Cinema Junkie Episode 187: And The Award Goes To ...
Highlighting the best and most under-appreciated films of 2019
This year’s Oscar nominations came out earlier this month and they were exactly what I needed to rile me up and get me to finalize my own awards for the best of 2019.
2019 was an amazing year for filmmakers pushing the envelope and that is precisely why the 92nd Academy Award nominations were so infuriating: so little of that originality was recognized. Even the nominations that are being touted as daring like eleven for “Joker” or diverse like Cynthia Erivo for “Harriet” are not really daring. Sure, "Joker" is only the second comic book movie to get a Best Picture nomination, but it’s just a comic book movie done like a Scorsese film. There was nothing original about it and the irony is that the academy couldn’t muster 11 nominations in total for "Taxi Driver" and "King of Comedy," the Scorsese films "Joker" was ripping off … oh sorry, I mean paying homage to.
So in response to the academy's nominations, which are influenced by many things but quality of work may be the least of them, I serve up the Cinema Junkie Awards. Since I am just a person who loves movies and doesn't work in the industry, I have no other allegiance except to what I think makes for a good movie. But as with all things in the arts everyone’s taste is different. Many people may be perfectly happy with the Oscar nominations while just as many others pay them no heed at all because they think they are meaningless.
My awards aim to highlight films that I loved and felt were under-appreciated. If you share my taste then we can celebrate these films together. If you never heard of some of these films then hopefully you will be inspired to check some out. And if you have the opposite taste to me then maybe we can have a debate about why we see the same film from such radically different perspectives.
New and young filmmakers
One of the most impressive things this year was the group of debuting filmmakers. The best of them was Joe Talbot whose “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” delivered cinematic poetry. Also impressive was Mati Diop whose “Atlantics” gave us a social drama wrapped in a haunting ghost story. It marked her feature film debut and won her the distinction of being the first woman of color to receive the Grand Prix Award at Cannes.
Also noteworthy were Ladj Ly’s “Les Miserables,” Melina Matsoukas’ “Queen and Slim,” Olivia Wilde’s “Booksmart,” and Joe Penna’s “Arctic.”
Plus, there were sophomore filmmakers like Ari Aster (“Midsommar”), Robert Eggers (“The Lighthouse”), Trey Edward Shults (“Waves”), and Jennifer Kent (“The Nightingale”) who did not falter as they moved from a successful debut to a second feature. In fact, all four continued to experiment with form and craft to deliver films that were just as fresh and original as their first ones.
10 Best of 2019
After agonizing debate I have decided on these top 10 films, but this was a tough year because there were a lot of films I loved and they were all so different that it was hard to judge them side-by-side. Plus, I feel my job as a film critic or as a film activist who sees hundreds of films a year is to try and shed light on films that may have come in under the radar or simply not received as much attention. So as much as I loved "The Irishman" and "1917," I am giving my top 10 spots to films that pushed the envelope more than these well-backed, already well-appreciated Hollywood movies. So here's the list (listen to the podcast for clips and the reasons behind the picks).
- Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite”
It’s horror, thriller, social commentary, black comedy, satire and more. South Korean master Bong Joon Ho serves up a wildly entertaining yet poignantly nuanced tale of class and social dynamics. The film surprises at every turn and delivers a riveting piece of cinema full of pathos, allegory, savagery and unexpected hilarity.
- Terrence Malick’s “A Hidden Life”
All I have to say is going to a Malick film is a religious experience.
- Joe Talbot’s “Last Black Man in San Francisco”
Collaborating with his friend Jimmie Fails, Talbot delivers an achingly beautiful film about a changing city and how we define home.
- Robert Eggers’ “The Lighthouse”
Eggers makes films that fall into the horror genre (“The Witch” being his first film) yet push the boundaries of how we define horror. There are no conventional horror beats or scares yet his films are filled with a sense of dread created by his precise use of light, shot composition, sound design, and perfectly pitched performances.
- Joanna Hogg’s “The Souvenir”
In “The Souvenir,” Hogg displays a marvelously elliptical and seductive visual style. She often leaves the characters out of frame or only seen as a reflection. She refuses to spell things out and lets the film’s exquisite visuals tell the story if you are willing to pay attention to.
- Jérémy Clapin’s “I Lost My Body”
This beautifully executed animation follows a severed hand that escapes a Paris lab and sets out to find its body. The film is surprising, poetic and pushes expectations about not just what animation can be, but about what storytelling can do in film.
- Ari Aster’s “Midsommar." This is a break-up film wrapped in deceptive folk horror trappings and delivering something that is ultimately both and neither.
