Jan. 1, 2020

The Movies That Made My 2019  


don't especially like to make year-end best-of lists. One reason for this, as I noted in the introductory paragraph of my best-of list for 2018, is that there are many new movies one watches a certain year that left a lasting impression without necessarily being all that great. There's also the fact that there are still a lot of films that have been released in 2019 that I'd really like to see but haven't yet. Some of them very well could have ended up on this compilation if I'd caught them before the deadline. Nonetheless, because I like to reminisce and because I like to look back on what stood out to me a certain year from the vantage point of a later date, noted below are some of the films that I loved that came out in 2019. Descriptions are excerpts from the review I wrote at the time; click on the title of the feature to read the full piece.

Parasite, dir. Bong Joon-ho


The film, wonderfully performed by its up-for-anything ensemble, is pleasurable as a straightforward thriller. But Parasite is decidedly also a cerebral movie with a timeless (but especially now) bent. It remarkably captures the distress of being imprisoned in one stratum of the class system and trying desperately to break out of it, to little avail after things at first seem promising.


Uncut Gems, dir. Josh & Benny Safdie


For fans of the Safdie brothers’ manically-energetic style, Uncut Gems is a solidification of the more-than-promise they showed with their previous movies and especially 2017’s Good Time, another perpetually anxious comic thriller in a state of arrested worst-case-scenario development. The Safdies impress us with the way they can keep an overtaxed storyline forever and ever on edge. But with Uncut Gems especially they evince themselves as young masters of milieu-making. Ratner’s nightmare world becomes our own.


Little Women, dir. Greta Gerwig


So vivid and universal-feeling are Gerwig’s visions of familial bonding, professional struggle, and existential dissatisfaction that the movie works over us like a salve. Amiability is generated, I think, by a sense of recognition. One doesn’t often feel oneself loving a film in real time during one's first watch. Though I hate to be mawkish, it’s true that Little Women, for me, made for one of those rare moments.


Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, dir. Quentin Tarantino


I felt affection and sometimes even love for most of what Tarantino does here. It’s his most purposeful, wonderfully character-studyish movie since his best film, 1997’s Jackie Brown. But it’s almost a given that Tarantino’s latest reinvention, paired with recent controversies, leaves him with a fate much like Rick Dalton’s. Where will he go next? Not everyone is going to be so keen on looking forward.


The Irishman, dir. Martin Scorsese


It’s unlikely that Scorsese is going to stop making movies after The Irishman. But it seems likely that this is going to be the last of his trademark organized-crime sagas. If that’s the case, then The Irishman is a just-right denouement to a thematically linked series that began in 1973 with Mean Streets, that nail-tough but vulnerable street movie that also starred De Niro. 


Pain and Glory, dir. Pedro Almodóvar


Here there is no real observable arc or narrative shape — a 180 from Pedro Almodóvar's plot-obsessed first decade of filmmaking. The movie is all about the worst but also most productive days of one’s existential crisis and all the forces prolonging them. Almodóvar isn't in a hurry. And unlike his earlier films he doesn’t seem to be cackling while causing commotions. This is a feature made by someone so tired of the commotion that if he were to try to revive it in any way it could kill him. 


The Lighthouse, dir. Robert Eggers


When the horror really arrives, The Lighthouse becomes a black comedy that toasts to anyone who wishes their troubles with their freshman-year college living buddy might have reached a more cathartic (for one person, anyway) resolution. In the end, The Lighthouse is much more of a coal-black farce that knows the troubles of isolation, especially when your only companion is someone you aren’t particularly fond of. Where it goes I suppose makes it a horror movie, but Eggers cultivates such a feverish and outlandishly humorous atmosphere that, like the characters, we’re driven to a state of such overblown disbelief and sometimes shock that it almost isn’t possible to be conventionally chilled.


Marriage Story, dir. Noah Baumbach


Marriage Story isn’t so much a slanted-one-way movie (neither character is exempt from bouts of insufferability) as it is a film about how, in a divorce, typically the worst characteristics of people come to the fore. In Charlie and Nicole’s individual worst moments, we aren’t so much seeing bad people as ones who’re being put through the wringer and wriggling their way out messily, covered in grime. What we see here is a series of reactions to emotionally unfamiliar and by design jarring scenarios.


