2019 saw the launch of The Criterion Channel and Disney+, a watershed moment for the availability of streaming content. While Disney clamps down and restricts, Criterion is out here making sure the masses have unfettered access to their fill of sacrilegious art-house cinema. Thanks in no small part to the no-holds-barred approach of Criterion, I present my favorite films (and TV) of 2019.
First up, TV:
12. The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, a film by Ken Burns
Originally released in 2009, ten years ago, The National Parks is a love letter to one of America’s most enduring legacies. The stories of how close we’ve come, over the decades, to irrevocably losing places such as Yosemite Valley, The Grand Canyon, and the Grand Tetons, are quite simply astounding. This documentary miniseries is a testament to the value of Democratic principles in the face of human avarice. We must steward and preserve the Earth for future generations, and pass onto them the desire to continue to uphold such stewardship.
11. True Detective: Season 3
Each season of True Detective has been a distinct, standalone story. Season 3 opted to create some more buzz and expectation by teasing and then overlapping with Season 1, in a way that I found both surprising and gratifying. This season told a much more intensely personal story, spanning multiple decades in the lives of its two leads, played by Mahershala Ali and Stephen Dorff. At its core, the show is about what the pursuit of justice looks like in the face of systemic opposition to the truth. How does one remain committed to truth and justice when pressure is applied from all sides to divert from and dilute objective reality? Part of the truth and reality that each one of us lives is rooted in our shared experiences and fellowship, though. For a pair of detectives, that fellowship can sometimes become subordinated to a system that is impersonal and disinterested in truth. True Detective could be seen as a series of guideposts out of the gloom of ignorance and despair. No deed done in the dark will not eventually be exposed by the light. But to be the one who shines a light in all of the inky darkness… that can be a daunting responsibility.
10. Tigtone: Season 1
What if you joined a D&D campaign run entirely by unscrupulous improv comedians and musicians from metal bands? Well, then you might come up with something like Tigtone. The product of an innovative animation technique which renders facial expressions through a kind of motion capture software and transposes it onto the character models, the show feels at once both bespoke and banal. An entertaining diversion with loads of creative talent behind it.
9. Invader Zim: Enter the Florpus
Invader Zim left the airwaves in 2004, and fifteen years later, returned with much fanfare to Netflix in the guise of a TV movie, Enter the Florpus. Comprised of an animated adaptation of a portion of the comic continuation of the series, which began in 2015 and continues to this day (and it’s HILARIOUS omg), Florpus easily re-enters the suburban malaise and drab, processed food dystopia of Zim. Not a whole lot has changed in the intervening years. Zim’s misguided lust for domination remains undiminished, as does Dib’s myopic obsession with the paranormal. What ensues is a classic battle replete with social commentary and slapstick hijinks that made me ROFL.
8. Silicon Valley: Season 6
The final season of one of the best comedies ever compiled. Without saying too much, I did feel that the poetic nature to the denouement of Pied Piper’s saga was pitch-perfect. The comedy equivalent of Chernobyl.
7. Good Omens
Based upon Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s much-beloved novel, originally published in 1990, Good Omens has languished in one form or another of development hell (heheh) for many years. At one point, Terry Gilliam was even attached to a film adaptation! In 2019, at long last, the novel was brought to life as an Amazon Original series. Christian Theology classes could and should be taught using it as a reference. I also did read the book this year, prior to viewing the miniseries, and found the adaptation to be very faithful to its source material.
6. The Venture Bros.: Seasons 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7
A show that owes a debt of exactly 2¢ to Johnny Quest and the bulk of the Hanna-Barbera canon of properties, The Venture Bros. is one of the best comedy series ever written, in my opinion. Years often go by between seasons, and so it was a pleasure to be able to binge it on Hulu. An erudite and also gut-bustingly juvenile show.
