Double Feature: Critic Justin Chang Pairs His Favorite Films Of 2019

Dec 17, 2019
Originally published on December 23, 2019 2:31 pm

For the past few years I've gotten in the habit of not only ranking my year-end favorites, but pairing them together thematically. I saw no reason to quit the habit this year, given how many great movies I saw in 2019 and how many of them seemed to be in conversation with each other.

Parasite and Knives Out

In a year where wealth inequality and class rage were hot movie topics (Us, Hustlers, Joker), few had more to say — or said it more entertainingly — than Parasite, Bong Joon-ho's wickedly multilayered satirical thriller, and Knives Out, Rian Johnson's ingenious throwback to the classic detective story.

Ash Is Purest White and The Irishman

Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro play friends — and mobsters — in The Irishman.
Niko Tavernise / Netflix

Jia Zhangke and Martin Scorsese, two of the most important filmmakers working today, gave us a pair of gripping, deeply ruminative mob dramas in which lives of crime are sadly undone by the passage of time and the whims of history. Zhao Tao's performance is to Ash Is Purest White what Robert De Niro's performance is to The Irishman: the haunting culmination of a career-long collaboration.

The Souvenir and Marriage Story

Two near-perfect elegies for two beautifully imperfect couples, both rooted in personal experience. Joanna Hogg's The Souvenir, starring Honor Swinton Byrne and Tom Burke, is an exquisite portrait of the artist as a young London filmmaker. Noah Baumbach's Marriage Story, with Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, devastatingly anatomizes a relationship and the American divorce industry that helps tear it apart.

I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians and Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood

How should we memorialize the atrocities of the past — with scrupulous accuracy or wild reimagination? Radu Jude's thrillingly brainy drama, I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians, follows a Romanian theater director's attempt to draw public attention to their country's complicity in the Holocaust. Quentin Tarantino's deeply transporting Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood is a fairy tale of 1969 Los Angeles, complete with an ending so happy it hurts.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Little Women

Winner of best screenplay at the Cannes Film Festival, Portrait of a Lady on Fire stars Adèle Haenel and Noémie Merlant.
Neon

The costume drama as corrective: Two 18th century French women are briefly freed to make art and love in Céline Sciamma's Portrait of a Lady on Fire, while Greta Gerwig's vital new adaptation of Little Women lovingly reshapes a beloved text. Both movies are fiercely intelligent, swooningly romantic and passionately opposed to the inequities that female artists face in every era.

Long Day's Journey Into Night and An Elephant Sitting Still

Two stunning works by two of the brightest new talents in Chinese filmmaking, one of them sadly no longer with us. Hu Bo died shortly before the 2018 festival premiere of An Elephant Sitting Still, a bleak roundelay of lives intersecting in contemporary northern China. In contrast with that picture's stark realism, Bi Gan's Long Day's Journey Into Night (no relation to Eugene O'Neill) is pure romantic dream, with an hourlong tracking shot that ranks among the year's great technical and emotional achievements.

High Life and A Hidden Life

Similar titles but very different movies about an outcast's lonely voyage into the unknown. Claire Denis' High Life is a hypnotically strange story of survival and sexual transgression in outer space; Terrence Malick's more grounded A Hidden Life tells the story of a World War II conscientious objector whose fight against fascism offers invaluable lessons for our own.

Synonyms and Transit

Synonyms, starring Tom Mercier, took home the 2019 Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival.
Kino Lorber

Two movies about what it means to be a man without a country. Synonyms is Nadav Lapid's furious, formally explosive portrait of a young ex-soldier forsaking his Israeli identity for a French one, while Transit is Christian Petzold's hauntingly restrained drama about a migrant crisis that could be happening anytime, anywhere.

Give Me Liberty and By the Grace of God

The ensemble movie first as big-hearted farce, then as somberly affecting drama. Kirill Mikhanovsky's Give Me Liberty spends a hilarious, heartbreaking day in the life of a Russian American man as he drives a medical transport van around Milwaukee. François Ozon's By the Grace of God dramatizes a real-life Catholic sex-abuse scandal in Lyon with cool procedural intelligence: The horror may be collective, but the scars are devastatingly unique.

Her Smell and Uncut Gems

Spinning brilliantly out of control: Elisabeth Moss and Adam Sandler give two of the year's most ferociously sustained performances, respectively, in Alex Ross Perry's bravura backstage psychodrama, Her Smell, and Josh and Benny Safdie's diamond-hard dark comedy, Uncut Gems.

Five favorite documentaries: American Factory, Black Mother, Honeyland, One Child Nation, What You Gonna Do When the World's on Fire?

