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Dustin Putman

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The Year in Review: 2019's Best and Worst - by Dustin Putman
Don't let the cynics fool you; every year is a great year for cinema when you know where to seek out the right films. 2019 was no exception. Of the 100+ motion pictures I viewed in 2019, I saw so few "bad" releases that either (1) I got lucky by not seeing the worst of the worst, or (2) quality, by and large, is improving as the powers-that-be grow savvier to compete with the vast increase of content coming at consumers from all directions, theatrical and streaming. The truth, my suspicions tell me, falls somewhere in between these two options. Either way, for the first year since I began penning my annual year-in-review article, I have opted to do away with a "worst" list. There's no use wallowing in negativity when there are so few film about which to call out.

Beyond the absence of a bottom-ten list, the format of this year-end essay remains the same. As my review output decreased in 2019 due to a busy life schedule and an active decision to focus my attention on other interests and pursuits, my write-ups will be ever-so-slightly abbreviated from past years. I begin with highlighting the best performances I saw over this 12-month period, followed by my choices for the most underrated pictures of this calendar year. Finally, my personal list for the 10 best films I saw in 2019 will be revealed. This was another wonderfully eclectic year for cinema and, admittedly, there are still so many appealing 2019 films I've yet to catch up with I suspect my viewings will continue far into the new year. As for 2020, cheers to many more thrilling moviegoing experiences of creative vision and surprising discoveries.

Note: Unlinked titles (in white) do not have a written review.

The Best Performances of 2019
(my pick for the absolute best is indicated in red)

Best Actor

Roman Griffin Davis in Jojo Rabbit
Robert De Niro in The Irishman
Leonard DiCaprio in Once Upon a Hollywood
August Diehl in A Hidden Life
Adam Driver in Marriage Story
Taron Egerton in Rocketman
Jimmie Fails in The Last Black Man in San Francisco
Andrew Garfield in Under the Silver Lake
Kelvin Harrison Jr. in Waves
Paul Walter Hauser in Richard Jewell
Viveik Kalra in Blinded by the Light
George MacKay in 1917
Matthew McConaughey in Serenity
Ewan McGregor in Doctor Sleep
Charles Melton in The Sun Is Also a Star
Himesh Patel in Yesterday
Robert Pattinson in High Life
Joaquin Phoenix in Joker
Brad Pitt in Ad Astra
Matthew Rhys in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Adam Sandler in Uncut Gems

Best Actress

Ana de Armas in Knives Out
Awkwafina in The Farewell
Marianne Jean-Baptiste in In Fabric
Jillian Bell in Brittany Runs a Marathon
Kaitlyn Dever in Booksmart
Hilary Duff in The Haunting of Sharon Tate
Cynthia Erivo in Harriet
Elle Fanning in Teen Spirit
Beanie Feldstein in Booksmart
Francesca Hayward in Cats
Scarlett Johansson in Marriage Story
Diane Keaton in Poms
Julianne Moore in Gloria Bell
Chloe Grace Moretz in Greta
Lupita Nyong'o in Us
Valerie Pachner in A Hidden Life
Vanessa Paradis in Knife + Heart
Florence Pugh in Midsommar
Daisy Ridley in Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker
Saoirse Ronan in Little Women
Jessica Rothe in Happy Death Day 2U
Taylor Russell in Waves
Rosa Salazar in Alita: Battle Angel
Yara Shahidi in The Sun Is Also a Star
Naomi Scott in Aladdin
Octavia Spencer in Ma
Charlize Theron in Bombshell
Samara Weaving in Ready or Not
Rebel Wilson in Isn't It Romantic
Constance Wu in Hustlers
Reneé Zellweger in Judy

Best Supporting Actor

Sterling K. Brown in Waves
Timothée Chalamet in Little Women
Dean-Charles Chapman in 1917
Chris Cooper in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Willem Dafoe in The Lighthouse
Robert Downey Jr. in Avengers: Endgame
Adam Driver in Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker
Jackson A. Dunn in Brightburn
Billy Eichner in The Lion King
Oakes Fegley in The Goldfinch
Kulvinder Ghir in Blinded by the Light
Bill Hader in It: Chapter Two
Tom Hanks in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Neal Huff in Waves
Noah Jupe in Honey Boy
Shia LaBeouf in Honey Boy
Jonathan Majors in The Last Black Man in San Francisco
Brady Noon in Good Boys
Al Pacino in The Irishman
Joe Pesci in The Irishman
Brad Pitt in Once Upon a Hollywood
Sam Rockwell in Jojo Rabbit
Jacob Tremblay in Good Boys

