There were many great films released in 2019. From Oscar bait like Parasite, 1917 and Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood to performance films such as The Two Popes, Joker and Judy, we saw a wide spectrum of stories being told in a variety of different places and time periods through the eyes of a diverse collection of characters.
Uncut Gems, for example was a frenetic roller coaster of anxiety, obsession and chaos, which featured a SPECTACULAR, career-best performance from Adam Sandler, playing a man whose life was spiraling out of control. Uncut Gems was one of the best films of 2019 and would have easily made this list if it was currently available on Netflix as of this writing (however it is slated for May 25th in the United States, so you should definitely seek it out when it drops). But looking beyond the high profile films released last year, you will also discover a rich crop of lesser known films telling their own exciting and captivating stories.
So now that 2019 is behind us, we can look back at the year that was and discover with fresh eyes some of 2019’s best films for ourselves. Some of the films discussed below will be familiar (two were award darlings), but many may be new to you, which is exactly the point. All of these selected films are available to watch right now on Netflix in the United States, so you can easily access them all in one place without having to do a Google search on each film’s streaming availability.
10.) The Laundromat (2019) [Netflix Original]
Country: USA / Running Time: 1:35 / MPAA Rating: R
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Plot Synopsis: A widow investigating insurance fraud stumbles onto a vast conspiracy involving two law partners who are exploiting the world’s financial system for personal gain in this ripped-from-the-headlines true story of the “Panama Papers.”
Inspired by true events, The Laundromat, shows in great detail how two lawyers (played by Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas) found the loopholes in the global financial system and exploited them masterfully, while a widow (Meryl Streep) on a mission to solve a case of insurance fraud eventually lead to the collapse of this vast house-of-cards.
In a way The Laundromat feels like a procedural with Streep’s character going from one place to another on her quest for the truth and as we follow her from point A to points B and C, the mystery is slowly unraveled. It is one of those films that make you angry because you see how these guys milked the system and got away with it for a long time, screwing countless innocent people along the way. The Laundromat gives us an in-depth education on how “the Panama Papers” went down and shows us the mark it left on the world’s economy in the process.
As expected from pros like Meryl Streep, Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderes, the performances are solid from all three of these veterans. Oldman and Banderas have a lot of fun chewing up the scenery in several long single-take Steadicam shots where they tell their story directly to the camera as they stroll from one environment to another. They play these sleazy lawyers to perfection, often displaying unapologetic arrogance and entitlement as they justify their crimes to the audience. Streep’s performance is fairly understated, as she goes from a grieving, unassuming widow to an accidental sleuth determined to leave no stone unturned. The film also has fine supporting performances by Sharon Stone, Jeffrey Wright, Robert Patrick and David Schwimmer.
The film is very colorful with lush production design accompanied by beautiful tropical locales. The costuming is excellent, especially with Banderas and Oldman’s character’s flashy suits and vibrant shirts. Director Steven Soderbergh moves the story along with many fast paced walking-and-talking scenes reminiscent of his Ocean’s films. The Laundromat’s subject matter is a good fit for Soderbergh who has become well-versed in telling stories involving capers with complicated interconnecting plots. Soderbergh also has fun breaking the fourth wall (literally) in some innovative ways as the film reaches its conclusion. It is a film that both satisfies and infuriates because of the grand scheme that went unnoticed and unpunished for far too long.
9.) The Platform (2019)
Country: Spain / Language: Spanish / Running Time: 1:34 / MPAA Rating: TV-MA
Director: Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia
Plot Synopsis: In The Pit, a vertical prison with only one cell per floor and two people per cell, inmates must fight to survive as they grapple over the limited food supply that is delivered via a single platform in two-minute increments from the top floor to the bottom.
In the prison film genre, The Platform stands out amongst the pack, presenting a clever, albeit hellish environment called The Pit, where its incarcerated residents live in a vertical prison with only one cell per floor and two inmates per cell. The food supply is scarce and delivered to each floor from top to bottom via a floating platform that is devoured in two-minute increments by the occupants of each cell until the platform reaches the bottom cell virtually empty. As if that was not torturous enough, there is a shifting hierarchy to this prison where every month the inmates are moved to a different level; sometimes to a higher one bringing with it access to more food, or to a lower one with access to scraps. As the inmates slowly die from either starvation or are murdered, our protagonist, Goreng (Ivan Massague) must decide which path he will take as he fights to hold on to his sanity and for his survival.
