Feature Films 2019 – The Best of the Rest of What I Saw

Here are the best of the rest of what I saw last year, 31 films in alphabetical order. I don’t claim that all of these are great films (though some of them are), but they all got my attention and engaged me in one way or another. Sometimes it’s just a performance, more often it’s the whole package. When movies work for me, it’s an interactive experience.

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Ad Astra (James Gray, director & co-writer)  I liked this enough to see it twice in IMAX. I thought maybe some of the things that had bothered (or confused) me the first time would become clearer with a second viewing. Brad Pitt is outstanding in the role of an astronaut in search of his father (Tommy Lee Jones), an astronaut who’d gone missing years before, and who just might be responsible for interstellar energy surges that could threaten the entire solar system. I wanted to like Ad Astra more, but a second go-round only reinforced my original assessment. I liked the first half or two-thirds of the film, but once Pitt embarks on his journey, and especially once he locates his father, who’s gone full Kurtz from Heart of Darkness, it becomes increasingly hard to accept. Still, James Gray is a serious director who has made some outstanding films. There’s a curious distance and restraint, a disconnect, between the characters in Ad Astra, both physically and in the way they speak to one another. I was drawn in by the mystery of what was happening and especially by Brad Pitt’s restrained performance. Despite these caveats, I still think this is a film worth seeing.

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Ash Is Purest White (Jia Zhangke, director & writer)  Per David Rooney in The Hollywood Reporter, this film is a “chronicle of the relationship between a low-level Chinese crook and the woman who goes to prison for him.” IMDb calls it “A story of violent love within a time frame spanning from 2001 to 2017.” Those brief descriptions don’t begin to hint at this film’s depth and texture.

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Black and Blue (Deon Taylor, director)  This is a compact, well-made urban thriller, powered by Naomi Harris’s totally invested performance as a rookie cop in New Orleans. She witnesses murders committed by bad cops (led by the always-authentic Frank Grillo), and spends the rest of the movie trying to stay alive and outrun them until she can get the evidence on her body cam to authorities. Harris is an excellent actor. We’ve seen her as a crack-addicted single mother in Moonlight (2016), and as Miss Moneypenny in James Bond films with Daniel Craig, including the upcoming No Time to Die. She really sells this movie. Black and Blue is basically non-stop, and probably not even remotely credible, but if you like this sort of thing, which I do, it definitely does the job.

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Booksmart (Olivia Wilde, director)  This film is a hoot. I loved it. The two leads are great. I wasn’t familiar with Beanie Feldstein before this, though she’ll be appearing as Monica Lewinsky later this year in the third season of American Crime Story on FX, so I think everyone will get to know her better. I’ve liked Kaitlen Dever since seeing her in Justified (FX) from 2011 to 2015, and she’s great as a rape victim in the Netflix series Unbelievable.

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Captain Marvel (Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck, directors & co-writers)  Given the excellent reality-based, character-driven films they’ve made in the past, including Half-Nelson (2006) and Mississippi Grind (2015), as well as directing episodes of Showtime’s Billions and The Affair, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck probably wouldn’t be the first people you’d think of to write and direct a Marvel superhero movie. But you’d be wrong. Their involvement is what sets Captain Marvel apart from the pack, along with Brie Larson’s incredibly appealing performance in the title role. Along with Wonder Woman (2017), this is my favorite superhero movie of recent years.

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Clemency (Chinonye Chukwu, director & writer)  Great performance by Alfre Woodard as a conflicted prison warden overseeing executions, and it’s always a pleasure seeing Wendell Pierce (The Wire and Treme) in anything.

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Dark Waters (Todd Haynes, director & writer)  I don’t know why this didn’t make more of an impact. Probably not enough action. It’s a powerful true story about deliberate pollution in our water system that takes years to resolve, to the extent that it does. Even then, it feels like we lost.

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Ever After (Caroline Hellsgard, director)  The original German title of this film about two young women attempting to survive in the aftermath of a global zombie apocalypse is Endzeit, which means “last days of the world.” I prefer Ever After, which I think better suits the fairy tale vibe of the story. This film puts a creative spin on what has become a rather well-defined genre, and takes it someplace new.

