15. Peterloo (Mike Leigh)
Imagining Mike Leigh tackle a historical act of massacre seems like an oblique fit for his intensely talky and introspective human nature dramas. I’m so glad he made this film, and yes, it does fit nicely as a very talky effort that exhaustively examines and discusses the swirling politics and history leading up to the event. The first 2 hours can be head-spinning for how many characters are introduced and have their say about the divisive lines between laymen and the governing body. And the final half hour, spent in an explosive deconstruction of soldiers marching and killing scores of innocent protesters, is enough to make one’s blood boil. Peterloo is an immaculately rendered film of time and place (oh the locations and settings just reek of nineteenth century miserablism) whose distorted, complicated history is made quite clear by Leigh’s unending craftmanship.
14. Non Fiction (Olivier Assayas)
For a film largely concerned with the marching evolution of technology, Olivier Assayas Non Fiction remains grounded in a very traditional framework of simple mood and antiquated tempo. Another talky like he’s been making for over 20 years now, his latest film crackles with intelligence and sinewy humor as several couples are having affairs with each other, smoking cigarettes and talking around the sadness in their married lives. It also helps the film stars Juliette Binoche, Guillame Canet and Vincent Macaigne as said couples. In the background of it all, Assayas also touches on prescient topics such as the disappearance of the written word and our world’s dedication (or lack thereof) to its production. In my original review of the film, I called this film the next continuation in the life of the harried teenagers from Cold Water (1994). I look forward to however else Assayas wants to shape this universe of people.
13. Little Women (Greta Gerwig)
Greta Gerwig’s latest adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved novel has stuck with me for days. Incredible acting, a sly sense of opening up the tale with a thrilling sense of editing, and an atmosphere that perfectly captures the alternatively freewheeling and morose swaths of fate that affect the four sisters, the film is a triumph of small emotions and gentle passage of time. No matter how minor the part, each and every character is rendered as a vivid and indelible person. And it only further cements the talents of all involved as defining artists for what will be decades to come.
12. Motherless Brooklyn (Edward Norton)
I have to begin by asking why it’s taken someone 20 years to allow actor Edward Norton to write and direct again after his sweetly affectionate and witty debut film Keeping the Faith. I fell in love upon seeing it in the theater all those years ago and it remains one of the best films of the 90’s. A far cry in mood and tone than that previous ode to Lubitsch-like romance-comedy, his latest film, Motherless Brooklyn still retains his affection for people and relationships even when said relationships involve extortion, bribery, corruption and murder in 50’s set New York where the sky’s the limit for powerful men slicing up chunks of the city. Trying to unravel the mystery is Lionel (Norton), the adopted associate of a slain snooper (Bruce Willis) whose nose gets them all involved in some hefty affairs. Complicating maters is Lionel’s tourette’s disorder, which serves more as a compass for the nervousness he feels when things get heady, calmed only in moments after Laura (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) who may or may not be fully involved in the affair he’s investigating. While the narrative of Motherless Brooklyn ultimately leans into noir-tinged familiarity, what’s not pedestrian is Norton’s supreme handling of the film’s pace and composure. Lots of secondary characters (played by famous faces from Willem DaFoe to Michael K. Williams) provide a sprawling canvas of depth, but they’re never allowed to overwhelm the carefully constructed atmosphere. Attuned to the beauty of the world around his concrete-bound characters, Norton continually cuts to things around them as they talk, such as golden blades of grass or the sun-lit dusted items on a bedroom dresser. For a film often caught inside the scrambled head of a man desperately trying to fit together the disjointed pieces, Motherless Brooklyn is a magnificently contemplative work and a seriously overlooked gem from 2019.
11. The Last Black Man In San Francisco (Joe Talbot)
It’s not very hard to make San Francisco look dreamy and romantic on screen, but what director Joe Talbot does with The Last Black Man In San Francisco — besides a fully realized and heartfelt relationship between two best friends — is create a film of otherworldly beauty and quirky sentiments that feels wholly original. Actors Jimmie Fails and Jonathan Majors are revelations as marginal personalities in a gentrified San Francisco who make it their mission to save and restore a large house that once belonged to one of their grandfathers. A beautiful soundtrack, a host of memorable secondary characters and a complete control of mood situates The Last Black Man in San Francisco as a breakout effort from all involved.
