2019 cinema was, in a word, chaotic. Dreams were dashed, franchises fractured, box offices bungled. Some of the most anticipated films of the year – “The Goldfinch” for art nerds, “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” for nerd nerds – yielded catastrophe. Festival favorites like “The Souvenir” and “Clemency” seem doomed to awards-season silence, while Korean Cannes winner “Parasite” won the box office and some nominations. “Joker” snatched the Golden Lion. “Cats” happened. If I were a betting woman, I would be very poor.
Yet for all its unpredictability, 2019 brought a wave of dazzling genre films, many of which gleefully riffed on their predecessors: David Robert Mitchell shifted from horror to noir for his send-up of masculinity “Under the Silver Lake,” while Jordan Peele made “Us,” a consummate movie for ’80s horror fans. “Knives Out” rekindled the whodunit, and “Black Christmas” fempowered the slasher. These arthouse-born or -inspired filmmakers threw everything at the wall and, though many critics thought little stuck, I just liked watching it all fly by. My favorite movies of the year were innovative or self-referential – often both, simultaneously. Like audience taste and box office numbers, they were deliciously mercurial.
Per that justification, it was tough for me to leave some films off of this list. Greta Gerwig successfully rejiggered “Little Women” into a feminist fable, and “The Farewell” masterfully blurred the lines between truth and lie, family and burden, tangible and phantasmagoric. “The Lighthouse” invented a new genre of gay pornography. Each of these films did not claim a top spot merely because a top ten list only has ten spots, and my heart (and head, and tear ducts) wandered elsewhere.
The films that claimed said head/heart/tear ducts are as follows:
10. “Knives Out”
I have a massive phobia of vomiting. In “Knives Out,” protagonist Marta (Ana de Armas) blows chunks with the dependable regularity of a cuckoo clock. The film’s spot on this list, then, is a testament to Rian Johnson’s delirious and delicious murder mystery, a film that – if not entirely challenging – is amusement-park fun from opening titles to end credits. After a contentious crack at the Star Wars franchise, the “Brick” director decided to fuck with genre once more, this time with a multilayered whodunnit. (Donuts in donut holes, if you will.) Jamie Lee Curtis, Toni Collette, and Foghorn Leghorn (I mean Daniel Craig) compete for most ostentatious performance, only to be beaten by the most insanely decorated house in recent cinematic history. Jaeden Martell, the doe-eyed kid from the “It” movies, plays a Nazi. Chris Evans wears that sweater. To sit through this movie dead-eyed would be like falling asleep at a Carly Rae Jepsen concert – it might not be your thing, and it might even register as drivel, but damn it if you don’t start tapping your toes.
9. “Black Christmas”
In “Black Christmas,” a group of sorority sisters takes on an evil fraternity hell-bent on patriarchal overthrow. It is neither subtle nor anything like its namesake. Instead, this funny and brash fuck-you to misogynistic violence both on- and off-screen revels in female solidarity, as director and co-writer Sophia Takal and co-writer April Wolfe disassemble sexist slashers with the genre’s own tools. Lone female warriors get sisterly assistance and sexiness takes a backseat to substance as rape survivor Riley (Imogen Poots, phenomenal) battles the men who broke her and the institutions that wouldn’t even offer superglue. Easily the most misunderstood film on this list, “Black Christmas” offers a female-forward takedown of post-#MeToo complacency, Brett Kavanaugh, and Jordan Peterson. It also manages to have fun. A woman bashes someone’s face in with a menorah. Riki Lindhome co-pens a Christmas carol rape culture parody that absolutely slaps. There is a bizarre sci-fi twist in the third act. If you are like me, these are all great things. If you are no fun, they are not.
