2019: The End of the Decade’s Year in Review

First, I think I ought to apologize for how long-delayed this year in review would have been, but I had become incredibly busy over the past few months – to that point I was unable to write many film reviews as of late. Yet I still managed to find enough time to myself to catch films over the year as it was coming to its end in time for awards season, though it also left me with more than enough time to think back upon how great a decade this has been for film in general.

While it still feels sad to have to come think about one journey being over, it only feels most fitting we come back to the thought that we must always make way for tomorrow – the past has run its course, and thus we can dwell upon everything great about such in order to move forward. But as much as the 2010’s may have also been taken over by franchise films eating away the public interest every chance it has, it also made searching for the hidden gems all the more fun too. Yet as the best films of 2019 had already shown us, great cinema is still alive and well, and what matters most is how much we can continually share those experiences with others.

As far as this decade’s years of great films have gone by, many of 2019’s highs have struck a chord with me that I can’t quite put my finger on – but to put it lightly it was also the sort where I knew these films were going to be among films that define the decade too. It feels great to have been able to revel in what these films stood for within their moments, so without further ado, these are my favourite films of 2019.

Honourable Mentions

Booksmart

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Knives Out

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A Hidden Life

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High Life

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A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Tom Hanks (Finalized)

And now comes the countdown.

10. An Elephant Sitting Still

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image via KimStim

What saddens me is the thought that this is to remain the only feature-length directorial effort of Hu Bo, a filmmaker who tragically had taken his own life prior to the film’s premiere at TIFF in 2018. Yet the film that Hu Bo had left behind in his wake is a four-hour long journey all about searching for hope. An Elephant Sitting Still may prove difficult, whether we speak regarding its bleakness or the context behind its making and the context behind the life of filmmaker who brought it to the screen, but it will prove a rewarding experience.

9. The Lighthouse

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image via A24

Robert Eggers’s follow-up to The Witch is still every bit as beguiling as one can expect, but that’s also what reaffirms how terrifying it is. It’s only fair to say that The Lighthouse is the sort of nightmare that only a filmmaker like Robert Eggers could make, but there’s a certain audacity you can feel in his vision for the horror genre that feels like only he could have pulled off. Boasting great performances from Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe, The Lighthouse is more than just terrifying, it’s also funny every now and then but also just gorgeous from start to finish.

8. Little Women

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image via Sony

Greta Gerwig already made her mark as one of the most exciting directors to look out for after having established her name through collaborations with Noah Baumbach, and it only remains further solidified by Little Women. Being another coming-of-age tale from her eyes, Little Women does far more than just bring back to the screen another story that has been adapted many times over the years: it still reaffirms the story’s own impact by sharing how it captures generation after generation, which I think becomes the film’s greatest asset.

7. Uncut Gems

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image via A24

The Safdie brothers always know how to rack up anxiety to the max but in Uncut Gems, what comes forth is everything you’d have wanted from the makers behind Good Time and much more. Boasting a career-best performance from Adam Sandler, who is at some of the best he has ever been since Punch-Drunk Love and The Meyerowitz Stories, seeing the sort of work he manages to pull off in Uncut Gems does more than prove he is a wonderful dramatic actor when working outside of his familiar circle. You’ll feel your heart racing as you watch Uncut Gems, but the ride will absolutely be worth it.

6. The Irishman

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image via Netflix

It’s hard to say no to a new Martin Scorsese film, because he may arguably be the greatest American filmmaker working today – but he always finds a new way to approach the familiar subject matter of his work. In The Irishman, he returns once again to making gangster films to tell the story of how Frank Sheeran climbed his way up the mafia and even got himself involved with the case of Jimmy Hoffa’s disappearance, but in typical Martin Scorsese fashion, there’s never a dull moment in this three-and-a-half-hour long odyssey. Yet it also shows Scorsese within a more introspective mode, which can be felt from having stuck around Frank’s life from his youth all the way to his old age. By the time you’re finished, you’ll feel like you lived his life, asking questions about how much of it was worth it.