Copyright 2019 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're going to take a look back at the year in film with our film critic Justin Chang, who is also a film critic for the LA Times.

Justin, I'm looking forward to talking with you. It's been a year since we've spoken on the air.

(LAUGHTER)

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: I know.

GROSS: Since your previous top 10 list. So speaking of top 10 lists, let's start there. Let's start with you running down what's on your list.

CHANG: For sure. One thing I've done is I like to pair my titles. It's not something I try to force, but there are these thematic pairings. I feel like these movies often speak to each other, and the reasons I like them are also the reasons that they're kind of connected. So I'm going to go back from 10 to one. At No. 10 is "Little Women," Greta Gerwig's wonderful retelling of Louisa May Alcott's much-adapted classic. It delivers all the emotional satisfactions you would expect, but it's - also has really great things to say about women artists, the challenges they face in every era. That is also true of my No. 9 movie, "Portrait Of A Lady On Fire," Celine Sciamma's gorgeous and thrillingly intelligent drama about an 18th century French painter and the woman she falls in love with.

No. 8 is "Once Upon a Time In Hollywood," Quentin Tarantino's deeply pleasurable and transporting valentine to 1969 Los Angeles. I'm pairing it with a movie that far fewer people have seen and which has an even longer title; it's called "I Do Not Care If We Go Down In History As Barbarians." It's from the Romanian director Radu Jude. And it's a brilliant movie about Romania's complicity in the Holocaust, among other things, and how we choose to remember tragedies and atrocities, which makes it a fascinating double bill with the Tarantino. At

No. 6, I have "Marriage Story," Noah Baumbach's bitingly funny and deeply moving drama about two artists and their divorce, superbly acted by Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, among others. My No. 5 is another really piercingly sad love story inspired by personal experience, and that is "The Souvenir," Joanna Hogg's exquisite memoir about her early years as a filmmaker. It features wonderful performances as well by Honor Swinton Byrne and Tom Burke. My next two movies are both elegiac decades-spanning crime dramas. No. 4 is Martin Scorsese's "The Irishman," a sprawling yet very incisive movie that is an epic reconsideration of the gangster movie from the guy who made "Goodfellas" and "Casino" and others. No. 3 is Ash Is Purest White from the Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke. It's a brilliant and heartbreaking study of a woman who takes the fall for her small-town mobster boyfriend, and her life is never the same afterward.

And finally, my top two movies gave me truly the happiest hours I spent in the theater this year, and they gave them to me many times over. I've seen them both more than once. No. 2 is "Knives Out," Rian Johnson's deliriously entertaining throwback to the classic drawing room whodunit. And No. 1 is "Parasite," a thrilling and devastating masterpiece from the South Korean director Bong Joon-ho. Both of these movies are just marvels of craft and construction. They're ingeniously plotted puzzle-box thrillers, and they have a lot to say about class and wealth inequality in the world today.

GROSS: And some of these films are still playing in theaters. "Marriage Story" and "The Irishman" you can watch on Netflix. So if you haven't seen these, there's still ways of seeing them. What are some of the movies, Justin, that you think best reflect the moment that we're in politically and culturally? I mean, we have impeachment, the continued reckoning with men who have a history of sexual harassment and men who have helped cover it up, continued fanning of hatred and discrimination against African Americans, Latinx people, Muslims, Jews. Where are we?

CHANG: It's pretty overwhelming to think about. One of the reasons I do love Parasite so much is that this is a movie that is made in South Korea and has had a level of impact that Korean films typically do not in the United States and in other countries. And this is a movie that puts the haves and the have-nots front and center but in ways that are really subversive and that are not banal or kind of expected. I mean, this is a really surprising movie. I think it's the best of a number of movies that have taken on class this year. "Knives Out" is another. The heroine of that movie, played by the Cuban actress Ana de Armas is a Latin American immigrant woman who is the nurse to a wealthy white man and his family, and it's a really fascinating movie about that class dynamic and that race dynamic.

There were movies like "Hustlers" and even "Joker," which was a really divisive movie that I liked more than some of my colleagues. You know, Joaquin Phoenix in "Joker" plays this lonely, tortured white male sociopath who becomes the embodiment of rage against the 1%. I don't think the movie's class politics are all that trenchant, really, but it's interesting to see a studio comic book blockbuster engaging on that level.

I think "Richard Jewell" is a really interesting movie. And I - like a lot of journalists, I liked a lot about that movie except for its portrait of the Olivia Wilde character, the Atlanta Journal Constitution journalist who first started reporting on Richard Jewell after the Atlanta bombing. The movie depicts her sleeping with a source in order to get information and that completely unsubstantiated thing that kicked off a real firestorm. And I think that the reaction just to how that character is portrayed tells us something about the #MeToo moment that we're in because I think a few years ago you could have gotten away with a stereotype like that, a really kind of blatantly misogynist stereotype, which - and kind of easy journalist baiting.

