The world is on fire and we’re inching closer to WWIII. What a time to die be alive! Before we subsume to a fiery oblivion, I wanna reflect on the spectacular year in film that was 2019. (At least we’ve got things to talk about in those nuclear bunkers.) There were notable gems early in the year, some unexpected event films, while the biggest twist for me was realizing streaming services can do more than churn out “content.” As we head into a homogenized entertainment market run by comic books and superheroes, and veritable streaming giants vying for our wallets, it’s next to impossible these days to pit our attention on one thing at any given moment. These were the movies of 2019 that held my undivided attention. We’re all gonna die.
Ford V Ferrari
‘Twas as the prophecy foretold: lots of Fords, lots of Ferraris, and, in the theater, lots of dads – myself included. If you’ve seen any sports drama, you’ve seen Ford v Ferrari. But the pleasure of James Mangold’s film is how simple it is yet mines so much surefire entertainment. This package, too, comes strapped with star power. One of the simplest joys at the movies is watching assured and very, very capable actors like Christian Bale and Matt Damon do their thing. 4 Phillips screwdrivers out of 4. (I don’t know shop talk.)
Midsommar is NOT a film for everyone. (How we arrived at this point in time where we pretend that all things are for everybody because it has a “good Rotten Tomatoes score” makes me wanna dive-bomb off a cliff.) Ari Aster’s break-up movie told as a folk horror nightmare is slow and deliberately paced, and shot in wide panoramas that give Dani and Christian’s dissolution a painstaking cinematic rendering where we don’t miss a thing. Their conflicting perceptions, the faults in agreement, and the distance between them like a foreboding abyss. Anyone who’s reckoned with codependency or has ever been retroactively cheated on might find themselves triggered by what unfolds. Midsommar won’t answer why you surrendered your self-worth to someone, but it may provide some fiery catharsis at the end.
10. Long Shot
Charlize Theron and Seth Rogen sounds like an absurd romantic pairing. On one hand you’ve got Furiosa, and in the other you have the guy who gave us Pineapple Express. But their combined comedic chops is what gives Long Shot it’s lifeline. Theron is playing exuberantly against type while Rogen mines something a little more mature than the stock stoner screw-ups that are his bread and butter. Rogen’s got some dynamite lines and scenarios that I won’t spoil, with memorable supporting turns from June Daphne Rachael and O’Shea Jackson Jr. – both of whom are saddled with the “best friend” role but man do they kill it. Theron might be garnering awards buzz with Bombshell, but I 100% believe she deserves a nomination for negotiating a hostage crisis… while trippin’ on molly. Long Shot was the funniest movie I saw all year and it’s a damn shame not many people saw it.
9. Doctor Sleep
After finally checking out The Haunting of Hill House on Netflix, I trusted director Mike Flanagan resolutely with Stephen King’s sequel to The Shining. But I didn’t expect the man to go FULL Stanley Kubrick. Which isn’t to say Doctor Sleep is an imitation, but a bold continuation for Danny Torrance and his life as a telepath post-Overlook Hotel. The film opens the world beyond Danny and introduces a delicious cast of psychic vampire baddies dubbed the True Knot. And, led by the luminous Rebecca Ferguson who takes a moustache-twirly villain and molds someone truly vengeful and menacing, I almost rooted for their tribe and whatever batshit goals they had for immortality. Doctor Sleep trades in ghouls for character, jump scares for mood. That patience pays off in a final showdown at, you guessed it, the pivotal Overlook Hotel where Flanagan goes for broke in unrelenting dread. Doctor Sleep reconciles the differences and liberties between the book and film form of The Shining, and makes for an epic horror feature that, despite the near 40-year gap between films, feels like it hasn’t missed a step.
8. Knives Out
Rian Johnson has solidified himself a master of subverting genre. To some, subversion can feel like an attack especially when moviegoers only want to see their expectations fulfilled. For others, that defiance is refreshing because you truly don’t know what’s gonna happen next. Johnson takes on the Agatha Christie-style whodunnit with Knives Out, a murder mystery populated by characters bleeding with personality. Daniel Craig’s turn as the southern-drawled Benoit Blanc is the most memorable detective figure since Jake Gittes from Chinatown, or, dare I say, The Maltese Falcon’s Sam Spade. Ana de Armas deserves a supporting nod for her soulful performance, while Chris Evans is downright wicked. (Asshole Chris Evans is my favorite.) I wasn’t able to see this one twice to observe the moving parts fall into play, but I won’t hesitate to say that this labyrinth is an audacious masterstroke of storytelling, and – with such fine players assembled – a sublime ensemble piece. Knives Out is deceptively smart, slyly political, and above all, a damn good time at the movies. Bring on 2 Knives 2 Out.
