Bill’s Best Films of 2019
Academy Award nominations, reflecting films that debuted throughout 2019 either on theater screens or on increasingly popular streaming channels, were revealed this morning. The Oscars ceremony itself also will arrive rather quickly, on Feb. 9.
Honestly, I prefer to share my yearly film preferences even earlier.
Then again, I didn’t even publish my favorites last year. Although my wife and our three “grands” did suggest we continue a family rivalry: Predicting actual winners during the later Oscar telecast. (Eldest grandson and critic Gage zoomed past me and won for the first time. And he has not let us forget it.)
This year, I rediscovered all the fun, thanks to LubbockLights.
Even so, an admission should be made.
Without going into circumstances … simply put, wow, I missed a lot of movies, far more than usual. It strikes me as probable that some I failed to see (perhaps “1917,” “Jojo Rabbit” or “Little Women” …) would alter my own Best Films list.
True, reviewing partner Gage and I visited cinemas too often to count. Even so, the many films I missed in 2019 include:
“1917,” “21 Bridges,” “The Art of Racing in the Rain,” “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” “Bombshell,” “Booksmart,” “Cats,” “Dark Waters,” “Dolemite Is My Name,” “Downton Abbey,” “The Goldfinch,” “The Good Liar,” “Harriet,” “A Hidden Life,” “Honey Boy,” “Honeyland,” “Hustlers,” “Jojo Rabbit,” “Jumanji: The Next Level,” “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” “The Lighthouse,” “Little Women,” “The Nightingale,” “Pain and Glory,” “The Peanut Butter Falcon,” “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” “Queen & Slim,” “The Two Popes,” “Yesterday” and “Zombieland: Double Tap.”
I have some serious catching up to do.
Just as obviously, my current list is top-heavy. My top five features carry more weight than those that follow.
Martin Scorsese, 77, excels at preaching crime as religion and “The Irishman” cannot be surpassed. Rarely have three and one-half hours of screen time passed so quickly. The morality tale concentrates on Robert DeNiro’s soul-baring performance as mob hit man Frank Sheeran, whose loyalty could doom him to loneliness. Yet for Sheeran, organized crime simply replaces the Army. It’s not just a job and he is not an employee; he is family. He is not alone, so he follows orders. Joe Pesci shines in support, leaving retirement to deliver his very best, jaw-dropping work as crime boss Russell Bufalino. Few others could so believably deliver a death sentence with, “We tried. It is what it is.” A brilliant screenplay by Steven Zaillian allows Scorsese to reunite with DeNiro and Pesci, and for the first time direct Al Pacino, just right as powerful union leader Jimmy Hoffa. Mob and domestic politics interact far past union leadership on screen.
A darker masterpiece. Created as a stand-alone story by Todd Phillips – for example, there is no Batman fighting crime – a 1980s setting finds wanna-be comic Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) working as a clown while every day experiencing society’s downward spiral within Gotham. Incredible music, cinematography and production design combine to glide viewers through steaming exhaust and a lingering garbage strike, influencing senses before introducing Fleck. Joaquin Phoenix’s command of Fleck’s downward story arc is both frightening and Oscar-worthy, gravitating from a loving caretaker to being cruelly provoked toward murder. When the switch clicks: Fleck’s terrifying freedom as Joker takes form as a dance down outdoor steps. Phoenix’s transformation is a thing of dark wonder.
Director’s Guild finalist Bong Joo Han this time explores class structure by introducing two families, one rich and one poor. Well, poor but clever. (But do not assume that the rich are villains.) Impossible to describe or predict without releasing spoilers, this South Korean masterpiece is enjoyed most by those who arrive at the theater knowing nothing about its story. A shoo-in for Best International Film, “Parasite” also deserves its nomination in the Best Picture category. This is the year’s best reviewed film (a 96 on Metacritic). I expected Academy voters to ignore a brilliant cast and crew and honor only film and director. Audiences are enchanted by the film’s early juggling of crime, comedy after introducing haves and have-nots … setting aside moral comparisons. Expect additional twists to be bloody and scary. Bong Joo Han explored class division in “Snowpiercer,” but “Parasite” is universally enticing.