The film I re-watched the most this year, my therapist will be dismayed to learn, was Ari Aster’s “Midsommar.” Envisioned as a conventional pick-’em-off teen scream, the film follows a traumatized girl, Dani (Florence Pugh), as she accompanies her shithead boyfriend (Jack Reynor) to a quirky village festival in Sweden. Quirky how, you ask? The Swedes kill people! And the when and how and why of it all is not as important as Dani herself, and what it means to see her relationship crumble as the bodies hit the floor (of the rock quarry). Perhaps the most compelling female character of the year, Dani – thus, Pugh – is a vision as she bawls her way through the festival, her howling façade eventually giving way to blissful, beatific madness. Like Aster’s gut-wrenching first feature “Hereditary,” “Midsommar” is a tragedy above all else, but – unlike “Hereditary” – it’s also hilarious. In the sinister cult of the Hårga, no one is safe. Bickering grad students, vaping louts, and especially dismissive boyfriends are all ripe for the picking off.
Just as “Knives Out” is covered in Rian Johnson’s fond fingerprints, “Us” is Jordan Peele’s love letter to horror, an uncanny killing spree that kicks off with chanting, bunnies, and old VHS tapes. Centered on a well-off black family facing down their underground-dwelling doubles, “Us” tackles class and race like Steve Irwin wrestling a crocodile. It’s a messy morass of genius that haunts well after you’ve walked out of the theater and read pages of fan theories, a box office smash modeled after cult classics that, while lacking the transparent messaging of “Get Out,” is nonetheless successful. Michael Abels’ wraithlike score, Kym Barrett’s iconic horror movie costuming and an astonishing lead performance by Lupita Nyong’o combine to produce a film that should head textbook chapters and illuminate sleepover TV sets for years to come.
In these dystopian days where razor commercials, Marvel movies, and Ariana Grande lyrics are heralded as feminist art, I am loath to give any film the privilege of that label. (Remember the debate around whether “Mad Max: Fury Road” was feminist? Good, me neither.) But Carlo Mirabella-Davis’s Tribeca competitor “Swallow” is a genuinely feminist movie, a technicolor daughter of Betty Friedan’s “Feminine Mystique” that finds pregnant housewife Hunter (Haley Bennett) swallowing dangerous objects in a desperate bid for control over her body. It is a film that operates outside the laws of time and typical human behavior, especially as Bennett plays Hunter like an animate blow-up doll discovering her own personhood for the first time. Despite its ostentatious premise, the film deftly navigates mental illness, institutional misogyny, and the inherited trauma of womanhood. It’s breathtaking to behold – visionary in every sense of the word thanks to Mirabella-Davis’s ingenious premise, Bennett’s commanding performance, and stylish camerawork from Katelin Arizmendi. Due in select theaters March 2020, this bite-sized gem might be the best thing you consume all year.
5. “In Fabric”
“In Fabric” is a Peter Strickland movie about a dress that kills people. It is also the funniest movie of the year. How the plot moves from point to point does not matter nearly as much as this film’s lurid visuals, bloodthirsty special effects, and hilariously uncanny world. So uncanny that after this movie, one may find it difficult to discern whether Strickland has ever met another human being at all. His characters interact like aliens trying to convince one another that they are not aliens – most especially shop attendant Mrs. Luckmoore (Fatma Mohamed, resplendent), a Victorian gown-clad, wig-wearing automaton who finger-bangs mannequins and says things like, “The hesitation in your voice, soon to be an echo in the recess in the spheres of retail.” The only downside to this movie is just how few people have seen it – it premiered in Toronto way back in 2018 and just made its way to the States this December on an über-limited release. To put it in Luckmoore-speak: Imagine, a cinematic enchantment divine as this, grasped visually by the hollow embrace of so few wanting eyeballs?
