TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. For filmmakers, this is award season. But for film critics, it's 10 best season. And our film critic Justin Chang has his best of the year list and is going to talk with us about his picks. Justin is also a film critic for the LA Times. I've never interviewed him. So a little later, I'm going to talk with him about his career as a film critic and the movies that he first fell in love with.
Justin Chang, welcome to FRESH AIR. So...
JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Why don't we start with your top 10 list, which is more of, like, a top 12 list because you've paired things together. And so you're taking liberties. That's OK.
GROSS: So why don't you run through your list for us?
CHANG: OK. And the way I've done this is I've grouped titles together because a lot of these movies this year seem to be in conversation with one another. And it felt weird to split them up. It doesn't always happen that way, but it did. So number 12 for me is "Madeline's Madeline," Josephine Decker's restlessly creative portrait of a teenage actress in New York. The movie is an emotional and psychological triangle about three women and just like my No. 11 film, "The Favorite," which is Yorgos Lanthimos' viciously entertaining costume drama starring Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone and the magnificent Olivia Colman.
Next, I have two wonderfully layered and mysterious dramas about makeshift families living in poverty. Number 10 is "Happy As Lazzaro" from the Italian director Alice Rohrwacher. And number nine is "Shoplifters" from the Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda, which won the Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival.
My next two movies are both contemporary riffs on the classic Western, both made with non-professional actors. Number eight is actually called "Western." It's a German drama set in Bulgaria by the director of the Valeska Grisebach. And number seven is "The Rider," Chloe Zhao's achingly sad movie about a Lakota cowboy who may never ride a horse again. Number six is "If Beale Street Could Talk," Barry Jenkins' staggeringly beautiful adaptation of James Baldwin's novel. I'm pairing it with number five, the pitch-perfect marital dramedy "Private Life" directed by Tamara Jenkins. Both these movies are about families coming together to support a couple through a long-term ordeal.
Number four is Ryan Coogler's visionary comic book epic "Black Panther." It's nice when the top-grossing movie of the year is also one of the best. I'm pairing it with a movie whose gross would probably not cover the "Black Panther" craft services budget, and that is "Zama," Lucrecia Martel's brilliant movie about a Spanish magistrate in 18th-century Paraguay. Both movies have a lot to say about colonialism and slavery, though they say it in very, very different ways.
Coming in at number two is "First Reformed," Paul Schrader's stunning drama about a Protestant minister played by Ethan Hawke. It's a story about a man's growing alienation and despair, which makes it a good pairing with my No. 1 movie of the year, "Burning," which is a masterpiece from the great South Korean director Lee Chang-dong.
GROSS: It's a very diverse list you've put together. Can you talk about the diversity represented in that list?
CHANG: It's been a really diverse year I think. And in my criticism, I always try to cast as wide an eye as possible. It's not always the case that I have - I think I have a lot more foreign-language films or films from overseas on my list this year. It's been an exceptional year for world cinema. And yet at the same time, it was a really good year, I think, for the American studios - Black Panther of course. You know, I like a lot of movies, by the way, that are - just did not make my list. There were so many that I liked this year. Like, I really like "A Star Is Born," (laughter) you know, for example. I just - it didn't quite crack my top 20, I guess. But I was a fan.
And I want to mention the film "Leave No Trace," which, again, just fell just outside my list. It's directed by Debra Granik, who did "Winter's Bone." And she actually won the best director prize from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, of which I'm a member. And she and Tamara Jenkins both made these wonderful movies after long absences for various reasons. I think industry sexism maybe being one of them but other reasons as well - just finding the right material. So it was very heartening to see a lot of female directorial voices that we hadn't heard from in a while that reemerged this year.
GROSS: With Christmas coming up, I think a lot of people will be going to the movies. Are there films opening for the holidays or still around during the holidays that you'd recommend?
CHANG: I'm going to surprise myself by recommending two movies that fall under categories that I as a critic am not supposed to really like or endorse in any way. One of those is a superhero, comic book-based film. And the other one is a "Transformers" movie of all things. I can't believe I just said that.