5. Honey Boy

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image via Amazon Studios

Shia LaBeouf has already made a name for himself as one of the most fascinating figures working in the industry today but seeing how he enters a more sensitive side within Honey Boy only gives one all the more reason to love him. The narrative directorial debut of Alma Har’el, this semi-autobiographical film all about Shia LaBeouf’s own life experiences, as penned by him, and starring him as his own troubled father, Honey Boy is more than a tribute to the people whom he loved most, it’s a testament to what goes on in the life of a child star – and how those experiences have come to define the sort of person that he has become. I’m also looking forward to what Alma Har’el has got in store for the future, because this movie hasn’t left my head very easily.

4. The Farewell

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image via A24

For an Asian audience member, The Farewell will already strike chords for some – but there was something else that I had felt from watching it. Part of me saw my own life experiences feeling exactly like it had been for Awkwafina as shown in Lulu Wang’s film. It can be hard to say no to family matters, but what also makes The Farewell ring so perfectly comes out from how much it’s clear that Lulu Wang had written this as her own family’s love letter. Showcasing Awkwafina at some of her very best, The Farewell may be a slow burn but in that awkwardness it makes you feel from seeing family members you may have been estranged with for so long, it becomes a beautiful emotional rollercoaster.

3. Marriage Story

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image via Netflix

The ironically titled Marriage Story shows Noah Baumbach as he returns to familiar territory after The Squid and the Whale but tells of the adults’ perspective on the situation. But for Noah Baumbach it’s clear that this is a subject that nonetheless still hits him very hard, which is what makes it so easy to feel Marriage Story making its impact right from the film’s start, all the way until its end. To call Marriage Story the best that Noah Baumbach has ever been would already be easy enough, but when you’re also taking into account the many personal details sprinkled in, the title already feels fitting. It is less a film about the divorce and a film all about why they married to begin with, which best captures its impact.

2. Portrait of a Lady on Fire

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image via NEON

Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire won the Queer Palm and the Best Screenplay Award at the Cannes Film Festival, but what makes this lesbian love story so beautiful can already be felt in its testament to great art. Sciamma’s film is one that is all about looks: how they define the artist’s relationship with muse, but also how both those feelings define the art we make. Boasting some beautiful production design as well as amazing performances from Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a stunner.

1. Parasite

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image via NEON

People who have followed me closely would already know that there was no other movie that would take this spot. Aside from being more rewarding with multiple viewings, Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite is a film that approaches a subject that seems familiar to us, in the most outlandish yet most entertaining way possible, although not without its willingness to hit back with the harsher realities surrounding the circumstances we see onscreen. I feel like there’s already so much in my prior review that I haven’t been able to cover because ever since I had seen the film then, I could already feel as if it were only set to become even more rewarding as I kept coming back to revisit Parasite more over time. Equal parts funny, equal parts gripping, Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite is more than just the best film of 2019, it’s wholly thoughtful and encourages its viewers to look back at the class landscape that they live within.

The Best Performances of 2019

Actor, Leading Role:

  1. Adam Sandler, Uncut Gems
  2. Song Kang-ho, Parasite
  3. Adam Driver, Marriage Story
  4. Robert De Niro, The Irishman
  5. Robert Pattinson, The Lighthouse
  6. Leonardo DiCaprio, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
  7. Noah Jupe, Honey Boy
  8. Daniel Craig, Knives Out
  9. August Diehl, A Hidden Life
  10. Antonio Banderas, Pain and Glory

Actress, Leading Role:

  1. Saoirse Ronan, Little Women
  2. Cho Yeo-jeong, Parasite
  3. Noèmie Merlant, Portrait of a Lady on Fire
  4. Awkwafina, The Farewell
  5. Scarlett Johansson, Marriage Story
  6. Lupita Nyong’o, Us
  7. Zhao Tao, Ash is Purest White
  8. Ana de Armas, Knives Out
  9. Kaitlyn Dever, Booksmart
  10. Julianne Moore, Gloria Bell

Actor, Supporting Role:

  1. Joe Pesci, The Irishman
  2. Choi Woo-shik, Parasite
  3. Al Pacino, The Irishman
  4. Lee Sun-kyun, Parasite
  5. Brad Pitt, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
  6. Tom Hanks, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
  7. Timothée Chalamet, Little Women
  8. Shia LaBeouf, Honey Boy
  9. LaKeith Stanfield, Uncut Gems
  10. Asier Exteandia, Pain and Glory

Actress, Supporting Role:

