For the third annual year (!!!) we here at Before The Cyborgs bring you our “Best Of” list. A collaborative effort, this list is meant to highlight the many great films that came out in the past twelve months (U.S. & Canadian wide release). It is both a reflection of the diverse tastes of our incredible staff of writers and a small attempt at capturing why these films meant so much to us this year.
Naturally being restricted to a mere 40 means that some other worthy candidates missed the cut but we hope that as you peruse this list you find something that you can add to your watchlists. For simplicity’s sake, we have also chosen to leave the list unranked and presented in alphabetical order as has been tradition. If you would like to see our individual ballots for each of our contributors for 2019 and the past decade, you may do so in an upcoming post to be released shortly. Without this team, nothing of this scale would be possible so I thank them for helping this grow from an idea to a publication that has covered festivals across the globe, covered the big cultural events and championed the obscure items worthy of your attention.
Somehow the Cyborgs still haven’t taken over and our team of readers and contributors continue to grow so we must be doing something right, right ?? Be sure to share your favorite movies of the past year (or decade) with us @B4Cyborgs and we look forward to doing even bigger and better things for you in 2020.
A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood (Directed By Marielle Heller)
Like its protagonist,A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is sweetly sentimental, emotionally mature and constantly reminding us of why the world needs kindness. Often times today we may hear the notion of “We need Mr. Rogers back“, and yet, in reality, we don’t need him back, we must simply carry on the torch he left us. His life work is now complete and to keep him alive or “bring him back,” it is time we did our own work; time for us to love, be generous and unafraid to share our feelings. For Fred Rogers didn’t just preach the need for goodness and an openness to our feelings, he lived it. That’s why his spirit lives on because there was never a hypocrisy with him. He preached what he lived, and he lived what he preached, always with an encouragement for us to follow.
With the soothing presence of Tom Hanks as the cardigan-wearing neighbor, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood proves once more why the message of Mr. Rogers will always reign supreme. – Michael Vecchio
Alita: Battle Angel (Directed By Robert Rodriguez)
It is very easy to like the pyrotechnics of these big tentpole movies that Hollywood keeps pumping out. Go to a theater for a couple of hours, laugh along with the characters, don’t worry about the plot too much, and leave feeling pretty good, even if you’ll forget most of what you watched within the next hour. It’s not a terrible way to spend a Saturday afternoon. However, what many of today’s blockbusters lack is a sense of sincerity. These movies tend to be afraid of their own emotions, so they have to remind us every five minutes how they themselves aren’t taking this material that seriously, so why should we? Again, this could be fun, but it’s becoming harder and harder to find tentpole blockbusters to fall in love with.
Enter Alita: Battle Angel, a punk rock story about a young woman in a cyborg body with no memory, developing a relationship with her body as much as she is with the world around her. And right off the bat, Rosa Salazar’s deeply affectionate performance as the titular characters is what separates Alita from this brand of forgettable schlock. She is experiencing this world for the first time, and it is through her that we get to experience this divided world as well, and it is through her where we gain a truer understanding of the human experience, what it means to grow; what it means to feel; what it means to love. There is not an ounce of cynicism within the framework of this film, because Robert Rodriguez doesn’t have time for it. He’s too busy exploring the existentialism of his main hero through her relationship with the world around her along with her relationship with the multiple types of bodies she finds herself in, and how that speaks to her identity, and this version of self we all find ourselves wrestling with. While the world that Rodriguez designs are fascinating, and while this movie is filled with some of the coolest action sequences of the year, it is that understanding of emotional sincerity that imbues the film with its own sense of self. – Musa Chaudhry
Contrasting his 5-hour odyssey Happy Hour, Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s latest effort Asako I & II is a far less intimidating prospect though equally as focused on the small tribulations of the self. A journey of self-discovery as the titular Asako finds herself romantically involved with someone who looks identical to a partner in her past. How has she evolved since her previous relationship (if at all?). What does it say about unresolved issues lingering deep inside? Often times poignant and nearly universally relatable this Japanese drama captures a slice of life and melodrama in a uniquely high concept package. – Nate Lam
Atlantics (Directed by Mati Diop)
Mati Diop’s Atlantics is a tale of love and loss tied to contemporary issues surrounding immigration but rather than bombard you with an overly dramatic, heavily sentimentalized take on the subject, the French actress turned director opts for a time-bending supernatural affair. Set in Senegal the film follows a woman searching for reconnection with her long lost lover. A stunning debut with breathtaking cinematography and sound design, Diop joins the many other female directors that had a stellar 2019 and her film Atlantics is another excellent addition for distributor Netflix. There are valid complaints that the traditional cinematic experience has been undermined by the emergence of streaming (and I would advocate that Atlantics be seen in theatres for its technical prowess if at all possible) but one cannot deny the power that streaming has given films in finding audiences previously unreachable. – Nate Lam
Blinded By The Light (Directed By Gurinder Chadha)
With the music and poetry of Bruce Springsteen as a launchpad, Blinded By The Light celebrates the journey to accept oneself, the importance of diversity, and how art can unite us in the most emotional, and unexpected ways.
Set in 1987 in the small English working town of Luton, the film tells the story of Javed Khan, the son of Pakistani immigrants who have always struggled for acceptance in their new home. When Javed, who frequently clashes with his father over his life’s choices, discovers the music and lyrics of Bruce Springsteen, the shy teenager finally discovers something that directly speaks to his soul.
