Best Movies of 2019

Regular readers will know the drill: Due to the fact that I am merely an amateur film critic who (a) has to watch movies out of my own pocket and (b) doesn’t get screeners it means I am nowhere ready to make a Best of 2019 list at the end of the year like everyone else. But thanks to the Oscars happening earlier than usual this year and the fact that I now find myself homebound for the foreseeable future, it has allowed me to catch up on most of the major contenders in a respectable amount of time and I think I’m ready to rank what has been a very good year at the movies.

Before we dive in a couple of rules for eligibility for this list :

  1. The movie has to be released in 2019. Fairly straightforward, but there are a couple of additional caveats. First a movie that only had a limited release in 2018 (released in a few theaters) is eligible if it had a wide release in 2019. Second a movie is also eligible if it was a foreign movie made before 2019 but was only available in North America in 2019 either through theatrical release or home video.
  2. A movie is only eligible to be included in one “best of the year” list. This means if I included a limited release movie from 2018 in my best-of list from 2018,  it is ineligible this year. Similarly all the movies that appear this year can’t show up next year.

HONORABLE MENTIONS (In Alphabetical Order)

1917 dir. Sam Mendes – A noble project with an exceptional level of technical prowess that is let down by its similarity to watching someone else play a video game.

Alita: Battle Angel dir. Robert Rodriguez – Unfairly saddled with being a mere visual-effects vehicle, Alita is perhaps the most earnest movie made this year. It tells a compelling Pinocchio-esque story and sets up a marvelous fantasy world, and it’s a shame that the lackluster box-office results means we probably will never see more of this would-be franchise.

Crawl dir. Alexandre Aja – A lean, mean horror movie that proves all you need for a good scare is a great concept (alligators hunting down victims in a hurricane), a great lead (Kaya Scoldelario), and a director with enough patience and confidence to let it all play out.

Ford v Ferrari dir. James Mangold – Two über-male egos clash heads and then join together to race loud and fancy cars for another über-male ego whose motor company is trying to beat another motor company that is run by another über-male ego. It is the quintessential “dad” movie of the year, and still pretty good in spite of that.

High Life dir. Claire Denis – For her first English-language film, Claire Denis tells a space-odyssey story that seemingly eschews all the conventions of previous space movies creating a world of infinite oddness. It also serves as yet another fantastic showcase for Robert Pattinson (more of him in a moment).

John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum dir. Chad Stahelski – It never reaches the heights of John Wick Chapter 2 in part because the back half of the movie seems so intent on setting up the next chapter. But it is still a John Wick movie which means it wins best action movie of the year by default.

The Nightingale dir. Jennifer Kent – An absolutely heart-wrenching and brutal movie about an Irish woman convict who seeks revenge after a British Lieutenant commits horrific violence against her family. Jennifer Kent (The Babadook) is unrelenting and unflinching in tackling this angry tale so while it is not a pleasant watch, it is absolutely captivating.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark dir. André Øvredal – For many people my age the novel series served as their introduction into the delights of the horror genre. Thankfully this movie adaptation similarly is an excellent gateway into the thrill of being scared for fun.

Shazam dir. David F. Sandberg – Don’t proclaim it too loudly but in the last year or so the DC Extended Universe has quietly turned it around with three quite excellent movies in a row (Aquaman and Birds of Prey being the other two). Shazam, the middle of the three moviesperhaps pulls off the greatest feat turning an inherently goofy premise into one of the most fun movies of the year.

Toy Story 4 dir. Josh Cooley – Just about every time a Toy Story sequel has been announced I have always questioned the sanity of the people making that decision and have always been proved wrong. The fourth installment, while being a wholly unnecessary addition, just about skirts by as being worthwhile as it gives us a wonderful epilogue to Woody’s journey (and presumably a final, final, final goodbye).


 

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25. PAIN AND GLORY dir. Pedro Almodovar

If there was a mini-theme to the year, it is that of the old guard reckoning with their legacy (see also: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and The Irishman). In perhaps the most blatantly obvious introspective look at his career, Pedro Almodovar gives us an intimate portrait of Salvador (Antonio Banderas), a celebrated director in the tail-end of his career who finds it impossible to make his next project. Banderas, well deserving of his Oscar-nomination, gives an engrossing performance as we spend the movie sitting with him in his apparent malaise with his thoughts returning to his childhood. To reveal too much more would be criminal, but just know that it perhaps has the ending that made me smile the most this year.

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24. A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD dir. Marielle Heller

It would be so easy to create a middlebrow biopic about the life of Fred Rogers and watch the money roll in, such is the near-universal love for the man. But makes Marielle Heller’s latest so remarkable is that she chooses instead to frame her movie as “Mister Rogers Neighborhood” episode for adults to remind us powerfully that the lessons he taught us about kindness, our emotions, and our imaginations are lessons we need not leave behind when we become older. It is jarring at first to see Heller break so many conventions of what we would expect in a Fred Rogers movie, but it is precisely because the movie is so odd that its power manages to worm under your skin. And of course it goes without saying that Tom Hanks is as close to perfect for the role.

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23. HER SMELL dir. Alex Ross Perry

Elisabeth Moss might just be the most underrated actor working today. She has long been a phenomenal television star whether in her early breakout in The West Wing or by being the best thing about Mad Men or by helming the phenomenal The Handmaid’s Tale. Yet she has not really had the breakout film role that her talent has so desperately deserved. In another universe, that breakout role would have been Her Smell, a claustrophobic portrait about a truly noxious punk-rock star that would be an incredibly difficult watch if not for the phenomenal performance Moss puts in. Unfortunately the Academy slept on her performance, but hopefully between this role, her excellent supporting appearance in Us, and her latest star-making turn in this year’s The Invisible Man, her time will come soon.

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22. MIDSOMMAR dir. Ari Aster

Ari Aster’s debut Hereditary was a slow-boiling nightmare that built to a breathless and terrifying climax. His follow-up Midsommar switches gears as he takes us to a days-long festival in a remote Swedish village and seeks to unsettle and unnerve us one meticulous step at a time until we find ourselves somehow unknowingly deep in the morass of madness. It is an impressive sophomore effort that quickly establishes Aster as one to watch, but more importantly it is the perfect vehicle to signal to us that Florence Pugh is an almighty force to be reckoned with. Between her turns in Fighting With My FamilyLittle Women, and here one can argue nobody has had a more prolific year than Pugh, and the fact that she knocks all three performances out of the park is nothing but exhilarating for those of us who have had her on our radar since her breakout role in Lady Macbeth.

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21. READY OR NOT dir. Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillet

Many have written about how Ready or Not lampoons and pointedly exposes the gulf between the rich and the poor, and they are right to do so. But what I feel gets missed is just how much campy fun this movie is. The Le Domas family, a board-game dynastic empire, inducts the newest member of the family Grace (Samara Weaving) by playing a traditional midnight game that inevitably turns deadly, and it is partly because Grace turns out to instantly vault herself into the “final girl” Hall of Fame and because the family keeps tripping up over themselves in privileged buffoonery. Vincent Price would be proud.

FULL REVIEW

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20. APOLLO 11 dir. Todd Douglas Miller

There is hardly anything innovative about Apollo 11, but it is further proof that sometimes in documentaries all you need is compelling subject matter. The release of archival NASA audio and video footage of the Apollo 11 mission proves to be edifying and inspirational because it highlights in the simplest way what an amazing accomplishment the moon landing was, fifty years after the fact. We live in an age where our oldest smartphones probably had more computing power than NASA had at its disposal, and yet the documentary reminds us painfully that landing on the moon is an event that has yet to be topped. Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of Apollo 11 (especially in its run in theaters) is that it managed to replicate what it must have felt to be watching the event live on television in an age when our big uniting goal was to reach for the stars.

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19. AVENGERS: ENDGAME dirs. Anthony and Joe Russo

I will admit that in the last few years, this comic-book fan has had a severe case of comic-book movie fatigue. So count me as surprised as anyone to find that the finale of the enormous 23 movie Marvel Cinematic Universe arc left me feeling such joy and elation that it helped me reframe the rest of the MCU in a more positive light. Where Avengers: Infinity War was all setup with hardly any payoff (besides that twist), Endgame is as laser-focused in concluding its story as its title implies, miraculously tying up a decade’s worth of storytelling through a multitude of disparate storylines by both honoring what has come before and being brave enough to follow-through on those storylines to their conclusion. If only the other major Disney franchise had been so bold and brave in its final installment.

FULL REVIEW

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18. DESTROYER dir. Karyn Kusama

Men have long been able to play hard-hitting, rule-breaking, and compromised antiheroes for fun in anti-establishment cop movies, leaving women to more or less play the “law and order” types. Of course Karyn Kusama, who has long eschewed the gendered roles genre can play (like the sci-fi thriller Aeon Flux or underrated horror masterpiece Jennifer’s Body) has no problem handing her bad cop protagonist role to a drastically different-looking Nicole Kidman as Erin Bell, and we are all the better for it. Destroyer is a pot-boiler L.A. noir that finds Kidman going off the grid and into the deep underbelly of the crime world to flush out the crime boss she worked with when she went undercover years ago, where we inevitably find Erin’s sins coming to bear even as she seeks a redemptive path out. It is a fantastic bit of genre work and criminally under-seen.