The Platform is a horrific film no doubt, but it also manages to present a relevant critique of human nature as well as explore the hypothetical depths of the for-profit prison industry. It is rare to find a horror film that presents a message through the barbarism and agony on display. And for that, the film is elevated from just being a horror film.
The performances are excellent throughout The Platform, with riveting supporting work by Antonia San Juan, Emilio Buale and Alexandra Masangkay (one of the few non-Spanish actors), but it is our two leads; Ivan Massague and Zorion Eguileor (our protagonist and antagonist respectively) that steal the show. They are cellmates whose relationship grows more turbulent as the story unfolds to its hauntingly brutal conclusion. Massague plays Goreng as a man who is in over his head and unprepared for what awaits him in his sentence. As Trimagasi, Eguileor is mysterious and unsettling from the start and as the ensuing battle for survival between the two men escalates his true nature is revealed. The Platform is a very dark film; both visually and thematically. The conceptualization of this prison is impressive and cleverly executed by the production design team. The color palpate is drab and gray – perfectly suited for a setting pretty much made exclusively of concrete. These prisoners spend their days in the most industrial-looking prison I have ever seen, with a very inventive automated food service mechanism – a platform that seems to float from floor to floor, bringing a swiftly-shrinking bounty if food to each cell. A lot of thought went into crafting this film’s dystopian setting and director Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia masterfully designed his shots to fully envelope the audience in this truly horrible place. Be warned, this is a very VIOLENT film with some grisly deaths and gore, which is not for the faint of heart.
8.) The Highwaymen (2019) [Netflix Original]
Country: USA / Running Time: 2:12 / MPAA Rating: R
Director: John Lee Hancook
Plot Synopsis: Two legendary Texas lawmen, Frank Hamer and Maney Gault pursue and bring down Bonnie and Clyde in this untold true story.
We all know about Bonnie and Clyde, the most famous bank-robbing duo in American history, who captivated the country with their daring escapades in the early 1930’s right as the country was reeling from the Great Depression. But what is lesser known is the story of the Texas detectives who brought them down in 1934 after a massive manhunt. The two main lawmen hot on the trail of Bonnie and Clyde were Frank Hamer (played by Kevin Costner) and Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson); two Texas Rangers known for their moral code and integrity, who seemed primed for the task of nabbing the two famous fugitives.
After so many films, television miniseries and documentaries on the infamous bank robbers, one would think the subject has been played out, but that is not the case with The Highwaymen. Seeing the Bonnie and Clyde story told from a different perspective for the first time was both interesting and refreshing. I was a little disappointed that we barely see Bonnie and Clyde in the film, although their presence does loom large, as they were mentioned often and were seen occasionally in newspaper headlines and from far away where instead Hamer and Gault were the focus, but as characters in the film, the infamous duo was absent. The only time we even get a real good look at them is during the film’s climactic shootout. I would have enjoyed a little more Bonnie and Clyde, even if it was just a handful of scenes to flesh them out a bit, but regardless, the film still worked.
Both Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson give strong performances as the famous, yet largely forgotten Texas Rangers. They command the screen as they take us on this perilous journey across the dusty roads of America’s south. Costner especially impressed me as Frank Hamer; a tough, straight-as-an-arrow lawman determined to get the job done, and alongside Woody Harrelson as Hamer’s sidekick, they are a great cinematic duo.
Director John Lee Hancook has crafted a great looking film. He captures the American south west beautifully, with its dirt roads, farmland and stark depictions of poverty that were widespread during the Great Depression era. Staging the action- oriented scenes against the backdrop of the dustbowl of America’s south west went a long way to engross the audience in that specific time in America’s history. The production design perfectly captured the look of the early 1930’s and along with the fantastic period costumes, sold the film’s world to us splendidly. Period films are often a tough sell for some people who may find them boring or stale to look at, but The Highwaymen presents a rich glimpse of one of the most exciting events in American history against the backdrop of one of the country’s biggest challenges, which is why it is one of 2019’s best films, that everyone should seek out on Netflix as soon as possible.
7.) Polar (2019) [Netflix Original]
Country: Germany, USA / Running Time: 1:58 / MPAA Rating: TV-MA
Director: Jonas Akerlund
Plot Synopsis: On the eve of his retirement, an assassin finds himself the target of a hit, contracted by his own employer who wants to profit from their aging employee’s pensions.