Best Supporting Actress

Kathy Bates in Richard Jewell
Julia Butters in Once Upon a Hollywood
Ashleigh Cummings in The Goldfinch
Kyliegh Curran in Doctor Sleep
Judi Dench in Cats
Laura Dern in Little Women
Laura Dern in Marriage Story
Zoey Deutch in Zombieland: Double Tap
Elle Fanning in Maleficent: Mistress of Evil
Rebecca Ferguson in Doctor Sleep
Julia Fox in Uncut Gems
Meera Ganatra in Blinded by the Light
Reneé Elise Goldsberry in Waves
Anne Hathaway in Serenity
Jennifer Hudson in Cats
Isabelle Huppert in Greta
Scarlett Johansson in Jojo Rabbit
Shahadi Wright Joseph in Us
Nicole Kidman in Bombshell
Jeté Laurence in Pet Sematary
Jennifer Lopez in Hustlers
Billie Lourd in Booksmart
Marsai Martin in Little
Thomasin McKenzie in Jojo Rabbit
Janelle Monae in Harriet
Elisabeth Moss in Us
Park So Dam in Parasite
Michelle Pfeiffer in Maleficent: Mistress of Evil
Florence Pugh in Little Women
Margot Robbie in Bombshell
Margot Robbie in Once Upon a Hollywood
Katie Sarife in Annabelle Comes Home
Eliza Scanlen in Little Women
Kristen Stewart in Charlie's Angels
Emma Watson in Little Women
Jacki Weaver in Poms
Zhao Shuzhen in The Farewell

The Most Underrated Film of 2019
"Serenity," directed by Stephen Knight, arrived in theaters in January 2019 to savage critical notices and much derision. Perhaps its wild story turns and daring ultimate trajectory were too much for some viewers to accept or grasp. A sultry, mysterious, island-set neo-noir. A brain-melting, Bergmanesque rumination on existence. In a sea of cinematic convention, "Serenity" dares to do things differently, to leap from a cliff of the unknown and land where it may. The deeper one delves into the film's brazen, unconventional pleasures, the more intimate yet expansive its ambitions become, a spiritually haunting meditation on regret, loss, roads not taken, and the desire to make whole again lives which have been torn asunder. A brooding, emotionally captivating Matthew McConaughey and a breathy, touchingly forlorn Anne Hathaway are our guides to the intense and reflective goings-on, their performances revealed to be all the more textured as the story peels back each layer. Indeed, this is a film in which its crucial mysteries are intrinsically woven into the very fabric of each frame; anything but cheap or gimmicky, once unveiled they bring revelatory insight to Knight's shrewd master design. An interesting thing has happened in the almost year since "Serenity" was released; a cult following of impassioned fans is gradually, undeniably brewing. Here is an entirely original work, ahead of its time and destined for an about-face reappraisal.

The thing to love most about "Cats"—the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical and this dazzling big-budget screen adaptation from director Tom Hooper—is it treats felines seriously. Cats are layered, beautiful, mysterious, one-of-a-kind creatures. They can be loving and affectionate, silly and mischievous, skittish and shy, wriggly and prickly, thoughtful and stubborn, generous and devoted. They also are, let's face it, royalty of the first order. This musical understands all of that in a way that will be genuinely touching for cat lovers and fans of the show. Is it uniquely strange and is the synth-tinted score foreboding and is the production design of a deserted nighttime London simultaneously wondrous and portentous? Yes, yes and yes. It's supposed to be. And after the initial sight of furry, CG-enhanced human actors embodying the movements and senses of cats, it all stops being disconcerting and fully immerses those viewers with the imagination and willingness to go on a fantastical journey never before captured in this manner on film. Let the haters hate the picture; most critics walked in with their claws at the ready to attack, likely forming pithy put-downs and snide Rotten Tomatoes-ready quotes before they'd even entered the theatre. The truth is, "Cats" is destined for even bigger, more feverish cult status than the aforementioned "Serenity," misunderstood by the uninitiated, unaccepted by the "it's-cool-to-hate" crowd, and cherished by a special brand of audience who sees the value in art that dares to be different. "Cats" is wild and strange and truthful, seeping into one's memory and staying there. Best of all, it adores its title creatures in their every complex, wonderful facet.

