By Dwight Brown
NNPA Newswire Film Critic
Look back on the most noteworthy films of 2019 and they all display a diverse array of superb talent—in front of and behind the camera.
These movies entertained, educated and often inspired us. They challenged our opinions. They made us contemplate our fate and become more aware of the world around us.
Booksmart (***1/2) – Two coeds (Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever), high-school outcasts, find refuge in their close friendship. Animated performances. Funny and thoughtful dialogue. Astute comic direction by first-time filmmaker and noted actress Olivia Wilde. Who knew nerdy teen angst could be hilarious?
Dolemite Is My Name (****) – King of comedy Eddie Murphy rises like a phoenix in this oh-so-hysterical ode to comedian and pioneering indie filmmaker Rudy Ray Moore. Dream team cast includes: Keegan-Michael Key, Craig Robinson, Tituss Burgess, Wesley Snipes, Mike Epps and scene stealer Da’Vine Joy Randolph.
The Farewell (***1/2) – An Asian family handles the last-chapter of life process with charm to spare. Writer/director Lulu Wang digs into her own experiences in a premise and script filled with colorful kin folk. Star turns by Awkwafina, Shuzhen Zhao and Tzi Ma make the characters lifelike.
Harriet (***) – Depicting the legendary life of the courageous abolitionist Harriet Tubman is a task few are worthy of. Director Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou) is the chosen one. Her epic bio tale catalogs the inhumanity and humanity of the 1800s. Cynthia Erivo (Widows) infuses Tubman’s spirit in every frame. Terence Blanchard’s emotionally charged musical score is haunting.
The Irishman (****) — Martin Scorsese, Robert DeNiro, Joe Pesci and Al Pacino team up for an impressive crime/drama/thriller about a man who purportedly murdered Jimmy Hoffa. Brilliant performances. Strong direction, writing and editing. Ingenious use of CGI. The crowning achievement of Scorsese’s career.
The Lighthouse (****) – Two workers (Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe) and a bunch of seagulls are engaged in a melodramatic relationship at a desolate New England lighthouse, circa 1890s. Brutal allegory. Totally engaging. Director/writer Robert Eggers and co-writer Max Eggers make riveting cinema on a black and white canvas (cinematographer Jarin Blaschke).
Little Women (****) — Actress turned director Greta Gerwig gives the classic Louisa May Alcott Civil War novel her own feminist spin with relatable three-dimensional characters. Fiery relationships among sisters, parents and friends. Feels like you’re on a long buggy ride with lots of bumps in the road. Superb performances by Saoirse Ronan, Timothée Chalamet and Laura Dern.
Marriage Story (****) — Writer/director Noah Baumbach captures the angst of thirtysomethings (Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson) going through what should have been a friendly D-I-V-O-R-C-E that turns into a war of threats, betrayals and raw emotions. As primal in ways as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Full of life at its worst and people struggling to take their next steps.
Queen & Slim (****) – Easily the most talked about black movie of the year. Director Melina Matsoukas (HBO’s Insecure) and screenwriter Lena Waithe (TV’s Master of None) weave a very modern crime tale and a poignant love story together. Hints of social relevance are threaded in. Lovers on the run are played by Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith. So thoughtful. So cool. So romantic.
Uncut Gems (****) — A gregarious, Jewish NYC jeweler (Adam Sandler) is deep in debt to thugs. His schemes dig him into a deeper hole. Gritty, sewer-level urban drama written and directed by the very talented brothers Benny and Josh Safdie. Sandler deserves an Oscar nom. Kevin Garnett, Idina Menzel, Julia Fox and LaKeith Stanfield round out a powerhouse cast.