2019 was one of the best years for film of the decade thanks to a late surge in quality towards the end of the year. I saw a personal record of 78 movies this year, and had an incredibly difficult time putting together this list. As always, this will be a [spoiler-free] take on the films in question. Without further ado:
Honeyland is about Hatidže Muratova, a woman in her 50s living out in the secluded village of Bekirlija, Macedonia. Hatidže sustains herself and her mother by harvesting honey from beehives that she maintains and then travels into the market to sell it. Everything is going great, and the movie is calm and quiet… until a large family with five children moves in right next to her, and the film becomes much, much noisier. The most admirable thing about this movie is that while it plays as an independent narrative film, it is, in fact, a documentary. Somehow the cameras are absolutely invisible to these people as the story plays out. If I didn’t know this were a documentary going in, I would have been sure it was a scripted allegory for humans as an invasive species. The fact that it is entirely composed of recorded events is an incredible achievement, and makes its message even more poignant.
The term “Lovecraftian” is sometimes misappropriated, but nowhere have I seen it more apt than when applied to The Lighthouse. Robert Eggers’s tale of slowly-growing madness as Robert Patterson and Willem Defoe are trapped together in a lighthouse is a singular directorial vision. The film is told from Patterson’s point of view and shot as though if were a horror piece from the 1940s, down to the film stock and practical effects. The audience is forced to rely on an unreliable narrator unraveling at the seams, so it’s very unclear just how much of a supernatural force is present. The film is truly anchored by its two towering performances, with each giving his all to the lunacy of their respective roles. The Lighthouse is every bit as well-crafted as Robert Eggers’s first feature, The Witch, with a similar sense of overwhelming clarity of vision and reverence to storytelling of the past.
Knives Out is pulls off an incredibly difficult feat: lampooning and satirizing the whodunit genre and its tropes, while simultaneously being a strong entry in that genre. This is easily one of the funniest movies of the year, and it is thanks to a combination of Rian Johnson’s brilliant script and the ensemble performances of its extremely talented cast. I don’t know what to say about Knives Out that hasn’t already been said a thousand times, but I do hope that we can get a sequel continuing the adventures of Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), as there is plenty more whodunit material to be skewered.
Uncut Gems is, with certainty, one of the most *intense* movies of the year, and is the definition of a difficult watch. Basically the entire film is a pressure-cooker of stress, as we follow Adam Sandler’s character Howard, a compulsive gambler who is constantly robbing Peter to pay Paul searching for his “perfect score.” On its surface, Gems is about adrenaline addiction and the need/dangers of that rush of winning, but there is a deeper message looming as well. Getting into those details will require [spoilers], so I’m hoping to write another post about this one sometime soon.
I have never read Little Women, nor have I seen any adaptation before this. In general, I frequently dislike book adaptations because I feel they are too “plot-focused” and lean on knowledge of the source material for the emotional weight. This is exactly the kind of movie that Little Women is *not*. I was frankly blown away with the adaptation choices that Greta Gerwig makes in her sophomore directing effort. The decision to cut around the narrative of the story, flashing back and forth between present and past, is a brilliant one, and one that really emphasizes many of the themes of the story. Florence Pugh in particular really shines as Amy. I have been told that Amy is not a particularly likable character in other movies. In those, she’s largely portrayed as a bit of a brat, and mostly used as a foil to Jo rather than her own character. Looking back, I can see how that could happen, but in Gerwig’s adaptation she is portrayed as incredibly sympathetic. Even when she burns Jo’s writings with anger in her heart, the audience sees her for what she is: an angry little girl who doesn’t yet know the consequences of her actions. Touches like the agency given to Jo at the end of her story are what make this adaptation really special, and one that will endure the test of time.
10. Doctor Sleep
I. Love. This. Movie. Somehow this direct sequel to The Shining, which by all rights shouldn’t work and wasn’t seen by general audiences, is more unique a studio film than most in 2019. The first element that I love, which I cannot stress enough, is how *different* a movie this is than The Shining, and it shouldn’t be held to the standard of “living up” to the classic. I’d argue it’s only partially even a horror movie, with many elements more in the science fiction realm. It has supernatural ghosts and ghouls, sure, but like the Stephen King book on which it is based, the heroes have similar supernatural abilities that allow them to fight back against the evils. This movie leans heavily into exploring childhood trauma and substance addiction, allowing Danny Torrance (son of Jack, played by Ewan McGregor) to literally and metaphorically lock his personal demons away in order to help the next generation. Meanwhile, the supporting cast, including Rebecca Ferguson as the villainous Rose the Hat and Kyliegh Curran as the film’s main protagonist Abra, are just phenomenal. If you like horror or sci-fi films and passed on this because of the rote trailers or premise, give it a chance – it’s worth it.
