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The best movies of 2019

Documentary and directorial debuts, horror and drama, Hollywood and South Korea—it's all represented in the year's best films.
Credit: Courtesy: A24 / Netflix

What to make of 2019 as a year in movies? How about what not to make of it?

It was an unexpected as Baby Yoda’s world domination, and as exhaustively satisfying as watching Rick Dalton let it rip on the set of “Lancer.” It provided an all-timer crop of sophomore features from the likes of Greta Gerwig, Robert Eggers and Ari Aster while also yielding one last group of mesmerizing, decade-ending debuts that includes Olivia Wilde, Joe Talbot and Lulu Wang. The bread and wine of “The Irishman” looked tasty, the ramdon of “Parasite” even more so, and the trophy for Movie Most Likely To Scare You Out of a Summer Trip to Europe is finally in the hands of something other than “Taken.” First-time director Lulu Wang let us in on a family secret, and institutional director Martin Scorsese let us into reflections of a career.

Tom Hooper’s “Cats” broke Twitter, and then broke its awards chances by not breaking the box office. Sagas ended (for now) with "Avengers: Endgame," sagas ended definitively (or so they say) with "The Rise of Skywalker" and sagas received an epilogue with "Toy Story 4." Adam Driver was in everything. Florence Pugh: hello. Joe Pesci, Wesley Snipes, Jennifer Lopez: hello again. We couldn’t decide whether “The Lion King” was animated or live-action (it’s animated). We couldn’t decide whether “Under The Silver Lake” is problematic or in on the joke (it’s the latter). Robert Pattinson lost his mind in space, then in a lighthouse, then on a European battlefield—spanning about five centuries in the process.

Netflix quadrupled down on its bid to be taken seriously as a new kind of movie studio, while A24 and Neon continued churning out indie darlings with budgets the size of Thanos’s pinkie. The knives came out, the gems remained uncut and the popes came in sets of two. What to make of 2019 as a year in cinema? It may very well have been the decade’s best.

Here are the 10 best films from the year, beginning with five that remain just outside the bubble.

First five out: “The Lighthouse,” “The Irishman,” “Wild Rose,” “Pain & Glory,” “A Hidden Life”

10. “Tigers Are Not Afraid” (dir. Issa López)

An international movie with international appeal which speaks to the importance of international films. “Tigers Are Not Afraid – or “Vuelven” in its native language – is a dark urban fairy tale about a gang of orphaned kids chased by cartel bosses and followed by supernatural entities in Mexico, but it doubles as something much more urgent: A look at the effects of drug war violence on the country’s families, focusing on the kids who are ripped from their parents.

The triumph in director Issa López’s latest movie lies in constantly having to remind yourself that the situation facing its central ensemble of child actors – giving some of the most legitimately chilling performances of 2019 – isn’t the stuff of fiction like the film’s spectral forces are. “Tigers Are Not Afraid” only rarely pushes fully into the realm of fantasy because this crisis is a real one, with statistics that aren't as concrete as they should be, and statistics most aren't even aware of. 

The del Toro influence in strong in “Tigers Are Not Afraid,” as are the shades of it resembling a “Peter Pan” tale that’s been flipped on its sinister head—Estrella and her adoptive gang of Lost Boys aren’t looking to jubilantly remain forever young, but rather have to grow up much too fast in order to stay a step ahead of the ghost of violence constantly on their tail. This is a devastating, spooky film, but the latter is never more than the former.

9. “American Factory” (dirs. Steven Bognar, Julia Reichert)

A shuttered Ohio car plant reopens under a Chinese name and boss, providing jobs to thousands of American and Chinese laborers. But it isn’t long before contrasting values about efficiency and work-life balance begin to surface. Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert spin what seems like unlimited access into this revelatory Netflix documentary that balances patient storytelling with a stunning sense of urgency.

At the center of it, largely, is the question of what exactly happens when cultures finally, and literally, rub shoulders in a world that grows smaller with each passing day. Quiet conversations about unions and thought-bubble ponderings about the American dream are observed, as is the rebirth of a Heartland community that feels increasingly like a large-scale test case for the immediate future of an evolving global economy. “American Factory” is simply a must-watch heading into a new and unpredictable decade.

