I think there’s little disputing that 2019 was a great year for movies, and I’m not sure I have much to add to that sentiment. It was a great year for movies if you wanted to see something small and artsy, it was a great year if you want to something mid-budget and weird (thanks A24), and it was a great year if you wanted to see something grand and spectacular at your local multiplex (sans a disappointing Star Wars conclusion). I felt like I stayed fairly up-to-date with all the movies worth seeing this year, and yet there’s still a few I wished I’d been able to cram in. But hey, that’s not a bad problem to have.
The Last Black Man In San Francisco
The great sophomore horror trilogy of Us/Midsommar/The Lighthouse
There were a number of injustices apparent in yesterday’s announced Oscar nominations, and one of the bigger ones had to be Jennifer Lopez being snubbed over a bunch of blonde white actresses for best supporting. She’s the heart of Hustlers, and one of the biggest reasons why this was one of the more fun reasons to go to the movies last year. Also, it wouldn’t be a true 2019 movie without a bit of social commentary on the disparity between the rich and not-so-rich to compliment all the delightful glitz and schemery.
Ah, speaking of glitz, schemery (which I realize isn’t a word), and Oscar snubs, here’s Uncut Gems. I’m not sure I found this movies quite as heart-pounding as the Safdie Brothers last movie, Good Time, but it still provided a different way of getting stressed out while watching a character make bad decision after bad decision. There’s also a kind of chaos mastery that you have to admire in the Safdie’s filmmaking here, as the cameras are constantly moving, the conversations are constantly overlapping, and you can’t help but assume that the Sandman is ultimately doomed.
A script to a whodunit movie in 2019 is not one that I would envy writing, but if Rian Johnson was able to breathe new life into the Star Wars universe, he obviously knows a thing or two about revitalizing well-trodden genres. It’s just a pleasure to watch all of these first-rate actors chew scenery as this mostly unlikeable family being interrogated by an expected (but mostly great) Daniel Craig. It’s also nice to see a movie that has so many tricks up its sleeve and doesn’t ever assume its audience is comprised idiots.
Though it seemed to get a fairly wide release for such a small, intimate film, it’s not terribly surprising that The Souvenir was pretty overlooked when it was released last Spring. Luckily, I was able to catch up with it later this year, and for whatever reason, it has stuck with me like some long-remembered, all-too-potent memory. Clearly, it’s a film that feels very autobiographical for director Joanna Hogg, as it centers on a film student in early ’80s Britain. But the way it paints a story of ill-advised romance and finding your voice as an artist feels timeless.
It must speak to the bounty of quality films unleashed on the world in 2019 that something as agreeably great as Parasite is only number 6 on my list. I’m not sure I had a more enjoyable filmgoing experience than seeing this film in theaters, since it takes a lot out of an audience. Not only in the amount of laughter it elicits, but also in its shocking twists and the way it plays with your sympathies. There’s just so much in this movie, as far ideas and plot mechanics, that it’s truly impressive that Parasite manages to spin together so many jumbled parts into something so riveting.
I think I put off seeing Pain & Glory for a while, mainly because I couldn’t remember if I still enjoyed Pedro Almodóvar as a filmmaker. I hadn’t watched a film of his since The Skin I Live In came out in 2011, and so I’d been a bit estranged from his style of filmmaking. While this movie does feel very much like a late-period work from a great director, it also sees Almodóvar with a bunch of surprises up his sleeve. The movie is incredibly playful, but also somber and meditative in ways that I found truly moving. Also, it’s just nice to see Antonio Banderas getting some award-season love for more or less playing a fictionalized version of Almodóvar.
Much like my previous pick, this feels like a director in the twilight of their career operating at a high level, though who knows if Tarantino’s early retirement talk will truly pan out that way. All I know is that this is the most I’ve liked a Quentin Tarantino movie in a while, and it’s just a deliciously fun ride that shows Tarantino’s strengths as a master of the “hang out” movie. I’m still a little mixed on how much I love the ending, but considering everything that precedes it is so damn enjoyable, it’s hard to complain, man.
I don’t know that I’ve ever felt as unsure about the ordering of the top few spots in my Top Ten Movies list as I do this year. If I had had the time to see Little Women a second time, I’m sure there’s a chance it could’ve been my number 1, since I suspect its tricky structure holds up even better on a second viewing. But for now, Little Women cements Greta Gerwig as completely capable of telling stories that aren’t plucked from her own experiences, and here she manages to make them just as relatable. I can’t imagine adapting a 150-year old classic novel is an easy feat, especially when it has been adapted to the screen numerous times over the years, but somehow this thing feels fresh and alive and completely like the kind of familiar (and familial) world you’d love to live in.
Apparently this was the year of male directors wrestling with their own legacies, while I’m not sure any of them hit me with the kind of existential despair that The Irishman did. There’s probably a reasonable case that could be made for this movie being shorter, though I’m not sure if the last 45 minutes would be quite as devastating without having seen a lifetime of bad decisions that precede it. There’s also something quite affecting for a lifelong Scorsese fan like myself to see all these guys that had originally starred in a bunch of his earlier movies (or should have appeared in his earlier movies) leave behind one last complicated tribute to the gangster movie genre.
As I said, my number 1 was kind of a toss-up this year. Though what I can say about Marriage Story that I can’t quite say about the other films that are high up on my list is that this is probably the best work yet from its accomplished director. It also feels like a great amalgam of everything Noah Baumbach did in his earlier, pricklier films, and his more recent work, which has a kind of deftness and sneaky optimism behind its self-obsessed characters. Sure, you could absolutely make the case that Marriage Story ultimately just amounts to a bunch of “white people bullshit”. But it’s done with so much feeling and so many incisive observations, that even if it’s sometimes hard to watch, you find yourself watching (and empathizing) regardless.