Top 10 Films of 2019:
The 2010s ended with a year that will be remembered for our greatest filmmakers offering up films that were distinctly theirs – true directorial visions that often felt like a summation of their entire body of work. Also emerging were some truly original new voices (see my #7 pick!). My Top 10 gives a sense of the variety 2019 offered moviegoers: class-warfare thrillers, doomed romances, a social experiment with a 56-year-old film series, and aging artists looking back (these might not be their final films and yet they feel like elegies). In an era marked by unlimited streaming content options, and the monopolistic handle of a major motion picture studio, I believe these films will be a part of the cinematic conversation for a very long time.
1. Portrait of a Lady on Fire
In a year defined by monumental achievements by some of our very best veteran filmmakers, nothing took my breath away like French writer-director Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire. This isn’t just the best film of 2019 – it’s one of the very best films of the decade. A female artist, Marianne (Noémie Merlant), is hired to paint a portrait of a spirited young noblewoman, Heloise (Adèle Haenel), for an arranged marriage she doesn’t want, and finds herself falling for the would-be bride. The movie beautifully illustrates how art can capture genuine passion – their slow-burning romance unfolding through a series of stolen glances, the ever-increasing intensity of them holding the possibility of melting the barrier between them. Sciamma presents an 18th century story in which every single character in the film is a woman – where a lesbian romance, abortions, and sisterhood seem commonplace in a time of close-mindedness. The movie is exquisitely composed – every shot a kind of portrait itself. I’ll never forget the spellbinding a cappella sequence. Or the ending, which ranks among the all-time greats. As far as lush period romances go, this is the ultimate. To be released in theatres on Feb 14th, 2020.
Articulating what makes Parasite one of the very best films of the year is a difficult feat. I wouldn’t dare spoil any of its twists and turns. It’s a film you must experience. South Korean master filmmaker Bong Joon Ho jumps genres like a DJ. Parasite starts off as a social satire. Then it becomes a mystery. Then a thriller. Then a horror movie of sorts before ending on a note of wistful sadness. And despite the eclecticism, there’s an expert control of tone as the film tracks the intertwined fates of two families: one rich and the other poor. The members of the struggling Kim family find ways to insinuate themselves inside the wealthy host home of the Parks. Despite the richness of its cultural specificity, I can’t think of another movie this year that made me sadder about the state of the world, yet more thrilled about the state of cinema. In theatres and available to rent on Jan 28, 2020.
3. Ash Is Purest White
The most overlooked film on my list, Chinese writer-director Jia Zhangke’s story centers on a gangster’s girlfriend (Zhao Tao, spectacular) who takes the fall for her man (Liao Fan). Released from prison five years later, she goes searching for him in central China. What she finds, I will not reveal. Ash Is Purest White has a three-part narrative spanning decades – Zhangke shows us a changing China through the lives of its characters. At no point did I know where this story was going and I was enthralled. Everything unfolds organically. Even some potentially absurd developments have a true-to-life quality here. It’s got a ruminative power and it stays with you long after the credits have rolled. Weirdly funny. Heartbreaking. Sprawling. Epic. Ash Is Purest White is the best gangster film of 2019. And no, I haven’t forgotten that this year gave us Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman. We’ll get to that next. Available to rent on iTunes.
4. The Irishman
Most of the discourse surrounding Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman had to do with his comments about the MCU not being cinema, the 3.5-hour length of the film, the de-aging technology that shot up the film’s massive price tag, and how many lines of dialogue Anna Paquin’s character had. Now that the dust has settled on all that, we can begin to unpack its many layers. It’s Goodfellas by way of Silence – the energetic direction of the younger Scorsese coupled with something more elegiac and ruminative. That something is the promise of mortality and what awaits mafia hitman Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro). However you choose to view it – as a statement on tribal loyalty and male violence, a comment on American history, a showcase for some of the best actors in film history, or a veteran director casting a plaintive eye on his own storied legacy – it’s a masterpiece. What is cinema? This! In theatres and streaming on Netflix.
5. Marriage Story
Divorce is discussed in Noah Baumbach’s insightful and deeply compassionate film as death without a body. Since the person’s not gone, that makes it worse than death, doesn’t it? The film opens with a couple (Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson) telling us what they love about each other. We then discover that this is an exercise for a therapist helping them separate. In addition to the messy feelings, we get a sense of just how logistically difficult it is to end a marriage; especially once the lawyers get involved. The best movies see us as we truly are. We see the good and bad of both characters without being asked to choose a side. As a divorce dissection (Baumbach’s own), Marriage Story is up there with Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes From A Marriage. Hilarious and heartbreaking in equal measure. In theatres and streaming on Netflix.
