If I were to try to summarise the films of 2019 as a single, overarching narrative. I couldn’t do it. This was an especially fragmentary, inconsistent batch of films: it was an abnormally terrible year for big blockbusters and popcorn movies, a typically ho-hum year for nice Oscarbait and other adult dramas, and a world-class year for art cinema: the best year of the 2010s, even, just for the sheer volume of amazing experiments and bold attempts to shove the medium in new directions. Not all of these art films were great, and there are plenty of films I found fascinating but crucially broken in some way, which is why they’re not on the below list. But there’s quite a lot I look forward to revisiting, even if it doesn’t cross some arbitrary threshold to be ranked,
Drawing a grander narrative out of that, though? I can’t do it. This was a very weird, one-off year; for all that it seems that Disney has destroyed the artform entirely with its big, burly, massively successful, and simply dreadful behemoths, even Disney isn’t going to be replicating its dominance on this scale for quite a while to come – looking ahead to 2020, it’s going to be a much quieter year with nothing that will suck up all the available screens and money like Avengers: Endgame and The Lion King and Frozen II. And thank God for that; in the meantime, lets get this very erratic 2019 put to bed, so we can move on to see whatever’s next.
The Ten Best Films of 2019
1. La Flor
2. High Life
3. Portrait of a Lady on Fire
4. A Hidden Life
5. The Lighthouse
7. Once Upon a Time …in Hollywood
9. John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum
1. La Flor (Mariano Llinás, Argentina)
The bubbliest 14 hours you’ll ever spend watching a director consistently fail to tell a single coherent story. This might make it onto my list solely for the unbridled grand-scale scope of the thing; it might make it for its witty and knowing pastiche of genre tropes and its travesty of genre structure; it might make it for the cunning with which it interrogates how movies generate meaning, both outwards from the filmmaker and inwards to the viewer; it might make it for the pleasure of watching four top-notch actresses evolve their process over the course of a decade-long shoot. Having all of those things in one place is why it makes it all the way up to #1, and the absurd comic energy that makes this intellectual puzzle such a fun thing to play around only seals the deal. Announces itself as a major achievement, and earns it.
2. High Life (Claire Denis, UK/France/Germany/Poland/USA)
Glancing back at the heaviest hitters of its genre (there’s a good deal of both 2001 and Solaris here), the film does fine work evoking a cosmic scale to set against its tiny human story of a father and daughter relying on each other as the whole of each other’s universe; but it’s the small details where the film thrives. This is a masterpiece of textures and sounds, skillfully creating a unique place that is nothing like our world but emerges so clearly that it some feels more real than reality. That proves to be an ideal setting for a story about great suffering contrasting with great fortitude, a story about staring into the face of God that prefers to look at the humans doing the staring. The film’s humanist spirituality is like the best of the ’60s art film philosophy filtered through pure genre.
3. Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Céline Sciamma, France)
Arguably the best screen romance of the 2010s; arguably the best depiction of an artist’s unique perception and psychological preoccupation of the 2010s. These two different stories are inextricably tied together, in that it is the unblinking precision of the artist’s look that leads to a fascination with her lover’s face, body, and way of moving in the world. It’s a deft embodiment of the female gaze that does more than any other film to give us a brand new way of see the world, patiently training us how to watch the movie and in so doing inviting us to watch life itself with a bit more care, reflection, generosity, and fascination. This gives way to a love affair so nourishing and rich with need and love that the film has already broken and patched up your heart long before it arrives at its melancholy destination.
4. A Hidden Life (Terrence Malick, Germany/USA)
In some ways, this is the summary of everything Malick has been doing for the last 40-odd years: his interest in moral philosophy, humankind’s futile stretch to find and know God, and the way that memory and the present blur together in a constant Now-ness of heightened perception are all front and center in a true story about a stubborn man doing the right thing even knowing that it will serve no purpose but to make him and those he loves suffer. Blessed with a bizarre but engaging visual aesthetic that seems to want to take the whole fullness of life and cram it into every frame, staging humans as both an extension of their world and an imposition upon it, and portraying the most exhaustingly detailed and emotionally rich marriage that this reliably domestic filmmaker has ever put into a movie.
