Isn’t it funny how when you’re in the thick of it, it’s hard to see the cinema for the tickets? That’s how that saying goes, right? Well, what I’m trying to say is that 2019 felt like a marathon, and my name isn’t Brittany. But as a relay team, the Story Screen Family is delivering yet another slew of movie recommendations for your reading pleasure. Even though I sometimes didn’t always get to appreciate it at the time, 2019 was a powerhouse of a year for film, and in many ways, I feel like we’re starting to see an ironclad evolution of what the media can artistically provide. Looking back at the art I watched this past year, it was both incredibly easy and insanely difficult to choose only ten films to list this year as the best of the best (so, alright, I may have cheated just a little).
But before getting down to brass tacks, I’ve gotta confess how heartbroken I am to have had to eliminate Riley Stearns’ The Art of-Self Defense from my selection. I saw this film back in October, and up until the very evening of making my final selections, I had to make way for a few more films that ultimately stuck with me more. But, boy, do I sure love this film. It actually shares a lot of similarities to my favorite film of 2018: Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You (both Rileys of a sort: strange, no?). The idea that you have to become this heightened version of yourself, all whilst losing some of the qualities that complete your individuality for the better, in order to better fit into the society of which you’re presented is such a powerful story to tell. And both of these stories absolutely nail it, and in such a funny way too. If you’re into weird movies with skewed rules, I’m telling ya, The Art of Self-Defense is for you. And if this recommendation is already speaking your language, then buddy, we’re about to become fast friends.
10) Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die
Gosh, this movie is just a ton of fun...bloody, good fun. Set in a small, rural town whimsically named Centreville, the fabric of wholesomeness is at stake when a zombie outbreak begins to plague the eccentric community. You’ve got Hermit Bob (Tom Waits hermitting his very best) lingering out in the woods, speculating on the cause of the outbreak, while the ladies at the local diner listen to two old farmers bicker about their turf war over their daily morning coffee. You’ve got the oddball shop owner on the outskirts of town who peddles in collectibles both spooky and nerdy to the HIPSTERS who are just passing through. You’ve got the new local weirdo Tilda Swinton, I mean, Zelda Winston, who just nobody can figure out. And at the heart of it all, there are three local cops (Bill Murray, Adam Driver, and Chloe Sevigny) attempting to make sense of the whole gosh-darn thing. It’s impossible to call the self-aware zombie comedy completely original (to do so would be a cricket bat to the face for Shaun of the Dead and the other zombies bitten before them), but it’s certainly a worthy addition to the brilliant genre. Told in a manner really only possible by Jim Jarmusch, The Dead Don’t Die just might be the most fun I had in a theater last year. But don’t take it from me, take it from Sturgill Simpson.
9) Trey Edward Shults’ Waves (ft. Joe Talbot’s The Last Black Man in San Francisco)
There are only a couple of rungs on this ladder that include two films, so on the books, Waves is my number nine, hands down, pinned to the mat. The opening scene is a kaleidoscope of different locations, all told from the perspective of a spinning camera. It’s a hypnotic way to begin a film, and a challenging one too. Waves immediately immerses you in its own language of the world and how black people move in it. Following a family perpetually on the edge of a breakdown due to secrecy and isolation, Sterling K. Brown and Kelvin Harrison Jr. shine as father and son dealing with questions of masculinity and strength and how they relate to self-worth. Between this and Julius Onah’s Luce, Harrison Jr. is the reigning poster child for overly ambitious high schoolers. But for how macho the beginning of Waves may feel, the film as a whole is incredibly gentle, nurturing, and cathartic. To further explain the cascading nuances of Waves would be to cheapen the experience for those who are unfamiliar. But let it be known that for every ebb, there is a flow.
(Guest Artist) The Last Black Man in San Francisco is undeniably one of the most visually arresting films of 2019. It did not hold a place in this top ten, but it is a film that claims my heart as a home. Again, Joe Talbot’s confidence in the language of his film is something to aspire to.
