As part of our ongoing end-of-the-year coverage, we published our list of the best films of 2019 on Monday. As usual, we stand by our choices, but we’re not so naïve as to think that it would please everyone. Which is why we’re asking:
What film should’ve made our best of 2019 list?
No big-budget Hollywood spectacle released this year could compete with the nonstop visual pleasures of Bi Gan’s beguilingly hazy crime-movie pastiche Long Day’s Journey Into Night. The film’s plot, about an ex-gangster ruminating on the archetypical accomplices and melodramatic developments of his past, is deliberately vague and maybe even negligible—I can’t improve on my colleague Ignatiy Vishnevetsky’s assertion that it’s “like a semi-familiar noir, watched while nodding at the edge of wakefulness.” As a pure object of desire, something to simply gape at, it’s nonstop dazzling, knocking you on your ass with one gorgeous and inventive image after another, straight through to the show-stopping finale: an unbroken 60-minute shot that actually feels justified, maybe because it’s helping convey the slight remove of a dream. This is my kind of eye candy, and it came in big, generous scoops.
Alma Har’el’s Honey Boy is kind of a mess, but I can get past Lucas Hedges’ undercooked rehab scenes and whatever that FKA Twigs stuff was thanks to Shia Labeouf and Noah Jupe, who delivered two of the best performances I saw all year. Labeouf, who based the script on his fractured relationship with his own father, is loathsome and magnetic as he balances the monster he’s mythologized with the flawed man who raised him. The 14-year-old Jupe matches his co-star’s emotional intensity, manifesting a frothing resentment that, unlike his acting partner’s, wasn’t motivated by decades of mental anguish.
Pedro Almodóvar movies come out pretty regularly, and every one of them gets referred to as a “return to form” by one critic or another. But Pain & Glory resonated with me in a way that none of Almodóvar’s films has since Volver. A big part of that is Antonio Banderas’ rich, expertly rendered performance as Salvador Mallo, an aging filmmaker who’s got Almodóvar’s hair and lives in Almodóvar’s apartment, paintings and all. Suffice to say, this is an autobiographical film, and although the details have been fudged, the tenderness and intimacy as it floats between past and present, buoyed by gentle, colorful animated sequences, is palpably real.
It was an unexpected treat this year to see The Irishman and Marriage Story become social media sensations on the weekends they debuted on Netflix. But where was that hubbub when Dolemite Is My Name hit? Eddie Murphy gives his best performance since Bowfinger, playing cult comedian Rudy Ray Moore, who became a sensation in the 1970s by turning raunchy folklore into a snappy stand-up act and a series of blaxploitation features. Dolemite Is My Name is a crowd-pleaser, about a scrappy entertainer who found his own audience when the industry shut its doors to him. (And it’s pretty meme-able, too, if you’re into that.)
2019 was a fantastic year for films centered on the haves facing off against the have-nots—as our list ably attests. But none of them scratched my itch for nastiness quite so well as Ready Or Not, a wonderfully dark, class-focused riff on The Most Dangerous Game. The film’s masterstroke is in depicting its blue-blood antagonists realistically, which is to say, as bumbling morons with no real grasp of how to do anything, let alone ritualistic murder, for themselves. The result is a bit like watching the Bluths or the Roses trying to run a murder cult, with all the grim delights that implies.
You’ve got to hand it to Carlos Reygadas: It takes a whole lot of huevos to make a three-hour movie about getting cucked so hard by your actual, real-life wife that your entire life falls apart. His latest epic-of-the-intimate Our Time is constructed from the uglier building blocks of an open relationship, showing how pettiness and jealousy and insecurity get the better of a rancher and his spouse after she takes a liking to their gringo ranch hand. Glimpses of the transcendent (grazing livestock, children frolicking in mudflats) break up this soured love story straddling the line between reality and fiction.
I’m still not sure why Nia DaCosta’s Little Woods wasn’t a bigger deal. A neo-Western in a similar mold as Hell Or High Water, DaCosta’s directorial debut follows sisters bound by systematic misogyny. As Tessa Thompson’s Ollie deals prescription pills to hurting workers and plans to escort her sister, Deb (Lily James), illegally across the Canadian border for an abortion, the film makes plain how the goal of capitalist patriarchy is to destroy opportunities available to poor women. The stellar cast adds a bristling energy to DaCosta’s script, which seethes with anger as much as it asks for empathy.
