2019 was a strange and wild year for the world, and that includes the world’s movies. I saw films from all the corners of the earth, telling stories I had never heard told before, or stories I’d heard before in ways I never expected them to be told.
It may have been the best moviegoing year of my life.
Even in a year that included Joker (the less said, the better) and High Life, a movie whose opening sequence locked me in for greatness and then proceeded to lose me as few movies ever have before in a mess of disgust and confusion.
To pick ten prime examples from this year was no easy feat, and I had to recalibrate the list several times, but this is how the chips fell for me in the end…and of course, I’m going to try to comment on the art of storytelling itself as I go because that is my thing after all.
- Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Celine Sciamma’s tale of a painter and an aristocrat who fall in love in the mid-eighteenth century is, on the surface, a very simple story, a few intense moments in two lives. What makes it special is how Sciamma (who wrote and directed) creates a chamber piece that fits with the masterworks of Eric Rohmer. Four characters (with a few intrusions from other societies), all women, with problems they care about solving so much that we would be heartless not to care. (The subplot involving the maid results in the funniest moments but the gravity is never lost.) Moreover, Claire Mathon’s cinematography received universal acclaim for a reason. This is a masterclass in composition, arranging every shot’s elements and lighting and how the actors move to create an effect that is never showy and always impactful. (I’m serious: teach this in film schools!) And in the cast, I have to single out Noemie Merlant as Marianne the painter for one of the performances of the year. Merlant is laconic, sardonic, and has a penetrating stare like few others, all of which make her more emotional moments believable as a release of great energy.
As a final, SPOILER HEAVY note, I had a conversations with female friends of mine about Portrait in its aftermath, specifically about the nature of the lesbian love story in general. Some are upset by how it continues the trope of queer romance ending unhappily. Some were deeply moved by how the story played into the realities of the time. It’s a situation I find myself unqualified to comment on but one where I see both sides of the coin. I want to see positive representation of everyone in film, but a story’s end also has to feel natural in relation to how you told it.
- Avengers: Endgame
I often say that one reason I love cinema is that it’s for the masses, and there is something wonderful when a piece of pop art does everything it’s supposed to do unbelievably well while still surprising you and throwing you for an emotional loop.
Endgame is pop art on the level of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and that’s a high compliment.
Endgame is one of two movies this year, 1917 being the other, that I don’t think anyone will successfully emulate. Pulling off a resolution after 21 films of set-up should be impossible, and I give credit to Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely for realizing the finish shouldn’t be the biggest battle of them all but a series of long character moments full of interplay, humor, and reckoning with the past, including long intellectual and emotional speeches from the likes of Tilda Swinton and Rene Russo…and then 45 minutes of the biggest battle of them all. The production values feel more expressive and present than many CGI fests, the dialogue crackles, and the set piece, despite its gargantuan size, is staged so well that I know where everything is and what’s happening at all times. Is it goofy? Yes. Is it corny? Indubitably. Is it as great as Spider-Verse? Hell no! But it was also three hours of me sitting in a theater with a giant smile, feeling others as they gasped, applauded, and had a collective reaction. If we’re going to live in an age where the Walt Disney Company is going to ply us with nothing but elaborate spectacle, that’s a problem in itself, but a bigger problem from an aesthetic point of view is that they gave us a standard they might never be able to meet again.
Kudos to Kevin Feige for making the MCU work, and to Downey, Evans, Hemsworth, Johansson, Renner, and Ruffalo for making us care about these characters. Especially the first two: Robert Downey, Jr. and Chris Evans put so much of themselves into being the heart and soul of this ridiculous project and whatever lows of theirs are forgiven by this one.
And speaking of Chris Evans being terrific in a genre film…
- Knives Out
I saw Knives Out with a row full of friends and we got yelled at for laughing too loud (especially me) when Benoit tells Marta nobody’s read Gravity’s Rainbow. Reading over that sentence again makes me realize how weird a line that is for a murder mystery. But everything about what Rian Johnson and his incredible cast does in Knives Out is out of the ordinary. I never thought a film could accomplish what Clue did, but this one gets into that territory.
