The medium is not what it once was—see: Marvel, Scorsese on Netflix—but that doesn’t mean it can’t be something better. And this year provided plenty of evidence of positive evolution.
Contemporary movie culture is too often driven by conversations about what it’s not. It’s not like it used to be. The movies aren’t the same. The industry isn’t, either. This decade in cinema has been one long, tolling bell—the end of an era, or an epoch, or just an Endgame altogether. But somehow, 2019 transcended the angst to produce one of the most powerful slates in decades. Was it luck? A last gasp? Or maybe it was just the function of a changing power structure—seven of the films on our list came from studios that weren’t even producing or distributing movies 10 years ago. So the medium may not be what it once was. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be something better.
Check out The Ringer’s look back at the best and most notable of 2019
The year’s most audacious movie twist is hiding in plain sight for the duration of German auteur Christian Petzold’s masterful Transit: Although faithfully adapted from a novel written and set during World War II, the film is shot in present-day Marseille, with no effort expended to create a period piece. The result is a swoony, tragically romantic thriller pitched somewhere between lo-fi and sci-fi—a throwback that’s also a snapshot of the present, using Europe’s current refugee crisis to contextualize the horrors of the past (and vice versa). It’s a complex, urgent, ingenious movie, and after the devastating one-two punch of Barbara and Phoenix, it makes the case for Petzold as the decade’s most exemplary foreign arthouse auteur. —Adam Nayman
Like Dani, the lead figure in Aster’s second feature film, I too spent my summer in Sweden. Beautiful country, beatific people, an eerie calm all across the land—the perfect setting for madness. Aster is a dastardly filmmaker, a sadistic, hilarious creator of painful circumstance and unerring dread. His first film, the surprise hit Hereditary, was bound mostly to a family from hell. Midsommar expands, to a hidden commune in Sweden with some archaic—er, barbaric—practices. The runic symbols and polygon temples and extravagant flower sculptures give the film a mesmerizing visual signature and nauseous energy—the commune is hell in broad daylight, The Truly Bad Place. The rube Americans who visit, with hopes of sex and academia, pay the price for their touristic arrogance. But beyond the high-gore kills and self-hating political circumspection, Midsommar is a movie about ignoring what’s right in front of you—taking a partner for granted or refusing to look at your own ghoulish impulses. It’d make a helluva double feature with Marriage Story, or The Souvenir. Remember: Love the one you’re with. —Sean Fennessey
A throwback, I presume? Not exactly. Rian Johnson’s formalist homage-deconstruction of Agatha Christie whodunits has a tone unlike anything I’ve seen lately: wry, zesty, and relentless. It is one of the year’s pure moviegoing joys, right down to its immensely satisfying ending and pitch-perfect needle drop. Knives Out has been lauded for its class-conscious satire, but instead of a single message, I found a comic writer tossing poison-tipped blades in every direction: at alt-right trolls, at Instagram influencers, at true crime obsessives, and even at brilliant detectives profiled in The New Yorker. Johnson has convened a true rogues’ gallery of contemporary culture—Captain America, Laurie Strode, James Bond, Yoda, Darius from Atlanta, the star of 13 Reasons Why, and Sonny Crockett—and set them at each other’s throats for two hours. What could be a better metaphor for cultural consumption in 2019 than that? —Fennessey
The deft, poetic touch displayed by French director Mati Diop in her feature debut carries echoes of her collaborator Claire Denis; like Denis’s Trouble Every Day, Atlantics cloaks cultural metaphor in the tropes of horror movies, not to fool audiences so much as to demonstrate the elasticity of genre itself. Reported lost at sea on a perilous voyage to Spain, a group of Senegalese workers possess the bodies of the women they’d left behind in order to take revenge on their cheapskate employers. Within this simple conceit, the supernatural is daringly politicized, while the purposeful blurring of gender lines puts a spin on the script’s allegory of class warfare; it is a tale of solidarity, and of have-nots fighting back. In addition, Atlantics is also a love story, culminating in a sequence that aches so exquisitely it’s almost hard to watch—and yet impossible to take your eyes off of. —Nayman
