Alibi V.28 No.51 • Dec 19-25, 2019 

Year in Review: Film

The Avengers vs. Martin Scorsese

The best films of 2019

The Farewell
The Farewell
What constitutes a “best” film? It’s not a particular style or genre or mood. It’s not even, necessarily, the acting or the directing or the screenwriting. It’s an ineffable melding of all of these. The most important criteria: How strongly did the film connect with you? How much are you still thinking about it weeks or months later? Here—for your perusal, comparison and possible rejection—are the “best” feature films I saw in 2019 (in alphabetical order).

Ash Is the Purest White

Chinese kitchen sink realist Jia Zhangke’s multi-part tribute to cultural change and social evolution centers on tough gangster’s moll Qiao (Jia’s wife and muse Zhao Tao). Trapped between old world Communism and new age criminality, Qiao represents modern China in all its flawed glory. But when her cowardly boyfriend ditches her with an illegal firearm, she ends doing a five-year stint in prison. Released in 2006, Qiao takes a boat trip up the Yangste River, getting a firsthand glimpse at the seismic industrial changes happening in China. Shot on handheld DV cameras in dark back rooms and dusty, overcrowded neighborhoods, our heroine’s meandering trip though time and space amounts to a beautifully unglamorous journey of discovery.

Avengers: Endgame

I, like a lot of people, grew up on comic books. And my inner 8-year-old continues to freak out on the sheer volume and pure quality of superhero movies hitting theaters these days. Despite what the esteemed Mr. Martin Scorsese thinks, this 21-movie series capper is epic, exciting, emotional and full of surprises. So many storylines come to so many satisfactory conclusions. And the risky directions the filmmakers take pay off beautifully. Sure, “Fat Thor” is amusing. But he’s also a thoughtful encapsulation of grief and depression—and the fact that none of that makes us any less “worthy.”

The Farewell

Awkwafina proves she’s more than just the comedienne du jour in Lulu Wang’s tearjerking autobiography about a Chinese-American family unwilling to tell grandma that she’s dying of cancer. (It’s a traditional thing, evidently.) Instead, they cobble together a last-minute wedding (between two rather unwilling participants) as an excuse to unite the extended clan for one last get-together back in Mainland China. More than just a story about intergenerational ties, this humble dramedy expresses the ineffable loss of identity, history and culture felt by immigrants the world over.

The Irishman

It’s kind of amusing that legendary director Martin Scorsese would make headlines by bad-mouthing superhero movies as overly familiar, trope-filled franchises—and then release his umpteenth East Coast Mafia drama starring Robert DeNiro. Well, guess what, Martin: I’m capable of loving both Mean Streets and Black Panther. And The Irishman—though long, languid and (yes, Marty) comfortingly familiar—is a fascinating look at mid-century American history as seen through the eyes of organized crime.

Jojo Rabbit

Jojo Rabbit
Jojo Rabbit
Like Ernst Lubitsch (To Be or Not to Be) and Roberto Benigni (Life Is Beautiful) before him, increasingly essential comic genius Taika Waititi (What We Do in the Shadows, Thor: Ragnarok) walks a swaying tightrope in this controversial Holocaust-era comedy-drama. But the story—about a fatherless German kid who imagines that Hitler himself is his invisible friend—manages to be funny, touching, sad and jubilant, all at the same time.

Honeyland

This year’s best and most surprising documentary takes us to Macedonia (a country most people know nothing about) to introduce us to a traditional beehunter (a career few have ever heard of). Hatidze Muratova, the film’s subject, is a fascinating woman all on her own: living in an abandoned mountain village, caring for her elderly mother and lovingly tending to her hives of wild bees. But the documentary takes an incredible narrative turn when a rambunctious, itinerant Turkish family moves in next door with designs on getting rich off honey. Suddenly, the contemplative cultural observation transitions into a riveting cautionary tale about respect for nature and tradition.

Pain and Glory

Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar contributes his most personal film to date with this “autofictional” tale of an aging film director (Antonio Banderas, of course) who feels he’s run out of stories to tell. And so he drifts “Marcello Mastroianni in 8 1/2”-style though his life story. Interestingly, this is one of Almodóvar’s least campy, melodramatic and comical outings. Instead, his gentle humanism floats to the surface, resulting in a elegiac tale of life, art and love.

Marriage Story

Hollywood is littered with ugly tales of divorce, both real and fictional. But indie filmmaker Noah Baumbach (Kicking and Screaming, The Squid and the Whale, Frances Ha, Mistress America) sidesteps all the Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton clichés with this compassionate story of an experimental theater director (Adam Driver, who can sing) and a Hollywood actress (Scarlett Johansson, who gave great motherhood in Jojo Rabbit as well) trying their level best to separate on amicable terms. Despite their best intentions, the two find themselves getting steadily ground down by “the process.”

Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood

Quentin Tarantino has his fans and his detractors. But it’s hard for either to argue that this man does not love movies with every fiber of his being. This sprawling love letter to Old Hollywood is proof positive of that. Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt give two of the best, most heartfelt performances of their careers as an aging cowboy actor and his loyal stunt double just trying to navigate the changing winds of Hollywood, circa 1969. Emblematic of that change is actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), who neatly represents the shift from aging studio “actors” to hot young “stars”—as well as the loss of innocence that’s about to come in the form of the murderous Charles Manson. That Tarantino finds a way to “fix” these historical injustices on screen speaks to his belief in the power of cinematic fiction.

Parasite

Parasite
Parasite
South Korean writer-director Bong Joon-Ho’s resume is enough to mark him as one of the best international fimmakers working today (Memories of Murder, The Host, Mother, Snowpiercer). Like a lot of his South Korean contemporaries—Park Chan-Wook (Oldboy), Im Sang-So (The Housemaid), Lee Chang-Dong (The Burning), Jant Joon-Hwan (Save the Green Planet), Yeon Sang-Ho (Train to Busan)—Bong has proved adept at switching styles and moods within a seemingly simple genre exercise. But his latest shows just how much of a master he is. This pitch-black, tragicomic thriller (ostensibly about a dirt poor clan lying their way into jobs with a wealthy family) somehow mixes overtones of horror, humor and social commentary into one glorious whole.