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Top 20 Films of 2019

Certified critic on Rotten Tomatoes. Member of the Houston Film Critics Society. Also writes for Bounding Into Comics and GeeksHaveGame.

Riley Stearns' "The Art of Self-Defense."

Riley Stearns' "The Art of Self-Defense."

20. The Lighthouse

Light is the source of madness in The Lighthouse. Lunacy is in plain sight and nothing hides in darkness. That unwavering gaze of Willem Dafoe is haunting and this is the best Robert Pattinson has ever been. A slow, drunken descent into hysteria. And yes, The Lighthouse is essentially The Shining at sea. Confined to an island and stormy weather over an empty hotel in the winter.

19. The Nightingale

I’ll admit that the rape sequences of this film are particularly nasty and uncomfortable, but in the grand scheme of things they’re also necessary for a story that tailors to revenge. The relationship that develops between Clare and Billy is an intriguing one since they realize they’re kindred spirits. Aisling Franciosi is brilliant in the lead role totally overwhelmed by this devastating hit to her family while also allowing her blood to boil past the point of exhaustion. Writer and director Jennifer Kent managed to follow up The Babadook without an annoying child as part of the cast, which is always a bonus.

18. Doctor Sleep

Doctor Sleep (Full Review) is a one-of-a-kind sequel that is so good it makes the original film better. It may be slow-moving, but its meticulous storytelling flourishes because of it. Rebecca Ferguson is one of the coolest villains we’ve seen in a film this year as Doctor Sleep pounds on your psyche with ease. Live long, eat well, and embrace your demons; Doctor Sleep is the satisfying film every horror sequel should set out to be.

17. Midsommar

If you enjoy ambiguous filmmaking where everything isn’t explained and the film’s imagery can mean more than one specific thing, then Midsommar (Full Review) may be worth checking out. It is an outlandish experiment by Ari Aster that a large quantity will likely deem a failure. Personally speaking though, Midsommar is such an unconventionally different ceremonial fever dream loaded with preposterousness, beautiful cinematography, hilarity, and anxiety-fueled-dread that it’s not only memorable and bold but also the type of one-of-a-kind film experience I crave whenever the lights dim and the quiet hum of a projector accelerates into a dull yet soothing roar.

From left to right: First Love, The Nightingale, The Lighthouse, Doctor Sleep, and Midsommar.

From left to right: First Love, The Nightingale, The Lighthouse, Doctor Sleep, and Midsommar.

16. First Love

Takashi Miike unleashes this refined, matured, and sleeker version of himself with First Love (Full Review). With shades of Baby Driver, a jazzy score that echoes what The Seatbelts accomplished with the music for Cowboy Bebop, and a brief animated transition that is exceptionally cool, First Love takes the ultra violence Miike is known for and allows those violent moments to breathe. The blood splatter is accentuated by flawed characters struggling with their own definition of feeling alone and a surprising dose of hilarity that is unbelievably entertaining.

15. The Art of Self-Defense

Riley Stearns 2014 film Faults is a solid film, but it’s probably been forgotten about since its release, but it’s as if Stearns tinkered away at something special for five years and reemerged with something memorable and great. Next to Quentin Dupieux’s Deerskin, The Art of Self-Defense is the funniest film of 2019. Loaded with sharp wit, unbelievable absurdity, and the Jesse Eisenberg performance to top all Jesse Eisenberg performances, The Art of Self-Defense is so funny it hurts and we absolutely love Riley Stearns for it.

14. Jojo Rabbit

This is a film where storytelling, embellishing and elongating false reputations, and glorifying urban myths is the driving force of entertainment. Underneath its layers of SS uniforms, dangerous pistols, and knives you should never leave home without, Jojo Rabbit (Full Review) is a touching film about human compassion with an intimacy that is absolutely unparalleled. Categorized somewhere between Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom and an imaginative concept that is an obvious homage to Calvin and Hobbes, love feels like it’s the only thing spreading across the world more powerful than war and Jojo Rabbit is more than happy to hype you up and throw you in love’s way without remorse.

13. Deerskin

Deerskin (Full Review) won’t be for everyone, but if you enjoy weird and unusual films that don't resemble the mainstream in the slightest or have a fascination with Quentin Dupieux projects in general (which everyone should) then Deerskin is absolutely highly recommended. Its violence and bleak nature are concealed through layers of fringe and killer style. Despite Georges killing innocent people at night, during the day he has this awkward charm that is easy to get sucked into. Gloriously ludicrous with a remarkably captivating performance from Jean Dujardin and a gonzo concept that continuously snowballs further and further into uproarious madness throughout an entirely too short 77-minute duration, Deerskin is a delightfully eccentric comedy intertwined with a grisly and outlandish inner seam.