8) The Safdie Brothers’ Uncut Gems
Oh, so there are people out there who didn’t think Adam Sandler was a “real” actor? Hopefully Uncut Gems can finally put that ridiculous notion to rest. Sandler’s transformation into high-stakes jeweler Howard Ratner is gritty, intoxicating, and just down-right gross. As he weasels his way in and out of his professional and personal life, all while maintaining his ambitious side-hustle, the audience is afforded a look into New York City like never before. My sister and I got stuck in the city for one overnight, and I can tell you from personal experience that that city does, in fact, sleep. Uncut Gems doesn’t. Just blink and you’ll miss at least two different facets of any given scene. It’s incredible that the Safdie brothers are able to mold a character (with the help of Ronald Bronstein) who is so despicable and, yet, so lovable.
I’ve spoken to people who already knew the outcome of the factual, 2016 events that unfold at the end of the film, and they were STILL on the edge of their seats. The Safdie brothers didn’t just enhance history, they mined it to reveal the complete series of events. This film, baby, it shines.
7) Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood (ft. Rian Johnson’s Knives Out)
Man, Quentin’s still got it, and probably more of the quintessential “it” than ever before. Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood is yet another film on this roundup that takes events of the past and expounds on them in an exceedingly profound way. Tarantino is a big fan of revisionist history: his enjoyment of punishing real-world baddies benefits my enjoyment too. While writing Inglourious Basterds, the man wrote “Kill Hitler” on a post-it note that sat on his bedside table while he slept on the idea...just to see if it was what he still wanted to do when he woke up. What I’m really getting at is that he has a time machine, and he shares it with us all.
OUATIH is a vehicle for nostalgia. Tracing the history of Hollywood’s own Rick Dalton (a masterful Leonardo DiCaprio), the film works as a catharsis for Tarantino to wrestle with his own demons of getting older and redefining purpose in an ever-evolving medium. Hearing Rick and his bodyguard, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt, duh), drunkenly wax poetic on why things change, and how they can preserve their seat at the table, is just a wild, fun time. And then we have Margot Robbie’s painstakingly beautiful turn as Sharon Tate during the most tumultuous period in her life. The film is something truly special. Say what you will about Tarantino’s use of violence in his work, but OUATIH earns it in spades. I never thought a Tarantino flick would share the same space in my heart as the Kill Bill opus, but I think he cracked the code. Beatrix Kiddo, let me introduce you to my new friend, Cliff Booth.
(Guest Artist) Rian Johnson’s Knives Out also scratches my affinity for watching films about “changing of the guards.” Johnson has cemented his ability to craft a nearly flawless film, and he’s managed to do so while jumping from genre to genre. I grew up reading Agatha Christie mysteries (I dressed up as Miss Marple for my fifth grade “dress as your favorite character day,” knitting needles and all - NERD ALERT!), and this film did a fantastic job reviving that sleuthing spirit. It’s also difficult to get my husband out to see movies, and he thoroughly enjoyed three films this year: The Dead Don’t Die, Knives Out, and...
6) Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit
I don’t think anybody thought a story about the Hitler youth could be so wildly entertaining...but Taika did. Jojo Rabbit ties in every single base emotion you can recollect in one neatly tied shoe. Based off the novel Caging Skies, by fellow New Zealander Christine Leunens, Jojo follows a young boy, experiencing the devastating reality of war-torn Nazi Germany, who desperately wants to connect: to his absent-soldier of a father, to his fellow young compatriots, and to his imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler (played by the chameleon himself, Taika Waititi). Jojo (a commanding Roman Griffin Davis) has his world turned upside down when he discovers his mother (Scarlett Johansson - one of the MVP’s of 2019) is hiding a young Jewish girl (a fitting Leave No Trace’s Thomasin McKenzie) in their home. (Whew, that was a lot of A-list name-dropping right there.) From that moment on, young Jojo awakens to the reality of having to grow up. He discovers he has to become his own person, with his own thoughts and feelings, and he has to discard the person he was taught to be. Everything about Jojo Rabbit works exceedingly better than it should. What is being billed as a satirical comedy has no right to make me cry as much as I did. But leave it to Taika to tell such a heartbreaking story in such an uplifting and hilarious way. As breakout star Archie Yates’ Yorkie says, “It’s definitely not a good time to be a Nazi.”
