My Top Ten Films of 2019
Although I was travelling throughout Asia for much of the year, I am thankful that the movie industry decides to cram most of its Oscar worthy candidates into the fall so they can be top of mind for those oh-so-progressive academy voters. If you don’t believe me, just look at this February’s releases (Harley Quinn, Sonic the Hedgehog, The Call of the Wild, Fantasy Island…). Because of this, I was still able to view most of the year's best films in the theater (don't stop seeing movies in theaters!). But, I still did have to get a bit creative in my movie viewing abroad. I watched Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and Hobbs and Shaw in Hanoi. I saw Toy Story 4 and Aladdin in Borneo. I saw Yesterday in Laos and The Dead Don’t Die in Cambodia. I also saw Avengers Endgame in Bali, just missing Tom Holland’s promo appearance in Denpasar by 6 mere days (smh).
To put it simply, 2019 was one of the strongest movie years in over a decade. It was the first time in a long time that I enjoyed every Best Picture nomination in the category. The encumberment within the industry over the past few years in regards to original content has felt almost atmospheric. We’ve almost completely lost access to mid-budget films, pushing that skew either towards Superhero movies and other heavily drawn upon literature or into indie movies, leaving a lot of ideas on the table that otherwise could be made into fantastic films. It often seems like everything coming out is either a sequel, a reboot, or fan service to some previous text. I wrote last year about how for a period of time, I recoiled into only watching movies made by A24. I also wrote about my pessimistic outlook for 2019. But my naivete befell me, and I’ve never been more happy to be wrong. Filmmakers took big risks this year. They used ambitious ideas in both creative and technical senses. They bathed in their bombastic vision with little reservation. And ultimately, they were rewarded for it. The film industry, and in a greater sense art in general, has always been posed with a give and take. In order to create their art, they must take into consideration that they are operating as a business. We can’t always tell stories or communicate a message without addressing the money needed to do it. With greater volatility comes more questions. With more questions comes skepticism. Skepticism scares investors. This is why you’ve seen much of the mid-budget film fall out. That’s why you see many more guaranteed bets being made. Sure-fire films, like the MCU, have a fail-safe, and that’s both frustrating and exciting as a movie fan. Because I sure as hell loved seeing Cap hold Thor’s hammer, but I also lamented over the fact that this series takes up much of the bandwidth and stage filmmakers are given. But this year, it appeared as though in some way, we took a step forward in rewarding artists for seeing their weird ideas through, regardless of the audacity in doing so. Maybe we just got lucky. Either way, I’m happy it turned out the way it did.
SPOILER ALERTS AHEAD
Frankly, Ari Aster scares me. And this movie did as well. Very much. The tug of war between disturbing visuals and looming swedish outre ends up ripping you in half, instead of pulling you to one side. It’s simply a very raw and emotive film, expressing the difficulty of experiencing grief and the need to belong once you do, put on by a filmmaker who has no problem pulling on your marionette strings to inflict acute pain.
9. Ad Astra
Ad Astra is largely a parable about men and their fathers, and the lengths one man will go, both emotionally and physically, to seek restitution in abandonment. It’s a bold, yet intimate exploration of the imprints that seem to stick with us for life.
8. Knives Out
After seeing Rick and Morty’s satire on the ensemble heist genre (“you son of a bitch, I’m in"), it made me think about Knives Out and the massively large work it had ahead of itself in paying its dues to the whodunit genre while standing on its own. Rian Johnson takes the borrowed format and injects it with verite and pizazz, naturally asking its viewers to sit back and watch the story unfold. Its a unique and invigorating take on a saturated genre.
7. American Factory
What do you get when an anti-union Chinese glass manufacturing company purchases a factory in post-industrial Ohio and employs over 2000 American workers on the fringe of poverty? A damn interesting documentary. Julia Reichart and Steven Bognar do an exemplary job of showing the culture clash that takes place when Chinese shift supervisors are brought in to manage American workers, showcasing two very different ideologies in how work should be completed: efficiency without safety, or vice versa.
6. Marriage Story
Noah Baumbach succeeds at uncovering the frustration and confusion in untethering two people from one another. His oft cerebral and humanistic style of writing are chaperoned by two of the industries most flexible and sharp, melting away the need to hide from the strife. It’s brilliance lies in its ability to create an atmosphere of familiarity in a world many of us cannot relate to.
5. The Farewell
The Farewell is not only a reflection of the acquiescence we all feel when confronted with death, but enacts the conflicting feelings of ethnocentrism when two culturally and ethically strong arguments come at odds with one another. At times both charming and somber, Lulu Wang’s real life immigration story is broadcasted onto the screen with humility, hilarity and sharpness while doing an exceptional job furthering the fight in breaking down international film borders.
4. Little Women
To say it's difficult to tell a story that's been portrayed on screen over ten times already would be a dramatic understatement. There have been countless versions of the Louisa May Alcott classic made over the past 100 years of film. Hell, there was even a modern retelling created only a year ago. Although I can’t say I’ve seen enough versions to comment on their similarities and differences, what I can tell you is that Greta Gerwig’s version lends an undeniable voice to women in this film and refuses to hold your hand while doing it. Much like everyday conversation, this film won’t slow down for you. It asks a lot of its viewers and in return, they are rewarded with a very immersive experience, placing you on a level with it’s characters. Intricate blocking and choreography paired with layered and loud conversation create this lovely tone and atmosphere, letting its characters personalities, desires, and fears slowly deliver you understanding. From moment-to-moment, it’s captivating. It’s refreshing for the woman in this film to not revolve around the men they interact with. They exist solely on their own. The performances, score, and costumes are simply impeccable. It's just a lovely film.
3. Uncut Gems
I found myself in awe at the level of unbridled conviction the Safdie brothers possess in seeing out their unabashed vision. They seem to be unlike any of their contemporaries. Their quest to shape this film took place over the course of nearly ten years, and the world can be glad it came to fruition. Uncut Gems imbues a profound sense of anxiety, disorientation and at times a paralyzing level of tension. Their casting choices (Sandler at his best and weirdest), maniacal dialogue, and chaotic narrative pile on top of each other to create something quite rare; a pure-shot of adrenaline. To resist it would simply be an exercise in futility.
2. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
This is Tarantino at his most meta, playing on the tropes of his former films while masterfully weaving in another story of revisionist history and saluting the industry he grew up admiring. His tongue-in-cheek style alongside Brad and Leo’s rodomontade make you feel like seeing movies matter again. There's a calculated toxicity amongst the leading cast, leading you to ask why you love a wife-killer and a downtrodden c-list TV star on the brink of a mental meltdown.
If the phrase “your immediate future is in the past'' somehow incorporated, then Bong Joon Ho should be its CEO. Given his body of work over the past 20 years (Okja, Snowpiercer, Memories of Murder), its no suprise that Bong’s next project, Parasite, would be his greatest. He’s repeatedly built his canon of films around class, each time contributing another layer of added nuance to his overall stratum. Bong has developed a knack for extremely efficient and truncated editing and it’s never shined more than in Parasite. He doesn’t seem to waste a minute throughout this film. His pacing is smooth and fantastical, his message frank yet subtle, and his ability to fluidly cross genres moment-to-moment is quite beautiful. I left the theatre feeling something that I couldn’t exactly articulate at the time, but I’ve now come to identify that feeling as hope.
Lets just pray next years films can come close to matching the quality and volume of 2019.