Hello, there! My name is Preston Barta, and I am the features editor of Fresh Fiction and senior film critic at the Denton Record-Chronicle. My cinematic love story began where I was born: off planet on the isolated desert world of the Jakku system. It's there I passed the time scavenging for loose parts with my good friend Rey. One day I found an old film projector and a dusty reel of the 1975 film JAWS. It rocked my world so much that I left my kinfolk in the rearview (I so miss their morning cups of green milk) to pursue my dreams of writing about film. It wasn't long until I met two gents who said they would give me a lift. I can't recall their names, but one was an older man who liked to point a lot and the other was a tall, hairy fella. They got me as far as one of Jupiter's moons where we crossed paths with the U.S.S. Enterprise. Some pointy-eared bastard said I was clear to come aboard. He saw that I was clutching my beloved shark movie and invited me to the "moving pictures room" where he was screening the 1993 film JURASSIC PARK to his crew. He said my life would be much more prosperous if I were familiar with more work by the god named Steven Spielberg. From there, my love for cinema blossomed. Once we reached planet Earth, everything changed. I found the small town of Denton, TX, and was welcomed into the Barta family. They showed me the writings of local film critic Boo Allen. He became my hero and caused me to chase a degree in film and journalism. After my studies at graduate of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, I met some film critics who showed me the ropes and got me into my first press screening: 2011's THE GREEN LANTERN. Don't worry; I recovered just fine. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD was only four years away.
Preston Barta // Features Editor
It was a strange year for cinema, just as it was a strange year for the world. Despite all its darkness — in the form of Cats and other sorts from the bad litter — there were plenty of great films worth celebrating.
Here are 15 highlights worth lauding from a year decorated with spectacular movies.
Speaking of totally weird, A24’s quiet but impactful drama The Death of Dick Long is as bizarre as they come. Through comedy, uncomfortable situations and region-accurate specificity, this Kentucky fried oddity delves into the skeletons that we all hide in our closets.
Shia LaBeouf and newcomer Zack Gottsagen lead a movie that surprises and delights. The setup is such familiar material, like a classic Mark Twain book, that you think its narrative is going to spin flat and fast. However, the script by Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz (who both also directed) cuts deep. Between the fun character interactions are quiet nuggets of wisdom and truth. So sweet and charming.
13. Knives Out
Rian Johnson’s star-studded whodunit didn’t need explosions or sword fights to make it one of the most entertaining films of 2019 — just a tightly wound narrative, great performances and a sharp-to-the-touch screenplay. Knives Out has all the twists, turns and unfiltered character exchanges to make it a dynamite cinematic happening.
12. Love, Antosha
I’m a massive fan of Anton Yelchin, and this tender documentary about his life tore me to pieces. Love, Antosha isn’t merely the late actor’s friends and family gushing about how wonderful he was to work with and be around. The film also taps into his complexities, health issues and the myriad ways he plugged into creative outlets. It’s honest, inspiring and heartbreaking.
11. The Farewell
Set in China, Lulu Wang’s The Farewell is a bittersweet account of a family gathering to say goodbye to its matriarch (an Oscar-worthy Shuzhen Zhao) who’s dying of cancer. The twist is she doesn’t know it because of some unique cultural traditions. The result is one of those dramatic works that manages to hit from all angles. It doesn’t just provide a singular experience but rather a multilayered narrative that has the power to heal and open one’s eyes to a much larger world. It has its tears, but it also has many laughs and uplifting moments to carry you through your own obstacles.
When I first saw Midsommar, I said it was one of the few experiences in my life watching a movie where it felt like a true misanthrope directed it. It’s so wicked, and it’s only gotten better with repeat viewings, especially after its director’s cut (available now through Apple TV). The three-hour feast colorfully visualizes themes of grief, codependency and death through nightmarish channels.
9. Jojo Rabbit
Reading the plot of Jojo Rabbit is enough to raise an eyebrow. But packed within Taika Waititi’s World War II satire is an incredibly compassionate tale built with ultimate love. It has so much positivity in its story that it could warm the iciest of hearts.
Riley Stearns (Faults) directs an offbeat and unpredictable comedy that operates similarly to a Yorgos Lanthimos film in terms of its otherworldly presence and proper manner. Outside its commanding performances (most notably Alessandro Nivola as a deranged karate sensei), the most impressive facet is what’s written between the lines. Stearns manages to burrow into the pressures society places on us — and the pressure we put on ourselves. There’s plenty to talk about and lots to enjoy.
Sam Mendes’ one-shot dramatic war thriller thrusts you into a real-time experience. By following two British lance corporals through the trenches and death-strewn landscapes, 1917 makes you feel every ounce of the emotions felt on the battleground. It navigates between objective and subjective perspectives to fashion a stunningly crafted and thematically rich achievement.
Although divorce is often a focal point that may send you running in the opposite direction, you can revel in the chemistry of two actors turning in the best performances of their careers and filmmaker Noah Baumbach’s nuanced storytelling approach. Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver guide us through a touching and insightful drama of a disentangled couple finding love through the scope of their marriage’s end.
Bong Joon Ho’s Hitchcockian mind-tickler isn’t far off from Knives Out for playing you like a fiddle. Parasite doesn’t try to go for broke in terms of scale. It’s much more reserved, and it primarily fuses complexity through its character arcs and not its narrative arcs. It’ll keep you on your toes and will have you hunkering down like a moth to a flame.
As foreign as it may sound, Quentin Tarantino paints a staggeringly gorgeous ode to the fading studio era of Hollywood’s golden age. It’s a feature that forces you to realize that we get old, things don’t always pan out the way we’d hope and culture passes us by. It also entertains, shocks and moves like no other. It’s one cool flick.
What makes Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart such a treasure is how much it breaks through teen archetypes. Similar to The Breakfast Club, it presents characters you recognize and injects them with stinging relatability. Wilde tosses a wide net of glory, hitting all the facts of teenage youth while also leaving lots of room for fun. I loved it from cover to cover.
2. Little Women
Writer-director Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird) shapes a beautiful and lyrical screen adaptation of the classic Louisa May Alcott novel. Rather than follow the story’s blueprint and old-school formula, Gerwig stirs in a sense of energy and agency from the modern era. With its pitch-perfect ensemble of actors, Alcott’s work comes to life for the ultimate telling.
No film in 2019 hit me harder than Trey Edward Shults’ Waves. Shults (It Comes at Night, Krisha) is a filmmaker who experiments with technique and drama reveals to unearth stowed-away feelings. There are elements to this film that helped me to articulate thoughts about my own hardships, and that’s a gift. Using a diptych structure, Shults subtly but powerfully illustrates how life’s pains, pressures and disappointments can bring us together just as much as they break us apart. Waves is a remarkable story of healing.
18. John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum
19. The Last Black Man in San Francisco
20. Avengers: Endgame
21. The Current War: Director’s Cut
22. Ad Astra
23. Honey Boy
24. The King
25. The Souvenir
28. Fast Color
29. The Lighthouse
30. Uncut Gems