Seems to me that only in a very good year for movies could the best film I saw all year and the worst film I saw all year both be called Parasite. Of course, one was the Cannes sensation and sure-to-be-Oscar-nominated South Korean film from Bong Joon Ho. The other was the 1982 3-D “classic” from director Charles Band, starring Demi Moore and Luca Bercovici, a movie which, once I finally caught up with it, or rather once it finally caught up with me (after my having successfully avoided it for almost 40 years), certainly made for an agonizing waste of my time, so I can only imagine what the actors and craftspeople who were involved with making it must have felt, and likely still do. And I consider it a real hallmark of a quality cinema annum when I can say that I saw more movies by near-forgotten Hollywood journeymen Ray Enright and Lloyd Bacon (look ‘em up, kids—that’s what IMDb is for) than I did by Martin Scorsese, who doubles up near the top of my list this year.
Here then, from the heights to the depths (with only the most glancing mention of the depths, really), are the highlights of this past terrific movie year for me, the pictures, performances, and singular achievements that made going to the movies so much more enjoyable than paying attention to real life, even when they opened the sort of revealing window onto real life that is only possible within this art form, reflecting and illuminating the human condition in the most unexpected, welcome and, if we’re really lucky, entertaining of ways.
PARASITE Bong Joon Ho redefines “upstairs/downstairs” in what is, in my estimation and on its own terms, and if such a thing can even exist, just about as perfect a movie as I’ve ever seen in the modulation of its social satire— acute observations on class and strata are embedded in just about every frame, yet the picture is astonishing fun to watch, the polar opposite of a dry treatise on how humans functioning in webs of economic frustration or privilege feed on each other. It seems also to have hit a nerve with audiences starved for a sense of surprise, for the satisfaction of not knowing where they’re going but being absolutely assured, and with great pleasure and anticipation, that they’ll get there—the movie is thrillingly entertaining and, from moment to moment, genuinely unpredictable. It also has, in the work of actors like Boon Joon Ho veterans Song Kang-ho (The Host) and Lee Jong-un (Okja), as well as Jo Yeo-jeong, Jang Hye-in, and especially Park So-dam, the highest caliber ensemble performance by any cast this year. This movie is what ensemble screen acting awards are made for. Bong (Mother, Memories of Murder) has conjured an exquisitely controlled, fiercely alive work that ought to make just about every other director out there sick with envy, and perhaps even inspired by the surety and humor and brilliantly sustained purpose with which he delivers the goods. This is easily the year’s best, most pleasurable, and ultimately most devastating movie.
DIANE The Los Angeles Film Critics Circle were wise enough to award Mary Kay Place their best actress honors this year, which gives me hope that she may at least be acknowledged by yet another higher-profile award-bestowing body this coming week. But even if she doesn’t, she’s given a performance for the ages in Kent Jones’s masterful movie, a lovely, unforced, exquisitely realized, formally engaging act of empathy for unsung souls burdened by the shadows of social and familial responsibility, mortality, identity and inescapable guilt. If that sounds like a drag, then please allow yourself to be energized by a film that, though it couldn’t feel more different in tone and approach, can stand right next to Parasite as an exemplar of the absolute best a very good year at the movies has had to offer.
THE IRISHMAN One of the great common denominators about at least five of the movies among my favorites of 2019 is that they couldn’t have been made by anyone else, and that’s certainly true of the two movies made by Martin Scorsese represented here. The cast, from the rightly celebrated Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci, through Ray Romano, Harvey Keitel, Anna Paquin, Stephan Graham, and on to Jesse Plemons, Kathrine Narducci, Domenick Lombardozzi and a giant cast of players even less known, are all deserving of praise. But even more fascinating, Scorsese approaches the story of hitman Frank Sheeran, his role in the tumultuous history of American union politics and, perhaps, in the death of Teamsters icon Jimmy Hoffa, with the subdued style of one of his religious epics, eschewing the flash of GoodFellas for an appropriately rueful stylistic meditation on tenuous power, corrupt morality, and the heavy sigh of a soul, perhaps not one even worth saving, in absolute freefall.
