Alex’s Top 10 Films of 2019

Top 10 Films of 2019

Every year, on the day of the Academy Awards, my friend Alex sends out his personal top ten list of films he has watched. It is a great list, packed with information, observation and inspiration, so I asked if I could share it with you. Wonder which film to see next? Look no further:

It’s that time of year again! The annual top ten films list! In order to make the annual list, the film must be released in the theater in the U.S. in 2019, and I must see the film in a theater before this list is compiled…

10. The Farewell

Writer/director Lulu Wang’s deeply personal film is a fictional recounting of her family visiting her grandmother in China after her grandmother’s been diagnosed with terminal cancer. The family decides to abstain from telling the grandmother her diagnosis, and plan the visit under the guise of a fictitious family wedding. The film is anchored by a solid performance by Queens, New York’s own Awkwafina, who, fresh off her Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy win at this year’s Golden Globe awards, proves she has the talent for weightier roles than mere comic sidekick (a la Crazy Rich Asians) or YouTube sketch artist rapping about vagina.

For such a sensitive topic, Wang deftly weaves the family drama and comedy while also showcasing a changing Chinese society (the film is shot on location in Changchun, China). The Farewell was unfortunately shut out of receiving any Oscar nominations, though at a minimum it should have received a Best Original Screenplay nomination and Best Supporting Actress nomination for Shuzhen Zhao, who played the grandmother, Nai Nai.

9. Joker

I’d certainly dub this as a “one and done” film: seeing it once is enough (think Requiem for a Dream). But let’s be clear here: Joaquin Phoenix’s performance MAKES this movie, his transformation from failed clown/comedian Arthur Fleck to the Joker is nothing short of remarkable, and Phoenix is a safe bet to nab the Best Actor Oscar at this year’s Academy Awards.

I’ll be honest – there’s an overabundance of comic book movies in this day and age. But I’ve got to give co-writer/director Todd Phillips credit for giving Batman’s greatest nemesis such a dark and disturbing origin story set in the 1980’s, one that manages to parallel our own society’s issues with class and mental health.

8. The Irishman

Yes, it’s long (3 hours and 29 minutes). Yes, there are many parallels to director Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece, Goodfellas. Yes, the digital de-aging, is a bit off-putting, and the digital effects to make Robert De Niro’s brown eyes blue in order to transform him into the titular “Irishman” Frank Sheeran, don’t always work. But the 70-something year old Scorsese delivers another epic film, bringing De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Al Pacino on screen together for probably the last time, and giving folks such as myself, who have no appreciation for the history of Jimmy Hoffa, a bit of an education for how things were back in the 1960’s…

I also may be biased towards this film since parts of it were filmed in my ‘hood, Ridgewood, Queens, NY. The Friendly Lounge, featured in the first third of the film where the mobsters would hang out, was basically created for the film, and has now been turned into a hipster-ific café/coffee shop, Porcelain. Scenes were also filmed in the Catholic church St. Matthias, a few blocks from my apartment, and I think I heard on a podcast that they used some streets in Ridgewood to represent 1960’s era Philadelphia. Unfortunately, at no point during filming did Scorsese and I happen to cross paths to allow him to cast me, on-the-spot, to star in his next film…

It’s pretty clear from the film that Scorsese has said everything he needs to say about organized crime. He’s long been accused of glamorizing the mafia lifestyle in films such as Goodfellas and Casino, but as you can see from The Irishman, which contains scenes of life in a nursing home, Scorsese seems to be questioning whether that lifestyle is ultimately worth it in the end…

7. Us

Horror/thrillers are not my favorite genre of film, so when I reluctantly went to see Jordan Peele’s follow up to 2017’s directorial debut, Get Out, I braced myself for a routine cat-and-mouse thriller of a family being harassed by another family (I don’t want to give too much away here). Thankfully, Peele manages to buck the audience’s expectations with Us, and takes the movie in a wholly unexpected direction, all the while injecting the film with comedic elements at seemingly inappropriate times. Lupita Nyong’o is a force, and was robbed of an Oscar nomination for Best Actress despite masterfully performing 2 separate roles within the film…

6. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

Yes, another long film at nearly 3 hours (2 hours and 41 minutes), but writer/director Quentin Tarantino’s buddy film set in late 1960’s Hollywood could have been twice as long and I would have kept watching. The key is the abundant chemistry between Leonardo DiCaprio’s falling star character Rick Dalton and his stuntman buddy/side-kick Cliff Booth, played by Brad Pitt. Dalton, who is trying to figure out how to salvage what is left of his fading acting career, just happens to live next to director Roman Polanski and his wife Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). The fictional Dalton and Booth get tied up with the real-life Manson family, and Tarantino puts his own spin on this situation (hence the title…).

Generally, I don’t like films that re-arrange historical events (I didn’t care for it in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, but I may need to revisit that film), but for the purposes of this film, it worked for me (critics seemed to love or hate the climatic final 20 minutes of the film). It also contains one of my favorite scenes of the year – Sharon Tate going to the movies by herself to see her performance in a film on the big screen, and reacting to the audience around her as they respond to her performance. For Tarantino, a film-obsessed auteur who has hinted that he may only do one more film after this one, Once Upon a Time… is his love letter to an era of Hollywood that no longer exists…nostalgic, but effective.

5. Honeyland

A documentary about a middle-aged woman, Hatidze Muratova, living in rural Macedonia, caring for her elderly mother and who gets by from harvesting honey from her rural environs does not sound like the most compelling of films, yet it was one of the best docs I saw all year – and the first-ever film the Academy nominated for both Best Documentary AND Best International Film feature. Filmmakers Tamara Kotevka and Ljubomir Stefanov compiled over 400 hours of footage and condensed it into a taught 89-minute documentary with breathtaking cinematography. The resulting film is a parable on global warming and the destruction of our planet set against this seemingly soon-to-be-extinct way of life.

4. Apollo 11

Man oh man am I happy I saw this documentary on the big screen! Instead of using talking head interviews like many other documentaries, this doc tosses that convention aside and uses previously unreleased archival footage and still photographs to recount the historic moon landing from July 20, 1969. Maybe you thought there was too much coverage of the moon landing’s 50th anniversary in 2019, but this 93-minute doc is well-worth your time. There were scenes of actual space footage that seemed like it could have been a late 1960’s sci-fi film, but I had to remind myself that this was real life…In a time when it seems like our U.S. politicians will never work with each other again for any positive benefits to our society, or when it seems we’ve all become tech-obsessed zombies tethered to our phones as if they offer life support, it’s inspiring to see how the country collectively turned its eyes to the sky to marvel at the human ingenuity that was unravelling outside of Earth’s orbit…

3. Uncut Gems

Adam Sandler gives a career-best performance as gems dealer Howard Ratner, high strung gambling addict, as he dodges his creditors in Manhattan’s diamond district on 47th Street, attempts to satisfy his mistress, and maintain appearances with a separated wife and the rest of his family. There’s hardly a minute of release of the tension in this manically paced film…I saw this film at the Metrograph theater in the Lower East Side in 35 mm, with a crowd of like-minded film lovers, and this was perhaps the best way to see it – though the film is set in 2012, there’s a bit of an 1980’s feel to it, and instead of having a solo experience watching it you perceive the audience’s collective tension while watching Howard making ludicrous bets, hoping that Lady Luck is on his side…

The film comes from the Safdie Brothers, a pair of young filmmakers from New York who tend to make films about people on the margins of society – Howard was based, in part, on their father as he also used to work in the Diamond District. In my book club, our discussion sometimes involves the likeability of a character and how it impacts on how a book is received. Howard, as an extremely flawed anti-hero, isn’t for everyone, but such a character would be nearly impossible to pull off if not for Sandler’s charisma (He’s come a long way from Billy Madison, but with the right role, he can still carry a film…let’s hope he keeps away from this Netflix nonsense…). Sometimes his motivations defy any logical explanation (I had a tough time following the betting colloquialisms), but still and all, I found myself rooting for the guy…I went along for the ride, sat on the edge of my seat for most of the movie, heighted heart rate and all, but was happy to have my heart rate stabilize once it finished…

2. Little Women

Despite the fact that there have been about a half-dozen film adaptations of Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 classic novel, screenwriter/director Greta Gerwig manages to put a fresh spin on this coming-of-age tale of four young girls in Civil War-era Massachusetts with a stellar cast and by modifying the narrative format of the book (I’ve read this in reviews and heard about it on podcasts – I’ve never read the book, but I suspect I will sometime this year…).

This is a really well-made movie that deserves all the critical acclaim it’s received, and contains one of my favorite scenes of the year…two characters are dancing outside on a porch while there is a formal ball, with more refined dancing, happening inside…it just gives a great sense of the joie de vivre of these two characters as they get to know one another during a more innocent time of their youth…

The cast could not be better, with reliably solid Saoirse Ronan as the tomboyish Alcott stand-in Jo, but to me the real standout is Florence Pugh as Amy, who manages to give a new angle to a character that’s usually maligned in the book, and nabbing a well earned Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination (she was also excellent in Midsommar, as well as Fighting with My Family this year). I also loved Laura Dern as Marmee, and Bob Odenkirk as Father March and Chris Cooper as Mr. Laurence were also solid. Timothée Chalamet has done a good job of cementing himself as Young Male Heartthrob of the Moment, but he’s also strong as Theodore “Laurie” Laurence.

I’ve followed Gerwig’s career since she was doing nearly unwatchable indie-level mumblecore films. It’s pretty amazing to see how far she’s come! I didn’t love Gerwig’s 2017 debut film Lady Bird as much as a lot of people, but she proves she’s the real-deal when it comes to writing/directing, and it’s a shame she didn’t get a Best Director Oscar nomination…I’m hoping she nabs the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar. Regardless, I can’t wait to see what she does next.

1. Parasite

I knew the basic premise of Parasite before I went into it – struggling, lower-class family in Seoul, South Korea, manages to infiltrate itself into the life of a wealthy family in an unbelievably posh house, initially through the lower-class son becoming the rich daughter’s tutor. I also knew the film won the top prize at the Cannes Film festival and had a lot of hype surrounding it. But I didn’t expect the film to actually live up to the hype and keep me thinking about it for days after I watched its chilling conclusion…If you’re reading this list and haven’t yet seen it, enjoy watching the Oscars, and then do yourself a favor and make plans to see it – trust me! It’s THAT good!

Just when you think you know where the story is going, when you expect the story to zig in a certain way, writer/director Bong Joon-ho instead zags and throws you for a loop that makes your head spin. Darkly funny in moments, Ho offers scathing commentary on class stratification in early 21st century Seoul that’s clearly applicable to other parts of the world. There is a scene between the lower-class father, played by Song Kang-ho, and his son, played by Choi Woo-sik, where they are unexpectedly out of their home and contemplating their next steps. It’s about making plans in life and expectations. It seems they can’t believe how they’ve gotten into the position they are in, and may not be particularly proud of it, but they’ve continued down a path with no clear way of things potentially working out…it’s a brutally honest moment in a film that’s fill with cynicism…

Parasite is a sure bet to win the International Film Oscar, and has been nominated for a few more, including Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay. It’s a long shot for the Best Picture Oscar, but I’d be extremely happy if it managed to nab it. It’s incredible a foreign language film has done so well commercially in the domestic box office here in the U.S.

Read the second part of this post: Honorable Mention + The most Overrated Film 2019

My friend Alex in NYC

When he’s not working as a lawyer, Alexander Keblish can be found exploring New York to find another reason why he’ll in all likelihood never leave the city…this can be anything from checking out museum/gallery openings, discovering the latest $1 oyster happy hour or new restaurant with his food and drink Meetup group, checking out live stand up comedy, people-watching in a park, having a NY-based author join his book club to discuss their book…the list is seemingly endless…He resides in Ridgewood, Queens with his cat, Rusty. Questions or comments? Send Alex an email: lexdevo@gmail.com

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