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The Farewell (Lulu Wang, director & writer)  This movie deserves the attention it’s received. I just wish I’d seen all of it. The night we saw it, the entire theater went dark about 10 minutes before the end. It turned out a large portion of the Upper West Side was in a blackout. The next day a friend who’d seen the whole movie told me how it ended. Even though I now knew, I still intended to see it again so I could see for myself what happened. But so far I haven’t made it back. Probably won’t. Good movie, though. Awkwafina rocks.

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Fighting with My Family (Stephen Merchant, director & writer)  Based on the trailer, I initially didn’t think I wanted to see this film about a family of would-be wrestlers, but then I saw that Stephen Merchant wrote and directed the film and Florence Pugh was in it, which got my interest. I liked it a lot. I first saw Florence Pugh in Lady Macbeth (2016), a twisted variation on Wuthering Heights filtered through Alfred Hitchcock. She was great in that, as she is in Little Women. She was also in Midsommer last year, a film that a lot of people have praised. I’m not one of them, but that wasn’t Florence Pugh’s fault. She brings a distinctive quality to everything I’ve seen her in.

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First Love (Takashi Miike, director)  Prolific isn’t a strong enough word for this genre-hopping Japanese director. I don’t think I’ve ever fully recovered from being freaked out by the first film of his that I saw, Audition (1999). He brings an incredible amount of energy to his films, which are frequently filled with scenes that are outrageous and over the top. I’ve particularly liked his samurai films, specifically 13 Assassins (2010) and the astounding Blade of the Immortal (2017). I really liked First Love, but be warned, it’s a little violent.

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Ford v Ferrari (James Mangold, director)  This is a really good film. Matt Damon and Christian Bale are excellent as Carroll Shelby and Ken Miles. Ray McKinnon is a quiet standout as Phil Remington. The race footage both looks and feels different than the way it usually does in racing movies. It seemed that way to me, anyway. Also, the scene where Henry Ford II (played by Tracy Letts) totally collapses in tears after being taken for a spin around the track by Shelby is priceless.

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Invisible Life (Karim Ainouz, director)  Set in Rio de Janeiro in the 1950s, this is the story of two inseparable sisters, who nonetheless get separated for many years. It’s a tragedy. It’s also a sensual overload of color and emotion, a film with a very rich texture. There’s artistry in its melodrama.

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Joker (Todd Phillips, director & co-writer)  Though it’s very well made, I didn’t much like Joker, found it unpleasant and ugly. Though I like a lot of films that are unpleasant and ugly, so I’m not sure what didn’t work for me, but it didn’t. I think I should see it again. The reason I’ve included it here is to acknowledge the greatness of Joaquin Phoenix’s performance. He’s another actor who doesn’t hold back anything, which can be frightening and unsettling.

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Judy (Rupert Goold, director)  As with Joker, I don’t think Judy is a particularly good film either, but am including it because of Renée Zellweger’s stellar performance.

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Just Mercy (Destin Daniel Cretton, director & co-writer)  We’ve seen this before, an unjustly convicted black man on death row is freed due to the tireless efforts of a dedicated lawyer. Until recent years, this lawyer was frequently a white guy. Just Mercy has the distinction of being based on a true story. Michael B. Jordon plays African-American attorney Bryan Stevenson, by all accounts an actual hero. Jamie Foxx is Walter McMillan, sentenced to death in 1987 despite a preponderance of evidence that he was innocent of murdering a young woman. Tim Blake Nelson has a nice turn as an inmate whose false testimony had helped to convict McMillan. He finally does the right thing. The film is uplifting not only because justice prevails in the end, but also because of how solid and well-made it is. Everything in it is in synch.

