Ah, 2019. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. 2019 was a year defined by chaos and change on various levels. For the world of film, it meant the complete domination of the Disney Empire, the shattering of a multitude of box office records, and the rise of Netflix as a producer of awards season favorites. There were endless complaints about how lacking the year was for at least eight months, and even the critical favorites such as Us, Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood, and Midsommar were not without their severe detractors. Rants about the lack of faith in audiences towards original content and their preference for safer products such as The Lion King and Aladdin became almost a daily ritual on Twitter, and it seemed as if the incessant cries from that internet bubble would never cease. I won’t lie: it got annoying. Then the fall festival season and limited releases began, and the film world was walloped by one acclaimed work after the next: Parasite, Portrait of A Lady on Fire, The Irishman, Marriage Story, and Uncut Gems (to name a few) all convinced people that the year had been saved. Now, as we await the official kickoff of awards season with the upcoming 77th Golden Globes, let’s take a look back at 2019 and go over the best of the best.
- And Then We Danced (dir. Levan Akin)
- Birds of Passage (dir. Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego)
- Ghost Tropic (dir. Bas Devos)
- Her Smell (dir. Alex Ross Perry)
- Hustlers (dir. Lorene Scafaria)
- Les Misérables (dir. Ladj Ly)
- The Lighthouse (dir. Robert Eggers)
- Marriage Story (dir. Noah Baumbach)
- Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood (dir. Quentin Tarantino)
- Sunset (dir. László Nemes)
10. UNCUT GEMS
As you may already know, Uncut Gems begins in the middle of a colonoscopy. It’s a bold move, but a perfect way to introduce someone who’s full of shit: Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler, in a truly electrifying performance), a New York City jeweler who’s running out of time to keep the promises he should never have made. His desperate tale is enough to bring out anxiety in even the calmest of viewers, as the grimy Big Apple comes to life through Daniel Lopatin’s frantic score and the gloriously grainy cinematography by Darius Khondij. A sort of culmination for the Safdie Brother’s careers, Uncut Gems is a masterclass in filmmaking and tension by one of the most talented pair of siblings in Hollywood, and the film’s success at the box office should make anyone nervous about the success of original adult content feel at ease. It’s the perfect movie for this holiday season – and for any Celtics fan. Trust me, I know a few.
9. THE SOUVENIR
2019 involved a lot of breakups. From the separations of beloved celebrities to the smash success of Ariana Grande’s hit single “break up with your girlfriend, i’m bored”, the year seemed to revolve around the idea of separation (just look at how many people dressed up for Halloween in May Queen and bear skin costumes). Yet the greatest achievement in film this year about romantic relationships was The Souvenir, which is about a couple who should break up, but never do. Toxic relationships are easily recognizable to everyone except the people involved, and Joanna Hogg’s fourth feature is a potent study of what happens in a long term relationship when the pair aren’t right for each other. Honor Swinton Bryne and Tom Burke give astonishing performances as the doomed couple, and this semi-autobiographical film is like the saddest, most personal page in someone’s journal: you know you shouldn’t be peeking in, but you can’t find the strength to look away.
8. THE FAREWELL
Lulu Wang exploded onto the film scene this year with The Farewell, another semi-autobiographical story. This tale of family, loss, and contrast between Eastern and Western values rings true to any viewer, and that is its beauty: it finds a way to take a specific story about a granddaughter (the brilliant Awkwafina) clashing with her family about their decision to not tell her grandmother (Zhao Shuzhen, in the year’s best debut performance) about her fatal cancer diagnosis, and elevates it to a level where the raw emotions are understandable in any language. It is deeply Chinese, deeply American, and deeply human. The quiet and hushed tone of the film and its lack of an ostentatious attitude lets it hook the audience in and take them along on an emotional rollercoaster, built by the skilled hands of a master filmmaker. A cathedral of empathy, this shining gem will not lose its luster any time soon.
Mati Diop is descended from royalty in a sense. Her uncle was Djibril Diop Mambéty, whose film Touki Bouki brought African cinema to the global stage and forced white critics to take the film world of that continent seriously. Her debut feature film, Atlantics, is proof that her family’s legacy is in safe hands. Atlantics is a mesmerizing and haunting story of forbidden love and the poisonous effects of capitalism, told with a magnificent cast and filled with some of the best shots of the year. Rhythm and color swirl in Claire Mathon’s utterly beautiful cinematography, and the blending of the natural settings with the ghostly skyscraper that looms in the horizon for prolonged periods of time makes it an unforgettable visual feast. To speak much of the story would spoil the surprises in this hidden gem (which is available to stream now on Netflix), but imagine if Ghost was directed by Claire Denis. That’ll get you about halfway through the film; yet it twists again. If there’s any new director to watch out for, it’s Mati Diop: we’ll likely see lots of great work from her very soon.
