The 50 Best Pieces of Movies in 2019: Pt. 1
If you've ever stayed at the cinema through the end credits, you know that movies are the work of hundreds -- sometimes thousands -- of hard-working individuals. Not just the actors, writers, and directors, but the costumers designers, gaffers, sound editors, photographers...the list goes on. To honor the collaboration that created some of my favorite (and least favorite) movies of the year, I'm writing about my 50 favorite "pieces" of movies. From jaw-dropping scenes to gorgeous production design to crisp editing, these were the things in 2019 movies that made it a special year. Part 1, 50-26, is below. Part 2 will come tomorrow. 50. Sound Mixing - Beach Bums Beach Bums is the only movie in 2019 to make proper use of the increasingly trendy overlapping dialogue coverage. Add to that a hypnotic fusion of trippy chords and Florida ambiance, and the sound mixing was pretty much the only good thing in one of the year’s painful film-watching experiences. 49. "Heaven" – Her Smell After four relentless acts, the blood and the sweat and the tears and the breath drained from everyone’s bodies, director Alex Ross Perry and Elisabeth Moss somehow muster up the courage to give us something beautiful. Becky Something's acoustic rendition of "Heaven" is as magnificent as it is unexpected. 48. The trio of final scenes - Marriage Story Two singing, one reading, all three lyrical. It’s as affecting of a three-part coda as I’ve seen this year. I won't spoil it, but if you haven't seen it -- it's on Netflix now.
47. Wendell Pierce - Burning Cane The best thing in Phillip Youman’s visually ambitious but muddled debut, Burning Cane, Wendell Pierce’s alcoholic, bitter Reverend Tillman is summoned from the depths of his gut. Pierce is from New Orleans himself, and he seemed to draw from an unlimited well of personal pain, commanding every inch of the screen from his booming sermons to his quiet drives home. 46. Cinematography - A Hidden Life A Hidden Life is about how one couple lives in a beautiful world full of ugly people and ugly acts – and Jörg Widmer’s camera captures all of it. It’s not just the poetic landscapes that we’ve become used to in Malick’s best works, it’s the juxtaposition with the harsh prisons. Widmer’s camera even changes speeds and loses its smoothness in the ugly parts, reflecting the struggle faced by Franz Jägerstätter.
45. Production Design - Transit Christian Petzold’s beguiling adaptation of Anna Seghers’s 1944 World War II novel plays a cunning trick on its audiences, refusing to offer a single clue as to the film’s time period. Stripped of its period frill, the story’s astoundingly human characters take center stage – none of which ever could have worked without Kade Gruber’s perfectly ambiguous production design. 44. Zhao Shuzhen - The Farewell If Awkwafina is the heart of The Farewell, Zhao Shuzhen is the heart of Lulu Wang’s family portrait. Somehow eminently wise and achingly naïve, Nai Nai is the canvas that reflects every disparate spatter of pain from her increasingly at-odds family. Her face in one of the final shots is burned in my memory. 43. Ray Romano - Paddleton Ray Romano as character actor has been one of the low-key revelations of the last several years. He’s never been better than as the wry, gloomy defeatist Andy in Alex Lehmann’s Paddleton. It came and went on Netflix earlier this year, but the performance has lingered. Assuming the CBS-dad-comedy-to-magnificent-character-actor career arc becomes a trend, I’m looking forward to Kevin James’s 2023 Oscar. 42. Structure - Her Smell Citing an entire screenplay as one of the “best things in movies” felt a little like cheating, so I’ll focus instead on the structure of Alex Ross Perry’s script for Her Smell – five extended scenes, broken up by large jumps in time. Each scene immediately establishes the situation, the stakes, and the players, allowing its characters to just live and breathe in that space for the remaining 25-35 minutes. It’s both artificial and natural, creating the perfect “heightened reality” that defines so many of our great films.
41. Jennifer Lopez - Hustlers At the beginning of Hustlers, Lopez’s Ramona wraps Constance Wu’s Destiny in her massive fur coat on a rooftop in New York City. She similarly pulls audiences in over the course of Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers, smothering us in her warmth, yet simultaneously keeping us at arm’s length. It’s a riveting high-wire act.
