I know I’m a bit late. But, better late than never.
Let’s bid farewell to the noughties (2010-2019) and welcome the twenty-twenties (2020s) with my personal favorite movies of 2019. I’ve based this list on a combination of factors like popularity, filmmaking, style, substance, direction, music, and storytelling. But most importantly, this is my personal list based on the kind of movies I’ve started watching and enjoying that are not necessarily artsy or offbeat but not necessarily commercial cinema either; it’s a heady mix of both. I’ve also included many regional films (Tamizh, Malayalam, Bengali).
You can watch most of these on streaming media and OTT platforms.
1. The Irishman
In The Irishman, both, the lead characters (played by De Niro, Pesci, and Pacino) and the director Martin Scorsese, come of “age”, both literally and metaphorically.
Scorcese has made some classic crime films most of us grew up watching—Mean Streets, Goodfellas, Casino, The Departed. The Irishman is one more crime movie feather in that cap and perhaps Scorsese’s best. You can see the craft of a master so beautifully manifest itself in the story, the dialogue, the performances, the narrative, and the overall filmmaking. There is a classic Scorsese finesse in every scene, frame, and shot. It’s like aged wine—more mature, more subtle, and more potent.
Based on the book I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt, The Irishman is an epic crime film set in the trade union era of Jimmy Hoffa (charismatically played by Al Pacino) and narrated by war veteran turned mafia hitman Frank Sheeran (De Niro) sitting on a wheel chair in the winter of his life.
Delving into a long flashback, we see how Frank is ably guided by his mentor and mafia boss Rusell Buffalino (Joe Pesci). It’s not just Frank who’s looking back at the years gone by, reminiscing all the brotherhood, the loyalty, and the betrayal, but perhaps Scorcese himself looking back at his craft, his cinema, and his entire career. The Irishman is Scorsese’s existential acceptance, contemplating on life, death, and everything that comes in-between.
2. Marriage Story
Societies and cultures around the world created the institution of marriage so that people could love each other, rely on each other, and lead a life together. That very same society made divorces too so that people could live as individuals when living together was no more possible or no longer required. Society, however, did not make human bonds. That’s something that came naturally to human beings. Without bonding, without relating, without caring, and without empathizing we simply wouldn’t know how to exist. It is this bond between two people—Nicole and Charlie—who are on the verge of a (bordering on the ugly) divorce that director Noah Baumbach articulates in a matter-of-fact manner in his Marriage Story.
Marriage Story shows us that both—marriages and divorces— are two sides of the same coin. Baumbach delves deep into the daily lives of Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver) walking a thin line between reason and emotion, between parenting and career, maybe even between feminism and chauvinism, giving us both Nicole’s and Charlie’s perspectives without taking sides, because there are no sides to take.
Marriages fall apart but bonds once formed stay on … forever.
One of the best performances of 2019 by Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson probably lined up for some Oscar wins. This is Baumbach’s ode to Kramer v/s Kramer.
3. Parasite (Korean)
Bong Joon-Ho’s Palme d’Or winner Parasite has a strange way of surprising you with its multi-genre approach. What starts as a peek into the poverty stricken life of a Korean family living on the fringes of society, soon turns into a social satire, a commentary about class inequalities and capitalistic greed.
On the surface, Parasite is the story of a family of con artists living off of a wealthy, hi-society family. However, Parasite soon switches gears to turn into a thriller of sorts, only to all come together as an unsettling bloodbath that makes you question who really are the “parasites”? This constant switching of genres or rhythms is not new to Korean cinema and yet Joon-Ho treads this tightrope with such finesse that you barely notice these tonal shifts. I bet you’ll find yourself caught off-guard at every crucial turn of events.
Parasite is one of those movies that you’ll either love or hate but cannot ignore.
Catch it at a film festival.
4. Kumbalangi Nights (Malayalam)
Kumbalangi. A small fishing hamlet on the edge of the town. Soccer mornings and starry nights. A small shack on the banks of the backwaters. It doesn’t get more picturesque than this. Yet brothers Saji, Bonny, Bobby, and Franky are always on tenterhooks.
They share a complicated step-brotherly relationship and refuse to see eye-to-eye. Each is trying to make sense of his own life (or lack of it). In comes Shammi (a wonderfully cast Fahadh Faasil), a smart alec who is proud about his moustache and his chauvinistic perspective. How circumstances brings these brothers together to face the challenges that life and Shammi throw at them is what forms the crux of Kumbalangi Nights.