Armed with a heartfelt desire to become a writer and express his own identity, Javed moves away from the norms of a restrictive household and forges ahead with a renewed confidence to proclaim his love of writing and his ambition to become a welcomed part of English society; all the while still honoring his cultural roots. Emotional, poignant, and brilliantly honest, Blinded By The Light isn’t just a feel-good movie, it’s a strikingly important one. Balancing one’s traditions with the need to create a new path for oneself, Javed’s story is the story of so many who have often felt as if they were outsiders. Led by “The Boss” and his eternal music and lyrics, Javed, his friends, and his family grow in ways they never expected, and as viewers, we are treated not only to a toast of one artist’s incredible output but of the transformative power it can have on life. –Michael Vecchio
Booksmart (Directed By Olivia Wilde)
Booksmart is a coming of age story conveying a world that I am not familiar with, and a world that I’m not sure exists, and it is that sense of transportative power that allows for the film to quietly assert itself as a profound reflection of the kind of world worth living in, and the perspective of a youth culture that will bring about this kind of change that feels immediate. The film is utopian in that sense, and Olivia Wilde uses that utopian sense of place to craft a story about female friendship that feels honest in its intimacy between the two characters, and as these two high school girls navigate the world on their way to this party, the film stops every so often to allow itself a moment to reflect on what this journey means, who these characters are, and what they mean to each other. It is not only a beautiful treatise on this kind of friendship that we don’t see in movies nearly enough, but the movie, by nature of its inherent optimism, becomes about the way in which the world is being shaped by kids who are fed up with what we have done to it, and maybe one day, Booksmart will actually be a proper reflection of the world as it is, and not a world that could be. – Musa Chaudhry
Every facet of Dolemite is My Name is elevated by Eddie Murphy as Rudy Ray Moore – a middle-aged black entertainer whose career picks up when he discovers his talent for telling blue jokes as Dolemite, a sassy parody of a pimp that can rhyme, kick, and screw his way out of any situation, who understands that mimicry does not make the best biopic performances. A clear distinction is made between the inflection of the exaggerated movements of the performative Dolemite and the jovial Moore. Both are loud, but one in a mannered and sly way. In a similar film, The Disaster Artist, James Franco’s Tommy Wiseau is a cartoon, an affected accent that masks the crude stereotype of a dopey weirdo played in a similar fashion in every scene. The ceiling is inherently made lower when the performance is thought of as an impression; if the voice is off or the mannerisms feel disingenuous, nothing has been accomplished. Luckily, Murphy has the timing and wild man spirit of Moore down to a science. He may not look or sound like him, but he could certainly still pass for him.
Craig Brewer’s vision of the 70s inDolomite Is My Name is what Stranger Things offers to the 80s: an indulgence in the artificial wonder of cinematic stereotypes. There’s the free-spirited hangout culture of urban neighborhoods, with every block having a guy the protagonist is tight with, and garish suits, top hats, and canes with colors that span the entire light spectrum. It’s not always authentic, but its glossy reverence often supports in subdued ways. The funky music may help to highlight the setting, but it frequently helps to seamlessly blend sequences together in logical ways. Once a difficult scene is completed, the lively, bouncing transition acts like a celebration that moves into the introduction of the triumphant Dolemite theme song. – Grayson Lazarus
Our attempts to avoid death through the literal (as is the case with Bergman’s Seventh Seal) or metaphorical maneuvering of chess pieces sees us attempt to avoid the ultimate consequence. As such, death also provides the basis for self-reflection and (hopefully) growth in its wake (Lion King, A Ghost Story, etc) or in its impending arrival (Kurosawa’s Ikiru). But what if we don’t know death is knocking? Then is, as the old adage states ignorance in fact bliss? That is the question at the heart of Lulu Wang’s sophomore feature The Farewell – a small but immensely powerful film that studies the cross-cultural ethics and cascading personal effect of a simple lie.
Awkwafina, in a continuation of her meteoric rise following supporting roles in last year’s Oceans 8 and Crazy Rich Asians, acts as the film’s emotional fulcrum as she handles the pressures of withholding the truth from her grandma (breakout star Zhao Shuzhen). Rife with quiet anguish and occasional deft moments of comedic touch, the performance is one of the year’s most reserved yet most powerful. Capable of crossing demographic boundaries with its sweet message and lighthearted comedy The Farewell asks us to look beyond our divisions and celebrate the fragilely limited time we have together. – Nate Lam
Frozen II (Directed By Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck)
Frozen IIis a deeply affecting fantasy adventure that takes the characters and themes from the first film and expounds upon them in ways that were unexpected in their blunt immediacy. When we look at Elsa’s journey in the first movie, it was all about her letting her guard down and letting go of fear in order to allow herself to be loved, while in the sequel, her entire journey is centered around her learning to love herself and becoming comfortable with who she is. While Disney is positioning the song “Into the Unknown” as “Let It Go’s” successor, it is actually “Show Yourself” that speaks so deeply to the film’s central idea of self-love and accepting yourself which I found to be deeply moving.
Then we arrive at Anna, a bubbly personality who is fiercely loyal, wearing her emotions on her sleeves at all times, and that allows for us to see her at her most vulnerable. In Frozen II, she is really put through the emotional ringer, and her one solo song is about learning to deal with sadness and grief, and how sometimes all you can do is put one foot in front of the other, focus on what’s right in front of you, and just get to the next moment. It is almost traumatic to see one of the most deeply optimistic characters of the year deal with her vulnerability in such a way, and yet it is also empowering to see a character deal with grief in a way that feels honest.