“What is the cost of lies?” muses Jared Harris’ character Valery Legasov in his audio-cassette memoirs, which he is in the process of recording as this series opens. “Where once I feared the cost of truth, now I only ask: what is the cost of lies?” is the text of the entire quote. A series that dramatizes a catastrophe of nearly unimaginable proportions, and one which occurred within my own lifetime, albeit on the other side of the world, Chernobyl is a cautionary tale about the dangers of waging a systemic war on expertise. The Soviet Union was a Communist bureaucracy in which only the most prejudicial and partisan actors routinely advanced. Actual experts, and those members of the population who were intelligent, thoughtful and benevolent, seldom rose to prominence within such a system. Eventually, the hubris and malpractice of the unqualified bad actors who were routinely promoted and elevated to “leadership” roles wound up producing a calamity on a scale the world had never seen, neither before nor since. I fear that the same effect can be measured in America in 2019. Just look at the turnover in the current Administration and at the exodus of career civil servants from Federal institutions. If we don’t reverse course, we run the same risk, or worse.
4. The Vietnam War, a film by Ken Burns & Lynn Novick
A haunting and damning and utterly exhaustive documentary presentation of the most ill-advised military conflict the United States has ever been involved in (so far, at least). The “Sunk Cost Fallacy” writ large and spanning decades. Over 16 hours in length, and originally released in 2017. The Vietnam War is both epic in scope and intimate in its humanity, and it is also illuminating as it pertains to the disillusionment we now face over the concept of “American Exceptionalism.”
3. What We Do in the Shadows: Season 1
Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement mined a well-trodden concept for comedy gold with What We Do in the Shadows, a 2014 feature-film expansion of their short film from 2005. With plenty of mileage to be had from this material – basically a mockumentary about a group of vampires hiding in plain sight in the modern world, the new TV series of the same name delivers so, so much more.
2. The Good Place: Season 4
The best show on primetime television. The Good Place is a moral philosophy class taught by comedians, gallivanting around a Hollywood backlot to illustrate their lessons with levity and witty repartee. The final season will conclude in January 2020.
1. Watchmen: Season 1
I must admit, I had middling expectations for Watchmen. I knew, of course, that Damon Lindelof of Lost, The Leftovers, and Prometheus repute was running the show. And I knew it was going to be on HBO, which usually bodes well for artistic freedom in storytelling. I did not expect to be so captivated by the series. Clocking in at only 9 episodes, “Season 1” (I have no idea whether there is any plan to produce subsequent seasons or what they would entail) is all at once a meticulously crafted homage to the original comic, and something altogether new. In addition, it writes the backstory for one of the only characters from the original comic whose fate remained unexplained. The religious iconography and imagery at play in the show, the juxtapositions of the pride and vanity of mankind with the seeming aloofness of any “higher power” and the bold exploration of deep racial animus, based in no small part upon real historical events, certainly gave me a lot to consider. I expect this show to age well.
0. The Expanse: Seasons 1, 2, 3, and 4
But wait! There’s one more show I have to crow about. I had long been meaning to check out The Expanse, and so, late last year, when I noticed that the first two seasons were available on Amazon Prime, I put it on. Needless to say, I haven’t before been so immediately hooked on a show quite as passionately as I have with this one. I actually re-watched the first two seasons with my wife, because I wanted to see what she thought of it. Then, Amazon not only announced that they had picked up the show after SyFy’s cancellation, but that they were producing the 4th season and the 3rd would soon be streaming. At the 2019 San Diego Comic-Con, I went to an Expanse panel brimming with Screaming Firehawks and featuring appearances of most all of the main cast, all of whom were gracious and shared the fans’ enthusiasm for the show. The Expanse is based upon a series of Science Fiction books by pseudonymous author James S.A. Corey, actually a collaboration between two authors: Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck. In 2020, I hope to dive into the book series and get a ahead of the show, in order to slake my lust for more.
And now, for the Films:
Every one of these films were first seen by myself in the year 2019. Many of them were released years ago. Several are 50 years old. Without further ado:
15. Mother! (2017)
Darren Aronofksy’s films have always been fascinating to me, and I’ve seen them all. He has the tendency to get very, very metaphysical with his subject matter. Mother! might be the epitome of this trait. I knew nothing going into the film, other than having an expectation that it would be suitably intense and disturbing. I was not wrong. At the end, though, I found myself deeply appreciative of his filmmaking prowess in attempting to tell a story that, let’s face it, would be extremely difficult to deliver in a straightforward manner to a wide audience. In this film, he wants to create a specific impression that we could chat about philosophically for weeks, but in a way that grips the audience and manages to shift their perspective. I’ll happily re-watch it with anyone.
