Mendel and Bender’s top five movies from 2019
1: Parasite — Bong Joon Ho’s genre-bending social thriller has rightfully become an awards darling since its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2019, where it won the top jury prize. More than a biting satire, “Parasite” is a film of exquisite craftsmanship, and evidence that the filmmaking industry still has tricks up its sleeve. It is one of the rare movies that fills you with joy — not because it tells an inherently joyful story — but because it leaves you in an ecstatic state in which you cannot decide if you should laugh, scream or cry. Among the top contenders from the fall movie season, Bong’s masterpiece stands out, not only because of his innovative storytelling, but because the film reflects its audience to itself, directing its gaze through the barrel of a loaded gun — urgent, surprising and, above all, gripping.
2: The Farewell — This film is a hair’s width behind “Parasite” as my favorite film of 2019. Lulu Wang’s debut feature, which draws from her personal experience contending with her grandmother’s terminal cancer diagnosis, stands out by virtue of the elegance Wang employs in telling her story. Standout performances from “My Vag” singer Awkwafina and Chinese veteran Zhao Shuzen bolster an already terrific script. Meanwhile, Wang boldly elects to stay in wide shot compositions, and does so without sacrificing the intimacy of her storytelling. “The Farewell” is a beautiful story, beautifully acted, and a grand debut for a new voice in filmmaking. And yet, despite its brilliance, The Farewell was completely snubbed at the Oscar nominations.
3: Little Women — Like “The Farewell,” Greta Gerwig’s second feature is a masterful piece of art whose direction — when it comes to awards recognition — is too subtle for its own good. In her adaptation of Louise May Alcott’s classic novel about the March sisters, Gerwig avoids treading ground already covered by preceding editions by toying with the story’s timeline. While the script comes off as effortless, it is no less impressive. Gerwig’s direction, which is equally as deliberate as her screenwriting choices, nevertheless presents invisibly. The film feels nearly self-sustaining. Beyond Gerwig’s work, there is, of course, the cast, with Oscar-nominated turns from the always-wonderful Saoirse Ronan as Jo and Florence Pugh stealing the movie as Amy. Timothee Chalamet is charming as ever as Laurie. The performances, production design, costumes and a beautiful score by Alexandre Desplat come together perfectly, as they carry the movie from its compelling start to its unexpected and moving conclusion.
4: Luce — Here’s a movie you that flew under almost everybody’s radar. Indie distributor Neon (which also distributed “Parasite”) released this Sundance acquisition to overall positive, but tepid reception back in August. After a short run in theaters, the film made just over $2 million worldwide. Directed by Julius Onah, “Luce” is an adaptation of J.C. Lee’s play, about the adopted, African son of a white couple, named Luce. Played by breakout star Kelvin Harrison Jr, Luce is an all-star student and athlete at his high school. However, when his teacher (Octavia Spencer) comes forward with allegations against Luce due to a concerning essay he’s written, the perfect student turns into somebody else. The film is intense, upsetting and thoughtful as it questions not just Luce’s morality, but that of every character in his orbit — from his adopted parents to his teacher.
5: Knives Out — I had to include one mainstream movie on my list. That is not to say that being mainstream is a bad thing. Quite the opposite. It was refreshing to see a film that could cater to the masses without letting its meaning get lost at the bottom of the popcorn bucket. Rian Johnson’s follow-up to the ever-divisive “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” stands as further proof that he is one of the best filmmakers working today. The murder-mystery, which investigates the death of a mystery writer named Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), is unique in its decision to use the plot as a device to empower Thrombey’s nurse, Marta (Ana de Armas), a Latina immigrant who gets mixed up in the whole fiasco. Marta is forced to contend with Harlan’s family, a circus of white elitist snobs, led by Jamie Lee Curtis (naturally), as everybody sits on edge over who will inherit the deceased author’s fortune. To get to the bottom of it, they rely on the help of a detective played with delicious commitment by Daniel Craig, who sports a ridiculous southern accent. The film also features one of the best spoken lines of dialogue in 2019: “I read a tweet about a New Yorker article about you.”
1: The Lighthouse — My favorite movie of the year is perhaps one of the most bizarre yet mesmerizing movies I have seen in a long time. Robert Eggers’ psychological nightmare, “The Lighthouse,” sweeps you into a storm of a flick in which Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe struggle with their own sanity and sense of control inside a remote cabin. Every creative effort in “The Lighthouse” explodes off the screen, whether it is the terrific performances, pitch-perfect cinematography or masterful script that keeps the viewer on their toes. Similar to his last film, “The Witch,” Eggers is never afraid to dive deep into the detailed landscape of his film as the characters and setting transform the experience to an extent rarely seen in Hollywood.
2: Parasite — Bong Joon Ho’s latest masterpiece, “Parasite,” about a poor family infiltrating the home of a more wealthy one, is as good as you have heard. Suspenseful and absurd, “Parasite” traverses its numerous tones and themes so effortlessly and with such style and ease that the audience remains grounded despite the film’s unpredictable nature. This wild and original thriller simultaneously offers a poignant social commentary alongside hilarious outtakes. Containing my favorite ensemble of performances this year, “Parasite” takes the cake in producing fresh, odd groundbreaking cinema.
3: Uncut Gems — Although starkly different than Adam Sandler’s usual catalog of comedies, the Safdie Brothers crafted a wholly unique and unforgettable film in “Uncut Gems” that has firmly imprinted itself on my brain. Anxiety-inducing, nerve-racking and sometimes hilarious, the film’s frenetic pacing and editing catapult this film to a new stratosphere of high octane thrills. Sandler gives the performance of his career as the greedy jeweler and gambler Howard Ratner, a role that is as convincing as the character is intimidating. Through its dedicated and unorthodox style of filmmaking, “Uncut Gems” is the most rewatchable and entertaining movie of the year.
4: Marriage Story — Perhaps the best-executed movie of the year in my mind belongs to “Marriage Story.” Every element of Noah Baumbach’s drama absolutely nails its delivery without fail. Following the story of Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie’s (Adam Driver) divorce from one another, the film offers an unapologetic, non-judgemental yet sympathetic look into how people fall in and out of love. Conflicted about their true feelings for one another, Nicole and Charlie struggle to settle things healthily, and matters are only made worse once the lawyers get involved. Baumbach’s direction is so incisive and seamless that the performances and dialogue are breathtakingly real and hauntingly deep.
5: Avengers: Endgame — Scarlett Johansson returns in my number five slot in the form of “Avengers: Endgame” (sorry “Jojo Rabbit” fans) because I am a Marvel sap (sorry Marvel fans). Joking aside, “Endgame” is one of the most satisfying conclusions since “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 2” (also a great movie). “Endgame” features grand, emotionally-satisfying spectacle that blew my brain to bits! The characters were broken and relatable, especially after everyone basically died in the last movie (“Infinity War” spoilers but, come on, it’s been two years and the Russo Brothers’ spoiler ban has been over for ages). Its story masterfully interweaves so many plot threads and easter eggs simultaneously that it should be considered an athletic achievement for the screenwriters (the beginning is literally a mainstream version of “The Leftovers” and I could not be any happier). The performances are honestly quite good and represent some of the best work these actors have put forth in regards to these characters. Overall, the film (and franchise as a whole) is a truly massive accomplishment in storytelling that proves that unique creative efforts still exist within the Hollywood system. All that is required now is to put the MCU on hold, reshape Hollywood to stop making every blockbuster a Marvel-like movie, and allow for diversity to reign so we can get cooler best picture nominees (I like “Parasite”).