Nick Earl’s Top 10 Movies of 2019 (part one)

This was the year that I changed my life and moved to Los Angeles to pursue my acting career. I’ve been lucky enough and have sought out jobs based around my favorite thing in the world, film.

I’ve been an extra on Hollywood sets, I worked for a year and a half in the last video rental chain store left in the country, and currently I work at one of Hollywood’s most prestigious and historic movie theaters, the Arclight Hollywood, home of the Cinerama Dome (as seen on the Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood poster). Needless to say, I see a lot of movies. When I’m not working, writing, acting, or sleeping it’s safe to assume I’m watching something. 

The year of 2019 was an interesting one in film. It started off rather slow, with the list of movies that truly rocked my world being rather small until around September. Finally, the indie/awards circuit hit and really shot out some of the best movies of the decade and a large percentage of my top 10 list.

Looking back on the year though, it really has been an epic one for film. 2019 saw the return of the Terminator franchise, the end of Marvel’s Infinity Saga and Star Wars’ Skywalker Saga. It gave us imaginary, indigenous Kiwi Hitler, an epic one-take war film, a lighthouse driving two men mad, and Adam Sandler grinning at a rock. 

2019 also gave me my unofficial number 11 film on this list. One that I simply need to discuss and surprisingly recommend. And that film may be the ultimate summation of this decade in filmmaking. 

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Unofficial #11: Cats

As a movie lover and maker, I believe that not only do you learn from the greats and the masterpieces, but also from the misfires, the flops, and the what-the-fucks. Nothing brings me greater joy than a truly bonkers movie. A movie that does things with film that makes you question your own sanity while watching it. Movies like “Howard the Duck,” “The Miami Connection,” “Frankenhooker,” or “The Room.” Passionately made film, no matter the outcome, can be a completely engrossing experience. And “Cats” is quite confidently added to this list. From the highly publicized human-cat hybrid CGI to the nonsensical plot of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical. The film plays almost as a series of vignettes, with the abandoned cat Victoria being introduced to various Jellicle cats competing to be given a new life. 

The cats sing and dance non stop, and this is where we get to the truth of my pick… “Cats” the musical was my SHIT when I was a child. I got the DVD recording of the 1998 Broadway cast (which is legitimately great if you’re at all interested) and used to sing and dance my way through the album in my front yard, pretending I was Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat, or the Rum Tum Tugger. So, my love for this film is 1000% influenced and blinded by my nostalgic love for the music, the characters, the ridiculous story, and the larger than life concept. 

I do, however, believe that Tom Hooper’s film does work hard to earn its emotional climax, leading up to Jennifer Hudson belting out “Memory” like her life and Oscar campaign depends on it. There are some bafflingly cringy and horrifying moments (cockroaches with human faces, Rebel Wilson unzipping her fur and skinning herself to reveal a glittery costume underneath, and the final number in which Dame Judi Dench breaks the fourth wall and addresses you directly, making you feel complicit in what they have just put you through). The CGI is distracting at times, but somewhere in this monstrosity is an emotional, fun toe-tapper with a lot to teach you about how not to make a movie. Cats is destined for a new life as a cult classic, and if you can let some of the weird stuff go, you may find that you’ve learned a lot.

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10.) Knives Out

A true master of genre, character, and story mechanics, a murder mystery is a perfect fit for Rian Johnson. Coming off of the divisive, but in my opinion nearly perfect, “The Last Jedi” in 2017, Johnson crafts an original, funny, crowd-pleasing whodunnit that creates a satisfying mystery and rewards multiple viewings. Johnson’s knack for subversion creates many surprising layers to this carefully plotted film, tricking and teasing the audience throughout. I will be careful not to spoil much about the film or even the plot, as the trailers do a nice job of keeping the mystery. But I will say that the story of the Thrombeys, the nurse who cares for their grandfather, and the world class detective who is always a few steps ahead is extraordinarily entertaining. 

