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The Daily Californian's Arts Awards: Film of 2019

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DECEMBER 05, 2019

This year’s best films have emerged as unique, emotionally transcendent and, at times, polemical reflections of our time. Dramas such as “Marriage Story” and “The Farewell” depicted familial upheaval with an intimate honesty that made their conflicts feel universal. With “Us” and “Parasite,” directors Jordan Peele and Bong Joon-ho mounted sharp criticisms of contemporary class divisions. Auteurs such as Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino reflected on their legacies with their triumphant films “The Irishman” and “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” And, of course, “Avengers: Endgame” culminated more than a decade’s worth of Marvel Cinematic Universe films — arguably, the property that has defined this era of franchise filmmaking — with a glorious, character-driven finale.

This year has proven that filmmakers’ original, engaging stories will always have the ability to unite audiences with their crucial explorations of our world. The best films of 2019 show off this ability in spades, leaving legacies that will last for years to come. 

— Grace Orriss


Best Motion Picture

Winner: “Marriage Story”

Netflix / Courtesy

Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story” is simultaneously crushing and uplifting. On one hand, it is a drama centered on a couple’s divorce, addressing the personal and legal struggles that the two main characters, Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) go through in the process of separating. On the other hand, it’s a love story with plenty of charm and heart to bring even the most apathetic of viewers to tears.

Charlie is an acclaimed New York City theater director, and Nicole is his former muse. The film grapples with the inherent power dynamics present in their professional relationship that put a strain on their marriage, but refuses to “take sides” in their story, focusing instead on their desire to separate amicably and the impact that their decision has had on their son (Azhy Robertson). 

With heartbreaking performances from Driver and Johansson, “Marriage Story” is a humane, sympathetic portrayal of the end of a marriage, conveying a sense of realism and emotion that is absent from a majority of films released today. The story itself may not be new, but the fact that it carries a deeply personal voice — and has the unmatched capacity to resonate with audiences — makes it one of the most unforgettable viewing experiences in recent years.

— Anagha Komaragiri

Runner-up: “Booksmart”

“Booksmart,” Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut, garnered a cultlike following over the summer for its groundbreaking treatment of its female characters. With a whopping 97% on Rotten Tomatoes, the film more than secured its place as a breakout indie flick. The comedy made a name for itself by never shying away from the same antics that characterized predecessors such as “Superbad” (which catapulted “Booksmart” star Beanie Feldstein’s older brother Jonah Hill to stardom in 2007). Considering the way Wilde’s film privileges its characters with the ability to both adhere to and defy stocklike tropes that so often plague comedies of its kind, it is unsurprising that the film has worked its way on to our list. 

— Areyon Jolivette


Best International Film

Winner: “Parasite”

CJ Entertainment / Courtesy

Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite” is the most necessary film of 2019. An impeccably crafted satire of the cultural implications of class stratification, the film is bright, hilarious and witty — until it’s not. It’s a black comedy that carries with it a genuinely shocking turn of events. Its underlying themes, no matter how tragic and terrifying, are sure to ruminate in the minds of audiences long after they’ve left the theater.

The members of the Kim family, who live in a small semibasement apartment in Seoul, find that their lives are quickly turned upside down when they get the chance to find opportunities working for the incredibly wealthy Park family in their gated mansion. The only problem? The Parks aren’t aware that the Kims, who each adopt a different identity to find work, are all related. What unfolds next should only be experienced by audiences firsthand and with as little description of the plot as possible — the film is all the more effective when one goes into it blind.

“Parasite” is not a home invasion film in the traditional sense, treating all of the characters, whether the elites or the working class, with a degree of sympathy. But in doing so, and in crafting a compelling, fast-paced thriller, Bong Joon-ho creates a structural critique of the system that enabled such division in the first place.

— Anagha Komaragiri

Runner-up: “Tel Aviv on Fire”

Highly rated by critics and fans alike, “Tel Aviv On Fire” is a picturesque arthouse film set in modern-day Jerusalem. Following Salam (Kais Nashif), a 30-year-old Palestinian man working on a television set for a soap opera — also called “Tel Aviv on Fire” — the film highlights the everyday struggles of navigating the region’s politics while working in the entertainment industry. Sameh Zoabi’s direction brings attention to the pressing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, all while incorporating witty quips and comedy into a story that everyone can learn from.   

