Saturday, December 28, 2019

Douglas Laman's Twenty-Five Best Movies of 2019

A live image of people getting ready to devour Douglas Laman's Twenty-Five Best Movies of 2019 list
Ah, another year has come to an end. How is it already New Year's Eve once again? With 2019 about to head into the past, it's good to look back on what's happened to us all in the past 365 days. For me, it's been a year of momentous firsts as I attended my first film festival, did my first ever red carpet coverage, finished writing my first ever feature film screenplay and got my first ever paid writing gigs. In between all of that (plus college!), I managed to see a whole slew of new movies, 176 of them to be precise. Normally, I'd have to wait until late January or early February to publish this list thanks to so many new movies not coming to theaters near me until the new year. But thanks to the aforementioned film festivals I've been able to attend plus new advanced press screenings, I actually can do this Best Movies of the Year list before New Year's Eve for the first time ever! How about that, it's like I'm a real film critic or something!

Not changing from year's past is that this list will be done in alphabetical order sans one title that I've picked as the absolute best of the year. It was immensely tough to whittle down just 25 movies to represent the best of 2019 cinema, but it is done, I've achieved just that. Let's begin this Twenty-Five Best Movies of 2019 list with...

A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood (dir. Marielle Heller)
Marielle Heller, you've done it again! Following up on her prior excellent directorial efforts The Diary of a Teenage Girl and Can You Ever Forgive Me? Heller now turns her attention to a movie about Mister Rogers. More specifically, it's a movie about a cynical journalist (Matthew Rhys) and the time he spent interviewing Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks). Screenwriters Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster craft a truly impressive story that foregoes traditional biopic movie structures and features in favor of something more complex, something more unique and something far more emotionally stirring. The ideals of Mister Rogers, as well as the visual traits of his children's TV show, are seen throughout A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood, while Tom Hanks impressively captures this guy's essence without boiling him down to a caricature. Not every movie would have such a deftly handled performance but A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood is a Marielle Heller movie. No wonder then it's able to pull off such a remarkable portrayal of Mister Rogers as well as its numerous other accomplishments.
Apollo 11 (dir. Todd Douglas Miller)
Dating all the way back to the days of George Melies, the moon has been something cinema has been fascinated by. Cinema and the moon took their long-standing relationship to new heights in 2019 with the documentary Apollo 11, which compiles together stunningly restored 70mm footage of the actual Apollo 11 launch. How up close and personal does this movie take you to this historical event? Cameras are placed right next to the rocketship engines as they lift off! It's a truly extraordinary experience to watch this historic event through the beautiful footage comprising the entirety of Apollo 11. No matter how familiar you are with this monumental achievement, you've never seen it quite like this!
The Art of Self-Defense (dir. Riley Stearns)
An underseen dark comedy gem, The Art of Self-Defense is a smartly written motion picture in a number of way. However, Riley Stearns' script is especially brilliant in how it uses a martial arts class as a domain to explore how toxic masculinity manifests and spreads in the world. The directing from Riley Stearns is similarly commendable, he's got a great sense for just how long to hold the camera to get the most out of a visual-oriented gag. Also shining in this project is Jesse Eisenberg, a master at socially awkward comedy who also gets to exude genuine menace in a number of pivotal parts of The Art of Self-Defense. Though its got a large swatch of great pieces of comedy, this aspect of Eisenberg's performance clearly shows that The Art of Self-Defense is keenly aware of how toxic masculinity is no joke.
Atlantics (dir. Mati Diop)
Just like the Moon, ghosts have been a prominent fixture of cinematic storytelling since the very dawn of this artform. We've had everything from Casper to David Lowery's A Ghost Story deliver unique cinematic visions of ghostly apparitions yet none of them have quite tackled these supernatural entities like Mati Diop's Atlantics. This movie manages to use ghosts as both a way to explore the subversion of societal power structures (ghosts help the powerless to have authority over corrupt powerful individuals) and as the center of a touching love story. The latter part of the production is further enhanced by the visuals found in Claire Mathon's stunningly evocative cinematography and a riveting lead performance by Mame Bineta Sane. No matter how many ghost stories you've heard, the unique qualities and empathetic humanity brought forth by Diop, Mathon and Sane ensure you've never heard one quite like Atlantics.
