Luiz’s Top Ten of 2019
What a year for the movies, and for intense reflection, both individually and collectively, about filmmaker’s own selves and the crises we are all living through. In composing my list, I tried to talk less about the things most critics have said about these films–as plenty more qualified than me are in crafting their words–and let a more personal view shine through (Spoilers through and through).
Putting together a top ten list in January is also pretty tough, as there are so many films left to watch. But isn’t that always the case? Here are a few I’m still looking forward to seeing: Little Women, Honeyland, The Farewell, Motherless Brooklyn, One Child Nation, Jojo Rabbit, 1917, and Monos.
Also, a few runners-up to my top ten: Us, Pain and Glory, Rolling Thunder Revue, Ad Astra, The Laundromat
10. AVENGERS: ENDGAME
Look, blockbuster cinema has been a mainstay for everyone born since the early ’80s, and the “end” of a 23-film saga is both the culmination of the most commercially ambitious cinematic feat ever and a towering specimen of the last decade’s reigning movement, franchise cinema. Lauded by fans and critics alike, it’ll probably sit out most top ten lists as being too commercial.
So much of the art form is about storytelling, and bringing so many side stories and characters to a satisfying conclusion is tough, and the film blended a (rather) unpredictable plot with emotional character beats deftly enough to earn a spot on the list. Think that’s easy? Though many other franchises tried to pull it off this year (Game of Thrones, Star Wars), they ended with a mere whimper.
9. KNIVES OUT
A great example of what genre cinema can be on its best days, Rian Johnson’s whodunit takes the rules, bends them, plays with them, reverses them and then realigns them so smoothly at the end people don’t even seem shaken that a man kills himself without ever having to. Playful and reflexive, it’s a sharp critique of our time not just because of its characters, but also through its reflection of class tension and America’s resentment towards immigration. Ana de Armas has the best role and performance of her impressive career. Still, Johnson could have been a little bit bolder if his only immigrant-descendant character looked more like so many others in the country and less like, well, the next Bond girl.
8. BACURAU/THE INVISIBLE LIFE
Allow me a little nationalistic subterfuge by placing two films on one spot. Brazilian cinema survives on tax rebates and government credit lines, not unlike similar incentives in every other country in the world, in some degree or another (even Marvel gets in rebates by filming in Georgia these days). With the swearing in of a president hell bent on eradicating the country’s artistic community, it might all go away. It’s downright sinister, as even the National Cinema Agency was forced to take down film posters in its offices and its website. Despite this, Brazilian cinema had an incredible year, winning awards in film festivals around the world, including Cannes.
Bacurau is a sci-fi western with horror elements (the name of a school in the film is “Escola João Carpinteiro”, or “John Carpenter Elementary”) that paints a portrait of armed resistance against foreign aggression. Steeped in historical imagery and angst, it doesn’t really bother explaining a lot of its richness to foreign audiences. The Invisible Life, on the other hand, is a tropical melodrama that is so tactile you can practically smell all of the grime and bodily fluids presented on screen. The story of two sisters, torn apart by the men who surround them, is set in the 50s but speaks clearly to audiences today.
If Brazilian cinema is to struggle for the next few years, at least 2019 was a moment of triumph.
7. APOLLO 11
I’m a sucker for space travel, and truly believe landing on the moon is humanity’s greatest achievement so far. To have seen our world from outside of it, feet planted on the ground of another celestial orb, is philosophically and metaphysically mind-blowing. Damien Chazelle’s First Man is an underappreciated masterpiece, and will make a great double-bill with the real thing. There are no talking heads and no voice-overs in this documentary–the images and dialogue speak for themselves.
6. MARRIAGE STORY
My wife and I watched this film separately because we didn’t want the stress of each other’s presence bearing down on us. We are, by no means, in the process of a separation or a divorce, but we knew that a movie with so many raves had to have that universality of feeling, that recognition of a truth being told to every viewer who sees it, even if the story being shown isn’t his or her own. I can’t even imagine how the people around Noah Baumbach might feel. Though he claims it isn’t autobiographical, there is no doubt that a lot of his life has been put onscreen for all to see.
Yes, it takes place in the milieu of a white, privileged, couple, but the raw emotion and the overwhelming dehumanizing inherent in the process can be felt by everyone. Also, who wouldn’t want a spin-off series with Laura Dern and Ray Liotta, squaring off against each other every week, with guest appearances by Alan Alda every once in a while?
Kudos for the funniest sequence of the year, at least in my book: the one where Charlie (Adam Driver) cuts himself while showing off a childish stunt.
5. PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE
Though there are no men in this sumptuous period romance, they are the ones who have set the rules around Marianne’s (Noémie Merlant) and Héloise’s (Adèle Haenel) lives. Their absence is also a metaphor for their ignorance of, or careless nature about, the issues women face amidst a patriarchal society (in that sense, it speaks a little to The Invisible Life, number 8 on this list). High cliffs are a constant landscape in this short-term Eden, but the interesting thing about this story is that the culmination of its tragedy is not that one of the women will throw herself to death in a cliché-ed act of rebellion, but that they will go on with their lives, unable to make their own choices.
In a film filled with arresting images, none is better than its final shot. Haunting and raw.
4. UNCUT GEMS
Every single time Adam Sandler decides to turn off auto-pilot, people are surprised at how good of an actor he really is. It hasn’t been news for almost 20 years, though, but what remains a surprise is that his charisma is enough to sustain affection for someone as loathsome as Howard Ratner, the jeweler with a gambling problem in the Safdie brother’s newest ulcer-inducing joyride. They, like the Coens, will put their characters through hell while still maintaining some type of affection for them.
The film isn’t just a rollercoaster ride, but also a screed on Man’s fascination with shiny things and greed, with a prologue that calls to mind The Exorcist‘s unleashing of a demonic curse and an Oscar-moment screed from Ratner to Kevin Garnett, inspired casting. Supporting characters are played by veteran actors and locals. Though Ratner’s fate is hardly in doubt (even if he survived the film it would be only a matter of time), the Safdies solve this obviousness with a gunshot so sudden it still takes you by surprise. Julia Fox is a find, and the fate of her character, and all that money, is left deliciously ambiguous.
It’s only been 2 years since The Meyerowitz Stories, so maybe the intervals where Sandler is a little more willing to take risks are growing shorter.
Many critics’ #1 choice, but I still can’t forgive that 3rd act introduction of an almost literal monster that betrays the film’s intricate structure. It was as if Bong Joon-Ho had designed a puzzle so perfect, he didn’t know what to do next and thus resorted to a reverse deus ex-machina not to save his characters, but to condemn them. Still, everything that happens is still an incredible exploration of class struggle and the illusion of upward mobility. Of the many other films that explored inequality this year, Parasite is the most inventive and thrilling.
The Brazilian press is also high on the film, and I have to say, this isn’t the kind of movie I’d expect from South Korea. The country is supposed to have its sh*t together, and to witness such a plot taking place there is to witness how far of a crisis liberal capitalism is really in around the world. It is striking to consider how much Parasite and Jordan Peele’s Us have in common, from the reflective image of two families to the underground metaphor. A great double bill about inequality in 2019.
2. THE IRISHMAN
It’s a lazy description, but also true: The Irishman is the anti-Goodfellas. Not just in de-glamorizing how its characters feel about being in the mafia, but especially in its contemplative pace and lack of virtuoso momentum. De Niro as Frank Sheeran never seems to have any ambition other than being a workingman mafioso, but that line at the end, “what kind of a man makes a phone call like that?”, boy, is that telling. It reminded me of a moment in Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing, where one of the genocidal members of Indonesia’s past military dictatorship, while fishing, mentions that he still has nightmares of old victims. Of course, that is little consolation to those who died and those who remain alive, but it still is some kind of damnation, a small sliver of hell.
Critics who have admonished Tarantino’s playfulness with history in his Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, but heaped praise on The Irishman, have some thinking to do, as Scorsese’s movie is the bigger sin. The characters and situations that take place here are presented as fact, and will be understood as such by the public, transforming a work that has been largely discredited into History with a capital ‘H’. For a little heartbreak, just try reading this op-ed in the New York Times.
While cinema is not to be restrained by reality, it is the double standard with which this film is judged that kept it at number 2 for me. Also, Joe Pesci makes it clear he is a national treasure.
1. ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD
For me, Tarantino made a comeback this year. Nobody thought he was gone, of course, but those people might not have realized that his true muse was editor Sally Menke, who passed away in 2010. She was right there with him, from Reservoir Dogs to Inglorious Basterds, even in that rarely-mentioned short from Four Rooms. While the violence in his films grew at a steady pace, it would gain an odd masturbatory affect in the two films that followed her death, Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight. To me, Menke seemed to contain his worst excesses.
Finally, with Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, he shows a little bit of restraint again, and is more interested in exploring affection between his characters rather than contempt and vengeance. Leonardo DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton, when talking about Roman Polanski, isn’t possessed by the resentful envy of someone who’s passed his prime and is being forced to step aside by a younger generation, but admiration and awe.
The sequence at Spahn Ranch is terrifying, and Brad Pitt’s never been better. Dalton’s trailer meltdown and subsequent tour de force performance as a Western Black Hat is invigorating, and the violent denouement is less than 5 minutes long in a 161-minute movie. The whole thing is a journey of affection–for its characters, setting, and culture. The inadvertent saving of Sharon Tate was no surprise to me, it seemed like the only tasteful thing for him to do, and Inglorious Basterds had already set a precedent. I spent a while unsure of what to think of it, and while all complaints make good points, I just let myself feel happy that, for a moment, cinema seemed capable of avenging a terrible crime. It was risky, ambitious, and uplifting.
In an interview, Tarantino mentioned that the last shot of the movie, that overhead send-off, was referred on set as “Sally’s POV”.