Dec 24, 2019 9:00 am
Year-end conversations about the movies are often dominated by top 10 lists from critics who spend the year watching movies. But they aren’t the only ones. Many of the most influential people responsible for getting movies out into the world are toiling away behind the scenes, whether they’re assembling venerated film festival lineups or acquiring and distributing some of the most revered films of the year.
Each year, IndieWire reaches out to a range of figures from the independent film community to give them the opportunity to single out some of their favorite movies from the past 12 months. This year’s respondents include programmers, publicists, and distribution executives. Provided with a flexible criteria for their lists, participants singled out a range of media — from television to theater and beyond — providing a unique window into the way many of the movers and shakers in film culture experienced the year as a whole.
Artistic Director & Co-Head, Toronto International Film Festival
Most of my year is spent watching films submitted to the Toronto International Film Festival, some of them yet to be released. My list largely reflects what hit hardest during that glorious, five-month binge watch. And then there’s “The Irishman,” which helped me grieve a loss in my own life, and face the persistence of loss.
“The Irishman”: You don’t have to commit murder to feel the profound, solitary regret Scorsese offered to us like a sacrament.
“Parasite”: Coming on the heels of “Roma,” “Parasite” proves the dissection of privilege is our era’s most potent theme. Long may it reign.
“Rocks”: Gonna tell my kids this was “Little Women.”
“Jojo Rabbit”: Mileage varied, but I found Waititi’s latest to be a suitably savage take-down of organized hate, from someone who had to learn to laugh at it.
“37 Seconds”: A beautiful bait-and-switch from Japan’s Hikari: Come for the sexy high concept, stay for the deep insight into a young woman on the cusp.
“Sound of Metal”: Marder’s sound design and Riz Ahmed’s performance were both dazzling, but put entirely in the service of empathy.
“Hustlers”: Maybe if Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez had been men playing boxers instead of women and strippers, reactions to Hustlers might have been a little less timorous. It slaps.
“Uncut Gems”: The second most heart attack inducing film of the year. Loved isn’t the right word. I felt it.
“Jallikattu”: The most relentless, aggressive, triple-bypass courting film of the year. Men.
“Proxima”: 2019 helped me imagine a future where films like Alice Winocour’s astronaut story would be common entertainment, and not arthouse test cases for the relevance of women’s lives.
Co-President, Sony Pictures Classics
1. “Pain and Glory”
2. “Little Women”
3. “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”
5. “An Officer and a Spy”
6. “Marriage Story”
8. “Les Miserables”
9. “Richard Jewell”
10. “The Assistant”
11. Final Day at the Masters Tournament with Tiger Woods
-“The Good Fight” is the best show on television
-“Oklahoma!” the best show of the year on Broadway
-On Off-Broadway there were two astonishing productions: A Hollywood retro “Magic Flute” by the Komische Oper Berlin (part of Mostly Mozart Series at Lincoln Center) “Why?” (at Theater for a New Audience), where Peter Brook at 94 and Marie-Helene Estienne show us how it’s done with three actors and a bare stage. Forget it, digital phonies, great theater is as natural and exciting and dangerous and beautiful as breathing.
Favorite Critical Writings from 2019:
“From Dresden on the 50th Anniversary of Slaughterhouse 5”
“Oklahoma! Was Never Really OK”
“#MeToo Takes the Stage”
“Look at the Mueller Report. It Will Blow Your Mind”
“Toni Morrison Taught Me How to Think”
“Hollywood’s Big Office Slump May Point to Bigger Issues”
“No, Sean Spicer Really Can’t Dance”
“Dance Me to the End of Love”
“What Does a Chicken Know of Bombs?”
“Men Are in Trouble and Hollywood Wants Help”
Professor of Professional Practice, School of the Arts Film Program, Columbia University
“Sorry We Missed You”
“Apocalypse Now: The Director’s Cut”
“Portrait of a Lady on Fire”
“A Marriage Story”
“Pain and Glory”
EVP of Acquisitions & Production, NEON
Gotta admit that my true list would include a heavy dose of NEON, but here’s the No Conflicts list:
1. “The Nightingale”
An appropriately furious portrait of oppression that finds beauty in the possibility for intersectional struggle. One of the most important and misunderstood films of the year.