Avengers: Endgame (dir. Anthony & Joe Russo)
The discourse around Avengers: Endgame has become bigger than the movie itself and transformed into larger discussions about how Disney is dominating the American film industry. Such talks are critical ones to have given how much difficulty smaller-scale cinema faces in getting any sort of theatrical space in the face of pervasive Disney tentpoles occupying 4,500+ locations a piece. That having been said, is it OK for me to simultaneously recognize the importance of such discussions while also saying I had a wonderful time at Avengers: Endgame? True, I'm an easy lay for Marvel Cinematic Universe stuff, but this one especially impressed me in how it actually did manage to live up to the hype and incorporated a sense of palpable finality into a saga that's prided itself on storylines that stretch eternally onward. Plus, the way it focused so much of its first-half on intimate character exchanges before ramping up the spectacle to such delightfully enjoyable extremes in the climax showed a nice level of storytelling balance between the small and large-scale. Even for this Marvel shill, Avengers: Endgame stood out as something special in the studio's canon, an expansive finale that never forgot to make room for the little moments.
Booksmart (dir. Olivia Wilde)
It's always wonderful to see a comedy that can balance the raunch with the heartfelt and Olivia Wilde's directorial debut Booksmart is a prime example of how to best achieve that balance. The screenplay (credited to four different writers including Katie Silberman) delivers an array of memorable amusing sequences, like the two lead characters listening to porn in an Uber driven by their High School principal but it's also got its fair share of effectively poignant sequences too. That one scene where Kaitlyn Dever's protagonist is swimming in the pool is especially well-crafted in every way, from the song playing in the background to the camerawork to Dever's performer, for maximum emotional impact. It's hard to top a movie like Booksmart that manages to so deftly blend together the vulgar and the touching.
The Burial of Kojo (dir. Blitz Bazawule)
The dreamlike imagery of The Burial of Kojo is what really sticks out in my mind when reminiscing about this movie. That evocative image of a car on fire representing the titular characters regrets over the past or the similarly stirring shots (one of which is seen above) used to represent the importance of the protagonist and narrator show a sense of striking imagination. Such sections of the story also demonstrate a willingness to embrace stylized visuals that convey an appropriately lucid quality in the character's dreams. On top of all that, director Blitz Bazawule's unique rendering of these visually distinct dream sequences lends essential insight into the internal desires of the characters at the center of The Burial of Kojo. Though it sounds paradoxical, the more heightened dreamlike moments of this motion picture really cement the humanity of its characters.
Clemency (dir. Chinonye Chukwu)
One of my favorite cinematic experiences of 2019 was the atmosphere in the room once my jam-packed screening of Clemency ended. Everybody, myself included, was just stuck in their seats, nobody was rushing to leave the auditorium. The movie we all watched, about a prison warden (Alfre Woodard) who grapples with how she's overseen so many prison executions, was just so effectively harrowing, putting us all in the headspaces of both Woodard's lead character and a prisoner slated for execution (Aldis Hodge), that it was going to take a moment to process everything we'd just seen. Clemency is the kind of disturbing movie that sticks with you long after it ends thanks not only to its incredible performances but also the thoughtfully-executed direction of Chinonye Chukwu. Her work behind the camera viscerally communicates how two human beings are trapped and the toll it's taking on their souls.
Crawl (dir. Alexandre Aja)
Snap snap snap! Crocodiles are coming to get you! That's the basic premise of Crawl, a delightful title that stands out as one of the best horror films in another great year for this genre (Ready or Not and Midsommar barely missed getting in on this list). What an elegantly simple affair this is, a woman comes back to help her Dad in a hurricane, they end up getting trapped in their basement as crocodiles start to swarm the flooded house. No extraneous human baddies, no needless convoluted plot elements, just two people trying to navigate their home while not getting eaten by a bunch of crocodiles. Director Alexandre Aja imbues the proceedings with a playful level of menace that keeps you on the edge of your seat and there's more than enough crocodile carnage to satiate even the most demanding crocodile cinema connoisseur. Toss in one of the year's best end credit needle drops and you get yourself a wonderful time at the movies like Crawl.
The Farewell (dir. Lulu Wang)
What a year it's been for Awkwafina! Having already proven her comedic chops in a number of comedies like Crazy Rich Asians and Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising, Awkwafina gets to demonstrate her impressive dramatic acting capabilities with her remarkable performance in The Farewell. Such incredible work is put to use on a woman who learns her Grandmother is dying yet her family, adhering to Chinese tradition, isn't telling their Grandmother about her impending demise. Awkwafina beautifully depicts this woman navigating how she's torn between tradition and her own desire to have concrete closure with her Grandmother. Her exceptional lead performance is accompanied by a bevy of memorable supporting turns as the assorted members of the protagonist's family as well as Lulu Wang's direction that visually reflects the conflicted psyche of The Farewell's lead character. Family gatherings can sometimes be a chore but the one at the crux of The Farewell makes for a movie that is anything but!
