By Hunter Johnson
5. ‘Ad Astra’
“Ad Astra” is not like most space travel epics. It’s not about big stories or loud action set pieces or overly-relatable protagonists. It’s about holding onto hope in the midst of deep and despairing abandonment.
“Ad Astra” is about an introverted astronaut named Roy (played by Brad Pitt), who’s sent on a mission to retrieve his longlost father from space.
This film is brought to life by three bigname stars. In this film, Brad Pitt gives one of the best performances of his entire 30- year career of acclaimed acting. He shows a different range in this film. His character isn’t the bold, charismatic, inviting lead that is Pitt’s signature role. His performance is raw and painfully quiet. The subtleties that Pitt incorporates into this expressionless character show how real he is. Roy is a lost character, someone who has spent so much time in the empty void of space that he’s begun to lose track of who he is. The only hope he has is the search to find his father.
The second star of this film is cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema. Hoytema’s surreal illustration of space brings the symbolism and themes to life, making the action on screen engaging for the audience. He’s created a beautiful painting for these characters to exist within, and sometimes, they do more than just exist in it. There are scenes of space explosions, moon pirates, and manic space-monkeys that Hoytema gorgeously puts together that create an enthralling atmosphere.
Finally, the most important star of this film is director James Gray. He is the glue that holds it together. He balances the intimate moments of Brad Pitt’s character with the grandiose picture of space that Hoytema creates. He also features the hypnotic musical score of Max Richter and the brilliant supporting cast of Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland, and Ruth Negga without taking anything away from the clarity that this film is solely about Roy’s complex connection with his father.
“Ad Astra” may not be the space blockbuster that “Interstellar,” “Gravity” and “The Martian” succeeded in being, but it is a highly engaging character-study that will allow viewers to experience all sides of a man with a lost soul, who is on the hunt to discover where his purpose lies.
4. ‘Avengers: Endgame’
Ten years ago, no one thought Marvel films would be at where they are now. It was considered a filmmaking miracle that the first “Avengers” worked at all. It was the beginning of an interconnected universe where characters could exist in separate worlds, and then come together in an epic finale every few years.
That method has worked thoroughly as now, 23 films later, audiences are not only willing to watch a connected franchise, but are constantly thrilled at what will come next.
Directed by well-versed comic-nerds, Anthony and Joe Russo, “Avengers: Endgame” features characters that audiences love. Robert Downey, Jr. and Chris Evans turn in their absolute best performances of Tony Stark and Steve Rogers after portraying them each in 10 films over the course of the last decade. Their characters had a beginning, middle and end to their arcs, and this film gives them the endings that fit perfectly with the rest of the story.
Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Scarlett Johansson (Black Widow), Jeremy Renner (Hawkeye), and Mark Ruffalo (Hulk) also turn in some of their most compelling performances to date with these characters. However, those original six Avengers from the early films are not the only heroes anymore. “Endgame” makes sure that every single character in these 23 films gets their due, featuring over 55 supporting cast members that have all appeared in previous Marvel films.
“Endgame” also has a score from renowned composer, Alan Silvestri, who returns after composing the music for “Captain America: The First Avenger,” “The Avengers,” and “Avengers: Infinity War.” Silvestri provides the epic atmosphere that is necessary in order for all the emotional payoff that this film gives for its characters.
The only negative toward “Endgame” is its tendency to overuse nostalgia to tell its story. The entire middle act is essentially a plot device to just look back on how great previous Marvel films were. It’s delightful to watch, but less engaged viewers may not understand what the fuss is all about.
That doesn’t stop this from being one of the most ambitious and emotionally charged blockbusters of all time. It finishes an epic saga, and it gets viewers excited for what Marvel will do next.
3. ‘Little Women’
Louisa May Alcott’s classic 1868 novel has been adapted into film six times since 1917. Each came with a new take on the March sisters and their classic coming-ofage story. Now, director Greta Gerwig has adopted her own spin to offer something new to this nostalgic story with a seventh film adaptation.
The result is a completely fresh and engaging retelling of a story that narrows in on the struggles of these sisters, particularly Jo and Amy.
Saoirse Ronan plays Jo, the stubborn, ambitious girl who wants more than anything to be a successful writer. Ronan brings a palpable realness to Jo’s struggle in her performance. She wants to show the world that she is an independent woman who needs nothing but her writing, but she must reconcile this with the intense loneliness that she is battling inside. Ronan is perfectly cast as she encapsulates that self-sufficient nature mixed with aching anxiety.
Jo’s youngest sister, Amy, is played by Florence Pugh. Gerwig has enlarged Amy’s role in the story and gave her the second-most-prominent role in the film. Pugh brings an adorable charm to Amy’s obnoxious and self-righteous personality, creating a character that is self-absorbed, but endearing and relatable.
