Saturday, March 07, 2020


Anxiously awaiting the announcement of the 2019 Muriel Awards... 

The Oscars were handed out on February 9, almost a month ago, and yet awards season didn’t end until just this last week, when the results of the 14th Annual Muriel Awards were finally fully announced. Muriel is the beloved late guinea pig who burrowed her way into awards founder Paul Clark’s heart a decade-plus-or-so ago, and it is for her and her furry, indefatigable spirit that Clark named the award, a gathering of critic-based honors aimed at focusing the spotlight on the truly deserving film achievements of the year-- some well-known and already well-celebrated, some owning much less of the bandwidth generated by the publicity machine of marketing, promotion and mainstream film journalism.

I’ve been in the Muriel fold since the very beginning, for 14 years now, and it’s an end-of-the-year (or start of the new year) event I always look forward to, because I get to vote and because I often get to write about something that has captured the imagination and passion of Muriel voters. This year, just like last year, I got to write about a real peach, one that captured the hearts and minds of Muriel voters and a much broader swath of filmgoers and award bestowers than anyone who could have ever rationally predicted this time last year when, pre-Cannes Film Festival, the movie’s rapturous reception was something even its creators would never have anticipated.

I won’t say what my Muriels subject is this year. Instead, I’ll just roll us right into the awards. And this year, in addition to the traditional Muriels anniversary awards (10th, 25th and 50th) there are even more to consider, because each Muriels voter was asked to pick not only the films of the year, but the films of the decade (2010-2019) as well. Savor the writing, enjoy the anticipation of this year’s winners (which aren’t, of course, always what you’d expect), and let Muriel guide you to any of the year’s or decade’s, or anniversary year’s best which you may yet not have seen.  

Let’s start with the Muriels Best of the Decade Awards:

Favorite Performances and Directors

Best Films of the Decade #10:  Margaret (Kenneth Lonergan)

“What ultimately dazzles about Margaret is an overriding sense of a film borne out of what feels like bitter experience on the part of its maker — a work that feels torn, bleeding, from Lonergan’s heart. And that, among other reasons, is why its ending is as emotionally soaring as it is. Set during a live Metropolitan Opera performance of Jacques Offenbach’s operetta The Tales of Hoffman, it depicts a catharsis for both Lisa and her mother that may not mean anything to the many opera-goers surrounding them but certainly mean the world to them both and to us as well. Even after all that Lisa has gone through in the course of this particularly exhausting period of time, she has the power to respond passionately to even something as seemingly unrelated to her current circumstances as The Tales of Hoffman —- and, considering how much we in the audience have been privy to regarding her emotional struggles, we find ourselves thoroughly understanding the experience that informs her passionate reaction.” (Kenji Fujishima)

Best Films of the Decade #9: Carol (Todd Haynes)

“The world in which Carol resides could have come straight from a fashion magazine. Interiors are, initially, *perfect* - the woods are warm, the surfaces shiny and unblemished, with a flattering light caressing clothing that always manages to hang just so. It is a vision of America all too familiar to those of a conservative mindset; an 8 x 10 glossy homage to a capitalist perfection that sure looks pretty from a few decades down the road, but only if you willfully choose to ignore the very uncomfortable realities that lay beneath.” (Donald G. Carder)

Best Films of the Decade #8:  Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer)

“"When Under the Skin ended, I felt like I’d been scooped out from the inside. It’s one of the saddest and loneliest films I’ve ever seen. Scarlett Johansson is mainly a presence for the first half, removed and captivating. And then in the second half she is heartbreaking; confused, yearning and unfulfilled. The final minutes, in which she is pursued by a man in the musky never-ending forest, is so palpable; you can feel her fear. Predator to prey. The second she desires the human instinct she loses so much agency. She becomes vulnerable and susceptible, her lair further and further away, unable to reconcile that yearning. We sense the irreparable loss of that center, her time dwindling.” (Catherine Stebbins)

Best Films of the Decade #7:  Moonlight (Barry Jenkins)

“Just as in classic Hollywood romances, the characters in Moonlight move like they're in a musical, deliberately and gracefully, as the passage of time speeds up and slows down and the space around them bends and stretches, having broken completely free of the science that explains it, instead being powered by the sheer will of emotion. The old-fashioned romance genre is used in a very modern set of circumstances, where traditional tropes -- coming-of-age, lost love, loneliness -- are recontextualized within non-traditional realities such as homophobia, institutionalized racism, violence and poverty. The big minds at the big studios would surely have passed on such a tale, thinking that its themes would alienate most audiences, when in fact the opposite is true: Moonlight is universal.” (Stacia Jones)