We have seen countless movies about assassins, but Polar, based on a 2012 web-comic, takes the concept of the retired assassin returning to work and adds an interesting spin on a familiar plot: this assassin, Duncan (Mads Mikkelsen) is being hunted by his former employer Blut (Matt Lucas) who is looking to cash in on the pensions of his older retiring assassins instead of paying them out. This sets up an action-packed series of events and sequences that the film’s hero must overcome in order to survive.
Along the way he meets a young woman named Camille (Vanessa Hudgens), who has secrets that will impact Duncan’s life profoundly. The relationship between this old assassin and this mysterious young woman serve as the heart of the film in between almost non-stopped action and many inventive and BRUTAL deaths. Polar has a lot to offer action film fans that are looking for a fresh take on the genre.
Mads Mikkelsen IS the movie, there is no doubt about it. He has a GREAT look and the ability to do a lot of acting with just his very expressive eyes and Polar provides him with a memorable character to add to his long and varied career. He creates a character here that we sympathize with even knowing he is a ruthless killer. We get to see a softer side of him in some of his scenes with Hudgens, who also turns in an excellent performance, playing a role we really have not seen from her before. At first I must confess, I did not even realize it was her. She loses herself in this part, which I was really impressed with. Matt Lucas as Duncan’s former employer is superb and plays the kind of villain we hate from the start. Lucas does a fantastic job bringing a very dark, sleazy, evil man to life. Lucas has some great scenes that I am sure he had a blast playing. Also there is a fun cameo by Johnny Knoxville that was amusing.
Polar is a well-crafted film with some stunning action scenes and impressive stunt work. Director Jonas Akerlund assembles many shootouts as you would expect in this genre, with all kinds of guns big and small. There are even some fun “toys” that Mikkelsen’s Duncan wields during some of the shoot-out scenes that are reminiscent of a James Bond film. The assassins that are trying to kill Mikkelsen throughout the film are also heavily-armed and the set pieces designed to showcase the weapons are constructed well.
Mikkelsen looks really awesome in the film, with an eyepatch over one eye while mostly wearing a long black trench coat. Hudgens for the most part has a rundown appearance throughout the film, wearing baggy clothes and barely any makeup – allowing her to fully live this character and to escape the glamour of her real world persona. The rest of the films costumes and production design bring to life the world of seedy killers for hire as well as the villain’s fancy abode, which is decorated in an ornate fashion that we come to expect from larger-than-life evildoers such as Lucas’ Blut. In the end, Polar is a very stylized film with a lot of color and character that is a pleasing entry in the assassin action genre.
6.) El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie (2019) [Netflix Original]
Country: USA / Running Time: 2:02 / MPAA Rating: TV-MA
Director: Vince Gilligan
Plot Synopsis: Picking up where Breaking Bad left off, escaped fugitive Jesse Pinkman runs from his captors, a police manhunt and his troubled past.
For fans of the groundbreaking AMC series Breaking Bad, the news of this follow-up film was astonishing because all the storylines were wrapped up brilliantly as the show’s finale came to a close. But we can never underestimate the brilliant mind of creator Vince Gilligan, who with El Camino, has once again proven that he is one hell of a storyteller.
Spoiler Alert: Going forward, there some plot details from Breaking Bad discussed below, so if you have not watched the entirely of the show, please be warned.
As the film begins we discover that we are in the midst of a flashback between Jesse Pinkman (played by the amazing Aaron Paul) and another key character from the show. They are having a discussion about Jesse’s future and we figure out that in the show’s timeline, this scene must take place shortly before some climactic events lead to Jesse being kidnapped by a group of White Supremacists. Then we are suddenly thrust into the car (the titular El Camino) with Jesse just as he is escaping his captors at the close of the show’s finale. From there the film tells its story in several timelines: the present (after the events of the show), as well as flashbacks to the period of time that he was held captive by the White Supremacists and to other random moments from the show’s timeline.
For those who have not seen Breaking Bad (and have elected to continue reading), Jesse Pinkman was one of the show’s lead characters, a loser high school dropout who along with his old high school Chemistry teacher Walter White (Bryan Cranston), joined forces to become Methamphetamine cooks and by the time the show reached its final season had become VERY successful drug dealers. An odd premise to be sure, but that outside-the-box storyline produced some of the most dramatic television anyone had ever seen or would see.
With El Camino Gilligan has put together a really wonderful companion film to the show that I consider to be the greatest TV show of all time, as there has never been as show as consistently excellent as Breaking Bad, that never failed to captivate, surprise and impress as it told its story from beginning to end. And in El Camino as we jump through time, Jesse’s days as a prisoner are fleshed out in great detail and through the usage of the flashbacks we are treated to appearances from some of the show’s most pivotal characters, which is a delight all in itself. El Camino is exciting, suspenseful and utterly pleasing to fans of the show, but also has a story that is solid enough to stand on its own, so viewers who have not seen Breaking Bad can enjoy the film too. That said, you really should watch all of Breaking Bad before you watch this film because it will make your enjoyment of the it that much greater.
As Jesse Pinkman once again, Aaron Paul doesn’t disappoint in another riveting performance. Paul has played Jesse for so long that he has become him by the time the film starts. Here we see the depths of the torment he endured while captive like a caged zoo animal. And as we watch him in the present day scenes as a fugitive with a manhunt on his shoulders, we feel the pressure that Jesse is under and we are rooting for him the entire time. All the other actors from Breaking Bad that show up here and there slip back into their roles seamlessly and each character’s inclusion never comes across as a forced cameo, but rather just another chapter in the Breaking Bad saga.
Like in the show, here Vince Gilligan also incorporates the scenic panoramic time-lapse shots of Albuquerque we have become accustomed to, which makes the city feel like a character of its own. It is truly a glorious place and Gilligan gives the city the same love in El Camino as he did over five seasons of Breaking Bad. When shooting the dramatic scenes, Gilligan uses a lot of close-ups to build the tension in some of the film’s most intense moments. One moment in particular that is especially effective is when Jesse is hiding in a dark apartment he snuck into in search of something important as trouble busts through the door in search of the same thing he is looking for. That scene was shot perfectly and the suspense was palpable. By the time the film comes to an end, we have followed Jesse through a lot of tense situations and meaningful encounters that bring closure to his wild and painful story and officially closes the book on Breaking Bad in a way that will surely satisfy the show’s fans, new and old.
5.) Badla (2019)
Country: India / Language: Hindi / Running Time: 1:58 / MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Sujoy Ghosh
Plot Synopsis: When a spirited young entrepreneur finds herself locked in a hotel room with her dead lover, she must play a game of cat-and-mouse with the lawyer she hires to defend her on their quest to get to the truth of what really happened.
Badla is an ingeniously-constructed thriller that grips the viewer right away with its mysterious set-up and cat-and-mouse interrogation that makes up the bulk of the story. It is an Indian (aka Bollywood) film, but it is a drama with no singing or dance numbers, that centers on the dynamic interactions between the young entrepreneur Naina (played by Taapsee Tannu) and the high profile lawyer, Mr. Gupta (Amitabh Bachchan).
And that is the jumping off point for the complex back and forth between our two central characters, Naina and Gupta that slowly reveals truths, lies, secrets, twists and turns. With the exception of a few other present day scenes and flashbacks, the entire film takes place in the hotel room where Naina and Mr. Gupta have a battle of wills to get to the truth. It is a very smartly-written film with a story that also works as a mystery that slowly unfolds to a jaw-dropping conclusion. Badla is a very enjoyable film that totally took me by surprise.
Tapsee Taanu and Amitabh Bachchan are both captivating as Naina and Mr. Gupta. The film hinges on the two of them and they together carry an enormous amount of intricate dialogue on their shoulders. The supporting cast is equally effective in their roles, but in an effort to preserve the story’s surprises, I do not want to delve too deep into the other characters.
There are so many juicy moments where Naina and Mr. Gupta are matching wits like two fencers at a tournament. Amitabh Bachchan is a legend of Bollywood cinema with 234 IMDB credits to his name, while Taapsee Tannu has amassed an impressive 45 credits since 2010 – not too bad for a decade.
Badla was directed by the critically-acclaimed Sujoy Ghosh, who knows how to keep a dialogue-heavy film moving along at a good pace. He keeps us interested the whole way through and only leaves the hotel room from time to time in order to keep the focus on THE CONVERSATION between Naina and Mr. Gupta. And when the action moves to a flashback or other present day scene, Ghosh doesn’t linger, in favor of touching on the important developments and then getting right back to the hotel room. In a nutshell, the film just works beautifully and I found myself engaged from start to finish.
4.) Dolemite is My Name (2019) [Netflix Original]
Country: USA / Running Time: 1:58 / MPAA Rating: R
Director: Craig Brewer
Plot Synopsis: The true story of legendary Blaxploitation star Rudy Ray Moore, whose comedy and rap pioneering led to the rise of his filthily-hilarious kung-fu fighting alter ego, Dolemite, who captivated 1970’s movie-going audiences and became a phenomenon in the process.
