If you had told me over the summer that 2019 would not only be an incredibly strong year at the movies but also home to some of my favorite films of the decade, I would have had a lot of trouble believing you. The first eight months or so of the year were pretty dire, with only a few highlights and plenty of lowlights, but once the fall season hit and the big festival fare started to show up, things turned around with incredible speed. I suddenly find myself agonizing over what hasn’t made the cut on this list, but we live with the choices we have made. Without further ado, here are my top ten movies of 2019.
Most people probably missed “Honeyland,” a documentary about the ancient practices of North Macedonian beekeeping. And sure, with a logline like that, it’s easy to understand why. But more than anything, “Honeyland” is a roundabout excoriation of modern capitalism’s smash-and-grab tendencies to get rich quick and leave absolute chaos in its wake. The film’s subject, Hatidze Muratova, lives a quiet, simple live in the mountains, keeping bees and selling the honey at a local market. Her mother is sick — a constant source of stress for her — but otherwise, her meager existence is good enough. That all changes when a family comes tearing into the plot of land next door, a cacophony of cows and chickens in their wake as they try to mine the land for everything it’s worth and sell it off to a slimy local. Hatizde is patient with the new interlopers, even teaching them some tricks so they can cultivate honey without shattering the precious ecosystem that lets her thrive, but we all know where this is going next. “Honeyland” is often difficult to watch. The drone of the bees, the sounds of the cows as they’re mistreated by this family, the yelling children — all of it is designed to tap into that primal anxiety that comes from a stranger barging into your life and messing everything up. In a way, “Honeyland” could be described as the documentary answer to Darren Aronofsky’s “mother!” (though with a bit less Jesus imagery), where everything can be made just a little worse thanks to other human beings. But while “Honeyland” is often devastating and uncomfortable, it ends with a beautiful sense of hope. No matter the circumstances, there’s always a way forward.
9. “THE LIGHTHOUSE“
Robert Eggers remains the king of period piece verisimilitude, utilizing logs and diaries from 19th century sailors and wickies to build the script of “The Lighthouse,” a story about two lonely lighthouse caretakers going insane on an island. In addition to the authentic bilge speak, Eggers also takes extreme care to make his film look like a lost artifact from the silent era just exhumed today, with its downright boxy 1.19:1 aspect ratio and stark black and white cinematography that looks like it was shot by a hand-crank camera. It’s also dominated by dynamic and magnetic performances from Robert Pattinson and a particularly salty Willem Dafoe, ranting and raving and farting his way through the process of driving Pattinson crazy. Much like “The Witch,” there’s nothing quite like “The Lighthouse” on the market in 2019, once again proving Robert Eggers as a truly exciting voice in the independent cinema world.
Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut is a surprisingly spry high school comedy with a wonderfully charismatic and engaging ensemble, as well as very strong lead performances from Beanie Feldstein and (especially) Kaitlyn Dever as two successful students who eschewed partying only to discover that their classmates’ debaucherous lifestyles did not stop them from getting into good schools as well. It’s a fun conceit and a different enough window into the “one last night to party” approach — one that outgrows the simple comparison that it’s the female version of “Superbad.” Wilde has a good eye and a great editor at her disposal, making “Booksmart” the outstanding comedy of the year and a reminder than there’s still plenty of room out there for smart, funny movies that don’t worry about pandering to the lowest common denominator.
For Jordan Peele, following up “Get Out” with another horror film must have been a monumental task. His directorial debut earned him Oscar nominations for Best Director and Best Picture, as well as a win for his screenplay, and that’s a lot to live up to. Despite also being a socially conscious horror film, “Us” honestly couldn’t be more different in its approach and tone compared to its predecessor. “Get Out” had a straightforward message that was easy to follow, which allowed a lot of the subtlety of its portrayal to shine through. “Us” is a far more challenging film; its themes are more layered and obscure, which makes it less outwardly engaging and satisfying compared to “Get Out,” but it shows real growth from Peele as a filmmaker. “It Follows” cinematographer Mike Gioulakis is a huge get, making “Us” into a supremely satisfying home invasion horror film, and as you watch and rewatch and get to the core of what Peele is trying to say, there’s plenty of meat to sink your teeth into. Throw in Lupita Nyong’o’s incredible dual role (easily the best performance of the year in any film), and you’ve got the sort of movie that creeps up on you and encircles you, boring its way into your brain and never letting go.
6. “A HIDDEN LIFE“
As someone who never responds to Terrence Malick movies, I’m as surprised as anyone to find his latest, “A Hidden Life,” nearly crack my top five. The story of an Austrian conscientious objector turned prisoner of the Nazi regime is languid in the typically Malick way, but it fits the themes of the film extraordinarily well. “A Hidden Life” is a tale of integrity and grace, and the belief that we must stick to our guns even in the gravest circumstances. At a time when extreme right-wing fascism has depressingly returned to the fore of modern culture on the back of right-wing governments reclaiming power on the back of xenophobia and nationalism, “A Hidden Life” could not be better positioned to have more meaning than ever. August Diehl takes full advantage of Malick’s visual flourishes — his trademark wide-angle lens and long, contemplative takes — while the classic voiceover we always get is a little more grounded, built into the script as a series of letters between the man and his wife while he’s imprisoned. The three-hour runtime could easily be too much, but time is a key factor to how the story plays out. The longer that Diehl is faced with his own mortality, and the longer he’s kept from his wife and family, the more opportunities he has to simply lie and pledge empty fealty to Hitler, and the more his resolve means. Malick has always been a religious filmmaker — not always taking on baldly religious subjects but often using the tenets of Christianity in his protagonists — and while his other films didn’t grab me with this approach, it’s gorgeously done and ecstatically beautiful here.
