Like most film critics, the writers at the Lens have spent the final weeks of 2019 binging awards-season features, catching up on films released earlier in the year, and agonizing over ranked lists of their personal favorites. The fruits of their labors are detailed below: Each contributing critic has prepared a Top 20 list, with some appreciative words for each film in their Top 10.
For the purposes of this piece, a “film of 2019” is a feature with an Academy Award-qualifying theatrical opening in New York City or Los Angeles between Jan. 31 and Dec. 31, 2019, or an exclusive online premiere during that same period.
19. Her Smell
18. Long Day’s Journey Into Night
17. Little Women
15. The Beach Bum
13. Knives Out
11. The Third Wife
10. I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth v. Michelle Carter
A dense and thoroughly researched documentary about the 2014 case involving a teen charged with encouraging her boyfriend to commit suicide, I Love You, Now Die goes beyond the trial in question to examine the factors that led to this couple’s particularly troubling demise. It’s all compelling, but director Erin Lee Carr deserves commendation specifically for a sequence that delves deep into the impact that popular media might have had on Carter and the way she interacted with her peers. You’ll never look at Ryan Murphy’s Glee (2009-15) the same way again.
Adam Driver is the most exceptional yeller to emerge from the past decade. It’s one of the many reasons why he’s an incredibly brilliant performer, easily stealing any and every scene in which he appears. As one half of the divorcing couple that spearheads Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, Driver and his co-star Scarlett Johansson reshape and retool the New York filmmaker’s latest script to fit their own personal experiences with separation — Driver with his parents’ divorce, Johansson with her own split. At the same time, it’s a riveting glimpse at the petty little things that make upper-class artists tick. Who comes out on top as an actor wife and a director husband bicker about who really deserves credit for the illustrious Genius Grant? Well, the audience, of course.
With so much attention being paid to Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino’s journeys inward with their respective hits The Irishman and Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood, it’s a shame that Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory didn’t receive the same sort of love. Although, that’s kind of what it’s all about: Antonio Banderas plays a particularly Almodóvar-y filmmaker who doesn’t appreciate his earlier work (or his earlier memories) until it’s almost too late. Don’t wait too long to give Pain and Glory the admiration it deserves — it’s a story of lifelong hopes, dreams, and failures on par with anything else released this year.
Buried underneath other international Oscar-shortlisted features (some of which are listed above) is a remarkably affecting post-Holocaust drama from Hungary. Directed and co-written by Barnabás Toth, Those Who Remained operates as a relationship drama that is strictly platonic (and a bit paternal). A young girl and a middle-aged man find themselves performing the roles of father and daughter after both of their families go missing in the chaos of World War II. This playacting providing comfort and assurance for the two of them but confusion and scorn from everyone else. Love is as complex as trauma, but those who have experienced just one (or none) can’t begin to understand this. Those Who Remained does.
A captivating look at the art of the scam, Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite regards the capitalist system as a wick burning at both ends. As a clever lower-class family slowly infiltrates the household (and lives) of a clueless upper-class family, the former clan begins to realize that they might have taken things a bit too far (and that they might not be the first ones to do so, either). It’s hard to resist the undercurrent typically found beneath the surface of a Bong Joon-ho film, and that’s especially true of Parasite: “It’s so metaphorical!”
In a year dominated by superheroes, sequels, and space epics, it’s genuinely surprising that the greatest physical threat faced by any one character would be the enormous killer alligators in Alexandre Aja’s creature feature Crawl. Trapped in her father’s basement because of a stronger-than-expected hurricane that hits the Florida coast, Haley (Kaya Scodelario) and her dad (Barry Pepper) have to use their wits to defeat a horde of deadly reptiles. Executive produced by horror master Sam Raimi, it’s delightful to see a film that’s exactly what it advertises itself as: a bloody and thrilling fight for survival.
4. Portrait of a Lady on Fire
As adept as a romance can be, Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire is the most competent drama to come out of France in 2019. A slow-burning love story, the film recounts a painter’s impassioned tenure on a remote island in Brittany at the turn of the 19th century as she’s tasked with painting the wedding portrait of a bride who doesn’t wish to be painted. Sciamma’s unrelenting focus on the intricacies of the two’s relationship carries the film on tiptoe, making sure to avoid any creaks in the floor or kinks in the rug that could prove to be troublesome.
