The Cinema Saved Me: Cougar Review Editor’s Top Films of 2019

by Jed Bookout 624 views0

Welcome back to the annual ego stroking, where amateur film critic Jed Bookout lets out all the thoughts he’s had about film for an entire year into one super-sized series of essays. This year, like every year, is a good year for film. All years are good years for film!

In fact, I’d wager that if you’ve ever said the statement “this is a bad year for film,” you probably didn’t watch enough movies.

Still, this year is one that lacks a bit in quantity, but is more than made up for by sheer QUALITY. Some of the films released this year are going to go down in history as perhaps some of the best ever made. Some may never get an inch of ink written on them ever again, either! No matter what, though: movies are great. Read ahead to find out why!

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NOTABLE MOVIES I MISSED THE DEADLINE ON:

Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Ash is Purest White, The Souvenir, Transit, Atlantics, Bombshell, Richard Jewell, Just Mercy, Clemency

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15. Always Be My Maybe

Directed by Nahnatchka Khan

Always Be My Maybe

Somehow both a product of nostalgia and the now, Always Be My Maybe is proof positive that the romantic comedy, when done correctly, can be the perfect crowd pleaser for folks everywhere. Much has been said about the transcendent Keanu Reeves performance here, but what about Randall Park’s fever dream of a band? A strictly local rap rock band that writes songs about tennis balls AND sells out their local venue? REGULARLY? Screw Star Wars: THIS is the greatest fantasy story of 2019.

Streaming: Netflix

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14. The Forest Of Love

Directed by Sion Sono

Art imitating life imitating art imitating imitation. I’m largely unfamiliar with the work of Sion Sono, but this film has been described as a “Greatest Hits” of his filmography. 

As a recent survivor of a life threatening heart attack, this feels like the work of a man who wants to get every idea out there as fast as possible before it’s all over. There’s a man so charismatic he’s a singer-songwriter that sleeps with EVERY woman in this film, who may or may not also be a serial killer. There’s a group of homeless wannabe filmmakers who want to turn his story into a film, and somehow, he ends up as the star and producer of said film. There’s the group of broken women, who as teenagers made an all female play out of Romeo & Juliet. 

There’s gore, cannibalism, sex, punk rock, and so, so much more in this absolutely batshit insane piece of cinema. A victim of the Netflix algorithm that deserves to be seen (and possibly hated) by as many people as possible. 

Consider this not an endorsement so much as a demand: even if you hate this movie, I want you to see it because it’s important that you EXPERIENCE it.

Streaming: Netflix

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13. Midsommar

Directed by Ari Aster

I’m really glad that the “intellectual dark web” didn’t discover this movie this year, since there’s nothing that screams “beta cuck” more than a man making a breakup film in which the clueless faux intellectual dude gets murdered in the most embarrassing way imaginable. 

Jokes aside, what I really love the most about Midsommar is that it’s a film about survival. It uses some base horror tropes to make this point, but it’s wholeheartedly a film about how the best way to cope with trauma (and importantly, not “cure” it) is empathy. 

It takes a literal village of empathy to help Dani find her way, a strange metaphor for the healing process showcased in a beautiful way. 

Bonus points to Florence Pugh for being the true breakout of 2019: watch this in close proximity to Fighting With My Family and Little Women and feel yourself struggling to remember this is even the same performer in each.

Streaming: Amazon Prime

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12. The Last Black Man in San Francisco

Directed by Joe Talbot

There have always been two histories: the history in the books and real life. There has been a string of films in recent years that tackle this parallel particularly in Northern California, specifically the San Francisco and Oakland areas, in relation to black culture. 

Most of these films are tackling broad topics; none are doing it as personally as The Last Black Man in San Francisco

At its heart, this is a simple film about a man who simply wants the best for the house his grandfather allegedly built in the 40s. But it’s through the personal that we find the political: the erasure of Jimmie’s history is the erasure of black history in general. 

