List: Top 10 Movies of 2019 (Brendan Cassidy)
The year 2019 was a year of self-examination and reflection, by actors and filmmakers alike. This only makes sense, given that 2019 marks the close of a decade, and this is that time for all of us (Hollywood or otherwise) to take a look back and reflect on what we’ve experienced, what we’ve learned, and most importantly, what we can do better. In short, 2019 was a very personal year, but how did that translate to the quality of films we got? Many have already designated 2019 as one of the best cinematic years of the decade, and I will offer no arguments against that. The year may not have been as consistent as some years past (specifically 2018), but the back half of 2019 marks what may be the best cinematic back half of any year this decade; so much so, that the quality of some individual films became overwhelming to the point of frustrating, able to dethrone the majority of my top favorites from multiple years past. Perhaps those aforementioned themes of self-reflection had something to do with it, because this was just such a soul-searching year for film, and all my favorites are complimentary to that idea.
Episode 360 (Part 2) was our chance to get a little personal and reflect on the cinematic year that was 2019. Perhaps we all got a little too personal, as it did lead to yet another three-and-a-half-hour conversation. So, for those who prefer a briefer form of reflection, below you’ll find my Top 10 favorite movies of 2019.
No other film this year compliments my own self-reflection more than Ari Aster’s follow-up to Hereditary. In fact, I think Midsommar blows the festival doors off of Hereditary; if this were a fight to the death, Chekhov’s Bear defeats King Paimon. Perhaps that may be due to Midsommar being a more tonally and thematically consistent experience (it doesn’t fall off the rails like the final act of Hereditary did for me), or it may be more personal than that. From the perspective that this is a “breakup” movie, the way Aster deals in the need for empathy, community, vocal transparency, and sacrifice within romantic relationships (specifically after the death of a family member) is a notion I can directly relate to. I was once on Christian’s (Jack Reynor) end of the spectrum during a past relationship, and Midsommar made me think about the mistakes I may have made during said relationship, helping me let go of any lingering resentment I may have. Granted, some of that resentment will always remain, but both Ari Aster and Florence Pugh’s panic-enducing performance gave me the ability to acknowledge my own faults in the matter, and let go of my pride. Sure, it has just as much to say about our ignorance toward other cultural rituals (using Swedish folklore), but as a horror film about a failing relationship, Midsommar kind of broke me. Click here to listen to our full review.
9. Dragged Across Concrete
Only three feature films deep, S. Craig Zahler makes his second appearance on a Top 10 list of mine; before that it was Brawl in Cell Block 99 in 2017. Zahler has a style I gravitate toward – pulpy, grindhouse-like films with strong social commentaries; and while Dragged Across Concrete isn’t quite as emotionally stimulating as his last effort with Vince Vaughn, it is certainly his most provocative, and arguably just as thrilling. In short, Dragged Across Concrete does what I hope more films had the bravery to do – challenge our beliefs, and make us challenge ourselves in the process. Sometimes, it’s actually better to make a film where its themes are ones you may not even agree with, and that itself shouldn’t be something to fear, even if it is incredibly uncomfortable to confront. Here, Zahler illustrates racism and bigotry from all sides, coloring in the grey lines of a black and white backdrop; it does not conform or take the easy way out (heck, even the mere casting of Mel Gibson is symbolic of that). As such, this movie will offend a lot of people, and I won’t say that you’re wrong in feeling that way; but I will say that the film did its job. Click here to listen to our full review.
8. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
I still keep trying to justify why Marielle Heller’s latest A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood made me tear up every five minutes, but that’s enough to make any list of mine. Based on Tom Junod’s Esquire piece on Fred Rogers, some viewers may call Heller’s approach here a bit hokey and manipulative, specifically in its obvious framing device, essentially turning the film into a 109-minute episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (complete with miniatures and all). But I responded to how Heller went with the most simplified version of its themes, creating this universality in how anyone can relate to the notion of embracing sadness and your vulnerabilities; and I love how Heller, as a female, was able to portray this so well from the male perspective in our hero Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys). That universality is further channeled in Tom Hanks’ wonderful performance as Fred Rogers himself, an almost meta interpretation in how Rogers’ teachings can still remain embodied in people today; and who better in depicting that than the world’s kindest actor working today? That would be Tom Hanks, duh. If there’s one film I can recommend to literally everyone, it’s this. Click here to listen to our full review.
7. A Hidden Life
Perhaps Terrence Malick should continue working among the trees and the mountains rather than skyscrapers. A Hidden Life is a return to form for Malick; not only does nature once again play a pivotal and spiritual role, but there’s also a complex human affection for our main characters, instead of the nihilism that permeated Malick’s offerings post The Tree of Life. Based on a true story of Austrian conscientious objector Franz Jägerstätter, A Hidden Life is a complex look at a good man’s battle between his spiritual convictions and the needs of his family, begging the question whether he was a hero or a coward for making the choices he does, and the great irony of that is how you could still make the same hero vs. coward argument should Franz have hypothetically made the opposite choices in the end. Even if these complexities didn’t work, there’s still Malick’s approach to romance, and A Hidden Life may be the best love story he has ever given us; I just want a woman in my life to look at me and embrace me the same way that Valerie Pachner does to her husband, as they make for the most powerfully human gestures I’ve seen all year. Click here to listen to our full review.
6. Her Smell
Her Smell is not a music biopic, and yet it is a better music biopic than the majority of most actual music biopics. After the insufferable narcissism of films like Queen of Earth, it’s hard to believe that Her Smell was written and directed by Alex Ross Perry, who for the first time finds a way to crystalize the negativity of his films into something profound, hopeful, and redemptive (almost Spielbergian by comparison). Her Smell wonderfully illustrates why many musicians resort to drug use and alcoholism as a precedent for their famed lives, as if being loved by fans is a way of subsiding loneliness – or in the case of Her Smell, failed motherhood. And in the middle of it all is Elisabeth Moss in a decade-defining performance, simultaneously just as unhinged as it is beautiful. A moment at a piano featuring a rendition of Bryan Adams’ power ballad “Heaven” just might turn you into mush. Click here to listen to our full review.
