The Best Films of 2019

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“Relentless normalcy is boring. Bring on the divas with their superstitions and quirks and strange routines.” –Ruth Graham 

If I had to say the single biggest contributor to people preferring to watch things on Netflix versus going to theaters, it’s that the theaters nickel and dime on bulbs….more than 60 percent of American theaters are running their projector at almost half the luminosity…It’s the theater chains that are destroying the theatrical experience. Period, full-stop. No one else.” – Edward Norton

 “…but I also think Netflix would rather have five things that people kind of like than one thing people really love.” – Kumail Nanjiani

“You can feel amazing and awful — exult in and be repelled by life — in the space of seconds. The thing you must say, the thing you’ve been waiting for — it’s always there, pulling you back under again and again and again. Who can remember anything anymore?” – Katherine Miller

He compared the experience to having a threesome. “You can’t look like one is giving you more pleasure than the other,” – Adam Sandler on working with the Safdie Brothers

“Have I got an example for a successful civilization? A movie set.” – Shirley Mcclaine

In twenty or thirty years, how will people remember 2019? For the buffoonery of our politics, of course. As the year we gave up on the planet? Probably. The year that every D-list celebrity got a podcast? 100%. How about as the year we irrevocably surrendered our privacy? For sure. Or, maybe in twenty or thirty years, we’ll be so involved with colonizing space that we won’t have time to worry about 2019?…Doubtful.

And as for movies, will 2019 represent the end of an era (Superheroes, please), or the beginning of one? Looking back, 2019 had all the usual arguments. The culture was either wildly overrating directors (Taika Watiti) or wildly underrating them (Lorene Scafaria). Disney is either saving cinema or destroying the world. Streaming is either killing Hollywood, or in former soviet countries like Croatia, creating new mini-Hollywoods.  

Insofar as there’s been one dominant theme in 2019, it was a preoccupation with groups, cults, and all definitions of “family”. Everywhere you turned, films were interrogating what it means to part of a tribe (whether by birth or by choice). From the cult of celebrity (and those on its outskirts) in Once Upon A Time…in Hollywood to a family confronting their doppelgängers in US. From the literal families of The Farewell, Little Women, and Parasite to the makeshift families of Midsommar, Hustlers, and Dolemite Is My Name

In Knives Out family bonds were investigated. In Marriage Story family bonds were dissolved. Even Shazam took as its subject a foster home where the kids define themselves as a family of misfits. While in previous years the individual has dominated (one man against the elements, one woman against the system). This year, the individual was secondary to their role in a tribe.

And it makes sense right? Tribalism is one of the defining aspects of our time (no matter which side of the aisle you’re on). We see the world through a predetermined, algorithmically generated tribal lens. Your politics, your background, the color of your text bubbles. The world has been designed and monetized to bring you into a fold and keep you there.

So, in 2019, movies tried to help us understand our role within the group. They asked us questions about sisterhood and Swedish cults. They forced us to reconcile our relationship to the rest of the graduating class. They made us confront how much of ourselves we’d be willing to give up, just for a chance to belong.

Now, the list. All the usual caveats apply. There’s still so much I haven’t seen (Little Women, Her Smell, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Atlantics). And lots of films that the critics loved but left me wanting (Pain and Glory, The Irishman, Bacarau). That being said, let’s go.

11. Dolemite Is My NameThe triumphant return of one of Hollywood’s great talents, Craig Brewer! Oh, and Eddie Murphy. Craig Brewer has made a “spiritual cousin” to his breakout film Hustle & Flow. The real trick is that he and Murphy have made a “feel-good” movie that never feels sanitized. The grease on the pork chops. The heat of the lights. There’s a scene that illustrates this fine line perfectly: Rudy Ray Moore is watching Lady Reed argue with her husband at a bar. Moore can’t hear their fight, but he watches as the husband rears back and slaps her across the face. For a moment you think Lady Reed is being introduced as a victim (we’ve seen the redemptive, battered housewife character before). Instead, Lady Reed takes the hit in stride, then she rears back and punches her husband to the ground. That scene is everything about Dolemite Is My Name, dangerously close to veering into sentimentality, right before it socks you in the face.

10. Shazam: Admittedly part of Shazam’s appeal is that it feels like it was produced by Blockbuster video in 1992. The colors. The wise-cracks. The genuinely freaky creatures that invade a corporate boardroom and throw a dude out of a window. As the story unfolds, you can almost pick out which stills they would’ve put on the back of the VHS. Ultimately though, what elevates Shazam above the fold of audience-pandering theme park rides, is the scale. Like last year’s Logan, Shazam works best when its magic is confined to a couple of characters in a convenience store. The sequence where Shazam and his crippled buddy are filming their new found powers for YouTube is exactly the kind of sleepover moment that more of these movies need.

9. Hustlers: A surprising amount of visual wit: the feet of a drugged stockbroker floating across the floor, J.Lo wrapping Constance Wu in her fur coat, even the smash cut from a car-crash-fever-dream to a policeman sopping up his greasy pizza. Brilliant performances and genuine pathos aside, Hustlers is great because it loves all the details.  The actors chew the scenery, and the camera does too.

