As 2020 gets rolling, Northern Europe is still in the deep of winter. The perfect weather to curl up and watch some great movies in bed or on a comfy couch. The resounding question - as usual - is 'what do we watch then?'. The Damn Blog is here to help, with a list of my favourite movies of 2019.
The greatest movies of 2019 - at least according to The Damn Blog - come from all over the world. There's quite a few high-quality Asian movies in here - I assume because of increased entertainment budgets and film subsidies in the region, a larger push towards the search for a shared identity, and globalization moving more and more entertainment quality products into Europe. Most of them are dramas - either because that's what high profile creators do nowadays, or because I'm a sad person. All movies reached Amsterdam in 2019 - although some of them were premiered in 2018, and others will only see a wider release in 2020 (or no release at all).
All of them are technical masterpieces (the medium is the message after all). And I think at least a couple of them will become timeless classics. Without further ado, here are Damn Amsterdam's favourite movies of 2019.
Billi Wang's grandmother has terminal cancer. But Billi lives in New York with her family, and her Nai Nai in Changhchun, China, and besides the family doesn't want to tell Nai Nai she's sick - so how can they all spend time with her without raising any suspicions? The solution, in Lili Wang's autobiographical movie The Farewell, is simple: the Wang family will organize a full-blown (but actually fake) marriage between Billi's cousin Hao Hao and his girlfriend, allowing the whole family to come back home and see Nai Nai one last time.
From this simple premise, The Farewell manages to build a surprisingly intimate film - a beautifully sad story of identity, love, and humanity; one that works across cultures and languages and goes straight for your heart.
Equally surprising is Awkwafina's (real name Lín Jiāzhēn) performance. Awkwafina cut her teeth in the NY standup scene, producing trashy rap videos - one of which ('My Vag', a rap about, well, her vag) went viral - propelling her into more and more mainstream roles. To see Awkwafina deliver such a marquee performance as Billi in The Farewell is absolutely stunning: probably the biggest surprise of the whole decade, Oscar-worthy; and it carries the simple story to unprecedented heights.
Because of Awkwafina's incredible acting, of its brilliant writing, fantastic pacing and the fact that it is, after all, based on a true story, The Farewell manages to brilliantly tread the line between comedy and drama; it's a movie that will have you laughing while wiping away your tears, an absolute must see, and probably my favourite film of 2019.
Five + damns out of five.
The Kims - Ki-woo, mom, dad, and sister - live in a dinky apartment in northern Seoul, work all kinds of odd jobs to make ends meet, and are generally miserable despite being smart, resourceful, and loyal to each other. The Parks - Da-song, mom, dad, and sister - live in an airy villa in one of Seoul's best neighbourhood, have an undeservedly perfect life, and are generally spoiled, gullible and morally rotten.
When the resourceful Kims target the gullible Parks, and infiltrate their way into their rich host's lives much as the titular parasite, it's not hard for the viewer to choose sides. Ki-woo starts working as a tutor to sister Park, his own sister tutors Da-song, dad drives the Parks' limousine, and mom manages to replace the housekeeper; and all seems well, until on a stormy night the bell rings. It's the former housekeeper, asking to be let in to retrieve something extremely dear to her from the Parks' basement.
Except the Parks' house doesn't have a basement.
Parasite - gisaengchung - is director's Joon-Ho Bong's latest achievement. The twisted mind behind Memories of Murder, Snowpiercer and the lighter, Netflix-produced Okja delivers the darkest movie of his career - and probably one of the best cinematic products of 2019.
To dwell on what exactly makes Parasite so great would risk spoiling the many twist and turns that this incredible tour the force has to offer. Like a murky puddle of water that occasionally catches the sun, Parasite can be beautiful and dirty at the same time. It manages to deliver both comedy and drama - with the laughter just barely managing to disguise the cavernous depths of its deep tragedy. In a decade that's more and more unequal and iniquitous, Parasite is an incredible piece of social critic, brought forward masterfully shot after shot, carried by incredible performances of actors that are not - for once - speaking english; and as the credits roll you'll find that Parasite has nudged its way into your brain, forever.
