Alexander’s Top Ten of 2019
Honorable Mentions: Martin Eden, Pain & Glory, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Forest of Love, It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, In Fabric, Depraved, What We Left Unfinished, Marriage Story, Non-Fiction, Hotel by the River.
10. THE IRISHMAN
The Irishman isn’t a perfect film, but you have to admire Martin Scorsese, who doesn’t get as much praise for being a technician as he does an artist. Despite its three-and-a-half-hour runtime, Scorsese’s propulsive sense of narrative, musical literature, and its relation to his stories, The Irishman has that grasp that’s been with his work since the eighties. There’s these brilliant little codes sprinkled throughout, whether it’s the unexpected Godard-ian title cards at the films start, or captions that read “Allen Dorfman – shot eight times in the head in a Chicago parking lot”, for example. These captions and their taciturn way of describing the character’s fate are both darkly comic while they simultaneously emphasize the inherent fatalism of organized crime.
Fatalism, crime, and history are Scorsese’s hallmarks, among many, and he serves it up to the tune of that wobbling, bluesy, big-belly score, and for the most part, it’s a masterpiece. There were moments where the de-aging effects took me out of the picture, but I admire his maverick ambition; he’s still making movies with the enthusiasm and spark that put him on the map.
9. KNIVES OUT
The most fun I’ve had watching a movie in 2019, Rian Johnson’s Knives Out pulled out all the stops with the murder mystery genre, chucked the rule book, and detonated a cluster bomb with a luminous cast of our brightest and best. My personal disdain for the clannish and obsessive immaturity of fan culture, paired with my appreciation for The Last Jedi, opened up a special place for Rian Johnson in me. With Knives Out it feels like Mr. Johnson is saying, “Fuck off, I’m doing it my way,” and that mean streak is a driving force in the film which is ruthlessly self-styled and relentlessly entertaining.
8. THE SOUVENIR
What’s more painful, your first love (and/or subsequent heartbreak) or an addiction that’s so rooted in your character it’s practically part of your identity? That’s too broad to be the thesis of Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir, but, in so many ways, it’s a running theme. There’s an unnerving honesty throughout the film, which doesn’t offer any solutions, closure, or easy answers. Honor Swinton Byrne holds herself with a regal innocence, performing with an unguarded intelligence that typifies an inquiring mind fallen under the spell of matured sophistication in the form of an unhealthy, older lover. Alongside is Tom Burke, whose character feels out of his own time. He carries that worldly air of a well-traveled gentleman, whose heroin addiction is the result of some existential woe, or the pseudo romanticized backwash of a colonial mindset. He didn’t cop dope on the street corner, but “discovered” it in some hazy opium den in Tangiers, or as a stowaway on a trade ship crossing the Orient. Anthony’s addiction seems like the deluded romanticism of a bygone era. Like the men who died on the Titanic, he’s dressed in his best and has agreed to go down like a proper, sporting, British man. The kind of film that leaves a deep impression, The Souvenir is painful sophistication at its best.
7. THE LIGHTHOUSE
I never expected that ol’ timey, New England-borne folk horror would ever be a thing, but I’m overjoyed that it exists and relieved that it’s helmed by Robert Eggers, who has twice proved to be the perfect candidate. The Lighthouse is an immersive experience. It’s a salty, briny, wet, cold, windy, flatulent movie that’s either drunk or hungover; and when your only drinkable sustenance is fecal-stained well-water that tastes of rust and disinfectant, you’re better off drunk on rum. When you get a good horror film it’s a treat, but when you get one that exists freely on its own terms, it’s nearly miraculous. The atmospheric roar that is The Lighthouse is one of the most memorable viewing experiences of this year. The absurdist humor is juxtaposed with mythic maritime horror lore, and Robert Eggers whips it up with gleeful composure. Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe’s pairing is simply delightful. Pattinson’s wound-up performance is compelling, but Dafoe’s salty dog ol’ timer is a damn marvel.
6. A HIDDEN LIFE
There’s a brilliant quote from A Thin Red Line, in which Sean Penn’s character says, “What difference you think you can make, one single man in all this madness?” And that’s why A Hidden Life feels like a spiritual sequel to Terrence Malick’s other remarkable anti-war fable. He’s shorn the explosions, muzzle flashes, and spectacle in favor of a more reduced, concentrated emotional core. A Hidden Life is a continuation of Malick’s second era cinema. In the mold of Song to Song, Knight of Cups, his much-touted “return to linear narrative” is very much in the same vein as his contemporary work. Still, the period flavor is distinct, resonant, and teeming with natural beauty. Terrence Malick’s ever-evolving cinema grows at its own idiosyncratic pace, and it’s just as enriching as it was when he started.
5. ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD
Whenever I would watch Roman Polanski’s Tess, I would tear up after the opening credits, because they ended with a simple sentiment that reads “For Sharon.” Needless to say, the same feeling washed over me in that wonderful scene where Margot Robbie flutters into a bookstore to buy a copy of Tess of the D’urbervilles and tells the operator, “It’s for my husband.” That’s when I realized that Quintin Tarantino is doing something special here.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood charts a creative evolution for our generation’s enfant terrible. It feels he’s put his pious stylism aside, instead opting for stronger characterizations, tender scenes of diversionary intrigue, and a nostalgic bent that serves as one of the best avenues to express his veneration of all things relating to the moving image. Here Tarantino seems to be more concerned with being smart than being cute, and we’re all the better for it.
Tarantino’s collaborations with his actors are always fruitful, but the bounty of magnificent performances in this turn are the brightest. DiCaprio is undeniably powerful, in what may be his finest hour. Brad Pitt’s restrained performance portrays his character with inaccessible unease. But Margot Robbie perfectly captures that angelic purity that was Sharon Tate. I, too, would like to live in a world where Sharon never met with tragedy and Roman Polanski never bailed to France; a world where he and Sharon still reside on Cielo drive. A world where Roman conquered Hollywood and reigned for decades, making challenging, exciting, and original movies (starring Rick Dalton of course). Where studios weren’t sold to conglomerates and the director’s era carried on until the present day. Well, we can always dream.
4. HER SMELL
Amid the glut of rocker biopics, this entry – about a fictional musician featuring a cast of lesser-known actors led by the incalculably great Elizabeth Moss – spoke to me the most. Her Smell might be one of the best music films of recent years because it feels like a menagerie of the glory days of 90’s punk/alternative, where labels 4AD and Kill Rock Stars filled record stores with bands like Throwing Muses, Madder Rose, Bikini Kill, and Huggy Bear. At the same time, there seems to be inspiration drawn from the Courtney Love/Hole narrative (there’s some Nirvana in there, too, but we’ve talked about them enough already). It’s a swirl of spirited musical rebellion that’s catapulted thanks to a cast of low-key marvels, including Ashley Benson, Cara Delevigen, Amber Heard, Danny Stevens, and solid supporting turns from Eric Stoltz and Virginia Madsen. And Gayle Rankin’s subtly inspired acting is genuinely marvelous. Of course, Elizabeth Moss is blazing throughout. She might be one of our best talents, and her unpredictable intensity embodies the rebellion that’s emblematic of punk rock, as well as the self-destructive hubris that accompanies fame.
3. LITTLE WOMEN
There’s a crisp sense of sincerity to Greta Gerwig’s superlative realization of Little Women. It is a sturdy and mature understanding of time and place that flourishes alongside the terrific performances from a diverse cast of the old guard and new, whose commitment to the material is casually radiant.
It feels as if Gerwig has picked up the mantel left by the likes of the Merchant-Ivory team, and her sensibilities are perfectly calibrated in the classic traditions of storytelling with a contemporary flourish that flatters the material all the more. Little Women is something special in that it’s a film we don’t see very often: a work that is compassionate and literate, thoroughly unironic, occasionally funny, and sometimes sad.
2. UNCUT GEMS
Suspense is no longer restricted to horror films and thrillers. It’s on the streets, and the Safdie Brothers put it there. Sure, they aren’t the first to do so, but their ability to imbue every interaction with a roiling air of unease is uncanny and affecting. Uncut Gems dumps you into a world populated by bad people making terrible decisions at a Herculean rate. The tweaking discomfort is almost assaultive, yet the frustrating fixation keeps you glued to the screen. There’s an under-your-skin quality to their artful, anxiety-inducing cinema, and its twitchy resonance is hard to shake and impossible to ignore. Adam Sandler realizes Howard Ratner with a perfect degree of frustration, and his self-destructive conquest is so inspired it’s as if he’s being guided by some religious force (he’s also mastered what I’d refer to as “teeth acting”). Uncut Gems is an exhausting fable of contemporary fatalism that is also extremely funny. Go figure.
It’s borderline shocking that the film of 2019 that everyone lost their minds over wasn’t Star Wars, Avengers, or some award-baiting biopic, but a Bong Joon-Ho movie. For all the right reasons, Parasite is about as close to perfect as a movie can be. Bong Joon-Ho has always been able to hit all the pleasure spots while excelling in the piercingly incisive dark comedy and suspenseful winnowing he’s been honing all these years. Still, Parasite is yet another evolution in an already-prolific career. The structure is chaotic and precise and wholly unpredictable. The slick aesthetic and woozy green color palette is calibrated with a diamond cutter’s eye, and Sang Kang Ho leads this film with the angular veracity of the classic everyman actors from Hollywood’s classic era. There’s a flickering danger under the surface too. Good art can make you suffer a little, and, if the great artists revel in this perverse joy and drive it to eleven, I think Bong Joon-Ho’s latest film is in the fifteen range.