The end of the year is here, meaning it’s now time to decisively recognize the finest films that made their way to the multiplex and the art house. When it comes to art, it either penetrates and speaks to you, or it doesn’t. Being able to sit down with an engaged audience, and view a film with any kind of sensibility rarely happens. Given the shear volume of content it’s hard to determine where unoriginal originates.
My list for 2019, no more nostalgia bucks … It is all about originality.
Bong Joon-ho makes popcorn movies with a message. This is not some stuffy art film that feels like taking medicine. I found myself thinking about Parasite for days and days after seeing it. It is fabulously entertaining, at a little over two hours, it does not feel long at all. Every one of the actors are mesmerizing. It has delightful humor, intense suspense, shocking surprises, and heartbreaking tragedy. I am a bit reluctant to talk about all of impressive elements that take this beyond mere entertainment, as people will start to think that it is some academic exercise to be endured. The plot, the denouement, the aesthetic make it a highly original film and the best of 2019.
A really compelling film. It’s very long, but I was never bored. The only thing missing was Ray Liotta. Otherwise it’s a sort of “let’s get the band back together” experience, with a persistent feeling of melancholy. Far from glamorizing gangsters or the mob, The Irishman ends with a real sadness for the wasted lives. Many incidental characters are introduced with their names, nicknames and the date and manner of their death, and while some are funny they are all filled with pathos. This one was an experience in the theatre.
What a ride. Brutal, disturbing and at the same time quite beautiful to look at. Midsommar made me feel icky, like I had watched things I shouldn’t have watched. Ari Aster is great at the foreboding, silent creep of awful-inevitability thing. His eye for composition and use of music is exemplary. There is plenty to admire about the cinematography, and the summer lightmare quality. Folk-horror nausea that is NOT for the faint of heart. The gore was short lived and effective. Between Aster and Jordan Peele, they are making some modern day horror classics.
Jojo Rabbit proves that throughout its concise run time that the main character, Johannes “Jojo” Betzler, could be any ten-year-old living in any place and time. Well, any place and time where exclusivity marginalizes people, and basic human truths (e.g., freedom, love, etc.) are being stifled by an oppressive, brainwashing regime. Comedy is universal, as is the human condition. Waititi is a treasure and when I walked out of the theatre, I felt as if I had just experienced something very special.
The smartest comedy AND best cast film that I watched this year. Beanie Feldstein doubles down on what she brought to Lady Bird, while Kaitlyn Dever turns in a star-making performance. A raucous, raunchy, gleeful coming of age story, Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut is a fresh take on the “one wild night” comedy. If you missed this in 2019, solve that issue ASAP.
Dolemite Is My Name
The Kid Who Would Be King
And hey, why is the Deadwood film not getting any love?
We’re already living in a better reality. There’s always something good on. Streaming IS the new black. Having plenty of options is good. Humanity is not a hive-mind; different people like different things, and the more services/networks/studios/creators are out there creating new and different things, the more choices there are (which is good for everyone, full stop) and the more of a chance underserved audiences can find something just for them.
First Seasons/The New New
I have no adequate words. It’s both an immense relief and a genuine pleasure to see that not only does Damon Lindelof and the talented scribes of Watchmen UNDERSTAND the original comic, but also that he’s not afraid to go deeper and poke the very foundations of the storytelling that the original comic was riffing on in the first place. “This Extraordinary Being” had some of the greatest use of superhero tropes to talk about race and racism in this country that I’ve ever seen. The episode alone has to be one of the most incredibly directed and edited hours of television in recent memory. Nothing came close to this experience in 2019.
Sure I’ll listen to “Gotta Get Up” by Harry Nilsson for another season or two. Russian Doll is a heady, addictive binge that delights with its many subversions of tropes and expectations. This one felt very alive, fun, and took creative risks while being very self-assured. Go ahead, watch it on a loop. It must be absorbed to be understood, and that understanding is open to interpretation.
The expressive nature of the rotoscoping, uncomfortably realistic dialogue, and fascinating justification of an enlightened perspective on reality combined to create a very interesting series. One that was all the more digestible thanks to the short episode duration and limited cast members. Rosa Salazar as Alma is incredible. She managed to take a character that—in the hands of a lesser actor and writers—been a boilerplate “human disaster” character and make you want to understand her point-of-view. There is nothing like Amazon’s brilliant, Undone.
What We Do In The Shadows
The cast is just stacked with ringers. I think it would have been easy for the producers to turn Colin Robinson into the Urkel of the show, but that would have been a huge mistake. The gradual buildup of every character through the season was really fun to watch. They all get better the longer you know them and the more you re-watch. I have already watched the first season THREE TIMES! It’s that damn good. Sidenote- Guillermo’s potential arc is my favorite cliff-hanger of any series this year. BAT!
The Dark Crystal: Age Of Resistance
This could be blasphemy, I think the Netflix series is better than the movie. They both (sort of) tell the same story, but the series does it better. It is the Blade Runner 2049/Fury Road of TV reboots. I get the sense after watching it that Simon Pegg spent a good part of his childhood mimicking the Chamberlain in his bedroom, practicing for his role his whole life. It’s a technical marvel, but that was almost a given.