Jordan Peele follows “Get Out” by again exploring a nation’s identity crisis. His original horror story includes the personification of a family of doppelgangers, and more. As Adelaide, actress Lupita Nyong’o gives perhaps her most dynamic performance. Hers is a double role, playing a troubled wife and a surprising lookalike reeling from a traumatic childhood. Peele’s terrifying tale offers original definitions of cinematic Good Guys. Indeed, the person with a strange appearance and voice explains, “We’re Americans.” One hopes Oscar voters have not forgotten this March release.
Noah Baumbach could have titled this “Divorce Story.” Pronounced intentions to amicably remain friends during their parting dissolve by the time show business couple Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver) is influenced by family, friends and lawyers. Their son is a pawn, demanding sacrifices each partner finds unreasonable. Baumbach focuses on emotional pain and fury comfortably at home with divorce. Driver and Johansson are strong, each character attacking known vulnerabilities, saying things they never meant to, unraveling a once-comfortable bond. The story, although not new, is painful. Questionable is Baumbach’s seeking messages within Stephen Sondheim’s “Company.” Johansson harmonizes on “You Can Drive a Person Crazy,” while Driver sings “Being Alive” solo for friends in a piano bar.
Such a touching and unpredictable film from director Lulu Wang, exploring frustrations found within cultural differences. Actress Awkwafina, cast as Billi, wants to be involved with her large family’s reunion in China – yet cannot understand why her family refuses to be honest and inform her grandmother Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) that her cancer has been diagnosed as terminal. Or even that she has cancer. Billi disagrees and is accused of being Americanized. In fact, the family forces a relative to pretend to be engaged – and fake his marriage to give Nai Nai joy. Wang shares so much unintentional hilarity. Performances by Shuzhen and Awkwafina are standouts.
Seventh/”Ford v. Ferrari.”
A drama that surprisingly crosses gender lines because, even more than the competition between companies, designers and cars in the world of professional car racing, director James Mangold emphasizes the story is also about friendship. Based on a true story, the film finds former champion driver-turned-designer Carroll Shelby (played by Matt Damon) appealing to the ego of Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) to convince him Ford is capable of beating Ferrari’s legendary line of race cars in the 1966 24-hours-long Le Mans race. The controversy does not revolve around cost as much as Shelby’s insistence that the only driver who can return a championship to America – and Ford – is his gifted, but rough-around-the-edges friend Ken Miles (Christian Bale). Mangold devotes just enough time to characters to make audiences care if they are not treated fairly, while also capturing each ounce of danger on the track through driver’s side point-of-view cinematography.
The irony is obvious. I loved Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman,” while Scorsese blatantly accuses superhero movies of representing theme parks more than true cinema. That said, co-directing brothers Anthony and Joe Russo deserve kudos for providing an honest, often gripping and sometimes funny sense of closure after the more than 20 superhero films that played roles during the preceding 11 years (dating back to the original “Iron Man”). A Marvel miracle would be necessary to bring audiences back following the success of Thanos’ attack that ended “Infinity Games” in shocking fashion, and that’s what the Russos create with an emphasis on character and relationships over nominated visual effects. Even as the film includes “Back to the Future” jokes and time travel logic, “Endgame” even asks characters to steal Infinity stones from themselves at one point. Bottom line, the film gives Marvel followers what they wanted following the genocide caused by a finger snap.
An entertaining effort not designed for those with a fear of heights. It was revealed that costars Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne did not rely solely on CGI visuals. That said, the story takes place in 1862 England. Redmayne portrays scientist James Glaisher, who believed that a hot air balloon could be flown high enough to provide details necessary to predict weather. Members of his scientific society only laughed at him. But he finds financing, and only needs a pilot. Jones arrives as Amelia Wren. The new partners’ goal is to break the ballooning height record of 23,000 feet. Viewers will be gripping theater seats as their characters risk their lives more than seven miles high, and even then with no guarantee of returning alive. Wren’s climb to the top of a freezing balloon at high altitude provides tension-packed visuals. Sad to say, this is no documentary; not every character is based in truth. But oh my, what a fun … and terrifying … ride director Tom Harper provides
Tenth/”Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.”