14. Midnight Cowboy (1969)
A classic, now, 50 years on, with both of its leads still alive and kicking. There is some kind of perverse poetry in knowing that Dustin Hoffman is now a 2 time Academy Award winner and revered thespian who has worked nonstop all these decades, and Jon Voight is a full-blown, Kool-Aid-quaffing 45 (“3”) acolyte. Guess which one was awarded the National Medal of Arts by an impeached U.S. President? John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy, an adaptation of a 1965 novel of the same name, by James Leo Herlihy, is a near-perfect slice-of-life of what America, and specifically New York City, was like in 1969. Taking place primarily in The Big Apple, the film plays like a collage of travel diary photos, despite telling a profoundly depressing story about two lonely drifters.
13. Paint Your Wagon (1969)
Hands-down one of the weirdest films I have ever seen in my entire life. Great music, a powerhouse cast, including Clint Eastwood in his one and only role in a musical, Paint Your Wagon has its sometimes scattershot storytelling elevated multiple echelons solely by Paddy Chayefsky’s fantastic dialogue writing and Lee Marvin’s inimitable prospector character, Ben Rumson. A story of the ugliness of manifest destiny glossed over as the dogged pursuit of the dream of human happiness. A film I found perplexing and double-take inducing, and yet, by the end, it had won my heart.
12. Hereditary (2018)
A cinematic master-class in psychological horror and clever storytelling, Hereditary also benefits from a singularly committed performance by one of its key leads, Toni Colette. Borrowing extensively from a pantheon of horror and suspense classics, this film unfolds with meticulous patience and is an exceedingly effective exercise in creeping dread. I watched it twice.
11. Deadpool 2 (2018) / Once Upon a Deadpool (2018)
I’ll be honest, I *really* did not expect to like Deadpool 2. I am pretty much 98.7% burnt-out on ALL superhero films at this point, and after watching the original film in all of its filthy glory, I figured the sequel would most likely be a parade of gross-out one-upmanship. Instead, the merc with a mouth, as played by Ryan Reynolds, gets a bona-fide sequel that surpasses its predecessor in every department. It’s funnier, it’s more savage with its comic tropes, it’s also more reverent with its comic tropes, it has really, really smart writing, Ryan Reynolds, etc. I watched it… four… times (if you count twice viewing the PG-13 version with Fred Savage, Once Upon a Deadpool)
10. The Stepfather (1987)
Terry O’Quinn features in a performance that will turn your blood to ice water in this mid-80s suspense thriller that I had never heard of before. Well worth seeking out.
9. Oliver Twist (1948)
David Lean’s immaculately-composed adaptation of the classic Dickens story. Featuring an incredible cast, majestic lighting, and a timeless tale of rags to riches. How can you go wrong with Alec Guinness, appearing resplendently squalid in his potentially antisemitic makeup, as the conniving old fence, Fagin? One of many collaborations between Lean and Guinness. Last year, I viewed Lawrence of Arabia for the very first time, and in which Sir Alec plays… an arab, of course.
8. Gosford Park (2001)
Robert Altman’s take on the quintessential country manor murder mystery. A powerhouse cast all around. Eat your heart out, Downton Abbey.
7. Weekend at Bernie’s (1989)
Fittingly released at the end of the 80s, a decade marked by selfishness, greed and excess, Weekend at Bernie’s has aged really well, in my opinion. The film is a black comedy that aptly skewers various myths about wealth and success, and remains a cult classic.
6. Goodfellas (1990)
Scorcese’s 29-year-old understudy to his sweeping mob epic, The Irishman. Telling another “based on true events” story about a man who commits numerous criminal acts under the mafia guises of “family” and “loyalty” before ultimately being forced to a reckoning. Featuring truly terrifying performances from Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro.