The Boys – Shocking, gruesome and gleeful take on the Justice League in the modern media obsessed world. I really liked Good Omens & The Umbrella Academy as well.
I never exhaled and said “whoa” so many times during a show then I have with Mr Robot. In the fourth and final season it remains awe-inspiring for the ways in which it plays with the concept of what you can do on television. The episode, 407 Proxy Authentication Required, was the second best of 2019 (see above for number one). A genre busting hour that five act play set in two rooms, mostly revolving around three characters and of course the dialogue and plot are meticulously structured as well. Sam Esmail is a creative force only matched by Robot’s cast and Rami Malek should win a farewell Golden Globe.
When both seasons ended I thought I almost don’t want to know what happens next, because the picture we have is already so rich and full. The show is really tough to watch, but in an honest, good way. However, it could use more North Hollywood Hank. Also, the episode, ronny/lily, was so unexpected in the moment, yet it worked perfectly with Barry’s bizarre mishmash of tones – veering sharply into horror was simultaneously insane and almost natural for that show’s ambitious sense of style.
It was a brilliant watch over four seasons. Watching these two love struck gladiators, throw insult after insult at each other, then fall into the arms of the very people they are criticizing in an instance. I couldn’t help feeling that this ending brought the series full circle. I don’t want to spoil anything. However, the two off camera deaths, Rob’s son and Carrie Fisher, made the final season more poignant.
I loved Fleabag. Her interactions with her dad, sister and stepmother were funny, heart-wrenching and quite realistic. Flashbacks of her best friend were just so tragic and touching. Fleabag combined humor, uneasiness, tragedy and sweetness really well. PWB is a global sensation.
The Good Place
This is a great, innovative show, and I’d say its first season definitely deserved best-of-whatever-year status. The last few episodes of this last season have been on point, so I’m hopeful for a strong ending. The Chidi-centric episode (The Answer) was a high point for the series. Please, cast William Jackson Harper in anything, everything from here on out. Also, D’Arcy Carden should win performance for best ensemble. Just sayin’ And by that I mean JUST D’Arcy Carden.
When They See Us
Ava DuVernay’s affecting limited series for Netflix, which dramatized the story of the Central Park Five is powerful. There are strong performances throughout, especially Jharrel Jerome’s Emmy-winning, achingly transformative turn as Korey Wise. A must watch.
Chernobyl was objectively a masterclass in writing and direction. Its use of perspective is as flawless an example as you’ll find. This is not binge watch tv. It took me days, sometimes weeks between episodes to take it all in. Perfect in every aspect. Outstanding and unforgettable.
I mean, I get it – music is subjective, and even within hip hop there’s a lot of stupid genre hair-splitting and weird arbitrary lines. I grew up with it, so that is why my list is focused. These are my picks to represent the “best” of the year. Bearing in mind that a) “best” is a hard concept to define, b) three/five/ten albums is far too limited a number to cover all the different styles and approaches, c) no one person can listen to everything (and therefore my “pool” is inherently limited only to what I’ve been able to hear), and d) my personal favorites are very different. Well, somewhat different anyway.
Freddie Gibbs & Madlib ‘Bandana’
The most self assured and consistent release of the year. A freewheeling, restless Madlib produced masterpiece. Gibbs rocks with raw charisma. His pen game should not be underestimated. Razor sharp self-portraits laced with political, anti-authoritarian sentiments. The guest spots are on point as well. Pusha T, Killer Mike, Black Thought and the mighty Mos Def all share the same hunger and turn in refreshing performances.
It’s crazy that Rapsody is not a household name. Easily one of the best rappers of the last few years. Wait, check that. more than ten years. The Idea of Beautiful is still a go to album for me but this one has it all. Densely referential and carefully wrought, Rapsody’s lyrics contain many more head-nods to successful black women than are in the track titles. The Soul Council and others bring the bouncy, stellar production that surprises. This one is void of all gimmicks.
Little Brother ‘May The Lord Watch’
I’m probably not going to say anything that hasn’t already been said. Little Brother has once again made me proud to be a Hip-Hop fan. A MUSIC fan. Gooey boom-bap meets exuberant, reasonable R&B on busy beats from producers Focus, Khrysis, Nottz, and other people who aren’t 9th Wonder. This one is for those who are growing up, trying to be mindful, and making do—so, most of us. It feels so natural and right, that I already want more.
Quelle Chris ‘Guns’
The most ambitious and astonishing hip hop release in quite some time. Quelle Chris performs a satirical slash conscious high wire act with Guns. Could it all stem from years of churning out albums that have been acclaimed at the margins, while falling short of major breakthroughs because of their lyrical and thematic density? I don’t know about that but Guns delivers nuanced and masterful production filled with off-kilter drums and florid pianos paired with a message that demands you to listen.
Gang Starr ‘One Of The Best Yet’
Gang Starr’s seventh full-length LP is a mid-tier level Gang Starr project defined by their own standards. To be fair though, I never thought we would be blessed with another one, so that along puts it in my top five for 2019. It is a triumphant conclusion to their name.
