JASON'S BEST: The Ten Best Films of 2019 (Return to Jason's Best Main Page)
THE TEN BEST FILMS OF 2019
The last years of various decades have tended to be legendary in the history of cinema, a year packed with so many memorably great movies
that it’s hard to believe so many happened in just one 12 month time period. I think of 1939, 1969, 1989, and 1999 especially.
Will 2019 be remembered in the same way? Well, if it’s any indication by how hard it was to rank my top ten films especially,
then I would say yes. It’s such a relief in this day and age where event pictures are the norm for what you’ll find at movie theater
these days that original films of real substance are still being made. Even as the movie industry continues through an era of immense
change and Netflix becomes the place where some of these films have to be made, what matters the most is that these movies were made,
regardless of where they are shown. The films that topped my list this year were all breaths of fresh air, no matter who financed them,
what country made them, or how long they played in a theater before streaming. I hope these movies can stand as examples that audiences
are still eager for original films by artists trying to do something with cinema that actually matters beyond making millions of dollars.
That is the cinema that truly matters.
The film opens in a below ground dwelling. We’re inside and see the street through the windows. In this one opening shot, we’re able to learn a lot about where the film’s main characters live and how they view the world. The two teenagers have to run through the house to find a wi-fi signal they can steal, and it ends up being on a raised platform in the bathroom. When the sprayers come by for pest control in the streets, their father insists that they keep the windows open to get free pest control, as they quickly start to cough on the fumes.
Director Bong Joon-ho’s film begins very quickly showing us that the contrasts of societal class and inequity are going to be the overriding theme, but little did I anticipate how entertaining this film would be, and how surprised I was over and over by the directions it would take me. I was completely immersed in this world, and as its story slowly unraveled, I was amazed that no one had told a story quite like this one before.
Immediately, we fall in love with this family of four who live in a literal basement of society, and when the teenage boy Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi) works his way into becoming an English tutor for the daughter of the very wealthy but incredibly naïve Parks couple (Sun-kyun Lee and Yeo-jeong Jo, who also deliver wonderful performances), we immediately see the inequities of these two families side by side. And then in a first unexpected surprise in this wonderfully written story, Ki-woo is able to find a job for his sister Ki-jung (So-dam Park) as an art teacher, his dad Ki-taek (Kang-ho Song) as a driver, and his mom Chung-sook (Hye-jin Jang) as a housekeeper … all working at the same house, and the Parks having no idea they are all related.
What I loved about this film is how well it balances the comedy of the many situations they encounter with the nastiness of the petty cruelty, the condescension, and selfishness of their rich employers. Your heart truly breaks in scene after scene as you see just how out of touch the wealthy can become.
The production design in this film is extraordinary … I can’t remember a film where a house was truly such a integral character to the story itself. The cinematography is gorgeous, with perfectly placed camera positions that have as much to say about the story and their place in life as the characters do. The performances are so deeply nuanced … each character makes us laugh, each one makes us cry, each one truly makes us feel. Even the naïve Parks couple are given room to live and breathe, they’re not the easy cardboard villains that other filmmakers might have made them out to be. As the film progressed, I kept wondering where it was going to end up with this situation, and boy, I NEVER could have guessed where it ends up going! By the end, it becomes something even more. In a year where there were so many great films that left me haunted (and trust me, that’s a GOOD thing), there was perhaps no image more haunting than the perfect ending of this film. What we see on screen are the clear social and economic divisions governing modern South Korea, but it could apply to almost any country in this day and age.
I’ll never forget one of the most heartbreaking sequences in this film, when the family is at one moment celebrating in lavish surroundings, and the next that same night, finding themselves in a homeless shelter. I’ll never forget as Kang-ho Song says, clearly at the end of his rope, “You know what kind of plan never fails? No plan. No plan at all. You know why? Because life cannot be planned. Look around you. Did you think these people made a plan to sleep in the sports hall with you? But here we are now, sleeeping together on the floor. So, there's no need for a plan. You can't go wrong with no plans. We don't need to make a plan for anything. It doesn't matter what will happen next. Even if the country gets destroyed or sold out, nobody cares. Got it?” A simple closeup scene, but it’s one of the most powerful film sequences of the year.
In an age when contemporary filmmaking is so risk averse, and we more often than not get easy to sell comic book movies, remakes, and retreads, it’s perhaps not surprising that the most truly original films are coming from outside the United States (this is the second year in a row that an international film is my choice for the best film of the year). I wish movies like this were more the norm, when risky original ideas got the backing and support they deserve … imagine the stories and the worlds that we could be transported into, and the much deeper insight we could get into our shared human condition.