7. Toy Story 4
Partner, I’m still a mess. Toy Story is the only Disney franchise that has grown up with me. This, made all the more monumental because I got to see this one with my daughter. Toy Story 4 is all about discovering or rediscovering your kid. Woody, once the valiant hero of these tales, finds himself sidelined by a freakin’ spork of all things. But I’m not knocking on Forky because he’s an ingenious device that makes us ponder the nature of a toy’s purpose. If Toy Story once made us focus on this singular band of toys, then Toy Story 4 beckons the broader truth, that anything can be a toy to a child. This is a film full of heartrending moments— no surprise given its Pixar, but I cried so much times that Disney ought to bill me for therapy. Gabby Gabby finding her playmate for life, and Woody saying goodbye and choosing to stay with Bo Peep in the end put a hole in my chest then inflated my heart whole again. (Like I said, partner, A MESS.) I could never have imagined Andy’s toys coming this far in life alongside mine like veritable old friends, and I’m grateful that I get to pass this one on to my daughter.
Jordan Peele did NOT have to flex this hard. Us is somehow more ambitious than Get Out; it broadens the canvas, amps up the thrills, and doubles the damnation. The Wilson family face off against their doppelgangers in what initially seems like a home-invasion thriller. But the rest of the country is being hunted by their selves too and that’s only one layer of the onion removed. The opening Hands Across America commercial clues us in, that of a false attempt to unite the country, but keenly divides its citizens wholesale. The Sunken Place will forever occupy the depths of my nightmares, but there’s something dreadfully compelling about the silent doppelgangers a.k.a. the Tethered. They are a blunt demonstration of how soulless we’ve become in our primal pursuit to be “right” over “sane” in this crazy divisive political-sphere we’ve found ourselves in. And, if it weren’t for the Tethered, I would never have known that scissors are the greatest ironic symbol of all. (An instrument with identical sides, but whose sole purpose is to divide.) Peele’s American-invasion thriller is something I’ll be thinking about and dissecting for a long time. If anyone were to ask me how we ended up here, I wouldn’t point to a textbook or a singular historical event. I would simply show them Us.
5. The Farewell
I cannot talk about this movie without weeping. Billi and grandmother Nai Nai have a relationship I wish I had with my own grandma, one that’s hilarious, open, and present. When Nai Nai has cancer and their family neglects to tell her, it’s easy to understand Billi’s frustration— easier to understand her eventual compliance. It’s maddening that we treat our family this way when so many of us are taught to respect our elders. Yet this negligence is commonplace. It’s cultural— the path of least resistance, and that’s the true lie at the heart of Lulu Wang’s searing family drama. We tell ourselves it’s okay to lie to our grandparents. They’re going to die, so we urge for them to live. We believe and make a home in the lie so blindly we forget to prepare for that loss, fretting that this is “too hard” on us even though we’re not the one who’s dying. The Farewell is a case study in how we take the lives of others for granted, about the emotional ticking time-bomb that secrets and cultural barriers create in our understanding, our empathy. This film unearthed the repressed memories of the final months of seeing (or not seeing) my grandma. I failed to help my family take care of her because I carelessly assumed she’ll live to see another ten years. I never said goodbye, and while The Farewell didn’t help me reconcile my faults as a grandson (no movie can), it gave me the space to confront that regret.
4. avengers: Endgame
Endgame is less a movie than it is one giant series finale and that’s what makes it work as an ending coda. I cannot imagine a moviegoer walking in blind and getting the same satisfaction as a devotee. For the rest of us dorks, Endgame is a stacked and staggering conclusion that validated this 10-year MCU experiment. The film finally achieves the massive comic book splash-page spectacle of multiple heroes gloriously crowding the frame to the point that the screen can’t contain it. (Imagine that, a movie that’s bigger than the preceding 20 films combined.) Endgame continues and wraps up character threads, serves as a swan song for certain core Avengers, and passes the baton to a promising next generation of heroes. The emotional payoff is nothing short of resounding. This was the summer movie to end all summer movies, and it ruined me because I was so stuffed as a moviegoer that I needed a break from movies for a while. For better and worse, superheroes will never be the same. But while it was grand and momentous and epic, we were there.