Yet, I haven’t even touched on the story which is a layered exploration of a kingdom needing to make up for the past sins of their ancestors in order to move forward as a nation, and Olaf is even more hilarious in this installment as even he is given moments to grow and evolve. Kristoff is still the best love interest that Disney has to offer because he allows Anna the space to grow as herself, without needing to intrude into her space to assert his own importance over hers. And none of these things would resonate nearly as much without the emotional current of the sisters driving the story forward. A beautifully animated picture, rich with texture, layered in its writing, and a soundtrack that even exceeds what the first movie accomplished. – Musa Chaudhry
Glass (Directed By M. Night Shyamalan)
The superhero genre has evolved momentously since the release of Unbreakable 19 years ago, in that superhero movies actually have a genre to call their own now with clearly defined tropes and ideas found in the crevices of almost each one, and yet, by having a clearly defined genre, these movies have lost their adventurous perspective in exploring what comes with great power that no human should ever have. Now, when you show up to a multiplex to watch superheroes and supervillains fight and wreak havoc, that is all you’re showing up for. Filmmakers are being hired to deliver plot and quips and action that looks like it was made in a computer. The ending of Avengers: Endgame is cool, but it also means absolutely nothing beyond the instant gratification of seeing these heroes unite and defeat this big villain. It is a payoff without meaning, only interested in the immediacy of the payoff. And what M. Night did with Glass was explore the perspective of Martin Scorsese before Scorsese shared his perspective on superhero movies having more in common with theme park rides than with cinema.
Glass is M. Night’s philosophical ruminations on superhero storytelling, why any of this matters on a macro level and why these stories resonate so deeply, all the while closing out a trilogy by bringing together David Dunn and The Horde, with Mr. Glass acting as the intermediary. It would have been so easy for him to simply have The Horde fight David Dunn, with a sparse plot threading it all together, and honestly, people might have liked it more. It is easy to like something that caters to our most basic instincts as a cinema goer. M. Night opted for something a little more challenging, that takes a genre we all love, and asks us why we love it, and what that means. And the answer he provides for superhero stories being worth telling is more meaningful a superhero story than just about any other superhero movie this decade. – Musa Chaudhry
Existing almost entirely in the confines of a cafe, a young writer watches the patrons go about their business. There’s the washed-up actor seeking a new living arrangement with a woman, a screenwriter seeking collaboration professionally and maybe romantically with a colleague and a group debating the ramifications of an acquaintance’s suicide. On their own, each one of these vignettes could warrant their own feature film but the challenge for director Hong Sang-Soo is to have the audience engage with these stories solely based on the small glimpses we are allowed to see.
In the past decade Hong Sang-Soo has directed 14 feature films but more impressive than his prolific output is how remarkably consistent his works are. Hong employs a hyper minimalist approach and makes these small slices of life dramas his trademark aesthetic. Grass, one of two offerings from the Korean filmmaker this year, is perhaps his most extreme of this style clocking in at just over an hour. He takes a mindless exercise we all do when we are people watching and turns it into a demonstration of his own style. Void of extravagant bells and whistles he constructs everything with function and efficiency in mind because all the rest is unnecessary. Presenting one of the strongest filmographies of the past decade it’s hard to argue against his methodology – Nate Lam
High Life (Directed By Claire Denis)
The first English language film for long acclaimed French director Claire Denis, High Lifefollows Monte (Robert Pattinson), his infant daughter and a group of criminals sent aboard a spaceship to the far reaches of the galaxy as they are subject to various experiments in the name of science. A frontier that typically comes with high budgets and even higher concepts, Denis takes on outer space without losing sight of the core humanity that populates her work previously. In this light High Life is more reminiscent of Arrival, 2001 or more recently Ad Astra than it is Alien. Pondering questions of morality, autonomy, and sexuality High Life offers a challenging viewing but one that ultimately rewards with its impressive visuals and incredibly vulnerable performances from the ensemble cast including Pattinson, Juliette Binoche and Andre 3000.
When Robert Pattinson takes on the mantle of Batman in the near future it will mark a mass-market return for those who know him only for his role in Twilight but those who have followed his career in recent years will know his work has showcased dynamic range, depth and yielded a career-best run of form. So if this marks the conclusion of this chapter of his career it is fitting he does so with High Life – a tour de force film that combines stunning visuals with inciting commentary on the human condition. – Nate Lam
I Lost My Body (Directed By Jérémy Clapin)
I Lost My Bodyis aching with melancholic beauty, able to exist within the space between time, using animation to explore this metaphysical idea of self, imbued with a deep sense of longing. Part morbid absurdity, part coming of age story, and when these two ideas finally merge together at the end, it taps into an emotional catharsis that quietly caught up with me. A beautifully told tale about a severed hand trying to reconnect with its owner, and a young man trying to form a connection with a young woman, and what that relationship teaches him about himself and his own place within his world. This is not a love story. It is about the interiority of the human experience and trying to fill that space with meaning, all the while exploring the perspective of the world from our limbs, and the way the world is experienced from our body before our mind, and how this all reconnects to our essence as human beings and the experiences that define us. A deeply personal film from France that is able to tap into that unconscious sense of self that we feel before we understand. – Musa Chaudhry
The Irishman (Directed By Martin Scorsese)
The surface-level politics of The Irishman are easy to identify, as the film’s depiction of the story of Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) bears contemporary resemblances. Hoffa runs for office as a swearing, golfing, rich kid in an old man’s body. While his feigned sympathetic calls to the working class (“‘The day our trucks stop, America stops’”) bring him far, he is undone by a loudmouth demeanor and a lack of self-awareness. But in the end, it’s Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), Hoffa’s closest confidant, that ends up becoming the more meaningful proxy. The geriatric sociopath makes it away with little more than the clothes on his back and plenty of coveted “self-respect,” but cannot relate to anyone around him. After being told why he ruined his daughter’s life, he asks “‘Is there anything I can do to make up for it?’” When told by a friendly priest that “‘We can be sorry, even if we don’t feel sorry,’” Sheeran reiterates he feels nothing about his crimes. Instead of making a politically charged condemnation, Scorsese and screenwriter Steven Zaillian seem to be offering an open dialogue with Trump himself, presenting this once powerful sociopath as a frail blank that eventually will become a bland statistic. – Grayson Lazarus
Could anyone have expected the “kid who’s imaginary friend is Hitler” movie from the oddball co-creator of What We Do in the Shadows to be one of the year’s most emotionally riveting films? Taika Waititi’s anti-hate satire comes at a time of political unrest, and though the delivery isn’t necessarily deep or subtle, it unabashedly proclaims at the top of its lungs that love conquers hate and that warping a child’s mind is easier and more dangerous than it may seem – topics that are hard to fault these days.
