Best of 2019
Every year I put together a recap of the movies I loved, those I liked, and those that disappointed. It’s always an eclectic and diverse listing of movies. You and I are likely to agree on some, while surely disagreeing on others. You’ll find some blockbusters, plenty of indies, a few foreign language gems, and my favorite documentaries of the year.
For 2019, I reviewed 259 new releases (this includes 4 film festivals), and for me, it was a remarkable movie year in that there were so many quality movies that entertained and educated. Each year I try to include movies from various genres in hopes that you’ll give a look to something you might not have been previously inclined to watch. An oddity worth mentioning about 2019 movies is that music and musicians were at the center of an inordinate number of projects. For the year, I watched no less than 41 movies that were either a profile of a musician, substantially about music, or some combination of the two. The best are included below.
I have categorized the year in movies by “The Best”, “Just Missed”, “Indie Gems”, “World Cinema”, and “Documentaries”. I don’t dwell on movies that I didn’t much care for, but for the past few years, I have included a “Most Disappointing” category for films that simply didn’t meet my expectations … expectations that may or may not have been fair going in. I never limit my list to the “Top 10”, as I let the movies dictate where the break should be. This year, my “best” includes 11 movies that I believe were a notch above. Of course, the actual rankings will vary, depending on what mood I’m in when you ask!
Annual Reminder: As always, this has nothing to do with predictions for Academy Awards, or any other awards. This is simply a recap of my movie-watching year by personal preference. For convenience, I have linked my review to each title.
The Best of 2019
Martin Scorsese’s latest masterpiece is available on Netflix. It’s three-and-a-half hours of cinematic bliss for movie lovers who appreciate terrific acting, technical expertise, and exceptional storytelling. It tells the (somewhat) true story of mob hitman Frank Sheeran, and his relationship with Jimmy Hoffa. The film also features the return of Joe Pesci, who delivers the most understated performance of his career. It’s unfortunate that so few had the chance to see this one in a theatre.
A searing look at what happens when a love story goes bad and divorce morphs into war. Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson capture the essence of two people whose lives drifted from their singular path. Filmmaker Noah Baumbach’s semi-autobiographical film packs an emotional wallop as the heart strings don’t cut cleanly or quickly. This is certainly no scream-fest, but one gut-wrenching spill-the-guts segment is more than enough.
A youngster having Adolph Hitler as his imaginary friend made writer-director-actor Taika Waititi’s brilliant film one of the more divisive films of the year. How dare he? In actuality, it’s a tender story of that young man, his brave mother, and a hidden Jewish girl … and how the combination leads to better understanding of just how similar we all are in our distaste for hatred. While it’s understandable that some might not appreciate Hitler in a comedy, it has been almost 75 years. Perhaps it’s time.
ONCE UPON A TIME … IN HOLLYWOOD
Quentin Tarantino’s ninth and evidently penultimate feature film is his tribute to the town and industry he so adores. He upset some people (doesn’t he always) with his twist on history and the Mason murders, while in fact, he exposed the fine line between reality and fiction. Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, and Margot Robbie lead an impressive cast in one of QT’s finest. It’s also lends itself to a game – identifying all the pop culture references.
Oscar winning director Sam Mendes and Oscar winning cinematographer Roger Deakins collaborated to deliver a start-to-finish World War I thriller that appears to be filmed in one shot and in real time. It’s a unique viewing experience, and anyone interested is encouraged to catch it at the theatre for full impact. It’s a technical marvel and one of the most immersive viewing experiences of the year. The approach and the intensity of the story offer very little chance to exhale … it’s exhausting.
PAIN AND GLORY (Spain)
Another semi-autobiographical story – this one from Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar, who examines the process of aging and looking back on life. We see how life and art, and past and present, can converge as one questions their own choices. We also see Antonio Banderas in one of his deepest and most profound performances. He and Almodovar (and Penelope Cruz) always bring out the best in each other.
This talented and deep ensemble cast was responsible for one of the most fun to watch movies of the year. James Bond (Daniel Craig) with a southern drawl is not to be missed. It’s a wild ride as the Agatha Christie-style murder mystery unfolds within the walls of a dark mansion filled with deceit and greed, and folks you best stay clear of. The film was written and directed by Rian Johnson, who seems to enjoy teasing us with ‘main’ suspects throughout.
THE FAREWELL (China)
Yes, it’s yet another semi-autobiographical film – this time from filmmaker Lulu Wang. Fast rising star Awkwafina helps bridge cultures and family dynamics in a way that is both heart-warming and comical. Sometimes the best intentions backfire a bit, and here, that feels very personal … and funny. On a remarkable note, the lovely Nai Nai is played by Shuhzen Zhao, in what is somehow her first appearance in a movie. It surely won’t be her last.