2. “Birds of Passage”
An epic crime saga with an understanding of how societies evolve – by confluence of everything from the external forces of globalization to the personality trait of a specific individual – that is worthy of Tolstoy or Coppola.
3. “My First Film”
Zia Anger’s transmedia performance is a triumph of vulnerability and easily the best “browser thriller” ever made.
The rest in alpha order:
“Chained for Life”
“High Flying Bird”
“Long Day’s Journey Into Night”
“Rolling Thunder Revue”
Vice President, Film and Strategic Programming, Brooklyn Academy of Music
This is a hard one for me, because when was it not 2019? This year has felt interminable! I’m sad you’re only giving us 10 spots because I easily have three to four others that should be on here, but I will follow rules (this time!). Here are my 10, in alpha order:
“De Lo Mio”
“The Giverny Document” (single channel)
Executive Director, Cinema Tropical
My favorite Latin American films of the year (some are from last year, but they were released—or premiered—in the U.S. this year)
Honorable mentions (alphabetical): “Atlantics,” “Booksmart,” “Burning Cane,” “Clemency,” “Diane,” “Give Me Liberty,” “Honey Boy,” “Honeyland,” “Midnight Family,” “Queen & Slim.”
Vice President of Motion Picture, Kodak; Co-Founder, Tangerine Entertainment
Top tens in alphabetical order…
“Apollo 11” – Fascinating, thrilling and the best IMAX experience of the year.
“Atlantics” – Mati Diop’s first feature is part romance, part ghost story and part social commentary. A great example of unique, exciting storytelling from way outside of Hollywood.
“Booksmart” – I love these girls! And Olivia Wilde for making this funny, raunchy, honest coming-of-age flick.
“Hustlers” – A movie about strippers ripping off Wall Street dudes turns out to be about the bond between working women and the family they create.
“Jojo Rabbit” – Taika Waititi applies his ridiculous and sublime lens to a coming-of-age story set in Nazi Germany.
“Little Women” – Greta Gerwig brings her insightful, lively, confident writing and directing to a bonafide Hollywood holiday movie.
“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” – Great use of movie stars in an idyllic version of 1969 Los Angeles. Kudos to Tarantino for showing Sharon Tate as a real person instead of just a famous victim.
“Parasite” – Bong Joon Ho is at the top of his game with this tense, timely, social thriller.
“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” – My favorite movie of 2019! Every glance and gesture matters in Celine Scaimma’s gorgeous feminist masterpiece.
“The Souvenir” – Joanna Hogg’s personal movie quietly captures the beauty, pain and nostalgia of art school in the 1980’s and a tragic first boyfriend.
“Chernobyl” – The sobering story of government’s greed and disregard for its citizens. (Of course, I searched where to source Iodine tablets.)
“Fleabag” – Hot priest! What else is there to say?
“Fosse/Verdon” – Worth watching for Michelle Williams alone, but extra entertaining if you know and love all the musicals.
“The Good Place – I binged all seasons this year. Super-smart comedy with wonderful performances across the board, proving that traditional networks still make great TV.
“Leaving Neverland” – A disturbing, graphic, clear-eyed account of horrible child abuse inflicted by an extremely powerful man. Really tough to reconcile the art, the artist and audience complicity.
“Shrill” – Yes, I am recommending a show about a millennial woman living in Portland. Because Aidy Bryant is just so winning!
“Unbelievable” – A taut feminist true crime drama. Women in front of the camera, behind the scenes and in real life being bold and brave.
“Watchmen” – This show is EVERYTHING! (@DamonLindelof and @NicoleKassell please bring it back in 2020.)
“When They See Us” – Heartbreaking and infuriating. Acting is fantastic, Ava DuVernay nails it and Bradford Young’s cinematography is exquisite.
“Years and Years” – Terrifying. I had to take a break from binging because it is so intense and way too possible.
