Film Review: “Push”

Directed by: Fredrik Gerten
Rated: NR
Running Time: 92 minutes

With a moratorium on evictions and millions still unemployed in the U.S. because of the pandemic, it seems odd that house prices are at an all-time high and are expected to stay that way through 2021. Most economists would even agree that nothing makes sense this year as COVID-19 continues to rack up an astronomically high body count. But the documentary “Push” points out how something isn’t what it seems. The opportunity for affordable housing in the future is a pipe dream right now. Any remain chance is slowly beating whittled away by global conglomerates that are purchasing, hoarding, and stealing money for their own real estate monopoly aspirations. As if 2020 wasn’t depressing enough…

“Push” opens on a very familiar sight, at least for some, the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017. I remember this vividly because it was the last year I had cable before pulling the plug. My cable service gave me the BBC so as soon as I saw American outlets reporting a massive structure fire in London, I flipped on the BBC to see the horror as flames enveloped a low-income residential tower. The BBC was showing clips of people waving, pleading for help from their windows, as well as airing 911 calls. Yet it seemed like the news cycle passed it by in America, especially since terrorism wasn’t the culprit. Instead it should have served as a warning about the woeful ignorance and carelessness of modern day slum lords.

“Push” meticulously lays out the dire situation we are in on a global level. Companies are buying up real-estate willy-nilly, with no regulations to stop them. While the settings are in Europe, every story and situation speaks on a human, global level. In a roundabout way this is contributing to income equality. Historically, buying and owning real estate was a way for poor to middle class residents of all countries to build their own personal wealth. But now real estate costs too much. There’s also forced gentrification (can’t blame Millennials on this one) where companies force people out of their homes or apartment complexes in a neighborhood property grab. At one point, the documentary shows a London suburb and how the majority of it was owned by foreign entities. It then shows how some of that real-estate corporations simply sit on empty properties despite no one to rent to. But these companies find ways to make money even when their property sits empty.

If you think that sounds bad, “Push” has a lot more horrifying scenarios and realities to unveil. The documentary shows you statistics and dramatic imagery that will rattle you to the core. Even if you yourself are a property owner, you won’t believe the things that are happening in sprawling urban areas. Not only are cities being groomed to be inhabited by the super-rich, but there’s an intentional effort to muscle out mom and pop stores or people who work out of their homes. Also if you live out in the country and think you’re safe, just wait until the documentary gets to the part about how these thirsty businesses are salivating over your 401k. 

The email screener for this movie stated, “ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT FILMS OF 2020!!!!” First off, I don’t like superlatives because 2020 isn’t over yet and secondly, I don’t like exclamation points. In this instance though, I almost agree. Out of all the political documentaries I’ve watched this year, this one doesn’t just impact us this year, or just impact Americans. This is a documentary that impacts every living person on this planet right now. If you don’t watch “Push,” one day you’re going to wake up and wonder why you’re being priced out of your neighborhood, your home, your apartment, or whatever dwelling you find yourself in. Unfortunately, they’re coming for you, even if you don’t think so.

Film Review: “The Swerve”

Starring: Azura Skye, Bryce Pinkham and Ashley Bell
Directed by: Dean Kapsalis
Rated: NR
Running Time: 95 minutes

What’s it look like to have it all? For some people, its financial stability; while for others, it’s about having a white picket fence, two-story home and kids. But ultimately it’s what makes you happy. That seems like a very obvious notion, but it isn’t. Millions of couples every year still get divorced. Millions more go to see a psychologist every year to discuss emotional and mental stress. So what makes us happy is very nuanced and different and it’s not a one shoe size fits all. That doesn’t stop the gears of society from forcing us to make decisions that we may not want to make.

Holly (Skye) is a victim of those gears. She’s trapped with a dreary husband that turns every argument onto Holly. He knows he wears the pants in the households and sometimes lords it over her. She’s also the mother of two sons that don’t view her as a mother, but more like f a personal chef and maid. She goes to a job that she’s lost all passion for, teaching. She attempts to teach classic literature, but her classroom is full of students who are mindlessly on her phone. So it isn’t surprising that during this rinse-repeat mundane life, the smallest thing, a mouse, upends everything.

As “The Swerve” goes along, several layers are peeled back, revealing that Holly is dealing with more than just a rut in her life or a hiccup along the trail. She’s stuck, doesn’t know how to escape, and everything is slowly picking away at her on the inside, and that feeling of emptiness is slowly eroding everything that made her whole and happy. “The Swerve” isn’t the kind of movie that will lay out everything and then spoon feed it to you. You have to pay attention to every little detail, every little character, and every little bit of information that dribbles out of someone’s mouth. It all builds towards a shocking, yet understandable finale.

Skye guides Holly’s character on this somber journey. Skye, whose IMDB is less than impressive, gives one of the best performances of the year. She starts out with a haggard look and approach to her acting method, before flipping the script and giving us a performance that’s equally riveting and heart breaking. Skye breathes a world of life into a character that has become lost and empty in her own life. It actually overshadows every other performance in this movie, including Claudia (Bell), Ashley’s sister. Claudia has a very integral role, but Bell is outmatched in every scene she has with Skye.

I have several nitpicky things about this film, but I feel they’re not warranted because this is Dean Kapsalis’ feature film debut. As writer and director, he shows an impressive cinematic pedigree, crafting a gripping atmosphere around an engaging narrative that refuses to let go of your psyche, even as the credits roll. When it comes to directorial debuts, this is one of the most incredible and is certainly a sign of things to come. “The Swerve” is a nearly flawless outing with palpable tension and a script that’s equally shocking and sensitive to the ground it covers.

Film Review: “All In: The Fight for Democracy”

Directed by: Liz Garbus and Lisa Cortes
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 102 minutes
Amazon Studios

There’s a history professor at the university I attended who gave a seminar to students about why they should vote. There was something interesting he mentioned where he said a lot of Americans take voting for granted because they were simply born here and didn’t have to fight for their voice to be heard. I know how the layman viewer would read that, but I know what the professor really meant. Democracy is something that you have to fight for constantly. Voting is something you need to do constantly. Not because voting is your duty, but because the right to vote is constantly under attack. “All In: The Fight for Democracy” is not only about that topic, but it’s also the most important documentary to watch before November 3.

That’s because the documentary is about something that happens every year in America: voting. That’s because the documentary has a message that needs to be heard by all Americans: vote. That’s because the documentary is a history lesson on the most integral part of American democracy: voting. That’s because the documentary draws from the past, present, and future to show us the one thing we need to fight for every year: voting.

