The 50 Best Pieces of Movies in 2019: Pt. 2
The top 25 bits and pieces of 2019 movies. 50-26 can be found here.
25. Visual Effects - Fast Color Not as clean or obviously expensive as Marvel superhero effects, Fast Color had the feel of a scrappy superhero movie that had to use creativity to make up for lack of budget – and it led to something gorgeous. The most unique superhero movie in the last few years, Fast Color created its own colorful visual language that deserved to be seen on the big screen. 24. Cinematography - The Last Black Man in San Francisco The best craftswomen and men are able to convey ideas and emotions (the big things that movies are about) through technical brilliance (the small things that make up a movie). In The Last Black Man in San Francisco, Adam Newport-Berra captures with his camera the fading brilliance of memory and the dark underbelly of nostalgia. It’s an oddly thrilling sensation to feel like you’re discovering San Francisco for the first time through main character Jimmie’s eyes – no matter how many times you’ve been there.
23. Samara Weaving and Jessica Rothe – Ready or Not and Happy Death Day 2U Though both horror movies have their moments of brilliance, neither would work without their respective leads. Rothe and Weaving are can’t-look-away good, a potential new generation of scream queens – though I desperately hope they get non-horror work if they want it. 22. Score - Ad Astra Max Richter, king of the disqualified-from-Oscar-contention score (see Arrival), composed the pitch-perfect accompaniment for James Gray’s space epic, Ad Astra. Alternating between aching, anxiety-inducing, and soaring, it also lent emotional heft to an otherwise internalized (but great) performance from Brad Pitt. 21. Song Kang Ho - Parasite Bong Joon-Ho’s greatest asset is the humanity in his characters. A twisty-turvy genre ride full of sharp societal critiques can only go so far if audiences don’t care – and Song Kang-Ho’s performance as the patriarch of the down-trodden Kim family does a lot of the heavy lifting in that department. The film’s rage-filled climax is rooted in a heart-breaking inferiority complex that is beautifull built over the first two hours, in large part thanks to Song’s wide-ranging reactions to the various slights from the Park family. If acting is reacting, Song is a master.
20. Adam Driver - Marriage Story; The Report; Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker Adam Driver has a presence. It can manifest as angsty evil in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, as crumbling arrogance in Marriage Story, or as moral clarity in The Report. But no matter which character he digs into, Driver demands attention – not unlike a young Marlon Brando when he first swept Hollywood off its feet. He showed impressive range in 2019, and this spot is for all those performances. 19. The Donut Hole Metaphor - Knives Out One of the funniest moments of the year is nothing more than the inevitable culmination of Daniel Craig committing to the bit. The bit of his absurd detective character, Benoit Blanc. The bit of his exaggerated but not-quite-caricature southern accent. The bit of his extended donut metaphor. Respect the commitment. 18. Elisabeth Moss - Her Smell Her Smell could have been a total failure, in part due to its core unpleasantness. But in a performance that pairs nicely with Adam Sandler’s in Uncut Gems, Elisabeth Moss turns Becky Something into a repulsive, pitiable, explosive genius of a spiraling pop star – who somehow earns my sympathy.
17. Glasgow (No Place Like Home) - Wild Rose With the camera angled up toward her, Jessie Buckley belts out her new song, 'Glasgow', in the closing moments of Wild Rose. A deceptively layered story of a working class Scottish girl who just wants to sing, Wild Rose builds the frustrations to a boiling point, letting them simmer within Buckley’s Rose-Lynn. As she lets it all out in her closing performance, Buckley channels everything the movie stands for into the words. It’s the rare movie song that actually lifts up the movie’s plot and themes, rather than standing separate and distinct from them. 16. Taylor Russell - Waves Taylor Russell is given a difficult and rare job in Trey Edward Shults’s Waves: to exist in the margins for the first half of the film before being thrust into the spotlight for the second half. She needs to offer enough of herself in the few, brief moments she gets in the former so that audiences don’t feel completely adrift when she steps into center stage. Even putting her incredibly empathetic turn as Emily during the second half aside, this balancing act alone makes her performance one of the most unique – and impressive – of the year. 15. Final Shot - Knives Out The perfect cap to a movie that expertly weaves narrative tension with thematic resonance for two hours, and almost certainly the cinematic image of 2019. Knives Out’s genius lies in its full understanding of when to be subtle and when – as in this moment – to lay it on thick. 14. Adèle Haenel in Portrait of a Lady on Fire As the upper-class Héloïse, Haenel is restrained while still giving audiences and her painter Marianne something to connect with, meting out bits of her soul here and there, but never too much. While her painter, Marianne, observes through her eyes, Haenel empathizes with her ears: she listens to Marianne and to her maid Sophie, offering few personal details in return. Much of her acting is done when she’s not the focus – a look here, a small smile there. It’s a lived-in performance if I’ve ever seen one. 13. Final Half Hour - One Cut of the Dead To say anything about this would be to ruin one of the most singular experiences at the cinema that I’ve had in years – but that in itself says enough about its quality. See this whenever and wherever you can. 12. Margot Robbie - Once Upon a Time in Hollywood; Bombshell More than her superstar counterparts Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio, Robbie embodies the spirit of Once Upon A Time in Hollywood – the optimism and naiveté of an era as yet unmarked by the Manson family. She transitions seamlessly to a young reporter in Bombshell who carries the burden of workplace sexual harassment with every move, displaying the range of roles to which Robbie can bring her unmistakable pathos.