Anybody that knows me knows how much I love when directors challenge themselves to try to accomplish shots and sometimes even whole films in a single take (or to at least make it look like it’s all shot in a single take). I’m not a fan of it just for the sake of doing it, but when it adds to the film’s experience or is an essential part of the narrative, it can be an absolutely glorious thing to experience. And such is the case with Sam Mendes’s monumental achievement with “1917”.
The war film as a genre has been around since the beginning of film itself, but never before has someone attempted (or at least that I’m aware of) to make an entire war film seem like it’s one single take. And Mendes made the perfect choice in this, as he’s telling a different war story (a pretty simple premise, of two men trying to make it across enemy lines to deliver an important message to help prevent the deaths of 1600 soldiers during the first world war) and he’s also trying to give us a different feel about war by filming it the way he did. Many war movies have managed to allow us to experience the true carnage of war, but this one is able to truly make us feel like we’re on this mission with these two men. It’s also a powerful reminder of the arbitrary nature of war, and how quickly fortunes can change.
With the accomplished cinematographer Roger Deakins, a stunning original score by Thomas Newman, and a cast and crew working in perfect synchrony with each other, they have all crafted an absolute technical marvel that I know I will be studying over and over again. It’s one thing to try to do single take scenes in a one location setting … it’s something far more to do them across grandly staged backdrops of war with explosions and tons of extras.
As the journey proceeds through battles far and small, it beautifully manages to come across small intimate moments between characters, and I would counter any criticism that this film is ONLY a technical achievement and not an emotional journey. Sure, we don’t know the backgrounds of these characters, but this particular war film is not trying to give us a typical war film experience. Mendes wants us to feel the suddenness of war, the arbitrary nature of war, the confusion of war, and how one’s mission that can even cost lives can end up changing by the time it’s achieved. With a perfectly bookended opening and closing, this is truly one remarkable film.
I didn’t know before I saw the film that Sam Mendes was inspired to make this film based on the stories his grandfather told him, who had fought in World War I. So in a year of so many personal films by directors, here was a master filmmaker finding a way to make a personal film across a grand canvas. The words "cinematic masterpiece" get thrown around a lot of these days, but for this movie, it certainly applies.
It seems like everytime someone has played this iconic character from the DC Batman universe, someone says no one will ever be able to top it. First, Jack Nicholson, then Heath Ledger (and I truly thought Heath Ledger’s Joker would forever stand as the pinnacle for this character). And then along came Joaquin Phoenix.
The idea to give Joker his own origin story movie always seemed like a great idea, even though it was pretty fascinating how Heath Ledger’s Joker continually made up stories of his origin.
I think one of the best decisions that director Todd Phillips made when deciding to make this film was to do what Christopher Nolan did with his Batman films and root this story in the real world, with less of a reliance on CGI and superhero tricks to truly show how a comic book character could truly be a part of our world. And in the case of this film’s Joker, a hauntingly real reminder of just how many people we have like this in the world, and how easily one can become a psychotic killer.
Phillips told his cinematographer, Lawrence Sher, that he wanted this film to feel “handmade”, saying "It just meant that the movie can never get too technical, too fancy, too self-conscious, too polished. It needs to feel like there are human beings behind the camera making this film and not committees and not machinery and not technology." In a film which echoes themes from Martin Scorsese’s classics “Taxi Driver” and even “The King of Comedy”, the film feels like a movie of the 1970’s in its gritty realism, a movie incredibly far removed from any other comic book movie. Joaquin Phoenix gives a masterpiece of a performance, even losing 52 pounds for the role, as we see his mental health struggle and the difficulties he has being a part of society. As the film progresses, we quickly realize that Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck is an unreliable narrator, and we never know what is in his mind or actual reality. And that confusion continues up to the very end.
Everything about the craft of this film contributes to its effect on the viewer, particularly
Hildur Guðnadóttir’s musical score, which was actually composed BEFORE the movie was shot (which almost never happens), allowing the actors and crew to hear the music while filming. It’s one of the greatest film score achievements of recent times. From the gritty cinematography to the editing pace, it feels like a movie from a different age, but just as timely as any movie could be.