Artistic Director, Film Independent
These are “Impressive Narrative Feature Directorial Debuts of 2019”
Note: not all released but all premiered in 2019
“The Last Black Man in San Francisco”
“La Paloma y el Lobo” (“The Dove and the Wolf”)
President/CEO, David Magdael & Associates Inc. (Publicity)
2019 was an amazing year for viewing and for myself personally, work-wise. This year, I worked with some amazing filmmakers from a family who survived being bombed by Russian and Syrian bombers to having the honor of working for a legendary filmmaker on his ninth installment of his groundbreaking and inspiring documentary series. It was a great year for Asian American films and filmmakers where we saw promising up and coming Asian American filmmakers. Stories were so diverse and so rich – there was so much to choose from. So here we go. This is in no particular order:
Oh my. I accidentally fell into this one night and was hooked for the whole season. The stories, risk taking, pushing the envelope on storytelling and the acting from these newcomers blew me away — so much that after the finale, I had to find an online “Euphoria” fan group to discuss the finale and all that series was all about. It was a true moment.
2. Ava DuVernay’s “When They See Us”
Whoa! What a film. What great actors. And thank goodness now more people know this case of injustice that have impacted these five boys who are now known as The Exonerated Five. Having worked on the documentary from Ken and Sarah Burns, “The Central Park Five,” it was amazing to see this narrative version and see how the conversation and dialogue that was being generated across generations and cultures at the water cooler was so impactful. The acting was brilliant and the screenplay and the cinematography were all excellent. I was moved and so were the many people I shared it with.
3. Season 2 of “Pose”
Groundbreaking, intelligent and important. Every week moved me to emotion and tears and remembering the times of having to deal with friends and lovers who were taken away by AIDS and the marginalized communities that were standing up to gain representation and change perspectives. Favorite episodes included Candy’s funeral and the road trip to the Hamptons with the main characters. This series exudes so much love and care and presentation of some real characters. Hats off to Steven Canals, Janet Mock, Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk and that cast: Billy Porter; MJ Rodriguez; Indya Moore; Angelica Ross; and Dominique Jackson blew us away every week.
4. Female Asian American Filmmakers Make Their Mark
This year brought some talented Asian American women filmmakers to the forefront, telling their stories their way and how they wanted to. As one of the co-directors of the LA Asian Pacific Film Festival since 1997, I have seen so many of our films and filmmakers come through. But this year starting with Lulu Wang and her incredibly moving “The Farewell,” which premiered at Sundance. It set the tone for this year. Then, at our festival in May, we presented two world premieres bookending opening and closing sold out nights from two different auteurs who showed amazing talent and vision. Opening night gave us Diane Pargas and her first narrative feature film “Yellow Rose,” which went on to win awards at every festival it played and getting distribution from Sony Pictures. Closing night brought first timer Andrea Walter and her debut feature “Empty By Design.” And then this year, the first trans Filipina filmmaker, Isabel Sandoval, premiered her film “Lingua Franca” at the Venice Film Festival. All giving promise for these talented filmmakers.
5. “The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open”
Directed and written by Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers and Kathleen Hepburn and starring Tailfeathers, “The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open” is a personal drama exploring two Indigenous women living very different lives who are briefly brought together by desperate circumstances. First-time actress Violet Nelson blew it out the water. And on top of that, Ava DuVernay’s ARRAY Releasing put this in theaters and on Netflix – championing the voice and vision of indigenous filmmakers and stories.
6. “Dolemite Is My Name”
My favorite film at TIFF this year took me back to my high school days, when we would fill up our car and go to the drive-in to see “Dolemite” and laugh and cheer our heads off. This film captured those moments of us as the audience who was being underserved and had an appetite for these fun films. And seeing this backstory of the infamous Rudy Ray Moore, whom we first heard on those “blue” records back when we would be listening to Richard Pryor albums was so great. Eddie Murphy, Wesley Snipes and the whole ensemble cast really brought their game and made this film fun, heartwarming and inspiring. And the clothes – yes, we really wore those back then.
7. “Amazing Grace”
Finally, this concert film from the legendary Aretha at age 29 was released and stunned me. I was working in the local record store when this album came out and they were flying off the shelves. And to see the actual concert in that raw footage was phenomenal. The film has so many layers – and to see how the church played such an important part in the community was so insightful. Add Aretha’s voice, her performance, the audience, Rev. James Cleveland, and that choir and choir director was truly amazing. You could help but be moved. It was interesting to hear that Warner Brothers was planning to put it out back in the day as a double feature with “Superfly.” Wow. Thanks to Chiemi Karasawa for getting this film out there. I bought the DVD!
