Top 10 Overthinking Films of 2019
This was a very hard list to write.
It's always hard to write a list of top ten movies. If you're doing a top ten you probably a lot of movies in a year and there's usually quite a few that I think are worthy of commendation. Moreover, people have very strong opinions about their favorite movies and my tastes are often very different from other people's, I have to work hard to justify my picks to myself because I will sure as heck have to justify them later.
But this year was even more difficult than usual. Most of the films left me feeling deeply dissatisfied one way or another. Script, plot, acting, cinematography (but usually script), doesn't matter. Whatever it was, some crucial piece of the film would be missing.
Part of this probably has to do with my own evolving tastes and priorities in film. The more movies I see, the more I realize what I think movies should be. Once you've seen Eye in the Sky and The Florida Project, other movies don't seem as politically or morally intelligent. Once you've seen Ralph Breaks the Internet, you know what animation should strive for. Once you've seen Black Panther, you know what profundity genre films are still capable of if they try.
Writing up my top ten then, became something of a journey of self-discovery. I had to pick which failure in a film mattered more to me and which bothered me less. Is it worse if the script is weak or if the technical craft is mediocre? How far can great execution make up for a less worthy subject matter and vice versa? How much do my own preferences for stories I resonate with affect how well-made I think the movie is?
Those who've been reading my blog have seen me publish some of my developing ideas of what movies are supposed to be. I am more and more growing to see film as a medium that is meant to draw people to worship something worthy of worship. The greater the excellence of the craft the better you can see why the object of your worship is worthy of it. So the questions I ask are: how worthy of love is this movie's subject? How well do the filmmakers portray the worthiness of the subject? How well do they reveal the subject's beauty? And which is more important: the subject or the execution of inciting worship?
Ultimately, I think the picks on my list reflect my own views about what film is and is supposed to be at its best. Many of your favorite movies this year are probably not on this list. You may sit there aghast at my choices. However, I hope you walk away from this top ten list with three things:
1. You engage with my reasons for thinking these films deserved the top spots to the degree that, even if you don't agree with me, you walk away with a better understanding of why you like the movies you liked this year.
2. You find some movies you haven't seen that you are excited to check out.
3. You walk away better able to think about what makes a great movie in the first place.
In the end, film criticism is here to help us to see film better so that it can make us better people and not worse people. And be being better engagers in film we can make sure better films exist too. And those films will make us better people and better film critics.
Let's get started.
(It's very long. You might want to skip to the movies you're interested in. Or do read it with breaks.)
10. Brittany Runs a Marathon
Brittany Runs a Marathon succeeds as a movie by being so truthful to an experience that, if you've been through it, watching this movie truly rocks you. Based on a true story, the movie follows Brittany Forgler, hard-partyer in NYC living a self-destructive lifestyle who hits rock bottom when she gets bad news about her health. We follow her through her ups and downs as she tries to take control of her life by becoming a runner, and in the process turn away from her bad habits and self-hatred she's been avoiding for so long.
This movie gets a thousand details right, both in the experience it portrays, and the social factors that play a role in keeping us from self-betterment. When Brittany is first confronted with her self-destructive behavior, she deflects with humor or with cultural platitudes (e.g., "Every body is beautiful", "Your life is easier than mine", etc.), which, while sometimes true, she's using to avoid taking responsibility for her choices. When she tries to make her life better, she discovers character flaws that she was unaware of. When she confronts her character flaws she realizes those behaviors were coping mechanisms to deal with her own life traumas. Its honesty about the issues that women face in particular is brutally honest and affirming in ways that movies that tried to deal with similar issues, like I Feel Pretty, and Isn't It Romantic, were not. I know friends who have cried for half of the movie because of how well it reflected their own life story.
What keeps this movie from truly soaring is that the filmmakers were too satisfied with relying on the greatness of the story itself rather than stepping up their game as filmmakers to truly elevate the events by their execution. The writing, acting, pacing, camerawork and editing are all very good. But they don't add anything in particular that makes this film stand out beyond other inspirational movie fare unless you've directly been through an analogous experience. If they'd taken as much care in stepping up their craft as the titular character did to run a marathon, the efforts could have been sublime.
That said, in a year where many filmmakers dropped the ball enough that they got in the way of their own story, the fact that Brittany Runs a Marathon tells such a good story without dropping the ball is enough to propel it to #10 on my list.
#9. Avengers: Endgame
Sometimes we forget what an incredible accomplishment Avengers: Endgame is. Marvel managed to take a 12-year interconnected movie franchise and pay it off in a way that satisfied basically everyone. This is the same year that Game of Thrones ended to almost universal fan rage and Star Wars ended to almost universal fan and audience disappointment. The fact that Marvel was able to take 12 years of buildup and hype and create an ending that pretty much satisfied the entire fanbase and critiques is pretty impressive.
What Avengers: Endgame did this year is top Marvel at what Marvel has always done better than anyone in Hollywood: being worship. This is why Marvel has dominated the box office for the past decade. Seeing Avengers: Endgame with a bunch of fellow Marvel fans is like going to church and cheering for what is good and beautiful, seeing examples of real heroism glorified that make you want to be a better person so you can be like the people you admire. A friend of mine told me that when (spoiler) Captain America got Thor's hammer that moment made him want to be a better man. We often take for granted that Marvel films do this so well because they do it so often, but given that few others in Hollywood seem capable of matching them, it's still worth celebrating them for it. I've talked about this before in my previous post about worship: this is the highest purpose of movies, and it's something Marvel does better than anyone else right now, and they topped themselves with Avengers: Endgame. That's why it deserves its spot on the list.
That said, the movie does have some obviously flaws that keep it from being higher on the list. They don't really develop to any meaningful degree many if any of the deep topics they bring up, like grief, loss, etc. (A frustrating oversight for an overthinker.) They also have become so set in their Marvel style of filmmaking that there's not really anything apparently innovative beyond the visual effects. Oftentimes there doesn't seem to be a great deal of thought behind where the filmmakers decide to put the camera beyond "this is the way we've always shot this scene". Finally, one of the most frustrating things for me is that, like most Marvel films directed by the Russo Brothers, they don't really take the time to give the film a proper or satisfying first act because they assume that everyone's seen all the other movies. Although they're technically probably right, it means that the first act is irritatingly weak and it takes one longer to get into the story than it should.
Still, even given its flaws and the fact that we're used to Marvel's excellence right now, Avengers: Endgame is a monumental achievement that deserves its spot on my top ten list. I saw the movie three times in theaters and it didn't lose a single bit of enjoyment each time. Marvel has been our culture's primary form of worship and self-examination for the past decade and it earned that status. (For better and worse.) Will it continue to be so in the future? Only time will tell. But for now, it's worth raising a glass to the gold standard of Hollywood blockbusters.
8. Marriage Story
Marriage Story, like Brittany Runs A Marathon, is one of the most totally accurate movies of its subject matter I've ever seen. There are two main differences: 1. This movie is about divorce and breaking up rather than pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. 2. The artistry here is as stunning as its story. Watching this movie was like watching every argument I've ever had with a significant other and every breakup I've ever watched. And the screenwriting, the acting, the cinematography, the editing--everything--come together to elevate this material in uncanny ways.
One of the things I saw Marriage Story does really well is to expose the selfishness of the human heart that leads to divorce, and how divorce itself creates further toxicity in the relationship. Nicole wanted to separate because she cared about her career more than she did about her marriage. Charlie ignored her hints at what she wanted because his happiness was the most important thing on his mind. Once they start to separate, the legal system gets involved, and they have to start competing to prove who's the better parent, and little generosities that they've given to each other become bargaining chips to hold over each other. Watching this happen is one of the hardest things to do, since the film also does a great job at showing the genuine love that they have for each other. In a way, by showing how ugly divorce is, and the human selfishness that leads to divorce, this film glorifies love and marriage more than many other happier love stories have done.
The film is very hard to watch, and the fact that we have all seen breakups like this means that it sometimes runs the risk of merely telling us what we already know. This means that you are waiting the whole time to see how the film ends in order to see what context and meaning it adds to the experience to help us see our own experiences in a new way.
Sadly, this is something the film does not do. The film simply ends without giving us any additional meaning to the story that helps us to gain much from the experience of watching another breakup. This does not typically bother cinephiles and critics but it typically doesn't do much for your average person looking to their movies to add to their life rather than just add to their stress. Additionally, the film ends with (spoilers) Nicole getting everything she wants and Charlie ending up giving her everything she wanted in the first place without having the family together. This comes off as either unfair or disingenuous. If we are supposed to be happy for Nicole, it comes off as unfair because she was just as responsible for the divorce collapsing as he was. If we are supposed to feel sad for Charlie, it comes off as disingenuous given the fact that this film is based loosely on the director's own divorce and he seems to come out at least equally a winner in that one.
Marriage Story is a masterpiece of artistry and a deeply accurate portrayal of a relationship dying. If it gave us more of a reason to--in a country with a near 50% divorce rate--go through the experience one more time, the results could have been transcendent. (And, more importantly, much higher on my list.)
7. The Irishman
Watching The Irishman reminded me of how satisfying a movie is when everything works. Martin Scorsese is a master director with years of experience and his mastery of the craft is the best its ever been. Right from the beginning, you know that he's decided on every shot in the film for a very specific purpose, and he executes it with seemingly effortless precision in a way that fully supports what he's trying to say. Knowing that you're in the hands of a master who you can trust like that makes the film-watching experience relaxing and enjoyable.
The movie is an extremely enjoyable and shockingly powerful film. The Irishman lets Scorsese and a trio of his favorite actors--Robert Di Nero, Joe Pesci and Al Pacino--play in the gangster sandbox they all love. Everyone here seems like they're having an amazing time playing in that world and these characters and exploring the themes of gangster brotherhood, self-destructive men, and the duality of religious belief that Scorsese loves to tackle. Like Scorsese, the actors don't even seem like they have to try to give phenomenal performances, so they are relaxed and enjoying themselves. To some people, this came across as being self-indulgent. But unlike, say, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, I always felt like the scenes were serving the underlying story, and the story would have a great payoff.
The movie follows Frank Sheeran, a mobster hitman who's so desensitized to following orders to kill during the war, that he has no trouble doing the same thing for organized crime. Throughout the movie you watch him following brutal orders to the degree that he seemingly lacks agency even in his own life. Ultimately, when the time comes when he would need to have the spine to make his own decisions, he isn't capable of it because he hasn't used that muscle, and it costs him dearly.
The payoff is where the film truly shows its cards and becomes a genuinely moving piece. As an old man in a nursing home, countless people--police, his daughter, a priest--try to get him to confess what he's done and admit what he did was wrong. A pastor tries to get him to at least start to admit to himself that what he did was wrong. THe movie becomes about asking the question of whether a man who's so long ago lost the ability to feel guilty can begin to take that first step or if he's beyond redemption. This struggle against one's self to try to ignite feelings that you lost the ability to feel decades ago, is a profound conflict that quietly shakes you since you've spent the entire movie taking the gangster violence for granted yourself for nearly four hours. Can I learn to feel bad about what I've done in my life? Do I have time? This film is the most I feel I've gotten to see a vulnerable Scorsese in a very long time and I found it deeply affecting. The ending shot is one of the most beautiful and haunting I've seen in a while and is the perfect end to this film and its themes.
The main weakness of this film is that there is very little new here. For ever 20 minutes of material Scorsese hasn't covered in his previous movies (like what I just described) there are 45 minutes to 1 hour that is very familiar to Scorsese or gangster movie fans. This doesn't keep it from being an excellent film, but it does put it behind other films which were in some way groundbreaking for their genre.
