I felt overwhelmed with the movies we received in 2019. It was undoubtedly my favorite cinema year since 2013… possibly since 2007… at least since 1999. For this reason I had little interest in writing a traditional top 10 — there are too many things I fell in love with, and it feels silly to break the 20 titles I loved down to 10 I would recommend most.
I’ve read a lot of extraordinary writing about these movies already, and wondered if there was a different way to talk about them than I have in years past. I became interested in linking 2019 films thematically; trying to unravel what I liked about how one film approached its themes by comparing it to another film’s approach.
So, here are my 20 favorite films of 2019, all grouped into twos, paired to amplify each others’ strengths.
Transit and The Farewell — “Home Is Where I Want to Be, But I Guess I’m Already There”
These are the two most difficult films on this list for me to write about, so it makes sense I can’t quite describe what links them for me. I get a resounding feeling of impermanence and disorientation watching Christian Petzold’s story of a political refugee named Georg who arrives in Marseille as a German invasion begins to sweep through France. In Lulu Wang’s second feature, in which Chinese-American writer Billi (Awkwafina) returns to Changchun to spend time with her grandmother, before she dies of lung cancer the family doesn’t want to tell her she has, I get the same feeling. The synopses for these films are strange and multi-pronged, as are the tones each film takes on; they’re often funny, sometimes absurd, rooted in more of a sense of emotional reality than a literal one.
Transit’s sun-kissed Marseille doesn’t feel quite our world or an alternate one — a holocaust of some sort is on the horizon, but there’s no Nazi iconography, no indication of who is threatening who. There’s not a signifier of when this film takes place. Even Georg, mistakenly identified as a dead writer, starts to feel his own identity dissipate. The Farewell is a true story that takes place on our plane of reality, but Billi, our eyes and ears, feels adrift in its two central locations. She feels neither American or Chinese enough to find belonging anywhere — the only person who grounds her is her Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen, who veers between funny and heartbreaking in subtle changes to her inflection) and because of her condition Billi feels heartbroken to spend time with her.
All this liminality makes Transit and The Farewell feel like two of 2019’s more ambitious asks from a viewer, but if you buy into their premises they are emotionally affecting, honestly performed and blissfully ambiguous. We could use more of that.
Midsommar and The Art of Self-Defense — In Which Men Might as Well Be Stuffed Into Bears And Set Aflame
God damn, is it a thrill to see comedies as viscerally surprising and bleakly funny as these two. I saw Ari Aster and Riley Stearns’ films back-to-back in July and wondered how it was possible two movies this bugnuts were in wide release at the same time. Both sophomore features, they demonstrate filmmakers pushing beyond their first films to reach for a more disturbing idea: the inspection of male stereotypes that are rarely depicted in movies. Midsommar offers an inarticulate, creatively bankrupt grad student; The Art of Self-Defense a mugged, anxious and extremely susceptible accountant.
Aster’s film, a shaggier experience than his slick and disturbing Hereditary, is drawn from his own breakup — he flips the script to instill Dani (Florence Pugh, the gauntlet champion of 2019) with the paranoias and insecurities of someone who feels their boyfriend Christian (an appropriately dopey Jack Reynor) pulling away from their three-and-a-half year relationship. As Aster envelops us in the bright, endless sunshine of Hälsingland, the commune the couple visits laconically sets the table for the sacrifice Dani must make if she wants to be happy. There’s so much pleasure and humor in absorbing the rules and culture of the Härga that Aster is able to keep our eye off the ball of where the hell this is all going: an unbelievable repudiation of a shitty, indecisive boyfriend.
The Art of Self-Defense locks us into the fractured headspace Casey occupies (Jesse Eisenberg, who has not been this well utilized since The Social Network) as he becomes obsessed with a karate dōjō school. We don’t have the same distance from the toxicity that absorbs Casey that Midsommar gives us through Dani observing Christian. However, Stearns makes his thesis clear by throwing us out of Casey’s obsession through dark, hilarious one-liners from his sensei (Alessandro Nivola). They all gradually suggests a cycle of male toxicity carried through men like Casey, who lose their self-control to fear. These films are the new standard for genre storytelling: nutso roller coasters with something relevant and uncomfortable to say, in these cases something that feels introspective for these younger male filmmakers.
