An Oscar champion, a screenplay it beat, and an unrecognized Gem
Parasite + Knives Out + Uncut Gems
On the occasion of “Parasite”s historic wins at the Oscars, I thought it appropriate to share my thoughts on the film, as well as two other films which you should absolutely catch up with if you missed them last year. Although “Knives Out” and “Uncut Gems” had a single Oscar nomination between them, they were absolutely among the best films of 2019.
Bong Joon-Ho’s Oscar winning masterpiece is undoubtedly deserving of all the praise and hype that has been heaped upon it since last May when it took top honors at the Cannes Film Festival. It is a beautiful and intensely thought provoking study of class division, and an exquisitely crafted piece of art in which it’s difficult to find any flaw. “Parasite” is entirely in Korean and stars all South Korean actors, which were the primary obstacles in its race for Best Picture. Yet, its sheer brilliance and perfection outweighed the awards juggernaut of “1917.” Furthermore, “Parasite” took home not just the biggest prize of the night, but Best Director and Best Original Screenplay as well. This undoubtedly will give it a well deserved spot in the history of cinema and ensure it won’t be forgotten.
The films’ mesmerizing plot is unfortunately one for whom the best summary I could give you is no summary at all. Too many pieces of the story are best enjoyed going in blind, and I’ll leave it at that. What I can say is, if you’re an American unfamiliar with Bong Joon-Ho or South Korean cinema, you likely won’t recognize any of the actors. The ensemble cast does a fantastic job here and creates people who seem exactly like characters we’ve all encountered at one time or another in our lives. The film’s production design is also worthy of acclaim, as the bulk of the film takes place within one house, custom built for the film. The house never becomes boring or background, but rather becomes its own character in the drama and may hold some surprising secrets.
If the name Bong Joon-Ho sounds familiar, then his previous film “Okja” (Netflix original), or his 2013 film “Snowpiercer”(starring Chris Evans) were most likely your introduction to his work. Both films were met with generally good to great reviews, but didn’t receive anything comparable to the awards buzz of “Parasite”. Bong Joon-Ho is decidedly one of the most talented and interesting directors in cinema today and I can’t wait to see what he does next.
Parasite + Knives Out + Uncut Gems
Rian Johnson’s original locked-room mystery surprised and delighted filmgoers last year and was a sequel-guaranteeing runaway hit at the box office. Although, its single Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay lost to “Jojo Rabbit” it absolutely deserves your time and consideration. Quality mystery films are in short supply these days, and this genre bending film is more about the ride and less about “who-dunna-it”.
Famed mystery novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found dead under quite suspicious circumstances, and his extended family are all suspects with possible motives. Enter the famously quirky private detective: Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig). His methods are unusual and his questions numerous. He begins interviewing the Thrombey family and investigating the house and grounds. The stage is set.
Featuring an A-list cast that delights across the board, and a star-making turn by Ana de Armas as Harlan’s nurse, the characters who populate “Knives Out” are worth the viewing alone. The Thrombey estate almost serves as a character unto itself, and Harlan’s innumerable knick knacks and memorabilia from his lengthy career and travels make every room of his country home endlessly fascinating. Add to these elements a razor-sharp and surprise filled script by Rian Johnson; simultaneously old-fashioned in execution, and perfect with timing in context and delivery, and you’ve got a highly enjoyable film unlike any we’ve seen in some time. Few directors have been subjected to the online and public ridicule Rian Johnson received for his divisive take on the Star Wars franchise. Despite the controversy, he hasn’t lost one ounce of his love for film and creativity as a writer and director. So, if you’re a fan of his work, as I am, seeing how great this new film turned out and how much of a hit it was last fall is quite rewarding.
Parasite + Knives Out + Uncut Gems
“Adam Sandler delivers an Oscar worthy leading performance in one of the most exciting and haunting dramas of the year”. That’s not a phrase I’d have thought I would ever write. Sure, Sandler was great in “Punch-Drunk Love” but that was all the way back in 2004. Since then he’s stuck mostly to comedy, and usually comedies not well received by critics. Well, here we are in 2019 and Sandler’s collaboration with the directing duo of the Safdie brothers has produced one of my favorite films not just of the year, but of the last decade in film.
“Uncut Gems” follows Howard Ratner(Sandler) through a couple days in New York City’s fast-paced Diamond District. He’s a jeweler who we quickly discover has a serious gambling problem. He lives for the rush of risking it all and winning big, and his risks are rapidly catching up to him. His family life is a disaster and his debtors are constantly tight on his heels. Without diving too deep into this film's intricate plot, suffice it to say that as the story progresses it builds a momentum and energy that I’ve rarely seen big action blockbusters and thrillers pull off.
We are drawn into Howard’s disastrous plans and can’t help but root for his success while simultaneously disagreeing with almost every decision he makes. As Howard chases his elusive but all-important high, we feel as though we’re on a roller-coaster that won’t stop. No film in recent memory has made me as anxious and left me as shaken as this film. I would also be the first to say that, because of its adrenaline inducing intensity, this film is not for everyone.
This is my introduction to the Safdie brothers as filmmakers. I’ve heard great things about their other films, and though they missed the Oscars this year I have no doubt they’ll be on that stage in the years to come. “Uncut Gems” has been a passion project of theirs for years and it’s plainly obvious they gave it their all. From camerawork and editing to sound design and score, all elements serve to create and gradually intensify the aforementioned feelings of anxiety and dread. The cast, though largely made up of first-time actors or celebrities from other disciplines (including The Weeknd and Kevin Garnett), do a fantastic job of pulling us into Howard’s world with fascinating and three-dimensional supporting roles. Lakeith Stanfield also has a memorable supporting role, as he coincidentally did in "Knives Out", though the two roles could hardly be more different.
Adam Sandler’s much lauded performance is absolutely electrifying and I would love to see him take on more dramatic roles in the years to come. The Safdie’s wrote their script with him in mind and it’s hard to imagine anyone doing better in the role. “Uncut Gems” was one of the best and most memorable films of 2019, and is well worth your time. If you can handle the rush.
"Knives Out" and "Parasite" are available to purchase digitally, and "Uncut Gems" will be later this month. "Parasite" is also available on DVD and Blu-ray, and the other two films will be soon.