Reality left a lot to be desired in 2019, with the turbulence of our time begging for some kind of cinematic reckoning. Many of the most vital and sobering images of the year were replayed by news outlets or posted on social media: footage of mass shootings senselessly repeated, tyrants and politicians speechifying to no end, Notre Dame going up in flames, Sri Lanka and Syria besieged by violence. Then, of course, there were sporadic stories of inspiration, heroes to look up to outside of fiction, like Megan Rapinoe and Greta Thunberg.
Some of 2019's most overpowering films dealt head-on with these calamities, whether they ripped into class stratification or grappled with a planet facing the threat of climate change. Others portrayed the age-old, timeless dramas (and joys) of being alive on this planet: loneliness, aging, faith, art, sex, drugs, family, grief. And if it sometimes feels like cinema in general (and in America specifically) could confront the shame of our reality more courageously, it's also true that the movies of 2019 offered vibrant, thrilling, pulsating commentary on what it means to be alive right now.
Below are my ten favorite films of 2019, followed by the next ten, and finally the remaining thirty or so. I saw fewer films last year than in many years past (when I tried to stay up to date on nearly every new release) and unfortunately missed several acclaimed movies that played only fleetingly in the United States (Asako I & II, La Flor, et al). A final note about release dates: I consider a film to be a 2019 release if it receives at least limited American distribution at some point during the year (so film festival premieres are not eligible).
The world may not need another arbitrary list of the greatest movies of 2019, but regardless:
1. Pain and Glory
(Pedro Almodóvar, Spain) How does a filmmaker confront the fact that they have more time behind them than ahead of them? The Irishman may pose this question more operatically, but Pain and Glory provides a bittersweet rejoinder. Pedro Almodóvar's pseudo-autobiography pulses with the beauty and majesty of art, the pain of being a physical specimen, the sadness of lingering regrets and memories; the title implies all of this but hardly prepares you for the warmth and humanity of it all.
Antonio Banderas, in the best performance he's ever given, is celebrated film director Salvador Mallo, who late in life is practically confined to his Madrid apartment, hobbled by an unending list of ailments (which are revealed to the audience via a ravishing animated sequence). The art of filmmaking is physically and emotionally taxing, Salvador reminds us and a parade of assistants and would-be collaborators, leaving him to float through the amniotic fluid of memory, flashing back to his blissful childhood, to his first moment of sexual desire, to lost loves and what might have been.
More than just a wistful trip down memory lane, Pain and Glory is a wondrous look at how cinema evokes memory, desire, identity. Other art forms commingle: the theatrical performances of an actor with whom Salvador has long feuded (Asier Etxeandia), the candid essay that Salvador types out and then hides away on his computer, the paintings that populate his vibrant apartment and one that is sent to him late in the film, a relic from his past that teems with longing. Almodóvar implicitly asks what separates film from other art forms while providing a visceral answer that crackles with life.
On the surface this seems like well-behaved Almodóvar, free of the sacrilege of Dark Habits (1983) and the kinks of Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1989). In reality, though, it's his most emotionally naked work, both guarded and unrestrained, confronting mortality but finding something transcendent beyond it (art, love, lust, inner peace). It may not be the story of Almodóvar per se, but the ending reveals that this inexhaustible director has been writing his life story through moving images his whole career; Pain and Glory may not be the coda, but it is a moving testament and Almodóvar's greatest work.
2. Ash is Purest White
(Jia Zhangke, China/France/Japan) A movie is always about more than just its plot, a rule of thumb emphatically proven by Ash is Purest White. Petty gangster Bin (Liao Fan) and his girlfriend Qiao (Zhao Tao) cling to their mid-level power in Datong, an old mining town that has been left behind by China's changing economy. When some goons from a rival motorcycle gang attack Bin, Qiao shoots them down and then takes the rap for illegally owning Bin's gun, sending her to prison for five years. After she's released, their roles are reversed: she finds a way to con herself into wealth and power, ultimately occupying Bin's former role in Datong's criminal ecosystem, while he finds himself confined to a wheelchair after a stroke, bitter and spiteful at an unfair world.
This sounds like an epic crime story with a political edge, which is true in part but hardly expresses the complexity and strangeness of the experience. As in many Jia films, there's time for numerous diversions, from a bizarre nightclub performance of the Village People's "Y.M.C.A." to an unexpected UFO sighting to a barge trip down a river valley that will disappear in a few years' time thanks to global warming. Jia's usual interests—gender, technology, class, violence (and class violence)—converge, forming a panoptic view of society's rapid transformations in the 21st century. The writer-director's sympathy for his female protagonist (and his real-world wife) is obvious, but a feminist impulse is far from Ash is Purest White's only gambit; it's an ambitious oddity that compels and baffles in equal measure.
3. Uncut Gems
(Josh and Benny Safdie, USA) Just like Heaven Knows What is one of the few films I've seen to fully convey the euphoria of a drug high and the brutality of its withdrawal, Uncut Gems nails the cruel illogic of the gambling impulse: no win is ever good enough, and a stack of cash in the hand is just reason for another capricious bet. This isn't just the way that gambling operates, though; the Safdie brothers' breathless film reminds us that American capitalism works the same way, with accumulation the only endpoint, wealth and power the only idols worth praying for.
The first thing you notice is the maximalist aesthetic: the nonstop rush of chaos and battling plotlines, the roving camerawork by Darius Khondji, the booming score by Daniel Lopatin (aka Oneohtrix Point Never), visual acrobatics that take us inside an iridescent gem and Adam Sandler's rectum. But there's a moving cynicism beneath it all, a sympathy for the luckless dreamers who don't realize the whole game is rigged against them. Uncut Gems' depiction of black and Jewish characters could be seen as questionable—the Safdies certainly refuse to soften the edges of these flawed, headstrong characters—until you realize that cultural identity is one of the main themes of the movie, an exploration of how and why we belong to the tribes that (partially) define us. After the rush of Uncut Gems' aesthetic experience wears off, you're surprised to find that the lingering thrill of its questions and ideas is equally exhilarating.
4. High Life
(Claire Denis, France/UK/Germany/Poland) Claire Denis has shown us repeatedly that she couldn't care less about placating an audience, which allows her films to be absurd and uncompromising often at the same time. Case in point: a scene in High Life in which Juliette Binoche's character, Dr. Dibs, pleasures herself in a masturbation chamber, seen in slow-motion, hair-flying ecstasy, a vision that conjures the rising of the Gorgons. High Life is not afraid to be messy, ridiculous, unsparing, and nihilistic, but when most space-set movies are either Hollywood blockbusters or stories of human pluck and perseverance, that's a refreshing counterbalance.
The gang of criminals sent to the furthest reaches of space to find alternative forms of energy—among them Monte (Robert Pattinson), Tcherny (André Benjamin, the film's weakest character), Boyse (Mia Goth), and others—have every reason to give up on humanity but somehow find a reason to keep going. Maybe it's only kinetic energy that compels them to survive. Is there reason for their dwindling faith in the existence of the species? Even on the blockish spaceship that confines them, like a relic of Soviet sci-fi, the cruelties and delusions of human beings persist: sex, violence, control, fear. But, in typically Denisan, provocative manner, intimations of incest and suicide may provide the semblance of a happy ending (fleetingly at least). High Life is wild, ambitious, existential sci-fi, and one of many unsettling standouts in Denis' abrasive filmography.
5. Marriage Story
(Noah Baumbach, UK/USA) A glimpse of a Time magazine article entitled "Scenes from a Marriage" is far from a coincidence: like Ingmar Bergman's aching drama, Marriage Story is a subtly complex film whose humanism is its most cinematic aspect. Neither Bergman nor Baumbach are seen as the most visual or stylistic filmmakers, but the theatrical influences on Scenes from a Marriage and Marriage Story lend them tremendous intimacy and an admirable proclivity for letting scenes play out at length. This is best demonstrated early in Baumbach's film when Megan (Scarlett Johansson) soliloquizes to her divorce lawyer (Laura Dern) about the frustrations that have derailed her seemingly happy marriage, a masterful stretch of acting, writing, and directing that conveys how apparently minor obstacles and miscommunications can derail one's joy.
Not all of Marriage Story is so raw and convincing; a bittersweet ending comes off as overly pat. Before that, however, we get one of the most shattering scenes of the year, in which Charlie (Adam Driver) reads a note from his ex-wife (shared with the audience as an opening voiceover) about why she still loves him despite their estrangement. Scenes as affecting and sincere as this are rare in movies, and there are several others nearly as powerful courtesy of some astonishing, nuanced performances and Baumbach's careful, sympathetic guidance.
(Gaspar Noé, France/Belgium) Gaspar Noé's best movie doesn't skimp on the shock value necessarily, but it does at least acknowledge that there are glimmers of beauty and joy that accompany being alive, mainly in the form of art. This is dazzlingly displayed by several dance sequences that pop off the screen early on, including one jaw-dropping number about forty-five minutes in that accompany the "opening" credits. But soon, sure enough, the horror arrives: someone has spiked the sangria with a powerful hallucinogen that brings out everyone's worst fears and nightmares, leading to an onslaught of misery and cruelty in the second half of the movie (identifiably Gaspar Noé territory).