Fast Color (dir. Julia Hart)
I love me a good superhero movie and not only is Fast Color one of those, but it's also one of the most unique cinematic takes on superheroes I've seen in a while. The story of a woman whose superpowers manifest more as seizures rather than Captain Marvel's cosmic laser blasts, Fast Color takes its time to explore the complex fractured familial dynamics the protagonist has found herself ensnared in. It's more character-centric nature isn't the only way Fast Color differentiates itself from traditional superhero movies. The thoughtful depiction of superpowers being used exclusively as a non-violent defense mechanism is a welcome departure from typical superhero fare fixated solely on damaging as many buildings as possible. Fast Color's ambitions, by contrast, are more intimate and make for a one-of-a-kind superhero tale.
For Sama (dir. Waad Al-Kateab & Edward Watts)
I said it before, but it bears repeating; it's a miracle For Sama exists. A movie shot by Waad Al-Kateab whose footage isn't entirely captured as part of a professional documentary. On the contrary, some of the earliest footage we see, like Waad Al-Kateab stumbling onto protestors degrading a mural, is captured almost as an incident. The footage is an off-the-cuff observation of what's going on on Al-Kateab's college campus, not the impetus for an expansive documentary following human beings trying to survive in times of war. But that's just what For Sama turns into as we get a first-hand-view of Waad Al-Kateab, her husband and their titular child finding ways to endure during endless hardship. For Sama places audiences right into the middle of the conflict as well as immersing viewers into a world where the act of having a child is an act of protest against forces looking to eliminate people from the face of Earth.
Honey Boy (dir. Alma Har'el)
Here's another movie where I'm impressed it even exists at all. In this case, it's because Honey Boy is a movie where Shia LaBeouf grapples with his own traumatic childhood and how it impacted his own adulthood. He confronts these parts of his life not just by writing the fascinating script for Honey Boy but also by delivering a remarkable turn as the figure representing his Father. Lord knows how he was able to do all that but thank goodness he did considering the high-quality of the resulting movie. Honey Boy is an emotionally raw project, LaBeouf leaves everything out on the floor in terms of both his writing and performance. Meanwhile, director Alma Har'el makes a sensational transition to feature film directing, her visual sensibilities when it comes to realizing physical manifestations of the lead characters' psychological issues especially impress. The cherry on top of this outstanding motion picture is that it introduced me to a beautiful Bob Dylan song, one that fits ever so perfectly into the core themes of Honey Boy.
The Irishman (dir. Martin Scorsese)
With The Irishman, Martin Scorsese returned to the gangster movie genre, reunites with Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci, incorporates wall-to-wall digital visual effects to alter the ages of the principal actors. That's a whole lot for one movie to juggle but The Irishman pulls all of that off and then some. There's a compelling level of somberness to the entirety of this project, on-screen text reinforcing when and how various gangster gruesomely died only reinforcing how the world of crime is one that can only lead to ruin. There isn't even glamorous ends waiting for many of these characters, sometimes they're taken out merely by the mundane hazards of being elderly. Steve Zaillian's script is captivating in its grimness and the trio of lead performances similarly impress, especially Pesci delivering a turn like he's never done before in a Scorsese movie. Those expecting a rehash of prior Scorsese gangster efforts with The Irishman will be proven dearly wrong. The Irishman is, instead, one of the most chilling, unique and well-made entries in Scorsese's filmography.
Knives Out (dir. Rian Johnson)
Rian Johnson loves to take established genres and give them his own tweaks filled with both subversiveness and affection. This core principle of his filmography is alive and well in Knives Out, one of his strongest outings yet as a filmmaker. Johnson's marvelous screenplay deftly keeps dodging expectations while offering plenty of chances for its stacked cast to shine. Ana de Armas reveals herself to be a movie star in the making, Daniel Craig's Southern-accented detective is an absolute riot and the likes of Chris Evans & Don Johnson deliver exceptional supporting turns. Crowdpleaser entertainment is rarely as well-crafted and enjoyable as Knives Out, it's a movie as delectable as a donut hole!
