2019 was a rather exceptional year in film. I gave out multiple 10/10s which is rare for me. I saw over 100 films from 2019. Without further ado, here are my Top 15:
#15: Ad Astra: Director James Gray is obsessed with journeys. In The Lost City of Z (2016), the main characters venture deeper into the forest, losing and discovering themselves. In Ad Astra, Brad Pitt wrestles with his absent father on a galactic scale. Throughout the film’s run-time, Gray and the film’s crew shows off their creativity. The airport on the moon, the research base on Mars, and on and on. But despite this epic scale, Ad Astra is only really concerned with the inner journey of its protagonist. “In the end, the son suffers the sins of the father.”
#14: The Souvenir: The final moments of The Souvenir are some of the best minutes of the year. The trials of the filmmaker-protagonist at the center of The Souvenir’s story of blind love and abuse are intertwined with her love for the craft. Based on the director’s own life, The Souvenir is healing for the audience and its director. To create distance between the artist and the art becomes difficult when the art is the artist. At the end of the film, on protagonist Julie’s film set, the camera zooms in on her characters as the camera of the real zooms in on her. Film becomes a certain therapy for trauma. Julie is trying to deal with her life through film. Director Joanna is trying to deal with her life through Julie.
#13: The Last Black Man in San Francisco: A film like this could have only come from a person deeply in love with a place. Throughout the film, the leads grapple with the painful changes their city is going through. Despite the city’s constant trials, leads Jimmie and Montgomery never give up. “You don’t get to hate it, unless you love it”. Like The Souvenir, the film itself becomes healing. Montgomery is writing a play version of his life—the film. Montgomery loves the city, and ultimately it absorbs him with it. Montgomery draws the empty plot of land where the children play as a stage. He seems to see something others don’t. A beauty in the seeming bleak nature of the city. This beauty is realized incredibly by cinematographer Adam Newport-Berra and composer Emile Mosseri. And through the love of the film’s creators Joe Talbot and Jimmie Fails, we see it too.
#12: Avengers: Endgame: Avengers: Endgame and 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War could not be more different. Endgame is more melancholy, darker, and reflective. Earth’s mightiest heroes have suffered an unimaginable loss. The film opens with the sudden evaporation of Hawkeye’s family. It’s a shocking and bold way to open a superhero movie. Throughout the film, the Avengers are attempting to put back their lives together, often failing. The characters travel back in time, mending past traumas. Iron Man consoles his father on the day he was born. And the ending provides the ultimate resolution for Captain America. Continuing a theme, Avengers: Endgame is a collective healing for its characters and the audience. “Part of the journey is the end”.
#11: Jojo Rabbit: Director Taika Waititi somehow managed to make a film that combines the sensibilities of John Hughes and Wes Anderson and set it in Nazi Germany. One of Waititi’s greatest strengths is balancing great emotion and light humor. Jojo Rabbit shows this skill more than any of his other films. The film deftly switches between terror and hilarity, while still retaining levity. The story is relatively standard. Love conquers all and all that. Where the film truly shines is its ability to demonstrate that in a such a scary and hostile environment. “Not everyone is lucky enough to look stupid”.
#10: Richard Jewell: Clint Eastwood’s Richard Jewell puts an immense load on its three leads. Lucky for the film and for us, they pull it off. Jewell, performed by Paul Walter Hauser, struggles with the compassion in his heart that constantly gets him in trouble. Jewell’s lawyer Watson Bryant, played by Sam Rockwell, tries every bit to control and console him. “I’m sorry the world has gone insane”. Richard Jewell is a powerful tale about the abuse of power and the corruption of media. Eastwood makes another good’un.
#9: The Lighthouse: Two lighthouse keepers are stranded on an island for months. What ensues is a mythic level of insanity. Thanks to stunning “every frame is a painting” black and white cinematography by Jarin Blaschke, we are invited into this poetic fever dream of masculinity, sexuality, and repressed unknowable truths. If you look into the forbidden light, you will learn something but you might not like it.
#8: Us: While Get Out was a great directorial debut for Jordan Peele, Us, in my opinion, is a much finer work. Peele combines the usual genre fun with a sharply original narrative about identity, consciousness and the fractured nature of America. Lead Lupita Nyong’o pulls off a brilliant dual role as Adelaide Wilson and Red. The whole cast is firing on all cylinders. Jordan Peele is already a master of horror after only two films and in this, he channels the best aspects of The Thing and They Live director John Carpenter.
#7: Midsommar: 2019 has been a great year for horror between The Lighthouse, Us, and this. On a basic level, Midsommar is a breakup movie. It’s also a movie about grief, nature, and gender. The movie begins in the darkest of winters. Dani, a virtuoso performance by Florence Pugh, has found out that her sister and parents were killed in a horrific murder-suicide. Her toxic boyfriend is going on a trip to Sweden with his graduate school colleagues and Dani sees an opportunity for healing. In Sweden, the visitors embed themselves in an increasingly strange and violent cult. Midsommar is a horror film, but one that takes place almost entirely in bright sunlight. The horrors are visible to all of the characters, but they choose to overlook them for a variety of reasons. In the end, Dani does heal. She has come to terms with the seasons of life and has burned off her past attachments. That’s where the film leaves you. The real horror is the knowledge that this is only one step in a cycle leading to a cliff. And it’s all visible—we just don’t see it.
#6: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a deeply personal film for me. As a kid, I watched Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and the film places my (and many of this paper’s readers) city front and center. But, the connections run deeper. In one scene, the characters eat lunch in a Chinese restaurant. I go to that specific Chinese restaurant all of the time. I even tend to sit in that exact chair. And for several years, I went there often with my grandfather. He passed away a few years ago and when I watched this movie, I thought about him. And to the movie’s benefit, that is the goal. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is about coming to terms with others—those we love and those we hate. At its core, the film is filled with the same spirit as the original show, updating it for the pain and trauma we carry beyond childhood.
