And now, at long last… my favorite films of 2019! Overall, I watched 150 movies, which is about the upper limit I set for myself as an amateur film critic. I’ve counted films that had an original theatrical or streaming release in the United States in 2019.
With those parameters set, let’s dive right in! We start, of course, with…
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Ash Is Purest White (Jiang hu er nü)
The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open
Pain and Glory (Dolor y gloria)
The Wild Pear Tree (Ahlat Ağacı)
Kent Jones’s debut feature film is a near-flawless character study, anchored by the great Mary Kay Place in a quietly devastating performance. Diane leads a relatively normal retired life, making time for volunteer work, caring for her drug-addled son, and spending time with her extended family. Hardly the realm of the cinematic, right? Jones and Place prove otherwise, as they patiently reveal our title character’s vast store of regrets, and her altruistic activities as a kind of penance. With a steady hand and unexpected flourish, the film sees Diane running away from the past, from responsibility, and ultimately from death, even as all these things must catch up to her eventually. She is not content to make amends with the past; she endeavors, fruitlessly, to expunge it—even as we know she must fail. Diane makes the life of one person a domain of endless possibility, one we empathize with in spite of (or because of?) its flaws.
9. Ad Astra
“Apocalypse Now in space” may not seem especially appetizing these days, if this film’s box office receipts are any measure. No matter, because James Gray’s interstellar meditation offers an often wondrous exploration of one man’s psyche and the vast reaches of our solar system. Every time we glimpse its awe-inspiring sights—blue Neptunian vistas, moon pirates, and of course, space baboons—Ad Astra brings us back to one man’s very relatable, earthbound problems. It imagines a future of beauty, horror, and even the mundane—fertile ground for a mind to wander and reassess one’s priorities. Central to making it all work is Brad Pitt (in what may be a career-best performance), seemingly doing as little as possible while remaining absolutely compelling. Ad Astra reminds us that the transcendent sights and experiences we seek among the stars may wait patiently in the universe of our own lives.
8. Long Day’s Journey into Night (Diqiu zuihou de yewan)
Bi Gan’s slow, meandering reminiscence almost defies categorization. It’s at times beguiling, at others befuddling, but so thoroughly committed to its own emotional wavelength that I couldn’t help but succumb to its rhythms. As Jue Huang’s Hongwu returns to his hometown of Kaili, the past and present collide and intertwine, while conjecture and imagination wait in the wings. Bi constantly unmoors us, as the ceiling from one scene becomes the floor for another, or a dingy overhead lamp wreathed in rainwater and light appears to spark with color. But unlike other dreamlike films, this one isn’t content to stay completely surreal. It exists in an uncanny valley, truer to the experience of memory than most films, real or surreal, dare to be. It lives in some weird liminal space, capturing the way we struggle to make sense of our past, and ultimately, decide for ourselves what’s important.
7. Marriage Story
Noah Baumbach’s harrowing drama about family and divorce pulls no punches; it’s a no-holds-barred, knock-down, drag-out, battle for custody in the wake of a messy separation. Not to say the film gives in to miserabilism; rather, it provides the opportunity for two people to be completely themselves, with all pretensions and pleasantries cast aside. Boasting Baumbach’s signature screwball style but rife with devastating dramatic turns, Marriage Story shows how easily two people can turn an initially amicable parting into a veritable duel to the death. And yet, it’s also a chance for Scarlett Johansson’s Nicole and Adam Driver’s Charlie to discover new facets of themselves, as one world closes and another opens. We see their best and worst selves laid bare, their emotional stores exhausted—but their capacity for love and forgiveness mercifully intact. If there’s hope for these two, there’s hope for us all.
6. Little Women
Even as a big fan of Greta Gerwig’s debut Lady Bird, I didn’t expect to love this movie as much as I did. Here is a story that has been adapted countless times, but Gerwig injects it with a modern sensibility while illuminating the book’s inherent strengths. Still, the familiar contours of the original story can’t prepare you for the way Gerwig chooses to play with structure. Leaping between past and present, while jarring at first, effectively erases the boundaries of time, offering a more complete portrait of our characters. She creates a through-line for each of them, so that we see who they were and who they will become. And what unforgettable, lovable characters they are! It’s an ingenious and empathetic approach, buttoned nicely by the way Gerwig playfully riffs on Louisa May Alcott’s original, more compromised ending. This is the rare adaptation that may become as treasured as its beloved source material.
