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MY FAVORITE FILMS OF 2019

Today is the last day of the year and what feels like a very, very long decade.

For film it has seen some interesting developments to say the least. It saw the rise of Netflix, the rebirth of cable (just rebranded into streaming services), the decline and quiet resurgence of physical media, and the return of STAR WARS. And while we didn’t end the year on the rousing finale for the Skywalker saga that I personally was hoping for, 2019 packed enough surprises and beauty in the cinema to fill a dozen best of lists. 

This was the decade of the angry young man. In gaming it would be defined by the rise of Gamergate, the alt-right movement that paved the way for harassment campaigns that saw actors like Kelly Marie Tran and Daisy Ridley disconnect from social media entirely. 

The decade began strong with David Fincher’s brilliant masterpiece, THE SOCIAL NETWORK, that wasn’t just an unexpected triumph, but easily a defining film of the years to come. Charting the inception and rise of Facebook, SOCIAL NETWORK is a whip sharp and skewering look at the toxic personalities that helped shape social interaction and global discourse, potentially changing how people see one another for decades to come. The incredible script by Aaron Sorkin foretold the rise of online trolling, cyberstalking, and a new kind of online gaslighting years before they were spoken of publicly.

Interestingly enough, it came down to another story of a bitter white man wanting to incite change that would close this decade. Sadly, unlike Fincher’s film, JOKER was a blunt, dour, and utterly uninterested in understanding anything it was depicting, resulting in one of the worst films of this decade. An edgelord film to the core, JOKER is mostly notable for how little it actually says in the midst of all its angsty hubris. 

I saw 435 films this year, out of which around 180 were in theaters. Whittling that down to just five, ten or even twenty films is a near impossible task that would change daily. The following films therefore are not the ultimate best of the year, but simply the ones that I haven’t been able to stop thinking of ever since I saw them.

HAIL SATAN?
Baa-baa-Baphomet

Chronicling the birth and spread of one of the most colorful and happily deranged religions in America, HAIL SATAN? is both hysterically funny and deceptively thoughtful. Cleverly built as a creation myth, Penny Lane’s documentary allows for all founding members to have their say, and lets the viewer come to their own conclusions on who to frame as both devil and deity in the drama that unfolds. Everyone paints their own personal history to suit their goals, and Lane’s camera doesn’t take sides. 

At a time when organized religion operates more and more like big business, witnessing the birth of a new one feels like a privileged insight to have. The Church of Satan has been criticized by opponents as treating religion like a joke, when their operating procedures are almost carbon copies of any other organized religions. 

We are at a crossroads, Lane appears to argue, where thousands of years old sacrament no longer can – or should – dictate how our society is run. If we allow it to, what’s to say that any belief system invented couldn’t reasonably take its place? 

Insightful, funny, honest, and surprisingly touching, HAIL SATAN? is essential viewing for everyone. 

KNIVES OUT
Daniel Craig, LaKeith Stanfield and Noah Segan in KNIVES OUT.

What a decade Rian Johnson has had. After directing one of the finest sci-fi films in years (LOOPER), he was handpicked by industry legend Kathleen Kennedy to head STAR WARS into a new direction. The result of that was the best film the franchise has ever seen, destined to rise in status as the years go by. So how do you follow that?

By writing and directing one of the classiest and smartest original films of the decade that not only celebrates murder mystery tropes, but actively dissassembles them in a way that reframes an entire genre. Duh.

KNIVES OUT is a miracle of a film. It’s an original screenplay with a large cast, taking place almost exclusively in one location with no action set pieces at all. It’s talky and never ashamed for being smart, yet never condescending or smug about it. Most of all it is kind. Sure, it’s about a murder and it takes plenty of jabs at Trump-supporting bigots. But it’s still all about the importance of being good.

Not content with just a ripping yarn, Johnson uses the murdery mystery setting to dissect American nationalism, immigration, and invented tradition by crafting the family of miscreants from thinly veiled stereotypes each presenting a different facet of perceived American exceptionalism. The cast in question is fabulous. Jamie Lee Curtis is a gem as the matriarch now wielding authority after the death of her father; Michael Shannon is suitably skeezy as the rodent-like middle child; Don Johnson hams it up as a delightfully hateable Trumpette; and Toni Collette is hilarious as a New Age post-capitalist hippie hawking her unusable wares online. 

KNIVES OUT was released in November and continues its wildly successful run in theaters right now. 

ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD
Leonardo DiCaprio star in Columbia Pictures Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”

I don’t think this kind of Hollywood ever existed, and I don’t believe that Tarantino thinks that either. It’s more of a hazy memory of a dream that lives somewhere in those few minutes before you fall asleep, where reality and fiction coincide beautifully for a fleeting moment. Every day seems to linger in a warm sunset, never too hot nor cold, and the nights are just cool enough that you can hang in your pool with a drink as Los Angeles continues its endless sprawl in the background. ONCE UPON A TIME is a love letter to nostalgia and dreams in hopes that maybe their existence can make us whole once again.