6. Plus One
Romantic comedies are my favorite genre that I rarely see something truly excellent from. I grew up on Nora Ephron movies like You've Got Mail and Sleepless in Seattle, movies that set a high bar from me for what romcoms could be. In Nora Ephron films, romantic comedies were ways of making social commentary on our modern world even as we deal with the universal human problem of how we find a life partner. Few filmmakers since her have been able to rise to that level. The best example of a romantic comedy that I've seen that's made social commentary on my generation the way Nora Ephron did on hers was the television show How I Met Your Mother.
Plus One is a rare romantic comedy that nearly matches a Nora Ephron film in both its sheer fun and its incisive cultural commentary of the modern problems of finding love. The two leads are unbelievably charming together; I could not stop laughing and rooting for them to be together throughout the entire first act. Their situation was incredibly relatable and believable as a millennial who's watched so many people he knows get married before him while he remained single, making the premise feel relatable and timely.
Where the film truly stands out though, is in its analysis of millennials' particular romantic flaws. The film argues that the epidemic of millennials putting off marriage is directly a response to the previous generation's high divorce rate. Ben refuses to settle down with anyone until he's sure she's "the one" because he feels damaged by his dad's serial marriages. Is it better to wait until you're sure so you get it right the first time? Or is it better to just make a decision and then get out if it doesn't make you happy? The film ultimately becomes a clash of ideologies as to which way of finding love is better: Ben's generation or his dad's. The film complicates things even further by bringing in Alice's parents who represent another alternative: sticking it out even though you're miserable for the sake of the kids. This is particularly interesting because that was the previous generation's way of doing things that boomers reacted to by getting divorced. Now, it's nothing new for present generations to critique the previous generation's sexual mores. Back to the Future was an 80s critique of the 50s romantic and cultural mores and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 was in many ways a critique of Boomer and Gen X cultural mores. However, Plus One is unusual in that it sides with the previous generation's high-divorce rate philosophy over the modern generation's philosophy (particularly when the modern generation is the one making the movie.) Even if you don't agree totally with how or where they land or why they land there (which I don't entirely), this deep cultural analysis and debate is extremely enjoyable and compelling to digest in a small indie romcom.
The movie does fall into some typical rom-com tropes. You know that the main characters are going to have to have a fight at the end of the second act which is going to make everyone all mopey and have to learn a lesson--and generally, it just serves to make the movie just less fun for a while. Still, this one is character-based conflict rather than convoluted and fits with the themes that the movie is trying to deal with. The movie is still behind Nora Ephron in the sheer amount of social commentary she was able to pack into her films. But it will be a long time before anyone matches her greatness in this genre.
Every generation needs a rom-com that speaks about their particular struggles of finding love. Plus One isn't perfect, but it's one of the absolute best doing that for this generation right now.
Probably no film beats 1917 as a purely technical achievement. The sheer gargantuan task of making an accurate WWI war film shot to appear as if it is all in a single take, outside in an environment you cannot completely control, requires technical mastery and proficiency in the craft by the filmmakers that is undeniable. The result is not, however, merely showing off the filmmakers' skills, but giving us true immersion in the trenches with the soldiers that heightens our identification with them and contributes to the rising tension and eventual emotional payoff of the story.
The story is a worthy subject for such a grand production as well. The film centers around two WWI soldiers who are ordered to sneak across enemy lines to warn another company of soldiers they're walking into a trap. The movie celebrates the heroism of the men who do their duty as men in every day life-or-death heroic acts without question for the greater good. The film also uses this story as an opportunity to ask questions about the nature of war and the pointlessness WWI in particular without ever discrediting the valor of the soldiers.
What holds this movie back is that these deeper conversations are cut short far too soon by a plot twist halfway through the film, which robs the film of its emotional and philosophical center and makes the movie resemble more of a third-person-shooter war video game than a movie for the second half. If they had waited for that twist until at least the end of the second act, the film could have truly been a masterpiece.
