2019 felt like a particularly good year; or at least one in which mentioning ten excellent films didn’t feel sufficient. We had stellar output from movie royalty (Agnès Varda, Martin Scorsese, Pedro Almodóvar), exciting new projects from young filmmakers (the Safdies, Lulu Wang, Robert Eggers), and plenty of in-between (Joanna Hogg! Célinne Sciamma! Christian Petzold!). Plenty of hay has been made about the stagnant saturation of studio films, which has seemingly made a devil’s pact with corporations to only promote franchise properties. As Scorsese has said, risk has been all but removed from Hollywood. This has, sadly, made challenging, original work harder to find. But that does not mean that they aren’t there. If anything, it has made their existence that much more exciting. Here are my favorites:
20. Knives Out
Where everyone is a suspect and nobody is clean. Rian Johnson heroically escapes Star Wars and goes straight into another deft carving of popular Hollywood genre. A phenomenal ensemble, a thrilling, unpredictable screenplay, and astonishingly confident directing. This “donut” of a murder mystery unfurls with so much energy (and a nice dash of socio-economic commentary), that it’s easy to forget that a stunning death lies at the center of it.
19-18. Varda by Agnès & Toni Morrison: The Pieces That I Am
Where the work of two brilliant women are described, appreciated and contextualized thoroughly – by the very artists themselves, no less. They highlight all of the professional highs and the emotional lows, and you may find yourself, while watching The Pieces I Am and Varda by Agnès, asking “Have we ever deserved these two geniuses?” The answer is no, but how lucky we are that they choose to share this with us anyway.
17. The Last Black Man in San Francisco
Where a man gets to tell his story, over and over, to anyone who will listen, caring little for its veracity, and only about its impact. Jimmie Fails gets the opportunity to play a fictionalized version of himself, and his friend and director Joe Talbot treats that privilege with great care and sensitivity, crafting a lush, sobering ballad for one of the last great beacons of the American West Coast, and also explains how it’s dying.
16. The Farewell
Where East and West collide in an ethical dilemma, as a family deals with their decision to keep a secret. Billi (Awkwafina) lives in New York, but her grandmother (a perfect Zhao Shuzhen) still lives in China. Despite their closeness, one generation is forced to conform with the traditions of another, and feelings of mourning and betrayal mix together into something surprisingly warm and moving.
Where some people live above and some below, and the journey from one to the other proves more harrowing than one would think. Bong Joon-ho, one of our most studied practitioners of dramatic metaphor, places two families inside a house of luxury (and horrors), where fortunes meant to be flipped instead explode into one another – and the lesson is relearned that moving up the class ladder always has its price.
14. Everybody Knows
Where master Asghar Farhadi again proves his unmatched skill for familial tension and suffocating plots. In Spain, a kidnapping uncovers too many secrets than a single family can handle, and while there are those who wish to right their wrongs, others are fixated by grudges from the past – and the vulnerable stay exploited.
13. Uncut Gems
Where a man’s vices join forces with his bad luck to give him a feature-length string of unfortunate news that may threaten his life and the life of his family. Hilarious, brutal, surprisingly touching. There’s a certain, unsung vision of New York that the Safdie brothers are committed to portraying, and sliding Adam Sandler into that vision was the perfect collaboration that none of us knew we needed.
Where time and place are disassociated, and the threat of Nazi takeover is placed in an unnaturally modern setting. Writer-director Christian Petzold brings us another jigsaw plot filled with ethical dilemmas and dramatic irony, and once again his characters are harmed as much by what they do know as what they don’t. Will these characters escape the alarming rise of fascism? Will we?
11. Her Smell
Where the horrid hellscapes of egomania and self-destruction are forced so uncomfortably together, and the specters of malice-fueled 90’s grunge rock are brought to life with stunning, heartbreaking clarity through a career-best performance from Elisabeth Moss. Courtney Love comparisons are easy, but director Alex Ross Perry seems legitimately concerned with the emotional plight of his rock star, and ponders the question: “Would we even be concerned with this behavior if it wasn’t a woman?”
