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2019: The Masterpieces

Okay, folks. The time has come to start putting up my year-end lists. For those who are new here, each list will presented in a kind of “awards” format, with movies grouped into categories and a “winner” selected from each one. (It’ll be more clear in a minute.) There are three lists, each one with different criteria, and all of them will follow these basic rules.

1. Only movies that I’ve seen and reviewed will be considered. This was an extremely busy year for me and there were A LOT of films I didn’t get around to. Fast Color, The Sun is Also a Star, The Tomorrow Man, Shaft (2019), Gemini Man, Terminator: Dark Fate, Ophelia, Marriage Story, Stuber, The Peanut Butter Falcon, Where’d You Go Bernadette?, The Goldfinch, Downton Abbey (2019), Rambo: Last Blood, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, Charlie’s Angels (2019)… the list goes on and on. This sadly means that a lot of noteworthy films from this year will not be considered for these lists.

2a. Only movies released in 2019 will be considered. While it breaks my heart to take Shadow (2018) out of contention, that one got a September 2018 release in China.

2b. Festival premiere dates don’t count. Because movies have been known to change in post between festival screenings and public release, I don’t consider a movie to be truly completed while it’s on the festival circuit. This leaves My Summer as a Goth in a grey area, as I saw this one in a public screening while it was on an independent tour outside the festival circuit. What the hell, I’m counting it anyway.

3. Only one award per film, and one award per category. I don’t want a situation in which one movie wins everything, and I don’t want to call any ties. That would be too easy, and frankly boring.

With all of that settled, let’s get to the Masterpieces. These are the films that I hold up as the greatest films of 2019 — the ones that challenged the audience and displayed technical mastery, encouraging the general growth of cinema and the world at large. In that spirit, let’s start with…

Best Light Drama

Gloria Bell was greatly acclaimed as an empowering depiction of life as a woman over 50, but it was otherwise a disposable trifle. Compare that to The Beach Bum, a film that basically canceled itself out by virtue of Harmony Korine’s brand of chaos.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco got a ton of well-deserved critical praise upon release, though perhaps the film was a bit too slow and contemplative for its own good. Little Women (2019) was a phenomenal adaptation that actually surpassed its source material.

And yet everything wonderful that Little Women did with regards to family, nostalgia, our innate need for communication, dealing with love and loss, and learning how to build a happy accomplished life, The Farewell did even better. It was also much funnier, with diabolical use of dramatic irony throughout, and the culture clash gave the film a ton of added layers to provoke thoughts and pull heartstrings.

Best Biopic

I’m putting Bombshell in here, for lack of anywhere else to put it. The film really was a remarkable dramatization of life and work at Fox News in the midst of a game-changing scandal. Likewise, while Ford v Ferrari may not technically be a “biopic” per se, it’s still a pulse-pounding depiction of a real-world story, worthy to be listed among the year’s best. And of course we have Just Mercy, which went through the motions perfectly well.

Rocketman makes the grade precisely because it pushed the definition of the biopic genre in bold and inspired ways. The whole production glittered with polished innovation. Compare that to Fighting With My Family, which was so funny and heartfelt precisely because of its authentic and down-to-earth no-frills presentation.

But the winner here is A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, a film that had the audacity to make its subject a supporting character. And it turned out to be the perfect means of examining adult topics in a PG-rated manner while directly showing the positive effect that Fred Rogers had on the world. Couple that with Tom Hanks’ portrayal of Fred Rogers and you’ve got an extraordinary biopic more than worthy of its subject.

Best Coming-of-Age Movie

I’m hoping that if I mention My Summer as a Goth enough times, maybe it’ll spark enough curiosity to get it streaming somewhere. Honey Boy is also more than worthy of an honorable mention, though that movie was just as much about Shia LaBeouf’s father as LaBeouf himself.

I’m sure any other critic would give this to Booksmart, the female-driven teen comedy that won over critics and audiences nationwide, even though it only made $24.8 million worldwide (against a reported $6 million budget, but still). While I agree that it’s a wonderful movie, I can’t get past those problems with the second act.

So I’m giving this one to Fighting With My Family, in large part for one of Florence Pugh’s many jaw-dropping lead performances this year. I can’t possibly stress enough how amazing the cast is overall, how deeply heartfelt the central development arc is, and how beautifully, unflinchingly authentic the whole movie feels.