4. John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum
The only movie this year that beats 1917 in sheer stylistic excellence is John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum. The film is a masterclass in bringing together the best craftsmen on a variety of film disciplines to create an awe-inspiring adrenaline rush of pure cinematic magic. Film is a collaborative medium of many disciplines working together, but most filmmakers leave most of those disciplines on the table or make them invisible in order to focus on the one or two that they care about, thereby losing out on much of the film's potential for greatness. But in John Wick 3, The filmmakers make everything, from the acting, the cinematography, the production design, the screenplay, to (of course) the fight choreography and stuntwork, leap off the screen and amaze you with its beauty.
The stars, of course, are the fight choreography and stuntwork. Chad Stahelski and his team have taken these disciplines to heights perhaps never-before-seen in American cinema. The fighting in John Wick 3 rises above merely being fight scenes to serve the story as character development and story development. You learn who John Wick is by the way he fights--noble, tired, the best at what he does--and you learn who everyone else is by the way they fight as well. The many different styles of fighting in this film are as many as there are characters in the film who fight. Story-wise, you feel the stakes and tension rise as John Wick grows more tired, more desperate and goes against opponents who seem fresher than he is. The fighting in this movie becomes less of fighting and more of a ballet to behold for its sheer beautify and artistry.
John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum also does what few other films this year were able to do: pay off their story and themes without stumbling. John Wick 3 asks deep questions about the moral compromises we make to preserve the civilization that is needed to maintain order. At what point does our civilization ask too much of us? At what point is the civilized order so unjust it is better to risk anarchy than to submit to it? The story forces the characters to deeply wrestle with that question and then forces them to make costly decisions that pay off in major--and deeply satisfying--ways.
The action, of course, is unrelenting and can, at times, get exhausting. Likewise, the story and themes, of course, are still secondary to the style. This means that as satisfying as the deeper parts of the film are to wrestle with, 80% is just being impressed at how beautiful everything is. This is a phenomenal achievement, but less enriching or satisfying than a story that is front and center or, at least, split down the middle in terms of focus.
3. Frozen II
Frozen II is one of those beautiful movie sequels that easily surpasses the original, and manages to be a mature fable dealing with hard topics better than almost any other film this year. The fact that it does all of this while making those themes graspable and enjoyable for children, even as it also continues to make groundbreaking advancements in animation (as Disney always does) and creating some of the best kids songs in a long time is a reminder why Disney animation has dominated for so long.
Frozen II takes advantage of the fact its core audience has grown up since the last film to tackle deep topics that are deeply divisive even among adults today. The film explores the idea that the characters' country is built on lies and oppression. What do you do when you discover that? The film tries to paint a vision of what female empowerment looks like without making men either evil or weak (something the first film failed to do). What does healthy, non-toxic masculinity look like where men are okay sharing their feelings? How do you deal with major life changes? What is the line between love and co-dependency? Whether or not I always agree with the answers the film gives to these questions is irrelevant. (Although the film's "do the next right thing" mantra is staggeringly beautiful and something I've found myself quoting and singing in moments when I need it.) The fact that the film does this effectively while still being a compelling adventure fable for families is an uncanny accomplishment.
This film also steps up its game on the parts of this film that make it simply a great animated family film. The dialogue, in particular, is excellent. I've been highly critical of Jennifer Lee's screenplays in the past whenever she's writing solo, due to her very weak dialogue in both the first Frozen and A Wrinkle in Time. She always seemed to sacrifice artistry and authenticity in favor of making her message was explicit in every line. But this dialogue is funny, witty, and real, all while making the points that she wants to. Beyond the dialogue, the songs have a perfect balance of serving the story while also being universal to kids who want to sing them outside the confines of the story, and the animation--particularly in the realm of hair and clothes--are staggering leaps forward from anything Disney has put out before.