The Last Black Man in San Francisco (dir. Joe Talbot)
"You can't hate a place until you love it." That's a quote from The Last Black Man in San Francisco that's stuck with me all year. What a fantastic beautiful encapsulation of the attitude so many people of color, including the lead character (played by Jimmie Fails) of this Joe Talbot directorial effort, have towards living anywhere in America. In this case, the attitude is put towards a young man who begins to live in his childhood home with his playwright best friend (Johnathan Majors). Their time spent here will have Fais' protagonist confront what he defines himself by, the true meaning of home and so much more. It's a poignant and insightful exercise made all the more fantastic by a stellar cast (Johnathan Majors is a revelation), creative camerawork and gorgeous cinematography. The Last Black Man in San Francisco renders the titular city with all the beauty of a painting, in the process capturing how the movies lead character views his own home.
The Lighthouse (dir. Robert Eggers)
Oh my God, what a joyfully ludicrous ride this was. The Lighthouse is an acting two-hander (shared by Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe) built upon sheer audacity and weirdness filtered through meticulously detailed cinematography. Striking imagery abounds as do moments of delightfully off-kilter dark comedy. Dafoe has all the thundering power of a stormy night at sea while also acing his characters humorous moments of comedic vulnerability ("I've seen you eat my food, you like my cooking!") Playing opposite Dafoe is an unrecognizable Pattinson as a Timmerman meddling in affairs far beyond his understanding. His determination to find out what lies at the top of the titular Lighthouse can only have dire consequences for everyone except for the audience. They get to view some of the most madness-infused and deliciously entertaining filmmaking of the year.
Little Woods (dir. Nia DaCosta)
Nia DaCosta made quite the splash in her directorial debut Little Woods, which took visual elements associated with classic genres film noirs & Westerns and then proceeded to make something brand new with them. In this case, that "something brand new" was the tale of a former drug dealer (Tessa Thompson) getting back into selling oxy cotton to help make sure her sister (Lily James) can keep a roof over her head. Among the many things I adore in DaCosta's script is how it allows its two lead characters to be messily complex human beings, these aren't tidy caricatures of struggling human beings, they're fully dimensionalized people capable of both good and bad. Such richly written characters are great fodder for both Thompson and James, who each add another memorable performance to their already impressive filmography. Given how well she did with Little Woods, is it any wonder Nia DaCosta's Candyman movie is one of my most anticipated films for 2020?
Love, Antosha (dir. Garrett Price)
Anton Yelchin's sudden passing in 2016 hit me incredibly hard on a personal level, a sentiment that's true for so many around the world. My own personal affinity for Yelchin and sorrow over him being taken from this Earth at such a young age means a new documentary chronicling the actor's life was always going to be potentially up my alley. But Love, Antosha managed to surpass my own high expectations thanks to just how in-depth of a portrait it painted of its primary subject. Every nook and cranny in Yelchin's life gets explored here through archival footage and an assortment of equally revealing interviews. The latter element is an especially poignant part of the production, with interviews with Yelchin's parents and Jennifer Lawrence being particularly moving. Through these interviews, one fully understands what an impact Anton Yelchin had on the people around him. He was an artist and a memorable actor, but above all else, Love, Antosha movingly depicts Anton Yelchin as an empathetic soul who touched so many.
Marriage Story (dir. Noah Baumbach)
While I've had been only erratically enamored with past Noah Baumbach movies, his latest directorial effort, Marriage Story, totally floored me in just how well-realized it was. A portrait of two people navigating the torturous process of filing for divorce, Noah Baumbach's script offers ample time for both of the lead characters to get their perspectives out in the open. It's a screenwriting choice that's especially effective when it comes to Scarlett Johansson's lead character given that she's had to bottle up her own ambitions and viewpoints for so long. It's the kind of moving intimate drama that echoes classics like Terms of Endearment in how it evokes complex emotions between loved ones with such impressive authenticity. Something like Greenberg may still not be for me, but good gravy is Noah Baumbach's work in writing & directing Marriage Story utterly impressive.
Parasite (dir. Bong Joon-Ho)
We've all heard the endless hype for Bong Joon-Ho's newest creation Parasite by now and there's a darn good reason for that. This thriller really is worthy of all the praise it's received, it's such a smartly crafted contemplation on class struggles that's also got instances of gasp-worthy twists and masterful editing to spare. Bong Joon-Ho has always been a fellow that successfully mixes together exciting genre entertainment with sociopolitical commentary but his penchant for such a combo achieves new heights with his work in Parasite. The big plot turns are better than ever, the way each of the characters (even the individual members of the wealthy family) is rendered with such depth, the already remarkable craftsmanship of Bong Joon-Ho reaches a new zenith with Parasite.