Thoughtful and lyrical, The Last Black Man in San Francisco feels like a daydream and plays like every frame is being painted just for you. There’s little in the way of high dramatic stakes here; that’s okay. Sometimes, existence is enough.

Streaming: Amazon Prime

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11. The Beach Bum

Directed by Harmony Korine

Harmony Korine is the master of making high art out of absolute trash. This, by far, is his most accomplished trashterpiece. 

McConaghey is in outstanding form here as the “worst case scenario” version of what everybody seemed to think of him before the “McConnaissance.” 

Imagine if Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski got dropped into the world of Spring Breakers, and you’re not too far off from this wild ride of a film that somehow manages to give Snoop Dogg a dramatic arc AND have Martin Lawrence get attacked by sharks. Also, what the fuck is going on with Jonah Hill here? 

What a great time at the movies.

Streaming: Hulu

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10. Dolemite is My Name

Dorected by Craig Brewer

Snoop Dogg is the runner-up for Breakout Performer this year, it seems. 

But I digress: one of my absolute favorite types of film is that of the underdog creative process. The Disaster Artist did a solid job at turning the insane story of the making of The Room into one of these, but Dolemite is My Name takes it a step further and manages to humanize its subject in fairly profound ways. 

You see, Rudy Ray Moore, unlike Tommy Wiseau, was always in on the joke. Dolemite is RIDICULOUS. That’s what makes him and it so badass. This is a film about true underdogs going through whatever it takes to see themselves on the screen. Not even just physically, but metaphorically. 

It doesn’t get any clearer than when Lady Reed thanks Moore for the chance to see somebody “like her” on screen. This is about the fight for representation. And also kung fu. There can always be more kung fu.

Streaming: Netflix

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9. The Irishman

Directed by Martin Scorsese

It doesn’t matter how you watch The Irishman. I don’t care if you think it “ruins the point” if you watch this in chunks or on an iPad or on a sidekick or what. 

Whether intentional or not, this is the most populist, “for the people” film Scorsese has ever made. Much like The Forest of Love, it tackles a lot of the filmmaker’s greatest hits: the mob ties, the needle drops, the fast dialogue inter-cut with outrageous violence… what makes The Irishman truly outstanding in 2019, on the platform it’s been released on, is that it’s ultimately a reminder that none of this matters if we don’t surround ourselves with the ones we love. 

This is the Ghost of Christmas Future’s vision, except there’s no way for Frank Sheeran to change it. Here we are now, all alone in a nursing home, and our daughter will never speak to us ever again. We have our stories, sure… but who are we going to share them with?

Streaming: Netflix

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8. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Directed by Marielle Heller

There’s so much that has already been said about the significance of making a story that uses Mr. Rogers as a totem of decency and not the protagonist, so I’d rather focus on something else I love about this understated, gorgeous film. 

Something we often take for granted in film is the establishing shot. Those transitional shots that show us which city or neighborhood we’ll be transferring the story into. Heller made the decision here to have every establishing shot focus on a toy city, much like Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood did. 

By staging each city as a play set, this gives us the subconscious idea that what we are seeing is more of a play than reality. This artifice allows us to take the story as a story and not as some recanting of the “truth,” which then allows the film to feel bigger, more universal, and most importantly, relatable. 

If Won’t You Be My Neighbor was ultimately a parable on the importance of kindness, A Beautiful Day is a reminder on the importance of forgiveness. Judging by the muted reaction to this film so far, I’m not sure this is a message America wants right now. But it’s the message we all need, or will soon. 

On a micro scale, it hit me like a ton of bricks. I wish I had this movie in my life before my dad died. One day, Marielle Heller is going to be one of the most renowned filmmakers on the planet. For now, though, she’s one of the most renowned in my heart.