The effect this movie has cannot be overstated. It is a brutal, dark, and harrowing character study that has rightfully been debated ever since its release, as it presents to us the complexity of an issue we sure better try to get a better handle on … or else we continue to face the kind of anarchy and violence that just builds and builds in this movie. In a day and age where too many studios and filmmakers are afraid to present controversial and even unlikeable characters, I’m glad we still have some who are not afraid to confront us with the issues we really need to face and try to find solutions to.
4) ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD
When I think about my top five movies of 2019 (and believe me, amongst my top 12, there’s very little separating these movies, they could almost all be interchanged very easily), I think about moments and/or themes that haunted me this year. One of the most haunting was actually one of the quietest and peaceful images of the year, and it came at the conclusion of Quentin Tarantino’s 9th film. It’s simply a group of characters and a couple of real life people walking into a house for a peaceful evening together. It comes after a horrible spasm of violence, but one in which Tarantino continues on a theme he did in two previous movies to present an alternate version of history, and just like in the previous two, this is a revision of history that we so wish could have happened.
In particular in this film, it comes after Tarantino has slowly built an incredibly entertaining look that not only reimagines that summer of 1969, but because of the stellar production design and cinematography, it truly feels so authentic of that time period. As we knew this film would involve the Manson family somehow, and those horrifying murders that took place in August of that summer, a sense of palpable dread holds over the entire film, which builds to that surprising climax where Tarantino allows history to take a detour. The biggest thing I found refreshing when watching this film was that it’s not about the Manson family, but instead they are on the periphery of what is really a buddy film between Leonardo DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton and Brad Pitt’s Cliff Booth. Both give some of the best performances of their career as we follow Rick and Cliff, as Rick struggles with feeling his time as an actor has passed, and we wonder about Cliff’s background as he remains Rick’s ever loyal stunt man and friend. They are surrounded by another wonderful Tarantino cast, especially the young Julia Butters, who has a scene with DiCaprio which should have clearly brought her a Supporting Actress Oscar nomination. That scene is also another reminder that almost no director like Tarantino can write or direct a scene that can go on for so long but remain so incredibly riveting.
This movie has a much different feel than Tarantino's other movies, as the violence really only erupts towards the end, and it’s a more straight forward narrative which clearly shows his love for the Los Angeles of his youth. Gone are the odes to other films and genres of the past, but what emerges instead is a much more mature and assured Tarantino. In so many ways, it makes it perhaps his most personal film yet, as he demonstrates an introspection and thoughtfulness that we haven’t quite seen before in a Tarantino film.
5) UNCUT GEMS
I honestly think I may still be in recovery from the absolute panic attack of a movie that is Uncut Gems, one of the most mesmerizing and unique films of 2019. And that panic attack is actually a compliment to what directors Josh and Benny Safdie managed to do that very few filmmakers are ever really able to do in a genuine way … truly make us FEEL what a character is feeling and going through in a truly genuine way. I’m not kidding when I say that you will feel intense anxiety watching this movie, and it’s all due to the way this film is shot, Adam Sandler’s incredible performance, the music score (which is such an integral part of the film), the style of the editing and camera work … it’s all a masterpiece of filmmaking technique.
In the film, Sandler plays Howard Ratner, a man who owns a shop in the Manhattan diamond district who thinks he has finally hit it big when he receives a rare opal that had been smuggled out of Ethiopia. His plan is to try to sell at auction and help settle his debts to his brother-in-law Arno (Eric Bogosian in a very good performance) and his violent associates. When Boston Celtics superstar Kevin Garnett shows up (actually playing himself), things start getting worse for Howard as Kevin borrows the opal for luck, and Howard begins an odyssey of making one bad choice after another. We soon see the kind of life Howard lives, always on the edge, and clearly suffering from a gambling addiction … just when we think he has finally been lucky enough and should stop while he’s ahead, he does the exact opposite. Another true masterstroke of this film is that we constantly shift our feelings and attitudes about Howard, and that’s also due to Sandler’s incredible performance.
Howard once says in the movie "Everything I do is not going right." And that’s what this film gets so right about addiction … the stress and the edge are what its about, not necessarily about making the right gambling bets.
The fever pitch of this movie never once lets up until the shattering and unexpected climax, with a camera that is constantly in movement and all over the place, and the directors use the city of New York in ways that reminds one of the filmmakers of the 70s, it feels gritty and dangerous, just like Howard’s life. Even as New York City has been cleaned up so much and doesn’t resemble the New York of the 70’s, this film reminds us very powerfully that so much chaos still happens for so many at street level … the lost and marginalized looking for scraps of any kind of hope, the hustlers slipping through the cracks, and those living on the absolute edge of a life that they think is under control. This is invigorating filmmaking of the highest order.