Five + damns out of five.
Ash is Purest White (江湖儿女)
Qiao loves Bin, and Bin is a bad guy, so Qiao is bad too. When Bin bites more than he can chew, Qiao has got his gun - and his back. After she's caught - quite literally - with the smoking gun, she gets a long and heavy jail sentence. By the time she's a free woman again, China has been completely upended - and Bin has not waited for her after all.
With these premises one might be tempted to write off Ash is Purest White as yet another 'love drama' or 'crime drama' movie. It's not: at its very core, Ash is a brilliant epic about human resilience, forgiveness, and strength - and an incredibly unique movie to boot.
Both the storyline and the movie's photography are divided in three acts - the first one follows young Qiao and Bin in the nineties, and is partially filmed in 4:3 and with a strong analogue film feel. The second act, taking place in the late 2000s, mainly chronicles Qiao's strength and resolve, and is shot in anamorphic with a more digital, heavily graded, look. The final act, taking place in 2017, documents how Bin, Qiao, and China at large have changed, and has the hyperrealistic 'Fincher look' - as sharp and sober as you can possibly get.
Zhao Tao, playing the main role, gives a particularly powerful performance as Qiao. While she seems to live in Bin's shadow for the opening minutes of the movie, there's more to her than initially meets the eye - and the combination of sparse dialogue and incredible acting really help in delivering one of the strongest female characters of this decade.
Ash is Purest White is an initially unassuming movie that turns into sheer brilliance one frame at a time. It is a fantastic vehicle for some of the greates actors China has at the moment - particulary Zhao Tao, who delivers one of the strongest female characters of this decade - to express themselves. It is the culmination of 20 years of brilliant filmmaking for director Jia Zhangke, and an incredible snapshot of the cultural powerhouse that China is turning into.
Five damns out of five.
It's 1917 and Europe has reached the deepest point of World War I. Private Blake and Private Schofield are sleeping under a tree, in the middle of a wheat field, when a rough order wakes them up. "Pick a man. Bring your kit", barks the sarge. Time to go deliver a message across enemy lines.
At a glance, 1917 looks like a very formulaic piece of entertainment: two brothers in arms are tasked with an impossible mission, they persevere despite a fair amount of adversities, and manage to ultimately deliver a great - if fleeting and futile - service to their Country.
What makes 1917 special is the way a very simple storyline is conceived, executed, and brought to the silver screen. 1917 is shot - thanks to a series of incredible camera tricks - as what's essentially a single take: the camera follows Blake and Schofield throughout their modern Odissey, never missing a beat, never blinking, never stopping. Other films have tried this - most notably Birdman and Gravity, but 1917 elevates this to a whole different level. Director of photography Roger Deakins delivers a cohesive and visually stunning set of shots, with a few moments - one in particular involving flares at night and a burning church - that instantly make movie history. Thomas Newman's soundtrack is beautiful and eerie, subtle in places, sweeping in others. And director Sam Mendes manages to one-up his James Bond's opus by delivering a perfectly-paced and visually staggering piece of cinema.
All in all, 1917 is the result of an incredible ensemble of creatives working together to redefine what's possible in today's cinematic landscape. As the realm of what's possible using CG and modern technology becomes wider and wider, this movie is a brilliant example of razor-sharp vision trumping mindless entertainment. In a year dominated by stale IPs and Yet Another Marvel Movie, 1917 manages to remind us that it's possible to have spectacle and high-octane productions while keeping the human connection that make movies great; for its technical achievements and perfect execution of what's otherwise a simple concept, 1917 emerges from 2010s as one of the best war movies since Apocalypse Now, and definitely one of the best films of 2019.
Four damns out of five.
