Best Films 2019

My mom watches movies in segments. She divides her attention between her phone, the screen, the kitchen, the weather and the neighbor’s dog. It takes her literal days to finish watching movies sometimes. My dad watches one movie every month, sometimes every two months. I joke with them by asking how I can possibly be related to them when our movie watching habits are so dissimilar. But sometimes I don’t joke. Rather, I look Godwards in gratitude. Surely I’ve done nothing radically different from my parents that would cause me to live cinema in a way that breathes vigor to my bones. Yet here I am again with the yearly list of the best films watched in 2019. 160 they were, a surprisingly high number considering I spent many months traveling. There must have been some nights in which I watched more than one, more than two. I recall these moments very, very fondly. And the following films even more so. 

 

HARRY POTTER SAGA

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Simultaneously a tender look at being a teenager and a parable of the biblical story of Jesus and Satan, the Harry Potter series is unlike anything I have ever experienced. Watched over the course of four spellbinding days, the level of engagement it stirred within me is unparalleled. Unmatched too are the echoes of the Gospel story present throughout, from the Messiah-like Harry to the astute ways the evil one assails our commitment to the cause. I won’t soon forget the night in which, after finishing my dinner, I rushed to my bedroom to watch Order of the Phoenix and Half-Blood Prince. I sat in bed for five hours, bewitched by every little thing. The next day I told my mom that I was going to finish watching Harry Potter that night, and she apologized for not allowing me to watch them years before. I told her there was no need for an apology because it had turned out to be for the best. I discovered Harry Potter at just the right moment in life. 

THE FOUNTAIN

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Here’s something I’d never done before. Once the credits started to roll, I hit play and watched The Fountain all over again. A feast for the senses, The Fountain is a tragedy of lost love. It is also a triumphant reminder that one need not be crippled by the fear of death, for together we will live forever.

THE IRISHMAN

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The most elegiac film of Martin Scorsese’s storied career, The Irishman mourns the lives that are lived in service of all that is ultimately inconsequential. Subverting the expectations created three decades ago with his masterpiece Goodfellas, in which crime was glamorized and life was fast paced, The Irishman is a film only an old man could make. Rueful, wise, patient. Scorsese, pushing 80, has never shied away from his faith. The confession scene is not only for his protagonists, not only for his audience, but also for himself.

SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK

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“Everything is more complicated than you think. You only see a tenth of what is true. There are a million little strings attached to every choice you make; you can destroy your life every time you choose. But maybe you won’t know for twenty years. And you’ll never ever trace it to its source. And you only get one chance to play it out. Just try and figure out your own divorce. And they say there is no fate, but there is: it’s what you create. Even though the world goes on for eons and eons, you are here for a fraction of a fraction of a second. Most of your time is spent being dead or not yet born. But while alive, you wait in vain, wasting years, for a phone call or a letter or a look from someone or something to make it all right. And it never comes or it seems to but doesn’t really. And so you spend your time in vague regret or vaguer hope for something good to come along. Something to make you feel connected, to make you feel whole, to make you feel loved.”

MARRIAGE STORY

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2019 delivered some of the best acting by men I’ve seen in a while. You couldn’t take your eyes off Joaquin Phoenix in Joker. Robert DeNiro was phenomenal in The Irishman. And Adam Driver was absolutely superb, the best he has ever been, in Marriage Story. You watch him slowly disintegrate as the film progresses. The scene in which he pretends he’s fine after cutting himself by accident is a marvel. 

LISTEN TO ME MARLON

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Ten months ago, reviewing this documentary for the first time, I wrote that “Brando’s story is our story, the small details varying but the overall picture looking the same: a life in a world with pain as its principal currency, with every soul aching for a more permanent release than wealth, or family, or sex”. No more needs to be said.

INGLORIOUS BASTERDS

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His films tend to be fun and easy to watch, but Tarantino outdid himself with this one.

COLUMBUS

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It happens, almost imperceptibly and not to everybody, but it happens. The moment you discover your parents, the people who were meant to nourish and see you thrive, are suffocating you. They don’t do it out of any ill will; they love you, after all. And you love them, and now you’re compelled to see them thrive, compelled to nourish them. It’s a reversal of the natural order, and it hurts your little heart. But it cannot be this way forever for you are young and you must leave them behind. This hurts your little heart some more. Columbus is a perfect distillation of this. 

SET IT UP

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In an age in which the rom-com is all but dead, here comes Zooey Deutsch to breathe new life into it and make it soar, soar, soar. 

SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE

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To call this the best superhero movie I’ve seen might be faint praise, considering my slight indifference towards most movies of its ilk. But it is anything but. Into the Spider-Verse is a colorful, hilarious, inventive and strangely moving picture about the hero’s journey. One, it turns out, we’re all in. 

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2

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The cumulative effect of the Harry Potter saga is akin to watching Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy, or the collected works of Kubrick and Scorsese. Haunting and impossible to shake off, it is one of the highlights not only of this year, but of my film watching career. While no one picture is entirely flawless, as a whole they comprise an extraordinary feat of storytelling, and one that deserves a place in my list of most admired movies I’ve ever seen.

I am now rather proud of having arrived to this series when I did, for I’m certain my response to the films, had I watched them in the year long spans in which they were originally released, wouldn’t have been as immediate. So while I considered each picture on its individual merits, and graded accordingly, the fact that I watched them consecutively in the span of 5 days made it difficult for my emotional investment to be split into episodes.

For example, because the movies follow such a clear and natural progression, I was tearing up at the demise of Dobby in the eighth installment since I’d just learn his story a mere twelve hours ago, on installment two. Whereas had I seen this upon original release, my reaction might have been similar but my involvement wouldn’t have, my investment having been split into chunks throughout the years. What I discovered with Harry Potter was a tremendous sense of urgency, in which I was twisted up in the story complications in a way seldom experienced before, if ever.

So now that it’s all over, what’s next? I embarked on this journey out of loneliness, wishing to fill my free time with a pop culture product that’s been friends to millions of people throughout the globe. I got an emotional and religious workout instead, my mind jubilant with everything it was processing. I also got something else.

A reminder to be brave. That even if the present hurt doesn’t go away, ultimately, perhaps not even in this life but the next, I’ve already achieved the victory I so long for.

B

 

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1

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The amount of indelible moments in this series is stupefying. There’s so many extraordinary sequences, rich with a multitude of themes, that I wish I was in English 101 so all my essays could be about Harry Potter. Barring that, allow me to just write a little about a lovely moment that occurs at the half point of The Deathly Hallows: Part 1.

Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and Hermione (Emma Watson) slow dance to music coming out of a dusty old radio in the middle of the forest. Initially this seems jarring; the disconnect between this gentle, quiet moment and all the madness that has preceded it too large for it to make sense. But then you see slight smiles forming on their faces, and you understand.

From The Goblet of Fire onward, this story didn’t turn harrowing just because villains were bigger and badder. Neither was the growth of these characters predicated on the fact that they got better at casting spells and slipping out of danger at the last minute. What’s made the narrative so ridiculously effective is how there’s been tangible, lasting consequences to all of this, manifesting itself mainly in loss. You can sense the weariness of Harry, Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione in every scene they appear, not only burdened by a reality they never asked, but just exhausted by the sorrow around them.

I’m shocked this is blockbuster cinema, for in no other mainstream adventure is the hero’s journey colored in such introspective a way. Five movies ago I was claiming this to be a product for children; now I’m wondering how the hell their parents explained to them that life is dynamic, that grief is ingrained in it, that perspective is vital, and that triumph takes a while to achieve.

Harry and Hermione understand this, which is why they’re able to find joy with a silly dance as the entire world crumbles around them. It is a brief moment of respite, and it is absolutely beautiful, one more in a series that’s full of them.

B+

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

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If a week ago you would’ve said that I would become deeply invested in a movie series that had it’s conclusion almost a decade ago, my cynicism would’ve gotten the better of you. If you also would’ve said that one of the Harry Potter films included one of the best sequences I would see all year, I would’ve called you out. But I have, and it does.

I will discuss the scene in question later this year, as I’m sure it will make my list of Memorable Moments of 2019. For now, let me just go on record and state how taken aback I’ve been by the bleakness and power of the Harry Potter series.

I don’t recall another mainstream picture in which the sinister appears as menacing as it does in Harry Potter. The Lord of the Rings, to bring up another fantasy series, has Sauron as the main antagonist, but he never feels as outright demonic as the villains in Harry Potter do. Sauron wants the ring back in order to take on flesh again and rule over Middle-Earth, but his motivations are never more than what we see: nothing. Similarly, presiding over a kingdom is a general enough goal that most people wouldn’t mind getting behind it.

“Nobody will doubt my powers again”, Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) hisses at Harry in The Goblet of Firerevealing the crux of the series. If the devil is really the ultimate harbinger of evil, then it stands to reason that the more characters resemble him, the more frightening they’ll be. More than death and destruction, the devil wants nobody to question his powers over those of the light. In the Gospels, Satan revels in the death of Jesus for this very reason: he’s now the most powerful being in the universe. The evil in these movies appears urgent, and above all, real.

The Half-Blood Prince has an almost desolate conclusion, foreboding more pain to come. Its stark contrast between all the others that came before is almost as stark as my response to them from The Philosopher’s Stone to now. I cannot wait to finish this series.

A-

 

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

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Too many times movies make evil seem arbitrary. A monster is a monster out of script requirements; the end of the world is nigh because high stakes are needed. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix shocks with how aptly it grasps the concept of evil.

What started as an innocent tale of a boy involved in castle shenanigans has transformed into a rough, occasionally moving, frightening narrative of the perpetual struggle between the power of light and the forces of darkness. The picture lays bare that while everybody is the hero of their own story, there is none among us that’s perfect. Because of our follies we are in peril of turning into a villain, and it is only by our conscious choices and the help, or lack thereof, of those we surround ourselves with that we rise or fall.

A-

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

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Do I have any regrets about the Christian school I attended labeling the Harry Potter books and movies the work of Satan? Do I resent my parents warning me about the demonic influences I’d invite into our home if I were to seek them out? One thing’s for sure: if I had watched Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire when I was a kid, I wouldn’t have appreciated it the way I do now.

What a thrilling film this is! Characters swoop through the skies, escaping a fire breathing dragon; they sink to the depths to confront spooky looking mermaids; they come face to face with evil itself. And while all these sequences are marvelous as they are, really employing magic in a way that makes the mind soar, its finest moments are the ones most grounded in reality.

It’s Harry, (Daniel Radcliffe), and Ron (Rupert Grint) trembling at the thought of asking a girl to the dance. It’s a Hermione (Emma Watson) who’s very much in the process of falling in love with Ron getting mad at him for his indifference. It’s Harry and Hermione talking about how Viktor Krum (Stanislav Ianeski) is very physical with her, and then both immediately laughing at the double entendre. It’s Neville (Matthew Lewis) proud of himself for dancing with a girl for an evening, and things actually going well.

Oh reader, how delightful these passages were to me! For a solid 15 minutes there was no talk of evil or death. It’s as if the film suddenly turned into a John Hughes feature, with all the growing pains of characters learning who they are, and what they like. But I know these moments wouldn’t have worked as well without the previous six hours I’ve gotten to spend with Harry, Ron and Hermione.

I mentioned at the onset of these Harry Potter entries how it was a disadvantage arriving to them so late, nearly a decade after its conclusion. But now I can mention an advantage, and it’s that watching these movies one after the other really wraps the protagonists around my heart. It’s a strange thing watching these kids grow up right before my eyes, and struggle not only with dark magic, but with their feelings and emotions. So, to answer the questions that opened this entry: no, no regrets and no resentments. It led me straight to this.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

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One of the most surprising aspects of the first two installments in this series was how child friendly it’s finales were. A kindly old man delivering life-affirming anecdotes; friends humiliating their bullies; cheers all around. It makes one wonder why Steven Spielberg was not approached to direct them, until you later realize he actually was, but turned the job down.

This has also made me understand the enduring popularity of Harry Potter. These novels are not, as I erroneously believed, young adult novels; these are, at least the movies I’ve seen so far, books for children. I can see now why ten year olds would start reading this. At it’s heart is a simple story about a good kid overcoming bad circumstances with the help of his friends. Who doesn’t relate to that? Or, who doesn’t want to?

It doesn’t make for very engaging cinema, however. I’ve read online that the first two movies are the most faithful to the source material, and I can see why. They are children’s movies. And while there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, events are not as exciting when peril does not seem very believable.

The Prisoner of Azkaban is something else though. It’s a very neat touch that as the protagonists age and mature, so do the movies. This third installment finally conjures up a real sense of danger, magic, and twists in a story that’s becoming intriguing.

B+

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

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I like to think that the adults who oversee Hogwarts only become woefully inept once viewed through a traditional American lens. Yes, the fact that two movies have seen the school be infested by two murderous monsters would be troubling in a society which doesn’t protect anything as much as their children. But in a centuries old wizarding world in which people can talk to snakes? That’s just another Tuesday evening.

B-