The documentary crams a lot of topics into its brief time, but does it in a very abstract way, by condensing a wealth of information into short, concise moments or highlighting a specific event that speaks for a countrywide problem. It touches upon the civil rights movement, the Civil Rights Act of 1965, voter ID laws, voting rights for felons, gerrymandering and so many other topics. I really don’t want to bore you with all the others are dive into each topic because this is the kind of documentary you flip on and let yourself become awash with emotions, whether it’s sadness, angry or hope. The reason all these topics are discussed is because the documentary is building to this moment, this thesis statement that America is at risk of repeating a very dark moment in history.

Three weeks ago, I posted my review of a Donald Trump documentary, making the argument that it was a documentary that’ll inevitably be forgotten because of its timely, yet inevitably outdated material. It’s almost as if 2020 decided to give me something better to talk about in return. “All In: The Fight for Democracy,” is not only the most relevant documentary this year, but may be discussed and watched for years, if not generations, to come. With that said, watch this documentary immediately, stay informed, keep an eye on your representatives and elected leaders (local, state and federal) and vote this November. And just like that professor imparted to students, you must not only vote this year, but in every election from here on out.

Film Review: “Unfit: The Psychology of Donald Trump”

Directed by: Dan Partland
Running Time: 83 minutes
Rating: NR
Dark Star Pictures

This might be the first review ever where I know that I’m not going to persuade a single individual to watch this documentary or not. Political documentaries are divisive enough, but in today’s political climate of red or blue tribalism, it’s fairly easy to say that people will see it or they won’t. Add in the fact that it’s solely about President Donald Trump, you either will or won’t watch it. You either will or won’t believe the things in it. There is no gray area. You, the reader, know where you stand. So you’re either going to read this and enjoy me discussing the film, or you’re going to get mad, not read it, or read and send me an angry email.

Having worked in news since 2013, there aren’t a lot of current event documentaries that can catch me by surprise. “Unfit” is no different. “Unfit” covers a lot of ground in it’s brief timespan, starting with the inauguration of the 45th U.S. President and ending on a message of “Go and Vote.” In that timespan, the film goes over some of the more outlandish things the President has said or done, from having a rally crowd swear an oath of allegiance to calling the COVID-19 pandemic a liberal hoax.

The movie backpedals every once so we get information about his life before the White House. We learn about his upbringing, his real estate dealings, his rise to star power, and his knack for cheating in golf. There’s almost too much to cover, for one singular film under two hours, but it does something interesting throughout. The film talks with various psychologists about why President Trump should be considered a malignant narcissist, the worst of narcissists. The movie also dips back into the politicization of psychology as well as several incidents that have led towards the media or politicians from disregarding statements made by experts in the field of psychology.

If you haven’t guessed or figured out by now, “Unfit” is an argument for why you shouldn’t vote for Trump this November. So going back to what I said originally, you should already know how you’re voting. For the first time in ages, it seems like America knows what it’s voting on, at least that’s what several public polls say. So how does “Unfit” hold up as a documentary? Fairly well. The design and narrative of the film isn’t groundbreaking, but it’s structured to keep moving at a brisk pace. There are also several interviews and people who interject in the hopes of persuading some hardcore Trump haters. These interviews state something simple that’s usually lost in conversation. People who voted for Trump aren’t awful people like the President. They voted because they felt like their voice was no longer being heard, which is true for a lot of disenfranchised voters. Unfortunately, as the documentary shows, it also brings out the worst in people, but this isn’t by any means a sign of the majority or even the average Trump voter.

If I had to explain why my rating was average, I think it’s partially because (like I said earlier) there wasn’t a lot I didn’t already know. I think some people will be shocked about some of the things they hadn’t heard before because of the endless news cycle that seemingly finds some new thing to report on Trump’s past, present and future. c The message is in this moment. By the time November rolls around, that message will be done and over with. I can only think of one way this movie has a place in history, and I hope that one way never comes to fruition. Just in case, I won’t even utter it. As for those who reached the end of this review, go ahead and write me your angry emails or watch this movie. Also, don’t forget to vote.

“We in America do not have government by the majority. We have government by the majority who participate.” – Thomas Jefferson

Film Review: “The 24th”

Starring: Trai Byers, Aja Naomi King and Bashir Salahuddin
Directed by: Kevin Willmott
Rated: NR
Running Time: 113 minutes
Vertical Entertainment

“Death is the price for a night of justice…”

More so than ever, at least in my lifetime, African-American cinema and storytelling is pertinent to the world around us right now. As I write this, George Floyd was murdered nearly three months ago and the world got a firsthand look at the carelessness and brutality of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. A movie like “The 24th” serves as a reminder that there’s still a lot of work to do in America because our savage history isn’t that far behind us.

“The 24th” focuses on several weeks in the long history of the 24th U.S Infantry Regiment, one of America’s all-black regiments. Specifically, the movie turns its gazing eyes towards Texas, where the 24th is stationed, in August, 1917. With the eyes of the world on Europe and WWI, the eyes of the 24th were set on injustice all around them. Despite being soldiers who were ready to lay their lives down for America, they were soldiers and humans who were viewed less than by the people of Houston.

The first act establishes that the Houston Police Department and several citizens don’t respect the 24th, and the film shows the police and locals several times being the instigators of conflicts in the area. A lot of it is unsettling, but necessary. The problem with the first act, is that we don’t get to spend enough time with the 24th on human level. Before we can truly get to know each one of these men, we’re shoved towards conflict and a bitter resolution. Not to say that the conflict isn’t mortifying and riveting from a storytelling perspective, but it’d be nice to relate with these men before the final act.

Writer and director, Kevin Willmott, has proven countless times since his film, “C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America” in 2004, that he’s able to handle race relations, and the history behind it, in a nuanced and powerful way. I tend to believe that his best work comes when he has someone else behind the camera though. “The 24th” is a harrowing movie movie, with some of the dialogue being near-perfect, accompanied by some excellent acting behind those words. The problem is, it’s not great and I’ve come to expect greatness after Willmott’s work with Spike Lee in “Blackkklansman” and “Da 5 Bloods.”

Regardless of my criticisms, so much of human history is forgotten. Sometimes it’s because it genuinely was inconsequential, and other times it’s because history is sometimes viewed through a lens. So how did the largest murder trial in American history seem to be forgotten? It wasn’t, it was simply ignored. Thankfully Willmott brought this history to life and gave viewers, like me, a much welcome history lesson.

Film Review: “Uncle Peckerhead”

Starring: Chet Siegel, Ruby McCollister and Jeff Riddle
Directed by: Matthew John Lawrence
Rated: Not Yet Rated
Running Time: 96 minutes
Epic Pictures

Punk rock and horror just work. Both are angry, fast, short, simple and to the point. From “Surf Nazis Must Die” to “Return of the Living Dead,” there’s a lot of great elements at play anytime you get punk rockers and horror tropes mixed up. Contemporarily speaking, there isn’t much left in the proverbial tank, outside of “Green Room,” a film that I was in the minority on. But “Uncle Peckerhead” could serve as a potential rejuvenation for blast beat punk rock soundtracks laid over a gory mess.

