It’s fitting that the last year of this decade was the year we saw so many film franchises release their concluding acts: Avengers: Endgame, The Rise of Skywalker, Toy Story 4, It: Chapter 2. We’ve also seen Netflix rise as a powerhouse with more acclaimed drama releases like Marriage Story and The Irishman along with the return of directors like Scorsese and Tarantino. There are still so many movies left for me to see, but I am still left content based on the incredible performances of those that I was able to see. In fact, I’m not sure if there has been a class of films in my top five that have placed so high based almost completely on the work of the incredibly talented actors and actresses in them. Here are my favorites from 2019.
The high school graduation coming-of-age comedy film may seem like well-tread ground, but Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut injects enough charm and nuance to update the genre for a modern audience. It helps that the film is bolstered by the performances of Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever. The two are absolutely hilarious as best friends trying to make the most of their last night before graduation by having all the fun they abstained from during their high school careers. Standard tropes and themes like enduring friendships and the struggles that make them stronger are only elevated by the incredible chemistry between the two gifted young actresses.
Quentin Tarantino returns with his ode to the golden age of Hollywood, heralded by performances by two of the best male actors of this generation. Leonardo Dicaprio and Brad Pitt are forces of nature as a fading Hollywood actor and his always loyal stuntman. Their portrayals are immersed deep in the thick of 60’s Tinseltown, shining with the promise of Sharon Tate’s blossoming career and fouled by the creeping stench of the Manson family. Tarantino vividly paints the industry town as one of hope and horror, and DiCaprio, Pitt, and Margot Robbie (playing the aforementioned Tate) serve as our tour guides through its dire landscape.
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I imagine after the release of Get Out most people did not expect Jordan Peele to return to the horror genre for his second feature-length film. But considering the success of Get Out, I was eagerly anticipating his next offering, a “monster” film where malevolent doppelgangers haunt a vacationing family. While the idea of evil clones may not seem original, Peele puts his special twist on the premise, full of as much thematic depth as his previous allegory. But all of that serves as table setting for Lupita N’yongo’s award-worthy performance. As the fiercely determined mother Adelaide and her calculating coarse voiced counterpart “Red” she is doubly entrancing and terrifying.
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Perhaps it was my religious upbringing that piqued my interest in The Two Popes, but the film offers plenty for the secular crowd to delight in, mainly the dynamic between its two leads. Based on a 2017 play inspired by true events, the film follows a conversation between Pope Benedict, played by Anthony Hopkins, and Pope Francis, played by Jonathan Pryce, regarding Pope Benedict’s historic resignation. The film is more than a crash course through Roman Catholicism hierarchy and legislative practices, although the replicated Vatican and papal buildings are quite breathtaking. The electricity exists between Benedict, a traditionalist of strict and stony demeanor and Francis, the more approachable reformer with a light personality and bright smile. Hopkins and Pryce disappear into these roles masterfully, and their back and forth carry the viewers’ attention throughout the entire film.
Growing up I was exposed to my fair share of South Asian films, but while those films have their place and purpose they never seemed to appeal to my younger and already Westernized sensibilities. But as minority representation and stories have become more prominent, there grows a need for narratives that can bridge the gap between first-generation immigrants and their children. Awkwafina already made a public name for herself in last year’s Crazy Rich Asians as an exuberant new face in comedy. But in The Farewell, she shows that she is more than capable of dramatic depth. She becomes a figure for any immigrant kid raised in North America trying desperately to come to terms with the customs and cultural norms of her parents. In this case, it’s lying to her grandmother about her terminal condition. Awkwafina portrays the tension experienced by any immigrant kid who feels torn between two cultures. The tension sets the stage for plenty of comedic moments along with plenty of heartwarming ones, from Awkfina and Tzi Ma and Diana Lin who play her parents. The result is a film that has universal appeal, beyond age and ethnic background.