2019 was another year full of political chaos, a continuously depressing news cycle, environmental turmoil and turbulent discourse in all aspects of general conversation, but the medium of cinema and movie theaters were there to provide escapism for audiences looking to take a break from it all. And there was enough of it to go around for audiences of all genders, races and sexes, from the box-office record-breaking finale to a twenty-two movie-long saga in Avengers: Endgame and a surplus of strong directorial debuts from new female voices in filmmaking to unflinching looks at African-American life in the face of gentrification and epic trips down memory lane from legendary auteurs Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese. But what stood out the most this year were the films with hopeful messages about the future of mankind, authentic portraits of life from different parts of the country, and critiques of modern masculinity. That being said, the year in movies ended on such a strong note, that narrowing down the year’s best movies to just ten proved to be more than difficult. So without further ado, the following list takes a look back at the last year in movies, and the fifteen best films of 2019.
Worst Films of the Year (from 5-1): Hellboy, Shaft, 47 Meters Down: Uncaged, The Lion King, Cats
Most Overlooked Surprises: Luce, The Art of Self-Defense, Knife + Heart, Teen Spirit, Monos
Honorable Mentions: The Beach Bum, Hagazussa: A Heathen’s Tale, Marriage Story, The Irishman, Ad Astra
15. The Farewell (Lulu Wang)
Asian-American cinema always seems to highlight the familial pressures rooted within the culture, but writer/director Lulu Wang went one step further to reveal their lasting effects in her debut feature film, The Farewell, in which she also tells an eye-opening and emotional narrative about her family, a lie they actually told, and connecting with distant relatives amongst disconnection. Wang’s direct, heartfelt approach to crafting her personal story will leave audiences guessing who is keeping secrets from who, wondering what other ideas are important to Chinese cultures, and yearning to learn about where their own family’s beliefs come from. Read the full review HERE.
14. Little Women (Greta Gerwig)
Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of the classic Louise May Alcott novel stands on its own as one of the best cinematic retellings of the March family sisters and their lives during the Civil War and seven years after its conclusion. Whereas a lot of the story’s plot points in the ’94 adaptation were depicted with the sweeping grandeur of most period pieces, the points in Gerwig’s version feel modernized and intimate in scale, as well as grounded in the relationship of the March sisters. Meanwhile, the family’s daily life is easy to get swept up in thanks to Gerwig’s charming tone, a fast editing pace and tremendous performances from everyone in the ensemble cast, who bounce off each other with infectious chemistry. Overall, Little Women is a wonderful tale about balancing headstrong ambition with compassionate empathy, and a film that cements Gerwig’s legacy as an auteur in a class by herself.
13. Midsommar (Ari Aster)
Ari Aster’s second feature starts off on an unsettling note and only grows more disturbing following the opening credits, as after a horrific family tragedy, college girl Dani (Florence Pugh) joins her emotionally distant boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) and his friends to celebrate the Midsommar festival in a European village with their Swedish friend and his family, mostly unaware they’re in the presence of a death cult. What follows is a deranged film with a unique movie-watching experience that ropes its viewers into a trance upon their arrival and unfolds like a long, slow drug-induced nightmare; the dreamy, ambient score elicits the wonder and surface-level comfort of the festival, acting as a perfect contrast to the twisted acts on screen while the creative cinematography contributes to the psychedelic and ethereal feel, and Pugh continued her breakout year as an actress with a performance conveying powerful grief and despair along with entranced shock and confusion with every ritual in which she partakes. Aster’s direction also aids in creating unsettling atmospheres around beautiful images which evoke themes about overcoming grief and escaping toxic relationships. That said, they may not come together into a fully cohesive idea by the end, but despite that, Midsommar executes its straightforward horror premise with unbelievably artistic flair, through which Aster continues to be an enthralling cult filmmaker to follow.
12. The Last Black Man In San Francisco (Joe Talbot)
What started as a short film idea from best friends Joe Talbot and Jimmie Fails evolved into the feature film, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, which displays the powerful results of people from diverse backgrounds collaborating together in cinema on full display. The narrative follows Jimmie Fails IV (played by Fails himself) and Montgomery (Jonathan Majors), two African-American best friends trying to achieve their personal dreams: Mont wants to be a successful playwright and theater director, while Jimmie longs to once again live in what was his childhood home upon its sudden evacuation. To have a house in contemporary San Francisco is akin to being a king in Jimmie’s eyes, and the way he and Mont observe a city they no longer recognize is photographed with gorgeous cinematography that captures the beauty of the city, while unique tight shots and slow-motion bring a surrealist lens to the citizens with whom they interact. Meanwhile, the wides frame Jimmie and Mont as if they are players on a stage, and the grand, sweeping orchestral score lends an empathetic hand to the film’s theatrical tone, as well as in conveying their hope and laments. It’s also worth noting that the friendship between Mont and Jimmie feels lived-in and organic thanks to the captivating performances from Fails and Majors that are powerful in their nuances, and minor yet poignant moments where they share the same skateboard to get around town. Make no mistake about it, The Last Black Man In San Francisco is a heart-rending statement about how gentrification keeps those it holds back from achieving their dreams and keeps them in environments that breed unnecessary violence, as well as a love letter and elegy to the city of San Francisco, and metropolitan cities going through similar changes.
