There have been so many memorable movies of 2019! Even outside of my top 10 of the year, there are tons of things, movie “stuff” if you will, that are worth talking about. This post will be pretty much entirely [spoiler-free], so feel free to read on even if you haven’t seen the films. Without further ado, here are some of my favorite movie elements.
Best Opening Scene – Marriage Story (aka What I Love About Nicole/Charlie)
Marriage Story‘s opening is the only part of the story that truly feels like a “marriage story” rather than the story of divorce that it truly is. It is easy to overlook (it was heavily used as the marketing of the film), but this opening sequence is so crucial to how the story plays out. In the short span of seven minutes, director Noah Baumbach is tasked with making you really care about these characters and their connection before it all comes crashing down moments later. With the help of Randy Newman’s beautiful score and voice-over from Driver and Johansson, Baumbach is able to create a masterful montage of a marriage that feels very real, showing us some of the truly special connections this couple shared.
Best Ending Scene – Shazam!
Exclamation point required. Shazam! was one of the earliest surprises of the year; a Warner Brothers superhero movie about a B or C-tier hero, it was easy to write off as a cash grab. But oh, what heart this movie had. What I found most moving about this story is the connection of the foster family, and the message of choosing one’s own family. Actors Marta Milans and Cooper Andrews really sell the time and effort foster parents put into creating a large make-shift family – it isn’t perfect, but they are constantly doing the best that they can. The specifics of the ending were such a surprise to me that I don’t even want to spoil it here, but if you’ve seen the film you’ll know what I mean when I say it drives home those family themes in an incredible way.
I Didn’t Get It – Ad Astra and High Life
“Melancholy in Space” is a genre that *instantly* appeals to me, so imagine my surprise when two well-reviewed entries into that genre both fell flat for me. High Life is a French art film that is very esoteric, so I wasn’t terribly surprised that that one didn’t connect. But Ad Astra? Surely I would enjoy “Brad Pitt Daddy Issues in Space.”
I really, *really* wanted to like this film; I like James Gray a lot as a director, and want Hollywood to make more films like this one. I think something about the voice-overs combined with some gaps in plot/character logic just completely pulled me out of the film, and made it difficult for me to return. I wish that the central mystery of what was happening with Tommy Lee Jones should have been played up more than it was, as the eventual reveal could have been far more impactful. To be clear, I’m really glad that Ad Astra connects with people, and there are a handful of scenes (one involving an abandoned craft) that are riveting and unique enough to make the rest of the film worthwhile.
They Didn’t Get It – The Aeronauts
Unlike Netflix, Amazon’s big Oscar contenders really came and went this year. Lost in the shuffle is a movie you’ve probably never heard of, yet have instant access to: The Aeronauts. The Aeronauts tells the story of a 19th century meteorologist and an air-ballooning expert who seek to travel higher than any man (or woman) has gone before. It’s a movie about ambition and the risks of endangering those around you in the name of dedication to a larger purpose. More than anything though, this movie *looks* gorgeous. The frame completely opens up any time the duo are off the ground, giving way to beautiful views thousands of miles off the ground. The action is tense and the stakes are sky-high. I wish this film got the attention that it deserved.
Most Disappointing – Joker
There are all kinds of films I could put in this slot (Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker is frankly a mess and a strong contender). Given its acclaim though (it won the damn Golden Lion, and has been nominated for a 11 Academy Awards), I found no other movie as disappointing as Joker. To be clear, I know this movie has people who love it; if you don’t want my unqualified hot take, maybe just move on to the next category. My problem with this movie is that it isn’t really about anything, and doesn’t have any courage in its convictions. I think in no way is this illustrated more than the most memorable scene of the movie, when Joker’s full outfit is revealed as he dances down the stairs. At this point, he is firmly in “cold-blooded murder” territory, and has just killed a colleague. It’s the moment of pathos; we’re all supposed to feel so bad for this man pushed over the edge by the ills of society. Now would be the time for a climactic swell of the dark, depressing score, but what drops instead? Rock and Roll Part 2 by Gary Glitter, turning the final transformation to madman into a celebration rather than mourning the loss of humanity. Only once the scene has had its fun does the melancholy score kick in, pushing the tone back into the sadness the movie is trying to convey.
