The BP Top Ten of 2019
This list was compiled from the individual top ten lists of Alexander, Craig, Jim, Sarah, Rudie, Luiz, Scott, Tyler, and David. Each film was weighted according to its placement on each individual list. As such, a film that appeared on only two writers’ lists could still wind up on the finalized list if it placed particularly high. Conversely, a film could conceivably be on everybody’s list, but not make the final list, due to low point value.
Honorable Mentions: Marriage Story, Midsommar
10. Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Though there are no men in this sumptuous period romance, they are the ones who have set the rules around Marianne’s (Noémie Merlant) and Héloise’s (Adèle Haenel) lives. Their absence is also a metaphor for their ignorance of, or careless nature about, the issues women face amidst a patriarchal society (in that sense, it speaks a little to The Invisible Life, number 8 on this list). High cliffs are a constant landscape in this short-term Eden, but the interesting thing about this story is that the culmination of its tragedy is not that one of the women will throw herself to death in a cliché-ed act of rebellion, but that they will go on with their lives, unable to make their own choices.
In a film filled with arresting images, none is better than its final shot. Haunting and raw. – LO
9. 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. – AM
8. Knives Out
Director Rian Johnson endured a barrage of online hate for his beautiful, meditative 2017 film Star Wars: The Last Jedi (though the abuse Johnson suffered was nothing compared to the film’s female actresses who were and continue to be harassed simply for being female actresses). Dank, horrifying corners of the internet were lit up by tweetstorms and videos trying to “deconstruct” why Johnson is a bad filmmaker who lacks even the foundational skills of movie making. Then Johnson made Knives Out, a self-assured whodunit propelled by a razor sharp screenplay that presents its mystery with such confidence, it would be futile to even attempt to unravel the secrets. Anchored by an enormous, wonderful performance by Daniel Craig—that is both an obvious homage to famous gumshoes and a creature of its own distinction—Knives Out is the most fun I had at the theater this year. And it will hopefully serve as a polite reminder to the most impolite parts of film fandom that Rian Johnson’s got the chops. – CS
7. The Farewell
Lulu Wang’s sophomore effort is one of the best depictions of the dual Asian-American identity I’ve dealt with my entire life (as a fellow Asian-American). Your identity of the self as an American comes into direct conflict with your identity of your family as an Asian. I’ve never watched a film that successfully navigates both sides as The Farewell in a loving and touching way. – RO
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. – JR
5. A Hidden Life
If, on some level, you’re not considering the role of the average citizen under a fascist regime, I encourage you to begin doing so, and Terrence Malick’s latest masterpiece proves fertile ground on which to nurture this exercise. It takes absolutely seriously the true story of an Austrian farmer who refused to join the German army in World War II, having identified that which his countryman so seek to ignore – that he’d be serving an evil cause. Malick explores the duality of this decision with uncommon grace, recognizing the hypocrisy of audiences who seek out these narratives yet are unprepared to take such a stance themselves, and everything Franz will sacrifice by dedicating himself to it. Malick understands that Franz’s family will undoubtedly be worse for his decision, but that society might benefit one day from his example, from knowing it is at least possible to refuse service, and the freedom that comes with what is otherwise unending confinement and punishment. As he did with The New World, Malick uses the letters his characters wrote at the time to inform his characteristic voiceover, finding in it voices in harmony with his own, and a true love that can help endure even the most senseless of crimes – destroying a person for refusing to aid violence. – SN
4. The Souvenir
“Why doesn’t she just leave him?” I would like to no longer endure this question about The Souvenir or any other piece of art, but from the auditorium where I viewed it right up ’til today on social media, I’m afraid I will continue to do so, and I will continue to reply as I have – I deeply envy those who can comfortably ask that question. Hogg’s fourth film, quite autobiographical from what I’ve read, does indeed tell the uncomfortable story of a young woman who gets involved with a man who treats her quite poorly, and who forgives him all manner of unforgivable acts in order to retain the relationship, some fragment of the initial sweetness she found in him. It is an uncomfortable truth to acknowledge that many of us would, at some point in our lives, gladly endure cruelty to hold onto some semblance of love, to forgive anything if it meant one more sweet word. Hogg digs into the naiveté about the larger world that drives such desires, and her cast – lead by the extraordinary Honor Swinton-Byrne and Tom Burke (best male performance of the year, hands down) – relishes the immediacy of their young desires. Set in the past, and filled with the details of a passing period and fading youth, The Souvenir is almost-contradictorily rigid in its composition, a steady succession of note-perfect images that might seem too insulated did they note culminate in a (for me, literally) breathtaking conclusion that assaults whatever complacency we might have remaining. – SN
3. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood
Tarantino made a comeback this year. Nobody thought he was gone, of course, but those people might not have realized that his true muse was editor Sally Menke, who passed away in 2010. She was right there with him, from Reservoir Dogs to Inglorious Basterds, even in that rarely-mentioned short from Four Rooms. While the violence in his films grew at a steady pace, it would gain an odd masturbatory affect in the two films that followed her death, Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight. To me, Menke seemed to contain his worst excesses.
Finally, with Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, he shows a little bit of restraint again, and is more interested in exploring affection between his characters rather than contempt and vengeance. Leonardo DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton, when talking about Roman Polanski, isn’t possessed by the resentful envy of someone who’s passed his prime and is being forced to step aside by a younger generation, but admiration and awe.
The sequence at Spahn Ranch is terrifying, and Brad Pitt’s never been better. Dalton’s trailer meltdown and subsequent tour de force performance as a Western Black Hat is invigorating, and the violent denouement is less than 5 minutes long in a 161-minute movie. The whole thing is a journey of affection–for its characters, setting, and culture. The inadvertent saving of Sharon Tate was no surprise to me, it seemed like the only tasteful thing for him to do, and Inglorious Basterds had already set a precedent. I spent a while unsure of what to think of it, and while all complaints make good points, I just let myself feel happy that, for a moment, cinema seemed capable of avenging a terrible crime. It was risky, ambitious, and uplifting. – LO
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. – AM
Howard’s opal in Uncut Gems is everything he thinks he needs but still leaves him unsatisfied. The ornamental rock, decorated with runes and streaked with blood, in Midsommar represents a violent cleansing. And the rock in The Lighthouse is the small island that contains the many mysteries and horrors of life that Thomas and Ephraim confront. But the meaning of the rock in Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite—an ornamental stone gifted to the poverty stricken Kim family by a wealthier friend—is a much more slippery metaphor. It’s a reminder to the family’s aggrieved status and follows them like a haunted relic that keeps coming back to its perplexed owner.
The Kim family find themselves at the end of their rope, all jobless and unable to procure fundamental necessities when one small lie coalesces into an unsteady facade. Whether he’s making a monster film, a dystopian fantasy, or a domestic comedy, Bong’s filmography is almost singularly dedicated to dismantling the notion of capitalism as an equitable system. There comes a moment in all of Bong’s movies where his empathy and deviancy intersect. In Parasite, that intersection is profound and hilarious. – CS