10 – One Cut of the Dead
There is a twist midway through One Cut of the Dead that takes the film from pretty good to flat out wonderful. The twist not only reframes everything that comes before, it sets the stage for a completely different kind of movie – one filled with heart, humour, and irrepressible creative spirit.
9 – Us
Jordan Peele’s previous film, Get Out, is the definitive American horror story, a terrifying tale that intricately weaves genre scares with razor sharp social commentary. His follow up, Us, attempts to do the same thing on a grander scale, and mostly succeeds. In widening its gaze, Us becomes a messier film than Get Out, and one that perhaps doesn’t entirely stick the landing, but it’s still a ridiculously good horror flick that stands out in a year filled with superb scary movies.
8 – The Farewell
The core of The Farewell is a lie: a grandmother is dying and her family has agreed it’s best not to tell her about her illness. Billi, played by Awkwafina at her career best, is horrified by this plan and heads to Changchun, China to convince her family that what they are doing is wrong. Writer-director Lulu Wang takes what could have been a simple morality tale, and uses the trappings to take a deep dive into questions of family, culture, and the true nature of responsibility.
7 – Knives Out
Rian Johnson turns his introspective lense on the murder mystery genre, blending Agatha Christie and Alfred Hitchcock to create a tense, funny, and deliriously entertaining whodunnit. Like Us, and my number one movie of the year, Knives Out is very much a story about class. All but one of the suspects come from inherited wealth, and Johnson weaves this theme through every facet of the airtight plot. This movie proves fairly definitively that whether or not Rian Johnson ever revisits a galaxy far, far away, he’s going to continue making exciting, challenging, and wholly original art.
6 – Marriage Story
Divorce has never looked less fun than in Noah Baumbach’s honest, gut wrenching, and consistently funny Marriage Story. Adam Driver and Scarlett Johanson are phenomenal as a couple trying to finalize their breakup while continuing to raise a child together. Baumbach has always excelled at examining the little details that make up a personality, and the details here are unforgettable. Scarlett Johanson is constantly making tea she’ll never drink while Adam Driver obsesses over making the perfect Invisible Man Halloween costume. How these quirks inform their characters, and the long, painful story that unfolds will break your heart, stomp on it, carefully pick it back up, and try its hardest to mend it.
5 – Little Women
Greta Gerwig and Jordan Peele each released their debut film in 2017 – Peele with Get Out, and Gerwig with the Ladybird. Seeing where they each went in only two years time makes me impossibly excited for where they choose to go next. While Peele created a grander and even more grotesque hidden side of America, Gerwig chose to adapt a story that’s been adapted many times before. Her reasons for doing so, according to an interview cited below from The Atlantic*, was to give Amy March, one of the most hated characters in English literature, her long overdue fair treatment. She succeeds here as only Gerwig can, affording Amy the same compassion and honest examination she gave to Ladybird, and creating a rich, complex, and textured adaptation in the process.
4 – Ad Astra
In James Gray’s monumental odyssey, the answers to life’s greatest questions lie four and a half billion kilometres away, orbiting the planet Neptune. At least that’s what Brad Pitt’s distant and haunted Clifford McBride believes, as he sets out on a journey to the heart of darkness, that can only end in death or a final confrontation with the man that made him. The film takes great inspiration from Apocalypse Now, but instead of exploring the horrors of war, Gray uses the quest to delve into what it means to be a man, and how the answer is most assuredly not what we’ve been told. Also there’s a car chase on the moon.
3 – Uncut Gems
If one is up for it, Uncut Gems provides an anxiety-enduring peek into the life of someone perpetually at his breaking point, who insists on pushing ever closer to terminal destruction. Through a pulsing score, frantic camera movements, and endlessly antagonistic characters the Safdie Brothers somehow succeed in maintaining an atmosphere of perpetual stress for the entirety of the film’s run time. Adam Sandler disappears into the role of Howard Ratner, a deeply layered degenerate gambler and a scumbag you can’t help but sympathize with. The countless bad decisions he makes over the course of three days are all understandable, given what the film tells us about the character. And it tells us a great deal without any fuss, speeches, or traditional storytelling devices, all while juggling a jaw dropping amount of plot threads and supporting characters. No blockbuster this year is able to replicate the pure adrenaline rush of Uncut Gems. This is 2019’s Fury Road.
2 – Booksmart
Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut is a sublime comic odyssey. Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever are perfectly cast as two overachievers trying desperately to experience the carefree high school experience that exists only in fantasy. As they careen through the last night before graduation, searching for a sense of meaning, we gradually watch an entire world reveal itself to us. It’s a world where people are good, the future is bright, and all of life’s problems can be fixed, at least temporarily, with pancakes. There is no movie this year that filled me with as much joy as Booksmart. It’s pretty much the polar opposite of…
1 – Parasite
When I try to properly convey in a paragraph the power of Parasite I inevitably come up short. It’s impossible, at least for me, to describe how tragic and beautiful and simple and dense Bong Joon-ho’s greatest film is. It’s a work of singular vision, a capstone to a decade that’s illuminated the perils of our way of life more than any other. Instead of writing a thousand sentences about its brilliance, I will instead leave you with two quotes, and an urging to seek this film out and experience it for yourself.
“I can’t think of a film that made me sadder about the state of the world and more jubilant about the state of movies.” – A.O. Scott **
“When I made Parasite, it was like trying to witness our world through a microscope. The film talks about two opposing families, about the rich versus the poor, and that is a universal theme, because we all live in the same country now: that of capitalism.” – Bong Joon-ho ***
I Also Loved:
I Lost My Body
The Last Black Man in San Francisco
I Still Really Want to See:
Ash Is Purest White
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Pain & Glory
Portrait of a Lady on Fire