Mike's Top 19 Films of 2019
Hey, you! Thanks for clicking on my Best of 2019 article. As per usual, I've used the last two digits of the year in question to raise (limit?) my top movies of the year list to a more acceptable size. Good for me AND you! While I sadly did not have the time to consume my normal monstrous fare of cinema throughout the year, (partly due to my existential drive to change the American movie theater going experience with the help of my trusty co-cinephiles in crime) I did make a rushed attempt at the final hour to pick up the pieces of the many films that flew by me in a seemingly rushed daze.
2019 brought another round of phenomenal films from all genres, budgets, people and places, once again affirming my stance that we are living in a true golden age of movies - from landscape changing blockbusters to the arrival of some soon-to-be (if not already) legendary talent both behind and in front of the cameras. So, if you'll continue to indulge me for a bit longer, I'd like to share some musings I've had on some of my new favorite stories.
And with that... let's punch it.
19. Burning Cane
A staggering debut from then 17 year old Phillip Youmans, whose name is so all over this thing, simply referring to him as the writer/director should be legally disrespectful. Poetic, poignant, and as sharp and sweet as a sip of cheap booze after a long week, it's movies like this that remind us why cameras were invented.
18. The Last Black Man in San Francisco
Gentle people, immortalized in a fable fitting for the 21st century. A studied enchantment of a film, utilizing all the tools and excesses its moderate beliefs can sustain, resulting in a dreamlike euphoria I so long for every time the lights go down.
17. Her Smell
There's a familiar feeling of distance between the viewer and Elizabeth Moss' Becky Something, anchored by an inspired decision to not give us any context in which to relate to (or care about) her from the very first frame. We are thrown into the deep end of moments of her life sporadically, some more degenerate than others, and left to serve as witness to the devolution of a monumental figure, watching the phoenix burn up again and again, unsure if a rise is warranted or even possible.
16. Long Day's Journey Into Night
A sumptuous repast to all five senses, LDJIN is one of those unique movie experiences that must be just that to a person in order to be appreciated: an experience. This is the type of movie that demands attention at every moment, earning the tantalization of our brains with a sexy noir mystery and slick cinematic design, only to lasso us in with a 55-minute long shot (no editing tricks here, fellas) that would spellbind any soul passionate enough to care.
15. The Lighthouse
An absurdly good time, Robert Eggers' second film almost feels like a balancing of the scales he tilted with 2017's The VVitch, a movie so in absence with any form of humor that I really can't blame a particular brand of filmaholic for hating it. But Eggers' ironically light moments, along with the Pattinson-Dafoe bromance we never knew we deserved, shine an enjoyable luster on an already clever and thoughtful tale of resentment and madness.
Trey Edward Shults does it again. The director has utilized his seemingly natural gift for invoking and sustaining dread throughout his brief career in multiple genres, and no where else is it more cruelly used than in these real life, tender situations with people you genuinely care about.
13. Knives Out
I'm always down for a good ol' murder mystery. Rian Johnson's latest contribution to the genre mixes the social metaphors and implications of some of Agatha Christie's best, with the sly humor and mischievousness of 1985's Clue. It is unsurprising, yet thrilling all the same; the future looks bright for more stories of the famed Detective Benoit Blanc, and I can't wait to see what kind of dang freak Oscar Isaac plays in the next one.
12. Marriage Story
Marriage Story is an assessment of a relationship, and its most intriguing approach is how the questions the characters ask themselves are far more telling to the outside world than any answers they can get. It is a staggeringly dramatic series of equalizing effects, repeatedly culminating in bouts of misdirected grasps at things our characters would probably not even know what to do with should they actually grab hold.
11. Little Women
Sometimes we can only sink into the recesses of our own palms and sulk, fantasizing about what it would be like to receive pure, unadulterated visions from filmmakers of unique voices and infinite talent. And other times, you get a movie like Little Women. Greta Gerwig's energetic and playful adaptation of the classic literary work is everything you would want from a film that is tied to such a cultural and generational artifact: new ideas, great actors, beautiful sets and costumes, a self-aware and witty script, and Chris Cooper.
10. The Nightingale
Sure, your mileage may vary of what you can and should take in when handing yourself over to a film, but throughout my viewing of The Nightingale, I often reminded myself that I was in good hands; Jennifer Kent knows what she is doing, and if I stick it out I'll be the better for it. And that was true, because after all of its horrors and violent acts, The Nightingale revealed itself, not only to be a vicious example of exploitative cinema, but a movie with a kind soul contemplating the very existence of these violences and what they mean to all those involved.
9. Pain and Glory (Dolor y gloria)
While my dear, sweet The Souvenir wasn't able to crack this big list, its brother film most certainly did. Both movies have their own separate and distinctive plots, of course, but both are also about the beauty of having an intimate relationship with film, and the sacrifices we inflict on our lives (both physically and emotionally) to keep as close to that passion as we can. Antonio Banderas has given, in my opinion, the very best performance of his entire career, and I longingly await the next chance I have to be in Salvador Mallo's world.
8. Wild Rose
As honky-tonkin' as an introspective character study can get, Wild Rose also has the big ol' bonus of having one helluva breakout performance. Jessie Buckley is stimulating as Rose, a down on her luck and understandably immature young mother of two, with such a big chip on her shoulder she should come with a side of Texas toast flavored dip. There's nothing quite like seeing an actor dig so deep into a character so interesting, and Buckley's ability to make you root for Rose, even in the face of some truly terrible actions, makes all her highs and lows feel all the more powerful.
