Nick Perry is part of the Film Flam team at Boston Hassle. Follow him on Twitter to talk movies or Vanderpump Rules.
What a fun year for movies! What a … well, it was certainly another year for movie discourse! Fortunately, through all the conversations of superheroes and cinema, we got some very stellar movies this year. We watched some legendary directors reckon with their personal and cinematic history, as well as some of the most incredible directorial debuts in recent memory. We saw the completion of the MCU’s Infinity saga and of Star Wars‘ Skywalker saga (one can hope at least). I reserve the right to not say anything on either! Perhaps most memorably this year, we got a live-action Pokemon movie that implied Bill Nighy was sleeping with a Ditto and a Cats movie not nearly as horny as it should have been.
Although it is looking to be one of the most boring awards seasons in a long time, we can take comfort in the fact that none of that bullshit matters. Movies are still fun to watch and talk about, awards are meaningless, Disney is a dystopic monopoly doing more harm to the film industry than good, and Joker is just an okay movie. And let’s face it, most movies are just okay. And that’s okay! We’ll still watch them for the chance to feel and to see … well, something, anything. We watch movies to be surprised, to be enchanted, and sometimes just to feel a little more human than we do regularly. It is of course the movies that affect us in unexpected ways though that prove to be the ones that linger longest in our thoughts, whether through laughter or tears or even befuddlement at the decision to animate everything except for the hands oh god why human hands on a cat person body?!
The list below represents the movies from 2019 that I felt were better than okay. These are the ones that made my heart hurt or burst, the ones that set my body on fire or chilled me to the bone—these are the views from 2019 that I suspect will stay with me for long while.
Top Ten + One (unranked)!
Ash is Purest White
An odyssey of change, both personal and grand. Jia Zhangke tells the story of China’s recent sweeping changes through the filter of two gangster lovers. Filmed over the course of a decade, with thoughtful cinematography to match the recent-epoch transitions, the movie captures an epic human drama as well as a rapidly changing China. Touches of the comic or the cosmic or the violent punctuate the reflective mood in a way that fully displays the human condition, from mundane to surreal. Change, whether micro or macro, always seems surreal in hindsight. Zhao Tao gives you the performance of a lifetime.
A farce about hauntings, whether those of presence, past, or trauma. I loved this little movie so much. It’s so riotously funny with such an absurd presence. The whole cast is inviting and hilarious, but Maeve Higgins is outstanding with her incredible presence and comedic timing. She brings such warmth to the whole affair, playing a medium haunted by maybe accidentally causing her father’s death. The movie takes familiar horror tropes and subverts them in ways that remind one of Abbott and Costello meeting the Wolf Man or a ragtag group of scientists busting ghosts.
(Read Oscar Goff’s review of Extra Ordinary here)
Pain and Glory
A love letter—to a person, to the past, to a moment, to oneself. Pedro Almodóvar invites you in to tell a story of his life and, in doing so, made a deeply affecting masterpiece. Antonio Banderas is captivating, slipping into the skin of his longtime friend and collaborator, becoming almost unrecognizable as a stand-in for the director himself. Banderas’ performance is intimately physical, capturing both the chronic pain and gentle movements of the character. Familiar Almodóvar faces likewise appear throughout the movie, and he films them all with love, with warmth. There is no sickly sweet nostalgia or forced sentimentality, just genuine affection for the people and the moments that shaped him. We should all treat the story of our lives with such care.
(Read Kyle Amato’s review of Pain and Glory here)
A decaying monument … or perhaps a monument to decay. Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece shows the sweeping social and political changes of decades through the lens of a mafia hitman (not unlike Ash is Purest White). Each performance is perfect, whether characterized by brash monologues or silent disdain. Of particular note are Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci. Both actors capture in stunning detail these broken men stunted and stunned by violence—by a need to be in battle—who realize far too late they’ve made the wrong choices, or maybe worse yet, never thought at all about the choices they were making. Scorsese and screenwriter Steven Zaillian show these men with empathetic care, never really glorifying or damning them but, instead, revealing them to be the tragic figures that they are. The open door has haunted me since I saw it.