When we meet the band Duh, made up of Judy (Siegel), Mel (McCollister) and Max (Riddle), they’re down on their luck. The trio’s touring van is repossessed, coming immediately after Judy secures several shows on a statewide tour. In a desperation move, the band begins plastering signs everywhere, hoping someone will let them rent a van for their tour. That’s when they meet Peck (David H. Littleton). Peck agrees to the van deal, but he has some stipulations. He gets to drive and be the band’s roadie. Out of options, the band agrees, even though something isn’t quite right with Peck. It’s only after their first gig on tour that they learn Peck is a flesh eating monster, with pale skin and yellow teeth, for about a dozen minutes when the clock strikes midnight.

The monster that Peck becomes isn’t scary, nor is it supposed to be. If the opening moments aren’t a clue, “Uncle Peckerhead” is a comedy-horror. My favorite kind of genre because it’s an excuse for gore and sometimes childish comedy. I mentioned “Surf Nazis Must Die” earlier because the film has a quaint Troma charm to it. If you had told me “Uncle Peckerhead” was a Troma film, I wouldn’t be surprised because it’s in the film’s DNA. Everything is cheap, but the cast dives so far into that content, that their line delivery is admirable, no matter how bad the dialogue is. The comedic timing is hit and miss, but when it hits, it’s nearly pitch perfect. So if uncomfortable situational humor and gore don’t tickle your funny bone, you should probably just avoid horror, and Troma films, altogether.

The main conflict that develops throughout this off-the-beaten path road trip film is between Judy and Peck. While Judy has her eyes set on becoming successful (which in the punk world, isn’t that successful), she has one eye on Peck. While her bandmates seem content with Peck’s blood lust, especially after he devours some metalhead bullies, Judy is understandably concerned that a trashy older man devours human flesh at night. Over time though, she begins to admire Peck because of the way he supports the band and its members. You could call him a hillbilly with a heart of gold.

I probably enjoyed “Uncle Peckerhead” more than most low-budget horror because it recognizes what it is, and doesn’t try to be different. Surprisingly by the film’s end, “Uncle Peckerhead” made me feel nostalgic. Watching a bad punk band play to a couple dozen fans looking to mosh made me miss concerts in new COVID-19 world. Campy films like “Uncle Peckerhead” are best viewed with a crowd. Unfortunately I missed this film at Panic Fest, where it premiered, so it also made me miss the cinematic experience that films offer in a crowded, dark room with strangers. I especially admire these kinds of low-budget horror gore films because the passion at work on screen spills over into the crowd, and suddenly the screening becomes a party. “Uncle Peckerhead” should satisfy the sweet tooth of passionate horror fans and give them something to bob their head to.

Film Review: “Yes, God, Yes”

Starring: Natalia Dyer, Timothy Simons and Wolfgang Novogratz
Directed by: Karen Maine
Rated: R
Running Time: 78 minutes
Vertical Entertainment

It’s possible I’ve mentioned this before in my stint at MediaMikes, but it bears repeating that I was a Catholic school student at one point in my life. One of the most memorable things during those four years was the sex education. It was a fairly basic education, where boys and girls were divided into separate classrooms and given the lowdown. While they explained sex in the most basic manner, much of the sex education curriculum was built around sin. Masturbation is a sin. Pre-marital sex is a sin. Pornography is a sin. The curriculum is counter-intuitive to the modern adolescent experience and “Yes, God, Yes” takes a nuanced look at the relationship between puberty and religion.

While I’m sure some people will view “Yes, God, Yes” as a 90s coming-of-age film, I’d like to believe it’s a bit more than that. 16-year-old Alice (Dyer) tries to be a good girl in the eyes of her parents, school, priest, and God. But that’s complicated when something happens while at home after school one day. She logs on to AOL (for people younger than me and older than my parents, AOL was the Internet log-in go-to) and is approached by an anonymous user in a chat room. He asks her sexual questions, sends her a nude photo, and wants to cyber (for people younger than me, and my parents age and older, I don’t want to explain that one). Compounding her sexual feelings from this brief AOL chat is a private church retreat where her sexual urges and religious beliefs collide.

Surface level, the movie is a great dramedy, with its intellectual digs at Catholicism. Beneath that surface, it highlights the failures of anti-LGBT practices and abstinence only education. The message buoyed by the emotional tug and pull that Alice faces as she tries to handle her friends, classmates, sexuality and personal beliefs. I feel like the film’s greatest strength is finding a specific grey area where it teaches instead of lectures. I won’t give it away, but the movie does a great job at showing how the hypocrites are consciously aware of their own moral pitfalls. Alice slowly uncovers how her classmates and church leaders are all guilty of the sins they believe they’re combatting. While they are made out to be hypocrites, the movie shows how conflicted they are, just like Alice.

The summer of 2020 may be remembered for all the small gems found on streaming services. “Yes, God, Yes” is one of those indie films that will delight audiences. It tickles the funny bone with crass humor and awkward situations, while buttering us up with a very sweet, sentimental tale about hormones and finding ourselves. While moments of “Yes, God, Yes” are painfully realistic, it reminds the viewer that sex is sometimes uncomfortable, odd, and confusing for everyone. While everyone has different views on sex and the discussion revolving around it, “Yes, God, Yes” shows we’re all stuck in the same boat. Our sexuality is as integral to our life as much as our personal politics and religious affiliation.

Film Review: “Blessed Child”

Directed by: Cara Jones
Rated: NR
Running Time: 74 minutes

There’s a statement/joke I’ve heard when it comes to talking about cults and religion. It goes something like, “Cults + Time = Religion.” Granted, I could be butchering it. Regardless, the joke is that all religions started out as cults before legitimizing themselves. I say this first and foremost because “Blessed Child” deals with the personal story of Cara Jones and her time in the Unification Church, a new religious movement born in South Korea, which focuses on the teachings of Jesus. The teachings of Jesus range from the mainstream (Presbyterian, Catholic, Lutheran, etc.) to the extreme (Peoples Temple, Branch Davidians, Heaven’s Gate, etc.). My understanding is that the Unification Church toes the line between these two polar opposites. If you’re looking for an in-depth look at the church, “Blessed Child” is not for you. But if you’ve done a little bit of general reading on Unification Church, “Blessed Child” serves as an intimate look at its impact.

