HughesReviews: The Ten Best Motion Pictures of 2019

| February 7th, 2020

It was a year of cinema seemingly created just for me.

My home state hero Bruce Springsteen showed up twice, in his autobiographical concert film Western Stars and the so-saccharine-it-gave-me-adult-onset-diabetes Blinded By the Light.

My literary idol Stephen Sondheim showed up three times. Daniel Craig sang “Losing My Mind” from Follies in Knives Out, Joaquin Phoenix sang “Send in the Clowns” from A Little Night Music in Joker and Adam Driver delivered one of the great scenes, a fully-formed “Being Alive” from Company, with the dialogue interludes, in Marriage Story. (The latter was juxtaposed with Scarlett Johansson, Merritt Wever and Julie Hagerty’s rousing “You Can Drive a Person Crazy” from that same Sondheim show.)

Four of my favorite filmmakers – Errol Morris, Alex Gibney, Pedro Almodovar and Mike Leigh – released new works. (The special treat of the year was getting to see both Morris and Gibney at Film Forum Q&A sessions in NYC.) Only Gibney’s Citizen K failed to crack the list below.

Oh, and they made a documentary about Fiddler on the Roof – my choice for the greatest piece of American dramatic literature. (And it was just lovely. But I ruled it out of any year-end list due to its unfair advantage. It’s probably the 2019 film I’ll watch the most in my lifetime.)

What follows is my year-end piece in two parts. First, how the acting Oscar nominations would have looked if I did the nominating. Second, my ten best films of the year.

You will find no mention of Joker anywhere because Joker is the winner of the Bohemian Rhapsody Award, given to the film that will make me slightly ill with ever Oscar victory. Joker is trash cinema. Obvious. Easy. Freshman year of film school derivative. “Teacher, look! I saw King of Comedy for the first time! And I made my own! But it’s about an actual clown and DeNiro changed parts!”

[Note: There were three films I did not manage to get to that could have been relevant here. So my apologies to Les Miserables, Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Varda by Agnes. It wasn’t for lack of trying, either. I saw The Dead Don’t Die. I sat through The Souvenir. I did Atlantics and Monos – two terrific films – on one Sunday afternoon. Then I went drinking.]

The Performances

Best Actor

  • Adam Driver, Marriage Story
  • Paul Walter Hauser, Richard Jewell
  • Antonio Banderas, Pain & Glory
  • Mark Ruffalo, Dark Waters
  • George MacKay, 1917

Best Actress

  • Lupita Nyong’o, Us
  • Renee Zellwegger, Judy
  • Awkwafina, The Farewell
  • Scarlett Johansson, Marriage Story
  • Alfre Woodard, Clemency

Best Supporting Actor

  • Joe Pesci, The Irishman
  • Tracy Letts, Ford vs. Ferrari
  • Jonathan Majors, The Last Black Man in San Francisco
  • James Saito, Always Be My Maybe
  • Sam Rockwell, Richard Jewell

Best Supporting Actress

  • Scarlett Johansson, JoJo Rabbit
  • Billie Lourd, Booksmart
  • Idina Menzel, Uncut Gems
  • Jennifer Lopez, Hustlers
  • Cho Yeo-jeong, Parasite

The Films

#10. Pain & Glory / Peterloo (tie)

Two masters of cinema, Almodovar and Leigh. Two films that perfectly slide into their brilliant canons.

Peterloo is unlike anything Leigh has made before. A filmmaker who has specialized in the small moments, the quiet conversations, has made something decidedly epic, about big speeches and big ideas. And he’s managed to do so without losing the intimacy that has come to define his work. (Many folks share a certain amount of my film taste. But the inner circle all love Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy.)

Pain & Glory is all intimacy. And memory. And color. And beauty. This is Almodovar at his most autobiographical and Antonio Banderas’ performance as Almodovar (with a fake name) is the best work done on screen this year.

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HughesReviews: The Ten Best Christmas Movies of All-Time

| December 24th, 2019

This year I started watching holiday films on the day before Thanksgiving, opening with the wonderful Home for the Holidays and Planes, Trains and Automobiles. A month later, I’ve sat through just about every Christmas movie, TV special and Christmas sitcom episode there is to sit through. 68 in total. Before getting to my ten favorites, a few notes.

