Putting this list together this year was tougher than in recent years, and I’m not entirely sure why. But I will say that the things I loved this year, I loved. Movies were a huge comfort to me this year, and I found a lot of love and happiness in the things I saw this year. From the beautiful depiction of friendship between Jennifer Lopez’s and Constance Wu’s characters from Hustlers (Hustlers in general for that matter), the striking cinematography of Portrait of a Lady on Fire, the overall weirdness of Midsommer and the love bursting in each frame of Little Women. It’s a shame that this year’s Oscar races are turning out to be some of the least inspired and dull in the last few years, if they even bothered to think outside the box a little this year, they’d find some truly wonderful work in some amazing films.
And yet, I found it so hard to actually sit down and write this list. I keep promising myself year after year that I’ll get better at updating this blog. Maybe this year is the year I’ll actually make this promise (no promises though).
Without further adieu, my favorite movies of 2019.
15.) Crawl(dir. Alexandre Aja, Starring: Kaya Scodelario & Barry Pepper)
It’s not every day that action-packed thrillers entertain on the level that Crawl manages to, so when they do I like to celebrate them. Set in Florida in the midst of a Category 5 hurricane, Haley (Scodelario) ignores the weather alerts and travels back to find her father stranded in the storm. The two become trapped in a flood zone with no resources, surrounded by hungry alligators. Sound ridiculous, but in reality director Alexandre Aja constructs a lean, thrilling roller coaster that doesn’t let up until the credits start rolling.
14.) Happy Death Day 2U (dir. Christopher Landon, Starring: Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard, Suraj Sharma, Steve Zissis, Ruby Modine, Phi Vu, Sarah Yarkin & Rachel Matthews)
Happy Death Day 2U takes the hilarious premise set up by its predecessor, and doesn’t just run with it so much as sprints, cartwheels, double black flips and sky dives (if you’ve seen the film, you know what I’m talking about). Tree (the amazing Jessica Rothe) is unfortunately still stuck living out the day of her death (aka, her birthday) only this time, there’s a twist: she’s stuck living out the day of her death in an alternate dimension. Adding time travel to the mix may sound like an unnecessary step in following up the surprise hit of 2017, but director/writer Christopher Landon crafted a sharper, and even funnier, film than its predecessor.
13.) A Hidden Life (dir. Terrance Malick, Starring: August Diehl, Valerie Pachner & Matthias Schoenaerts)
Terrance Malick has been lost at sea (or more appropriately, the wheat fields) for the last couple of years. While I wasn’t the biggest fan of Tree of Life, that film definitely had more going on than recent efforts like Song to Song. I’m happy to say that his most recent effort is a return to form, and proof that Malick remains one of our most poetic filmmakers working today. With A Hidden Life, Malick tells the story of Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl), an ordinary man who refused to fight for the Nazis during World War II. It’s a story that remains terrifyingly relevant in today’s turbulent world, but Malick doesn’t grandstand to try and connect the dots between then and now. The film’s power lies in its simplicity; much of the running time is devoted to correspondence between the incarcerated Jägerstätter and his wife Franziska (Valerie Pachner) who is left behind to pick up the pieces of their broken family and shamed and ousted from their town by the people they used to call friends. Despite the consequences, these two ordinary people stand their ground and press forward, steadfast in their belief to do the right thing, even if it’s not popular. It’s a message that many of our leaders and citizens standing with, and turning a blind eye to, the rising white nationalist sentiments across the world could stand to learn.
12.) Homecoming (dir. Beyoncé Knowles-Carter)
It feels like Beyoncé has always been regarded as a cultural behemoth, but the truth is it wasn’t long ago that critics thought of Beyoncé as “just another pop star.” At the start of the decade, she was coming off of her third (solo) studio album I Am Sasha Fierce, which spawned global hits like “Single Ladies” and “Halo.” As a cohesive statement, it was regarded as lackluster while her follow up, 4, was commercially less successful but saw a shift from radio centric releases to music Beyoncé was clearly passionate about. But it wasn’t until the now legendary surprise drop of her self-titled album that Beyoncé began to receive the critical respect that had eluded her for so long, and truly came into her own as not just an artist, but an icon. The rest is history; Homecoming considers all of this as Beyoncé prepares to become the first black woman to headline Coachella, where she rewrote the rules of what it means to for a recording artist to perform live. In Homecoming, it’s like we’re hearing this music for the first time and falling in love with the woman behind it all over again. DJ Khaled was right when he said that Coachella was going to have to rename itself to Beychella after all was said and done. All hail Queen Bey.