And in this moment when the press is under attack as never before and in which, you know, women are speaking out more about sexual harassment and sexual misconduct and abuse, that just doesn't fly anymore, and I think that's heartening. And I overall liked that movie despite finding that extremely problematic.

GROSS: I want to talk with you about Martin Scorsese because he's one of the filmmakers of the year, and you wrote a great essay about him in the LA Times. So let's start with "The Irishman," which is on your 10 best list. What do you think that film represents in Scorsese's career?

CHANG: I mean, I used the word elegiac when I was saying it on my top 10 list. That word is maybe overused of late, but I think it's a great one because there's something very meditative and ruminating about that film. You know, you think Martin Scorsese's greatest gangster movie before this was "Goodfellas" and, you know, arguably, I mean, I really like "Casino" as well. But, you know, a movie that has so much amped-up kinetic energy and the camerawork and in the psychology of those characters. And you get excited. You get kind of high watching that movie. The movie achieves a contact high almost.

And that is not the case in "The Irishman," even though the movie is really entertaining and there are colorful characters and great moments and the violence almost feels anecdotal in that kind of rat-a-tat way that he has. But by the end - and this movie is 3 1/2 hours long. It's playing on Netflix so you can watch it in two parts, or you can watch it all in one sitting as I did both times I saw it. The ending slows to a crawl, and it's about, you know, Frank Sheeran, the main character, who is a real man, and him looking back at his life of crime.

And it says so much, I think, about the futility of crime and just what happens when you are sort of the middleman doing everyone's dirty work and there is no one left to look after you at the end. And your family has turned on you, and, you know, you have just countless numbers of people's blood on your hands. And I think coming from Scorsese, there's something really authoritative about "The Irishman." I mean, here is someone who, you know, has made great gangster movies, maybe will continue to do that. But there's a real finality to that movie and what it says about the genre.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, I'm talking to our film critic Justin Chang. We're talking about the movies of the year, and we'll talk more after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF TO ROCOCO ROT'S "MISS YOU")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is our film critic Justin Chang. He's also a film critic for The LA Times. And we're talking about the movies of the year.

What are some of your favorite performances of the year?

CHANG: Adam Sandler in "Uncut Gems" - you know, I have, like, done my share of Sandler-bashing like anyone does in this job after a while. But at the same time, he's been a fabulous actor when given the right material in movies like "Punch-Drunk Love" and "The Meyerowitz Stories." This is my favorite performance of his in Josh and Benny Safdie's thriller. Antonio Banderas in "Pain And Glory," the film from Pedro Almodovar which just missed my top list - on a different day, it would probably make it - wonderful, deeply moving humane performance as a character who is a fictionalized stand-in for Pedro Almodovar himself. Zhao Tao in "Ash Is Purest White," a Chinese actress who has been in the director Jia Zhangke's work for, you know - she's sort of his constant collaborator, and she just gets better and better. This is a performance that I think is fully equal in its impact and in just its resonance, too. Robert De Niro's great performance in "The Irishman" - everyone in "The Irishman" is just fantastic.

Jennifer Lopez as a stripper-turned-grifter in "Hustlers" - I don't want to necessarily classify this as a comeback, but I think that this movie utilizes her incredible star wattage and presence in ways that movies too rarely do. Lupita Nyong'o in "Us" - this is a dual performance in Jordan Peele's terrifying horror-thriller, another movie about class and the haves and the have-nots. And Lupita Nyong'o plays a woman and her murderous double in this movie, and it's just a mesmerizing performance. I think awards-giving bodies tend to overlook genre movies and horror movies at times, but Lupita Nyong'o won the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress. I think she is being taken seriously in a way that she absolutely should. And Brad Pitt in "Once Upon A Time In Hollywood," another movie that is crammed with pretty great performances, but - just a great star turn. And I think that as good as Leonardo DiCaprio is in that movie, it is very much Brad Pitt's movie, as you come to realize at the end. I just loved him in it.

GROSS: I think they're both great in it. I think we should also, like, mention Scarlett Johansson because she was so good this year and both "Jojo Rabbit" and "Marriage Story."

CHANG: She's terrific in both those movies, and I say that as someone who is no great fan of "Jojo Rabbit." But I think she brings humanity and warmth to that role of Jojo's mother. And I think she's terrific in "Marriage Story," and it's a - I think she's doing, in some ways, the hardest job of anyone in that film because it is very much largely the Adam Driver character's perspective that - you know, which some have interpreted, rightly or wrongly, as the Noah Baumbach perspective - on that movie. But she is just effortlessly believable in that movie, and yet she's also juggling a lot of technique.

