Happy 2020! I hope you’re having a great start to the new year.
As I wrote last year, I’m not one to compile “Best of…” or “Worst of…” lists for a few reasons. First, I don’t see every film that comes out. Sure, I watch about 150 films a year, which is more than most people, but there are plenty of films that either skip my notice, don’t come to Hong Kong (so there’s less of a “need” to watch them) or, in the case of many films that I know I’m going to hate, I just can’t be bothered spending my time watching them. The second problem I have with these lists is that many people who compile them often put films on their lists because other, more influential, people have done the same. Here, I’m thinking of films like MARRIAGE STORY and THE FAREWELL. I’ll readily admit that I enjoyed both of these films but do they really merit being among the best films of the year? I’ll concede that MARRIAGE STORY may be writer-director Noah Baumbach’s (MISTRESS AMERICA; WHILE WE’RE YOUNG; FRANCES HA) most approachable film to date and actors Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson do fine work but I’m not convinced that it merits being on a “Best of 2019” list. (To be honest, I would have preferred to watch 90 minutes of Laura Dern and Ray Liotta going at it as their lawyers.) As for THE FAREWELL, again I’ll concede that Awkwafina (PARADISE HILLS; CRAZY RICH ASIANS; OCEAN’S 8) continues to defy being pigeonholed as a certain type of actress and the Asian family experience is something that we typically don’t see on the big screen, but I felt that the characters were underdeveloped and the story held to a very narrow tone. I would have liked to have had a few more laughs and shed a few more tears.
The third problem I have is that many films that are ending up on other people’s lists have yet to come to Hong Kong. Films like 1917 and LITTLE WOMEN don’t open here until January 9. There is also the problem of films that never come to Hong Kong and there are plenty of those. Fortunately, with the availability of streaming services, we can now see many of these films and I have included a couple of them on my list this year. Finally, what is “best” and “worst”? Both these words are being used incorrectly. I prefer using “favourite” and “least favourite” because then I own them. I’m not saying a film is good or bad. (I save those words for my reviews.) I’m saying that I either liked them a lot or I didn’t like them at all.
So, without further ado, because so many people asked for it, here is my list of favourite films of 2019:
Eddie Murphy is back in this hilarious story about comedian/singer/actor/producer Rudy Ray Moore. Neither Rudy nor his stage persona Dolemite are familiar names to most white folk but to generations of African-Americans he was not just “the Godfather of Rap”, he was also the poster boy (man?) for perseverance, self-reinvention and opportunism. The film features a fabulous ensemble cast that includes Keegan-Michael Key, Wesley Snipes, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Da’Vine Joy Randolph and Snoop Dog but it’s the costumes by Oscar winner Ruth Carter (BLACK PANTHER) that are outstanding. Taking her inspiration from the original DOLEMITE film, these threads are fly! I’ll be surprised if Carter doesn’t nab an Oscar nomination for her work here.
Beware of friendly Swedes bearing hallucinogenics! Horror auteur Ari Aster (HEREDITARY) proves that he’s not a one-trick pony with this creepy tale of a young couple whose carefree summer holiday in Sweden takes a sinister turn when they visit a friend whose family lives in a pagan commune there. Though it lacks the jump scares that are typically found in horror films, MIDSOMMAR is still deeply disturbing. Aster adeptly shows that while anyone can make an unsettling film that takes place in the dark, it takes a master to make one that takes place in broad daylight. A fabulous second film!
Actress Olivia Wilde couldn’t have made a better choice for her directorial debut. BOOKSMART is a refreshing take on the female high school experience. Playing out not unlike the 2007 film, SUPERBAD, Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever are a riot as a pair of high-achieving Los Angeles-area BFFs who decide to make up for four years of studying with one night of debauchery. Sadly, this film never made it to Hong Kong (for the same reason that MIDSOMMAR didn’t either) but fortunately it’s available on the streaming services.