Emma Watson and Eliza Scanlon play Jo’s other sisters, Meg and Beth, respectively, and Timothée Chalamet plays Laurie, the March’s next-door neighbor who falls in love with Jo. Meg and Beth bring their own unique traits to the story that show the different aspirations and personas of young women in the 1800s, and Chalamet is wonderfully casted as Laurie, being both brash and caring at the same time.
Gerwig’s wonderful take on this tale shows that every story has new and interesting observances to be made. Her writing and direction takes a well-known story, and decidedly shows it from a different viewpoint. Rather than only focusing on the early years of the March sisters, Gerwig delves deep into the later years of the sisters as well, material that the book and earlier films only scratched the surface of.
“Little Women” is more than a simple story about sisters growing up, but an engaging piece of filmed literature that stays true to the source material, while intensely examining the lives of these complicated people and discovering why they make the choices they make.
2. ‘A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood’
If there were a list of cliché-ridden dramas in 2019 that have no reason to exist, many people would assume “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” to be one of them. It would’ve been so easy to make an overly sentimental film of schlock when telling the real-life story of famed children’s television star, Mr. Rogers.
Instead, director Marielle Heller has given audiences a pseudo-biographical tale of a magazine journalist who’s assigned to interview Mr. Rogers in 1998.
It’s a story of pain, grief and moving on.
The story takes liberties when it comes to telling events as they actually occurred so that it can teach some lessons that adults often don’t want to be taught, lessons that adults think are only meant for children.
It’s a story of a truly broken man who’s convinced himself that his damaged life is how it’s supposed to be. Mr. Rogers comes into this man’s life and shows him that he needs a change.
Tom Hanks plays Mr. Rogers. Another cliché that this film could’ve done is making Mr. Rogers a perfect character. But it doesn’t. Hanks plays Rogers with extreme sensitivity, portraying him not as a god-figure for the journalist and the world to look up to, but as a friend in a time of need.
As far as imitation of reality goes, Hanks is nearly perfect as Mr. Rogers. The mannerisms and speech patterns feel exactly the same as the beloved TV host that so many American children grew up watching.
While most audiences will likely be going to the theatre to see Hanks as Rogers, the real protagonist of the film is journalist Lloyd Vogel, played by Matthew Rhys. Vogel is a heartbreaking character to watch. The film doesn’t just show certain aspects of his life, it dives deep into the humanity of Vogel’s psyche. It’s weird, intense, and at times it feels like a filmed portrayal of a headache. These scenes delve into very abstract filmmaking techniques, but they’re necessary in order to understand this complex and hardened character.
This is the year’s most heartwarming drama. It’s filled with touching scenes that really hit home with audiences, not because it’s emotionally manipulative or because it has a few catchy lines of dialogue that sound nice, but because the messages of this film ring completely true with our spiritual and Christian reality.
1. ‘Jojo Rabbit’
“Jojo Rabbit” is the freshest and most original film of 2019.
From the director of “Thor: Ragnarok” and “What We Do in the Shadows,” “Jojo Rabbit” takes one of the most tragic eras in the history of the world, and finds a brand new perspective of that grim time period through the eyes of a German child as he’s being enrolled in a Hitler Youth Camp in Nazi Germany.
Jojo Betzler only cares about one thing: growing up to become a Nazi so that he can help destroy the evil monsters known as Jews. He lives his life as a 10-year-old boy who has very few friends, and one of those friends is his imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler.
This film is nuts.ridiculously funny and has its eyes on a prize. It seeks to mock everything about the Nazis and show modern audiences how deranged the Nazi teachings were.
Playing Jojo is newcomer Roman Griffin Davis. He’s fantastic in portraying a classic 10-year-old who thinks he knows everything he needs to know about the world. His imaginary friend is played by the director himself, Taika Waititi. Waititi’s over-the-top version of Hitler is easily the most entertaining aspect of this film, but also somewhat difficult to watch. Waititi understands that the jokes being made are not easy to take in when this horrific slaughter of Jews actually happened in real life. That’s the whole point. These jokes make the Holocaust all the more dark and horrific to imagine. The jokes are funny, but they’re also increasingly disturbing as they are processed.
Playing Jojo’s mother is Scarlett Johansson. Her character is where much of the film’s plot arrives, as she is secretly harboring a Jewish girl, played by Thomasin McKenzie, in her attic. Johansson and McKenzie bring the heart to this film. They are immediately sympathetic characters who are stuck in a world where everyone around them believes that Jews are evil and don’t deserve to live.
“Jojo Rabbit” is not only one of the most captivating films of 2019, but it also could go down as one of the greatest films of the entire decade. The 2010s are over and the more that audiences look back on these 10 years, the more they might see “Jojo Rabbit” as one of the most engaging and important films of those years. It’s not useless fun. It’s a reminder for contemporary audiences that an event like this should never be allowed to happen again.