(Read Oscar Goff’s review of The Irishman here)
The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open
A character study full of empathy. Every element of this movie is what you want out of filmmaking. It tells its story in a way that never exploits or overly dramatizes domestic abuse. Instead, it finds room to breathe, even in tight corners and even tighter close ups. For this is a movie about giving space to others and helping them find space to heal. Told mostly as one continuous real-time shot, it follows two woman with little in common other than their happenstance meeting on a sidewalk. The movie was filmed on 16mm reels by cinematographer Norm Li and then expertly stitched together. This technique, of course, would be meaningless without the direction from Kathleen Hepburn and Elle-Maija Tailfeathers’ (who also performs remarkably in the movie). It’s a truly incredible feat from the directors, using real-time to make the story more naturalistic and more real, without ever sacrificing character in favor of what can sometimes become gimmicky filmmaking. Violet Nelson is an astounding acting debut, every scene she is in is so fully realized. I cannot wait to see what she or these directors do next.
A political cartoon naturally evolving into violence. Every time I see a Mike Leigh movie, my love of filmmaking is reinvigorated. Peterloo is no exception. Its scope is larger than anything Leigh has delivered in recent memory, focusing on an assortment of characters, but still no less powerful. Of course, this is a deeply political work, and Leigh uses not only the political media of the time—the villains in the movie sometimes appear cartoonish, yet still deeply reminiscent of our own world—but also reflects the frustrations of today. A heartbreaking work that reminds you the world keeps spinning regardless. Disarm the police!
A rape and revenge tale in which the brutality of colonialism is laid bare. Jennifer Kent is proving to be one of the great storytellers, and this is only her second movie. In it, she uses the rape and revenge genre to explore the violence of colonialism, looking at how it affects abused and abuser both inside and out and how cycles of abuse maintain and spread. Of course, with Kent, the genre is merely a familiar trapping to invite you in, and is shed early on to reveal something darkly surprising underneath. Every character is vividly and monstrously human. She captures every detail, intertwining character choices and actions with the violence around them—in some cases, the violence that they themselves have created. The world we live in is displayed in full, and Kent never shies from the complexities of grief, anger, or desperate want. Aisling Franciosi, Sam Claflin, and Baykali Ganambarr give some of the best performances of the year.
(Read Oscar Goff’s review of The Nightingale here)
A sea shanty of horny weirdness. I wish I had more to say than that, but that’s what it is. I loved this movie so much. It’s wild and fun and funny. Robert Eggers uses a sort of mythic, fairy-tale structure to warn of the dangers of aggro masculinity and (self-)isolation. The pairing of Robert Pattinson and Willem Defoe is electric. They play off each other brilliantly, never shying from the darker or more ridiculous edges of the story. It’s a bit campy in a way, and the camp underscores the queerness of the whole movie without ever feeling forced. Ultimately it asks that age-old question: would the world be a better place if more men just said they loved each other’s lobster?
(Read Oscar Goff’s review of The Lighthouse here)
A breakdown in real time. The cast and filmmaking is exquisite as it documents a rocker falling apart, and taking down everyone with her. Everything hinges on Elisabeth Moss’s unhinged lead performance. This is her show, and she delivers the most potent performance of her career, traversing the hills and valleys of fame, mental illness, and drug addiction with care and grace. She is a fearless performer, and it made me even more frustrated at accolades some men were getting this year for half the depth in their work, let alone the security in their choices. This is a brilliant work that is elevated not merely by Moss’s performance, but by everyone else’s ability to keep up with her.
(Read Nicola McCafferty’s review of Her Smell here)
A world you want nothing to do with and one you can’t get away from. Josh and Benny Safdie make movies that stick with you long after they’ve finished, like some wonderfully intense amphetamine. Adam Sandler shines as a man in the midst of his life falling apart, chasing after the win, the big one … the last one, if such a thing really exists. Honestly though, it’s really the “supporting” cast that elevates this movie to the next level. I use quotes because the Safdie brothers treat every character and performer with such respect that it transcends the screen. So few directors demonstrate such tender care for their stories, and the Safdies’ love and empathy for every character is indelible. Their movies are full of manic warmth, even as much as they gut punch you.