5. The Last Black Man in San Francisco
Joe Talbot’s debut feature film plays like a kind of cinematic picaresque, replete with a rogue’s gallery of misfits and miscreants, as our hero Jimmie Fails reckons with the changing face of his hometown. On a quixotic quest to regain his family homestead in almost entirely gentrified San Francisco, Fails and his friend Mont spend their days skateboarding to compensate for unreliable public transportation, rubbing elbows with neighborhood roughs, and dealing with family members who run the spectrum from amiable to abrasive. As a result, the film balances many different tonal realities, with heartbreak and tragedy giving way to disarmingly funny comedic set-pieces. We’ve never seen the City by the Bay quite like this, lurid and grotesque at times, cozy and heartwarming at others. This is a film made by people who both love and hate their city, and it feels all the more authentic as a result.
Between this film and Phoenix, Christian Petzold has been making historical thrillers that play more like ghost stories. Adapting a WWII-set novel to modern times, Transit exists in strange purgatory, a half-world that taps into history’s scars while anticipating the wounds of the future. We follow Franz Rogowski’s Georg, a refugee who steals another man’s identity to escape Marseille…but can’t quite bring himself to leave. Building tension in subtle, devious ways, Petzold presents us with a character pulled in multiple directions, contemplating (or not) his role and responsibility to others. Even as Georg forges intimate relationships with multiple characters, each of them seems weirdly ephemeral, and there’s no guarantee we’ll ever see them again. As we track the resurgence of fascism in our own world (dressed up disturbingly in the trappings of the present), this film may prove eerily prescient.
3. The Lighthouse
There’s so much in The Lighthouse about the effects of loneliness, of toxic masculinity and self-imposed guilt, but what I love most about Robert Eggers’s latest nightmare vision is its assault on the senses. Boots scraping across moldy floorboards. The fetid stench of chamber-pots. The roiling surf, pummeling the rocky shore like the fists of an angry sea-god. It’s all captured in primordial black and white photography, observing the proceedings with alternating coldness and cackling glee. What better way to watch Robert Pattinson’s and Willem Dafoe’s hapless “wickies” descend slowly, mercilessly into madness? And once we get to the totally bonkers finale, Eggers doesn’t disappoint, with trippy, eye-rending horrors aplenty. We don’t just witness the terror of isolation; we practically live it, in all its stark, slimy glory. And it only becomes more relatable the further into Covid-19 quarantine we go.
2. Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu)
I have a special place in my heart for films that tap into romantic yearning, whether of the requited or unrequited variety. And if you’ve ever loved someone, or maybe more precisely, desired someone, you’d be hard-pressed not to find a part of yourself here. Céline Sciamma’s haunting period piece begins as an artistic con job but eventually gives way to a fiery affair that threatens to engulf Noémie Merlant’s Marianne & Adèle Haenel’s Héloïse (quite literally at one point). Sciamma homes in on minute details instead of holistic images, giving priority to the ways hands touch, eyes stare, and objects burn. She gives tasteful but passionate rendering to every interaction, as if the intensity of their too-brief encounter may serve as a balm for their futures. Portrait thrums with an energy we feel in our bones, one we can only hope to live, even for a moment.
1. Parasite (Gisaengchung)
In case you were wondering, yes—Bong Joo-ho made the best con movie, door farce, horror-thriller, social satire, AND family drama of the year. Even the Academy couldn’t deny its power, awarding it Best Picture, the first (!!!) film in a foreign language to take home the top prize. One cannot deny the craft on display here, whether technical or narrative. Plot developments that would feel like contrivance in any other story feel completely organic here, because we know how quickly these characters can turn on a dime. Every performance is perfectly pitched, complementing one another while navigating vast shifts in tone and genre. And the ending has the kind of whimsical poetry that sneaks up on you, clarifying just how much you care about this family despite their conniving schemes. Parasite doesn’t just live up to the hype; it exceeds and then explodes it.
And with that, we will leave 2019 well alone. Join me in another eon for my 2020 retrospective!