The biggest sleeper hit of the year is Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers. Starring Jennifer Lopez as a seasoned stripper and Constance Wu as her cunning apprentice, the film examines the 2008 recession through the eyes of the people who suffered largely out of sight. It’s a tale of revenge different than anything else on-screen as of late, perfectly blending a based-on-a-true-story with sharp comedy and gripping drama — plus, J Lo has probably never been better than she is here. It’s a joy to see her and fellow 90s icon Adam Sandler finally receive the recognition they deserve, even if it is 20 years later.
2. Uncut Gems
Not to distract from the excellence of the Safdie brothers’ Uncut Gems, but it’s unfortunate that it took until now for certain moviegoers to realize that Adam Sandler could be capable of such an outstanding performance. The comedian-turned-actor has always had it in him, with films like Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love (2002) and Judd Apatow’s Funny People (2009) being the best 21st-century examples. Still, the Safdies let Sandler have the time of his life playing a jeweler in New York’s Diamond District who’s too deeply in debt to be treating his money so recklessly. It’s the most stressful time you’ll have at the movies this year, but it’s also the most exciting.
Like David Lynch’s G-rated Disney movie The Straight Story (1999) -- or, to a lesser degree, Peter Bogdanovich’s Disney Channel Original A Saintly Switch (1998) -- A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is proof that Marielle Heller’s incomparable talent can be applied to any sort of material for any age group and the end result will still be nothing short of masterful. Here, she’s covering the loosely-tweaked true story behind journalist Tom Junod’s 1998 profile of Mr. Rogers. Like Heller’s other films The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015) and Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018), Beautiful Day is so much more than just a run-of-the-mill biopic — it’s a story about real people, real struggles, and real growth.
20. The Beach Bum
19. Our Time
17. Dragged Across Concrete
16. The Lighthouse
14. Little Women
11. Knives Out
10. High Flying Bird
Despite being released by streaming giant Netflix – the studio behind Steven Soderbergh’s other 2019 film, the abysmal The Laundromat – and available to anyone with the mere click of a button, the director’s basketball drama-cum-film noir-cum-heist movie High Flying Bird has taken up approximately 0% of this year’s cultural conversation. However, flying under-the-radar to great glory is apt for a film about a sports agent (a superb André Holland) doing just that in order to negotiate an NBA lockout caused the predominantly white corporate powers holding the pursestrings for its predominantly black players. Shot on a light-on-its-feet iPhone with a crackling script by Tarell Alvin McCraney, co-writer of Moonlight (2016), High Flying Bird is exactly the opposite of The Laundromat: breathlessly charming, unsanctimonious, and unsparingly empathetic.
Pedro Almodóvar has never shied away from the autobiographical, but Pain and Glory presents itself as unflinchingly so, such that watching the Spanish master’s latest feels like reading his stolen diary. The probable personal disclosure isn’t necessarily what makes it great: Leading man Antonio Banderas’ complete possession of the Almodóvar stand-in and a subdued aesthetic finally finding its footing after the milquetoast Julieta (2016) certainly deserve credit. However, the film’s unceremonious superiority is found in the sustained melancholy achieved while realizing the late-in-life regrets of Almodóvar surrogate. In a final shot – the best of the year – the director, entering his fifth decade in the business, suggests that cinema is the only worthwhile therapy for broken hearts and minds.
Labeling Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story as precise probably doesn’t seem complimentary. Divorce and divorce stories are typically messy, unmanageable affairs, after all. The precision here isn’t an act of manipulation, however, as Marriage Story presents the writer and director taking great strides at being anything but. Instead, his finely-tuned filmmaking details human behavior with expert cinematic grammar: empathetic camera gestures, words that cut to the bone, and cuts that absolutely shatter them. Wisely, Baumbach also contains the unbreakable cast of shared experience as a healing force. Without it, maybe Marriage Story could be boiled down to a memeable fist-to-a-wall, but all of its gracious truths reveal the good, the bad, and everything in between in a life lived together.