Daniel Craig is having a blast as Benoit Blanc, the Hercule Poirot meets Foghorn Leghorn detective hired to investigate the mysterious cast of characters who are all equally chewing scenery. A literal murderers row of character actors and heavy hitters, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Chris Evans, Toni Collette, Don Johnson, Lakeith Stanfield, Christopher Plummer, and even more. But the real standout, much like in 2017’s “Blade Runner 2049,” is the incredible Ana De Armas, who once again delivers the most moving and human performance in a film surrounded by colorful cliches. Johnson proves himself again as one of the best directors working today and one of the most unique voices in genre filmmaking.  

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9.) Marriage Story

The heartbreak of divorce. The love of a parent. The anger and confusion and resentment between two partners. The joy in the small moments together and the hope for resolution. “Marriage Story” is a masterwork of human storytelling. Noah Baumbach is no stranger to extremely personal stories. His film “While We’re Young,” being one of my favorites of 2014, hits at growing older and learning that being young and being old have different virtues. In “Marriage Story,” Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson are absolutely magnetic as the main couple whose marriage has come to its end. Baumbach balances each character’s arguments masterfully, with Driver’s point seeming valid one moment and Johansson’s the next. And the infamous argument scene at the center of the film is as eloquently staged and acted as a John Wick shoot-em-up.

 “Marriage Story” is everything you’ve heard and more. While it is raw to the bone and emotional, it is also one of the funniest movies of the year. Alan Alda’s Bert Spitz, the former entertainment attorney now haplessly representing Adam Driver through his divorce is hilarious and clueless. And the brilliant Martha Kelly’s evaluation scene is an awkward descent into the horrors of divorce, showing how totally dehumanizing the process is. The evaluation reduces Driver’s father into an act; trying desperately to prove what a good relationship and life he has with his son. The movie makes you laugh one moment, cringe another, and cry the next. It has everything you could hope for a movie to have. Raw, mean, hopeless, hilarious, romantic, and beautiful, “Marriage Story” is an all-time great film about families and love.

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8.) Avengers: Endgame

Marvel’s Cinematic Universe is one of the greatest and most successful cinematic experiments of all-time. Regardless of how you feel about the quality of the storytelling or filmmaking over the 23 movies that encompass the “Infinity Saga,” it’s hard to argue with the results; an unparalleled universe of interconnecting stories and characters and an empire. At the end of this 10 year long road, reigns “Avengers: Endgame,” one of the most epic finales in film history. Directed by the Russo Brothers, “Endgame” has the incredible task of satisfying not only the crazy, world shattering cliffhanger set up in “Avengers: Infinity War,” but also wrapping up its core Avengers’ storylines. Every character from the original Avengers film is given their due, with Tony Stark and Captain America standing tall in the center. 

Not only does “Endgame” deliver on the pulpy fun of a comic book splash page with spectacular action scenes and comedy, but it is easily the most emotionally complex of any of the Marvel films so far. The first half of “Endgame” shares more with HBO’s “The Leftovers” than it does a Stan Lee comic; with moments of contemplation and plenty of surprising character developments. It also features some of the most shocking and crowd-pleasing moments in any recent blockbuster, and a pivotal turn in the final battle produced cheers from the crowd like none I’ve experienced in any film going crowd. For the average movie-goer, “Avengers: Endgame” is an excellent time at the movies, but for the die-hard nerds and lovers of all things superheroes, it’s about the holiest of experiences seeing all of your favorite characters taking their final stands. For me, “Avengers: Endgame” is an instantly iconic epic film with the likes of “Lawrence of Arabia” and “The Return of the King,” and a perfect send off to some of the most beloved characters of the last 10 years. 

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7.) Little Women

I don’t know if I’ve ever really connected with any adaptation of  a “classic” high society love story, but I also feel that I might not have ever really given them a chance. After watching 2019’s “Little Women,” I feel like it’s time to change that. Greta Gerwig makes the story of the March sisters in the 1860s accessible and emotional in a way that truly made me recognize why some classics are respected so highly and stick around. Gerwig’s approach of telling the story in a non-linear fashion really worked for me, highlighting the emotional highs and lows of both childhood and adulthood side-by-side.