Not everything in this movie is perfect. The ending is rushed and Anna's inevitable devastation at Elsa's ending decision is skipped over. Some story beats don't make sense. (The cold never bothered Elsa anyway... except when it's... really cold?) As a representation of non-toxic masculinity, Kristof still follows the feminist films trope that a good man can only be good if he never challenges or corrects the female protagonist without apologizing. (More on that in a later article.) But the film manages to hit home runs out of curveballs more often than it misses and so easily deserves its spot on my top ten list.
2. Knives Out
Knives Out is by far one of the best written and directed films I have seen in a very long time. It is certainly the most fun film I've seen since last year's Game Night (which I reviewed as part of 2018's top ten list), and by far exceeds that film when it comes to deftly integrating deep and contentious cultural and political issues into its narrative. It is definitely one of the best murder mysteries in the modern era, as well as one of the best examples of properly subverting expectations. (Something Rian Johnson tried less successfully to do in The Last Jedi.) Add that to a perfect cast who are all having the time of their lives, and superb timing in the edits, and a genuine story about heroes worth cheering and villains worth jeering, and you have one of the most satisfying movie nights in a long time.
What John Wick 3 does with its action, Knives Out does with its screenplay. Rian Johnson knows enough about the craft of screenwriting to creatively and skilfully play, stretch, re-arrange and subvert the tools and conventions of screenwriting to make sure he gives a story that both satisfies and subverts our expectations. Pretty much everything that makes a screenplay great is there (E.G, setting up characters, themes, world, and tone in the first act, escalating in the second act, paying off in the third act), and everything that makes a screenplay weak is absent (E.G., not doing those things). But the film goes beyond merely telling a satisfying story that works, deciding to deconstruct a nearly century-old formula in order to help us watch it anew for the first time without our expectations, all to tell a meaningful story that celebrates heroes while giving a scathing critique of American politics.
To really appreciate the thought that went into crafting this screenplay, take the time to hear Rian Johnson describe it himself in Entertainment Weekly:
I had wanted to do a whodunit forever. I grew up reading Agatha Christie’s books; it’s a genre that I deeply, deeply love. It’s been a comfort food for me. I always wanted to do a straight-up whodunit. The first idea was a very conceptual one: As I thought about doing a whodunit, I thought about Hitchcock and his opinion of whodunits. He always said they rely entirely on surprise — one big surprise at the end — and that’s the weakness of them narratively. Especially when you put them up on-screen; with a book, you can put the book down, you can come back to it, you can re-engage. A movie has to be a rollercoaster ride. Clue-gathering leading up to a guess that you might be right or wrong about the end is not that thrilling — even though I love the genre. The notion of doing a whodunit that begins as a traditional whodunit and orients the audience very clearly, and then turns into a Hitchcock thriller where there’s a character you care about — you’re leaning forward as opposed to leaning back. Then turns back into a whodunit at the end and reveals it’s been a whodunit the whole time; the thriller element was a whole bit of misdirection. I got very excited about the idea of making a movie that was narratively engaging but also let me have my cake and eat it too in terms of all the whodunit tropes that I love and that I could still get in there.
It’s more fun if there’s an element of surprise at the end, but honestly, I purposefully tried to have the movie not [rely] on that. I hoped the movie was as entertaining whether you guessed it or not. That’s my ultimate hope. The game it’s playing, hopefully, there is some element of surprise at the end. But the bigger goal, for me, was to build it so as a dramatic ending it works. Even the payoff at the end: The really satisfying payoff at the end is not the reveal of whodunit; it comes after that. It’s the dramatic payoff to this protagonist we’ve been following and her relationship to this family. That was done very purposefully on my part, to shore up and protect against the possibility that some people are going to figure it out because they’re smarter than me. [Laughs] Or just because of luck. You pick the right person, there you go. Making sure they still feel satisfied with the end of the film is part of my job.
