My Top 15 Movies and TV Series for 2019

Here are the reviews I wrote this year with the criteria that they were available online or were at local movie theaters, although not necessarily under broad distribution nor widely distributed through move theaters.   Of the 43 reviews, here are my favorites.  Another difficult year to make my listicle.  As in past years, both television and cinema have continued to produce phenomenal story-telling and intriguing characters.

The following list is not ranked, only grouped by genre and date of review.  

INDIES and FOREIGN CINEMA

1) Lo and Behold–Reveries of the Connected World  (January 13 review)

Lo and Behold gives the viewer a spellbinding, lesser-known walk back in time through the birth of the computer and its subsequent impact on our daily lives. We see extremes: medical marvels saving lives or electromagnetic waves that debilitate. Each chapter introduces a different positive or negative dynamic of the internet.

2) Won’t You Be My Neighbor?—The Golden Rule (March 17 review)

What the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? explores perhaps more clearly now than at the time the show was produced is just how revolutionary Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood actually was.  Even through the tumultuous Sixties, subjects of political violence, racial discrimination, and the degrading messages children and adults frequently heard were never side-stepped or sugarcoated.  

3) In Order of Disappearance—Plowing Through Suspense (April 21 review)

In this combination of black comedy and Nordic noir, we are treated to a series of scenes involving gangster mobs, drug trade, a father’s revenge, kidnapping, and snow plowsIn Order of Disappearance is part “Fargo” and part other Coen brothers’ comedic treatment of snow country. 

4)  Which Way Home—Is There One?  (June 17 review)

In this gripping 2010 Academy Award nominated HBO documentary, Which Way Home opens with something large and bulbous floating down the Rio Grande. The viewer soon learns it is a corpse, perhaps that of a child, and an observer comments matter-of-factly that this happens multiple times a day.

5) Always Be My Maybe—Rom-Com at Its Best  (June 22 review)

The Netflix Original Always Be My Maybe gives us a reason for watching rom-coms again. A modern riff on “When Harry Met Sally.” Set in San Francisco, Always Be My Maybe is  a story of childhood sweethearts who go their separate ways only to meet up fifteen years later.  Sasha Tran (Ali Wong) and Marcus Kim (Randall Park) were best friends who, as teenagers,  had sex for the first time and then stopped talking to each other. 

6)  The Farewell—Family Matters (August 5 review)

This comedic drama opens with the tagline: “based on an actual lie.”  The universal theme– of the gathering of a family clan harboring  secrets and lies,  told and sometimes motivated by love.

7) Late Night—Women Do It Right  (November 5 review)

In Late Night   we see a notoriously, male-dominated world of late-night network TV in which a woman–Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson)– is the host of her own talk show.  (Think “The Devil Wears Prada” and Meryl Streep as the “bitch-boss from hell”).

PSYCHOLOGICAL, POLITICAL AND SOCIOLOGICAL

8) The Hate U Give—T.H.U.G. (June 9 review)

Starr Carter,   a sixteen-year-old gifted student, has to adeptly maneuver between two worlds — her poor, mostly black neighborhood and a wealthy, mostly white prep school. Facing pressure from all sides, Starr must find her voice and decide to stand up for what’s right.

9) Rocketman—Seeing the Light Through the Darkness (July 28)

The backstory of Elton John’s childhood is the emotional core defining his self-worth and genius.  Although we soon find out that Elton was a deeply lonely child, unloved by his parents (Bryce Dallas Howard and Steven Mackintosh), but nurtured by his grandmother (Emma Jones), he introduces himself with a lie: “I was actually a very happy child.” 

10)  Joker—No Laughing Matter (October 7 review)

Joker is a   devastating portrait of a rapid descent into mental illness. This Joker, nemesis to the comic book masked superhero Batman,  takes center stage with only a tangential reference to Batman and for good reason.   Now we see the masked Joker as few could have imagined. 