Hustlers and Parasite — In Which Low-Socioeconomic-Status Citizens Abuse Shitty, Oblivious But Ultimately Innocent People in Increasingly Risky Ways To Make You Think About Capitalism
Forgive me if that title sounds reductive of either Lorene Scafaria’s or Bong Joon-Ho’s films. These are two of the most dynamically-told stories of the year. It’s thrilling that both of them had major cultural moments over 2019. They tap into an economic anxiety that films rarely portray at all, let alone in morally complicated ways. Given they don’t share the same nationality or genre, I find their plot similarities fascinating, particularly in how the screenplays align the audience with such empathetic characters that, after committing increasingly devastating crimes, you still come to root for them.
Hustlers took a few days for me to process. I knew I enjoyed watching every con the women of Moves pulled on a series of Wall Street blowhards, but there was a melancholy to the proceedings — punctuated by the strip club announcer repeating over the end credits that yes, it’s time to go home — that gives the wild ride at the strip club a bitter aftertaste (as if you’ve been drugged into losing all your money). The heart of the film is Ramona and Destiny, a fucked-up, more-than-friendship that felt unique to see between two women in a crime thriller. Jennifer Lopez’s Ramona is an aura in this movie — everything you have heard is true — but the film doesn’t work unless her presence overwhelms Constance Wu’s Destiny. Wu anchors the film — it’s her determination to make a living for herself that pushes her to wrap herself into Ramona, who shows her she can also have a life. In an early moment opposite Julia Stiles’ journalist Elizabeth, she asks if Ramona has talked shit about her, and Scafaria lingers in this one closeup. I’ve thought a lot about this closeup: it’s the first time the film hints towards its endgame, beginning to narrow its focal point from the American Dream as a whole to a heartbreaking betrayal.
Similarly, Parasite works for me because of the look of dopey desperation on Song Kang-ho’s face in a dinner scene early in the film. He’s a father who has no way of providing for his family, but is still so happy to have all of them around. As the four of them infiltrate the Park household and reveal how smart and hungry they are, their bonds to each other strengthen. The shot I always think about first with Parasite (and there are many iconic moments and compositions in this thing) is the four of them hanging out on a couch, food surrounding them, gazing into the backyard, right before they lose everything. For all its tone shifts and plot twists, Parasite also just works as a family dramedy, the same way Hustlers works as a love story. These films have so much on their minds, but Scafaria and Director Bong always put character first.
Us & Knives Out — In Which Filmmakers Are Always In Conversation With Their Own Work
At this point in writing this list I’m noticing even more links between all these films that I’ve already linked in twos. I could’ve just as easily linked Jordan Peele’s and Rian Johnson’s films as significant genre exercises (I’d be repeating myself) or stories that wrestle with class (I’d also be repeating myself). Yet when I think of Us and Knives Out they’re tethered (wink) to their predecessors, Get Out and Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Both are potentially ‘better’ movies than these two (I think they’re all great and don’t care about ranking), and both left enormous cultural marks on this decade. How does Peele top a story he’d been working on forever that ultimately changed horror filmmaking? How does Johnson come back from a film he spent four years making that got the loudest and most bizarrely divided response of any franchise movie I can remember?
The horror in Get Out is about the external threat of racism; the horror in Us is how racism is internalized within all of us, perpetuated by us. That’s inherently a more enigmatic idea to tackle in a movie, but I suppose that’s why I haven’t shook Us off since March. This is a weirder, more ambitious second film, one that crafts images so indelible (a family silhouetted in a driveway linking arms, a boy setting a car on fire) that I’m still finding joy in deciphering all their meaning. Us demonstrates Peele as a filmmaker who will not be confined by expectation. The only thing I’ll expect from him now is to be surprised.
Similarly, Knives Out feels like the culmination of every film Johnson has made, showcasing his gifts for puzzle-based storytelling and dialogue so memorable I can quote the script months later. Yet the film also wrestles with the kinds of people who personally attacked his social media en masse after The Last Jedi; entitled, dogmatic, often racist, and uncomfortable with newcomers who want to adjust a property that didn’t actually belong to these people in the first place. They only inherited it. But if all of this is underneath the surface, it’s coated in a movie that’s so goddamn effortless and pleasurable it doesn’t matter which way you view it. It’s thrilling we’re getting Daniel Craig back as the character actor he was always meant to be.
After this year’s Golden Globes, Quentin Tarantino doubled down on his commitment to retire from film directing after 10 movies. He suggested there’s a broader story he’s telling across all his films; an ‘umbilical cord’ tethering Reservoir Dogs to his 10th movie (a typically weird and kinda poetic QT metaphor). The same will be true for Peele and Johnson’s filmographies — there’s something decades-in-the-making going on here.
