New from Every Movie Has a Lesson by Don Shanahan: COLUMN: The 10 Best Movies of 2019

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Before talking about this year-end best list from one of the most back-loaded ones in recent memory, reflection is needed and a deep breath for the next decade to come.  I am forever proud of what I do. I wouldn’t chase all the press opportunities and commit the time into it if I didn’t. In 2019, a great deal of change came to me and this website of mine this past year.  I am forever proud of what I do.  

The critics group I helped found and co-direct, the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle, rebranded into Chicago Indie Critics.  We celebrate our fourth annual awards this week and our industry reach and reputation grows every year. Best of all, it’s a pleasure to count my peers there as friends in the press row trenches.  It’s nice to share smiles and handshakes at every screening I can.

Speaking of professional standings, I answered a call for writers and began contributing for another website this year.  Since June, I’ve been providing film reviews for 25YL, short for 25 Years Later.  Founded by Andrew Grevas, what started as a Twin Peaks tribute site has turned into “all your obsession in one place” to cover a wide range of entertainment.  I became their first Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic and have greatly enjoyed the new audience, increased exposure, and a chance to be a part of a bigger thing.

Here on Every Movie Has a Lesson, this was the first year the site has featured monetized ads.  I’m no longer doing all this for free, so thank you for dealing with the visual noise to help pay the bills.  Also, my site has been open to guest writers looking to get published. I was honored to help an astounding 44 writers get their work seen in 2019, including 21 Washington State University architecture graduate students with their movie-centered essays.  This school teacher couldn’t resist helping folks and I’ve enjoyed their content and contributions.      

Alright, let’s get to the scoreboard.  In all, I published “only” 94 film reviews in 2019, which is plenty, but down from 110 last year and my high mark of 126 in 2017.  I saw a dozen and a half more, but full-time school teachers, husbands, and dads like me only have so much free time to put 1000 words down every time.  Work-life balance, so to speak, is always a challenge, one that I aim to do better in the life direction. No matter, I think I’ve got 2019 figured out. Here are my picks for the ten best films of the year accompanied by, as always and true to my site’s namesake niche, their best life lesson:


THE 10 BEST MOVIES OF 2019 AND THEIR LESSONS

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1. 1917

Full Review

I’m going to sound like an Olympic figure skating judge, but no film received higher technical marks on my scorecard in 2019 than Sam Mendes’ harrowing war thriller.  At the same time the filmmaking prowess captivated me, I was overwhelmingly swept up by the human elements as well creating a complete experience. Most people haven’t seen it yet and I cannot wait until you do.

BEST LESSON: WAR MUST BE ENDURED— All of those World War I combatants from over a century ago, including a family member of the Mendes lineage named in tribute during the end credits, may not be distinctly special or flush with a mythic history of certain destiny. Yet, what they endured was shattering and strengthening at the same time. The draw to see summoned bravery and weatherd tragedy in conflict will always be hugely magnetic. Rising with ambitious scale and a colossal level of enthrallment, 1917 will join cinema’s greatest exemplars of such captivation. 


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2. Little Women

Full Review

Greta Gerwig took Louisa May Alcott’s seminal novel, something that could have easily been stiff and stale, and brought new spirit to it.  Yet, in doing so, she didn’t force anything. She didn’t shove showy modernity into faces, just for the sake of doing so. Her Little Women is a mainstream PG rarity.  The spirit she, the cast, and the artists brought was genuine, sumptuous, and vivacious.  What a marvelous achievement!

BEST LESSON: THE STRENGTH OF FAMILIAL LOVE — To borrow this time from the Greeks and a dollop of The Bible instead of the Fab Four, the level of “storge” love in this saga is exquisite. When family is in need, the annoyances and competitiveness of these sisters go away and bonds are renewed. As they say in the dialogue, “life is too short to be angry at sisters.” Once again, thanks to Gerwig’s tonal choices, you see it, plain as day, in the way the cast in character interacts. The emotional wreckage that results is incredibly genuine.