The superhero one is "Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse," which is an animated film. It's terrifically inventive and funny and visually stunning. It's a reinvention of the Spider-Man myth. It completely disarmed me and a lot of my colleagues as well who've seen it. And the other one that I would recommend is "Bumblebee," which is a prequel to the "Transformers" movies. And because it's directed by Travis Knight rather than that auteur of incoherence Michael Bay, it actually tells a surprisingly sweet and amusing and blissfully coherent story of intergalactic friendship. And it also stars Hailee Steinfeld as the human lead - so a Transformers movie led by a woman for a change. And that will probably do well at the box office.
So I do want to mention, if I may, two movies that I didn't particularly care for but I'm not saying don't go necessarily. And I don't want to be too Grinchy, but these are kind of two of the big sort of - two of definitely the big studio movies that are opening around the holidays. One of them is "Vice," which is Adam McKay's biopic of former Vice President Dick Cheney, who's played by Christian Bale. Amy Adams plays his wife, Lynne Cheney. Sam Rockwell plays former President George W. Bush, and Steve Carell is former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. I'm giving it perhaps maybe a mild recommendation. McKay's guerrilla-style agitprop comedy doesn't really do that much for me, but I find it a little grating and self-congratulatory. But there is a lot to chew on here. Bale's performance is pretty astounding and should be seen.
And the other one, which is going to make me a lot of enemies perhaps (laughter), is "Mary Poppins Returns." It's turning out to be one of the more unexpectedly polarizing movies of the season. I adore the 1964 movie with Julie Andrews, and I thought this one, which stars Emily Blunt - and I am a fan of Emily Blunt, but I just found this to be a very busy and overstuffed and strenuously upbeat movie that did not charm me for a second. But I also have friends and colleagues who were reduced to tears by it, so your mileage may vary. You should go and check it out for yourself.
GROSS: Yeah, I just saw it. I really liked it.
CHANG: (Laughter) There you go.
GROSS: But, you know, I'm too old to have seen the original "Mary Poppins" as a child, so it's not a movie, you know, that I had such attachment to that I'm measuring this against it. But I like the sadness of this Mary Poppins. It's set, like, in the Depression. And, you know, the wife, mother of the family, has died, so there's sadness overhanging the whole movie. And I think the songs are good, and the orchestration is terrific. The performers are great. Lin-Manuel Miranda is so much fun to watch in a kind of vaudevillian type of role.
GROSS: Yeah, so it's interesting. I didn't realize it was such a polarizing movie.
CHANG: It's early days yet. It hasn't opened. I mean, when I talk - sometimes I'm looking, you know, it's - the reviews have broken for this movie, you know, a couple weeks before the movie's actually released. So we'll wait and see. I shouldn't necessarily say it's polarizing until - I think the movie's going to do very, very well, and people are largely going to love it. I know what you mean, Terry.
And it's funny for me because I did grow up with the original. And I tried not to do too much of a - when I'm - Disney's doing this a lot, lately. They are revisiting their old material, like, with live-action versions of "Cinderella" and "Beauty And The Beast" and the forthcoming "Lion King." So they're kind of raiding their back catalogue a lot.
And I try not to be overly comparative. But with this one, it was just hard for me because I felt that it was so kind of engineered as a series of callbacks to the original. And I find - this is not just Disney, too. They're trying to give you something old with just a little bit of something new.
GROSS: My guest is our film critic, Justin Chang. We'll talk more about movies after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF DAVE BRUBECK'S "HOMECOMING JINGLE BELLS")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is our film critic, Justin Chang. He's been telling us what's on his best of the year list. So number two on your list is "First Reformed," Paul Schrader's terrific film starring Ethan Hawke as a minister who's losing his faith and dealing with guilt over his son's death. And you describe it in the LA Times as the rare religious movie to understand the deepest convictions often arise from a posture of doubt.
And in March of this year, you wrote a piece about Christian films - about, you know, faith-based Christian films, which Paul Schrader's film is not one of. But the headline for that piece was, "A Christian Critic Wrestles With New Biblical Films And The Hope For A Better Faith-Based Cinema." And the Christian critic was you. And these are films I don't know even get reviewed in most newspapers. I think they might be...