6) THE IRISHMAN
When it was announced that Martin Scorsese (arguably our greatest living film director) would be returning to the gangster genre which he had explored so much before, it was thought by many that it would be a retread, and some still feel that Scorsese’s new epic is the same kind of film he has done before. But it so isn’t. With this film, Scorsese has truly stepped out into something new, a much slower pace for his gangster genre films, and actually examining the lives of the people in this world towards the end of their lives, when they have to face the reckoning with all they did and didn’t do. That was one of the key reasons that Scorsese even took on another foray into this genre, because he himself said, if there wasn’t something new or different to explore there, why do it?
And talk about a dream cast to explore this genre with! Scorsese reteams with Robert De Niro for the ninth time, and this film is a beautiful possible culmination of one of the most successful actor-director relationships in film history. I don’t think De Niro is getting enough credit for just how good he is in this film. Scorsese also convinced Joe Pesci to return to acting, and in a departure from the usual roles we’ve seen Joe play in this genre, his portrayal of crime boss Russell Bufalino is an exercise in powerful restraint, able to be menacing without exploding like his other characters would do. And Scorsese works with Al Pacino for the first time, and Pacino is also great as Jimmy Hoffa. Inspired by the book I Heard You Paint Houses, the film recounts the criminal life of Frank Sheeran, based on a man who claimed to be the one to have killed Jimmy Hoffa. Knowing that knowledge going in, it’s fascinating to watch once Pacino’s Hoffa arrives in the film, and to see the close relationship between him and Frank, and the tragic scene where Frank desperately tries to get through to Hoffa to change things before it’s too late.
In addition to mining new material in how he chose to examine the gangster genre this time, Scorsese tried several other experiments, including an astonishing 3 ½ hour running time, which doesn’t feel like 3 ½ hours, but truly helps serve the film. He also uses the revolutionary new de-aging CGI technology, so instead of casting younger actors to play these characters, the three legendary actors are able to play the roles, and their faces harken back to what we remember of these actors at younger ages. I do admit it was a bit off putting at first, but once you settle in with it, it’s eerie how well it works. That new technique combined with the extensive running time give a palpable sense of having truly lived a life with these characters, and by the emotional end, we truly experience something deeply moving and profound.
Scorsese, now aged 77, is clearly putting a powerful stamp on the gangster genre with this film, showing throughout a preoccupation with how all lives end, and often in this kind of lifestyle, badly. Even during the film, he has captions that pop up, describing how various criminals eventually met their fates while we see them in their prime. This epic about American corruption and underworld dishonor, while not as energetic and exciting and as good as such films as Goodfellas, Casino, and others, still deserves to stand with the finest of films by this truly gifted film director.
I know there were many people who loved last year’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”, and while it’s an okay film, the criticism a lot of us had about it is that the style of the film did not suit its subject … it was an incredibly conventional biopic for a VERY unconventional musician. And I would point them in the direction of this film to show them how it could have been done. Director Dexter Fletcher knew that to successfully deliver a biopic about Elton John, the film needed to be as flamboyant as he was, and this film’s style absolutely reflects that.
But it goes far deeper than that … it also imagines what life was like inside Elton John’s mind, so it makes perfect sense that he and characters would break into song and perform elaborate musical numbers right in the middle of a dramatic scene, because for all artists, this is how we feel and live life. For a musician, the world exists in song. For a filmmaker, we feel and see things cinematically. For a painter, the world can erupt into a beautiful canvas that must be captured.
From start to finish, this film was an absolute delight, able to maintain that balance of flashy and outlandish musical sequences while also telling of the incredibly difficult journey of finding self worth that John endured through many turbulent years of drugs and alcohol. This is not only due to the direction, but also to the perfect casting of Taron Egerton, who completely embodies Elton John, while also doing his own singing. I also loved seeing the attention given to the incredible working partnership between Elton and Bernie Taupin, undoubtedly one of the greatest song writing duos that ever has been. Watching this movie reminds us just how much incredibly unique music was put out by these two!
By the end, when the flashiness subsides and Elton is facing his younger self, that final hug brought well earned tears. For anyone who has ever struggled with self worth and the acceptance of this world of who they truly are, you will find an incredibly honest ride of a movie that should bring hope to so many. I for one thank all involved in making this film for delivering that kind of honest hopeful struggle in such an entertaining film.