11. The Farewell (dir. Lulu Wang, Starring: Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Zhao Shuzhen, Lu Hong, Jiang Yongbo, Gil Perez-Abraham, Ines Laimins, Jim Liu, Z Mayo, Aoi Mizuhara & Han Chen)
At the beginning of the year, I almost lost my grandmother after she sustained an aneurysm. The months that followed were some of the hardest in my life, and the thought of almost losing her still plagues me. At the time of initially watching Lulu Wang’s exceptional debut, The Farewell, I couldn’t really engage with the film in the way I wanted to; I had to shut myself off emotionally to be able to watch it all the way through. The premise hinges on the looming death of a loved one: Billi (Awkwafina) learns her beloved Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) has been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, with only a few more months to live. The family reunites in China for one last gathering before she dies, deciding not to tell her the truth. Wang’s screenplay, based on her own life, skillfully deals with the immigrant experience. Billi’s return to her homeland leaves her feeling incredibly alienated, with the cultures clashing as she struggles to make sense of her feelings and say goodbye before it’s too late.
As I’ve continued to sit with The Farewell, the film has managed to stay with me and evolve in my mind. I am still thinking about the final scene between Billi and Nai Nai, so heart-wrenching and expertly played by both Awkwafina an Zhao Shuzhen; it felt ripped from real life. It’s a film I very much look forward to revisiting now that I’ve gotten to a place where I’m ready to fully engage with it. By the time the credits start rolling, you’ll be calling your grandmother to let her know how much you love her.
10.) A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (dir. Marielle Heller, Starring: Matthew Rhys, Tom Hanks, Susan Keleechi Watson, Tammy Blanchard & Chris Cooper)
Marielle Heller is a god among mortals. After delivering a truly stunning and visionary debut in the form of The Diary of A Teenage Girl, she crafted one of the most heartbreaking portraits of loneliness (and one of the best movies of last year) with Can You Ever Forgive Me? I didn’t think that she could top herself, but she didn’t prove me wrong so much as made me realize that the sky is the limit for prowess as a storyteller. Though it’s been criminally reduced to an Oscar vehicle for Tom Hanks in “The Mr. Rogers Movie,” A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood stands tall as one of the finest movies of the year.
Biopics have always been a popular Oscar staple, and when the trailer dropped for A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood I was worried that Heller’s may have eschewed all that made Can You Ever Forgive Me? so great and went for something a little more mainstream. The marketing really does play up the Rogers factor (to put butts in the seats, I’m sure) but the film itself is not interested with him as a focal point; he’s the window dressing of the film, and our protagonist is Lloyd Vogel (The Americans‘ Matthew Rhys). Adapted from the article “Can You Say… Hero?” by Tom Junod (whom Vogel is based on), Heller depicts the story of a man at odds with himself and all of the emotions he’s in-equipped to deal with. He’s a new father, struggling with the abandonment issues caused by his own father’s absence and news that he’s dying. Professionally, nobody wants to work with him or be interviewed with him. He’s built an impenetrable wall around him that not even his wife (Susan Kelechi Watson) can get through.
Enter Fred Rogers (Hanks) who Lloyd is tasked with profiling. He’s skeptical at first. “Is he the real deal?” he wonders walking on set, and soons learn that he is indeed the real deal. Soon, Fred starts chipping away at that wall and gets Lloyd to open up in a way he refused to with anyone else. It’s because of Heller’s subtle touch that these moments make the movie really sing in a way other films can’t. That’s not to suggest this film doesn’t display a distinguished fingerprint. On the contrary, those who loved Can You Ever Forgive Me? will recognize her guiding hand but it never overwhelms the film. Nor does she hit viewers over the head with saccharine emotional beats that distract from the film’s heart.
Much of the conversation surrounding the film’s modest box office performance. Perhaps audiences would have ran to and thrown money at a film in droves that forcibly wrung tears from them, or that was exclusively about Mr. Rogers. As great as Hanks is here, that’s not what Heller is interested in here. She sensitively depicts a relationship between two men:one at war with himself, so unable to sift through his brokenness and another who extends a hand and pulls someone out of disparaging turmoil. In the end, I was bawling my eyes out, not because the film forced those tears out of me but because it earned them.
9.) Midsommar (dir. Ari Aster, Starring: Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, William Jackson Harper, Vilhelm Blomgren & Will Poulter)
How exactly do you follow up a movie as dark and terrifyingly tense as Hereditary? Simple, you make an even weirder and more harrowing movie about a deteriorating relationship set in the center of a Swedish cult’s solstice celebration. Midsommar takes the flourishes and left turns of Hereditary and turns the dial past the maximum weird levels. It’s a movie that luxuriates in its strangeness, and has absolutely no interest in being quick about it; the film’s running time clocks in at 147 minutes. I’ll be honest, I felt really worn down after my initial watch, and didn’t really know how to feel about what I had just watched. Upon watching the Director’s Cut (171 minutes), however, I stopped trying to figure out what this strange, Swedish acid trip and just let it wash over me. In doing so, I had a richer viewing experience, and was able to appreciate the film on its own terms, instead of treating it like a trippy rubix cube.
When we meet our heroine Dani (Pugh) she’s just lost her family in a tragic and harrowing accident. Her emotionally aloof boyfriend Christian (Reynor) is getting ready to go away on a trip to Pelle’s (Blomgren) family’s ancestral Swedish commune to celebrate the solstice along with Mark (Poulter) and Josh (Harper), who are urging him to break things off and take the trip as a single man. Instead, he begrudgingly invites Dani along as he continues to go through the motions of their long dead relationship. As the group delves deeper into the traditions of the Hårga, Dani finds it harder to outrun her grief and the truth about her parasitic relationship.
The act of grieving is something we as human beings don’t always allow ourselves time for, but it’s something that is absolutely necessary. Even more important is having a support system to help work through that grief. This could have just been a run of the mill redo of Hereditary, but Aster has more on his mind than disturbingly psychedelic imagery; Midsommar is a vivid and engrossing exploration of grief. In the wake of the death of her entire family, Dani continues to invest more and more of herself into making sure her relationship with Christian stays alive. But the act isn’t reciprocated; she’s forced to grieve in private, always apologizing and excusing herself as to not burden her partner with the flurry of emotions threatening to consume her. Dani’s inability to have her feelings validated comes to a head in the pivotal scene where the Hårga women wail along with Dani as she has a panic attack. Later, as she sets fire (literally) to her relationship, her face slowly twists from sadness to a wicked smile. She’s finally free from the shackles of her toxic relationship. In jumping down this strange, psychedelic rabbit hole she’s emerged on the other side. Only this time, she’s found a new family and the support she was craving. Maybe, just maybe this kid is going to be alright after all.
8.) Knives Out (dir. Rian Johnson, Starring: Daniel Craig, Ana de Armas, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, Lakeith Stanfield, Kathering Langford, Jaeden Martell & Christopher Plummer)
Fanboys tried to run Rian Johnson off, but thankfully for us he persisted. After elevating the Star Wars saga with the series’ best entry, the writer/director returned to his roots with a twisty and starry whodunit. Knives Out is centered around the Thrombey family squabbling over who will inherit the most in the wake of their patriarch, the famed novelist Harlan (Plummer) being murdered. The arrival of P.I. Benoit Blanc (Craig) throws everyone off, as he refuses to rule out any foul play; everyone’s a suspect. There’s eldest daughter Linda (Curtis) who built her real estate empire with the help of her father’s money, son Walt (Shannon) who wants access to sell the rights of his father’s novels, daughter-in-law Joni (Collette, amazing as always) who relied on Harlan’s money to help put her daughter through school and build a lifestyle brand, and Ransom (Evans) Linda’s son who was heard arguing with Harlan on the night of his murder. Standing in the background as a unwilling participant is Marta (de Armas), who served as Harlan’s caretaker and confidant. All hell breaks loose when she is named as his sole successor, leaving the family looking for a way to implicate her in the murder or intimidating her into caving to their demands so they can take what they believe to be theirs.