  1. Park So-dam, Parasite
  2. Laura Dern, Marriage Story
  3. Florence Pugh, Little Women
  4. Adéle Haenel, Portrait of a Lady on Fire
  5. Chang Hyae-jin, Parasite
  6. Zhao Shuzhen, The Farewell
  7. Julia Fox, Uncut Gems
  8. Jennifer Lopez, Hustlers
  9. Penelope Cruz, Pain and Glory
  10. Jamie Lee Curtis, Knives Out

The Worst Films of 2019

  1. Loqueesha
  2. Katie Says Goodbye
  3. The Lion King
  4. Hellboy
  5. The Dirt
  6. The Haunting of Sharon Tate
  7. Cats
  8. Polar
  9. Girl
  10. It: Chapter Two

And so, this concludes what’s already been a wonderful decade of truly astonishing films – stick around, we’ve also got more to come as I talk about the best films of the decade.

‘The Farewell’ Review: The Burden of Preserving One’s Happiness at the Expense of that of Another Family Member

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I remember all too well what it felt like to never properly say goodbye to my own loved ones. In writer-director Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, there’s a certain sense of pain and awkwardness present in knowing the truth but keeping everything secret from other family members only as a means of preserving their happiness. Sometimes I even wonder if my late uncle had a peaceful death as I’d like to think, but I look back at those moments and remember how I was also about to enter one of the most important periods of my life too, which was a cause for celebration. Even then I remember all too well about how hard it was to truly feel as if I could celebrate an occasion of that sort because I knew that somewhere else in my family, we only want to see those who we love most at their happiest – sometimes to the cost of our own. There were moments that felt almost like they could become difficult to think back upon, but if there’s anything else that makes The Farewell so beautiful, it’s the very thought that the film also makes looking back at the film even more rewarding.

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Chuck Winters Presents: The 2018 Maguire Awards

I love him! I love him for the man he wants to be! And I love him for the man he almost is!

Dorothy Boyd, Jerry Maguire; written by Cameron Crowe

Well folks, it’s the end of the year. You may have forgotten what that feels like since this year felt about as long as ten years, but as we all go through our various end-of-year rituals, us critics have to start thinking about the best movies we’ve seen this year so we can pick our horses for the Oscar race and yell at everyone who doesn’t agree with us.

In addition to our best of lists, however, many of us like to publish “Worst Of” lists. Not me. To be clear, I don’t mean to be judgmental of those who do; looking over my Letterboxd Diary it seems I’ve only seen 78 films from this year. There’s one more I’m hoping to squeeze in, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s a little low for someone who calls himself a film critic, and as much as I rag on critics who build careers out of hating movies, I respect the urge to just go “fuck you fuck you fuck you fuck you fuck you” at all the films that wasted your precious life one last time before you have to move on.

I’ve yet to hit that point, though, so dwelling on the stains of the year just doesn’t interest me. What does interest me, however, are movies that missed their mark in whole or in part but still get at something interesting or worth looking at. I don’t think we do enough to acknowledge these interesting, perhaps noble failures, and while I’ve got this platform, I think I’d like to put my money where my mouth is.

Enter The Maguire Awards, a non-sequential list of five movies I saw this year that fell short in various ways but still get my respect and, yeah, my love. Maybe they left it all out on the field, so to speak. Maybe their successes were completely unintentional. Maybe they just had too much nerve to not be respected. Whatever the reason, I think they’re worth saluting as we close the book on 2018.

Enough preamble; let’s jump in.


Ocean’s 8

I actually love this movie; as I said in my review, it’s strangled by some uninspired cinematography and editing in contrast to the original trilogy—which was already going to be impossible to live up to, given that those movies were directed, shot, and edited by a borderline living legend. Gary Ross tries his best, but he doesn’t have Steven Soderbergh’s cool hand; the film’s visual plan feels like a flat diet version of the master filmmaker’s style as a result. It’s disappointing, especially when you consider the multiple female filmmakers out there with dynamic styles of their own who could’ve given this film a more unique and appropriate identity.