Quentin Tarantino’s film is a stunning Valentine to the Hollywood of the late 1960s, eventually taking artistic license to rewrite just enough history to keep uglier truths outside the Hollywood city limits. Regardless, the film deserves repeated viewings just for the terrific performances by leading actors Leonardo DiCprio and Brad Pitt – and to enjoy production design which found millions of dollars devoted solely to recreating the Sunset Boulevard of a prior, more glamorous and colorful era. Yes, Tarantino remains a major talent. “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” finds him again in the running for a Director’s Guild Award. That said, his last couple films are not his best, even as he says he only has one more within him. Hollywood will adore Tarantino’s film. For others, pieces may be regarded better than the whole.
Best Animated Film
“How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World.”
Honorable mentions … I enjoyed the following, listed in alphabetical order:
- “Ad Astra.”
- “Alita: Battle Angel.”
- “John Wick, Chapter 3: Parabellum.”
- “The Report.”
- “Star Wars, Episode IX: Rise of Skywalker.”
- “Toy Story 4”
- “Uncut Gems”
- “Velvet Buzzsaw.”
Worst … my five most difficult movies to sit through (although I missed “Cats”):
- “Dumbo.” (live action remake)
- “Knives Out.”
- “The Laundromat.”
- “Pet Sematary.” (remake)
- “Rambo: Last Blood.” (and we have a winner!)
Gage’s Best Movies of 2019
Last year was filled with up and down moments in the film industry. Good films outnumbered the great; bad films outnumbered them both. The advantage of time also found me changing my mind about certain films. My original opinions of such movies as “Joker” and “The Irishman” would not have found me ranking either so high.
By far the year’s best film. Phenomenal cast and story, I love everything about this film. I just wish more people would have seen it.
I did not physically “feel” the running time of this three-hour film until the last 20 minutes. Even then, this film is excellent, thanks in no small part to Martin Scorsese’s direction.
I sure didn’t love this movie the first time I saw it, although Joaquin Phoenix gives a great performance worthy of recognition. Obviously, it has grown on me.
Fourth/”John Wick, Chapter 3: Parabellum”
This movie was the most fun to watch – entertaining, exciting, proof positive that great sequels are possible.
Leading actress Lupita Nyong’o gives a phenomenal performance rivaling that of Joaquin Phoenix in “Joker.” Released early in 2019, I hope this film is remembered.
“Sixth/Ford v Ferrari”
Braced by a solid performance from Christian Bale. The story is great and the characters at times are funny.
Brad Pitt makes it twice on my list. No doubt about it: He’s back. “Ad Astra” is fun, visually stunning. I found it entertaining, space monkeys and all
This family drama is quite a tale. Cultures collide in east vs west, then blend as we are won over by the grandmother of actress Awkwafina’s character.
Kathy Bates may give 2019’s most underrated performance as the title character’s mother. Clint Eastwood finds a non-fiction underdog and delivers a compelling adaptation of a real life story. Very much worth watching.
Tenth/”Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood”
Brad Pitt is a Hollywood star, and should be a lock for an Oscar for his performance. Not without its faults, this movie easily entertains the masses.
Best Animated Film of 2019
“How to Train Your Dragon: Hidden World.”
Honorable Mentions, or movies I also enjoyed
- “Alita: Battle Angel.”
- “Angel has Fallen.”
- “Star Wars, Episode IX: Rise of Skywalker.”
Worst Movies of 2019
- “Dark Phoenix.”
- “Pet Sematary” (* the year’s worst movie).
- “The Prodigy.”
- “Terminator: Dark Fate.”