PSA: Roger Deakins can shoot a fuckin' movie. And while we're at, my boy Thomas Newman? Uhh, yeah, the dude can score the hell out of a film. These two powerhouses, working in tandem with an increasingly interesting Sam Mendes, have produced a film so singular in its approach, that I found myself often forgetting that it operates within a genre that feels like we've seen it all. 1917 works as a sort of greatest hits mix of some of the truly great war movie moments, ripping from classics like: Saving Private Ryan, Dunkirk, Paths of Glory, and even Enemy at the Gates. The movie is an absolute stunner, a rock and roll ride through hell. It also has probably my favorite moment from a film in 2019: a 30 second piece of a much larger whole where you can feel all of the artistry and work of thousands that goes into making a movie harmonizing instantly and becoming something else that has only ever been described as movie magic.
6. Uncut Gems
The Safdie Brothers have made a career out of highlighting dirtbags as their protagonists. It's a very 70’s thing, and these boys love the cinema schlock of that well-defined era, grit and all. Adam Sandler turns in prooooobably his best performance to date, and the fact that his recognizable face and voice lend themselves to the character of Howard, is testament alone to his continued superstardom. Uncut Gems is a tense ride of a movie, released in a season that seemed to be overflowing with movies being pitched as tense rides. But where those films earnestly construct technical wizardry, or just straight up rip-off Taxi Driver like it's not a big deal, Uncut Gems achieves and sustains its tension through performance and unbelievable pacing, tightening its dirty grip around the viewer in a seemingly endless squeeze of doom.
Transit is a great movie, full stop. I am in love with this movie. Don't watch any trailers, don't read anything about it. It's on Amazon Prime currently, and you should just watch it as soon as you possibly can. It’s a breathtaking display of direction and character work, and it’s stacked top to bottom with dazzling performances and riveting moments that sing to you from the screen. Similarly to 1917's previously mentioned moment of magic, Transit easily has my favorite final shot of any movie this year. If it wasn't for the fact that we had four masterpieces of film swimming around the ocean of 2019, this one probably would've landed as my number one. Seriously, go watch it.
4. The Farewell
This is a lovely film filled with so many beautiful and heartbreaking moments, it's almost hard to reduce into a few short sentences just how much this movie means to me. The Farewell was the big buzz movie of the year, and I had been tracking its distribution and release for some time after its initial premiere and swift pick up by A24 (long may They reign). So it was no surprise that when I finally sat down to enjoy my own private screening, (perks of the movie theater biz) that I was immediately snug in the warm embrace of this delightfully sad and playfully electric dramedy. And Awkwafina is my Queen now (long may She reign).
3. Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood
The most mature and best written effort from one of the most talented and ingenuitive artists working in the cinema landscape for the past three decades. OUATIH is all the things that everyone has already adored about it: a love letter to Hollywood and the generation that populated its time period, Tarantino's reconsideration of himself and his place in the canon of the La La Land history books, and the continued rise of middle-aged Brad Pitt. It can't be understated just how well all of these moving parts work, from the absolutely perfect execution of the “Meanwhile, back on the ranch...” multi-linear storytelling trope, to the spot on in more ways than you can comprehend, existence of Margot Robbie's Sharon Tate. The ninth film from Quentin Tarantino is even greater than any of us could have possibly dreamt he could make it.
The movie of the year! Parasite is the type of flick that makes you excited to be alive during its release, to see how the platforms shift, and what the veils expose on their lifting, both surrounding the movie and within the movie itself. Easily the best ensemble cast of the year, (in a year with a lot of stellar ensemble casts from various genres) Parasite is Bong Joon-ho's main event, seemingly reframing his entire filmography from a load of good movies to a series of increasingly audacious choices leading to the big one. A wry thriller that would make Hitchcock's palms sweaty, it was a delight to experience, and even more delightful to see it be embraced by the pop culture stratosphere in such a heavy way.
When we grieve, we grieve alone. Always. The luckiest of us will always have those closest to us to give support, to get us through it, and of course, we would be lost without them. But ultimately, our grief is something that no one else can truly feel, at least not in the specific way we feel it. Even shared traumas, rooted from the same event, have various implications on each individual. So when we grieve, our grief is an isolated experience that rarely fully translates to the world around us, and it certainly never leaves us fully. It is ours to cope with, and we do our best to manage it with the resources that we have afforded ourselves, unknowingly, in simply living our day to day lives. Midsommar asks the question: What if you had no one to support you in your grief, not even yourself? Florence Pugh's Dani, is in a constant spiral from the film’s phenomenally executed opening scenes. They lead her to make choices that she doesn't feel fully comfortable with, all in an attempt to regain some stability. In a world where she has been literally orphaned, she then (sort of) intentionally disconnects herself, retreating on a “boys trip,” with her fart-head boyfriend, Christian, and his college buddies. Midsommar is a lot of things: an eerily bright folk-horror and an examination of toxic relationships and the allure of codependency. But most interestingly, it is a story about a woman who has lost everything, maybe even herself, who is desperately trying to grab hold of the only things she thinks matter, only to have those things abuse and manipulate her into a state of even worse existential crisis. The movie is well-crafted, and contains some of the best jokes and cringe-worthy moments of the year, and it is easily the one movie on this list that I can see myself returning to often, whenever I'm in need of a good movie with a bad mood.
(Other cool movies of the year: Glass, The Beach Bum, Avengers: Endgame, John Wick Chapter 3, Booksmart, Rocketman, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, El Camino, Doctor Sleep, Memory, The Two Popes, Climax, The Souvenir, Honey Boy, The Art of Self-Defense, High Life, Luce, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, I Lost My Body)
Founder of and programmer for Story Screen. Lover of stories and pizza in the dark. When he isn't watching movies, you can find him reading things about people watching movies. He currently resides in Poughkeepsie, NY and most assuredly is going through a French Connection phase.