HughesReviews: The Ten Best Motion Pictures of 2019

| February 7th, 2020

It was a year of cinema seemingly created just for me.

My home state hero Bruce Springsteen showed up twice, in his autobiographical concert film Western Stars and the so-saccharine-it-gave-me-adult-onset-diabetes Blinded By the Light.

My literary idol Stephen Sondheim showed up three times. Daniel Craig sang “Losing My Mind” from Follies in Knives Out, Joaquin Phoenix sang “Send in the Clowns” from A Little Night Music in Joker and Adam Driver delivered one of the great scenes, a fully-formed “Being Alive” from Company, with the dialogue interludes, in Marriage Story. (The latter was juxtaposed with Scarlett Johansson, Merritt Wever and Julie Hagerty’s rousing “You Can Drive a Person Crazy” from that same Sondheim show.)

Four of my favorite filmmakers – Errol Morris, Alex Gibney, Pedro Almodovar and Mike Leigh – released new works. (The special treat of the year was getting to see both Morris and Gibney at Film Forum Q&A sessions in NYC.) Only Gibney’s Citizen K failed to crack the list below.

Oh, and they made a documentary about Fiddler on the Roof – my choice for the greatest piece of American dramatic literature. (And it was just lovely. But I ruled it out of any year-end list due to its unfair advantage. It’s probably the 2019 film I’ll watch the most in my lifetime.)

What follows is my year-end piece in two parts. First, how the acting Oscar nominations would have looked if I did the nominating. Second, my ten best films of the year.

You will find no mention of Joker anywhere because Joker is the winner of the Bohemian Rhapsody Award, given to the film that will make me slightly ill with ever Oscar victory. Joker is trash cinema. Obvious. Easy. Freshman year of film school derivative. “Teacher, look! I saw King of Comedy for the first time! And I made my own! But it’s about an actual clown and DeNiro changed parts!”

[Note: There were three films I did not manage to get to that could have been relevant here. So my apologies to Les Miserables, Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Varda by Agnes. It wasn’t for lack of trying, either. I saw The Dead Don’t Die. I sat through The Souvenir. I did Atlantics and Monos – two terrific films – on one Sunday afternoon. Then I went drinking.]

The Performances

Best Actor

  • Adam Driver, Marriage Story
  • Paul Walter Hauser, Richard Jewell
  • Antonio Banderas, Pain & Glory
  • Mark Ruffalo, Dark Waters
  • George MacKay, 1917

Best Actress

  • Lupita Nyong’o, Us
  • Renee Zellwegger, Judy
  • Awkwafina, The Farewell
  • Scarlett Johansson, Marriage Story
  • Alfre Woodard, Clemency

Best Supporting Actor

  • Joe Pesci, The Irishman
  • Tracy Letts, Ford vs. Ferrari
  • Jonathan Majors, The Last Black Man in San Francisco
  • James Saito, Always Be My Maybe
  • Sam Rockwell, Richard Jewell

Best Supporting Actress

  • Scarlett Johansson, JoJo Rabbit
  • Billie Lourd, Booksmart
  • Idina Menzel, Uncut Gems
  • Jennifer Lopez, Hustlers
  • Cho Yeo-jeong, Parasite

The Films

#10. Pain & Glory / Peterloo (tie)

Two masters of cinema, Almodovar and Leigh. Two films that perfectly slide into their brilliant canons.

Peterloo is unlike anything Leigh has made before. A filmmaker who has specialized in the small moments, the quiet conversations, has made something decidedly epic, about big speeches and big ideas. And he’s managed to do so without losing the intimacy that has come to define his work. (Many folks share a certain amount of my film taste. But the inner circle all love Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy.)

Pain & Glory is all intimacy. And memory. And color. And beauty. This is Almodovar at his most autobiographical and Antonio Banderas’ performance as Almodovar (with a fake name) is the best work done on screen this year.

#9. Honeyland

Sometimes another critic has already said it. Here’s a passage from Michael O’Sullivan’s review in the Washington Post:

The film by Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov is a strange and curious thing: part fly-on-the-wall anthropology, part ecological fable.

Presented with no voice-over — and only the context that you are able to glean by sticking with its (in all likelihood) unfamiliar details — this surprisingly beautiful little movie centers on Hatidze Muratova, a middle-aged beekeeeper who lives with her elderly, infirm mother and survives by selling honey from the hives she tends in a traditional, environmentally sound way. To customers in Skopje, the capital, a 12-mile train ride away, Hatidze takes only half the honey, for instance, leaving the rest behind for the bees.

But when a new neighbor moves next door (Hussein Sam), with his wife, seven unruly kids and a herd of cattle, all hell breaks loose. Hussein also sets up hives, but, under pressure to increase his honey production from his buyer, he over-harvests recklessly, leaving his starving colonies to attack and kill off Hatidze’s bees. Arguments and finger-pointing ensue.

Shot over three years, and in a slightly disjointed manner dictated by the fact that Kotevska and Stefanov could film for only five days at a time before having to return to civilization to restock their supplies, “Honeyland” can be challenging to follow at times. The placid rhythms of the first act give way to chaos after Hussein and his bickering brood set up shop.