11. Leonardo DiCaprio / Trailer Breakdown - Once Upon a Time in Hollywood In the most memorable scene of DiCaprio’s best performance in years, Rick Dalton (DiCaprio) loses his shit. The scene – and Leo’s outburst – could have easily crossed the line into cliché caricature, but his deeply felt portrayal of the fading TV star up to that point instead turns it into a sympathetic moment of crisis. Bonus: it's gut-busting. 10. Adam Sandler - Uncut Gems Sandler’s characters often feel like they’re free-falling toward some inevitable bruising climax, antagonizing everyone on the way down. Howard Ratner, the diamond district jeweler with a gambling problem in Uncut Gems, is no different – but the Safdie Brothers’ script gives Sandler a chance to show a more vulnerable side. He seizes those few opportunities, somehow deriving empathy for another otherwise unlikeable character. 9. Cinematography - Portrait of a Lady on Fire; Atlantics Claire Mathon shot two of the most gorgeous, visually distinct films of 2019. In Portrait of a Lady on Fire, her formalism perfectly accompanies the trapped feeling that surrounds Marianne and Héloïse, only to be let out in bursts of breathless camerawork. In Atlantics, Mathon switches gears, capturing the ephemerality of the lower class in Mati Diop’s nontraditional ghost story. Four thumbs up. 8. Saoirse Ronan - Little Women Watching Jo March in Little Women, I often found myself thinking Ronan was born to play the part. That sort of immersion can lead to under-appreciation – as if the casting director did 99% of the work, and Ronan is just being herself – until you realize she feels that way in every single one of her roles. At some point everyone will stop and realize what a generational talent she is.
7. Lupita Nyong'o - Us As both Adelaide and Red, Nyong’o excels in the art of building a character from the inside-out. Every small choice quickly adds up to two distinct, yet clearly connected, characters. The success of the movie's gut-punching finale rests on her performance. 6. Score - A Hidden Life At times wistful and mourning, at others full of conviction, James Newton Howard’s score for Terrence Malick’s anti-war masterpiece cleverly accentuates the emotions that the film evokes in audiences, rather than overtly triggering them. Omnipresent but rarely center stage, it could only have been composed for this film.
5. Production Design - Parasite Thanks to production designer Lee Ha-Jun, Parasite works as a thrilling class parable even if watched on mute and without subtitles. The story of two families – one wealthy, one poor – is told simply but comprehensively with only their two houses. Both built from scratch(!) by Lee, they encapsulate the symbiotic relationship between the families. Parasite would not be Parasite without its production design. 4. Ana De Armas - Knives Out Without de Armas, Knives Out is an ingenius, delightful murder mystery – but one I likely would have forgotten soon after I left the theater. It’s de Armas that bring the movie's heart, making me care about what happens, and connecting Knives Out to the world around it. She repeatedly bears the burden of its twists and turns in her face and her body language. If we get a set of murder mystery sequels centered on Daniel Craig’s Benoit Blanc, then I demand a follow-up to see what Marta is doing a few years into the future. 3. Soundtrack - Once Upon a Time in Hollywood That an under-heard Neil Diamond track from 50 years ago, "Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show," became the song of the summer is the one undeniable, unexpected fact we can agree on in this tumultuous year of movies. Go figure. Beyond that, Tarantino ingeniously used music and radio snippets to anchor his mood-piece, Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, in a very specific time and place. Bravo.
2. Julia Fox - Uncut Gems In her debut role, Fox is the perfect foil to Adam Sandler in Uncut Gems: under-stated when he exaggerates; soft where he is harsh; self-aware of her sense of innocence where he is oblivious to his perpetual guilt. In particular in a fight scene after Julia’s near-tryst with a touring The Weeknd, Julia shines as the titular gems: sharp, raw, unfiltered. She wears every moment on her face.
1. Fire Scene - Portrait of a Lady on Fire The decision to rely exclusively on diegetic sound for the entirety of the movie pays off in spades for director Céline Sciamma, as late in the movie, a group of women crescendo into one of the most visually and aurally stimulating scenes of the decade. I got chills twice at the movies this year. The first was when I saw this moment. The second? When I re-watched it two months later.