Below are my top ten favourite films of 2019 – the films which aesthetically and emotionally stirred me over the last twelve months, which reaffirmed to me my love of the medium. I would extend honourable mentions to Olivia Wilde’s uproarious and inventive Booksmart and Scott Z. Burns’ chillingly matter-of-fact procedural The Report.
- Birds Of Passage
Chronicling a Colombian Wayuu family as they become embroiled in the drug trade, Cristina Gallego and Cirro Guerra’s film is a crime drama which reaches the realm of the sacred and elemental. Deliberate in its pace, painterly in its compositions, and awash in bold colours, this immersive and atmospheric film keenly examines the centrality of rituals to both indigenous life and the drug trade – and how just one person ignoring those rituals can make everything fall apart. Its climax is a model of restraint and stillness which somehow feels downright apocalyptic.
- Once Upon A Time In…Hollywood
Indulgent? Most definitely. Problematic? Probably. Brilliant? Undoubtedly. Quentin Tarantino’s 1969 nostalgia trip found the director in surprisingly reflective, uncharacteristically thoughtful form, delivering a wistful, sun-kissed, capital-R Romantic elegy to a time long passed– and to Sharon Tate, embodied by Margot Robbie in some of the most sincere scenes in Tarantino’s filmography. And then there’s the matter of that ending. I was conflicted on it at first, but time and a second viewing have brought me around on it – it’s outsized and outrageous, yes, but also oddly heartfelt and achingly bittersweet. This film is a love letter – albeit one signed in blood.
After a debut as woundingly funny and razor’s-edge unnerving a debut as Get Out, what do you do for an encore? For Jordan Peele the answer was; nothing obvious. His second feature was a far more impenetrable troubling film than we could have expected. Beginning with a family attacked by their mysterious doppelgangers, Us resembles less a conventional horror film that it does a nightmare; a raw and inexplicable experience, full of images of primal fear and multivalent signs and symbols. However you choose to read Us, it’s impossible to deny the brilliance of Peele’s craft (especially during the stunning dance-like climax) and of Lupita Nyong’o’s chilling dual performance.
- The Irishman
Between the furore over his remarks regarding superhero films and Joker’s liberal borrowing from Taxi Driver and The King Of Comedy, the legacy of Martin Scorsese loomed large over this year. With The Irishman, he proved that his stature is still warranted – in his 70s, he can still hit an audience hard. Following aged hitman Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) as he recounts his life and crimes, the film is for the most part an ambling, sometimes darkly absurd look at the unglamorous banalities of Mafia life. But throughout there are grace notes of moral horror and melancholy (a moment where the camera pans away from a killing it can’t bear to watch, a close-up on a daughter’s appalled face as she watches her father commit an act of senseless violence) imbuing the piece with a haunting chill – which becomes inescapable in the sobering final hour. In some of his most understated filmmaking, Scorsese stares unblinkingly at the ravages of institutional violence and the ultimate hollowness of the codes of masculine honour used to justify it. With Cagney swagger giving way to Kierkegaardian despair, this is a reminder of what separates a great director from his emulators.
- High Life
The great Claire Denis’s foray into the realm of science fiction continues her fascination with extremes; of the mind, the body, and now of time and space themselves. Following an energy-sourcing mission to a black hole by a spaceship full of convicts, Denis shoots the modernist interiors of the vessel and the often-disrobed bodies of her cast with the same clinical fascination, watching moody, soft lighting play off them to the strains of Stuart A. Staples’ jazzy score. It’s a film to drink in moment by moment – both its quiet stretches and shocking set-pieces – then reflect on the whole maddening, staggering totality of it.
- Marriage Story
Anyone can take a heavy subject like divorce and beat the audience into weeping with the sheer heaviness of it. To take such a subject, find uncomfortable humour and everyday mundanity in it alongside the expected melodramatics, and still make your audience weep? That takes a truly brilliant observer of human behaviour – which is what Noah Baumbach has grown into. Following playwright Charlie (Adam Driver) and actress Nicole (Scarlett Johannsson) as they try to divorce amicably, the film has a keen eye for the rhythms and absurdities of its protagonists everyday lives. It’s a film which offers no judgement yet also no absolution, quietly observing each character’s capacity for love and for selfishness. It is powerfully acted, from a fiery Laura Dern as Nicole’s attorney to Johansson giving her best performance since Under The Skin as a woman cycling through sadness and anger as she revaluates her life so far and the relationship that defined much of it. But the performance that will linger longest is Driver, who puts his gangly physicality and ability to say a lot with one hangdog facial expression to brilliant use as a flawed, often oblivious man nonetheless trying to do the right thing.
Ari Aster’s impressive debut Hereditary was a film that closed in on its audience – growing more visually and emotionally suffocating on the way to its fatalistic climax. By contrast, his sophomore feature Midsommar opens up before its audience – its stifling, harrowing prologue expanding into a colourful, glistening wonderland. For Midsommaris as much fairy tale as horror film – albeit one belonging to an older tradition, in which vicious violence and merciless punishment live alongside splendour and whimsy. There’s plenty of all of those as we follow traumatised undergraduate Dani (Florence Pugh, extraordinary in one of several great performances this year), her emotionally neglectful boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor), and his (varyingly unsavoury) friends on a trip to a Swedish commune’s midsummer festival. Aster demonstrates a canny sense for composition and timing, as well as a pitch-black sense of humour, all while building to a floral, fiery climax that is partly chilling, partly satisfying, and all gleefully bonkers.
- Uncut Gems
Josh and Benny Safdie make films which throw their viewers in at the deep end, forcing us to quickly acclimatise to their lurid worlds and the sleazy, manic characters at their centre. Uncut Gems represents their greatest achievement so far in this regard, following impulsive New York diamond dealer and gambling addict Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) as he juggles a series of high-risk gambits and an increasingly fraught family life. With its jerking camera movements, overlapping dialogue, booming sound design, and loud neon colour scheme, it’s a heady rush of a film – intoxicating and nauseating all at once, punctuated by mordant laughs. It brings its protagonist’s avaricious headspace to life in vivid, uncomfortably tactile fashion, aided by Sandler’s live-wire, pitilessly grotesque portrayal of a hedonist for whom risk is the greatest pleasure. And yet (like all great anti-hero stories) the film doesn’t just illuminate its anti-hero, but in the whole ecosystem around him – those who enable his actions, and those who will suffer from them. At times you’ll want to look away – but the Safdies won’t let you.
- The Farewell
Lulu Wang’s second feature already feels like one of the all-time great films on the subject of family, so deft are its insights and so meticulous its craft. Awkafina gives a sensitive, fully-felt performance as Billi Wang, a young New Yorker called to China with the rest of her family to visit her grandmother ‘Nai Nai’ (Zhao Shuzhen, poignant and exasperating in equal measure as a character who the film refuses to reduce to an object of pity) who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer – however, in keeping with Chinese tradition, the family refuse to tell Nai Nai that she is dying. With a keen eye for how seemingly incidental aspects of life like work and food reflect and inform values, The Farewell even-handedly and empathetically examines two cultures at an impasse. It is always underplayed and often rather funny in a deadpan way, but never loses sight of the tragedy at its core – that everyone in this story is trying to find some way to come to terms with or mitigate the pain of impending bereavement. Wang expresses familial dynamics through space, composition, and blocking in a manner worthy of Yasujiro Ozu. All the more affecting for its subtlety – right through to its confounding ending – this is a beautiful piece of minor-key cinema.
- Little Women
It’s the way Greta Gerwig differentiates time periods through colour and light. It’s the perfect casting – Saoirse Ronan’s steel and self-assurance as Jo, Laura Dern’s warm but grounded Marmee, Timothee Chalamet’s ability to play Laurie as both a charming romantic lead and a naïve boy playacting at such a role, and perhaps best of all Florence Pugh’s Amy, often childish (her physical comedy is unexpected and superb) but deeply self-aware. It’s the emphasis given to still-resonant pieces of dialogue like Marmee (Laura Dern) and Jo (Saoirse Ronan) discussing anger. It’s the way incidents rhyme with each other to poetic effect in the film’s non-linear structure. There are a million big and small details which make Gerwig’s adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel feel new and fresh, and make it my favourite film of 2019. Gerwig’s affection for the novel and its characters is evident in meticulously costumed, composed, and lit image. The film glows with warmth, but allows that warmth to co-exist with deep-seated regret and sorrow – side by side in the film’s collage-like construction. Every character can seem both deeply sympathetic and unreasonable depending on the scene, as our understanding of each of them grows with time. Few films contain this level of nuance and depth, this level of detail in their understanding of time and place, this willingness to consider every facet of and point of view on its characters and their actions. It is a film about the transformative, transcendent power of art – especially for women – that provides a potent case for that very thing.