Another year long on franchise sequels, remakes and political posturing, 2019 made it difficult to find original, thoughtful and compelling movies. In the battle of Disney franchises Marvel came out ahead with the terrific Avengers: Endgame, over 3 (!) live action Disney remakes and one awful Star Wars. A bad origin story and an unoriginal character piece, Joker became the Bohemian Rhapsody of the year and Netflix again served up the Oscar bait. Class warfare satire captured the zeitgeist so it’s no surprise that the top two favorite films of the year revolve around the rich and the poor duking it out, starting with…
Parasite – South Korean genre-filmmaker Bong Joon-Ho topped my list in 2014 with the endlessly imaginative class warfare satire Snowpiercer and it does it again this year with a smaller, but more complex family dramedy. An almost indescribable genre mix that plays simultaneously like a thriller, a crime film, a heist film, a comedy of errors and a family drama centering around a tight-nit clan akin that feel like spiritual successors to the family in The Host, Parasite springs one unpredictable twist and turn after another. Critics are winding this one up for it’s commentary, but that’s not why it’s so great – it’s the most purely entertaining movie of the year.
Knives Out – It’s one thing to adapt an Agatha Christie mystery, it’s another to take in the author’s style and write you’re own version, which is exactly what Rian Johnson does in this ambitious, stylish and toweringly clever murder mystery centering around an intuitive detective, a wealthy family and the caretaker who knows too much. Johnson will never direct a Star Wars movie again, but he’s proven to be the superior filmmaker.
Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood – Quentin Tarantino continues his revisionist history interest with this shaggy, slow submerging into 1970s Hollywood. From the posters on the wall to the radio commercials, Tarantino takes us into the dying days of the Western serial and the studio system following two fictional characters, Rick Dalton (a hilarious Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt, stealing the film saying almost nothing) and one real – Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie, handled gingerly and with reverence by the script) as they cross paths with the Manson Family.
1917 – From Rope to Russian Ark movies filmed in/the illusion of 1-shot are fun to watch, but rarely used to such impact as the way Sam Mendes immerses us in the trenches and mudholes of WWI here. 1917 has very little traditional combat, the enemy here is time and the elements. It’s is an achievement, unique and absorbing in it’s streamlined singular vision.
Us – Jordan Peele’s follow-up to Get Out both navigates the comedy/horror blend smoother and boldly ditches the real world entirely, taking a reluctant audience into more of a hyperbolic nightmare than a tangible satire. It is stylistically unmatched, a delicious sensory mix of imagery and sound headlined by an incredible duel performance from Lupita Nyang’o.
Marriage Story – The Kramer vs. Kramer nasty divorce procedural gets put through the quirky New York Noah Baumbach filter (again!). The Squid and the Whale director takes a more realistic approach, delivers juicy monologues for a talented cast who all make a meal of it (Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson, Laura Dern and Alan Alda kill). Awkwardness, theater crowd narcissism and unlikable characters populate this fascinating deconstruction of a relationship in it’s death throws.
Braid – And the award for the most dizzyingly insane movie of the year goes to Mitzi Peirone’s low budget, very-high concept debut feature. Two thieves are forced to play a game of House with a mentally unstable heiress (Madeline Brewer) who thinks it’s all real in order to get into the family safe, but before it’s all everyone goes mad, escape seems impossible and the whole thing becomes a heightened psychedelic video game trip.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco – Director Joe Talbot’s debut feature looks at the city of San Francisco through the lens of a fairy tale. It’s a beautiful, lyrical, poetic vision. His camera following his lead on a skateboard through the streets and sweeping through the central house like a Terrance Malick movie. A unique, purely cineamtic freeform tale of friendship and heritage, plus a refreshing movie that doesn’t define black men by their relationship with the police.
John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum – The action movie art of the John Wick series just gets better and better with this shiny, thrilling, inventive, power-packed sequel that keeps squeezing the world’s master assassin in new ways, expanding the world of The High Table, writing itself into impossible corners and turning everyday objects into instruments of death. Chad Stahelski once again conducts a light and sound symphony of clear-eyed fight sequences that never grow repetitive and fills the world with colorful characters – 3 introducing a terrific Asia Kate Dillon as the cold, calculating Adjudicator.
Missing Link – Known for films heavier and more gothic (Paranorman, Coraline, Kubo and the Two Strings) the criminally underrated animation studio Laika makes their brightest, most fun and most accessible film yet. It’s a rollicking, old English adventure tale of a monster hunter who meets Bigfoot and does on a globe-trotting quest to find the Abominable Snowman. Richly animated, this was the best animated movie of the year.
Happy Death Day 2U – Christopher Landon’s slasher movie Groundhog Day, Happy Death Day was a whole lot of OK. The sequel on the other hand is a blast and a half. Doubling and tripling down on the bonkers story, 2U becomes a sci-fi, slasher, mystery, horror, comedy hybrid that manages to satisfy on each count. Again, Jessica Rothe sells the entire sugar-rush endeavor with a rubber-face performance that perfectly fits the film’s cartoon style. The thing that really puts this film over the top is the film’s concentration on Tree’s relationships (particularly with her parents) and the way Landon drops to explain events from the first film. Like it was planned all along.
Avengers: Endgame (Dir. Joe and Anthony Russo), Better Days (Dir. Derek Tsang), Hail Satan? (Dir. Penny Lane), Alita: Battle Angel (Dir. Robert Rodriguez), Fyre (Dir. Chris Smith), I Lost My Body (Dir. Jeremy Clapin)
Best 2018 Catch-Up Film:
Better Watch Out – (Dir. Chris Peckover) The home invasion movie gets a nasty twist in this gleefully R-rated Christmas horror spin on John Hughes and the babysitter crush story. You’ve been warned, BWO trades less on horror movie jumps and more on plucking raw nerves for genuinely disturbing effects.
Leaving Neverland, Hellboy (2019), Star Wars: Episode 9 – The Rise of Skywalker, 6 Underground, It: Chapter 2, The Dead Don’t Die, Brightburn, Isn’t it Romantic, Haunt, IO.