Best Films of the Decade #6:  Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel and Ethan Coen)

“There are so many ways to look at the movie. Watch how Llewyn uses his music as a tool: a weapon, a shield, a challenge, a payment, a bribe, a gift, a meal ticket, a proof of authenticity, an apology... You could see it as a kind of Raging Bull with an acoustic musician instead of a boxer, a man so steeped in pride and self-loathing that his life has become an effort to build a monument to his own iconoclasm and unlovability, cloaked in a form of non-careerist ideological purity. And then there’s the cat, an orange tabby we (and Llewyn) belatedly find out is named Ulysses. He takes us on quite an odyssey, leading us back in time, through the Village streets and into the subway, and eventually all the way to Chicago. Who is this cat and what is he doing here? That’s a good excuse for another viewing..." (Jim Emerson)

Best Films of the Decade #5:  The Social Network (David Fincher)

“…(I)t's been described as a ruthless ladder-to-success story, a thwarted romance (with Erica or Eduardo?), a courtroom drama, a fast-moving portrait of a generation and The Way We Live Now -- and ‘a movie about 2.0 people made by 1.0 people’ (that last comment written by a person still in beta, apparently).  “Is it any of those things -- or all of those things? I don't think we know yet. As the movie's Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) says of the newly launched Facebook to his friend and CFO Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield): ‘We don't even know what it is yet. We don't know what it is, what it can be, what it will be.’ That may be the smartest thing Mark says in the movie, and I think it may apply to The Social Network itself -- a deceptively conventional film that races by at such high-bandwidth speeds that even after you've seen it, you may not be sure you know what you've seen.” (Jim Emerson)

Best Films of the Decade #4: The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson)

The Master is something entirely singular in Anderson's body of work, closer to the revisionist historical cinema of Full Metal Jacket, Zodiac, Doomed Love and The House of Mirth. Which is to say: these histories are able to be experienced as a consciousness. With WWII, drifters are societal anomalies, bellwethers of a failure to suppress something else other than what was acceptable. There's a reason why these films stand out, which may say a lot about the times we live in and the years in which each of the films mentioned were made than the times depicted on screen. The Master, set during a period of ‘forward-thinking’ capitalism, finds its elliptical narrative footing in the self-doubting head of a broken, rugged failure, whose primal, sexual impulses supersede any kind of professional or ideological adult conformism that our culture digests as pamphleteered self-fulfillment." (Michael Lieberman)

Best Films of the Decade #3: Parasite (Bong Joon-ho)

Parasite ends on a note of desperate fantasy, detailing the musings of a young man who can only concoct elaborate projections of his own ultimate wealth and economic rescue conjured to assuage the guilt he feels over his family’s devastation and the cloistered imprisonment of his father. And that young man cannot sustain believe in those fantasies for more than a moment at a time before sinking back down into the cruel subterranean misery where we first saw him at the beginning of the film. The final descent of the camera which concludes Parasite, in what might be a prelude to genuine madness, is a cold slap of reality, what Bong Joon-ho has described as ‘a sure-fire kill,’ even as it displays the razor-sharp instincts of a born storyteller employed to send an audience back into the world exhilarated, on a melancholic contact high from 135-minutes proximity to absolute filmmaking mastery.” (Dennis Cozzalio)

Best Films of the Decade #2: The Tree of Life (Terence Malick)

"When you watch The Tree of Life, you’re seeing a vision of a family’s life experienced with an other-wordly, unfathomable sense of perspective. Writer/director Terrence Malick’s latest film is elusive, engrossing and just all-around big. There are discernible leitmotifs that run through the film, like the intrusion of chaos into order, the gentle realization that form does not always conform to essence, and the fleeting presence of radiant, context-free hopefulness. But the sense of spirituality that characterizes The Tree of Life is nothing if not pantheistic and all-accommodating.” (Simon Abrams)

Best Films of the Decade #1:  Mad Max Fury Road (George Miller)

Fury Road also makes most other blockbusters look puny on a purely aesthetic level. In a movie filled with exhilarating images, one of my favorites is towards the beginning, when Max is trying to escape his captors. It's a dark, chaotic sequence that suddenly gives way to blinding light and silence as we get our first look at Immortal Joe's Citadel. It's a moment that has the same kind of power as Dorothy opening her front door and stepping into Oz. Mad Max has many moments like this, reminding that, though blockbusters offer plenty of loud spectacle, few even bother with trying to manipulate scale, perspective, light, sound or any of the other basic tools at their disposal to create a genuine sense of awe. For a movie that uses every state-of-the-art filmmaking tool at its disposal, Fury Road is surprisingly classical in its approach to visual storytelling.” (Andrew Bemis)