- Gan Bi’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”
I owe thanks to the San Diego Asian Film Festival for showcasing the gorgeously seductively film that’s not for anyone who’s in a rush or needs all ambiguity cleared up by the final fade-out. This is a film that you just want to sit in and luxuriate in its rapturous imagery like you might in a scented bath on a warm night.
- Craig S. Zahler’s “Dragged Across Concrete”
Go ahead and consider this a slot for toxic masculinity but Zahler examines it with such grit and unflinching brutality that it’s stunning. Plus, he is perhaps the best dialogue writer of anyone writing films today.
- Takia Waititi’s “Jojo Rabbit”
Waititi walks a tricky line in his anti-hate satire as he moves the film from slapstick to pathos and back again.
These films just missed my top 10 and are all well worth checking out. Jordan Peele’s “Us” was a puzzle box that made the film worth viewing multiple times and each time it got better; the Safdie brothers seemed to revel in the discomfort their “Uncut Gems” so brilliantly created; Martin Scorsese revisited familiar terrain but from aging mobster eyes in “The Irishman;” Eddie Murphy and Wesley Snipes made “Dolemite Is My Name” an absolute delight, plus it was great to see Rudy Ray Moore get some love; Trey Edward Shults delivered a hypnotic visual poem with “Waves;” Sam Mendes told his father’s war tale in a compelling digital one-shot drama in “1917;” Jennifer Kent spared no brutality in “The Nightingale;” Olivier Assayas’ “Non-Fiction” gave us a literate adult romantic comedy as only the French can do; Shin'ichirô Ueda’s “One Cut of the Dead” delivered a one-shot zombie film as only the Japanese could imagine; Quentin Tarantino once again rewrote history and delivered perhaps his sweetest valentine to movies with "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood;" Mati Diop wowed with "Atlantics;" and Pedro Almodovar and Antonio Banderas partnered beautifully for “Pain and Glory.”
Best Actor: Antonio Banderas, "Pain and Glory"
Runners up: Adam Sandler, "Uncut Gems;" Eddie Murphy "Dolemite is my Name"
Best Actress: Lupita Nyong’o, "Us"
Runners up: Honor Swinton Byrne, "The Souvenir;" Aisling Franciosi, "The Nightingale;" Florence Pugh, "Midsommar;" Akwafina, "The Farewell" (an embarrassment of riches and all overlooked by the Academy)
Best Supporting Actor: Willem Dafoe, "The Lighthouse"
Runners up: Wesley Snipes, "Dolemite is My Name;" and the entire supporting cast of "Just Mercy" from Jamie Foxx to Rob Morgan to Tim Blake Nelson. Flawless in capturing flawed individuals.
Best Supporting Actress: Zhao Shuzen, "The Farewell"
Runners up: Da’Vine Joy Randolph, "Dolemite is My Name;" Laura Dern, "Marriage Story"
Best Director: Boon Joon Ho, "Parasite:
Runners up: Terrence Malick, "A Hidden Life;" Robert Eggers, "The Lighthouse;" Ari Aster, "Midsommar;" Joanna Hogg, "The Souvenir;" and the Safdie Brothers, "Uncut Gems"
Best Screenplay: Craig S. Zahler, "Dragged Across Concrete" and the Eggers brothers, "The Lighthouse"
Best Colorist: Damien Van Der Cruyssen, "The Last Black Man in San Francisco," "Uncut Gems," "Waves"
Best Editor: Thelma Schoonmaker, "The Irishman"
Best Cinematographer: Jorg Widmer, "A Hidden Life" and Roger Deakins, "1917"
Best Score: Michael Abels, "Us"
Runners up: The Haxan Cloak, "Midsommar;" Emile Mosseri, "The Last Black Man in San Francisco"
And one final craft award to Chad Stahelski for his action choreography in "John Wick 3." He is a stuntman turned director and not since the Indonesian film “The Raid” have I felt so exhausted and exhilarated by an action film. “John Wick 3” raises the bar on fight choreography by adding canines doing doggie-fu, gunfights on horseback, katana-wielding motorcyclists and more.
2019 was an exciting year for film and I feel like I barely scratched the surface of what films were available. I barely saw any documentaries and not nearly enough foreign films. We are so saturated by content be it streaming movies, films in theaters, or the excess of streaming shows that eat up dozens of hours to just complete a season that I feel like I can never catch up. But so much of what I saw this year reinvigorated my love of cinema and my appreciation for audacious talent.
When you see hundreds of movies a year you can get jaded and feel like there is nothing new coming out of Hollywood, but that also means when there is something fresh it stands out in bold relief and makes you jump up and take notice. I hope this list will inspire you to seek out any films you are not familiar with and maybe to travel outside your comfort zone.