“Blessed Child” starts in 1995, where director Jones is getting married, alongside hundreds of other couples at an Olympic sized stadium before the Unification Church. She shouts, along with thousands, her marriage vows on the field, while holding the hand of a man she barely knows. It’s surreal to believe and see something bizarre and forced, especially when it happened in my own lifetime in a first-world country. The marriage, and her time in the Unification Church, didn’t last long. We’re not told exactly how she left (or escaped), but we know that she had to make a difficult choice; leaving her parents and family behind in a potential cult.

While Jones’ story is definitely the crux of the film, there’s a lot of other viewpoints included in this documentary. Jones talks with others who left (or escaped) the Unification Church. We learn that people left the church due to their own sexual orientation, for socioeconomic reasons, or a person’s general feeling of being excluded for whatever reason. The documentary doesn’t necessarily paint the Unification Church in a negative light, but it isn’t about to paint it in a flattering one.

“Blessed Child” has a surprising amount of nuance, especially since outsiders tend to label participants in these kind of religious sects as “nuts” or “brainwashed sheep.” The film establishes some solid reasoning as to why people become attracted to what it preaches. It uses this through archive footage and interviews. Unfortunately for me, it didn’t pull back the curtain enough for me to get a general enough feeling about the inner workings of the Unification Church. Halfway through the movie I opened up Wikipedia and hit up Google to answer some of my more burning questions. If anything, “Blessed Child” may be a form of self-medication and therapy for Jones, who reckons with her emotions.

Not to say that Jones’ story isn’t interesting or compelling, but at times it feels like there’s not enough information to digest, hence it’s incredibly brief running time. “Blessed Child” is a fairly interesting documentary, but not on par with others dealing with this subject matter. The reason it’s watchable though, is because Jones bares so much of herself that it’s fascinating to watch Jones break down and eventually reconcile with her parents and herself. 

Film Review: “Relic”

Starring: Emily Mortimer, Robyn Nevin and Bella Heathcote
Directed by: Natalie Erika James
Rated: R
Running Time: 89 minutes
IFC Midnight

Every once and awhile, I still encounter someone who tells me that the horror genre is trash; that it’s nothing but blood, guts and boobs. It doesn’t take me long to rattle off a list of contemporary horrors that don’t fit that mold, and generally scare, thrill and linger in the psyche of viewers. “Get Out” is always an easy one to point to, as well as “It Follows,” “The Mist,” and others. In the current age of quarantine, I can now point to a streaming option that’ll push any viewer to the edge of their seat and leave them petrified through the end credits.

“Relic” opens on Kay (Mortimer) and Sam (Heathcote), the daughter and granddaughter of Edna (Nevin), visiting Edna’s house which sits by itself in dense, foreboding woods. The reason for their trip is that they’ve been told Edna has gone missing. The only thing that greets the mother/daughter duo upon their arrival is strange creaks and groans made by the house, as well as several mysterious notes that range from innocuous (“turn the light off”) to insidious (“DON’T FOLLOW IT”). Just as the authorities are called and a search for Edna begins, she reappears unannounced in the house one morning, making tea, acting as if nothing happened, despite the soles of her feet being covered in dark grime.

“Relic” relies on shadows, haunting imagery, and our general fear of the dark and unknown to keep us off kilter from the get-go. But it’s as the movie progresses, that “Relic” finds other scare tactics within the realm of mental health. The dive into realistic fears is combined with other tricks and treats from the horror genre grab bag. It’s a film that manages to earn some of its cheaper jump scares as opposed to throwing them in randomly mad libs-style like most mainstream horror films or any subpar Blumhouse production.

“Relic” takes it’s time, moving at a creepy pace, slowly sinking its claws in your mind. The directorial debut for Natlie Erika James is nothing short of impressive. The film moves with such confidence, that you suspect a veteran filmmaker is behind the lens. Having only written and directed a handful of shorts in the past, James also reveals the kind of equal parts terrifying and heartbreaking craftsmanship that Stephen King and Rod Sterling spent decades perfecting. James joins others, like Jennifer Kent (“The Babadook”) and Emma Tammi (“The Wind”), when finding the unsettling middle ground between cerebral horror and spook house tropes.

The film’s atmosphere grips you immediately, letting you know upfront that not everything is as it seems and that something is horribly wrong with Edna. Nearly every viewer will recognize that Edna is suffering from a mental illness at her ripe age, most likely dementia.  But just like “Hereditary” a few years ago, the supernatural and family history can collide in frightening ways. The movie effortlessly keeps us on pins and needles, even when we think we’ve figured it all out. There’s this nauseating foreshadowing that we can’t shake as “Relic” reaches its climax. Even when the true horror reveals itself, we’re left with a pit in our stomach because we know what will happen next, even as the film ends.

Film Review: “Clementine”

Starring: Sonya Walger, Otmara Marrero and Sydney Sweeney
Directed by: Lara Gallagher
Rated: NR
Running Time: 90 minutes
Oscilloscope

Very rarely am I tempted to turn off a movie, but unable to because I’m curious as to what is happening and what will happen. “Clementine” opens on Karen (Marrero) getting a good morning wake-up call from her lover named D (Walger). The bliss is incredibly short-lived as the film smash cuts to the aftermath of a bad break-up, which D initiated. A heartbroken Karen then heads to D’s lakeside house, breaks in, and temporarily sets up shop.

The film dug its hooks into me from the very beginning and I couldn’t let go, as much as I wanted to. That’s because at times the film is very meandering, the dialogue is often mumbled and I honestly am not invested in Karen. But just as soon as I pull out one of the film’s hooks, the movie introduces Lana (Sweeney), a peculiar, sweet, potential seductress that talks with Karen. But unlike Karen, she’s not necessarily confident in her own sexual identity, seemingly turned off and turned on by the prospect of a steamy lakeside fling or relationship.

Every time I inched closer to turning the movie off, another curveball would come at me and pretty soon, I was determined to see what was going to happen between Karen and Lana, even if I didn’t enjoy the outcome. So once the credits rolled, I didn’t feel like I got a satisfying payoff, but some part of me felt something positive. It’s an emotion I’ve grappled with for a few days now because I’m still unsure as to what I’m supposed to take away from the movie. I can conclude to some extent that “Clementine” is a deeply personal LGBTQ movie with elements of #MeToo in it. I think. 

The movie isn’t very direct. It’s not a mainstream film like “Love, Simon,” even though that movie and “Clementine” are similar because of their coming-of-age theme and relationship dynamics. “Clementine” is just a lot more subdued and I’m not sure if some of the lapses in storytelling are intentional or just amateurish. I believe they’re intentional because a lot of other pieces of this film are expertly done. The soundtrack is ripe with tension, the cinematography and settings are absolutely gorgeous and the acting (when I can hear it) is magnificent. It’s just hard for me to make a recommendation because I don’t think I’m qualified to.