TV and ORIGINAL SERIES

11)   Narcos, Narcos Mexico and El Chapo— Cinema Verite  (February 19 review)

Three Netflix series — NarcosNarcos Mexico and El Chapo– are gritty, raw, and bingeable. Each chronicles the most powerful drug lord and his cartel at the rise of cocaine and marijuana production in Colombia, Mexico, and other parts of the world.

12) Chernobyl—An Ignominious Reaction (July 16 review)

 Chernobyl  is an HBO historical drama  miniseries depicting the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster and the unprecedented coverup that followed. The  flawed reactor design operated by inadequately trained technicians is jaw-clenching and chilling.  That lack of transparency and flagrant disregard for human life depicts greed, lack of moral integrity, and political corruption.  Chernobyl is a cautionary tale for today’s political climate.

13) La Casa de Papel—”Ocean’s Eleven” on Steroids  (September 2 review)

A criminal mastermind, calling himself “The Professor,” plans the biggest heist in Spain’s history: to storm the Royal Mint and print billions of euros. He recruits eight people who have the criminal talents he needs, knowing they have nothing to lose.

14) Locked Up—Spain’s “Orange is the New Black”  (September 11 review)

Complete with extraordinary writing and plotting, Locked Up‘s main theme is unexpected consequences:  the turmoil of events that turn everything upside down.

15) Queen of the South—Reigning Supreme (October 20 review)

A “Narcos” or “El Chapo”-style drama about the rise of drug lord Teresa Mendoza (played by the exceptional Alice Braga, niece of the renowned actress Sonia Braga),  we see a new first.  Instead of a ruthless kingpin of a Mexican drug cartel like Guzman (El Chapo), we see Teresa Mendoza. She navigates and outsmarts a world dominated by men and machismo to become the queen (or queenpin?) of Sinaloa.

Knock Down the House—A Remodel is Needed

This investigative journalistic  documentary invites the viewer to take a closer look at  four committed women who ran for Congress in 2018: Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Cori Bush of Maryland, Paula Jean Swearengin of West Virginia, and Amy Vilela of Nevada. First and foremost, however, Knock Down the House is AOC’s story.  The former bartender from the Bronx turned first-time congresswoman needs no introduction.

Because of director Rachel Lears’s  early access to the four Congressional candidates, she and her camera have been in the war rooms of the campaigns right from the start, making the footage even more compelling.

Knock Down the House movie

From a pool of committed political neophytes, Lears selected four exceptional female candidates — Ocasio-Cortez, Cori Bush, Paula Jean Swearengin and Amy Vilela — each with an emotionally riveting back-story and a politically established, seemingly unbeatable opponent. Their back-stories propelled them into politics.  For Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, she  had to work double shifts as a bartender to save her mother’s home from foreclosure. After losing a daughter to a preventable medical condition because of lack of health insurance, Amy Vilela became determined to  improve  America’s broken health-care system. Cori Bush, a registered nurse and pastor, was appalled at the  police shooting of an unarmed black man and the resulting army tanks that showed up in  her neighborhood. A coal miner’s daughter, Paula Jean Swearengin, watched  her friends and family suffer from the devastating environmental effects of the coal industry.

Except for AOC, the other three women candidates–although giving everything they had to win—were defeated. With a raw and blistering honesty, we see the camera hover over their physical and emotional deflation after the results come in.  All four were heavily invested personally: “We’re coming out of the belly of the beast kicking and screaming,” Swearengin says.  But ten-year incumbents are hard to unseat.

Ocasio-Cortez, unsurprisingly,  emerges as a telegenic, exuberant force .  She is all that and more.  In the closing credits, we see AOC riding a scooter, circling in front of the Congressional building, enjoying the thrill of her victory  on a crisp, January morning before the swearing-in ceremony.  She’s a television cameraman’s dream:   young, attractive, and charismatic with the emotive,  energetic oratorial skills of a much more seasoned  public speaker. Nothing seems to throw her off her game, whether she’s mopping the floor before distributing leaflets for her campaign or talking with someone who has decided not to vote for her.

Her social media presence alone shows why she has crossed over into pop celebrity, whether she’s tweeting or live-streaming on Instagram while eating popcorn, talking about staying grounded and dancing on YouTube.  She is a media darling and that makes her a political star worth watching.