Johnson provides us with enough twists and turns to keep us entertained on the level of solving the mystery alone; just when you think you’ve figured things out, you’re led down another winding hallway. But as we dig deeper, it becomes clear that Knives Out is more concerned with condemning the behavior of the rich idiots it’s depicting. Johnson (smartly) centers de Armas as the film’s focal point, and our entryway into this world; she’s truly wonderful as the beating heart and secret weapon of the film. We see the familiar faces of beloved actors like Curtis, Collette, Shannon and Evans, but we see them from Marta’s perspective. The sheen is gone, and we’re privy to their racism, even when they don’t seem to be aware of it (there’s effective repetition of having each member claim Marta’s hails from a different country each time they speak about her, right after claiming she feels like a part of the family). Johnson also allows us to feel the fear of Marta’s precarious situation, as she faces threats of and her family being deported if she refuses to bow to the family’s demands, an all too real reminder of what the Marta’s of the real world face every day in this country, while they try and survive in a world where the rules are working against them.
7.) Us (dir. Jordan Peele, Starring: Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Evan Alex, Tim Heidecker & Elisabeth Moss)
Mirrors have been a tool in the horror genre since its inception. I think of the shattered mirror in Carrie as she gets ready for the prom, the REDRUM laden mirror in The Shining and more recently the sinister, inescapable reflections terrorizing Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) in Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan. Just like those movies, Jordan Peele’s Us uses the mirror (literal and figurative) to send a message to his audience.
Adelaide (Nyong’o) is en route to vacation with her husband (Winston Duke) and two kids: daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and son Jason (Evan Alex). When she realizes the family will be visiting Santa Cruz beach, Adelaide refuses. As a child, she wandered too far and got lost in a hall of mirrors and met a girl that looked just like her. And while we don’t know exactly what happened that night, we do know that it’s left her traumatized. That night, the family notices a group of people standing at their driveway. It isn’t long before they make their way into the house (by force) and reveal themselves.
“It’s us,” Jason gulps as the light of the fireplace hits their faces. Each family member has their own doppelgänger, one more terrifying than the next, donning a red jumpsuit, gloves and a pair of menacing scissors. They’re led by Adelaide’s double, named Red, who is the only member who seems to know English. She speaks in an extremely hoarse voice as if she’s just been strangled to within an inch of her life. When asked who they are, she chuckles, “We’re Americans.”
For those of you who still haven’t caught up with Us yet, I won’t spoil the specifics of the plot. But Us is not Get Out part two. Though only a few minutes longer, it doesn’t feel quite as lean as its predecessor, nor does it offer answers to every question, an element that seemed to frustrate many. I can respect that, but I was less concerned with some loose ends and swept up in this an unsettling puzzle. This is unmistakably a Jordan Peele film, and he deserves credit for attempting to paving new ground while still staying true to his strengths as a storyteller.
Even if you find Us to be frustrating narratively, one thing everyone can agree on is Lupita Nyong’o’s performances as both Adelaide and Red. It’s the film’s crowning achievement, and easily the best performance of the year. It’s a performance that could easily be gimmicky, but never is thanks to Nyong’o, who silently traces a roadmap of these two women and their respective traumas. There is more exposition, but she leans into mannerisms and vocal affectations to really sell it, holding just enough back to pull the rug out from under out feet by the end. If you’ve seen the film, you know what I’m talking about. I was worried she would be passed over come awards season due to genre bias, but thankfully her performance has endured and she looks good to be one of the final five women nominated for Best Actress in a Leading Role. If I had any say, she’d be our winner.
But regardless of where you land on Us, you cannot deny that once again Jordan Peele got all of us talking. And while many have been fixated on the ‘what, why and how’ of it all, the dissent of opinion has been more fascinating to me than any concrete answer. It’s not very often that a piece of mainstream filmmaking is this fascinating, even rarer that a non-franchise film feels like a true event. Us is a piece of art that will (hopefully) be analyzed and studied for years to come. It’s a terrifying hall of mirrors. What do you see? The answer may haunt you.
6.) Booksmart (dir. Olivia Wilde, Starring: Beanie Feldstein, Kaitlyn Dever, Billie Lourd, Diana Silvers, Skyler Gisonodo, Molly Gordon, Noah Galvin, Austin Crute, Victoria Ruesga, Eduardo Franco, Jessica Williams, Lisa Kudrow, Will Forte & Jason Sudeikis)
When Booksmart was released, I was ready to call it one of the films of the year. That was back in the spring, we had not yet seen the release of half of the movies that have been featured on a lot of top 10 lists. Only a few of them moved me in the same way this one did, and even fewer of them made me laugh quite as hard. So I would say that I was right to stand steadfast in my choice to call Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut one of the best of the year.