8) LITTLE WOMEN
At a recent Q&A, writer-director Greta Gerwig answered an audience question, saying “Something I think about a lot, particularly with women’s stories, is that they tend not to be thought of as epic. But I’ve always thought there’s just as much epicness in the kitchen as there are on battlefields.” And Gerwig definitely delivers that epicness in the style she’s known for, managing to take a literary work that we’ve already seen presented so many times before, and finding a new way into the story, managing to both be faithful to the original source material, while also creating something that feels completely modern as well. And this was no easy feat.
First as a writer, adapting Louisa May Alcott’s well known 19th century novel, she found a remarkable way of splitting up the narrative to go back and forth in time, finding key points of the story that end up having stronger resonance because of how we see the later events edited right up against sequences from years past. In a story which examines the passage of time and how the March sisters end up going their separate ways and dealing with the tragedies and twists and turns of life, this version more than any other has an incredibly strong sense of the magic these earlier times have, and how we so often pine for them when life gets too difficult.
But then she continues as a director, firmly establishing herself with this film as one of our truly great directors. She marshals an outstanding cast, led by the always great Saoirse Ronan (who seriously may be our next Meryl Streep), and its through those casting choices that this film is also elevated beyond previous retellings of the story. Florence Pugh is especially effective and moving in her role as Amy. Laura Dern (even stronger here than she was in “Marriage Story”) plays their mother, Timothée Chalamet is perfectly cast as their neighbor Laurie, and even Meryl Streep herself has a delightful time playing their crotchety rich aunt.
In a time period where female sovereignty was only achieved with money, and marriage was both an economic transaction and a bond forged by love, Gerwig finds a way to tell this story with a strong feminist spirit that all seems to flow so naturally from all of these performances and the incredible adaptation they have to act in. When you work as skillfully as Gerwig does, then yes indeed, this was another adaptation that was incredibly welcomed. Like the best of directors, she found a way to make this a personal film, and yes, for that, she deserves to be recognized as one of the five best directors of the year.
9) MARRIAGE STORY
Divorce as a theme for movies has been explored throughout film history, and when it’s the central focus of a movie, its success and its ability to rise above the usual fare is dependent on the performances of its cast and the vision and the particular take on a story that the director brings to it. In this case, it’s writer-director Noah Baumbach.
In a year which so many personal projects from writer-directors, Baumbach took the pain of his own divorce from actress Jennifer Jason Leigh to present one of the most painfully honest portraits of divorce we’ve seen on screen. He brings such insight and authenticity to this story that anyone who has been through a divorce will wince from the pain at so many points. What Baumbach captures so well is the sense of self and the need to reconfigure one’s sense of self when something so life changing happens like a divorce … and especially when lawyers get involved and the divorce becomes its own entity, and the individuals involved become their very worst versions of themselves.
As I mentioned, the casting is essential to the success of a movie like this, and Baumbach cast perfectly. Adam Driver (one of our truly greatest actors) plays Brooklyn theater director Charlie, and Scarlett Johansson plays actress Nicole. I loved how this film began … with both characters talking about what they love about the other (an unexpected beginning to a film about divorce). We see their separation beginning with amicable intentions, but once the lawyers get involved (Ray Liotta, Laura Dern, and Alan Alda all delivering amazing performances), we start to see how they slowly devolve until the inevitable explosion comes in a scene between just the two of them that is heartbreaking in its raw honesty. And don’t even get me started about the scene where Charlie sings Stephen Sondheim’s "Being Alive" … talk about Adam Driver at his finest. I honestly cannot remember a more honest film about divorce, delivered with pitch perfect shot composition (and incredible close-ups revealing so much pain and fury), an unexpected musical score of real originality by the legendary Randy Newman, and two performances I’ll never forget.