The cast is stacked from top to bottom with the young cast putting in some of the best work of their careers. Meryl Streep, Laura Dern, Emma Watson, Tracy Letts, and Eliza Scanlen fill the film and imbue their literary characters with life. The standouts of course are the two leads, Saoirse Ronan and Florence Pugh as the always at odds Jo and Amy March. The dichotomy of the two characters’ hopes and wishes is what really drives the majority of the drama, with Jo being a passionate creator with no time for love and Amy dreaming only of comfort and security. I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that I think Timothee Chalamet was created solely to play an 1860’s fuckboy that you can’t help but love, and Chris Cooper is phenomenally touching as his father. 

The love stories make your heart swell and the heartbreaks and losses hit like a ton of bricks. Gerwig has a knack for making films that feel like warm hugs on a cold day. “Lady Bird” is a perfect movie about growing up and wanting to reach outside your world. “Little Women” is her movie about love and creation, even within the confines of the themes of the classic novel. If other legendary tales can be brought to life with this much modern resonance and passion, then I’ll happily dive head first into the classics. 

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6.)  The Irishman/Joker

Crime films have always had a special place in my heart, especially the gangster genre; a genre that has been defined in the last 50 years of cinema mainly by Martin Scorsese’s big hitters “Mean Streets,” “Casino,” and most famously, “Goodfellas.” It’s hard to disconnect crime pictures from the Scorsese and De Niro team ups, and 2019 gave us two films that look back and react to those classics, Todd Phillips’ “Joker” and Scorsese’s own “The Irishman.”

“Joker” is a pretty interesting and amazing anomaly for a big studio release, especially in an era dominated so totally by spectacle properties. It is, at its core, an almost retelling of Scorsese’s 1976 “Taxi Driver.” In place of De Niro’s Travis Bickle, Joker introduces us to Joaquin Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck, a struggling clown with aspirations at comedy stardom and a condition that causes uncontrollable laughter. The film beats Fleck down and shows society constantly erasing his identity and his sense of self until a new, more violent and chaotic identity is formed.

The film has proved to be divisive at best, but Phoenix’s performance is inarguably one of the most amazing and complex of the year. Joker cannot escape its “Taxi Driver” influence, casting Robert De Niro himself opposite Phoenix as the host of a Late Night talk show who starts as Fleck’s idol and turns into his tormentor. It’s a fascinating turn of events (and one that mirrors another De Niro/Scorsese team-up The King of Comedy) that leads the film into its masterful third act and the invention of the Joker. As polarizing as it is, for me, “Joker” is one of my favorite character study crime films that pays homage to its predecessors and takes the comic genre into dark new territory.

“The Irishman” on the other hand, is Scorsese commenting on his history with the gangster genre. It’s an Avengers level team-up of Scorsese actors, starring De Niro, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel, and Al Pacino. De Niro stars as Frank Sheeran, the rather bland and quiet truck driver turned mob assassin. His performance is one of the legend’s most contemplative and engrossing in years, telling us everything he’s feeling without saying much at all. Pesci shines as the head honcho Russell Bufalino, equal parts smooth and sinister.

At the center of the story is Pacino’s Jimmy Hoffa, who brings his typical manic energy and charisma to the stubborn leader. The violence, which is so often talked about in Scorsese’s previous films, is still here, but it’s downplayed and comes quickly and brutally. It’s less of a show and more of a fact of the job, shooting down a man on the street is as interesting as delivering a truckful of steaks. What makes “The Irishman” stand out is how the film reacts to the violence of its characters. It is a remorseful film about men getting older and thinking back on their actions, like Scorsese and De Niro looking back at their films and wondering what they’ve accomplished. With “The Irishman,” the pair has accomplished a beautiful, sprawling American epic on crime and morality.


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