6. The Souvenir
All cinema lovers have blind spots and mine was Joanna Hogg until recently. In the elusive semi-autobiographical drama, The Souvenir, a young film school student, Julie (Honor Swinton-Byrne), falls for an older man, Anthony (Tom Burke). He has opinions on art and takes her on extravagant trips. He’s also a junkie and pathological liar. We know he is bad news but Julie is too naïve at first to figure it out. The Souvenir is a portrait of addiction from the outside, a superhero origin story (yes, Ms. Hogg attains that status!), a story of obsessive love and how it reduces even the most intelligent among us into irrational fools. The elliptical editing is well matched with this story of transformation in all its disorienting, nonlinear glamour. It feels like a movie from another era – shot on 16mm, it has the sort of texture that feels largely absent from current releases. And in Honor Swinton-Byrne, we bear witness to one of the best debut performances. Ever. Available to rent on iTunes.
A simultaneously depressing and exhilarating experience: here’s another example of a film that may not leave you feeling hopeful about the state of the world but you’ll be ecstatic about the current state of movies. Set in the coastal city of Dakar, Senegal, Atlantics follows a grieving young woman whose love has disappeared into the sea. She’s forced to marry another man by her family only for her wedding to be attacked by an arsonist. An intoxicating amalgam: a love story, a detective story, a ghost story, a political allegory, a female empowerment story. Even seasoned filmmakers would struggle with this tonal juggling act. Imagine my surprise to find out this was a feature debut by filmmaker Mati Diop. A startlingly assured one too – this is pure cinema! I can’t wait to see what she does next. Streaming on Netflix.
8. Once Upon A Time…in Hollywood
Frustrated with the way some occurrences in history have played out, Quentin Tarantino has used the cinematic tools at his disposal to present us with a revisionist opus. The movie is theoretically about what would become the murder of Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). But, really, it’s a hangout movie – we get to spend time with fading actor, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his faithful stunt man, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). There’s a foreboding sense of danger because … well, Charles Manson (Damon Herriman). Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood is a tribute to Tarantino’s obsessions. This is a movie only he could have made and made this far into his career. His love for this world permeates every exchange. It’s his vision of a 1969 Los Angeles that might have been had it not been for that one horrific night. What is cinema? Watching Margot Robbie’s character watch herself on film. Available to rent on iTunes.
9. A Hidden Life
Terrence Malick’s deeply impressionistic A Hidden Life recounts the true story of a Catholic Austrian farmer named Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl), who refused to swear allegiance to Hitler and was arrested for the decision. It’s message of doing the right thing, regardless of the consequences, couldn’t be timelier in these uncertain, deeply polarizing times. And Malick couldn’t have told this story more beautifully. His signature poetic aesthetics remain intact here: he uses light, movement, texture, and sound to capture the undisturbed natural world. There’s also the whispery internal-monologue narration. Here’s an intimate epic that feels as monumental as the questions it raises. That’s why Terrence Malick is one of my favorite filmmakers – he has the courage to take on eternal questions. And yet I was unprepared for the film’s sheer emotional impact – it steamrolled my heart! I said this about The Irishman, and Ash is Purest White, but this too feels like a career summation. In theatres.
10. 63 Up
63 Up might be the final chapter in one of the most ambitious undertakings in the history of cinema. Every seven years, director Michael Apted revisits the same 14 people from whose lives he’s been chronicling since they were seven years old in 1964. I’m relieved that some of its subjects turned out better than I expected. There are sad turns of course. Such is life. But we get the full sweep of it. Seeing them play as children, talking about their hopes and dreams as young adults, what they’ve achieved in middle age, and now, what they’re hoping to take stock of and hold onto as the exit signs approach. It was incredibly poignant seeing these people become who they are. I don’t know how long Apted, who is now 78 years old, and his participants will be able to continue. And yet, I didn’t feel sad exiting the cinema – just contemplative and grateful for being alive. In theatres.
Honorable Mentions: 1917, Anne at 13000 Ft, Blinded by the Light, Honeyland, Invisible Life, Midsommar, The Nightingale, Pain & Glory, Uncut Gems, Waves