10. The Irishman
Where one of the greatest masters of cinema – Martin Scorsese – pays homage to the Goodfellas we have come to love, while also affectionately digging their grave. De Niro, Pacino, Pesci, Keitel, among others, come together to play within Scorsese’s death waltz, which is funny, violent, shockingly empathetic and above all, powerfully reflective.
9. The Lighthouse
Where the lines between what is real and unreal disappear quickly, and two actors (Robert Pattinson, Willem Dafoe) make a tight, structured script feel completely unhinged. Writer-Director Robert Eggers abandons any sense of logic and normal human behavior, and instead creates a fever dream shot in a thick, inky black-and-white. A letterboxed aspect ratio adds to the claustrophobia, but it’s the commitment of his actors that will likely make you the most uncomfortable.
8. Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Where the power of images overwhelm the need for plot or exposition, and the power of love is expressed through subtle gestures. Art and romance commingle, as we’re shown the influence of passion on our personal relationships as well as our inspiration for creation. The film itself is a stunning work of art, a lush costume drama about the tragedy of a doomed romance, and the hope that may come with it.
7. Pain & Glory
Where Antonio Banderes and Pedro Almodóvar weave a duet of somber reflection, and a famous man looks back when he meets someone from his past. This has been called Alodóvar’s most “autobiographical” film, and it separates itself from his earlier, more melodramatic work. Banderes, the Spanish auteur’s most beloved actor, gives a career-best performance as a man trapped in his body and mind, only finding escape through the power of his memory.
Where the stark emotions of the characters become one with the filmmaking and you become immersed inside of a family’s harrowing journey. A son and a daughter both feel the pressures of a demanding father, though they don’t react in the same way. This film lies within the gulf between the two children, a canyon filled with grief and resentment so strong, the audience is left wobbling by the very power of it.
5. Little Women
Where unquestionably great source material is reimagined, and the worlds of four young women can feel representative of life itself. Gerwig follows Lady Bird with this titanic effort – a costume epic with the humble soul of a modest drama; a truly literary (and literate) film about sisterhood, ambition and love. The combination of Gerwig and actress Saoirse Ronan may be the most fruitful currently working in the movies right now, and not to mention the rest of this incredible ensemble cast.
4. The Souvenir
Where a young film student wants to create great art and in the process finds a terrible boyfriend with whom she still manages to love. Joanna Hogg’s fourth film is her most personal, a powerful drama about the difficulty that comes with trying to expel someone from your heart, when they have already taken up full residency. The plot is familiar but the execution is anything but, and Honor Swinton Byrne (Tilda’s daughter) is a complete revelation.
3. Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood
Where the Summer of ’69 is put right up on the screen, and the Manson Murders creep tediously around two men who watch anxiously as the culture passes them by. Leonardo DiCaprio has never been better than this, and he’s not even the best performance in the movie – that’s Brad Pitt. Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate is sunny, oblivious, but this instant classic from Tarantino has more in mind than true crime.
2. Birds of Passage
Where even the most niche of New World catastrophes are shown to be touched by the malice of colonialism and the greed of capitalism. One village marries into another, and in an attempt to gain pride and status, a dangerous drug trade begins, and no one realizes until it’s too late: no generational traditions, no spiritual catharsis, no honorable talisman can prevent the damage done by material greed.
1. Marriage Story
Where Noah Baumbach takes Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver and asks them to inflict unspeakable pain on one another – in the name of love. It thoroughly, methodically suffocates the idea of an “amicable divorce”, and has the boldness to expose the end of love as what it really is: a bloodbath. Baumbach’s sardonic melancholy has never been more human, and he’s never had an ensemble cast who more perfectly executes it.
Honorable Mention: Matthew McConaughey is at his alright-alright-alright best in Harmony Korine’s wildly good The Beach Bum; Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life was a work of stunning beauty; Hustlers proved the kind of movie stardom that Jennifer Lopez is capable of; Diane has a performance form Mary Kay Place that is among the year’s best; Alfre Woodard is so good in Clemency it transforms it from an overwrought issue drama into a piercing chracter study; Peterloo goes to the root of Mike Leigh’s stark, populist origins; Claire Denis proves the majesty of space to be a death chamber in High Life; Mark Ruffalo shows grit in Todd Haynes’ Dark Waters, a legal procedural that pulsates with the rush of a crime thriller.