From ‘Parasite’ To ‘Joker’: The 15 Best Films Of 2019
2019 was a banner year for film, that is if you knew where to look. Between the (largely dire) superhero movies, unnecessary remakes and robotic reboots, multiplexes plumbed new depths in the year that was. For every decent blockbuster, there were half a dozen unwatchable monstrosities. It was a different story at the arthouse, however, with the titans of world cinema coming through with gripping, original fare. Streaming services also stepped up their game, delivering a batch of genuine awards contenders.
Given the exceedingly high quality of films released last year, it was hard to come up with a list of my top 50 movies — let alone my top 15. As such, it’s only right that I mention the gems that just missed the cut. The Peanut Butter Falcon, I Lost My Body, The Nightingale, First Love and The Mustang all deserve your full attention. (You can see my full list here). Without further ado, here are my picks for the best flicks of 2019.
With only two features to his credit, Ari Aster has already eked out a reputation as a master of art-house horror. After dredging through the darkness in Hereditary, the director takes a different approach on Midsommar. He reminds us that evil also basks in the rays of the (midnight) sun. It is a testament to Aster’s skill and vision that a familiar horror trope — an ugly American going somewhere they shouldn’t — feels defiantly original. Here’s to more day-time horror.
14. Honey Boy
(Full review here)
There’s nothing vain about this “vanity project.” Shia LaBeouf recounts his tumultuous childhood and battle with addiction in Alma Har’el’s hugely affecting Honey Boy. What could have been insular and self-indulgent in lesser hands is shaped into something raw, moving and universal. Namely an achingly-honest character study about forgiveness and healing.
Netflix outdid itself in 2019 with awards fodder like The Irishman and The Two Popes. However, the Netflix original that lingered in my mind the longest was Mati Diop’s Atlantics. A languid, exquisitely realized ghost story from Senegal, there’s a poetry and tension to this gem that instantly marked Diop as an important new voice in world cinema.
12. Her Smell
(Full review here)
Of all the films about music released in 2018 (think Rocketman and Blinded By The Light), Her Smell is far and away the best. Alex Ross Perry introduces us to a bile-spewing rock star as she careens towards rock bottom. It’s not always easy to watch, but our anti-heroine, played by Elisabeth Moss in a career best performance, is so deeply human that you can’t help but root for a not-entirely-tragic ending.
The most breathtakingly original film of 2019. Brazilian director Alejandro Landes takes us inside a unit of child soldiers in the wilds of South America that soon descends into chaos. Think of it as a haunting hybrid of Lord Of The Flies and Apocalypse Now. While every element sings, pay particular attention to Mica Levi’s score. Monos has the most jarring (and underrated) soundtrack of the year. Watch this on the biggest screen you can find.
10. The Last Black Man In San Fransisco
The Last Black Man In San Fransisco had one of the most misleading previews of 2019. While the theme of gentrification is central to Joe Talbot’s sumptuous film, at its core, it’s a tale of friendship. More specifically, the way the ties that bind can both elevate and strangle you. A visual poem with heartfelt lead performances from Jimmie Fails and Jonathan Majors, this is a mini-masterpiece that deserves to be in the awards mix.
9. Ash Is The Purest White
While Korean cinema is having a huge moment thanks to water-cooler films like Parasite, The Wailing and The Handmaiden, China isn’t far behind. Zhangke Ji, the auteur behind Mountains May Depart, gives us a visually striking, mind-melting insight into life in the People’s Republic of China in Ash Is The Purest White. It bounces from social commentary to road movie and crime thriller (and back again) without skipping a beat. Oh, and then there’s that UFO.
Todd Phillip’s Joker stood out like a puss-filled, sore thumb in the increasingly dull Marvel-scape we live in. Anchored by a revelatory performance from Joaquin Phoenix, Joker proved that superhero movies can be just as vital, explosive and dangerous as anything the arthouse has to offer.
7. Les Misérables
(Full review here)
Ignore the title. Les Misérables has little to do with Victor Hugo’s seminal novel and even less in common with the musical. Instead, Ladj Ly’s award-winning film is a tense police thriller set in the North African immigrant community of France. With central themes of social injustice and police brutality, Les Misérables is a gritty reminder of the powder keg on which most of the Western world sits.
On the surface, Kent Jones’ Diane seems like straightforward misery porn. The titular character, Mary Kay Place in an Oscar worthy performance, trudges through her dreary life, looking after dying relatives and propping up her junkie son. However, there’s a twist. Diane isn’t so much a saint as a sinner doing self-imposed penance. This is a tale of redemption and self acceptance. It’s also a harrowing glimpse into the fate of Baby Boomers. Oh, and the ending is batshit crazy.
5. Pain & Glory
I have been obsessed with the bright and colorful comedies of Pedro Almodovar for as long as I can remember. Which makes the comparatively somber and restrained Pain & Glory something of an outlier in his filmography. A largely autobiographical look at a midlife crisis of a creative, the Spanish master’s latest is — somewhat counterintuitively — his most relatable work. It’s about the damage incurred from loving someone who can’t love you back. At least in the way you need. As such, this is an unexpected exploration of gay mental health.
God bless Gaspar Noé. The great Argentina-born, France-based director is one of cinema’s last trolls. When he’s not making 3D pornos or the grimmest of grim arthouse fare, he’s concocting the world’s first drug-fueled, largely-improvised horror musical. This is viewing experience unlike any other. Just don’t expect to vacate the darkest corners of your brain any time soon.
3. Portrait Of A Lady On Fire
(Full review here)
With Portrait Of A Lady On Fire, Céline Sciamma has crafted that rarest of things — a period film that crackles with fury and relevance. The dynamics of the queer love story at the heart of the film still resonate today, while the devastating ending and references to the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice are positively metal. There is nothing staid about this gem of a film. It unfolds with the intensity of a thriller, albeit one with an eye for beauty that rivals anything you see in a museum.
When will Christian Petzhold get the credit he deserves? The German director is on a once-in-a-career hot streak, reeling off two perfect films (Barbara and Phoenix) before blessing us with Transit. This fever-dream exists in a parallel universe where history has unfolded differently. Our protagonists are refugees on the run from an unnamed foe, who cross paths and fall in love. Transit is mysterious, haunting and deeply romantic.
(Full review here)
No film captured the collective consciousness as wholly as Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite in 2019. The great Korean director’s magnum opus is a masterfully plotted, pitch-black comedy that oozes tension. Parasite is also the film equivalent of a trojan horse. While making us laugh and gasp, Bong Jong Ho floods our minds with profound questions about the human condition and the ever-widening divide between rich and poor. This is a masterpiece.