Yes I’m a film critic, but I also understand that some movies speak to certain demographics and they’re not meant for mass consumption. I can assume things, but I also don’t want to say that that’s what “Clementine” is aiming for because I don’t have a spot in which to claim knowledge. I also don’t want to spoil the movie. I guess what I’m trying to say is, I enjoyed this movie that I found boring. Which ultimately is a contradiction on the surface level.

I can’t make a recommendation for “Clementine,” but I do know certain people who will enjoy this more than me. People who’ve been in a vicious emotional cycle, been in a manipulative relationship and those of the LGBTQ community will understand this movie better than I. I can relate on a generic level, but this film is a bit too esoteric for me to sink my teeth into. Maybe over time I will have a better grasp of what “Clementine” means, but for right now, I’m content with simply stating that “Clementine” exists and if anything in this review peaked your interest, by all means seek it out.

Panic Fest Film Review: “The Vice Guide to Bigfoot”

Starring: Brian Emond, Zach Lamplugh and Jeffrey Stephenson
Directed by: Zach Lamplugh
Rated: R
Running Time: 90 minutes

I used to work as a morning news producer in the Kansas City metropolitan area. One of the strangest things I ever came across during my time was during the closure of the Wentworth Military College in Lexington, Missouri. Cpt. Scott Nelson, an instructor at the former private university, believes to have tapped into the language of Bigfoot (or is it Bigfeet?). He believed in it so thoroughly, he served as a keynote speaker at several Sasquatch conventions. I guess what I’m trying to say is, not every Bigfoot believer is some backwoods simpleton. That’s one of the few charming takeaways you’ll get as well if you happen to catch “The Vice Guide to Bigfoot.”

Vice reporter Brian (Emond) loathes his job. He entered journalism in hopes of tracking down a juicy story or saving the world. Instead he’s chasing after clickbait stories and highlighting war torn Crimea’s craft beer scene. Brian’s constant in life, other than the terrible stories he reports on, are his cameraman and producer, Zach (Lamplugh). Brian reaches his breaking point when the two are tasked with going on a hunt for the infamous, Bigfoot, along with Youtube Sasquatch hunter Jeff (Stephenson).

“The Vice Guide to Bigfoot” is almost a mockumentary in the same vein of “What We Do in the Shadows,” but it’s more focused on mocking other things, like the current state of journalism and Vice’s attempts at it. It also has a lot of humor at the sake of online cryptozoologists, hillbillies and social media. While there is a lot of comedy, at a character’s expense, the film is never cruel. Everyone is given their own backstory that’s sympathetic, so that they can have their own form of redemption by the film’s end.

In a lot of ways, the movie is far from being about Bigfoot which works to its benefit. Especially since some found footage or mockumentaries prior, like “Willow Creek,” more or less tread familiar tropes despite a change of scenery. While it’s a pretty damn funny movie, it’s hard to see myself watching this again by myself. I may watch it again if I want someone else I know to watch it, since some jokes work better with a group. In some ways that’s a knock at the movie, but I feel that it’s sufficiently funny and entertaining enough, that it’s worth a watch.

Panic Fest Film Review: “Scare Package”

Starring: Jeremy King, Noah Segan and Toni Trucks
Directed by: Courtney and Hillary Andujar, Anthony Cousins, Emily Hagins, Aaron B. Koontz, Chris McInroy, Noah Segan and Baron Vaugh
Rated: R
Running Time: 103 minutes

For a moment if you could, look at two different subgenres; horror anthologies and horror parodies. There are some strong candidates in each category. For anthologies, you got “Creepshow” and “Trick R Treat.” For parodies, you got “Scary Movie” and “Tucker and Dale vs. Evil.” I know I’m leaving a few movies out of the categories, but there’s a reason I want you to think about these two. How difficult do you think it is to combine them? I know what some of you are thinking. “Cabin in the Woods.” But what if a horror anthology parody film even subverted that?

I know my opening salvo promises grand things, but for most horror aficionados, I promise that you’ll love “Scare Package.” Very rarely do I want to immediately rewatch an anthology film or parody after leaving the theater, so this is a rare occasion for me. The main reason is that anthologies stay out their welcome and parodies require an audience to soak up the hit or miss laughs. “Scare Package” is the kind of film that’s prime for an audience, but will certainly make most people sitting at home alone smirk at its mocking nature.

The one thing that makes “Scare Package” work, is Aaron B. Koontz, the man in charge of the wrap-around story, as well as the overall product. One caveat that Koontz revealed at Panic Fest, which this movie was screened at, was that he allowed creative freedom to all other directors and writers, while providing oversight. He wasn’t a guiding hand, but he certain was able to cherry pick the scripts that best fit his overall vision. It’s a delicate balancing act, which pays off in dividends. While some shorts in the anthology fit the ridiculing nature, other shorts don’t sneer as much, but still pay homage to an idea or manage to riff on a pop-culture idea.

I’d really like to dive into the individual shorts, but I’d feel it’s unfair and that I’d fall into the stereotype of reviewing anthology films; breaking each one down, outlining strengths and weaknesses while revealing which ones I favored. For a movie like “V/H/S,” I’d find that as a completely fair form of critique, but for “Scare Package,” it feels unfair. While a film like “V/H/S” is so scattershot, “Scare Package” is a, not to sound cliché, complete package. Everything is so fluid, you sometimes forget you’re watching an anthology.

The one thing “Scare Package” avoids is length. Sometimes these movies linger too long, even if the shorts and movie as a whole are good. A movie like “ABCs of Death” can work, but you find yourself fast forwarding on rewatches. With “Scare Package” you’ll undoubtedly find yourself finding some new nod or wink every time. The movie as a whole, and each individual short, serve as little bows to the ideas and genres that they parody. But like I said at the beginning, it also parodies “Cabin in the Woods,” which is becoming a genre on its own, where characters knowingly acknowledge or reference the tropes of the genre that are currently on display. It’s a difficult feat to pull off, but Koontz does it well, without disregarding the merits of the idea altogether.

“Scare Package” not only serves as a blueprint for future horror anthology parodies, but a blueprint for anthologies and parodies. It’ll make horror fans roar with laughter, and for those who aren’t into scary flicks, they’ll find fun in all the pokes and prods at the films they can’t stomach. I enjoy the fact that the horror community enjoys comedy, even when it’s directed at themselves. “Scare Package” is damn near a revelation, especially considering that one of the modern lovers of horror/shock films, Joe Bob Briggs himself, arrives on scene. “Scare Package” pulls out all the stops to make the audience laugh and grin. Koontz talked about the makings of a sequel, with a promise that it’ll parody sequels. I look forward to the promise, and the possibility of a franchise that’ll inevitably parody franchises, remakes, and nostalgia culture.

