by Mitch Pollock
“…there will be certain films that I watch again just because the vibe seems right.”Noah Baumbach, director of Marriage Story
What makes a great movie? An unanswerable question that spawns countless “Best of 2019” articles this time of year. Do I have any authority to answer it? No, not really. I’m neither a movie critic nor a film student. I’m a recent college graduate with too much free time, and I’ve spent a lot of that time watching movies. I figure I’m at least qualified to talk about my favorites.
Discouragingly, deciding which films should be celebrated isn’t easy. There are so many elements that can make a movie memorable: dazzling spectacle, shocking twists, thematic depth, heartstring-tugging emotional moments. This year, there were movies I loved on first viewing but haven’t thought about much since (The Report) and others that might be terrible but I couldn’t stop thinking about (Joker!).
With the Oscars looming, it’s tempting to look to the Academy for help with questions of taste and quality. A quick trip to Wikipedia and a peek at the winner’s lists will rid you of this temptation. Chariots of Fire over Raiders? Dances with Wolves over Goodfellas? Green Book over any other movie in 2018? Don’t get me wrong – I’ll be watching the Oscars just like every year, and this year’s crop of nominees might be the best of the decade. I’ll just be sure to keep in mind the poet Charles Bukowski’s words: “An Academy Award means you don’t stink quite as much as your cousin.”
Like I said, I saw a ton of new movies this year (34, by my count). Most were pretty good. Most I’ll never watch again. Maybe that’s how you tell: a great movie is one that lasts, one that “stays on the shelf.” The patron saint of film criticism, Roger Ebert, said, “Every great film should seem new every time you see it.” Fifty years from now, when Good Will Hunting is playing on my nursing home television, I’ll still cry when Will and Skylar break up, and I’ll throw my back out cheering when he’s “gotta go see about a girl.” In this case, the movie’s greatness isn’t objective; it’s personal. I admire the movie’s craft elements: the great performances, the Elliot Smith soundtrack, the attention to detail for the South Boston setting, the perfect hair styling of the Harvard Douchebag’s douchey ponytail. None of those help explain why I’ve said “wicked smaht” 300 times in my life (or why I’ve made actual life decisions based on this movie). It’s not merely impressive, it means something to me.
I’ve done enough hand wringing. The truth is, I’m not sure what makes a great movie, but I usually know when I’ve seen one. Here are five I saw last year.
5. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
Just kidding. It’s garbage.
High school movies come in two flavors. Most fit what I’d call the John Hughes Model, named for the director behind seminal 80’s high school classics like Pretty in Pink and The Breakfast Club. Characters fit archetypes: the jock, the rich brat, the bookworm. They’re usually high-stakes teenage dramas that result in satisfying endings where the protagonists grow and mature. Great cinematic comfort food, but not accurate to the real experiences of high school.
Then there’s the anti-Hughes approach, taken most successfully by my favorite movie, Dazed and Confused, and explained by its director, Richard Linklater:
“The drama is so low-key in [Dazed & Confused]. I don’t remember teenage being that dramatic. I remember just trying to go with the flow, socialize, fit in and be cool. The stakes were really low. To get Aerosmith tickets or not? That’s a big thing. It was really rare when the star-crossed lovers from the opposite side of the tracks and the girl gets pregnant and there’s a car crash and somebody dies. That didn’t really happen much. But riding around and trying to look for something to do with the music cranked up, now that happened a lot!”
Well said, Rick! But as much as I love the plotless, slice-of-life vibe of Dazed, it’s hard to pull off, and capturing reality isn’t a movie’s only objective. Heightened stakes and larger-than-life characters can enhance a movie’s storytelling.
Booksmart’s brilliance is in its “best of both worlds” approach. It feels real and daring and distinctly modern without tossing away time-tested narrative patterns. The movie’s setup is simple: seniors Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever), having spent four years of high school in the library, set out for a night of partying before graduating and heading to the Ivy League. Given that summary, it’s not surprising that Booksmart was frequently labeled “the female Superbad” upon release. That’s not a bad label (I love Superbad!) but it only scratches the surface of what makes it special.
