Top 13 Films of 2019

After a few off years, I finally kept up with enough recent releases that I’m confident in making a top film list for 2019. I’m not much of one for comparing a year to any other year. All I will say is that any year that has this many movies worth seeing is a good year in my book. 

This year has seen some big shakeups, especially as streaming services begin to push more original films, but the quality of the films will continue to remain the important factor to me, not necessarily distribution. And if the box office hits are any indication, physical theaters are not in trouble of shutting down anytime soon. 

In any case, I’d rather talk about the films I ended up liking, none of which were particularly big at the box office. I think that once again demonstrates that the gems are hidden off the beaten track. Streaming services have made seeing these movies much easier than before and most of them can be found between Hulu, Netflix and Amazon Prime. 

I’d like to quickly mention films on my shortlist I didn’t see this year due to either access or time. I’d like to think most of these would have made the list somewhere, and I hope to catch up with them this year. Those that I didn’t get the chance to view are: A Hidden Life, Hagazussa, Midsommar, Honeyland, The Art of Self-Defense, An Elephant Sitting Still, Peterloo, Penguin Highway, The Dead Don’t Die, Her Smell, and One Cut of the Dead.

13. Under the Silver Lake

A neo-noir film dealing with strange conspiracy theories about Hollywood, Under the Silver Lake stands out as one of the most unique films of the year. One moment it’s a languid dream, the next a horrific nightmare, and the next a strange thriller. There are some loose threads by the end mostly in service to making every moment interesting at the expense of the film at large, but there are enough magical moments here to make the messy structure forgivable. 

12. The Farewell

When the family matriarch is diagnosed with terminal cancer, a Chinese family decides to keep the truth from her while also planning a fake wedding as an excuse for the family to visit her one last time. The result is a pitch-perfect mix of comedy in drama. It’s a great examination of cultural and generational differences as three generations struggle with shifting value changes. Awkwafina is an inspiration here and will hopefully have a long career. 

11. Weathering With You

Very much an anime film, it would be easy to slight Weathering With You but the reason it sticks to the formula so closely is because it is so effective. The animation goes a long way to making the film worth watching, especially the animation of rain which has rarely looked this good. At times the film feels like anime’s greatest hits with a lot of familiar character types but by the end there’s enough original magic to make it one of the year’s best films.

10. Knives Out

The most fun I had in the theater all year. A whodunit for the modern era, the film constantly shifts perspectives, viewpoints, and contexts to weave a mystery about the murder of a rich family’s patriarch. Woven in is some topical politics about race and class in America that doesn’t always hit but it leads to some great character moments. Dialogue in movies is rarely this fun and snappy anymore. Pay attention, Hollywood.  

9. The Irishman

I’ve never been a fan of Martin Scorsese’s gangster films so I’m surprised how much I enjoy this one. For the first time in years Robert De Niro and Al Pacino don’t phone it in and give great performances. The framing device and the the regret through which Frank sees his life story makes for a film where the world of crime felt far less alluring. And it’s also impressive that at three and a half hours the film moves along at a decent clip and never overstays its welcome. 

8. Atlantics

A gorgeously shot love story evolves into something mystical and unreal by the end. I hesitate to say more than that, but there’s much more to Atlantics than the opening act suggests. One betrothed woman’s love for another man is the lense through which the film examines a larger world of issues facing the people of Senegal. It’s a film worth watching for the visuals alone, but the story is also intriguing and unique.

7. Ad Astra

James Gray continues to write and direct some of the most emotionally affecting stories in all of American cinema. Ad Astra comes across as a love letter to 2001: A Space Odyssey, but Gray weaves it into a tale of a son searching for his father and a larger cosmic wondering about whether or not humanity is alone in the universe. Isolation and connection are recurring themes in Gray’s work, but never have they been so starkly contrasted as here. 

6. Parasite 

I’ve seen many words poured over the classism of Parasite. The tale of a lower-class Korean family extorting their ways into cushy jobs with an upper-class family certainly can’t help but be in part about the haves and have-nots. But in light of this being another story from Joon Ho Bong, I think he’s making larger statements about human nature and how we are all parasites, using personal and professional relationships to suck something out of the other person. 

5. The Souvenir 

A young film student becomes involved with an older man and their romance slowly begins to take a turn for the worse. It might not sound like the most original story but it’s the little touches along the way that make it work: how issues are unresolved or skirted past, how our female lead begins to find her own voice and style as a filmmaker as her relationship with the man deteriorates. It all feels more true to life and naturalistic than any other film I saw this year. It’s strange that another part is coming this year but it’s honestly the most excited I’ve been for a sequel to anything in years. 

4. Little Women

Adaptation films are extremely common and often straightforward translations of the original novel. Gretta Gerwig adapted Little Women to the screen with a strong sense of the visual and emotional language of cinema and uses film techniques and non-linear storytelling to present the highs and lows of the original story through a creative structure that treats the audience with maturity and intelligence. A lesser adaptation would have treated the source material to preciously, Gerwig makes it into something fresh and exciting. 

3. 3 Faces

This film wears its influences on its sleeve, pulling heavily from Jafar Panahi’s later mentor Abbas Kiaorstami. And yet it’s different enough and comes from a strong female perspective that it is as fresh and challenging as many of Iran’s best works. Panahi continues to make films in defiance of the Iranian government and yet he still retains some of the restraint and control that might be attributed to censorship, suggesting to audiences that maybe the most important part of cinema is letting the audience fill in the gaps. 

2. The Lighthouse

Greek tragedy meets black and white silent film visuals, The Lighthouse is a bright beacon in a year of underwhelming horror flicks. Robert Eggers once again impresses as a director, but it’s once again the writing that provides the foundation for such a strong and unique film. Period specific dialogue and setting makes each film Eggers make a world to inhabit as much as anything else. Robert Patterson and Willem Dafoe bring the dialogue to life with two of the best performances of the year.

1. High Life

Sometimes you watch a movie and it makes you realize your dream is to be a space dad. Claire Denis is one of those directors I always love watching even if I don’t always like what she is making. Some of her films I adore, others I hate. This one falls into the former camp as a story set in space which is less about the sci-fi applications of the genre and more about the very human process of procreation and raising a child. It’s a rare sci-fi film where the sci-fi feels largely incidental to a film that explores the most basic and primal side of being human.

© James Blake Ewing 2020