The 2010s go out with a bang, saving the best for last.
The decade’s final slate of films was so impressive that it finds me now omitting over a dozen excellent entries from my list. Other years have left me struggling to fill out a Top 10, settling for films that are good, but perhaps not worthy. 2019 leaves me with no such reservations. Perhaps that’s because so many big names put out films this year — six of the directors here have appeared in previous years. That number would be eight if this site had existed to chronicle the films from 2010-2012. We’ve got multiple female directors, multiple foreign language films, four continents, and an age span of forty-plus years. 2019 was a great year for film, and I really had joy seeing dozens of remarkable movies whether at the theater or on my couch. I even attained a personal goal of being the only person in the theater for a showing. A private movie just for me!
As always, this is a “Top Films” list. It’s not exactly the “best” or my “favorite,” but something that combines the two.
Here’s some that just missed the cut: Marriage Story, Ford v Ferrari, Uncut Gems, Waves, Honey Boy, Apollo 11, Hustlers, Booksmart, and Pain and Glory.
What didn’t I see? I did a good job this year, but never made it to Ash is Purest White or The Last Black Man in San Francisco, among others. 1917 is still a week away. There’s only so much time and money for an amateur critic to spend, and, to that end, I’m planning to step away from Fellowship of the Screen in 2020. It’s an exciting time in my personal life, and I find myself wanting to devote myself to other things in my free time. I’ll always be a movie lover. I just won’t be writing about them anymore. But stay on the lookout for the Best of the Decade list I’ve got coming soon, and I always reserve the right to step back in – especially when it comes time to make Oscar predictions!
So without further preamble, my top films of 2019:
10. The Lighthouse
Directed by Robert Eggers
Hark! Commitment is a powerful tool, but the results may vary. Sometimes you end up with Jared Leto mailing a dead pig to the cast of Suicide Squad in the name of “method acting; other times you get performances as special as those by Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe in The Lighthouse. Eggers’s two-hander about a lighthouse keeper (Dafoe) and his assistant (Pattinson) enduring a storm that challenges their survival and sanity is, frankly, a weird movie. It’s also the type of movie I love, filled with stylistic flourishes, expert direction, and pitch-black comedy. Director Robert Eggers shoots his modern Prometheus myth in a nearly square (1.19:1) aspect ratio that accentuates the titular lighthouse as a towering figure of dread, and Jarin Blaschke’s black and white, waterlogged cinematography skips right past noir on the way to evoking German expressionism.
Still, none of that works if Dafoe and Pattinson aren’t intensely committed to pulling this weirdness off while singing sea shanties, fighting seagulls, and drowning themselves in booze. Both are great and fully along for the ride as The Lighthouse slides deeper and deeper into insanity. Does the film ultimately mean anything? I’d say so, but who cares! It’s a pleasure to watch, and so immersive that you’ll need a warm cup of tea to shake off the shivering sea once the credits roll.
9. A Hidden Life
Directed by Terrence Malick
With A Hidden Life director Terrence Malick finally returns to narrative film after a decade wandering in the wilderness. The metaphor is apt for a filmmaker with as famously spiritual an output as Malick, even if plot remains a looser concept than for most in his most recent film. A Hidden Life tells the story of Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl), an Austrian farmer who faces prison and execution after refusing to swear a loyalty oath to Hitler. As with much of Malick’s work, the film’s mountain vistas and windswept fields underscore the film’s comparison of the spectacular creation God (or nature, if that’s your leaning) has provided with the horrors that mankind has wrought. Cinematographer Jorg Widmer shoots with natural light, Malick telling him during production to view the sun as the film’s gaffer. The results are breathtaking.
A Hidden Life is undoubtedly too long, but how much that bothers you will likely determine your take on the film as a whole. I’m a Malick devotee so I said you could trim 15-to-20 minutes. My seatmate said an hour. I can’t escape the feeling that the endurance is part of the film’s point. Franz Jägerstätter must endure, and so must we. It’s so easy to see Franz walking towards his death and want to beg him to turn back. The townsfolk tell him to do so. So does his legal advisor. Even the priests urge him to swear the oath even if he doesn’t mean it. “God cares what’s in your heart, not in your mouth.” They all want him to save himself even as the result would mean falling in line with the Nazis. So do we. Does that make us culpable too?
8. The Irishman
Directed by Martin Scorsese
It took me two viewings of Martin Scorsese’s 3-and-a-half-hour gangster drama before I finally gave myself over to its affects. Much has been made of the film’s runtime, its de-aging technology, its distribution on Netflix, and Scorsese’s opinions of superhero movies (miss me with this nonsense – especially with any galaxy-brained “The Irishman IS Scorsese’s version of Marvel movie!” takes), but not enough has been said in the popular discussion about The Irishman’s powerful last 30 minutes. Scorsese has made a career directing films about difficult men, many of them mobsters, but you can sense a meta quality to The Irishman that hasn’t existed before.
