The Top 10 Movies of 2019

1 01 2020

176 movies later, and it’s pencils down on the year in film.

Like always, I wait until the very last minute to file a top 10 list. I either want to spend time rewatching films to make sure I think they can withstand scrutiny in the future or cramming in a final few. But with the notable exception of a late-surging final entrant and some jostling for position among the top five titles, my favorite films of the year have been remarkably stable.

I’ll have slightly more profound ruminating around my best of the decade list that will drop shortly than I do here. Normally I opine on some grander theme or mood, perhaps a through-line I find or something else that makes this more than just a random scattering of movies with numbers attached. Turns out, even after celebrating 10 years at doing this in 2019, I may only have enough juice in me for a single year-end thematic list.

Anyways, that’s enough with my chitter-chatter … because, after all, you really just came to know the movies and rankings! Though I alluded to how easy this year’s list was to assemble, I do want to give a shout-out to a few other films that meant a lot in 2019:

  • “Clemency,” an extraordinary look at America’s prison system and the moral choices it forces from all who interact with it – as seen through the eyes of a black woman
  • “Knives Out,” the kind of joyous original entertainment for smart moviegoers that I spend all year carping for more of, delivered with a killer topical twinge
  • “The Irishman,” a film with such multitudes about life, art and death that a single watch feels like only skimming the surface
  • “Transit,” a groundbreaking merger of period piece and current political drama that makes bold aesthetic choices seem simple
  • “High Life,” which taught me more about how to watch a movie than anything I’ve seen outside of a film studies classroom

Now, on with the show…

Mary Kay Place in Diane

#10
“Diane”
Written and directed by Kent Jones
Starring Mary Kay Place, Jake Lacy and Andrea Martin

I’m always a sucker for everyday Sisyphean tales where it feels like a character is trapped in a monotonous cycle going nowhere. Film often fails to capture the moments that consume most of our days on this earth: routines, dead air, commonplace acts of devotion, sacrifice and selfishness. Kent Jones, best known to many as the director of the New York Film Festival, brings all his encyclopedic knowledge of the medium and prodigious understanding of its power to render a simple tale into an extraordinary one. With the help of an extraordinary performance of quiet grace and longing from Mary Kay Place, a treasured character actor deservedly thrust into a leading role, Jones walks us side by side with his titular character as her service-oriented life seemingly only spawns loss and thanklessness. Not since “Manchester by the Sea” has any moviegoing experience been so simultaneously devastating and perversely life-affirming.

The Cast of Little Women

#9
“Little Women”
Written for the screen and directed by Greta Gerwig
Starring Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson and Florence Pugh

This is, admittedly, the title I wrestled with including the most. I’ve spent the better part of a year hyping “Little Women” up in my head after “Lady Bird” quite literally changed my life. This did compel me to prepare for the film by reading Louisa May Alcott’s book for the first time, although my procrastinating impulse did prevail and lead me to finish it merely hours before sitting down for the screening. I’m certainly glad I did because Gerwig’s film is not for beginners. Her “Little Women” is like a graduate level seminar on the novel: breaking it down, refining it to its elemental core and structure, then reassembling it. There’s no way I caught all her genius moves in one watch, and I’m prepared to say I know they are there waiting for me to discover. While I might have found the viewing experience a bit jarring, my appreciation for her craft has only grown in the weeks since seeing the film. Maybe right now I’d put something else on this list, but I left “Lady Bird” off in 2017 doubting how much more there was left to discover. I’m not making that mistake again, especially since I spent the last 30 minutes of “Little Women” either fighting back tears or indulging the full waterworks. (Hopefully more on this to come…)

Los Reyes still

#8
“Los Reyes”
Directed by Iván Osnovikoff and Bettina Perut

Who said experimental films have to be boring exercises in thought? In “Los Reyes,” Osnovikoff and Perut set out to find the language of narrative and aesthetics to tell the story of two park-dwelling dogs in Santiago, Chile. There’s no language, no talking heads, no anthropomorphization. Just the daily rhythms of Football and Chola as they amble through life. For 71 minutes, it feels like we are truly inside the minds of two dogs, living life and experiencing the world around us as canines. This documentary’s achievement is remarkable yet humbly presented. It’s easy to miss just how radical the stylistic choices of Osnovikoff and Perut are because we’re also falling head over heels for the two precious pooches at the film’s center.

Cast of Lue

#7
“Luce”
Directed by Julius Onah
Written for the screen by Julius Onah and J.C. Lee
Starring Kelvin Harrison, Jr., Naomi Watts and Octavia Spencer

“Luce” feels like our time capsule movie for race relations in America, circa 2019. It’s as much about what we talk about when we talk about race as it is about what we cannot – or will not – say about it. The script ranks among the few to be as clear-eyed about whiteness as it is about blackness. A provocative paper written by the titular star black student is just the spark to set off a tinderbox of suspicions, fears and false assumptions. Despite deriving from a theatrical context, “Luce” never feels stagey. Though conversations can be frank, the film’s power comes heavily from quiet moments amplified by the proximity granted in film. It’s as much about when a character decides to willfully ignore the truth and reify their prejudices and privilege as any conversation about race, power and inequality. Onah occupies the ambiguous space in between our dialogue and makes us feel rightly unsettled by what’s possible within the status quo.

