And like so, we’ve reached the end of 2019, and the end of the 2010s. As I’ve done at the end of each year since I’ve been Entertainment Editor at the Beat, it’s time to take a look at the best films of the year.
In brief, 2019 felt like the year that prestige cinema came roaring back after a fairly taciturn 2018. The past 12 months saw Netflix finally became the awards juggernaut they had threatened to become, while Neon emerged as the next great hope for contemporary cinema alongside long-running critical favorite A24. And while this year’s big budget offerings generally failed to register after the highs of Black Panther and Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse, the folks at DC did pull off a big surprise in producing what was easily the most delightful and fun adventure film of the year.
Before we get to my picks for the 10 best films of the year, here are a few honorable mentions: The Farewell, Rocketman, Shazam!, The Lighthouse, I Lost My Body, Hustlers, Little Women, Once Upon A Time …In Hollywood
And here we go, in alphabetical order:
1917 – The big screen event of 2019 was Sam Mendes’ bounce-back after a hit and miss tenure in the Bond franchise. 1917 is a technical marvel that marries a staggering “one-shot” vision of history’s bloodiest conflict with the vivid palette of Roger Deakins and the masterful editing prowess of Lee Smith. And while every year or so there’s one movie that must absolutely be seen on the big screen, what separates 1917 from similar affairs this decade like Gravity is the beating human heart at the center of its story, with George MacKay providing this year’s best breakout performance as one of a pair of soldiers set out with an impossible task surely leading to certain death.
Ad Astra – While it’s heartening to see the very overdue Brad Pitt get universal plaudits, and likely numerous Best Supporting Actor prizes, for his work in Once Upon A Time …In Hollywood, it’s a bit of a shame that his other tender and tortured lead performance is falling to the wayside here. Strangely, Ad Astra really did come and go without making much of a blip. Such is the story of every James Gray film, one of our must criminally underrated directors (see: The Lost City of Z, We Own The Night, and Two Lovers), and while there are many reasons to praise this beautifully composed tale of an astronaut coming to grips with the sins of his long-lost father, it’s also one of the most intricately built visions of the future that I’ve seen. Turning the moon into a dead ringer for Hartsfield-Jackson Airport still leaves me a bit beside myself. The future, as beautiful as it might be in some corners, can still be pretty mundane.
High Life – Speaking of astronaut movies, here’s another one. This marks the first time two outer space focused features have landed in my top ten. But where Gray’s aforementioned effort is global (or I guess you could say, universal) in scale, Claire Denis instead focuses on the interior, or in this case the interior lives of a prison barge populated by the likes of Robert Pattinson’s Monte (continually proving that the future Batman actor is one of our most adventurous performers). High Life is one of 2019’s most polarizing features, as one would imagine of a sci-fi film that features an enclosure where people go to masturbate. Denis completely excavates the science fiction genre and turns it into something more elusive, an understanding of the worth of our own autonomy and how our fellow man can be a consistent threat to its existence. In Denis’ world, humanity remains the greatest mystery of all.
Marriage Story – I don’t generally cotton to the films of Noah Baumbach, whose predilections tend to specifically center on a very narrow social and ethnic class (affluent white people). Even putting that aside, his best films, such as Frances Ha and The Squid and the Whale, rarely elicited more than “pretty good” remark from this particular critic. But Marriage Story feels like something else. Not that it changes his focus of worldview, but that it becomes something much rawer. Clearly drawing inspiration from his own deteriorating marriage, his second film for Netflix is a captivating look at the ups and downs of two people that have fallen out of love and must go through the painful divorce process. On paper, it sounds like a miserable experience, but instead it’s more of a love letter to two people who must rediscover themselves and who they are at this point in their lives. In Baumbach’s hands, even the process of finding the right divorce attorney becomes an, at times, hilarious proposition. With Adam Driver and Scarlet Johansson both providing some of the best work of their respective careers, Marriage Story is the most engrossing take a relationships dissipation since A Separation. It has, for my money, this year’s most tear-inducing closing moments.
Pain & Glory – I know Heidi often compares the great Gilbert Hernandez to David Lynch, but to me his work hews a lot closer to that of Pedro Almodóvar. While sometimes that comparison creeps immediately to mind with efforts like the twisty, psychological thriller The Skin I Live In, it came roaring back to life as I watched the touching semi-autobio Pain & Glory. The film casts Antonio Banderas (giving the year’s best leading performance) as an ersatz Almodóvar in all but name, struggling to navigate his own physical and creative decline (and substance abuse), and the potential rekindling of old relationships, while at the same time reflecting on his childhood and the mother who raised him in a small impoverished village in Spain. It is as if the filmmaker is literally opening up his soul for viewers to take in, and it’s perhaps the most emotionally resonant work of his career. As graceful a piece of work as 2019 has seen, I feel like Beto would love it.