Streaming: n/a; in theaters now

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??. Watchmen

Directed by Nicole Kassell, Stephen Williams, Andrij Parekh, Steph Green, David Semel, and Frederick E.O. Toye

Thus begins the list of reasons why this is a top 18 and not a top 15. 

If you don’t like that I included a few TV shows here, you can skip ahead anytime you see an unnumbered entry, but I think the Oscars honoring OJ: Made in America and film critics adopting Twin Peaks: The Return as their own has fully turned criticism into the Wild West, so uh get lost? 

If you would have told me at this time last year that I’d have watched and loved a seemingly random sequel series to the Watchmen graphic novel, I’d have believed you… just not for the reasons I actually do. 

My love of Moore and Gibbons’ work certainly informs my passion for the world Lindelof et al. expanded upon here, but the real reason I love this series is because of just how revolutionary it all feels. The first superhero is a black man, a survivor of the atrocities of Black Wall Street burning. Empty progressivism is a lie and a scam when all you’re focused on is apologies and niceties. Law enforcement here is literal white supremacy. 

It feels so refreshing to see all of this on screen after the sizzle of the HBO logo, and so surreal to see it within the confines of what can offhandedly be seen as just another comic book adaptation. Plus, I’m an absolute nerd for alternate history stuff. Ryan Murphy presents American Hero Story? President Robert Redford introducing reparations for black folks that his critics refer to as “Redfordations”? Vietnam as the 51st state? Everything about this is incredible. I hope they never make another season.

Streaming: HBO Go/Now

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7. Parasite

Directed by Bong Joon Ho

I’m still not going to say anything about Parasite because I still believe it’s best you go into this blind. Why the hell haven’t you seen Parasite yet? Do you have a problem with subtitles? GROW UP.

Streaming: n/a; in theaters now

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6. John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum 

Directed by Chad Stahelski

It all started with a dog. 

Three films into the increasingly expansive John Wick franchise, we find our title character embark on a globetrotting adventure to escape from a $14 million bounty placed on his head one film (or one minute in-universe) ago. 

What began as a fairly standard action movie in 2014’s John Wick has become something bigger, bolder, and stranger with each film. Unlike similar long-lasting franchises like Mission: Impossible or Fast and the Furious that opt for bigger, louder set pieces, John Wick is almost exclusively focused on blending pure fight choreography with neon-soaked artistic visuals, creating a unique fever dream of an experience unrivaled in the world of action cinema. 

Everything is a weapon in these movies. Knives. Guns. Dogs. Motorcycles. EVERYTHING. Parabellum doesn’t quite reach the highs of Chapter 2, but it doesn’t have to. Every chapter in this ridiculous franchise further builds a world I hope to never actually live in yet will spend top dollar to experience with every release.

Streaming: n/a; available for rent & purchase

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??. Too Old To Die Young

Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn

Yeah, another TV show. 

Here’s the thing, though: unlike Watchmen, I’d argue that Nicolas Winding Refn’s fifteen hour dive into police corruption, cartels, the Yakuza, and rape fantasy pornography is actually just the longest film on this list. 

Each episode picks up where the last left off, if not literally then thematically, contributing to one stand alone story about the lengths in which we will let our darkness consume us. What makes a hero: is it the man in the uniform that also has a teenage girlfriend? The hitman that exclusively kills underworld pedophiles? Is it the woman who may or may not be a folk tale that stalks and beheads the cartels at night? 

What Refn and writer Ed Brubaker propose here is that the only heroes are the ones we make in our minds. Everyone here is sick, depraved, and functioning on ulterior motives. This is not for the faint of heart or the easily distracted; you know what you’re getting yourself into with a Refn project, for better or worse, and every single one of his sins is on display here. 

Long tracking shots that never seem to go anywhere before doubling in on themselves. Unnatural neon lighting that turns every blank stare into a sinister leer. New wave synthesizers soaking every single frame, as characters speak in such an unnatural cadence that it feels like actors rehearsing just one dialogue per minute. 

