Updated: 3 days ago
I’m pretty proud of my movie-watching prowess in 2019. The opening of the brick and mortar Story Screen Beacon Theater had a huge impact on that. And while now I can view excellently curated films, hosted by some of my favorite people in comfort and style, 2019 was not exactly about comfort. Last year displayed a variety of genres in film, but the ones that left their heaviest mark on me were some of the more gut-wrenching and emotional movies I have seen. Getting myself out of my comfort zone seems to be the general theme of 2019, and while some films seemed initially fun and “safe,” many took me by surprise, leaving me devastated and thinking about them long afterwards.
Honorable Mentions - Some heavy hitting performers in 2019: Florence Pugh, Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson.
Scarlett Johansson had me on the edge of my seat watching Avengers: Endgame, but it was her more comedic and dramatic roles that really floored me this year. JoJo Rabbit, Taika Waititi’s latest film, tackles Nazi Germany through the lens of a boy and his imaginary friend: Adolf Hitler (played by Waititi). Stealing the show for most of the film is Scarlett Johansson as JoJo’s mother, Rosie. Secretly hiding a young Jewish girl in her home and attempting to raise a son safely in Nazi Germany, Johansson’s performance is funny and sweet and heartrending. She goes on to shine in Marriage Story as a mother and actress, fighting to finally put herself first, starring opposite 2019’s hardest-working-man-in-showbusiness: Adam Driver.
Driver really wrecks me in Marriage Story, but also in The Report. In The Report, Driver plays Daniel J. Jones, who is appointed the head of a task force investigating the tactics of torture and detention by the CIA in a post 9/11 world. This film is horrifying and makes me so incredibly angry. And that’s why it is so good. Annette Benning plays a wonderfully frustrating Senator Dianne Feinstein, but it is Driver’s quiet anger as Jones, that fuels the film. You owe it to yourself to watch this film and be sickened and infuriated. Plus... Star Wars??? The Dead Don’t Die? I am no longer in any doubt about Mr. Driver’s ability as an actor. I look forward to whatever he does next.
Finally, Florence Pugh. Jeebus, Florence Pugh. I thought long and hard about whether or not to include Midsommar in my top ten, and while I ultimately left it off, Pugh’s performance is incredible. She also stars as a wrestler in Fighting With My Family, along with her supporting performance as a more fleshed out and vindicated Amy March in Little Women. Pugh has had a very good year. I look forward to seeing her play opposite Scarlett Johansson in Marvel’s upcoming Black Widow film. Bring it on.
Honorable Mention: I Lost My Body
I am definitely behind in viewing the animated films of 2019, but Netflix did us all a huge favor by adding France’s, I Lost My Body. The animation and music in Jérémy Clapin’s drama equally contributes to the melancholy whimsy that permeates the entire movie. It’s the story of a young man who loses his hand, told from the perspective of the lost hand! This film is beguiling, told out of order, culminating in the events that led to hand and body being separated. The film is also just as much about its main character Naoufel, feeling lost and alone, looking for connection and purpose, as it is about Naoufel’s hand, looking to reconnect with its lost body. Definitely check it out.
Other excellent films in 2019 that gave me great pause in making my top ten list included:
Uncut Gems, Once Upon A Time...In Hollywood, Captain Marvel, The Souvenir, Her Smell, The Lighthouse, Transit, Honey Boy, and The Last Black Man in San Francisco. These films are all extremely worth watching. I know they are on many of my favorite Story Screen writers’ lists. Please check out my fellow Story Screen cohorts for more details HERE.
So the kid from Marrowbone (George MacKay) and the nice king from Game of Thrones (Dean-Charles Chapman) are the stars of a World War I drama by Sam Mendes (Skyfall, American Beauty)? A World War I drama with a score composed by Thomas Newman and cinematography by Roger Deakins? Well sheeeeeeeeeeeeeeet. I have to say, this was a tense fucking movie. And that’s saying something for a film that’s two hours. And while this film featured some great cameos by some fairly famous names, the heart and soul of this film is the performance of its two young leads. There is criticism that Mendes is not doing anything new in this film, or that he is indeed pulling from various war films we have previously seen. But I would argue that his attempt to create a film that feels like it is done in one shot really works for the subject matter. It creates nerve-wracking urgency and fear. It lets us view what the main characters are viewing (and also what they cannot see). The experience is what makes the film compelling. It humanizes the sometimes blown-out and impersonal spectacle of watching a film about war.
9. The Two Popes
I honestly did not expect to see so many good films on streaming services in 2019. After hearing the Oscar nominations, I knew I needed to cram in a viewing of The Two Popes. The movie takes place at the Vatican, and is based on the interactions between Pope Benedict XVI and Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio (later Pope Francis), shortly before he becomes the new Pope. It is dialogue heavy, but it is never boring. The differences between these two men and how they view the world and the future of the Catholic Church are stark, but you cannot help feeling empathy for both of them. Jonathan Pryce goes toe to toe with Sir Anthony Hopkins for the entire duration of the film. The movie deals with forgiveness, not just of others, but of ourselves, and how that influences the choices we make in life. Watch it.
8. Little Women
For a deep dive podcast comparing Greta Gerwig’s 2019 film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic, check out our episode of Story Screen Presents: Overdrinkers, where Mike Burdge, Bernadette Gorman-White and myself compare the film to the 1994 classic by Gillian Armstrong. I think you’ll enjoy it. I know we did recording it. Whether or not I personally prefer certain aspects of one version of Little Women over another is not the point here. Regardless of its many interpretations, Gerwig leaves her mark. The decision to forgo linear storytelling allows Gerwig to take a new look at some of the most well known plot lines of Alcott’s story and to change our perception of them. She also gives us a look into what the real life Alcott may have herself experienced by showcasing a Jo March that is more than ever before, a stand-in for Alcott. When the film concludes with Jo watching the printing and binding of her very first novel it is not without great cost. Gerwig’s interpretation left me both sad and moved.