Why Little Women? a strawman asks. (And it is usually a man.) Writer-director Greta Gerwig has an answer for that. What better way to explore complex, urgent questions about power, money, and love than through Louisa May Alcott’s 150-year-old novel? Gerwig has vivisected the book, removing organs and rearranging their biological structure to create something newly vital. Sprawling, ambitious reconfigurations of classic literature is the sort of thing we’re not supposed to get anymore, and Gerwig, who has never appeared in or made anything that isn’t modern, would seem an unlikely auteur for movies of the kind. But the independence and romantic ambivalence and steam engine of creativity that defines Jo March (a famished Saoirse Ronan) makes her feel precisely like a teleported Gerwig heroine. Call it The Portrait of a Lady Bird. And the film’s lushness—in its costumes, camera work, and rambunctious physicality—confirms Gerwig as one of the most exciting filmmakers of her generation. —Fennessey
With apologies to James Gray’s intermittently visionary Ad Astra, High Life stands as the downbeat science-fiction movie of the year, and also of this young millennium thus far. No matter how far its characters get blasted into the outer-space equivalent of death row, they can’t escape themselves or transcend their flawed, gnarled, biological realities. Not since Alien has interstellar travel been so gooey. Denis is not a shy artist: The image of Juliette Binoche’s witchy mad scientist—a distaff Dr. Frankenstein playing games of life and death with her crew’s precious bodily fluids—writhing naked in her ship’s metallic “fuckbox” splits the difference between the pornographic and the avant-garde without asking us to choose or giving us a second to catch our breath. The movie is brutal and uncompromising, and, as it pushes out the other side of its provocations, tender and surpassingly humane. Its brilliance lies in Denis’s understanding that the difference between these two extreme polarities is really nothing at all. —Nayman
“I heard you had your swimming pool resurfaced” has got to be the most menacing line of the year: What good is flaunting your wealth when you’ve got debtors waiting to collect? As the prosperous but cash-strapped jeweller Howard Ratner, who never had a bad idea he couldn’t double down on, Adam Sandler delves deeper into his man-child persona than ever before, emerging with a portrait of a man whose greed is more a matter of pride than avarice. Howard wants, therefore he is, and the things he desires aren’t really all that strange in the final analysis: Crucially, we’re never allowed to feel superior to him. Picking up where their superb Good Time left off, directors Josh and Benny Safdie put their antihero through a wringer of bad bets, worse breaks, and the most fateful NBA playoff game ever committed to film. Best Supporting Actor: Kevin Garnett. Best Supporting Supporting Actor: Mike Francesa. —Nayman
Joanna Hogg’s autobiographical drama about a well-heeled film student falling under the spell of a heroin addict puts a grim spin on the coming-of-age fable; as Julie, Honor Swinton Byrne is believably helpless in the face of her own post-adolescent yearning for grown-up love and adult experience (embodied by Tom Burke’s vampiric junkie, a Byronic mediocrity whose luster keeps dimming in scene after scene). As Julie’s sucked deeper into the downward vortex around her lover, she comes close to losing herself, and yet Hogg’s movie is really about the possibility of self-actualization in the midst of adversity. The girl who we see finally making her movie in the final scenes isn’t a finished product but she’s older, wiser, and more capable than the one we met at the movie’s outset. The question of whether she’s really learned anything remains open (and lo, a sequel is on the way). Superbly crafted and acted on every level, The Souvenir is one of the best British films of recent years. —Nayman
Shout-out to all the married people. Noah Baumbach has captured how married people shout. And how they undercut. And how they cry. And how they love. And how they break apart. His 11th feature exists in a familiar milieu—erudite, gorgeous creatives on the brink of archly comic existential despair. But there is something more balanced, less acidic here than usual. There’s thrashing—from Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson delivering career-best work, and from Laura Dern and Ray Liotta as the vicious divorce lawyers who willingly toxify their clients’ lives and literalize our most hideous impulses. But Baumbach is more controlled than ever. He’s become a more confident, technical filmmaker over the years, less reliant merely on his wit. His camera roams and follows his characters, lets them dig themselves into holes and stays steady while they try to crawl out. This deeply personal story begs comparison to the small number of canonical divorce movies. But there’s something more elusive here—the faint feeling of almost that lingers as the credits roll. It’s a … sweetness, not angry or vindictive. After all, it isn’t called Divorce Story. —Fennessey