While these next two projects don’t necessarily have a place on this list, I am required by law to pay tribute to Noah Hawley’s Legion and Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen. These two programs elevated the “superhero” genre to next-level heights, and they were certainly my favorite overall projects of the year. We were blessed with plenty of great television in 2019, and if you want to hear more of my thoughts on these programs, please check out the Story Screen Presents podcast page (wherever you find your podcasts) and give Cathode Ray Cast some love. Both Legion and Watchmen are some of the best trips you’ll ever take. Book your tickets now.
5) Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite
When I was growing up, my family was not dirt poor by any means, but we were on the poorer side of the tracks of the middle class. This is not a pity party for one, and I’m not at all taking for granted what my life has become OR my upbringing, which more than made up for its lack of money with love and encouragement. But what I AM postulating is that I, personally, have never seen a film that articulates the struggle of the working class as well as Parasite does. Witnessing the camera track upwards and downwards along the very real and metaphorical hill that houses humanity is my depression fully realized. There is a conversation that takes place within the film around the beginning of the third act that I won’t get into, but its implication of being born into your station in life was a kick in my teeth, and it made me realize just how often I had resolved myself throughout life to take what I was given and to not rise above. Too frequently we think we can’t change our future because of our past, and the sad reality is that many aren’t even given the tools to do so. Where Jojo Rabbit is relevant in the sense that we have a moral responsibility to teach our children compassion and empathy, Parasite will always be a relevant reminder to work hard and to share the wealth (by whatever means you have). Without a doubt, Parasite is the most well-made film I saw in 2019. Living up to its name, it’s latched in my gut forever.
4) Ari Aster’s Midsommar
I didn’t see Aster’s Hereditary until after completing my 2018 list because, quite frankly, I am a wimp. Similarly to Story Screen’s own Robby Anderson, I’m not naturally drawn towards the haunts and spirits. They’re too spooky! But I’m vastly improving on my horror game (because I don’t want to make a Hereditary mistake again), and in 2019 I saw Jordan Peele’s Us, Andy Muschietti’s It Chapter Two, Mike Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep, AND the cream of the the crop, the blinding hellscape that is Midsommar. I liked it so much, I saw it TWICE. But that’s not saying much because it’s just the type of “horror” film I can get behind.
Breakout star Florence Pugh turns in a mesmerizing performance as Dani, a young woman on a journey to reconnect with her boyfriend, and herself, after suffering the debilitating loss of her entire family. Fate seemingly leads her to join her boyfriend, Christian, and his friends on a retreat to Sweden, where the group is immediately immersed in the rituals of the Hårga, a pagan commune celebrating a “rebirth” of sorts. You know, it’s your classic boy-meets-girl, boy-breaks-girl’s-heart, girl-vibes-with-cult sort of story. Midsommar is that rare film that comes along only once in a red sun on which most everyone can agree is a great film, but they don’t necessarily feel the greatest about it. But not me, I walked out of that theater feeling empowered. Dani took me on the journey too, and the kool aid was delicious.
3) Alex Ross Perry’s Her Smell
I knew next to nothing going into Her Smell, and I think I probably had the best time for it. So, I will be succinct in my praise and obtuse in my description.