Parasite is everyone’s favorite film of 2019, and I’ll admit that it took me two viewings to finally be able to taste the peaches. Whatever reservations I had about its surface-level mean-spiritedness quickly gave way to the sadness underneath, hidden just as deeply as the Kim family’s own household. Bong Joon-ho, who already has a history of depicting class warfare, doesn’t simply antagonize the rich and pity the poor; he instead balances tragedy and cruelty with every choice both families make, forcing your allegiance to align with everyone and no one simultaneously. It’s a tricky balancing act, much like Bong’s abrupt shifts in tone, as Parasite is arguably the best film of the year at genre manipulation; all at once a situational comedy, a social drama on class, and a horror film. To quote Martin Scorsese, this is cinema. Click here to listen to our full review.
4. Pain and Glory
Did I already mention that 2019 was the year of self-reflection? No other film in 2019 took on that notion as literally as Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory, the year’s most meta, introspective, and reflective film. Pain and Glory is a snapshot in Almodóvar’s own life, and a brave admittance of his own insecurities, specifically around his health, his age, and his relationship with his actors, most notably his historic falling out with one Antonio Banderas. Naturally, who better than Banderas himself to play Almodóvar in Almodóvar’s own film? But Pain and Glory is just as reflective for Banderas as it is for Almodóvar; Banderas has revealed how much his real-life priorities have changed since having his heart attack, and it shows in his beautifully restrained performance; the best male lead performance of 2019 in my book. Pain and Glory is the year’s most powerful depiction of reconciliation, and a commentary on the art of moviemaking as a portrait of one’s soul, all summarized in what may be the best final shot of the entire year. Click here to listen to our full review.
3. Little Women
Little Women, or: How I Was Unable to Stop Smiling and Crying After Watching Little Women. For those already familiar with Greta Gerwig, especially after her wonderful directorial debut Lady Bird, won’t be shocked to get all her typical trademarks here in this latest adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel; Little Women is peppy, charming, sarcastically witty (almost contemporary), and just as heartwarming as it is heartbreaking. But as a depiction of one incredibly creative writer seeking independence, rather than this Civil-War-set era’s conformity on women and marriage, this adaptation is incredibly moving regardless of gender. Rather than tell the classic story again, Gerwig deviates from the source material in meta ways, essentially turning Jo March (a wonderful Saoirse Ronan) in a metaphor for Alcott herself, and the real-life struggles she had with her own publisher regarding the novel’s ending. As already noted, you don’t have to be a woman to relate to this story, as Gerwig does not condemn nor condone love and marriage; every character has their own viewpoints and opinions, and their respective struggles make this one of the most moving movie experiences of 2019. Florence Pugh is also everything. Click here to listen to our full review.
2. Uncut Gems
Uncut Gems is a film I had the audacity to watch twice; apparently, I like giving myself panic attacks. Up until this point, I was not the biggest fan of Benny and Josh Safdie, but it only took one new film of theirs to make me a fan, and the biggest difference came down to one word – nuance. For a film this pulsating and with this much nervous energy, the Safdie brothers’ latest is a surprisingly nuanced exercise in consumerism and Jewish stereotyping; the Safdie’s have stated that the Jewish people were historically given the “gift” of working with money because no one else wanted it, and as such their film angrily deconstructs the stereotypes that were birthed from that, showing Howard (Adam Sandler) as a victim of consumerism. It’s a two-way street though, and Julia (wonderful newcomer Julia Fox) is the embodiment of us all as potential victims of consumerism, and it makes for a frightening (and panic attack inducing) world. This film also features the transition from the inside of a beautiful opal to the inside of our lead character’s colonoscopy; that’s definitely a first. Click here to listen to our full review.
1. The Last Black Man in San Francisco
Gentrification is a cinematic hot topic, but never has it been depicted with such nostalgia, relatability, and open-mindedness as Joe Talbot’s directorial debut; our childhood homes seem to have spirits of their own, constantly beckoning us not to leave, and it’s that same spirit that embodies The Last Black Man in San Francisco. The film has a real sense of place, and you can just feel how much this city has changed, how any city changes through gentrification, whether it be the rich vs. the poor or the subject of black identity (and kudos to Joe Talbot who, as a white man, is willing to openly learn from a race and culture that is different from his own and portray it with seeming authenticity). We as the audience feel bad for the displaced, but that doesn’t make them off the hook either; Jimmie (played by Jimmie Fails in a semi-autobiographical performance) is both our hero and villain here, desperate to stay home but arguably possessed by his entitlement. It takes a good friend in Montgomery (Jonathan Majors, in the year’s most heroic performance) to help him realize that he is more than just his childhood home, and that “people aren’t one thing”, arguably the most important lesson of 2019. It’s as if the wooden walls of our homes are speaking to us, echoed by Emile Mosseri’s gorgeous woodwind-driven score (one of the best scores of the entire decade); we all should be listening. Click here to listen to our full review.
To round out my Top 20, here is the rest of my list:
11) The Lighthouse
12) Portrait of a Lady on Fire
13) The Irishman
14) Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
15) Long Day’s Journey Into Night
16) The Nightingale
17) Apollo 11
18) The Beach Bum
19) Wild Rose
Let us know what you think. Do you agree or disagree? We’d like to know why. Leave a comment in the comment section below or tweet us @InSessionFilm.