Give Ross credit, though: He put together a hell of a crew for this spinoff—I’m tempted to go down the list to pad things out, but for these purposes it’s just easier to say that everyone kills—and he and Olivia Milch gave them a fun, solid script to work from that subtly comments on the patriarchal world these women live under without losing track of the fun heist flick we came to see. (It also winks at the absurd nature of the spinoff. Danny Ocean is supposed to be dead, but Debbie doesn’t believe it, and her denial barely registers as a point of drama because this is Danny F’ing Ocean we’re talking about here.)

No, it doesn’t live up to its progenitor, but it goes the distance, and god bless it.

A Futile and Stupid Gesture

It’s a biopic, with all the good and bad that comes with: the high highs of success, the low lows of drug use (there’s always drugs somewhere and it’s always bad), and the plot beats that you can set your watch to, especially after a quick Wikipedia lookup of the subject. If you wanted to be cheeky, you could say that A Futile and Stupid Gesture is aptly named, celebrating the genius of Doug Kenney and mourning his damage without really digging into how the two were linked and using his story to teach us anything beyond “Yeah, apparently even brilliant, funny people can have depression, it really sucks.” Arguably, if you can’t do that, what’s the point?

Damn if David Wain doesn’t try to do his subject justice, though. The director of Wet Hot American Summer can’t dig into Kenney, but he still did his damnedest to tell the National Lampoon co-founder’s story in a way that would have made Kenney proud. Whether he succeeds at that or not, I’m in no position to say. But the movie is genuinely hysterical, in ways that feel right at home with what I know of Kenney’s sense of humor (going off Caddyshack and Animal House). Key to that: An inspired framing device of an older alternate reality Kenney (played by Martin Mull) narrating the story and popping in every so often to crack wise at the necessary sanitization and even outright invention that comes with the biopic format.

Beyond that, Wain has a blast recreating the little-dramatized comedy scene of the 70s. Watching this, there’s no doubt that he feels a great debt to Kenney and everyone involved with the Lampoon for inspiring his own work; the film is shot through with reverence for the subject. This can be dangerous, but considering the sheer number of outright legends that came from this era, such reverence feels appropriate and warranted (even if, by the film’s own admission, “everyone was a lot more sexist and racist than they appear to be”). Wain also gets excellent performances from his cast. As Kenney, Will Forte is in prime form, and Domhnall Gleeson is a great foil for him as Henry Beard. But nearly walking away with the whole show is Thomas Lennon’s utterly bonkers turn as Michael O’Donoghue. This is the versatile State alumnus’ best performance to date; wherever he pulled that from, I want more of it.

Ultimately, the film doesn’t stick with you the way it probably should have. But it’s funny enough and just unique enough to more than justify its own existence.

Mile 22

“You wanna talk about Russian interference? You wanna talk about election hacking? Pay attention dipshit: Peter Berg’s always been a smarter filmmaker than most of the mindless sheep of this world give him credit for, but my motherfucker lives in two worlds. In one world he’s a good liberal boy—maybe neoliberal or centrist but who gives a flying fuck unless you’re a goddamn commie or something, I dunno—who once fuckbarreled Mitt Romney for using ‘Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose’ in his presidential campaign. In the other, he’s a dude that comes from a Navy family who gets off on watching this country’s military and police flex on rude fucks who step out of line. So you get movies like The Kingdom and Battleship and Lone Survivor that revel in war but are also cheekily anti-war, you could write a whole fuckin’ book about that shit really, but he goes out and makes this movie, where all his characters are badass spec-ops types that seriously talk and swear just like this, like fuckin’ Lenny Bruce stubbing his toe on a cop’s dick while suckin’ on your momma’s titty. And they talk like this because they think if they make even one mistake it could literally be the end of western civilization, which simultaneously puts them under some real fuckin’ pressure while inflating their egos to the size of a meteor that could wipe out life on Earth. And it’s possible that the whole goddamn fuckin’ point of this movie as underlined by its twist ending is that these sad fucks and their ‘fuck you I’ll smoke you and your whole fuckin’ family if you step in my fuckin’ area you fuckin’ fuck-ass fuck’ approach to life might actually be a net negative for the world. It sure as fuck ain’t good for their interpersonal lives.

