EDITOR’S NOTE: 2019 was a big year for us at ObsessiveViewer.com. One of the big things for us was bringing on our friend Ben Sears as a contributor on the website and recurring guest on the podcast. We’re extremely proud of the work he has done throughout the last several months and can’t wait to see what 2020 has in store for him and the site alike. Here, Ben reflects on his top 10 favorite movies of 2019. Enjoy. – Matt Hurt
Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order):
- Greener Grass
- High Life
- International Falls
- Jojo Rabbit
- Knives Out
- Marriage Story
- The Irishman
- Wild Rose
- The IMAX prologue trailer for Tenet
10. Pokemon: Detective Pikachu
Are there better movies that could have taken this spot? Movies that resonated on a deeper, more personal and spiritual level? Movies that don’t, say, have huge, Dragonite-sized plot holes throughout? Absolutely, but damn if I didn’t love seeing the world of Pokemon brought to life in an ingenious manner here. Combine a game-for-anything Ryan Reynolds performance with incredible visual effects, and throw in some of my favorite Pokemon (the absence of Scyther notwithstanding, of course) that are teeming with life at every corner of the frame, and you’ve got a real winner. Nostalgia was weaponized in 2019 more than ever before, and Pokemon: Detective Pikachu dealt me a critical hit.
9. The Souvenir
I struggled for a long time with which film to place in this spot. It was a tight three-way tie with International Falls, High Life, and this film (and you should definitely see all three of them!). But I settled, for lack of a better term, on The Souvenir because it challenged me the most among those films. If you would have told me after my first viewing that this would be the film of 2019 that I would watch more than any other this year, I probably would have said you were nuts. Director Joanna Hogg, whose early film school days provide the inspiration for the story, tells a tale of young love that is full of more and more emotional layers to unpack from each character and plot change upon each re-watch. What was evident from the start to me was the riveting display from Honor Swinton Byrne, who gives the breakout performance of the year. In the hands of Byrne, Julie is at all times smart, naïve, sexy, insecure, confident, and foolish. Anyone that has been in a complicated relationship can surely relate to her growth or, at times, lack thereof. Hogg has already begun work on The Souvenir Part II, with Byrne returning as Julie. And if the sequel is anything like the original, I can’t wait to be challenged again.
Lulu Wang delivers a heartwarming tale of family and honesty that only she could have made. Awkwafina gives a grounded performance as Wang’s stand-in, who must wrestle her cultural upbringing in China with her American notions of right and wrong as her grandmother is given a terminal diagnosis. Wang manages to insert plenty of humor in the face of the devastatingly harsh realities of death. And she still includes plenty of tear-jerking moments without pandering or forcing the issue. And even if you don’t tear up at any point, you’d be lying to say that the film doesn’t at least leave you craving Chinese food by the end. It may have been a coincidence that my own grandmother’s wavering health was in the back of my mind when I first saw The Farewell, but subsequent re-watches have only proven just how well the film resonates. Nai Nai for President 2020.
2019 was a banner year for horror auteurs’ sophomore efforts: Jordan Peele, Ari Aster, and Robert Eggers all followed their stunning debuts with solid entries in what are sure to be legendary careers. Eggers made a splash with his period drama The Witch in 2015 and used that clout to bring us The Lighthouse, another period-specific nightmare of two men and their descent into paranoia and madness. Everything that worked so well for The Witch works just as well – if not better – here. Cinematographer Jarin Blaschke shoots everything in black and white, using a 1.19:1 aspect ratio to really sell the claustrophobia, while his singular light sources create some mesmerizing, occasionally terrifying images. And the sound design team that created the distinctive wailing of the titular lighthouse reminds you exactly where you are and whose control you’re under. Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson play a thrilling cat and mouse game where one is constantly trying to outshine the other without falling into caricature. You may know, more or less, where The Lighthouse is heading once it starts, but in this case, the thrill is in the journey just as much as the destination.