This critic? I usually hate all of that. From Drive to Valhalla Rising, and culminating in self-parody with the absolutely atrocious Only God Forgives, Refn has made a career seemingly out of alienating me and me alone. 

So why is it that I found myself obsessed with these fifteen hours to the point that I WATCHED THIS SHOW TWICE? Was it Ed Brubaker’s whipsmart writing and plotting that made Refn’s surreal side feel a bit more real for once? Was it the revelatory performance from Cristina Rodlo as the embodiment of a new Mexican folk tale? Maybe it was William Baldwin as the creepy, coked out father of Miles Teller’s teenage girlfriend? Was it the audacity in which it takes to even make seeking revenge against “rape pornographers” a central plot point, AND to have one of those men played against type brilliantly by James “Dr. Venture” Urbaniak? I still haven’t figured it out. 

What I do know is that if you allow it to, Too Old To Die Young will grab ahold of your mind and never let it go. 

Streaming: Amazon Prime

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??. The Lonely Island Presents: The Unauthorized Bash Brothers Experience

Directed by Akiva Schaffer and Mike Diva

This is the last thing on this list that’s debatable as to whether it constitutes a film, I promise. 

In thirty minutes, The Lonely Island manage to take the daffiest premise imaginable (former Oakland A’s players Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco decide to make a “visual album” of rap songs) and turn it into a piece of unabashed pop art. In typical Lonely Island fashion, these songs are equally catchy and funny, but it’s the connective tissue in which Andy Samberg (as Canseco) narrates, loosely, over obtuse visuals that also establish these men’s bonafides as filmmakers. 

It perversely takes a firm knowledge of cinematic form just to make something that’s basically just taking the piss out of Terrence Malick for thirty minutes, something that they are more than up to the task for. The Lonely Island is unstoppable; even if every film they’ve released has bombed commercially, they manage to release truly transcendent works of comedic genius that only get better with age, and with relative frequency. 

Streaming: Netflix

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5. Marriage Story

Directed by Noah Baumbach

Forget about the memes: watch this entire damn movie. A story so universal that Noah Baumbach couldn’t bother to find a better title, Marriage Story is a “warts and all” account of what exactly a divorce is like for those who can even afford it. Neither Charlie (Adam Driver) nor Nicole (Scarlet Johansson) are necessarily bad people; they’re just intensely bad for each other. 

Baumbach manages to portray the smaller and more intimate moments of a divorce just as effectively as the louder and more volatile. Compare the instantly memed fight sequence (in context, you silly bastards) with the sequence immediately following, where a social worker has come to watch Charlie and his son have dinner to see if his is a fit home to live in. It’s dark comedy all around as Charlie picks up on social cues regarding the way he speaks, the way he cooks, and the way he talks to his son. 

And then he tries to show off a “magic trick” involving a knife he has on his keychain… and slices his arm open and bleeds out. For the duration of the dinner, he gets paler and slower, but ignores it all till the social worker leaves… then passes out. 

It’s not the kind of moment one expects to find in a movie starting Kylo Ren and Black Widow, but it’s one that highlights the lunacy of a break-up and how sometimes we spill literal blood just to be right. 

Unfortunately, I related to both Charlie and Nicole in ways I’m not happy admitting. I also recognized both of them as partners I’ve had before. Therefore, this might actually just be a movie for me. Even if it doesn’t seem like it’s for you, though, maybe stop watching scenes out of context in memes and watch the damn movie instead.

Streaming: Netflix

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4. Knives Out

Directed by Rian Johnson

A whodunnit in which it doesn’t particularly matter who did it, Rian Johnson has crafted a perfectly 2019 take on Agatha Christie style intrigue that seems to solve its central mystery early on, and subverts and subverts the tropes of the genre until coming to an astonishing head late in the game. 

