My Favorite Films of 2019 (1-5)
Leading up to the 2020 Academy Awards, I look back on 2019, which has widely been regarded as one of the best years in recent movie history.
5. Marriage Story
I was initially resistant to the idea of this movie because, while I can admire a lot of Baumbach’s work, I still don’t respond to the overwhelming Whiteness and privilege of many of his films. At worst, they sound whiny and self-pitying. Yet Marriage Story got to me because of just how ugly the divorce process was portrayed in this film. I haven’t experienced divorce but I have experienced schlepping through Los Angeles in the worst traffic and going to shoddy buildings to run errands, and this film captured that aspect perfectly. Also, the performances of Adam Driver and Scarlet Johansson are beautifully complex. They are so good that while I think ultimately does favor Driver’s character a bit more, they are able to make the movie much more evenhanded than it could have been. I think Baumbach’s films got markedly better when Greta Gerwig entered his life, and while she isn’t in this film, the agency of the female characters is much better developed in his latter works.
4. Little Women
Greta Gerwig successfully made this the right Little Women for the moment and for many moments after its initial run. Some of the stronger aspects of this adaptation are that more attention is devoted to each sister so that each are fleshed out far beyond their archetypes. The constant switching between the past and the present brings out themes from the novel, which may not have been obvious when read in the chronological order in which they are presented. The greatest beneficiary of this treatment is definitely Florence Pugh’s Amy, who has, unfairly, been cursed by many readers as the eternal villain to the fearlessly independent Jo. Pugh plays Amy so well in all aspects; she is by far the funniest character, yet she manages to invoke the pathos of her character and the limits of her social mobility as well. Gerwig also manages to infuse the story with the modern struggle of women who must always fight to be taken seriously and resist being taken advantage of, yet she never loses the appeal of this story for the sake of moralizing. This is how to do a literary adaptation of classic material.
3. Hidden Life, A
Terrence Malick had seemed to have lost his way recently with his reflections on modern life falling flat for a lot of people. In A Hidden Life, Malick has made a formalist film with a beating, pulsating heart at its center. I have never seen a crisis of faith (religious in this instance) depicted this way. The beautiful wild vistas of Radegund, where the main characters live, are lush and expansive but it quickly becomes a deceptive prison. Malick manages to touch on complacency and conformity even though Radegund is far way from the Second World War, and we can quickly see how the small town is a microcosm for the human tendency of “out of sight, out of mind.” Malick’s great strength is to make the internal conflict of his characters seem urgent and gripping without moralizing and with great sympathy, and once I was on this movie’s wavelength, I was hooked.
2. Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Few movies really capture the nature of romance like Portrait of a Lady on Fire does. How romance is your image of the other person, and how sweetly that image is broken when your love is reciprocated and how cruelly lovely it is when someone lets you tear down your facade and reveal you for who you are. The fact that this is between two women is both incidental and crucial. Crucial in that their romance must be coded, beautifully coded with looks and loaded language. Incidental in that the depth of their passion for each other cuts through cultural and language barriers. It’s both transgressive yet gloriously old-fashioned and how Sciamma looks forward to the future while mining so heavily from the past is the crowning achievement of this film.
What is there left to say about one of the most discussed and hyped movies of this year. Only that I still think it’s a miracle that a Korean film could capture at least Film Twitter’s imagination so deeply and completely that you have to have some sort of opinion about the film (usually positive). I do think that outside of the cinephile community and Koreans, Parasite is relatively unknown and that many people are going to resist watching this film just because of the “one inch barrier” of subtitles. My response to that is that if you are in the 99 percent of wealth distribution (literally 99 percent) then there isn’t any way that this movie is going to strike some sort of chord with you. The film’s satire and critical eye is all-encompassing. It’s telling that even the one percent who might watch this film would have no idea that they are the subject of the satire. Yet also the film accurately captures how often the poor come to the defense of the wealthy people they work for. That’s how great Parasite is, and I firmly believe this film will resonate far beyond the hype of this year.