8. J. Lo at 50
All I can say is, wow. Another fave film from TIFF, “Hustlers,” took me there. I went in thinking it would be a silly comedy about strippers and was treated to a full-on story with J. Lo giving us what 50 years old looks like and her pole solo. We all forgot that J. Lo could act until now. Remember “Out of Sight”? Glad she’s back. And she looks amazing! Maybe she will get nominated…
9. “63 Up”
2019 was so great as I had the honor of working together with this legendary filmmaker Michael Apted on his ninth chapter of his “Up” series. Working with him – thanks to BritBox – from Telluride to the New York Film Festival to Heartland to Mill Valley to Doc NYC and more was incredible. Being in his presence was amazing. “63 Up” is such a great milestone in this series for so many reasons and worth a watch.
10. “For Sama”
I have worked on over 250 documentaries over the years – but there is something special about “For Sama” and these filmmakers and this family. Director Waad al-Kateab’s energy and her zest for life and having the wherewithal all to start filming when the war broke out in Aleppo to keep the truth out there is inspiring and incredible – all while dodging Russian bombers with her baby Sama and family. Whew. And the passion she and her husband Dr. Hamza al-Kateab have to keep getting this story out there goes beyond just the film. Then you add director Edward Watts on top of that to help shape the film and story – it’s a perfect combination. Being in the presence of this trio has been truly great. I can only hope I can be as strong and committed as these three are. They are the real deal and this film is, too. I feel so blessed to be working on films like this that will hopefully spark change.
In no order for the first one, and I’ve worked on a few of these and gleefully confess my bias.
“Parasite”: For two of the last five years, the best film of the year has come from South Korea (see also: “Burning,” “The Wailing”). “Parasite” makes three, and if I’m doing a best of the decade list I’m not sure this one doesn’t wind up on top.
“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”/”Hustlers”/”Knives Out” for quality, unhurried escapism at the movies, very welcome in a dreary 2019.
“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” and “Atlantics” for their incredible sensitivity.
“Long Day’s Journey Into Night” and “Uncut Gems” for their pure innovation. One makes you swoon, one makes you want to lie down. Potential future double feature?
“Diamantino” and “Monos” for breaking ground visually. Not a potential future double feature.
“Ash is Purest White” and “Queen & Slim” for sneaking up on you so stylishly that you don’t mind the gut punch.
“Tigers Are Not Afraid” and “One Cut of the Dead” for giving an entirely new perspective on genre while somehow simultaneously defying it.
“Horror Noire” and “The Cave” for making me see something I thought I understood in an entirely different light.
“Ad Astra” and “High Life” for confirming my suspicion that when we get to space it will be incredibly lame, and “Apollo 11” for punching that suspicion in the face like it told Buzz Aldrin the moon landing was a hoax.
“Dolemite Is My Name,” “When They See Us,” and “The Irishman” for filling my queue with studio-caliber work that no studio would dare finance. Hope that changes.
Sole honorable mention goes to those leading the charge to ensure theaters across the country, small and large, are allowed to screen the films that made many of us cinephiles in the first place. I spend a good chunk of my day trying to turn young people into cinephiles, and the short-sightedness of locking great films in some sort of imaginary vault is so counterproductive as to honestly boggle the mind. Studio friends: Please, please do better in 2020.
MTV Documentary Films
“Honeyland”: How could someone as selfish as me care about a beekeeper? Loved it. Loved it to the last bee sting.
“Joker”: Amazing intersection of violence and mental illness. Extraordinary performance by Joaquin Phoenix. Somewhere between a ballet dancer and a murderer.
“Little Women”: Gerwig reinvents a classic I thought could no longer affect me. But it made me cry.
“Parasite”: Genius film. Economic disparity wrapped in suspense and good storytelling. Holy shit ending.
“Downtown Abbey”: So cleverly constructed. To make it not necessary to have seen the series and to lay the groundwork for an obvious sequel.
“Apollo 11”: The thought that I could be bewitched and patriotic about the moon landing, so many years later, surprised me.
“Marriage Story”: Because it was simple. Because it was true. Because Adam Driver is the best performer today. A true artist. The Sondheim song left me breathless. OMG.
