I watch trailers on Apple’s website. They included a scene from the film, a fight in a restaurant, that was interesting and well done. I was sold.
This isn’t a ground-breaking, original film – I feel like those days are gone for Mr. Besson. That being said it is an interesting, well-made action film that delivers. Helen Mirren is her usual wonderful self and Cillian Murphy brings so much to the table. If you are looking for a fun action movie this is a good choice. It certainly entertained me.
This film exceeded my expectations to a ridiculous degree. In fairness I watched the trailer and did not know that this was a retelling of Henry the Fifth. That would have been good information to have.
If I were to list all the ways that this film impressed me this already long post would continue for days. Every aspect of the production is executed with such precision and care. The performances are sublime. The movie is so good I am using the word sublime to describe it and I feel not an ounce of shame.
So let me give one example. To demonstrate the life Hal and Falstaff live (before the throne) the director has one sequence, perhaps a minute long, that consists of two static shots. One is a slow motion shot of Hal’s face, drunkenly laughing, the other of Falstaff drunkenly dancing. Where others would have spent the bulk of the first act depicting their debauched lifestyle the characters live, David Michôd handles the matter briskly and moves on to more important matters. It is a such an important and well-handled choice.
Which is not to say the film is rushed in any way. The fat has been trimmed, the story told and the result is one of the best films I watched in 2019.
Peaky Blinders Season Five
I would be remiss if I did not write something about Peaky Blinders in a year where a new season is released. The show that taught all of us that Cillian Murphy has much more to offer than what Christopher Nolan has presented, continues to deliver unforgettable moments of Tommy Shelby.
Season five is no different in that regard, although the introduction of politics and facism – while timely and relevant, was deeply unpleasant. Season four had a similar feeling of being a bridge between what has been and what is to come and while both seasons have wonderful moments there is a lack of completion to the story being told. It is hard to be critical of this show as it is so well made and has so many wonderful characters.
Ash is Purest White
I posted on social media that I don’t normally care much for titles, concerning my own work or others, but in the case of this movie I would respectfully offer the alternative title “Females are Strong as Hell”. Partly because Kimmy Schmidt gave us that gem and partly because this film has one of the best parts I’ve seen for an actress.
After watching the trailer I thought I knew the film I was about to watch but at each turn I found I did not know what to expect next. I adore that. The film is not at all what I thought it would be and ultimately it was better than I hoped. I’ve been slowly working my way through Jia Zhangke’s other films, not wanting to run out too quickly. This was a wonderful surprise.
Happy Death Day & Happy Death Day 2U
I don’t watch many horror movies. If I do I usually don’t know that is what they are when I begin watching them. I have nothing against the genre, I just don’t usually enjoy them. In part that is because I think of horror movies as being all the same, part of the slasher sub genre or the body horror sub genre. Obviously I am wrong in this thinking and these two films are proof.
In looking for something to watch while running on the treadmill I saw the trailer for Happy Death Day and it looked….fun? It turns out these two movies are fun and silly and clever. I didn’t find either scary but I’m not sure they were supposed to be (that or I am just tough as nails now which seems unlikely). In any case I wasn’t expecting to find myself moved by the sequel and wondering if I would have the courage to make the choice that the main character was faced with. Who knew?
John Wick – Chapter Three – Parabellum
Okay, first of all – am I the only person who didn’t know the definition of Parabellum? I hope not. I felt a bit foolish when this was made apparent but then I know nothing of Latin. Anyway, I wasn’t expecting to feel less intelligent than John Wick three, but there you have it.
I wasn’t sure what could happen in this film that would surprise me or please me. Then Halle Berry came on screen with her dogs. I don’t write this to diminish Keanu Reeves in any way, he was wonderful as always in this – but Ms. Berry and her dogs steal the movie. I would love to see a film of just them, I am sure it would be exceptional.
Another great example of trusting a trailer and being rewarded. I’ve never watched anything relating to Pokémon, never played a game, I’ve had no contact whatsoever. Yet. I watched this movie and greatly enjoyed it. The humor is wonderful, the emotional connection is there and the Pokémon are weird and cute in equal parts.
In many ways I feel that 2019 was the year of Ryan Reynolds and I think Detective Pikachu proves it. I don’t think this film would have worked with anyone else.
I often think I no longer pay attention to brands. My wife and I discuss this before we buy kitchen appliances – in particular that it used to be easier because you could trust buying from brand X because their products were always of the highest quality.
If I am truthful I only watched Watchmen because HBO made the show. The trailer gave next to nothing away and while people (and reviewers) have been heaping praise on the show I was still skeptical.
This show, expanding on the story and working largely with different characters in different times is interesting. I enjoyed the season despite disliking large sections of it. The casting was great and having Regina King play the lead character was inspired. So much happens during this season that it is easy to lose track of things, which is why when I read articles about it after watching I was pleased to see that others had made lists asking things like, “What happened to lube-man?”.
These are important questions.
I want to include with a few films that I am looking forward to seeing. In a late-night rant last night I expressed my frustration at not being more excited to see films of late. That so many that are thrust at me are interesting or middling but not truly exciting.
I, of course, was being ridiculous and I wanted to correct myself here with a list of films and shows I am absolutely excited to see.
- Uncut Gems
- The Farewell
- The New Pope
- Greener Grass
- Hotel by the River
- Jumanji: The Next Level
- Bad Boys for Life
- Portrait of A Lady on Fire
- Wonder Woman 1984