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Knives Out (Rian Johnson, director & writer)  This film is immensely enjoyable. Riffing on Agatha Christie plotting, Knives Out is an intricately constructed puzzle in which all the pieces lock into place by the end. Knives Out has one of those all-star casts that you used to see in big films like this in the 1960s and ’70s. It’s ironic that the least-known actor here, Ana de Armas (excellent), plays one of the most central characters. We’ll see her again later this year with her Knives Out co-star Daniel Craig in the new James Bond film, No Time to Die.

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Long Day’s Journey into Night (Bi Gan, director & writer)  The last hour of this hypnotic film is in 3D and a single take. This had a very strange effect on me. I realized at some point that I’d become so immersed in the film that I didn’t have any idea how much time had past, or even, briefly, where I was. This was very disorienting, but in a fascinating way. I wanted to see it again to try to figure out how this worked, but so far haven’t.

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Mickey and the Bear (Annabelle Attanaio, director & writer)  This is a sharply observed character study that feels delicate and special. Though the stories are completely different, it reminds me in a way of a film I loved from 2018, The Rider, .

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Never Look Away (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, director & writer)  After following up the award-winning The Lives of Others (2006) with the disaster that was The Tourist (2010), with Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie, von Donnersmarck recovered with this epic three hour story of the life of a painter who escapes East Germany to live and work in West Germany. I thought I recognized the lead actor, Tom Schilling, and realized I’d seen him in the German film Generation War (2013), and then in The Same Sky (2017), a German series on Netflix.

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Oh Mercy (Arnaud Desplechin, director & co-writer)  Terrific slow-burn police procedural with the mesmerizing Roschdy Zem as a police chief investigating the murder of an elderly woman, with Léa Seydoux as one of the suspects.

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One Cut of the Dead (Shun’ichiro Ueda, director & writer). Takes the concept of “meta” to a whole other level. One Cut of the Dead is comprised of three parts, each about 30 minutes long. In the first, it seems we’re watching a low-budget zombie film being made, but then real zombies turn up  to disrupt the shoot. This film-within-a-film was slapdash and frantic, and was being done in a single-take. I wasn’t too impressed. Then the second part kicks in, which takes place a month earlier. We’re in a studio where a live TV show is being prepared, which is what we just saw. The final half hour is a recreation of the first part, but seen from the perspective of the cast and crew. It all comes together in ways that make you rethink what you saw earlier. I now knew why the first part seemed slapdash and frantic. I wish I could describe it better. It’s like an elaborate magic trick, but it’s not just a stunt. At least, I don’t think so.

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Ready or Not (Matt Bettinelli-Olpin & Tyler Gillett, directors)  This is a nasty little thriller with Samara Weaving as a new bride who discovers that on her wedding night she has to play a game of hide and seek in which the groom’s extended family set out to kill her as she tries to elude them in the labyrinth of a large mansion. She finds out she’s quite capable of turning the table on her pursuers when it’s a matter of life and death. It’s utterly absurd, but I quite liked it.

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The Report (Scott Z. Burns, director & writer)  Burns made his name as a screenwriter, having written Contagion (2011), Side Effects (2013), and The Laundromat (2019) for director Steven Soderbergh, as well as co-writing The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) and the forthcoming Bond film, No Time to Die. Adam Driver was busy in 2019, appearing as Kylo Ren in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, Marriage Story, and this film. That’s quite a variety. The Report is very good, but it won’t make you feel any better about how government agencies work. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has attacked the film, which is probably an indication of how accurate it is.

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Shadow (Zhang Yimou, director & co-writer)  I’m running out of time and energy, so I’ll let Oliver Lyttelton from The Playlist handle this one. Below are excerpts from his review. I’m in complete agreement with his assessment.

“Shadow is set in the third century, during the time of the Three Kingdoms, and centers on Yu, the brilliant military commander of the Pei Kingdom. After years of battle have taken their toll, Yu replaced himself with an identical ‘shadow’ named Jing, with only Yu’s wife Madam aware of the difference. This is a filmmaker in total command of every visual element — his compositions more compelling than ever, the production design almost verging on steampunk, and a special mention has to go to the extraordinary costumes — but it doesn’t feel stifling or precious either. I can’t think of a film this year that’s been such a pleasure to look at. And the action, when it comes, absolutely bangs. It’s probably not ruining things too much to say that rather than swords and arrows, the fight sequences mostly revolve around, uh, umbrellas. The result, in the final battle and in a few warm-up sequences beforehand, is some of the most kinetic, inventive, and thrilling sequences that Chinese cinema — or any cinema, really — has seen in a long while. The extended final sequence, in particular, is something of a masterclass in cross-cutting and tension building.”