So much for the past decade. On to the past 12 months. The Muriels of 2019 go to…

50th Anniversary Award Best Film of 1969 The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah)

“…a portrait of human ugliness that hits you in the gut. Yet its band of reprobate anti-heroes manages to find some manner of honor in this world when they agree to risk it all for a friend they left behind. Somehow Peckinpah was able to cut open the western, pull out its guts, and still make a classic of the form.”  (Vern)

25th Anniversary Award Best Film of 1994 Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino)

To those of us who came of age watching Pulp Fiction, everything about it seemed exciting and nothing about it seemed predictable. Its gangsters were poetic and nerdy. Its plot was shaggy and digressive. Its tone was light when you expected it to be heavy and funny when you expected it to be suspenseful. If there is any ‘message’ to be found in Pulp Fiction, it’s this: stay on your toes.” (Ian Scott Todd)

10th Anniversary Award Best Film of 2009 A Serious Man (Joel and Ethan Coen)

Larry Gopnik is a man put upon, and answers are unforthcoming from both human and divine. The voice of the heavens belongs to Grace Slick, though, and there are mysteries we all must accept, both in this life and the life to come. An enduring masterpiece of theological and sociological unease.” (Jason Shawhan)

Best Supporting Performance #3: Florence Pugh, Little Women

While Pugh’s raspy voice (a side-effect of a tracheal condition she had as a child) can make it hard to accept her as a 13 year old, her childish cadence and looser physicality help provide enough distance between the adolescent and the young adult Amys. Pugh is also tasked with giving the film’s statement of purpose. Meryl Streep wanted Gerwig to remind audiences of why someone like Amy would seek to marry for financial gain. Pugh imparts Amy’s somewhat didactic speech with a deeply felt passion that turns what could be a thesis statement into a moment of strength. When she gives the speech, Laurie stops seeing her as a frivolous child. Unlike other versions, he doesn’t seem to fall for Amy because he can’t have Jo, but because Amy herself has grown into an intelligent, strong woman.” (Kevin Cecil)

Best Supporting Performance #2: Brad Pitt, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

““When you think about it, Booth is the sort of character Pitt is a master at playing. While Pitt has always been positioned as a confident, indestructible leading man (check out last year’s Ad Astra if you wanna see Pitt all stiff, emotionally constipated and drained of life — aka the complete opposite of who he is here), Pitt has always enjoyed doing roles that let audiences know there are a lot of kinks in his armor. He’s an ace at playing smart-asses who can kick your ass and maybe bang your girl afterwards. As Mike D’Angelo astutely put it in a 2005 Esquire piece, ‘...Hollywood still doesn’t understand that Pitt is a brilliant goofball prankster trapped in the body of a Greek god. As Achilles, he’s a magnificently sculpted statue, beautiful and boring. But turn him into a Waspy analogue to the young Elliott Gould—the shambling, apathetic buffoon—and he’d be funnier than Sandler and Ferrell combined.’” (Craig D. Lindsey)

Best Supporting Performance #1: Joe Pesci, The Irishman  

““Pesci isn't really in The Irishman all that much compared to his costars Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, and Steven Zaillian's screenplay (adapted from Charles Brandt's narrative nonfiction book I Heard You Paint Houses) doesn't offer a whole lot about Bufalino's backstory. But though the film may be focused on Frank Sheeran (De Niro) and his ultimately wasted life, it's Pesci who, in his relatively limited screen time, provides the film's heart and soul. The Irishman finds Scorsese in world-weary, contemplative mode, and that sense of melancholic rumination is etched in every single gesture and line reading of Pesci's performance. Pesci exudes the aura of a man who's seen a lot of violence in his lifetime, absorbed it, made an uneasy peace with it, and perhaps is trying to be as good a man as he can be under the circumstances.” (Kenji Fujishima)

Best Youth Performance Julia Butters, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Best Lead Performance #3: Adam Sandler, Uncut Gems

Sandler’s manic energy and singular ability to balance offbeat charm with off-putting behavior are perfectly matched to Howard’s life of scheming, gambling, and hoping. Present in almost every scene, constantly in motion, and always too short a step ahead of his creditors, Howard disappoints again and again. But Sandler keeps you firmly on Howard’s side, watching and rooting, wholly swept up in the character’s abiding belief that a big payday is just one move away—despite all evidence to the contrary.”  (Melissa Starker)