It all starts, of course, with the script, clearly the work of a man who has steeped himself in mysteries his entire life. Knives Out begins as an Agatha Christie-style whodunit, then inexplicably becomes the greatest Columbo episode never made, but as that stretch played out, I elbowed my friend Asher Stuhlman and whispered “this can’t be it…after all they’ve done, there has to be one more twist.” We got that twist. It left my jaw on the floor. And suffice to say that Johnson delivers the most incredible climactic surprise in a murder mystery since The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and he plays perfectly fair in doing it.
It’s also no surprise that the man who made The Last Jedi imbues the Thrombey house and grounds with detail and shoots it all well. But a murder mystery lives and dies (pun intended) by its cast. Johnson creates memorable modern-day versions of the Christie archetypes, then gets a cavalcade of outstanding actors to play them. In such an ensemble only a few people can necessarily stand out, and three key figures get a lot of screen time. Chris Evans as Ransom may have garnered attention for that sweater, but he nails the rapscallion who might have a bigger heart under a foul-mouthed surface. Ana de Armas is the breakout: she plays Marta, the nurse who might know more than she tells, with total sincerity and winning empathy, and nails her lighter notes…especially in the best cut-to-black shot of the year. And Daniel Craig gives a comic performance for the ages as Benoit Blanc of the undefinable accent, the beautiful analogies about donut holes, and the analytical mind that knows how to solve this case because it’s no spoiler to say he solves the case. That’s what master detectives do, even when they have to be in the stupidest car chase ever to do it. (Lakeith Stanfield walks away with the best line in the film as the Japp to Blanc’s Poirot.)
- Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Fair warning: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood ends with a scene of violence so visceral, disturbing, and long that my entire body shook.
That said, it’s the most beautiful and warm movie of Quentin Tarantino’s career.
Rarely have I seen a movie that I wanted to just live in forever. Tarantino’s screenplay with how people talk and think and act, Barbara Ling’s impeccable production design, Robert Richardson’s grand cinematography…they all combine into a picture of 1969 and an entertainment industry about to permanently transition, bursting with the life of variety and the period detail that’s present in every Tarantino film.
But the story told within this world is surprising. Always fixated on traditions, tropes, and more recently on the possibility of changing the past, Tarantino contrasts the aging, perplexed Rick Dalton, a would-be leading man at the crossroads of his career, and his best friend/stunt double/general assistant/man with a mysterious past Cliff Booth with Rick’s neighbor Sharon Tate, a rising star whose every muscle and bone pulses with vitality. Played by Leonardo DiCaprio (never better), Brad Pitt, and Margot Robbie, they are figures to remember and get close to.
The idea hanging over the film was that Tarantino would tackle Charles Manson, his Family, and their murder spree, but that isn’t what Once Upon a Time is really about. Ethan Warren wrote of this far better than I could in Bright Wall/Dark Room, but Tarantino uses the Manson/Tate era to comment on the shifting nature of existence and challenge the idea of how the past determines our future, and with that future our perception of the past. It does not leave you with the triumphant spirit of his recent attempts to rewrite history, but nor does it conclude with the nihilism of The Hateful Eight. It leaves one sad with a nostalgia for what was lost yet ecstatic over visions of how people lived through what was lost and, more importantly, the possibility of what could be. It is Tarantino at his most complex and mature and, despite all his usual signifiers, his least indulgent in terms of giving you what you want, which is great in and of itself. It’s a film that makes you feel good, and feel weird about feeling good, then simply feel good.
A few other observations: Tarantino casts the Manson Family perfectly, with Dakota Fanning and Lena Dunham being startlingly good. The sequence of Cliff at Spahn Ranch is one of the most well-shot moments of his or anyone’s career. Kurt Russell is delightful. And the entire soundtrack, particularly a part that cuts from The Royal Guardsmen to Vanilla Fudge to Maurice Jarre, is all killer, no filler. What more do you want?