10) FORD v FERRARI
When I first heard of this movie, I admit I was intrigued, but did have the thought … another racing movie? Well, this was far from another racing movie, as it was a reminder of how great and original big budget Hollywood moviemaking used to be (and unfortunately we don’t get enough of these days). It tells the amazing true story of how the Ford Motor Company was determined to show American ingenuity and daring by taking on the impossible task of building a race car that could rival Ferrari’s seemingly unbeatable vehicles in 1966’s 24-hour Le Mans contest. It follows the story of two men who get wrapped up in this corporate battle, Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and his non-conforming driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale). The two men deliver stellar performances (particularly Bale), and what I loved about this movie was how much drama the corporate scenes have, matching the incredible racing sequences (which also are a nice welcome relief from so much cgi filmmaking, as you truly feel the racing and the road). It’s one of those traditional stories of people working against impossible odds, and fighting the naysayers at their own company as well, to achieve something truly magnificent. One of the film’s most powerful emotional themes is how to the end, Ford still had to keep up its image, and how much Ken Miles didn’t fit that image, even though he was the man who could do for them what no one else could. I love how director James Mangold was able to capture so many different themes in this film, including the difficult friendship between Carroll and Ken. I left the theater feeling so invigorated in the hopes that big budget Hollywood these days could produce more original movies like this one. Sadly though, these types of films will probably continue to be the rare exception.
And the next ten:
11) THE TWO POPES
I admit that it took me a while to sit down and watch this film as I didn’t think this would be a movie I would enjoy seeing. But wow, once I saw it, I was riveted. It was such an unexpected surprise, a movie I still keep thinking about, and a film I think our time needs more than ever. In telling the remarkable inspired-by-true-story of what happened when Pope Benedict took the rare step of stepping down from the Papacy to be replaced by Pope Francis, director Fernando Meirelles has crafted a movie that shows how people can work through their differences in philosophy and actually be friends. In the beginning of this film, Benedict and the future Francis are opposed in so many ways, and the film has much to say about the direction of the Catholic Church and how changing times require change. I loved seeing the contrast in these two Popes as they slowly work through their differences, and Benedict ultimately sees that the church does need to change, and he needs to step aside to allow that change to happen. The film is also very moving in seeing Francis’s background, and how he found his calling, and how faith and belief can be represented by multiple different philosophies and lifestyles. The script is so beautifully intelligent, able to keep us riveted as the two men simply discuss theology and the church. Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins are so wonderful playing these roles, and I so loved this inside portrait inside a religious institution which didn’t hit us over the head with any particular message, except the most important one … if two diametrically opposed views in the Catholic Church can find friendship and common ground and a way to move forward, shouldn’t everyone else be able to do that as well?
Out of the many exceptional films of 2019, one of the ones I can’t seem to get out of my head is this one. A remarkable family drama elevated to something truly masterful by its very visual development and sonic environment, this movie deserves to find a larger audience than it has so far. Writer-director Trey Edward Shults has crafted a film that is exceptionally unique, and you know it right from the opening. A car is driving along a South Florida causeway, and the camera is in constant motion, swirling in ways that suggest both claustrophobia and liberation, optimism and impending doom. Right from the start, you know in you’re for an experience, not just a movie. The visual and sound design are meant to disorient us, to truly make us experience what these characters are feeling and going through. This is a rare film about adolescence that truly reminds us just how volatile it feels. “We are not afforded the luxury of being average,” Ronald, the father, tells Tyler, his son, during one of the film’s many riveting encounters between father and son. “I push you because I have to.” The subtext is clear to any African American parent who has had to have “the talk” with their teens. The rules are different for black kids, regardless of their levels of achievement. And that gives “Waves” an extra level of foreboding, as a sense of reckless invincibility typical that most teenagers have leads Tyler closer to mortal danger. True to its title, “Waves” is scary and comforting, overwhelming in its elemental force and rarely stands still. We’ve seen many family dramas since the beginning of cinema, but this is an astonishing step in a much different direction, a story that should not be missed.
Jordan Peele’s 2017 debut film “Get Out” was an incredible landmark in film history, and in the horror genre as well. It was a huge wake-up call to the industry for sure, but beyond all its significance, it remained a success because it was such a perfectly crafted film. In general, I have never been a fan of the horror genre. I’ve never understood how audiences and filmmakers consider so much mindless blood and gore on screen something worth seeing or making (or frankly, that that is actually considered horror) But if you pair that with truly horrifying IDEAS, then you really have something. I’m far more interested in horror movies whose ideas are horrifying, and stay under my skin long after the movie is over. Peele did that so well with “Get Out”, and he accomplished it again with his second film this year. In addition, he managed to again create a movie like its predecessor that manages to also comment on a larger cultural issue, in this case the nation’s fractured identity.
