My Favorite Films of 2019 (6-10)
Leading up to the 2020 Academy Awards, I look back on 2019, which has widely been regarded as one of the best years in movie history.
10. Her Smell
Elisabeth Moss as punk goddess Becky Something is a walking disaster that rubs her toxic influence off on everyone she touches. And the awful thing is that Becky knows full well her effect on people, and she uses her mixture of charisma and intimidation to get what she wants. It works until it doesn’t. Moss was mostly robbed of nominations during awards season. It goes without saying that Moss finds notes in Becky rather than making her a stereotypical harridan or complete trainwreck. Alex Ross Perry manages to also tell a compelling story that doesn’t follow traditional narrative structure with Moss as equally important collaborator. Rather he focuses on vignettes from Becky’s life, much more effectively than the flawed Vox Lux from the year before. It’s a challenging movie for sure but Becky’s eventual redemption is more rewarding for the audience than other movies with similar storylines.
It’s frankly stunning that Zhang Yimou has not made a film on the Chinese classic Romance of the Three Kingdoms before Shadow. The operatic, expansive book is a perfect fit for his lush, overstuffed style, that makes manifest the real intentions of his characters even when they are acting perfectly civil. Here, Zhang’s main palette is black and white, the yin and the yang, and somehow he is able to make a movie with these seemingly limited hues the most gorgeous piece of visual art to grace screens this year. No scene in any movie this year was as visually striking as the assault on the fortress using...metal umbrellas. The narrative is probably too convoluted for Western viewers who are largely unfamiliar with Three Kingdoms, but Zhang still manages to convey the depth of the story and the mythical nature of its characters through not just the visuals but through the intense performances and the sound design that makes this fantastical world seem very tactile and real.
8. Long Day’s Journey Into Night
This movie is probably more notorious for the “scam” it pulled off with its marketing to couples. Ads encouraged couples to attend screenings on New Year’s Eve since a climactic kiss in the movie would be timed to the stroke of midnight of New Year’s Day. The film received overwhelmingly negative audience scores mostly because of skewed expectations since Long Day’s Journey is a slow, artsy movie about romance and one character’s quixotic quest to find a woman he loves in the most roundabout way possible. Much of the film is dedicated to a virtuouso tracking shot that is meant to be viewed in 3-D, but gimmicks aside, I loved this film’s environment, and I would have loved to hang out with these characters within that environment even longer than I did.
7. Asako I & II
I think the Japanese are the best at beautifully subtle melodramas. Think Ozu in the early days and Kore-eda and Shunji Iwai later. Asako I & II has a fairly simple plot but the way that story threads are developed and resumed at later points in time so expertly make this a tapestry of emotion and lovely dread. It also manages to be a profound reflection on the nature of love and how we can never get rid of idealized images of first loves, no matter how much we try and move on. Asako just happens to make this a real choice the protagonist has to make, and we can witness the havoc her decisions wreak on her loved ones.
6. Farewell, The
The real genius of this film is how it reveals how so much of what we do and say is predicated on lies. When those lies are old and practiced enough, it becomes tradition, culture, the norm, whatever you can call it. This is a real American story, despite what some voting bodies would think, in that being American is about having your identity constantly challenged, just like Billi’s is when she is faced with a family decision that she has no context for and struggles to understand. Many Americans resist this challenge, and it manifests as politely willful ignorance at its best and xenophobia and racism at its worst. The Farewell has a much more measured view of the situation, but it also has a profoundly human heart at its center.