Rafiki (dir. Wanuri Kahiu)
How bad-ass is Rafiki? Well, for starters, it got banned in Kenya for being too positive in its depiction of LGBTQIA+ people. Talk about being provocative! At the same time that its country of origin was trying to get it stifled, Rafiki was also making waves as the first Kenyan film to be screened at the Cannes Film Festival. Those are all impressive feats but even if they didn't happen, Rafiki would still be one of the most moving titles of 2019 in its depiction of two women falling in love behind the backs of their disapproving neighbors. Director Wanuri Kahiu employs a carefully chosen color palette that beautifully reflects the vibrant interior emotions of Rafiki's lead characters while performer Samantha Mugatsia makes an incredible acting debut in the lead role of Kena. Their individual accomplishments are just the tip of the iceberg of joys to be found in Rafiki, the movie with so much empathy for the marginalized that it got banned by government forces!
Us (dir. Jordan Peele)
Bong Joon-Ho wasn't the only one successfully merging genre movie entertainment with thoughtful social commentary in 2019. Jordan Peele managed to also achieve that delightful mixture in his follow-up to Get Out. That 2017 directorial effort set a high bar for Peele to follow but luckily, Peele smartly doesn't aim to just make a retreated of Get Out with Us. More of a slasher movie crossed with a chase movie, Us creates truly chilling scenes out of facing one's doppelgangers before gradually revealing that the movies a much more morally complex creation than one might have expected. It's so much fun to watch Us reveal its various secrets as well as see its unique visual approach to the doppelganger characters (chiefly in how, unlike most slasher villains, they, save for the son, eschew wearing masks). The best part of the production, though, is Lupita Nyong'o as two versions of the same character. Move over Michael Myers, Nyong'o is now the most commanding and unnerving slasher villain the silver screen has ever seen.
Wild Rose (dir. Tom Harper)
A Scottish country singer chases her dreams. Does that sound too much like a cutesy indie movie produced by Zach Braff from 2006? Conceptually, Wild Rose does sound too twee to bear but the actual movie is an extremely moving motion picture. What really aids Wild Rose is its commitment to doing a more complex underdog dreamer story. The lead character (played by Jessie Buckley) never gets a tidy resolution to her music stardom ambitions while the way it tackles her having to juggle those ambitions with her responsibilities as a parent is extremely well-handled. Also helping mightily is some thoughtful directing from Tom Harper and especially a powerhouse lead performance from Jessie Buckley. She's got a towering voice when it comes time to sing but she also lends believable humanity to a character that could have merely been a pile of cliches. On top of all that, Wild Rose also delivered the best original song of 2019, which accounts for a lot in my book.

And now, the Best Movie of 2019, an honor that goes to...

Little Women (dir. Greta Gerwig)
I guess I could come up with some fancy academic analysis for why Greta Gerwig's Little Women film adaptation of Little Women ended up being my favorite movie of 2019. To be sure, the film itself is good enough and so littered with exceptional details to stand up to that kind of scrutiny. But really, it's pretty simple why Little Women stands as the best film 2019 cinema had to offer. Movies like this one with such beautiful cinematography, with such rich performances (Florence Pugh finishes off her incredible 2019 with a remarkable portrayal of Amy March) and with such immensely poignant storytelling are truly rare. All of these elements work in tandem to offer up a brilliantly-realized new vision of Louisa May Alcott's iconic novel, one that uses non-linear storytelling to deeply explore the four March sisters as complex human beings.

Such thoughtful unique renderings of iconic characters like Jo March helps make a one-hundred-fifty-year-old novel become brand new thanks to the masterful hands of writer/director Greta Gerwig. You have to appreciate movies that achieve such impressive feats whenever they manage to come along. Ditto for we should appreciate the human beings (like Little Women protagonists Jo, Amy, Beth and Meg March) who don't routinely get to have their stories told. Little Women is a fantastic ode to the importance of those stories as well the humanity of human beings often ignored in general society. Such an ode will make you weepy just as often as its filmmaking impresses your eyeballs. I absolutely love this movie in all its heartfelt meticulously put-together glory, it's just wonderful from head-to-toe.

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