Best Films of 2019
They say having a kid forces you to stop watching the movies you want. This is true. But not in the way that I thought it once was. The assumption is that babies will take all of your time and then dominate your media consumption. This is also true. But you can still get around it if you prioritize it (and have a generous, flexible partner). Where you run into trouble is that by the time you sit down at 8:00 after putting your child to bed, the 2.75 hour Tarantino flick is a time barrier that even the most ardent cinephile will struggle to overcome. This exhaustion was a difficult barrier this year and I pushed back films I might have otherwise enjoyed by this point. Nevertheless, I managed to see almost everything I wanted to, a decent enough number of what are widely regarded as the best films of the year. This is my ranking of those movies.
Before I give you my favorites, here are those I haven’t seen yet: Portrait of a Lady on Fire; Pain & Glory; The Nightingale; Monos; Transit; Clemency; Tigers Are Not Afraid; 1917; Jojo Rabbit
My favorite movies of the decade list will be coming soon. I again blame being a parent for my tardiness.
10. Ash is Purest White (Zhangke)
The personal and political overlap as the story of Qiao (played by Zhao Tao) unfolds over decades. Jia Zhangke’ s gangster drama is a slow burn, walking the line between how much our personal choices affect who we become and how much the system forces us into it. Tao is marvelous here as a forlorned lover seeking answers about what happened to her life after she is imprisoned for her involvement in a crime. The club scene involving crowds of people doing the YMCA and the motorbike fight are two of the best shot sequences of the year in what is a gorgeous, subtle, and complex film.
9. Uncut Gems (Safdies)
The Safdie brothers latest is like if you combined the zany nonstop movement of a screwball comedy with a tense thriller. Every scene features constant motion as Sandler’s Howard Ratner concocts and re-concocts plans to “win”. It’s a jaw clenching movie, stuffed to the brim with great performances from the strangest cast of the year (Sandler playing off-brand! Kevin Garnett giving a good performance as himself! Lakeith Stanfield! Broadway star Idina Menzel! The Weeknd as himself! Julia Fox’s debut!). This movie is airtight, there’s no false note to be found, no wonder the Academy blanked them!
8. Birds of Passage (Gallego / Guerra)
This is ostensibly a gangster film, it’s about the rise of the drug trade in Colombia, particularly amongst tribal peoples, and how this forces them into modernity. Directors Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra focus on the specificity of this setting, allowing the traditions and practices to speak first, while gorgeously showcasing them in ways that make for revelatory cinema. It’s a gangster film, but one that spends time in this specific setting, allowing the tensions that rise and all that breaks after it to truly mean something.
7. Marriage Story (Bambauch)
Twitter memes may have ruined the reputation of this movie, highlighting images out of context in ways that seem silly, yet Bambauch’s divorce story is fantastically written and more subtly executed than the internet would have you believe. Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson are both great as a couple experiencing the messy fallout of a split. Bambauch adds his devastating wit and a musical moment from another famous story about relationships in what is a wholly satisfying drama.
6. Parasite (Joon-Ho)
The breakout film of the year lives up to all the hype surrounding it. Like many Joon-Ho projects it’s darkly funny, nails genre conventions, and critiques capitalism with a strong conviction. This story about a poor family who con their way into working for wealthy socialites twists and turns until the very nature of humanity is laid bare. We’re all selfish at heart, it’s just that some of us can pay our way out of ever having to feel that way.
5. The Lighthouse (Eggers)
This is a wild film. Eggers again dives into a period with such passion, writing a script that so replicates its characters way of speaking, that it becomes difficult to understand the dialogue at times. It’s 1.19:1 aspect ratio forces you to feel the claustrophobia present in the small island that Dafoe and Pattinson occupy, while the black and white images evoke old mythologies. Their hysteria soon becomes your own and your mind becomes hallucinatory. Did you actually see that on screen or is it just a trick played by Dafoe? This movie delivers, fully encapsulating you in its era, in its characters crazed brains, and its seagull infested location.
4. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (Heller)
While watching this I wondered if it might be the best biopic ever made. I’m not sure if it’s there, only time will tell, but Marielle Heller has come up with the best biopic convention ever. Heller places you within an imagined episode of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, to introduce you to Lloyd and how he will come to have his life changed by the ethereal man. A Beautiful Day tells the story of Lloyd Vogel and Fred Rogers, but it also serves as a guide to doing the hard work of being kind. It’s beautiful and honest and will make you a better person.
3. Her Smell (Ross Perry)
Some slight spoilers will follow so for those of you who don’t want to know the direction this movie takes please avoid, but I feel it’s necessary to talk about what Her Smell is able to accomplish. Her Smell stars Elizabeth Moss as aging rock star Becky Something. We meet Becky at her most destructive, she’s drug fueled, self sabotaging, and a new mother as unfit to accomplish this job as any that’s ever graced the screen. Alex Ross Perry films her as if he’s shooting a horror movie, it’s claustrophobic, often following her from room to room as she makes horrid decisions and ruins her relationships with anyone who cares for her. The first half to two thirds of this movie are almost nauseating in their intensity. BUT! But, Ross Perry allows room for growth. He allows Becky to change. It’s not easy, but we see Becky slowly break her addictions, break her self-destructive habits, open up to being a mother. What Ross Perry (and Moss) are able to accomplish here, moving from the horrific to a truly grace filled ending is truly astonishing.
2. Knives Out (Johnson)
Rian Johnson is the best working genre filmmaker. He’s done noir, time travel, Star Wars, the con movie, and now the whodunnit. Knives Out is so much fun. It’s funny, clever, well shot, well acted, filled with twists and turns, tackles the political and class tensions of our modern era, and actually has a satisfying conclusion! It’s the kind of movie I will throw on for years to come, just to watch it all unfold again. Ana de Armas is a revelation, Chris Evans’ sweaters are perfect, and Daniel Craig proves his comedic chops once again. I can’t think of a single person I wouldn’t recommend this movie to.
- Little Women (Gerwig)
Greta Gerwig’s sophomore picture only further elevates her genius as a director and screenwriter. I’ve never seen or read Little Women (my mistake), so going into it cold I didn’t know what to expect, but what Gerwig (and Louisa May Alcott) delivered blew me away with its charm and its grace. I know they have been treasures for hundreds of years, but the March sisters are utterly delightful. Their rebelliousness, creativity, and compassion are a trio of characteristics that I hope and pray are instilled into my own family. I get the feeling that this movie will be a comfort to me for years to come, it’s warm without being easy, a celebration of life in all its complexities.