Lulu Wang’s The Farewell should have been a holiday release. Thanksgiving or Christmas weekend. It’s a picture full of feasts, celebrations, and family that you actually can take the whole family to. Apart from one scene in which a character comes across a room full of sex workers and their clientele, there is nothing to worry about.
It might have gotten more people to see The Farewell, a movie that should have been seen by everyone. It has an original hook that’s, incredibly, based on a true story: a Chinese-American writer discovers her grandmother is terminally ill and the entire family is keeping it a secret due to cultural norms. The writer, at her own personal crossroads, pushes back against this, but ultimately goes along after her grandmother gives her some valuable life advice, and it all builds to a surprise ending. (Yes, there’s a surprise ending!)
Wang finds all the humor in family gatherings: the gentle bustle of feasts, the arguments in bedrooms and hotel rooms, the rituals at cemeteries and old haunts, the cacophony of weddings, the little things you do with your grandparents and those outside the immediate family. There is an honesty and realism to this which is captured in Wang’s colorful but unflashy direction. She fills every frame with wonderful imagery and actors, then steps back to let them work their magic, all set to Chinese pop and Alex Weston’s score providing a lovely backdrop.
The Farewell is a picture that, like Lady Bird, has little actually happen but depicts everything happening; we firmly believe Billi will have a transformed existence based on these days with her loving but ineffectual parents, clueless relations, almost idiotic cousins, and very wise grandmother.
Awkwafina is perfect in the lead role, and Zhao Shuzhen is magnificent as the grandmother, cheerful and domineering in every scene, but the supporting cast is crucial to this movie in how they never overplay a single moment. As someone with a complex family himself, The Farewell is a fantastic depiction of how we’re able to love and co-exist despite any differences.
Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite is one of the definitive movies of the decade. It is a story deeply rooted in modern society that says something about said society. It is by turns hilarious and terrifying. And, with one exception, represents more than any other movie on this list what movies can do.
For this film, Lee Ha-Jun, who should now be counted as a god amongst production designers, built a mansion and its street and designed a multi-layered city to represent the divide between the haves and have-nots in the late capitalist era. Joon-Ho’s direction, more assured than anyone else’s on this list, navigates these spaces perfectly for maximum dramatic impact.
And the story Joon-Ho and Han Jin-Won tell in their screenplay! I earlier wrote about how Parasite suffers from the problem of coincidence and so many plot points happening so fast, but the story is gripping in that it turns the meaning of the word “parasite” in every possible way, as all the characters in one way or another serve as parasites sucking off some quality of a host that can give what they need. Yet—and this is where the screenplay shines—despite the despicable moments given to most of the characters, Parasite successfully convinces that none of them are true villains, and their acts of desperation are the result of the system they live within. To create empathy for your entire cast in a story hinged around crime and death, and which includes the most unusual sex scene I’ve ever seen, is a work of genius. It is Bong saying that this way leads to death and there is an alternative.
I don’t want to write too much about Parasite since it depends on surprise, but I will say the cast is extraordinary. Song Kang-Ho has deservedly gotten the lion’s share of his praise, since his part requires a rare form of subtle transformation, but I want to single out Cho Yeo-Jeong as the matriarch of the wealthy Parks, whose total cluelessness proves surprisingly endearing, Park Myung-Hoon for his ability to go for it, and Park So-Dam for her beautiful Machiavellian quality.
- The Irishman
Martin Scorsese has another movie in production right now. I am delighted because this world needs all the Scorsese it can get. But The Irishman would have been a perfect valediction. It is an old man’s movie, and a movie with no fucks left to give.