Panic Fest Film Review: “The Cleansing Hour”

Starring: Kyle Gallner, Ryan Guzman and Alix Angelis
Directed by: Damien LeVeck
Rated: R
Running Time: 94 minutes
Shudder

Can found footage survive anymore? 2014’s “Unfriended” and 2018’s “Truth or Dare” played with the idea of realism by showing us that the paranormal can seep into social media and the Internet. Enter 2020’s “The Cleansing Hour,” a movie about an online stream that televises exorcisms to curious onlookers and morbid fans around the globe. Although the exorcisms, aren’t real.

Expanding on his 2016 short, Director Damien LeVeck squeezes out every drop of fun he can have in “The Cleansing Hour.” Reverend Max (Guzman) is far from being the man of God he portrays. Max and his friend Drew (Gallner) stage exorcisms, working with an online encyclopedia of demons so that every episode is fresh with a new other-worldly villain to fight. Afterwards, they generally drink and Max takes home a girl to record performing sexual acts. Their lifestyle is interrupted when things go awry during their latest broadcast though. The actor who was going to show up and be “possessed” never shows, so Drew’s fiancé Lane (Angelis) substitutes. But her acting is too good. Her voice changes, she digs her fingers into the chair she’s strapped into, shattering her nails, and her eyes have turned a stained yellow.

The movie doesn’t necessarily criticize or turn a mirror towards society, but it does take subtle digs at the social media culture permeating throughout the globe. While some people watch in horror, fully believing it’s real, others watch laughing. A livestream chat shows people who type trollish remarks as people on set begin to die, believing that it isn’t real. Or maybe they do and the Internet has made them soulless creatures. Although when the demon inhabiting Lane decides to poke fun at the digital age like one of the Evil Dead, the commentary and humor fall flat.

What helps “The Cleansing Hour,” as opposed to a film like “Truth or Dare,” is the small budget charm. The practical gore and blood effects explode, figuratively and literally. The actors, while not the best, may have a career after this film, especially Angelis who gnaws on the scenery like a demon hungry for human souls. It’s easy to forgive the cast and crew since they had a shoestring budget for a lot of the film’s flaws. Just don’t expect anything new to the exorcism genre other than the setting.

“The Cleansing Hour” is late-night fun that blends a couple of original concepts and tropes of the genre. Some might say the film has a twist, but for veterans of these movies, they’ll be able to spot the set-up. Even though I suspected the eventual outcome, I didn’t mind because of how brisk the pacing is. “The Cleaning Hour” is a surprise for those who come across it on Shudder, but don’t expect the 21st century equivalent of “The Exorcist.” 

Panic Fest Film Review: “Extra Ordinary”

Starring: Meave Higgins, Barry Ward and Will Forte
Directed by: Mike Ahern and Enda Lougman
Rated: R
Running Time: 94 minutes
Wildcard Distribution

Driving instructor Rose has a bit of a secret. Only a few people know about it, and every once and awhile, someone who is told about that secret will seek her services. That secret is her ability to communicate with the dead. But an even bigger secret, is the key to her psychic abilities which is her father, who is no longer with her. She saw the disastrous and absurd result of those abilities and refuses to use them, even if it’s for good. That is until a cute, recently widowed father, Martin (Ward), comes along because he’s been pestered by his recently deceased wife.

There’s more to the spiritual rom-com “Extra Ordinary” than just Rose and her pursuit of happiness. Causing an equal amount of commotion in the background is a one-hit wonder musician, Christian (Forte). He’s looking to rejuvenate his deceased rock career, but not with a catchy new song. He’s on the hunt for a virgin sacrifice that’ll be offered up to Satan during the blood Moon. He enters Rose’s realm when the virgin he has an eye on is Martin’s teenage daughter.

One of the biggest strengths about this film is its irreverent humor. It’s never too peculiar, it’s never too crass or mean towards it’s cast and it seems to hover like a specter in this gray area where it remains charming, no matter how outlandish it gets. Credit goes to the directors and writers, Mike Ahern and Enda Lougman, but an equal amount goes to Forte and Higgins. Higgins provides this warmth and sincerity to Rose that’ll charm your pants off, or hopefully Martin’s. Forte, a mainstay in the bizarre comedy scene of America, taps into his natural off-the-wall humor and makes every scene with Christian an absolute delight.

As much as I’d love to give this ghostly rom-com a higher grade, it still feels like the plot has been stretched a bit too thin. If it wasn’t for the consistent jokes, this movie could have easily outstayed its welcome, and nearly does. It easily could have benefited from having a five to 10 minute shave off the runtime. However, when things start to feel a little bit too long the final third of the film, “Extra Ordinary” goes straight for the comedic jugular in its final act. So without that ending, as well as the performances, this movie came precariously close to failing to live up to its title.

From the silly things ghosts inhabit to Rose’s attitude towards life, this film is a pleasant surprise. It may be a hard sell, especially since the movie begins like a “Tim and Eric” sketch and Forte’s gonzo slapstick can be a bit much for some. If you find “Extra Ordinary” on a streaming service late at night, I guarantee it’ll find a way to put a smile on your face.

Our Critics Share Their Choices for Best Films of 2019 (and their WORST!)

Between us I’d have to estimate that Mike G, Lauren, Jeremy, Michael D. Smith, Becki and myself see no less than 150 films a year here at Media Mikes. So when the year comes to an end, many of us like to share with you what films we felt were the Best. And, because they can’t all be winners, we like to tell you which ones we wished we had stayed away from. Ideally, if you haven’t seen any of these particular films you will either be intrigued enough to seek it out…or make the mental note to avoid at all costs! Enjoy!

MIKE SMITH

THE BEST

#1. 1917
Sam Mendes has created an epic film that thrives on its small cast and “continuous shot” presentation. Cinematographer Roger Deakins, who shot many of the Coen Brothers’ films, will surely earn Academy Award nomination number fifteen for his work here. (He won previously for “Bladerunner 2049”)

#2. JUST MERCY
This film doesn’t open wide for another week but it has been playing in select cities since Christmas. An emotional look at the injustice heaped upon one man and the attorney who works tirelessly to find the truth. Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx give award-worthy performances.
#3. MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN
Edward Norton laid it all on the line as he not only starred in this film but wrote and directed it. His eye as a director is keen and changing the time setting of the story from the present to the 1950s was a masterstroke.
#4. JOKER
Todd Phillips’s look at an almost dystopian society and the people who inhabit it. In my mind, it’s between Joaquin Phoenix and “Marriage Story” star Adam Driver for the Best Actor Oscar.
#5. KNIVES OUT
When I was a teenager I loved the Neil Simon-penned comedy “Murder by Death” and, when I saw the trailer for this film I thought it would be similar. Wrong! Funny? Yes. But amazingly crafted. Extra credit for Daniel Craig pulling off a southern accent.
#6. YESTERDAY
What if you woke up tomorrow and found that the Beatles never existed? A true masterpiece that pays tribute to the universal joy brought to us by the four lads from Liverpool. Also contains the year’s most emotional moment. I won’t spoil it but, if you didn’t tear up, it’s quite possible that YOU’VE never heard of the Beatles.
#7. (tie) LINDA RONDSTADT – THE SOUND OF MY VOICE / DAVID CROSBY-REMEMBER MY NAME
Two amazing documentaries that give viewers an inside look at two of the most influential singers and musicians of their time.

