Top 20 (or 22?) Films of 2019

As is the custom, as the new year closes, it’s time to reflect on some of the best films I saw over 2019. I saw quite a few this year, more than I was used to. While there are still some films which I haven’t gotten to such as Transit, Uncut Gems, 1917, or The Two Popes, I feel fairly complete for the most part. That’s not saying I won’t visit those films if the situation arises. In years past, I mostly settled on a top ten list, however there are so many movies I thought were worth mentioning and was killing me not to add, I decided to expand it to a top 20. However the way this very objective list works, I have made a way to add two extra films, hence the paranthesis of 22. Trust me it will all make sense once you see what I have done. Also for those interested, I have already made a top ten list of the best of the decade films which I wrote for Filmotomy, and which you can read here , but for the purpose of this blog, I just wanted to concentrate on this year which was a very good and rich year if I might say so myself. So without further adieu, here is my list.

20. Toy Story 4: Pixar has blessed us with many a great animated films since they began with Toy Story way back in 1995. Although the Toy Story franchise remains beloved, I just haven’t been able to connect with them on much of an emotional level as I have with other films such as Up or Wall-E. However that all changed with Toy Story 4, which I personally think is the best film in the series. Here we are left with almost a clean slate now that the toys’ era with Andy ended in Toy Story 3, and the main leader Woody the Cowboy (voiced by Tom Hanks) feels adrift without any purpose. Toy Story 4 feels less like a film about growing up, but more about what happens once when you feel you may have peaked. What’s left for you, and how do you carry on? Pixar is never afraid to tackle such heavy, even existential questions, and this film balances this so well with great humour and animation, it all feels so effortless.

19. The Farewell: In this highly emotional, touching, and funny family drama, writer/director Lulu Wang paints a warm portrait of a family in crisis. When a Chinese-American aspiring writer Billi (Awkwafina), finds out that her Grandmother is dying from cancer, she struggles to hide it, even though it is customary that it be kept a secret. The family then decides to create an elaborate wedding for a cousin in order for them to be together one last time with the Grandmother. This film creates very small subtle emotional beats, coupled with brilliant cinematic flares of expression. Writer/director Wang creates a wonderful culture clash between Eastern and Western traditions, but makes no quick judgements on either side. However the heart of the film is the tender relationship between a woman and her Nai Nai.

18. One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk: Perhaps the most obscure film on this list, but no less special. One Day in the Life… focuses on an Inuit man and his tribe, which starts off with some hunting out in the frozen arctic, followed by some tea. At this point, you would think the film was going to be all about life in the arctic with these people and that would be just fine, however it takes a turn when a white man from the government comes to talk terms with Noah about leaving his land and living with his family on a reserve. Pretty soon the film becomes a futile exercise on bargaining and agreements, a culture clash if there ever was one. Noah is a man of the land, and believes no one should own it and he should live whereever he pleases. The Canadian government doesn’t see it that way, not to mention they don’t even speak the same language as him. The film is quiet, observational, and sometimes maddening. The discussions go around in circles, only to come back to an obsurd conclusion that is lost in translation. A frustrating film simply because how frustrating the subject matter is, yet I found the point of view and patience of the filmmaking hypnotic.

17. Godzilla: King of the Monsters: Real engaging blockbuster filmmaking comes few and far in between these days. Much of it feels like empty, corporate, cash grabbing with little substance. Of course this is my opinion and I usually enjoy most blockbusters as surface level entertainment, especially as I didn’t grasp the full emotional weight of The Avengers for example. However one film that did work for me was Godzilla: King of Monsters, which was somewhat maligned considering it was full of excellent visuals, and brought to life the legendary monsters of Godzilla, Rodan, Mothra, and King Gidorrah perfectly. The film is big, and never lets us forget that, but like in all Godzilla movies, these monsters stand in as a metaphor for human frailty as we are hell bent on our own destruction. Godzilla represents the balance between humans and nature, if ever one existed. The performances are good with nicely fleshed out characters which borrow from a Spielbergian broken family trope, and the film is never short on spectacle.