When I first saw the previews for this film, how could one not be intrigued? A family of four is at home one night, when their young son suddenly interrupts to say that there’s a family outside in the driveway. And when they look out, it’s a family of four that looks just like them. Already, we’re hooked. I had no idea where this film would be going, and the ideas just got more and more horrifying all the way through until that wonderfully unexpected last shock. That left me horrified for days, and that’s the hallmark of a truly great horror movie. As Adelaide, Lupita Nyong’o is the absolute center of this movie, delivering her most ambitious performance to date, playing the troubled wife and mother and also the incredibly eerie doppelgänger who has emerged from the tunnels. As the family each splits off dealing with their look alike, the film slowly and eerily reveals its main concept. Peele does a stunning job of looking at the whole idea of American exceptionalism in a way I was totally not expecting … once again, he delivers a film that is so needed, using the horror genre in such a respectable .. and yes, truly horrifying way.
14) JOJO RABBIT
One of the most difficult balancing acts for any filmmaker is to take a subject, character, or theme which was not even remotely funny and put them into a film that is primarily a comedy and make it work. But when a filmmaker is able to do that, it’s usually something pretty special. And such was the case with writer-director Taika Waititi’s film … a film that could be classified as the first hipster Nazi comedy. The Jojo of the title is Jojo Betzler, a 10 year old boy wonderfully portrayed by Roman Griffin Davis, who has grown up in the Third Reich. With his father away in the war, he has an imaginary friend who is none other than Adolf Hitler himself, although one quite removed from the historical Hitler (more like “Springtime for Hitler” outrageous). And who plays this satirical Hitler? None other than Waititi himself. But this campy take on Hitler is really not the core of the movie … it’s about the friendship that evolves between Jojo (a German boy who gets kicked out of the Hitler Youth when he’s scarred by a grenade) and Elsa Korr (played by Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie), the Jewish girl that his mother Rosie is hiding behind a panel in their study. Scarlett Johansson plays Rosie, giving another amazing performance (what an incredible year she’s had!) It’s a setup we’ve seen many times before, how two sides in a war can find common ground if we only got to know each other, but it’s quite emotional to see it through the eyes of children. Jojo has only known what he’s grown up with (Nazism), and we gradually get to see the realizations of how what he has believed is wrong. With wonderful supporting performances by Sam Rockwell, Stephen Merchant, Alfie Allen, and Rebel Wilson as well, it’s definitely one of the most memorable and unique films of recent times.
15) A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD
In 2018, there was an astonishing documentary released about Mister Rogers, one of the most beautiful documentaries ever made. When I heard that there would be a narrative film coming out in 2019 about Mister Rogers, I remember thinking “why do we need that?” after we got such a stunning examination of the man and his impact in that earlier film.
But thankfully, this film was not a biopic of Fred Rogers, but instead he’s a supporting player in a film which is able to demonstrate the impact that he had on someone else, which I think was the perfect decision for the type of man Mr. Rogers was. Marielle Heller instead focuses the main story on Lloyd Vogel (a touching performance by Matthew Rhys), a fictional journalist who is based on Esquire article writer Tom Junod, who 20 years ago wrote about his experience with the legendary TV show host. Lloyd is a very broken man, and even though he has skewered past subjects of his journalism, Mr. Rogers seeks him out to spend time together for a story on him.
Tom Hanks is absolutely spectacular as Mr. Rogers, and he had a tough task being that we know him so well, but within about 10 minutes, I truly forgot I was watching Tom Hanks, as he captures every essence of the man just as wonderfully as he has captured so many other characters. The resulting film celebrates the virtues of gentleness, patient listening to one another, and the honest expression of feelings. And in this day and age, how rare is it that we can get a film or expression of art that celebrates such things. Heller also beautifully structures the film like an episode of “Mister Rogers Neighborhood” … she made one smart choice after another. No, this film is not as good as “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”, 2018’s documentary … but it’s a wonderful companion piece to it, and a message that our society and world certainly needs to hear more of right now.