“American Factory”: Julia Reicherdt and Steve Bognar reveal the sorrows of working class America and the foreign heartless takeover of an American car factory.
“Jojo Rabbit”: It turned from seemingly anti-semitic to generously all inclusive. A brilliant twist.
“Pavarotti”: I fell in love with the man, the music, and the incredibly sorrowful/joyful talent.
Senior Film Curator, Toronto International Film Festival
1. “I Was at Home, But…”
2. “Martin Eden”
3. “The Souvenir”
4. “Vitalina Varela”
6. “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood…”
7. “Ne croyez surtout pas que je hurle”
8. “Heimat is a Space in Time”
9. Zombies x 2: “Zombie Child” (Bertrand Bonello) & “Atlantique” (Mati Diop)
10. “Uncut Gems
*Bonus: The extraordinary “Cantine women” in Ilyja Khzhanovsky’s fascinating failure, “Dau”
The Celeste Bartos Chief Curator of Film
The Museum of Modern Art
In loose order…
“Pain and Glory”
“Rolling Thunder Revue”
“Dolemite is My Name”
“Varda by Agnes”
And, if we’re being real: “The Great British Baking Show,” Season 10
President, mTuckman media, inc. (Exhibition)
As always, top 10 films involving former THINKFilm employees
This list of course features a huge hole this year due to the passing of Mark Urman. He was a legend, a trailblazer, and motivated all of the individuals on the below list to work harder, think more creatively, and, for some of us, dress a little more crisply!
10. “The Iron Orchard”
Former VP of Publicity Alex Klenert led the PR efforts for this Texas-based film, scoring a major coup by getting an extensive write-up for the film in “The Current Cinema” in The New Yorker. If you thought Tarantino did a great job of re-creating 1960’s Hollywood, feast your eyes on the job the production design team did in transporting us to the oil-boom era of 1920’s Dallas. Keep your eyes on Ty Roberts, a director to watch for his next film, “12 Mighty Orphans.”
A swiss army knife of a team member while at THINKFilm, Dylan Marchetti would go on to be associated with WellGo USA for many years after THINK. He has recently moved on, but his last great act was the masterful release of Zhang Yimou’s “Shadow.” We forget how lucky we were year 10-15 years ago when masterful Chinese martial arts and period pieces were released with some regularity, and “Shadow” reminds us of what we are missing with its lush landscapes, gravity defying martial arts, and color-coded scenes of good and evil.
8. “For Sama”
Amanda Sherwin led many a successful Oscar campaign at THINKFilm, helping notch close to a dozen nominations in just seven years. Hopefully, that success continues with the great job she and the team at PBS Distribution did on the intensely personal and shockingly urgent “For Sama,” which features one of the greatest science-defying miracles every captured in a documentary. If you’ve seen the film, you know this scene involving a baby. If not, you must see it for this scene alone, not to mention how powerful the other 92 minutes are.
7. “Roll Red Roll”
Speaking of Academy campaigns, former director of marketing Erin Owens is doing a bang up job of getting awards attention on Nancy Schwartzman’s “Roll Red Roll,” a painful look at the town of Steubenville, OH, literally circling their wagons around protecting their cherished high school football team from rape allegations. A film that needs to be in more conversations.
David Fenkel and Daniel Katz — “Original 6” employees circa 2002 — are at it again. Having wisely taken the talented-beyond-his-years young director Trey Edward Shults under their wing after his debut, “Krisha,” they give him the tools to really shine in this drama that is a showcase for both inspired direction and a masterclass in acting. Incidentally, Shults and his film not only won the Audience Award at the Key West Film Festival, but he also rocked a mean “Don’t Stop Believin’” at the late-night karaoke that followed our closing reception.
5. “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”
Neon’s decision to hire former THINK’er Elissa Federoff to lead their distribution team was the smartest thing they did to ensure their incredible films are being seen by as many eyeballs as possible. And thank heavens more people will get to take in the stunning “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” a love story that brims with passion and feelings unable to be constrained by conservative mores of the time. A must for the big screen.
