It seemed like much of the latter half of this year was spent arguing about what is or is not cinema. To be fair, it’s a debate that’s very much worth having, particularly considering how oversaturated our media landscape has become: streaming options are endless, franchise efforts are abundant to a degree that seems punishing rather than bountiful, and some days, it seems like all anyone wants to talk about is how #twisted the Joaquin Phoenix-starring “Joker” movie was (spoilers right here: you will not find Todd Phillips’ self-serious Clown Prince of Crime flick anywhere on this list).
Still, when all’s said and done -– when you step away from the hot takes on Twitter, the Is-Marvel-Cinema discourse, the nuances of the op-ed that Martin Scorsese penned for the New York Times regarding those aforementioned issues, and the discussion about why the new “Charlie’s Angels” reboot failed at the box office… 2019 was a pretty great year at the movies. Sure, there were a few duds along the way (was I one of the six people in America that paid money to watch “The Fanatic” on iTunes?), but overall, this year was an embarrassment of cinematic riches.
There are several films on this list that would have made the number one spot any other year, and many others (“Honey Boy,” “The Report,” “Burning Cane,” “Tell Me Who I Am,” “Her Smell,” “Sunset,” “Peterloo,” “Plus One,” “The Dead Don’t Die,” “Richard Jewell,” “A Hidden Life”) that just narrowly missed Runner-Up status but are no doubt worthy of a rewatch somewhere down the line. In other words: it’s not all that bad out there folks, no matter what the headlines tell you. Any year where we get new films from Martin Scorsese, James Gray, Pedro Almodovar, Celine Sciamma, Marielle Heller, Mike Leigh, Claire Denis, Harmony Korine, Ari Aster, Jim Jarmusch, Greta Gerwig, and Bong Joon-ho is a year worth celebrating. So, with that in mind… let’s celebrate! With a list! Huzzah!
Without further ado, here are my top ten films of 2019. Enjoy, and thanks for reading
10. “Knives Out”
Like any skilled cinematic deconstructionist, Rian Johnson has an enviable gift for taking familiar genres and filling them with scenes, actors, and ideas that are refreshingly unfamiliar. Johnson’s propensity for irreverence went on to alienate many of the “Star Wars” faithful, as the director’s “The Last Jedi” turned out to be another beguiling and idiosyncratic cinematic left turn –that is, at least as much as the gatekeepers of that particular franchise allowed it to be. With all that in mind, one could expect Johnson’s latest – the raucously pleasurable old-school whodunit “Knives Out” – to be his most conventional work. It is and isn’t. “Knives Out” is, on its surface, a star-studded throwback mystery that many have rightfully compared to Agatha Christie. It’s a film filled with pleasing, wittily-employed tropes: a death plaguing an obscenely wealthy family, an inheritance hanging in the balance, a ruinous old mansion filled with secret passageways, a litany of ancestral grievances that eventually come bubbling to the surface, and a dogged, eccentric detective working to get to the bottom of it all. “Knives Out,” above all else, is a spectacular feat of storytelling engineering: this director remains a deviously clever sleight-of-hand artist who never once lets us see how he’s pulling this movie’s proverbial strings. “Knives Out” won’t break the mold for tales of big-screen sleuthing, but it possesses an endearing, milk-and-cookies innocence that makes it one of the most purely fun movies of 2019: a parlor room game you’ll want to play again and again.
9. “The Farewell”
Surely every one of us has had to lie to a family member at some point in our lives. This is an unfortunate, potentially vexing prospect that should be familiar to anyone with a pulse. Lulu Wang, who wrote and directed this year’s unobtrusively stunning family drama “The Farewell,” understands the thorny ethical dilemma of lying to family to its very marrow. “The Farewell” is “based on an actual lie,” and in her sophomore feature, Wang displays such a disarmingly sharp consideration of modern family dynamics that many viewers may find themselves wincing out of familiarity when they aren’t laughing at the film’s surplus of kindhearted, culturally perceptive humor (with a movie like this, sometimes you laugh so you don’t have to wince). “The Farewell” contains scenes of unimaginable sorrow that are shot through with relieving, considerately deployed doses of laughter and often-brutal insight. Wang’s film is a droll triumph of human observation: as shrewd in its interpretation of familial tension as the great work of Edward Yang. It should go without saying that comparing a work of fiction as essential and humane as “The Farewell” to any other pre-existing cinema feels somewhat disingenuous to the film’s creator(s). With only two features under her belt, Wang has already developed a style that is entirely her own: one that is delicate, generous, and suffused with deep feeling. “The Farewell” is about many things: the millennial struggle of reconciling one’s dreams with a series of harsh and restrictive economic realities, how truly loving your family often means overlooking their less exemplary qualities, and, of course, the eternal glory of grandmas. More than anything, though, “The Farewell” about the emotional cost of lying to your kin. “You think one’s life belongs to oneself,” a character remarks late in Wang’s film, underlying the point that human existence – no matter how selfishly or thoughtlessly we participate in it – is part of a greater, more tenuous cycle than any of us could fathom.