From the opening title sequence that compares fanatic Nazism to the absurdity of Beatlemania through the use of a German cover of The Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” Waititi brings his usual sense of humor to Jojo Rabbit immediately but is aware enough to hold it back for the latter half of the film and hone in on the emotional importance of this story as a whole. A slew of wonderful performances help out too: Scarlett Johansson provides a comforting sense of warmth that hugs the film even when she’s not on screen; Thomasin McKenzie gives a second consecutive best-of-the-year performance as the endlessly cool but ultimately vulnerable Elsa, and Roman Griffin Davis manages to shoulder much of the film on his own in his charming acting debut as the titular Jojo. – Andrew Milito
Every great superhero must have, at least in theory, an equally great and formidable opponent. In the world of Gotham and Batman, there may be many formidable opponents, but only one truly great and iconic one. With Joker, this ultimate antagonist doesn’t just get to star in his own film without Batman in the picture but is given a chillingly twisted origin story further shedding light on the enigma of this most captivating literary creation.
Indeed while the Joker has been brilliantly portrayed by many (Cesar Romero, Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger amongst others), the character has always been part of the larger Batman narrative. With director Todd Phillips’ film, the focus is shifted almost singularly to the clown himself, and star Joaquin Phoenix delivers most exceptionally. Demented, yet saddeningly pathetic, the Joker’s struggles with mental illness and a society with too little empathy create the perfect mix for the rise of sociopath; Joker examines the toll disease and indifference by others can play on a person’s psyche, all the while leaving audiences mesmerized by the strikingly committed performance from Phoenix.
Though the film could have benefitted from an even deeper examination of the origins of evil, it remains a solidly crafted endeavor, steadied by a phenomenal Joaquin Phoenix. Even as it spurred controversy and generated heated discussion, Joker has shown itself to be an important film, regardless of how one feels about it. – Michael Vecchio
When she died at the age of 47, Judy Garland (1922-1969) was a largely broken woman; crippled by addictions, debts, and a series of failed marriages that kept her from her children, she struggled to retain a sense of relevance in a Hollywood that had largely robbed her of her youth, and that now cruelly wanted little to do with her.
And so Judyis not a glamorous film about the girl forever known as Dorothy Gale, but a melancholic portrait of the price of fame and self-destructive behavior. Written by Tom Edge, and based on the stage musical End of the Rainbow, what makes Judy unique is its almost singular focus on the months preceding Garland’s death; where films like Ray, Walk The Line, or such recent titles like Rocketman and Bohemian Rhapsodycovered a wider spectrum of their subjects lives, this movie’s narrative strength is indeed anchored around its sensitive, yet frank depiction of the rueful end of Garland’s existence, both professionally and personally. Anchored around a stellar performance from Renee Zellweger, director Rupert Goold has helmed a movie that functions as a biographical remembrance, but perhaps more so as an urgent call to love oneself and cherish the bright talents that manifest themselves.- Michael Vecchio
Klaus is about the myth that Santa is based on and how that myth rolls into the reality of the film, but more than that, this is a movie about the importance and validity of a child’s perspective, unaware of the hate that they are meant to have in their hearts, and how it is that sense of joy and wonder that reminds us of a world worth living in. How we once had that perspective and then growing up and into adulthood stripped us of that childlike innocence, and what Klaus does is remind us of what it meant to be children and be uninhibited in our perspective on our world, blissfully unaware of the capability to hold grudges, and be cynical, and hate somebody before knowing them. What Klaus does is accomplish its ambitions in a way that feels equal parts complex and meaningful, getting to the heart of the holiday season without catering to our most basic impulses. – Musa Chaudhry
Knives Out (Directed By Rian Johnson)
After receiving merciless backlash from fanboys for making the most interesting creative decisions that Star Wars has seen since 1980, Rian Johnson has thrown our expectations for a loop once again with this star-studded murder mystery. Knives Out is the type of film that gets to have its cake and eat it too; it’s a complete subversion of the classic whodunits in the style of Agatha Christie, while at the same time adhering to the typical formula of the genre and delivering on all of the same kinds of thrills and twists that we flock to these stories to see.
Having been trapped in long-running franchises for so many years, it’s incredibly refreshing to see actors like Daniel Craig and Chris Evans being given the freedom to play against type and completely reinvent their personas. The entirety of this all-star ensemble cast is rounded out with veterans (Christopher Plummer, Jamie Lee Curtis), young up-and-comers (Katherine Langford, Jaeden Martell), beloved character actors (Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Lakeith Stanfield, Toni Collette) all having the time of their lives with such juicy, dynamic characters to sink their teeth into, centered by possibly the breakout performance of the year with Ana de Armas as a truly pure, moral center navigating us throughout a family of scheming narcissists. It’s an intricately woven mystery with unpredictable twists and turns at every corner with surprisingly clever commentary on class and privilege: a common theme among most of 2019’s best in film. – Mike Pisacano
The Last Black Man in San Francisco (Directed By Joe Talbot)
Beautifully capturing the soul and humanity of not only a sympathetic down-on-his-luck man but of an entire city and how it shapes and is shaped by those who call it home. Jimmie Fails and Jonathan Majors portray such a tender and vulnerable depiction of genuine male friendship and brotherhood as they build each other up when their surroundings try to tear them down. Believing that his grandfather was the self-proclaimed “first black man in San Francisco” who came to this city with nothing, built his family’s house with his own two hands, and carved a space for himself in the middle of a world that didn’t even want him to exist in the first place is such an ideal inspiration for Jimmie as he tries to make his own home for himself in a San Francisco that is just as unkind, but also just as worthy of finding beauty in. “You don’t get to hate unless you love it”, Jimmie says after he’s reached the most defeated point in his love/hate relationship with a city that has constantly disappointed and disregarded him at every turn.
