As I was putting off starting this top 10 list—an assignment I always drag my feet on, even though as I write it I invariably pick up steam—I wasted some time making a cup of tea and asking myself what it is about making end-of-year lists that brings up such inner resistance in me. Part of it has to do with the impossibility of quantifying an experience that, like filmgoing, is by its nature unquantifiable, a paradox that’s often decried in the season of awards-giving and list-compiling. But there’s another, deeper element to my list dread: Often my most-loved movies of the year are the very ones I’ve already written, podcasted, and privately conversed my heart out about. It’s not that these films have lost any of their mystery or appeal; in fact, making the list almost always sparks the desire to watch them all again. But my own paltry store of words with which to evoke the feelings and thoughts I had while watching them has, in some cases, run dry. Certain titles end up not making the list simply because I feel no need to write about them further. Others get put on because I regret not having had the chance to review them when they came out.
This year, the movies that made it past the velvet rope into the chaotic nightclub of my brain (it’s a dumb metaphor, but it feels right) are the ones, above all, that I have more to say about—more, certainly, that can fit into a list-size blurb. Sometimes, as with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the first Quentin Tarantino movie I’ve ever top-10’d, that’s precisely because of their flaws and excesses, the jagged edges I haven’t been able to account for in my memory of them. In other cases—Peterloo, The Chambermaid—it’s because their omission from the year’s cinematic conversation seems like a cosmic injustice that must be righted. And in a few cases—Parasite, The Irishman, Portrait of a Lady on Fire—it’s simply that their richness as works of art is so inexhaustible I could review them all over again from scratch. Here, in alphabetical order, are my 10 best of 2019, plus five runners-up that could easily have jumped the line.
Every year there are one or two movies, often small foreign releases from female or POC filmmakers unable to get the kind of traction in the international marketplace that bigger and more institutionally advantaged movies do, that find their way onto my top 10 list at the last minute thanks to the late-November influx of promotional screeners that I’m particularly thankful for: the ones that don’t just save you a trip to the multiplex to see a mainstream hit you’d see anyway but show you a world you’ve never glimpsed before. This bare-bones, hyperrealist slice of life about a room cleaner in a luxury hotel in Mexico City (played with an unsentimental directness by the expressively inexpressive Gabriela Cartol) is a stunning first film from the theater director Lila Avilés. Its quiet but unrelenting focus on the almost meditative drudgery of female domestic work reminded me at times of Chantal Akerman’s 1975 avant-garde experiment Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, but with more meaningful encounters with strangers and, thankfully, less murder.
There were plenty of strong documentary films this year, the kind that taught you about things you never knew and reframed your thinking about things you thought you did: American Factory, One Child Nation, The Cave, 63 Up. But only one nonfiction film I saw in 2019 combined the exploration of a seldom-seen corner of the world with a riveting interpersonal and economic drama that unfolded in real time, in ways the filmmakers (Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov) couldn’t have predicted at the outset. A remote Macedonian settlement with, at its most crowded, two families in residence is supported entirely by the cottage industry of gathering honey from a partly wild, partly managed hive in a hard-to-reach crevice of the local mountains. Honeyland is a compassionate and sometimes painful exploration of the way modern forces, from climate change to encroaching capitalism, are acting to uproot and endanger this age-old way of life.
How weird and how great is it that the year’s most controversial movie, the digitally de-aged face that launched a thousand bad takes—about Netflix release strategies, about the future of theatrical viewing, about the meaning of silent women, and, via an interview published in conjunction with its premiere, about whether or not Marvel movies are “cinema”—was a 3½-hour drama by a nearly 80-year-old master, revisiting the material that he’s been mulling and reshaping his whole life? It’s as if a bunch of people in a museum suddenly started furiously arguing about a Rembrandt. But just like that Dutch painter in old age, Scorsese remains at the top of his art form.
In select theaters and streaming on Netflix.
Though I thoroughly admired and enjoyed Lady Bird, the coming-of-age indie that was Greta Gerwig’s solo directing debut, I wasn’t one of those who considered it a perfect masterwork or a clear harbinger of great films to come. My fears when I heard she was taking on a big-budget period film based on a famous literary property were twofold: first, that her distinctive individual voice might be subsumed or blunted by a bland, studio-approved script, and second, that attempts to “modernize” or otherwise punch up the story’s already pronounced feminist angle would result in rah-rah, go-girl clichés that would be both ahistorical and glib. Neither happened, to a degree that seems unlikely in this era of YA franchise fever. Gerwig’s thoughtful adaptation of this classic novel respects it as both a cultural milestone and a vibrant, living document, and the splendid cast of actors she chose has forever changed how I see some of these long-familiar characters. I have no choice but to stan.
