You can’t fault film history for lacking irony or showmanship. The year and the decade ended exactly as they should have: in an exasperating public debate about the definition of cinema, accidentally kicked off by one of Hollywood’s finest living cineastes, spinning in circles for months, and not ending because anyone was satisfied, only because they got tired. I don’t mean to be too flippant. After Martin Scorsese said Marvel movies were “theme parks” instead of cinema, the ensuing clickbait shitstorm did produce some very thoughtful pieces about the state of Hollywood product. But if you have a Twitter account (and I can’t say I recommend it), you could see the way this back-and-forth lacked even a shared frame of reference, even while the question was a valid one.
Ironically, any cinephile of the old school has ample reasons to be happy with the present. Indeed, you could argue that more of film history is more widely available, and in better quality, than at any other point in time. It just so happens to coincide with a moment when fewer people than ever seem to care.
But tonight is Oscar night, and “caring about movies” is the reason for the party. The idea that the movie business really matters, and that the statues just make it official, is a large part of the Academy’s goal, or its act, or its calculus. The day after the nominations were announced, Variety ran the headline “Oscars Nominate Films Audiences Have Actually Seen”—a somewhat sardonic reprieve from the recent concerns that Academy voters and “the public” don’t understand each other anymore. I’m not sure that the Academy or the public did anything differently in 2019, but they did overlap on some of the liveliest parts of a lively year. Most of the Best Picture nominees were hits, and most of those hits deserve to be talked about. To the extent that everyone can ever agree on anything, I saw nothing more unanimous in the 2010s than praise for Parasite. (Its popularity has put me in heaven, but a hit-tip to the brave dissent, particularly this great piece on the MUBI Notebook that gets into the political weeds). Angst about Netflix seems to be a thing of the past, and while multiplexes can feel sclerotic—or like theme parks—the role of streaming services in film distribution is the place where a still-open chapter of cinema history has some vitality to it.
But Oscar season increasingly inspires another tradition, one that’s an upscale spiritual kin to Scorsese’s comment: the debate of craft versus meaning. And on that count, 2019 was a doozy.
So for starters, a word about my Joker paradox: the film is on my list of honorable mentions even though I wrote 1,000 words of ambivalence about it. It’s a divisive film, and a rare division that puts Lucrecia Martel and vocal IMDb fan culture in the same corner. Purely as a comic book origin story, it may well be the decade’s most engaging piece of tentpole revisionism. But if you want to see it as a film with something real to say about mental illness and inequality in America, or a film that elevates the material to the subversive sophistication of Taxi Driver—well, then there’s plenty to call bullshit on. So for all its antisocial gestures and anarchist overtones, the praise it deserves is this: good clean fun. But it’s divided me against myself. Disagreeing about Joker was more enjoyable, and probably more productive, than all the 2019 films I’ve forgotten.
1917, I’m less sure about. The Best Picture race was intriguingly open until Sam Mendes’s long-take extravaganza arrived, and it’s now a frontrunner over four or five far more interesting and substantive films. The timing helped. If 1917 had been released a few months earlier, the spell of its technical virtuosity may have worn off, revealing a rather ordinary and safe war movie underneath. The word “immersive” comes up a lot, but if the film does indeed “make you feel that you are there”, it’s worth asking where “there” is. Is it the trenches, or a series of precisely orchestrated cinematic setpieces? And if it’s so relentlessly, insistently spectacular, does that help immerse you, or just make you aware of all the strings? Its one-take continuity has neither the in-the-shit verisimilitude of Saving Private Ryan‘s opening act nor the baroque allegorical tension of Apocalypse Now. Instead, Olympian technocracy takes precedence, without even enough self-reflection to recognize how that could be the theme of the era. At least half of it might as well be “World War I Mountain” at Universal Studios, and that’s the crowing irony of 2019: after all that public frenzy, the Academy might land on a movie that’s essentially a theme park ride. Sometimes, even prestige should be understood accordingly.
Without further ado, my top 10 of 2019.
Transit is conceptually risky, daft, and irresistible: the script for a World War II thriller inexplicably pasted on top of our own not-too-distant present. The result is a strange tension, allowing old-fashioned narrative tropes, contemporary politics, incipient fascism, and pure incongruity to nag away at you. When two people walk through the background of a shot in sunny Marseille, you have to wonder: are they paid extras in a movie about the coming Terror? Or just passing by?
9. High Life (Claire Denis, France/Germany)
8. Atlantics (Mati Diop, Senegal/France)
To Western eyes, the genre elements of Mati Diop’s beautiful Cannes hit seem to belong to the 19th century: forced marriages, a true love lost at sea, and ghosts that return for closure. Cinematically, the film belongs to the 21st, coming across like supernatural neorealism and claiming all these traditions in the name of something distinctly imaginative and politically savvy.
7. Pain and Glory (Pedro Almodovar, Spain)
Pedro’s second old-soul movie in a row is a winding tale of art and life getting so tangled together that you can’t tell which is imitating which. You’ll be enchanted if you try. A film director, the real people who inspired him, the actors who reinterpret—these are familiar Almodovar ingredients. But time has been getting heavier in his films, and here it gives resonance to the realization that, for any artist who pulls from their life, the final creation still can’t belong to you alone. Which is why it’s Antonio’s movie as much as his.
6. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino, US)
5. Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Celine Sciamma, France) & 4. Little Women (Greta Gerwig, US)
Portrait begins with a fiercely self-possessed woman instructing students on how to draw her, and Little Women begins with a publisher insisting that any young heroine needs to be married or dead by the end of the story. In other words, we have two costume dramas that, while drawing what they like from older visual and narrative traditions, tackle a still-modern subtext: how do you do justice to women’s experiences in fiction, art, and by extension the movie business itself? Portrait is a heady film of tremendous painterly control, and a lesbian love story in which erotic contact arises from kinship and inquiry. In Little Women, Gerwig’s deceptively rigorous skill with anecdotal detail expands the loveliness of Lady Bird to a wider scope. It keeps flowing, and the decision to rope in the spirit of the author for a meta-bookend both fulfills and plays a merry goof on the formula. Individually, either film would be a treasure. Together, they might be the double bill of the year.
3. Uncut Gems (Ben & Joshua Safdie, US)
Neon New York noir from the Safdie brothers, a thematic successor to The Maltese Falcon with the bitter aftertaste of something closer to the gutter, like Night and the City or Force of Evil. So there’s a rich, cynical history to compare it to, but the triumph is that it doesn’t exactly move like you’ve seen and heard it all before. The Safdies’ view of NYC as one giant multi-ethnic hustle has its own pungency, and they improve on Good Time by allowing comedy and feeling a chance to breathe. I don’t know if Adam Sandler was robbed, but if his job was to hide insecurity behind a smirk, hang on for dear life, and collapse under the weight of delusions, his particular star presence somehow perfectly fits the noir archetype of a cocky sap who thinks he can beat the house.
2. The Irishman (Martin Scorsese, US)
Dig your own grave and lie in it, morally if not literally. You can call it now: Martin Scorsese has made at least one truly great film in every decade since the 1970s.
1. Parasite (Bong Joon-ho, South Korea)
If Bong Joon-ho movies seem to exist between genres, it’s because he pairs the absurdity of comedy with action where laughter is an unlikely fit. Like the Coens, he tells stories that could go in any direction—and more importantly, creates worlds where those directions feel plausible. So the first time I saw Parasite, I felt the spasmodic sense of unpredictability; the second time, the clockmaker’s precision. He’s too much of a showman to look down on any genre he’s mixing in the lab, and if you’re new to his Korean films, you have Mother, The Host, and Memories of Murder awaiting you. As for Parasite, everything you’ve heard about not reading plot summaries is true. To end the year and the decade, its soulful mixture of empathy and dismay, of fiendishness and sorrow, is haunting.
The Honor Roll: 15 more films that made movie-going worthwhile this year:
Ad Astra (James Gray, US)
American Factory (Steven Bognar & Julia Reichert, US)
Apollo 11 (Todd Douglas Miller, US)
Ash is Purest White (Jia Zhangke, China)
Bacurau (Kleber Mendonça Filho & Juliano Dornelles, Brazil)
Birds of Passage (Ciro Guerra & Cristina Gallego, Colombia)
High Flying Bird (Steven Soderbergh, US)
Honeyland (Tamara Kotevska & Ljubomir Stefanov, Macedonia)
Joker (Todd Philips, US)
The Kingmaker (Lauren Greenfield, US/Denmark)
Knives Out (Rian Johnson, US)
Marriage Story (Noah Baumbach, US)
The Souvenir (Joanna Hogg, UK)
Synonyms (Nadav Lapid, Israel/France)
Us (Jordan Peele, US)