4. “Midnight Traveler”
Dan Berger rose from intern at THINKFilm to president of Oscilloscope Laboratories in record time, and with acquisitions like “Midnight Traveler,” it’s easy to see why. Though outwardly a film about a family spending two years crossing two continents seeking political asylum, the film is much more about how a family stays a family through such an ordeal. Watching the two daughters play with each other on a playground surrounded by barb-wired fences yet laughing and running on a warm spring day shows the power of the human will like few films have done before.
3. “Cold Case Hammarskjold”
Talk about meteoric rise! Steven Farneth went from intern to sales agent to standing on the stage at the Oscars last year as one of the producers of “Green Book” (but that story is nothing compared to him giving up a perfect game he was pitching in college to defend a teammate). Steven and his gang at Cinetic were the sales agents for Mads Brugger’s “Cold Case Hammarskjold,” an investigative coup combining elements of Hunter S. Thompson and “All the President’s Men.” Why the discoveries in this film have not led to multiple arrests and imprisonments I do not know, but see it for yourself to go for a wild truth-finding ride.
2. “And then We Danced”
Former THINK’er Andrew Carlin spent a few years heading up theatrical sales at Music Box Films before he moved on to Oscilloscope. While Andrew is no longer there, Music Box continues to release some of the finest foreign films around, and the Georgian/Swedish film “And Then We Danced” is no exception. I’ll say it loud and clear here: This is the film “Call Me By Your Name” COULD have been. Keep the same brilliant story of coming of age and sexual identity, but replace the idyllic Italian countryside and safety of parental support with the working class areas of Tbilisi and the prospect of being ostracized by friends and family for discovering one’s true identity and you have “Danced.” Oh, and then throw in some of the most gorgeous and intense dance scenes ever.
1. “First Love”
OK, let’s not forget that I worked as the VP of Theatrical Sales for THINKFilm for seven years as well. And it was my true honor this year to work with WellGo USA on the release of Takashi Miike’s “First Love.” I’ve been in love with Miike since the flying and singing uvula in “Happiness of the Katakuris” opened the movie. “First Love” marked a return to form for Miike, revisiting his famed Yakuza suspense yarns with an edge of your seat twisting and thrilling plot, and enough laughs and gags to remind you he was having a ball while making this film. And to top things all off, he treats us to his vintage animation. Just a fun romp. A master still at the top if his game having a blast with his tried and true favorite genre. It’s a treat.
Executive Director & Co-Head, Toronto International Film Festival
2019 was an outstanding year for women in film. Although it’s difficult to narrow down to only 10, my list covers my favorite women-directed films of the year. The reality is that now more than ever we need to lift up the work being done by women and if the strength of this list is any indication, I can’t wait to see what 2020 has to offer.
(In no particular order)
“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”
“The Edge of Democracy”
“Portrait of a Lady on Fire”
“Varda by Agnes”
Director of Programming, Sundance Film Festival
“Bait”: I saw this delicious little morsel by Mark Jenkin when I was on the jury of the New Horizons Film Festival International Competition. A refreshing film that embraces the past, in both story and craft.
“Beanpole”: An incredibly mature, accomplished film by a talented young master, Kantemir Balagov, who is only just beginning his career.
“Booksmart”: Olivia Wilde made the teen movie I’ve been waiting for all my life. I love the script and every performance in this film.
“Diego Maradona”: Asif Kapadia is a wizard at making thrilling, tragic films using archival material. A deeply affecting film about genius and fame.
“Invisible Life”: Karim Ainouz’s elegant film reinvigorates melodrama — a complete pleasure to be enveloped in this world.
“Jojo Rabbit”: Taika Waititi managed to make a brilliant and moving satire about something — and somebody —so horrific.
“Midsommar”: Ari Aster’s dazzling, singular film freaked me out.
“Portrait of a Lady on Fire”: My crazed, obsessive fandom for this film is my worst-kept secret. Céline Sciamma is always exceptional, but she’s at the top of her craft here — sophisticated, intelligent, and emotional filmmaking and storytelling.
“Rocketman”: My sentimental favorite. Taryn Egerton deserves every bit of attention he’s getting, but I also adored Jamie Bell as Bernie Taupin.
“Synonyms”: Nadav Lapid’s film examines identity in a rigorous, profound, and personal way.
My post-programming season treat: Season 3 of “The Crown.”
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This Article is related to: Film and tagged Year in Review 2019
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