Kumbalangi Nights is one more languid, slice of life masterpiece from God’s own country that slowly sucks you into the world of its beautiful characters who will leave you contemplating about the relationships in your own life.
5. The Two Popes
I must confess, I approached The Two Popes with some skepticism. I was half-expecting it to be a dry, mature, maybe even didactic, take on how the current Pope, Pope Francis, succeeded Pope Emeritus, Pope Benedict XVI. I wasn’t sure if this is my cup of wine. However, the opening scene (perhaps one of 2019’s best) put all my fears to rest and sets the right tone for the film—witty, joyful, and humane.
The Two Popes is less a theological conundrum between Pope Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins) and Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio (Jonathon Pryce) on how to approach the papacy, and more a sympathetic character revelation about the personalities and perspectives of its two central characters. Director Fernando Meirelles establishes these diametrically opposite character traits symbolically rather than spelling them out. Bergoglio is full of life, shies away from preferential treatment, and is open to change, often found humming ABBA, carrying his own luggage, and sharing his meal with others. Pope Benedict, on the other hand, sticks to the canon, is more traditional in his approach, frowns at the mention of ABBA, prefers Latin to English, and likes to have his meals alone.
Oscar winner Anthony Hopkins is a master actor and carries his role of the Pope with authority, finesse, impeccable diction (of both English and Latin), and expressive eyes. This was but expected. The surprise here is Jonathon Pryce as Cardinal (before he became the current Pope) Bergoglio, who, with his simple mannerisms, beatific smile, and infectious energy steals the show from Hopkins. Their chemistry simply rubs off on each other as they debate their respective positions, confess their sins, and slowly begin to sink into each other’s perspective. The icing on the cake is their perfect timing with the humor, repartee, and eventual camaraderie.
Brilliantly adapted from stage to film from the 2017 play, The Pope, I won’t be surprised if all the three Oscar nominations for The Two Popes convert into major wins this year.
6. Kaithi (Tamizh)
Remember the shabby, behemoth of a truck in Steven Spielberg’s Duel?
Now, what if the tables turned?
What if this truck belonged to the protagonist and not the antagonist?
Well, you get director Lokesh Kanagaraj’s Kaithi.
Kaithi’s script is tightly wound around a simple, yet effective premise—an ex-prisoner, Dilli (Karthi), who has just earned his freedom, is coerced by an inspector to drive a truck full of unconscious cops across the highway to the hospital around 80 KMs away. All hell breaks loose when Dilli helms the wheel of this rusty, old truck. Kanagaraj brilliantly narrates the ensuing mayhem in a class-meets-mass style not often seen in Tamizh cinema.
What also makes Kaithi work is that Dilli is not necessarily the sole hero of the film—like Duel, the truck too is a character; Kamatchi is not just a sidekick but literally the navigator who guides both, the truck and Dilli during turmoil; and the surprise character of constable Napolean played with effortless ease by good ol’ reliable George Maryan. Kanagraj does not waste time in detailing each of these characters but leaves traces for us to determine their backstories.
There is a scene in Kaithi where amidst all the chaos, confusion, and killing, Dilli takes a pious break to recite his prayers to Lord Shiva. This seemingly insignificant scene says a lot about the character of Dilli, about whom hardly anything is known until then—he’s a pious, God fearing, conscientious man who became a Kaithi, a prisoner of circumstances. By God fearing, one other thing implied here is that Dilli does not care a damn about man or beast but fears only the Almighty. It is this fearless, conscientious attitude that compels Dilli to finish what he started.
If all this is hard to believe, then you too, like Dilli, should take a leap of faith and go along with Dilli, Inspector Bijoy (Narain), and Kamatchi on a thrilling truck drive you’ll never regret.
7. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Set in the 1960s, the Golden Age of Hollywood, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (OUTH) at the onset tells you the story of a fading Hollywood actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo Di Caprio) who, along with his stunt double and BFF Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) is desperately trying to revive his career. While Pitt’s character oozes charm and charisma, DiCaprio’s Rick borders on the neurotic. Rick’s neighbor coincidentally (and very conveniently for the film’s narrative), happens to be Polish director Roman Polanski and his actor wife, the late Sharon Tate (a brilliant Margot Robbie).