Eddie Murphy is back in a return-to-form performance as comedian-rapper-Blaxploitation star, Rudy Ray Moore, who catapulted into mainstream awareness in Dolemite, a low-budget Blaxploitation film that became a phenomenon when it was released in 1975, making $12,000,000 at the box office – not a bad haul for a film made on a $100,000 budget. It is the making of that iconic film that serves as the meat of this biopic, directed by Hustle & Flow and Black Snake Moan’s Craig Brewer and written by the kings of the biopic; Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski, who masterfully wrote Ed Wood, The People vs. Larry Flynt, Man on the Moon and the first two seasons of FX’s American Crime Story.
As we follow Murphy as Moore from a struggling nobody to a rising comedy icon and rap pioneer to a titan of Blaxploitation, we are seeing an artist, driven by an insatiable desire to be a star, fully realize his true potential. Moore demonstrates the qualities that have become common themes among successful people: ingenuity, drive, determination, stubbornness, the inability to take “no” for an answer and of course talent. Successful people who believed in themselves, ignored the naysayers and forged their own path to success never fail to inspire and generally make for interesting subjects, which is why Dolemite works so well. Plus, not only do we get a fascinating biography of one crazy and hilarious performer, but we also get a wildly-entertaining behind the scenes story of how Dolemite itself was made.
I LOVE the “film-within-a-film” genre (if that can be considered a genre) because they are always crazy and filled with strong, colorful characters, riddled with problems and complications and usually feature a lead character that is losing his or her mind in the chaos of getting a film made (usually it is a filmmaker or in this case, the film’s star/producer). Dolemite is My Name chronicles the pitfalls of producing a low-budget feature film, which is being produced and largely made by people who have little-to-no experience making a movie – a fact that makes for some HILARIOUS scenes! One scene in particular explores the filming of a key love scene with very funny results. Dolemite’s unbelievable true story will keep you constantly entertained while Murphy’s incredible performance as Rudy Ray Moore will keep you in stitches. Those are just some of the reasons Dolemite is My Name is one of the best films of 2019.
The role of Rudy Ray Moore seems like a part Murphy was destined to play, as there are few performers who could have embodied Moore’s fast-talking, wheeling-and-dealing, over-the-top and bigger-than-life personality. Murphy is in almost every scene of the film, shouldering the weight of the movie as he plays Moore in the most pivotal years of his life. The role has so much for Murphy to play with; as he gets to return to his stand-up roots during Moore’s period as a comic and then as Moore experiments and accidentally becomes a rap pioneer and finally as he takes his biggest risk: transforming his newly-created persona, Dolemite into a bonafide Blacksploitation movie character. Eddie embodies Moore and definitely gives one of the best performances of his career.
There are some really entertaining supporting performances in the film, most notably Wesley Snipes as Dolemite’s director D’Urville Martin, Keegan-Michael Key as Dolemite’s screenwriter and Da ‘Vine Joy Randolph as Lady Reed, one of Moore’s close allies. Craig Robertson, Mike Epps, Titus Burgess, Chris Rock and Snoop Dog also make memorable appearances in this outstanding ensemble.
Craig Brewer does a superb job orchestrating all the craziness of Dolemite is My Name. His production design and costume departments have captured the vibe of 1970’s Los Angeles perfectly! From the gaudy period wardrobe to the classic ’70’s cars to the condemnable building where a large amount of Dolemite’s sets were constructed and filmed are all meticulously and authentically recreated in great detail. Brewer has a lot of fun with the “making of” scenes and stages hilarious moments and mishaps from the troubled production that serve to highlight how surprising the film’s box office success was, given the degree of inexperience behind the scenes.
Dolemite is My Name is a well-directed wild ride to be sure and a film that also serves as a great vehicle for its star, Eddie Murphy who has been gearing up for a silver screen comeback in recent years. There was early chatter about a potential Oscar nomination for his work as Rudy Ray Moore but it did not materialize – although the buzz did merit Murphy a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy. Regardless of nabbing an award, Murphy’s comeback trajectory is still surely on track.
3.) The Perfection (2019) [Netflix Original]
Country: USA / Running Time: 1:30 / MPAA Rating: TV-MA
Director: Richard Shepard
Plot Synopsis: When a former musical prodigy meets the new rising star of her former school, a series of ominous events with dark consequences follows.
At first glance one may not think a film about two dueling cello prodigies would be a film that would make masses of people feel sick to their stomachs, but trust me, The Perfection is one of those rare films that comes out of nowhere and completely floors you!