The Farewell, dir. Lulu Wang


The Farewell is technically a remake. In 2016, Wang, who had been working beforehand mostly as a documentary filmmaker, told the same story [as the film] on the radio show This American Life. The experience was so fulfilling that, for a moment, she had a brief quarter-life crisis. Would she be happier if she abandoned directing, something that had been somewhat satisfying but more so obstacle-ridden so far, and pivot to radio? I felt grateful that she stuck to what she knew best once I finished The Farewell. Wang is a natural and empathetic storyteller. She makes her art attentively and completely — a seamstress who can miraculously make her product appear seamless.


Homecoming, dir. Beyoncé


Concert-movie purists could argue that the Coachella footage, which arguably is mostly a more glittered version of the live stream, is not cinematically innovative enough to preserve the film’s nascent standing as a tour-de-force of the concert film. Because there’s an aura of restraint hovering within behind-the-scenes action, the feature is susceptible to criticism for demonstrating a sort of filtered, too-carefully cultivated vulnerability. But any chance to see the preeminent artist of her generation captured at the peak of her powers, whether it’s wholeheartedly “cinematic” or comprehensively raw, is to be delighted in. I finished Homecoming appreciative to have been able to bear witness to Beyoncé at her apex. 


The Souvenir, dir. Joanna Hogg


Our memories function like the ones dramatized in The Souvenir. We can remember the particulars of short sequences of time but cannot easily illuminate what might draw us to a person or a situation in our lives in comprehensive, lyrical ways, for instance. The Souvenir embeds itself as if it was, like I think Hogg intended, a memory — often vague but magnificently, emotionally evocative.


Us, dir. Jordan Peele


The film ultimately isn’t as concise and deep-in-your-bones scary as [Get Out]. But whether Us holistically coheres on the first — or fourth — viewing doesn’t matter. What Peele makes is so conceptually audacious and visceral that you can’t help but savor everything he has to offer.


Hustlers, dir. Lorene Scarfaria


It’s been a while since [Jennifer] Lopez has been in a movie that’s effectively complemented her skill set. Arguably the artistic dry spell has lasted about 20 years, beginning after the release of the underrated, persistently bizarre detective-horror thriller The Cell (2000). So a movie like this year’s Hustlers — a deliciously salacious, tabloid-fascinating comic thriller — is as a welcome jolt for believers in JLo the actress. In the movie, she gets a role that magnificently merges her indelible persona and formidable acting chops. 


Ad Astra, dir. James Gray


Each moment of Ad Astra can be felt. I’d temporarily forgotten how long two hours could be until I started watching it. But as the friend I went to a screening with remarked, it's the type of slow burn you like. Gray, who co-wrote and directed the movie, convincingly creates an alternate universe while also crafting a persuasive interior life for [his protagonist].  


Booksmart, dir. Olivia Wilde


When Booksmart premiered at South by Southwest in March, and as it’s gotten more buzz in the following months, it’s been so enthusiastically praised as a new subgenre definitive that I worried, going in, that maybe all the acclaim was a little hyperbolic. But watching Booksmart, a couple of age-old praises came to mind: that it would have been nice to have this movie around when I was in high school; that this is the kind of film you picture future kids watching at sleepovers or on a lonely weekend night for a pick-me-up. The movie was crushed in theaters recently by the live-action remake of 1992’s Aladdin. But I suspect that years from now, people hungry to relive misadventures in Agrabah are going to move toward the ones featuring the voice of Robin Williams, anyway.


Knives Out, dir. Rian Johnson


The movie is slightly better than this year’s Ready or Not, a comedy thriller which also unmercifully satirized the lives and personae of the silver spoon-fed. Still, the latter functions well as a great companion piece. Both features wittily undermine familiar genre tropes with pertinence. Whereas a horde of mystery movies and novels of yore simply wanted us to cheer as the murderer was outsmarted, here basically no one in the greedy cast of characters is left unscathed. Johnson especially seems like he wants us to lick our lips in glee at the final shot. I didn’t at the screening I attended, but with hindsight I might as well have.


Her Smell, dir. Alex Ross Perry


To watch Her Smell is to watch something analogous to a train wreck or a capsizing ship: our lives won’t improve from watching, and we can’t stop the mania or violence. But looking is a lot easier than not.


The Beach Bum, dir. Harmony Korine


The Beach Bum was written and directed by Harmony Korine, the iconoclast whose last movie, Spring Breakers (2012), netted him some of the best reviews of his career. The Beach Bum, like that film, is a departure from the movies which bolstered the earlier part of Korine's oeuvre: big-budgeted (for him, that is), star-studded. But it’s also accessible and appealing in such a way that makes the film, which is fundamentally a feature-length misadventure that happens to be really funny, ripe for generous comparisons to something like The Big Lebowski (1998).