7. Marriage Story
Noah Baumbach can drive you crazy sometimes. I know he is not everyone’s cup of tea. But Marriage Story, based on Baumbach’s own divorce, is overwhelming. The performances by both Scarlett Johansson (as Nicole) and Adam Driver (as Charlie) are equally riveting. But as the two characters change from a couple just trying to separate amicably, to two people fighting to keep custody of their only child, things go from bad to worse. The reality of the process, both mundane and dramatic at times, is what makes this film special. Watching Charlie struggle, both to keep his life in NY and to prepare his new apartment in California as a single dad, is crushing. The compromise of this movie is what really kills me. And hearing how much Charlie and Nicole still value and care about each other, despite all of the terrible tension and fighting that comes with divorce, makes it all the more real.
Collaborating with A24, HBO acquired Share, Pippa Bianco’s feature film, based on the 2015 short she created. Written and directed by Bianco, Share stars Rhianne Barreto as Mandy, a sixteen-year-old who wakes up at the start of the movie on her front lawn with no memory of how she got there. What follows is a video, shared among her friends, of part of that evening’s events, and how she and her family try to deal with its aftermath. When Mandy’s mother tries to explain to her that her father didn’t know that stuff like this happens all the time, it is truly heartbreaking. The film not only deals with sexual assault, but with the differences of perception of such events between boys and girls, as well as between parents and their sons and daughters. It is harsh but excellent and I highly recommend it.
5. The Nightingale
I put off watching The Nightingale for a very long time having been warned of its graphic scenes of rape and violence. But Jennifer Kent’s follow up to The Babadook deserves your attention, no matter what. It is more than a rape revenge film, it deals with issues of racism, classism, sexism and yes, revenge, but also fear. Aisling Franciosi leads brilliantly as Clare, a young Irish convict, working off her indentured servitude in Tasmania. After losing everything to the British officer she works for, she chases after him into the wilderness hiring Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), an Aboriginal man, as her guide. These two leads are amazing, and both of their stories are just as devastating as the other’s. When they finally confront the officer, (played by Sam Claflin) the genuine fear of Clare confronting her attacker is palpable by Franciosi’s stellar performance.
Capernaum was a limited release in theaters back in December 2018, but I am including it in my 2019 top ten because it is that good. A Lebanese drama by Nadine Labaki, it focuses on Zain, a 12 year old boy who runs away from his negligent parents and lives on the streets, eventually committing a violent crime. When he is sentenced to five years in jail, he sues his parents in an attempt to fight back from their treatment. This film is Zain. He carries it. The injustice of his situation and of the justice system itself is as captivating as it is terrifying.
3. Pain and Glory (Dolor y gloria)
Pedro Almodovar directs an extremely personal film about an aging director named Salvador Mallo, (played by Antonio Banderas) who is coming to terms with his life, his career, and his rapidly decreasing health. Mallo has seemingly given up. But when an anniversary event for one of his early film successes reunites him with his aging star actor (played by Asier Etxeandia) it pushes Salvador on a new trajectory, one that vacillates between his current struggles, memories of his mother (played by Penelope Cruz), and his own childhood, all of which shape his art. The film apparently mimics some of Almodovar’s own experiences in life, as well as his relationship with Antonio Banderas. Banderas is truly wonderful. And Almodovar always keeps things heightened and on the verge of going over the top, but that somehow makes them feel more real. This film seems more personal than anything I have seen by him in quite some time.
2. The Farewell
This movie completely came out of left field for me. Awkwafina man. Damn. I did not expect the hilarious and animated rapper/actor from films like Crazy Rich Asians and Ocean’s 8 to floor me with such a bittersweet dramatic performance. While I am ecstatic that she received a Golden Globe for her performance as lead actress in Lulu Wang’s film, I am infuriated that she did not receive an Oscar nomination. Awkwafina plays Billi, a Chinese-American who returns to China with her family to visit her Nai Nai (played by the charming Shuzhen Zhao), after the family has learned that the grandmother has terminal cancer. The caveat is that no one tells the grandmother her diagnosis. They play along with the charade that the family is gathered together for a young cousin’s wedding reception. Billi struggles the most with this decision, and she questions the motives of her family and a culture that would go along with it. This film is just as much about the conflict of cultural norms as it is about grieving the people we love. By the end of the film you may question your own opinions about how best to handle old age and death. I know I did.
Bong Joon Ho blew it out of the water in 2019. I am ready to go on the record and say that this film deserves an Oscar for Best Film. Not Best International Film. Best Film. Period. No other movie surprised and devastated me as much as Parasite did in 2019. It was so very stressful, uncomfortable yet funny, engaging, and so very sad. One by one, the members of the Kim family slowly infiltrate the lives of the wealthy Park family. But just when you think you know what is going to happen, Joon Ho really pulls the rug out from under you. The entire cast is excellent, but the family of con artists (played by Choi Woo-shik, Song Kang-ho, Jang Hye-jin, and Park So-dam) are each incredibly likeable and compelling in their own way. While the film could have ended in fantasy with a happy “what if” moment, Joon Ho opts for bleakness. The disparity of wealth between these characters controls and dictates their every action, and it is brutal.
Besides watching movies, Diana likes the great outdoors, drawing and reading comics, and just generally rocking out. She has a BA in English Literature and is an art school drop out. IG: @dldimuro