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.
Foreign filmmakers, particularly in Asia, have been making long, engrossing, surprising statements about human issues of the day for a long time, and “Parasite” (2019) may not be the elite example of the form, but it’s a worthy Best Picture winner. If this first-ever foreign film to win Best Picture gets people to check out more subtitled gems, it’s worth it. Director/co-writer Bong Joon Ho, along with co-writer Jin Won Han, crafts a darkly funny commentary about South Korean class relations that the American film “Us” wishes it could’ve approached.
Marriage Story” (2019, Netflix) is both a stark portrayal of why people should never get married (it costs way too much to get divorced) and a surprisingly good love story considering that we meet these people amid their divorce proceedings. In stage play-like fashion, writer-director Noah Baumbach portrays the daily lives of Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson). While there is one extreme shouting match, the couple is mostly calm and mature; it’s actually the legal process of divorce that gets a viewer’s blood boiling.
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.
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.
The Oscar-nominated “Joker” has brought a key question about art front and center, perhaps most prominently since the early part of this century when sample-laden songs started to become radio hits. Where is the line that separates homages from ripoffs? Inspiration from theft? Two Martin Scorsese films are regularly mentioned as the most obvious forbearers to Todd Phillips’ “Joker”: “Taxi Driver” (1976) and “The King of Comedy” (1982). I’ll look at “Taxi Driver” here.
Zorro is a rare superhero who doesn’t come from comic books, and indeed he predates the 1938 invention of Superman. He was created in 1919 by pulp novelist Johnston McCulley. The “Zorro” film series, of which the two Antonio Banderas-starring entries are the 10th and 11th American outings, dates back to 1920. Arguably, Zorro is not a superhero (he has no superpowers and did not originate in comics), but he’s listed as such enough times that I’ll categorize him as a proto-superhero for now and let the debate continue.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy watching “Ad Astra” (2019). Director James Gray’s film blends a solar system travelogue with the family drama of Brad Pitt’s Roy McBride hoping to connect with his estranged father, Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones). Clifford is on a spaceship orbiting Neptune as Roy starts off from Earth. “Ad Astra” is one big metaphor about a gulf in a relationship, but its space-porn visuals and the delicate, somber music from Max Richter made it irresistible for me. (Other viewers will find it too slow; this is a matter of taste.)
Quentin Tarantino low-key makes fun of 1969-era movie- and TV-making in “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.” But the production design by Barbara Ling and cinematography by Robert Richardson are as lush as “La La Land” (2016) and arguably even more impressive because this film is recreating a very specific time. So there’s no doubt the writer-director adores this time period.