Forgive me for speaking broadly here; like Parasite, this is a film that it’s as fun to go into as blind as possible for maximum effect. What I can tell you is that there’s fewer films in 2019 that had a mastery of production design in the way this film handles its central house, and few ensembles full of recognizable faces seemingly having the time of their lives. 

Special mention goes to Ana de Armas, the beating heart of just about every film she’s in, who is ready to become one of the biggest stars on earth.

Streaming: n/a; in theaters now

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3. Hustlers

Directed by Lorene Scafaria

What does it look like when you make a prototypical Scorsese crime drama centered around women and inherently female stories? Hustlers. It looks exactly like Hustlers

Lorene Scafaria previously wowed me with the underloved Seeking a Friend for the End of the World and the screenplay to Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist (which is basically After Hours for the YA crowd when you think about it), but I didn’t expect her to make a film that just completely engaged me from frame 1 to the end. Even the credits, narrated by an announcer telling everyone to tip the girls and bartenders and be careful on their way out of the theater, feel alive in a way few other films manage through a running time. 

Everybody is in top form here, too: Cardi B, Trace Lysette, and Lizzo make the most of their limited screen time as characters that have their OWN stories that peek through in small doses, but it’s really the two hander of Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez as the central women of the story that turn this from what could have been a cheap knockoff into something truly special. 

Most folks that have already allowed themselves to fall under the spell of the cult of Hustlers already know that every moment J. Lo is on screen is a gift: from her very first dance onscreen, to her invitation to “come into my fur,” to the long shots Scafaria never cuts from to show that, oh yeah, this is an intensely PHYSICAL performance too. But it’s honestly our protagonist played by Constance Wu that provides the film its true pathos: all Destiny wants is to provide a better life for her daughter, mother, and herself, at any cost. 

Much like Breaking Bad (an unlikely spiritual brother to this piece), we soon discover that this was never actually a means to a better future. There is no limit to Destiny’s quest to succeed… until she gets caught. And this is where the story breaks from the Breaking Bads of the world: Destiny folds and gives up her sisters because she really does, in the end, care more for her daughter than herself. 

Thus we find a brilliant film that both embodies and subverts the (mostly male) crime stories of before: you will always be your own worst downfall, but compassion goes a long way toward making rock bottom feel as cushioned as possible.

Streaming: n/a; available for rent & purchase now

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2. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

I watched Jacques Demy’s Model Shop mere weeks before this film was released. If you haven’t seen it, the film focuses on an architect trying to make ends meet while making it right with his girlfriend. The plot is threadbare because the entire film functions as an experiment for Demy’s first English language film: first, it’s a standalone art piece in which most of the running time is its protagonist, Gary, driving to nowhere in particular. Every scene that follows him is Los Angeles, 1969, through the eyes of a foreigner that has never and would never live full time in America. 

Second, it’s also a revelation that all of Demy’s films to that point have actually taken place in a shared cinematic universe, around forty years before this concept would be popularized by The Avengers. Specifically, a large portion of the film diverts its attention to Gary seeking the attention of and stalking a much older French sex worker who goes by the name Lola. Lola, for those not in the know, was the central figure of Demy’s first film eight years prior. She was once a central object of desire for the protagonist of that film; here, she is old, contemplative, wondering of her place in the world, but sure that any romance she has with Gary is fleeting at best. 

It’s around now that you’re probably wondering why I’m talking about Model Shop instead of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, even if you know from interviews that Tarantino cites this as a massive influence on the film. The reason why is because at their hearts, these two films are spiritual siblings. 

In Model Shop, the central man is a brash, selfish American that wants everything and takes what he has for granted; the woman is the person that’s already lived an entire life and wonders what remains for her AFTER the best years of her life. In Hollywood, the central man is also a selfish American, but now he’s the one defeated, on the outside looking in, incapable of seeing a bright side beyond his perceived darkness in the “Eye-talian westerns” he’s been offered; our female lead spends a good portion of the film also driving aimlessly, but unlike Gary, she’s excited to be alive. She’s also Sharon Tate; Tarantino’s vision of Tate, wordless and effervescent, has been criticized by some, but the amount of words she speaks is irrelevant to the spirit Margot Robbie’s take on Tate embodies. 