Well … if you’ve heard about Sharon Tate before, then you bloody well know where this is all headed. How, Rick’s story is only a means to an end. However, like me, if you’ve never heard about Sharon Tate, then just play along and let Tarantino surprise you.
This is not classic Tarantino and yet it is. The slow build-up, the simmering tension, the pastiche filmmaking, and the ode to spaghetti westerns. When Pitt walks into a ranch illegally occupied by some hippies, you can sense the ominous air. Every word exchanged seems like dynamite, waiting to explode. Anything can happen, any minute. Yet, OUTH is unlike most Tarantino flicks. The rhythm is well balanced, the tone is mature, and the violence is not forced into the narrative but lends itself to the befitting fairytail-ish finale.
I will not spoil it for you any further. Irrespective of what happened to Sharon Tate in real life, OUTH will leave you beaming from ear to ear.
8. Durgeshgorer Gupthodan (Bengali)
If you grew up on a staple diet of detective fiction from the Bengal heartland like Feluda, Byomkesh Bakshi, or Kakababu, then there’s no way you can miss the latest adventures of history professor cum detective cum treasure hunter Subarna Sen, fondly known as Sonada. Abir Chatterjee effortlessly slips into the character of the Oxford history professor Sonada as Abir is perhaps the only actor who’s had the unique distinction of playing both Satyanweshi (Byomkesh) and Feluda … and now Sonada; so much that it’s now getting difficult to differentiate him from his various detective avatars.
But why bother!
Durgeshgorer Gupthodan is escapist fun at its peak. Get ready to delve deep into Bengal’s rich culture and history—from the Battle of Plassey to a traditional Dugo Poojo; from family heirlooms to cryptic inscriptions; from traditional Bengali homes to hidden dungeons, there is hardly a dull moment in Durgeshgorer Gupthodan.
I think we finally have our very own Sherlock Holmes, Tintin, and Indiana Jones all rolled into one.
9. John Wick 3: Parabellum
The John Wick films have acquired a cult status now thanks to the uber-stylish filmmaking that has revived the almost-dead action genre. What the John Wick films lacks in substance, they more than make up with style, nostalgia, and self-referential nods.
The makers keep upping the ante with each installment which makes John Wick 3 one helluva’ addictive, adrenaline pumping slick-flick.
10. Blinded By The Light
Blinded by the Light (BBTL) is about The Boss. Yes, THE Boss. If you didn’t know that Bruce Springsteen earned the nickname “The Boss” of rock music, then maybe this one isn’t for you. On second thoughts, BBTL is for anyone who’s trying to find their identity—be it a high-school adolescent, a university sophomore, or the average John/Jane Doe.
Some claim that Rock music is long dead. Well, good Rock music maybe long gone but Rock music is still rocking’ and inspiring many of us in varied ways and BBTL is proof of this.
Set in Luton (England) of the 80s, BBTL is about a teenager Javed who is torn between his conservative family and the modern Britain he’s living in. Being the son of Pakistani immigrants and weighed down by his parents’ expectations, Javed faces an identity crisis. Javed wants to be a writer but does not know how to nurture this dream. He does write on the sly but hardly shares it with anyone. All of this changes with a chance introduction to Bruce Springsteen’s music. Springsteen’s music strikes Javed at a deeper level helping him to step out of his comfort zone, change his perspective about life, and pursue his dreams.
This is what music does to us. Be it Springsteen’s music, Beethoven’s compositions, or maestro Ilaiyaraaja’s masterpieces. Music transports us into a different world, heals our wounds, dares us to dream, yes, but most importantly music helps us evolve into the person we never knew existed inside of us.
The tagline for Blinded by the Light reads:
Inspired by a true story and the words and music of Bruce Springsteen
Now that’s a tall claim to make but trust me, the movie more than lives up to this expectation.
I couldn’t catch up with everything. Here are 10 movies I missed in 2019 that would’ve probably made it to my list.
- A Hidden Life (Terrence Malick)
- Uncut Gems (Benny Safdie, Josh Safdie)
- Knives Out (Rian Johnson)
- 1917 (Sam Mendes)
- Jojo Rabbit (Taika Waititi)
- Ford v/s Ferrari (James Mangold)
- The Lighthouse (Robert Eggers)
- Blackbird (Roger Michell)
- Sorry We Missed You (Ken Loach)
- The Truth (Hirokazu Koreeda)