Best of the 2010s – My Favorite Films of 2019

The Farewell (directed by Lulu Wang)
From my full review:
Wang is very obviously influenced by contemporary European cinema in her shot composition, specifically the work of Ruben Ostlund. There are lots of intentional off-center shots with characters cut off on the sides of the frame or barely peeking up from the bottom. Wang uses her composition to bring out the humor and poignancy of scenes, for example, allowing an opera-singing performer at the wedding to underscore her cousin’s sloppy drunken crying fit in the middle of the banquet hall. There’s an absolutely fantastic slow-motion medium shot in the third act of the family walking towards the camera that is framed and scored to perfection. For a second film, the technique on display is remarkable. These are not the most dynamic scenes, people sitting in a room and talking, yet the cinematography is gorgeous.

Booksmart (directed by Olivia Wilde)
From my full review:
The secret weapon that makes Booksmart rise above merely being a female re-imagining of Superbad is that they employed casting director Allison Jones. Jones was in charge of casting for the cult television hit Freaks and Geeks, which essentially birthed contemporary comedy from 2000 to the present. She was the woman who found Seth Rogen, James Franco, and many other familiar faces that have continually had a presence in the Apatow/McKay/Ferrell bubble of comedy. You see that same touch for different looks and personalities spread throughout Booksmart, diversity beyond just the external but a beautiful mix of grounded high school personalities.

Diane (directed by Kent Jones)
From my full review:
The potent core of this picture is Mary Kay Place as Diane. Place has become a regular face in independent cinema for years, always a supporting player who stole the show. It’s about time that she was given a starring lead, and Place brings heartbreaking depth to the role. You can see the weight on her as she moves through the cycle of errands, always trying to stiffen up and ignore the exhaustion. She brings the determination of a character treating themselves like an ascetic monk, going through painful trials as a way to prove their worthiness.

The Art of Self-Defense (directed by Riley Stearns)
From my full review:
Stearns makes sure that Sensai and his followers are never portrayed as inept at karate. They actually possess a high level of skill in martial arts, so the jokes are never ironic about what they can do. The humor comes of the dark comedy of how their lives are soaked through entirely with a philosophy centered around dominating every person they encounter. Casey is instructed that he needs to start listening to Metal music, stop learning French and learn German, and cease being affectionate towards his dog. Sensai speaks with confidence that these actions will unlock Casey’s true masculine potential. The audience understands that this is the mindset that by following cultural gender norms, we will feel more whole, an idea that immediately begins to crumble if examined in the slightest. However, Sensai is so revered by his pupils that his views are never questioned.

Us (directed by Jordan Peele)
From my full review:
When Us is working at its best, it is delving deep into the existential horror of its premise and its commentary on free will. Do we consume because we choose to or is because consumption is a pre-programmed function? We see Adelaide put in extreme situations and see how she takes life so easily when pushed to her limits. She loses aspects of her humanity when she becomes consumed by her bloodthirstiness. However, isn’t she justified, she’s only protecting her family after all? I wanted the film to go deep the murky blackness of this philosophy and become something much darker. I’m not saying Us isn’t a dark movie, but Peele leans on humor during the more dire scenes to cut the tension. I get that it’s a wide release horror film, but I am starting to feel about mainstream horror the same way I think about the superhero genre. With so many of these movies out there, wouldn’t it be cool to make them more diverse on more than a superficial level? Like thematically diverse and tonally diverse?

Ad Astra (directed by James Gray)
From my full review:
The climax of the picture might feel like a letdown to some, but I thought it was entirely in keeping with the ambient tone of the whole film. This is not a movie about explosions and battles, though we see those happen. Ad Astra is about seeking a better understanding of the inner self by going to the farthest extremes of the material world. Only when Roy reaches the edge of the solar system can he know both his father and himself. In this moment of understanding, he can transcend his disconnection, and the film caps off with an ambiguous note of hope, a possible connection in Roy’s future.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco (directed by Joe Talbot)
From my full review:
The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a beautiful poem of love and hate to a dream about the city that doesn’t ever seem to come true. We learn that Jimmie was put in awful situations by his addict father and kept himself going by focusing on the stories he’d been told about his grandfather’s house. The house comes to represent the one lovely thing, the single element of hope that might lift Jimmie out of what has been his life to date. He spent time in a group home where he was bullied, and Montgomery is his only friend, the two men sharing the same strangeness and outcast nature from the people around them.