Best Lead Performance #2: Antonio Banderas, Pain and Glory

Banderas’s movie past enriches his character here, but that wouldn’t be enough by itself to match the scale Almodovar is reaching for. (The original movie Zorro, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., attempted something similar in his last film, The Private Life of Don Juan, and without his customary swashbuckling flamboyance was reduced to an amiable hole in the screen.) As an actor, Banderas has often used his acrobatic dancer’s grace and energy to illuminate, and sometimes satirize, the hearts of his characters. In Pain and Glory, playing a man whose physical and spiritual pain has robbed him of the impulse to move, he channels a remarkable degree of energy and concentration into the blocked hero’s inertia, suggesting so much inner life that you can believe it would be tragic if he really never got out of bed and made another movie.” (Phil Dyess-Nugent)

Best Lead Performance #1: Lupita Nyong'o, Us

“Nyong’o is playing predator and prey here, and as such creates two distinct models of character development: Adelaide is driven by emotion and a fear-filled survival instinct while Red is all physicality and terror. Red’s strict movements and her scary, gravelly voice are exceptional, effective acting decisions that divulge themselves fully when Red tells her horrific backstory. In that moment, Us complicates and flips the standard issue hero-villain dichotomy, challenging the viewer’s sympathies and their suspensions of disbelief with a climactic ballet-inspired battle to the death. It’s Nyong’o who keeps the film from spiraling into incredulity in that moment; the ties that bind Adelaide and Red have been so richly drawn and performed that one is fully committed to the outcome. Nyong’o cements her great work by nailing the film’s last shot, an ambiguous look that implies that good and evil have now merged together. The outcome shall remain unknown.”  (Odie Henderson)

Best Cinematography: Jarin Blaschke, The Lighthouse

Best Music Daniel Lopatin, Uncut Gems

Best Documentary Apollo 11 (Todd Douglas Miller)

Best Cinematic Moments

Pictured is the #8 ranking  “Frank calls Jo Hoffa” from The Irishman.  Click the link to see other winners and, of course, the Muriels #1 choice.

Best Picture Countdown #10: Transit (Christian Petzold)

Transit interacts with its own shifting, spectral histories: World War II and the present, both separately and simultaneously; Seghers’s novel, which Petzold daringly and brilliantly distills on a narrative detail-by-detail basis; and perhaps most of all an entire cinematic and genre lineage. For Petzold, among his many staggering qualities, is the greatest practitioner of Classical Hollywood filmmaking today, in ethos if not in strict technical terms. His clean and gorgeous compositions and incredibly well-judged editing contribute to this, but even more important is his narrative sense, his genuine investment into the doomed desire for connection that acts as the driving engine.” (Ryan Swen)

Best Picture Countdown #9: A Hidden Life (Terence Malick)

“Malick’s focus in A Hidden Life is uncharacteristic. His perspective in twain, the wife left behind and the soldier who refused to go soldiering, and his photography of the world around them is his most impatient and hungry, to show that no gesture affects just one man. Each vista brings Malick the same joy Ford evidently felt filming the buttes of Monument Valley - this is the closest Malick’s come to making one of Ford’s pictures, somewhere between the bitter grace of the cavalry films and the arch negativity of the curios like The Fugitive, also about a man of god hounded by the state. His depictions of both evil and tenderness have a 40s Catholic chasteness to them that somehow makes their implications all the greater. When lovers are reunited, your heart races for them, bereft the language in their hungry eyes. That is truly what it feels like, to touch someone you fear you might never touch again. So much lost, now found only in recreations of the past just as ugly and just as lovely as our terrible present.” (Scout Tafoya)

Best Picture Countdown #8: Pain and Glory (Pedro Almodovar)

“Four decades into his illustrious career, Pain and Glory offers a lot of reminiscing on everything from family, lost loves and muses, along with sexual and mental awakenings. While he claims it's not fully autobiographical, there's so many layers to Pain and Glory that it's hard not to see it as some attempt at therapeutic healing. How else can you justify Almodovar directing Antonio Banderas playing Salvador directing Alberto reenacting Salvador's memories which in turn direct his memories of his mother who directed young Salvador? It's Almodovar at his rawest and yet most guarded– picking apart the misguided ideal of male stoicism while still playfully conforming to it.”  (Jenna Ipcar)

Best Picture Countdown #7: Marriage Story (Noah Baumbach)

