February 05, 2020

The Best Films of 2019

Sometimes, I walk out of a movie theater feeling changed by what I saw. It's that transcendent feeling that makes me feel happy I'm alive. Movies are like a drug: great ones, or even just really entertaining ones, are exhilarating. Below are the films that most thrilled me in 2019. 

1917. Director Sam Mendes, along with his cinematographer Roger Deakins, immerses us in the trenches of World War I, and the film’s breathtaking grandeur ebbs and flows with the smallness of its story: Two British soldiers race across enemy territory to deliver an urgent message to another English unit, which is about to enter into a trap set by the Germans; for one of the boys, it’s a personal errand: his brother is in the endangered company. The movie unfolds in two long takes, but this doesn’t feel like showiness. It’s meant to keep us glued to the screen, or more precisely, moving inside it. 1917 plunges us into its world the way a good video game does, but its beauty, its depiction of both the inhumanity and the humanity of war, is as transcendent as as a poem, or a great piece of music. 

Parasite. “Money is an iron; it smooths out all the creases,” says Chung-sook, a down-on-her-luck wife and mom, and one of the protagonists of Parasite. Chung-sook and her husband and teenage children are broke and living in a roach-infested basement apartment that, later in the film, floods during a torrential and portentous rainstorm. Parasite is about how they cleverly infiltrate a privileged, wealthy household run by an amiable yet subtly arrogant tech executive and his clueless, if well-meaning, wife. It’s a dark comedy-thriller from director Bong Joon-ho, and the first South Korean film to win the Palme d’Or. Parasite examines the ways the rich are insulated from their problems and the poor are always on the cusp of being consumed by them. It may be the best film of 2019, and the film’s twists, in the second half, are so shocking yet brilliantly conceived that the movie lingers in your mind for days afterward. Like Jordan Peele’s Us, Parasite never lets the viewer off the hook: We are, after all, part of a system that allows some to feast while others starve. Parasite is wickedly funny, at times almost unbearably tense, and, ultimately, heartbreakingly perceptive: None of the characters in this movie is simply good or evil. Real life, as Parasite demonstrates, is far more complicated than that. 

Little Women. If there’s any justice, Greta Gerwig will win the Academy Award for Adapted Screenplay, since she was snubbed by the Academy in the Best Director category. Having just read Louisa May Alcott’s novel for the first time, I was stunned by the way Gerwig captured the heart and soul of the novel while also playing with the order of events like some brilliant modernist writer. The performances, especially of Saoirse Ronan as Jo and Florence Pugh as Amy, are unforgettable. The 2019 Little Women is a swirling, vivid, alive kind of movie.

Pain and Glory. Antonio Banderas gives perhaps the performance of his career in Pedro Almodóvar’s thoughtful, funny, moving meditation on aging. Banderas plays a Spanish film director whose various physical ailments have kept him from being able to work. He’s despondent, seeking a way to numb his pain as he looks back on his life, his career, and a past relationship. It’s a film about how getting older robs us of our ability to create, and how, sometimes, we can rally against it and win. Penélope Cruz gives a wonderful performance as Banderas’s mother in the film’s flashback scenes. (Also, shout-out to Francisco Bassi, who deserves much credit for the film's resplendent set design. Also to production designer Antxón Gómez and art director Clara Notari. Almodóvar knows color.)

Marriage Story. The feel-bad movie of the year. Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson give stunning performances as a married couple (he’s a theater director, she’s an actress) from New York going through a nasty divorce in L.A., with their 6-year-old son caught in the middle. I've never seen Kramer vs. Kramer, but watching Marriage Story made me feel that I had. This is director Noah Baumbach’s version of Kramer vs. Kramer, but it might also have been called New York vs. Los Angeles. Culture or space? Subways or freeways? The clash between these two cities, and the vast space between them, becomes supremely important in the legal proceedings that unfold. Laura Dern plays a ruthless L.A. divorce lawyer (who delivers the best monologue in the film), Ray Liotta plays an equally ruthless L.A. divorce lawyer, and Alan Alda plays a much less ruthless L.A. divorce lawyer. Watching Marriage Story, I’ve never been so relieved to be unmarried. 

The Last Black Man in San Francisco. An elegiac story of a young man (Jimmie Fails) who feels both a stranger and a caretaker in his native city of San Francisco, the most expensive town in the United States. Emile Mosseri’s gorgeous music perfectly accents Joe Talbot’s sensitive direction. I loved the friendship of the two main characters, played by Fails and Jonathan Majors. It’s a haunting film, the first great movie I saw in 2019, and I want more people to discover it. You can, on Amazon Prime. (Also see Blindspotting, my favorite film of 2018.)  

Under the Silver Lake. Director David Robert Mitchell, whose sleeper horror hit It Follows kind of underwhelmed me, seems to have underwhelmed a lot of other people with his follow-up, a paranoid, millennial L.A. noir that got mostly negative reviews. In the film, Andrew Garfield plays an aimless loser who’s out of work and about to be evicted from his Silver Lake apartment, yet spends all his time searching for a beautiful young woman–a neighbor– who seemingly vanishes in the night. The movie is a loving joke on millennials and L.A. culture and men who fancy themselves the hero, a flashier and more gonzo version of Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye. Garfield gets so immersed in L.A. conspiracy theories that he’s like a MAGA Spiderman: a superhero in his imagination only, following any rabbit holes that grab his attention, inflating them–and himself–with far too much importance. But the movie is so beautifully and sleekly made (with a stunning Bernard Herrmann-esque music score by Richard Vreeland), and so unconcerned with whether or not there really is a mystery, that I found it utterly mesmerizing. What’s not to love about a movie that features a band called “Jesus and the Brides of Dracula?”

Knives Out. Rian Johnson goes full Agatha Christie. Daniel Craig plays a charmingly blustering detective with a New Orleans drawl; Jamie Lee Curtis, with her elegant wisp of white hair, looks like a Queen Bee among a family of greedy, clamoring relatives, all of them suspects in the murder of patriarch Christopher Plummer, a popular mystery writer. Chris Evans is smashingly wicked and witty, Toni Collette underplays, as a conniving in-law, and the mystery is shockingly not what you’re expecting. It’s the next best thing to being magically thrust inside the 1985 movie version of Clue.

Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood. I had mixed feelings about Quentin Tarantino’s latest.  But the reason it’s great may be due to the scene in which Margot Robbie, playing Sharon Tate in the summer of 1969 (right before her tragic murder at the hands of the Manson family), wanders into a movie theater to watch her film The Wrecking Crew. The sheer delight on her face (it’s not arrogance, it’s exuberant joy) is a lovely valentine to a woman who deserved more than notoriety for her horrible death: this movie reminds us of the woman who had a life to live. The performances of Leonardo DiCaprio, as a fading movie star, and Brad Pitt as his trusty sidekick/stunt man, are understated and represent some of the best work either actor has ever done. And that ending...well, I wouldn’t dare spoil it for those who haven’t yet seen this. 

Good Boys. Good Boys is about being on the cusp. Its three protagonists, Max, Lucas, and Thor, are about to enter a terrifying new world called middle school. They accidentally discover internet porn (and are horrified), partake in a beer-drinking club (3 sips is proof of manhood), and attempt to recover a drone being held hostage by two high school girls trying to score some Molly. Director Gene Stupnitsky infuses this hilarious film with so many brilliant little touches that it transcends its somewhat formulaic story. It's somehow the raunchiest and the sweetest movie of 2019, depicting the world of grown-ups as utterly bizarre, because we're seeing it through the eyes of children. And you know what, the movie is kind of right.

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