American Factory still

#6
“American Factory”
Directed by Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert

Bognar and Reichert’s documentary is nothing less than U.S.-China relations in microcosm. “American Factory” translates macroeconomic forces into the most human possible terms as it examines the effects of a Chinese glass company taking over the infrastructure of a former GM plant in rural Ohio. A company town associated with an emblematic output of the American century must adjust to performing labor under Chinese standards, and the resultant friction between the two societies and economies – as seen from both sides of the cultural exchange – makes for the year’s highest stakes drama. The observant but never judgmental camera of Bognar and Reichert captures many a moment that feels like it will be eerily prescient for the years ahead. “American Factory” may well be the movie from the 2010s that feels like it portends the decades to come. If the 2020s make it clearer that the 21st century is not an American one, this documentary may echo with the ominous sound of a canary in the coal mine.

Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson in Marriage Story

#5
“Marriage Story”
Written and directed by Noah Baumbach
Starring Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson and Laura Dern

For how startlingly common divorce is in our world, there are very few films centered around the experience. Writer/director Noah Baumbach, free of some of the acerbic and ironic tendencies that define his (stellar) body of work, provides what is debatably the best divorce movie to date. At the very least, it’s the most complete. “Marriage Story” captures the many contours of this life-altering event from dimensions economic and emotional, personal and professional. The dissolution of the union between Charlie and Nicole unfolds chronologically, but the strange and delayed echoes of their experiences coming to terms with what is lost and looking ahead towards a different future makes for an unexpected journey. Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson give their all so that their characters reflect the full spectrum of feeling: sad, angry, terrified, tender, grateful.

 

Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson in The Lighthouse

#4
“The Lighthouse”
Directed by Robert Eggers
Written by Robert and Max Eggers
Starring Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe

Often times, watching a movie with relentless ambiguity leaves me head-scratching when leaving the theater as I ask myself what it all means. Not so with Robert Eggers’ “The Lighthouse.” That doesn’t mean I have the movie “solved,” so to speak. That’s not what this experience is about. But from the film’s first moments, I got on a particular wavelength of this Freudian mystery box and located a tale of repressed desires, latent sexuality, emasculation, powerlessness and so much more. This might not be my favorite Robert Pattinson performance to date, but it’s undeniably his most committed – both physically and emotionally. It’s riveting to watch such a conventionally desirable physical specimen rendered so useless. His Ephraim is both frustrated by his inability to live up to his own self-image and haunted by a mysterious past that even he cannot seem to make sense of. I cannot wait to continue deepening my understanding of the read I have on the film through rewatches, in large part because I expect to find multiple other threads to unravel in my explorations.

Parasite family

#3
“Parasite”
Directed by Bong Joon Ho
Written by Bong Joon Ho and Jin Won Han
Starring Song Kang Ho, Choi Woo Shik and Park So Dam

What is there left to say about Bong Joon Ho’s regal accomplishment that hasn’t been said? Or better yet, that the movie doesn’t say for itself? “Parasite” is the year’s most perfect film. I don’t think there’s a shot out of place, a moment that isn’t earned or a scene that isn’t played correctly. It’s a precision instrument that moves sleekly and assuredly in the confident hands of director Bong. The film announces itself as a likely future classic with its mix of timely commentary and timeless filmmaking. What a gift, what an experience.

Tom Hanks as Mr. Rogers in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

#2
“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”
Directed by Marielle Heller
Written by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster
Starring Matthew Rhys, Tom Hanks and Chris Cooper

“We have all been children and have had children’s feelings, but many of us have forgotten,” said Mr. Rogers. “It’s not our fault, but we have forgotten.” Marielle Heller’s powerful film “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” the ultimate tribute to Fred Rogers’ immense capacity for empathy and understanding, is a gift that arrives to help us remember. The film is structured like an episode of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” for adults, and the effect is to make us children once more to feel the emotions we’re often taught to downplay or ignore with their full force. No film has made me cry this much since “Inside Out,” and no film has ever made me want to be a better person more – and actually helped me institute lasting changes. Thank you Tom Hanks for channeling Mr. Rogers in all his patience and gentility. Thank you Marielle Heller for finding a way to tell this story that is inventive and intellectual without ever sacrificing emotionality. This movie is a blessing for a world that could always do better to remember Mr. Rogers’ teachings.

Elisabeth Moss in Her Smell

#1
“Her Smell”
Written and directed by Alex Ross Perry
Starring Elisabeth Moss, Agyness Deyn and Gayle Rankin

I saw “Her Smell” at the 2018 New York Film Festival, so it’s been in my life for quite some time. It started 2019 as my favorite movie of the year, and it withstood some real incoming fire to stay that way. What can I say? This unexpectedly moving tribute to how a network of friends support a self-destructive rockstar has lingered. Alex Ross Perry takes us to the gates of hell with Elisabeth Moss’ electric Becky Something, the performance of the year (although it feels more like a possession of the actress by a supernatural force), and brings us back without hokey transformation. The addictive, compulsive part of Becky will never go away. It can only be managed and, hopefully, controlled with the help of those who persevered through her most calamitous episodes. Perry’s decision to focus on the film’s structure, emulating a Shakespearean five-act framework with a quintet of self-contained scenes, never feels like a purely intellectual exercise. We experience tragic downfall and – perhaps – the potential for redemption. I’ve seen the film thrice now, and it’s not just the surprise of an unexpectedly humanist Alex Ross Perry film. This is the real deal.

That’s a wrap on 2019! (Kind of…)


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