The Irishman is an old man’s movie in that it is told as such, the rambling saga Frank Sheeran relates to an unseen audience at his nursing home…but within the digressions, the travels, and the possibly insignificant details piling up is the makings of a Shakespearean tragedy. The two men Frank loves most, Jimmy Hoffa and mob boss Russell Bufalino, destroy each other and the world they create through their violent stubbornness, while Frank, caught in the middle, suffers because while these two powerful men each believe they are the heroes of the story of existence and let that pride lead to tragic consequences, Frank is a man who has no idea what the story even is. He lets the sweep of a history he participates in pass him by and finally can only partially realize that his life in service to Hoffa and Bufalino has ended in him alone, widowed, and with no family he can relate to. Passivity to forces larger than himself has robbed his life of meaning, while whatever success and good Hoffa and Bufalino accomplished has been wiped away. For a tragic story of human existence meant to serve as a warning, one couldn’t ask for better tellers on all accounts.
Scorsese’s confidence is unmatched, and though Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography pales in comparison to early work (in part thanks to the CGI), Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing is as assured as ever, and Steven Zaillian writes a confident, ironic, ultimately powerful screenplay.
And what a cast to enact it: Robert De Niro, quietly at his heights (something I think the awards bodies didn’t recognize because De Niro peaks during the final ninety minutes), Al Pacino, never more restrained, and Joe Pesci, who mixes real deadliness with a longing for love, are all unimpeachable. (Harvey Keitel, the other paragon of classic Scorsese, also shows up to deliver the film’s most hilarious line.) Anna Paquin, in the most controversial part, only speaks six words but carries weight on her shoulders as few could. Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale, and Stephen Graham excel.
But this is Scorsese’s movie above all, a story that can only be the product of someone questioning the meaning of existence itself, a weight brought home at the end as Frank faces his own death and realizes all he worked for was forgotten. This message, and the length, and the white male-dominated cast, may turn viewers away. I hope it does not. The Irishman says as much about our frail lives and, in the words of Matt Zoller Seitz, asks “what do we want our lives to be?” as few movies ever could.
- The Souvenir
At Emerson College, I took the step from being able to figure out I loved certain stories—in film, literature, elsewhere—to being able to articulate in detail why I loved them and learn how they worked. A bellwether for me was taking David Kociemba and Maurice Methot’s classes in freshman year. Watching everything from Wong Kar-Wai to Douglas Sirk to David Lynch expanded my artistic horizons, and more importantly gave me a feeling of wonder and surprise, of seeing things I’d never seen before or in ways I’d never expected to see them.
Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir is the first film in a long time to continually, delightedly surprise me.
Joanna Hogg makes films about the most intimate moments of life, and the dynamics we have with those closest to us. The Souvenir is her fourth film and the first to get major international attention, thanks to the backing of Martin Scorsese and A24. In it, Julie, an earnest, well-to-do film student in 1980s London trying to make her talent climb up to the level of her ambition, meets Anthony, a sardonic older man who works for the Foreign Office. A relationship begins. But Julie’s insecurities collide with Anthony’s addictions, and eventually she must decide whether she should stay the course with her passion or move on.
A tale of a relationship gone bad and a person coming of age isn’t new. But in every single scene—this is not an exaggeration—Hogg does something that astonishes me. She picks a particular angle. She moves in on an object or body part or detail with close-ups and focal tricks. She creates tableaux where placement of people and things becomes important. She uses a constantly shifting sound design. And in the midst of all of this sensory onslaught, she makes it clear how much every aspect of Julie’s life matters and how it’s all tied into her emotional state in a way few filmmakers would have the talent or originality to do.
It’s little short of a miracle what happens here, something on the level of Roma. The cumulative effect of this piling up of details is to dramatize how meaningful and important this is for Julie, her longing, heartbreak, success, failure, and coming of age, and it serves as a reminder of the dramatic struggles everyone around us is going through all the time that we may not notice; the point driven home by two absolutely perfect final shots which soar to heights the rest of the movie did not.
It helps that Hogg’s screenplay is a fantastic mix of the tragic and comic, and the cast is impeccable. Honor Swinton Byrne, only 22 at the filming, is note perfect as Julie—never forced, never straining, but living into every moment and feeling so natural all the while. It’s one of the finest debut leading performances I could ask for, and it is helped by Tom Burke playing off her as Anthony with a roguish arrogance which keeps slipping so we see what Julie sees in him. Julie’s mother is played by Swinton Byrne’s mother Tilda, of whom nothing but perfect things can be said, and as a bonus treat, we get the best one-scene part of the year from a full steam ahead Richard Ayoade.
These last films, which were coincidentally made by a real-life engaged couple, are awfully hard to rank at numbers one and two. I think number one wins out just a bit by being completely original. But they are basically interchangeable and should be treated as such.
- Little Women
For those who follow me on social media, I picked Lady Bird as the best film of the decade, and I expected Greta Gerwig tackling Louisa May Alcott’s American perennial to be great. I did not expect it to be one of the greatest adaptations I’ve ever seen, on par with Doctor Zhivago, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Shawshank Redemption, and Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings. What Gerwig does, as those films do, is not only retell a story with her own personal spin on it, but also capture in cinematic language how the experience of reading the story feels.
Much has been well-said by others of Gerwig’s telling the story on two crosscutting timelines, complete with masterfully-chosen visual and oral parallels, as well as two distinctive color palettes courtesy of the underrated Yorick Le Saux. What I would add is that upon rewatching Gillian Armstrong’s superb 1994 film (which, like this one, I saw in the theater with my mother), I was struck by how Robin Swicord used almost no dialogue from the novel. Gerwig lifts at least half of her screenplay from the book verbatim, and her additions are mesmerizing. While Armstrong and Swicord inserted second and third-wave feminist loftiness, Gerwig, taking her cue from Alcott’s own life and diaries, makes her Little Women about the harsh reality of how women can, if possible, succeed in a world where the odds are stacked against them. Her March sisters are aware of social limitations and financial prospects, and their hard work is spent seizing as much control of such prospects as possible within the lives they all contentedly choose for themselves. It’s a flinty, straight to the gut take on the story that still builds to a singular and fully earned happy ending…which Gerwig manages to leave open to interpretation, no small feat for a story more than 150 years old!
The entire time, though, Gerwig also to me recreates the world Alcott wrote about and how she experienced the March sisters’ emotions. All these little touches create that sensation: Jo racing through the streets of New York City after selling her first story, Jo and Beth embracing on a beach as the tide changes, Amy walking through slow motion refinement in France, Meg transitioning from crowded society functions to a plain, dimly lit house and ultimately finding contentment, girls in multi-colored coats and scarves against a white backdrop, and the golden hour glow and loving detail of the final scenes. I could go on, but it has to be witnessed.
Gerwig also works with a cast for the ages. Her four March sisters are Emma Watson, Saoirse Ronan, Eliza Scanlan, and Florence Pugh. Watson and Scanlan must settle for merely being great. Ronan cements her place as the greatest actor of her generation, the natural successor to Daniel Day-Lewis for that title (when she plays opposite Meryl Streep as Aunt March, clearly having a ball, it feels like a torch passing); her Jo goes places I’m not sure any other person in the role would have gone, with the fiery spirit and the need to be loved working in constant tandem. Pugh, wrapping up a breakout year, is a magnificent Amy, bringing out all the qualities that make Amy a little bit of a piece of shit as well as her longings and her quiet wisdom, and both her ability to play Amy as young and old and her wry voice are delightful. Timothee Chalamet (equally divine, and capturing the playful gravity of Laurie), James Norton, and the amazing Louis Garrel, a man who lets his eyes do the work, are terrific as the men who love the women and are simply happy to be in their company, while a steely, loving Laura Dern, a heartbreaking Chris Cooper, and Bob freaking Odenkirk are terrific as the parental figures. You couldn’t ask for a better cast. (And Alexandre Desplat composes a score that almost equals Thomas Newman’s perfect 1994 score.)
So what could be better?