From left to right: Jojo Rabbit, Toy Story 4, The Art of Self-Defense, Deerskin, and Avengers: Endgame.  The dojo rules from the middle image read as follows:  1. No shoes on the mat. 2. No food or drinks on the mat. 3. Bow when stepping on/off the m

From left to right: Jojo Rabbit, Toy Story 4, The Art of Self-Defense, Deerskin, and Avengers: Endgame. The dojo rules from the middle image read as follows: 1. No shoes on the mat. 2. No food or drinks on the mat. 3. Bow when stepping on/off the m

12. Avengers: Endgame

Avengers: Endgame (Full Review) is an emotionally satisfying, desolation-infused, nail-biting finale that delivers anything and everything fans have been craving since the MCU began. Some may prefer Avengers: Infinity War or Captain America: Civil War in comparison, but with this much buildup and so much success before the film even opens it’s difficult to argue with Avengers: Endgame being the reigning and undisputed champion of superhero films.

11. Toy Story 4

I never wanted a fourth Toy Story film since I thought the third film ended so perfectly and was convinced this would tarnish the franchise kind of like what the ninth season of Scrubs did to the series after the perfection that was the ending to season eight. But Toy Story 4 is a tale worth telling and a conclusion to Woody’s journey that is so completely satisfying. Finding purpose after you’ve worn out your initial welcome hits home for anyone who hasn’t ever lived up to their own expectations. It’s also difficult to imagine Toy Story without the likes of Duke Caboom or Forky since they’re so likeable.

10. In the Shadow of the Moon

I really enjoyed this one on the big screen. I’m a sucker for a good story wrapped around the concept of time travel. In the Shadow of the Moon is outstanding; a really clever and twisty time travel thriller with exceptional performances. This is the first time I’ve walked away from a film featuring Boyd Holbrook where I’ve thought he was genuinely memorable. I didn’t like the film quite as much the second time through while watching it on Netflix at home, but I still admire the craft of well-written time travel that takes place over the course of 54 years and keeps the audience guessing for a captivating two hours.

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9. Koko-di Koko-da

Release Date: June 26, 2020

Gorgeous, unsettling, and extraordinary with a chant that is catchy as hell. A fairy tale that would make The Brothers Grimm nauseous. I look forward to seeing this one again. It’s a film that has that fantasy kind of atmosphere, but with a really unique and demented perspective. Another Fantastic Fest darling.

From left to right: The Gangster The Cop The Devil, Marriage Story, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, Koko-di Koko-da, and The Shadow of the Moon.

From left to right: The Gangster The Cop The Devil, Marriage Story, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, Koko-di Koko-da, and The Shadow of the Moon.

8. The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil

There is this wafer thin line between law enforcement and crime in The Gangster The Cop The Devil (Full Review). That line is blurred and smudged and stretched beyond its limitations until what separates law from crime begins to bleed and run into one another until they’re essentially one and the same. Cops, gangsters, and killers have more in common than you think and their inability to coexist with one another results in absolute carnage paved with a savage trail of blood. Lee Won-tae has struck vicious, bloodthirsty gold with The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil with its mesmerizing and phenomenally talented cast and a concept that is so brilliantly simple that it’s allowed to flourish in complex ways during a way too brief 109-minute duration.

7. The Last Black Man in San Francisco

An unexpected delight I finally saw at the tail end of the year. There’s this artistic integrity to this film; a pride in one’s creative work. Holding onto something for so long becomes something you cherish even if it isn’t necessarily true. I loved Mont’s perspective of finding something inspirational in everything around him like the city that seemed to be sucking him and his best friend dry or the guys standing on the corner that didn’t seem to do anything besides talk trash. Emile Mosseri’s score cradles you in this joyous symphony; easily one of my favorite scores of the year. The film derails a bit in its second half around the time Mont puts on his play, but the performances are outstanding, the cinematography really captures how beautiful San Francisco can be, and the film leaves you feeling like you should never give up on defining who you are even if it means having to start from scratch.