“But—partly because Berg’s working with noted Southie hate crime perpetrator Mark Wahlberg, who got to be the big fuckin’ hero in Berg’s three back-to-back movies about real-life tragedies—any meaningful message gets drowned out by basic-ass ‘hoo-rah’ Call of Duty Black Ops bullshit, Poe’s Law One-Oh-Motherfucking-One. Couple this with the decision to show much of the action on security cams that are constantly shaking, leaving you with no sense of geography in a movie with action phenom Iko Motherbitching Uwais, and you’ve got a real five-alarm four-star shitshow starring Brian D’Arcy James in a limited engagement at the Shubert Fucking Theatre. But that doesn’t mean you just wipe your ass with it like your three-year-old’s drawing of the family dog because my dude Peter Berg is a smart motherfucker and when smart motherfuckers fail, it’s still worth watching unless you’re gonna be a punk-ass bitch about it.”

“Sir, this is a Wendy’s.”

“AND I ASKED YOU, PERSONALLY, FOR A DAVE’S DOUBLE FIFTEEN FUCKIN’ MINUTES AGO! YOU KNOW WHAT COULD HAPPEN IN FIFTEEN MINUTES? ISIS COULD BLOW UP A DIRTY BOMB IN THE MIDDLE OF TIMES SQUARE STARTING A CHAIN OF EVENTS THAT WIPES OUT THIS GREAT FUCKIN’ COUNTRY THAT MADE DAVE FUCKIN’ THOMAS POSSIBLE, ALL BECAUSE YOU FUCKIN’ HOTSHOTS CAN’T MAKE A SIMPLE GODDAMN BURGER WHEN YOU’RE ASKED TO! STOP FUCKIN’ LOOKING AT ME LIKE THAT AND GET ME MY LUNCH!”

ManHunt

(Zhui bu)

There are two ways to look at John Woo’s big return to popcorn filmmaking. One way, it’s an absurd, cornball half-measure of a film with a plot that doesn’t seem to make any sense helmed by an unengaged director cashing in on his considerable reputation. The other is that Woo, even at his best, has always had an absurd cornball streak and is having a blast dusting off all his old tropes and twisting them in fun ways. For instance, his signature doves return, but this time Woo really leans into the spiritual symbolism of their presence by having them literally save the lives of our main characters through not one, but two freak coincidences, one after the other. The akimbo gunfighting style Woo popularized? Returns for a scene with a brilliant innovation that pays homage to Hitchcock, Woo’s favorite director. Just about all his old films and tropes get referenced at some point, right down to the final line of Broken Arrow—and then just for the hell of it, he drops “A Better Tomorrow” into a line of dialogue at the last minute.

As far as I’m concerned, this is The Maestro having fun with his own legend in the hopefully-long winter of his life. Does it work as a movie? Hell no. As mentioned, the plot goes completely off the rails, with a lot of disparate elements that, while not necessarily boring, probably could’ve been cut or reworked to streamline things without losing too much. Still, it’s a blast to watch; even if all it does is remind the world that nobody does Woo like Woo, it’s more than enough to get my thumbs up.

(Note: As you can see from the poster, this film was released in China in November of 2017 after bowing at that year’s Toronto International Film Festival. However, I’m counting it as a 2018 film as that’s when most of the world—and more importantly, I—got to see it.)

Bad Times at the El Royale

If this movie was somehow 30 minutes shorter, we’d probably be talking about a stone classic. Two and a half hours is way too long to be sitting for such a nasty little neo-noir like this, even one that takes such clear inspiration from Quentin Tarantino. I was in a weird position at the 100-minute mark of the movie, thinking to myself “Wow, this is great…but shouldn’t they be wrapping up soon? My butt’s kind of hurting.”

There’s a lot of strong elements here that can’t quite congeal into a strong overall package for whatever reason. Drew Goddard shoots a hell of a film with DP Seamus McGarvey, and his script, pacing issues aside, keeps throwing new surprises at you, even after you think he’d be tapped out. His ensemble is stellar; as (most of) the established names in this cast, Jeff Bridges, Jon Hamm, and Dakota Johnson are rock solid, giving ample room for relative newcomers Cynthia Erivo, Lewis Pullman, and Cailee Spaeny to break out with some juicy, ferocious roles of their own. Then there’s Chris Hemsworth, giving an outstanding against-type performance as a murderous cult leader who seems to dance in from a whole other movie to turn this one completely on its head. Now add in some gorgeous late 60s production design and a badass soundtrack, including score from the reliable-at-worst Michael Giacchino and a collection of 60s standards that fit the movie like a glove. I’ll probably associate Deep Purple’s “Hush” with this movie’s heart-stopping roulette scene for the rest of my life, and I’m more than a little mad that Erivo’s cover of Sam & Dave’s “Hold On, I’m Coming” isn’t available anywhere.

