Best of 2019: Movies

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Alonso Duralde and Dave White regularly review films for KCRW’s Press Play. They each offer five of their top films of the year.  

ALONSO DURALDE'S PICKS (in no particular order): 

Pain and Glory

Pedro Almodóvar’s meditation on art, aging and the betrayals of the body ranks among this master filmmaker’s most powerful works, affording Antonio Banderas the opportunity to give perhaps his greatest performance to date. The actor plays a creatively-blocked filmmaker dealing with ailments of the physical, mental and spiritual variety. But a reckoning with his past (including his relationship with his mother, played at various ages by Almodóvar mainstays Penélope Cruz and Julieta Serrano) may unlock his ability to create again. 


Actors Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever on the set of Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut, "Booksmart." Photo credit: Annapurna Pictures

Smart and profane, outrageous and all too recognizable, Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut follows two high school students (Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever) who realize on the eve of graduation that they could have removed their noses from the grindstone and still succeeded. What else to do but pack four years of hedonism into one unforgettable night? More empathetic (and certainly more LGBTQ-friendly) than many other teen comedies of its ilk, this romp hit me square in the heart, as well as the funny bone.  


The Kim Family (Woo-sik Choi, Kang-ho Song, Hye-jin Jang, So-dam Park) in “Parasite.” Photo credit: NEON CJ Entertainment

The decade since the 2008 housing catastrophe has yielded a wave of ruthlessly satirical and blunt-force tales about economic disaster and wealth inequality, and perhaps no film has dissected the state of late-stage capitalism with as much wit or ruthlessness as Bong Joon Ho’s Palme d’Or winner. A struggling working-class family works its way into a wealthy household, one member at a time. But what begins as farce quickly takes a darker and more unexpected turn. Sharp performances and dead-on cinematography mix with harsh revelations and shocking twists for unforgettable results. 

Little Women

Florence Pugh, Saoirse Ronan and Emma Watson in Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women.” Photo credit: Wilson Webb 

Writer-director Greta Gerwig’s humane and epic adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel captures everything you love about the book while seeming completely different from every previous screen adaptation. Much of the story is told in flashback, and the book’s feminist underpinnings are brought more to the surface, but Gerwig also gives Meg, Beth and Amy more equal screen footing with Jo, providing emotional support for all of the story’s eventual pairings. Exquisite at all levels, from craft to performance, this is a modern masterpiece. 

Marriage Story

A scene from “Marriage Story.” Photo credit: Wilson Webb

Noah Baumbach’s emotionally astute examination of a divorce is both hilarious and heartbreaking, featuring an ensemble cast (led by Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver) firing on all cylinders and constantly subverting the expectation that the audience should be taking sides. Adam Driver’s plaintive third-act rendition of “Being Alive” makes you want to see him lead a revival of Stephen Sondheim’s “Company,” another blistering look at the best and worst of modern relationships. 


The Irishman

A scene from “The Irishman.” Photo credit: Netflix

It would be one thing if Martin Scorsese talked trash about Marvel not being cinema and then didn’t make his own to back up the accusation. But he does, he always has, and he does it again here with the story of hitman Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), and the toll a decades-long life in murder takes on not only its participants, but the people close to them. It’s an intimate epic, full of mournful detail, historical mysteries solved, and spiritual devastation. A late career masterpiece.

Black Mother

The latest documentary from New York filmmaker Khalik Allah is, in his own words, a “baptism” in the Jamaica of his family history. He went there to visit relatives, turned his camera on them and other people he met along the way, then layered non-diegetic sound, music, and conversation on top of the images. His portrait-based, non-narrative visuals and pointed uses of sound encompass religion, slavery, Colonialism, nutrition, oppression, pregnancy, sex work, and the love of the people who raised him. 

The Lighthouse

Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe are “wickies,” lighthouse workers in the late 19 th century on a remote stretch of land, with no one else to keep them company except some creepy, angry seagulls. There might also be a mermaid, but then there might not be at all. This is the latest from filmmaker Robert Eggers, and like his earlier film, “The Witch,” the horror of it all is predicated on isolation and mania. The two men scream and fight and dance and let the natural world ruin them as they slowly drive each other mad. It’s more fun than it sounds.

The Souvenir

Tom Burke and Honor Swinton Byrne in “The Souvenir.” Photo by Simone Falso, courtesy of A24

Joanna Hogg’s semi-autobiographical story of a young woman’s (Honor Swinton Byrne) experiences at film school might seem, on the surface, an overly precious and indulgent proposition. She’s rich, privileged, and seems insulated from the pain of life. And then the pain of life comes for her all the same. A bad relationship with an older heroin addict, a mysterious illness, the worsening of that bad relationship with that older heroin addict, and a few personal revelations later turn this into a quietly brutal film that has you begging to know what happened next. There’s a sequel in the works.

The Load

Thematically influenced by Henri-Georges Clouzot’s “The Wages of Fear,” this cold slap of a debut from Serbian filmmaker Ognjen Glavonic tells the story of a man driving a truck containing undisclosed cargo along a terrifying, death-defying path from Kosovo to Belgrade in war-ravaged 1999. We see what he sees, and the camera sees what history sees. It’s the chillingly atmospheric story of what happens to a person caught between no reasonable choices, and the consequences of being complicit no matter which way the road turns.