The story Ryan Johnson tells is heavily political, giving a scathing takedown of the entitlement and moral decay of America's rich and their self-serving views on immigration. The film tackles these issues the right way--the way far more filmmakers should emulate--making sure that the film is so much fun and such a good story that you don't mind the politics even if you don't agree with all the points he's trying to make. On the flip side, it's the fact that it tries to deal with harder issues in the midst of the fun that elevates the film to something deeper. On top of all of that, the screenplay is written to give the rest of the film disciplines a time to shine. The actors are given so much fun meat to chew on in their roles that they practically leap off the screen. The cinematography whips and pans and tightens on shots like it has its own sense of humor. The score is beautifully over-the-top and proud of it.
It is a rare film that is this entertaining, this genre-bending, this satisfying, and this committed to telling a meaningful story that celebrates what is good while telling a fable to make a political point without making the film any less fun to watch. This is the gold-standard that all movie entertainment and political satire should aspire to emulate.
1. Richard Jewel
If what truly makes a movie great is a great story matched with equally great execution, then it's clear to me that the best film of the year is Richard Jewel. While films like 1917, John Wick 3 and Knives Out shout their film craftsmanship loudly so you have to notice it, whether it's their cinematography, stuntwork or screenwriting, the craftsmanship in Richard Jewel is humble and quiet, pointing away from themselves to make you see the characters and the story rather than themselves. The effectiveness is evident in just how powerfully these characters and this story affect you while you're watching it, so only afterward you realize how much of your experience was due to the skill of the filmmakers in bringing you into this incredible story. And the story is incredible.
Richard Jewel is about a security guard of the same name who saves lives by discovering a bomb at the 1996 Olympics and is later accused of the crime by process-ignoring law enforcement and a story-hungry media. The film asks us to look at the best and worst of humanity in all of its unremarkable manifestations. The film celebrates Richard Jewel as the hero that he is, even as they make sure we know how truly unremarkable he is. The "villains" of the story are equally ordinary people making unremarkable selfish choices they don't or won't realize their actions will make a good man's life a living hell. By showing how the unremarkable acts of ordinary people can be both heroic and villainous, the film manages to cause the audience to self-reflect on their own capacity for both in ways few other movies do.
Director Clint Eastwood is at the top of his game here, shepherding all the pieces of the filmmaking with the seeming effortlessness Martin Scorsese does with The Irishman, but with an even more powerful story and a shorter runtime. Much of the film's effectiveness is in how intensely quiet it is. Richard Jewel's heroism is quiet and understated. Richard's defense attorney Watson Bryant's heroism is quiet and understated. Tom Shaw's casual railroading of Richard Jewel to try to convict him is quiet and understated. This makes us focus in more on the deep and subtle emotions of the characters with more sensitivity and care. And as law enforcement and the media slowly put the screws to Richard Jewel and those he loves we feel every raw emotion as it comes. The performances in this film are outright spectacular. Paul Walter Hauser turns in a criminally underrated tour de force as Richard Jewel, a man who is meek yet principled, simple yet profound, capable of great generosity and great anger. The subtlety and authenticity of each layer that the movie peals off one by one surprises you yet feels right each time. Sam Rockwell, Nina Arianda, and Jon Hamm, feel like real people you might meet, giving remarkably understated performances which make you instantly believe and connect with them. Olivia Wilde absolutely dominates her scenes as the single-minded reporter Kathy Scruggs, portraying the character with realness and energy that creates her best performance in years.
Beyond telling timeless themes of heroism and human selfishness, the filmmakers also highlight the ways this film is heartbreakingly timely. As Richard Jewel's idealism and trust in the FBI and media slowly bends and cracks under the weight of their horrible treatment of him and his mother, his new attitude reflects the slow decay of Americans' trust in their institutions and public officials, which continues to decline. The sobering commentary that people are losing faith in their institutions because, in many instances, the institutions have proven themselves untrustworthy is a scathing rebuke, once again, revealed authentically and quietly.
