Humpty Dumpty in Oakland” (written in 1960, published in 1986) – the last-written of Philip K. Dick’s nine non-science fiction novels – is perhaps his most consistently darkly comedic novel. But it’s not a book that had me laughing as much as some others. The author tones down the absurdism — instead favoring long stretches describing traffic and construction in the growing, crowded Bay Area – and we’re left with two people who are troubled in traditional and relatable (if slightly extreme) ways.
The Rocketeer” (1991) launched the 1990s boom of nostalgic proto-superhero films set in the time before “Superman’s” 1938 invention, and it set the bar high enough that it wouldn’t be matched by “The Shadow,” “The Phantom” or “The Mask of Zorro.” Director Joe Johnston’s film has everything, in a good way: Billy Campbell and Jennifer Connelly in star-making turns, rocket-pack flying effects that hold up today, unscrupulous feds and other baddies angling for the pack, classy dinner dates, chases through kitchens with pans flying, tommy-gun shootouts … tied together by James Horner’s score that evokes the idea of brighter days ahead.
The two most remarkable things about “Jojo Rabbit” (2019) are 1, that it’s a mainstream comedy about a kid who loves Hitler, and 2, that there’s nothing odd about this premise once you get into the flow of the movie. Writer, director and Hitler actor Taika Waititi locks into the unusual yet correct tone for this story of a Hitler Youth, Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis), who looks to his imaginary friend the Fuhrer for guidance and falls in love with a Jewish girl hiding in his walls.
Aside from its wonderful locations and car designs that capture the 1960s, director James Mangold’s “Ford v Ferrari” (2019) is a sober re-creation of a niche slice of history. He trusts that 24-hour racing at Le Mans and Daytona will be exciting enough to capture and hold the layperson’s attention. He pushes it with the 2-hour, 32-minute run time, but ultimately he’s right. While non-racing-fan moviegoers aren’t likely to tune in to TV coverage of the next 24-race, this sport plays tremendously well in movie form.
The Irishman” (2019, Netflix) pairs nicely as the back half of a double feature with 1992’s “Hoffa.” That film, which was likewise Oscar-nominated, focuses on Jimmy Hoffa’s creation and popularization of a workers’ union, whereas director Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” digs into the darker corners of the mobsters who circled around Hoffa. Both films are from the point of view of one of Hoffa’s trusted seconds: Danny DeVito’s Bobby Ciaro in “Hoffa” and Robert De Niro’s Frank Sheeran, the titular Irishman.
The Man Whose Teeth Were All Exactly Alike” (written in 1960, published in 1984) is about a lot of different things, and the theme doesn’t coalesce until the final pages. Despite being hard to pin down at first, this Bay Area-set novel is a page-turner about people who behave one way toward their spouse, think another way, present themselves to the community in a third way, and ultimately show their true colors in a fourth way.
David Mamet is known for writing con movies, and he sticks to that style even in his biographical/historical tales such as “Hoffa” (1992). Mamet’s worldview that everything is a con of some sort works perfectly for telling the life story of the man who started the Teamsters union. The film also boasts Danny DeVito’s steady direction and calm, almost sad performance as Jimmy Hoffa’s second-in-command; a classic turn by Jack Nicholson in the title role; and many other markers of prestige filmmaking.
In Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s co-authored debut “Relic” (1995), Agent Pendergast is already established in his career. The same goes for Lt. D’Agosta and other staples of their quarter century of novels. What’s particularly neat about “Old Bones” (August, hardcover) is we see the very first case of FBI Agent Corrie Swanson, whom we first met as a punkish Kansas teen in “Still Life with Crows” (2003).
One of the paradoxes of Philip K. Dick’s career is that he wrote his most robust and mature observations about human behavior at the sputtering start of his career, with none of those nine books from 1950-60 being immediately published. Then he tried his hand at pulp SF and got good at it. But writing about the human condition in 1950s California under American societal morals of the time was arguably his natural calling.
These were my 10 favorite movies of 2019, a year when superheroes continued to dominate but when we also got prime slices of action, comedy and history – plus one of the most masterfully haunting horror films in a long while: