2019 was one hell of a year for movies. I’m someone who catches flak from friends because I “don’t like anything,” or am always reluctant to heap praise upon things, which is true! I think there are a ton of movies I enjoy, but I’m always aware of where I like or dislike parts of the film. Because that way, when something really special comes along and I won’t shut up about it, you know I mean it.
Well there was a lot in 2019 I wouldn’t shut up about.
To be clear, Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was my hands-down favorite film of the year and, in the long run, may become one of my favorite films, period. It’s an incredibly tender movie in my mind, bursting with Tarantino’s enthusiasm for the medium but also a strikes me as a nostalgic, sad film, in which a friendship takes center stage, a bygone era is longed for, and the grim brutality of reality is negated by movie magic.
But that’s not what we’re here for today.
2019, as I said, was a major year for terrific films. I found myself constantly assailed by movies I was well and truly taken with, my subconscious critic just basking in the glory of entertaining and gorgeous films. Let the record show, beside Tarantino, my remaining four actual favorites of the year include The Lighthouse (Robert Eggers), Uncut Gems (Josh and Benny Safdie), Ad Astra (James Gray), and Long Day’s Journey Into Night (Bi Gan). But even movies I didn’t outright love surprised me often. I thought I would hate Gemini Man, and frankly think it’s more or less a B-movie mess, but oddly I found myself ever-so-slightly seeing Ang Lee’s frame of mind behind his championing of accelerated framerates in films; who’d have thought Hobbs & Shaw, even though it’s at least half an hour too long, would be such pure fun?
So, five movies that further added to the tapestry that was 2019 in film are…
Asako I & II (RyÅ«suke Hamaguchi)
Following up his five-plus hour melodrama Happy Hour (which released in 2015, and is one of my favorite films of the decade!) Japanese filmmaker RyÅ«suke Hamaguchi returned with a thriller-like relationship drama that almost recalls the eerie collision of bizarre realism that colors so much of fellow Japanese filmmaker Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s work.
Asako focuses on the titular character (Erika Karata) and her relationship with two men over the course of several years, the enigmatic and aloof Baku and the shy and sweet Ryohei. The catch is… both men look identical. With a single performance from Masahiro Higashide across the two characters, Asako I & II is about the layers of madness that can nestle beneath the face a person presents to the world, with relationships tested under reckless, sociopathic behavior. Asako I & II sort of plays like a serial killer character study… minus the serial killing. It’s about the ways in which emotional violence can be as devastating as the physical kind.
All this under Hamaguchi’s easy-to-watch style, with some beautiful, succinct compositions and a slow-but-engaging pace. Asako I & II may have flown a little under the radar as “the new movie from that guy who made the five hour one,” but is another notch in the developing legacy of one of Japan’s contemporary greats.
Us (Jordan Peele)
I don’t really care for Get Out even a little. I love Daniel Kaluuya, it’s a sleek production, but Jordan Peele’s smash hit debut continues to feel like a Saturday Night Live sketch to me, caught between comedy and horror, hammering a social point of relevance with a hammer when maybe a scalpel would have done better. I wasn’t all that optimistic about his follow up film, the elusive doppelgänger horror Us. Then I saw it, and man is Us weird.
Skipping summation (you’ve all seen Us, right?), what Peele’s sophomore effort does for me is actually quite like what Get Out did in that the film feels like a tremendous episode of The Twilight Zone, with a story that starts rolling based off of a “gimmick” and evolves into something different or, hopefully, deeper. Us goes into bizarre and unsettling territory, committing to its fantasy entirely.
While Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite is perhaps the hottest film of the year for its meticulous direction and angry class commentary, Us feels a little under-discussed in regards to the latter, with Peele’s film presenting a gonzo mythos of urban legend that tells a story of class so obvious it almost becomes overshadowed by the gutsiness of the production. It didn’t set the world on fire the way Get Out did, but for me, Us was Peele affirming to me that he’s got a real vision for genre-bending, and a style all his own.
And if there were justice, Lupita Nyong’o would be positively weighed down by the number of awards received for her dual-performances.
Luce (Julius Onah)
As far as mind games go for 2019 films, you’ve got to keep Luce in the conversation. Not only does it subvert expectations in its very-serious dissection of racial profiling and self-creation in America, Luce digs into ugly questions regarding its characters and their race. How far can sensitivity in regards to race go? How does the American system aid minorities while still keeping them under thumb? Could you ever blame a marginalized individual for gaming the system that oppresses them day in and out?