16) DOLEMITE IS MY NAME
I grew up always being a huge Eddie Murphy fan, so it was such a delight to see him back with the same hilarious kind of energy that he brought to so many of his early works. In this delightfully enjoyable biopic, Murphy plays Rudy Ray Moore, a wannabe entertainer who finally hit it big by playing the wonderful kung-fu fighting and profanely rhyming Dolemite character (those rhymes were such hilarious concoctions). I’ve always loved movies that show how an entertainer finally is able to rise to greater success, and this one, from director Craig Brewer, is so brilliant at specifically looking at the most difficult art form to truly succeed in – comedy – and who better than Eddie Murphy to truly immerse himself in a character like this. Powered by a wonderful script by the incredible writing team of Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski, wonderful costumes by Ruth E. Carter, gorgeous cinematography by Eric Steelberg, this is a wonderfully inventive look at one artist’s transformation into an alter ego, and the many friends and collaborators who helped him realize his dreams (especially love Wesley Snipes, who almost steals the film from him). In a year where we got one example after another of Netflix financing truly great original movies that otherwise might not have been made, I’m so grateful that we got this.
17) AD ASTRA
Brad Pitt delivered two amazing performances in 2019, and one of these was this wonderful surprise from director James Gray. In a film that echoes themes and styles from such great films as 2001, The Tree of Life, and Apocalypse Now, this film takes place in “the near future”. Pitt plays Major Roy McBride, who is sent on a mission to Neptune, where it is believed that his father Clifford (played by Tommy Lee Jones), who has been missing for decades on his own mission to find extraterrestrial life, is alive and causing strange pulses that threaten the entire solar system. It’s an intriguing premise, but what I think makes this film stand out is not just the machinations of the plot and Roy’s eventual trip to Neptune himself, but the portrait we get of Roy’s spiritual and emotional peril along the way. This is accomplished by Pitt’s narration throughout, ultimately leading to an incredibly poignant conclusion to an even deeper personal journey. Accompanied by the beautiful visuals around Neptune, it’s ultimately about the journey to one’s self, and how that is indeed the greatest journey there is.
18) THE FAREWELL
From the very beginning of this film, when the very first title card tells us “Based on an actual lie”, I was already smiling. And the smiling continued as the movie went on, realizing that I was experiencing a very welcome breath of fresh air, a thoroughly original film that somehow managed to move so seamlessly from genre to genre. In director Lulu Wang’s second film, Awkwafina delivers a remarkable performance (and a departure from her more comedic roles) playing a Chinese-American who is having difficulty dealing with the traditionalism of her past during this very touching look at a very unusual family reunion when her beloved grandmother is diagnosed with terminal cancer. We’ve seen so many iterations of this kind of story before in films, but instead of delivering the usual kind of family tragedy story around a terminal disease, we get to truly be immersed into her character’s life … getting to witness and truly experience the many conflicting emotions such as loyalty and resentment that define her adulthood. This was a year of some truly great writer-directors making very personal films, and this was no exception, with Wang drawing from her own experiences. As this film grosses genres from family drama to thriller and back again, it ultimately becomes an incredibly modern look at cross-culturalism that was such a welcome delight. And guaranteed … you’ll want to call your Grandmother if she’s still alive right after seeing this movie.
19) APOLLO 11
Just when I thought we had seen every possible incarnation of one of the most awe inspiring achievements of humankind ... the 1969 moment when human beings landed on the moon ... came this remarkable documentary which was nothing short of magnificent. I had no idea that there was still some footage of the event that had never been seen before, and this documentary presents recently discovered 65mm footage and audio recordings which on their own would have been fascinating to watch. In the way this documentary is structured, and the incredible value that this new footage has, we get such a huge up close and personal look at the preparations for the flight, the crowds that were all there to witness history, and some truly astonishing footage from the surface of the moon. Seeing this in IMAX made the scale of the achievement all that more amazing, but in any format, it's a mesmerizing reminder of a time when human beings were truly courageous and united together to achieve the impossible. It made me SO wish for a world where we could find that kind of common achievement and inspiration again.
I am always incredibly excited when a filmmaker comes along that gives us a new high school comedy that is able to capture where students are in the day and age that the film is made, but is also able to create something so universal that it will likely last to be one of the really great films about this important time in life. Olivia Wilde managed to do both in her wonderful directorial debut. She did so by putting together an absolutely stellar cast with a script filled with intelligent dialogue, and then she surpassed that with beautiful cinematography and what every great high school comedy needs … a perfect soundtrack.
Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever give two incredible performances as Molly and Amy, two students who have worked incredibly hard to get into the colleges of their choice, and when they find out that some students who have done far less work have gotten accepted into the same schools, they decide to break down and party before they finally graduate. Their journey allows us to truly see the deep friendship these two have, and surrounded by a wonderfully diverse supporting cast, it kept me smiling the entire ride through. Olivia Wilde has truly created something special with this film, a movie that deserves to stand alongside the best high school films ever made.