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3. Marriage Story

Full Review

Neck and neck with Little Women comes the Netflix drama with the courage to bare truths from the maddening and draining process that is divorce.  Thanks to dynamite and Oscar-worthy lead performances from Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver, heartstrings are plucked, tightened, and unraveled by Noah Baumbach’s deeply personal tale of resiliency.

BEST LESSON: WHAT WOULD YOU DO? — It is impossible to watch this movie and not have it be a barometer check towards your own relationship status and integrity. Regardless how much yearning desire floats every now and then in Marriage Story, this trauma recovery. Normally in movies like this, we see the indiscretion itself, then the collapse, ink hitting paper, and maybe a gavel banging for a suspenseful decision. Few films go in between and beyond those decision points to show the fractured orbits and restarts of continuing life with heart and honesty. There is blame to be shared, but you feel for both leads and wonder about yourself externally. That is a substantially powerful effect of this film.


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4. Luce

Full Review

Until the awards season parade of November and December releases arrived, this was my #1 in the clubhouse coming out of the fall.  Even though this is a wildly fictious morality play stretched into the settings of cinema, this movie gave me, the school teacher, a jaw-dropping heart attack.  Between Luce and Waves, you need to keep an eye on Kelvin Harrison, Jr., a certain star for this new decade.  

BEST LESSON: VENDETTAS ARE PROBLEMATIC — Simmering behind classroom smiles, what the mounting drama of Luce becomes is a straight-up vendetta, one between teacher and student. The bloodless lines of bitterness fortify to hurt people and force chosen sides. This is a saint versus a monster, with little middle, and a guessing game of which one is really which. It’s a battle the actors sell without flaw.


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5. Parasite

Full Review

I was better late than never to this party for the most talked about niche film of the year.  Leave it to a foreign director in the form of Korean Bong Joon-ho to blow our American minds with the sharpest social commentary of a film this year.  Parasite’s bottle film suspense comes from the smartest and most cunning premise and screenplay of the year.  Subtitle-haters, get over your hangup and see this movie.

BEST LESSON: THE DEFINITION OF “PARASITE”— When you dig into this title (as it digs into you), three variations of meaning present themselves: 

  • an organism that lives on or in an organism of another species, known as the host, from the body of which it obtains nutriment.

  • a person who receives support, advantage, or the like, from another or others without giving any useful or proper return, as one who lives on the hospitality of others.

  • (in ancient Greece) a person who received free meals in return for amusing or impudent conversation, flattering remarks, etc.

You read those definitions and wonder, gosh, which one of the three will this buzzed-about Korean film seize or probe. Big or small, any one of them could take a toll.  The staggering thing is, with many flourishes, Parasite, is all damn three of them, in twisted and overwhelming fashion.


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6. The Peanut Butter Falcon

Full Review

The Peanut Butter Falcon was one of a few “Little Engines That Could For Me” this year.  I couldn’t be more pleased that this labor of love and offbeat road movie, starring Zach Gottshagen and Shia LeBeouf, has been able to find a sizable audience. There’s always one movie a year that becomes my top casual recommendation when people ask me for something that haven’t heard of that is simply a good time.  This is the one for 2019. This is independent filmmaking done right.

BEST LESSON: HAVE A GOOD STORY TO TELL WHEN YOU DIE — The Peanut Butter Falcon doesn’t just tell a good story. It tells a great one worthy of attention, praise, and undying appreciation. The purifying freedom that churns throughout this movie could cultivate even the most barren heart. This little lovable film is the kind of experience that makes one rethink how their own story is going. That is a mighty, motivating accomplishment for something that couldn’t stand out more from the usual summer blockbuster fare. 


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7. The Farewell

Full Review

Plenty of critics like myself (though I try so often to say it other ways) will use the expression “through the wringer” often when it comes to weathering difficult or excitable experiences at the movies.  Well, no movie executed that as many ways this past year than Lulu Wang’s family dramedy. It’s got the comedic peaks and the dramatic ones that both crush with frank honesty and genuine love. The premise of this movie is the curveball of curveballs.

BEST LESSON: COULD YOU DO THIS WITHIN YOUR OWN FAMILY? — The crux of The Farewell makes for several of those soul-searching quiz questions every viewer must ask themselves in a film plot as specific as this one. Should, or even could, you carry on like this? To do so would be illegal in the U.S. Can you justify your position? How long could you live with or act out what everyone calls a “good lie?” Is there even such a thing? In this culture, it is characterized as the family carrying the emotional burden for the dying. Sure, but if you’re helping them, who’s healing your internal injuries of the heart living with that weight? How you answer these will inform your connection to this film straightaway.


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8. Joker

Full Review

I found what has stood to be become the most polarizing movie of the year to be one of the year’s best.  Go ahead and judge me. Called a masterpiece by some and trash by others, I fall definitely on the high end with this maniacal comic book tangent.  Joaquin Phoenix was too good to ignore. On every level, I admire the sheer cajones of this blockbuster to pulverize us with kitchen sinks filled with cajones and questions. 

BEST LESSON: THE DEFINITION OF “GALL” — According to Dictionary.com, the four possible meanings of the noun span impudence, severity, bitterness of spirit, and rancor. To saunter a little cruder, which is fitting for the movie in play, the Urban Dictionary defines the word as audacity, balls, or something risky. Hot damn, Joker is each one of those descriptors from both sources and then some.


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9. Jojo Rabbit

Full Review

Yes, it is categorically crazy to reach a point of embracing a movie about Nazis, but leave it to Taika Waititi to pull it off.  He imbues enough heart into this satire to present a transformation of wrongs into rights that is entertaining and affecting in its own way.  The filmmaker said he was making a movie of hope and love that could echo into our own present times. He did that with infinite panache without sacrificing hard reality.

BEST LESSON: WHEN ACTUALITY HITS — Using the word “reality” in this comical setting is leaping too far. Stick with actuality instead and just look at the objects and actions. Knives hurt people. Grenades explode. Soldiers die. War destroys. Germans are fallible. Jews are regular people too. When the wrongs and horrors of war arrive, the movie shifts. Jojo Rabbit swells and elevates beyond farce with this actuality.


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10. Knives Out

Full Review

This will sound poster-quote cliche like that “wringer” sentiment over in The Farewell at #7, but Knives Out was flat-out the most entertaining film of the year for me.  To name-drop a film lower down the list, the second most entertaining and surprising one was The Man Who Killed Hitler and then The Bigfoot at #13.  Back ti Knives Out, my review says it all deeper and better than cliches, but Rian Johnson absolutely nailed subverting the murder mystery blueprint to create pitfalls of depravity and delight.  Everyone involved is clearly having a blast and we do too.

BEST LESSON: HOW TO SUBVERT AN ENTIRE GENRE — The trope-filled mechanics of most murder mysteries create an antagonist while Knives Out has you pining for the killer instead. In flipping the rooting interests from the pursuing authorities to the identified perpetrator, the dexterous filmmaker shifted goals and bolstered energy to a different gear. Where the typical pulse rate of this kind of story opens and ends with a bang between a tedious, saggy middle, Knives Out is all about that rich center. What an equally delectable and sinful treat it is!


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SPECIAL MENTION: Apollo 11

Full Review

I don’t see as many documentaries as I should, and I don’t find it completely fair ranking them alongside feature narratives that have completely different purposes, crafts, and objectives. That said, the argument can be had that Apollo 11 was the best thing to touch a silver screen this year, no matter the discipline and genre.  Edited like a bullet from thousands of hours of content and tuned to IMAX perfection, this chronicle of the first lunar landing mission was incredible in every facet.  I’ll be the school teacher that sees every science student in the country needs to see this documentary.  


THE NEXT 10:

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11. Clara

12. Booksmart

13. The Man Who Killed Hitler and then The Bigfoot

14. Us

15. Uncut Gems

16. The Two Popes

17. Waves

18. Ford v Ferrari

19. Ad Astra

20. Wild Rose

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