Things got off to a pretty rocky start in 2019. Jair Bolsonaro, the “Trump of the Tropics,” began his reign as president of Brazil; Venezuela suffered a crisis in leadership; Alva Johnson, a former Trump campaign official, became the umpteenth woman to accuse the president of sexual harassment or assault; and Trump continued to stretch the bounds of executive power, as is his wont. On the cinema front, the offerings were, well, rubbish. Remember that groan-worthy Intouchables remake with Bryan Cranston and Kevin Hart, on the heels of Hart’s homophobia backlash? Or the unholy abomination that was Glass? How about whatever the hell Serenity was?
Fortunately for moviegoers, things got better. A lot better. Netflix, of all places, announced itself as a major awards player with the searing divorce drama Marriage Story, Martin Scorsese’s three-hour-plus epic The Irishman, and pas de deux The Two Popes; there were wonderful documentaries, including the thrilling AOC vehicle Knock Down the House; and a bevy of impressive foreign fare, like the latest from masters Pedro Almodóvar and Bong Joon-ho.
We’ve already covered the most overlooked movies of the year. Now it’s time for the big guns: the very best movies of 2019.
10. PAIN AND GLORY (Dir. Pedro Almodóvar)
The best actor-director duo working today not named Scorsese and De Niro have reunited for their ninth collaboration—an achingly tender monument to aging, artistry, and the ties the bind. Antonio Banderas has never been better, his eyes never more soulful, never kinder.
9. KNOCK DOWN THE HOUSE (Dir. Rachel Lears)
When it comes to documentaries, occasionally you just get lucky. And here, capturing Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s rise from Bronx bartender to firebrand politician who pulled one of the biggest upsets in congressional history, is quite the feat. No other doc has done a better job of capturing this political moment.
8. I LOST MY BODY (Dir. Jérémy Clapin)
This French animated drama ostensibly centers on a severed hand that escapes from a lab and embarks on a grand adventure to reunite with its owner. But peel back its many (exquisitely-composed) layers and you’ll see a haunting meditation on immigration, identity, and the ripple effects of childhood trauma.
7. PARASITE (Dir. Bong Joon-ho)
As far as class-war mayhem goes, I still prefer the more ambitious Snowpiercer, but the latest from South Korean auteur Bong Joon-ho serves up the most deliciously fun confidence scam in ages, complemented by a panoply of fully-committed performances and dazzling camerawork.
6. THE FAREWELL (Dir. Lulu Wang)
Though The Hollywood Reporter recently crowned Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach “The First Couple of Film,” my money goes to Lulu Wang and Barry Jenkins, with the former’s sophomore feature—exploring a Chinese family’s collective agony over not telling their grandmother she is dying of terminal cancer, a common custom in the country—announcing the arrival of a filmmaker par excellence. Hollywood: let this lady do whatever she damn well pleases.
5. UNCUT GEMS (Dirs. Josh & Benny Safdie)
To call a film a “roller coaster ride” has become a rather revolting poster-quote cliché—but boy, does this one deserve the epithet. Just strap in, hold tight, and watch Adam Sandler’s screwy, degenerate gambler wager his way into oblivion, rubbing shoulders with The Weeknd, Kevin Garnett, and a mesmeric Lakeith Stanfield along the way.
4. HONEYLAND (Dirs. Tamara Kotevska & Ljubomir Stefanov)
Yes, this is a documentary about a fifty-something beekeeper in a remote village in Macedonia. But don’t be fooled by its odd premise or trappings: Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov have crafted a portrait of perseverance, loneliness, artisanship, and colonialism that ranks among the best docs of the past decade. Truly a marvel to behold.
3. THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO (Dir. Joe Talbot)
This passion project from San Francisco natives Joe Talbot and Jimmie Fails, who’ve been developing it since they were teens, is a sprawling, elegiac love letter to the Golden Gate City—from the POC folks who gave it its unique flavor to the tech interlopers tearing at its fabric. Every frame lovingly composed.
2. MARRIAGE STORY (Dir. Noah Baumbach)
Its opening notes are some of the best ever put to screen, flinging us head first into the lives of Charlie and Nicole, two New York City theater folks (I know, I know) whose marriage is irreparably broken. Though tilted too far in Charlie’s favor—and poor Jennifer Jason Leigh!—it boasts two actors (Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson) at the very top of their game.
1. HER SMELL (Dir. Alex Ross Perry)
It’s fast, messy, and buzzing with chaotic energy—the ingredients to any great punk song—and here, as the riot grrrl frontwoman of a seminal punk band, Elisabeth Moss delivers far and away the best female performance of the year, thrashing about like a feral cocaine monster one moment and crooning a vein-opening ballad the next. A spellbinding profile of addiction and the long, windy road to recovery.
Honorable Mention(s): Booksmart, A Hidden Life, Monos, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, High Life, American Factory, The Lighthouse, Ash Is Purest White