“I don't apologize Fuck it, I didn't need to see this through I'm back, back to the same shit I was drowning in it If I'm gonna be pulled down Then I'm taking you with”
This. This is what both the film and the enigmatic Becky Something (a sold-out performance by Elizabeth Moss) and her bandmates, Something She, promise the viewer. The droning chaos of backstage punk-rock life is a living, breathing thing. That chaos incubates us as we wander down hallways and move throughout the different ventricles and atriums of this bleeding/beating heart of a film. It’s so overwhelmingly punk, distractingly confident, and femininely honest that it breaks your heart. And the soundtrack kicks fucking ass. Come for the Dirty Dan (Dan Stevens in leather jackets galore, swoon), stay for Becky’s transformation from Becky Something into Becky Someone.
2) Alma Har’el’s Honey Boy
If you’re familiar with the video short for Sigur Rós’ “Fjögur Píanó,” then you’re most likely aware of Honey Boy. Sharing the same intrinsic connection, Har’el directs the Shia LaBeouf penned Honey Boy to perfection. Written primarily during court-mandated therapy, LaBeouf wrote Honey Boy about his PTSD diagnosis, and the journey of discovering its source: his dysfunctional childhood relationship with his father during the beginning stages of his acting career. Even Stevens was a staple in my household growing up. (When I first saw Saturday Night Fever, Annette wasn’t Donna Pescow, she was Eileen Stevens to me.) So watching something that recontextualized something from my own childhood that brought me so much joy, and was such a cultural touchstone for me, was devastating.
(I promise I’m not trying to be condescending in this next sentence but) Precious, little, baby angel, cherub cheeked, ray-of-sunshine Noah Jupe is AMAZING playing young Otis, the stand-in for young Shia. I am so blown away by the talent in this young kid and I’m very excited to see what he does in the future. The manner in which he contorts his face to become young Shia is spectacular. And it should be noted that Lucas Hedges turns in a fine performance as well as pre and post therapy Otis (dudes, go see Waves for an even heavier Hedges role). But the mirror that illuminates every corner of this film is Shia portraying his own father. His dedication to playing this role, all the while portraying his abuser as the complex man that he was, shows a level of support and understanding that not many have for parents who have wronged them. I don’t know if you know this, but my new hobby is going to the cinema and crying a lot, and watching Honey Boy is no exception.
If you think Shia isn’t for you, I think you may be wrong.
1) Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse
There’s really not much to be said about The Lighthouse. (Just kidding, there are a million things to be said about The Lighthouse.) But at the end of the long, long night, The Lighthouse is more of a feeling than anything. It’s the act of running from the past to try one’s hand at a new life. It’s a humble devotion to a life’s work that begins to crumble. It’s the thought, “Did I turn the oven off?” It’s realizing that all the minutiae of your own paranoia can be multiplied ten-fold. And it’s all the more beautiful and haunting for it. A mythic story about two men (Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson) battling turbulent weather and deteriorating psyches over the course of, possibly, an eternity, The Lighthouse is a work of art. Told completely through the stark chiaroscuro of black and white tones, The Lighthouse is a Rorschach test for your sanity.
Your life is a wick, that you incessantly tend to, hoping that you’ve done enough to ease the passage of others around your murky shores. What Eggers achieves with The Lighthouse is otherworldly. His understanding of composition in storytelling is an extraordinary gift, and yet, for as beautiful and intoxicating this film is, it’s also absurdly funny. Turns out watching two men go mad is rife with poetic humor. Or perhaps I went a little mad myself. It’s hard to tell when one becomes a wickie. How long have I been writing this list?
You never fully know when you’ve been on a journey until you’ve arrived at the end, and 2019 was quite the trip. The films on this list challenge the viewer to question how you’ve come to this point in your life, and how you plan to move on to the next stage. How will you react when the world tells you your best-laid plans were not enough? Or sometimes the question is a little more simple, like, “What is the deal with all these zombies?” All questions aside, 2019 certainly carried me somewhere I didn’t expect. I hope 2020 follows a similar map to the unknown.
Bernadette graduated from DePauw University in 2011 with a Film Studies degree she’s not currently using. She constantly consumes television, film, and all things pop culture and will never be full. She doesn’t tweet much, but give her a follow @BeaGorman and see if that changes.