The most negative reactions toward this film have not been about the story or the filmmaking, but the portrayal of Kathy Scruggs. The film depicts her (spoilers) having sex with Tom Shaw, hinting at she's trading it for inside information. Many people, including the newspaper she worked at that is depicted in the film, accused the filmmakers of slandering Kathy Scruggs because there's no evidence she did such a thing, and she was now dead, so couldn't defend herself. Some people pointed out that there was an irony in filmmakers making a movie condemning the slander of an innocent man going about it by slandering someone else. Particularly when it comes to potentially perpetuating a stereotype that female reporters talk about constantly having to overcome. On the other hand, those involved in the film (including Olivia Wilde herself) defended the choices made in the film. The writer, in particular, defended how he wrote the film based on his research, saying bluntly: "I will stand by every word and assertion in the script. ... The only creative license taken in the movie is actually in the redeeming of Kathy Scruggs. In the end she realizes the error of her ways. She never publicly atoned for her reporting."
To me, as an overthinker, this controversy only adds another layer of interest to this film. It is absolutely true that the movie builds empathy with Richard Jewel by making villains out of real people. Then again, that's exactly what two other highly celebrated films did this year: Joker and Parasite. Those two films built empathy toward their protagonists by caricaturing, villainizing, and reinforcing stereotypes about the rich, wall street financiers, and capitalistic economies. Ironically, many of the same people who have a problem with the demonizing of Kathy Scruggs celebrate those movies without reservation. Those who have read my other articles on empathy won't be surprised at the phenomenon (here and here). We know that gaining empathy through one person almost inevitably means we will demonize or gain apathy for another person or group. Did Richard Jewel fall into that trap? Is the reason I am less bothered by who Richard Jewell demonizes is because it reflects my biases? Almost definitely. But the controversy itself only highlights exactly the sort of unremarkable and banal kind of selfishness Richard Jewell asks us to examine in ourselves. And that only makes the film better.
Looking over the list I am struck by what this reveals about what things I value, and how that's changed over time. Certain things have stayed the same: I always value stories that lead me to worship, I always value stories that wrestle deeply with important questions, I always value stories that entertain me, and I always value artistry in execution, and I especially appreciate the artistry of screenplay.
What perhaps surprised me was seeing exactly what I value most when push comes to shove--and how that's changed. All of the films in the top 5 spots are unambiguously about heroes, with the closer you get to the top the more heroic you get (with the exception of the placement of 1917). This fits with my "worship" emphasis. That said, execution still matters a lot since better-made films like Marriage Story and Irishman came out ahead of more shamelessly heroic films like Avengers: Endgame. Then there's the emphasis on story and themes. The fact that 1917 didn't go quite as deeply into the story or themes as John Wick 3 was enough to put the latter film over the edge. The fact that script and story were more important in Frozen II and Knives Out than John Wick 3 was enough to push those films ahead of the latter movie. And Richard Jewell's story over style focus put it ahead of films like Knives Out and John Wick 3 that put the style of the film front and center. This is funny when I think that the #1 pick of last year was a film that was all about making you notice the film style. (I'll let you go read that article to find out which one that was.) So has story become even more important to me since then? Or is that just the way things shook out this time? We'll probably have to wait till the top ten list of 2020 to find out.
Does this matter? Well, it matters probably in a few respects. It matters for those who listen to my views to understand what value set is driving my preferences so they can compensate for that filter when they read or listen to my work. It matters in terms of my work as a filmmaker because it is shaping the kinds of movies I will be making in the future. And more importantly, it is important for my eternal soul and the souls over whom I have influence. The movies that are capturing my heart are the ones that are shaping me to be the man I will be for all eternity, as well as those who follow where I lead. So that is a sobering thought.
What do you think of my list? Where do you agree or disagree? Did I write something about these films that you hadn't thought of? What would you say in response? Leave a comment and let me know what you think.