We’re all dying, life is a lie, and when it ends, you’re all alone. If Martin Scorsese thinks that, imagine how we should feel. The master director’s long-gestating, 209-minute triumph has been nearly swallowed by arguments about its circumstances: its epic running time; its de-aging technology; its provenance as a Netflix-funded awards tractor beam; its echoes of his own gangland mythos. But this movie isn’t an homage to the self, or a regurgitation of what came before in Mean Streets, Goodfellas, or Casino. This is a new and perhaps final journey for Scorsese, about not just mortality but the enormity of regret. Henry Hill was left behind, just another schnook. But Frank Sheeran—the would-be Zelig of mafia-Teamster relations—is a portal to the correlating themes Scorsese has spent decades deepening: loyalty and faith, power and violence, brotherhood and labor. If his film is slow and durational, it isn’t a mistake. It’s life. —Fennessey
If this year at the movies is remembered for anything, it will probably be—well, something about Marvel. But if it’s remembered for something else, it might be Parasite. And furthermore, Bong Joon-ho’s official entrance into the broader popular consciousness of the English-speaking world. His Hitchockian, upstairs-downstairs parable set in modern Seoul has traveled far and wide, from winning the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival to massive box office success in Bong’s native South Korea to a surprising and welcome wave of enthusiasm here in North America. It’s crossed over, not just from our ever-shrinking arthouse terrarium, or even the genre slot in which it comfortably resides. Parasite is a kind of phenomenon. A lot of people saw The Secret Life of Pets 2, but I didn’t have a single conversation about it. I’ve had a new one about Parasite every week since August. That viral power is spreading like an infestation, much like the members of the Kim family multiplying inside the home of the unsuspecting Park family. Bong has an architectural mind, building up his sets and his tension and his case against economic disparity. And when those tensions rise to unsustainable heights, the only thing that can provide relief is a vicious revenge. This movie is scary and funny and utterly beguiling. If you haven’t seen it, you must. —Fennessey
Beauty isn’t always in Tarantino’s wheelhouse, but the montage of neon signs flickering to life that heralds the third act of his epic L.A. period piece may be the most lyrical passage of his highly ironic career. The slow, gradual illumination of the Valley suggests a secret, hidden, utopian world opening up and beckoning us in. If there’s something potentially dangerous or reactionary about Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood’s nostalgia for a bygone era and its trickle-down frontier heroism, it’s a tension that Tarantino plays with thoughtfully for his film’s nearly three-hour duration. After the lurching craziness of The Hateful Eight, QT juxtaposes pop-cultural myths and legends without breaking a sweat. Leonardo DiCaprio’s fragile ersatz cowboy and Brad Pitt’s indestructible stunt double are richly symbolic figures written and acted on a beguilingly human scale (give Pitt his Oscar now), while Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate—the year’s most polarizing movie character precisely because her complexity is so deceptive in such an alpha-male movie—gets placed on a pedestal with all the poetic license Tarantino can muster (which is plenty). The film is clever, sentimental, outrageous, daring, annoying, sadistic, fetishistic, narcissistic, and singular—an example of what its creator is capable of when he really puts his heart (including the blackened parts) into his work. It’s also palpably imperfect, which is bound to happen with a talent as big and shameless as the one we’re dealing with here. As Pitt’s Cliff Booth says when contemplating his own flawed virtuosity: “Fair enough.” —Nayman
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The Best Movies of 2019 – The Ringer