It’s a film about the personal value that we assign ourselves based on what our economic status deems us worthy of, and challenges us to see the value that we contribute to the place we call home, and not the other way around. The sultry, almost heavenly score coupled with the intoxicating cinematography gives the city such a pulsing heartbeat which showcases the beauty that Jimmie sees in this city and the lengths that he will go to prove himself worthy of being apart of it. The Last Black Man in San Franciscois a somber, poetic portrait of a city in constant flux and the story of those who refuse to let themselves be left behind in the chaos. – Mike Pisacano
The Lighthouse (Directed By Robert Eggers)
In the age of “elevated horror,” nobody’s doing it quite like Robert Eggers. Following his breakthrough success with The Witch, Eggers goes even further with his period filmmaking approach and delivers a film ripped straight from the 1920s. With striking 35mm photography shot in a nearly square 1.19:1 aspect ratio using antique lenses, it immediately evokes the works of F.W. Murnau and Carl Theodor Dreyer in technical presentation alone. The film itself, a tale of two clashing lighthouse keepers whose minds slowly unravel, is a deceptively funny character piece with an array of potential meanings, ranging from a retelling of the story of Prometheus to a damning (and vaguely homoerotic) look at masculinity – the titular lighthouse isn’t far removed from a massive phallus, after all. Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe each give career-best performances, theatrically bickering with one another and spouting impressive monologues often captured in unbroken takes that last for several minutes. It’s said often but remains true about a film as absolutely stunning as this: The Lighthouse is the most unique horror film you’ll see all year. – Andrew Milito
Little Women (Directed By Greta Gerwig)
Adapting a centuries-old novel that’s already had countless of film adaptations in the past, sounds like the most unexciting, conventional waste of a promising new filmmaker’s talents, coming off the heels of such an original and personal debut as Lady Birdwas. Greta Gerwig’s adaptation ofLittle Womenis truly her own, just as much as the original novel was Louisa May Alcott’s. There have been many straightforward adaptations of the novel before, but this version takes the original story and recontextualizes the significance of the characters and story in relation to both Gerwig’s own personal interpretation as well as a reflection of Alcott’s own journey in getting the book published.
Dividing the story across several timelines (which can be pretty initially confusing to those not familiar with the original story) but truly does add a refreshing layer to the story of the March girls. The film is a liberating celebration of the freedom for women to express themselves, and a celebration of the familial love and admiration that these sisters have for each other, even during the most difficult times. Little Women is a joyous, warm, and loving film that reflects on the idealization of childhood and the fortitude to carve your own path in the world.- Mike Pisacano
Luce (Directed By Julius Onah)
Luce Edgar (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is the ideal pupil at his high school as an all-star athlete and class valedictorian. Given his childhood background as a child soldier in Eritrea, he and his adopted parents (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth) have worked to overcome his traumatic upbringing and mold him into a model American citizen. His story is used in his community as an example of black excellence not conforming to the stereotypes attached to your race or heritage, and an example of America as the land of opportunity allowing for the start of a new life. His history teacher Ms. Wilson (Octavia Spencer) begins to become suspicious of him after certain aspects of his political views and extraneous actions come to light, which sets in motion a complex examination of race, identity, social status, and how all of these things affect and reflect each other.
Luceis a breeding ground for dynamic, powerhouse dramatic performances from each member of its ensemble cast, each getting to express their range and challenge their capabilities as they’re each given such rich and multi-layered characters to work with in ways that reveal everyone as being not who they seem to be. Kelvin Harrison Jr. brings such a likable, charming presence to Luce that makes you fully believe that he would be as respected and revered among his community as he is, to the point where he seems almost too perfect to an unbelievable degree, which allows for the suspicions that get raised about him, later on, to seem credible. Octavia Spencer rides a fine line between being both intimidating and sympathetic that in this battle of wits between her and Luce, we understand both perspectives and don’t want to root against either one. – Mike Pisacano
Writer/director Noah Baumbach has long dealt with the subject of divorce, seeing how his own parents’ divorce when he was a child was an experience that has left a profound impact on his upbringing that he has continuously explored in his art (see 2005’s The Squid and the Whale). Having already detailed the experiences of what this ordeal feels like from the perspective of the children caught in the middle of everything, Marriage Story is more of a look at the deeper and more complex intricacies of a crumbling marriage, informed not only by the experiences of his own parents’ divorce but most likely his own experiences of separation.