In Fabric (directed by Peter Strickland)
From my full review:
Strickland is putting across a sly satire on capitalism by focusing on the religiosity and cultish-ness its most fervent advocates put forward about the economic system. Miss Luckmoore knows that the scarlet dress she forces upon Shelia is cursed, responsible for the untimely death of the model who wore it in the store catalog during an incident at a zebra crossing (reads a briefly glimpsed newspaper headline). Yet, the ritual of the department store sale forces Luckmore into foisting this item on whomever she can. When Sheila tries to return the item after tolerating a gauntlet of horrors, it is up to the store owner Mr. Lundy, a comically obvious sorcerer, is aghast and essentially explains that a return would be blasphemy against such a sacred consecration.

The Souvenir (directed by Joanna Hogg)
From my full review:
It will be evident to the audience that Julie and Anthony’s relationship is not off on the right foot, primarily due to his softly condescending tone when he goes over the pre-production Julie is writing and putting together for her film. He asks the sort of questions someone addresses when they don’t actually have an interesting in helping a person see their project through. His comments are intended to cause doubt and make Julie squirm. There’s never violent outbursts or overt physical abuse, not even shouting or name-calling. This is the kind of insidious toxicity that swirls about Julie and Anthony. Julie, in her mid-twenties, wants to feel mature and bohemian in a relationship with an older worldly man, but she has picked someone totally wrong for her.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood… (directed by Quentin Tarantino)
From my full review:
Front and center in this picture are Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, and while I usually don’t talk about the actors so much as the characters, this is a movie where the actors are a critical part of how audiences will perceive the picture. These are both actors that are middle-aged and not able to play the same roles they once did when they started in Hollywood. Both men have reached a level of prestige in acting so that you wouldn’t expect to see them playing leads in farcical comedies or low budget horror. These are guys that will be placed in either Oscar bait or big-budget dramas. The characters they play in Once Upon a Time are like reflections from a parallel world where their careers didn’t follow the same trajectory. Tarantino has always had an interest in the washed-up has-been both in his scripts and in his casting. He’s credited with turning around John Travolta’s career (only for the actor to do his damndest to bury himself again), and Tarantino can’t seem to quit perennial screw-up, Michael Madsen. Tarantino idolizes old soldiers and cowboys, and this is probably his most earnest film when addressing those tropes.

Little Women (directed by Greta Gerwig)
From my full review:
The brilliant shining star of this picture is Saoirse Ronan as Jo. She takes the same energy from Lady Bird and applies it to this character’s particular drives. She’s talented and ambitious, but also okay with being vulnerable and not always having life turn out how she wishes. Her chemistry with Timothee Chalamet as Laurie is remarkable. They play the roles not as stiff archetypes but realistic portrayals of teenagers and young people during this period. You can see precisely why Laurie falls for Jo, which makes her rejection that much more painful. But she is likely right, they are so invigorated by their friendship that to make the relationship more than platonic would kill what makes it unique. Laurie will inevitably want Jo to give herself wholly to him to relinquish some of her pursuits, but she can’t.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (directed by Celine Sciamma)
From my full review:
Sciamma chooses to make the relationship between the women both intensely intimate and sexually charged, yet pulls the camera away to refrain from exploiting the genuine love between the two. There are many scenes of Marianne and Heloise lying together in bed, but you never get the sense Sciamma wants to objectify them. They find in each other an equally passionate companion who hungers for more than the world can give them. Heloise is sheltered, having never heard much music beyond a church organ. When Marianne plays a bit of Vivaldi on the harpsichord, it charges Heloise with the notion that so much awaits her beyond this island.

Uncut Gems (directed by Josh and Benny Safdie)
From my full review:
The Safdies are in tune with the idea that consumption is a dead-end addiction. Money and inequality are at the forefront of their work. Howard is a man who thinks that he can be happy if he just wins that next bet or sells an item at auction. Because his life has no meaning, he is entirely emotionally disconnected from his wife and children, he seeks thrills from playing with dangerous men and making foolish bets. He doesn’t love his mistress; he lusts after her. His texts are always focused on having her, using her body, jealousy over other men getting to have her. She appears to love him, but it’s never clear why possibly because he is so broken. We don’t learn much about Julia, but I would suspect that her backstory includes a father who was like how Howard is with his own children.