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Sunset (Laszlo Nemes, director & co-writer)  Set just before World War I in Budapest, this film by the director of the devastating Holocaust drama Son of Saul (2015), follows a young woman who has come to the city to work as a milliner in a famous hat store once owned by her late parents. This is a powerful, engaging film.

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Sword of Trust (Lynn Shelton, director & writer)  A shaggy-dog story that involves people trying sell an antique sword that supposedly proves the South actually won the Civil War. The always acerbic Marc Maron plays the owner of a pawn shop in Birmingham, Alabama who doesn’t want anything to do with this. Sword of Trust is a very funny film with an abundance of deadpan charm.

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Us (Jordan Peele, director & writer)  Peele’s follow-up to Get Out is even stranger and more disturbing. It took two viewings before I really get into it. Itchy and unsettling.

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The Whistlers (Corneliu Porumboiu, director & writer)   I saw this at the New York Film Festival and loved it, as I had this director’s earlier film, Police, Adjective (2009). Both films are concerned with language and modes of communication and they’re both terrific. The Whistlers is also noir to the hilt. As A.O. Scott wrote in his New York Times review, “If the Coen Brothers were Romanian, they might have made The Whistlers.” Indeed. It opens in New York on February 28, 2020.

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Yesterday (Danny Boyle, director)  This is a very seductive fantasy built on the premise of a young man in London who comes to after a global power blackout to discover that he’s apparently the only one who remembers The Beatles and their music. He then becomes famous singing Beatles’ songs that everyone thinks he wrote. It’s a somewhat shaky premise, but who doesn’t like hearing Beatles music? I went with it. The clip below the trailer is the most interesting scene in the film for me. In it, before thousands of adoring fans at the seaside, the hero rips into a version of “Help” that has a desperate, frantic edge to it.

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Zombi Child (Bertrand Bonello, director & writer)  I saw this at the New York Film Festival a few months ago and knew it was special. This is not the kind of zombie movie we’ve come to expect since Night of the Living Dead changed the game in 1968. Make no mistake, this is not one of those. This feels more like the real deal. Switching back and forth between Haiti in 1962 and an elite girls’ school in present-day France, Zombi Child is a deeply unsettling film. Zombi Child opened in New York on January 24.

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That’s more than enough for now. Many of these films are available for streaming from Amazon Prime, Netflix, and other sources.

Supplemental materials to follow in my next post. Right now I’m taking a little break. — Ted Hicks

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About Ted Hicks

Iowa farm boy; have lived in NYC for 40 years; worked in motion picture labs, film/video distribution, subtitling, media-awards program; obsessive film-goer all my life.
This entry was posted in Books, Feature films, Film posters, Home Video, Streaming, TV & Cable. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Feature Films 2019 – The Best of the Rest of What I Saw

  1. David M Fromm says:

    I s there enough time to see so many films ?

  2. Judith Trojan says:

    I have to say that I was really disappointed by “Booksmart.” It seemed to me to be a borderline cheesy knockoff of “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” which was a far superior film. Funnier, better scripted, directed and acted. Yes, Ferris focused on male instead of trendy sexually fluid female pals; but at their core, both films dealt with similar if not the same themes. A day after seeing “Booksmart,” I challenge anyone to remember how great (?) the film made them feel and why. In contrast, I will never forget Ferris’s joyful escapades, his pal’s struggles, and the film’s evergreen take-aways. I really liked “Get Out,” and so I was caught up in the hype surrounding “US.” Again, I was disappointed. Talk about overkill. Its twisty premise died on the vine for me…the film was just too long and its reveal anticlimactic.

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