Most Underrated Film of the Year: There are quite a few contenders for this “award”. My shortlist included Wonder Park, Captive State, The LEGO Movie 2, Pet Sematary, Crawl and more. I have decided to award this to three films that each represent the same theme. My most underrated films of the year are Dora and the Lost City of Gold, Pokemon: Detective Pikachu, and Alita: Battle Angel. Each of these films pushes the envelope of what a big blockbuster can be and all of them were unjustly overlooked. They all featured impeccable design and aesthetic. Alita: Battle Angel portrayed a world like never before and featured one of the best motion capture performances ever. Additionally, Alita is one of the strongest female characters in cinema alongside Ripley from Alien. Dora is held up by a sneakily self-aware performance by Isabela Merced and a consistent sense of self-awareness and whimsy. Finally, Pokemon: Detective Pikachu translated the animated characters perfectly into live action, featured two likable leads in Justice Smith and Kathryn Newton, and deftly combined the world of Pokemon with a classic noir story-line. Give these a watch.
#5: Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood: Quentin Tarentino is constantly aching for worlds that don’t exist. Those worlds have one common theme: a trending towards justice—despite what really happened. Look at Inglorious Bastards or Django Unchained. In Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood, Tarentino presents a quasi-fictional 1960s Hollywood, a world of promise and fun. But, a specter is lying over the entire film: the Manson family. Throughout the film, Tarentino deconstructs film, the making of it, and the history of it and in such a joyous fashion. Tributes to Italian film, classic Western TV shows, and more abound. And with fantastic production design, music, and costumes, he wants you to be in it, to feel what it was like to be there By the time we reach the dreaded conclusion, Tarentino reveals his hand: an explosive and melancholy attempt to save what is lost.
#4: Parasite: Many of Bong Joon-ho’s films deal with the class system and systems of power. Over the past decade or so, he has been perfecting this. Parasite is the result: a nuanced, deeply-woven and genre-bending tale of class struggle. It feels epic, yet is so small. It feels epic because the three families in the film represent us. None are deemed “good” or “bad” but find themselves compromising to maintain or advance their status. And it is all told with master-level editing, screenwriting, production design, and acting. Bong Joon-ho understands the thin line between comedy and horror—constantly dancing on it. This balance comes across in the narrative, as well. The story works on its own, but it also offers potent commentary without feeling overbearing or too obvious.
#3: 1917: “I am a poor wayfaring stranger…I am traveling through this world of woe”. 1917 is the joy of cinema refined to its essentials: emotions, adventure, drama, and action. I’d like to imagine that when early filmmakers like Edwin S. Porter envisioned the future of cinema, they saw something like this. 1917, a tour-de-force of cinematography, editing, and blocking, feels like a video game in the best sense. The way the characters move through spaces and interact reminds me of some of my favorite moments in games. But the genius of the film is not merely surface-level. There is a sense of discovery and wonder contrasted with horror and death. What the film communicates best is the fragments of humanity and beauty left in a fragmented and violent world. The milk, the child, the flowers, the song. You are along with the main characters for this journey and feel every moment. It feels like a whole life contained within a film. Bravo Sam Mendes.
#2: Joker: For all the talk of the “danger” of Joker, it may be the film we need most of all right now. Despite its violent and disturbing narrative, it ultimately preaches the importance of love and human dignity. Many critics of this film point to it as a “manifesto for angry white males”. That’s absurd. First off, this film has resonated with millions of people across the globe. Second off, the critics that say that are no different from the villains of the film. Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is constantly pushed away and neglected. At the end, he is able to find community—but in a fake identity as part of a movement based on false facts. And he ends up creating what would become his greatest nemesis. Joker deftly exposes the issue at the heart of all of the anger and rage of our time: a lack of loving community. Joker is indicative of our current moment and yet feels timeless. This film will be watched for decades to come. “For my whole life, I didn’t know if I even really existed. But I do, and people are starting to notice”.
#1: A Hidden Life: “We will know what all this is for. No mysteries. We will know why we live”. A Hidden Life was shot in 2016. That is why you see late actors like Michael Nyqvist and Bruno Ganz in the film. Director Terrence Malick took over three years to edit and finish the film. What we got is one of the finest films of our generation. A film created after decades of experimentation, trial and (a decent amount of) error. A Hidden Life is a masterpiece. A masterpiece that could have only been created by an elder master of a craft who knows every piece inside and out and has perfected a unique style. This is cinema as “fine art”. A Hidden Life tells the true story of Franz Jagerstatter who resisted the Nazi military draft. The film takes you through every trial, triumph, and emotion of this act. Franz is constantly questioned and doubted by everyone around him—even his closest relatives. He faces practically every challenge to his belief and decision. Malick shows this decision with such depth without becoming tedious and repetitive. Nothing in this film felt unnecessary. Every challenge is significant. Every caress and hug is significant. Every line of dialogue is significant. And on top of this, Malick is constantly innovating. The characters speak in both English and German, creating interesting interplay and uses German as a “foreign language”, offering emotion without vocal context. I’d imagine a German version of this would need to have flipped dubs to achieve the intended effect. Malick’s signature camera style of low and wide angles becomes a thematic device itself. The perspective of the film is from a child’s perspective. Inviting the audience to discover this reality as if they’d just been born. The journey A Hidden Life takes you on is one of the most realistic portrayals of faith and life itself. Many questions are posed with few answers. Near the end of the film, the leads question the goal of their endeavor. No answers are provided—to them. We know the answer. The film itself is the answer. “Sign and go free.” “I am free already.”