8. “The Farewell” (dir. Lulu Wang)

Another movie about reckoning with cultural identity, only this time on a familial level. 2019’s most stunning directorial debut is stylistically grand and emotionally intimate in equal measure, and Awkwafina is subtly devastating as the autofictionalized version of director Lulu Wang, who decided to make a first feature about her family deciding to keep her grandmother’s cancer diagnosis a secret from her, per Chinese tradition.

The end product is much funnier than the premise would suggest, and much more universal too. It's confidently-constructed in examining the dichotomies woven into the fabric of 21st-century society – individual and society, love and pain – and told from such an undeniably fresh perspective that “The Farewell” practically belongs in an entirely new genre of immigrant story.

7. “The Souvenir” (dir. Joanna Hogg)

Unfolding with an observational pace that borders on meandering and through such muted colors that it feels constructed from the lint collected in the seams of its director’s memories, “The Souvenir” is a strange mindworm of a movie that defies convention, and a movie I haven’t been able to shake all year.

Honor Swinton Byrne’s Julie is a film student in ‘80s England, but her ambitions are stalled by an ill-timed romance of the most dubious kind with Anthony – realized to nuclear-level jerk-ery by Tom Burke in one of the most unabashedly ostentatious performances of the decade – who doesn’t push her to pursue her dreams so much as scold her route of attaining them. Hogg’s film is reportedly mined from her own past experiences; if you can get on board with that, it becomes a specimen that folds back on itself—a storyteller in control of her grainy recollections, and also still trying to parse through them.

You don’t watch “The Souvenir,” a lusciously-filmed story about love, to feel wrapped up in love. You watch it to get caught up in the thorny underbrush of not knowing how to navigate it, and emerge out the other side with blood drawn and fortitude fortified.

6.  “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood” (dir. Quentin Tarantino)

Those of a certain generation will remember and recount the mysticality of Los Angeles in 1969—an entire American epoch squeezed into a dozen months. For the rest of us, Quentin Tarantino created a portal into the year’s beauty and its horror, its exuberance and its end-of-an-era melancholy.

For a director whose career is coated in a deep-seeded affection for film and film history, it’s fitting that Tarantino’s ninth feature – about real and imaginary Hollywood starlets at different points in their careers – is perhaps his most restrained. As Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate walks through immaculately-realized 1960s LA streets, Tarantino’s camera sits a little farther back than we’re used to seeing from him, as if taking a seat alongside us to appreciate the magic, self-torment and exhalation that goes into movie-making for himself. The power of the medium speaks for itself in “Once Upon a Time’s” fairy-tale final moments, and, for the first time, Tarantino’s passions do too.

5. “Her Smell” (dir. Alex Ross Perry)

The year’s most magnetic performance (non-Lupita-Nyong’o division) belongs to Elisabeth Moss’s spiraling, maniacal, neo-‘90s rocker Becky Something, who indulges in everything from backstage breakdowns to black magic as she conforms the cosmic boundaries of Alex Ross Perry’s movie to her deteriorating psyche.

As much about the irreversible effects of time as “The Irishman” and “Little Women,” “Her Smell” is a tense-as-hell musical drama—somehow constantly pushing the limits of realism while remaining firmly grounded in the emotional fallout of the raging meteor that is Becky. As she confronts and is confronted by her agent, her family, her bandmates and herself, Becky attempts to balance a desperation to revive the popularity of Something She with the inevitable dread of feeling out of touch and out of time. Her way of coping? Refuse to acknowledge.

People often talk about taking journeys with characters in movies; “Her Smell” takes the responsibility of that maxim to heart. It doesn’t imagine a meteor that remains at throttling speeds forever—eventually it’s got to crash. When Becky does, the movie – and Moss – goes from great to indelible.

4. “Little Women” (dir. Greta Gerwig)

Perhaps not the story we would have expected the uber-contemporary Greta Gerwig to take on in her “Lady Bird” follow-up, but nonetheless one that inks her as one of our most innovative young directors. We never should have raised an eyebrow—Gerwig knew what she was doing all along in crafting a new identity for a literary classic that’s been adapted several times over, imbuing it with the same emotionally-frenzied energy that made her directorial bow so good in the process.