8. Knives Out: You know that line from Chekhov, about a gun shown in the first act going off in the next? Knives Out is that idea taken to 11. The script is skin tight. The world, meticulous. The plot, deftly conceived. Not to mention, the most cutting political joke of the year (the family’s failure to remember which South American country Marta came from. Yikes).

Rian Johnson has always been a master of the genre mashup, and Knives Out delivers all the thrills by tinkering just enough with the ingredients (the “butler” still did it…kind of). I love films where you can feel the ups and downs of the audience. Watching Knives Out in a packed theater, there was a current running between the seats. Twists aside, Knives Out’s greatest feat may have been keeping eighty or so tired, jaded New Yorkers absolutely rapt.

7. Queen and Slim: Opening with one of the best individual scenes of the year, a date in a diner, and building from there — Queen and Slim reverses a classic genre: “lovers on the run”. From Badlands to Bonnie and Clyde, these films typically feature characters that decide to go on the run. They rob banks, go on a killing spree, or just try to escape society. In Queen and Slim though, the two main characters are on the run against their will. They’re lionized not because of what they’ve done, but because of what was done to them.

And it’s a testament to Melina Matsoukas that even the most obvious screenwriting cliches (how many times has someone had to pop a shoulder back in and muffle the scream?) are imbued with overwhelming feeling. The colors, the soundtrack, the wide open helicopter shots slowly following a car down back roads of the coastal South. Matsoukas takes a compelling enough story and elevates it into myth.

6. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood: If I’m completely honest, it wasn’t until Inglorious Basterds that I fully boarded the Tarantino band wagon. Something about the first half of his career always struck me as a little too try-hard, his characters never quite as clever as thought they were. But mannnnnnn, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is the film Tarantino was born to make. Brad Pitt steals every scene. Dicaprio plumbs new depths of commitment. And a pitcher full of frozen margaritas has never been used to greater effect. It’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid for an age of ultra-violence.

5. American Factory: Will the Obamas be at this year’s Oscars? If quality counts for anything, they should be. The documentary American Factory (which Barack and Michelle helped distribute) is one of the most eye-opening, and ultimately heartbreaking, films of the year. Following the struggles of a Chinese auto manufacturer as they attempt to open a new factory in Ohio, the film takes a fly-on-the-factory-floor approach. American Factory lets its subjects do all the talking, and is so much more impactful because of it.

Mid-way through the film, when a U.S. auto worker shows up in a Chinese boardroom wearing a “Jaws” t-shirt, you can’t help but feel awash with embarrassment — not just for the sheer bad taste, but even more so for the global systems that put him there.

4. Marriage Story: Marriage Story has all the hallmarks of a Baumbach film — the chorus of screwball comedy types fumbling over one another (“why is there always a flirty grip?”), graceful use of the long take, and stunning performances from everyone involved. 

Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson run circles around the script, acting like no one’s watching, maybe the closest we’ll ever get to a modern day Carnal Knowledge. Ray Liotta, Laura Dern and Alan Alda as lawyers get all the good lines (how often do you get to say that?).

But in the end, the thing Baumbach can do better than anyone else working is what Richard Brody describes as “talk as action”. I’ve never seen innocuous behavior weaponized with such incision. There’s a brilliant scene in a courtroom, where seemingly benign behavior is brought back to embarrass and shame the other side. Charming scenes from earlier in the film come back to wreak havoc on each character. 

It all drives home Marriage Story’s message: the animating thing in our lives is not what we do, but what we say — to the courts, to our children, and to one another.

[Side note: Did they have to make the child in Marriage Story sooooooo helpless. He’s 12(?) years old and still needs a booster seat??]

3. Booksmart: For the most part, I’m happy being an adult. You can buy alcohol, drive to the beach, and eat soft pretzels whenever you want. But Booksmart is the kind of film that makes me ever so slightly miss high school.

Much like last year’s Museo, Booksmart bursts at the seams — with characters, with personality, with ideas. It feels like a first feature in the best way. Like everyone involved is getting one chance to make the movie they’ve spent 30 years dreaming about. The characters all hit that sweet spot — recognizable enough that we see ourselves in them, but heightened enough that the jokes are funnier, the emotion more pure.

2. Uncut Gems: A non-stop, throat-punching, door-buzzing, fist-chewing, arm-biting, jealousy-inducing, door-buzzing, tacky, gorgeous, generous, painful, door-buzzing, scream out loud funny, laugh out loud shocking, heart attack of a movie. 

Halfway through you’ll need to take a shower. Good luck getting up from your seat.

1. Parasite: Had to do it.

There’s a lot of allegory in Parasite. By design, your reaction to the film is in part a reaction to its politics. And if it were just a class struggle parable with genre trappings, the film might be still be worthy of this list. But the filmmaking in Parasite, the way Bong Joon-ho can wring suspense out of the tiniest change in atmosphere, is what really makes Parasite the year’s best.