All the individual pieces of this movie are so, so, so good, which is why I wish it didn’t feel almost like a chore to sit through it the first time. Turns out you probably can have too much of a good thing.

(Note: Jaime Rebanal loved this movie a little more than I did.)


So there you have it: Five films that don’t quite fall into greatness but still deserve to be admired for what they are and perhaps almost were. I’ll be back on Monday with my top ten of the year, but for the weekend, I’m throwing it over to you: I want you to tweet me @DivisionPost with five films from this year that you respect more than you actually like. Films that went big but fell short for you. Films with problems you recognize but don’t give a damn about. Because sometimes, the movies that demand our passion are the ones with the most glaring weaknesses to defend against.

So tell me: What were your Maguires this year?

Crazy Rich Asians is an Important Step Forward for Asian Representation in Hollywood

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Kevin Kwan’s novel was a satire written with the intent of showing what life is like in contemporary Asia to a North American audience, so how exactly could a story of excess translate onto the screen by a Hollywood studio? If you’re bringing in Jon M. Chu, the director of Jem and the Holograms and two of the Step Up movies of all people, it’s easy to be skeptical of the result – yet even the expected turns out to be satisfactory. I wasn’t exactly sold from the marketing of Crazy Rich Asians because it looks like just about any other Hollywood romantic comedy, just an Asian-centric one if anything – but maybe that also might have been what I needed for the time being. Yet given what the film stands for, being the first film by a major Hollywood studio directed by an Asian-American to feature a predominantly Asian cast, there’s also something more admirable underneath the surface of Crazy Rich Asians. And of course, speaking as a viewer of Asian descent (my parents are born in the Philippines but we have spent our lives living in Canada), it also felt nice just to see that a story of our very own had its chance to be told.

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Ocean’s Eight Review: Effervescent Substance Overcomes a Dearth of Style

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(This review contains heavy spoilers. Not kidding: I literally start by talking about the ending. If you haven’t seen this movie yet, give it a shot; it’s a great time and worth seeing blind, even if it falls short of the original trilogy’s magic.)

(Last warning…)

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“You would have loved it.”

That’s the very last line of Ocean’s Eight, a spin-off of Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney’s Ocean’s trilogy directed by Soderbergh’s close friend Gary Ross, from a script by Ross and Olivia Milch (daughter of TV legend David Milch, who recently made her own directorial debut with the Netflix teen comedy Dude). It’s said by Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock), drinking a martini at the grave of her brother Danny, the dapper con-artist hero of the original films.

Oh, he’s probably not dead. That’s the occupational hazard of being born into a family of thieves; any news of your demise tends to be greeted with a jerk-off motion unless you leave an intact, visually identifiable body, at which point you’ll be granted the courtesy of an eye-roll. When Debbie first visits Danny’s tomb, she says, “You better be in there.” Later on, Danny casually comes up in a conversation between Debbie and young hustler Constance (Awkwafina): “You sure he’s dead?” “No.” Constance might as well have asked Debbie what she had for lunch. Debbie refuses to take Danny’s death at face value, and why should she? If nothing else, the audience sure isn’t; through three movies, we’ve seen him and his crew run heists like magic tricks, hiding crucial information from us—sometimes even in plain sight. We’ve been trained not to trust anything we’re straight up told about Danny. On a more metatextual level: In a post-Marvel age, who could resist the appeal of a star-studded crossover, or at the very least, a cool little pass of the torch from brother to sister?

And yet it’s resisted, if only for now: Debbie drinks her martini at her progenitor’s grave, salutes him, roll credits. Whether Debbie even accepts that her brother is truly gone at that point is up in the air; given the lack of tears shed, I’d assume she hasn’t. Anyway, this isn’t a story about dealing with grief. This is a story about women stealing cool shit from people who don’t need it and getting even with men who would treat them as disposable pawns in the process. Daniel Ocean is dead, or “dead,” because he has no place in it.