CHANG: They - they...
GROSS: Yeah, go ahead.
CHANG: They do sometimes. I think we try - you know, I - you know, and a lot of publications do try. But I find them fascinating. I think the great majority of them, as I wrote in that piece, are not very good. And they are very doctrinaire. They're very heavy-handed. They take very sort of facile, dramatic approaches to serious themes and wind up sort of hitting you over the head or they end with an altar call. And I - so even though I'm a Christian, I don't feel so different about them as maybe an atheist critic would (laughter) or so.
You know, and I just sort of cringe at, you know, sometimes just - to bring it back to "First Reformed," I do love it when filmmakers who are established take on - you know, and of course, Paul Schrader is, you know, he's a Christian, you know, has - comes from a Calvinist background. And you see that through his career. So "First Reformed" is very much a career summation of him - for him. And he, you know, he comes from a very progressive, liberal political point of view. And he is clearly wrestling with - with this and kind of trying to tear down the sort of, you know - I guess, in some ways, the more conservative wing of Christianity.
I loved, just a few years ago, Martin Scorsese's film "Silence" was my favorite movie that year. And that was about a Jesuit priest in Japan and his crisis of faith and very much, you know - it was all about the silence of God and the apparent absence of God and what you do with that doubt. So I think that there's a great dramatic potency there. And as someone who - you know, I'm a - I'm a Christian. But I also think, like any thinking person, I experience doubt every day, every second. And so it's kind of what keeps us going. And I'm a big - I'm fascinated by movies that sort of explore that tension and wrestle with that tension.
GROSS: How did you first fall in love with movies?
CHANG: Oh, to bring it back to "Mary Poppins," I think that and "The Sound Of Music," the two Julie Andrews nanny governess movies were just constantly on replay throughout - in my house, and a lot of Disney movies and such. But I didn't actually grow up seeing a lot of movies beyond that. I didn't grow up with "Star Wars" and "Indiana Jones," which maybe explains why I feel a little bit more removed from those franchises in their latter-day reincarnations, as it were.
But I really - for me, when I was a teenager or perhaps an early adolescent, you know, gosh, I remember one year. It was - the year 1997, I think it was. And the biggest movie that year and, of course, of all time was "Titanic." And I remember seeing that movie. And also, then, that movie was, you know, making - getting a lot of attention. And there was another film called "The Sweet Hereafter," Atom Egoyan's beautiful adaptation of the Russell Banks novel, I believe it was, starring Bruce Greenwood and Sarah Polley, which made a lot of top-ten lists.
And I remember reading, in the LA Times, Kenneth Turan's reviews of both those films. He hated "Titanic." And in fact, the director, James Cameron, came after him in the Times for that. But he also - and he lavished praise on "The Sweet Hereafter." And this is very moving and meaningful to me because Kenny is now a dear colleague of mine at the Times. But watching those two, it was interesting to me that here's this enormous blockbuster. And here is, you know, an art film, or an independent drama, a Canadian film. And I actually love both movies.
And it was an interesting kind of, OK, how are these - how are these good or not good? And what - it just got me thinking about, how do I make sense of my reactions? And now - at this time, these weren't - you know, I was watching a lot - starting to watch a lot of other movies. I was going to theaters. I started kind of going by myself to theaters as well.
I started doing a teen movie panel for my Orange County - I grew up in Orange County. And it was the Orange County Register, my hometown paper, that had this, where they would assign teenagers to go review the movies. And you'd write, like, a little paragraph. And that was my first kind of foray into the world of entertainment journalism.
GROSS: So you said that you didn't grow up with "Star Wars" and other films like that. Is that a function of age, taste or your parents?
CHANG: You know, it's weird. I don't know. I mean, my parents didn't always go out of their way to show me movies. I watched a lot - yeah, I watched a fair amount of television. It was also sort of a taste thing. I just wasn't that into it, I guess. Maybe - but maybe if I'd been exposed to it at the right time, I would have been, you know? And I - now I - even though it's not maybe my first love, I like a lot of Spielberg movies. I, of course, have gone back and watched them. I like a lot of the "Star Wars" movies. Maybe I might - you know, my attachment to them is not as deep because it didn't - it wasn't a formative kind of thing.