(I should note my own professional history makes it hard to be ‘unbiased’ toward either of these films, but fuck it, good movies are good).
The Irishman and Pain & Glory — “Baby, Baby, Baby, You’re Out of Time”
Martin Scorsese and Pedro Almodóvar are near the end of the line. They know this, and in these two films offer us capstones that try to make sense of everything they’ve experienced. I had seen almost every Martin Scorsese film going into The Irishman, and the experience felt inextricable from not just his gangster epics (Goodfellas, Casino) but his religious epics (Kundun, Silence, Last Temptation of Christ). I felt like I’d lived 50 years by the end of this film, not just because of the extended length, but because it’s the first of Scorsese’s mob movies to put the tragedy of his mafia men front and center. None of the guns and the cars and the chaos of this life look fun anymore; what remains are the relationships, stronger and more intimate than with family, between Frank Sheeran and Jimmy Hoffa (a reignited Al Pacino) and Frank and Russell Buffalino (a staggeringly somber Joe Pecsi). If The Irishman may be Scorsese’s last major piece of work, he is well aware, and intends to use his film to question everything he’s made before.
I don’t have the same relationship to Almodovar’s work. Pain & Glory is only the third film I’ve seen from him, and the story is more directly autobiographical of a life and career I wasn’t familiar with. Yet as a man whose headaches only worsened in 2019, the sight of Antonio Banderas modestly wandering Spain in migraine glasses made this 24-year-old feel seen. Part of Almodovar’s film is a hilarious heroin-hangout movie between retired film director Salvador and an actor he dicked over a long time ago. The other part is Call Me By Your Name, particularly in a centerpiece scene I wept through where Salvador awkwardly reunites with a past love. I felt intimately drawn to Banderas’ character, thanks to the actor’s innate gift for withholding unlimited emotions behind a wistful smile. Almodovar points the opposite direction from Scorsese: there is guilt and pain racking Salvador’s old age, but also the opportunity for apology, reconnection, and reigniting the artistry that connected him to the world.
The final shot of Scorsese’s movie shows a man creeping towards death’s door but still waiting, endlessly, completely alone (it’s staggering to read opinions that believe the film lets Frank off easy when the film shows him picking out his own coffin). The final shot of Almodovar’s re-contextualizes a story I had thought was about nostalgic recollection into an active, life-affirming journey.
Little Women and A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood — In Which Writing Is Catharsis
The writing process can be thrilling, transformative, eye-opening. Movies about writers are, usually, trite and literal: how did JRR Tolkien dream up Middle Earth? Why did A.A. Milne decide the ‘Wood’ was a hundred acres? The best scene in Greta Gerwig’s film is Jo March watching her book being bound together. It’s a culmination, a self-actualization of Jo embracing her life with her sisters as a viable, compelling story. By this point in the film we’ve experienced Jo’s life in fragments reoriented by Gerwig from the original text so that they can collide off of each other and combust. Much like Lady Bird I had the sensation I was only watching “the good parts” of a movie, yet within the context of the film I rooted for Jo to bind the damn book together because of how affected I was by her relationships. It’s easier when Gerwig has such a charismatic ensemble at her fingertips, but it’s still a crazy thing to pull off… as is making Mr. Rogers the antagonist of his own biopic.
The first and potentially best decision Marielle Heller’s film makes is telling Rogers’ story from the perspective of a nihilistic journalist who tries endlessly to chip at Rogers’ armor. Much like Jo March, Matthew Rhys’ Lloyd Vogel spends his whole story delving deeper into Rogers, obsessively, until his 400-word profile assignment is transformed into an intimate 10,000-word cover story. The interview scenes with Vogel and Tom Hanks’ Rogers are sweat-inducing. This is not because Mr. Rogers is villainized by the film in any way, but because we are understanding Rogers’ power in a new light. Rather than simply repeating his values to an audience, the film’s narrative asks the tougher question of how someone like Vogel finds value in Mr. Rogers’ worldview within his own traumatic life.
These are supremely emotional movies, sensitive to the point where their saddest scenes still make you feel excited about life. They feel like the work of writers adapting source texts they adore— Alcott’s novel and Rogers’ TV show — but instead of straightforward adaptations they’ve wrapped the story of their own cathartic relationships around the source texts. As third films for Heller and Gerwig, they fill me with joy that their careers are just getting started.