A HIDDEN LIFE With his gorgeous, agonizing, poetically realized story of a conscientious objector in WWII Austria, Terence Malick not only sums up the stylistic compulsions that have obsessed his work over the last two decades, but he’s also finally fulfilled the promise of Days of Heaven and his presumed status as a great American filmmaker. This is a movie that demands a rigorous attention to philosophical quandaries that clearly alienated several members of the audience with which I saw it, yet it rewards those like myself, who were suspicious of films like The Tree of Life or To The Wonder, with a genuinely haunting, challenging, uniquely introspective experience that is itself based on the introspection of a modest, undeniably heroic man, the sort who chooses to suffer injustice rather than perpetuate it, whose stories often go untold.
ROLLING THUNDER REVUE: A BOB DYLAN STORY BY MARTIN SCORSESE Scorsese’s second appearance on this list is a long, strange, joyous, darkly comic mix of the factual and the fantastical, a reassessment of Bob Dylan’s famous 1975 tour which contextualizes the music, the personalities and especially the attempts to control the telling of the story of a specific moment in a musical movement, in terms of the shifting landscape of a country and its culture, both then and now. Like Dylan’s music, and Dylan himself (who robustly participates in the blurring of as many lines of truth and fiction as possible here, to fascinating ends), the documentary/mockumentary Scorsese has fashioned is, both in individual moments and in overall philosophy, epic, lyrical, personal, contradictory, nonsensical, and a deliriously fascinating one in which no truth, and perhaps every truth, is arrived at 45 years late and right on time.
ATLANTICS A mysterious, gorgeous first feature from director Mati Diop scored to its own ethereal, uniquely untrackable heartbeat, a love story grounded in social reality which floats on longing and pivots on its metaphysical heel to become something… unexpected, expansive, strangely worthy of that longing. Mame Bineta Sane, a first-time actress, holds the screen like a Hollywood veteran as Ada, a young woman bound in a marriage contract whose true boyfriend disappears with a group of fellow construction workers at sea, and the way Diop, with a magnificent assist from Claire Mathon’s swoon-inducing cinematography, tells the story of these two unrequited lovers and the unbreachable gap separating them is satisfying in the elliptical manner of a superbly written short story.
APOLLO 11 In coincidence with the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, and bereft of narration, talking heads or other grounding devices, director Todd Douglas Miller uses NASA and television news footage (a generation of viewers will now be privy to the reasons behind the reverence with which their elders infuse the utterance of the name “Walter Cronkite”) to tell the story of Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Michael Collins and that truly incredible journey in a way that enhances the reality and the unbearable suspense of a situation we’ve now known the outcome of for several generations. In a year of great documentaries, none was possessed of the sort of historical acuity or grandeur, or the almost hallucinatory clarity that is the lifeblood of Miller’s achievement.
ONE CHILD NATION A cross-generational cry of anger from documentarian Nanfu Wang, who explores the awful history of China’s one-child policy, those whose lives were shaped (and sometimes warped) by it, and the dutiful citizens, acting from pride, helplessness, or a grim combination of both, who perpetuated it in the name of national strength. Perhaps the most distinctive element of Wang’s approach, apart from her refusal to look away from even the most personal implications of China’s policy, is the creative and political intelligence she exhibits in observing that though she grew up in a country which for years mandated abortions, and then moved to a country (the United States) where abortions are slowly becoming more difficult to obtain, both governments were about removing the rights of women to make decisions about their own bodies, thus neutering the opportunity for those who might be so inclined to reductively spin One Child Nation into a simple pro-life tract.
