You know when you’re in the midst of something – a job, a relationship, college, etc. – and you think to yourself, “Eh, this is fine, but nothing outstanding” and then once you’re removed from it you find yourself looking back fondly unable to pinpoint which highlights were the brightest? That’s 2019 in film for me. I lost track of how many times I said to people, “eh, it’s been fine, but nothing outstanding” only to have second guessed myself over both the inclusion and placement of films for this list once I began writing it.
Unlike my lists of 2018 , 2017, or 2016, this year I found myself grappling not just with criteria such as what makes a film “well-made” or “important” — two descriptors that are subjective enough — but, also, what makes a film “necessary,” a descriptor so subjective that I’m not even sure I could define either it or how a film adheres to it. Nevertheless, when it came to both inclusion and ranking I found myself continuously considering not only what resonated with me, but also what did I feel like the world and audiences needed. Is that pretentious? Sure. Is that unfair to Jennifer Kent’s exceptional and brutal The Nightingale? Probably. But it is my Top 10. You’re free to disagree. You probably will.
But first, the Honorable Mentions:
Booksmart (dir. Olivia Wilde)
Midsommar (dir. Ari Aster)
The Irishman (dir. Martin Scorsese)
The Nightingale (dir. Jennifer Kent)
Knives Out (dir. Rian Johnson)
10. A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD
I greeted news of “a Mr. Rogers movie” with the same amount of eye rolling that I greeted news of “a Facebook movie,” but as was the case with The Social Network, my response to finally seeing A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood was not just surprise, but awe. The screenplay by Noah Harpster & Micah Fitzerman-Blue wisely makes Mr. Rogers (Tom Hanks) a supporting character rather than the film’s focus, allowing him to be the emotional constant that Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) needs to guide his damaged psyche on the road to healing. By framing our entry into Vogel’s life with the dressings of an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, director Marielle Heller guides us back into a childlike mindset where we’re open to being molded, but still on our guard against fakeness or condescension. Shooting in public access SD and utilizing model reconstructions of real geographic locations could easily come off as kitschy or hollowly nostalgic, but these techniques instead show a remarkable consistency of tone that are complemented by the warm yet fully human portrayals she coaxes out of every single cast member. Last year’s widely lauded Won’t You Be My Neighbor? celebrated the legacy of Fred Rogers while also subtly pondering whether his message would find receptive hearts in an increasingly cynical political landscape. Beautiful Day responds with a message that being present in and mindful of your own needs, wants, and hurts will perpetually find an echo in everyone else around. It’s the kind of empathy of which we need to be reminded.
9. APOLLO 11
The third film I saw in 2019 has stuck with me over 10 months after seeing it, which would be a remarkable achievement for any film, let alone one for which not a single frame of film had been shot in over 50 years. Were Apollo 11 simply a remarkable spectacle – with its utilization of never before seen 70mm footage recounting one of humankind’s greatest achievements in history displayed on the largest movie canvas available – it would still be worth recommending as a cinematic experience. But what director/editor Todd Douglas Miller has delivered in this 93-minute film compiled together from hundreds of hours of footage and over 11,000 hours of audio recordings is an awe-inspiring reminder of what is possible when people are unified around progress. Rather than reflect on the specific era of the spaceship’s launch as some long-forgotten halcyon dream, the film’s admiration and celebration is directed more towards an event that was able to seemingly unify a diverse global population around an individual event that signified our progress as a species. No matter the geographical, cultural, or political differences that separate us, Apollo 11 stands as a reminder that we were and still are capable of rallying around the accomplishment of a small group of human beings because this achievement was one that every person on Earth was invited to celebrate. The fact that we as a global citizenry got there once before means that we can get there again. The “good old days,” the film would imply, were not relegated simply to July 1969, but have always been and will always be a designation reserved for those moments when one small step for man was and will be heralded as a giant leap for (hu)mankind.
8. ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD
I find it slightly obnoxious when a film is described as the director’s “love letter to Hollywood,” considering that Hollywood writes countless love letters to itself every year (they’re called the Academy Awards and they’re frequently awful), so when I heard that Tarantino had done just that with Once Upon a Time, I was skeptical. Sure, I’ve largely loved the writer/director’s body of work over the years, but his films can be navel-gazing, and when he’s rewritten history, it’s felt like it was largely done to subvert genre archetypes instead of adding anything insightful about the specific point in history. But with Once Upon a Time, Tarantino has managed to have his cake and eat it too by crafting a film that serves his love of cinematic history while also imagining a world where a monumental shift in culture and society never happened. At its core, Once Upon a Time is a film about redemption, the fruition of second chances, where missed opportunities were rectified, and hope is celebrated. Positive things have certainly happened in past Tarantino films — Django being reunited with his beloved Broomhilda, Jackie Brown’s successful scheming, etc. — but his characters’ emotional victories have always been over not just people, but also over cynicism sprung from an unfriendly world. Once Upon a Time is a beautifully optimistic film, an affirming exploration of what could have and should have been for characters both real and imagined.
7. THE FAREWELL
The setup behind The Farewell is a situation through which I cannot fathom living — saying goodbye to a terminally ill relative who doesn’t know they’re terminally ill — making it all the more remarkable that the film is autobiographical. The Farewell is a film that in the hands of the wrong filmmaker could veer wildly and inappropriately into equally off-putting divergent directions: a wacky fish out of water comedy for one director, or a bleak submersion into grief for another. But in the hands of writer/director Lulu Wang, the story perfectly balances an array of vibrant emotions that paint a complete picture of how to honor and love someone in ways that seem completely contradictory to your own experience. Billi — played exceptionally by Awkwafina — is grieving for a grandmother who doesn’t know that she’s slowly dying of cancer and grapples with how loving and respecting her Nai Nai could also include actively lying about why she’s traveled to China after years of living in America. It’s the exploration of the incongruities between cultural norms that makes The Farewell so fascinating and touching as it explores — without easily concluding — what it means to put yourself aside to elevate someone you love. “To you, someone’s life belongs to only him,” Mr. Li points out to Billi. “But that’s the difference between East and West. One’s life in the East is part of a whole. Family. Society.”
6. THE LIGHTHOUSE
“The Lighthouse is fucking BONKERS and I love it,” I texted to two of my cinephile friends after leaving the theater. Sometimes I’m not looking for a film that speaks to larger societal issues or that seeks to plumb emotional depths; sometimes I’m just looking for a director that has such a command over the visual medium that I experience something transcendent. Robert Eggers scratched that itch with The Lighthouse, a claustrophobic, oppressive, fever dream of a film that ratchets up tension and madness so incessantly that I felt like my only escape was to leave the theater or have the projector burst into flames. The film’s blocking, sparse production design, and cinematography all set the stage for feeling emotionally bleak and physically stuck, with amazing performances from both Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson that broadcast from the opening minutes that it’s not a matter of if someone will go insane, but who and when. I haven’t felt so physically uncomfortable watching a film since I first saw the original The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and while that may not seem complimentary, I am in awe of how writer/director Eggers had such command over every frame of this film.
5. THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO
San Francisco is a city going through an identity crisis. The second most expensive city in the U.S., San Francisco’s real estate and economy are being shaped by dollars brought in by technology and banking, industries that are catering largely to a privileged white demographic while turning a blind eye to both the city’s diverse cultural history and the racial demographics being pushed out (literally and figuratively). Barry Jenkins explored the emotional responses to this transition in his directorial debut, Medicine for Melancholy, and the conversation is picked up again with The Last Black Man in San Francisco. “History is written by the winners,” the old saying goes, but the film, co-written by Robert Richert & director Joe Talbot and based on a story also co-written by star Jimmie Fails (all born and raised in and around San Fran), chooses to focus instead on those on the losing side of both history and modernity and ponders the question of how to respond to an identity that has been forced upon you. The story is semi-autobiographical based on Fails’s history of growing up in a Black neighborhood in a Victorian home that was foreclosed upon after the death of his grandfather. Cinematographer David Marks uses wide lenses to bring a visual equity to how he films both the treasured historical sections of the city as well as its dereliction, while Emile Mosseri’s score evokes both isolation and reverence simultaneously.
4. LITTLE WOMEN
Despite what AMPAS thinks, women did direct films in 2019 and some of them were quite exceptional. I may have been ambivalent about Gerwig’s directing nomination for Lady Bird, but I am apoplectic at her exclusion for Little Women, despite the film being nominated for many categories in which she had significant, direct influence: Best Supporting Actress, Best Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best fucking Motion Picture of the Year. Yes, I realize that in the grand scheme of things, the Oscars don’t matter and Gerwig likely isn’t losing any sleep over it, but when both the box office and critical response are vehemently breaking apart the so-called “conventional wisdom” that people don’t respond to films directed by or starring women, it seems obnoxiously dismissive when a voting body still largely made up of old white dudes are telling us that a movie about an incel directed by a guy who complains about “woke culture” is one of the most important films of the year. I realize that Joker made a lot of money and was also widely lauded, but remember my introduction where I warned you about my subjectivity? Well, Little Women was one of the most beautiful movie-going experiences I had in 2019 because it was an affirming and uplifting work of art that celebrated the strong and fully human characters at the heart of its story in ways that would have been arguably less effective if not for the inspired decision by its writer/director to alter the chronology of the source material she was adapting. “Joyful” is a term rarely used these days, but Little Women is precisely that — a film that inspired joy within me, that made me cry happy tears, and leave the theater feeling more inspired than when I entered. None of that would be possible if not for Greta Gerwig.
