Split Decision: Best of 2019 so far
Welcome back to Split Decision! Each week, we pose a question to our staff of knowledgable and passionate film geeks and share the responses! We may never know if it is legal to park in the center of Broad Street, but we’ll answer movie questions all day long. Chime in on Twitter, Facebook, or in the comments below!
This week’s question:
We’re halfway! What is your favorite movie of 2019 so far?
There is always a big difference between favorite and best. Not that you asked, but the Best film that has screened in Philly this year is probably Ash Is Purest White. And while I love Love LOVE Birds of Passage, my favorite film released in Philly in 2019 may be Non-Fiction Olivier Assayas's drama about publishing, authors, actors, politics, publicity and relationships. (My friend Chris saw it wrote me: "Gary, it's like someone made a movie for you!") Yes, Chris, Assayas did. This film speaks to most of what I believe about how books and authors are treated and consumed in our current society. It's talky as hell, but I that's fine, especially when it's hilarious--as when an insecure writer asks his girlfriend what she thought of his radio interview and she responds, "You stuttered less than usual," and then tells him she has to go. I must also give a shout out to the extraordinary, hypnotic and dazzling ten-minute dance scene from Gaspar Noe's Climax which may have been the most fun I've had in a theater all year. If only the rest of that film was as good!
Following Gary's lead, my favorite movie is Us, but the best movie I saw, and the movie I derived the least joy from, was Leaving Neverland. Dan Reed's four hour documentary about the ways the most famous person on the planet forced himself into the lives of two young fans, and then how those boys grew up and dealt with the shame, trauma and confusion of everything that happened.
A few weeks ago I was talking to the person my fiancé and I hired to DJ our wedding, and I said "This probably goes without saying, but no Michael Jackson." He told me that, oh, Michael's been back in the playlist for a little while now, after HBO released a statement walking back some of their documentary's claims. HBO, truly brave for taking on a target people will blindly defend forever, released no such thing. Of course. And I would have fired this dude on the spot had I not already paid a deposit.
But that's what this movie is working against— a billion people with the cognitive dissonance of flat earthers, who will never see the movie but will insist they already know enough about each of its scenes. It's a great documentary that gave me a profound look at other people's pain and strength, and my love of Leaving Neverland would be just as secure if sociopathic music fans weren't falling over themselves arguing a man who definitely raped at least two children didn't do that. That HBO followed the film with a special where other survivors of sexual abuse discussed their lives, that everybody involved stuck to their guns, that this doesn't have the gross, lurid appeal a company like Netflix squeezes out of Jeffrey Dahmer or NPR utilized in the first season of Serial? That's all a bonus.
My favorite film so far is Her Smell. There's something so captivating about Elisabeth Moss here that it just makes the two-hour plus runtime fly by. And while her erratic behavior is pretty funny most of the time (in a film that really isn't meant to be comedy), Alex Ross Perry is able to go beyond her craziness to develop a much deeper character than you might expect. Split up into five chapters, you get something a little different from Moss in each chapter as she mostly finds ways to create chaos all around her. It's easy to point to Courtney Love as the main inspiration here (and she probably was), but Alex Ross Perry deserves credit for writing and directing a really good original film with some of the most memorable scenes of the year so far.
The rest of the year has its work cut out for it, as I doubt I will see anything better than HER SMELL, the fifth film from Alex Ross Perry. It is a stunning ensemble piece with Elisabeth Moss in the lead, playing a self destructive punk rocker in the early twilight of her music career. The story riffs pretty clearly on everything from John Cassavetes to WALK HARD, and it is the most gripping thing I have seen all year. I knew as soon as I saw it was number one for me.
I love and adore Rocketman, but I have to pick the on=brand most obvious answer and go with Avengers: Endgame. Beyond the spectacle, beyond the culmination to this marvelous project, the thing that has stuck with me the most from the film is the way it deals with the concept of “worthiness.” The film’s iconic moment is centered around Captain America (Chris Evans) wielding Thor’s hammer Mjolnir. To wield the hammer (as only Chris Hemsworth’s Thor and Paul Bettany’s Vision have done previously) requires the user to be worthy. It’s a broad concept, since Odin isn’t really one for nuance. We see Captain America be worthy, and it just looks cool! One of the highest highs of the decade, seeing this character who is a good person fight for what is right. Man made myth.
The other moment in the film that sticks with me also involves Mjolnir. Thor has gone through some of the biggest changes in the film, losing his way in the face of so many failures. Hiding from the world, abusing his body in order to keep his mind from screaming at him, he doubts everything there is to doubt about himself. And yet, when he calls for his hammer (involving a bit of time travel since it was destroyed by Cate Blanchett in Ragnarok), it answers. As it flies into his hand, he says, “still worthy,” with tears in his eyes (or at least mine). It tells us that worthiness is not connected to success or failure, but our character: what do we seek to do with the power we wield? And if we wield it justly in the name of life and love, there is no greater cause.
I am enamored with Riley Stearns' The Art of Self Defense. It's the most unique and interesting comedy of the year, with deliciously dark ideas that keep getting darker as the movie unfolds. Stearns uses his camera in what I've come to call "discomforting" ways, bringing you into both the unease these characters feel while simply existing and the sheer insanity of their response to that unease. It's a really fascinating examination of toxic masculinity and how and why some men are so easily radicalized, and it does so without preaching or even finger-wagging. There's an exquisite balance to the comedy and themes on display here, and I can't recommend seeking it out and discovering it's odd sense of humor yourself.
I saw a lot of great movies this year, but here at the midpoint I've gotta shout out the very best two: Us and Rocketman.
Us, because it takes the doppelgänger concept and turns it into a terrifying cracked mirror reflection of our entire society. Peele has sidestepped the sophomore slump by delivering a film that's even better (smarter, faster, scarier!) than his incredible debut. Multiple rewatched reveal just how densely packed with thematics even the most seemingly innocuous moment is. A true masterpiece.
Rocketman shares top billing with Us because it's the first musical biopic maybe ever that bucks formula by invoking fantasy. It's also about the most inspiring, heartwarming "pick yourself up by your bootstraps and earn your forgiveness" tale I've ever seen. Taron Egerton gives the performance of the year!
I don't want to talk about anything but Rocketman, and I haven't wanted to in months. THERE'S AN OVERDOSE BALLET SET TO THE SONG "ROCKETMAN". THERE IS NOTHING BETTER HAS HAPPENED IN A FILM THIS YEAR.