  • I can’t deal with It’s a Wonderful Life. It’s just so damn dreary. I know it’s beloved but not by me.
  • No, A Christmas Story is not on this list. And I recognize that will be an issue for many but this is my list and I legitimately dislike that movie.
  • Those stop motion pictures creep me out. Year Without Santa Claus, Rudolph…etc.
  • Can’t an argument be made that A Christmas Carol is the greatest book ever written? Look at how many brilliant interpretations of that novel have been created (two on this list alone).
  • Even the non-great films produce some beautiful scenes:
    • Mila Kunis and Christine Baranski in the church at the end of Bad Moms Christmas.
    • Seth Rogen tripping out at the sight of a crucified Jesus in The Night Before.
    • Nic Cage coming clean to the town in Trapped in Paradise.
    • Schwarzenegger rifling off the names of the reindeer in Jingle All the Way.
    • Tim Allen giving the cruise to his neighbors in Christmas with the Kranks.
    • John Lithgow’s scenery chewing in Santa Claus the Movie.
    • Danny Elfman’s great tunes in Nightmare Before Christmas.

The list, with clips and such instead of writing. All of these movies are known.

#10 Die Hard

#9 Bad Santa

#8 Home Alone

#7 Gremlins

#6 The Ref

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HughesReviews: As Oscar Night Approaches, My 10 Favorite Films of 2018

| February 21st, 2019

In 1994 I began writing movie reviews for a Kearny, New Jersey newspaper called The Hudson Press. It was “the other paper” in town. The pricks at The Observer wouldn’t give me the time of day.

Then I went to work at Blockbuster Video, where I was canned for playing Glengarry Glen Ross – instead of the company’s promotional video featuring an obnoxious Jamiroquai track – on every monitor in the store.  Glengarry has a few curse words. Corporate didn’t care for that, apparently.

Then I went to New York University and got a degree in Cinema Studies. What is Cinema Studies?Imagine an English Literature degree but movies instead of books. We didn’t make em. We studied em. This was a degree that meant sitting through all eight hours of Warhol’s Empire and dissecting every frame of Brakhage’s Songs cycle. But it also meant discovering Umbrellas of Cherbourg and Italian Neorealism and great documentarians like Wiseman and Pennebaker.

Yes, I’m way more qualified to write about movies than football. So if you have interest in such things, go over to @HughesReviews on Twitter and give a follow. Eventually I may start writing more than once-a-year about movies again. Eventually. This year I re-committed to the whole deal, seeing 80+. (In my heyday I sailed by triple digits.)

I decided to put all that effort down on digital paper.

