Staff Selects: The Best of 2019

Titles are hyperlinked to the contributor’s writing on the films as applicable.

Henry Baime:

1. Portrait of a Lady on Fire

It’s hard to think of anything else as the film of 2019 when this one has defined so much of what I’ve done this year. I spent the last seven months chasing the film around two continents, three countries, and four film festivals and every time has been more rewarding than the last. Sciamma’s painterly approach permeates every frame and instills a beauty so intense it makes me feel like I’ve never seen another movie every time I watch it. Haenel and Merlant are perfectly in tune with each other to deliver performances that are endlessly compelling and heartbreaking. Each time I see that brilliant final shot, it’s almost as if my entire life has been leading up to watching that one scene.

2-10:

2. Marriage Story

3. The Irishman

4. Ad Astra

5. Uncut Gems

6. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

7. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

8. Avengers: Endgame

9. The Souvenir

10. (Tie) A Hidden Life and Little Women


Kern Wheeling:

1. Light of My Life

Casey Affleck’s first narrative feature film follows the story of a father and daughter fighting for survival in a post-apocalyptic world where most of the female population has been wiped out by an unknown pandemic. The plot is far from inspired, bringing to mind a blend of Leave No Trace and The Road, but there’s something subtly unique in the way Affleck writes, directs, and performs (along with Pniowsky) every scene: the hair-raising tense sequences of the protagonists silently skirting the omnipresent threat looming just off-screen; their lengthy conversations that serve as brief respite from the suffocating dread of their situation; the frank way they speak to each other with admiration, respect, and civility which is clearly and naturally brought about by the harsh severity of their circumstances – that each other is all they have. 

Affleck aims for a modest naturalism, letting scenes play out as long as they need to and framing it all from the perspective of the main characters, making Light of My Life not only thematically relevant – depicting a world of only men as immensely inhospitable – but also immersive, distressing, moving, and surprisingly modest.

2. Marriage Story

3. Climax

4. High Flying Bird

5. Holiday

6. Portrait of a Lady on Fire

7. Monos

8. Sunset

9. Little Women

10. The Irishman


Lee:

1. Ad Astra

Allusions to Joseph Conrad‘s Heart of Darkness, Francis Ford Coppola‘s Apocalypse Now, and Stanley Kubrick‘s 2001: A Space Odyssey have been abundantly overwhelming when discussing 2019’s supposed flop masterpiece, Ad Astra. Between the aforementioned four works, one mutual aspect arises, each being its respective author/filmmaker’s magnum opus. One comparison I have yet to see, is that of the original odyssey, Homer’s classic, The Odyssey. Case and point being that Brad Pitt‘s stoic space frontiersman, Roy McBride is Telemachus, son of Odysseus, in search of not only his estranged father on the other side of a vast expanse, but searching for himself. For all intents and purposes a man born to a national hero, and unless by some divine or fateful intervention is destined to remain in his father’s shadow. To put it in Roy’s exact contemplative words, “I don’t know if I’m trying to find him, or finally free myself from him.” Contrary to its somber score, depressive topic, and not so joyous technologically advanced dystopian future, Ad Astra prides in a hopeful and optimistic message. Pitt’s perfectly subdued and self-restrained performance, even just from an ocular aspect alone, weaves every primary theme of the film. Behind those expressive eyes, loss, grief, discovery, rage, empathy, determinism, and one of the starkest, acceptance. Whether that be in traveling 2.714 billion miles to the outer solar system, applying for that job, talking to that special person, or maybe just letting go of something, it all starts with one small step.

2. Under the Silver Lake

3. Honey Boy

4. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

5. Ford v Ferrari

6. Her Smell

7. Marriage Story

8. The Peanut Butter Falcon

9. Knives Out

10. Light of My Life

Honourable Mentions:

Arctic

Avengers: Endgame

I Am Mother

Hustlers

Knife + Heart

Ready or Not

Shazam!

Where’d You Go Bernadette?


Chris Barnes:

1. Iris: A Space Opera by Justice

In what I feel has been a disappointing year for cinema, it seems fitting that my number one isn’t what most would deem a traditional cinematic experience. Iris: A Space Opera by Justice was released in cinemas simultaneously around the globe for one night only. There are no other screenings or releases planned, as far as I am aware. I happened to stumble across it by chance when looking at a cinema website for screenings that week, and my decision to buy a ticket was validated and then some. I was familiar with Justice prior, an electronica group akin to fellow Frenchmen Daft Punk, but I wasn’t what you would call  a die-hard fan. I was intrigued by the concept of this film, though, and thought it had the chance to be a special event. 

It is a concert documentary without an audience. Justice chose to have a concert performance filmed completely isolated from the feedback of a crowd, enabling the focus to be squarely on the sound, the lights and the stage design, and the synchronized and synthesized choreography of the three. The result is 60 minutes of jaw-dropping sensory sex. I could not keep a smile off my face, completely stunned by the artistry evident in the control and mastery of the tools that created this performance. It is something that really must be seen to be believed, and there are moments that took my breath away. It is a completely unique way to experience a concert, and I’m not sure I ever want to go back.

It felt like, and likely was, a once in a lifetime experience – one that I wish I could do over again. Time will tell whether this experience is ever made accessible beyond these one-off screenings, but if it is, and you have the opportunity to partake in it, you really don’t want to pass it up. Trust me on that.