Delicious sad music pick of 2019: Nick Cave’s gorgeously morose Ghosteen … a sublime meditation on life and death. *This is not hip hop
Best Cover Of 2019: Life On Mars, composed by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross for HBO’s Watchmen. I should’t be surprised, Ross and Reznor are such an amazing composing team. It’s one hell of a great instrumental cover of Bowie’s classic song. **Also, not hip hop.
Skyzoo & Pete Rock ‘Retropolitan’
DJ Shadow ‘Our Pathetic Age’
Sudan Archives ‘Athena’
2019 continues gamings hot streak. There was a large and diverse batch of really good video games choose from. The usual caveats apply – I wasn’t able to play every game released this year, there are some great titles that I wasn’t able to include, and taste remains maddeningly subjective. However, here are my favorites.
Control is the type of game that I want more of. The atmosphere and setting just drew me in from the first moment. The combat was a lot of fun; difficult in parts without being overwhelming. I love Jesse Faden and she’s the type of character who should be crossover-ed into fighting games. Port control to the Nintendo Switch so that I could play as her in Smash Bros. In a lot of ways, Control’s sort of my platonic ideal of a video game. I’m psyched for the upcoming expansions to the story. I want to know more about the Oldest House. And you’re damn sure I want to read even more memos.
Bloodstained: Ritual of The Night
Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is a modern, side-scrolling action RPG experience that will satisfy long-time fans of Iga’s previous work, as well as entice players new to his legacy. It’s exactly what I wanted it to be. There was no need to reinvent the wheel here, this particular wheel works great. More wheels please.
Untitled Goose Game
Untitled Goose Game. Goat Simulator but with a goose. Hitman with a goose. Check that, a clever mix of stealthy heist shenanigans and player-created slapstick humor where you, as a meddlesome iconic goose, unleash the havoc. Honking at the kid until he hides in the phone booth might be the most fun interaction I had playing games this year. In 2019, I was a horrible goose and it was spectacular.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice
Black Future 88
We may live in challenging times, and there’s no better escape than through a good book. From new novels from beloved writers to compelling non-fiction examinations of our modern world, 2019 was a great year for reading. Get your to-read list ready for 2020.
Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James
Black Leopard, Red Wolf is the first book on the Dark Star Trilogy. Marlon James takes his readers to an ancient, otherworldly Africa, where themes of Greek and African mythology merge into a sprawling tale about the battles between different tribes and kingdoms, all of them with their own beliefs, powers, and cultures. Now, this isn’t some Tolkien-meets-Black Panther swashbuckler, it’s more like Ulysses: probably great from a craftsperson-ship point of view, where every paragraph is a puzzle. Black Leopard, Red Wolf isn’t for everyone. Would I recommend it? As an exploration of folklore and myth, sure. As an example of a particular style of writing, definitely. As fantasy at its freshest and most exciting, HELL YES.
The Archive Of Alternate Endings by Lindsey Drager
One of the most unique books I’ve ever read. A heavy, melancholic and time splitting narrative that is comprised of vignettes about pairs of siblings from several of the years that Halley’s Comet has visited Earth, spanning centuries and written in beautiful prose. The writing in this tight little book is hypnotic. I feel I am better than I was for having read it and I’m in awe of Lindsay Drager’s brain.
The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates
The title, “The Water Dancer,” refers to the magic of memories, stories and rivers – what Toni Morrison called re-memory. Langston Hughes wrote about the power of rivers, stories and memory. Coates’ novel helps us remember people we don’t know as human. Perhaps Coates’ first novel could be compared to a lighter version of Kerouac, whose prose was swiftly moving but also deeply evocative of his surroundings and inner dialog. A novel of ideas that also is a novel of people that crosses and blends genres — new fiction, new structures, new magic. This is the first book I read in a while where as soon as I finished I wanted to start over.
Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo
Magic For Liars by Sarah Gailey
The City In The Middle Of The Night by Charlie Jane Anders
It’s been a great year for graphic novels. Presently, I have less than a handful of holds in my box so I have been going the trade paperback route. I didn’t have nearly a large enough budget for every title I wanted in 2019. 2020 is looking expensive too.
Gideon Falls by Jeff Lemire, Andrea Sorrentino and Dave Stewart – Gideon Falls is a living character. Is it a horror story? Is it a inter-dimensional story of multiple worlds? Is it a ground breaking title that doesn’t stop with thrilling, disturbing new revelations? Yes and it keeps getting better.
Die by Kieron Gillen & Stephanie Hans – A great, dark take on the “party gets sucked into the gaming world for real” genre with a very dark, gothic sensibility and a lot of twists. It looks gorgeous, plus Gillen has also been releasing beta rules for an RPG based on the comic in parallel.
Once & Future by Kieron Gillen & Dan Mora – A twist on the return of King Arthur in Britain’s darkest hour which it almost seems churlish to mention any of the plot details beyond that. The main character, Duncan McGuire, is a relatable “ordinary Joe” and his grandmother is both hilarious and bad ass. This one moves the genre forward using a legend of the past.
Hindsight is next year.
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