But at the same time, my dad was really into old Hollywood. He loved - and we did watch a lot together. Like, we watched a lot of Hitchcock movies together. We watched "North By Northwest." We watched "Psycho." We watched "Vertigo." We watched all the - you know, my - I can't remember if it was my dad or my mom, but talking about seeing "The Bicycle Thief" in China. And so it's like - and this movie that kind of reduced people to tears over there.
So my dad really did do his part to sort of nurture a love of old movies, in particular. So - for which I'm very much grateful to him in retrospect, although I don't think he had thought at the time that it would produce anything in terms of shape - shape me in terms of my career or what I would do.
GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more.
CHANG: Sure (laughter).
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is FRESH AIR film critic, Justin Chang. He's of course also film critic for the LA Times. And we've been talking about the year end in movies. But we're also talking about Justin's life as a film critic. We're going to do more of that after we come back from this break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE COUNT BASIE ORCHESTRA'S "GOOD SWING WENCESLAS")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is FRESH AIR's film critic, Justin Chang, who is also a film critic for the LA Times. And he's here to talk about the year in movies, but we're also talking about his life as a film critic.
So "Crazy Rich Asians," a film that you liked this year, was, like, the first really, like, big-budget American movie with an all-Asian cast. And I'm wondering when you were growing up and there weren't movies like that, did it matter to you? Did you feel like you were not included onscreen?
CHANG: Yes and no, I guess. It was 1993 when "The Joy Luck Club" came out. And I believe that people have been saying it's been 25 years now, and "Crazy Rich Asians" is the first Hollywood studio movie to feature an Asian-American or to - I would say, actually, to tell a story that's specifically about Asian-American identity - because, of course, "Crazy Rich Asians" also features - it's a very Pan Asian cast from - of Americans and also actors from Asia, like Michelle Yeoh, for example. So that's quite a large gap.
So I think that it was - when I went to go see "Crazy Rich Asians," which I liked a lot and - but I also was maybe approaching it a little bit warily, not wanting to give it, you know, points for - just for checking off a box, I guess. But I was really surprised at how moving it was. And Michelle Yeoh in the movie gives one of my favorite performances this year. She's this, you know, matriarch of this obscenely wealthy Chinese Singaporean family - which is, again, not that relatable to me (laughter).
But I think what is relatable about it is that she - there's a scene in the movie where, you know, they're making dumplings. And then there's a later scene where she and the lead character, played by Constance Wu, are playing Mahjong. And they are talking about family and the obligations of family and how, in Asian families, there is this expectation of, you know, of devotion to your parents and devotion to your children.
It's a very, you know - parents and children are so closely bound in this culture. And I think this is true of a lot of immigrant cultures as well. And Michelle Yeoh just delivers these speeches so beautifully. It's very, very subtle acting. But I almost broke down crying just hearing this and realizing that I had never heard these sentiments expressed or explored before in a mainstream American, Hollywood-made film. And there was something really powerful about that. And it made me question - and I kind of said this in my review - it's a - you know, why haven't we heard this before? It's kind of remarkable.
And that - and something like that - you know, and if you haven't had that experience, if the movie doesn't resonate with you, that's totally fine. But for me, it did. And I think we lose something when we don't hear from other cultures. And so - but to your question, do I feel that kind of sense of exclusion? Not really - I don't think it's until you see a movie like that that you're even reminded of it because - and I - it's weird because even though I just have used the word relatable many times, I am generally not a big believer that you need to relate to a movie to like it or appreciate it or even to love it.
I think sometimes a lot of critics - or even just a lot of moviegoers - make this weird fetish out of relatability as if, you know, something that has to speak to me personally. And I think that's a very sort of solipsistic way of looking at cinema. I'm very torn sometimes about this subject. I do think there is a deep human need to see oneself reflected on the screen.