In theaters this Christmas.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
After The Hateful Eight, I really thought I was through with Tarantino. I was sick of finding different ways to make the same point: that with rare exceptions, this uniquely gifted filmmaker had continued to grow and explore as a craftsman while remaining fixed in place as an artist, with a moral and political sensibility that was somehow stalled at an earlier developmental stage, permanently jejune. But this grand-scaled meditation on Hollywood, violence, aging, and friendship felt like the work of a maturing filmmaker—and made me hope with an unexpected pang that it won’t be his last, as he’s hinted it might be. (I don’t believe it. He has too big a mouth to shut up.) I’m still uneasy about that gory-then-funny-then-counterfactually-happy ending, but for the first time in years, I get the feeling Tarantino might be uneasy, too.
To take just one of an infinite number of possible entry points: Think about the montage about a third of the way through, the one scored to triumphant classical music that begins with a close-up of fuzz being shaved off a peach and ends with a packet of hot sauce being squeezed, in the nick of time, onto a crumpled wad of tissue. The technical bravura of the editing, the dark comedy of the writing, the skilled execution by performers able to pull off slapstick, social satire, and tragedy all in the same scene. Any movie that can do that, not just for intermittent stretches but for more than two thrilling hours, belongs in the 10 best of this year or any year.
In theaters now.
When Mike Leigh is gone, you’ll all appreciate him. That’s a bitter joke, but no bitterer than the tone of the English master’s sweeping historical drama about the slaughter of a group of peaceful labor organizers at a mass protest in 1819. Leigh’s three previous period features—Topsy-Turvy, Vera Drake, and Mr. Turner—were widely acclaimed and popular with audiences, but some found this indictment of the English class system, a Tolstoy-style epic with half a dozen lead characters, to be a story in need of a protagonist. Some were wrong. It’s a masterpiece.
Included with Amazon Prime subscription.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire
When my rave review of this came out a few days ago, there was some good-natured social media teasing about how it sounded like a Portlandia parody of an art house release: a lesbian love story set in 18th-century France, involving an affair between a professional portrait artist and the noblewoman she’s been commissioned to paint. If you think that sounds pretentious or dull or somehow stuffily historical, you have clearly never been placed under the spell of Céline Sciamma. With a nearly all-female cast and crew including the screen-meltingly charismatic Adèle Haenel, the writer-director creates a clockwork-perfect allegory about feminist art practice that’s also a scorching romance.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire
In select theaters.
On the way out of seeing Us for the first time, my colleagues and I were just digging into an animated conversation about the movie’s final twist when two separate people approached us, one asking us to explain it to her, the other asking if he could try explaining it himself. That’s the kind of movie it was: confusing in the best way, challenging, funny, impossible to shake. And Lupita Nyong’o’s dual performance as a troubled middle-class woman and her own terrifying double was as technically dazzling as it was viscerally scary. Get Out is a tough debut to follow, but Peele’s second outing as a director was even more conceptually ambitious than his first.
Varda by Agnès
The loss of Agnès Varda this spring was a hard one. She had been a brilliant filmmaker for so long, and then a brilliant old filmmaker for so long, that it seemed like she would keep making movies on into her 100s, like the late Portuguese master Manoel de Oliveira. This last of her films, released this fall to little fanfare, is essentially a master class, in which she addresses audiences, or sometimes the camera directly, talking about her art and art in general as she interweaves clips from her six decades of filmmaking—fiction, documentary, and whatever genre it is that she invented in between the two, a genre that dies with her.
Varda by Agnès
In select theaters.
Pain and Glory
The Best of the Decade
A best of the decade list? In this economy? For real, the prospect of grappling with the totality of movies I’ve watched in the past 10 years, which must add up at a modest estimate to a couple thousand (and I’m far from the most voracious film critic I know) sounds like a greater cognitive and emotional load than I can carry right now, at least until I get a better health insurance plan. So to keep it simple and highly intuitive—once again, I basically go for the movies I would still have more to say about, or the ones that 10 years later still have a place in my inner life—here is the title-only ranking of my favorite movie from each year since 2010.
2010: Another Year (Mike Leigh, England)
2011: Take This Waltz (Sarah Polley, Canada)
2012: The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, U.S. and Indonesia)
2013: Nebraska (Alexander Payne, U.S.)
2014: Ida (Pawel Pawlikowski, Poland)
2015: Carol (Todd Haynes, U.S.)
2016: Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, U.S.)
2017: Phantom Thread (Paul Thomas Anderson, U.S.)
2018: Zama (Lucrecia Martel, Argentina)
2019: Parasite (Bong Joon-ho, South Korea)
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