Emory film experts share their top 10 movies of 2019

Dec. 23, 2019

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Emory’s Department of Film and Media Studies’ film experts have once again rendered their verdict on the best movie releases of the past year, ranging from coming-of-age comedy to horror. Publicity photo courtesy of Netflix.

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The film experts in Emory’s Department of Film and Media Studies offer their view of the best offerings from the varied and accomplished year of 2019. Their choices are based on films that opened in Atlanta as of Dec. 18 so don’t include some eagerly awaited titles such as “1917,” “A Hidden Life,” “Little Women” and “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.”

Many of the titles below are currently in theaters, streaming online or available on Blu-Ray or DVD. The films are listed in alphabetical order. 

Emory reviewers include Tanine Allison (TA), Rob Barracano (RB), Matthew H. Bernstein (MHB), Nsenga Burton (NB), Ryan Cook (RC), Charlie Michael (CM) and Michele Schreiber (MS). 

63 Up

Michael Apted’s “Up” series constitutes one of the most powerful documentary undertakings in film history. Its original incarnation was a one-off inquiry into the formative role of class in British life. Apted continued to interview children of diverse backgrounds every seven years, and the series has accrued great power well beyond its time-lapse dimensions (each episode quickly intercuts footage from earlier incarnations). In this (likely final) installment, our vivid and diverse subjects speak frankly and movingly about the arc of their lives, their achievements, disappointments and the series itself. Class has indeed shaped them, but so has their resilience. (MHB) 

Watch the trailer for “63 Up.”
https://youtu.be/Ugw7hUoJ0C0

Booksmart

“Booksmart” did something rare this year: it reinvigorated a genre, infusing the teen comedy with the spirit of a great feminist film. That it has an all-female writing team, a female director and predominantly female producers is a coup in itself but most importantly, “Booksmart” skillfully avoids the teen girl tropes that permeate 1980s and 1990s popular films. It allows its two female leads (Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein) to be smart and funny, geeky and charming, and conveys a powerful message about looking beyond the surface of the people around us. Did I mention it is also funny? Yes, no matter your age. (MS) 

Watch the trailer for “Booksmart.”
https://youtu.be/S0Mb6BgnhS0

Dolemite Is My Name 

Under Craig Brewer’s direction, Eddie Murphy brilliantly portrays Rudy Ray Moore, a hard-working ordinary man with dreams of greatness first in the comedy clubs and then on-screen, who against all odds eventually starred in his own film, the poorly regarded Blaxploitation film “Dolemite.” The seriousness of what was at stake for Rudy Ray Moore if “Dolemite” had failed is the revelatory piece of this film; with the help of an extraordinary cast, fantastic dialogue and stylish costumes that convey the spirit of the times, this poignant film gives Moore, one of Blaxploitation’s least understood stars, his full humanity. (NB) 

Watch the trailer for “Dolomite Is My Name.”
https://youtu.be/Ws1YIKsuTjQ

The Farewell

In this moving film by Lulu Wang, Billi (Awkwafina) and her parents travel back to Changchun to see her terminally ill grandmother, Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen). The catch, however, is that Billi’s extended family has made a collective decision: they will hide the truth from Nai Nai, and stage a fake wedding to explain their unexpected reunion. Deftly balancing the weight of generational melodrama with the levity of cross-cultural comedy, “The Farewell” glimmers with understated affection for all its characters. And while her charismatic lead performers may generate more Oscar buzz, Wang’s work here firmly establishes her as one to watch. (CM) 

Watch the trailer for “The Farewell.”
https://youtu.be/A0yh_ZIqq0c

JoJo Rabbit

On its surface, this material is not worth touching: a story about a cute 10-year-old Hitler youth with a quirky and fun Adolf Hitler as his imaginary friend. That said, the opportunity to experience the fragile and mysterious inner life of a 10-year-old boy, living half in the fantasy of childhood and half in the brutality of a fascist state, is part of its wonderment. The connection between a 17-year-old Jewish girl and that boy, who become a brother and sister, is the miracle of this film. Excellent performances from Roman Davis and Scarlett Johansson. (RB) 

Watch the trailer for “JoJo Rabbit.”
https://youtu.be/tL4McUzXfFI

Long Day’s Journey Into Night

This film follows director Bi Gan’s celebrated 2015 debut “Kaili Blues,” a nonlinear poetic meditation on time and memory shot in his home province of Guizhou in Southwest China. The second film returns to Guizhou, this time in the dark of winter, and continues to explore the extraordinary long take aesthetic already established with the prior film’s famed forty-minute tracking shot. Here Bi’s camera probes its setting with the added element of 3D, one of the more novel uses of this technology we are likely to see, sinking into inky depths before literally spinning out. An otherworldly ride film. (RC)

Watch the trailer for “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.”
https://youtu.be/0yPt3kQzxa8

Midsommar

In recent years, director Ari Astor has joined filmmakers like Jordan Peele and Robert Eggers in reinventing the American horror film. “Midsommar” establishes him as a full-fledged genre auteur. “Midsommar” can be linked to Peele’s project of race horror in “Get Out” and “Us”: it is an “ethnic” horror film, replete with anthropology PhD student protagonists, but about whiteness, here made into a non-transparent subject of study as a cultish system of kinship rites and rituals. The horror unfolds in the endless daylight of a Nordic summer, around an Earth-centered spiritualism that reenergizes the genre with contemporary environmental themes. (RC) 

Watch the trailer for “Midsommar.”
https://youtu.be/NA4YjqU6pvo

Pain and Glory

Pedro Almodovar’s moving and stunning semi-autobiographical film about a filmmaker physically unable to work finds Spain’s leading cineaste in an elegiac and lyrical mode, a contrast from his most outlandish earlier films. Still, his hallmarks remain: the script is beautifully layered and humorous and the cinematography is full of striking images with a marvelous color palette. Its centerpiece is a sensitive, nuanced career-crowning performance by Almodovar discovery and regular, Antonio Banderas. This moving exploration of the nature of artistic inspiration, the stirring of first desires (romantic and cinematic) and the need for closure in unresolved relationships counts among Almodovar’s greatest. (MHB) 

Watch the trailer for “Pain and Glory.”
https://youtu.be/EtWwq6ezhnE

Parasite

The darling of many top film lists, “Parasite” is not a stately art film; instead, it’s a brutal social satire about the have and the have-nots set in modern-day South Korea. A twist on the upstairs-downstairs drama, “Downton Abbey” this is not. A down-on-its-luck family led by the inimitable Song Kang-ho (who also appears in director Bong Joon-ho’s other recommended films “Snowpiercer,” “The Host” and “Memories of Murder”) finds service work in the modernist home of a wealthy family, but nothing is as it seems. The film whiplashes between comedy, tragedy, melodrama and heavy-handed cultural commentary, and it’s a wild ride not to be missed. (TA) 

Watch the trailer for “Parasite.”
https://youtu.be/MmTIMYgwnPk 

The Last Black Man in San Francisco

Joe Talbot’s film is a love letter to a city and its people struggling to maintain its identity under the crushing weight of gentrification. The film follows two friends (Jimmy Fails and Jonathan Majors) as they navigate San Francisco, exploring childhood memories while creating new ones and struggling to feel at home in a city that has isolated and ignored them. With lush cinematography and a beautiful score, the film’s narrative is poetry in motion that stops on a dime in a climax worthy of a standing ovation. This is an ode to black life in American cities which, despite being under attack, is unbossed and unbroken. (NB) 

Watch the trailer for “The Last Black Man in San Francisco.”
https://youtu.be/C0FnJDhY9-0

Honorable mentions: “A Marriage Story,” “The Irishman,” “John Wick, Parabellum,” “Queen and Slim,” “Us” and “Waves.”