Competing with Ari Aster for the title of the New King of Horror, Jordan Peele’s second effort isn’t quite as brilliant as GET OUT but it’s still a bitingly good commentary on race relations in America today. Lupita Nyong’o is fabulous as Adelaide Wilson, a happily married wife and mother who takes matters into her own hands when a family of doppelgängers shows up at the front door of their vacation home. Scary, well executed and above all, timely!
Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar’s stories often deal with subjects that are near and dear to him but the thoughtfully textured PAIN AND GLORY is clearly about him. Antonio Banderas delivers a powerfully understated performance that gives audiences plenty to think about as his character reflects on his life and how he got to who and where he is today. Spain has selected the film as their entry for next year’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. It’s facing stiff competition from PARASITE (see below) but many agree that this may be Banderas’ best performance to date. He certainly impressed the jury at the Cannes Film Festival last May because they bestowed him with their Best Actor award.
5. The Irishman
Is this director Martin Scorsese’s pinnacle of achievement? The acclaimed director, who has been exploring such themes as crime, the Italian-American identity, faith, and guilt and redemption for over 50 years, and has introduced audiences to such indelible characters as Travis Bickle, Tommy DeVito and Robert Pupkin, now delivers a 3-1/2 hour epic about a hitman who may have been involved in the killing of Jimmy Hoffa. It’s magnificent!
Quentin Tarantino takes audiences back to 1969 Los Angeles, which was a time of change not just for the movie industry but for America as a whole. Like all his films, ONCE UPON A TIME features astounding attention to deal, from the cars, clothing, hairstyles and furniture to the multiple movie marquees, billboard advertising, food packaging and even the way the actors act and the directors direct in the movies and TV shows that are within the movie. There’s so much to take in that you may need to see it multiple times to catch everything. While Leonardo DiCaprio does great work as washed up TV star Rick Dalton, it’s Brad Pitt who steals the film as his long-time stunt double and general fixer, Cliff Booth. Expect to see Pitt nab an Oscar nomination for his work here.
3. The Lighthouse
Poetic yet disturbing, the black-and-white horror fantasy film by Robert Eggers (THE WITCH) tells the story of two lighthouse keepers at the end of the 1800s who start to lose their sanity when a storm strands them on the island where they are stationed. Shot in a near-square aspect ratio, the film looks like something that could have come from East Germany or Sweden in the 1960s. As the final credits roll, you may find yourself wondering what you just saw but you will no doubt be blown away by the film’s stark imagery and heavy symbolism. If you’re not familiar with the Greek mythologies of Prometheus and Proteus, you may want to read up on them first. Willem Dafoe gives audiences what may be his best performance to date. Fabulous film!
A wickedly funny takedown of South Korea’s Top Two Percenters as the economically downtrodden Kim family insinuates themselves on the well-to-do Park family. When the story takes a hard left turn in the third act, director Bong Joon-Ho masterfully holds the reigns tight and brings the story to a well-earned conclusion. Easily the best non-English language film of the year, PARASITE is the odds-on favourite to take home the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar next year.
If only all the other DC films were this good, Warner Bros. would be giving Disney a run for its superhero money. Director Todd Philips’ (THE HANGOVER trilogy) original story of Batman’s greatest nemesis is dark, dark, dark. But while it can be tough to watch at times, it is a fabulous film and a tour de force performance by Joaquin Phoenix. Expect to see him take home the Best Actor Oscar in February.
Now I’ve got to throw in a few honourable mentions:
The Peanut Butter Falcon
And a few films that I haven’t seen yet but I’ve heard good things about:
Always Be My Maybe
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind
Dogs Don’t Wear Pants
I Think We’re Alone Now
The Last Black Man In San Francisco
Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice
The Two Popes
What are some of your favourite films from 2019? Let me know!
Watch my review of this week’s movie releases recorded on Facebook Live on Friday, January 3rd at 8:30 am HK time!
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