It always feels a bit like cheating to compare a filmmaker to their predecessor — but I mean it as the highest compliment when I say Bong Joon-ho is quickly becoming our Spielberg.  Remember that moment in Saving Private Ryan when Hanks puts a piece of gum on the end of a rod and then sticks a mirror on it to see around the corner? So does everyone who has ever seen that movie!

The images in Parasite have the same power. It’s full of the kind of scenes that you’ll be recounting over the next three weeks. More than anything else in 2019, Parasite’s word of mouth swept down sidewalks and through office parties. “What about when the Dad tries to crawl out of the room?” “What about when the kid looks up from his cake and sees the bug eyes of that basement guy?” The scene by scene brilliance of the film reduces you to a babbling kid.

Parasite threads the needle ever so delicately between real and flat out ridiculous. The twists don’t pull the rug out from under you, they keep piling on and piling on, building to crescendo. All leading up to a final set piece that’s as crazed as anything I saw all year. And, when the dust settles, the most disturbing, most effective takeaway from Parasite isn’t a surprise, it’s the inevitable.

Superlatives:

Legacy of Tron: Legacy Award: The Irishman – Remember in Tron: Legacy when a “young” Jeff Bridges appears — his face rendered in a garish, tortured vision of digital hell?

Well, it’s still a thing.

As I addressed last year in my review of Logan, Hollywood and its actors have reached brave new heights in their pursuit of unrepentant vanity. Using CGI to de-age actors is one of the darkest moments of 2019 (no matter how many think pieces argue otherwise).

Princess Leia in Rogue One, Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and the recent news that a production company would create a CGI version of James Dean for their upcoming feature — it’s all proof the end is closer than you think.

That’s why The Irishman feels like the last bump on a slippery slope to our awful new digiworld. When De niro flashbacks to WW2 it looks like a character from early aughts Call of Duty just walked onto set. It would laughable if it weren’t so noxious. Welcome to a future where no one can believe their eyes, no matter how much they might want to.

Best Action Scene: Ad Astra – What’s better than Brad Pitt and Donald Sutherland in a high-speed shoot out? Brad Pitt and Donald Sutherland in a high-speed shoot out ON THE FUCKING MOON.

Yes, I still use Sound Hound Award: The soundtrack to Long Shot – There’s no greater blasphemy than to pull your phone out during a theatrical screening. BUT, Long Shot almost had me running to Sound Hound a couple of times. The movie was nice. The soundtrack was better.

Heath Ledger’s Joker Award for over-saturated Halloween costume, 2019: Florence Pugh in Midsommar – From office parties to dogs on Instagram — no matter where you went this Halloween, nothing was more certain than someone wearing the flowers from Midsommar.

Best/Worst person of the year: Martin Scorsese Scorsese is a master. Full stop. And this year, he was a much-needed voice when he (correctly) argued that Marvel movies are lame as hell. With the fleetingly rare exception (half of Black Panther, parts of Guardians of the Galaxy) they’re anti-cinema, slavishly adherent to $$$$ — shot, acted, and produced like 90s basic cable TV.

BUT while Scorsese was preaching truth to power on the one hand, he also became part of the problem.

When Netflix announced it wouldn’t be screening The Irishman in all but a tiny handful of theaters (roughly the same amount as D-list Christian films), it was a cruel blow to the industry. And suddenly, Scorsese’s passion for the cinema was nowhere to be found.

Instead of being an advocate for the power of the theatrical experience, The Irishman became further cannibalization of the medium. Instead of a cultural touchstone, enjoyed in the dark with a crowd, The Irishman was experienced how most people experience everything else in the world, alone, and on a phone.

Dad bod Award: Tie between Ford Vs Ferrari, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, and The Irishman – It was a good year for films about a couple of old white guys dusting off their cars and hittin’ the road.

Sometimes A Great Notion Best Final shot Award: The Farewell – While the film isn’t much more than characters reading Wikipedia entries to one another, the final shot is so effective, so cinematic, so stupefying. Every time a flock of birds takes off in my vicinity, I hear Nai Nai ringing in my ears.

Rudy Giuliani Award of Absurdity: Crawl – The most beautifully absurd moment of the year came when the gator bites the heroine’s hand in Crawl while she’s holding a 9mm. She then proceeds to squeeze off a couple of rounds while her hand is in the belly of the beast. Genius.

RIP free-for-all seating: Movies have always been one of the most populist forms of entertainment. Cheap tickets. Approachable spaces. No dress code. Everyone welcome. That’s why assigned seating at theaters is such a bummer.

Something is lost when you have to get online and buy your ticket in advance. Something is lost when only the people with the time to plan ahead, and the money to pay the convenience fee, get the best seats. Something is lost when there’s no line outside the theater. The line especially made you feel like you were a part of something. The line built anticipation. The line was the collective, putting you back to back with your fellow man, literally.  So much of the world is already predetermined, it was nice to have a place where something as simple as the seating, wasn’t.

Alright, that’s it. 2019 over and out. Good luck in the next decade. Remember to vote. Remember to call your parents on their birthday. And most of all remember to keep going to the movies. Maybe I’ll see you there.

Later,

Will

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