Just as Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) is left to ponder his misdeeds and their meaning, you can sense the 77-year-old director contemplating his own legacy. Where films like Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street once counted on the audience to understand the hollowness of seemingly fun misdeeds, The Irishman centers around an overt morality closer to the acclaimed director’s criminally overlooked Silence. Much of the praise goes to Joe Pesci, who gives a career-redefining performance as Sheeran’s friend and boss Russell Bufalino. His quiet, ruminative turn is the opposite of the brash, uncontainable violence that made the actor famous, but it’s the film’s greatest achievement, and what lands its quiet moments. This one had missed my original list until I re-watched. I feel it can only rise further in the future.
7. Ad Astra
Directed by James Gray
I’ve always been a sucker for a great river movie where the protagonist travels through the wilderness in search of a potentially unwelcoming goal. It’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Apocalypse Now, and James Gray’s own The Lost City of Z, and, as long as you consider the Milky Way to be a cosmic river, you can add Ad Astra to that list. Brad Pitt is an Oscar frontrunner this year for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but he’s just as good here in a completely different type of performance. Where Hollywood asks him to be effortlessly cool, Ad Astra focuses on a man in deep emotional anguish as he searches for his missing father in the uncaring vastness of space. To see the movement of emotions across Roy McBride’s face upon hearing that his long-lost father may actually be alive is to be reminded that Pitt is much more than a marquee idol.
Much closer to Tarkovsky’s Solaris than a space adventure like Alien (and seemingly intentionally derivative of the aforementioned Apocalypse Now), Grey’s film only uses the cosmos as a backdrop to explore humanity and its place in it. H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) can be read as an over-arching metaphor for a silent God, but the film features at least three other classical forms of conflict. Featuring gorgeous visuals and a small but excellent appearance from Ruth Negga, Ad Astra is one for the brain and heart. Sure, in space no one can hear you scream, but there’s also no sound to distract you from the anxious thoughts that confound the soul.
Directed by Fernando Meirelles
Another film this year anchored by a pair of outstanding performances, The Two Popes focuses on a series of fictionalized conversations between Pope Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins) and Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio (an exceptional Jonathan Pryce) as Benedict secretly contemplates resigning the papacy. The two men represent opposing factions in the Church, Benedict a traditionalist and Bergoglio a reformist, with Benedict viewing the Argentinian cardinal as one of his biggest critics. The film is far wittier than would be expected for one pertaining to papal doctrine, filled with jokes and pop culture references (ABBA and Abbey Road are referenced) playing off our perceptions and the route we know history will take with these two men. The film contrasts Benedict’s grumpy formality with Bergoglio’s warm humor and desire to see the church address the needs of the poor.
Fernando Meirelles, the Brazilian who once directed the masterpiece City of God, here reaffirms himself as a master of stories about South American life. Hopkins’ character may spend the film with the higher profile, but it’s Jonathan Pryce who gets the weightier role as the man who will eventually become Pope Francis. For all its scenes set in a lavish recreation of Vatican City, the film’s heart is with Bergoglio in the streets of Buenos Aires, flashing back to his youth and young priesthood to reveal the sins he believes make him unworthy to be pope. Benedict has his own sins to atone for with his handling of pedophile priests. But The Two Popes is empathetic to both of its protagonists, repeatedly reminding us that forgiveness is Christianity’s highest mercy and most beautiful expression, even as a salve for the sinner and not justice for victims.
Directed by Celine Sciamma
A friend recently asked me if I’d noticed that I seem to have an affinity for French lesbian films. I guess if the shoe fits then I might as well wear it. The latest in a line of Céline Sciamma’s coming-of-age films about women dealing with their sexual identity, Portrait tells the story of a young painter, Marianne (Noémie Merlant), who is commissioned to paint the portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), a young woman arranged to be married. What is the emotional toll of an unwanted marriage when a woman lacks the agency to refuse it? Portrait openly equates the idea with death, both in that such a thing may have led to Héloïse’s sister’s suicide and through the characters’ discussions about Orpheus and Eurydice by firelight, just one of the film’s allusions to classical mythology.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire’s visuals are evocative of the paintings at the film’s narrative center, using natural daylight and nighttime flames to evoke shading and color that induce the film’s sense of intimacy. The resulting images are somehow painterly rather than linear, with the flames of a roaring fireplace eliciting the same bands of color on characters’ faces that we see Marianne produce on her canvases. Rarely have a film’s form and subject worked so perfectly in tandem. It’s a lesson in art as much as a lesson of the heart.
4. Knives Out
Directed by Rian Johnson
The whodunit is a type of film that’s criminally under-made in Hollywood today. Perhaps that’s because it’s so difficult to make a great one. Thankfully, Rian Johnson has done just that with a delightfully hilarious film that both winks at the classic format while also being an engrossing mystery in its own right. The star-studded cast all seem liberated, from Daniel Craig as southern-drawling detective Benoit Blanc, to Chris Evans living his best cable knit sweater-wearing Captain America-free life, to Toni Collette gleefully hamming it up as a vapid self-help advocate.