Extreme Job (극한직업)
After failing to solve yet another case, a ragtag police unit is given one last chance to make it right: to surveil, infiltrate, and ultimately dismantle a drug-dealing ring. But their faces are too good for this world, and their ill-fitting sweaters just scream 'plainclothes cop': they need to find a better alibi for this undercover operation. Why not buy a fried chicken restaurant in front of the dealers' condo? And what if it turns out the unit is better at making fried chicken than at being police agents?
Extreme Job is, by a long mile, 2019's best comedy movie, period. While every single other category in this list has at least a few other contenders, there is absolutely no comedy released in 2019 that even comes close to what Extreme Job achieves with a largely unknown cast, a small setting and a reasonably low budget. It is an original, gratifying, unexpected and surprising piece of comedy, that manages to bridge the cultural and language barrier to deliver universal, good-natured fun. It is brilliant, hilarious, and timeless; and it deserves to be watched and rewatched.
Four damns out of five.
The opening scene of General Magic - one of the best documentaries of the decade - pretty much sums up the topic of this fleeting, bittersweet piece of history. "in Silicon Valley there's a lot of origin stories. Of companies that had the right idea completely at the wrong time. The reason you should care about the story general magic is because it involves something fundamental: and that is failure is not the end - failure is actually the beginning."
General Magic - the startup - was a gathering of brilliant minds that tried to invent the modern smartphone years before the necessary technological level would have been reached. General Magic - the documentary - is an incredibly heartfelt piece of modern filmmaking that combines modern-day interviews and drone shots with newsreels and historical footage of a company that pretty much made history, before disappearing into bankruptcy.
If you love technology and visionary creatives, you'll be seduced by the heartfelt charm and gripping story of this incredible documentary. And if you are more of a people person, the historical footage of some of the most brilliant minds of this generation working together towards a common goal - ultimately succeeding and failing at the same time - will no doubt tug at your heart strings and leave a long lasting impression, way after the credits roll.
Four damns out of five.
Peter and Amy Edgar have adopted Luce - an orphan from war torn Eritrea - when he was 7. Fast forward a decade, and Luce has turned into a model student, loved by his peers, smart and motivated.
According to his new teacher, Harriet Wilson, he's also, quite regrettably, a full-blown sociopath.
Luce is a movie that will irritate or frustrate many people. It plays with the audience in ways that you wouldn't believe possible - manipulating you to believe either one or the other side of the 'model student/sociopath' debate depending on your personal preconceptions. It is not a psychological thriller or a complex drama with plenty of plot twists: rather, it is a powerful dissection of where cultural expectations, societal role, and nature and nurture can lead us.
Similarly to another brilliant movie from the 2010s - 'We Need to Talk About Kevin' Luce is not afraid to ask difficult questions or make viewers uncomfortable. But unlike Kevin, Luce never turns its characters into caricatures, and by the time the credits roll - and it becomes painfully easy to see who was right all along - you will still deeply care about Luce, Harriet, Peter and Amy; you will understand all of them, and be richer for it.
Four damns out of five.
Somewhere on the Andes, in rural Colombia, a group of child soldiers keeps watch over a hostage - which we only get to know by her nickname, 'The Doctor'. To kill time they do what typical teenagers do - they get drunk, play, fall in love while trying to find their rightful place in a desolate world. But one drink too many - and a bizarro incident involving heavy mist, a milk cow, and an AK-47 - sets a chain of events in motion that quickly turns a bucolic coming-of-age movie into a savage war drama.
Monos is by far one of the most complicated, complex, and difficult movies of this 2019 batch. It is very hard to watch, and unbearably slow to boot. Technically it does not particularly stand out - especially when watched on a big screen - and it could have benefitted from a bit more trimming during the editing phase.
But it's also an incredibly raw and beautiful film, carried by great performances from the titular Monos - most of which are first-time actors. It is a visually curious and fantastically experimental movie, and it will keep you on the edge of your seat while delivering a deadly cocktail of suspence, drama, violence and hope.
Three damns out of five.