Knock Down the House will knock you down too—with the energy that these women expended to advocate for change.

Note:  Available on Netflix.

Luce—A Beam of Light?

Luce the movie

The title character, Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.)  is an all-star athlete and model straight-A student who is expected  to achieve greatness in college. Luce’s  liberal adoptive parents—physician Amy (Naomi Watts) and financier Peter (Tim Roth) adopted Luce when he was a little boy in Eritrea, a boy-soldier who experienced unimaginable horror.

A volatile and incendiary essay he has written for an English teacher, Harriet Wilson  (Octavia Spencer), is brought to the attention of Luce’s parents.  The essay inflames the liberal-minded community and most of all, his English teacher.

Luce’s parents do not know who to believe, –his teacher and school administrators or their son–although their intuition and gut-reaction is to believe their brilliant, beloved Luce.  Other  parents slowly face the same dilemma –who do you believe in the face of unconditional love?  Luce’s personal story unfolds as an attempt to define what is the truth to the listener–the one that is acceptable and therefore believed, or the one that shatters values you deeply hold. 

A sense of sustained menace highlights the central theme of Luce: Do we really know who Luce is and how deeply his traumatic childhood experiences have affected him? 

Luce is a gut-wrenching story of love of child versus love of spouse.  This film is also provocative in terms of Luce’s achievements validating  his  liberal parents’ convictions about social justice and racial equality, about transforming the human soul.   There are no easy answers.

Race and white privilege are examined under a psychological microscope.  Sharp-edged and gimlet-eyed, this is a difficult film that tries to say something nuanced about racism, making for uncomfortable viewing.  Luce  is boldly ambitious in addressing so many questions in one film:  Who is “anointed”  by others to succeed?   The myth of the American dream and succeeding  all on your own, especially in the glowing light of suburbia (Arlington, Virginia), is painfully dissected.

Luce closes with  a chilling and morally ambiguous ending.   The creation of your own ending may depend upon your ethnic identity and how much it has influenced who you are now.  No one person represents an entire demographic and Luce shouts this to the audience loud and clear. 

“You never really know what is going on with people.” (Luce)

Note:  Now available on Netflix.

Booksmart—Today’s “Breakfast Club”?

Booksmart:  the movie follows two academic superstars and high school best friends who feel major FOMO!
Booksmart

Booksmart follows two academic superstars and high school best friends who, the night before graduation, suddenly realize that they should have worked less and played more.  Major late-blooming FOMO! 

Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein of “Lady Bird”) are determined to cram four years of sacrificing fun for one all-night party.  After all, some of their “party-animal” classmates have done drugs, partied every weekend while  Amy and Molly were in the library, and still were accepted at the same Ivy League college or prestigious NGO projects that the two BFFs sacrificed so much for.  Popular vs. Intellectual: why not both?  That is the question underpinning Booksmart.

Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever

Directed by Olivia Wilde, Booksmart has achieved a film worthy of comparison with the classic John Hughes’ films Ferris Bueller’s Day Off or The Breakfast Club.   A teen comedy with girl power, Booksmart encapsulates an inchoate female empowerment evolving without Amy and Molly’s full comprehension.  We have adolescent turmoil in which teenage angst over every word and glance from classmates has a surprising and clever twist.

There is pain and an ecstatic thrill of female bonding intertwined with a  best-friend sort of communication that embodies not only trust without question– and in a sense, first love– but also the complicated issue of sexual identity.

Booksmart has wisdom and a humorous generosity in showing a glimpse of adulthood’s inevitable disappointments (played hilariously by Jason Sudeikis in one scene as a high school principal moonlighting as a Lyft driver.)  It’s difficult to do comedy well, especially of teenagers through the lens of middle-aged directors and writers. Wilde gets the tone and subject matter just right, giving Amy and Molly the material to imbue their characters with the authentic and heartfelt voices of teenagers today.    A delightful film for families with teenagers and for all of us who remember our teenage angst when many days and nights were both the best and worst of our lives. 

Note:  Now available on Netflix DVD.