To paraphrase Jean-Paul Sartre, the hell in Climax is built by other people: specifically the whims and delusions of sex- and power-obsessed people who will stop at nothing to satiate their desires. As such, lust and drugs are seen as powerful if transitory ways to escape reality, but there's another edge to this sword: as the ugly latter half of the film shows us, narcotics and sexual pleasure can also reveal the worst of people, sending reality crashing back down. Not a pleasant viewing experience, and the seemingly neverending, single-take, dizzying "climax," in which the dancers experience utter brutality in dingy hallways of neon red and green, does seem stridently self-indulgent. But there's a meaning to the abjection and a method to the madness, which can't be said about all (or many) of Noé's movies. Climax asks if there's any way to escape the meaninglessness of life, and the fact that it allows for even fleeting hope is a sign of complexity from this nihilist, ultra-stylish director.
(Bong Joon Ho, South Korea) Class warfare takes on a wickedly entertaining edge in Parasite, Bong Joon Ho's genre-shifting stunner. The writer-director is no stranger to melding social commentary with visceral thrills, as evidenced by The Host (2006) and Snowpiercer (2013). But Parasite proves even wilder and more unpredictable than those films, and its take on class disparity carries an unexpected emotional sobriety.
With swift precision, Bong introduces us to the lower-class Kim family, who live in a small basement apartment and struggle to make ends meet. They stumble into a scheme to pose as "the help" for a wealthy family living on the outskirts of the city, infiltrating their upper-class milieu as tutors, a chauffeur, and a housekeeper. But that's only the beginning of this ornate and intricately structured plot, which plays like Dickens mixed with Pasolini's Teorema.
The parasites of the title could most obviously be read as the disenfranchised Kims, who believe simply being in proximity to wealth and stature will rub off on them; but Bong carefully stresses that the glamorous Park family is equally parasitic, unable to perform basic tasks without the help of their hired underlings. The class commentary doesn't get much deeper than that, but Parasite isn't meant to be a Marxist tract; it's a jaw-dropping, empathetic look at the divides wedged between us by modern capitalism, and Bong milks that premise for all the pathos and excitement that it's worth.
8. The Wild Pear Tree
(Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey/Republic of Macedonia/France/Germany/Bosnia and Herzegovina/ Bulgaria/Sweden) The length of The Wild Pear Tree surely turned some people off, but in its 188 minutes you'll find some of the most stunning images and provocative, enigmatic characters of the year. Like Ceylan's previous Winter Sleep, The Wild Pear Tree is a dialogue-heavy but visually sumptuous look at bitter family dynamics and thwarted artistic ambition. It follows a young writer, Sinan (played by Turkish comedian Aydin Dogu Demirkol), who returns to his hometown after college and finds himself drawn to the same ruinous obsessions that drove his father to destitution.
It all sounds unrelentingly heavy, but Ceylan has never been shy about incorporating dry humor into his films (one encounter between Sinan and an exasperated author is laugh-out-loud funny) and the freewheeling conversations are given the liberty to indulge numerous diversions, allowing them to stray fascinatingly from the plot. (This is the trade-off for the movie's hefty running time: it allows practically any idea that Ceylan thinks of to enter the picture. One conversation between Sinan and two imams comprises about half an hour near the end of the film, and it's a wonder to observe.) And even if the emphasis on dialogue and character pushes The Wild Pear Tree toward theatrical and literary realms, it is undeniably cinematic. Like the majestic shot of apples rolling down a hill in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, there are some miraculous images that seem to encompass the entire mystery of human life—most wondrously, a haunting final shot that reveals the fraying bonds between a father and son before they break.
(Mati Diop, Senegal/France/Belgium) Adapting and expanding her 2009 short documentary Atlantiques, a look at Senegalese labors trying to journey to Europe by sea, Mati Diop—the first black woman to enter a film into competition at Cannes—crafts something strange and profound with her debut feature. On the outskirts of Dakar, next to the Atlantic Ocean forever blazing under the oppressive sun, a group of construction workers toil on a hulking apartment building. Dreaming of a better life, the men try to sail to Spain but their ship is lost at sea, leaving their ghosts to return to the women in Senegal.
Class commentary, satire of the clash between African and European cultures, coming-of-age story, horror tale replete ghosts and zombies and doomed shipwrecks: Atlantics is a smorgasbord of styles, ideas, and genres, but somehow it never seems sloppy or half-baked. Even the weakest storyline, involving a detective investigating a case of arson that may have been started by one of the returned spirits, is revealed to weave back into the narrative in surprising ways. Among its many pleasures, Atlantics gives us the opportunity to see modern-day Dakar at its most diverse and unvarnished: a depiction of life in an African city that's tragically rare in cinema today.
(Kent Jones, USA) As if we needed more proof that the Oscars are completely meaningless, the lack of recognition for Mary Kay Place in Diane is a travesty: she achieves the incredibly difficult task of making an interior state of being feel palpable and real. In Kent Jones' achingly humane but unflinching character study, she plays a middle-aged, seemingly selfless woman who devotes all her time to helping others: visiting her cancer-stricken cousin in the hospital, trying to pull her son out of drug addiction, feeding the needy at food shelters. But her apparent altruism masks a deep well of shame that torments her to her dying day.
What elevates Diane above the realm of character-oriented drama is its fascination with memory and obsession: Diane's sadness is a product of her own making, her inability to forgive herself. Time and again, just when we think we know where the movie is going—a melodramatic story of a mother's redemption, the salvation of religious faith--Diane pulls the rug out from under us, making it clear that her inward turmoil isn't abating, despite all her attempts to mollify it. Depressing, maybe, but absolutely riveting, especially when dream and hallucination intrude into reality near the end of the film. This hyperreal depiction of everyday life is aided by the most convincing depiction of small-town America I've seen in years: Diane could be the person sitting next to you in a nondescript diner in any small town off the highway, and there's no telling what kind of fireworks are going off in her head at any time.
The Next Ten
(Jordan Peele, USA/China/Japan) Say what you will about the plot holes and logical inconsistencies: Us has more tremendous metaphorical power than any other American movie made in 2019. It's the return of the repressed on a worldwide scale, as the have-nots rise up from their subterranean lair to wreak vengeance against their privileged doppelgangers. It's not a story about race per se, but at the same time its considerable tension arises from the ways in which race, class, and identity clash in modern America: both personal and cultural identity are revealed as illusions, products of outside values, and privilege is seen as a byproduct of hegemony and sheer, stupid luck. Us might be messier and more preposterous than Jordan Peele's acclaimed predecessor Get Out, but it's more fascinating because of it.
12. The Irishman
(Martin Scorsese, USA) Scorsese's latest would make a fine double-feature with his 2016 film Silence: both stories of regret and crises of faith in the twilight of old age, when the sins of the past come into sharper focus. I've always thought that Scorsese's crime movies are less interesting than his films about emotional violence—I'll take The Age of Innocence over Goodfellas, for example—but The Irishman is something else, a story of blindly following duty until more important values are trampled underfoot. This is an aptly solemn movie, universal in its depiction of guilt-ridden people trying to atone for past sins or convince themselves that they're not sins at all; and while I'm still ambivalent about Netflix releases, one wishes that Scorsese had the chance to make three-and-a-half hour movies every time.
(Ari Aster, USA/Sweden) Comedy doesn't get much bleaker and horror doesn't get much more devious than in Ari Aster's Midsommar, a sun-drenched story of ritual mayhem. After she loses her family in the blink of an eye in a merciless prologue, Dani (Florence Pugh, in what's actually her best performance of the year) joins her churlish boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) and his bros, all graduate students in anthropology, as they venture to a remote community in Sweden that still practices age-old pagan rituals. Desperate to find a new family, Dani finds herself at home here—even (or especially) if it means ceremonially murdering those that have oppressed her. Aster's film is smart and slyly political, but it's also jaw-droppingly wicked and gruesome; it may be time to shut your eyes when the giant mallets come out.
14. Dragged Across Concrete
(S. Craig Zahler, Canada/USA) When it comes to exploitation throwbacks of 2019, my vote goes toward the guy not named Tarantino. S. Craig Zahler's epic crime story (it clocks in at almost three hours) is gleeful in its abrasiveness, right down to the casting of Mel Gibson as a racist, violent cop who's placed on leave after he beats a Latino suspect, then hatches a robbery plot in order to make ends meet. But to assume that Zahler endorses this detective's retrograde worldview is missing the point: the entire story arc of Dragged Across Concrete reveals the self-destructive stupidity of hating or underestimating those from other cultures. Unlike some of Tarantino's fantasies, Zahler's film takes place in a recognizable reality where police brutality and political correctness are front-and-center; but it's also weird and visceral enough to spend hefty amounts of running time indulging the backstory of a soon-to-be-murder victim or having a character repeatedly exclaim "Anchovies!" in frustration. It's a wonder this thing ever got made in the first place (it barely got released), but I'm glad it exists.