Is this a marriage story or a divorce story? Should we side with husband Charlie (Adam Driver) or wife Nicole (Scarlett Johansson)? Who wins and who loses? There have been passionate online arguments in favor of both Charlie and Nicole as the film’s ‘true’ protagonist, but one of the best things about Marriage Story is that way that Baumbach steps aside and lets the characters speak for themselves (through the fantastic, resonant performances by both lead actors)… If there’s a villain in Marriage Story, it’s the divorce industry itself…” (Josh Bell)

Best Picture Countdown #6: Portrait of a Lady on Fire (CĂ©line Sciamma)

“There are many elements in this movie that show the hand of a female filmmaker, not least of them the everyday portrayal of an abortion, a chubby baby playing nearby. But perhaps this is Sciamma’s most radical statement: that to truly provide a viable alternative for the male gaze, it is not sufficient to look at different things, in different ways; it is not enough that the gazer is female, or even that the audience is presumed to be. It is only by allowing the gaze her own point of view that old ways of looking can really be subverted.” (Hedwig van Driel)

Best Picture Countdown #5: Little Women (Greta Gerwig)

“In the end Gerwig (like Quentin Tarantino in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, who ‘avenged’ the Manson family murders) brings full justice to Ms. Alcott's compromised ending with a free-spirited coda that should be an inspiration for future generations. This is the Little Women in thought, word and deed that has done the book's author the sturdiest measure of justice and it is unquestionably one of the very best films of 2019.”  (Sam Juliano)

Best Picture Countdown #4: Uncut Gems (Josh and Benny Safdie)

“In the opening of the film one is taken through a metaphysical whirlwind— a precious gemstone, through the cosmos, into a colonoscopy (I can’t explain it, just see it). Birth, life, death, nature, science, spirit collapsed all in barely the first few minutes of the film. Daniel Lopatin’s soundtrack adds to the otherworldly, providing a throbbing digital atmosphere of another ethereal space we’ve all crowded into. A war between elegant beauty— like each carefully set diamond on a gem-emblazoned Furby, or the perfect basketball shot— and utter chaos (no spoilers), battling in search of some kind of order or meaning or sense to the pulsating, relentless, maddening human experience. The whole film asking: What and why do you worship?” (Donna Kozloskie)

Best Picture Countdown #3: Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino)

“The most moving moments for me are the film’s evening montages, whether it’s the sun going down to the sound of Jose Feliciano’s ‘California Dreamin’’ or the achingly lovely parade of neon signs clicking on at dusk while the Stones sing ‘Out of Time.’ All good things will soon come to an end, and probably sooner than you think. Yet this time it’s a surprisingly ridiculous, unexpectedly cathartic and ultimately melancholy finale. Because that’s what happens in the movies.” (Sean Burns)

Best Picture Countdown #2: The Irishman (Martin Scorsese)

““What this film demonstrates is that as much as Scorsese's career has been about depicting his Italian-American heritage and men who feel inarticulate frustration and guilt, it has even more been about chronicling the moral history of the United States in the postwar era, and our common inability to reckon with said history… The movie's slow pace and deliberateness are the traits of a film made by an old man, but the boiling rage underneath, the desire to grab Frank Sheeran, or Travis Bickle, or Henry Hill, or Jordan Belfort, and yell at them ‘WHAT'S WRONG WITH YOU?’ is the consistent anger that has driven Scorsese's career.” (Jeff McMahon)

Best Picture Countdown #1: Golden Muriel Award, Best Picture of 2019: Parasite (Bong Joon-ho)

“Bong conjures this new film, which posits a social purgatory up from which the Kim family desperately (and literally) has to climb in concocting a scheme for survival which will prove to be both understandable and fatally flawed, with insouciance and acid purpose. Parasite’s protagonists, the denizens of a partially submerged basement apartment whose windows look directly out into the gutters of a crowded and filthy urban street, are looking for any way to survive. They stumble upon a way to insinuate themselves into a home of the Parks, a super-rich family residing in the hills, where Bong’s social critique is allowed to develop the real, sharp teeth laying in patient wait behind the good-natured smile of its opening third. There may be several moments during Parasite when Ki-woo’s astonished observation may be just as apt, but the movie’s built-in auto-critique defuses the relative obviousness of Bong’s dramatic strategies by serving them up with healthy doses of empathy and humor. By the point when the wealthy Park family takes off for a weekend camping trip, leaving the run of their spacious and modern mansion to the Kims, you can practically taste the glee with which Bong has taken to ensure that the hooks are in his audience, who will likely have no idea of the depths to which his demonically entertaining film is about to plunge them.” (Dennis Cozzalio)

(Click here to see a list of all the other awards the Muriels bestowed upon Parasite this year.)