But it’s Ana de Armas, perhaps the least well-known of the bunch (unless you saw Blade Runner 2049), who carries the film as the immigrant nurse to the affluent Thromby family. She’s soon to be a Bond girl, so be prepared to see her everywhere soon. Knives Out is a riot, and every viewer is sure to leave the film with a favorite line. There’s dozens of great ones to choose from (mine: a quip about nobody having actually read Gravity’s Rainbow). I thought the film was headed for a very different resolution of its central mystery, but its twists and turns even took this jaded viewer by surprise. With its cozy autumnal setting and portrait of a politically divided family squabbling amongst themselves, Knives Out seems poised to become a Thanksgiving classic.
3. Little Women
Directed by Greta Gerwig
Spare a (minuscule) bit of sympathy for Noah Baumbach. He keeps putting out good films (Marriage Story just missed this list), and his girlfriend keeps putting out even better ones. When Greta Gerwig announced that her follow up to Lady Bird would be an adaptation of Little Women I couldn’t help but feel like it was a missed opportunity. It felt like step backwards to film an adaptation of a 19th Century novel which had already been filmed six times when Gerwig had proven herself to be such a skilled modern voice. Goodness, was I wrong. Her Little Women is stellar, featuring a standout cast and cross-cutting across two timelines to modernize the feel of the classic story.
Soairse Ronan was born to play the rebellious Jo March and she is expectedly great, but Florence Pugh’s performance as the historically maligned younger sister Amy adds unexpected character depth to the Achilles heel of numerous former adaptations. I’d love to see Ronan and Timothee Chalamet star opposite each other for a dozen more films. If you told me they will have a Hepburn and Tracey-styled career, then I would rejoice. Gerwig’s subtle and smart reworking of the story’s plot to place romance, economics, and career on equal footing proves that even a 150-year-old story really can remain relevant. Little Women is a triumph, and to dismiss it as a “woman’s movie” is as sexist as it is flat wrong. Greta Gerwig isn’t simply one film’s greatest female directors. She’s one of the greatest we’ve got regardless of any demographic set.
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
To be honest, Once Upon a Time makes me feel vindicated. Many viewers rank The Hateful Eight (a film I quite like) as one of Quentin Tarantino’s least successful films. Even if I wasn’t trying to assert its greatness on other film nerds, I felt that I thought it marked a leap forward for Tarantino stylistically, and I proselytized that his next film would prove that out. Unlike with Greta Gerwig, this time my prediction proved correct. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is among Tarantino’s very best films, a modern fairytale that’s a love letter to 1960s Hollywood, a showcase for old-school star power, and a celebration of a life cut short. Leonardo DiCaprio gives one of his best performances as a washed-up actor facing self-doubt and an uncertain future, and Brad Pitt is even better as his personal stunt man/assistant who finds himself wrapped up in the travails of the Manson family.
Pitt’s effortless cool and DiCaprio’s go-for-broke bi-polarity make the film a hilarious romp through a meticulously recreated LA. With its star power and attention to recreating the past I’m actually shocked the film only cost $100 million dollars. It’s a meditation on male ego and purpose in the face of a changing age at a fictional intersection of real historical figures and long-forgotten Hollywood projects. Anyone who would decry Margot Robbie’s largely wordless portrayal of Sharon Tate should give a second thought to how the film’s emotional climax lies not with its two male protagonists, but with a sequence celebrating Tate in an LA theater as someone who deserves to be remembered for her talents and not just as a victim in one of the 60s’ darkest moments. It’s perhaps the sincerest moment in Tarantino’s storied career.
Directed by Bong Joon-ho
My #1 film of the year is Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, an incisive tone-shifting story about class in South Korea. After two English language films Bong returned to his native Korean for his twisted comedy of manners about the destitute Kim family insinuating themselves into the service of the Park family, an affluent economic negative image of the Kims. It’s an obvious parasitic metaphor, but Bong’s film is smart enough to question whether it’s actually the wealthy Parks thriving on the work of Korea’s underclass. Not that the film is ever that directly simplistic. Parasite is a masterwork in almost every aspect, from the masterful breadcrumbs dropped throughout the script to its gorgeous shot compositions. It’s a film about eyelines: the poor gazing up at the wealthy, and the wealthy looking down at the poor. How apt then that the desperately class-mobile Kims live in a split-level dwelling, living half-above and half-below the bustling city street. Parasite is at times sharply funny, at others a vicious satire, and at still others a frightening thriller. Plenty of films aspire to this type of genre shifting to their peril, but Bong’s film pulls it off effortlessly. You spend the first hour in awe of one film, and then Parasite becomes wholly another.
Not sold? Director Bong Joon-ho already made the argument for foreign language films while accepting the Golden Globe: “Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many amazing films.” Don’t let the film’s language be a barrier. You do so at your own peril. Parasite is, in any language, not just the year’s best film, but one of the decade’s.