And at the same time, I think the glory of cinema is sometimes getting you out of that completely and getting you to see a perspective that you wouldn't have thought to engage with. And of course, those things do go hand in hand. They're not - you know, you need both of those perspectives I think - so yeah.
GROSS: Before you wrote for the LA Times, you wrote for Variety.
GROSS: Did you have to learn any of the kind of Variety lingo, like, the inside - inside-the-biz lingo that Variety at least used to be famous for?
CHANG: Used to be - yeah, I know. It's very funny. And I - sure, I did use, you know, words like pic for picture or movie, or prexy for president or, you know, sprocket opera for film festival (laughter).
CHANG: I didn't use them extensively, but those were fun to use, you know? And it's a little bit of a shame although completely understandable that Variety has largely phased out what they used to call slanguage (ph) because it is not very Internet-friendly. It is not search-engine-friendly. So I do understand that, you know, everything is very much about getting traffic now. And so...
GROSS: I didn't realize that that's why it was phased out. That's a really, like, interesting reason to - (laughter) that it was phased out.
CHANG: I would love to - and, you know, it's been a while since I was at Variety, although I still have many friends and colleagues there who - you know, and we used to have, yes, language dictionaries in the office that had - (laughter) you know, it was, like, a glossary of terms. And - but even then there was always this sense of, like, don't overdo it. You know, write naturally. Don't try to force yourself to use it. And a lot of times, the - there's this kind of brusqueness to trade language. And it's usually just, you know, you just - you take out all the - the thes and the definite articles and whatnot to make it seem a little bit more abbreviated.
But yeah, Variety, though, was a wonderful apprenticeship, and I spent 12 years there. And I'm very fond of the place still. And even though it was very scary because Variety is the bible of showbiz - and when I first started there, I was an intern fresh out of college. I didn't know what the heck I was doing. And I was the very opposite of an insider. And they were really - the great thing about it is they were willing to give an intern a shot. And I started reviewing movies as an intern, and then I got hired there. And so I will always be grateful to them for that opportunity.
GROSS: So I don't mean to put you on the spot, but you have, like, a top three movies of all time list.
CHANG: Yes. I have a bunch. But my favorite movie of all time is "Chungking Express" from the Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai. It was made in the '90s. It's just a joy bomb of a movie. It just makes me happy every time I see it. It's a wonderful romantic comedy by way of a police thriller - kind of uncategorizable, wonderful movie. And gosh, it's hard to settle on a top two.
But I also love "The Godfather Part II." I love the first one, too. But the second one is just to the next level for me. And, God, what's a third one? Oh, I'll say "Rio Bravo," Howard Hawks' great western with John Wayne. Yeah, it's one of my favorites.
GROSS: Well, Justin, it's been great to talk with you.
CHANG: Thank you.
GROSS: I wish you a Merry Christmas and a happy and healthy and fulfilling 2019. And I look forward...
CHANG: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: ...To hearing and reading more of your reviews.
CHANG: Happy holidays and happy new year to you, Terry. And thank you so much for letting me contribute.
GROSS: Justin Chang is FRESH AIR's film critic and a film critic for the LA Times. His 10 best list, along with our other critics' lists of the best of the year in TV, books and pop music, are all collected on one page at npr.org/freshaircritics. If you're still searching for holiday gifts or if you're looking for suggestions of what to read or view over the holidays, check out these lists at npr.org/freshaircritics.
(SOUNDBITE OF SUSIE ARIOLI'S "CHRISTMAS DREAMING")
GROSS: And if you're looking for interviews to listen to over the holidays, like our interview with Emily Blunt, who stars in "Mary Poppins Returns," check out our podcast.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross.
We'll close with a song from a new album of holiday songs titled "Christmas Dreaming" by Canadian singer Susie Arioli. This is the title track, a song originally recorded by Frank Sinatra in 1947.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHRISTMAS DREAMING")
SUSIE ARIOLI: (Singing) I'm doing my Christmas dreaming a little early this year. No sign of snow around and yet I go around, hearing jingle bells ringing in my ear. Your promise must be the reason the happy season is here. So I'm doing my Christmas dreaming a little early this year.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.