Themes of womanhood, economic necessity, growing up, authorship and refined/redefined ambition all weave together in Gerwig’s screenplay with harmony and the joy that comes from seeing some of our most talented young actors bounce off each other with lively, lovely grace. Saoirse Ronan, Timothée Chalamet, Eliza Scanlen, Florence Pugh—this movie spoils us. It also brings a tear to our eye and spurs of-the-moment sociological conversation, often at the same time. Gerwig’s early work has the mark of a master. Let’s not take her for granted.

3. “Midsommar” (dir. Ari Aster)

Yes, “Midsommar” is the most WTF movie of 2019, and maybe of the last five years. Yes, there comes a point where it plunges the audience head-first into a bottomless pit of cinematic depravity. Yes, writer-director Ari Aster probably needs to see a therapist. So why is the finale of his second film so disarmingly cathartic?

Paranoia and dread are the tools most efficiently utilized by “Midsommar,” not only for Dani and Christian, but for us. Aster gives a doomed relationship familiar apocalyptic stakes – who among us can’t relate? – but somewhere along the way begins to slowly inject empathy into an increasingly-horrific narrative, stretching the emotional void of his two main characters as uncomfortably wide as he can before a final cataclysmic confrontation unfolding in his twisted version of Oz. The facial gymnastics, confused anguish and conflicted vulnerability that Florence Pugh’s high-wire performance manifests, meanwhile, herald the breakout of a fantastic young actress.  

A break-up involving ritualistic violence and sex never felt so operatically optimistic, not that any filmmaker in their right mind has ever tried it. We’re lucky that Aster’s creative mind is anything but right. In a decade stuffed with standout horror films, few feel as precisely-directed, alluringly shot and hypnotically transportive as the queasy, funny, fanciful “Midsommar.” Should we laugh, smile or scream? Yes.

 

2. “Marriage Story” (dir. Noah Baumbach)

The thing that stands out the most about “Marriage Story” – even more than its pair of leading bare-it-all performances, even more than its intelligent dialogue, even more than its elegant idiosyncrasies – is the contradiction at its core: Noah Baumbach’s movie about divorce feels sublimely hopeful.

Not that the film isn’t honest about the dehumanizing process of legally terminating a marriage, nor the permanent scars it leaves on a family. “Marriage Story” takes no sides between Nicole and Charlie, and the fact so many people in the online discourse try to justify their insistence that it does probably says more about our desire to stay oblivious to Baumbach’s sentiment—love evolves. Sometimes, it naturally evolves beyond the borders of matrimony, and not by way of an unforgivable act.

Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson are incredible in “Marriage Story,” and so are Laura Dern, Ray Liotta, Alan Alda, Julie Hagerty, Merrit Wever. They’re all actors in Baumbach’s film, and they play actors in Charlie and Nicole’s changing story—characters with their own lines to rehearse and requisite stage directions to carry out, propelled by the machinery of divorce proceedings. When Charlie and Nicole are alone with each other, it’s more like improv; naturally responding to wills and provocations with all the desperation that life, and love, calls for. We have the capacity to tear each other to shreds with reckless abandon. And we are just as empowered to build something new from the pieces that remain.

1. “Parasite” (dir. Bong Joon-ho)

For his latest work, Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho fashioned himself a clockmaker, giving what feels like the closest possible consideration to every shot, every moment and every line reading of “Parasite,” a perfectly-tuned film that is as acrobatically entertaining as it is cutthroat about the cage of global class systems. Indeed, the whole thing is a metaphor. But metaphors shouldn’t feel this blunt, honest and totally artifactual of our place and time.

Even when the story reaches its messiest twists and characters pass beyond points of no return, “Parasite” oozes elegant intention and exacting execution. Joon-ho literalizes the fallout of class warfare in bloody fashion – forever embedding peaches, the house it largely takes place in, and “Jessica, only child, Illinois, Chicago” into the cinematic lexicon in the process – but never strays his gaze from the socio-economic systems the movie’s families destroy themselves trying to circumvent. 

He’s smarter than giving the audience what we think we want to see from his  ending, what we yearn for “Parasite” to leave us with. He gives us an ending we should see—and somehow it’s more devastating, beautiful and satisfying than anything we could imagine.

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