Unlike Gary, Sharon Tate of OUATIH loves every opportunity she receives. She glows every time the audience laughs at her performances on the big screen, and she’s always dancing. Gary, then, is split more accurately into two characters. He’s always driving like Cliff Booth, allowing the road to become its own story as he drives the 1960s California freeways, but he’s always a step away from defeat due to his own aimlessness in life. 

Leonardo DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton is given countless opportunities, but it’s never enough, because all he wants to be is the leading man. Gary is given everything he wants, but he ruins it because nothing’s ever good enough. The key difference between the two pieces comes in the ending of Hollywood (not THAT scene… the scene right after). 

Following one of Tarantino’s most jaw dropping pieces of historical revisionism yet, there’s a very calm sequence where Rick Dalton meets Jay Sebring and Sharon. In real life, this meeting could never have taken place. But here, Sebring and Tate both show immense concern for Dalton’s wellbeing, as well as warmth and understanding for the chaotic situation he’s just barely survived. The two invite Rick up for a drink. The film ends. 

Model Shop is the vision of how an international man’s eyes sees a world that may have never existed; Once Upon a Time in Hollywood takes that vision and looks to solidify it as its own microcosmic reality. For Tarantino, Model Shop is the entrance to heaven, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is the world Demy once thought it was. This makes both films half of one whole masterpiece.

Streaming: n/a; available for rent and purchase now

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1. Pain & Glory

Directed by Pedro Almodovar

A stunning contrast between a man whose existence is surrounded by beauty and nothing more, and a childhood built from nothing to something. In between, a coming of age hinted at but often not shown. 

I’ve never seen a film that fully grasps not only queer longing but also how one moves on from said longing. I’ve also never seen a film that really spells out just how horrible aging FEELS. 

Antonio Banderas stars as Salvador Mallo, an aging director dealing with pains both physical and emotional during a self imposed exile. He’s stopped making film because he feels that film is a physical form, but the truth is, he doesn’t have any stories to tell ever since his mother died. It’s not that he doesn’t have stories; it’s that the stories within him are ones his mother never liked.

Pain & Glory manages to make the beauty of art seem so intensely lonely, while positioning a rough childhood as a place not only of nostalgia but of the building blocks for who we are as adults. In a way, it almost feels too tidy in keeping with the modern day narrative… and then it all blows up in the very last shot of the movie, and you realize there’s nothing tidy about Salvador’s story at all.

Everyone here is trading addictions. Salvador picks up heroin in his 60s because his actor Alberto Crespo once made a production difficult with his own heroin addiction. In return, Salvador gives Crespo a story literally titled Addiction to stage as a comeback performance. The subject of said piece is in the audience and returns to see Salvador for the first time in over thirty years, revealing Salvador views love, too, as an addiction.

And then he gives up all of his addictions to serve the one that really matters to him: cinema. “Cinema saved my life,” he says. Mine too. 

Streaming: n/a; in theaters now

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BONUS ROUND:

TEN GOOD MOVIES YOU MAY HAVE SKIPPED

(and you should fix that right away):

Instead of providing any kind of “runners up” list, I thought I would instead focus on films I think you may have missed this year that I’m not seeing in many year end lists. These are also very good films apart from the top 15/18 I provided. 

So here’s some movies, in alphabetical order!

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Crawl

Directed by Alexandre Aja

A no frills creature feature that’s over in under 90 minutes, Crawl is a breathtaking return to form for Alexandre Aja that revolves around a really simple premise: dad and dog are stuck in Hurricane. Daughter goes to rescue dad and dog. Hurricane goes INSANE and oh btw there are alligators. 