(Read Oscar Goff’s review of Uncut Gems here)
A dance film on bath salts. Made me feel like my body was on fire (in a good way). Pastiche horror by way of Step Up as filtered through Noé’s lens of making the audience feel as uncomfortable as possible. I struggle to say he knew what he was doing, but goddamn if he didn’t make one hell of a horror. It’s chaos on film, audacious and cheeky. Sofia Boutella is simply divine. I loved every minute of it, even as I was on the edge of my seat with jaw clenched and fingers dug into the armrest. This is one hell of a dance party. Just remember to breathe.
(Read my review of Climax here)
I Also Loved These Movies!
Dark Waters—The world’s on fire, and your paranoia is justified.
Hustlers—Sex work is real work.
Ready or Not—Eat the rich, even your boyfriend.
Toy Story 4—I had not realized Woody had not self-actualized until this movie. Brilliant ending to an icon.
Little Women—Life is repetitive, but with a beauty, glow, and occasional sadness in its variations. Am I an Amy?
The Beach Bum—”Why the women’s clothing?” “What?”
Booksmart—I watched this on an airplane and the make out scene in the bathroom made me cry.
Canary—The closet might kill you when it’s no longer protecting you.
Midsommar—Fun and funny and gorgeous. Florence Pugh earned her cinema darling status.
The Farewell—Lulu Wing made something beautiful. Zhao Shuzhen is going criminally unrewarded.
John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum—He killed a man with a book in a library and then put the book gently back on the shelf. Perfect man.
Parasite—Eat the rich, before they eat you. This cast is going criminally unrewarded.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire—How many queer stories did we lose to the ages?
In Fabric—Everything about the way the salespeople talk: cinema!
Us—Jordan Peele’s ode to (’80s) horror felt so good in all of the right ways. Lupita Nyong’o sets the tone for the whole movie.
Knife+Heart—Cinema is truth through artifice. Sex work is real work.
Atlantics—A beautiful debut, haunting and eloquent.
High Life—There’s no title card until 20 minutes into the movie, enough said.
Diane—Is it ever possible to keep up? Incredible cast. Mary Kay Place is quietly stupendous.
The Souvenir—Dense and moving, Hogg let this story sit and ferment with her until she was ready to share it.
Steven Universe: The Movie—My little boy grew up, and Rebecca Sugar found new ways to have enemies become friends.
Always Be My Maybe—The Keanu Reeves dinner scene alone!
Knives Out—The real thrill is that Daniel Craig finally found a way to break out of the action-movie star box he’s been (wrongly) confined to.
Shazam!—Cute and fun! More superhero movies could stand to be like this.
Alita: Battle Angel—Robert Rodriguez is our most interesting, underrated director. Trans rights!
Marriage Story—A divine cast in a comic work. Julia Hagerty and Merritt Wever deserves more laurels.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood—Every single driving-in-a-car scene is perfect.
See You Yesterday—Never stop trying to make a better tomorrow.
Ma—Fails at what it was trying to do, but succeeds in being glorious trash. Octavia Spencer can do everything.
Under the Silver Lake—Weirdly lovely. Silly in all of the best ways.
Pokemon: Detective Pikachu—Cute and cuddly.
My Favorite New to Me Movies!
Broadcast News—James L. Brooks is so good at what he does.
Tea With The Dames—A lovely movie to watch on a Sunday morning. I miss Joan Plowright onscreen.
Thelma and Louise—Perfect movie. Harold, they’re lesbians.
Dangerous Liaisons—Bitchy and silly.
Mortal Engines—Peter Jackson made a gorgeous mess.
The House with a Clock in its Walls—Very cute!
Poltergeist—I will forever worship at the altar of Tobe Hooper.
The Blackcoat’s Daughter—Utterly depressing.
Anna and the Apocalypse—How did this work so well?!
Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore—Scorsese’s rom-com is so natural and lived-in.
Swiss Army Man—Harold, they’re gay.
Burlesque—A ridiculous movie musical that is so much better made than Cats, even if it is a bad movie.
The People Under the Stairs—Goofy, funny, and so very smart. Everett McGill and Wendy Robie seem like they’re having a blast.