Luce Edgar (Kelvin Harrison Jr) was adopted from war-torn Eritrea in East Africa, picking up a life of comfort in wealthy American suburbs under two loving and supportive parents (Nicole Kidman and Tim Roth). Remarkably intelligent and well-spoken, Luce is an academic star whose controversial and potentially-violent submission for a school assignment puts him at odds with history teacher Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer), which triggers a series of escalating jabs and slights that one can only hope doesn’t culminate in damaging violence.
Luce prods the expectations of the white characters who support its main character, questioning relationships between parent and child, adoptee and adopter, and unspoken, shied-from parallels between privileged white Americans and marginalized black ones. The lengths to which the script, co-written by JC Lee and director Julius Onah, interrogates its main characters is remarkable, with an ending that pulls back a curtain and flips questions of civility on their head. In a year that feels remarkably padded with great films (and series like Watchmen) that express strong African American points of view, Luce still stands tall.
Shadow (Zhang Yimou)
Because sometimes you just need some goshdarn kung-fu in your life. Coming from titanic Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou, Shadow is an exercise in absolute style, retelling a period of Chinese history during which the kingdoms of Pei and Yang vied over a particularly crucial city, where duels and court intrigue color every turn.
Shadow‘s political machinations are more than entertaining, but it’s the action that’s going to stick in your mind. Building to an epic military maneuver, Shadow‘s martial scenes are absolutely gorgeous. “How did Zhang and his crew get water to stand still for them,” you might ask yourself. Movie magic.
Blades cutting through water in the largely-desaturated palette make for utterly mesmerizing imagery. I’d rather not spoil too much, but much of Shadow‘s thematic elements revolve around a particular style of martial art, in which the wei and wu of a technique involving an umbrella are weighed and considered. There’s some truly unique butt-kicking in Shadow that any genre fan simply has to catch an eyeful of.
The Irishman (Martin Scorsese)
It feels almost as if I should credit editor Thelma Schoonmaker alongside Scorsese up there. The American icon’s long-planned gangster-deconstruction fell just outside of my top five favorite films of the year, but truly it feels like it might age like the wine Russell Buffalino a Frank Sheeran share so frequently.
With a trinity of legendary actors at its center (also Harvey Keitel, who is the absolute best), The Irishman could read to the uninformed as “another Scorsese gangster movie,” whatever that means. Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) is a World War II vet who, like anyone else, is trying to make a living. That so happens to fall in with the machinations of major East Coast gangster Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci). The two develop a strong working relationship, but one founded on a genuine friendship. So it would seem. The Irishman tells its story from a present in which Sheeran, withering away in a nursing home, recounts his years of violence at the behest of Bufalino, and eventually his deep friendship with Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). The intersection of the mob, Hoffa’s Teamsters, and the American government collide in backrooms and long-distance phone calls in Scorsese’s damning teardown of the Greatest Generation.
You could write poems on how absolutely devastating The Irishman is, telling a story in which a man mumbles his way through decisions, losing friends and family to time and his own actions; the satire of gangster masculinity and Post-War American idealism is both hilarious and pitch black. Not to mention the tremendous performances from everyone in the three-and-a-half hours of action. But really, it’s all in the edit.
Longtime Scorsese editor Thelma Schoonmaker manages to make those 209 minutes fly, except when she doesn’t want them to. The Irishman rests its premise on the highly-publicized and mysterious “disappearance” of Jimmy Hoffa. We all know what’s coming from the moment you sit down to watch the film. But when we get to that point, Schoonmaker freezes us. Here we’ve been flying through years every five minutes, but a particular couples of hours in the lives of these men feel like eons. The high-wire act of slowing the film’s pace for such a crucial scene pays off in spades and punches right in the gut.
The Irishman is a masterpiece.
For all the incredible films 2019 gave us I still feel like I’ve seen nothing. And I saw some hundred new releases this year! A drop in the pond when I’ve yet to catch Dolemite is My Name or An Elephant Sitting Still; For Sama has yet to pull at my heartstrings and Promare yet to blow my mind with its vibrant mecha action. How can I even start thinking about 2020 when I’ve got such a pile of greatness just waiting to be riffled through?