— Skylar De Paul


Best Animated Feature

Winner: “Toy Story 4”

Pixar / Courtesy

After the release of 2010’s “Toy Story 3,” many viewers thought that the beloved franchise had come to a perfect end with Andy’s toys being passed on to a new girl, Bonnie. “Toy Story 4” proves those viewers wrong, however, demonstrating that closure doesn’t necessarily mean that everything is wrapped up in a neat bow. The film picks up soon after the ending of the third, as Woody (Tom Hanks) has become discontent not being played with by Bonnie and is looking for a new way to be happy.

“Toy Story 4” perfectly captures the nostalgia of the older movies while still being an enjoyable film for younger audiences. Forky (Tony Hale), the newest addition to the eclectic ensemble of toys, is laughable and innocent, bringing back a similar dynamic Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) and Woody once had that made the first film so successful. “Toy Story 4” also perfectly balances playful comedy with emotion, leaving audiences in tears when the film reaches its heart-wrenching finale. 

— Caitlin Keller

Runner-up: “The Addams Family”

A quiet Halloween-time release, 2019’s “The Addams Family” is the umpteenth addition to the long-running franchise and was bound to come up against significant scrutiny. In grounding the film in predictability and familiarity, it was evident that directors Greg Tiernan and Conrad Vernon were well aware of this. The film, while far from groundbreaking, is simple family fun, surprisingly packed with laughs. The newest “Addams Family” fronts a brand-new all-star cast — a motley crew of heavy hitters from Golden Globe-winning Oscar Isaac to the Oscar-nominated (and spooky season staple) Bette Midler — that more than satisfies. 

— Areyon Jolivette


Best Actor

Winner: Adam Driver, “Marriage Story”

Netflix / Courtesy

Nothing improves a scene like Adam Driver yelling.

And in his role as Charlie in Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story,” Driver does his fair share of yelling. He yells at Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) in one of the film’s many meticulously crafted post-marital sparring matches; he yells at his lawyer (Alan Alda) about how he’s unwilling to move to Los Angeles and give up time with his son Henry (Azhy Robertson). But in between all of the transcendent shouting is the subtle work of a performer at the height of his talent — the exhausted grimace of a defeated man as he’s bleeding on the floor, a knowing look after Johansson’s character stops him as he leaves so that she can tie his shoe.

Charlie is rendered in all of his painful, flawed glory thanks to Driver’s work in “Marriage Story.” If viewers are compelled to take sides in the film’s central conflict between the former spouses — something the film actively retreats from — they will likely pick Charlie’s, if only for Driver’s unflinchingly honest portrayal. Ironically, his most memorable moment from the film is also his quietest, as Henry reads over an old letter from Nicole, and Charlie tries to hide his sobs. 

It’s the most heart-wrenching cinematic moment of the year — no yelling required.

— Grace Orriss

Runner-up: Leonardo DiCaprio, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”

After a lifetime spent performing at the pinnacle of the A-list, in 2016 Leonardo DiCaprio finally struck gold at the Oscars for his performance in 2015’s “The Revenant.” His four-year break from acting that followed was well deserved, and he would have been well within his right to continue coasting on the good graces of popular adulation. Yet with his return in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” earlier this year, DiCaprio chose a role in faded actor Rick Dalton that exposed a much more pathetic and melancholic side to his leading man mythos. And in doing so, he delivered what may be his best performance.

— David Newman

Best Actress

Winner: Lupita Nyong’o, “Us”

Universal Pictures / Courtesy

Lupita Nyong’o adds another phenomenal performance to her repertoire, this time proving her range in Jordan Peele’s sophomore feature “Us.” She plays an incandescent woman named Adelaide Wilson who, with her family, returns to a childhood destination on vacation but is overwhelmed when her past memories — and her family’s murderous doppelgängers — come to haunt her in the present. 

Nyong’o’s remarkable portrayal of both Adelaide and Adelaide’s evil twin shows off a duality that is nothing less than spine-chilling. The guttural voice she uses to transform into a mysterious creature from the netherworld grates your ears throughout, gradually swallowing you whole into an obscene world. Yet simultaneously, this character’s fierce sense of motherhood and aura of melancholia disorients viewers, dragging forward an inevitable question: Who is the real Adelaide? Or is there only one? 

In “Us,” Nyong’o embarks on discovering myriad dimensions all humans have the potential to alter into, both the grisly and the sane versions. It’s a testament to her undoubtedly flexible capacity as an artist. By the end of the film, there’s only one question left: Who are you?