#8. THE IRISHMAN
When people look back at the history of film making they will probably be flabbergasted to see that Martin Scorsese won his first directing Oscar for “The Departed.” The creator of arguably the greatest film of the 1980s (“Raging Bull”) as well as “Taxi Driver,” “The King of Comedy,” “Goodfellas” and “Gangs of New York” just may take home his second one for this 3 1/2 hour masterpiece.
#9. ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD
I will admit that, while I enjoyed the film, I didn’t LOVE it when I reviewed it. But a second viewing put it on my list. Great performances and a beautifully recreated Los Angeles, circa 1969. And boy…that ending!
#10. AVENGERS: ENDGAME
The final film in a 23-film series, the likes of that Hollywood will never see again (unless Marvel does it). When Robert Downey, Jr declares, “I AM Iron Man” the emotional explosion in the theater is jaw-dropping.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: US, MARRIAGE STORY, BLINDED BY THE LIGHT, STAN and OLLIE

THE WORST

When a web site includes your name you have the opportunity to stay away from most of the stink-burgers that come out. Luckily (and sadly) these two lured me in.
ANGEL HAS FALLEN:
There is a great “Mean Tweet” in which Gerard Butler reads, “Does Gerard Butler have a lot of student loans to pay off? He’s always doing shitty films?” To which Butler replies, “No, I don’t have any student loans. I just like doing shitty films.” Add this one to the list.
DUMBO:
Damn you, Tim Burton. My wife and I skipped the critic’s screening of this so we could take our granddaughter. She hasn’t talked to us since!

JEREMY WERNER

THE BEST

#1. PARASITE
Wild, entertaining, shocking, gripping and a movie you’ll be thinking about for days, if not weeks. This is Bong Joon-ho’s magnum opus. This isn’t just the best movie of 2019, this is easily one of the best movies of the 2010s.
#2. 1917
We’re treated to way more WWII movies than we are WWI. “1917” is not only a visual masterpiece, but the kind of movie that reminds us why WWI shouldn’t be forgotten and just how devastating it truly was for the brave soldiers in it.
#3. THE LIGHTHOUSE
If it wasn’t for “1917,” this would have been the most visually impressive film of the year. Marketed as a horror, I’d say it’s more a suspenseful comedy, with a pair of tour de force performances.


#4. TOY STORY 4
Not to be a narcissist, but to quote my own review earlier this, “I would have never guessed back in 1995…that these plastic toys come to life would make me cry twice later in my life.”
#5. JOJO RABBIT
Channeling Charlie Chaplin and Mel Brooks, Taika Waititi has given audiences one of the most heartwarming, tragic and uplifting films of 2019, and it’s about a boy and his Hitler.
#6. THE IRISHMAN
I wouldn’t say this is Scorsese’s best, but he certainly has book-ended a beloved genre and given several actors a much-deserved swan song.
#7. MIDSOMMAR
An unsettling nightmare in broad daylight. Besides the unforeseen horrors happening in the sun, there are plenty of laughs to go along with this outstanding horror film.
#8.US
Jordan Peele raved about “Midsommar.” So I’m sure he wouldn’t be upset to see his stellar sophomore outing below “Midsommar.” I can’t wait to see what he does next.
#9. BOOKSMART
I absolutely adored this film and its messages. But just as impressive as the script, were the performances by Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein, as well as the direction by Olivia Wilde.
#10. CLIMAX
If you’ve ever been on the fence about trying LSD or any other kind of hallucinogens, I wouldn’t recommend “Climax.” It’s a delirious technicolor nightmare that entrances viewers.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: HONEY BOY, LORDS OF CHAOS, ONE CUT OF THE DEAD, EL CAMINO, UNCUT GEMS, ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD, SHAZAM, THE REPORT, MARRIAGE STORY

THE WORST

#1. AFTER
Everyone involved in this should be ashamed of themselves. What’s that you say? They’re making a sequel? This is further proof we’re living in the darkest timeline.
#2. SECRET LIFE OF PETS 2
Illumination knows exactly what it’s doing and they feel no shame. I wish people would stop giving them reasons to make awful sequels.
#3.A DOG’S JOURNEY
Sappy sentimentality tries to mask the flawed and unethical morality. I love dogs, but this is a crap story and film.
#4. MIDWAY
When Michael Bay said, “No one can top my crappy WWII movie,” Roland Emmerich said, “Hold my beer.”
#5. DETECTIVE PIKACHU
Knowing that some people loved this movie makes me hate this cliche, predictable, trite flick even more.

LAUREN DAMON

THE BEST

Here’s my Top 9, leaving open that 10 slot as the end of the year has so many films on offer that I’m sure one I’ve missed would be bound to swoop in!

#1. MIDSOMMAR
Oh “Midsommar,” how much did I love this film? Enough to come back for the 171 minute director’s cut at Lincoln Center this August for even more. Ari Aster’s follow up to “Hereditary” showcases yet another powerhouse female performance in Florence Pugh. The film is hard to call a “horror”, unless you’re in the middle of a fight with your romantic partner, but it definitely isn’t for the faint of heart. Aster packs this film with so much visual detail that return trips continue to prove satisfying. This film also has a pitch dark streak of savage humor that gave me one or two of the most morbid laughs of the year.
#2. JOJO RABBIT
I elaborated in my five star review of Taika Waititi’s WW2 satire, but this is for me the funniest film of the year while still tugging on a ton of heartstrings. For me, it is Scarlett Johansson’s best performance (and yes, I’ve seen “Marriage Story”)

