Today was just about the best day you can have for cinema back in 2019. It’s not often that two of the absolute best films of one year come out on the exact same day, but that’s exactly what happened on November 27th of 2019; Knives Out was dropped in cinemas, and The Irishman got a wide release on Netflix after a limited theatrical run.
Now, one year later, and both films continue to stand as towering achievements in their respective fields. Knives Out remains a consistent pleasure, especially in these pandemic times; a warm and comforting piece of cinema, one which manages that always tricky feat of being genuinely, authentically fun. The Irishman’s accomplishments are even more pertinent in the wake of Corona; with cinemas shut down, it’s been down to streaming services to provide us with our necessary film fixes. And there have been some gems here and there – System Crasher, the excellent German drama film, could be found on Netflix, and The Vast of Night, the impressive Twilight Zone-esque throwback, was an Amazon original – but nothing that can really compare to Martin Scorsese’s towering achievement.
On the surface, these two films couldn’t be further apart. The Irishman is a sprawling and somber gangster epic, a biopic of the man who reportedly killed Jimmy Hoffa. It’s a three-and-a-half hour film that both harkens back to, and pointedly examines the nature of, the iconography that its director, Martin Scorsese, built his career on. On the other hand, Knives Out almost overflows with bubbly positivity and sumptuous charm. It’s a movie where you can almost tangibly feel the joy with which Rian Johnson crafted the interlocking narrative.
And yet, I almost can’t help but take the two movies as a pair, and not just because of the shared release date, and the fact that they’re both fantastic movies. That’s a big part of it, to be sure, but what’s hitting me all this time later is how both movie’s strengths come from very similar places. They’re both films that play with expectations; this is most obvious with Knives Out (this is a Rian Johnson film, after all), which plays fast and loose with the established “rules” of whodunnit murder mysteries, especially when it comes to when it chooses to reveal key pieces of information. But The Irishman doesn’t go the usual route either, as evidenced by the audience members who seemed to come away disappointed; they’d gone in expecting a flashy and vibrant crime flick in the style of Goodfellas or Casino, and instead they’d gotten a reflective, downright low-key look at the long-term effects a life of crime can have on a person’s psyche.
I certainly went into The Irishman expecting something other than what I got. Which is to say, I went into The Irishman somewhat nervous. The marketing hadn’t been particularly impressive, with a vague, kind of lackluster trailer having dropped sometime in September, which did nothing to allay my fears about a) the record-setting use of de-aging technology, or b) the fact that this was a Netflix Original.
In retrospect, I needn’t have worried, at least as far as the digital de-aging technology was concerned. At this point, Scorsese has made something of a career out of adopting much-maligned film technologies, and using them in the way they were intended. One need only remember Hugo, so far one of only three films to use 3-D properly. As for the Netflix issue, I still think that one was a very legitimate fear for me to have, given the company’s well-documented history of taking proven directors, and getting just the worst work out of them (Duncan Jones with Mute, David Ayer with Bright, Steven Soderbergh with The Laundromat). It says something, I think, that in the year since its release, The Irishman still stands as the reigning champion of Netflix Original films, yet to be topped.
A similar sentiment could be made for Knives Out, but for mystery films rather than Netflix Originals. One of the many things that makes Knives Out such a masterpiece, not only of technical filmmaking but also of narrative construction, is how expertly it weaves its interesting characters within its puzzle-box plot. Too often with mystery films, one gets prioritized over the other; either a film will have fully-realized characters but a weak mystery, or a clever mystery populated by characters who are barely there. Think Lantana, or Gosford Park (both released in 2001, incidentally), two films where the quirkiness of the characters essentially overrode the actual mystery part to the murder mystery that was supposed to be going on. On the other end of the spectrum, we have 1971’s The Last of Sheila, a movie with a terrifically inventive Clue-like plot, but also a film where the characters just kind of faded in and out of the background. To be clear, I like all three of these films to varying degrees, but on a fundamental level they all do fall victim to that problem of prioritization. Prior to Knives Out, the only mystery films I can think of which got the balance between plot and characters just right were 12 Angry Men and Sleuth (the original, not the remake by Kenneth Branagh). Those two films are genuine masterpieces, both of filmmaking and scripting. They’re among my favorite films ever made, so I think it means something when I say that Knives Out leaves them all in the dust.
It’s not just that the characters in Knives Out are all richly textured, with believable motivations and convincing psychological makeups, or that the mechanics of the plot they’re in still holds up after a whole year of scrutiny. That’s all true, but the miracle of Knives Out is how these two things inform each other. Each one of these characters have arcs, and the way those arcs tie into the overall narrative is nothing short of genius.