My Favorite Films of 2019 (16-25)
Leading up to the 2020 Academy Awards, I look back on 2019, which has widely been regarded as one of the best years in recent movie history.
I could have easily picked a top 50 for this year (and I did). I don’t think there were any really bad years of film, since as long as you dig deep enough into any given year, you could easily come up with a top ten, twenty or even 50 if you really cared to. Anyways, I have been richly rewarded for my efforts, and seeing the movies that my list consists of makes me excited for the future of cinema and the artists that made this year great.
Mati Diop has a considerable pedigree that she is associated with, as the niece of Djibril Diop Mambety, the director of the world classic Touki Bouki, and also appearing in Claire Denis’ 35 Shots of Rum. So maybe it’s not surprising that Atlantics, her first full-length feature, is an astonishing work of great originality. Set in Senegal, a group of construction workers on a big, modern office building have not been paid for months, so they decide to try their fortune overseas. Soulemain leaves behind Ada, who is betrothed to another man but loves Soulemain. The men are lost at sea, and soon, a mysterious illness starts to strike down people as, it turns out, the souls of the dead men are inhabiting the bodies of the people they left behind. It’s just as scathing an indictment of capitalism and colonialism as many “serious” movies, but it’s also deeply weird and moving in a fascinating way. Mati Diop has a great visual sense, especially with how she conveys the more fantastic elements of her story in simple ways. Yet she also can direct her actors with great care and draw wonderfully subtle performances from them.
24. High Life
If you had told me that Claire Denis would make a prison movie in space with Robert Pattinson playing a convict and Juliette Binoche playing a mad scientist, I would have said, so what’s new? Less flippantly, Denis is one of the few directors who always surprises me with every single film she makes, no question. She takes genre tropes or common storytelling mechanisms and finds new way to express them or even question them in the filmmaking themselves. I never thought a movie in space would be so wet and dirty, with all kinds of bodily fluids coming out of people. It’s as if she’s making a science fiction Dogme film, yet somehow less precious and also much more soulful and questioning about the relationship between people and how they are far more than simply their usefulness to others.
23. The Irishman
I hope Martin Scorsese makes many more films in his career, but if it had to end, The Irishman is a great valedictory film as any. Never has the Mafia looked less cool, as so much of this movie is just DeNiro’s Frank doing dirty work so that he can slowly work his way up the ranks. Yet all the “house painting” he does comes at a great cost to his soul, not to mention his relationship with his family (Anna Paquin’s silently judgmental daughter speaks volumes with just ambiguous, unsmiling stares.) Scorsese is clearly working at a high level, and even if the movie is long and sprawling and doesn’t necessarily tell its story in the most digestible way, it still effectively conveys the years of moral turpitude Frank must endure in old age and solitude.
22. Honey Boy
I surely must not have been alone at scoffing at the idea of Shia LaBeouf making a film based on his life in which he plays his own father. Yet rather than self-serving hagiography or pity porn, it’s a searingly honest examination of his life (lightly fictionalized) with a self-awareness and empathy than one would not have expected from his public persona. I don’t doubt that LaBeouf was talented enough to write the script for this film, but I think Alma Ha’rel’s studied compositions and dynamic imagery are crucial for this story unfolding as compellingly as it does. Just look at the first scene when Lucas Hedges (playing the older LaBeouf stand-in) is attached to a rig and then suddenly pulled back in what is clearly a Transformers substitute. Or how much is going on in the scenes between LaBeouf and his younger stand-in (the fantastic Noah Jupe). Those scenes remain dynamic and interesting without being showy. Ha’rel is clearly the important collaborator LaBeouf needed.
21. Dolemite Is My Name
For a comedian as raunchy and raucous as Rudy Ray Moore presented himself to be, this movie is oddly wholesome and fun. Of course there is plenty of cursing and some nudity, but Moore is presented as an artist who wants to create the best work possible and is also able to inspire others to do better (sometimes even work for free, like his film student crew). Eddie Murphy plays both subtle and performing Moore so well that it is a huge shame that he wasn’t even considered for an Oscar (or that Netflix focused so much on The Irishman and Marriage Story).
20. Beach Bum
Gen X filmmaker Harmony Korine is a divisive figure for his portrayals of marginalized people (mostly White) and the seeming amorality of his work. However, Beach Bum may be his most accessible work to date since there are moments when it seems that he actually wants to engage the audience. It has a charming performance by Matthew McConaughey in full Dude mode. It has even has entertaining scenes like the funniest shark attack I have ever seen in any movie, mainstream or not. The mood of this movie is so easygoing that it might almost distract you from what a hellish, empty existence McConaughey’s character is actually living, but Korine manages to find beauty and hope while not completely ignoring the despair.
19. Uncut Gems
Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) has got to be the most frustrating character in history. Anyone familiar with an addict probably knows this (gambling in Howard’s case) and so much of this is fraught with tension. We shouldn’t care about a clear scumbum and addict like Howard, but Sandler turns in a dynamite performance as a man of intense charisma who gets high off his own luck. One could see the inevitable conclusion that Howard must come to, but we’re rooting for him along the way, even as we’re yelling at the screen.
Monos is about child soldiers in Colombia holding an American doctor (Julianne Nicholson) hostage. They live an almost charmed life. They are left to their own devices and only occasionally have to report to a commander when they have a mission to carry out. It is Lord of the Flies mixed with Heart of Darkness, and it is beautifully directed and shot and even scored by the great Mica Levi. It could have maybe made my top ten, if I didn’t feel that it was a little hollow at the center. The problem of both of the narratives I mentioned is that there is a sense of cultural superiority and condescension, and the movie felt oddly exploitative of the children, even though at least a few of them were trained actors (Moises Arias). Still, the technical achievements make this movie a thrill to watch.
17. Once Upon a Time...In Hollywood
This is another seemingly valedictory film from an established director. Once Upon a Time is so full of nostalgia that it permeates every frame. Its languid pace is really more appreciated on a rewatch since the real pleasure of the film is hanging out with Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt’s characters and Margot Robbie’s, to a lesser extent. It also intelligently grapples with the travails of middle age and the fear of irrelevance that few films accomplish this well and this subtly, much less on as grand a scale as this. I didn’t love this movie the first time I watched it, but I think I will grow to appreciate more and more on subsequent rewatches.
A documentary about Macedonian beekeepers may seem like a parody of an alienating choice made by an elitist, but anyone who’s seen Honeyland knows how far this is from the truth. The subject of Honeyland, Haditze Muratova, is a garrulous, warm woman who lives a hard life tending her bees, climbing high rocky paths daily to make her living. The crew for this film filmed her for three years, in which she befriends then is alienated from the Sam family, who quickly encroach on her livelihood. Yet the Sam family suffers their own share of hardships as well. The creators of Honeyland may have taken liberties in crafting their narrative, as all documentarians do to the some extent, but it is so beautifully shot that one can hardly breathe when beholding the beautiful sunsets, the stark compositions inside the inky blackness of Haditze’s house, and the harsh, chaotic life of the Sam family. No wonder this was nominated for both Best Documentary and Best International Feature at the Academy Awards.