Combustible Celluloid
 

2019: The Year in Review

What Happened to Me in the Dark

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

At the end of 2018, a colleague wished a wish; he said, here's hoping that 2019 would be as interesting and as good as the years 1999 and 2009 were. Now that 2019 is over, I have to say, I'm not sure. There were many very good films, and a few really bad ones, and many that were sort of in the middle. That's the same as just about every year. But the best films puzzled me. For some reason, I was never 100% convinced of their greatness. Some of the films are complex, and it will take some time to really unlock them. But the other factor is that these times have become so strange and difficult. Everything we say and do is subject to argument, and it's frankly exhausting having to be so careful about things on one end, and so shocked and angry about things on the other end. But after arranging and re-arranging, I think that I have adequately selected, if not the best films of 2019, then at least the ones that affected me the most strongly and deeply. These are the ones that I would like to continue thinking about and revisiting in years to come. Although, perhaps ironically, I have not included any of these on my Ten Best of the Decade list. I feel I need more time to really digest them. Perhaps I'll re-do my decade list in ten years. Hopefully the ten that I have chosen here best represent our times, and our cinema.

- The Top Ten -

1. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

The most complex, and the most exciting movie of the year was a comeback of sorts by Quentin Tarantino. My theory is that, for the first time since 1997, he has returned to Los Angeles, and it has recharged him. Voting with my film critics organization this year, we spent a great deal of time arguing over Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. As many critics in our group hated it as loved it. But those that loved it continued to find endless, surprising ideas and themes in it, and as we conversed, we realized that we each had different theories. And they were all worthy. It's a movie so brilliant and so layered that many interpretations are possible, and many viewings will bring many new interpretations. Yes, we should complain that it's mostly male-centered, and white-centered, but it's also full of richness of ideas about fame, violence, movies, television, and ultimately, the state of being human.

2. The Irishman

On the surface, Martin Scorsese's The Irishman recalled many of his classics, especially because of the deliberate casting of all the actors he has worked with since the beginning of time. But this is no mere re-tread of the things that came before. This one rages against old age, looks back on life and finds regrets, and finds that power is not necessarily a permanent or even a real thing. This one is more than just a thrilling exploration of a life of crime. It comes closer to Scorsese's faith-based films, in its struggle to find some kind of meaning, and perhaps realizing that there may not be any.

3. 3 Faces

Jafar Panahi has been under a filmmaking ban for the entire decade, but he has still made a handful of great films, largely with small, secret cameras. 3 Faces is the first to come close to the more cinematic, more composed films that made his name prior to his arrest. Panahi and actress Behnaz Jafari go searching for a young woman who may or may not have committed suicide. They meet many other people along the way, and the camera seems to follow along, not necessarily concerned with the forward thrust of the story. Yet both main characters seem to come away from their journey with a new outlook on life. While still an act of political defiance, this film also seems to be an example of growth.

4. Parasite

Bong Joon-ho is one of the most fascinating filmmakers in the world right now, forever challenging our perceptions of class and generation, and Parasite may be his most concise, most cutting film. It begins as a dark comedy, utterly satisfying in its vengeful portrayal of the spoiled upper class and the lower class getting the better of them. But then it turns, viciously, asking questions about why we reacted the way we reacted during the first hour. It may not do anything to change the drastic differences between class in our world, but it will at least make you think in a new way about the problem.

5. Avengers: Endgame

It's not easy to make a series like this one that runs more than twenty films and stays relevant, and even great. In fact, I'd say it's next to impossible. Most other series die before they achieve ten, or even five, films. But Anthony and Joe Russo's Avengers: Endgame was not only an event, a blockbuster, but an incredibly moving, deeply resonant portrait of a large group of characters at the end of their collective ropes, fighting for their very existences, and the existences of their loved ones. It required that viewers see most of the twenty-something previous movies, for sure (more than 40 hours of cinema), but episodic television asks the same without any complaints. Saying farewell to some of our favorite characters was nearly as difficult as saying farewell to members of our own family.

6. One Cut of the Dead

This Japanese movie reminded me of the thrill of seeing Sam Raimi's Evil Dead II for the first time back in 1987, not an easy task. Shin'ichirô Ueda's One Cut of the Dead starts off as a surprise, a long, unbroken take of a zombie movie invaded by real zombies, and is then taken over by the behind-the-scenes look at the workers behind zombie movie beset by real zombies, and it all winds up as a surprisingly moving family drama and not a zombie movie at all. If you have a love for movies in general, and zombie movies specifically, you need to see this.

