Ten Favorite Films of 2019
This was an odd year for me, as certain films that I would have expected to love, I didn't, and some films that I had little-to-no expectations for swept in and made my favorites list. There were also a decent number of movies that I wanted to see, but still haven't had a chance to. After my Top 10 list, I'll include the full list of 2019 films I saw so that I can be appropriately chastised for my glaring omissions.
1) The Last Black Man in San Francisco
When I saw this film at Cinema Detroit over the summer, I had zero expectations. Honestly, I didn't know anything about it other than the title. I was immediately drawn in by the believably unconventional characters - particularly Jimmie (Jimmie Fails - on whom the story is largely based) and Mont (Jonathan Majors - in my favorite performance of the year), the underlying themes of whose stories are told, who tells them, and whether it matters whether they're "true" or not, along with beautiful cinematography and a fantastic score. The film came out to a lot of buzz and awards talk, but has virtually vanished from conversation now. Don't let that fool you, though. This film is absolutely worth checking out.
Another film I went into knowing very little about (other than the title I knew it was written and directed by Snowpiercer's Bong Joon-ho). If this list were more "objective" I'd probably put it in my number one spot, but there's very little difference in my love for both movies. The less known going into Parasite, the better, but imagine a more class-conscious Hitchcockian thriller that goes to truly unpredictable places. The performances are strong across the board, but the standouts, for me, are Kang-ho Song as the patriarch of one family, and Yeo-jeong Jo as the matriarch of another.
It's taken a few viewings to wrap my head around my feelings for Jordan Peele's follow-up to his brilliant debut, Get Out. This is definitely a messier film, both thematically and narratively, but I don't think that makes it any less compelling. The movie is bolstered by (again) strong performances, including Winston Duke and a truly brilliant Lupita Nyong'o. There's a definite theme this year (and on my list) of class conflict - sometimes literal and sometimes metaphorical - and some of the messiness in Us stems from the way it deliberately complicates that through its twists, but the more I've watched the film, the more interesting I find those complications.
4) Knives Out
Rounding out my unintentional "Eat the Rich" film festival is Rian Johnson's homage to both Alfred Hitchcock and Agatha Christie. Aside from being beautifully-shot (Johnson might be one of the best director's working today when it comes to composing the frame, particularly in close-up), Knives Out introduces Daniel Craig's oddball Southern eccentric-by-way-of-Manhattan detective, Benoit Blanc, along with a delightfully loathsome family at the center of the murder mystery. There are some highly-effective twists throughout, which largely work because they're grounded in the performance by Ana de Armas's Anna, the family nurse who finds herself at the center of things.
5) Avengers: Endgame
I mean, there was no way this wasn't going to make my list. It's a stunning achievement in satisfyingly wrapping up a decade-long and nearly two-dozen film megastory, and manages to feature Robert Downey Jr.'s strongest performance since the first Iron Man, some expectation-defying twists while still, largely, ending up where most people expected it to, and it balanced crowd-pleasing nostalgic moments with crowd-pleasing fan service for a, yes, roller coaster spectacle of a film. It also manages to go beyond those for moments of genuine subtlety and pathos when it needs to. Where it suffered, for me, was the sidelining - however briefly - of characters who, along with representing more diversity, also happen to be more interesting and fresh.
6) John Wick - Chapter 3: Parabellum
That we're three films into what started as a fairly straightforward revenge fantasy action film and the world manages to keep expanding and the action never feels less thrilling or original is a testament to just how good this series is. It helps that this is peak-Keanu, whose, well, minimalist visage hides just enough of what's going on within the character, but also offers a perfect canvas for slight moments of pain, humor, or fear to peek through. He's also one of the most underrated action stars of the last few decades, between Point Break, Speed, the Matrix trilogy, and now the John Wick series.
A teen sex-comedy that manages to have emotional resonance, genuine laughs and imaginative sequences, and engaging and striking direction and cinematography? Olivia Wilde's directorial debut takes a genre that was tired back in the '80s and makes it feel fresh. That's helped by the screenplay by Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel, and Katie Silberman, and breakout performances by Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein (and Billie Lourd effortlessly stealing every scene she's in). Do I want a Booksmart 2? Well...yes. But I'm also looking forward to what everyone involved has coming up next.
8) Fast Color
In a year of the biggest superhero film ever made (in more ways than one), Julia Hart's small-scale family (with superpowers) drama stands out. There are hints at a more expansive world and story beyond the film, but the focus is squarely on the three generations of women with the power to change the world around them, and the affect that has on their lives. Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Lorraine Toussaint, and Saniyya Sidney are fantastic, and Hart manages to visually-realize their powers onscreen in a satisfying way, despite the small budget.
9) Dolemite is My Name
Along with the "Eat the Rich" theme of my list, the other common theme is that four of the films (including this one) are on my syllabus for Intro to Film this semester (the others are The Last Black Man in San Francisco, Us, and Fast Color). Dolemite features the return of Eddie Murphy to comedy, following his last great comedy (Bowfinger) in taking a look behind-the-scenes at a scrappy group of outsiders realizing their dream to make movies on their own terms. Where that film leans more broadly into the comedy, Dolemite is a bit closer to Tim Burton's Ed Wood in emphasizing the sincerity and heart of the central figure - in this case Murphy's Rudy Ray Moore (the creative force behind the blaxploitation-era films Dolemite (which made $12 million on a budget of $100,000), The Human Tornado, and The Return of Dolemite.
10) Ready or Not
This was a late-entry on my list (I technically didn't see it until January 1st, 2020) but it's a genuinely fun horror movie that was largely overlooked last year. The set-up is fairly simple - a young bride must survive the night in the family home of her new husband, while the family tries to kill her (not really a spoiler, since it's basically the trailer). The bride is played by Samara Weaving, who is carving out a solid career in mid-budget horror films like The Babysitter and Mayhem, and will be showing up next in Bill & Ted Face the Music as the daughter of Alex Winter's Ted "Theodore" Logan. Ready or Not isn't especially groundbreaking, but it moves at a brisk pace, has a lead that you immediately root for, some fun twists, and would make a pretty solid triple feature with the 1985 Clue and the aforementioned Knives Out.
And, as promised, here's a list of the other 2019 films I've watched:
Alita: Battle Angel
Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase
Under the Silver Lake
Godzilla: King of Monsters
Men in Black: International
The Dead Don’t Die
Spider-Man: Far From Home
Once Upon a Time in...Hollywood
It: Chapter Two
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker