NOW critics pick their top 10 films in a year that saw movies growing more political than ever
Art has always been political, but this year it felt like the movies were growing more political than ever – and not just because the moment demands it. To steal a recurring motif from The Good Place, the films that moved me in 2019, that felt most urgent, or most necessary, were concerned with who we are and what we owe to each other. To watch them was to feel a little less alone in this miserable world.
You’ve already seen it on my best of the decade list, so it shouldn’t be a surprise to see this brilliant upstairs-downstairs farce named as the year’s top film. Bong’s tale of a family of scammers who worm their way into the lives and household of their wealthy counterparts is an ingeniously twisty, utterly unpredictable and perfectly sui generis work that slowly cracks open to reveal the darkness seething at its core. All of Bong’s movies are commentaries on the moment – yes, even Snowpiercer – but Parasite is the one that hits the hardest: the world is slipping into chaos, something awful is bubbling up from below, rooted in class and status and deference, and it will not be denied. It’s up to us to keep the lights on.
Wang’s second feature is a thoughtful, moving meditation on the burden of family expectations, with a revelatory Awkwafina as a struggling Brooklyn artist who flies back to Changchun to join her family for a cousin’s wedding – which has been hastily organized to let everyone spend some time with grandmother Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhou), who’s been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer but not informed of her condition. Wang, who based the story on her own relationship with her grandmother, gives every character some measure of depth and history, and in doing so she gets at something else: the way all children are powerless in the face of their parents’ decisions, and how that affects us as adults.
Baumbach’s second feature for Netflix (after The Meyerowitz Stories: New And Selected) is a simple, merciless drama about a dissolving couple (Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson) whose attempt at an amicable separation becomes quietly, horrifically disastrous. Driver and Johansson are as good as they’ve ever been, and Baumbach makes it clear that he understands all his characters’ vulnerabilities and weaknesses but doesn’t necessarily forgive them their choices. And yes, Netflix is the place throwing money at Baumbach so that’s where his movie will live, but it’s a shame most people will see it there. Like all great cinema, it needs to be experienced in the dark with a crowd, everyone responding to this moment or that observation differently.
It took more than a decade for Joanna Hogg to get a movie released theatrically in Canada, but that just made her brilliant fourth feature feel like even more of an event. Set in the 80s, it’s a small, spare and deeply personal study of a young filmmaker (Honor Swinton Byrne) who falls into a self-destructive affair with a slightly older bureaucrat (Tom Burke) and nearly loses herself in the process. It’s a sort of memoir, but gradually Hogg makes it clear that The Souvenir is much more than that – it’s a measured drama about the formation of her own artistic consciousness that refuses to mythologize any of the messy, complicated elements. I’m not entirely sure there’s ever been a movie like it.
For most of this decade, it felt as though Malick had said everything he needed to say with 2011’s The Tree Of Life certainly, none of the films that followed offered the same level of ecstatic transcendence. But then, in the fall of 2019, he delivered this majestic consideration of faith and compassion, set during the Second World War but very much tied to the here and now. August Diehl plays Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian farmer who refused to fight in Hitler’s army his faith, he said, would not let him do it. His resistance cost him everything, and Malick puts us right next to his hero as it happens. It’s a martyrdom story. And a moral lesson.
Look, I know Donald Trump is still president and impeachment won’t get rid of him and he’ll never, ever be held to account for the dishonour and shame he’s brought upon the United States of America. But Lears’s exhilarating ride-along documentary introduces us to the decent, intelligent, thoroughly committed women who hope to start repairing the fractured nation in spite of the monster-in-chief. One of them is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose megawatt charisma drives the movie to its electrifying climax. I cheered. You will too.
Yep, Brad Pitt’s a pleasure to watch in Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood, but his greatest performance of the year was as an astronaut traversing the solar system to find his father and (not incidentally) save all life on Earth. An interplanetary riff on Apocalypse Now from director/co-writer Gray, this gorgeous, sombre sci-fi drama rivals Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity for speculative realism and near-constant peril, but Pitt’s understated work makes the emotional beats land so powerfully. He turns a massive space epic into the tiny, vital story of a son travelling out into the infinite depths, searching for answers to questions he doesn’t even know he’s been asking.
I didn’t know the world needed a stark, modernist riff on Douglas Trumbull’s Silent Running and Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise, but it seems we did, and it’s enthralling. Kagerman and Lilja’s speculative drama about a disabled space liner on an endless voyage into the unknown mirrors the ways we process the slow, constant drip of awful news – another crisis, another disaster, another extinction – while going on with our daily lives we’re all on the Aniara, hoping someone will find a way to turn this thing around, disappearing into virtual realities (or new relationships) as a distraction. But we’re always aware of our collective trajectory.