Best Suspense Thriller

It’s such a damn shame that Little Woods didn’t get a wider release or more word-of-mouth. That was an amazing movie, all the more for tying a bold pro-choice message to themes of economic disparity and the cruel farce that is American healthcare. Likewise, Queen and Slim delivered great suspense and wonderful thrills with some of the most timely and hard-hitting social commentary I saw this year.

The popular choice for this one might be Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and it was indeed a masterful example of drawn-out suspense as only Tarantino could deliver. But while Hollywood is a great movie, Tarantino has made plenty like it. Nobody’s ever made a movie like Knives Out.

Where Hollywood kept pretty much all of its biggest plot twists for the climax, Knives Out delighted in yanking the audience every which way from start to finish. It’s bold, it’s timely, it’s innovative, and it’s an absolute joy to watch.

Best Crime Thriller

I know I’m splitting hairs, but there were simply too many great thrillers this year.

A prominent example is The Irishman, if only that movie wasn’t such a chore to sit through. Then we’ve got Cold Pursuit, a film that might have gotten more attention if it had a better release window, and more success if it wasn’t a decent imitation of better films from Martin McDonagh or the Coens. I would honestly take Hustlers over either one of them, a far more gutsy and innovative picture if only for the sincere effort at portraying the strip club industry and its employees.

But then we have Parasite, a film that combines social satire with family drama and bloody misdeeds. As with Knives Out, this is a movie that knows exactly how and when to play with audience expectations, delivering suspense and gut-punches with terrifying aplomb.

Best Racial Drama

The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a breathtaking and deeply human examination of gentrification and colonialism. By contrast, while that movie felt entirely too real, Us was perhaps set too deeply in fantastic allegory. Even so, major kudos are due for examining race relations in an inventive, relevant, and batshit way that could never be done in a more realistic setting.

Even more than either of those two films, Just Mercy made a compelling argument for why we need movies about institutional racism. This movie directly shows how racism kills and why stories about POC need to be told, even if the whole film was undercut by a general sheen of Oscar-bait phoniness. Compare that to Queen and Slim, which had none of that movie’s weaknesses, all of its strengths, and accomplished so much more besides.

Queen and Slim went so much further in exploring the effect that political polarization is having on our nation, most especially in the poorer and less white communities. It is unquestionably the most inspiring, heartfelt, authentic, layered, and nuanced film about race in America released all year.

Best Mindfuck

This may be a controversial pick, but mindfucks are controversial films by design. I’m talking about movies like the psychedelic sexually-charged High Life, or the allegorical descent into divine madness called The Lighthouse. But I’ve narrowed my top picks down to Ad Astra and Midsommar, and I could go back and forth all day as to which one gets the win.

On the one hand, Ad Astra is better paced, better acted, and even with all the psychological chaos going on, it’s the more coherent film. On the other hand, Midsommar had the crazier imagery and the more shocking plot turns. It also had characters who were more deeply flawed, their misfortunes were more visceral, and the filmmakers must be commended for crafting an entire society in such vivid and exacting detail.

While Ad Astra is probably the better-made film overall, Midsommar is specifically the better mindfuck. I’m giving it to the latter.

Greatest Masterpiece

I want to make it clear that this isn’t just about the year’s greatest movie. If it was that simple, I’d give it to The Irishman, Ford v Ferrari, or Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and call it a day. But for my top honor of the year, I’m not just looking for a great film — I’m looking for a game-changer. I’m looking for something so bold, so inventive, so intelligent and funny and heart-wrenching like nothing else that’s ever come before, that it advances the entire medium of cinema.

Sam Mendes put in a strong last-minute effort with the innovative and deeply powerful 1917. I’m still giving this to Taika Waititi.

If Jojo Rabbit was merely a sympathetic and palatable movie about a boy in the Hitler Youth, it already would’ve achieved the impossible. If it was only a movie that satirized Nazis in a way that took white supremacy seriously without emboldening our current plague of white supremacists, that alone would’ve made it a towering achievement and a godsend. Yet Waititi delivered all of that in a wickedly funny, powerfully tearjerking, sharply intelligent coming-of-age story. There are filmmakers 20-30 years Waititi’s senior who couldn’t accomplish so much in a single movie and do it half as well. And as timely as the issue of white supremacy is, you couldn’t find one filmmaker in a hundred who would dare to look for common ground with Nazis like this.

The minute I walked out of Jojo Rabbit, I knew it was the one to beat for my Greatest Masterpiece selection of 2019. To see my picks for the greatest disappointments, check back in tomorrow.

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