But he would have loved it, says Debbie. And while I come away feeling like the movie was a little too easy and not necessarily “cool” enough for (if I may be so gauche) the Ocean’s brand, I don’t think she’s wrong.

For Ocean’s Eight, we trade in the luxurious, violent history of Las Vegas for the blasé decadence and self-importance of Manhattan’s Upper East Side; more specifically, The Met gala, a parade of celebrities and influencers dining and rubbing shoulders while dressed in the finest offerings from fashion’s biggest names. Like Vegas, there’s a lot about this scene you can criticize, but like its older brother, Ocean’s Eight is happy to keep that criticism in the subtext (if anywhere) and marvel at the glitz and glamour of it all. Even a jaded, fashion-unconscious individual like myself couldn’t help but gawk at the sheer lavishness of it, and the crew is right there with you. “Can’t we just go to this?” asks Amita (Mindy Kaling) during a briefing, ready to walk from a $16.5 million payday. “Do we have to steal stuff?”

Of course they do; not just because there’d be no movie if they didn’t, and—interestingly enough—not necessarily because this is personal for Debbie. As you can guess, The Met isn’t Debbie’s target any more than the Bellagio, Mirage, and MGM Grand were Danny’s targets in Eleven. But whereas Danny’s endgame was to pants Terry Benedict and show his ex-wife that she was with someone who didn’t care about her, revenge on Claude Becker (Richard Armitage), Debbie’s ex-partner/lover who snitched on her the second he started feeling the heat, seems to be a nice bonus rather than the goal. Rather, Debbie and the women she brings in just enjoy the thrill of it, and there’s a lot to be thrilled by, least of all the thrill of getting away with it.

For starters, the cons these women run are pretty close to some of the humdrum truths they live. Sure, there’s twists: Lou (Cate Blanchett) goes from running a nightclub to running the gala’s kitchen. Tammy (Sarah Paulson) puts her logistical expertise as a fence to help organize the gala’s wait staff. But consider Rose (Helena Bonham Carter), a well-known fashion designer who Debbie and Lou recruit by promising to make her problems with the IRS go away. She doesn’t have to pretend to be anyone; she just has to get into the good graces of actress Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway) and then do what she was trained to do: dress her for the ball, casually working The Toussaint—a $150 million diamond necklace owned by Cartier—into her wardrobe so it can be stolen right off her neck.

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Don’t call it a comeback for Hathaway: She may have gone quiet in recent years but she never stopped killing it whenever she did appear in front of the camera, even delivering one of the great performances of 2017 in Nacho Vigalondo’s Colossal. Here she has an absolute blast lampooning every stereotype of vain, insecure celebrity without ever falling into caricature. This is crucial because when she’s formally drafted into the crew for the third act, it doesn’t feel like it comes out of nowhere; Hathaway cleanly lays the groundwork for Daphne to catch onto the plot and willingly join in, despite not needing the money, because “I don’t have a lot of female friendships.” (And once she’s active, again, her part in the scheme comes down to doing a little acting; namely, continuing her seduction of Claude Becker so she can snap a picture of the piece of necklace Debbie planted on him, crafting probable cause for the cops to pick him up, thus leaving them free and clear.)

Camaraderie was always a key component of the Ocean’s trilogy; consider the sequels, where Danny and his crew regulates against their targets, first because they “broke rule number one [honor amongst thieves],” then because they violated the social contract between those who “shook Sinatra’s hand.” But in a world where “benign sexism” is defined as the otherwise impeccable John Mulaney joking about how there could never be a female Ocean’s Eleven because “two would keep breaking off to talk shit about the other nine,” that feeling of camaraderie resonates more than ever. The script even builds a subtle, perhaps unwitting contrast between the crew’s close bond and their targets, collateral or otherwise. We get a sense of the gala’s vibe of self-importance, antithetical to the concept of camaraderie, through Daphne’s funny anecdote to her table about the weird intricacies involved in meeting the frickin’ Queen of England. Meanwhile, Cartier owns the Toussaint necklace that Debbie’s after; as this excellent Vulture piece by Jen Cheney points out, the necklace was named for a woman, meant for women, but owned a company that is represented entirely by men here—men who, by the way, have locked it in a vault under five feet of concrete, never to be worn or seen by the public. It’s not making them money or giving them credibility, they literally own it just to say they own it. Rose has to practically pull teeth just to convince them to let her dress Daphne in it. In this light, this jewel heist becomes oddly virtuous beyond the usual “likable rich stealing from the unlikable richer” motives that supported the original trilogy.