In the film Allison Williams plays Charlotte, a former child cello prodigy who has gone to Shanghai to assist Anton (played by Stephen Weber), her mentor and head of the prestigious music academy in Boston she used to attend years ago, in selecting a new student. While at the event Charlotte meets Lizzie (Logan Browning), an equally-talented musician, who was the rising talent who took Charlotte’s place as star student after she left the academy to care for her ailing mother. They hit it off and go out partying that night and from there the story goes in some shockingly dark places that I surely DID NOT see coming.
Without revealing any further plot details or spoilers all I will say is that these two young women wake up the next day, grab some food, venture out on a bus tour of the rural China countryside and after a sudden horrific event begin to develop an adversarial relationship that follows a path that twists and turns in unexpected ways. The Perfection is a horrifying film at times – both psychologically and visually. There are some brutally violent moments that take you by surprise and leave you impressed, because it is so unique and a breath of fresh air.
Often the horror and thriller genres follow a paint-by-numbers formula that lacks any genuine surprises or originality. Or they have an interesting premise but fall flat an hour into the film or in the last 35 minutes. That is why I enjoyed The Perfection so much. It was completely different than anything I have ever seen, which doesn’t happen too much these days. You will not forget this film, I can guarantee it.
As Charlotte,Allison Williams is a revelation; playing a woman deeply scarred by her troubled past, who becomes driven to use her chance encounter with Lizzie as an opportunity to once and for all, make right the wrongs of the past. Williams’ Charlotte is smart, patient and calculating, while Logan Browning’s Lizzie is confident, living in her own world and eager to be the best. So when their opposing paths intersect, they will never be the same. Both Browning and Williams captivate on equal levels and together take us on this bizarre and dark journey through the unseen underbelly of musical excellence.
Stephen Weber exudes self-importance as Anton, the omnipotent head of the Bachoff music academy, a position he clearly adores and uses to his advantage in many ways. Throughout his long career Weber has played many types of cocky guys, smart-asses and even several despicable characters, but in The Perfection we watch him tackle new territory as an actor. Weber clearly was not afraid to dig deep for the right notes needed to flesh out and play Anton. Wait until you see the finale of this film to see where these characters end up!
I can imagine that making The Perfection must have been challenging, given the wildly unorthodox storyline, but director Richard Shepard pulled it off and crafted one of the most memorable films of recent memory. He takes us on a ride through the breathtaking Chinese countryside one minute then surprises us with one of the most horrific scenes I have seen in a long time and follows it up with images of madness, barbarism and agony. He keeps us guessing at every turn as this story unravels its twisted series of events, one after another that leads us to a climax that is incredibly disturbing and absolutely beautiful at the same time. I can’t stress enough how much The Perfection impressed me, as I am still marveling at how original and deranged it is. Just the beautifully-grisly and brilliant final shot of the movie with its accompanying mesmerizing music with stay with me forever. And that is saying something. Bravo.
2.) Marriage Story (2019) [Netflix Original]
Country: USA / Running Time: 2:17 / MPAA Rating: R
Director: Noah Baumbach
Plot Synopsis: As a marriage begins to fall apart, a couple comes to terms with falling out of love with each other and struggles to navigate the complex realities of divorcing and sharing custody of their young son.
In Marriage Story, writer/director Noah Baumbach’s very personal reflection on the dissolution of a marriage, we get to know Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johannson), a married couple who once upon a time were happy but now find themselves growing apart and having to traverse the harsh realities of getting a divorce. To make matters more difficult, their young son Henry is stuck in the middle of a budding custody battle that eventually stretches across the country when Nicole decides to leave their shared New York City apartment and move back to her native Los Angeles with Henry, causing Charlie to become a bicoastal parent by default.
No doubt pulling from his own divorce experience from ex-wife Jennifer Jason Leigh, Baumbach thoughtfully explores the stress, frustration and anguish of divorce and bravely puts the raw emotions front-and-center throughout Marriage Story. As we spend time with Charlie and Nicole through present day scenes as well as flashbacks, we learn about why they fell in love and eventually why they grew apart to the point of deep resentment and rage. We see their work life-home life balance (or lack thereof) through flashbacks as Charlie works as the creative director of their theater company where Charlie made Nicole a star. Back in L.A. Nicole returns to acting in film and TV projects while Charlie struggles to direct a new production in New York as he bounces back between both coasts. By the time the film reaches its utterly gut-wrenching climactic scene, we are as emotionally-drained as our two central characters and are longing for a happy ending.