11. A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood (Marielle Heller)
After the box office and critical success of Won’t You Be My Neighbor? last year, it made sense for a narrative film about Fred Rogers to get the green light, which shone on a script based on the 1998 Esquire cover story about him entitled “Can You Say . . . Hero?” from writer Tom Junod. But what could a narrative film accomplish that Won’t You Be My Neighbor? didn’t, and what material would it cover that wasn’t informed upon previously? Director Marielle Heller knew the answer: tell its story about a jaded, misanthropic journalist with emotional baggage tasked with writing about the children’s show icon in the style of an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood for adult audiences. The results are therapeutic as viewers are given time to meditate over how they control their feelings, the personal traumas they carry, and what lessons they’ve learned from both Rogers and the loved ones in their lives. What’s also worth noting is that Heller’s latest is another authentic, intimate depiction of ordinary life in New York City; private moments where Lloyd Vogel is with his wife Andrea, child Gavin, and even Mister Rogers feel honest in their realism. Add to it another stellar performance from Tom Hanks, a creative turn for the cerebral and a practical recreation of New York City with toys reminiscent of Mister Rogers’ celebrated show that never overstays its welcome, and you have an absolute gem of a film in A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood.
10. Uncut Gems (Josh and Benny Safdie)
After a time in Netflix obscurity, Adam Sandler returned to multiplexes with a dramatic lead role in Uncut Gems, a film from the Sadie Brothers which follows a jeweler with a gambling addiction, an obsession over the feeling of victory and a band of threatening loan sharks on his tail. Together in Uncut Gems, Sandler proved he is still a box office draw and a serious actor through his commanding performance, while the Safdies established themselves as a duo of budding auteurs through crafting an immersive and anxiety-inducing cautionary tale about the corruptive powers of wealth set in the chaotic Diamond district of New York City. Read the full review HERE.
9. The Peanut Butter Falcon (Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz)
What’s been called a modern day Mark Twain-style folk tale doesn’t begin to describe the debut feature narrative from the Lucky Treehouse collective of filmmakers, who aim to tell stories centered around youthful adventure, and prospered in every facet with The Peanut Butter Falcon. The story of a young adult with Down Syndrome running away from his assisted living home to be a professional wrestler sounds like a concept asking for indie parody on the surface, but the film immerses its audience into the world of its characters with nuanced storytelling that lets us into their respective mindsets. Shia LaBeouf’s Tyler is an ex-fisherman on the lam trying to redeem himself after a tragedy, Eleanor is a former high school sweetheart trying to survive another day in her demanding daily life, while Zak is adamant to achieve his dream, and newcomer Zack Gottsagen conveys his desires in a remarkable performance that demonstrates how determined he is to not let his disorder define him. It’s worth mentioning that while the majority of Hollywood paints the rural class in a dark light, The Peanut Butter Falcon showcases a lot of the good, whether it’s the gorgeously shot landscapes of the rivers our heroes travel down, or the endearing portrayal of the eccentric, well-meaning characters the protagonists meet along the way. There’s so much empathy and heart put into the shot composition, writing the script, and directing the actors that you want to see everyone accomplish their goals amongst impossibility in the impoverished world around them, and revisit The Peanut Butter Falcon again and again.
8. Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Celine Sciamma)
It’s unfortunate that France passed on selecting Portrait of a Lady on Fire as the country’s representation in the Best International Feature Film category at the Academy Awards this year, because the film is as much a work of art as it is about art itself. Set in the eighteenth century, artist Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is commissioned to paint a portrait of Héloise (Adèle Haenel), a mysterious bride-to-be. The collaboration blossoms into a beautiful romance between the two women, but the complication of Heloise’s impending arranged marriage to a man leaves both women longing to be together despite the societal norms of the time period stacked against them. The emotional rollercoaster both women find themselves on is compelling throughout thanks to Sciamma’s direction that makes the film powerful in its subtlety; the characters sauntering slowly through their isolated manor and the lack of a musical score leave room for the sexual tension to build to a crescendo as Marianne and Héloise steal glances at the top of a cliff as the ocean roars below them, and again when Héloise sits next to her painter as she plays the piano. The nuanced performances from Merlant and Haenel are also captivating through their facial expressions, which convey layers of character and a wealth of emotion in every scene, whether it’s how the former glances back and forth from her easel to Héloise in fascination of her muse, or how the latter gazes at a first go of her portrait with a critical, inquisitive eye. On a technical level, gorgeous cinematography causes the vibrant colors of its art direction and costume design to pop in the daytime, while shadows and candlelight in the estate feel ominous at night as shot-reverse-shots establish the closeness in proximity both women long to have with each other. All these elements add up to a gripping and beautiful story about first love in what’s arguably the most artistically executed film of the year.
7. The Lighthouse (Robert Eggers)
In debuting with his Sundance arthouse horror hit, The Witch, in 2016, writer/director Robert Eggers took audiences back to folk-era New England with an unnerving story that was left open to interpretation and crafted an unsettling atmosphere. Eggers proved himself to be a master at making films reminiscent of other time periods again in The Lighthouse, a psychological horror film about two lighthouse keepers who suffer cabin fever (among other things) while isolated on a New England island in the 1890s. The film remains a fascinating experience upon multiple viewings thanks to the charismatic-turned-monstrous performances from Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson, the look of most silent films through ominous black and white cinematography, and an enigma of a story with a myriad of ideas about masculinity, companionship, and the relationship between a man and his superior. Read the full review HERE.
6. Jojo Rabbit (Taika Waititi)
A twee execution about the final days of World War II from the perspective of the Nazi party could have gone horribly, horribly wrong, but with Jojo Rabbit, writer/director Taika Waititi walks the tightrope between a hilarious sense of humor that ridicules Adolf Hitler and his hateful company for their stupidity in pursuing irrational perfection from their soldiers with the emotional weight of other war movies by framing his anti-hate satire through the eyes of its young protagonist. Jojo is written like any normal boy who wants to fit in with his peers, while his childlike naiveté of the monstrousness behind the regime he’s indoctrinated into admiring endears us into hoping he changes his ways, amplified by the infectious charisma of Roman Griffin Davis’ lead performance. But what really sets Jojo Rabbit among the best comedies of the year are its turns for the dramatic that predominantly take shape in Jojo’s relationship with the women in his life who turn his world right-side up; from Elsa, the Jewish girl taking refuge in the walls of his house, to his mother, who encourages him that it’s okay to show empathy and not be a soldier. Meanwhile, she’s going through struggles of her own; one facial expression from Scarlett Johansson in a private scene between herself and Jojo conveys longing for her husband away at war and frustration over the struggle of reaching her misguided son without hurting him. A script this well-written and direction this bold and assured propels Taika Waititi into an elite directorial talent, and gives Jojo Rabbit a permanent existence as a hilarious comedy that’s just as effective with its drama, and one that communicates an important message about the balance of compassion and instinct that it takes to be a proper person.
5. Parasite (Bong Joon-ho)
What’s there to say about Parasite that hasn’t already been said? After delving into high-concept science fiction to tell stories about class disparity (Snowpiercer) and animal rights (Okja), writer/director Bong Joon-ho removed himself from the fantastical to tell a grounded and astonishing story about the ongoing social divide that follows the lower-class Kim family as they plot to gain well-paid employment assisting the wealthy Park family in various positions, only to quickly discover their greed has morphed them into a symptom of a growing problem in all corners of the world. All involved in the ensemble put tremendous work into their respective performances, as the Kim family (led by Song Kang Ho’s Ki-taek) remain earnest and well-meaning with their intentions as they snake their way into the Park’s lavish mansion, while the Park clan is an endearing family despite being oblivious to their conceit. Meanwhile, the tonal shifts feel organic and continue to build suspense as our feelings on the characters change with every twist and turn of the narrative, the editing is creative, and Bong Joon-ho’s storytelling as a director is in peak form here as audiences watch the Kim clan progress from flicking parasites from the tables of the house in which they’ve taken over, to becoming metaphorical parasites, to having their own life disrupted by the parasite that society is leaving to fester: the divide between the classes that can only be cured with generosity and empathy on both sides of the aisle. In this time of big-budget sequels and franchise tentpoles, it’s remarkable when Eastern cinema breaks through with a Western audience, and this case is deservedly so, because Parasite is a tremendous, affecting masterwork from everyone involved on all fronts.
4. 1917 (Sam Mendes)
The stories that took place during World War I are rarely ever portrayed on the big screen, but they’re consistently told in compelling fashion when they are, and 1917 is no exception. In telling the true story of two men tasked with a mission to deliver a message to call off an attack leading the British army to certain ruin, director Sam Mendes crafted a captivating spin on the war movie that frames World War I in one continuous long take that’s successful in building a nightmarish atmosphere from beginning to end, whether it’s through Roger Deakins’ use of shadows and darkness within his incredible cinematography or staggering production design that scales our heroes against the giant piles of shells and artillery by which they walk past, while George McKay ushers in what should be a breakout performance that sees his facial expressions convey fear at the sound of an impending battle, and reserved sadness in moments of internal hiding while his fellow soldiers contemplate the rabid destruction war leaves in its wake. Meanwhile, the decision to make the film look like one long continuous take may be familiar to other movies, but the technique works here to create a constant trepidation about the sudden nature of war: one minute, brothers-in-arms share stories about their families, only for a foe in their midst opening fire on them in the next. But what really makes 1917 stand out amongst other classics in the war genre is the empathy at the center of the film’s script written by Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns, which makes its presence felt with the underlying idea that the mark of a good soldier is not measured by how many men he kills, but by his will to survive, and the compassion he displays in all aspects of battle.
3. TIE – One Cut Of The Dead (Shinichiro Ueda) and Dolemite Is My Name (Craig Brewer)
Ties can be seen as a form of cheating when it comes to end-of-year lists, and this film critic is inclined to agree with that sentiment nine times out of ten. However, it’s reasonable to pair these two films together in one slot because they both evoke the same inspiration to go out and make a movie with the resources one has in entirely different ways. One Cut of the Dead does so by taking one’s preconceived notions about low-budget cinema by turning the entire film on its head after the first act. The results are hilarious, heartfelt and innovative in terms of structure, character, and message. To type full thoughts about this film would derail this into spoiler territory, but just know that One Cut of the Dead doesn’t end where one thinks it does.
Meanwhile, Dolemite Is My Name offers a comic but eye-opening look into the world of do-it-yourself filmmaking as it tells the true story of Rudy Ray Moore and his rise to fame and fortune through a hysterical script that delightfully depicts almost everyone’s obliviousness to filmmaking on top of the business’s realistic struggles, and tremendous work from its ensemble cast, charged by the producing and acting efforts of Eddie Murphy, who turned in a year-best and career-best performance. Read the full review HERE.
2. Climax (Gaspar Noe)
Whether it’s because of the stylish, colorful cinematography and improvisational performances or the pulsing techno music on the soundtrack, Gaspar Noe’s extreme horror film, Climax, not only exists as an artistic nightmare about co-existence; but also serves as the cinematic equivalent of a drug: after one watch, the film remains on the mind of those who view it until they’re compelled to watch it again, despite it possessing some of the most terrifying and disturbing on-screen acts in recent memory. Read the full review HERE.
1. Apollo 11 (Todd Douglas Miller)
One film this year took us to the summer of 1969, a time not unlike our own; the Vietnam war was in full swing, the Stonewall riots had just taken place, and American citizens were divided and at odds with each other about those current events and then some. But for eight days that July, one singular event brought people together, and that was the Apollo 11 mission to land humans on the moon, and Apollo 11 is a documentary that tells the story of its accomplishment by astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins, and the men and women at mission control in a way that’s as instructional and extraordinary as it is modest and honest. Composed entirely of archival footage, radio transmissions, and newly-discovered 70 millimeter film from the event, Apollo 11 succeeds in informing its audiences about the science behind every aspect of the mission from its launch and constant rotation on its travels to its return home through a streamlined use of motion graphics, and pitch-perfect editing that builds constant suspense over the fact that every meticulous part of the mission had to go absolutely perfect, or all would be lost.
Apollo 11 also applies techniques of direct cinema to make viewers into a fly on the wall of the mission’s goings-on; making one feel as if he or she is in the control room ready to give the go-ahead with Houston’s numerous departments, sitting with the plethora of civilians outside waiting to watch the ship lift off, and in the rocket ship with Armstrong and company. One gets a real sense of the mission’s scale through shots that place workers against giant machinery, and a pulsing score that blends an orchestra with electronic sounds, all of which existed at the time of the mission. Through this and a studious restoration of its footage that makes the expedition look like it happened yesterday, audiences are left in awe of the achievement, inspired by the humility of its subjects, and left pondering what else is up there in outer space. The film projects hope that we’ll not only be united as a society again one day, but also that we’re not far off from returning to the world beyond the stars, and that’s why Apollo 11 is the best film of 2019.
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