Her Smell and The Lighthouse — Theatricality in Film
I’ve heard from a few people about Alex Ross Perry’s and Robert Eggers’ films that they felt more like filmed plays than movies. I understand the comparison — both films have enormously dense scripts (Her Smell by Perry, Lighthouse by Robert and Max Eggers) and take place almost entirely in a few interior locations. Both were made with an unusual amount of rehearsal time for film, but not just to hone the centerpiece performances: to organize the visual language and rhythm of each film around these performances.
Elizabeth Moss’ Becky Something is, for my money, the year’s most interesting performance. Each of her twitches and movements feels like a natural extension of this flailing, damaged character. Perry choreographs the first 100 minutes of his film like a panic attack we experience alongside her (Keegan DeWitt’s literally nauseating score proves helpful). When Becky has burned all her bridges and truly hit rock bottom, he flips the energy of the film towards stillness, softness and eventually uplift.
The Lighthouse is not afforded such a reversal. Willem Dafoe’s Thomas Wake and Robert Pattinson’s Ephraim Winslow spend their time together on a one-way trip to implosion. There’s so much about the craft of Eggers’ film to delight in, from the faded film stock they shot with to the Grand Guignol-style visual effects, but it’s the performances above all else that make watching The Lighthouse feel like stumbling upon an artifact. Wake is endlessly fascinating to listen to and look at. It’s easy to understand why Winslow is spellbound by his lunacy because, in time, we are as well. The films each create visceral and surprising cinematic experiences largely within small rooms between two people. It takes great fucking filmmakers to make that not feel like a play.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and Under the Silver Lake — LA, Bay-bee!
2019 was the first year I felt like a resident of Los Angeles. I had hopped back and forth between west and east coasts since 2017; this year, I got my California ID (years later than I should have), spent nearly the whole year working here, moved to Silver Lake, became obsessed with the local arts scene, and felt committed for the first time to carving a home out of this sprawling city. LA is an endless contradiction (pausing at this sentence to hit my vape… hoo! Okay, moving on) where you feel like you know everyone and no one, that people work themselves into their graves but also have never worked at all, that seasons don’t exist and time is at an impasse and despite all this tranquility no one has fulfilled their purpose.
Quentin Tarantino and David Robert Mitchell seem obsessed with all these same contradictions. Tarantino’s film, one of my favorites he’s ever made, is wincingly nostalgic for what Hollywood could inspire. It suggests a timeline where TV cowboys can fight for a second chance at a great career, stuntmen can redeem decades of smugness and failure, and joyously warm and human actors are not vanquished by evil. Mitchell’s film takes place in the crushing present day, following a burnout who becomes obsessed with codes, mystery, and the chance to discover a greater meaning behind this fucking city (It helps that this very difficult protagonist type is portrayed in a career-best performance by Andrew Garfield, trying something in between Buster Keaton and Jake Gyllenhaal in Zodiac).
Much like LA itself, Under the Silver Lake and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood are thorny films. Scenes run too long, characters make choices that make you question if you’d want to follow them at all, and at some point I wondered during both films if these were even the perspectives I’d want to see further stories about Hollywood from. Yet this thorniness made the films feel all the more honest. I’ll think about these movies a lot, and will continue returning to them. I just hope I’m not still in LA by the time I have kids.
Marriage Story and The Souvenir — “Alone is Alone, Not Alive”
Why do bad relationships persist? Not abusive relationships that are predicted on fear, but the kind of shitty relationships that often upset us and we know aren’t what we deserve… and we go along with anyway. It could be from fear of the unknown, or self-hatred, or boredom, which certainly exist for Marriage Story’s Charlie and Nicole, as well as The Souvenir’s Julie and Anthony. I think the answer is love; genuine and inexplicable affection you have for someone who just may not be right for you.
Marriage Story gives an undeniable empathy and credence to both perspectives in its titular marriage, but I think it’s ultimately Charlie’s and Adam Driver’s film. It’s the story of an absent-minded man holding onto a sense of normalcy with his family and career. Only after the custody battle is already lost does he begin to realize the loneliness his inaction cost him. But writer/director Noah Baumbach also makes us feel these genuine connections between Charlie and Nicole that continue despite the pain of their experience. We also feel the kernels of wisdom from bullshitting lawyers, and the surreality of when you drive your kid across LA to find a divorce lawyer and it’s the most overwhelming day of your life and you still can’t drive close enough to reach your parking ticket from the machine. It all just feels like life; well-written, honest, alive.