16. Amazing Grace: A wonderful concert documentary, which was originally filmed in 1972 when Aretha Franklin decided to do a concert album all with gospel music. The film didn’t see the light of day until earlier this year, and it proves to be a fitting tribute to the Queen of soul who looks stunning, and beautiful caught at the height of her powers. The music is just as soulful with Franklin’s voice lifting to unbelievable heights, at least for us common mortals. The concert was filmed at the Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles, and Franklin is accompanied by the Southern California Community Choir, which gives the film a spiritual quality, although it proves that just her voice would’ve been enough to impress. A wonderful forgotten document of music history.

15. Little Women: Greta Gerwig’s adaption of the classic story is the most contemporary where her characters feel as if they were transported from the modern age into the times of the Civil War. This is a unique take on the source material and Gerwig fleshes out the characters in ways they have never been seen before. She adds energy and a vigorous sensibility to the scenes which all seem lived in and spontaneous. It works as somewhat of a desconstruction of Alcott’s famous book, which unearths subtexts that might have not been previously expressed fully in past iterations. Gerwig makes the film feel fresh and new for this generation to discover, it’s a very unique spin which was inspiring to see and reminds us why the original story is so timeless.

14. Dolemite is My Name: Eddie Murphy shines in one of his best performances ever as comedian Rudy Ray Moore who created the cult classic Blaxploitation parody film Dolemite. This film chronicles Moore’s determination into making it, even though he had no filmmaking experience whatsoever. Written by the screenwriting team of Larry Karasewski, and Scott Alexander, who were the men responsible for the similar film Ed Wood, this is a comedic delight with Murphy firing on all cylanders and accompanied by one of the best ensembles of the year. The attention to detail such as the costume and set designs are on par with the best of the year, and you are left inspired and cheering for Moore, as well as Murphy which was so nice to see him back in his element.

13. Jojo Rabbit: Director Taika Waititi hits us with a hilarious, but also heartbreaking coming of age story set in the world of a young Hitler youth. JoJo Rabbit gives us some of the best, darkest comedy bits of the year, but then it pulls the rug from under you just when you least suspect it. Comedy can be savage when it comes to subjects that are considered taboo or in bad taste, and the film found its share of criticism of this. However Waititi creates a world for children, but doesn’t sugarcoat things just for our amusement. The comedy peters on sentimentality, yet it doesn’t wallow there for long. It evokes the films of Chaplin at times, who was another filmmaker who could balance comedy and sentiment very well.

12.The Dead Don’t Die: I was shocked to learn that not many people found Jim Jarmusch’s latest deadpan comedy to be all great or even good. However, I don’t think it would phase a director like Jarmusch who continues to make movies to the beat of his own drum. This is a meta zombie comedy, with hilarious vignettes full of quirky characters who may not realize they are in a dire zombie film. Perhaps the tone put people off as the comedy seems to come at the expense of Zombie movie tropes and knowing that what happens is inevitable. Zombies always work as a metaphor and here Jarmusch shows us people who seem to be going through their daily routine while the world is ending all around them. The heroes of the film are comprised of Bill Murray and Adam Driver who feel like the Batman and Robin in a Jarmucsh universe. They play off of each other so well, it’s as if they are competing for who can be the most deadpan. Then of course Tilda Swinton shows up as a funeral director who welds a samurai sword. What’s not to like?

11. Apollo 11: My favourite documentary I saw this year, Apollo 11 recreates the famous moon landing using previously unseen footage. We are subject to an experience rather than an account. You will not see interviews with people who were there, nor professional scholars on the subject. What you will see are images formed together almost like a collage, which takes you from the very beginning of the journey, to the end when the astronauts come back to Earth. The film works like musical movements, playing with our emotions, and the visuals are majestic. I saw this on an IMAX screen and it was by far one of the most breathtaking movie going experiences I had this year. Images fill the screen unlike anything I’ve seen, and I left with a feeling of elation, and optimism at what mankind can accomplish.