In the name of keeping his family intact and digging himself out of a hole – though not necessarily in that order – a desperate man runs around New York City making one terrible decision after another. The Safdies already made a version of this movie two years ago, as Good Time, but with Uncut Gems they level up both their queasy, anxious style and their casting: where you kind of expect a little edge from a guy like Robert Pattinson, it’s genuinely shocking to see Adam Sandler scurrying around Manhattan’s diamond district in a state of sweaty, adrenalized panic. It’s as if the Safdies found a new gear for him, and jammed the throttle. (Also, that Kevin Garnett guy is pretty damn good.)
Boyle’s melancholy fantasy about a Suffolk singer/songwriter (Himesh Patel) who wakes up in a world where The Beatles never happened was easily the year’s most divisive film: you either loved it or you hated it. I loved it, because I saw the larger questions Boyle pulls out of Richard Curtis’s script: what it would be like to hear those songs for the first time? What would it take to re-create them? What’s it like to experience impostor syndrome knowing you really are an impostor? And on another level entirely, it’s about what we’d be willing to trade for one of the greatest song catalogues in history. Turns out that one’s a no-brainer.
Honourable mentions to Sydney Pollack and Alan Elliott’s miraculous Amazing Grace, Todd Douglas Miller’s stirring Apollo 11, Mati Diop’s haunted/haunting Atlantics, Marielle Heller’s restorative A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood, Jazmin Mozaffari’s spiky Firecrackers, Adrianna Maggs’s heartbreaking Goalie, Claire Denis’s alienated High Life, Taika Waititi’s electrifying Jojo Rabbit, Rian Johnson’s giddy Knives Out, Robert Eggers’s delirious The Lighthouse, Patricia Rozema’s nervy Mouthpiece, Katherine Jerkovic’s watchful Roads In February, Lynn Shelton’s unexpected Sword Of Trust, Michael Apted’s essential 63 Up (opening in Toronto December 20) – and, though it won’t open until February, Céline Sciamma’s sumptuous Portrait Of A Lady On Fire.
The Safdie brothers have figured out how to snort Martin Scorsese’s, John Cassavetes’s, Abel Ferrera’s and Robert Altman’s influences like cocaine. And this nerve-wracking thriller about a jeweller betting against his own life is the subsequent nosebleed-high.
In stark contrast to the high-roller-turned-outcast arcs from Goodfellas and Casino, Scorsese’s latest mob epic reconfigures the organized crime narrative to give us a view of recent American history as endless days of clock-punching toward a soulless purgatory.
In Diop’s tremendous feature debut, a melancholic ghost story about haunted Senegelese women, a howl comes from the Ocean. It’s the sound of men who didn’t make it on their migration to Europe. As refugees, they’re not only caught in the liminal space between continents, but also the living and the dead.
The classic rags-to-riches crime story gains new meaning in this beautiful and tragic Colombian fable about the clash between Indigenous communities and neo-colonial capitalism.
This rapturous 18th-century love story is about two women who are oppressed by a number of forces – but the male gaze is not one of them. French filmmaker Sciamma luxuriates in beauty while finding agency in looking and being looked at.
I wasn’t all in for Gerwig’s Lady Bird, but she had me swooning with her opulent and lively follow-up. Compared to previous movie versions, Gerwig’s Little Women feels like a window has been opened and the musty air let out. She dares to fuck with Louisa May Alcott’s Victorian-era novel, but with just the right sensibilities: staying true to Alcott and to herself as well.
Come for Johnson’s ingeniously booby-trapped game of Clue, stay for Daniel Craig’s delicious Southern drawl as a private investigator who rides an indiscernible line between blowhard and brilliant.
The Cannes-winning South Korean filmmaker directs the shit out of this hilarious dog-eat-dog thriller, taking a simple idea and filling it with the most absurd twists.
Elisabeth Moss gives a force-of-nature performance as a musician with addictions who plummets to rock bottom, and then digs in further in Ross Perry’s anxiety-inducing and surprisingly uplifting drama.
Two filmmakers who come from privileged and artistic circles made movies about failed relationships this year. Noah Baumbach’s wordy Marriage Story was an open emotional wound. Far more delicate and self-aware is The Souvenir, in which the British director examines her film school years and a bad romance with an addict.
Ciudad Lunar/Blond Indian/Emanuel Rojas
Looking at my favourite films of 2019, the ones that resonated most were full of confrontational style and focused on characters facing choices that highlight tension between the idea of free will and structural forces, individualism and community. Big themes were migration, trolling and culture wars, nationalistic shame and a counterculture in crisis.
Crime dramas that tell stories about shadow economies to critique capitalism aren’t new, but Guerra and Gallego ingeniously subvert the genre to show the gradual decline of a culture and society. In 60s and 70s Colombia, a matriarchal Wayuu community is divided by the arrival of the marijuana trade, setting off a chain of events that sends one family on parallel paths toward personal and spiritual reckoning. Beautifully paced and acted, Birds Of Passage collapses multiple worlds into an insightful and profound view of the cost of economic growth.
