Unlike Mainstream Chick, I don’t think 2019 was a good year for movies. I didn’t come out of many saying, “That was amazing! I have to tell people about it!” There were a couple I really liked, but it seemed more like a year of great performances in just okay movies. Many of the films that have made it onto the lists of the big critics did not move me. The Irishman actually bored me. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was a fun watch thanks to the two leads, but I can’t say it stuck with me. These would be my Top 10 (in no particular order), mainly because they’re memorable:
1. The Two Popes – I’m pretty disappointed that this one has not gotten more awards season love. It’s a heartwarming true story with great performances. Sure it’s set inside the Catholic Church, but it’s anything but a “religious” movie. It tells the story of the unexpected friendship that developed between the two most recent Popes, Benedict and Francis, after beginning as rivals, and stars two actors at the top of their game — Anthony Hopkins as Benedict and Jonathan Pryce as Francis. And it’s by turns warm and funny and heartfelt.
2. 1917 – I wouldn’t call this a war movie as much as a quest film. It certainly echoes other films set in the battlefield where young men have to rescue comrades, but the way it’s shot (beyond the amazing one take wizardry) with so much of the landscape feeling like a wasteland had me thinking of more Lord of the Rings than Saving Private Ryan.
3. Little Women – This film cements Greta Gerwig’s directorial cred! Yes, the book has been filmed many times, but somehow she brings another fresh life to the story of the March sisters. This version of the classic seems less literary than others I remember, and I mean that in a good way. It’s an adaptation that honors but opens the original work. And the performances by Saoirse Ronan and Florence Pugh are perfect!
4. Joker – I know this one was not everyone’s cup of tea, and I can’t say I liked this movie. I won’t soon forget it though, and I sure did appreciate its smart script and Joaquin Phoenix’s amazing performance. It was also gorgeously shot and thought provoking. There was a lot of discussion when it came out about whether the movie would/could inspire violence. Whether Arthur Fleck, the character who would become the Joker, would resonate with other angry broken young men in real life. I think that was a strength of the film that the character was so fully realized as to scare people. I can’t think of another film that caused the same fear.
5. Parasite – What starts off as a light and funny bit of fraud takes a decidedly dark turn in this Korean film from Bong Joon-ho (Snowpiercer, Mother). A poor family of scammers insinuate themselves one by one into the household of a rich family, beginning with the son becoming a tutor for the daughter and soon the whole family is employed there. But there’s more to the house than meets the eye. And the classist attitude of the rich family becomes more and more obvious and more and more difficult to take. And eventually it all falls apart. Smart script. Great performances.
6. For Sama – A thoroughly engrossing and heart-wrenching documentary made by the mother of a baby born in Aleppo, Syria during the rebel uprising and daily bombings. Sama’s mother Waad al-Kateab frames the film as a letter to her daughter about the time and place in which she was born. An avid citizen journalist, al-Kateab was already documenting her world in 2011 when all hell broke loose and she was right there in the middle of it. And it is harrowing, unlike any war correspondent’s version of life during wartime. During the five years of filming, she lived through nearly daily bombings and massacres, as well as marriage and the birth of her first child. It’s her own personal story, but also the story of the destruction of Aleppo at the hands of the Syrian regime with the aid of the Russians and the determination of the inhabitants to keep going. It’s a must see film.
7. The Farewell – In this bittersweet dramedy “based on an actual lie” from the writer/director’s own family, Billi (Awkwafina, Crazy Rich Asians) a struggling New York writer discovers that her Grandma (Zhou Shuzhen) back in China has cancer. It’s a huge blow since they’re really close, but Grandma doesn’t know and the family wants it to stay that way. And just so they can all see her before she dies, they concoct a wedding where everyone can get together with her back in Changchun. The Farewell boasts a fabulous ensemble cast in a story that while set squarely within its Chinese culture and location feels universal in its truths about family relationships and the lengths we’ll go to for someone we love.
8. John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum – Okay, this was not really one of the best movies of 2019. I liked the other JWs better, but it was more entertaining that so many of the big films of the year and watching Keanu is always tons o’ fun!
9. Queen & Slim – This one has stuck with me. It’s the story of a traffic stop gone horribly wrong, of a black couple putting themselves in jeopardy for defending themselves, and a road trip towards an imagined freedom. Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith (in her first lead role in a feature film) do a great job of slowly developing their on-screen chemistry and letting their characters reveal themselves. It’s extremely well directed and shot, and the story gives voice to a current gaping hole in American justice.
10. A Hidden Life – I wasn’t sure about this one. Terrence Malick is an acquired taste. I’ve loved his films since the beginning of his career. Some more than others. But this one actually grew on me. It’s based on the true story of Franz Jägerstätter, a conscientious objector in Austria during WW II. The films starts out with his gorgeous, perfect pastoral farmer life high in the mountains with his beautiful wife. But the Nazis come and everyone is supposed to pledge allegiance to the Reich and he just can’t do it, even with all his neighbors’ urging. And eventually he’s jailed for it. The film is based on letters written between him and his wife while he was in jail. It’s a beautifully shot meditation on what it means to resist and what that does not only to the resister, but to those around him. Just talking about it makes me want to watch it again.
There are plenty of films I missed this year that might have made the list, particularly in the foreign film category. Check back for my reviews of those as they become available to me here in small town America. Happy 2020! Let’s hope it’s a great year for film again.