10. Dolemite Is My Name (Craig Brewer)
There was no better movie-going experience in 2019 than the Texas premiere of Eddie Murphy’s affectionate ode to 70s filmmaking and maverick-outsider status than Dolemite Is My Name. An audience rolling with every joke and riding the wave of every emotion elicited the exact same reaction I’m sure the original Dolemite did for African-American audiences in the early 70s desperate for a film idol who wasn’t James Bond or Dirty Harry. Profane and uproariously funny, Dolemite Is My Name is everything a crowd pleasing film is designed to do. Toss in a whiz-bang cast of associates such as Wesley Snipes and DaVine Joy Randolph, and the film far outstretches its modest Netflix designed small-screen ambitions into an expansive comedy whose main intention is bawdy reverence for a true cinematic pioneer.
9. Booksmart (Olivia Wilde)
About two-thirds of the way through — and once the film’s teenage friends played wonderfully by Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever finally make it to the graduation party they so desperately want to attend — Booksmart affirms its creeping signs of greatness and attains something quite terrific. The film’s patchwork assortment of outrageous characters and high school crudeness coalesces into an achingly honest and masterful examination about the crushing facade of teenage life and its very thin margins of identity/acceptance. First time actor-turned-director Olivia Wilde balances the pieces together brilliantly, manifesting all the strengths of her film in one long shot that turns a shattering underwater discovery into an equally shattering composition of two young women trying to compose themselves in the uncertainties of adulthood.
8. Ad Astra (James Gray)
Even though it resides in a loopy science fiction template that features ghost ships, nerve-jangling space walks and knife fights inside a cockpit, James Gray’s Ad Astra is a lot closer to his morose studies of male psychosis and obsessive choices than it first appears. In fact, it makes for a nice double feature with his previous masterpiece The Lost City of Z in which pioneers of terrain and courage venture farther out into the unknown than anyone before them. In Ad Astra, that explorer is astronaut Brad Pitt, chosen to travel to Mars (a planet that houses the last stable outpost of humanity in near future of colonization) in order to hopefully coax his lost father (also an astronaut) to stop sending chaotic micro bursts of energy from a failed mission decades ago. I know, it does preposterous when explained, but Gray manages to create a moody and introspective work of art that challenges science fiction conventions in its quiet remorselessness.
7. Destroyer (Karyn Kusama)
There’s a trend in modern crime films I like to call “New American Miserablism.” I suppose the grandfathers were David Fincher and Michael Mann, now carried forward by any young filmmaker treading into the noir tinged waters. Even the small screen isn’t immune, specifically behind the grandiose darkness inherent in Nic Pizzaloto’s True Detective series. Granted, even I’m worn down by the heaviness permeating these efforts. So why is Karyn Kusama’s Destroyer — a crime film especially miserable, right down to the grizzled makeup coated across Nicole Kidman’s face to exemplify the haggard weight of her world bending upon her — different? Well, it is and isn’t. The film trades in so many themes and situations that have dotted the noir landscape in the past, however Kusama and screenwriters Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi resuscitate their effort into something special because of the layered storytelling whose timelines slowly reveal a painful tendency to protect only the best things from a very bad time. In addition, Kusama’s crisp style renders a ubiquitous Los Angeles with new eyes, portraying viaducts and side street banks with just as much underlying ferocity as many other films have treated the beaches and Pacific Palisades mansions. Destroyer is a tough, meandering and ultimately a fragile personification of ‘miserablism’ done with grace and, well, heart.
6. Parasite (Bong Joon Ho)
Although it’s not quite a horror film, one of the most horrific moments of the year on-screen happens in Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite as a set of crazed-white eyes slowly peers up from the darkness from a set of basement level steps, igniting a child’s nightmarish imagination and sending the second half of the film into a frenzy of drastic action and numbing consequence. It’s what Bong does best: wringing recognizable genres until they twist into a morass of social commentary and obfuscated styles. What begins as ant act of greedy infiltration by a lower class family into the personal spaces of the upper class starts out simply enough before the screws are tightened and every shot, feeling and mood is controlled masterfully by Bong. There are stretches in this film where I held my breath for what seemed like an eternity, hoping I’d soon be given permission to breathe. Caustically funny and whip-smart tense, Parasite is a master firing on all cylinders.
5. Waves (Trey Edward Shults)
A film of two distinct halves. First, an untethered camera floating with a boisterous soundtrack and histrionic emotions with a story that feels right at home in any young adult/teen fiction novel as athletic Kelvin Harrison Jr. deals with a diminishing body, an inebriated state of mind and a relationship that wrecks havoc on everyone involved. It almost all seems like too much. But that’s the point of Shults’ magnificent work as it pivots in the second half to younger sister Taylor Russell and how the somber reckoning of her family settles around her delicate shoulders. With Waves, Shults has confirmed himself as a towering voice in modern independent cinema, enraging some and bewitching others. I look forward to whatever he does next.
4. Climax (Gaspar Now)
Noe’s latest is a delirious concoction of New Wave musical and Euro freak-out horror film, fire branded by his swerving aesthetic and provocative sound design that feels more like an assault rather than a viewing. I loved every propulsive moment. Watching Noe’s young and seriously tripping men and woman wander around their own cloistered psychedelic wonderland is something no other filmmaker would probably try, but Noe (the enfant terrible of French provocations for over 20 years now) does and it spoke directly to my punk rock soul.
3. A Hidden Life (Terence Malick)
I can’t even count how many times I gasped at the visual beauty present in Terence Malick’s latest work of cinematic poetry. And then those visuals were overtaken by the emotional gut punch in its story of faithful farmer Franz (August Diehl) and his refusal to serve for Germany in World War II, choosing to stand his ground and be a conscientious objector. I’ve been out on the last few Malick films (his last great one being The New World in 2005), but A Hidden Life struck me as something staggering, heartbreaking and completely worthy of Malick’s re-anointment as cinema’s most purely spiritual guide. It’s one of the few films whose passionate inner resolve of its protagonist seems to melt through the screen into our own hearts.
2. Transit (Christian Petzold)
On another given day, this could easily slide into the top spot. Adapted from a novel by Anna Seghers, Transit is a masterwork adapted (and updated) by Petzold from the novel’s original World War II set intentions into a metropolitan anti-thriller in which the vehicles, dress and locale of today are juxtaposed with the occupational fears of yesteryear (or are they so long ago?). Like Petzold’s previous, Phoenix, he gets to play with the notions of a society simultaneously crumbling and rebuilding at the same time, leaving its droll protagonists with the arduous task of picking up the pieces. Also like Phoenix, Petzold fashions a final scene so ripe with meaning and so crushing in emotional complexity that the idea of purgatory spoken about earlier in the film comes into stinging focus.
1. The Irishman (Martin Scorsese)
With his previous film Silence (2016) and now The Irishman, Scorsese has certainly entered his pensive period and, as a filmmaker whose lifelong investments have been people struggling with the cause and effect of inner turmoil (both spiritually and non), The Irishman may be his crowning reflection on the matter. As a sweeping tapestry of mid-century gangsterism and unionist history, it’s a completely enveloping recreation of the stalwart loud mouths (Al Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa) and powerfully quiet sea changers (Joe Pesci as mob boss Russell Bufalino) who had their fingers on the pulse. And as a character study of one man (Robert DeNiro as Frank Sheeran) along for the turbulent and violent ride, it’s a meditative masterpiece that ends on such a somber, devastating image that even after 3 and a half hours, I was still stunned it was over.
Honorable mentions (the 16-20 if you will): Pain and Glory, Tigers Are Not Afraid, Caballerango, Shadow, Uncut Gems.