5. “LITTLE WOMEN“
Leave it to Greta Gerwig to turn “Little Women” into the perfect follow-up to her directorial debut, “Lady Bird.” Sure, a 19th century period piece may not seem like the natural continuation for Gerwig’s modernist sensibilities, but the setting fits like a glove. Boasting a wonderful script and one of the strongest ensembles of the year all doing killer work (including the first of two immaculate Laura Dern performances on this list), Gerwig comfortably makes “Little Women” feel as vital as it must have been 150 years ago. You’d expect this to be chiefly an acting showcase, and it certainly is, but the cinematography (from French master Yorick Le Saux) is captivating, the Alexandre Desplat score is gorgeous and the editing is impeccable as the setting cuts across the young women’s lives. There are better movies that have been released in 2019 (four of them, in fact), but there may not be a more polished and wholly satisfying movie than “Little Women.”
4. “MARRIAGE STORY“
Noah Baumbach has always been a pretty caustic writer, having built his career on snarky, sardonic and often insufferable Northeast intellectual elites in movies like “Kicking and Screaming” and “Mistress America,” but it’s his devastating look at the dissolution of a decade-long marriage that finds him at his most contemplative and (dare I say) tender. He puts all the pressure on Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver to show us how they fell into and out of love in just over two hours, and they pass the test with ease. Many have opined on whether the film takes the side of Driver or Johansson, but “Marriage Story” isn’t about sides. It’s about how the little things get in the way and how our own ambitions can supersede those of a partner, even if it’s unintentional. It’s about lawyers telling us what we really think when we don’t want to do it ourselves. It’s about Laura Dern towering over everyone in power suits and six-inch heels. It’s about a perfect script and perfect acting. It’s about being alive.
Céline Sciamma’s loving and tender 18th century French lesbian romance drama takes its time establishing the relationship that will come to define it. Beginning as something far more innocent, with young painter Marianne hired to secretly paint the wedding portrait for reluctant governess Heloise while she masquerades as a companion, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” knows that the best way to make love bloom and make it feel genuine is to let them get to know each other slowly, developing their affection naturally instead of via plot requirements. It’s surely one of, if not singularly, the most beautiful movies of 2019, and it would stand up well against just about anything you could compare it to from recent history. Cinematographer Claire Mathon brings a painterly feel to it all, and there couldn’t be a more natural fit. The two actresses at the center are such wonderful presences; there isn’t a single wrong note or unearned moment between them. This is my first Sciamma film, and on the strength of it alone, it surely won’t be my last.
2. “UNCUT GEMS“
I’m a sucker for Josh and Benny Safdie. Maybe it’s because we share an alma mater (Boston University). Maybe it’s because they have an extreme ability to convey what it’s like to be in circumstances of extreme anxiety on the screen. Or maybe it’s just because they’re really, really good at what they do. They’ve been trying to make “Uncut Gems” for years, and now that it’s here, it is unambiguously worth the wait. This two hour and fifteen minute extended panic attack is headed by Adam Sandler (in a career best performance) as the scummiest of scumbags, a Diamond District jewelry store owner and degenerate gambler who borrows, steals and pawns everything he can get his hands on in order to make his next bet and one day strike it big. When that opportunity arrives, courtesy of a potentially priceless piece of uncut black opal he imported from Africa, he can’t help himself from screwing it up in every possible way. Careening across New York over the course of a weekend, he fights off goons trying to collect debts, his wife’s attempts to divorce him, his mistress’ volatile personality and Kevin Garnett (playing himself), who sees the gem as a talisman tied to his success on the court. “Uncut Gems” is explosive and unrelenting, and it’s quite possibly the best film yet of the Safdies’ short and impressive career. Propulsive editing, handheld cinematography and another slick, pounding electronic score work in perfect harmony to create a triumph.
It’s fascinating that it took returning to South Korea for Bong Joon-ho to make a real leap into the cinematic consciousness of America. Sure, those of us in the know have loved the eccentric auteur since the days of “The Host” and “Memories of Murder,” but even for us, “Parasite” represents a crest in his career. The fourth straight movie about social class struggle to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes, “Parasite” is a wickedly incisive satire that would make an excellent double feature with last year’s Palme winner, “Shoplifters.” The blissful ignorance of the Park family, with their casual and hurtful jabs at the lower class, and the way the Kims infiltrate their lives from every angle is lovely and wonderful stuff, but it’s the way the film spins off into the stratosphere in its wild third act that makes “Parasite” the year’s best. It’s fitting that the decade comes to an end on the back of a movie like “Parasite,” which is quite possibly the ultimate statement about our post-financial crisis gig economy, and only the likes of Bong Joon-ho could make it happen in a way that is so fundamentally satisfying and so fundamentally him.