This year, a lot of films gave us characters caught between confronting or running away from injustice. Israeli director Lapid’s wildly unpredictable Synonyms put an inspired and personal spin on this theme. Tom Mercier plays an ex-IDF solider attempting to flee the nationalistic culture he’s ashamed of and assimilate into French society. Lapid both satirizes and pays homage to French cinema classics in sequences full of intense physicality and uncomfortable silence. At the end, it’s a damning portrait of collective paralysis.
Winnipeg director Rankin ruthlessly skewers Canadian national identity and the gendered, classist and colonial tenets it’s based on. Set in 1899 and based on the diaries of Prime Minister Mackenzie King, it’s another movie about nationalism and shame that uses an absorbing and confrontational style – in this case, the trappings of vintage Hollywood melodramas – to pose hard questions about nationalistic mythmaking and the nature of power.
Diop’s gorgeous feature debut is a modern-day dystopian gothic romance full of deceptively simple, unforgettable imagery. Mama Sané plays a young Senegalese woman whose lover drowns at sea while attempting to migrate to Spain, and her ensuing emotional disarray manifests in series of strange happenings. A movie about what happens to those left behind in the global humanitarian crisis, Atlantics shrewdly subverts its seemingly realist aesthetic to draw viewers deeper into the story. The sinking sun, the waves, a glistening office tower – everything onscreen seems to vibrate with inner life.
Just how liberal is society today? Not very, at least compared with the dozen odd, bewigged 18th-century exiled aristocrats who cruise, hump, whip and piss their way through Albert Serra’s Liberté. It’s a plotless two-hour- and-12 minute peep-show rumination on sexual democracy, desensitization, trolling and counterculture. The painterly nocturnal visuals make it impossible to avert your eyes, but why would you want to?
The Spanish director’s semi-autobiographical meditation on aging and artistic relevance has a noticeably measured tone compared with his best-known work, but still delivers on the melodramatic peaks, acerbic dialogue and nouveau-bougie production design we’ve come to love. Through a story-within-a-story structure, Almodóvar explores how religious repression of queer desire impacts artistic and personal choices, building to sensuous and quietly devastating climatic scenes.
Nuts! director Penny Lane returns with another wild trip through America’s culture wars. This time the documentarian profiles the Satanic Temple, a secularism-worshipping religious organization that uses the First Amendment to fight attempts at erecting Christian theocratic monuments on public property. It’s a hilarious, entertaining and cathartic film that goes deep into the politicized history of Satanism and the desire to belong to a movement – activist and religious. The theatrical ritual scenes are mind-blowing.
This jaw-dropping account of China’s birth control policy deservedly won the Grand Jury Prize for documentary at Sundance. Directors Wang and Zhang impressively distill the major documentary genres of the past decade (memoir, investigative thriller, social history) into a film that lands like a gut punch. They capture the enormity of collective trauma in a variety of visual and emotional ways while posing difficult questions about nationalism and personal accountability versus structural conditions.
Wolf’s documentary about radical activist-turned-media critic-turned-wealthy recluse Marion Stokes brilliantly shows the value of archives and the dangers of forgetting. For 30 years, Stokes taped television news around the clock, creating an invaluable archive of the ways mainstream media not only covered, but shaped and instigated news. It’s also a fascinating film that becomes an expression of Stokes’s ideas on truth and media, not just an explanation of them.
A Romeo And Juliet-style story about two Kenyan women from rival political families who fall in love, Rafiki is a nuanced, vivid and affecting film. Kahiu, who is having a breakout moment, goes deep into her subject matter, giving us a portrait of what it means to be repressed within a surveillance society – and what it means if you choose to stay or to leave. The story unfolds through shifting colours as much as dialogue, and the climatic scene is a stunner.
Other great films, in no particular order: The Irishman (Martin Scorsese), Little Women (Greta Gerwig), A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood (Marielle Heller), Amazing Grace (Sydney Pollack and Alan Elliott), Varda By Agnès (Agnès Varda), Us (Jordan Peele), The Image Book (Jean-Luc Godard), Portrait Of A Lady On Fire (Céline Sciamma), Midnight Family (Luke Lorentzen), Edge Of The Knife (Helen Haig-Brown and Gwaai Edenshaw), High Flying Bird (Steven Soderbergh), Uncut Gems (Josh and Benny Safdie), Les Misérables (Ladj Ly), In Fabric (Peter Strickland), An Elephant Sitting Still (Hu Bo), Matthias & Maxime (Xavier Dolan), 3 Faces (Jafar Panahi), Ad Astra (James Gray), Ash Is Purest White (Jia Zhangke), The Dead Don’t Die (Jim Jarmusch), XY Chelsea (Tim Travers Hawkins), The Disappearance Of My Mother (Beniamino Barrese) and Push (Fredrik Gertten).
Two films coming out next year that are already in contention for the year’s best: Vitalina Varela (Pedro Costa) and Martin Eden (Pietro Marcello).
A movie from 2018 that had a belated release in Toronto: A Bread Factory (Patrick Wang).