6. Ad Astra
“Apocalypse Now in space” may work as an elevator pitch to describe Ad Astra, but what director James Gray brings forth is much more nuanced. With a melancholy, career-best performance from Brad Pitt, Gray explores the lasting impact a distant father can have, especially when that father is halfway across the galaxy. Stunning cinematography and an eye for detail (just try to soak in all the funny but realistic corporatization in the brief moon base scene) are only part of what will have me coming back to this film time and time again. Not to mention the exhilarating lunar buggy chase scene, which is one of my favorites of the year.
The Safdie brothers continue their assault on our collective nerves with this character study of a gambling addict who can’t stop getting in his own way. Adam Sandler is the undisputed star of an improbably great cast that includes Idina Menzel, Lakeith Stanfield, and first-timers Kevin Garnett and Julia Fox. The gritty cinematography, shaky camera-work, and the synth-heavy score work in unison to make a non-stop anxiety ride through New York’s Diamond District. When the initial press photo of Sandler was released for this film, I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of a weird story Josh and Benny Safdie would have to tell, especially following their mainstream-ish breakout hit Good Time. What we ended up with is one of the best depictions of not only gambling addiction, but addiction to life on the edge, in recent memory.
4. Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Heartbreaking but optimistic, quiet but haunting, complex but familiar, Portrait tells the story of a doomed romance between two young women in the 18th century – one a painter (Noémie Merlant) and the other her muse (Adéle Haenel), the daughter of a wealthy family who is betrothed to a man she’s never met. Evoking the ideas and themes of films like Call Me By Your Name and Carol, Celine Sciamma breathes new life into a tale of forbidden romance by exploring the persistence – and importance – of memory and love, even when those memories are painful. It may not always be easy to reveal ourselves to someone else, but once we do, beautiful things can happen. This film is truly a must-see; the symphony of a cast and crew working in perfect harmony.
I’ll fully admit that this is the only film on this list that I’ve only seen once, but that one time is all it took. Often when I finish a film, my rapidly deteriorating memory will soon forget what I just saw. With Us, there are distinctive moments and images – both big and small in terms of the context of the film – that I still have seared into my brain to this day, despite only seeing it the one time. Jordan Peele managed to follow his left-field cultural smash hit Get Out by leaning away from racial commentary and more into outright horror, while still managing to have plenty of fun along the way. Lupita Nyong’o unquestionably gives the overall performance of the year, pulling double duty and making both of her roles distinct, believable, and terrifying. Peele’s devotion to high-concept horror makes Us endlessly debatable with no right or wrong answer readily available as to its conclusion, or the implications of its premise.
Bong Joon Ho’s class-warfare masterpiece more than lived up to the hype after becoming the first Korean film to win the Palme D’Or at Cannes. Simultaneously humorous, shocking, tragic, and poignant, Bong manages not only to blend these elements, but seamlessly and perfectly shifts between genres on a whim. Each actor gets their own moment in the spotlight, making each character feel authentic and original in his or her own way. Incredible production design helps to truly sell the duality at war between the two families. What makes this film stand apart from other class-warfare genre films, though, is Bong’s intention to balance both families equally: the rich people are jerks, and the poor are dishonest swindlers. The final scene is especially affecting in that it’s simultaneously crushing and hopeful, but above all, it’s beautiful.
On its face, there’s no readily available reason why The Last Black Man in San Francisco resonated so much with me. I am not a black man, my grandfathers never built any houses (that I’m aware of), and I don’t live in an overly-gentrified area. I’ve never even been to San Francisco. But Jimmie Fails and Joe Talbot (co-writers of the screenplay, with Talbot directing) tell a simultaneously personal yet universal story of belonging and identity that almost anyone can relate to. Almost every element of this film works on a perfect level for me: Co-stars Fails and Jonathan Majors emerge as venerable talents to look forward to, as well as a supporting cast that includes Mike Epps, Rob Morgan, and Danny Glover (to name only a few). The score is so good and so soulful that I’ve listened to it, in full, on its own – something I’ve almost never done. I am so, so incredibly glad I was able to see this movie, and I hope that by reading this, you decide to as well.
About the Writer: Ben Sears is a lifetime Indianapolis resident, husband, and father of two boys, as well as a contributing writer on ObsessiveViewer.com. Aside from watching movies and television, Ben enjoys photography (bensearsphotography.com) and running marathons, but never at the same time. That would be difficult.