Marriage Story is one of the most powerful family dramas I have seen in some time. It is an honest, unflinching study of not only a marriage falling apart, but an insightful examination of two individuals who were once in love, but are now completely different people who do not even want to be in the same room together. I think the film must be especially biting for anyone who has faced divorce – particularly those who have experienced a bitter one. I was deeply moved watching Marriage Story and will not soon forget the impact in had on me.
I am going to say right off the bat that Marriage Story has some of THE BEST acting I have EVER seen in my life; which is why it was one of the best films of 2019 and why it was nominated for six Academy Awards. Adam Driver and Scarlett Johannson (as Charlie and Nicole) go to depths I have not seen either of them go to before as performers. In my view, this film presents the best work from both of them so far. Driver especially impressed me, as he played a man who becomes completely broken and enraged by the dreadfulness of the divorce process. We see him agonize over having to travel back and forth from New York to California to be with his son Henry because he has to spend significant amounts of time on the west coast in order to have a foothold in the custody battle. It is during the early stages of their divorce that we meet the main supporting characters in Marriage Story.
Ray Liotta and Alan Alda are both excellent (especially Liotta) as two of Charlie’s lawyers; each one representing two very opposing types of legal counsel – Liotta the expensive shark attorney, versus Alda’s more low-key elder statesman of the bar. Each lawyer represents Charlie in their own style at different point in the film to varying effect. Laura Dern plays Nicole’s razor sharp attorney, who is key to the impetus behind the state of their divorce proceedings. Dern walked away with an award from just about every critic’s circle and prestigious organization around the world including the SAG award, Golden Glode and the crown jewel, the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her work in Marriage Story and once you see the film you will know why. Dern is spectacular in the film, giving a career-best performance as well. There are also strong supporting performances from Julie Haggerty as Nicole’s mother, Azhy Robertson as their son Henry, Merritt Weaver (who seems to be in just about everything these days) as Nicole’s sister Cassie and (the inconceivable) Wallace Shawn as Frank, one of the actor’s in Charlie’s theater company. It is an exceptionally-casted film from top-to-bottom, which should have its own category at the Oscars, for as the saying goes: “if you get the casting right, you are halfway there” or something to that effect.
As the writer and director of a clearly very personal film, Noah Baumbach wisely keeps the focus on the characters and the drama between them. He doesn’t use fancy camerawork or flashy montages; instead he utilizes the camera to capture close-ups of deeply emotional exchanges of heartbreaking dialogue with a surgeon’s precision. His costumes and locations serve to present contemporary and realistic depictions of New Yorkers and Californians living in two of the most familiar film backdrops in cinematic history. And the bi-coastal nature of the film’s story keeps us engaged and interested in what is going on with Charlie in New York and Nicole in Los Angeles. Baumbach’s exterior shots of both cities help to envelope us in the two polar opposite environments, while also providing a subtle visual representation of the before and after of Charlie and Nicole’s marriage.
Baumbach has made a masterpiece in my opinion, which is the best depiction of a marriage-in-crisis since Sam Mendes’ “Revolutionary Road” in 2008. Marriage Story is a devastating film with some unforgettable scenes that really drive home the heartbreak of a failed marriage and the long, steep road one must travel to move on and figure out who they are now that they’re on their own again.
1.) The Irishman (2019) [Netflix Original]
Country: USA / Running Time: 3:29 / MPAA Rating: R
Director: Martin Scorsese
Plot Synopsis: An old man reflects on his life as a mob hitman and his friendship with Jimmy Hoffa, whose turbulent life became intertwined with his own from the 1950’s – 1970’s.
After ten+ years in development, The Irishman – Martin Scorsese’s long-awaited return to the world of gangsters was finally released last year on Netflix. The film has been a passion project for producers Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese for some time, but the project lingered in development hell for years until Netflix saved the day and agreed to finance the film after all the major Hollywood studios passed on the crime epic due to the expensive computerized de-aging technology that would be needed to tell The Irishman’s decades-long story with actors who are mostly in their 70’s.
In The Irishman, Robert De Niro’s mob hitman Frank Sheeran (aka the Irishman) tells us about his thirty year career as an enforcer for Philadelphia mobster Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and his friendship with Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), whose life became interconnected with his own. With a running time of over 3.5 hours, The Irishman is an incredible piece of work: filled with music, rich atmosphere, amazing costume design and riveting performances executed by a jaw-dropping cast.