The 10 Best Films of 2019
Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order): Ad Astra; Aladdin; Annabelle Comes Home; Apollo 11; Avengers: Endgame; A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood; Bombshell; Booksmart; Brightburn; Cats; Child's Play; Doctor Sleep; Escape Room; The Farewell; Frozen II; Gloria Bell; Good Boys; Greta; Happy Death Day 2U; Harriet; Haunt; High Life; Hotel Mumbai; Hustlers; In Fabric; The Irishman; Isn't It Romantic; It: Chapter Two; Jojo Rabbit; Knife + Heart; Knives Out; Leaving Neverland; The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part; The Lion King; Little Women; Maleficent: Mistress of Evil; Marriage Story; Missing Link; Once Upon a Timeā€¦in Hollywood; Parasite; Ready or Not; Richard Jewell; Serenity; Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker; The Sun Is Also a Star; Toy Story 4; Zombieland: Double Tab

Number 10The Last Black Man in San Francisco
There is something so beautiful yet haunting about the spell writer-director Joe Talbot's "The Last Black Man in San Francisco" casts. Semi-autobiographically based on co-writer and lead actor Jimmy Fails' life (co-written by Rob Richert), this gorgeously shot film is bursting with layers and heart and a wistful sense of loss over an increasingly gentrified city that, as Jimmy describes in a remarkable late scene opposite a stranger on a bus (Thora Birch), you can't hate unless you love. If Fails' relationship with his steadfast best friend Mont (a touching Jonathan Majors) is the beating heart of "The Last Black Man in San Francisco," the Bay Area, in all its troubled, wonderful glory, is the picture's quixotic soul. Further proof A24 almost exclusively makes great films.

Number 9Blinded by the Light
A feel-good triumph earning every one of its spirited emotions, "Blinded by the Light" gets to the heart of the often deeply personal power of music. An equal-parts joyous and poignant coming-of-age story directed by Gurinder Chadha and based on journalist Paul Mayeda Berges' memoir "Greetings from Bury Park: Race, Religion and Rock N' Roll," the film arrives with a winning protagonist in Javed (Viveik Kalra), a Pakistani-British 16-year-old living in the blue-collar town of Luton whose discovery of Bruce Springsteen's songs inspires him to come into his own. The film, much like Springsteen's voluminous catalogue of music, is tough, sentimental and profoundly human.

Number 8Brittany Runs a Marathon
Jillian Bell has been a consummate scene-stealer in just about every film in which she has appeared, but with the emotionally stirring, beautifully crafted "Brittany Runs a Marathon," she graduates to full-fledged leading movie star. Front and center in every scene, Bell builds a protagonist in 28-year-old Brittany Forgler who will be achingly relatable to anyone who has ever struggled with body-image issues or felt as if they aren't in proper control of the life they want. Debuting writer-director Paul Downs Colaizzo has made a character study of genuine humor and pain, adversity and perseverance, his complicated title heroine worthy of love even when she herself does not yet believe it. The tears, by the end, are cathartic in the best way, fully earned and nourishing.

Number 7Judy
A transformative Reneé Zellweger embodies each beautiful, tortured layer of the late, great Judy Garland in "Judy," director Rupert Goold's poignant telling of the late performer's trials and travails during her 1968 run of sold-out concerts in London. Taking place during the last year of Garland's life, this exquisite character piece plays out not as moribund obituary but as piercing study of an industry that let her down and a compassionate celebration of an irreplaceable icon who was, nonetheless, fallibly human. In the most breathtaking performance of her career, Zellweger does not impersonate Garland so much as she intrinsically becomes her. Hers is a turn which, once witnessed, will never be forgotten.

Number 6Midsommar
Writer-director Ari Aster's debut film, 2018's "Hereditary," was a two-hour masterclass in the sustainment of dread, a festering concoction of stark, soul-rattling drama and unholy pagan horror diving headfirst into a family's disintegration. His sophomore feature, "Midsommar," provocatively delves into a different kind of dissolution: that of a wilted romantic relationship long past its expiration date. Playing upon certain folk-horror conventions of "The Wicker Man" variety, Aster has made a less fiercely unpredictable picture but one which is no less disquieting. "Midsommar" is a spellbinding two-and-one-half-hour dance through a sunlit nightmare, steadfastly haunting one's mind in its brazen aftermath. At every turn, there is one certainty: the audience is in the hands of a true artist, standing head and shoulders alongside the most exciting voices currently working within this genre.