#3. KNIVES OUT
Chris Evans and Daniel Craig played wildly against type in Rian Johnson’s murder mystery whose twisty turny finale was a delight, or maybe it was a donut…
#4. AVENGERS ENDGAME
I may not be fully on board with all of the character choices for Marvel’s epic Infinity Saga conclusion, but man, if this didn’t do justice to the 21(!) films whose job it was to wrap up. The “Portals” sequence playing to a sold out crowd on opening night was chills, cheers and tears inducing in a way I have never experienced at a movie theater.
#5. JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 3 – PARABELLEM
In a year without a “Mission: Impossible,” John Wick came to the rescue in terms of just absolutely satisfying stunt sequences. That knife fight IN a knife store alone earned the whole movie’s placement on this list.
#6. FORD v FERRARI
I fortunately saw this one in IMAX where the roar of the impeccably edited racing sequences could be felt in my bones. James Mangold delivered a solid spectacle lead by the always-reliable Matt Damon and Christian Bale.
#7. ROCKETMAN
“Rocketman” was everything I wished last year’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” would have been. From star Taron Edgerton actually recording a slew of Elton John classics himself to the integration of said songs into lively and visually fun musical numbers. Bonus points for a lovely turn from Jamie Bell as Bernie Taupin.
#8. LITTLE WOMEN
Greta Gerwig’s sterling adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic assembled one of the strongest acting ensembles of the year and showed the March sisters in a whole new light.
#9. THE LIGHTHOUSE
Robert Eggers’s follow up to 2015’s “The Witch” was just as steeped in atmosphere–this time of an isolated New England lighthouse in the 1890s where Robert Pattinson’s Thomas is taken under the lunatic wing of Willem Defoe who may or may not have a supernatural connection to the beacon they tend to. In stunning black and white, Eggers produced some of the most memorable imagery of the year.

THE WORST

In lieu of a Worst list–since I don’t see enough to pull a whole list confidently–I’m sorry to say MEN IN BLACK: INTERNATIONAL was the biggest disappointment. Taking Hemsworth and Thompson, who have a proven comedic chemistry and just throwing them into this lazy script was a huge wasted opportunity.

MICHAEL D. SMITH

THE BEST

#1. 1917
Selected by the Kansas City Film Critics Circle as the year’s Best Film, “1917” is simply a stroke of genius. Nominated for three Golden Globes, “1917” is not only a masterful example of the war film genre, but it is also a masterpiece of cinema in general. Directed by Oscar-winning British filmmaker Sam Mendes (“Skyfall,” “The Road to Perdition”), who co-wrote the screenplay with Krysty Wilson-Cairns (“Penny Dreadful”), “1917” is an accurate depiction of the Great War with an edge-of-your-seat plot that is essentially Great Britain’s “Saving Private Ryan.”

#2. KNIVES OUT
An impressive piece of creative writing, “Knives Out” deserves to be in the pantheon of great murder mystery flicks. With a terrific cast including Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Christopher Plummer and Michael Shannon, “Knives Out” is led by Daniel Craig in a wonderfully entertaining performance that makes you forget all about his more famous alter egoJames Bond. Whether you guess who done it within 15 minutes or not until the very end, “Knives Out” provides a great way to spend the night out at the movie theater.
#3. JOKER
Featuring by far the best male lead performance of the year, “Joker” is the most in-depth character study captured in cinema in 2019. Joaquin Phoenix goes to Herculean lengths to tap into the essence of a man so ostracized by society that when his last thread to sanity is cut, he becomes something that lies somewhere in the middle of being a villain and a hero. Dark, gritty and violent, “Joker” is not your typical comic book or even graphic novel movie. It eclipses both. Phoenix is supported by a memorable supporting performance from Robert De Niro.
#4. MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN
Edward Norton’s effort is a triumph of cinematic art and deserves to be an Oscar contender in multiple categories. Adapted from the 1999, National Book Critics Circle Award-winning novel of the same name by American novelist Jonathan Lethem, “Motherless Brooklyn,” written and directed by Norton, is a brilliant, throwback detective story with an all-star cast that delivers the goods. It mirrors early 1950s Brooklyn in such a palpable way that it makes you feel like you are there. Despite its arguably long, two-hour plus running time, the puzzle-like central story is so engrossing with its twists and turns that you can end up losing yourself in it.
#5. US
Academy Award-winning writer Jordan Peele followed up his magnificent horror thriller “Get Out” with another stroke of genius thatwhich should not be watched immediately before bedtime. An inventive work that will give you goosebumps throughout as the Wilson family, led by Lupita Nyong’o and Winston Duke, tries to stay alive in the face of eerie doppelgangers who want them all dead. Nyong’o was recently selected by the Kansas City Film Critics Circle as 2019’s Best Actress for her memorable performance.
#6. ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD
Love or hate him, there is no denying the talent of Quentin Tarantino. In this, his ninth and allegedly next-to-last film, Tarantino pays tribute to Hollywood’s Golden Age by putting his own unique spin on the August 1969 Sharon Tate murders. With enthralling performances by Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, Tarantino dug deep into his imagination with an entertaining “what if?” story with a climax that will drop your jaw to the floor and imagery that will be stuck in your head for days afterwards.

#7. THE IRISHMAN
At three hours and 29 minutes, “The Irishman” is a Martin Scorsese film not to be tackled lightly. However, if you are a fan of not just mafia-related stories but also a trio of iconic actors – Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino – then you will be greatly rewarded. It is the supposed story of mob hitman Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran who worked closely with the mob for decades and claimed that he was the one who made labor union leader Jimmy Hoffa famously disappear. Of the three, it is Pesci who outshines everyone as a mob boss. It is nothing less than the greatest performance of Pesci’s long career.
#8. QUEEN & SLIM
Ideally, a great work of art, especially one that is controversial, will have a deeply emotional and/or intellectual impact on the viewer. It is no different with the genre of cinema. Erroneously labeled by some as a Bonnie and Clyde-type story, “Queen & Slim” explores the fear and outrage felt by many in America over numerous fatal shootings in recent years of black men, often young ones, by white law enforcement officers. While its climax is heavy-handed and the overall portrayal of the police is too generalized, “Queen & Slim” remains a terrific specimen of cinematic art.
#9. A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD
Last year, I had the fantastic documentary “Won’t You be My Neighbor?” in the eighth spot of my 2018 top ten list. This year, another Mister Rogers film makes my year-end highlights. Inspired by true events, Tom Hanks puts in a mesmerizing supporting performance as the late, beloved PBS show host as he tries to help a jaded newspaper reporter remember what is most important in life. It is a sweet, lovely story amidst harsh times.
#10. AVENGERS: ENDGAME
Ten years’ worth of Avenger-related movies, some better than others, culminated with “Endgame” and it was all worth it with a tremendously rewarding finale. What made it so spectacular was not that it had great special effects or a cast with enough stars to fill up the nighttime sky. Rather, it contained an emotional story that did not have a neat and tidy ending. It was a true struggle of good vs. evil with many of those on the side of good having to pay a terrible price for their collective success. It does leave one to wonder how the gang at Marvel Studios will do with the next phase of Avenger flicks.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: AD ASTRA, I AM MOTHER, PEANUT BUTTER FALCON