The latter half of this year was so chock full of excellent films, I knew I’d have a difficult time narrowing my best of the year to a mere ten choices. Among the movies I loved that just missed the top were FORD V. FERRARI, THE TWO POPES, GWEN, DOLEMITE IS MY NAME, THE FURNACE, OPHELIA, TOY STORY 4, HAIL SATAN, THE REPORT, and LITTLE WOMEN. If I did a top 20, they’d be on it.
So, what did make my top 10? Here are my picks for the best films this year:
Directed by Bong Joon Ho
Written by Bong Joon Ho and Jin Won Han
It’s great to see this Korean movie getting all the accolades it’s racking up. Rare is a foreign film that gets so much buzz. PARASITE is practically a shoo-in for Best Foreign Film and might just give plenty of American films this year a run for their money as Best Picture at the Oscars. (I’m talking to you, Quentin and Marty!) Bong’s masterpiece works best if you know little going into the cineplex to see it. I’ll simply say that the plot concerns a Korean family of four conning their way into working for a rich family of four and the film’s title comes from how both groups feed off the hospitality of each other. This dark comedy skewers caste systems and economic injustice, yet remains a fiendishly witty entertainment with some of the best camerawork, production design, and ensemble acting of the last decade. I’ve seen it three times and want to see it again. It’s that incredible.
2.) PAIN AND GLORY
Written and directed by Pedro Almodovar
Pedro Almodovar has been making classic films about the human condition for over four decades, and PAIN AND GLORY represents all that has gone before while hinting at a mellower filmmaker looking to the future. Almodovar has always been emotional and big, with colorful sets, twisty plots, and outrageous characters. Much of that is still here, but it’s a mellower work. The aging movie director at the center of the story (Antonio Banderas, never better), representing Almodovar undoubtedly, feels less anger about the past and more hope for the future. It’s a moving meditation on aging, one that made me tear up in sadness, but also in joy.
Directed by Olivia Wilde
Written by Emily Halperin, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel, and Katie Silberman
For me, the biggest surprise of the year was BOOKSMART, an incredible coming-of-age film that eschews several teen movie clichés in favor of smarter truths and more genuine laughs. Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) are two seniors about to graduate who’ve been responsible, stay-in-their-lane types the whole time. On graduation eve, they decide to act out of character and attend a raucous party. Of course, craziness follows them throughout the evening, but while the set-pieces are hilarious, it’s the bonding between the girls that sticks with you. And how nice to see a teen comedy where the female leads didn’t need boyfriends or get punished severely for their mishaps. They’re too smart to let that happen, and so is this movie.
4.) MARRIAGE STORY
Written and directed by Noah Baumbach
If anything, Baumbach’s stunning character study should’ve been entitled DIVORCE STORY. That’s the crux of the film as two good people find that they’re no longer good together and must start anew. Charlie (Adam Driver, incredible) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson, almost as good) are an experimental theater director and his star. How fitting that the arcs that each will go through in this drama will require constant improvisation. The New Yorker Charlie, used to being in control, must learn to let others run the show. Nicole relishes being out from under her ex, but he’ll always be in her life nonetheless as the father of her son. Even with vicious divorce lawyers doing their best to make things ugly, the film manages to stay positive, finding sympathy for both parties and hoping they each find a better path.
5.) KNIVES OUT
Written and directed by Rian Johnson
Rian Johnson is a filmmaker who likes to usurp genre and formula. He set his detective noir BRICK in a high school and twisted the STAR WARS formula into the unpredictable THE LAST JEDI. In KNIVES OUT, Johnson riffs on Agatha Christie’s style of drawing-room whodunnits, all-star casts, and an eccentric detective solving the puzzle. It’s a clever mystery, but also a hilarious satire of one. Daniel Craig was loose as a goose playing southerner PI Benoit Blanc while big names played the vicious offspring of their rich, dead patriarch (Christopher Plummer, unmatched in playing salty, yet sophisticated seniors.) It’s no small feat making a movie like this work and Johnson’s crowd-pleaser may have just been the most satisfying studio film of the year.
6.) PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE
French filmmaker Celine Sciamma’s love story is as much about art as it is about a painter and subject becoming lovers. Marianne (Noemi Merlant) is tasked with painting the mercurial Heloise (Adele Haenel) for her wedding portrait in an arranged marriage. Their wariness of each other turns into bonding over art, free-thinking, and zigging when the world would have you zag. It also portrays the difficulty of truly seeing what’s standing in front of you, whether it’s a subject to paint or a person to understand. Sciammna takes her time, letting the pot slowly boil, but when it does, look out! She also does amazingly clever things with the camera, escalating its movement as the women become more and more passionate together.
Directed by Sam Mendes
Written by Sam Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns
War films are inherently dramatic with the stakes being life and death. This film dials up that trope by having two men tasked with having to save thousands. British forces during WWI get intel that warns them of a regimen about to walk into a German trap. Two young lance corporals (George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman) are given the horrible task of running on foot across enemy lines to get the new orders to the 1600 troops. The race begins, with the camera accompanying them every step of the journey, shot to be perceived as one, uninterrupted shot. (All the more to make it seem scarily real, natch.) It’s a nail-biter, to say the least, as we are right next to them through bushes, streams and cannon fire. War is hell, sure, as this film proves, but it can also make for one incredibly exhilarating and unique experience in the cinema.
8.) THE FAREWELL
Written and directed by Lulu Wang
In a year of so many superb films put forth by female directors, Wang’s autobiographical one is a clear standout. In her story, a Chinese-American family learns their grandmother only has a short time left to live. They decide not to tell her the bad news. Instead, they concoct a fake family wedding to gather everyone together for one big celebration – – before she dies. What could go wrong? Their well-intentioned scheme generates daft shenanigans, some of the funniest farce on film this year. As the family can barely keep track of their lies, and blunder through awful toasts at the wedding, Grandmother starts to put two and two together. Few films can juxtapose laughs against tears so successfully, but Wang’s did, and her triumph ended up being the feel-good film of 2019.
9.) I LOST MY BODY
Directed by Jeremy Clapin
Written by Jeremy Clapin and Guillaume Laurant
How’s this for a weird animated movie pitch? A disembodied hand searches for its former owner, and in turn, discovers the complicated and tragic life of the man it was attached to. Indeed, that’s the premise of this adult-themed gem from French filmmaker Clapin. The stark illustration style, the haunting music, the expressive voices of Dev Patel and Ala Shawkat for the American translation – it all made for an eerie ride through a TWILIGHT ZONE-ish tale of painful memories. Available right now on Netflix, it’s absurdist, violent, scary, romantic, and never less than mesmerizing.
10.) AD ASTRA
What is it with space exploration and family issues? GRAVITY and INTERSTELLAR both had astronaut protagonists tortured by losing family members. So does AD ASTRA as its astronaut (Brad Pitt) is sent out to retrieve a renegade father (Tommy Lee Jones) gone AWOL on the outskirts of the galaxy. As he journeys, Pitt’s military man discovers a great deal about the dad he never knew and gains insights into his own failures back on Earth. Most surprisingly, he learns how readily duty can get compromised by politics and corruption, even NASA. It’s a haunting tale, writ large on the big screen where the scale was ginormous, as were the regrets of the main character.
If you want to read the original reviews of my selections, just look for them here in the archives of The Establishing Shot, or at Creative Screenwriting magazine online where I’m the film critic.