40. Costumes in Midsommar The flower crown. The bear. The flower dress. The bear. The simple but stunning white-and-blue embroidered dress. The bear, people. Come on! 39. Death Row scene - Just Mercy Just Mercy treads a number of familiar beats in its man-against-the-system story, but it occasionally strays toward something more unique and revelatory, spending significant time focused on the daily lives of a group of three black prisoners on death row. No sequence shone more than the clacking and banging of fellow inmates against their prison bars as a fellow inmate is marched toward his execution. It’s a radical act of solidarity in an institution designed to strip each person of their humanity. 38. Robert Downey Jr. - Avengers: Endgame Downey Jr.'s performance is the emotional core in an otherwise sprawling movie, the anchor that prevents Avengers: Endgame from losing its audience in wave after wave of references and over-symbolized moments. He was the introduction to the MCU for most of us, and Kevin Feige and the Russo Brothers rightly centered its final (but not really) chapter on him.
37. Jessica, Only Child - Parasite It wasn’t short-listed (or eligible) for Best Song, which is unfortunate, because it was one of the few moments in film this year that made me immediately look around at other audience members to make sure they saw the same thing I did. No director can so forcefully shift between tones without the risk of whiplash like Bong Joon-Ho can. 36. Score - Uncut Gems It’s as omnipresent as the score in the Safdie Brothers last film, Good Time, but what sets Daniel Lopatin’s Uncut Gems score apart is its willingness to slow down, to stop, to let its characters and its audience breathe for the briefest of moments before picking up speed again. 35. Matching Illnesses - Little Women I’ll avoid spoilers, but there’s a moment in Greta Gerwig’s masterful Little Women when her decision to stagger the two timelines hits home with the strength of a gale force wind. Gerwig vividly matches the same experience lived twice with one crucial difference, separated superficially by just a few years but emotionally by a lifetime, driving home Little Women’s nearly tragic portrayal of women’s adolescent dreams and hopes so often lost to adulthood. 34. Editing - Apollo 11 It’s one thing to thrill, and to dazzle, and to arrest. It’s another to make audiences feel like they’re back in 1969. Right there beside hundreds of awed Americans at the Kennedy Space Center. Right there inside the shuttle with Buzz and Neil. Apollo 11 carries a heavy load with seeming ease, thanks in large part to editor (and director) Todd Douglas Miller. 33. Ben Affleck - Triple Frontier If you’re not excited for Gavin O’Connor’s upcoming The Way Back, a portrait of Affleck as a spiraling alcoholic, then you probably haven’t seen this year’s Triple Frontier. The desperation clings to Affleck’s Tom in a performance that hopefully begins an exciting new phase of his career, one where he can truly take advantage of his newfound Dad-bod. 32. Kelvin Harrison Jr. - Luce, Waves In Luce, Kelvin Harrison’s Luce had to be both charming and menacing, keeping his true nature internal. In Waves, his character’s feelings, thoughts, and entire history had to be worn on his face. Both movies live and die on his performance – and both succeed because of him. If there’s any justice in this world, 2019 will be looked back on as the year Harrison blew up. 31. Valerie Pachner - A Hidden Life In Terrence Malick’s miraculous A Hidden Life, Pachner imbues Fran Jägerstätter with an inextinguishable flame of life, giving force and meaning to the daily toiling she must endure while her husband is away. It is a vigorous but understated performance.
30. Lunar Chase Scene - Ad Astra It’s a chase scene on the moon, and thank goodness, James Gray actually takes advantage of the unique setting. It’s the theater experience that left me thinking, “wow, cinema, man. Cinema.” 29. Kaitlyn Dever - Booksmart Beanie Feldstein may bring the most laughs to Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart, but it’s Dever’s softer depiction of an awkward, intelligent teenager that won me over. Simultaneously sure of herself and floundering in a sea of uncertainty, Dever draws us into the world of a young girl discovering her sexual identity. 28. Robert De Niro - The Irishman He’s neither showy like Al Pacino nor against type like Joe Pesci, but De Niro’s performance as Frank Sheeran in The Irishman is a masterclass in confliction. Frank is the audience’s storyteller and cypher, and he somehow manages to earn both our sympathy and our revulsion. His hapless stuttering in the film’s unforgettable phone call deserves to go on his career-ending Oscar reel.
27. Keanu Needle Drop - Always Be My Maybe When celebrity chef Sasha Tran’s boyfriend arrives, slow-motion kicks in, AWOLNation’s “Sail” drops the needle, and Keanu Reeves turns the corner…my jaw hit the floor. I think I screamed on a Megabus, and I know I immediately re-watched the scene about 17 times. I honestly regret not putting this at #1. 26. Hugh Jackman - Bad Education In Bad Education – a fantastic film that was unfortunately relegated to TV Movie status by an HBO acquisition – Hugh Jackman relies on his charisma and the trust he has built with audiences to subvert expectations and deliver a powerful performance as the conniving real-life Superintendent Frank Tassone. I hope more people see it.