Top 15 Films of 2019 – Allen’s Picks
Examining the balance between social classes, Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite (2019) cuts with the precision of a well sharpened knife. When a poor Korean family sneaks their way into the servitude of an upper-class family, secrets and perceptions are revealed, showing how each family differs in terms of wealth and prosperity. Yet at the same time, Bong Joon Ho has the awareness to show how each one exists because of the other in a volatile and often ugly push and pull. He floods the screen with symbolism, using every shot to amply his themes. The art direction and production design creates a time and place that looks familiar, but bubbling underneath is a harsh reality just waiting to be exposed. There are few filmmakers whose style is uniquely their own, and Bong Joon Ho is one of them.
Quentin Tarantino wears his obsessions on his sleeve. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is a deep dive into the things that made Tarantino who he is: old spaghetti westerns, Italian films, exploitation films, TV, but most of all 1960s Hollywood. This is his tribute to the time and place of his upbringing, where late night diners sprang to life with their neon signs, and movie premieres took place just down the road. It’s also a stark look at the reasons this “Golden Age” came to an end, with the story of Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and The Manson Family creeping along the edges. Make no mistake about it, this is Tarantino’s nostalgic version of this era, and he crafts it with all the enthusiasm and boisterous energy that he has become known for.
3) The Farewell
The power of cinema is in its ability to put us in the shoes of people unlike ourselves. I am not Chinese, but throughout Lulu Wang’s The Farewell I felt a tremendous emotional attachment to these characters and their lives. We follow Billi (a wonderful Awkwafina) as her family discovers her grandmother Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao) has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. The family stages a wedding in China as a means to see Nai Nai one last time. This begs the question: should they tell Nai Nai of her disease, or should they carry the burden of grief and allow her to live happily for the rest of her days? It’s a powerful back and forth question, going into the complexities of culture, tradition, and family dynamics. The beauty of Wang’s film is how she makes the themes so relatable – taking a specific point of view and turning it into something universal. Above all else, The Farewell isn’t a story about death, it’s a story about life.
What does it mean to be a hero? What does it mean to do the right thing? Terrence Malick has delivered his best and most focused work since The Tree of Life (2011). August Diehl plays Franz Jagerstatter, an Austrian farmer whose faith caused him to be a conscientious objector to the Nazi party during WWII. Facing ridicule from fellow villagers, authorities, and even those closest to him, it would have been very easy for Franz to simply go along with the tide. But his belief over what was right fueled him to take a stand against evil, even if that choice would gain him little to no notoriety. Beautiful, lyrical, and deeply spiritual, Malick has taken the grace and compassion born out of The Tree of Life and examines it under the pressures of nationality, duty, and moral responsibility. Terrence Malick has used his cinematic powers to create a work that is as timely and urgent as a modern satire.
1) The Irishman
For the last half century, no other filmmaker alive has been as consistently great as Martin Scorsese. He has arguably made the best film of the ‘70s (Taxi Driver), the ‘80s (Raging Bull), and the ‘90s (Goodfellas), won his overdue Oscar in the 2000s (The Departed), and now he has closed out the 2010s with yet another masterpiece in The Irishman. This is a great film. Returning to the genre he helped define, Scorsese has crafted a gangster movie that is entirely separate from his previous works. This is a somber, methodical look at Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), a hit man whose loyalty and commitment to the mob shot him up the ranks, all the way to becoming the righthand man to Teamsters Union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). But it’s that unwavering allegiance that leads to Sheeran’s downfall. Scorsese asks if a life can find fulfillment if it is also one of violence and death. The final hour is some of the best work Scorsese has ever done, in which the regret of Sheeran’s life come bearing down on his aging shoulders. Scorsese puts a stamp on this world and the people that populate it, examining it with such artistry and craft that it enters an existential realm. Martin Scorsese is one of the great masters of his field, and we should be so lucky that he can still make art this engaging, personal, and thought provoking.