3. AD ASTRA
The Golden Record playing on Voyager 1 includes photos of Earth and its lifeforms and “Sounds of Earth” like multilingual greetings, nature noises, and a collection of music. Its inclusion on the probe was intended to be a form of communication should it encounter intelligent life. More than 40 years after its launch, the signal is still being broadcast into the void, but as a species, we continue to wonder if we’re really alone in the universe. It’s the literal and figurative void into which Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) launches himself when he accepts a mission to search for his father who disappeared into the outer reaches of the solar system over 30 years previously. Like many of the films that I’ve included in my list this year, Ad Astra deals with reflection and re-evaluation, from McBride’s introspection on his failed relationships to the existential implications of being alone. Gray’s direction continuously subverts audience expectations about a film that appears, at first blush, to be a rehash of Danny Boyle’s Sunshine, but which slowly and gradually shifts focus from potential external threats to internal realizations.Hoyte Van Hoytema’s evocative cinematography works in tandem with Max Richter’s often ghostly score to make each frame of the film both a visual and aural immersion in beauty and isolation simultaneously. Ultimately, that’s what makes Ad Astra so resonant to me: it recognizes that life is comprised of an interplay between many sometimes seemingly conflicting emotions and that experiences that we deem as failures are often so judged because of a perspective that’s been fed to us, but from which we are capable of breaking free. As McBride says in the closing moments of the film: “I’m unsure of the future, but I’m not concerned. I will rely on those closest to me, and I will share their burdens as they share mine. I will live and I will love.”
2. UNCUT GEMS
Somehow, the Safdie brothers have discovered how to turn anxiety into a film. Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left may have been the film to invent the promotional tagline, “To avoid fainting, keep repeating, ‘It’s only a movie,’” but it was during Uncut Gems that I had to keep repeating it to myself. Basically every scene of the film — after the CGI deep dive into the molecular makeup of an uncut black opal that transitions into the closeup shot of Howard Ratner’s (Adam Sandler) colonoscopy, of course — is celluloid stress, a cacophonous chimera of toxic masculinity, emotional insecurity, rage boiling just below the surface, and a maddening string of self-perpetuating bad decisions. Sandler absolutely disappears into the roll of Ratner, a charismatic New York City jeweler who is constantly trying to cover up feelings of inferiority through hostility towards everyone he feels has wronged him even as he irrevocably sabotages both himself and those around him with a high-risk, high-reward gambling habit that he links inextricably to fate. Literally no part of Uncut Gems had any affect on my financial, physical, or mental futures, yet I lost count of how many times I was sweatily clenching my fists, nervously tapping my foot, or audibly sighing as the Safdies continuously introduced new lines in the sand that their borderline masochistic protagonist would inevitably cross. Uncut Gems is not a feel good film, but it is a film that will make you F-E-E-L from the opening frame to the shocking conclusion.
I legitimately don’t know what to say about Parasite that hasn’t already been said. It’s made over $124 million around the world. It’s either been nominated for or as has won awards from Cannes, the Golden Globes, the DGA, SAG, the BAFTAs, and the Oscars. It was released domestically in October and, as of this writing, is still playing on multiple screens in New York City. I have to use objectively verifiable evidence of the imprint that Bong Joon Ho’s masterpiece has left on the world because I find that my language is failing to convey just how remarkable an achievement Parasite is. Having seen the film shortly after I wrapped up covering Bong Joon Ho on “I Do Movies Badly,” I was the most prepared I’d ever be to receive what he was delivering and what I got was the perfect honing of tone, vision, and commentary that I first saw in 2003’s Memories of Murder. As one would expect from the South Korean director, Parasite is equal parts wildly funny and painfully tragic, meticulously crafted yet playfully whimsical, sympathetic to all its characters, while holding them all accountable. As the chasm of income inequality continues to widen around the world, Bong Joon Ho’s films take on new prescience and relevance, creating narratives that don’t always have clear cut heroes in which the villain is always unfettered capitalism.