HONEYLAND If the measure of a truly remarkable documentary is to illuminate an aspect of humanity unfamiliar to most audiences, then the work done by directors Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov, in distilling over three years’ worth of footage into this compelling, ultimately heartbreaking nonfiction film, must be considered remarkable, a lovely rendering of a life lived and expressed in balance with the natural world, the world faced as it is with no compromise, which nonetheless is perilously close to falling out of balance. As shot by the intimately calibrated cameras of Fejmi Daut and Samir Ljuma, Honeyland quietly observes, and ultimately celebrates the endurance of a middle-aged beekeeper named Hatidze, who tends to her feeble mother as well as the bees who provide the means of her physical and economic sustenance, and who must also endure the appearance of a vagabond Turkish family who inadvertently come to threaten her ecosystem and her survival. With its equal measures of patience, insistent yet nonjudgmental curiosity about human motivations, and its inevitable sadness, the film stands as a unique wonder, painfully privy to secret moments, expansive, haunting.
DOLEMITE IS MY NAME A heartfelt tribute to getting your art (and yourself) on the screen and into movie history, anchored by an arguably career-best performance by Eddie Murphy, alongside stellar support from the likes of Mike Epps, Craig Robinson, Keegan-Michael Key and, most especially, Da’Vine Joy Randolph. Murphy thankfully avoids the mistake of slavishly copying the vocal rhythms and look of Rudy Ray Moore, who brought a generation or two’s worth of folklore and coalesced it into a stand-up and movie career as Dolemite, a storyteller styled in the pimp couture of the day. (Moore is also considered by some, based on his musically charged vocal rhythms and how he used them to relate his jokes and stories, as the godfather of rap.) Instead, Murphy makes the character his own, which is his way of carrying on Moore’s tradition of passing along urban legends filtered through his own personality. The result is a thoroughly enjoyable, outrageously profane, and not surprisingly honorable movie which joins the ranks of Ed Wood (1994; also written by DIMN‘s Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander) and Allan Arkush and Joe Dante‘s wonderful Hollywood Boulevard (1976) as perhaps the best movies ever made about making Hollywood outside the box.
HONORABLE MENTION (in alphabetical order):
AD ASTRA, AVENGERS: ENDGAME, THE BIGGEST LITTLE FARM, CRAWL, FORD VS. FERRARI, GODZILLA KING OF THE MONSTERS, LINDA RONSTADT: THE SOUND OF MY VOICE, THE LIGHTHOUSE, MARRIAGE STORY, MIDSOMMAR, PAIN AND GLORY, THE PRODIGY, TRANSIT, UNCUT GEMS, US
Still to see in 2019
ASH IS PUREST WHITE, BOOKSMART, BOMBSHELL, CATS, THE CURRENT WAR, DAVID CROSBY: REMEMBER MY NAME, ESCAPE ROOM, THE FANATIC, FIRST LOVE, GLORIA BELL, THE GREAT HACK, HONEY BOY, THE KING, THE KINGMAKER, THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO, LITTLE WOMEN, MAKING WAVES: THE ART OF CINEMATIC SOUND, THE MAN WHO KILLED DON QUIXOTE, MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN, THE NIGHTINGALE, PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE, RICHARD JEWELL, TIGERS ARE NOT AFRAID, TOY STORY 4, THE TWO POPES, WESTERN STARS, WHERE’D YOU GO, BERNADETTE?, WHERE’S MY ROY COHN?, ZOMBIELAND: DOUBLE TAP