Number 5Under the Silver Lake
Writer-director David Robert Mitchell's "Under the Silver Lake" is easily one of 2019's most fascinating and inventive films, a kaleidoscopic, creepy, mind-bending journey through the endless mysteries and possibilities of Hollywood. A marvel of production design, cinematography and rabbit-hole construction, a part sun-drenched, part threateningly shadowy post-modern film noir destined for a ripe future of discussion and debate. Like Ari Aster ("Midsommar") and Jordan Peele ("Us"), Mitchell is working on a rarified plane unmatched by most of today's filmmakers; he guides viewers alongside an adrift slacker (Andrew Garfield) on a wildly unique investigation to track down an alluring neighbor (Riley Keough) who has suddenly gone missing. Where things lead, and how, are impossible to predict, rapturously reminding of what a long-lost collaboration between Robert Altman and David Lynch might have looked like. Another A24 triumph.

Number 4Us
The dreaded sophomore slump is nowhere to be found in "Us," writer-director Jordan Peele's hair-raising follow-up to 2017's "Get Out." That film—a blistering satire delving into the festering disease of cross-generational racism and prejudice—introduced a major new voice within the horror genre. Instead of repeating himself, Peele has conjured another fresh and frightening vision with altogether different but no less pertinent intentions. Duplicitous yet unsuspectingly human, "Us" is an expertly crafted cinematic hall of mirrors drenched in sinister, provocative portent. The film, operating on a higher level than most, is intensely disquieting, and then, by its final minutes, something more—an aching, scary, tragic fable for our troubled times, pitting one fearful Other against another while shrewdly blurring the line between hero and villain. This is a consequentially powerful piece of work, anchored by Lupita Nyong'o devastating lead performance.

Number 3Waves
A24 strikes again! Writer-director Trey Edward Shults' "Waves" is a radiant, transfixing, twilight-dappled tour de force, directorially working on a level precious few films achieve. In its telling of a suburban South Florida family (played with aching authenticity by Sterling K. Brown, Reneé Elise Goldsberry, Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Taylor Russell) whose lives are torn in directions none of them anticipated, the film defies expectations while working best to know as little about it as possible going in. Experimenting in miraculous ways with narrative form while capturing its imagery with a rhapsodic, you-are-there sense of immersion by cinematographer Drew Daniels, "Waves" has the power to thoroughly surprise, shatter entirely, and, against all odds, make one feel whole again.

Number 2Joker
A coal-black, subversively awestruck overhaul of everything which a mass-market, studio-produced comic-book spin-off is capable, "Joker" paints a vision so raw, so singular and ultimately so emphatic it plays like the greatest early-'80s Martin Scorsese picture there never was. And yet, in 2019, here it is, an astonishing high-wire show written and directed by Todd Phillips and co-written by Scott Silver. A gritty, aching, altogether chilling character study under the guise of a DC Comics origin story for Batman's future clown-faced foe, this hard-R crime drama genuinely surprises and rattles with the kind of uncompromising relish rarely, if ever, seen before within this particular genre pocket. If Heath Ledger's unforgettable Oscar-winning performance as the Joker in 2008's "The Dark Knight" felt like the final word on this iconic character, think again; Joaquin Phoenix not only put his own personal stamp on it, he takes the role to heretofore unseen places of piercing psychological and emotional torment.

Number 11917
From its first to last frame, "1917" is spellbindingly, awe-inspiringly magnificent. A singular experience inspired by the stories writer-director Sam Mendes' paternal grandfather told him about his experiences serving in World War I, the film drops viewers into northern France alongside two young British soldiers (George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman) tasked with venturing across enemy lines to deliver an urgent message to a British battalion about to walk into a deadly ambush. Told through meticulously orchestrated camera movements and extended shots which make the narrative feel as if it is playing out in real time, "1917" plays exceedingly well on multiple levels: it's an example of technical wonder and virtuosity, it's armrest-clenchingly intense as any picture in 2019, and it ultimately packs a profound emotional wallop. Here, then, is a picture not quite like any other this year, a marvel of grit, terror, sacrifice and humanity one doesn't so much watch as feel in his or her bones.

© 2019 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman