Friday, January 10, 2020

Top Ten of 2019

Despite the numerous reasons that have justified my pushing off this end of 2019 list, it can no longer be ignored. After a few weeks of constant shifts, new additions, and cutting films that I really, thoroughly enjoy, my personal list of the best films of 2019 is as ready as it ever will be.

Honorable Mentions

Those pesky films that couldn’t quite crack the top ten, but it was far too difficult to not mention them in some capacity.

-       Avengers: Endgame: A behemoth of a film that appeals to the nerd in all of us, and though it may not actually be this high on a full list of everything I saw in 2019, the fact that the Russo Brothers and Kevin Feige actually pulled off a satisfying conclusion is truly astounding when placed next to finales from other pop culture staples.

-       The Irishman: While I was never quite as high on this film as others were, there is no denying the craftsmanship and care that went into this three hour epic, and Martin Scorsese, legend that he already is, adds another piece to a storied legacy of cinema.

-       The Farewell: Though it may be a film about a specific experience, its themes are universal, and writer-director Lulu Wang knows this, bringing a delicate touch to this moving and poignant look at the dynamics of family.

-       Midsommar: A twisted, unsettling descent into complete and utter madness all elevated by the tremendous and ambitious touch of writer-director Ari Aster, building on his status as a bright, new horror director.

And now, it’s time for the best of the best, the cream of the crop, the gold stars, and other metaphors. Now it’s time for the top ten films of 2019.

 10. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
         Another year, another underappreciated gem from Marielle Heller. The director is making a name for herself with understated, quiet films, containing more depth than most films could ever dream of. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, though advertised as a story about Fred Rogers, star of the long time public access show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, is not really about the man himself, but a portrait of who we can be if we’re all a little kinder and more understanding. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have Tom Hanks as the impeccably polite celebrity either. Still, Heller does the impossible, taking a film featuring Fred Rogers, an idea that could be terribly cheesy and ultimately dull, and creates an earnest look at the toxicity of humanity and how we all need to forgive a little more.

9. Booksmart
         While audiences were attending the big blockbusters and mind numbing drivel of the summer, director Olivia Wilde delivered the funniest comedy of 2019 in Booksmart, and it’s been underappreciated every day since. Not only is it one of the sharpest comedies and most rewatchable movies of the year, it also packs a couple of huge emotional gut punches and some tremendous debut filmmaking from Wilde. The friendship at the center, portrayed excellently by Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever, carries authenticity like few on screen friendships do, which makes their story all the more effective as their last night of high school proceeds. Booksmart remains one of the best films of the year, not by copying other models of high school nights gone wrong, but by doing something new, something unique, something special.

8. Ad Astra
         If anyone saw The Lost City of Z back in 2017, you probably knew that James Gray wasn’t going to deliver a run of the mill space flick with Ad Astra. While it does feature all the treats and visual splendor that people have grown to love about the vast emptiness of space, Gray manages to fill it with familial drama, an Apocalypse Now-esque journey into the unknown. Aiding the efforts is Brad Pitt, who is better than ever, and reminds us all how truly great he is. Pitt may be getting the Oscar for his chiller performance in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but a part of me will always pretend it's partially for this role too.

7. Little Women
         I know what you’re thinking. The fourth adaptation of a book everyone knows in 2019 can’t possibly bring anything new to the table. On its surface level evaluation, sure, that argument isn’t completely unfounded. However, when you actually see Greta Gerwig’s version of Little Women, all doubt is quickly forgotten in the warm embrace of this film. Gerwig flexes her skills as a writer, taking something that could be as tired as everyone expects and completely shifting the structure to strengthen the narrative tissue even more. The film doesn’t lack in charm either, its pitch perfect casting almost ensures that, but Gerwig doesn’t ever rest on the built in love for the characters, instead letting the audience see why people fell in love with them in the first place.

6. 1917
         Much has been made about the technical achievements of 1917 and deservedly so, however, its far more than just an experience of the eyes and ears. The film succeeds because of its emotional throughline , a story of young men, thrown into a situation they’re ill-prepared for, and furthermore, expected to basically do the impossible. Director Sam Mendes utilizes brilliant cinematography from Roger Deakins not just as the jaw-dropping shots that they are, but to elevate the story, and place the audience alongside these men in the trenches of World War I. Combine all that with the best score of the year from Thomas Newman, and 1917 is easily one of the best films of 2019, and quite possibly, one of the best war films of all time.

5. Us
The latest film from Jordan Peele has stuck in the best of 2019 sphere the longest. It has done so by maintaining its thematic excellency through repeat viewings and analysis. On one hand, Us is an exceptional horror film, one that ditches modern jump scares for mood and feeling instead. On the other, Us is a rich commentary on America’s obsession with status, the haves and the have-nots, and the dark history of pushing the voiceless to the side. Peele’s visual language and insane ability to execute set-ups and payoffs are firing on all cylinders, and Lupita Nyong’o gives one of the best performances of the year in the dual role of Adelaide / Red. If by some chance you haven’t caught up to this brilliant film, what could you possibly be waiting for?

4. Knives Out
         We, as a society, truly do not deserve Rian Johnson. Fresh off of producing the best Star Wars film since 1980, Johnson returned to the director’s chair with a sharp knife and an even sharper script.  He also just so happened to bring an all-star ensemble along for the ride, as well as one of the better characters introduced all year in Daniel Craig’s Benoit Blanc and his southern drawl, for a whodunnit that’s so much fun you might be tempted to watch it again right after it ends. Not a single moment is wasted and every last detail pays off in some fashion. Knives Out, with all its craftsmanship and passion, is a murder mystery that would make Agatha Christie proud.

3. Portrait of a Lady on Fire
         The newest entry to this top ten, and one that may just jump up more upon another viewing or two, is the exquisitely crafted Portrait of a Lady on Fire. For some, it’s a film that might not be on your radar at all, it’s wider release got pushed back when France opted to submit an inferior film for its Oscar submission after all. If you are unaware, this is your signal to look forward to writer-director CĂ©line Sciamma’s gorgeous film, whenever you get a chance to see it. From afar, it may seem like just another period piece, but once it starts, when it truly gets moving, you see the small glances, the subtle hints of a connection before the raging flames of a romance just about burn the whole thing to the ground.

2. Marriage Story
         As heartbreaking a film as 2019 may provide, Marriage Story numerous scenes, moments, and even lines of dialogue that cut like a knife. Writer-director Noah Baumbach has written one of the best screenplays of the year, pouring deep seeded issues, growing emotional distance, and an air of helplessness into both halves of the titular crumbling marriage. Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson are at their best here, building up the tension slowly until it all explodes in this fit of rage, sadness, and ultimately, release. It’s not entirely devastating throughout, Baumbach sprinkles in plenty of good comedic moments, but by the end, through some heaving on heart strings with letter reading and Sondheim lyrics, the emotions of it all are bound to get to you.

1. Parasite
In a year defined by division and disagreement, one thing most everyone can agree on is the status of Parasite as one of the best films of the year. Those that have seen it, at least in my experience, have very few negative things to say about it, and those who haven’t seen it are wrong. You’ll be hard pressed to find a film in 2019 more satisfying, better constructed, or more well realized in its themes and messaging than Parasite. For years now, South Korea has been shut out of Hollywood’s biggest night, not even earning a nomination in Foreign Language Film let alone winning, but this year, Parasite might just win the biggest prize of them all. Director Bong Joon-ho, genius that he is, said it best: “Once you overcome the 1-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” Truer words have never been spoken.

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