In what could be considered career best performances, both Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt carry the film effortlessly as the leading men on their way out. DiCaprio is an almost-was verging on a has-been, while Pitt lurks in the background as a stunt performer nobody wants to associate with anymore. Word around town is he killed his wife, but nobody knows for sure. Whatever the reasons, neither of them are welcome to the party anymore, and it grinds them down. One way or another they’re going to get that last shot, come hell or high water. Unfortunately for them, hell is coming and in the form of none other than Charles Manson and his crew. 

There’s not much plot to ONCE UPON A TIME as there is a ragged story that is held together by a hangout film, content with letting the mood wash over you in waves, allowing you to feel melancholy about something none of us ever got to experience. It’s reminiscent of Robert Altman films, where character was paramount. There’s a genuine joy in seeing these two nitwits try their hardest in the Hollywood rat race, and Tarantino has all the insider gossip to make the jabs at silver screen vanity hit their marks every time. 

It might not be the most accessible Tarantino film to date, but it might be his most personal and optimistic. That’s not nothing.

ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD is now on blu-ray.

DOCTOR SLEEP
REBECCA FERGUSON as Rose The Hat in the Warner Bros. Pictures’ supernatural thriller “STEPHEN KING’S DOCTOR SLEEP,” courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

The movie that snuck up on me and made me ugly cry in the cinema. Who would have guessed that a quasi-sequel to THE SHINING would not only be good, but a genuinely touching meditation on letting go of past trauma in order to live a full life. Directed with grace by Mike Flanagan, quickly rising the ranks as de facto ruler of King adaptations, DOCTOR SLEEP is a sprawling yet intimate epic that builds to one of the most satisfying conclusions in a long time. 

It’s best to go in completely blind to this as every single plot twist and narrative choice is all the more pleasurable as a surprise. Suffice to say Ewan McGregor delivers a nuanced and heartbreaking performance as a grown Danny Torrance, Rebecca Ferguson is menacing and alluring at the same time, while newcomer Kyliegh Curran gives one of the best child actor performances in years. 

I loved this movie to bits, and I didn’t expect to even like it. What a wonderful surprise.

DOCTOR SLEEP is now in theaters.

BLINDED BY THE LIGHT
Viveik Kalra and Nell Williams in BLINDED BY THE LIGHT.

I’ve loved the music of Bruce Springsteen since I was around eight years old. His lyrics and stories have been with me through multiple highs and lows of my life. For years, I felt that expressing how much they mean to me would be impossible to say, as it would be too corny and too personal to say out loud.

Luckily, I now don’t have to. BLINDED BY THE LIGHT has done it for me. If anyone in the future asks what it feels like to be a Springsteen fan, I can just show them this. It’s a life-affirming celebration of finding yourself through the words of another during a time when it feels like everything you do is out of place.

Beautifully blending real life events of eighties UK to bright musical fantasy, Gurinder Chadha’s coming of age tale is one of the finest love letters to growing up ever made.

Listening to Springsteen isn’t going to make you as cool as he is, BLINDED BY THE LIGHT says, but it might make you a better, more complete you.

BLINDED BY THE LIGHT is in theaters now.

Special mention

JOJO RABBIT
Thomasin McKenzie and Roman Griffin Davis in the film JOJO RABBIT. Photo by Kimberley French. © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

Honestly now, is there anything that Taika Waititi can’t do? It’s getting a bit ridiculous. After leaping into public consciousness with one of the funniest comedies of the decade (WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS), Waititi has gracefully danced between indie-darlings like HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE (utterly charming) and big studio pictures for Marvel like THOR: RAGNAROK (one of the best things the studio has ever put out). But when Waititi announced that he’d take on a project about a young boy, belonging to the Hitler Youth organization, befriending a Jewish girl in hiding during the tail end of the World War, there was trepidation that he’d bitten off more than he could chew. Especially when it came out that said young boy has an imaginary friend in Adolf Hitler, played by Waititi himself. 

Then the trailer came out, and it looked not just funny, but touching as well. Surely this still couldn’t work.

It could, and it did. JOJO RABBIT is nothing short of a masterpiece, and one of the most touching films about growing up ever made. It’s audacious, daring, earnest, and never glib, even when it snarks about the situation our characters find themselves in. It has the passion and zeal of Charlie Chaplin’s THE GREAT DICTATOR, and despite a lukewarm critical reception will be seen as a monumental cry for sanity and kindness at a time of polarization, when human value has become binary. 

JOJO RABBIT made me cry and laugh multiple times, often at the same time. Not many films can do that. When you see something that powerful, it’s best to take note.

JOJO RABBIT has had screenings in Helsinki throughout Autumn and will be released in January 2020.

Special mentions

THE IRISHMAN for delivering one of the most haunting depictions of growing old. THE LIGHTHOUSE for reminding us that horror doesn’t need to be graphic to be scary. FOR SAMA for destroying me and building me back up again. AVENGERS: ENDGAME for telling a complete story and bringing it a beautiful, touching finish. THE UNPROMISED LAND for reminding me about the power of friendship.

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