— Cameron Opartkiettikul

Runner-up: Awkwafina, “The Farewell” 

Awkwafina burst onto the scene last year with her standout comedic performance in “Crazy Rich Asians,” and just one year later, she has delivered another memorable performance. In “The Farewell,” Awkwafina shows that she is not just a one-note actress, but one who can deliver a harrowingly honest and dramatic expression of grief. She demonstrates a remarkable amount of vulnerability and authenticity in her portrayal of an adult who is still trying to put their life together in the midst of family upheaval. Much of “The Farewell” focuses on Awkafina’s character Billi’s experience dealing with her grandmother’s (Shuzhen Zhao) mortality. The nuanced emotional honesty that Awkwafina brings to her depiction of this experience makes her performance one of the year’s best.         

— Julia Mears


Best Supporting Actor

Winner: Brad Pitt, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”

Sony Pictures / Courtesy

Brad Pitt cultivated a certain aura of cool masculinity as stuntman Cliff Booth in Quentin Tarantino’s elegiac bromance “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” Pitt, who has proven to be an Academy favorite in the past, delivers a performance that more than warrants recognition as a stellar actor worth awarding once again. Pitt’s performance has drawn positive acclaim for presenting a strong, wise and grounded stuntman/best friend dynamic that the audience can’t help but be charmed by. His sharp sense of timing, sly facial expressions and deadpan delivery create what may be the most celebrated performance of the year. When Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) breaks down, Booth is there to offer sage advice and jokes, each of which Pitt delivers with an alluring amount of self-confidence. 

He demonstrates sheer magnetism when the camera pans on him, making even the simple acts of opening a can of dog food, slowly walking toward a house and driving around sun-drenched Los Angeles endlessly riveting. Pitt’s Booth is more than the unknown stuntman who makes DiCaprio’s Dalton stand out. He’s the most interesting character in the film, one who calls attention to the underappreciated roles of stunt doubles.

Pitt is most effervescent when he delivers lines with impeccable comedic timing despite the immediate danger he’s facing. In the final moments of the film, this skill proves equally hilarious and scary.

— Salma Gomez

Runner-up: Robert Downey Jr., “Avengers: Endgame”

It’s been repeated to death at this point, but it bears repeating again: The Marvel Cinematic Universe would not exist without Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark. Downey Jr. has illustrated his character’s development since 2008, believably rendering Stark’s transformation from “genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist” to bonafide hero, cementing the character’s place in audiences’ hearts over and over again. Downey Jr.’s performance in “Avengers: Endgame” is the perfect swan song: heartbreakingly sincere, unflinchingly determined and, as always, full of the signature Stark snark that has served as the palette for every Marvel Cinematic Universe entry. It’s a definitive performance for Downey Jr.’s legacy and will stick with audiences for years to come. Many thanks, “RDJ” — we love you 3000.

— Grace Orriss


Best Supporting Actress

Winner: Jennifer Lopez, “Hustlers”

STX Pictures / Courtesy

“Hustlers” was one of the breakout successes of the year in which Jennifer Lopez turned in a show-stopping performance. After premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival, critics hailed Lopez’s performance as spectacular, with some deeming it her career-best. The entertainer from the Bronx is known for her romantic comedy roles and her early work in “Selena” and “Out of Sight,” but she shows a completely different side of her acting prowess in “Hustlers.”

Lopez plays Ramona Vega in a crime drama about strippers who steal from their wealthy Wall Street clientele to make ends meet. Even though Ramona is the ringleader of the crime circle, Lopez brings an abundant amount of charm and humanity to her character, who serves as the true heart of the film. Ramona is a complicated, contradictory character who is the mastermind and maternal figure to her stripper coworkers. While it is not an easy role, Lopez perfectly embodies Ramona’s charisma and all of her complexities, making the events of the film that play out utterly compelling.  

“Hustlers” showcases women in untraditionally nuanced roles that are normally only reserved for men. Lopez turned in a performance that shows just how captivating complicated and conniving women can be while demonstrating her true talent and power as a movie star. 

— Julia Mears

Runner-up: Margot Robbie, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”

Even though she’s barely in the film at all, Margot Robbie deserves this runner-up award for her magnificent performance in the “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” film — and its trailer, which might as well have included her entire character arc. 

But in all seriousness, Robbie’s performance as Sharon Tate hit every beat of 1960s glam and grooviness. Billed as the third biggest star in the film, Robbie showed Hollywood that the “girl next door” type can have plenty of interpretations, no matter how much screen time you’re given. Demonstrating the significance of quality over quantity, Robbie has time and time again proven, if we forget about “Suicide Squad,” that her talents are far from dated.

— Skylar De Paul


Best Ensemble Cast

Winner: The cast of “Avengers: Endgame”

Marvel / Courtesy

In April of this year, movie theaters across the nation filled with audiences’ collective screams after Captain America uttered one pivotal rallying cry: “Avengers! Assemble.”

But the work of building to this moment, arguably the biggest cinematic climax of the decade, largely fell upon the cast of “Avengers: Endgame,” an ensemble that was meticulously, ahem, assembled over the years by longtime casting director Sarah Halley Finn and the powers that be over at Marvel. It’s because of these actors’ pitch-perfect, true-to-character depictions throughout “Endgame,” and the wider reaches of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, that watching disparate groups of characters interact has always functioned as these films’ secret weapon. 

“Avengers: Endgame” revels in the perfect mixture of super-personalities: Robert Downey Jr.’s smarmy yet selfless Tony Stark, Chris Evans’ moral center Steve Rogers, Chris Hemsworth’s drunken, traumatized Thor, Paul Rudd’s earnest Ant-Man, Mark Ruffalo’s newly-zen Bruce Banner and more. The camaraderie between the beloved original six Avengers is evident in their every scene together, and the novel banter between these mainstays, as well as with new players, helps the film’s 3-hour runtime breeze by.

Watching the clashes between these odd distillations of superpowered humanity, portrayed by an array of excellent performers, has always been at the heart of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In “Avengers: Endgame,” some of these beloved personalities come together for the very last time — a bittersweet finale for these actors and their characters that more than earns the film’s central battle cry.

— Grace Orriss

Runner-up: The cast of “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”

“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” benefits significantly from the winning performances at its core. Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt share excellent chemistry as actor Rick Dalton and his stunt double Cliff Booth, respectively. Alongside these two men, Margot Robbie’s grounded, girl-next-door performance as Sharon Tate imbues the film with nostalgia and soulfulness, shaping the revisionist history that forms the structure of “Once.” But the film also excels because of its many supporting performances, with smaller roles from the likes of Timothy Olyphant, Dakota Fanning and Margaret Qualley serving as memorable moments in a star-studded celebration of film.

— Anagha Komaragiri


Best Score

Winner: Michael Abels, “Us”

BackLot Music / Courtesy

The overwhelmingly scary “Us” premiered to much acclaim, with audiences lauding director Jordan Peele for a stellar follow-up to his breakout hit “Get Out.” But even before “Us” struck audiences for its sinister cinematography and pristine performances, trailers for the film drew audiences in with Michael Abels’ whimsical, horror-inducing play on Luniz’s notoriously haunting “I Got 5 on It.” Abels’ remix of the song leaned into all of the things that rendered the original track ever so slightly eerie, upping the ante on its spooky potential by a million. 

Beyond this, Abels’ masterful score, from the opening nonlexical “Anthem” to the climactic and dynamic “Pas De Deux,” proved to be just as intrinsic to the film’s scare-factor as Peele’s masterful heading itself. The sharp shrieks of the violins are as much a character trait of the villainous Tethered as their metal shears and blood-red jumpsuits. The whole film’s score is constructed with such precision that the sonic aesthetics of the score are incongruous, somehow both beautiful and jarring. The score is a testament to the power and influence sound can have on a film, and is more than a worthy partner to the success of the film.

— Areyon Jolivette

Runner-up: Alan Silvestri, “Avengers: Endgame”

The musical scores of the Marvel Cinematic Universe have often been criticized for not being memorable — a claim that composer Alan Silvestri refutes once and for all with his work on “Avengers: Endgame.” Silvestri’s expert blending of existing themes perfectly supplants the film’s biggest moments — the foreboding death knell from the end of “Avengers: Infinity War,” the triumphant blare from Captain America’s first appearance to announce his renewed vigor for battle, the eerie violin riff signifying the presence of the Tesseract and, most importantly, the triumphant repurposing of “Assemble” from 2012’s original “The Avengers” for the film’s signature track, “Portals.” Thanks to Silvestri’s masterful work, it seems that the “Marvel Symphonic Universe” will leave a lasting legacy after all.

— Grace Orriss


Best Director

Winner: Lulu Wang, “The Farewell”

A24 / Courtesy

It is rare for a film to feel as if not one scene or one shot is indispensable, but that is the case for Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell.” It is a testament to Wang’s direction that the film feels so full of life. Every shot is precise and exacting and says so much; the film never indulges too much or lingers too long on any particular moment. In her direction, Wang strikes the perfect balance between style and subtlety. 

The film is a drama about one woman’s difficulty with coming to terms with her grandmother’s imminent death. Wang beautifully showcases the American and Chinese identities that coexist in the main character, Billi, but also shows their collisions. Between the comedy and drama, clashing cultures and a large ensemble of characters, Wang juggles so much as a director yet is able to exquisitely combine all of these components with such ease.