5. The Irishman (2019)
I’m not sure I can say many more eloquent things about this film that Guillermo del Toro hasn’t already said in this epic Twitter thread. The gangster mythos transmuted into hollow, empty torment. The ultimate end that unchecked, virulent machismo leads to. Anna Paquin deserves an award for what she simply does with her eyes in this film, boring holes through Robert De Niro’s soul. Man as the ultimate corrupting influence over all that he touches.
4. The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941)
Based on an award-winning short story by Stephen Vincent Benét, starring Walter Huston and directed by William Dieterle, The Devil and Daniel Webster was released in U.S. theaters, originally titled as All That Money Can Buy, a mere two months prior to the Japanese bombing Pearl Harbor and America’s subsequent entry into WWII. The real-life Daniel Webster was a famous American statesman and orator who represented New Hampshire and Massachusetts in Congress and served as Secretary of State under 3 U.S. Presidents. The film’s theme revolves around patriotism in America, even while it simultaneously delivers a rather naked rebuke of some of the darker events of American history. Mr. Scratch’s (Huston) final scene in the film will chill your bones.
3. Toy Story 4 (2019)
I did not know it would be possible for a fourth Toy Story film to move me, 24 years after the first one arrived on the scene and ushered us all into the hellscape of soulless CGI kids movies we dwell in today. At Pixar, they have a saying, “Story is King.” This entry in the franchise manages to keep that adage front and center, telling a delightful tale that goes an inch wide and a mile deep.
2. The Devils (1971)
I have already written at length about this film. A novel adapted into a play adapted into a film, directed by the visionary Ken Russell, The Devils explores a simplistic religious premise staged within the Catholic tradition: devils exist in the world, they are bad, they cause evil and chaos, and therefore, we must drive them out. What the film does with this premise would have been fodder for G.K. Chesterton’s duo of ruminations, Heretics / Orthodoxy. However, as we might already glean from such works as The Crucible and The Mission, “the world is [not] thus… Thus, have we made the world.” Here is where The Devils paints a stark dichotomy between the fever dreams of spiritual possession and the incarnation of a truly Christian life, and the difference between outward piety and inward reverence. An opulent film with an intense subject matter.
1. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018)
Without a doubt the most emotionally charged film I watched this year. A balm for the soul. Fred Rogers truly left the world better for his being here. I look forward to seeing Tom Hanks wear the cardigan in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, which was released last month.
That does it for 2019!
Except… for… one… more… film:
0. Knives Out (2019)
Rian Johnson’s first outing post-Star Wars is a delightful whodunit, populated, as these affairs often are, with a powerhouse cast of Hollywood stars. The morning after his 85th birthday celebration, renowned murder mystery author Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found dead, apparently by suicide from a self-inflicted knife wound. The rest of the movie unfolds from there. Wonderfully clever, populated with witty dialogue, and rife with intrigue and turmoil that feels as though it were ripped from your own contentious holiday family gatherings, Knives Out works superbly well both on the level of a classic Agatha Christie style mystery, and also as a kind of commentary on American culture in 2019. Bravo.
Honorable mention to: What We Left Behind, The Lobster, A Quiet Place, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Deliverance (1972), Brexit, The Addams Family, Cobra Verde (1987), Leaving Neverland, BlackKKlansmen, Night Moves (2013), The Perfection, The Killing Fields (1984), Isle of Dogs, Cape Fear, The Captain’s Paradise (1953), The Card (1952), The Man in the White Suit (1951), The Favourite, Blow Out (1981), Andre the Giant, Three Identical Strangers, and Active Measures.