A movie so intense and fast paced it could give you whiplash at home; economical, never wasting too much time on the minutiae, while still finding time to make you care about these characters in the first place. One of the most humane Aja films yet, and also one of the scariest.

Streaming: n/a, but available for rent

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The Death of Dick Long

Directed by Daniel Scheinert

Daniel Scheinert, one half of the Daniels team that brought us the excellent Swiss Army Man, takes an absolutely preposterous crime and hides it in the middle of what at first seems to be a normal and serviceable dramatic comedy. This one is worth going into as blind as possible. 

It’s somehow a film that feels like the Coens collaborating with Kevin Smith AND a film that builds its character relationships over songs from Staind, Nickelback, and Hinder. Much like SAM, you’ll find yourself questioning whether the tone is ironic or sincere often. 

I settled on the latter after seeing how Scheinert frames the fallout of the reveal of the crime. There’s a lot of empathy for these complete dipshits, from him and from viewers on the right wavelength.

Streaming: n/a, but available for rent 

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Dora & The Lost City Of Gold

Directed by James Bobin

Not all of the choices I made here are intended to be high art. They don’t have to be. 

Having never seen the original show, I had no expectations going into this. So I was pleasantly surprised to discover that this is basically Indiana Jones for Zoomers: a diverse cast that sets out on a globe trotting adventure to find a Lost City Of Gold. 

Along the way, there’s narrative lamp shading on the ridiculousness of adventure narratives AND Danny Trejo voicing a (mostly) voiceless monkey. Need more? Benicio Del Toro plays a sketchy fox that steals a lot. If you haven’t forgotten what it’s like to be a kid wowed by this kind of adventure, this is for you. Plus it’s really funny!

Streaming: n/a, but available for rent

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Horror Noire

Directed by Xavier Neal-Burgin

An easy to follow documentary on the history of black horror, from early portrayals pre-sound to the renaissance of today, the boom of fresh innovative voices on the scene now. 

Features interviews between titans of the screen such as Tony Todd, Keith David, Loretta Devine, Jordan Peele, and more. It’s not fully exhaustive, but it doesn’t need to be. Most of the narrative is driven by discussion and not a spoken narration; if you want to learn about black horror from the folks who make it, there’s no better doc than this.

Streaming: Shudder

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I Am Mother

Directed by Grant Sputore

An imperfect yet thoughtful science fiction film centered on the question of what exactly dictates motherhood, anchored by a strictly female cast of Hillary Swank, Clara Rugaard, and the voice of Rose Byrne as the titular Mother. 

Well plotted and performed, the only real downsides here are that the environment looks like the standard, lifeless sets you come to expect from Netflix’s lesser properties. Still: it’s rare to have a sci-fi film that is simultaneously this thoughtful and watchable that is EXCLUSIVELY fronted by women.

Streaming: Netflix

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The Kid Who Would Be King

Directed by Joe Cornish

Joe Cornish is two for two on the kind of super fun kids movies that would have rocked my socks off as a child. 

After everybody except apparently JJ Abrams ignored John Boyega’s star making turn in Attack the Block, it took a number of years for Cornish to get this creative retelling of the King Arthur mythos out to the world. 

The reason Cornish rules is he makes children’s entertainment that doesn’t talk down to kids: there’s no pandering pop culture element here, no toilet humor, and, importantly, there is a huge focus on plot and narrative stakes that is absent in most kids movies. 

One day, Cornish is going to be absorbed into the Disney system and will make a perfectly fine, idk, Fox & The Hound remake, and we will all smile at it. For now, though, he’s a bold voice being unfairly ignored. This needs to change.

Streaming: HBO Go/Now

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Knife+Heart

Directed by Yann Gonzalez

A horror movie inspired by giallo set in the 1970s gay porn world, directed by the brother of M84, who composed the score. The best kind of baffling mixed with the most beautiful kind of gore. What else do you need?