Much has been written about the various unique aspects of Booksmart, from its feminist perspective and refreshing LGBT storyline to its innovative filmmaking techniques. I’d like to focus on how fun it is. Every member of the ensemble cast pops off the screen, managing to be both larger-than-life and exactly like someone you knew in high school. The standouts by far are Skyler Gisondo and Billie Lourd. Gisondo’s is perfect as Jared: an obnoxious, attention-hungry rich boy with a secretly soft center. And Lourd steals every scene as the uber-wealthy, wisdom-dispensing diva Gigi, whether she’s swan-diving off a yacht, force-feeding Molly and Amy drugged strawberries, or saying lines like “Now the ghost spirits live inside me waiting to be reborn.”
But this isn’t a movie carried by the actors; the screenplay carries its weight and then some. The story swerves in hilarious and unexpected ways while fitting in some genuinely moving scenes. Best of all, it fulfills the central requirement of a great high school movie: relatability. Anyone who has been a teenager will cringe and smile and laugh as they watch, saying, “That was me.”
Months after it bombed at the box office, I remain baffled by this movie’s lack of financial and awards success. The wide release in May against competition like Aladdin and Avengers: Endgame couldn’t have helped. There are also questions around the demand for theatrical comedies in general, with many studios choosing to go directly to streaming. Netflix, a breeding ground for new cult classics, would actually be a perfect second home for Booksmart. It has all the ingredients of a high school movie classic.
I saw Parasite on its opening night at my local AMC, and afterwards, a theater employee handed out paper surveys that asked us to rate and review it. The questions weren’t hard: How did you enjoy the film? What parts stood out to you? Do you typically watch movies like this?
Movies like this? I don’t think I’ve seen any movies like this. Parasite defies categorization. It can credibly be described as a comedy of errors, a pitch-black thriller, a class-conscious parable, and a love story. It’s genre-bending screenplay and twisty narrative left me breathless on the edge of my seat. I truly didn’t know what was coming scene-to-scene.
That type of audience experience has fueled the buzz for the movie and turned it into a phenomenon. Reviews commonly use words like “stunning,” “jaw-dropping,” and “must-see theater experience.” And that’s true, it’s definitely better to see it in a theater and hear the audience’s gasps match with your own.
However, the focus on its twisty narrative sells Parasite a bit short. The twists aren’t meaningless. They service the socially relevant, thematic storytelling that takes the movie from good to great. I’ll try to explain without spoiling too much. The movie centers on two South Korean families: the wealthy Parks and the poor Kims. The Kim’s son, Ki-Woo (Choi Woo-shik), is hired as the Park daughter’s English tutor. From there, director Bong weaves a knotted web of storylines as these two families intersect in unexpected ways, all heading towards a shocking and satisfying conclusion.
I think a big part of Parasite’s international success is that its themes are both uniquely Korean and universal. South Korea’s rapid economic development has led to income inequality at levels beyond even what we see in the U.S. As I understand it from my limited research, the middle class in Korea is basically nonexistent. This has led to serious societal tension between rich and poor Koreans that’s perfectly illustrated by Parasite’s story. By speaking to the economic anxieties and class conflicts of our time, Parasite has an argument for being 2019’s most vital film, as well as its most exciting.
Director Bong Joon-Ho garnered praise for his recent Golden Globes speech, when he spoke of the countless great foreign-language films waiting to be discovered by American cinephiles willing to step over the “one-inch barrier of subtitles.” I admit to being one of those Americans; I’ve only seen a handful of foreign-language films in my life. This is why, in addition to being amazed by Parasite, I’m also grateful for it. It’s widened the boundaries of the types of movies I’ll seek out in the future.
3. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood
Years ago, Quentin Tarantino coined the term “hang-out movie,” to describe films like Dazed and Confused, Rio Bravo, and his own Jackie Brown. He explains:
“There are certain movies that you hang out with the characters so much that they actually become your friends. And that’s a really rare quality to have in a film…and those movies are usually quite long, because it actually takes that long of a time to get past a movie character where you actually feel that you know the person and you like them…when it’s over, they’re your friends.”
It’s nice to be able to use a director’s own words to perfectly describe his movie. Tarantino made an old Hollywood hang-out movie, and a damn good one.
Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is loose. The film is mostly structured around a day in the life of three characters in late 60’s Los Angeles: Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a semi-washed-up TV cowboy and wannabe movie actor; Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), his longtime friend, driver, and stunt double; and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), a real-life rising Hollywood starlet. It’s slow, long, and (at times) frustratingly plotless. It also sucks you into its historically-precise, vibrant world with what Tarantino does best: great characters.
Pitt and DiCaprio are doing career-best work as Cliff and Rick. Pitt, in particular, stands out. Cliff Booth emits an effortless masculine cool so powerful, several of his scenes caused me to reflexively sink into my seat, suddenly self-conscious of attending this movie with a woman. And despite not getting as much screen time as the others, Sharon Tate is the soul of Hollywood. Robbie’s Sharon is sweet, beautiful, and full of life. In a mature move, the film chooses to highlight Sharon’s vibrant personality and emerging talent rather than use her real-life tragic fate for a cheap sequence of Tarantino violence. There is some trademark violence, which is incredibly entertaining, but to say more would spoil too much.
And yet, even with great performances from Hollywood mega-stars, it’s the little things that have stayed with me the most. The 60’s radio ads during the many driving scenes. The highlights we’re shown of Rick Dalton’s career, from “Bounty Law” and “FBI” to “The Fourteen Fists of McClusky.” The western-inspired shots of Cliff Booth surveying Spahn Movie Ranch. The clothes. My God, the clothes! Cliff’s Hawaiian shirt alone should win this movie Best Costume Design. All these details combine to create a complete cinematic world. Tarantino’s version of late 60’s Hollywood is a place I want to be. It makes the almost 3-hour runtime feel like a snap of the fingers.
It’s the rare Tarantino film that’s both subtle and beautiful: a fairy tale trying to preserve a time and place that the director clearly holds dear. It’s not my favorite of his ten films (yes, ten – Kill Bill is two movies) but it’s his sweetest and most mature work. I’ll be watching it for years to come.
2. Marriage Story
Any movie that makes me bawl uncontrollably in public will typically rank highly on my year-end list. So, congrats to Marriage Story for winning this year’s Weepy Baby Mitch Award (previous honorees include A Star is Born, Eighth Grade, Manchester by the Sea, and Boyhood).
Thankfully, Marriage Story is so much more than a sob fest. Beneath its exploration of the pain of divorce is a surprisingly romantic core. This is a love story about when love isn’t enough. It’s about what people do when they just can’t do it anymore.
The story centers on Charlie and Nicole Barber (Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson), a New York performing arts couple with a young son Henry, and it starts at the end: they’re getting divorced. What follows is a genre-bending story with a razor-sharp screenplay that’s at various times funny, awkward, touching, heartbreaking, and terrifying. She’s an actress who’s moving to LA to do a TV show; he’s a New York theater director whose play is headed to Broadway. The conflict that results reveals the bureaucratic hell of modern divorce, as Charlie and Nicole go from amicable to hostile while half a dozen lawyers squeeze in between them.
This type of movie demands a lot from its leads, and fortunately, Driver and Johansson are bringing it. A lot of attention has been paid to their mid-film rage fight, which is definitely impressive and downright scary. But in the film’s quieter moments, they’re just as effective as two people who aren’t sure what they are to one another anymore. Bravo to both.
This movie is tough. I admittedly had a mild panic attack in the middle of downtown Toronto after seeing it. And I admittedly haven’t been able to get through 10 minutes of it since. But I don’t think it’s all that bleak, just incredibly real. Sometimes in relationships, people lose their will, or they want something better for themselves. When you’re married with a kid, that leaves a lot of broken pieces to sweep up.
Even as this movie puts you through hell, it brings you back to Earth. There are a few scenes near the end that are triumphantly cathartic, and the movie ends on a surprisingly hopeful note. It suggests that life goes on, wounds can heal, and families like this one can find a way forward. And hopefully someday, when they remember all the unique ways they loved and were loved, they’re able to smile instead of cry. In depicting this human cycle of love, loss, and reconciliation, Marriage Story is a success.
1. The Lighthouse
Class warfare. Love and heartbreak. The inevitable melancholy of the world passing us by. All rich themes that bolster the great films on this list. But none are my favorite of the year. Instead, I’ll take Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson shouting at each other in nineteenth-century sailor speak while they fall into insanity and take the audience with them.