7. Asako I & II
Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s wistful follow-up to his five-hour epic, Happy Hour (2017), may be half his previous film’s runtime, but Asako I & II is in no way less ambitious. Vertigo (1958) by way of shojo, this achingly romantic fantasia asks its audience suspend some disbelief when, years after her doomed teenage romance with Baku (Masahiro Higashide), the eponymous obsessive from Osaka (Erika Karata) finds his uncanny doppelganger, Ryôhei (also Higashide), a junior exec in Tokyo. The two embark on a shaky relationship eventually upended when her past comes back to haunt her. It all sounds a bit kawaii, but Hamaguchi manages a tone that is at once idiosyncratic and recognizably universal in crushing matters of the heart versus the mind. Come for this cinematic high-wire act, but stay for the year-in-film’s best cat.
6. Her Smell
The first three acts of Alex Ross Perry’s riot grrrl rock opera Her Smell are the polarizing filmmaker at his most antagonistic: aggressively modern Shakespearean monologuing, Keegan DeWitt’s dissonant drone score, and claustrophobic settings that reek of days-old Pabst-stained clothes and cigarette-burned couches. The director is attempting to reach a modicum of the chaos and havoc rained down on his players by Elizabeth Moss as Becky Something, the coked-out, erratic narcissist lead singer of barely held-together band Something She. It’s a lightning-in-a-beer-bottle performance that can barely be contained by Perry's observational frames. On a second viewing, these sections are far more orchestrated than they first appear, setting up an unbroken tension deftly stretched to its limits in the much more subdued but nevertheless equally hypnotizing final two acts, movements that ultimately reveal Her Smell as a tribute to the power of womanhood.
5. Uncut Gems
Just like the titular black opal that “contains the entire universe,” the Safdie brothers so tightly condense all of their cinematic influences – Sidney Lumet, John Cassavettes, the Coen Brothers, Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, to name a few of their film “bros” – in the mystical and pulse-pounding Uncut Gems, it’s a miracle that they make it their own crystalline wonder rather than a collapsable pastiche. Adam Sandler is at his career-best as the chaotic-neutral Howard, a habitual gambler whose anxieties, exhilaration, and, perhaps most surprisingly, tenderness are writ-large by the Safdies in one gloriously sweaty and near stroke-inducing salute to the horrors of late capitalism.
4. The Irishman
It should be contradictory that The Irishman is both an elegy and a mea culpa for the type of violent gangster drama Martin Scorsese helped popularize with Mean Streets, Goodfellas, and Casino. With three-and-a-half-hours of runtime, however, this monster of a movie gets to be quite a lot: a Russian nesting doll of half-true memories, an investigation of mid-20th century political corruption, and a swaggering screed against the violent hearts of men. Perhaps most importantly, The Irishman extends past the genre’s typical conclusion of nostalgic remembrance for by-gone glory days and into when its killers are left destitute and dying, forced to reconcile their lowly fates with their unforgivable sins – if they can even consider them as such.
Us, Jordan Peele’s follow-up to the cultural monument of Get Out, might more easily fall prey to Redditor hand-wringing over plot construction, but the central metaphor of Us v. Them is so gloriously open-ended compared to the rather simple and simplistic allegory at the heart of his previous film that its implausibilities become strengths. Chief among them are those golden scissors and crimson jumpsuits – paired symbols of uprising against subjugation – that enter the horror canon as succinct symbols of chaos like the spray-painted William Shatner mask of Halloween (1978) or, yes, a teaspoon with a cup and saucer in Get Out. At the splitting heart of the new revolution contained within is Lupita Nyong'o's acrobatic dual (and dueling) performances that, like Us itself, exponentially multiply in noticeable nuance and detail with each subsequent (and absolutely required) viewing.
2. Portrait of a Lady on Fire
An excavation of the arthouse films that raised her generation of filmmakers, Celine Sciamma’s captivating Portrait of a Lady on Fire is an indelible ode to falling in love. For Sciamma and her artist-and-subject queer protagonists, the act exhibits itself in a multitude of expressions: sublimating obsession into art; self-discovery by studious observation; and pure, id-driven exclamations of passion. Somehow, the film’s exacting perfection is anything but staid or laborious. On the contrary, its purposefulness is supremely involving, with the director wringing screw-tightening suspense out of a small, single gesture or moving her camera a few feet to reveal a figure just outside of a doorframe. For these reasons, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is much more than Carol (2015) in bodices, even if it nearly stands toe-to-toe with that masterpiece or any number of classic European romances that inspired it.