Streaming: Shudder

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Paddleton

Directed by Alexandre Lehmann

Ray Romano and Mark Duplass play best friends. Mark Duplass gets cancer and wants Ray Romano to help him die peacefully. A buddy comedy with its ending broadcast from the word “go,” this might not sound like an ideal way to kill 90 minutes, but it’s a touching portrayal of a more kind of tender masculinity, exploring the things we do for the ones we love platonically. 

It has some well earned comedic moments as well as some well handled pathos to balance it out. Ray Romano has had a rather quiet resurgence as a character actor lately but this is perhaps his most affecting performance yet.

Streaming: Netflix

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The Nightingale

Directed by Jennifer Kent

The latter half of the 2010s saw a streak of incredibly notable, bold horror films from new directors that saw a lot of publicity. Most of these filmmakers followed up their debuts (or breakout hits) with something interesting yet mostly in the wheelhouse of what came before. Jordan Peele did Us, Ari Aster did Midsommar, and Eggers did The Lighthouse

But two of this group in the new age of horror did something different. One went to extremely left field lengths to make something wholly different (more on that later) and the other, Jennifer Kent, did this. The Babadook was a classicist horror film that focused on the perils of motherhood. 

The Nightingale, in contrast, isn’t really a horror film. It’s a period drama, a rape revenge thriller, set in 1800s Tasmania, centered on a woman whose husband and infant child were murdered while she was raped by colonial soldiers. Along the way, she befriends an aboriginal tracker and tackles her own colonial mindset. 

It’s not an easy film to watch; despite not being a traditional horror film, it’s much more horrific than Kent’s previous work. It’s also more focused, though; Kent is tackling some big ideas here, and never shies away from the truth behind the birth of a nation, of all colonized nations. 

Ultimately, The Nightingale posits that any “freedom” or “liberty” granted toward a modern nation came at the behest of women, people of color, and the lower class, and forces the viewer to confront the atrocities on which freedom was founded. This is not a fun film, and it’s certainly not going to be one I’ll rush to rewatch. 

But it’s a vital film from a bold filmmaker that wants us to know that true horror, often, isn’t the boogeyman under the bed: it’s often the (white) man in a uniform that’s supposed to be our protector.

Streaming: Hulu

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Under the Silver Lake

Directed by David Robert Mitchell

And this is the OTHER filmmaker who made a left field turn from a horror breakout. 

In hindsight, it’s easy to see that David Robert Mitchell was never going to follow his horror film with another horror film; It Follows, in fact, was a follow up to his actual debut, the underseen coming of age story The Myth of the American Sleepover. Under the Silver Lake is a neo-noir centered on a young man (Andrew Garfield) who has one interaction with a woman, then discovers the next day that her apartment has been wiped clean and she’s gone missing. 

Thus begins one of the most convoluted mystery stories since Inherent Vice, one of the most bro-y takes on the genre this side of The Big Lebowski Mitchell’s got a lot to say about his protagonist, though; this isn’t a likable guy. He’s a self centered stoner who feels entitled to the attention of a woman he barely knows, and convinces himself that there is a MASSIVE conspiracy to keep her away from him. 

The validation in the end that there IS a massive conspiracy isn’t an endorsement of our lead; it’s a joke at his expense. Like all satire, this won’t be for everyone, but Mitchell makes his intentions fairly clear in a later scene when he has Andrew Garfield deliver a brief monologue about how much he hates homeless people. 

This makes Under the Silver Lake an unlikely companion piece to The Nightingale: the colonizers won, and now they’re bored. Andrew Garfield is SO BORED that the minutiae of his day to day life has to MEAN SOMETHING. TO HIM! Whether you missed this or didn’t vibe on it the first time, this is a movie you should give another shot.

Streaming: Amazon Prime

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To see where all of these films, as well as YOUR favorite films of 2019 ranked for me at year’s end, find my full list on Letterbox here.

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