This film follows two Booksmart best friends, Amy and Molly, who decide they want to defy their peers’ expectations and experience a high school house party the night before graduation and oddly, some unpredictable antics ensue. Very few films, let alone teen comedies, can boast the use of such wide-ranging cinematic tools as a single five-minute shot, a stop-motion doll scene, and countless more in between, but this is the beauty of Booksmart. Much like the movie’s main characters, director Olivia Wilde defies genre conventions and marvelously utilizes a broad range of tools to bring Booksmart to life. Yet, I would contend that Booksmart’s comedy is carried by its incredible side-characters. Each secondary character starts out as a simple stereotype and slowly becomes more three-dimensional (granted, some a lot more than others) as the protagonists learn more about their peers, building an emotional backbone behind every joke. This, along with priceless performances from the whole cast, give Booksmart the personality, emotion, and humor that makes it one of the best teen movies in recent memory.
Joker is a character-study of Arthur Fleck, a soon-to-be fired party clown with trouble in his brain and skeletons in his closet, who finds his identity/catharsis in the most deranged places and is easily the most controversial and divisive movie of the year, the only universally acclaimed aspect of Joker is Joaquin Phoenix, who embodies Arthur with such disturbed intensity that he simply owns every frame. I would also contend that outside of thoroughly overwhelming similarities/homages to Taxi Driver (as well as other Martin Scorsese movies), the atmosphere the film creates is outstanding. The terrific yet tedious score, slick yet scarring cinematography, and beautiful yet brutal production design all work hand in hand to make Gotham City into a perfectly palpable hellhole. The meshing of fantastic visual world-building and a frenetic lead performance make Joker a wonderfully wild ride through the mind of a twisted man navigating a twisted world.
5: Knives Out
In Knives Out, revered mystery writer Harlan Thrombey seemingly commits suicide out of nowhere on his 90th birthday. This leads to detective Benoit Blanc investigating every member of the writer’s bombastic family, making for one wonderful whodunnit. The strength of Knives Out lies in its absurdity, which infects every aspect of the film. Each Thrombey is a perfect hyperbole, Harlan’s house is a work of art unto itself, and the score is spectacularly self-indulgent in its exaggeration. Through its many extremities, Knives Out is a perfect parody and encapsulation of the Agatha Christie/cinematic mysteries it is an homage to.
The Irishman follows union truck driver turned hitman Frank Sheeran on his journey from his beginnings in the mafia to the end of his life. Taking place in 117 locations across 319 scenes in three hours and twenty-nine minutes, The Irishman is nothing if not detailed. Martin Scorsese uses every moment of the gargantuan runtime to elucidate aspects of Sheeran’s world. Whether Sheeran is “painting houses”, or if his kids are opening Christmas presents, or if it is anything in between (and it shows everything in between), it is depicted in The Irishman and it is always mesmerizing. This is not to say that there’s no fat to be trimmed from the two hundred nineteen minute epic, there is. On top of its wonderful world-building, the entire cast gives incredible performances (albeit, with Al Pacino at his most Al Pacino), whether or not they have a lot of speaking lines. While the three and a half hour runtime may be daunting, The Irishman is captivating during every second of it.
Uncut Gems follows jeweler Howard Ratner as he navigates life as a heathen in the diamond district of New York. There is not one sympathetic character in the movie, and yet from the title card to the credits, your heart can’t stop pounding in a panic over what will happen to them. These terrible people are phenomenally played by the whole cast, led with magnetic charisma by Adam Sandler who is so charmingly hateable it is impossible not to get wrapped up in his world. In no moment do the camera, the characters, or the plot stops moving, and this sense of mania is what drives this absolute joyride.
2: Marriage Story
Marriage Story is a drama about Charlie and Nicole (two artists crossing different career thresholds) navigating their progressively volatile divorce and battle over custody of their son Henry. Marriage Story bears stark similarities to the rest of writer/director Noah Bambach’s filmography (i.e. The Squid and The Whale, Frances Ha, etc.) almost all of which deals with artists and/or family dynamics/divorce, yet Marriage Story takes these themes beyond the auteur’s already high standard. Bambach’s noticeably natural dialogue is energized by Adam Driver and Scarlett Johanson’s electrifying leading performances as well as by a superb supporting cast (Laura Dern being a notable standout as Nicole’s incredibly “LA” divorce lawyer). The film’s often uncomfortably bare esthetic amplifies the emotion without distracting from it. All of these factors congeal in Marriage Story to make the viewer feel like a fly on the wall of the lives of Charlie and Nicole.
It is difficult to describe Parasite without delving into spoilers and to ruin director/co-writer Boon Jong-Ho’s brilliant opus would simply be inhumane. At the most basic level, Parasite is the story of a poor family capitalizing on an opportunity and manipulating a rich family. Even that oversimplified synopsis feels amoral, as part of Parasite’s euphoric rapture is the drastic twists and turns in its tone and plot, but the movie has infinitely many other things to offer. The film fires on all cylinders of cinema, simultaneously being beautiful (visually and figuratively), funny, and thrilling, all with nuanced commentary on socio-economic class and how it provokes people to take extreme measures in the interest of advancing or maintaining their livelihood. Put simply, Parasite is the most captivating cinematic experience of 2019.