The premise is a tale as old as time: two soulmates, Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) have spent their entire high school careers doing whatever they could to ensure they would get the best grades and get into the best colleges, including not having a social life. To their horror, they realize that not only did their classmates get into the same/equal level Ivy League schools they did, but they did so while having flourishing social lives. The solution? Rewrite their high school story the night before graduation by attending the biggest party of the year, and break as many rules as they can along the way.
Booksmart is a wonderful addition to the canon of teen film, following in the footsteps of recent entries, such as The Edge of Seventeen and Lady Bird, which helped thrust the genre into something of a renaissance. What makes these films feel so revolutionary is their depiction of their characters. The hallmarks of classic John Hughes movies (nerds, jocks, cheerleaders, evil bullies, heroic protagonists) aren’t really existent here. Lady Bird, Nadine and now Molly and Amy are much more complex and their actresses are given a multitude of colors to paint with. Though this is Molly and Amy’s story, we see their respective flaws that make them feel human rather than archetypes. Booksmart‘s climatic showdown between its titular two bffs is hard to watch, but an integral part of what makes that relationship feel as lived in as it does. Both Dever and Feldstein have been wonderful in other projects, but this is the first time both actresses get to dive head first into leading roles. To say they nail it is a complete understatement.
I could go on about the the amount of pure love that emanates from each frame and line reading, but to do so feels arbitrary. Booksmart is the film I wished I had in high school, one that could have saved my life at a time where I felt lost with no way out. Sitting in the theater and watching each episode in Amy and Molly’s wild night play out filled me with so much joy, I had to see it a second time the next night. It’s a shame that so much expectation has been heaped upon the film’s shoulders, and that so much of the conversation has been about its inability to match Superbad‘s (the film this one has been frequently compared to) success. To be fair, it was probably never going to be the next Superbad in the way the industry thought it might be. And it doesn’t need to be either. Not only is it a better film, but I think of how lucky kids, both present and future, are to grow up in a world with a film like Booksmart, which ultimately means more than any level of financial success.
5.) Uncut Gems (dir. Josh & Benny Safdie, Starring: Adam Sandler, Julia Foxe, Lakeith Stanfield, Kevin Garnett, Idina Menzel & Eric Bogosian)
Uncut Gems is, in a word, an experience. It’s impossible to describe; words just don’t do it the justice it deserves, but I’m going to try my hardest: Brothers and filmmaking duo Josh and Benny Safdie have extracted the essence of chaos, dipped it in acid, bottled it, proceeded to shake it and took the cap off and let it spray violently throughout the streets of New York. And for 135 glorious minutes, we’re smack dab in the center of it with no way out.
Our guide through this roller coaster ride is Howard Ratner (Sandler), a Jewish jeweler in the Diamond district who is drowning in debt and ignores every available solution to chase the next, high-stakes thrill. Things come to a head when Kevin Garnett (playing a fictionalized version of himself) comes to Howard’s store right at the same time a priceless, uncut opal is delivered. It’s love at first sight, and against his better judgement, Howard loans Garnett the gem for the night, on the condition that it will be returned the following morning. My stomach started feeling uneasy the moment the deal was made, Because the best-laid plans rarely ever go the way they’re supposed to, which isn’t to say Howard’s plans are at all thought out, they’re not. Howard’s flaw, as we come to learn, is that he makes decisions in the moment that could compromise something he promised to follow through on not even five minutes ago. This is clearly a man who has gotten lucky in sticky situations a couple times and has continued to use that as his reasoning, it becomes increasingly clearer that this could be his undoing as he tries to find his way through the maze he trapped himself in.
Much of the conversation surrounding Uncut Gems has been Sandler’s performance, which was positioned to be a follow-up to the dramatically dark performance he gave in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love over 10 years ago. To say Sandler delivers the performance of his career would be an understatement; it’s a once in a lifetime, lightning in a bottle moment for the comedian who made his name in movies like Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore. Uncut Gems for Sandler is what Black Swan was to Natalie Portman. As Howard, Sandler dives headfirst down this loud, neon-lit rabbit hole and gives 110% of his blood, sweat and tears, except we never see any of it. Imagine the actor walking the tightrope while balancing spinning plates with both hands, but instead of an anxious expression, he has a goofy smile plastered across his face, never veering too much on one side or the other. Best Actor this year is a who’s who of talent and pedigree, with Adam Driver, Joaquin Phoenix, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Robert De Niro duking it out for a spot. None of them even come close to achieving Sandler’s high-wire act.