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17. BOOKSMART dir. Olivia Wilde

The “one wild night” teen movie is one with a rich history from bonafide classics American Graffiti and Dazed and Confused all the way to recent sleeper hits like Blockers. What sets Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut apart however is the irresistible charm and energy brought by its two lead Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever as Molly and Amy. Molly and Amy are two goody-two shoe high-schoolers who realize right before their graduation that the sacrifices they made to try and get into an ivy league school was for naught as their seeming slacker, fun-loving, partying, and sexually active classmates also snagged ivy league admissions, leaving the two ladies to try and make up for lost time in one night. For most of its runtime witnessing their desperate plight is as charmingly fun as that sounds.

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16. AD ASTRA dir. James Gray

Like the cerebral space-movie masterpieces 2001: A Space Odyssey and Solaris before it, Ad Astra uses the celestial heavens as a backdrop for the decidedly earthbound exploration of the human experience. In this case Ad Astra has us follow Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) literally to the end of explored space to jettison the toxic masculinity he has inherited by his absent father, with the outer reaches of the solar system perfectly mirroring the depth of introspection the movie takes us. Pitt is simply masterful and showcases his A-list talent by the sheer efficiency of his performance; so many scenes find him McBride hiding his emotions whether from an A.I, his superiors, or himself, and Pitt effortlessly displays that inner tension so clearly that we cannot help but feel drawn in to him. Ad Astra is a movie that demands you wrestle with it in both its meaning and narrative structure, but it is one that offers rich rewards if you do.

FULL REVIEW

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15. HUSTLERS dir. Lorene Scafaria

“The game is rigged,” says Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), a high-end stripper, about a system that literally commodifies a woman’s body for a man’s pleasure and in which every male presence asks the women who work at her club to give up their bodies for the lowest possible price. In seeking to turn the tables on this dynamic by engaging in an outrageous scam the women of Hustlers, both in front of and behind the camera, are out to show that they are not messing around and that they are more than willing to use that stupid male gaze for their own gain. It is a debauched crime drama that evokes the same kind of devilish fun of a Scorsese gangster flick, and one that is not easily forgotten.

FULL REVIEW

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14. THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO dir. Joe Talbot

I remember a pastor once telling me that to live rightly in the world is not to see the world as beautiful or the world as ugly but to live at the intersection where you can see both simultaneously. This is precisely what Joe Talbot does in his lyrical film as he paints a wistful and mournful portrait of San Francisco, a city changing at an unprecedented rate. The movie pensively follows Jimmie (Jimmie Fails) and his best friend Montgomery (Jonathan Majors) as Jimmie desperately tries to claim the stately home he lived in as a child, which he claims his grandfather originally built, even as gentrification seems to keep carving up the city that he remembers. It is a confident debut from Talbot, even if the final act descends into a heavy plot that betrays the pleasantly sedate and meditative mood that preceded it. Still, that is an easily forgivable offense.

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13. THE LIGHTHOUSE dir. Robert Eggers

The Bible famously says “It is not good for man to be alone,” and if The Lighthouse is at all accurate, it is clearly not much better for two men to be alone either. This acerbic, nauseating, claustrophobic, and anxiety-inducing movie is certainly not going to be the most fun you have this year, but it will certainly have you rapt. It serves as the umpteenth reminder that Willem Dafoe remains one of the best living actors working today while also confirming that Robert Pattinson is fast rising to those ranks. Like it’s all pervasive foghorn, The Lighthouse will sink into your psyche until it takes hold of you with its special and terrifying power.

FULL REVIEW

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12. AMAZING GRACE dir. Sydney Pollack

Perhaps what is most shocking about Aretha Franklin is how quickly she can take charge of a room. Early on in Amazing Grace, which documents the recording of the gospel album of the same name in a Baptist church, she seems unassuming and meek as the band warms up around her. But then she takes to the pulpit and sings her first note and you are immediately enraptured. This footage, long held back from release for a variety of reasons, shows Franklin’s transcendent and raw power as she pours her whole being into effortlessly singing songs that none of us mere mortals would dare to attempt. I cannot imagine a greater monument to her legacy.