10. (Tie) Us and Parasite: Two satirical thrillers came out this year which best demonstrated class systems. Both Jordon Peele’s Us and Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite examine the ideas of class systems in a very capitalist society. In both films there are hidden undergrounds of people which upper crust just assume forget. Yet there is also desperation among these people to reach the heights of money and power. In the guise of the thriller genre, both filmmakers create two of the most entertaining and accesible films of the year, with enought twists and turns for several movies. The inventive filmmaking on display, and delicious performances create a certain mood and tone which keeps the viewer off kilter and anticipating what happens next. The marks they make are on point and the satirical aspect of both films are both vicious and hilarious.

9. (Tie) Blinded by the Light and Western Stars: Who would’ve thought that 2019 would give us a plethera of Bruce Springsteen content in the cinemas, yet that’s exactly what we got and it proved to be two of my favourite movie going experiences of the year. With Blinded by the Light, we are given a jukebox coming of age story about a Pakastani immigrant boy growing up in Luton England under strict family rules, and has to undergo racial taunts almost everyday. Yet his life changes when he hears the music of Bruce Springsteen which inspires him to find his own voice. The film isn’t afraid to reach the heights of romance, and sentimentality similar to a Springsteen song, and it’s unabashadly sincere which had me welling up more than once in the theatre. The second film is Western Stars which actually features Springsteen in an intimate concert setting. Designed as a promotion for his latest album of the same name, and also co-directed by Springsteen, Western Stars works as a meditation on many of the themes he’s done before, but they are also done by a man who at this point has seen and heard it all. The power of his music becomes like a spiritual experience, with interludes in between songs of Springsteen discussing the essence of the album in a poetic blend of words and imagery. Both films are love letters in a way to Springsteen fans, and forgive me if I indulge, but if I’m being honest few films hit me as hard as these two did this year.

8. The Irishman: Martin Scorsese returns to the gangster epic again, but this time he has more on his mind than before. This is a film about the darkness that comes to us all at the end of our lives. It’s a quiet and reflective film which does take its time (it’s over 3 and a half hours.) Yet this is also a very rich film, which can be entertaining and funny, but also bleak. The film moves at a pace unlike the quickness of a Goodfellas, but it’s not afraid to take its time to explore every moment and character to its fullest. By the end we get a full picture of the world these men inhabit, and the toll it takes on them. There’s no glory to it, instead there is isolation, loneliness, and an unforgiving air to their final days. Scorsese reminds us that all great men meet their end, and they are usually the same as everyone else, except with these men, the silence can be deafening.

7. Varda by Agnes: Part documentary, part essay film, but all Agnes Varda. Varda was a bright light in cinema since she began her career amongst the french New Wave. She never compromised, and always brought her own unique eye to whatever art projects she tackled. With this, her final film, she reflects back on her career as a filmmaker, photographer, painter, designer, and avante garde artist. She discusses her technique and her choices she made in many of her films and projects. What we get is a wonderful portrait of an artist told through their own eyes. By the end you may feel inspired, and filled with joy that you were able to spend time at all with this great artists. Varda as a person in her film is always forthcoming with her process, and is able to discuss her work on both a personal and analytical way. The film is never sentimental, but always engaging and lively. It’s a wonderful elegy of a life fully lived, and makes us hope we could all be so lucky.

6. Pain and Glory: Director Pedro Almodovar’s very personal portrait of an aging filmmaker who must deal with his own mortality. He is sick, and thoughts of death aren’t too far away from his thoughts, yet he also tries to come to terms with some past bitter relationships, including an old actor friend, a lover, and his mother. The film works like a series of vignettes, and feels like it meanders from one encounter to another, yet I felt that’s what the point of the film was, which was moments in time both good and bad that we cannot shake, even if we make the same mistakes over and over again. By the end, I felt a great feeling of sadness wash over me, and Banderas gives a very open and honest portrayal of a man that seems at both timed self-destructive, but also trying to make amends. Proof again how complicated life can become.