8. “Jojo Rabbit”
On paper, there’s no reason at all for the Taika Waititi-directed “Jojo Rabbit” to work – either in theory or in practice. Even as I write this, I can feel myself losing friends over my opinion on this curious, much-discussed, and undeniably stirring movie. I mean… who’d have thought the guy who made “Thor: Ragnarok” would make 2019’s most divisive, non-”Joker” Oscar hopeful? Until now, Waititi has avoided tackling truly serious material, preferring to stay in his wheelhouse of droll, poker-faced comic humanism. That all changes in “Jojo Rabbit,” in which Taika himself plays a weirdly jovial version of Adolf Hitler who acts as the imaginary best friend to a lonely German boy during the final days of WWII. In anyone else’s hands, this would have been a recipe for disaster. In Taika’s hands, “Jojo Rabbit” is something else entirely. It’s a marvel, an enchanting mockery of fascism’s fundamentally blinkered worldview, and a judicious allegory for our divided present. Watching “Jojo Rabbit” in scene after ingeniously realized scene, I found myself thinking, “this really shouldn’t be working.” And yet, somehow, “Jojo Rabbit” works – it’s “majestical,” in the words of “Hunt for the Wilderpeople’s” Ricky Baker. “Jojo Rabbit” is an utter delight, mastering a precarious balancing act that would have crippled a less confident film. Throughout, Waititi interrupts his trademark whimsy with jarring instances of horror and grief, conflating a child’s world of play and make-believe – a world juxtaposed knowingly against that ancient symbol of prejudice and genocide, the Nazi regime – with a world of trepidation and adolescent uncertainty that exists just outside his door. Such is the miraculous tightrope that “Jojo Rabbit” walks. It is an artful, risky, potentially hazardous farce (and possibly the most misunderstood movie of the year) that persuasively argues that hate is a disease, that no loss is ever truly final, and that one method of combating prejudice involves taking joy in life’s fleeting, ephemeral moments, even if you happen to live in a time of atrocity.
7. “Marriage Story”
The opening moments of “Marriage Story” contain some of the loveliest and most buoyant filmmaking of Noah Baumbach’s career to date… that is, until this introductory effervescence is punctured by the unthinkable tragedy of divorce. The latest work that has sprung from Baumbach’s ongoing fixation on the anxieties of coupledom has now produced what is inarguably the writer/director’s most lacerating film since the days of “Margot at the Wedding” and “Greenberg.” “Marriage Story” is a tightly wound, frequently unsentimental, yet somehow deeply empathic drama that bears only a superficial resemblance to radiant big-city comedies like “Frances Ha” and “Mistress America.” There are laughs in this film, but they’re the kind that simultaneously stick in your throat and pierce your heart, leaving you both psychologically bruised and also, somehow, grateful for the experience. The bracing nature of the humor in “Marriage Story” is so ineradicable because we come to care deeply about what happens to the movie’s protagonists, Charlie and Nicole (Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, both giving fearless, career-best performances). I felt for these two as much as I’ve felt for any character in a Noah Baumbach movie, ever. Baumbach occasionally gets accused of orchestrating symphonies of neurotic discomfort for egg-headed East Coast intellectuals, but even at its most excruciating, “Marriage Story” is by far the director’s most openhearted movie. The film’s centerpiece – a protracted scorched-earth domestic dispute– is one of the ugliest and most genuinely devastating things the director has ever staged. It’s an excavation of wounds both emotional and spiritual, and anyone who has ever said something regrettable to their romantic partner in the heat of an argument will see themselves in this scene – perhaps more than they would like to admit. Marital separation is described in Baumbach’s film as a “death without a body,” and while “Marriage Story” definitely isn’t a breezy sit in the way that, say, “While We’re Young” is – it’s certainly more Ingmar Bergman than Paul Mazursky – the film’s suggestion of hope in the wake of interpersonal disaster is one of the more moving things I’ve seen at the movies this year. In other words, Baumbach’s wisest film yet isn’t content to be a mere continuation of his preferred pet themes. In this case, “Marriage Story” feels closer to an authorial rebirth.
Christian Petzold’s elusive, achingly sad “Transit” is even more trancelike and seamless in its mise-en-scène than anything in either the director’s slow-simmering period thriller “Phoenix” or his Oscar-nominated “Barbara”. “Transit” is also, it must be said, a more furtive and emotionally impervious film than anything that this particular filmmaker has previously given us. For that reason, uninitiated viewers may have a hard time finding their way onto this film’s very atypical wavelength. Still, for all of “Transit’s” purposeful, poetic dead ends and the hauntingly unexplained nature of its all-pervading atmospheric gloom, Petzold’s most sumptuous directorial outing to date is a film that lingered with me like an unearthly presence for days, even weeks after I first saw it. The central ingredients of “Transit” are as old as cinema itself: a protagonist who is unknowable (especially to himself), a mysterious woman, metropolitan cities under the iron heel of fascist occupation, everyday urban encounters seething with paranoia and menace, etc. And yet, in spite of Petzold clearly being indebted to golden-age classics like “The Third Man,” the cinematic language of “Transit” often feels like something utterly without precedent. At its core, Petzold’s latest is ultimately about two things: the pain of saying goodbye to those you love when a future together is not guaranteed, and the crippling existential uncertainty that comes with living in a kind of social limbo. Nearly everyone in “Transit” exists in a state of cosmic in-between-ness. The film’s entrancing traditionalism and sense of formal rigor can occasionally flirt with pretense, which may put some viewers at a distance: occasionally, the film is redolent of smoldering arthouse dramas like “The Master” and Antonioni’s “The Passenger.” These are glacial, obdurate art films that refuse to meet their audiences halfway. “Transit” isn’t chiefly concerned with entertaining its audience or meeting them halfway – it wants to burrow into viewer’s psyches and stay there. Suffice to say, I haven’t stopped thinking about it since I saw it.