One I Liked Way Better Than Y’all Did
GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS
Ones Y’all Liked Way Better Than I Did
THE SOUVENIR, ONCE UPON A TIME IN… HOLLYWOOD, HUSTLERS
Least Fulfilled Opportunity Based On Its Excellent Source Material
Biggest (Happy) Surprises
6 UNDERGROUND, SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK
Biggest (Unhappy) Surprise (aka The Worst Movie of 2019)
Best Viewing Experiences of 2019
CRAWL (head in popcorn bucket, Regency Academy, Pasadena)
CRY WOLF (1947) (TCM)
DOLEMITE IS MY NAME (with a similarly amused audience, Laemmle Glendale)
GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS (with Emma, free preview courtesy of the Secret Movie Club, Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood)
THE IRISHMAN (packed house, Studio Movie Grill, Glendale)
LINDA RONSTADT: THE SOUND OF MY VOICE (by myself, sobbing, Laemmle Glendale; with Bruce, sobbing, Hillcrest Cinemas, San Diego)
MERRILY, WE GO TO HELL (inaugural selection TCM Classic Film Festival 2019, with Bruce)
NASHVILLE (TCM Classic Film Festival, with Bruce, Bob Westal, Ronee Blakely, Keith Carradine, Jeff Goldblum, Joan Tewkesbury)
UNCUT GEMS (second time around, this time on the big screen, with a sparse audience who seemed to get it, AMC Burbank 8)
Mary Kay Place DIANE
(Honorable Mention: Lupita Nyong’o US, Scarlet Johansson MARRIAGE STORY, Geraldine Viswanathan HALA, Florence Pugh MIDSOMMAR, Awkwafina THE FAREWELL, Isabelle Huppert GRETA)
August Diehl A HIDDEN LIFE, Eddie Murphy DOLEMITE IS MY NAME, Adam DriverMARRIAGE STORY, Antonio Banderas PAIN AND GLORY, Toni Servillo LORO.
(Honorable Mention: Joaquin Phoenix JOKER, Christian Bale FORD V. FERRARI, Brad Pitt AD ASTRA, Robert De Niro THE IRISHMAN, Willem Dafoe THE LIGHTHOUSE, Adam Sandler UNCUT GEMS)
Yeo-jeong Jo, So-dam Park, Jeong-eun Lee, Hye-jin Jang PARASITE
(Honorable Mention: Da’Vine Joy Randolph DOLEMITE IS MY NAME, Idina MenzelUNCUT GEMS, Shuzhen Zhao THE FAREWELL, Nora Navas PAIN AND GLORY,Laura Dern MARRIAGE STORY, Sienna Miller 21 BRIDGES, Rebecca FergusonDOCTOR SLEEP, Michaela Watkins BRITTANY RUNS A MARATHON, Marisa Tomei FRANKIE, Dierdre O’Connell DIANE, Anna Paquin THE IRISHMAN)
Kang-ho Song PARASITE, Al Pacino THE IRISHMAN, Joe Pesci THE IRISHMAN, Eric Bogosian UNCUT GEMS, Leonardo Sbaraglia PAIN AND GLORY
(Honorable Mention: Lakeith Stanfield UNCUT GEMS, Judd Hirsch UNCUT GEMS, Alan Alda MARRIAGE STORY, Asier Etxeandia PAIN AND GLORY, Tracy Letts FORD V. FERRARI, Tom Hanks A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD, Alejandro Patino PAPI CHULO)
Bong Joon Ho PARASITE, Kent Jones DIANE, Martin Scorsese THE IRISHMAN/ROLLING THUNDER REVUE: A BOB DYLAN STORY BY MARTIN SCORSESE, Terence Malick A HIDDEN LIFE, Mati Diop ATLANTICS, Ari Aster MIDSOMMAR, Josh & Benny Safdie UNCUT GEMS, Christian Pozold TRANSIT, Pedro AlmodovarPAIN AND GLORY, Robert Eggers THE LIGHTHOUSE