Complete list of everything I was a couch potato for in 2019:
Regular = movie watched on a TV or other small screen device
BOLD = denotes theatrical viewing
Italic = denotes a “television series” or “mini series”
Underlined = denotes a short film (30 minutes or less)
- Ace in the Hole (1951)
- Active Measures
- The Addams Family
- Addams Family Values
- Andre the Giant
- Ant Man and The Wasp
- The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
- Barry: Season 1
- Better Call Saul: Seasons 1, 2, 3
- Black Narcissus (1947)
- Bless the Harts: Season 1
- Blow Out (1981)
- Bob’s Burgers: Seasons 5 and 6
- Breaking Bad: Seasons 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Seasons 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5
- Burn After Reading
- Cape Fear
- The Captain’s Paradise (1953)
- The Card (1952)
- Tenkû no shiro Rapyuta (Castle in the Sky)
- Children of the Corn (1984)
- Clue (1985)
- Cobra Verde (1987)
- Crazy Rich Asians
- The Crimes of Grindelwald
- Deadpool 2 (x3)
- Deliverance (1972)
- The Devils (1971)
- The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941)
- Discovering the De Kooning
- Disenchantment: Part 2
- Dream Corp, LLC: Season 1
- Dune (1984)
- El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie
- The Expanse: Seasons 1, 2, 3 and 4
- Farscape: Seasons 3 & 4
- Farscape: The Peacekeeper Wars
- The Favourite
- Frantic (1988)
- Fyre: The Greatest Party that Never Happened
- Fyre Fraud
- Game of Thrones: Seasons 5, 6, 7, and 8
- Goodfellas (1990)
- The Good Place: Seasons 3 and 4
- Good Omens
- Gosford Park
- The Haunting of Hill House: Season 1
- The Heart, She Holler: Season 1
- Hell on Earth – The Desecration & Resurrection of “The Devils” (2004)
- Hereditary (x2)
- His Dark Materials: Season 1
- Hot Streets: Season 1
- Hauru no Ugoku Shiro (Howl’s Moving Castle)
- In the Tall Grass
- Insidious: The Last Key
- Invader Zim: Enter the Florpus
- The Irishman
- Isle of Dogs
- John Carter of Mars
- The Killing Fields (1984)
- Knives Out
- Leaving Neverland
- The LEGO Movie: Part 2
- The Letter (1940)
The Little Foxes (1941)
- The Lobster
- Kurenai no buta (Porco Rosso)
- The Man in the White Suit (1951)
- The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (Fathom Events)
- The Mandalorian: Season 1
- Marathon Man (1976)
- The Mask
- Me, Myself and Irene
- Midnight Cowboy (1969)
- Mononoke Hime (Princess Mononoke)
- Mommy Dead & Dearest
- Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
- Mortal Engines
- The Muppet Christmas Carol
Murder on the Orient Express (1974)
- The National Parks: America’s Best Idea
- Kaze no tani no Naushika (Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind)
- Night Moves (2013)
- Night of the Hunter (1955)
- The Nun
- Old Joy
- Oliver Twist (1948)
- One Punch Man: Season 2
- Once Upon a Deadpool (x2)
- The Orville: Season 1
- Pacific Rim: Uprising
- Paint Your Wagon (1969)
- The Perfection
- The Pineapple Express
- The Predator (2018)
- Ralph Breaks the Internet
- Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind
- A Quiet Place
- Rick & Morty: Season 4
- The Righteous Gemstones: Season 1
- Rocko’s Modern Life: Static Cling
- Saving Mr. Banks
- A Series of Unfortunate Events: Season 3
- A Serious Man
- The Shivering Truth: Season 1
- Silicon Valley: Season 6
- The Simpsons: Seasons 30 & 31
- Solo: A Star Wars Story
- South Park: Season 23
- Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse
- Spies Like Us
- Spongebob Squarepants: Seasons 2, 3, 4 and 5
- A Star is Born (2018)
- Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: Seasons 6 and 7
- Star Trek: Insurrection
- The Stepfather (1987)
- Steve Jobs
- Stranger Things: Season 3
- There’s Something About Mary
- Three Identical Strangers
- Tigtone: Season 1
- Toy Story 4
- True Detective: Season 3
- Tuca & Bertie: Season 1
- Under the Silver Lake
- The Venture Bros. : Seasons 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7
- The Vietnam War
- Watchmen: Season 1
- Waking Ned Devine
- Weekend at Bernie’s (1989)
- What We Do in the Shadows: Season 1
- What We Left Behind
- Omoide no Mânî (When Marnie Was There)
- Mimi wo sumaseba (Whisper of the Heart)
The Witcher: Season 1
- Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
- The X-Files: Seasons 7, 8 and 9