Joe Pesci and the Rest of the Best of 2019

Joe Pesci in Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman (2019)

Writing up a list of his favorite jazz albums of 2019, Slate’s Fred Kaplan includes Joe Pesci’s Still Singing. “Yes, the actor who’s played some of Martin Scorsese’s most menacing mobsters croons a dozen ballads and standards with flair and artistry,” writes Kaplan. “His voice is strangely sweet and gruff (inspired by Little Jimmy Scott, to whom the album is dedicated and who sings in duet on one track), but his phrasing is sure-footed, his notes (including the off-center ones) are pitch-perfect, and he taps into the essence of a song.” Ten years ago, Pesci announced that he was retiring from acting to concentrate on his musical career, but he’s not in a hurry. Still Singing is his third album after Little Joe Sure Can Sing! (1968) and Vincent LaGuardia Gambini Sings Just for You (1998).

In the New York Times last month, Violet Lucca argued that while Pesci “has been largely written off as a character actor, one who only could play variations on squawking wiseguys like Tommy [in Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990)], his career has long begged for reappraisal.” The moment for such a reappraisal would, of course, be now. Having been coaxed out of retirement to play Russell Bufalino in Scorsese’s The Irishman, he was awarded best supporting actor this week by the New York Film Critics Circle.

The NYFCC has also named The Irishman best picture, and so has the 110-year-old National Board of Review. “How weird and how great is it that the year’s most controversial movie, the digitally de-aged face that launched a thousand bad takes—about Netflix release strategies, about the future of theatrical viewing, about the meaning of silent women, and, via an interview published in conjunction with its premiere, about whether or not Marvel movies are ‘cinema’—was a three-and-a-half-hour drama by a nearly eighty-year-old master, revisiting the material that he’s been mulling and reshaping his whole life?” asks Dana Stevens at Slate, where she’s posted her top tens for both 2019 and the 2010s.

Scorsese’s great American epic is one of the American Film Institute’s ten movies of the year. It’s also placed high in the best-of-2019 lists from the New Yorker’s Richard Brody; the Atlantic’s David Sims, whose #1, Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, scores the NYFCC’s best cinematography award for Claire Mathon; ScreenCrush’s Matt Singer; Variety’s Owen Gleiberman, but not Variety’s Peter Debruge; Vox’s Alissa Wilkinson; the Playlist; and the Ringer’s Sean Fennessey and Adam Nayman, whose #1 is the NYFCC’s best screenplay winner, Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood.

In his latest Vanity Fair column on the Oscar race, Mark Harris predicts that The Irishman and Once Upon a Time are “poised to compete for best picture and just about every other award not involving actresses.” And “what’s most striking about this matchup isn’t how long it’s been in coming,” he adds. “It’s how elegiac it feels, how full of an awareness that a moment for a kind of movie—and for a kind of long-celebrated male character—is passing, perhaps deservedly. Both movies take as their subject the waning of an alpha-male primacy that has dominated film culture, one that was always an illusion. Spend a day watching The Irishman and Once Upon a Time in . . . Hollywood as a double feature—and I do mean a day; it’s a six-and-a-half-hour commitment—and what you will see and hear is a long goodbye.”

The Irishman, in the meantime, rides high in the top tens from New York Times critics Manohla Dargis and A. O. Scott. Both of their lists come with preambles, and in hers, Dargis quotes a remark Scorsese made in Rome in October: “In the last ten years, my films have been independently financed under difficult circumstances.” For Dargis, that’s “a sobering description of American mainstream movies in the age of global media conglomerates.” Both she and Scott refer to the op-ed Scorsese wrote for the NYT early last month in which he expressed his fear that “worldwide audiovisual entertainment” is “being used to marginalize and even belittle the existence” of what he considers to be true cinema. “The medium, right now, is a mess,” writes Scott. “But the art form is in a state of rude, contentious health.”

Ljubomir Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska’s Honeyland, a portrait of a beekeeper in North Macedonia, is not only the NYFCC’s choice for best nonfiction film but it also lands at the top of Scott’s list. Dargis’s #1 is Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory, and the NYFCC has named that film’s star, Antonio Banderas, best actor. The NYFCC’s choice for best foreign language film is Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, which is #3 on both Dargis’s and Scott’s list. “I can’t think of a film that made me sadder about the state of the world and more jubilant about the state of movies,” writes Scott.

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