As enthralled as I was with the lead performance, Uncut Gems is an embarrassment of riches in every other aspect. Garnett, Menzel, Stanfield and the incredible Julia Foxe all turn in supporting performances that are just as calibrated as Sandler’s, but the gorgeous cinematography, overwhelming sound design and editing and masterful direction keep us immersed in this claustrophobic symphony. I wasn’t as enthralled with the Safdies’ last film, Good Time, but there was promise in that film that was clearly honed, sharpened and developed into Uncut Gems. At one point I was bending over in my seat, completely useless in warding off the stress and anxiety that was suffocating me. It sounds unbearable (it was), but it truly was one of the most memorable experiences I’ve ever had in a theater. It’s not often that a movie can elicit such a visceral reaction, even rarer that it appears almost effortless. When I left the theater I was lightheaded, immediately wondering when I would be going back for round two.
4.) Little Women (dir. Greta Gerwig, Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Timothée Chalamet, Florence Pugh, Emma Watson, Eliza Scanlen, Laura Dern, Chris Cooper, Jayne Houdyshell, Bob Odenkirk, Tracy Letts & Meryl Streep)
How do you bring a story as beloved as Little Women to the screen after several big screen adaptations? Simple, you hire someone who is deeply in love with Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel, like Greta Gerwig. After the success of Lady Bird, Gerwig could have probably done whatever she wanted, so when it was announced that she would be adapting the fourth attempt at a Little Women film, I was both excited and a little nervous. On one hand, it seemed perfectly within the writer/director’s wheelhouse. On the other hand, what else could possibly be done to make this story feel fresh in a marketplace drowning in nostalgia fueled reboots.
I should have never doubted Gerwig, because her Little Women feels both incredibly timely while honoring the spirit of the original text. This is truly a writer’s film, and a masterful example of why the word “remake” doesn’t necessarily have to be a death sentence. When we meet the infamous March sisters, Jo (Ronan), Meg (Watson), Amy (Pugh) and Beth (Scanlen), they are well into navigating the trials of adulthood. Jo has just bartered her way into publishing her first story to a paper in New York City, while Meg battles the trials of domestic life while not having very much money. Amy is off in France with her thorny, but wealthy, Aunt March (Streep) and trying her best to marry well while also pursuing her passion for painting. And then there’s Beth, who has never truly recovered from a childhood bout with Scarlet Fever. As a result, she is left to sit at home while her sisters live their lives.
Traditionally, we follow the lives of the March girls in a linear fashion; from childhood to adulthood. Here, Gerwig begins the story in the middle, occasionally flashing back to the girls’ childhood. These scenes are bathed in a warm, golden light while the scenes in the present have had much of the color sucked right out of them. It sounds like a subtle change, but it’s this atypical structure that breathes new life into such a familiar story. Arcs and events are given new resonance, namely the untimely death of Beth. It’s the story’s most tragic and touching moment, and while those familiar with the story know it’s coming, Gerwig’s take packs even more of a sucker punch. Similarly, Amy’s eventual relationship with Laurie (Chalamet) has never made more sense than it does here. Rather than just sort of ending up with the youngest March sister, we can see why these two would feel drawn to one another. Gerwig clearly put a lot of effort into giving Amy the attention she’s never really gotten in previous adaptations. Pugh is given a monologue about a woman’s place in the world that should absolutely land her an Oscar nomination if the Academy has any sense. Always depicted as the selfish brat, Gerwig makes Amy feel like a person rather than an annoying foil to Jo.
And that truly is the great success of Little Women; this was clearly made by someone who has a deep admiration for the story and its characters; it comes across in every interview she’s given during the press tour. Reportedly, she had the cast do weeks worth of rehearsals before they started shooting, a choice that most definitely contributed to how lived in these performances feel. Scenes have a musicality to them in the way characters move around the screen. There’s something magical happening, even in quieter moments. I wanted to luxuriate in every minute of this movie, because there’s loved baked into every single frame, from the costume design to the score. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, as it’s consistent with everything she’s done as a filmmaker and actress. Gerwig clearly loves the art of making movies, and finds a way to channel it through her work in front of and behind the camera. It’s one thing to adapt a story as familiar and beloved as this, and quite another to make it entirely your own without sacrificing what has made it such a beloved staple. With Little Women, Gerwig has composed a beautifully crafted love letter to Alcott, worthy of standing tall alongside of its companion adaptations in its own right.