3. The Irishman
As far back as I can remember, Robert De Niro was always “the Irishman.” Goodfellas, Casino; De Niro was both aces and iconic when it came to playing mob figures. Whether Frank Sheeran’s account is true or not is beside the point. Because the story of I Heard You Paint Houses lays bare themes of ambition, loyalty, and betrayal in a towering opus that concludes Martin Scorsese’s gangster trilogy and the genre at large. The Irishman is devoid of the verve and panache that defined Scorsese’s trademark style with these films. What we behold instead is a slower but no less moving portrait of a man who digs his own grave in his ascension to the top. He’s welcomed to an inner circle and gains stature, respect, and power, but no joy or anything signaling a life worth living. He finds a true friend in Al Pacino’s Jimmy Hoffa whom he says he’ll be behind all the way. And he does, regrettably, in an upsetting moment of betrayal, and De Niro’s stoicism plays it true to the powerlessness of old age. He alienates his family, goes on to outlive his peers then gradually chooses his own casket and burial plot. It’s an ignominious end to a life sustained by violence. If all mob movies follow a rise and fall narrative, then The Irishman is the slow lowering to the grave – a sendoff, a poem, or rather, an elegy.
2. Marriage Story
I swear I’m okay. 2019 had no shortage of heartbreaking films, and Marriage Story is peak devastation. Described by writer-director Noah Baumbach as a “love story about divorce,” Marriage Story wastes no time in the trial separation that befalls Charlie and Nicole. There’s no narrative trickery, no non-linear timeline cleverly weaving their past relationship to showcase the love that was. We witness that in real time. How they deal or don’t deal with the conflict tells us all the ways they were never meant to be in all of their shortcomings and faults… and the ways they could have been. Anyone dealing with co-parenting or wrestling with codependency might be triggered by the drama that unfurls. You’re rooting for the both of them, and that’s what makes this film so difficult to watch. Whether they’re toe-to-toe in an all-out domestic spat, or tight-lipped in a courtroom in full display of a judge and jury, Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson are easily the best performers of the year. This is a couple’s dissolution told in bruising detail that – believe it or not – ends on a note of optimism FOR the process of re-forming as a family, not against it. Marriage Story is perhaps the greatest feat of writing and acting I’ve seen all year, and I don’t believe I have it in me to see this film twice.
Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood
No other movie fulfilled me in 2019 quite like Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Tarantino has always been a nostalgic storyteller, either reframing the past by way of the fantasy of movies, or wielding his affinity for a bygone era told in loving fashion. Once Upon a Time is a wild fusion of both. We follow Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth, a TV actor and stunt double pair destined to become has-beens. It’s 1969; Westerns and TV serials are on their way out, paving the way for a new wave of cinema. Rick happens to live next door to Sharon Tate, the young starlet whose real life was violently cut short by the Manson family that same year. (Tate’s friend and author Joan Didion wrote, “Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the ‘60s ended abruptly on August 9, 1969— ended at the exact moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brushfire… ”) Rather than give in to the sequence of history, Tarantino chooses to halt that death.
This is as self-indulgent as Tarantino gets, but his revisit of ‘60s L.A. is a charming and affectionate ode. Brad Pitt driving down the magnetically lit Hollywood Boulevard is like a magic carpet ride into the past. The film is less a required viewing to keep up with trending online chatter than it is just a personal plea for existence amidst the noise. Movies are just content now in the age of Netflix and Disney+, where superheroes and lightsabers are the only things that get us out of the house anymore. I can barely convince my inner circle to see a movie nowadays, or to just watch something together. I never thought I’d miss that. Sadly, that feels gone too.
It’s nourishing to see Sharon Tate as she takes pleasure in seeing a matinee with an audience; to see Rick and Cliff kicking back to their own TV show, to watch these people beholding the screen in front of them and existing in a shared space. These scenes bring their own sense of nostalgia, stirring the childhood memories of our living rooms. Maybe there is no going back; life is transitory, much like Hollywood and its trends. But movies provide us with that ability to time travel, and there is joy in imagining what might have lasted. Film is eternal.
There’s something reassuring about Once Upon a Time’s ending, where the Manson family don’t make it to the Tate residence and their own sadistic agenda is wielded against them like a miraculous turn of the tide. (Sadie, the member of the Manson tribe who admitted to murdering Sharon Tate, and wrote “PIG” on the front door in Tate’s own blood, bears the brunt of Tarantino’s over-the-top violence.) It’s less an act of vengeance from the grave but rather a cleansing act, exorcising Charles Manson and his goons from their brutal stain on cultural history. The film’s ending provides Sharon Tate with a life and legacy that transcends her murder, the same way Rick and Cliff transcend the fading of an era. In the end, the Sharon Tates, Rick Daltons, and Cliff Booths of the world will always have a place in movies. And, as Tarantino seems to suggest, or rather plead: we still do, too.