5. The Lighthouse (Robert Eggers, USA/Canada)
Films subjectively depicting a descent into madness aren’t new at all, but they only rarely do the job with such sensory overload and deranged verve as in Eggers’s magnificent sophomore feature, a dumbfounding leap in ambition and confidence over the already wonderful horror film The Witch. Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson swerve near to goofball caricature, the dreamy violence is amped up to ridiculous extremes, and the film is defiantly unafraid to indulge in cheap humor, but the core of the thing is so vicious and viscerally inhumane as to make even the gags seem like part of the overall push towards pure aesthetic derangement. Add in the most aggressive soundscape of the year, and we’ve got an art-horror film for the history books, frightening and beautiful, surreal and disturbing fleshy and physical. Yer fond of me lobster – I seen it.
6. Monos (Alejandro Landes, Colombia/Argentina/Netherlands/Germany/Sweden/Uruguay/USA/Switzerland/Denmark)
Another exercise in pure subjectivity, but where The Lighthouse exists entirely outside of our world, Landes’s astonishing narrative feature debut feels so grounded and specific that it’s almost suffocating. A story about South American child soldiers that denies us any context or explanation, this a visually splendid, sonically overwhelming waking nightmare, in which we see and experience only the eternal high-stress present of young people who’ve been stripped of any identity or ideology other than the singular purpose of following orders and bringing destruction into the world. It’s bleak and miserable, and it even turns floating, abstract beauty into something unpleasantly clammy and humid; yet its pure overwhelming energy is so jarring and dangerous that it always feels like we’re in the middle of an exciting discovery, with cinema’s capacity to make imagery feel more present and overwhelming than reality being given a hell of a workout.
7. Once Upon a Time …in Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino, USA/UK)
Call it shameless nostalgia if you like, but Tarantino’s summery, hazy tribute to the waning days of classical Hollywood is such a rich, multilayered resurrection of the past as a living, breathing experience that it gives nostalgia a good name. This is the director’s most loving and least cynical film, autumnal without feeling fatalistic and mournful without being morbid, and full of playful humor that offsets its tragic dimensions and awareness of the inevitability of change. As an exercise in appreciating every moment in all of its textures and sounds and moods, it’s the polar opposite of the high-energy pastiches with which the director made his name, but the soft, affectionate hang-out vibe this offers in exchange suggests a very different and in some ways much more appealing Tarantino that I hope we see much more of; he’s never been so generous, and I’m delighted to see it.
8. Parasite (Bong Joon-ho, South Korea)
It may be respectable enough to have won the Palme d’Or and taken a nice haul of Oscar nominations, but there’s only so much that a filmmaker like Bong can do to reign in his maddest impulses. And this is absolutely not a film that holds back from grabbing onto ideas, both thematically and aesthetically, pushing us right up against a burn-it-all-to-the-ground populist argument while racing from genre to genre. It’s fearless even to the point of recklessness (the last five minutes of this film are my least-favorite part of any film on this list), but that just makes it all the more breathtaking and unpredictable. And even if it has moments that I didn’t buy at all, it pairs them with moments that I cherished as much as anything I saw this year, including an unbearably tense scene of people sleeping under a table.
9. John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (Chad Stahelski, USA)
Definitely the least surprising film on this list. It is, in truth, not much more than a refinement of what 2017’s John Wick: Chapter 2 was already doing with colors and surfaces in glossy, highly stylised locations, and with finding a phenomenal way to marry the traditions of Hollywood and Hong Kong action cinema. But dear God, what refinement! Every single fight scene could plausibly be considered the year’s best, and not one of them significantly repeats the aesthetic or choreography of the others. The unapologetic artifice of it all simply adds to the fun, as the entire world is re-imagined as a playground for a wildly talented stunt team to climb and leap and smash through glass walls that were left there just for the purpose. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, the most pleasurable experience I had watching a movie all year.