9. Marriage Story
More like Divorce Story, amirite? After the beautiful opening sequence endearing us to Charlie and Nicole’s marriage, the movie spends the rest of its runtime morphing their relationship into a new steady state, with the audience just praying the two can be friends again (or, at least, not hate each other for their son’s sake). It’s a view into long-term relationship strain rarely portrayed on screen, and really drives home how no one can hurt you like someone you love.
While I knew that Marriage Story would be emotionally devastating at moments, what I didn’t expect was just how funny the movie could be. Noah Baumbach brings a plethora of subtile script and directorial touches to emphasize the themes of the film or the emotions of the characters. At no point does Marriage Story dwell only on the suffering, but instead affords the audience plenty of moments to breathe and laugh at the absurdities of real life.
8. The Last Black Man in San Francisco
The Last Black Man in San Francisco is the most beautiful and interesting low-budget indie film that I have seen all year. First-time filmmaker Joe Talbot weaves a tale of pride and obsession over the continuation of a legacy, no matter the cost. It is also a story of confronting the harsh realities of the world, and the revelation that some things are unchangeable. With the help of his friend Montgomery (Jonathan Majors), Jimmy Fails (himself) is willing to do anything to buy the house that Jimmy grew up in. Unfortunately, the house is in San Francisco, and worth millions. More than anything, I love the tone this movie strikes, driven by its beautiful cinematography and uniquely incredible score (the best of the year to my ears). There is a deep love and nostalgia for the city of San Francisco in every frame, while it simultaneously expresses a profound frustration with what the city has become. From the firecracker opening to its powerful final scenes, The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a masterwork in independent filmmaking, and I can’t wait to see what Talbot does next.
7. Her Smell
Much like Uncut Gems, Her Smell is a pressure cooker of a film and is frequently difficult to watch. The film forces the audience to literally follow a latish-career punk rock star Becky Something (Elizabeth Moss) and her battles with substance abuse and narcissism. The film takes place over five distinct moments in her life, as she trashes not only her own life in a tornado of destruction but also the lives of those closest to her. This includes her two bandmates, her ex-husband and child, and her mother, each hoping to pull her from the brink of complete meltdown.
The filmmaking is incredibly claustrophobic, with a backstage score designed to ratchet up the tension. I believe it is important going in to know that unlike Sandler in Uncut Gems, this is not *just* a tale of self-destruction; the anxiety chamber that the audience is subjected to is for a greater purpose that plays out later in the film. It is the ending and payoff that worked its magic on me, as well as the film’s ultimate message of vulnerability and support.
On the list of films that got overlooked this year is Shadow, Chinese director Yimou Zhang’s (Hero, House of Flying Daggers) latest film. I went into this movie completely blind, and was frankly delighted by all of its surprises, twists and turns. I’ve seen complaints levied against this film that its political drama is too dry or too pro-war, but I could not disagree more; this movie is a farce, through-and-through, and a very funny one at that. I contend that the palace intrigue shouldn’t be criticized as pointless grandstanding and unnecessary aggression – that is exactly the point. Personally I found the build-up in the first half to be fun all on its own, and was thoroughly on-board by the time we reach the film’s action-packed climax when things get ratcheted to 11 and the movie became a visual spectacle. If’s you’re a fan of artful Chinese action, check this one out (without watching the trailer, if you can) – it’s on Netflix as of this post.
I feel like 1917 has gotten so much backlash amongst critics, which is especially weird when those same critics praised Dunkirk to the heavens. The argument I have heard is essentially that the film plays like a video game, trivializing war and turning its horrors into a thrill ride. While I can understand where that argument comes from, personally I didn’t get any of that in my viewing. I think the key to enjoying this movie is to ignore the technical elements of the filmmaking; brilliant as they are, they’re meant to serve the story. Instead, truly buy into the premise – our two heroes are tasked with stopping a battle, and thousands of lives hang in the balance. Our main hero Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) doesn’t want to be doing any of this, and doesn’t want to be in the war at all. Every moment, every “surprise” for the audience is meant to invoke terror, not excitement. 1917‘s single-take technique forces the audience to stay with Schofield for every second, and experience every horror as he does. Personally I saw 1917 as a truly humanitarian war movie that depicted war with terror and loss rather than excitement, and that is what made it truly special in my eyes.
