Oscar Watch: 5 of Our Favorite Films of 2019

By Kate B.
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Photo Courtesy: Neon/IMDb

It’s the most wonderful time of the year: the preamble before Awards Season. As the first snowflakes fall, the latest Martin Scorsese film, The Irishman, descends on expectant theaters (and Netflix). Meanwhile, Google Play is asking you to cough up $19.99 for a repeat viewing of Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Sure, these heavy-hitters are bound to get some Academy Award buzz, but they aren’t the only winners out there this winter. This year, ditch the typical Oscar bait and enjoy these foreign, indie and lesser-known cinematic gems that are on track to nab some golden statuettes.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco | Directed by Joe Talbot (A24)

Joe Talbot’s feature directorial debut is based on a story developed in part by Jimmie Fails, who also plays the titular role. The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a semi-autobiographical account of Fails’ struggle to reclaim his childhood home, a Victorian located in the city’s Fillmore District, as his city undergoes gentrification. After debuting at the Sundance Film Festival, the film won an award for Best Directing as well as a Special Jury Prize for Creative Collaboration.

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Photo Courtesy: Peter Prato/Courtesy of Sundance Institute/IMDb

Called "ravishing, haunting and exultant" by critic Manohla Dargis in The New York Times, the movie came out in June — way ahead of Oscar season and in the middle of the summer blockbuster boom. Despite that timing, we’re sincerely hoping the Academy doesn’t forget about this beautiful, poetic film. As Justin Chang dubbed it in his Los Angeles Times review, it’s a "gorgeous, moving ode to a city in flux."

The Farewell | Directed by Lulu Wang (A24)

Written and directed by Lulu Wang, The Farewell is a comedy-drama based on Wang’s life experiences, which she first unveiled to the public in the form of a radio story called What You Don’t Know on NPR’s This American Life program. Starring Awkwafina as Billi, an aspiring Chinese American writer living in New York, and acting legend Zhao Shuzhen as Billi’s Nai Nai (paternal grandmother) who lives in Changchun, China, The Farewell centers on the relationship between a granddaughter and grandmother.

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Photo Courtesy: A24/IMDb

Nai Nai is diagnosed with a terminal illness, and her family, including Billi’s parents, are determined to keep the truth from her — a decision that Wang presents as something done out of love. When the family plans a trip to China under the guise of attending a wedding, Billi grapples with what’s "right." Vanity Fair calls this understated, charming film a "[moving]... story about the negotiations of familial love, but also of the immigrant experience, of revisiting one’s homeland to, in some senses, say goodbye to it."

Parasite | Directed by Bong Joon-ho (Neon)

The universally acclaimed Parasite isn’t director Bong Joon-ho’s first celebrated outing. His sophomore film Memories of Murder (2003) brought him international success, and two of his other hits, The Host (2006) and Snowpiercer (2013), are two of the highest-grossing films of all time in South Korea. However, Parasite won the coveted Palme d’Or at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, making Bong the first Korean director to nab the award.

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Photo Courtesy: Neon/IMDb

So, what is Parasite about? To keep it brief, it’s about two families, the Kims — who live in a basement apartment and struggle to make ends meet — and the Parks — a wealthy family in search of a tutor for their daughter. Honestly, it’s best to know as little as possible about this dark-comedy-meets-thriller-meets-social-commentary film. Bong is known for exploring timely social themes, like class strife, and often mixes genres and employs tonal shifts as his films unfold.

Bilge Ebiri of NY Mag noted that Parasite is a "nerve-wracking masterpiece whose spell lingers long after its haunting final image." Will Parasite become the first foreign-language film to nab a Best Picture Oscar? We certainly hope so.

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Uncut Gems | Directed by Josh Safdie & Benny Safdie (A24)

Unless you’ve been on the festival circuit, you probably know as much as we do: Adam Sandler’s character, Howard Ratner, is a jewelry store owner — and compulsive gambler. Surprise, surprise: Ratner needs to pay off his debts before it’s too late. Another certainty: Every few years, Sandler will cast aside his Saturday Night Live/Happy Gilmore schtick and cobble together an Oscar-worthy, dramatic performance, as evidenced by Punch-Drunk Love (2002) and as attempted in Reign Over Me (2007).

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Photo Courtesy: A24/IMDb

Co-starring Lakeith Stanfield, Idina Menzel and Kevin Garnett, Uncut Gems was a favorite at both Telluride Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival. IndieWire has called it "a riveting high-wire act, pairing cosmic visuals with the gritty energy of a dark psychological thriller and sudden bursts of frantic comedy," and critics agree that Sandler puts in a remarkable, nomination-garnering performance.

Waves | Directed by Trey Edward Shults (A24)

Trey Edward Shults’ Waves is set in South Florida and stars his It Comes at Night (2017) star Kelvin Harrison Jr. Co-starring heavy hitters like Renée Elise Goldsberry, Lucas Hedges and Sterling K. Brown, it traces a family’s journey as they navigate love and forgiveness in the wake of a jarring loss. This patient family drama — set to a Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross score — was praised by the Los Angeles Times for being "deeply rooted in its characters’ consciousness."

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Photo Courtesy: A24/IMDb

On the other hand, its white director has received criticism for telling a story about Black masculinity and trauma that he doesn’t have the authority to tell. In the Globe and Mail, Sarah-Tai Black wrote "I’m tired of watching movies by white directors that are sold to Black audiences as if our lived experience is as culturally transmittable as making a mix-tape… Shults… lacks not only the lived experience to responsibly make this film, but also the lack of vision needed to sell it." Only time (and audience reactions outside of the awards circuit) will tell if Waves will become this year’s Green Book (2018) and a true Best Picture contender.

Honorable Mention: Booksmart | Directed by Olivia Wilde (Annapurna)

Olivia Wilde’s feature directorial debut is a heartfelt — yet raunchy — coming-of-age comedy that centers on the friendship between two young women (Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever) who set out to break some rules and have some wild fun the night before graduation. One of those women even gets a queer romance storyline, which is refreshing. In fact, this whole film is a refreshing take on a well-worn genre.

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Photo Courtesy: Annapurna Pictures/IMDb

Hailed as the best buddy comedy since Superbad (2007), Booksmart deftly proves that, as noted by Vox, "When you’re a teenager [...] your biggest enemy is usually yourself." Wilde’s film drives that universal, compelling notion home without sacrificing any humor. Unfortunately, comedies don’t always get their dues at the Oscars, but this one is still a 2019 must-see.

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