(Tamara Kotevska & Ljubomir Stefanov, Republic of Macedonia) Honeyland proceeds from the assumption that the role of the documentary is not to editorialize, but to observe the lives of others as unobtrusively as possible. In casting an unwavering eye on the lives of an elderly honey farmer in remote Macedonia and the family of Turkish nomadic farmers that move in next to her, the film casts a hypnotic spell, immersing us in lives totally alien to most viewers. The relationships that ensue between old Hatidze, whose only company aside from her ailing mother is the swarms of bees that provide her with sustenance, and the loud, sometimes callous family that moves in next door are both warm and contentious, familial and adversarial; without the aid (or hindrance) of scripted dialogue or a pat storyline, we're able to observe their dramas with what feels like raw clarity. But, of course, Honeyland was carefully constructed, with Kotevska, Stefanov, and their cinematographers creating some of the loveliest and most harrowing images of the year.
16. The Souvenir
(Joanna Hogg, UK/USA) The Souvenir isn't so much an autobiography as a fragmentary look at how memory, trauma, and artistic identity are forged. That makes it a fascinating but frustratingly unemotional experience. Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), the protagonist of The Souvenir, is a middle-class film student largely modeled on writer-director Joanna Hogg's former self, and she's frequently infuriating: she wants to make a film about poor fishermen but is completely shut off from their world, and she doesn't notice (or doesn't want to) when her new lover, a cad named Anthony (Tom Burke), exhibits signs of heroin addiction. So begins a turbulent relationship in which Anthony descends further into self-destruction and Julie begins to formulate her creative persona, originating largely from her experiences of trauma and self-reliance. The Souvenir is the epitome of a film that you admire more than you actively embrace, but its depiction of how artists express themselves (their memories, their anguish) through physical media is often remarkable.
17. Amazing Grace
(Sydney Pollack and Alan Elliott, USA) First shot and slated for release in 1972, then delayed due to post-production and litigation difficulties and finally completed after Aretha Franklin's death, this stunning concert film featuring the Queen of Soul is exhilarating to behold. Her vocal renditions and piano performances are majestic; that's no surprise, but it still doesn't prepare you for the sublime passion of her delivery, the feeling that she is letting the gods of music speak through her. (It's appropriate that the concert takes place in New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles, a historic venue of gospel music.) In semi-documentary fashion, Amazing Grace provides a snapshot of Los Angeles in 1972: the audience is predominantly black, though there is diversity in the crowd; the costumes and architecture are fascinating to observe. Beyond its appeal as a time capsule, though, Amazing Grace is something like an experimental work in the primacy it places on the material of the film grain and the wonders of the zoom lens: frequently, Amazing Grace allows us to notice and inspect the mechanical processes that create the illusion of cinema in a way that's often indulged by the most celebrated avant-garde filmmakers.
18. The Mountain
(Rick Alverson, USA) Rick Alverson makes movies that emphasize the comic absurdity of human existence and the underlying sadness of humor; his films might be called anti-comedies. The Mountain is his most uncategorizable and peculiar film yet, but also the most emotionally resonant. Somewhere in rural America in the 1950s, a taciturn young man named Andy (Tye Sheridan) loses his mother to hospitalization and lobotomization; when his dad, an ice skating instructor (Udo Kier), dies suddenly, Andy takes up with Dr. Fiennes (Jeff Goldblum), a lobotomist apparently responsible for Andy's mother's disappearance. Dr. Fiennes takes Andy under his ominous wing and tasks him with documenting his dubious medical procedures, most of them performed on women and people of color—an explicit critique of how the medical industry is complicit in the silencing of "undesirables." This sounds like the setup to an extremely grim joke that has no punchline, and it doesn't even touch on the movie's other oddities: hermaphroditic sex fantasies, Busby Berkeley-ish shots of figure skating, a raving monologue delivered by Denis Lavant about the intersection of life and art. What does it all mean? Questions are numerous but answers scarce, and so much the better in Alverson's austere and singular look at the malaise permeating America in the mid-twentieth century.
19. For Sama
(Waad al-Kateab and Edward Watts, UK/Syria) It's become cliche to say that a movie is must-see, but that's actually true with For Sama, a documentary that lends devastating humanity to a crisis that's become tragically commonplace. Waad al-Kateab, a young marketing student in Aleppo, documents her experience on streets increasingly rocked by bombs and covered in rubble as the Syrian Civil War escalates. We watch as she falls in love with one of the city's few remaining doctors, marries, and has a daughter, to whom For Sama is touchingly dedicated and narrated. There are scenes of shocking carnage and survival at all costs, including a harrowing childbirth that may end in mortality; but also scenes of warmth and unity, facing destruction but refusing to forsake humanity. The rough, raw, handheld aesthetic (a necessity, of course) stands at odds with some overly sleek drone footage, but that's a quibble for such a shattering, vital experience. For Sama takes a crisis we see regularly on CNN and turns it into something that's too often forgotten: an achingly human story of people trapped beneath the whims of power-hungry despots.
20. Toy Story 4
(Josh Cooley, USA) The neverending Pixar franchise continues to surprise: if earlier installments focused on childhood, family, friendship, loss, and mortality, the newest becomes a surprisingly sweet acknowledgement that marriage and the nuclear family are not the only roads to a fulfilling life. The story is initially driven by Forky, a lovable outcast and a testament to childlike imagination; but eventually, the focus shifts to Woody's reunion with Little Bo Peep, who has traveled the world without a "kid" (i.e., an owner) for the last several years, relishing every moment of it. But the movie touchingly foreshadows a twilight relationship for the two aging toys, an intimacy that promises independence more than confinement. The solid comedy, sparkling animation, and expert storytelling are no surprises, but the ways in which the Toy Story series continues to parallel the meandering paths of a fully-lived life still astound almost 25 years after the original's release.
21. Knives Out (Rian Johnson, USA) Nothing is subtle about Rian Johnson's murder mystery, but that's not necessarily a criticism. The condemnation of Trump-era bigotry and political divisiveness is painted in broad strokes, but this is grand entertainment with an overt satirical edge. Here's hoping Benoit Blanc (or whatever his name will be next time) has a different preposterous accent in the impending sequel...
22. Birds of Passage (Cristina Gallego & Ciro Guerra, Colombia/Denmark/Mexico/Germany/ Switzerland/France) Less rich and evocative than the directors' previous Embrace of the Serpent, but the crime saga Birds of Passage uses cultural specificity to create an intense and surreal experience. The story of a Wayuu man who (almost unwittingly) becomes a drug kingpin and breaks with his tribal traditions does sometimes feel like second-rate Scorsese, but its focus on indigenous peoples' clash with capitalism makes it fresh.
23. An Elephant Sitting Still (Bo Hu, China) Approaching four hours and comprised of a bleak, interweaving narrative and a digital aesthetic that woozily follows its characters in close-up for minutes on end, An Elephant Sitting Still can be a slog, but it's worth the effort. Some of the narrative material is surprisingly stale (adultery, petty crime, bullying, jealousy), but the film's depiction of characters who dream (maybe futilely) of a better life is cumulatively powerful.
24. Long Day's Journey Into Night (Gan Bi, China/France) Stunningly gorgeous, but its reliance on an enigmatic narrative and taciturn characters ensures this is only an aesthetic experience, not an emotional one. Still, it's worth watching to luxuriate in its images, most outlandishly a final, hour-long shot in 3D (not as jaw-dropping as Hugo or Pina, but noble in the attempt).
25. I Lost My Body (Jérémy Clapin, France) Animated story of a dismembered hand scuttling across Paris to find its way back to its owner is more melancholy and ruminative than you might expect. It's really the story of the hand's owner, who deals with loss as both a young boy and a teenager and questions the primacy of fate versus free will. The somber philosophizing doesn't always feel warranted (this is basically a story of teenage infatuation), but the movie is poignant and stunningly beautiful.
26. Little Women (Greta Gerwig, USA) Gerwig's amiable but flawed adaptation of the Alcott classic is at its best when it depicts the thrill of the creative process, or winkingly folds Alcott's own biography into the narrative of her most famous novel. Elsewhere, though, the plot machinations are overly familiar (Beth's demise simply feels it's like checking off the boxes) and the feminist platitudes can be obvious and didactic (do we really need to be reminded that women have brains and souls?).
27. The Image Book (Jean-Luc Godard, Switzerland/France) Latter-day Godard can be a trying affair, but The Image Book is one of his best cine-essays in recent years. As with Histoire(s) du cinéma, Godard uses found footage, voiceover narration, and a layered soundtrack to comment on the political role of the filmmaker and the representability of real-world atrocities. The footage in The Image Book, often manipulated into wild shapes and colors, takes on an added subtext as it's largely recycled from the films of Egypt, Lebanon, and other Middle Eastern countries, implicitly asking why these scenes are less recognized than the classics of European or American cinema.
28. Booksmart (Olivia Wilde, USA) Wilde's charming, impressive debut is a rehash of Superbad with the genders and sexual orientations swapped, but it's smarter and more stylish than that movie. There are some grating aesthetic choices and jokes that fall flat, but the movie teems with optimism for Generation Z and is jam-packed with a soundtrack that outdoes Baby Driver.
29. Woman at War (Benedikt Erlingsson, Iceland/France/Ukraine) An Icelandic woman doubles as a choir teacher and an eco-terrorist, as Woman at War grapples with the legacy humanity will leave behind on an imperiled planet and the feasibility of ethical sabotage. The film is loaded with ideas but also plot holes, and it seems to conclude (simplistically) that motherhood is the noblest goal to which women can aspire. But you can't fault Woman at War for being uninteresting.
30. Shadow (Zhang Yimou, China/Hong Kong) Zhang Yimou's latest is less dazzling and conceptually rich than Hero or House of Flying Daggers, but has its aesthetic and thematic merits. The convoluted story follows a wicked king, his beautiful sister, a general in hiding, and a kingdom they hope to conquer; the movie abounds in court intrigue and elaborate betrayals, but the precise aesthetic, comprised mostly of black, white, and gray, is what you notice most of all. There's an overabundance of CGI and some generic characters, but also an admirable cynicism (not unlike Hero): the warfare they wage is far from triumphant.
31. Transit (Christian Petzold, Germany/France) Acclaimed drama is far less engaging than it should be; it plays like an academic exercise, suppressing drama and intensity at nearly every turn. In adapting Anna Seghers' 1944, World War II-set novel and transposing it to modern-day Europe through blatant anachronisms, Petzold (who also made the far superior Barbara and Phoenix) offers a clear statement that age-old issues of xenophobia and religious bigotry haven't gone away. But he forgets to include emotional engagement or narrative momentum, resulting in a thesis statement in search of a film.
32. The Last Black Man in San Francisco (Joe Talbot, USA) Satire of gentrification and black identity is beautifully shot and has a lot to say about the pressures placed on black men in America, but is also disastrously uneven, with some surprisingly cliched moments of cheap manipulation (what should be the film's emotional climax is its least interesting moment). Problematic feature debut promises better things to come from Talbot in the future.
33. Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino, USA) My thoughts about Tarantino's latest are more fully elucidated here; suffice it to say that two-thirds of this piece of historical revisionism are fascinatingly self-reflexive, while the last third is a smug and regressive reliance on the ultraviolence for which its director is most widely known. How disappointing it is that such a provocative movie ultimately falls back on the cheap shock tactics that increasingly seem like the only trick in Tarantino's bag.
34. Ad Astra (James Gray, USA) "A bad Terrence Malick movie in space" is how a friend described Ad Astra, which seems about right. The movie suffers from an identity crisis: it's a visceral, immersive piece of genre filmmaking in the guise of a weepy male melodrama. Watch for the jaw-dropping scenes of action and horror, doze through the overdone daddy issues and Brad Pitt's estrangement from his long-suffering partner (Liv Tyler in a thankless role).
35. Her Smell (Alex Ross Perry, USA) For its first hour, Her Smell feels like one of the best and most in-your-face movies of 2019, thanks largely to Elisabeth Moss' performance as a detestable punk rocker who has pushed away everyone in her life. But then the movie comes to rely too much on trite themes of redemption and the transformative power of art—flaws made even worse by the fact that this supposedly music-themed movie has precious few scenes of musical performance (and the ones we see are far from exhilarating).
36. The Farewell (Lulu Wang, USA) A film that you want to like so much, it's a shame it has not an ounce of visual ingenuity. The culture-clash themes experienced by Billi (Awkwafina, in a great performance that rises above everything else) as a second-generation immigrant are compelling, but they're not translated to the screen with much originality or insight.
37. Under the Silver Lake (David Robert Mitchell, USA) Accusations of misogyny aren't entirely fair: Under the Silver Lake is meant to be about a stunted, privileged white male adult still living in adolescence, weaned on movies, comic books, and video games. So of course he's able to think only with his penis. Even so, the amount that you're able to enjoy this film depends on how much you can tolerate a fairly insufferable character who can't bring himself to live in reality. Under the Silver Lake abounds with ideas about the political role of pop culture and many scenes of visual flair, but it plays like a second-rate imitation of Mitchell's idols—Lynch, Pynchon, and Altman among them.
38. Greta (Neil Jordan, Ireland/USA) Campy as hell, but it's somewhat refreshing to see a movie that delights in being preposterous. In a twist on Fatal Attraction, Isabelle Huppert is the older Frenchwoman living in Manhattan who preys on young women, forcing them into disturbing pseudo-mother-daughter relationships. Chloë Grace Moretz and Maika Monroe provide solid support. Committed performances and bizarre dialogue make this an enjoyable curio.