GROSS: And I want to say something about the other star of "Marriage Story," Adam Driver. I'll preface this by saying many of our listeners might know he walked out of an interview that I was recording with him. I say that just for disclosure. But I thought his performance in that film was terrific, and it had one of my favorite film moments of the year in which he sings - it's a song I love. And it's a very, very compelling performance of that song, a really wonderful moment.

CHANG: It's a great performance. I love Adam Driver in just about everything, and I just think he gets better and better. And he was in a lot this year. He is in the new "Star Wars" movie. He is in "The Report" with Annette Bening. But "Marriage Story" - I think his work there, I mean, just takes it to another level.

GROSS: "Cats" will be in theaters. I know a lot of people have seen the stage musical of "Cats." I have to preface this by saying you did not like this film. I'm going to read a couple of lines from your review. (Reading) Given how often the movies tend to stereotype felines as smug, pampered homebodies, there are certainly worse characters one could spend time with, though way I am hard-pressed at the moment to think of many worse movies. I say this with zero hyperbole and the smallest kernel of admiration.

Wow. That is really not a positive.

CHANG: (Laughter).

GROSS: How do you feel writing a film review like that about a beloved musical which, apparently, in your opinion, does not turn out well on screen?

CHANG: No, it doesn't. And - but I have to say, Terry, I'm kind of grateful that this movie exists because bad or mediocre movies are a dime a dozen. Something that is as just jaw-droppingly surreal and misguided and just weirdly, compellingly bad as this one to be released at Christmas by a major studio - I mean, it's both the Christmas gift and the Christmas coal, as it were. I think this movie would have been better, actually, just without this ghastly visual design that Hooper has come up with, where you have these human actors wearing cat ears and sporting tails and covered with digital fur. And they're not quite cats. They're not quite humans. That whole hybrid look works perfectly well on the stage because of the magic of stagecraft and live performance, and here, it just looks so wrong. Your eyes never adjust to it, and you just sort of - your heart goes out to even actors who, I think, equip themselves as well as they can like Ian McKellen, Judi Dench.

And this movie, when - since the trailers emerged, has just been the joke of the internet, and you don't want to just pile on and feed that. And you don't want to prejudge the movie. You want to go in with your eyes wide open and think, I know what I know, but this could be good, darn - but it wasn't.

GROSS: "Bombshell" will be in movie theaters - the movie based on the women at Fox News who came forward about Roger Ailes and got him forced out of Fox. I think Charlize Theron's performance as Megyn Kelly is really excellent. What did you think of the film?

CHANG: I agree with you. She's excellent, and I think she's better than the movie is. And her performance goes for a level of realism. It's just uncanny how much she looks and sounds like Megyn Kelly in the film. But the rest of the movie doesn't live up to that standard. You have Nicole Kidman as Gretchen Carlson. I think Kidman's good in it, but there isn't that same level of verisimilitude. You have Margot Robbie as a fictional somewhat composite character. You have John Lithgow under what appears to be a lot of prosthetic makeup as Roger Ailes.

I found the movie really slipshod in a lot of ways and yet powerful at others because I think that this look inside the corridors of power at Fox News and - Margot Robbie has the scene with Lithgow - this - it's a sexual harassment scene. And it is painful and heartbreaking to watch. I think scenes like that are really powerful. The rest of it feels a little bit "SNL" sketch level in terms of - look, that person's playing that person. And it throws you out.

And I think that - the movie, I think, has to negotiate this tricky ground of - in terms of making heroines of people who, depending on where you fall on the political spectrum, may strike you as heroic or villainous or somewhere in between. And I don't think, ultimately, the movie is gutsy enough to be truthful about those characters in a way. Even - you know, I think it sort of hedges.

And it feels like - I have a real skepticism of necessarily rushing to make movies about events that are still fairly recent. I mean, it's not that it's too soon. But I do think that filmmakers and the director, Jay Roach, in this case didn't have the time to really grapple with this in a way that would have made for a more thoughtful and analytical film.

GROSS: Well, Justin, it's been great to talk with you. I wish you happy holidays and a healthy and fulfilling 2020 with good movies.

CHANG: Thank you, Terry. It's always a pleasure, and happy holidays to you.

GROSS: Thank you. Justin Chang is FRESH AIR's film critic and a film critic for the LA Times.

After a break, our critic-at-large John Powers will have his annual ghost list - his list of the best things he read, saw or listened to but didn't get to review. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

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