6. AN ELEPHANT SITTING STILL
Heartbreaking, though the same can be said for director Hu Bo. A directing student at the Beijing Film Academy, Bo made two shorts before creating his four hour masterpiece, An Elephant Sitting Still. Tragically, arguments over the post-production led the young director to take his own life. Based on a story from one of his novels, the film intertwines the stories of four people over the course of one day in the rotting industrial city of Manzhouli. Despite the daunting run time, not a single second is wasted, and each virtuoso long take is a marvelous piece of craft. A cinematic suicide note, Bo’s film is the successor of Bela Tarr and other famed nihilists of cinema, yet this depressing tale ends on such a lovely note of hope that it could bring any viewer to tears. Bo may have passed over two years ago, but the work he’s left behind – including this emotionally wrenching film – will be impossible to forget, and will outlive us all.
5. HIGH LIFE
Speaking of Claire Denis: she made her grand entrance into the world of English language film-making this year with High Life, a science fiction film in the vein of Kubrick and Tarkovsky. Distributor A24 may have tricked audiences with the marketing campaign, but this languid and thoughtful examination of humanity and perseverance in even the most hopeless of situations is worth your time, even if the idea of a bewitching Juliette Binoche in a mechanical masturbation chamber freaks you out (it certainly shocked many of the elderly viewers in my audience at Chicago’s AMC River East 21). Robert Pattinson may have made headlines this year for his bold performance in The Lighthouse and his casting as the defender of Gotham City, but his subtle and quiet work here is the most impressive thing in 2019 that his name is attached to. Magical and terrifying at the same time, High Life is the peak of this decade’s science fiction content.
It’s the film everyone – and I do mean everyone (including former President Barack Obama) – is raving about. The entire film world united behind Parasite, the latest sociopolitical thriller from South Korean master Bong Joon-Ho, and the slew of awards thrown its way already has some reconsidering whether foreign language films can’t win the top prize at the Academy Awards after all. Its universal success is awe-inspiring, and there’s hardly been a better gateway film for foreign language productions this year. An outrageous and darkly comic satire about the rotten state of class division, Joon-Ho’s expertly assembled thrill ride is packed with jaw-dropping moments and hilariously bitter truths. A flawless cast and the year’s best production design makes this dark and shocking Cinderella story a film no one will ever forget. Best enjoyed with steak ramen and peaches.
3. HOMECOMING: A FILM BY BEYONCÉ
…well, duh. *Of course* this was going to make the list. A documentary/presentation of Beyoncé’s now historic performance at the 2018 edition of Coachella, the film is a showcase of magnificent editing and camerawork by Alexander Hammer and Mark Ritchie, respectively. Mrs. Carter herself narrates us through the inception of her performance, and how she went from giving birth to twins to performance-ready in months. The behind the scenes footage is sprinkled throughout a filmed performance of the concert itself, comprised of the two different weekends she performed (shown visually by the different costumes wore at the two shows). She mixes fan favorites such as “I Care” and “Deja Vu” with her iconic hits such as “Crazy in Love” and “Single Ladies” with ease, crafting a celebration of the Black musical diaspora and of HBCUs. A flawless monument to the First Lady of Music, Homecoming is a reminder of who the greatest performer alive really is.
2. THE IRISHMAN
If the film world has a Beyoncé – someone who’s long time in the game has led to universal respect and acclaim, and someone who commands everyone’s attention whenever they say something or release a new film – it’s short Italian king Martin Scorsese. This year, Scorsese may have been the scorn of nerds for his comments about the monopolization of the film industry and his criticism of blockbusters and tentpoles such as the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it’s The Irishman that people will remember. A cinematic achievement and the end of an era, this story of one Irish hit-man lost among a sea of conniving Italians is a monumental work of art. Robert de Niro, Joe Pesci, and Al Pacino deliver some of the best performances of their careers, de-aging CGI be damned (though it’s truly the best this critic has ever seen when it comes to that tricky process). Old age brings reflection, regrets, and resentments, and The Irishman is a tender and sad look back at a golden age that was never really golden in the first place.
1. PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE
“Turn around.” “Page 28.” “Vivaldi”. Say these phrases aloud within hearing distance of anyone who’s seen Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and they’ll likely start sobbing right then and there. As someone who had to hold back tears for fifteen minutes in a Whole Foods after my first viewing, I know what that’s like. Céline Sciamma delivered not only her best film, but the best romantic film of the decade at the last minute in this soul-scorching love affair between a painter and her subject (Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel, respectively) on a remote island in 18th century France. The passion that rises from the attraction between the two leads is magnetic and overwhelming. Shot by Claire Mathon (who also shot Atlantics, so she’s having a fantastic year) with a painterly eye, this torrid tale of regret and passion is the film from 2019 that people will be discussing for decades to come. Cities will rise and fall, countries will crumbles, entire lives will come and go, and Portrait of a Lady on Fire will still be treasured. It’s a timeless classic that will endure forever.
The Souvenir, The Irishman, High Life, Atlantics, Homecoming, An Elephant Sitting Still, and The Farewell are now available for streaming. Uncut Gems and Parasite are now playing in cinemas. Portrait of a Lady on Fire will hit cinemas nationwide in February 2020.