7. Waves

Trey Edward Shults made what is the equivalent of a young adult tale, but completely enmeshed in a strong sense of style, each complimenting the other. With the superb Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross score, jarring editing, and ethereal cinematography, Waves creates hope, crossed with dread, and then more hope, telling its stories of a popular brother, on the wrestling team and with a beautiful girlfriend, and then his younger sister, meeting a new person and learning to trust again. Superbly crafted from its opening and closing images to its changing aspect ratios, this film could change the way we tell stories of young people.

8. 1917

A late entry on my list, this one totally surprised me, not only with its endlessly impressive technical achievements, but also with how moved I was by the story. Like Waves, Sam Mendes's 1917 is a total combination of story and style, as two soldiers in the First World War travel across a hostile landscape in what appears to be a single, long, unbroken take. It relies on big guest stars, and yes, it's all-male, and all-white, but its impact, both on the futility of war and the concept of circular patterns, is more powerful than almost any other movie I saw this year.

9. Tigers Are Not Afraid

This was an amazing year for horror films, and quite a few other contenders nearly made my list, but after One Cut of the Dead, this movie from Mexico not only gave me the creeps, but it also provided many indelible images and a heartbreaking story that I was unable to forget. Whereas so many other "message" movies simply get straight to the point (and feel like lectures), Issa López's Tigers Are Not Afraid is a story of real-world violence refracted through the supernatural, getting closer to the feel of the problem, rather than the facts of the problem. It's a spectral, truly haunting experience.

10. Little Woods

Nia DaCosta's Little Woods was the first movie I saw in 2019, at a press conference for the San Francisco IndieFest. I had to see it a second time for an assignment, and thereafter, I couldn't stop thinking about it. I think that's largely due to the lead performance by Tessa Thompson, as the woman who realizes that so many of her neighbors are in pain, and that maybe she can do something about it, even if her efforts are illegal. I keep thinking of her exasperated face, when she's asked to ease the pain of her neighbors and must weigh the law versus the actual reality of the situation. For me, her performance far outweighs most of the other attempts at impersonation (in biopics) of any other actor this year.


Twenty Runners-Up (In Alphabetical Order)

Ash Is Purest White (Jia Zhangke), A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (Marielle Heller), Booksmart (Olivia Wilde), Crawl (Alexandre Aja), Dark Waters (Todd Haynes), The Dead Don't Die (Jim Jarmusch), Harriet (Kasi Lemmons), The Image Book (Jean-Luc Godard), Jojo Rabbit (Taika Waititi), Knives Out (Rian Johnson), The Last Black Man in San Francisco (Joe Talbot), The Lighthouse (Robert Eggers), The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (Terry Gilliam), Midsommar (Ari Aster), The Mustang (Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre), The Nightingale (Jennifer Kent), Uncut Gems (Benny & Josh Safdie), Us (Jordan Peele), Varda by Agnès (Agnès Varda & Didier Rouget), Where'd You Go, Bernadette (Richard Linklater)


Great Performances

  • Annette Bening, The Report
  • Cate Blanchett, Where'd You Go, Bernadette
  • Sterling K. Brown, Kelvin Harrison Jr. & Taylor Russell, Waves
  • Daniel Craig, Knives Out
  • Leonardo DiCaprio & Brad Pitt, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
  • Robert Downey, Jr., Avengers: Endgame
  • Adam Driver, Marriage Story
  • Cynthia Erivo, Harriet
  • Danny Glover, The Last Black Man in San Francisco
  • Tom Hanks, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
  • Scarlett Johansson, Jojo Rabbit & Marriage Story
  • Eddie Murphy & Da'Vine Joy Randolph, Dolemite Is My Name
  • Lupita Nyong'o, Us
  • Mark Ruffalo & Anne Hathaway, Dark Waters
  • Adam Sandler & Julia Fox, Uncut Gems
  • Tessa Thompson, Little Woods
  • Alfre Woodard, Clemency


15 Great DVD and Blu-ray Releases


25 Guilty Pleasures & Little Treasures


The Year's 20 Worst Films


Thanks for reading! Sending best wishes and prayers for a better 2020! -- JMA

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