3.) Portrait of a Lady on Fire (dir. Céline Sciamma, Starring: Noémie Merlant, Adèle Haenel, Luàna Bajrami & Valeria Golino)
I really don’t know what else I could say about Portrait of A Lady on Fire that hasn’t been said already. It’s a gorgeous, intoxicating, crushing and sometimes funny love story about two women from totally separate worlds who, against all odds, fall for one another.
In the late 18th century, Marianne (Merlant) is assigned to paint a portrait of bride to be Hèloïse (Haenel). The catch? Hèloïse refuses to sit for a painting, as she doesn’t want to be married. Under the guise of being her walking companion, Marianne must memorize her unknowing subject’s appearance during the day and paint in secret at night. As these two grow closer however, it becomes increasingly difficult for Marianne to keep up her secret. Similarly, the walls of defense that the sheltered Hèloïse has constructed around her begin to fall. When Hèloïse’s mother sets off for a few days, the pair is finally free to give into their growing desire for one another, learning more about the other in the process. But upon her mother’s return, Hèloïse will be married and Marianne will return to her life as an artist, separated by class and social mores of the time.
Director/writer Céline Sciamma has constructed one of the most tender love stories in recent history. Upon watching, I found myself falling deeper and deeper under its spell, and by the end, I was truly gobsmacked, overwhelmed with emotion and unable to pinpoint the exact moment where everything clicked for me. The cinematography is jaw-droppingly gorgeous; each frame feels like a painting in its own right. I hadn’t even realized that there was barely any music in the film at all, a choice that may sound confusing but is actually pretty genius. Ultimately, the film lives and dies by the performances of Merlant and Haenel. Under the direction of Sciamma, their bond feels as passionate as the film wants you to believe it is so that when the end comes, it feels like a sucker punch to the heart. That final shot is an all timer. In Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Sciamma has painted us a vivid love story that will endure and stand the test of time.
2.) Hustlers (dir. Lorene Scafaria, Starring: Constance Wu, Jennifer Lopez, Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart, Julia Stiles, Trace Lysette, Cardi B & Lizzo)
I did not see Hustlers coming. From the moment it was announced, I figured it would be this year’s Girls Trip, a hilarious romp with a fun ensemble that I’d fall in love with, and the marketing only furthered convinced me of that. So imagine my surprise when I sat down to watch it for the first time and discovered a period piece about the financial crisis of 2007-2008. Now that’s not to suggest that Hustlers isn’t fun, in fact it was some of the most fun I’ve had in a theater this year. But director/writer Lorene Scafaria had something else on her mind, and delivers a sharp and affecting (platonic) love story between two women just trying to survive in a world not designed for them to do so.
Based on The Cut’s The Hustlers At Scores, Destiny (Wu) is struggling to take care of her ailing grandmother while working at a strip club in the city when she meets Ramona (Lopez). The two hit it off immediately, with Ramona taking Destiny under her wing and teaching her the ropes (or rather, the pole). Ramona quickly becomes a mother figure to Destiny as they continue to make more and more money. But soon, the club is plagued by the effects of the financial crisis, aka, a lack of customers which means a lack of funds. Now a young and unemployed mother, Destiny is once again left struggling when she reconnects with Ramona. It’s here that the now infamous get rich plan is devised. The girls will go out to a bar and, along with Annabelle (Reinhart) and Mercedes (Palmer), charm some men, drug them and bring them back to the club where they’ll max out their credit card and split the profits. Once again the girls are thrust back into a larger than life lifestyle, pulling one over on the men who foolishly gambled the country’s financial security away.
