In the current media landscape, it can be easy to conflate an onslaught of franchise installments with a perceived drop-off in movie quality. While 2019 has admittedly had one of the weakest original-movie outputs in recent memory, a number of terrific small-budget films exist just outside the mainstream public consciousness. For those who have been unable to keep up, here is a selection of 2019’s finest works that should not go unappreciated.
Upon realizing that their apparently unsophisticated counterparts have managed to excel academically while also enjoying their adolescence, a pair of do-good students (played extraordinarily by Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein) set out to make up for four years of lost time with one extraordinary night on the eve of their graduation.
While the popular comparison to “Superbad” certainly proves apt in myriad ways, attaching such a moniker undersells the merits of “Booksmart.” In fact, comedy is only one scintilla of the value “Booksmart” has to offer, though the movie is funny enough to make critics uncross their arms.
While the narrative may at times feel aimless, the final act ties everything together with a terrific completeness. Penned by four female screenwriters, the script is dedicated to deconstructing character archetypes while never losing sight of the movie’s heart — one incredible friendship.
Moreover, in her directorial debut, Olivia Wilde delivers a flex that surpasses some longtime filmmakers. Where lesser comedies are often visually uninspired, her direction deftly maximizes the effect of every individual scene with incredible vision and imagination. The combination results in a comedy that transcends the genre’s usual shortcomings of characters, visuals, emotional resonance and message.
Writer-director Lulu Wang’s real-life grandmother was diagnosed with cancer and given only a few months to live. Rather than inform her of the prognosis, the family deemed it best to withhold it from Wang’s grandmother in an elaborate lie. Wang — the daughter of Asian-American immigrants — had difficulty reconciling this common Chinese practice with her personal American values. Based on her own real-life experience, “The Farewell” is an immigrant story about her family’s journey back to China to visit her grandmother, all under the guise of her cousin’s wedding.
Once the film has succinctly laid out this premise over roughly its first ten minutes, viewers are thrust into the center of this dramatic family conflict. Still, where the circumstances feel deeply emotional, the performances and execution are carefully undramatized with nuance and subtlety.
In what may be the best ensemble acting of the year, the cast captures the silent emotions and simmering turmoil of a grieving family, led by a particularly revelatory showing from Awkwafina as the central character. Wang’s writing and direction both display a great magnitude of patience, thoughtfulness and craft. The specificity is what unlocks the film for those unable to personally relate, giving them a resonant and impactful exploration of family, grief and immigration.
“The Nightingale,” — the second feature from writer director Jennifer Kent — is a period drama set in 19th century Australia about an Irish convict seeking retributive justice towards the British officer who committed horrific, unspeakable crimes against her, involving sexual assault and the deaths of her husband and child. After said crimes, the protagonist Clare (Aisling Franciosi) chases into the woods after her perpetrator with the guidance of Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) — an indigenous black man.
Although “The Nightingale” is directed and acted quite well, the narrative alone is what carries the film. The script finds commonalities between Clare and Billy, reflects on the trauma of the crime and subsequent fight for justice, provides a definitive stance on how justice should look and is compelling all the while.
This premise is not to be taken lightly, though, as the film explicitly displays graphic, intense rape scenes numerous times. However, Kent’s employment of such imagery is not misguided and exploitative, but rather intended to fearlessly examine sexual and racial politics in addition to exploring what true justice entails. In fact, what makes this gruesome, provocative story worth enduring is Kent’s filmic perspective and how it relates to the “Me Too” era.
The Last Black Man
In their debut feature film, writer-director Joe Talbot and writer-actor Jimmie Fails deliver a dazzling visual feast. The lifelong friends’ movie, “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” is close to their hearts and homes, set around gentrification and marginalization in the titular city.
When his childhood home suddenly goes on sale, Jimmie Fails — the character, played by the actor of the same name — decides to do everything he can to reclaim it. Aided by his friend Montgomery Allen (played by Jonathan Majors), Fails initially squats in the home before meeting with realtors and decorating. Meanwhile, Montgomery works on his writing which will ultimately bring about the film’s climax.
While the subject matter might be what draws viewers, the stylistic flourishes are what makes the film great. The cinematography — by Adam Newport-Berra — and the art direction of Olivia Kanz produce scenes so exquisitely beautiful that they are not just memorable but emotionally resonant, and Emile Mosseri’s music is a gorgeous orchestral complement. The dual combination imbues the film with life and a deep sense of yearning. While other movies may deliver more thrills, few incite feeling as well as “The Last Black Man in San Francisco.”