Ultimately, though, like Hatidze’s beekeeping, the film is worth the patience it requires. By the end of “Honeyland,” the story of warring beekeepers (and the parallel struggle between nature-in-harmony vs. greed) becomes something more than that. “Honeyland” is a parable about life in — and out of — balance.

You’ve never seen anything like this film.

#8. American Dharma

The Q&A began and a woman two seats ahead of me took it over. “You’ve done wrong!” she yelled. “He’s showing this film to his friends!”

He is Steve Bannon. And the woman probably isn’t wrong.

Errol Morris, the greatest documentary filmmaker I believe to ever live, invented a device called the interrotron, allowing his subjects to look directly into the camera but also directly at him, and thus us. When he’s filmed political figures previously – Bob McNamara, Donald Rumsfeld – it allowed Morris to serve as a third-person, off-camera voice; the man behind the curtain. It allowed the subject to own 100% of the frame.

In this film, Morris sits at a table with Bannon. They talk. But primarily, he lets Bannon talk. And the director is out there on the screen because during this conversation, he’s us. He’s every person repulsed by Bannon’s warped ideology and the bloated, grotesque, orange presidency it spawned. Morris forces himself to sit through it. To fidget. To squirm. To exclaim every once in a while, “That’s crazy!” Morris is the fan of a Super Bowl losing team, forced to sit and listen to the opposing coach describe how easy it was to beat his club.

Bannon reveals, over and over again, who he is. What he believes. That the goal is not ideological, it’s anarchistic. It’s crazy. And yes, he’d show his friends. Because they’re crazy too.

#7. JoJo Rabbit

The ending, in the video above, filled me with such overwhelming joy I couldn’t in good conscience leave it off this list. But Scarlett Johansson steals the picture, delivering the kind of performance I thought we’d be seeing throughout her career: funny, profound, sweet, beautiful. It was a lovely performance in this, the funniest film of the year.

#6. Richard Jewell

The last Clint Eastwood film I enjoyed was Space Cowboys in 2000. That made this my most surprising film experience of the year.

It is rare for a Hollywood film to be delivered with this amount of subtlety. And outside of a triumphant speech from Kathy Bates late, most of this picture reflects Jewell’s quiet, subdued personality, embodied brilliantly by Hauser. It’s an understated Hollywood movie. I’d like to see way more of them.

#5. The Irishman

Honestly, there’s been too much written about The Irishman.

But I don’t want to hear about how long it is. Avengers: Endgame was 17 hours long and made $600 trillion. It was also one of the stupidest things I’ve ever sat through, and I only sat through it because I was on British Airways.

#4. Western Stars

No artist has become as self-reflective in their later career as Bruce Springsteen, and Western Stars is the end of a reflection trilogy that began with his stunning memoir, continued onto the Broadway stage and now ends here, in his California barn.

This is a concert film. But it’s also a confession. And I found every single moment captivating.

#3. American Factory

What happens when a Chinese company opens a factory in the United States?

What happens when that company’s leadership encounters failed production goals?

What happens when that company’s leadership comes face-to-face with the threat of unionization?

What happens when the American employees are brought to China to better understand what is expected of them?

These are the stakes of American Factory, another in a long line of brilliant documentaries engaged with the manufacturing sector of the American workforce. It is not an optimistic film. It is a staggering reminder of what has ripped through this country’s working class and a sad warning of what is to come.

#2. The Farewell

A magnificent film.

And once again, I’ll turn this over to another critic, because Christy Lemire’s review for RogerEbert.com was one of the better-written reviews of 2019:

“The Farewell” announces at the beginning that it’s “based on an actual lie,” but the meaningful truths it reveals couldn’t be more poignant or powerful. And while writer/director Lulu Wang’s film is obviously personal and culturally specific, it achieves a universality and a resonance through its vivid depiction of a family in the midst of crisis.

That crisis was actually Wang’s crisis: Her beloved grandmother was dying in China, and the family decided not to tell their matriarch to protect her and prevent her from living in fear throughout her remaining days. Instead, they planned a lavish wedding as an excuse to bring everyone together one last time.

Wang took this story of devotion and well-intentioned deception and turned it into “The Farewell,” a film that’s deeply moving and unexpectedly playful in equal measure. And it’s blessed with several strong female performances, led by rapper and actress Awkwafina (a.k.a. Nora Lum), who serves as Wang’s stand-in and our conduit as the voice of reason. At least, that’s what her character, the Americanized Billi, thinks she is when she returns to her home country. Awkwafina was cast before her scene-stealing, star-making supporting turns in the comedies “Ocean’s 8” and “Crazy Rich Asians” and it’s thrilling to see her previously untapped, formidable dramatic abilities on display in a lead role. She’s such a natural that she maintains that magnetic screen presence and appealing edge even within this more somber setting.

#1. 1917

It’s technically magnificent. It’s emotionally devastating. There are moments in this film that haunt me, that terrify me, that inspire me to want to reach new places as a writer. It is an artistic and human marvel.

It is not only the film of the year. It is one of the greatest war films ever made.

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