Marriage Storyis a profound look into the lives of not just these characters, not just the filmmaker behind the camera, but also into the lives of millions of families that have been torn apart by this exact same fate. It pays sympathy and legitimacy to both partners involved and refrains from villainizing either party. Through Baumbach’s delicate approach, he provides a method for the viewers to live through this painfully defeating reality of these characters’ individual experiences, while also offering a level of wisdom and maturity through the lens of retrospect. Both a comforting and affirming perspective to anyone who has gone through or is currently going through a similar situation, it is at times the callous death of a marriage that gives way to new forms of love from its ashes.- Mike Pisacano
Ari Aster has already secured a very particular, harrowing portrayal of grief as a directorial trademark just two films into his career. Much like his debut feature Hereditary, Midsommar is one such exploration of grief, this time framed around an emotionally fragile young woman (Florence Pugh, who’s had a stellar year) caught in a relationship that’s deteriorating but just won’t dissolve completely. Unlike Hereditary, however, which based itself in the supernatural, Midsommar is rooted in a disturbing palpability that amplifies its sense of dread. From a catalyzing reveal in the opening scenes that arguably puts Hereditary’s shocking car scene to shame, Midsommar is folk horror that provides chills to your very core for well over two hours, made all the more discomforting by having the terror take place in the broad Swedish daylight. Taking clear inspiration from the likes of The Wicker Man, Aster revels in making you feel absolutely horrible, but he isn’t without a sense of humor: the film is coated in moments of extremely morbid humor that lend to the uncomfortable situation our protagonists find themselves unable to escape. And just as Aster has pinpointed grief as a go-to theme, he continues to explore the journey to catharsis after tragedy, and once again does so here with a film that stands as equal parts disconcerting and beautiful. – Andrew Milito
Editor’s Note: Would highly recommend watching the Director’s Cut over the Theatrical Cut for a more in-depth and ultimately fulfilling experience
It took Edward Norton twenty years to bring this novel to life on the screen, and when you watch Motherless Brooklyn, you are watching an artist define himself on screen. The direction is patient and languid in the way the narrative unfolds and how the pieces fall together, with a visual design that has the power to transport us into a world that once existed, and Edward Norton allows us to exist within a moment in time, telling this story of a private eye with Tourettes trying to solve the murder of his boss in 1950’s New York, and how that collides with a Robert Moses analog, who uses his unchecked power to create a New York city that has racism built into the very structure of its design. Norton, as the private eye, gives a performance that could very easily be perceived as offensive, taking a very real condition and exploiting it without understanding what it means. And yet, it is his eye as a filmmaker that brings the nuance into the performance. Norton walks a fine line, and he is acutely aware of the way the audience should perceive this character, and his intent in every scene is built into the structure of the film. This is a character piece, and Norton does a fine job at crafting a performance and framing that performance within a specific context that makes sense.
What I love most about this movie however is simply the experience of sitting in a theater and allowing it film to wash over me, and letting the filmmaker tell the story he wanted to tell, and allowing myself the freedom to decide what to do with it. In a 2019 Hollywood studio system that prefers franchise filmmaking with a built-in audience that they can cater to, it felt nice to experience a studio movie that is simply concerned with telling its own story, made for adults, and allowing us to interpret its themes in whichever way we chose. The story it tells is complex, but Norton never allows that complexity to overshadow the mood of the movie itself. There is a 3-minute sequence in a jazz club that is sublime, as Norton’s character simply dances to live music, and we get to experience the way this music interacts with his brain, and while the plot stops to allow for this moment to exist, this moment is what gives this movie its perspective. More movies need to stop their plot in order to just allow characters to exist within a moment in time, and Motherless Brooklyn gives its characters that freedom. – Musa Chaudhry
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (Directed By Quentin Tarantino)
As a filmmaker who has built a name on stylized ultra-violence and vulgar, profanity-laden screenplays, the last word that anyone might use to describe Quentin Tarantino is “mature.” But Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, his ninth (and, if his retirement plans are to be believed, penultimate) feature, shows a side of the writer/director that we’ve rarely seen. Toning down the vulgarity and violence (at least, until the third act), the film is more or less a 160-minute hangout movie, following the lives of struggling “has-been” actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio, expectedly great) and his loyal stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt, deservedly gathering the most widespread acclaim of his career) in the summer of 1969. Anyone caught up with their Hollywood history knows the significance of that year, and when the Manson family does enter the picture, Tarantino expertly plays with suspense and tension. But smartly, they take up very little of the film: Dalton and Booth and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie, quietly powerful) are the heart and soul of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. At its core, it’s a story of friendship and brotherhood, and a celebration of an era Tarantino clearly has the utmost respect for and wistful feelings towards – by the film’s end, the fairy tale title takes on a hauntingly beautiful new meaning. – Andrew Milito
Streaming is establishing itself as a force to be reckoned with in the world of film distribution: what that means for the ongoing debate of theatrical release vs. instant home release still remains to be seen, but we should all be glad that outlets like Netflix provide a home for gems like Paddleton. The intimate buddy dramedy is a prime example of the kind of film that seems to have less and less place in theaters but remains a story worth telling. Though that story is familiar – a friendship shaken up by a terminal cancer diagnosis – it’s delivered with such a raw sense of emotion thanks to two wonderful lead performances. Mumblecore master Mark Duplass, working in his element, is quietly brilliant, and Ray Romano gets to play up his deadpan neuroticism while also showing off impressive dramatic acting chops. It’s a shame that Paddleton’s early release date has led to inadvertent burial: in a year of Netflix offering new outings from Baumbach and Scorsese, it remains one of the strongest and most powerful outings by the distributor this year. – Andrew Milito
A gentle self-portrait, aching with melancholic beauty, reflecting the life of an artist back onto himself in order to achieve a greater understanding of our need to tell stories and the stories we decide to tell. Almodovar uses his experiences growing up in Spain as a springboard to further explore his own perspective on who he is as an artist and the way that aging can help refine our own interior ideas on ourselves. There is a specificity that Almodovar taps into that help create this universal treatise on the way we age, and how we look back on who we once were in order to better understand who we’ve become, and it is that interrogation of ourselves that makes us human. Pain and Glory is deeply empathetic in its contemplation, eschewing away from Almodovar’s usual sense of absurdity in order to cut right through to the essence of what he’s trying to say. One of the most beautiful films I’ve seen all year. – Musa Chaudhry
Parasite (Directed by Bong Joon-Ho)
Bong Joon-Ho balances genre tones and deftly shifts between them very well, it allows Parasite to maintain tension and grants the ability to surprise. Visually he is able to tell a story better than most others could with 100x the budget. Following a downtrodden family that gradually scheme their way into the lives of another much wealthier one, the film offers a dark look at morality under the thumb of capitalism.