The Souvenir is Julie’s and Honor Swinton Byrne’s story. If Marriage Story demonstrates the noxious power dynamics that can take hold when a couple works together, Joanna Hogg’s film shows a relationship can torpedo an artist’s life either way, even if her artistic journey is her own. In a way, The Souvenir is as simple as “art student dates heroin addict” and as uncomfortable to watch as the logline suggests. Yet the simplicity of the narrative and the prolonged amount of time Hogg lets us linger in certain gazes or silent actions allows us the time to ask ourselves not why doesn’t she leave but why does she stay. We understand in part it’s because Anthony (Tom Burke) has so entrenched himself into her life, but the scenes of genuine care Julie and Anthony show each other are the hardest to digest of all. A24 had an all-timer year, but I get the sense of the work they gave a proper theatrical release (Silver Lake, you deserved a better life) The Souvenir got lost in the shuffle. I can’t recommend enough giving this mature and tender movie a shot, and not just because the sequel hits in a year.
I have a fine line between the relationship movies I enjoy and the ones that drive me crazy. My favorites tend to come back to two people in some room, trying to figure their shit out and really failing but really trying. My favorites are storytellers working out their lived experiences without a vendetta or a self-pity; here’s life, here’s what happened, here’s what we can make of it.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Uncut Gems — An Unstoppable Force Meets an Immovable Opal
These are my two favorite movies of 2019. On the surface, it would be ludicrous to suggest these movies can be placed in conversation with each other. I believe each film follows romantic protagonists within mercenary worlds — cultural outliers whose obsessions (painting, forbidden love, gambling all your gem money on your boy KG) cannot be understood, or ultimately digested. A character in Portrait asks if all lovers feel like they’re inventing something. A character in Uncut Gems, while being asked by his employee why he doesn’t respect him more, stares into the deep space of a black opal and suggests that holy shit, he’s gonna cum. I’m gonna argue why these stories offer the same emotional journey.
Where do you fuckin’ start with a movie like Portrait of a Lady on Fire? The thing speaks for itself. Céline Sciamma’s 18th-century love story probably has less dialogue than any other film on this list: no need for speech when Marianne (Noémie Merlant) and Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) can communicate so much more by eyeing each other across an island cliff. It’s a cliche at this point for me to choose a queer love story as my favorite movie of a year, but the confidence of Sciamma’s visual storytelling, the color and sharpness of Claire Mathon’s cinematography, and the film’s ability to create this delightful and contradictory force out of Héloïse made it all feel like movies were being invented in real time before my eyes. It’s no spoiler to share Portrait’s love story ends in heartbreak. Sciamma makes it clear in the first scene of the film. Yet she doesn’t make this known to render the film sadder, rather she wants to ask her viewer a more interesting question: is the memory of Marianne’s limited relationship with Héloïse more valuable than the relationship itself? In Portrait, Marianne’s world is snapped into Héloïse’s orbit, long after Marianne departs her love. So long as their art exists, she really never has to leave her.
It’s this same affliction that lords over many of the supporting characters in Uncut Gems; for better or worse, they are in love with Adam Sandler (I mean, I get it). His wife is clamoring to leave him but she gets a kick out of pretending to hit him. His mistress could be with The Weeknd if she wanted to but instead she’ll tattoo the name of a goofy-looking 50-year-old jeweler to her butt. There’s something unusually romantic about the Safdie brothers’ crime thriller that separates it from every film in its genre, even Scorsese’s dizzying gangster epics. Uncut Gems is the year’s ultimate thrill ride, but the reason the film’s motor feels so powerful is there’s a purity to Howard Ratner’s ambitions in a world that pays no credence for heart. He’s a man born to discover and arrange for an opal delivery because he admires the damn thing more than anyone else could, he has a sixth sense for who and what to bet on… there are so many wholesome details about this mega-asshole that all come to the forefront in Sandler’s performance. The best of his career, he is so captivating as Howard I cannot imagine the film working with another actor. He is the Héloïse to our Mariannes, helping us discover an electricity within ourselves we maybe didn’t know we had.
THANK YOU for reading. I hope I offered a new perspective on some of these films, or convinced you to check a few of them out.
Peace and safety to you in this new decade (Another one? Yeesh).
See you in a year :)