10. Atlantics (Mati Diop, France/Senegal/Belgium)
An extraordinary debut: Diop learned from some immensely talented people (including Claire Denis from earlier on this list), but what she creates out of all her influences is an entirely new and personal thing. Blending the political and the personal, this story of economic suffering in Senegal as experienced through one lonely woman is already one of the year’s finest portraits of a distinct human personality and a particular location, and that’s before it silently and brilliantly brings in a thick fog of the uncanny to make this simple realist story take on the otherworldly character of a fable. Exciting in every way and totally unpredictable, this unassuming high-wire act is the kind of thing that gives one hope for the future of cinema – and, I will reluctantly say, for the bravery of Netflix in putting it in every living room in the world.
How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World
“I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians”
Tigers Are Not Afraid
Weathering with You
10. Waves (Trey Edward Shults, USA)
A completely incoherent grab-bag of aesthetic parlor tricks that only finds focus at the exact moment that it becomes most morally appalling and socially irresponsible. Much better in its second half than its first, but never worth the effort.
9. Captive State (Rupert Wyatt, USA)
Illegible storytelling that wastes a great setting, a great plot hook, and a great cast on smudgy, thematically addled plot points about occupation and resistance. The kind of film that’s already not going well, right up until it throws in some twists that completely break what little hold you might have had on the material.
8. Countdown (Justin Dec, USA)
Stupefyingly lazy horror, but that’s nothing special. What makes this one stand out is the sheer inanity of its plot gimmick, the kind of idea that feels like it exists only because of some executive who has no idea how people or smartphones work, and browbeat a film crew into bring their vision to a meager impression of life.
7. Replicas (Jeffrey Nachmanoff, UK/China/USA)
Fun pulp trash that forgets to be any fun at all; instead, it bakes into its very concept a trap that slows down the momentum to a crawl and lets us really linger in the concept until it becomes unavoidably clear how impossible – and worse, implausible – it is. Absolutely mangles its tones, by presenting a mournful family tragedy with wacky comedy of errors hijinks.
6. The Lion King (Jon Favreau, USA)
An ominous sign of the future of cinema: it has no color, no personality, no emotions, no sense of life, and a dedication to realism at the expense of effective visual storytelling that verges on the psychotic. But they sure did spend a lot of money rendering it.
5. A Dog’s Way Home (Charles Martin Smith, USA)
Between the promise of litter of kittens that are going to be crushed by an earth-mover and the moment a dog cheerfully narrates watching a hobo die of exposure, this might very well be the most aggressively morbid “children’s” movie I have ever seen. And even if it weren’t, the shitty CGI, godawful performances, and dismal comedy would keep it securely down in the gutter.
4. Hellboy (Neil Marshall, USA)
Yeah, motherfucking fuck! Violence and so fucking much hard-edge grittiness, shit yes. This is some fucking HARD FUCKING CORE grimdark filmmaking, goddammit. I am happy that Milla Jovovich seems to have been enjoying playing a kitschy bad guy.
3. Serenity (Steven Knight, USA)
No, but seriously, just go watch it.
2. Shaft (Tim Story, USA)
The absolute worst-case scenario of what happens when you try to freshen up old material for new social norms. Everybody ends up humiliated, the woke and the un-woke alike, and there’s not a molecule of the weight, social conscience, or outrageously appealing bad-ass attitude of anything worthy of the Shaft name. I cannot dig it.
1. Polar (Jonas Åkerlund, USA)
A witless, foggily-conceived John Wick clone that wants to assume that having a snotty nihilistic attitude and lots of ugly flash is the same as having satisfying filmmaking or creativity. Spoiler alert: it very much is not.
Is Cats the worst-made big-budget studio film of the year? Absolutely. The decade? Arguably. But I refuse to put something that gave me such rich, robust pleasure – not always ironically, I regret to say – on a “worst of” list.
Horror remakes are a dodgy prospect at the best of times, and remaking a film whose appeal lies almost solely in the performance of one actor seems like it’s a surefire guarantee to turn out some hacky, pandering crap. But the new Child’s Play nimbly side-steps both of those pitfalls to emerge as a tremendously worthy re-imagining of Chucky the killer doll as an entirely 2019 exemplar of everything we fear as a culture. Plus, it does this with a tremendously good sense of humor about itself.