6. Marriage Story

This was a film I really wanted to review, but simply ran out of time due to everything going on over the holiday season. I love a lot of Noah Baumbach’s work and Marriage Story, a film about his own divorce, crushes your spirit while allowing you to admire each factor of a destructive situation. The divorce begins in civil fashion, almost amicably, and simply snowballs into this gargantuan mountain of hatred and self-entitlement. This is the best Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson have ever been. The journey is hard fought with every dime, every desire, and every ounce of what made Charlie and Nicole a couple is not only left in the courtroom but also devoured by the smog infested monster that is Los Angeles. You feel for both of them as they’re both right and both wrong over the course of their relationship. The way everything comes full circle to what each of them wanted all along is not only satisfying for the audience, but it also seems to make Charlie and Nicole stronger as individuals who share custody rather than this intertwined entity that was too stubborn to flourish as a duo.

5. Steven Universe: The Movie

This one deserves an explanation. I consider myself a genuine hater of musicals; like I generally can’t stand them. However, Steven Universe is a series that has music that sticks with you pretty much forever. The film is no different. The first time I saw it all I could think was that there was an awful lot of singing in it. But these songs embed themselves in your brain and, “Drift Away,” is a best song of the year contender. Also, I’d be thrilled if you looked into this film because of me but catch up on the television series first before seeing the film. Steven Universe is a story that thrives on a story with roots going all the way back to the first episode. So just watch everything Steven Universe and thank me later.

From left to right: Wyrm, Color Out of Space, Steven Universe: The Movie, Weathering with You, and Parasite.

From left to right: Wyrm, Color Out of Space, Steven Universe: The Movie, Weathering with You, and Parasite.

4. Wyrm

No current release date. No distributor. Seen at Fantastic Fest.

If you have ever had trouble making friends, feel socially awkward in the slightest, or have a terrible love life, then Wyrm (Full Review) is going to be something that speaks to you, laughs with you, cries with you, and celebrates your triumphs with you. Puberty is awkward and ugly for everyone, but Wyrm portrays what it’s like to not be able to adjust even after you accomplish what everyone else has. Kids are cruel, being a freshman sucks, and a tragedy often leaves imprints in our lives we don’t feel or notice until long after they’ve ended. Wyrm is this cinematic time capsule that depicts how it feels to be different, how it feels during one of the worst times in our lives, and how we try to move past the events that affect us the most.

3. Parasite

Parasite (Full Review) allows the audience to experience what it’s like to have nothing and then everything and then nothing again from the perspective of two different social groups. The film is basically a South Korean twist on The Prince and The Pauper with a devilish reworking to illustrate how ruthless and desperate each side of the coin can be; the poor doing whatever it takes to grab that brass ring and the rich stopping at nothing to protect what they view as rightfully theirs. It should absolutely be considered as one of Bong Joon-ho’s most satisfying cinematic efforts and one of the year’s very best films. Parasite is deliciously mischievous and a masterwork of pure and utter deceit with a mesmerizing conclusion that leaves you breathless and reflective.

2. Color Out of Space

Release Date: January 24, 2020

This was the last thing I saw at Fantastic Fest this year and the first feature length film from Richard Stanley in over 20 years (his most recent credit as director is a segment in the 2011 horror anthology The Theatre Bizarre). This film is based on the H.P. Lovecraft story of the same name and revolves around a meteorite changing the town of Arkham, Massachusetts in the worst of ways. The film has shades of From Beyond and The Thing from Stanley’s own unique perspective. The alien aspect is beautiful at times with bold and vibrant colors changing wildlife seemingly for the better, but animals and humans are changed in nightmarish ways. Nicolas Cage is undeniably unhinged here. Brilliant, terrifying, and bonkers at times, we’ve missed you, Richard Stanley.

1. Weathering with You

Release Date: January 17, 2020

I get the criticisms of this film; that Hodaka is too emo for his own good (just ask Hina out on a date already) or that this film isn’t nearly as good as Makoto Shinkai’s previous film Your Name. These are things I don’t necessarily disagree with, but no other film in 2019 made me feel the way Weathering with You did and still does. The film has this pure-hearted kind of vibe to it even when Natsumi is calling out Hodaka for staring at her boobs. Hina has the phenomenal ability to temporarily control the weather or making the sun come out at her will when it’s raining. This is the tale of a weather maiden aka the 100% Sunshine Girl and the film is essentially about the sun brightening up someone’s life on a rainy day. The emotional aspects of the film may come off as corny to some, but the finale had my chest feeling full and my tear ducts ready to burst. Hodaka being a runaway is also intriguing since he’s still discovering who he is and what he wants to be. Weathering with You is funny and touching and leaves you feeling like you have a place in this world no matter how lost you may have felt. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and you’ll just feel; elements in a film everyone should seek whether it’s something animated or otherwise.

© 2019 Chris Sawin

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