1. Long Day’s Journey Into Night
Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey into Night may be a more obvious homage to the films that came before it than Portrait of a Lady on Fire, but that doesn’t make this shape-shifter any less beguiling or wonderous. If cinema is the art that comes closest to replicating dreams, Bi Gan’s latest works as a perfect Exhibit A. It’s a woozy, color-coded Out of the Past (1947) riff following a lowly criminal (Jue Huang) tracing his memories back to a lost love. Time expands and contracts as Bi’s impossibly elegant camera smashes layers of reality into each other as if in a particle collider. This is all before over an hour in, when, after being locked beside the lead, the audience follows him into a literal cinema and then into the cinema within his mind. The final half of Long Day’s Journey into Night knows just how clever it is, announcing itself as the film proper, but the 50-minute long take in 3-D is much more than a stunt, revealing truths and motivations buried deep before. Throughout Long Day’s Journey into Night, Bi Gan and his camera are drunk on the possibilities of cinema, and the result is the most intoxicating work of 2019.
Honorable Mentions: Apollo 11, Booksmart, Burning Cane, Clemency, Dragged Across Concrete, El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, High Flying Bird, Honeyland, The Irishman, Jojo Rabbit, Klaus, Knives Out, The Lighthouse, Memory: The Origins of Alien, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, Shadow, Sorry Angel, Under the Silver Lake, The Third Wife, The Wind
20. Birds of Passage
16. Little Women
15. I Lost My Body
14. Homecoming: A Film by Beyoncé
13. Her Smell
12. The Mustang
11. The Nightingale
10. A Hidden Life
Shaking off the indulgent fogginess that has characterized his recent works, Terrence Malick lowers his gaze from the heavens and settles on Austria in 1938. A Hidden Life grounds the filmmaker’s inimitable style in the real-world tribulations (and words) of a farmer who refuses to swear loyalty to the Third Reich, and the result is a dark, lovely, and spiritually transcendent work. Observing both exquisite beauty and contemptible evil with the same wide-eyed clarity, Malick’s latest feature might be his most sobering and earthbound film to date. However, it’s also a visual and aural feast from its first frame to its last, one that’s deeply attuned to the agony and ecstasy of being alive in this fallen world.
9. The Souvenir
Joanna Hogg’s endlessly fascinating and impeccably crafted semi-autobiographical feature manages to be two astonishing things that should be mutually exclusive. On the one hand, The Souvenir is an uncomfortably intimate depiction of a young filmmaker’s struggle to find her creative voice as she navigates a dysfunctional romantic relationship with a preening, egotistical addict. On the other hand, Hogg’s film is also a formal experiment of sorts, an effort to push the boundaries of narrative storytelling by eliding events and exposition in a manner that replicates the experience of flipping through a mental photo album. It’s cinema that feels at once deeply personal and artistically daring, an enthralling intertwining of purpose that underlines Hogg’s enviable confidence in her material and abilities.
In a year with no shortage of galvanic, ambitious horror features from well-known directors, Issa López’s magnificent modern-day fable strode out of the shadows and seized the genre’s crown. Gracefully blending nasty real-world terrors, creepy ghost-story conventions, and the nightmarish energy of the Grimmest fairy tales, Tigers Are Not Afraid pulls no punches in its depiction of human misery and malevolence. Yet underneath its narco-thriller grit and rotting gothic flesh stirs a marvelous resolve and hopefulness. In one unlikely but indomitable little girl, López discerns the sort of courage that would shame any storybook hero – and an imagination vivid enough to picture what justice might look like.
7. Uncut Gems
Breathlessly following along as an obnoxious NYC jewelry dealer navigates one long, dark weekend of the soul, Benny and Josh Safdie concoct a rattling, exhausting, and yet exhilarating portrait of addiction. Delivering a career-best performance, Adam Sandler bleeds hungry, chatterbox energy into every frame of this queasy, roller-coaster tale. However, the true Old Testament miracle of Uncut Gems lies not in its momentum, but in its sneaky talent for seduction. Somewhere along the film’s 135 minutes, the viewer will find themselves wondering if Sandler’s infuriating, two-timing loser might actually win in the end – even hoping that he will win. That’s the black magic of the Safdies’ film, that elation of possibility that glitters like the cosmic heart of a million-dollar opal.