4. “Honey Boy”
Perhaps the best publicity rehab has ever gotten comes from “Honey Boy,” Alma Har’el’s sharp and sinuous rendition of an autobiographical screenplay by Shia LaBeouf. Opening on a breakneck montage of mayhem, the film follows action movie star Otis (Lucas Hedges) from D.U.I. wreckage to court-ordered rehab, diving into Otis’s childhood memories along the way. In flashback, Otis (Noah Jupe) is a slapstick child star puppeteered by his alcoholic father, James (LaBeouf). Bordering on unbearably self-indulgent, “Honey Boy” somehow elevates a dirge of perpetuated toxic masculinity into gut-wrenching high art. It is the piece LaBeouf should have created long before his performance art rip-offs, a personal reckoning so visceral he may as well have taken his own skin off on-camera. But while LaBeouf’s turn as his father is easily one of his best yet, the real revelations here are Har’el and Jupe, the latter of whom gives one of the best child performances of the decade. One scene perfectly captures this movie’s discomfiting genius: LaBeouf and Jupe sit in a hotel room, yelling toward the same phone receiver. Young Otis is narrating his parents’ fight to each of them, complete with stomach-churningly accurate impressions. The camera dashes around, frantic to hold this scene in all its gory, human glory. And the chaos is left, like a bottle rocket, to burn itself out.
3. “Portrait Of A Lady On Fire”
Rife with indelible imagery and thrumming with romance, Céline Sciamma’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is cinematic art at its most devastating and precise. The lady in question is Héloïse (Adéle Haenel), her portraitist Marianne (Noémi Merlant). Marianne must paint a marriage portrait of the defiant Héloïse without her subject’s knowledge, resulting in a spiral of romantic tension as Marianne carefully studies the back of Héloïse’s neck, the way she holds her hands and fingers, the slope of her nose. When the women are left alone for a few days, their tiny island matriarchy allows them so much more freedom than 18th-century French custom would typically allow. It is a film at once heartbreaking and freeing, exquisitely executed from its first frame to its last. Haenel gives a particularly earth-shattering performance as Héloïse (look out for those final three minutes), and Sciamma’s script and Claire Mathon’s cinematography vie for most haunting imagery. Marianne, curled and naked, smoking a pipe by the fire, Héloïse declaring, “In solitude, I felt the liberty you speak of, but I also felt your absence.” This is an instant classic, unshakeable in its craft and unapologetic in its feminism.
2. “Under The Silver Lake”
Must a film be comprehensible? Is it not enough to sit in the dark and see Andrew Garfield beat up a child, huge? I would argue it is more than enough, as would David Robert Mitchell, whose bonkers 2018 Cannes contender “Under the Silver Lake” took nearly a year to blunder its way into American theaters. This movie is not so much “about” anything – though it is superficially about an insufferable man named Sam (Garfield) who battles social decency in a quest to uncover the mysteries of Los Angeles’s elite – as it is about the experience of watching it, of uncovering a confounding, indecipherable mystery at the same time as Sam. It is a neo-noir that mocks the unfeeling men of its predecessors, a mystery that scoffs at “clues” and “suspects” and “cohesion.” I have not had a better time at any other movie this year. Yes, it makes no sense. Yes, that is the point. Come for the impeccable score by Disasterpeace, stay for the naked, pubic-bush-sporting woman who dresses up in an owl mask and murders men in the night. Any questions?
1. “The Last Black Man in San Francisco”
There are a handful of films that have made me literally see the world differently after I leave the theater. Joe Talbot’s “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” is one of them. This virtuosic portrait of a San Franciscan unable to part with the Victorian house his family once claimed is utterly transportive, a gentrification fairy tale that could only exist on-screen. As Jimmie Fails (Jimmie Fails, also co-screenwriter) and his best friend, Mont Allen (Jonathan Majors), retake the house, “The Last Black Man” unfurls into an expressive rendering of friendship and found family. It is a searching story, one that leaves much open to interpretation and smartly refuses to hold viewers’ hands – a film that dwells more in the unsaid than the said. With a soaring score by Emile Mosseri, golden visuals by Adam Newport-Berra, and Fails’s novel lead, this is the most astounding work of the year, a sun-soaked cry for history, personhood, self. Though heralded by critics at its Sundance debut and subsequent summer release, this is perhaps the most underseen film of 2019 – a terrible, if poetic, shame for a story so adept at crafting beauty from loneliness.