The plot is juxtaposed with an interview between Destiny and reporter Elizabeth (Stiles) which will ultimately lead to the creation of the article the film is adapted from. We learn that the plan ultimately came to an end, and that Ramona and Destiny had a falling out. As the plot shifts from past to present, the principle ensemble grounds the film. Reinhart and Palmer emerge as two breakouts, while Stiles keeps things low-key enough to quietly ground her interview scenes. And of course, Lizzo, Trace Lysette and Cardi B are a lot of fun. But as I said before, this is really a love story between two best friends, and Wu and Lopez play it beautifully. I feel the need to go to bat for Wu, who has been sidelined with being bad in a lot of the reviews. After making a name for herself in comedies like Fresh Off the Boat and Crazy Rich Asians, this is her first foray into a straight, big time drama. Destiny takes the more passive role in her relationship with Ramona, still reeling from being abandoned by her mother as a child. It’s subtle, affecting work that seems to pale in comparison to the bigger, more active role of Destiny. Though that’s not Wu’s fault. When you’re acting against J Lo, your star is always going to appear dimmer by default. As Ramona, J Lo has turned that star power up from a 10 to a 20, in what is easily the performance of her career. She plays Ramona big, but knows when exactly to pull back and make her feel like a real person and less of a character or archetype. The strength of the performance is felt in the film’s final scene, where Ramona laments on everything that was lost between her and Destiny. But without Wu, that loss wouldn’t feel so heart wrenching without the relationship’s other half.
Though she has empathy for her characters, Scafaria expertly avoids vindicating the women of their crimes but never forgets to show them as victims as well: victims of circumstance. Hustlers asks us to consider what could have been if these women lived in a fairer world, a world that actually worked for them. This very necessary element is what gives the film its gravitas and power, in addition to just being an expertly made film. Seriously, the production design, costumes and cinematography suggest this was made by someone who had directed more than just three films. It’s firing on all cylinders in a way that feels truly effortless, and will almost certainly cement its deserving status as a new, American classic.
1.) Parasite (dir. Bong Joon-ho, Starring: Song Kang-ho, Jang Hye-jin, Choi Woo-shik, Park So-dam, Lee Sun-kyun, Jung J-so, Jung H
Films have come and gone this year, but Parasite has endured as my absolute favorite of the year. The rare movie that not only lives up to the hype, but exceeds it in every single way. Bong Joon-ho is a director that needs no introduction, but deserves every accolade in existence for what he’s accomplished with his latest masterpiece. It’s a film so tightly wound, with every piece and element perfectly placed and calibrated to perfection, ready to be in service to the vision. By the time the audience catches on to what’s going on, the film has already moved onto the next thing; Parasite is a series of tidal waves that continue to crash against you to knock you down right at the very second you’ve gotten back on your feet.
Our protagonists are a family living in squalor: Father Kim ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), mother Kim Chung-sook (Chang Hyae-jin), son Kim ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) and daughter Kim ki-jeong (Park So-dam), who are folding pizza boxes for a living we meet them. Their fortunes change, however, when Ki-woo’s friend gifts him a scholar’s rock, rumored to bring wealth. He convinces Ki-woo to pose as a university student to take over his old tutoring gig with the very wealthy Park family. It doesn’t take long for Ki-woo to find ways to manipulate the family and infiltrate their sprawling mansion. One by one, old Park family employees get removed, with their space filled by a member of his family, staring down at where they once stood. But things can only stay good for so long, and once we’ve adjusted to this seemingly straightforward rags to riches story, Bong throws us a curveball that keeps us in a state of unrelenting tension for the rest of the film.
Much has been said about not spoiling Parasite, and as someone who went in blind (I only watched the initial trailer, and refused to read any reviews until after I had seen it) I am appreciative that I did. But I do feel a lot of the conversation surrounding spoilers has diminished the fact that Parasite works regardless of what you know and don’t know. It’s a biting satire, but it’s also got elements of a home invasion thriller. It’s also a touching familial drama featuring the best performance by an ensemble this year (seriously try and pick just one favorite), though it’s also quite horrifying in a way that bears a resemblance to films like Us and Midsommar. It’s a multifaceted observation of the ways in which people navigate the barbed social class ladder, and the things that are lost and people they step on as they move to the top. It’s genreless, and offers something for fans of different genres to latch onto, which is why it has continued to endure as the year has dragged on. The sheer craft of this film alone elevates it above its competition; the cinematography, elaborate production design and tight editing immediately root you in the center of this eloquently choreographed film; each moment builds to an emotionally satisfying crescendo and every element services the brilliant vision of the man at its center. When we look back on 2019 in film, we will rightfully remember it as the year of Parasite.