I’m going to start by blowing your mind: remember the Jordan Peele horror/thriller, Us? That came out in February this year. Yes, 2019 has felt like an incredibly long year, but in the case of cinema that’s been a very good thing. 2019 was packed with amazing films, so rather than a ranking I decided to take a look at my four favorites and share what I learned from them as far as storytelling. Since I want to be able to discuss twists/pacing effectively, and because these films have been out months apiece already, spoilers follow.
My annual Oscar Predictions Post will be coming as soon as nominees are announced, and longtime visitors will recall that I have a better than average success rate for predicting winners even when I don’t watch the nominated films. Watch for that soon, in the meantime let’s start with the film I already mentioned:
Us (Jordan Peele, 2019)
I am a tremendous fan of Get Out to the extent that I wished against likelihood for it to win Best Picture in 2017 and somehow my dream came true. Us is Peele’s much awaited follow up and it shows Peele’s ambition to tell a bigger, more complex story. Before I dig into plot and mythos, I want to say that when I walked out of the theater in February this year, I said Lupita Nyong’o should have Best Actress locked with a bullet. What a year it’s been that I feel like I might have to walk that prediction back when nominees get announced. She still deserves the nomination, but the competition is a lot more fierce as the year played out.
Us shows its cracks primarily from its ambition: the larger mythos about the tethered, their purpose, the reason for their revolt and more was left too opaque for the movie to truly stick with viewers. In horror a storyteller benefits from the monster being hidden and left to the imagination (the xenomorph in Alien is the classic example), but the motivation should be clear even if it is primal or singular (eating people, killing Sarah Connor, Killing horny teenagers, etc).
The strength of Us is in the characters and the actors, Peele’s masterful when he’s focused tightly on the two families being hunted by their doppelgangers and part of me wonders if the movie might not have benefitted from being a tighter conspiracy rather than a nationwide epidemic. Nyong’o’s turn as both surface mother and under dweller bent on revenge is tremendous, and Winston Duke make a solid case for being a household name here on out as well.
However, by the end of the film the nationwide scope of the Tethered’s revolt becomes more of an add on than a feature. Anytime we were reminded that this was happening all over I’d say “oh right,” because honestly? It didn’t matter to me, Peele was doing so well with just the family that it might as well have just been them.
Lesson Learned: Bigger doesn’t always mean better, sometimes keeping things simple works to better ends.
Parasite (Bong Joon Ho, 2019)
Here’s the counter example to the plight I described in Us above, this film focused tightly (claustrophobically even) on three families involved around the opulently wealthy Jeong family household. That’s not to say the movie doesn’t widen its scope: the scene where the family flees the house through the torrential rainfall into their flooded slum is a patient and masterful visual depiction of a city’s topography and castes/classes through its verticality as father, son, daughter are literally washed downhill from the wealthy hills into the literal sewage waste of their slum.
I said Nyong’o had competition for Best Actress in the last entry and I want to state that So-Dam Park deserves to be in the running for her incredible performance as Kim. She sets the tone for each phase of the movie as the plot moves the family from dark comedy, to confidence scam, to thriller and horror, then spirals horrifically to tragedy Park’s performance shines at the heart of it all throughout, even when it’s sitting on top of a toilet regurgitating filth under her.
Parasite is not the only film to do this, but it brilliantly subverts whatever expectations you may have for it at any given moment. What I noticed upon repeat viewing is that like the patriarch of the family: it doesn’t give you those expectations, it’s telling a believable and human story of wealth and the desperation of poverty against decadence. This is why it’s able to move so seamlessly through genre tones: it isn’t wedded to a genre storytelling, it’s telling a story and letting the plot and characters set that tone/genre feel.
Lesson Learned: Ignore tropes and don’t think about “what’s supposed to happen here,” always keep the focus on your characters feeling real and their actions motivated by circumstance, need, and want.
JoJo Rabbit (Taika Waititi, 2019)
The first achievement of this film is that it made me like Scarlett Johansson again, which isn’t an easy task considering how often she puts her foot in her mouth. While I don’t see this one as being a heavy contender for performance categories, it’s still an achievement that somehow becomes more than just the sum of its parts.
The movie, set during the final days of the Third Reich’s hold on Germany is a masterclass in nothing coming out of the blue, and every detail being important though in different ways as the story progresses. Case in point, just about everything learned in the opening scenes at the Hitler Youth training camp comes back in some way by the end of the film (even if ironically) e.g.: JoJo losing his knife and the Gestapo officer noticing its absence from his belt forcing Elsa (Thomasin Mckenzie) to expose herself, or Yorki being trusted to handle heavy artillery despite his age, nothing is incidental in the movie, least of all the emphasis on Jojo not being able to tie his own shoes.
It’s an old bit of advice, but one Waititi really seems to have taken to heart: when writing you should either be advancing plot, developing character, building out the world- or ideally at least two at once. Waititi squeezes the most out of just about every scene, and thus we connect with the cast of this little German town in a truly meaningful way that informs the internal conflict Jojo is facing with his fanaticism, and truly makes it meaningful and a lesson worth viewing.
Lesson Learned: If a particular detail or quirk mattered in Act 1 to introduce a character or concept, it should matter enough to help with storytelling or character development in Act 2 and Act 3. If you Throw the ball in the air in the opening, the audience wants to see someone catch it before the credits roll.
Uncut Gems (Benny & Josh Safdie, 2019)
More so than any of the prior entries, Uncut Gems is a triumph of character driven storytelling. Of all things, it reminds me of Requiem for a Dream (2000). In both cases we’re focused to an uncomfortable degree of revelation on flawed people and seeing their addictions function as the antagonists of their stories and the ultimate victor in their downfalls.
This is the most deserving of an Academy Award Sandler has ever been and may ever be. I’m hedging my bets on that one though because in his depiction of Howard “Howie” Ratner, Sandler occasionally slips into the vocal tics that became expected punctuated his punchlines for years through movies like Billy Madison and Big Daddy. That reminiscence actually drew laughs at scenes that I don’t feel were going for comedy, and it may ultimately be the final stumbling block to him taking home the statue from the Academy in February.
If there’s been a consistent thread in these entries, it’s been one of focus and it doesn’t get more focused than Uncut Gems. The titular gems are the physical proxy and Pulp Fiction briefcase of sorts for Sandler’s true adversary and obsession, to the extent that when he succeeds in selling the gems and has the solution to all his problems in hand he dives right back into the muck- his true enemy was always his own addiction and desperation to feel the rush of a win.
We get a lot of dramas these days, but so few films truly understand and dive head first into true, classic tragedy where a character, especially a protagonist, has a fatal flaw that draws and drags them inevitably to oblivion and ruin. That Howie makes the fatal decision at the end to bet the money rather than settle his debts should be obvious by the time you’re there in that room with him and Kevin Garnett, that he places a bet with crazy odds isn’t the surprise. The only surprise in the final minutes is that he wins on the bet- and that ultimately it doesn’t matter.
Lesson Learned: Characters have flaws. Maybe the flaw isn’t entirely fatal, but characters can be motivated by compulsive pride, envy, and greed. It’s up to the storyteller to depict those flaws effectively and make the character believable, even if they’re not at all like the viewer or anyone the viewer has ever met before.