Bong Joon Ho and Jin Won Han PARASITE, Steven Zaillian THE IRISHMAN, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski DOLEMITE IS MY NAME, Ronald Bronstein, Josh Safdie, Benny Safdie UNCUT GEMS, Christian Pozold TRANSIT, Robert Eggers, Max Eggers THE LIGHTHOUSE, Noah Baumbach MARRIAGE STORY
Kyung-pyo Hong PARASITE, Jorg Widmer A HIDDEN LIFE, Claire Mathon ATLANTICS, Pawel Pogorzelski MIDSOMMAR, Darius Khondji UNCUT GEMS, Jarin Blaschke THE LIGHTHOUSE, Roger Deakins 1917
Music (Original Score or Use of Songs)
USE OF SONGS: THE IRISHMAN, ROLLING THUNDER REVUE, DOLEMITE IS MY NAME, ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD
First Time Seen in 2019
ALL THROUGH THE NIGHT (1942; Vincent Sherman)
BLACK HAND (1950; Richard Thorpe)
BLONDIE JOHNSON (1933; Ray Enright)
BLOOD ON THE MOON (1948; Robert Wise)
BLUME IN LOVE (1973; Paul Mazursky)
BROTHER ORCHID (1940; Lloyd Bacon)
THE CARS THAT ATE PARIS (1974; Peter Weir)
CHAMBER OF HORRORS (1966; Hy Averback)
CHARLIE CHAN IN HONOLULU (1938; H. Bruce Humberstone)
CHARLIE CHAN AT TREASURE ISLAND (1939; Norman Foster)
CHARLIE CHAN AT THE WAX MUSEUM (1940; Lynn Shores)
COLORADO TERRITORY (1949; Raoul Walsh)
THE CROWD ROARS (1932; Howard Hawks)
CRY WOLF (1947; Peter Godfrey)
CUBE (1998; Vincenzo Natali)
A DELICATE BALANCE (1973; Tony Richardson)
EXPERIMENT IN TERROR (1962; Blake Edwards)
THE FAMOUS FERGUSON CASE (1932; Lloyd Bacon)
FAT CITY (1972; John Huston)
GENOCIDE (WAR OF THE INSECTS) (1968; Kazui Nihonmatsu)
GUN LAW JUSTICE (1948; Lambert Hillyer)
THE GYPSY MOTHS (1969; John Frankenheimer)
HOT LEAD (1951; Stuart Gilmore)
THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY (1981; Lucio Fulci)
HYSTERIA (1965; Freddie Francis)
JASON X (2002; James Isaac)
JOUR DE FETE (1949; Jacques Tati)
THE LETTER (1940; William Wyler)
THE MAN WHO HAUNTED HIMSELF (1970; Basil Dearden)
THE MAN WHO LAUGHS (1928; Paul Leni)
MERRILY, WE GO TO HELL (1932; Dorothy Arzner)
MILLIONAIRES IN PRISON (1940; Ray McCarey)
MISS PINKERTON (1932; Lloyd Bacon)
NIGHT OF DARK SHADOWS (1971; Dan Curtis)
NIGHT WORLD (1932; Hobart Henley)
OLD ACQUAINTANCE (1943; Vincent Sherman)
OPEN SECRET (1948; John Reinhardt)
PARASITE (1982; Charles Band)
POSSESSED (1931; Curtis Bernhardt)
THE RAGING MOON (aka LONG AGO, TOMORROW) (1971; Bryan Forbes)
THE ROBOT VS. THE AZTEC MUMMY (1958; Rafael Portillo)
SAGEBRUSH LAW (1943; Sam Nelson)
THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA (1973; Alan Gibson)
SAVAGE MESSIAH (1972; Ken Russell)
SEVEN DAYS TO NOON (1950; John Boulting, Roy Boulting)
SHADOW ON THE WALL (1950; Pat Jackson)
TARZAN AND HIS MATE (1934; Cedric Gibbons)
THE TATTOOED STRANGER (1950; Edward Montagne)
13 WEST STREET (1962; Philip Leacock)
…tick…tick…tick… (1970; Ralph Nelson)
TWO-GUN MAN FROM HARLEM (1938; Richard C. Kahn)
(WATERLOO BRIDGE (1931)) WATERLOO BRIDGE (1931; James Whale)
WHILE THE PATIENT SLEPT (1935; Ray Enright)
WHOEVER SLEW AUNTIE ROO? (1971; Curtis Harrington)
THE YIDDISH KING LEAR (1935; Harry Thomashefsky)
Happy New Year, everybody! Here’s to another great year of movies in 2020, and a much improved year from the past few in every other regard!