Parasite – What can I say about the best film of the year? That says it all, really. Bong Joon-ho‘s latest, after a few dalliances with bigger budget state-side films like Snowpiercer and Okja, finds him returning to South Korea and to the incisive work that made him arguably his homeland’s finest filmmaker. Parasite is basically unclassifiable, though if you were to call it a thriller-tragicomedy that at least comes close. With Parasite, he examines class conflict under the microscope of wealth inequality and how the working class can subsume each other to live their desired lifestyle. Beyond its exceedingly relevant premise (which aligns it of a piece with its fellow Palme d’Or winners The Square and Shoplifters, both equally captivating looks at social strata and “othering”), it’s slick entertainment of the highest order, particularly as it builds into a crescendo at the beginning of its second hour. I’m fairly certain my favorite big screen image of 2019 will remain Song Kang-ho holding a bloody cloth in faux-concern that he’s fished out of the trash. A deeply hilarious film that transforms itself a number of times before reaching a moving climax, Parasite is Bong’s best effort since Memories of Murder, which is insanely high praise given his immediate follow-ups like Mother and The Host. This is a filmmaker re-attaining perfection, and nothing else this year even comes close.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire – OK, well, maybe one movie comes close. Prior to this year, Neon has distributed a number of interesting projects like Ingrid Goes West, The Bad Bunch, and Bodied, but 2019 is where they really burst loose as a studio promoting the work of fascinating artists, particularly from the international circuit. While Parasite will rightfully suck up most of the attention, Celine Sciamma‘s Portrait of a Lady on Fire runs a very close second. A period piece focused on the torrid love affair between a young painter and her subject, a woman whose mother requires a portrait be made of her before she can be married off to a wealthy suitor. It’s a sumptuously shot film that radiates passion and feels incredibly neoteric in its emotional approach for something wrapped up in the sometimes staid boundaries of the costume romantic drama. Noemie Merlant is my new favorite international find, and if there was any real justice, we’d be talking about her for all the Best Actress prizes. If you see one movie from this list, make it Parasite, if you see two, this is a great, albeit very different, follow-up.
63 Up – The great work of Michael Apted‘s career. For those unfamiliar, 63 Up is the latest entry in a series that’s been running since the 1960’s, when Apted (and Paul Almond, his one-time collaborator at the outset), interviewed a handful of British 7-year-olds of varying economic class. From there, every 7 years, Apted would return to those same individuals to see where life had taken them. 63 Up is the ninth entry in this hallowed series that finds these individuals now entering their autumn years, with some facing incredible struggles and loss, and even facing their own mortality, while others have begun to settle into retirement and life as grandparents. Given this stage of life they’re all entering and the self-reflection it brings about, it’s the strongest entry since 42 Up and it furthers what is easily the greatest film time capsule of the Baby Boom generation. Here’s to 70 Up in 2026.
Uncut Gems – In 2017, the Safdie Brothers‘ Good Time was a hair’s breadth away from making my 10 Best Films of 2017 list, but their immediate, more expansive follow-up clears that threshold easily. It takes a lot to make me feel a level of real tension in the cinema, but without doubt, this story of a gambling addicted jeweler and his careless high-stakes bets, and the ramifications of those decisions he makes left me clenching my buttocks for much of the running time. Then again for a movie that opens with a colonoscopy that looks more like an acid-tinged journey, the intent couldn’t be more clear. Sorry Marty, but this is the best crime film of the year. Perhaps equally miraculous, it reminds us just how good Adam Sandler can be when he actually puts real effort in. The definition of a filmmaking breakthrough, I can’t wait to see what the Safdies do next.
Under The Silver Lake – David Robert Mitchell‘s long-awaited follow-up to It Follows has to be the most mistreated (from a production standpoint) film of the year. Delayed for over a year after a tepid response at Cannes, it finally saw release in the spring in an extremely limited theatrical run while also hitting streaming that same day. It’s a shame that A24 didn’t seem to know what to do with Under the Silver Lake, a neo-noir on the same hazy cannabis-fueled wavelength as Inherent Vice, The Long Goodbye, and the recently cancelled Lodge 49, but it’s now screaming to attract a cult fandom to uncover all of its beautiful and odd little corners. Centering on Andrew Garfield‘s listless loner and his search for where his missing neighbor, Under the Silver Lake is an experience that never stops turning out new ideas and conspiracies on top of conspiracies, and new puzzles to solve. It is both overwhelming and invigorating, and is right up there with Nightcrawler as one of my favorite “LA movies” from this decade. While it won’t ever find the audience it deserves, those of us who cherish it will love it for years to come. And just as icing on the cake, a mini-comics artist plays a significant role!
For those interested, you can see my entire ranking of this year’s films that I took in here. And just for fun, and since we’re at decade’s end, you can revisit my picks for the best films of 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018.
See you in 2020!