An Elephant Sitting Still (directed by Hu Bo)
From my full review:
An Elephant Sitting Still is a beautiful and heartbreaking movie, an experience that you have to be mentally ready for. There are long, languorous takes, reminiscent of Terrence Malick, the camera following behind a character as they navigate a decrepit city. The infrastructure is broken down around them, the political powers exist unseen but wielding a potent pen by shutting schools down in a single swipe. If you have found yourself in the last few years having an inability to imagine what the world will be like five years from, a decade from now or further, then Hu Bo shared your pain. There is a subtle moment of hope, in the end, broken up by the sharp trumpet of an elephant in the darkness.

The Irishman (directed by Martin Scorsese)
From my full review:
It’s when the third act of the film hits that it becomes apparent that we are watching something much different thematically than those pictures. Goodfellas and Casino are very much about the grotesque bloating of power & ego, their ends being inevitable self-destructive. The Irishman is about the one many in the midst of all that who wasn’t gunned down in the street, taken out in a brutal hit. This man keeps living and living and living. He’s approached by FBI agents in his old age, coming once again to ask about his connection to Hoffa’s disappearance. Frank tells them to talk with his lawyer, and they reply that his lawyer passed away. The look on Frank’s face tells us he’s reached a point, whether from age or the creep of dementia, that he’s not quite sure what time it is anymore.

The Lighthouse (directed by Robert Eggers)
From my full review:
Willem Dafoe seethes like an animal, never chewing up the scenery; instead, he devours it. He’s the talkative one of the two, but not friendly. Wake keeps to himself during working hours but expects table banter when dinner is served. At one point he takes such affront to an insult about his cooking he strikes Iphraim about the face with his tin cup and sobbingly begs for a compliment about his lobster. Dafoe is given meaty chunks of dialogue, dripping with salty sea dog brine for him to spit at his inscrutable comrade. He has a scene where he delivers the most solemn monologue while having dirt thrown in his face and mouth and actually eats it while continuing with his lines.

Waves (directed by Trey Edward Shults)
From my full review:
The acting in Waves is superb, everyone does a magnificent job. But, Taylor Russell, as Emily is the breakthrough here. The second portion of the movie suddenly slows down, becomes contemplative. The camera still moves, but now it floats and flows through scenes, no longer rushing from moment to moment. Emily is still removed from her family but establishes a connection, her first serious relationship. Her boyfriend, Luke (Lucas Hedges) is awkward and charming, you find yourself rooting for this couple, their chemistry is strong but allowed to develop over time. Shults can convey that sense of being in love, filled with energy & excitement, the feeling you have a beautiful secret that makes you smile to yourself in the middle of the day.

Midsommar (directed by Ari Aster)
From my full review:
Florence Pugh is a shining point of light in a blazingly gorgeous picture, bringing deep emotions out of her character that causes her turmoil to resonate with the audience. The first ten minutes of the film set up the inciting tragedy and doesn’t get explored in much depth; instead, the story focuses on the emotional aftermath on Dani. There are striking and unsettling visuals in this opening, and Aster revisits those images later in the film as our protagonist is influenced by her new environment and the intoxicants being given to her. The final images of the picture focus solely on Pugh, and it is one of the most visually stunning moments I’ve seen in a film in a while, rivaling the conclusion of Hereditary.

Marriage Story (directed by Noah Baumbach)
From my full review:
I cannot emphasize how damn good Scarlett Johanssen and Adam Driver are in this film. Their performances are so genuine and honest at every turn. Johanssen hasn’t been this good in years, mainly because she’s been doing so much big-budget special effect heavy work rather than character-centered pieces. Baumbach allows long takes where the actors just talk and go through the natural emotions you would feel when the dam finally breaks, and you let everything out. Johanssen has a moment in her lawyer’s office, where she goes over the story of how she met Charlie and eventually fell out of love with him. It’s shot very simply, which allows the actress to be the center of the scene. She laughs over memories, finds herself choking up as these happy thoughts bring her to the realization that she isn’t going to have that anymore.

Parasite (directed by Bong Joon-ho)
From my full review:
This movie is a fantastic feat, accumulating so many elements and layers of narrative that you might expect it to add up to an underwhelming finale. There’s so much going on and so much to extrapolate from the text. We’ve all seen those movies with a beautiful premise and cast & crew of talented people that just fail to pull all the threads together. Parasite sticks the landing with finesse, a gorgeous, tragic gut punch that is never full of itself or gets carried away by ego. The drastic tonal shifts are perfectly balanced so that when the violence and grime get to their zenith, the screenwriters and actors cut the tension with the exact right bit of humor. Vice versa, when things diverge into possible slapstick, we’re shaken back to reality by a bit of cutting dialogue or revelation.

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