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11. ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD dir. Quentin Tarantino

What is most interesting about Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood is that it finds Quentin Tarantino, long established proud enfant terrible of Hollywood and shorthand for the energetic and transgressive indie cinema of the 90s and 2000s, openly wondering about his place in modern cinema and of his own legacy. Trading in his usual bombast for introspection however does not dull the power of his filmmaking as he paints a nostalgic picture of Hollywood in 1969 to shed light on the current state of cinema. As always Tarantino gets the best out of his acting department as Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt each put in inspired shifts playing an actor and his stuntman seemingly in the twilight of their careers. And then there is Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate, a bright spark of energy and a representation of the new and strange wave of Hollywood, literally haunting the screen with her presence and a harbinger of things to come.

FULL REVIEW

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10. THE IRISHMAN dir. Martin Scorsese

Superficially a “bad-faith” segment of film enthusiasts argued that Martin Scorsese, famed under-appreciater of comic-book movies, was guilty of being similarly derivative with his work by releasing his umpteenth gangster movie. Anybody who has seen this masterpiece however will quickly realize The Irishman is less a rehash of Goodfellas or The Departed and instead has much more in common with his last movie Silence, a sobering account of faith under pressure. The Irishman finds Scorsese examining the “faith” of mob-hood and its teachings of greed, pride, and power. In gathering the old icons of gangster films in DeNiro, Pacino, and Pesci, Marty seems intent on examining the genre’s legacy, and the movie’s three-and-a-half hour runtime prove to be the perfect length to sink deep into his meditative thoughts all the while seemingly preparing for the genre’s figurative burial. This is a masterpiece of a director in his twilight, every bit as invigorating as his masterpieces made during the brashness of his youth.

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9. UNCUT GEMS dirs. Josh and Benny Safdie

If Adam Sandler ends up making Grown Ups 3 on the back of getting snubbed in awards season for his role in Uncut Gems we will have no one but ourselves to blame. The hyper-anxious filmmaking style of the Safdie brothers (Good Time) prove to be the perfect marriage for Sandler’s schtick as he plays Howard, a frenetic man who treats all of his life, from his business dealings to his family life like a gamble that he is always one break away from cashing in big on. Sandler successfully turns Howard into a buffoon who nonetheless garners our sympathy. We want to root for the stupid guy in spite of ourselves, and our rooting for him means we are in for an altogether unpleasant ride, the kind of ride that the Safdie brothers are increasingly showing they are the masters in creating.

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8. MARRIAGE STORY dir. Noah Baumbach

First of all, anybody who comes out of this movie thinking that one part of this crumbling marriage bears more blame than the other is obviously bringing themselves into the text. Instead it is a tragedy about how two people looking for an amicable split can somehow, even with their best intentions, find themselves hurtled into something ugly  because of a legal system that snowballs their conflict into a device to inflict maximum pain. It is refreshing to see Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, both for so long sidled with their roles in uber-franchises, get to stretch their dramatic chops in something altogether more intimate while Laura Dern capped off an impressive year here picking up an Oscar for her role as Johansson’s attorney (right person, wrong role, see below). Side note: If you want to know what made me ugly-cry the hardest this year, please refer to a Sondheim musical number in this piece.

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7. THE FAREWELL dir. Lulu Wang

All too often in cross-cultural dramas the cultural differences are presented as a dichotomy in which either rejecting one’s old ways or rejecting the new is presented as the key to a character’s growth. What Lulu Wang remarkably accomplishes is that she presents two world-views and allows them to sit side-by-side in a warm and affectionate tension. Awkwafina is tremendous and revelatory as a woman who has to straddle the American world-view she lives in and the Chinese world-view of her family when her grandmother Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) is diagnosed with terminal cancer but her family chooses to keep that information away from Nai Nai. It is a warm and joyful movie that will leave you melancholy or a sad movie that inevitably lifts your spirits depending on where you come from, and is a wonderful reminder that true love shatters most hard-and-fast rules about life. Also The Farewell is the official winner of the “Hits Me Way Too Close To Home” Award for the year.

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6. US dir. Jordan Peele

It would be easy, in the wake of Get Out breakout success, for Jordan Peele to choose something easy in order to avoid that dreaded sophomore slump. Instead Peele doubles down and flexes his muscles with us, creating a more ambitious and narratively complex tale to terrify his viewers. Where Get Out’s allegorical message was pretty easy to decipher, Us uses terrifying imagery to convey something much more complex and thus more likely to worm its way under your skin. Of course Peele’s ambitions are made all the more easy thanks to an all-time great performance by Lupita Nyong’o who effortlessly plays two-sides of the same coin as the nervous Adelaide and her counter-part doppelganger who stalks her and her family. If Get Out established Peele as a promising newcomer, Us signals that he might be one of the best of his generation.