The unconscious class divide in otherwise good people plays nicely when interplayed with the masks and illusions the various characters engage with. The “villains” are not so much evil as they are ignorant of the world around them and the simmering effects of their actions. Does that indict them? Perhaps not but Bong does arrive at a sort of catharsis. Broadly we are made to see the world as unjust regardless of which perspective you view it through. The delicately built metaphorical house of cards falls spontaneously and that works on a macro level because of its unforgiving nature regardless of one’s socioeconomic standing. Effectively provoking without being too heavy-handed in its approach, Parasite sees the Korean director acclaimed in his native land and among cinephiles announce himself to the world. – Nate Lam
Portrait of a Lady On Fire (Directed By Céline Sciamma)
A painter (Noémie Merlant) is brought to an island in 18th century France to paint the wedding portrait of another young woman (Adèle Haenel) in Céline Sciamma’s Portrait Of A Lady On Fire. Operating with surgical precision, its a film that thrives on subtext, every stolen glance, subtle touch or indeed stroke of the brush between the pair carries with it a charged undercurrent of feeling. Methodically paced and immaculately composed by cinematographer Claire Mathon (also responsible for the stunning visuals of the aforementioned Atlantics) each layered metaphor builds to one of the most impactful moments at the movies this year.
They say a picture says a thousand words. While some, including France themselves in choosing Les Miserables as their selection for Best Foreign Language consideration, may prefer more overt forms of expression to Sciamma’s gentle approach. One must admire the means Sciamma is able to use a multifaceted toolbox to paint a work of art in its frame. To express a thousand sentiments and visceral emotions without so much as an audible word. – Nate Lam
Rocketman (Directed by Dexter Fletcher)
From Elton John’s days as a young child piano prodigy in England to the brilliant displays of his burgeoning talent in America, Rocketman stays true to the biopic structure, yet infuses its narrative with flightful dream sequences, dance numbers, and clever incorporation of Elton’s vast jukebox of classic songs.
Whether it is seeing the young Reginald Dwight (before the adoption of his stage name) imagining himself conducting an orchestra, having the whole town singing and dancing to “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting”, floating in mid-air during a performance of “Crocodile Rock”, or blasting off into space while singing “Rocket Man”, the fantasy here not only elevates the journey but really adds a type of magic to the aura of Elton John and his exceptional musical mind. With heart and a wonderful dosage of ‘musical fantasy’, Rocketman succeeds as a most fulfilling biopic, that like Elton John will not be soon forgotten. – Michael Vecchio
A dramatization of the bombing at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, and the subsequent media circus surrounding the main suspect, Richard Jewell like its titular protagonist is initially assuming, before anchoring itself as a work of complex and understated emotion.
When security guard Richard Jewell discovers a suspicious package at Centennial Park during the Atlanta Games, he is initially hailed as a hero; soon however the FBI turns its focus on Jewell himself. With that this good-natured and socially awkward man now finds himself right in the middle of rabid speculation that puts a tremendous toll on his physical and emotional health. At his side are his mother (a quietly forceful Kathy Bates) and his defense lawyer (Sam Rockwell), while the FBI and media outlets out for sensationalism dog him at almost every turn.
Featuring a wonderful lead performance from Paul Walter Hauser, Richard Jewell is not a big, loud or even deeply incisive film. But once more like the man Richard Jewell, it is sincere, low key and on the lookout for justice in an unjust world. Director Clint Eastwood has often spotlighted unlikely heroes in his films, and the everyday courage of people like Richard Jewell, often wrongly persecuted for being “different”, make a compelling narrative. If there is one clear message to glean from the film, it must then be indeed that the purest hearts are so often the ones looked on with derision. –Michael Vecchio
Shazam! (Directed By David Sandberg)
The DC Extended Universe has stalled (or died??) after the hastily assembled Justice League failed to gravitate with critics and audiences alike. However, that doesn’t mean individual components have suffered the same fate. Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman points to the promise that these heroes can possess and now joining her is Zachary Levi’s Shazam! Young Billy Batson is just an orphaned child until he shouts “Shazam!” and adopts the powers of Greek gods.
Finding balance is key and Shazam! does a great job at retaining the childlike wonder of Batson while also exploring the darker themes of the film particularly in relation to his struggle to find belonging. Levi plays the role with a delightful sense of goofiness perfectly establishing a long term building block for DC should that be the route they decide to take. – Nate Lam
There has been this motif of older Male filmmakers using their art to reflect their own image back at themselves, tackling ideas like mortality and finding meaning within the perspective that they themselves bring to their art, and this motif has been a constant throughout the year with filmmakers like Scorsese and Tarantino and Almodovar, among others, and what I am saying is that6 Underground is Michael Bay’s version of a self-portrait. It is to Michael Bay what The Irishman is to Scorsese, and what Hollywood is to Tarantino. It is an artist wrestling with the images he puts on screen and the stylistic impulses that define his work, all the while reflecting on this idea of the mortality of the artist and the way that his movies will define him, and the legacy he wants to leave behind.