My God, what a movie. I saw this at an IMAX screening in Toronto and walked out into a different world: a little darker, a little saltier, and a lot stranger. Unfortunately, the things that make it remarkable also make it very challenging to write about; even the synopsis reveals almost nothing of what makes The Lighthouse work. Let me just list some things it features: mermaid sex. Farting as a show of dominance. Mischievous seagulls. Multiple scenes of implied masturbation. Willem Dafoe speaking like a crusty old sea captain, with an accent so perfectly absurd that every line he croaks is funny. Hallucinations. Greek mythology. A scene where Dafoe and Pattinson get drunk, sing sea shanties, almost kiss, and then beat the shit out of each other. And lots and lots of lines like this:
“Should pale death, with treble dread, make the ocean caves our bed, God who hears the surges roll, deign to save the suppliant soul.”
From the script, to the performances, to the cinematography and the ridiculous period detail of the production design, this movie is truly one of a kind. It’s filmed in black and white with a near-square aspect ratio and an outdated, grainy film stock, all of which adds to the film’s antique, claustrophobic feel. The tone swings wildly from Odd Couple-style comedy to psychological mystery to supernatural horror. It’s both the funniest and scariest movie of the year.
There are a multitude of layers within The Lighthouse to appreciate. I could dive into the mythological references or homoerotic undertones or the various symbols that drive these lighthouse keepers insane. But this is an appreciation piece, not an academic study, and this article’s already long enough. So, I’ll say this to conclude: see this movie. Or at least, commit to the first fifteen minutes, and if you haven’t turned it off by then, you’re in for a wild ride. It’s a singular cinematic experience that submerges you in its unique world and never lets you up for air. It’s a masterpiece.
Just don’t blame me if you hate it. It’s really goddamn weird.
These five aren’t the only movies I loved in 2019. Here are my thoughts on a bunch of my other favorites that, for whatever reason, didn’t inspire a lengthy write-up.
1917: A World War I movie filmed to look like one take. I went in skeptical of the gimmick, and I came out gasping for air. A great achievement and a breathtaking film. By the final minutes, I wanted to leap out of my seat to cheer on George Mackay’s Lt. Schofield as he’s running for his life.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood: A two-hour therapy session disguised as a movie. I mean that in the best way possible. Bravo, Tom Hanks. Bring the tissues for this one.
Blinded by the Light: A coming-of-age story about a young writer inspired by his favorite artist to pursue his dreams, featuring the songs of Bruce Springsteen? Yes, please.
Ford v Ferrari: I’d pick Christian Bale head-to-head against any actor in the world. He only hits home runs, and his Ken Miles is no exception. Miles is an ornery asshole who’s nevertheless the most likeable guy on the screen, and the credit goes to Bale’s talent and charm. He elevates a good sports movie to the edge of greatness.
The Irishman: I saw this in a matinee showing with an audience made up almost entirely of senior citizens. They absolutely loved it. I thought it was pretty good, too. The highlight was Al Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa; it’s remarkable that he can give such an energetic, perfectly over-the-top performance when he’s pushing 80. Hoo-ah!
Joker: I liked Joker. Sue me. The script is stupid, but most other craft elements of the movie are artful and memorable. If nothing else, I thought about it long after I saw it, which is more than I can say for most movies in 2019. Congrats, Joker. Please don’t win Best Picture or the Internet will explode.
Richard Jewell: Opinions are mixed on Clint Eastwood’s latest, especially regarding the genuinely problematic portrayal of Atlanta reporter Kathy Scruggs. Despite those problems, I thought it was a brilliant character study: a security guard who worships law enforcement so much, he keeps trying to help the FBI agents pinning him for a crime. Paul Walter Hauser gives one of my favorite performances of the year. When you add this to his scene-stealing roles in I, Tonya and BlacKkKlansman, it’s not hard to see that he’s going places.
Rocketman: The friend I saw this with hated it so much, he was on the verge of walking out several times. When asked whether I should include it in this article, he replied, “Absolutely not.” To each their own! I found it stylish, fun, and fascinating (and way better than Bohemian Rhapsody). At worst, it’s a great two-hour Elton John concert.