As someone who is pretty picky about movies and prefers to watch a lot of old, foreign, and generally weird shit by most people’s standards, I thought I was gonna have a tough time picking out five gems to write about from the increasingly PC and conformist year of 2019. It turns out I have a terrible memory and actually saw a ton of new movies in theaters last year, in fact too many good ones to only talk about 5 without at least going off on a few tangents. In this article, you may find some fairly hot takes, but if nothing else you will see just how many truly great movies still come out each year that can appeal to both the mainstream and the biggest old-timer douchebag critic you could imagine, which speaks to how cinema and its audiences might actually be changing for the better.
Martin Scorsese is the goat, so it was pretty hard not to include him on this year’s top five when he has released an iconic masterpiece literally every decade for the past 50 years: Taxi Driver in ‘76, Raging Bull in ’80, Goodfellas in ’90, The Departed in ’06, and finally, The Irishman in ’19. Perhaps Irishman did not make the cut because Scorsese has so many other timeless movies to compare it against, or maybe I just don’t have the attention span to sit through and fully appreciate three and a half hours of film. But nonetheless the movie deserves a ton of respect for its storytelling achievements and has sparked some interesting precedents in the film industry. It is the first film to utilize a revolutionary “de-aging” technology that allowed De Niro, Pesci, and Pacino to play their characters over a range of almost 40 years (although there’s this one scene where young De Niro beats the shit out of someone and it’s pretty obvious he’s a 70-year-old man, deadass thought he was gonna have a stroke mid-film). It also was released on Netflix at the same time it was in theaters, and while that takes away from people seeing it on the big screen, it does allow a wider audience to see it period. With the impact streaming media has and will continue to have on the world, it’s good to see Netflix support quality movies in 2019 like Irishman, Marriage Story, and The Two Popes instead of just the usual trash that they green-light on a daily basis.
I also really wanted to include The Lighthouse on my list because it was so unique and crazy and intense, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t walk out of the theater having no idea what the fuck happened in that movie. I’d still highly recommend the watch, even if it’s just to see Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattison kill it as drunken pirates for 90 minutes, or maybe to get hip to the up-and-coming director/director of photography combo of Robert Eggers and Jarin Blaschke. Blaschke got an Oscar nom for best cinematography on this black-and-white freak show, and his collaboration with Eggers on his first feature film The Witch is fire as well (s/o A24).
Okay now onto the thing this article is actually supposed to be about…
Some people thought Hereditary was the best horror movie of all time… that’s debatable… but everyone who saw it had to at least admit that they were a little fucking disturbed. What if I told you that Ari Astor’s second directorial debut is even better than his first, and even more disturbing? Midsommar is not exactly great because of its take on the modern horror genre, but instead has the most holy shit moments of anything I’ve seen in a long time and is bound to keep you up at night. Especially since it doesn’t incorporate any supernatural elements and takes place in a realistic setting--actually based on a real cult--this movie is sure to have you cancel your next Nordic region vacation. Astor’s niche is that he executes terrifying moments without relying on any cliché horror movie techniques like untimely pop outs or sudden eerie soundscapes, and instead employs long drawn out scenes that send chills up your spine and have you squirming in your seat. Although it flew a lot more under than radar than its predecessor, it really shows that we can expect more great things to come from this filmmaker.
This Oscar-sweeping fan-favorite is probably at the top of most people’s lists for 2019, and definitely deserves it. Parasite is really just its own original thing. You can’t exactly place any movies that it’s blatantly copying or drawing from, partly because it’s a combination of so many different genres, but also because it is an example of how much film-making has progressed today. In an age where there is so much recycled and formulaic content, Bong Joon-Ho was able to create an everlasting impact on how foreign films will be perceived in the future of America. It’s great to see a intricately cinematic foreign film captivate a mainstream audience—not because there’s anything wrong with foreign films of course, but it takes a lot to get some people to look past the subtitles and cultural differences. Parasite will make any audience member laugh and scream and cry all while imparting a pretty intense social commentary that isn’t too high-brow to understand. While there might be some uproars that this landed at #4 , Bong clearly doesn’t need my support. I mean just look at the guy accepting his Oscar, absolute legend.
3. Pain and Glory (Dolor y gloria)
Here is the real foreign film that caught my attention. I can’t say it has the mainstream appeal of Parasite, but if you can appreciate outright good, heartfelt stories with good, heartfelt acting then please check out Pain and Glory. Antonio Banderas received an Oscar nomination and won Best Actor at Cannes for his subtly flawless performance. Renowned Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar’s “auto-fiction” work, takes you into the life of a renowned Spanish director struggling with the changes of getting old and washed up and reflecting on his past. You don’t always need to have crazy or violent scenes in a movie for it to be great, and sometimes it can be even more impressive when films like Pain and Glory make an impact simply with mundane, relatable life events. I mean the main character does start doing heroine, so I guess that’s a pretty heinous scene, but does not detract from the overtly humane feeling this movie leaves you with.
2. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Back to the basics, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was a film you knew you were gonna like going in. Unlike my analysis of Irishman having to compete with Scorsese’s other great movies, I thought Once Upon a Time immediately stamped itself as one of Tarantino’s best. Before he directed his cult-hit Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino worked at a local video store where he was known for being a movie encyclopedia machine, fueled by the fact that he has watched probably every movie ever. He therefore has a trend of exaggerating classic techniques from the classic movie genres that he idolized growing up—gangster movies, Kung-Fu flicks, old westerns, war movies—and adding on his own staple twist that you can recognize instantly on screen, in the dialogue and in the soundtrack. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood takes these genre themes one step further by being a movie about making movies… but of course there’s something else going on behind the scenes that makes this film a history-altering period piece, similar to Inglorious Basterds, and culminates in the ultimate ending. I’d rate it the most re-watchable movie of 2019 by far, not just because it’s hilarious, bad-ass, and has an all-star cast as we've come to expect from Tarantino, but because you can go back and see all the hints at the ending that you didn’t catch the first time around.
1. Uncut Gems
Wait, you’re telling me Billy Madison, Happy Gilmore, Mr. Deeds, the fucking Zohan is the star of the best of movie of 2019? Well maybe not the indisputable best movie… Uncut Gems was probably the most polarizing movie that came out last year and received no recognition whatsoever at award ceremonies. Those who disliked it said it was “too stressful”, however that's a huge compliment for a movie like this that requires the audience to be fully immersed in a character that is fucking delusional. The film moves at an extremely fast pace with little-to-no breathing room and forces you to go into the hectic life of gambling addict Howie Ratner, who’s passions for borrowing money, scheming diamonds, and making ludicrous 12-team parlays never leave his mind. Part of the high-pacing can be attributed to the Safdie brothers’ obsession with heavily layered soundscapes, in which they might have 10 different conversations going on in a single scene. They tried this technique in their last movie, Good Time, which I personally didn’t think worked as well but in any case, was nearly perfected this time around. They also improved on their ability to keep the camera close-up on a frantically moving character, which can be attributed to a new high-tech camera-focusing device called the Light Ranger 2. Uncut Gems will also appeal to any sports fan as it tailors its story around actual NBA games and features a surprisingly well-done performance by Kevin Garnett. With this gem, the Safdie brothers have proven themselves to be yet another young director duo on the rise.
2019 saw a combination of many already famous directors modifying or expanding their styles for modern audiences, and new filmmakers bringing innovative skills and ideas to the table. This is a promising sign for how cinema isn’t dying, but rather evolving like any art form does over time. Yes, there is plenty of garbage that comes out and somehow sweeps the box office (please see Ad Astra), but overall I would still say that quality films are becoming more and more integrated into popular culture as well as a larger percentage of younger generations watching them. While movies are meant to be watched in a movie theater with an audience, as the theater industry inevitably fades out it is more important that movies are simply exposed to a higher number of people, even if it’s in the comfort of their own homes. However, going to the theater is truly a different experience and you should definitely take advantage of it while it still exists to fully appreciate fantastic movies like the ones in this article. If you don’t wanna go to theaters, at least hook up your laptop to a big TV… it’s not that hard to buy a fucking HDMI cord.
If you enjoy watching the top 5 here's a list of some other movies that caught my attention in 2019 that are highly recommended and have definitely been overlooked:
Corpus Christi and Beanpole were some pretty solid foreign films out of Poland and Russia, respectively, that might have been overshadowed by all the Parasite hype. Corpus Christi is about a priest so it’s a little heavy and slow but the last five minutes is the craziest fucking scene ever that has imprinted this movie in my brain, so I thought I’d give it a shout-out. Beanpole is just super fucked up the whole way through so if you’re feeling adventurous check it out, Director Kantemir Balagov won Un Certain Regard’s Best Director prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.
Knives Out was low key very geeks, star-studded cast and Daniel Craig has this fucking ridiculous southern accent he keeps up all movie for God knows what reason.
Movies I didn’t see that might nullify this list but will definitely watch during COVIDhours:
Portrait of a Lady on Fire – Highly-acclaimed French film based on a highly-acclaimed book.
Bacurau – I randomly saw a preview for this movie in this small independent theater… at first it seemed like it was just a melodrama about this poor village in Brazil, but then all of the sudden aliens come into play, because why the fuck not? Bound to make you sweat for sure.
Jay and Silent Bob: Reboot – The only chance I have of actually watching this one is if I’m baked out of my mind, but I’m keeping it on the back burner just because of the respect I have for Clerks, Kevin Smith’s first feature film turned cult classic that introduced the legendary characters Jay and Silent Bob.