- Marriage Story
I tell people, with embarrassment in this day and age, that Annie Hall was the work of art that made me want to be a writer. One thing I’ve realized is that if Noah Baumbach had made his canon two decades earlier, he would have taken the space Woody Allen holds in my life. Like Allen, Baumbach at his best tells stories so outstandingly written it isn’t fair about the lives, loves, and vicissitudes of people who live lives just a tad outside the ordinary; artists, professional and would-be intellectuals, eccentrics, combinations thereof. Unlike Allen, besides not being a disgusting human being, Baumbach isn’t constantly seeing his characters as people in need of deep psychoanalysis or figures to look down upon and scorn or combinations thereof. He has a sense of empathy, of love even, for his broken people trying and often succeeding to put something back together, that Allen never possessed. This sense fills Kicking and Screaming, Frances Ha, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected). And it definitely fills what I think is his crowning achievement thus far, Marriage Story.
Marriage Story is a truly hilarious movie. It had more laugh-out-loud moments than any film I saw this year. It also made me burst into tears about six times. (Take that, Charlie!)
What drives Marriage Story is a remarkable convergence of two elements. One is the central figures of Charlie and Nicole, how their love for each other has not overcome the reasons why their divorce is necessary, a net positive even, and how they both want to do what they think is best for their son Henry. This is a story of weight and subtlety so great it provokes all of the feels, all of the sobs. Simultaneously, Baumbach creates a world of attorneys, family members, friends and colleagues and random people you hook up with, then situations ranging from Halloweens to ridiculous TV filming sets, that are so over-the-top and appropriate for a screwball comedy. The tones fit together, one balancing the other, to create a story that feels so natural and working perfectly, one mood never overwhelming the other, like life itself. And the production, with its sterling locations and unobtrusive camera, is quietly perfect, taking a backseat to the actors and their words, with only a beautiful Randy Newman score to fully intrude on the goings-on.
That cast by the way…they just keep setting up jokes and knocking them down. Wallace Shawn basically playing himself, Julie Hagerty and Merritt Wever as Nicole’s mother and sister, and the power trio of Alan Alda, Ray Liotta, and Laura Dern (the latter simply extraordinary and delivering a speech about the Virgin Mary that exemplifies why this movie should have won every award under the sun) as the divorce attorneys. And then little Azhy Robertson as Henry gives one of the more unaffected child performances imaginable.
But this is Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson’s movie. Johansson has never been better; this year, between Endgame, the fantastic JoJo Rabbit, and this film, she has shown that getting older has revealed an excellence at playing maternal figures as one of the strongest weapons in a formidable arsenal. Her five-minute speech about why she wanted a divorce is one of the moments you realize she’s been done a disservice by not getting such material her entire career because she’s beyond words. That Driver could be better seems unimaginable…yet his performance is one of the finest I’ve ever seen. He is understated, quiet, and able to convey tempests within those moments…and when he breaks, it’s more affecting than you could picture an actor being. His anger, his contrition, his growing sense of how Nicole changed and he needs to change as well, his singing voice, all of it comes together perfectly. (Regarding the latter, the idea proposed by Filmspotting is that the title represents Nicole and Charlie needing to tell their stories. Nicole speaks her truth to a sympathetic ear, and Charlie sings his to the world, but both are equal.)
Marriage Story is the kind of film the world does not make as much these days and feels more necessary than ever; something a bit more erudite yet accessible, made without pretension, and speaking to the heart of the human spirit rather than provoking sensation. I hope it gets watched for ages to come.
In conclusion, it bears repeating how many remarkable movies came out this year, and how much they can shine a light even in times of darkness, and remind us of values worth fighting for, and teach us how to be better. I have loved moviegoing in 2019…
But I would be remiss to overlook how the calendar year ended with me seeing these two images on the big screen and not being able to tell which was more ridiculous…a reminder that that there’s a whole lot of headscratching, WTF?, what-am-I-even-freaking-watching-help-me moments out there to counterbalance the gold.
Until next time, friends!