4. The Farewell
The Farewell tells the story of a Chinese family who receives world that their matriarch is terminally ill, and decides to say goodbye to her without letting her know (a not uncommon practice in Chinese culture). Granddaughter Billi (Awkwafina), having grown up in the West, disagrees with the idea but is forced to go along with it anyway. This movie is a fascinating depiction of how different people process grief, and the idea of bearing a weight of guilt and sorrow for the good of someone else. White lies and small deceptions happen all the time for the good of those around us, so taken to their extreme, is it morally wrong to provide a much larger deception about the health of a family member? Does it remove a burden and allow them to live out their final days blissful in ignorance? Or does it rob them of their agency? While it initially seems to side with Billi, I love that The Farewell does not really come down one way or another on the morality of the family’s decision, but presents the arguments from many perspectives. Ultimately the movie is about the bonds and burdens that come with family, and takes the side of family above all else.
3. Brittany Runs a Marathon
So I run. I’ve never done anything close to marathon distance, but I have considered running a hobby of mine for about a decade. The thing is, I don’t particularly *enjoy* the act of running; it would be far easier to just, you know, not do it. And yet, I do it anyway, for the health benefits sure but mostly for the sense of achievement and improvement. And that is what Brittany Runs a Marathon is about.
You don’t have to be a runner to appreciate Brittany Runs a Marathon. What makes this movie so special is the way it’s unwillingness to give Brittany a pass. At the beginning, she is extremely depressed, has no real direction in life, has an extremely unhealthy lifestyle and nothing but toxic friendships. She’s funny, sure, but only in a self-hating capacity that mostly makes you pity her more than like her. When she reluctantly takes up running at the request of her doctor, she’s terrible at it. But she doesn’t give up, she keeps pushing, and slowly as she gets better at it, other aspects of her life improve as well. Brittany is a very flawed protagonist, and at times those flaws show themselves in some very ugly and self-destructive ways. But each time she pushes people away, she grows a little, and with the help of her friends she is able to improve her life in ways that seemed impossible at the beginning. This is easily the most inspirational film of the year, and anyone with Amazon Prime can (and should) check it out for free.
For the longest time, Us was my number 1 with a bullet, and were it not for the arrival of another film with similar themes, it’d probably still be there. Us is so much more than a horror movie. There have been many films about class struggles, but most frame the question as a simple “rich vs poor,” which absolves the majority of the movie-going populace and allow them to root for the underprivileged. While Jordan Peele’s Us is certainly one of class injustice, it does not give the audience an easy out. Because our heroes are a middle-class family and their doppelgängers are a grossly underprivileged family forced to live underground, the mirror is turned back upon the audience. Everything is framed as a zero-sum game, so trivial actions like menial purchases above ground are all at the expense of suffering below. While we initially see nothing wrong with Gabe’s desire to get a boat, for instance, those wants soon pale in comparison to the needs and pain of those living underground.
I love that there is no single reading of this film, that its message is nuanced and open to interpretation. The narrative is guided by the metaphor rather than vice versa. The plot details may stop making sense if you pick at them too much, but in my eyes it’s all just suspension of disbelief in service of a fantastic story and message. All of this is anchored in a fantastic performance (two, actually) from Lupita Nyong’o, who stunningly conveys the subtleties of both characters. Perhaps my favorite take-away of Us is the ultimate revelation that the “others” and the surface-dwellers are equal in terms of ability; the only thing that separates them are the opportunities afforded by privilege.
Parasite is nothing short of a masterpiece. Every element of this film is so perfectly crafted and intricately designed to move like clockwork. Bong Joon Ho has always been a master of balancing tones, but this is the first time that I really felt that his ability to bounce from humor to tension to genuine dread was wielded to a higher purpose in the narrative. Every performance is perfectly calibrated, and somehow Director Bong is able to pull off the entire film without a true villain. Yes, the circumstances frequently lead the audience to side with the family of underdogs, but their wealthy “hosts” are portrayed as mostly sympathetic as well. Just when the audience thinks our “heroes” have gone too far, they are brought lower than we could have possibly imagined in a truly harrowing and devastating sequence where they return to their home in the rain. The film is also beautiful, and each shot feels genuinely unique and surprising. I am reticent to get into too many plot details, as I feel that some still haven’t seen this, but it is not only a must-watch but one of the most purely entertaining films of the year too boot.
I know it’s not a particularly unique pick for my top spot, but Parasite is a truly special movie and is one of the best of the decade, let alone the year. I am so happy that it is getting so much awards love this year; perhaps it can introduce newcomers to the world of amazing films in South Korean cinema.
And that’s 2019! For once, I think the Academy Awards really got it right when it comes to the Best Picture nominees – eight of the nine are movies that I really liked, and several of their picks I share on my list as well. I do really wish that Lupita Nyong’o (Us) and J-Lo (Hustlers) were nominated, and maybe that Knives Out got more love, but all-in-all it’s a good crop. For more on my thoughts on 2019, check out my Top Movie Stuff of the Year post. Here’s hoping 2020 was just as good!