2. Portrait of a Lady on Fire

3. The Golden Glove

4. Divine Love

5. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

6. The Irishman

7. Dutch Angle: Chas Gerretsen & Apocalypse Now

8. Midsommar

9. Parasite

10. Monos


Davey Peppers:

1. Marriage Story

My parents divorced when I was 12 in 2010. I wasn’t privy to the details, but it wasn’t a perfectly amicable split even though things have long since settled. This decade has been defined by the concept of divorce, and over the past few years, I’ve started to understand why people drift apart, and in what ways it’s not really anybody’s fault. When I walked into an early showing of Marriage Story two months ago, I fully expected to be destroyed by the film and connect so strongly to the kid trapped in the middle of the titular marriage’s destruction.

Despite this assumption, the film started, and then I started to see myself in the parents too. I saw their mistakes reflecting mine, and the mistakes made around me over the past 10 years. Marriage Story is a layered, intellectually confident story that takes great care to not pick sides, even when someone like myself so desperately wants there to be a hero and a villain, but it’s also raw in a way few movies can be. I felt wiser about my own life and the lives of others coming out of this movie. I cannot repay Baumbach’s masterpiece enough.

2. Parasite

3. Little Women

4. The Farewell

5. 1917

6. The Irishman

7. Portrait of a Lady on Fire

8. Knives Out

9. Booksmart

10. The Art of Self-Defense


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Jen:

1. Shadow

This film is the definition of visual splendor. It has a simple aesthetic that completely immerses you in its world, the monochromatic palette laced with blood. It’s a classic story for a wuxia film, and director Yimou Zhang crafts it masterfully.

The film follows the kingdom of Pei after the loss of an important city to the rival Yang kingdom. The cowardly king of Pei demotes Commander Ziyu to commoner status after Ziyu challenges the king of Yang to a duel against the King’s will. But Ziyu has a secret weapon, a Shadow. A man named Jingzhou who looks just like him, who he sends to masquerade as him in the public eye while he recovers from the last battle. Ziyu plans to train Jingzhou for the duel, while having another general stripped of his role train convicts to retake the city.

There are all sorts of interesting character dynamics in this film, and that’s where the heart of it lies. The king’s sister refuses to be given away as a token of peace, Jingzhou begins to fall in love with Ziyu’s wife, and the wife herself has to choose between the shell her husband has become, and the man most like her husband now.

Then there’s the action. The scenes of war as well as intimate duels are what movies of this kind are made for. It has to be seen to be believed, and I implore you to believe.

2. The Irishman

3. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

4. Ad Astra

5. The Last Black Man in San Francisco

6. Doctor Sleep

7. Avengers: Endgame

8. Parasite

9. Dolemite is My Name

10. Fast Color


Reyzando Nawara:

1. Marriage Story

Falling in love with someone is one of the most wonderfully miraculous feelings that human beings experience; but more often than not people also fall out of love. This portrait of people falling out of love is not exactly uncommon anymore in films and television. Robert Brenton’s Kramer vs. Kramer, Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road and Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage are a few of the best films that explore this theme. This year, it is Noah Baumbach’s best film to date, Marriage Story, that becomes a new addition to that list. While it’s true that the story is loosely inspired by his own experience when he was going through a divorce with Jennifer Jason Leigh in 2013, Marriage Story is more than just a personal emblem, but rather a universal portrait of how painful it is to experience the end of a relationship and the feeling of loss that comes with it. The film also asks us to witness the fact that the technical messiness of a divorce system may be fully designed to make people who were once in love, detest and hurt each other for the sake of benefiting their legal case. Heartbreaking but never resorting to sentimentalism, Marriage Story will perforate your heart and leave you with an uneasy feeling of devastation when it ends. You’ll cry, you’ll laugh and you’ll cry some more.

2. Portrait of a Lady on Fire

3. The Farewell

4. High Life

5. Pain and Glory

6. Parasite

7. Her Smell

8. Ad Astra

9. Little Women

10. Tie: Synonyms & Knives Out

Honorable Mentions:

The Irishman, 1917, Uncut Gems, Midsommar, The Souvenir


Vincent:

1. Under the Silver Lake

Seldom do I write continuously about a film, but here I am almost a year after my first viewing, still in awe of the sheer intricacy of David Robert Mitchell’s latest film. Initially, I was completely turned off for all the wrong reasons, upset at the very things the film was satirizing, but I quickly realized that’s the intention. To put it straightforwardly, Under the Silver Lake attempts (and succeeds) to rip into the idea of the Hollywood system and everything it stands for, disguising itself as an almost parody-like version of a classic Hollywood noir story. Sam idolizes everything about Hollywood, so of course his character is padded with so much pathetic desperation, thinking nearly anything about this mystery he’s trying to solve has any real meaning. It’s not surprising that it was panned and shelved by the very industry it savages; criticizing the way it chews and spits women out and treats people without any sense of humanity, and how toxic the idolization of said industry can be. With all that being said, it’s still such a fun ride that gets even deeper into the rabbit hole as it moves along, and the rewatch value is insane because you’ll always discover something new on each viewing. It’s like an obscure puzzle you’ll never truly figure out, mirroring Sam’s mystery in the film.

2. The Irishman 

3. Parasite 

4. Knives Out

5. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

6. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

7. Midsommar

8. Dragged Across Concrete

9. Little Women

10. The Death of Dick Long

Staff Selects

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