FULL REVIEW

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5. KNIVES OUT dir. Rian Johnson

Of all the characters introduced to us this year, surely none of them can be a more welcome delight than the Southern-fried investigator Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig). Rian Johnson, fresh off his successful entry into the Star Wars universe (that’s right, fight me!), takes a crack at the whodunit genre and once again proves that he is an expert at taking something familiar and turning it on its head. Craig leads what might just be the best ensemble cast of the year, with names like Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Chris Evans, Toni Collette, and the revelatory Ana de Armas filling out a rogue’s gallery of suspects for Blanc to sift through. To top it off Johnson provides just enough of a contemporary flavor to the proceedings to give his breezy mystery some real-world bite. Hopefully the success of this series (and the greenlighting of its sequel) means we are in for a deliciously entertaining Benoit Blanc cinematic universe.

FULL REVIEW

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What the price for living out your convictions and your faith, even when every one else chooses to compromise with evil? This is precisely the question Terence Malick looks to masterfully explore as he examines the life Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian farmer who conscientiously refused to support the Nazis in World War II. In his typical meditative style, Malick walks us through the life of this quiet and gentle man as, like in the temptations of Christ, he is led through a whole gamut of people seeking to persuade him to change his convictions and to save him from his impending execution for treason. Some try intimidation, others try to argue for compromise, religious leaders try to theologize fidelity to government, friends try to argue for his personal safety. Malick of course provides no answers as to why Franz chooses to stand against the overwhelming pressure to bow to Hitler especially when presented with so many ways out. But he chooses to frame his images in the spirit of goodness and beauty and makes it impossible not to find meditative and poignant parallels between this past and our world today. In any case, we should all be glad because this movie is indication that Malick is indeed back.

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3. LITTLE WOMEN dir. Greta Gerwig

Perhaps what is most remarkable about this umpteenth adaptation of Little Women is how vibrant and modern Greta Gerwig is able to make it seem. Gerwig deftly toes the line between capturing the spirit of the beloved novel while boldly pushing the story into bold and new territory in how she arranges the narrative. By jumping back and forth between two timelines, one where the March sisters are firmly in adulthood and the other set seven years earlier, the movie frequently asks us to jump between the novel’s joys and sorrows in such a way that magnifies both of these emotional extremes. Also Gerwig accomplishes the impossible by turning Amy, long the closest thing the novel had for a villain, into what might arguably be the most compelling arc of the whole movie. This should’ve been a shoo-in for so many nominations come awards season, and is rightly the movie that should feel most snubbed (see: Laura Dern).

FULL REVIEW

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2. PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE dir. Céline Sciamma

If The Lighthouse is a deep-study in how toxic masculinity in isolation literally destroys, Portrait of a Lady on Fire provides a stunning contrast as director Céline Sciamma brings us intimately close to the lives of a two women who form a community of love and friendship in the midst of a society that regards them second-class citizens. The story of what happens to Marianne (Noémie Merlant), a young painter commissioned to make a portrait, and Héloïse (Adele Haenel), the unwilling subject who is betrothed against her will, is one that unravels slowly and sensuously. It is a deliberately paced movie punctuated by little glances and pointed movements that betray a well of hidden emotions. And as the title of the movie suggests, at some point the icy tone of the movie gives way to fire and then watch out. I spent the last fifteen minutes of the movie as close to breathless as humanly possible, and have barely spent a day without the movie returning to my thoughts. If the trajectory of Sciamma’s career continues like this, perhaps one day we will be celebrating her like the director of the movie below.

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1. PARASITE dir. Bong Joon-Ho

This here represents my happiest of crises. Almost every year I find myself vehemently disagreeing with the Oscars almost as a matter of pride, especially in light of last year where they seemed to retreat to their most safe and predictable habits. But here we are, living in a world where Parasite, a complex but effortless parable of wealth and inequality that switches masterfully between tones, is deemed the best movie of the year and I can hardly argue with it. The arrival of Bong Joon-Ho in America as a director to be reckoned with is long overdue but it is certainly one to be celebrated. Hopefully it ushers in an age in which movies in other languages are discovered by mainstream moviegoers, and if that comes at the cost of me losing the Academy as my punching bag for at least a year, so much the better.

FULL REVIEW

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