The material is familiar, especially to those well-schooled in the world of Scorsese’s filmography, but it is evident, given the fact that The Irishman arrived 13 years after his last crime film, The Departed, that Scorsese still has something to say about the world of mobsters and the tale he tells here is enthralling. It is a true story of friendship, honor, betrayal and loyalty, with a focus on the relationship between Sheeran and Hoffa, who grow closer over three decades. And by the film’s climax the true test of their friendship is laid before Sheeran’s feet, serving as the crux of the film. The fact that it is based on an alleged confession made by Sheeran many years later as he was close to his deathbed makes that moment distinctly powerful.
There are so many familiar faces in The Irishman it is ridiculous! We have Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci as our three leading characters – a trio that is a dream just on its own! Then you add strong supporting work by Ray Romano, Harvey Keitel, Stephen Graham, Bobby Cannavale, Anna Paquin, Jesse Plemons, Jack Huston, Domenick Lombardozzi, Steven Van Zandt, Sebastian Maniscalco and Jim Norton as Don Rickles! Truly AMAZING. The cast it top notch to be sure, but the stand-outs are Joe Pesci as Russell Bufalino and Al Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa.
Playing against type in the most understated role of his career is Joe Pesci as Bufalino. He is so soft spoken and reserved throughout the film that we almost forget his crazy, explosive turns in Goodfellas and Casino. As Bufalino, Pesci masterfully delivers carefully-crafted commands, said slowly and intently in a less-is-more fashion that we are not used to seeing in his work.
Pacino chews up the scenery as Hoffa in every scene, delivering one of the best performances of his career. He is intense, very commanding and he manages to also exhibit the human side of a figure that has been elevated to somewhat of an infamous caricature for decades. Pacino has consistently shown us that he still gives a shit; whether on the stage, on the big screen or on our TV’s, he has still been turning in excellent work deep into his golden years.
Unfortunately, there is nothing new in Robert De Niro’s performance here. Don’t get me wrong, he is good here, but it feels like we’ve been-there-done-that, which is disappointing because one would think he would turn in a performance for the ages, given that this was a longstanding passion project for him. Instead, we get a decent Robert De Niro performance, which is pretty much all we’ve gotten out of him for the better part of the last twenty years (with the exception of Silver Linings Playbook, Being Flynn and HBO’s The Wizard of Lies). As Frank Sheeran he shines most in his many scenes with Pacino, as I think he feeds off of Pacino’s never-ending energy, which can only elevate De Niro’s performance.
Martin Scorsese once again delivers another American masterpiece and cements his status as a filmmaking legend. The Irishman is a sprawling epic that tells its story slowly at first and then kicks into high gear once Hoffa is introduced around the one hour mark. Scorsese’s signature style is present throughout the film; the sweeping camera movements, the meticulous Steadicam shots, the “oldies” playing in the background and of course the protagonist telling the story via voiceover. The production design and costume design teams have intricately recreated America’s décor and wardrobe of the 1950’s through the 1970’s – immediately immersing the audience in those settings.
But the one element of The Irishman that has been the major talking point (and the reason it took so long to get the film funded) is the very costly CGI (computer generated image) that was instituted by Industrial Light and Magic to achieve the de-aging of the film’s senior actors who are playing younger versions of themselves throughout the film’s 30 + year timeline. So did Netflix’s $159 Million pay off? Yes and no. The de-aging technology is amazing, no doubt. There are times where the younger versions of De Niro, Pacino and Pesci look almost genuine and other moments where they just look weird. The most notable oddities are De Niro’s eyes, which because of the CGI coloring looks unnatural and even creepy in some shot and the scenes where De Niro as Sheeran is supposed to be in his early 30’s. When Sheeran and Bufalino (Pesci) meet for the first time, Bufalino calls Sheeran “kid.” Even with the impressive de-aging CGI, De Niro doesn’t look THAT young – at least not young enough to be called a “kid.” However after some time I was able to forgive and I forget the de-aging technology once I became engrossed in the story and that is what matters most.
The Irishman sucks you in and before you know it, you are over an hour into the story and loving every minute of it. Just watching Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci perform in a film together is a very rare and special milestone on its own, let alone it being a return to form film by Martin Scorsese, who still directs like a man half his age. For these reasons and many more, The Irishman is easily the best film of 2019 on Netflix right now. It is an instant classic and I believe that it will be remembered alongside Goodfellas, The Godfather films, Scarface and maybe even A Bronx Tale as one of the great American gangster films.