I so rarely let myself get actually excited for a sequel, but The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part had the benefit of a revelatory twist ending from the previous movie to give it room to explore new ideas and worlds and possibilities for humor. And to be fair, it does these things. It just doesn’t do them particularly well.
Best Popcorn Movie
John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum is more like the only good popcorn movie than the “best”, but even in a stronger year than this, the multiplicity of exaggerated action setpieces – motorcycle fights with swords! dogs jumping up sheer walls! killing a dude with a book! – would have been hard to top.
Yesterday has a frankly ludicrous premise and a deadly middle, but the leads are so winning and the Beatles covers so good at freshening up the overfamiliar songbook that I remain fondly disposed to it, no matter how witless and lumpy.
The last scene of Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which I will of course not spoil, except to say that it takes one of the most clichéd pieces of Baroque music in existence and makes it the beating heart of the most emotionally turbulent scene of the most passionate film of the year.
At one of its most crucial moments, the makers of It: Chapter Two considerately remove any possibility of it being remotely scary by throwing “Angel of the Morning” on the soundtrack, a propos of nothing whatsoever. As a fan of horror cinema, I’m not sure that I’ve ever felt more insulted. And I’ve seen multiple Bruno Mattei films.
Patti LuPone showing up as an eager shopper in Last Christmas. It’s so weirdly affable and charming, and her presence so random, that it brings a spark of joyful life to a film in dire need of such a thing.
Lee Pace, Captain Marvel. Look, this franchise just solved its terrible villain problem, why on Earth would you tempt fate by bringing back one of the very worst bad guys from any of the earlier movies, even for a moment?
Best Title, Original
The Dead Don’t Die
Best Title, Historical
“I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians”
Worst Title, Standlone
Worst Title, Franchise
Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw
Ingeniously takes advantage of the fact that it will almost exclusively be seen on computers, by creating a series of lines that turn into a startling moiré pattern as you scroll down (you’ve probably noticed that already). Plus, it suggests no end of otherworldly possibilities for what this story about a trip to Mars might entail – I have not seen it, but the elegance and slightly threatening quality to the distorted lines feels like a classic sci-fi book cover, stately and thoughtful and futuristic without being showy.
Best Teaser Poster
It does a fine job of selling the project, of course: hey, you know the Joker? Here he is. But it also, through that yawning gulf of empty space, starts to dig into both the cold isolation and the iconic pomposity that are the two main registers of the film, and it does it without having to rely on the in-your-face edginess of the rest of the ad campaign. Moody and mysterious and sadly beautiful.
A Dog’s Journey
I would give a whole lot not to be able to see its teeth.
It’s so obvious that it feels like I’m cheating. The escalating repetitions and jarring contrasts between bright and dark frames make this even more rattling and nightmarish than the movie it’s selling: it’s a hurricane of upsetting, mystifying images and moments, united only in that they clearly take place in some unfathomable dimension beyond human understanding. I love the movie, but honestly, I love this even more.
Like a Boss
Yeah, it’s a 2020 movie, but this trailer was a constant companion during my trips to the theater for the last few months of 2019, and every time we crossed paths, I wanted to gouge my eyes out and use them to plug my ears. The movie’s lousy, but the trailer makes it look even more gruesomely unfunny and narratively incoherent than is the case – no small feat, given the job of trailers for bad comedies is typically to sell the only good jokes in an unfunny wasteland. Ending with that milk-vomiting gag was a particularly hostile touch.
The Ten Best Classic Films I Saw for the First Time in 2019
The Only Son (Ozu Yasujiro, 1936)
Olivia (Jacqueline Audry, 1951)
Drive a Crooked Road (Richard Quine, 1954)
Dragon Inn (King Hu, 1967
My Brother’s Wedding (Charles Burnett, 1983)
Police Story (Jackie Chan, 1985)
Farewell My Concubine (Chen Kaige, 1993)
Amer (Hélène Cattet & Bruno Forzani, 2009)
Enter the Void (Gaspar Noé, 2009)
Évolution (Lucile Hadžihalilović, 2015)