The best movies of 2019 are personal, visceral, and emotional experiences.
Who Should Win: 1917
From start to finish, 1917 is a breathtaking experience. Between the awe-inducing visuals and the heart-pounding soundtrack, Mendes’ WWI epic had me consistently on the edge of my seat.
Set on April 6th, 1917 tells the story of two British lance corporals – William Schofield and Tom Blake (George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman) – who are tasked with delivering a message to a different battalion, calling off an attack on German forces planned for the next morning. Should the attack go through, the Brits would be lured into an ambush, causing the likely death of 1600 men. To reach their goal, the men must cross no man’s land and traverse the original German front, before crossing through an occupied village and finally meeting the battalion at the edge of a nearby forest. As the Germans have retreated to prepare for the ambush, the two should meet no resistance. Unsurprisingly, their journey is not that simple.
1917 is presented as one continuous shot, taking place seemingly in near real time. The camera never strays from its main characters’ sides, only occasionally allowing them to even be out-of-frame. The shot tracks from narrow trenches and cramped barracks, to wide open fields and spacious ruins. Takes are choreographed so that it’s impossible to tell when an actor has been replaced by a prosthetic, or even when the set has been changed drastically (filming occurred in at least three different locations). One could be forgiven for believing 1917 was shot over one day in a few hours.
This immediate presentation lends the film an air of immediacy. Colin Firth’s General Erinmore tells the main characters early on how important their mission is, and the characters jump into it quickly. The scene that follows features close-shots and frantic dialogue between Schofield and Blake, as both hurry out of the trenches. The men are in no man’s land so quickly the audience never has time to doubt their urgency. The rest of the film is similarly paced, not so quick the audience can’t follow, but not slow enough to allow its characters the chance to second guess themselves either.
Standing alongside the film’s impressive visuals is Thomas Newman’s incredible score. Easily among the year’s best, Newman’s score is so perfectly tailored to every moment of 1917, it’s hard not to imagine a live orchestra. From the very beginning, a quiet but urgent string section builds tension for the characters, continuing uninterrupted for almost 20 minutes before a terror-inducing crescendo before the character’s first brush with death. Later moments in the score aptly punctuate moments of tension, fear, and loss as Schofield and Blake run through active battlefields, sneak through occupied territory, and deal with the inevitable deaths of their comrades. The music is an audience guide and constant companion through the film – with the full soundtrack clocking in at two-thirds the length of the movie – allowing for only a few short moments of silence.
Simply put, 1917 is the best movie of 2019. Having already won Best Picture – Drama and Best Director for Mendes at the Golden Globes, 1917 is a favourite and sure contender in every one of the categories for which it’s nominated. Though it’s got stiff competition among the other nominees this year, 1917 should – and very likely could – sweep the 92nd Oscars.
Who Got Snubbed: Midsommar
Following 2018’s subversive horror hit Hereditary, Ari Aster used 2019 to debut his sophomore film to equally enthusiastic audiences. The hotly-anticipated cult-thriller Midsommar released in theatres in July and was so well-received critically and commercially that nearly three hour director’s cut came to theatres a month and a half later, staying put until the film’s home media release. However, though the film was met with acclaim, it’s been almost completely ignored at awards shows.
Midsommar tells the story of a group of graduate students who attend a traditional Midsommar festival in a rural Swedish commune. Over the course of the festival, as the students take time to learn about the culture and rituals of the community, the audience begins to catch on that they’ve in fact wandered into a pagan cult, with little chance of leaving.
The beauty of Midsommar is in its subtlety. Events in the movie are creepy, but initially far from outright sinister. The film takes its time easing the audience into its subject matter. As we learn about this new culture, we’re presented with the idea that their traditions are merely different than ours. When Midsommar finally does take a turn for the macabre, events that would be obviously evil in any other film seem at first simply products of a cultural divide. As the main characters are blindly tolerant of their captors, Aster masterfully incites the same in his audience.
This theme ties in well to Midsommar main background plot, which concerns Dani Ardor (Florence Pugh). Ardor is in a failing relationship with Christian Hughes (Jack Reynor), an anthropology graduate who plans to dump her, but refuses to follow through. Though both Hughes and Ardor want to move on to other people, the two spend most of the movie pretending to try and fix a dead relationship until calamity ultimately rips them apart.
Similarly, the commune brings in interested young men and women, and makes them feel welcome until their gruesome traditions have run their course. It’s a movie about gaslighting not only at an individual, but also a community level. At the same time, the movie itself manages to trick the audience through its portrayal of those relationships.
As a final note, the presentation of Midsommar is particularly memorable. Aster’s tight directing and attention to detail makes the film a delight to rewatch, as there’s always some minor foreshadowing the audience is liable to miss. The sets are picturesque and intricately painted, with at least one of the walls detailing the entire plot of the movie. As well, the soundtrack is composed of beautiful, symphonic melodies that would seem more at home in a period drama than an adolescent horror flick, but which fit Midsommar perfectly.
Last year, Aster’s Hereditary was unjustly ignored at the Oscars despite being one of the year’s most memorable films. This year, the same has happened to Midsommar. With any luck, though, Aster has yet to make his best movie. Hopefully the Academy will have warmed up to him by the time he does.
Other Notable Snubs: Atlantics; Honeyland; The Farewell