2019 started as the worst year of the decade film-wise. Theatrical pickings were slim, though some films I saw on the festival circuit proved that hope wasn't completely lost. The came TIFF and NYFF came in the fall, and nearly every film I saw was good if not great. JOKER, THE IRISHMAN, UNCUT GEMS, etc. It was an embarrassment of riches.
Documentaries were on fire, the studios came back with a vengeance in the last few months of the year, and Netflix produced a few films that turned out to be the most astonishing cinematic achievements of the year.
For the first time, I have separated narratives and docs. There were far too many great narratives and docs this year, and thus, I think the best way to highlight all of my favorites is to make two lists. The documentary list can be found here. The narrative list is below.
1. Parasite (Dir. Bong Joon-ho) - A masterpiece for the ages, Bong Joon-ho's wickedly funny, unpredictable Palme d'Or-winner, PARASITE, finds the master director at the top of his craft with a cast working in perfect sync. A contender for the best of the decade list.
2. Marriage Story (Dir. Noah Baumbach) - Another career-high by one of the world's greatest directors, MARRIAGE STORY is a raw, wrenching, yet humane and ultimately hopeful story of divorce. Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson, Laura Dern, and Alan Alda deliver performances that, like the best of their kind, make you forget you're watching some of the world's most recognizable actors. And Baumbach carefully controls the tonal balance this delicate film needs to fully land. MARRIAGE STORY hits where it hurts before provoking unexpected laughter and happy tears.
3. The Farewell (Dir. Lulu Wang) - Roger Ebert once said that "film is the most powerful empathy machine in all the arts." That statement epitomizes why Lulu Wang's THE FAREWELL works. By helping audiences understand why a family would stage a wedding to get the family together to say goodbye to the terminally ill family matriarch without telling her that she's ill, Wang has created a culturally-specific, yet thematically universal film that doesn't reduce its protagonist's struggle to a series of culture-clash jokes. Awkwafina is a revelation in the lead, and Shuzhen Zhao becomes one of cinema's most lovable grandmothers. This is understated, personal filmmaking of the highest order.
4. Little Women (Dir. Greta Gerwig) - Reworking Alcott's novel in a way that makes it feel fresh and contemporary, Greta Gerwig's loving, warm adaptation of LITTLE WOMEN is a wondrous experience to sit through. Gerwig shows how the titular women's pasts affect their futures through a non-chronological storyline and brings emotional resonance to this oft-told story. Saoirse Ronan and Florence Pugh stand out in one of the best casts put together in recent memory, and Gerwig's affection for the source material pours through in every second of screen time. I could live in this film's world.
5. The Irishman (Dir. Martin Scorsese) - Full of feeling and texture, Martin Scorsese's THE IRISHMAN proved once again that his films have become richer and more thoughtful with age. At 209 minutes, this movie is epically long, but thanks to Scorsese's direction and Steven Zaillian's sharp screenplay, the running time melts away. Robert De Niro and Al Pacino return to greatness, but it is Joe Pesci as a quiet mob boss who gives the most memorable performance. He's restrained and subtle but always clearly communicates what's underneath. THE IRISHMAN is a high point for all involved and shows once again that Scorsese's cinema is more exciting than ever.
6. Knives Out (Dir. Rian Johnson) - Pure old-fashioned entertainment with something to say, Rian Johnson once again uses genre tropes to completely upend them in the most satisfying way in KNIVES OUT. The all-star cast is perfect, but Ana de Armas steals the show. This wickedly clever whodunit was one of the most enjoyable, surprising, and fulfilling filmgoing experiences of the year.
7. Uncut Gems (Dirs. Josh and Benny Sadie) - Anyone who has seen PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE, THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES, or any of the other films in which Adam Sandler has given a dramatic performance knows he's a great actor. But, nothing could have prepared me for his complete immersion into Diamond District wheeler-and-dealer, Howard Rather, who wheels and deals his way into a hole. Every line is delivered with unique perfection, and coupled with the Safdies' relentless filmmaking style, UNCUT GEMS becomes a tragicomic NYC crime drama for the ages. Plus, Julia Fox announces herself as a major talent to watch as Sandler's girlfriend/employee.
8. Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Dir. Céline Sciamma) - Burning with passion and repressed sexuality, Céline Sciamma's intimate, detailed 1770's-set lesbian romance is marked by painterly cinematography and two of the most moving performances of the year. PORTRAIT is a thoughtfully-crafted period piece that aches with yearning and is emotionally universal. This one will withstand the test of time.
9. One Cut of the Dead (Dir, Shin'ichirô Ueda) - Ingenious and endlessly clever, Shin'ichirô Ueda's ONE CUT OF THE DEAD starts as one movie, becomes another, and ends as something entirely different. Hilarious and performed by a completely game cast, ONE CUT OF THE DEAD is thrilling and nerve-wracking for reasons different than what you might think. Knowing nothing about ONE CUT going in is best. And, this is a "zombie movie" for both those who love and hate horror.
10 (tie). The Nightingale (Dir. Jennifer Kent) - Following up a film as original as THE BABADOOK was always going to be tough, but Jennifer Kent managed to equal it with THE NIGHTINGALE, a damning and mercilessly cruel film about the horrors of colonialism. Because of Aisling Franciosi and Baykal Ganambarr's brave, empathetic performances at its center, THE NIGHTINGALE's violence (much of it against them) lands with horrific impact. THE NIGHTINGALE is an essential document of the sins of human history and a testament to those who were forced to live through its darkest hours.
10 (tie). Motherless Brooklyn (Dir. Edward Norton) - Touching and heartfelt, Edward Norton's misunderstood 1950's-set NYC detective story explores the dark side of how New York City became what it is today and shows the value of caring for the vulnerable. MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN was one of the biggest surprises of the year.
Honorable Mentions: 1917 (Dir. Sam Mendes), Brittany Runs a Marathon (Dir. Paul Downs Colaizzo), Dolemite is My Name (Dir. Craig Brewer), Gloria Bell (Dir. Sebastián Lelio), Invisible Life (Dir. Karim Aïnouz), Jojo Rabbit (Dir. Taika Waititi), Joker (Dir. Todd Phillips), Pain and Glory (Dir. Pedro Almodóvar), The Report (Dir. Scott Z. Burns), The Souvenir (Dir. Joanna Hogg), Us (Dir. Jordan Peele)