After one viewing I think this is James Gray’s finest work—and I say that as a big admirer of Gray as an auteur– each of the last four films of his has made it onto their respective years’ top 10
Thematically layered, intelligently conceived, executed– and visually ambitious
Gray is a Francis Ford Coppola acolyte and one of the layers here is to see the film as such. It’s Greek mythology and although Coppola doesn’t have a copyright on that or generational conflicts, father/son patriarchy — when you look at Gray’s oeuvre (not just the casting of Duvall or James Caan) it’s hard not to see in that context. The plot structure here in Ad Astra is from Apocalypse Now. Individual scenes seem to be taken nearly directly from that film (how about scene with Harrison Ford in Apocalypse Now where they tell Sheen about his mission). Tommy Lee is Brando, Pitt is Martin Sheen (complete with voice-over). The different stops along the way– the monkeys here (a nod to 2001 and a fascinating evolutionary statement) could be the playboy bunnies or Duvall stop— the moon is the French plantation, — mars the Do Lung bridge set piece, etc
The rest of the cast is fine but this is largely a one-man show and Pitt is more than up to the challenge. It should rank as one of his greatest achievements. His character has an impressive arc (starting out as the stoic low heart-beat-per-minute) and several showcase moments (like his ad-libbed voice message to his dad) in a transcendent film at or near masterpiece-level film
Like Gray’s 2013 film The Immigrant (Gray’s finest film prior) it’s impressive world-building in the production design. He and DP Hoyte Van Hoytema (Nolan’s recent go-to since Wally Pfizer including Interstellar) have put together impressive action set pieces (the car chase on the moon is wild, the Roger Deakins Blade Runner 2049-like structures on Mars jaw-droppingly picturesque)
I think it broadens and enhances Gray’s last film- The Lost City of Z– both meditations on uncontrollable ambition, both sort Apocalypse Now– films frankly.
There’s also an undeniable religious/theological dimension to this work—we start the film with Pitt’s fall from above, the search for answers from an absent father.
I think all of this here constitutes a top 10 of the year quality film- very well composed, designed, and acted film. However, there’s an interconnected visual design used in 50-100+ frames that needs to be celebrated and studied. Gray uses a reoccurring photographical sun-spot in countless frames. I couldn’t really capture a good screenshot grab here but it’s used at the very beginning and its carried on throughout. I’ve never seen it use like that as a formal reoccurring motif—beautiful and distinct. In the thousands of films I’ve seen— this is it—Gray must have labored over the film in every frame in such detail. He spoke openly about using Tommy Lee Jones’ voice in different pitches and speeds and frequencies in the sound-mix design and I believe this is the visual equivalent (showing Pitt, as the son the presence of his father throughout his journey). The sun spot motif is a gob smacking formal/visual achievement and it’s what takes this film from a top 10 of the year to a top 5 or even a masterpiece
Must-See top 5 of the year quality for now after one viewing
Great review !! I agree with you 100%. What a year for Pitt 😮
@KidCharlemagne — That’s great we’re on the same page here with “Ad Astra”. And yes- wow what a year for Pitt indeed. He’s really strong in what’s sure to be two of the best films of the year. I’m trying to remember the last time we had that with an actor. Not a lot is rushing to the front of my mind.
I am being a bit lazy here but it might be the best year for an actor since De Niro in 1995. Cruise in 1999 would be a great choice but think Bob edges him just. Not a lot in between.
Talking of 1995, don’t think we have a Heat review from you. Do it if you find some time
@AP– thanks for the comment here. As for my review of “Heat”– I don’t have one yet- which means I haven’t seen it in 2-3 years (when i started the blog) so I’m overdue. That’s far too long to go in my life without watching “Heat” so I’ll have your comment serve as a good reminder to put it on the short list to see again.
As for the best year for an actor- you and KidCharlemagne got me thinking– I’m sure I’m missing a few but here are some actors/years where I think the actor gives two of the best 5-6 male or female performances of the year– in great films. it’s a really short list if you think about 100 years of cinema so… yeah– we need to stop and appreciate what Pitt is doing this year.
1924- Buster Keaton- “Sherlock Jr” and “The Navigator”
1927- Janet Gaynor– both in “Sunrise” and “7th Heaven”
1930- Marlene Dietrich – “Morocco” and “Blue Angel”
1939- Jean Arthur – “Only Angels Have Wings” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”
1940- Jimmy Stewart “The Shop Around the Corner”- “The Philadelphia Story”
1940- Cary Grant- “His Girl Friday” – “The Philadelphia Story”
1941- Humphrey Bogart – “The Maltese Falcon” – “High Sierra”
1948- John Wayne – “Fort Apache” and “Red River”
1955- James Dean – “East of Eden” and “Rebel Without a Cause”
1965- Julie Christie – “Doctor Zhivago” and “Darling”- and this is iffy because “Darling isn’t on the level of most of these films
1972- Marlon Brando – “The Godfather” and “The Last Tango in Paris”- I think this is the all-time winner… right?