If I keep comparing Ocean’s Eight to the preceding Soderbergh classic and its underrated sequels, it’s not necessarily because I think they’re impossible to separate. These movies defined “cool” for a generation of moviegoers both casual and hardcore, myself included, and as such, it casts a long shadow. Gary Ross has a tough job here; in creating a spin-off as opposed to a direct sequel, he has to come up with a visual style of his own, but at the same time he can’t just ignore what came before. On top of that, whatever Ross’ feminist bonafides may be, there’s further pressure to justify himself solely on the basis of him being a white guy directing a mainly female cast, while there are dozens of women who have long since proven themselves yet remain invisible because Hollywood is run by assholes. Honestly, I don’t think he pulls it off.

It’s not that he’s a weak director; far from it. He’s perfectly competent, and sometimes competence works. Sometimes competence means you get out of the way and let your actors and your production design do the work for you, and by God, they do the work. Bullock is an ice cold ringleader here, eminently believable as a member of the family Ocean, and the best, most quotable parts of the movie involve her light, playfully flirtatious relationship with Blanchett’s Lou. All eight women have distinct and big personalities, yet the absolute pros playing them never milk them too hard or turn them into caricatures. This is a fantastic ensemble.

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But again, that long shadow of Soderbergh’s comes around to eclipse Ross. Ross came up as a writer and producer (he got on the map with Big), and as such, tends to be flexible with his style depending on what the script calls for. Look at his short filmography, side by side; if you didn’t know he directed all of those films, you probably wouldn’t be able to tell. Of course, the flip side of this is that he’s never shown a strong visual sense unless the script specifically called for one. Pleasantville, nakedly allegorical as it was, is a brilliant work with a strong visual conceit that forced Ross to be on his game. The Hunger Games (which Soderbergh shot second unit for) didn’t have such a conceit baked in, but Ross set out to adapt the Young Adult classic as a sort of anti-Harry Potter: a brutal, unsentimental war film that eschewed visual gimmickry to bring us into Katniss Everdeen’s perspective, standing in stark contrast to Francis Lawrence’s work in the later films. If he brings a strong point of view to the set or the editing bay, he’ll make a film sing.

Apparently his point of view for Eight was “Be like Soderbergh, but not too much,” and it’s a half-measure of a half-measure. He apes the surface elements of the work, including late 60s / early 70s-inspired transitions that feel jarring, like they were rendered in iMovie. He doesn’t seem to have Soderbergh’s sense of timing or cool; he’ll use cuts and zooms to emphasize a joke or reveal where Soderbergh would let the viewer find it for themselves. Oddly enough, you can see where Ross would be onto something with the approach: Daniel Pemberton (coming up fast and hard in the film composition scene with his killer scores for The Man From U.N.C.L.E., King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, and All the Money in the World) takes a similar tack with a score that echoes David Holmes’s work for the original trilogy, coming off like an upstart younger sibling. Pemberton doesn’t get nearly as weird or creative with it, but goodness gracious does the music ever slap. Still, visually speaking, Ross can’t quite rise above competence, and being expectant of a certain level of visual panache in an Ocean’s film, it holds the whole thing back. As much fun as I was having watching this cast work in that environment, I’d occasionally wonder what Michelle MacLaren, Anna Boden / Ryan Fleck, or even Olivia Milch herself would do with this material.

It’s a shame, but it’s far from a tragedy. Standing toe-to-toe with the Ocean’s trilogy is an accomplishment, and while Eight doesn’t quite go the distance, it’s a hell of an entertaining effort that easily justifies its own existence through its great cast and breezy, occasionally observant script.

He would have loved it.


 Watch the trailer right here.

All images via Warner Bros. Pictures


Directed by Gary Ross
Screenplay by Gary Ross & Olivia Milch; Story by Gary Ross; Based on characters created by George Clayton Johnson & Jack Golden Russell
Produced by Steven Soderbergh and Susan Ekins
Starring Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway, Helena Bonham Carter, Sarah Paulson
Release Year: 2018
Running Time: 110 minutes