6. Ad Astra
Confirming that the epic scale suits him far better than many expected, director James Gray sets out on a forlorn, skeptical, and yet ultimately life-affirming journey into outer and inner space. Brad Pitt might be garnering awards attention for a certain supporting role this year, but here he awes with his ability to anchor a portentous, void-spanning meditation on the antipathies and compulsions that have driven human beings off the edge of the map since the dawn of history. Littering his interplanetary vistas with the detritus of humanity’s failings – lunar pirates, corporate colonies, and disastrous experiments – Gray deftly balances big-budget spectacle with pensive, empathetic portraiture, elegantly depicting a man caught between his twin longings for solitude and connection.
5. The Farewell
We’re all going to die someday. Lulu Wang’s visually splendid and gently overwhelming feature isn’t concerned with dwelling miserably on that fact. Rather, The Farewell reflects with sly wisdom on how this knowledge should shape our lives in the here and now. Wang’s film might look like a quirky indie family dramedy at first glance, but its emotional sincerity is astonishingly strong, its cinematic eye is breathtakingly sharp, and its characters are deeply, believably human. Through the charming, infuriating, and tear-jerking particulars of the middle-class Chinese and Chinese-American experience, The Farewell discovers something akin to a universal balm for the despair of mortality, one that will particularly resonate with anyone who was ever a gloomy, Dickinson-reading teenager.
Bong Joon-Ho affirms that he is a genre unto himself with this blackly comic masterpiece about the grotesque impulses and perverse incentives that allow class hierarchies to thrive. There is no traditional villain in this tale of two dissimilar South Korean families embroiled in a shadow war over a luxurious house, a fact that is integral to Parasite’s trenchant observations about servility and privilege. However, the film is a viscerally satisfying as it is sharply political, nimbly juggling aspects of a heist picture, absurdist satire, nail-biting thriller, and repulsive horror tale. This is the film that Bong has been building towards for years, and it’s a wall-to-wall showcase for a virtuosic director who knows exactly what he’s doing with every shot.
3. Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Céline Sciamma’s stunningly gorgeous and utterly heartbreaking love story is absorbed with the acts of looking and seeing, and the distinction between the two. Boasting both a note-perfect screenplay and intoxicating visuals, her film takes the viewer inside the besotted headspace of an artist and her subject, who fall for one another with such pure-hearted intensity that the viewer practically shares their ache. Portrait admirably presents a bittersweet lesbian love story from an unabashedly lesbian point-of-view, but its emotional authenticity and peerless artistry reveal a universal humanity. Sciamma takes Call Me by Your Name’s most resonant theme and hones it into soul-piercing needle: Nothing lasts, and that agonizing fact makes love’s flame burn all the brighter.
The genius of Christian Petzold’s delicate and quietly chilling adaptation of a 1944 semi-autobiographical novel lies in its nested dislocations. This tale of a wanted man’s border-town tribulations is set in a modern-day, alternate-universe Marseille, France that’s under occupation by a fascist Germany. It is every year and yet no year. At various points, the desperate anti-hero plays the part of a surrogate father, a dead writer, and a friendly stranger. He is everyone and yet no one. This, Transit asserts, is the rotten fruit of violence and tyranny: The dissociation of not just people, but identities, relationships, and the very meaning of words. A sunny port city can thereby become a waiting room in hell, where lost souls pace in circles for eternity.
1. Long Day’s Journey Into Night
Stories. Lies. Memories. Fantasies. Movies. Dreams. A (literally) oneiric meta-cinematic marvel that stands alongside masterworks such as 8½ (1963) and Mulholland Drive (2001), Bi Gan’s haunting sophomore feature smears these various phase-states of second-hand reality into a dizzying, indescribable experience. Unfolding at the intersection of Jia Zhangke and Jacques Tourneur, this noir-indebted tale about a man’s search for the obscure object of his desire becomes, in Bi’s imagining, an elliptical poem on the ephemeral nature of love, loss, and regret. Plus: The mere fact that the best feature of the year is an enigmatic Chinese art film with a 3-D long-take centerpiece is a high-meets-low collision of the most heart-skipping sort.