Wang’s direction transcends the specificity of script to make “The Farewell” an undeniably moving portrait of grief and familial bonds. Each frame is visually layered, propelling the film forward with a quiet urgency. Wang treats each shot with the same care, shining a light on the intricacy of life’s more subtle moments in one of the year’s best films.    

— Julia Mears

Runner-up: Bong Joon-ho, “Parasite”

“Parasite” is the culmination of Bong Joon-ho’s previous work of thrilling social commentaries underlined by psychological discomfort. From his earlier films “Memories of Murder” and “The Host” to his later pieces for broader audiences “Snowpiercer” and “Okja,” the director has been continually refining his craft. In “Parasite,” the global, universal class struggle becomes incredibly personal. As writer and director, Bong Joon-ho sees the story through from start to finish, evoking magnificent performances, consistent visual metaphors and knuckle-whitening tension. “Parasite” is distinctly Korean, but Joon-ho’s brilliance in providing accessibility through language and ideology helps make the film representative of a global consciousness. 

— Rebecca Gerny


Best Screenplay

Winner: Jordan Peele, “Us”

Universal Pictures / Courtesy

After “Get Out” was a surprise megahit and won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, everyone was on the edge of their seats waiting to see what Jordan Peele would do next. His sophomore film, the spine-tingling thriller “Us,” did not disappoint, grossing more than $200 million on a $20 million budget. Like “The Parent Trap” gone horribly awry, “Us” follows the Wilson family as their family vacation takes a turn for the worse when they are attacked by eerie doppelgängers. The night that follows unearths more questions than it answers, but it is one terrifying ride.

Thanks to the likes of Peele, Ari Aster and other newfound horror film auteurs, the genre is having a renaissance. Yet what sets Peele’s sophomore film apart from its equally chilling peers is how it is steeped in social commentary and is worthy of the same critical analysis that an English class bestows upon “The Great Gatsby.” Not to mention the film’s dedication to little details and Easter eggs that, to this day, Reddit threads are still combing through the movie to find. Peele’s imagination and creativity run deep and twisted in his second feature film; here, the words “sophomore slump” do not apply.

— Julie Lim

Runner-up: Lulu Wang, “The Farewell”

Writer and director Lulu Wang’s impressively intimate screenplay for “The Farewell” paints a vivid picture of grief, but the heart of it closely resembles a screwball comedy, with its quirky characters and unique premise. The film is actually partially inspired by Wang’s own life. She tells the story about a Chinese-American woman, Billi (Awkwafina), who struggles to understand her family’s decision to not tell her grandmother (Shuzhen Zhao) that she has a fatal illness, grappling with whether someone’s own fate lies in the hands of their family or themself. The story’s specificity becomes extremely universal, as the script asks shared questions about life and death.

— Julia Mears


Best Cinematography

Winner: Robert Richardson, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”

Sony Pictures / Courtesy

As Quentin Tarantino’s ninth feature film, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” highlights all the quirkiness of Tarantino in its cinematography and visuals. Released this year in July, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” was a hit among general audiences and die-hard Tarantino fans alike, grossing more than $371 million worldwide. Robert Richardson, the cinematographer of the film, more than succeeds in creating an atmosphere that feels true to the story’s setting in late 1960s Los Angeles, while still maintaining a modern vibrancy and shine. Mixing the present-day with the retro, Richardson shot in typical Kodak 35mm style while using vintage Panavision cameras. The effect was kitschy yet aesthetically pleasing to modern moviegoers. The film includes several nods to the culture of 1969 through its visuals, and the crew made every effort to ensure that set designs were authentic by changing signs on buildings and filling scenes with vintage cars of the era.

— Luna Khalil 

Runner-up: Hoyte van Hoytema, “Ad Astra”

“Ad Astra” has often been coined this year’s “most gorgeous” film, and not just because Brad Pitt ditched his flat, greasy long hair for the film. Director James Gray and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema propel audiences into the stars in a captivating cinematic experience — the brilliance of which eclipsed only by Brad Pitt’s abs in the daring quest. Somehow, every single moment in the movie feels like heightened reality. Down-to-earth and universal emotions are contrasted with scenes too beautiful, to extraterrestrial, for audiences to have experienced. Hoytema’s vision is simply out of this world, his illumination into the recesses of space a feat only our imagination has dared traverse before.

— Kelly Nguyen

Contact The Daily Californian’s arts & entertainment staff at [email protected].

DECEMBER 05, 2019

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