5. Portrait of a Lady on Fire: A passionate love story, brimming with so much emotion and romance, a loving portrait of a time two lovers could be together that you wish could last forever. Director Celine Sciamma, creates an enclosed world for women to create a surrogate family, where they can be who they are without any expectations laid upon them. It is a world of freedom and expression and it is beautifully brought to life with glorious performances, and on point cinematography. It is presented as a memory, and each shot could be thought of as a portrait of its own. The film is obsessed with gestures, movements, and expressions which present a full picture. This is an unforgettable cinematic experience that deserves repeat viewings to capture the true essence of this film.

4. The Last Black Man in San Francisco: A film that sadly went overlooked this year, yet I believe it will no doubt find a cult status when people do seek it out. It involves the city of San Francisco as a character in the film, and represents it not only as a love letter but as an indictment. The story concerns two young black men who stay in a house in the city around a predominantly white neighbourhood. Although the house is not legally theirs, they take up residence when no one else posesses it. The film tackles the idea of racism through displacement, and similar to Us and Parasite, has much to say about how a capitalist society treats certain people. But this is also a strong story about friendship, entitlement, and the false truths we tell ourselves. This is also a very beautiful and haunting film, with a glorious score, and one of the best musical interludes all year concerning a wonderful, and soulful rendition of San Francisco (Be sure to wear flowers in your hair).

3. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: With what is possibly his best film, Quentin Tarantino brings us back to Hollywood in the late sixties with his usual brand of history altering revisionism. However, what is surprising is that this film is a loving tribute to a time and place when movies were made a certain way, and the romance of them has not faded into homegenized corporate products. This is a film about Tarantino’s youth and in its own way is just as truthful as Cuaron’s Roma from last year. The difference is however, Tarantino doesn’t leave us without some very suspenseful and bloody sequences. Done at the time of the Manson murders, the film received certain flak for how it handled the alternate history of those events, but it’s done like a fairy tale where the good guys win, and the bad guys are defeated. It works like gangbusters, and Tarantino once again suggests the power of film and storytelling lies in the eyes of the beholder.

2. Marriage Story: A film I didn’t know I needed until I watched it. Marriage Story is the type of raw character driven film that has become few and far between. It’s one of the few instances I felt like I was watching real people with real problems. Writer/director Noah Baumbach follows his characters around with an observational eye, never losing focus on the tragedy and comedy of a couple’s divorce. Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson both give harrowing performances, and the supporting cast which includes Laura Dern, Alan Alda, Ray Liotta, and Julie Haggerty are all memorable, with each performance adding texture and nuance. Rarely has a film felt so alive as this, and I was invested so much in the characters wanting it to end happily, and the finale became cathartic for me unlike any other film I’ve seen. But this is also a film of great wit and humour, and the fact Baumback made this into a comedy shows courage in the face of despair. There are so many moments in this film which make it a complete whole.

1. A Hidden Life: Terrence Malick has returned to more cohesive filmmaking with his greatest film in years. Concerning the life of a young German farmer in World War II who refuses to swear allegience to Hitler based on religious grounds, the film is an account on faith and martydom in the face of evil. This is a philosophical film, which is more concerned with asking questions than giving answers. Malick creates a cathedral of images at first showing a secluded heaven on Earth between the farmer and his wife, but he asks if such a life can be possible when the forces of evil drive a stake through it. Yet this becomes a transcendent film by the end, creating a freedom in the mind. One might compare this to the great silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc, yet one might argue Malick goes further questioning what one person’s martydom does to the people around them. In this case, the wife is seen as an outcast, and shunned from her village. Yet the power of this film never makes us lose faith and the closing moments become sublime and hopeful that another life may be waiting for us outside of this confusing world.