That’s just one small example, but it’s a microcosm of the whole film to me. The film shies away from saying anything meaningful, and as a result it’s the ultimate in “have your cake and eat it too.”
Biggest Surprise – Good Boys
I didn’t see this one in theaters, assuming this would be a typical, crass Judd Apatow movie where the kids and situations are more adult than they could really be. Basically younger Superbad. While there is a little of that, it shares far more DNA with last year’s masterpiece Eighth Grade than I had any expectation. I think what really makes this movie tick is that the kids and humor are constantly *so* juvenile. The lead actors all think they are hot shit for the smallest actions, while also having extremely obvious insecurities and growing pains. There’s a ton of chemistry and heart between the three leads, which lends the movie some pathos despite being a dumb comedy on the surface. I found Good Boys hilarious through-and-through, and absolutely worthy of its box office success.
Best Date Movie – Long Shot
Long Shot is great. It’s hilarious and original, but didn’t get a lot of love at the box office. Like Good Boys, Long Shot defies expectations throughout its runtime, and even has a pretty wholesome message under all the comedy. Charlize Theron in particular rarely gets the opportunity to be funny in her films, which is a shame because she’s really great at it. Grab a date and watch Long Shot.
I Can’t Believe They Pulled It Off – Avengers: Endgame
Twenty-two movies, each in a shared universe, building a shared narrative with a collection of characters across an entire decade. It’s a cinematic feat never accomplished, and barring a repeat by the MCU, will probably never happen again. What is perhaps more incredible, however, is that they stuck the landing. A single movie has to deal with the emotional fallout of the loss of literally half the universe, and also wrap up character arcs for a half-dozen of the OG Avengers, all while being an entertaining movie in its own right. The Russo Brothers accomplish this largely thanks to a tact not often taken by superhero films: patience and silence. Because this is the “final” installment, The Russos were given as long a runtime and free-reign to end the story as they saw fit, and they approached the trauma of the characters with seriousness and reverence. And then, in the final hour of the film, they pay all of that off (in addition to the previous 10 years of films) in a fantastic action sequence filled with fan-service and callbacks. Avengers: Endgame is frankly an incredible achievement, and one worth recognizing beyond just the billions of dollars at the box office.
Most Insane – CATS
Disclaimer – I saw this movie piss drunk and remember very little of it. It is every bit as insane as the trailer. If you haven’t seen the trailer, it will say more than I could ever say. It is a wonder that anyone could think this monstrosity would make any money. Cats as a musical doesn’t lend itself well to a movie thanks to its bizarre plot and structure, and spending $200 million on uncanny digital cat-human technology did not help. The scale of every set is constantly changing; sometimes the cats are not much smaller than their surroundings, other times they can barely climb up the stairs. The mice are played by children. Cockroach-human hybrids get eaten at some point. This fever dream is something that no one should ever see, but let no one say it played it safe.
Movie I Never Would Have Seen If It Weren’t For Making These Lists, and I’m Glad I Did See Because It Was Great – Under the Silver Lake
What a weird puzzle of a movie. David Robert Mitchell’s sophomore film is all about paranoia. The audience is plonked into the mind of its lead character, Sam (Andrew Garfield). Sam is frequently high and not particularly focused or cool, constantly investigating conspiracies both real and imagined. There are twists and turns, surreal moments, and it’s easy to get sucked in and try to unravel the mystery one step ahead of Sam. It’s a bizarre film that won’t work for everyone, but it has some extremely memorable moments and is a truly interesting 2 a.m. watch.
Rose the Hat Searches the Planet for Steam – Doctor Sleep
Doctor Sleep was such a surprise for me, and is honestly some of the most fun I had at the theater this year. It is so much more than just a “Shining sequel.” Doctor Sleep has a rhythm, tone, look, and themes all of its own, and is one of the most “Stephen King”-like movies I have seen. It does have horror elements of The Shining, but it also gives our heroes the tools to fight back against the supernatural evils. The moment I realized I was watching something special was when Rebecca Fergusson’s character Rose the Hat goes into a psychic trance and searches for a particular character with “the shine.” This is visualized as her floating above the Earth, flying down into a little girl’s room. The camera moves with Rose’s sense of gravity, disorienting the audience. The dream logic the scene employs is just a taste of the surreal moments in the film, and is unlike any other I have seen in a movie.
Elton John is a Rocketman – Rocketman
I cannot overstate how much better a movie Rocketman is than last year’s (weirdly acclaimed) Bohemian Rhapsody. The film doesn’t shy away from some of the hard edges of Elton John’s life, and is willing to center around the relationship between he and songwriter Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell). Each of its musical numbers is fantastically choreographed and then, get this, the film lets those choreographed dances play out in long takes without cuts (a true novelty in today’s musicals). The most memorable sequence to me comes when Elton John is at his lowest point, and tries to publicly commit suicide by overdosing and falling into his pool. There, he sees the young version of himself who intros him into the titular song, Rocketman. What then transpires is a full musical sequence in which Elton John is resuscitated while singing, transitioning seamlessly into a performance for a stadium full of people. This scene tells the full story of John’s personal and public life in one musical number, beautifully contrasting and blurring the two.
The Motorcycle Chase – Gemini Man
For context, Gemini Man is one of the only movies to ever be filmed in 120 frames per second and 3D, and its existence is entirely Ang Lee attempting to push film technology forward. Theaters everywhere were literally not able to show it in its native format. When viewing a 120 fps film, the entire look is completely different, and Lee is exploring new lighting and editing styles for the format. The result is a hyper-realistic “window” into another world, where action can (in the best case) look like it’s happening right in front of the audience.
Gemini Man is not a good movie. In fact, it’s a pretty disappointing one given the people involved. That said, there are a handful of moments where the vision that Ang Lee is going for just *works*. The best of these is a long-take style motorcycle chase in which Will Smith chases himself around the streets of Cartagena. Here the hyper-real action is fully realized, and the result is a thrill ride unlike what has been seen in theaters before. It is genuinely difficult to describe, but if you’ve ever heard the anecdote of a silent film causing people to dodge an “oncoming” train back in 1896, it was much like that. Unfortunately the writing really lets the film down, but for a few shining moments, something special was realized on screen.
Rose at the Grand Ole Opry – Wild Rose
Wild Rose is the story of a Scottish ex-convict who, despite her family and children, can’t shake the drive to become a country singer. Her ultimate dream, as with any aspiring country singer, is to move to America and sing at the Grand Ole Opry. Her mother gives her the gift of a chance to make her dreams come true. Rose travels to Tennessee, and discovers that in America…. she just isn’t that special. While extremely talented, she’s surrounded by other singer/songwriters who are also insanely talented. Dejected, she goes to see the Grand Ole Opry, and finds that they are prepping it for a show later that night. She slips the Opry staff, walks onto the stage in front of an empty theater, and just…. sings. She sings for no one but herself, achieving a moment of catharsis and clarity that her dream just isn’t worth the sacrifice. That was her moment, and she comes to the conclusion that she’ll have to compromise and make a new dream.
Mr. Ford’s Wild Ride – Ford v Ferrari
I’ve heard complaints about Ford v Ferrari skirting some of the historical details of Le Mans ’66, but personally, I am fine with biopic changes to history so long as they serve the story and make it more interesting. The scene that perfectly encapsulates that is Carroll Shelby’s (Matt Damon) gamble, locking the naysaying, controlling Leo (Josh Lucas) into an office as he takes Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) for a spin in the prototype that they’ve been designing. The tears, terror, and ecstasy on Ford’s face say it all.
Investigating the Hippie Cult – Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood
I tend to like my Tarantino films filled to the brim with tension, and the “hangout-vibes” of Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood didn’t fully work for me as a result. That said, Tarantino is a modern master of his craft, and several times he successfully shifted the tone of his film into the world of suspense. Perhaps no scene contained more of this than when Brad Pitt senses something is wrong and investigates the Manson Camp. In a scene very reminiscent of the end of Zodiac, the audience is privy to the danger that these seemingly innocuous hippies pose in a way that the lead character is not, and it invokes a sense of dread that is missing from much of the rest of the film.
Those are my top movie moments/stuff of the year, and most of those aren’t even my favorite movies of 2019! I’ll be sure to have my Top Ten of 2019 posted before the Oscars on Feb 9th. Thanks for reading!