I’m pretty smug and happy with the A.V. Club’s list, as 11 of my top 15 movies made the cut. But I am surprised that a 25-movie list didn’t have room for Luce, Julius Onah’s mesmerizing and exacting adaptation of J.C. Lee’s play about a beloved, seemingly near-perfect high school student (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) who alarms his teacher (Octavia Spencer) and parents (Naomi Watts, Tim Roth) with a disturbing but supposedly good-faith response to a writing assignment. The film turns Luce’s “real” identity into a thought-provoking game of hide-and-seek, and Harrison gives one of the best performances of the year in the role. For that matter, all of the movie’s acting is superb, and Onah makes a stunning comeback after his last film, that ill-fated retro-fitted Cloverfield spinoff. Now I can’t wait to see what he does next.
I already got to write about the two films on my own ballot that didn’t make the main list, but I’ll still stump for Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life, whose end-of-the-year arrival might make it easy to overlook. Late-period Malick is a polarizing prospect for some, but his latest is his most grounded, accessible film in years (definitely since The Tree Of Life, possibly earlier). It helps that it features a simple, resonant story: An Austrian farmer refuses to pledge allegiance to Hitler and the Third Reich, committing to his moral principles in the face of certain death.
The amount of mediocre content that Netflix produces is overwhelming, which, unless your algorithm magically points you in the right direction, makes it easy to overlook smaller indie acquisitions. Canadian directing duo Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers and Kathleen Hepburn’s The Body Remembers When The World Broke Open is one such overlooked title, a poignant story of two indigenous women navigating, over the course of an evening, the aftermath of an episode of domestic violence. It’s a difficult, deliriously distressing film shot in long takes with a handheld camera, placing audiences intimately within an experience too often neglected and misunderstood.
Zhang Yimou’s Shadow was first released in China in 2018, but didn’t make it Stateside until this year. Story-wise, it’s a frothy and convoluted soap opera dealing with all the betrayals, forbidden love, body doubles, secret plots, and obsessions any worthwhile kung fu period piece is known for. But what truly elevates the film is the gorgeous monochromatic art direction that blends whites and blacks together like a Chinese Mò ink stick scraped into a well of water. Also worthwhile is how in a film featuring bladed umbrellas, giant halberd duels, and airy qiang spear combat, the best fight scene is a musical zither duet between the protagonist and his secret love.
Beyoncé’s Homecoming isn’t just a recording of one of the greatest concerts of all time; it’s also a testament to the work it takes to look effortless. The film jumps freely from Beyoncé’s two “Beychella” sets—the two nights distinguished by yellow and then bright-pink costumes—adding a joyous magical realism to the final product. Meanwhile, rehearsal footage emphasizes the phenomenal thought and care that went into every aspect of the performance, from its exhaustive choreography to its technical stagecraft to its pointed celebration of historically black colleges and universities. (Beyoncé is the first Black woman to headline Coachella.) Homecoming is a thrilling tribute to the effort of artistry, one that’s as awe-inspiring as it is motivating.
Since I already stumped for the fatally underseen Light Of My Life in our roundup of films we didn’t review, I’ll instead wonder here why László Nemes’ Sunset received only a tiny fraction of the attention doled out to his previous film, Son Of Saul. The answer’s pretty obvious, I suppose: Son Of Saul is a Holocaust drama set entirely in Auschwitz, whereas Sunset attempts to evoke a similar atmosphere of horror and dread from an early 20th-century Hungarian hat shop. Thing is, Nemes actually pulls it off, employing claustrophobic camerawork and his cast’s vicious politesse to create the sensation that something nightmarish is perpetually on the verge of happening. And lead actor Juli Jakab, who’s in virtually every shot, gives one of the year’s most indelible-yet-ignored performances.
In Peterloo, which traces the events leading up to the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, director Mike Leigh might appear to have succumbed to the problems of historical drama, filling in the film’s runtime with all manner of lengthy speeches and circuitous political meetings. But apart from showcasing the director’s typically vivid character work, here seen in even the most minor roles, the film also functions as an astonishingly fine-grained study in oration, especially as it pertains to political injustice and the plight of the working class. Contemporary resonance isn’t a great measure of artistic merit, but given the recent U.K. election results, it’s hard not to recognize the foundations of the project’s palpable anger.