In what I believe is the 8th film version of Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel, Greta Gerwig proves her LADY BIRD was no fluke, as she adds a contemporary tone to the classic tale of the Marsh sisters. The film is perfectly cast and the stories draw you in, but it’s the heart and spirit of the sisters that make this something special. Great Gerwig may very likely end up being one of the most important filmmakers in cinematic history, and if so, it’s these last two films we will view as the catalyst.
TOY STORY 4
25 years ago, Pixar introduced us to Woody, Buzz and the rest of the gang. We know and love these characters. Is it sad to say goodbye? Well, yes it is … but this saga ends with a terrific final chapter – and an oddball new character in Forky. Some complained that the new characters were featured too much, and the familiar ones were short-changed. Maybe the point is that, faces come and go, and it’s up to us to decide which ones stick around.
PARASITE (South Korea)
In a year that featured several bizarre films, this one from South Korea’s Bong Joon Ho is truly one of the strangest. Is it comedy? Is it horror? Yes it is. Class differences are exploded through a style of social commentary new to us. It’s rare for a film to work on so many levels, and the post-viewing discussions are sure to provide hours of entertainment. To say this one is filled with surprises and twists would be an understatement. Shock and awe would be more fitting.
Just Missed – these are the films that fell just outside of the top level for me this year:
A HIDDEN LIFE
FORD V FERRARI
THE TWO POPES
Indie Gems worth tracking down:
THE ART OF SELF-DEFENSE
World Cinema (Foreign Language Films):
BIRDS OF PASSAGE (Columbia)
CAPERNAUM (Lebanon, Oscar nominated last year)
EVERYBODY KNOWS (Spain)
LES MISERABLES (France) – review coming in January 2020
NEVER LOOK AWAY (Germany)
THE HEIRESSES (Paraguay)
THE INVISIBLE LIFE (Brazil) – review coming in January 2020
THE MUSTANG (France, Belgium)
BE NATURAL: THE UNTOLD STORY OF ALICE GUY-BLACHE
BRESLIN AND HAMILL: DEADLINE ARTISTS
DAVID CROSBY: REMEMBER ME
ECHO IN THE CANYON
FYRE – did not review (Netflix)
JIM ALLISON: BREAKTHROUGH
MAKING WAVES: THE ART OF CINEMATIC SOUND
MILES DAVIS: BIRTH OF COOL
QT8: THE FIRST EIGHT
RAISE HELL: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF MOLLY IVINS
RECORDER: THE MARION STOKES PROJECT
YOU ARE HERE: A COME FROM AWAY STORY
3 Best Horror Movies (I have a very fluid definition of horror):
READY OR NOT (the year’s most underrated movie)
3 Most Divisive Films of the Year
THE LION KING
4 worth seeing for the Lead performances:
4 Film Festival sleepers:
LIGHT FROM LIGHT
Most Disappointing (The Elder awards)
Somehow one of the most fascinating historical war events became a lame movie offering little reason to watch. This is a lesson on how crucial casting – especially the lead actor – is to a film.
When filmmakers try to get too cute and clever in telling a story, even a talented cast can’t bail them out.
Let’s put two of the funniest women on the planet in a movie where they have to be all tough and serious. At least the producers didn’t get stuck having a mountain of profits to count.
In a murder for hire story, it helps if we are rooting for someone. Beautiful people on a tropical island and we somehow don’t care … even if it references “Moby Dick”.
The movies I missed this year and hope to catch in 2020:
APOLLO 11 (doc)
PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE
THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO
VARDA BY AGNES (doc)
The conversation continues about what the future of movies and movie theatres hold. Streaming outlets continue to be introduced and expanded, and now the immense power of Disney can’t be ignored. Disney became first studio with more than $10 billion global box office in a year (including 6 films that eclipsed $1 billion each), and that happened before STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER. Disney has 23 new movies scheduled for release in 2020 (including an original Pixar). Another interesting note is that China set its all-time box office record, so that market continues to grow.
For 2020, some of the high profile films on the slate include: the long awaited TOP GUN sequel, the next James Bond (Daniel Craig’s final film driving the Aston Martin), the next WONDER WOMAN film, a BLACK WIDOW standalone, an original Pixar film (always an event), and the next mindbender from Christopher Nolan. Of course, the list of sequels, re-makes, and re-treads is at least 25 movies long, but we have faith there will be plenty of original works that will amaze, teach, and entertain us.
You can always find my full reviews at www.MovieReviewsFromTheDark.com Feel free to pass this along to other movie lovers, and let me know what your favorites from the year were … and what movies you are looking forward to in 2020!
See you at the movies!