1973- Al Pacino – “Serpico” and “Scarecrow”
1975- Jack Nicholson – “The Passenger” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”
1976- Robert De Niro – “Taxi Driver” and “1900”
1987- Holly Hunter – “Broadcast News” and “Raising Arizona”
1993- Daniel Day Lewis- “In the Name of the Father” and “The Age of Innocence”
1995- Robert De Niro – “Heat” and “Casino”
1995- Brad Pitt- “Seven” and “12 Monkeys”
1999- Tom Cruise- “Magnolia” and “Eyes Wide Shut”
2002 – Julianne Moore and Meryl Streep – both are in “The Hours” and then “Far From Heaven” from Moore and “Adaptation” for Streep
2003- Sean Penn – “Mystic River” and “21 Grams”
2010- Leonardo DiCaprio- “Inception” and “Shutter Island”
2019- Brad Pitt – “Ad Astra” and “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” ‘
Again- i’m sure I’m missing some but still- this is an exclusive list. It’s much more common for an actor or actress to go on a 2, 3, 4 year run where they are just dominant
Cruise 99’ is my favourite.
The best is between Brando 72’ or DeNiro 95’ I think.
Did Pitt 95’ works ? Two Must-see movies (12 monkeys/Seven).
@KidCharlemagne– you’re right- nice work– appreciate the help. Updated here to include 1995’s year for Pitt. Cruise’s 1999 does not seem like a wrong choice for #1. Both films are absolutely outstanding, two of our greatest auteurs, and the range in those two performances (one off the wall, big, loud— and one quieter) from Cruise. What a year!
A bit late but Nicholson in 1975 has to be there. He doesn’t have the best performance of the year (close) but 2 of the very best in Cuckoo and The Passenger. And there is The Fortune for what’s it worth.
@AP – Wow- well done. I’ve added Nicholson’s 1975 to the list. Thank you. So I made my list of top 100 actors before I did my most recent study of Antonioni study which is why I missed this one.
Pitt in 2011 deserves a shot here, i think. Tree of Life and Moneyball. The only one with 3 such years. Remarkable.
I am pretty confident that Pitt has a Top 10 all time resume. The only thing against him could be that he doesn’t have a LaMotta/Plainview/Corleone. Those performances don’t come around often, but he more than makes up for it with his filmography. A couple of solid films and he should be a lock for the Top 10.
Love him but more of a top 20 than top 10 for me.
@AP and KidCharlemagne— So i had him 23rd when i did it in 2018 (http://thecinemaarchives.com/2018/06/27/the-23rd-best-actor-of-all-time-brad-pitt/) but a year like 2019 does not come along often and whenever I update it he will jump up at least into the top 20 if not top 15 or top 10.
2011 is another amazing year for Pitt and I thought long and hard about it. I just don’t think “Moneyball” is quite in the class with the rest of these films. I think it’s a very good film and it’s certainly not a case of “Ok/bad movie—- great performance”– but still. I couldn’t find a spot for it in my top 10 of 2011. It was in that 11-15 range.
« So i had him 23rd when i did it in 2018 (http://thecinemaarchives.com/2018/06/27/the-23rd-best-actor-of-all-time-brad-pitt/) but a year like 2019 does not come along often and whenever I update it he will jump up at least into the top 20 if not top 15 or top 10. »
Great haha. Love him. My favourite (with Tom Cruise) of his generation.
« 2011 is another amazing year for Pitt and I thought long and hard about it. I just don’t think “Moneyball” is quite in the class with the rest of these films. I think it’s a very good film and it’s certainly not a case of “Ok/bad movie—- great performance”– but still. I couldn’t find a spot for it in my top 10 of 2011. It was in that 11-15 range. »
For me,it’s a top 10 film so yes I agree with you.
My ranking of The 7 James Gray movies :
1 – We Own the Night (2007)
2 – Ad Astra (2019)
3 – Two Lovers (2008)
4 – The Immigrant (2013)
5 – The Lost City of Z (2016)
6 – Little Odessa (1994)
7 – The Yards (2000)
@KidCharlemagne . Thanks for sharing. I haven’t tried to rank Gray’s films yet but I do think you have 1-2 right (even if after a second viewing of Ad Astra I may switch the order). Great work though. I may flip Little Odessa and The Yards as well but we’re really close.
Hi Drake. Just rewatch Ad Astra and I think you’re right. It’s maybe his masterpiece.
@KidCharlemagne – Happy to hear it. I’ll do a rewatch soon as well– typical of James Gray films— this one is sadly being ignored by most critics when it comes to year-end top 10 lists.
Belmondo in 1960 can be added here..
I don’t know how to forget this one, Florence Pugh had a year as good as Pitt, Little Women and Midsommar.
I would also add Stewart, although not at the same level
1939: Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, It’s a Wonderful World, Destry Rides Again, Made For Each Other.
1948: Call Northside 777, Rope.
1950: Harvey, Broken Arrow, Winchester 73.
1962: How the West Was Won, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
Kirk Douglas (1951): Ace in the Hole and Detective Story
What exactly are you listing @Aldo? The best actors of all time? The best acted years of the 20th century? What is this list about?
Kevin Spacey had seven and usual suspects in the same year
De niro made Heat and Casino same year. Would these be good examples?
@Azman. Actors who participated in the best movies of the year like Pitt in 2019, mention Pugh in Midsommar and Little Women.
Spacey is a good example