Thoughts on Relevant Pictures

  • Who knew oral hygiene would create some of the more memorable sequences in American cinema this year? John C. Reilly’s tooth brushing in The Sisters Brothers and Christian Bale’s mouthwash sequence in Vice were both pretty incredible.
  • Alexander Desplat’s score for Operation Finale was terrific. But somehow one of the most compelling events in the history of the world was turned into a dud of a film.
  • Regina Hall is marvelous in Support the Girls.
  • Three Identical Strangers was an uneven documentary, too obsessed with the stardom of its main characters and less with the dark underpinnings of the story. Still, everyone should see it.
  • Ruth E. Carter’s costumes for Black Panther were unlike anything I’d seen on screen before. But I lost interest in the movie halfway through. Most compelling argument I’ve heard for the film is “it’s good for a comic book movie”. Great. But what if you don’t give a shit about any of these comic book movies?
  • You Were Never Really Here and Leave No Trace are movies that would have found an audience in the mid-90s. They would have sat in little art house theaters for five or six weeks. People would have seen the covers in the video store and thought, “Oh, I like that actor, let’s give it a shot”. (Thomasin McKenzie gave the breakout performance of the year in Trace.)
  • I thought my initial response to Roma – best described as, eh – was maybe unfair. So I gave it a second viewing. No change. It may be the most beautifully shot film of the year. But so was The English Patient and I didn’t much care for that either.
  • I know I’m the only person thinking these things but my thought watching Ethan Hawke’s brilliant work in First Reformed was he should give Hamlet another shot. But on stage this time. That restraint creates a palpable tension that will absolutely rivet a live audience.
  • Did anybody not love that moment in Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again when Andy Garcia’s name is revealed to be Fernando and then Cher starts singing “Fernando”?
  • A Prayer Before Dawn is a movie to be endured, not enjoyed. But it’s worth enduring.
  • Both A Star is Born and First Man felt, in their initial 30 minutes, like they were going to turn tired formulas inside out. Then both films wallowed in that tired formula another two hours.
  • Wasn’t there a better way to make The Wife without giving the game away in the first fifteen minutes? This would have made an interesting premise for a two-hander play by David Hare. It’s a bore of a movie. (Let’s be honest, it would have been a boring play too.)
  • Sorry to Bother You is a mess at times but it’s a formidable first feature from Boots Riley. Make more movies, Boots. Original and audacious are traits American cinema desperately needs.
  • It’s obvious watching Free Solo that the filmmakers are brilliant chroniclers of this remarkable craft. The climbing portions of the film are magnificent. But there’s a major difference between an IMAX Experience and a fully-developed documentary: character. This film would have been better served as the former.
  • Shoplifters is a lovely, interesting little movie but it’s so obvious that American film critics give leeway to any picture with subtitles. What’s really in this film that hasn’t been handled with more ruthless honesty throughout Shameless on Showtime?
  • Daniel’s jump shot sequence in Hale County This Morning This Evening might have been the most transfixing three minutes of film all year.
  • Trying to stay away from negativity but Bohemian Rhapsody is one of the twenty-five worst movies ever made.
  • The first half hour of Green Book played like a Fred Armisen/SNL sketch called The Italians. Some of the most embarrassing stuff I’ve seen in a major motion picture in a long time.

And you can’t see EVERYTHING, even though I certainly tried. So apologies to the following films: Monrovia Indiana, Bisbee ’17, Capernaum, The House that Jack Built, Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse and Stan & Ollie. These are films I wanted to see and, for one reason or another, never got to.

Honorable Mention

Studio 54

Did you know Steve Rubell coined the phrase “bridge and tunnel” to describe the people he didn’t want inside the legendary midtown nightclub? There’s nothing cutting edge here but the 54 story has almost exclusively been told from the drugs and celebrity perspective. Here’s a film that intimately details how the legacy of the famed club was built and ultimately destroyed.

A Quiet Place

Thrilling from start to finish. And the concept wouldn’t work without Emily Blunt’s brilliant, grounded performance.

The Sisters Brothers

It’s borderline impossible to make an original Western because the genre is about 120 years old. But Jacques Audiard’s film is every bit that. There’s a scene with John C. Reilly, Allison Tolman and a shawl that you won’t soon forget because it’s just too fucking weird to not remember.

A Private War

Rosamund Pike’s performance is a hell storm. Her Marie Colvin is devoured by booze and mental illness and whatever drives those willing to risk spilling their own blood to reveal the truths of others. She is rage. She is desperation. But Pike is always pulsating with a stinging, almost uncomfortable clarity that prevents even this character’s more exaggerated moments to reach the level of cartoon. (With the eye patch, it wouldn’t be particularly difficult.)

The Top Ten

#10 Widows / Blockers (tie)

My favorite line of the year? From Blockers.  “Thank God it doesn’t taste like Mounds. I’d rather eat ten dicks than one Mound.” It’s the use of the singular. Mound.

MY favorite last line of the year? From Widows. “Alice…how ya been?” The subtlety of that moment after the half hour that preceded it was perfection.

I don’t know what Hollywood movies are anymore. Is Amazon “Hollywood”? NetFlix? But these felt like the two best Hollywood pictures of the year. They are both going to be running on the premium cable channels for years to come and I’m never turning either off because they’ve got Robert Duvall screaming racial slurs and Gary Cole and Gina Gershon walking around nude and blindfolded. (You should be able to figure out which has which.)

Not high art. But high entertainment.

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