39. The Lighthouse (Robert Eggers, Canada/USA) It's a shame that one of the most beautiful and formally adventurous movies of the year has so little going on beyond its aesthetic bravado. This story of two men driven insane by isolation and their own masculinity (and copious alcohol) at a New England lighthouse descends so quickly into madness that there's nowhere for the narrative to go; it's just quirky delirium filmed in silky black-and-white. At least Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe tear into their roles and blarney-filled dialogue with gusto.
40. 1917 (Sam Mendes, USA/UK/India/Spain/Canada) 1917 falls prey to the same hypocrisy to which most war movies succumb: it pretends to proclaim that war is hell but makes it look exciting and majestic. By turning the whole story into a stylistic gimmick (and siding resolutely with British heroes, turning German soldiers into faceless villains), the film turns war into something simultaneously heroic and tedious.
41. Joker (Todd Phillips, USA/Canada) There's no doubt Joker is "of the moment," but that doesn't mean it's good; indeed, the film flails around, trying to capture our current chaotic zeitgeist without anything meaningful to say about it. On the surface, Joker pretends to be an equal-opportunity critique, denouncing both the wealthy elite and resistant leftists; but it reveals itself to be essentially conservative, depicting anyone who would protest the system as deranged, violent lunatics. Fears that the movie would incite white supremacist violence were overblown, but I'm not convinced that Joker refrains from glorifying its antihero; despite Joaquin Phoenix's committed performance, the film cares little about the character's mental illness, using it instead as simply another part of the DC Comics mythology.
42. The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (Terry Gilliam, Spain/Belgium/France/UK/Portugal) Unfortunately, as often happens, an interminable wait for a maverick artist's long-delayed dream project results in disappointment. Produced on and off over a period of 25 years, Terry Gilliam's The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is a predictably loopy adaptation of a classic text that seems ideally suited for him. Gilliam adds some questionable sexism, hot-button political issues, and turns the ending into a lionization of those who prioritize fantasy over dreary reality, but its sporadic moments of interest pale in comparison to an overall feeling of strained whimsy. The sleek digital cinematography, too, makes one long for the grimy 35mm days of Brazil and Time Bandits.
43. Piercing (Nicolas Pesce, USA) Pseudo-shocking adaptation of Ryu Murakami's novel tries desperately to appear dark and trangressive, but its S&M fantasies and gruesome hallucinations don't amount to much. The best moment is the end credits, which lift some incredible soundtrack music from Dario Argento's Tenebrae.
44. The Dead Don't Die (Jim Jarmusch, USA/Sweden) I consider Jarmusch to be one of America's greatest living filmmakers, but The Dead Don't Die is by far his nadir, a sloppy and unfunny zombie satire. The main targets of Jarmusch's ire are commercialism, technology, racism, and homogeny—all themes that George Romero tackled with greater aplomb in his Living Dead series.
45. Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw (David Leitch, USA) There's dumb action entertainment, and then there's Hobbs & Shaw, a spinoff of the Fast and the Furious franchise that no one asked for. The story is nonsense, the visual style nonexistent (aside from the decision to make nearly every shot last less than a second), and even the action scenes are mostly comprised of CGI, failing to generate much excitement (although a scene in which Dwayne Johnson drags a helicopter to the ground almost singlehandedly is worth the price of admission). Thankfully, the rapport between Johnson and Jason Statham keeps things entertaining.
46. Star Wars: Episode IX - The Rise of Skywalker (J.J. Abrams, USA) After the relative high points of The Last Jedi and Rogue One, it's depressing to see The Rise of Skywalker offer simply another conveyor-belt consumer product, void of originality or audacity. The age-old "hero's quest" saga, familiar from The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter and practically every other franchise, has gotten unbearably stale: convoluted family backstories, duels between good and evil, inexplicable magical powers, a fateful showdown. This might be tolerable when done in innovative ways, but Abrams doesn't have the capacity for that. There are a few beautiful shots (the frigid planet of Kijimi is a fun locale), but the slapdash and tired narrative has outstayed its welcome, and the only theme on the movie's mind is the eternal battle between good and evil—hardly a novel idea.
47. Pet Sematary (Kevin Kolsch & Dennis Widmyer, USA/Canada) Dreary, predictable King adaptation that offers nothing new to the familiar story; even John Lithgow can't liven things up as a sagacious, ill-fated neighbor.