6 Underground is Michael Bay’s old man movie, except whereas Scorsese, Almodovar, and Tarantino were melancholic and meditative, Michael Bay is as frenetic as ever, exploring his own perspective through style and structure melded by chaos and kineticism, never slowing down for a second, yet saying everything he needs to say within the frantic excess of his movie. This is the Bay-iest Michael Bay movie to ever have been Michael Bayed, and yet, it is also his most mature and forthcoming work, a spiritual successor to Bad Boys II. Just as immoral, but this time, Bay understands his own immorality, so he is able to refine his own aesthetic while creating something that actually has a tinge of humanity imbued within the chaotic nature of this form of storytelling. – Musa Chaudhry
Teen Titans Go! Vs Teen Titans (Directed By Jeff Mednikow)
This movie revels in its stupidity while still managing to be a clever exploration of the history between these two shows as it fights for the individual validity of each one’s existence, at once able to be heartfelt and poignant while also managing to be outright hilariously immature, many times within the same scene; within the same sentence; within the same breath. The creators of this film and the cast are all acutely aware of the perception we have of these two sets of characters and they gloriously expound upon those expectations. Endlessly dumb, yet also somehow that idiocy circles around to somehow being smart. I can confidently say that this was the perfect way to bring the original Teen Titans back into the fold. – Musa Chaudhry
The Two Popes (Directed by Fernando Meirelles)
Perhaps no other spiritual religious leader has attracted the world’s attention like the Catholic Church’s Pope, who for centuries have played significant roles in world history. Now in the 21st century, the effects of the papacy continue to be resounding, as the Catholic Church struggles with dwindling numbers of worshippers, the rise of secularism, and the crippling consequences of years of sex abuse by priests.
Director Fernando Meirelles’ The Two Popes is a fascinating, charming, insightful, and yes even comical look at the philosophy of Jorge Bergoglio (Pope Francis) and his life’s journey to the papacy, in the wake of the sudden resignation of Pope Benedict XVI. Although largely fictional, this based on true events story written by Anthony McCarten (Darkest Hour, Bohemian Rhapsody), provides a rare behind the scenes look at Vatican politics, the ever secretive Conclave, and the contrasting personalities of two Pontiffs united only in their faith in God.
With terrific lead performances from Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce as Benedict and Francis respectively, The Two Popes spotlights a unique and unlikely friendship, while simultaneously informing and entertaining its audience. The resemblance of the two actors (especially Pryce) is striking, but beyond the surface similarities, both men have been able to recreate these two modern popes with sincerity and conviction, making the film richly intelligent and elegantly moving. While the film never directly critiques the faults within the Catholic Church hierarchy, its portrait of the shifting views on theology makes this a most captivating movie, anchored by stellar performers at the top of their game. – Michael Vecchio
Uncut Gems (Directed By Josh and Benny Safdie)
At the start of the decade, a scene-stealing performance in Magic Mike and an eventual Oscar-winning role in Dallas Buyers Club ushered in the Matthew McConaughey renaissance (dubbed the Mcconaissance) wherein the actor revitalized his career moving from frequent romantic comedy lead to critically acclaimed dramatic actor. Now near the turn of a new decade the Safdie Brothers – themselves responsible in part for the shift in perception for Robert Pattinson following Good Time – present Adam Sandler the opportunity to do the same with Uncut Gems
The follies of Sandler’s career have been well documented by our friends over at the Crappy Madison Podcast and beyond but he has also shown the ability for more serious roles in films such as Punch Drunk Love. Contrasting the shy empathetic Barry he plays in that film is the crass, brash and flat out greasy Howard he plays in Uncut Gems. Moving at a breakneck pace throughout the film tracks Howard’s exploits as a sleazy jeweler with a gambling addiction and a slew of personal problems. Sandler plays the character unapologetically channeling that classic Sandler typically utilized for lowbrow bits into this chaotic energy. The Safdies’ complimenting Sandler with a largely inexperienced cast (including a standout debut from Julia Fox and surprisingly NBA Champion Kevin Garnett) captures the thrill and allure of gambling like few films have. With an energy unmatched by anything else I’ve seen this year, all I can say is: Bring on the Sandler Renaissance – Nate Lam
Us (Directed by Jordan Peele)
2019 was largely the year of the sophomore director. Alongside the aforementioned second features from Ari Aster and Robert Eggers, Jordan Peele followed up his surprise breakout Get Out with another social thriller, Us. Though Us may not find Peele capturing exactly the same cultural zeitgeist as Get Out, or inspiring the same iconography the latter immediately cemented into pop culture, it stands as a rousing new sociopolitical horror film from one of the most promising new voices in the industry. Peele concocts setpieces that are much more visceral and frantic than the psychological scares of Get Out, but without the need to resort to more lazy horror filmmaking tactics like jump scares or intense audio mixing – and all without losing sight of a narrative that tackles a variety of socioeconomic and political ideas in deeply thought-provoking ways.
A tale of doubles, Us is interpreted differently by everyone who sees it: the underground-dwelling society rising up shows a relatively straightforward examination of American classism, but the film also explores the subconscious evils we carry as individuals. The entire ensemble offers very complicated double performances, but Us is very clearly Lupita Nyong’o’s film, and she owns it with two marvelous performances whose initially clashing personalities eventually merge into something truly special. – Andrew Milito
Much like the changing of the waves in the ocean Trey Edward Shults’ Waves is a movie of changing tones. The first half is urgent following a star varsity wrestler (played by Luce breakout Kelvin Harrison Jr) with lofty ambitions and equally high pressures placed on him internally and externally in his personal life. The second half slows down taking a more reflective turn as we witness the rippling effects such a lifestyle has on those around him. Shults punctuates these changes with shifting tones in the soundtrack, aspect ratios, and film stocks much like Barry Jenkins did with Moonlight.
The dichotomy between the two halves interlocked with each other provides a contrast in the direction each section takes so much so that the response it evokes is completely different. What resonates as a singular cohesive unit though is the humanity tied to the film. – Nate Lam