The year’s films shared too many themes to be a coincidence, with directors sharing complementary artistic visions – here’s our list of the best cinema in 2019
It’s easy to think that 2019 has been a disaster when it ends with five more years of an evil Tory government in power. But, on the plus side, the demise of the human race will be fast-forwarded thanks to their lack of environmental policies. What does this have to do with films? Well, it’s common for movie premises to overlap (like when you had the pleasure of not seeing Mirror Mirror in 2012, and then the pleasure of also not seeing Snow White and the Huntsman a few month later) but this year’s highlights shared too many themes to be a coincidence.
Parasite and Us depict the poor rising up to wreak vengeance on the rich. Portrait of a Lady on Fire and The Lighthouse are female and male versions of same-sex companions stranded on islands. Parasite and Uncut Gems are movies about metaphorical, perhaps magical rocks. Marriage Story, The Souvenir and Pain and Glory are directors in their 50s and 60s creating autobiographical stories about their lives as directors. Parasite, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, The Lighthouse, Atlantics and Us have at least one character who thinks they’ve witnessed a ghost in their home. The list goes on and on.
Could it be that great artistic minds think alike? Do these movies as a collection enlighten us on the difficult times we’ve living in? Or is it evidence that the medium is running out of ideas and that a narrow range of marketing hooks are required to raise funding in a franchise-driven industry? Whatever it is, these are the very best films whose world premieres were in 2019 (hence no Vox Lux, An Impossible Love or Under the Silver Lake) and many of them will come to the UK in 2020. So next year, make sure you support challenging, adventurous films in cinemas – don’t let Disney be your findoms.
13. MIDSOMMAR (dir. Ari Aster)
For all the talk of smashed skulls, disemboweled bears and humans being burned alive in Midsommar, the real horror actually occurs in the opening minutes: Dani (Florence Pugh) receives the news that her sister and parents have died, and she wails in a dark, empty room. From then on, Midsommar is overwhelmingly bright, sunny and, perversely, a feel-good movie, following Dani as she ditches her shitty boyfriend and rebounds with a commune. When Dani can sob and hyperventilate with strangers instead of at home alone, it’s deeply cathartic, and the sound design allows voices to drift from scene to scene as if the cult are one organism. Unlike Hereditary and its short, punchy scenes, Midsommar attempts to freeze time with its hypnotic pacing and Bobby Krlic score – the superior director’s cut, with its extra 25 minutes, gets even closer to chasing the sublime.
12. HUSTLERS (dir. Lorene Scafaria)
With a true-crime story of female strippers drugging male Wall Street douchebags and nabbing their not-so-hard-earned dollars after the 2008 crash, Hustlers already boasts a sure-fire premise – but then Scafaria seals the deal with Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu as the two electric, athletic leads. For the popcorn element (or champagne, if that’s your choice), Scafaria’s bendy-buddy movie captures the head-spinning exuberance and giddy thrills of J.Lo and C.Wu pole-dancing and scamming their way to the top amidst dubious moral practices. Then, for the inevitable comedown, Hustlers delves into what Scafaria described to us as a story about “gender as it relates to money and money as it relates to gender and our value system and capitalism”. You can look, and be emotionally touched.
11. LITTLE WOMEN (dir. GRETA GERWIG)
How do you modernise a classic text and stay true to the original? In Gerwig’s adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel, the writer-director jumps back and forth in the timeline, adds her trademark overlapping dialogue, and casts her Lady Bird lead in the role of a lifetime. “She needed to be a tornado, this bloody twister coming into the room and messing everything up a bit,” Saoirse Ronan says of Jo, the wild card of the March family. But actually, Hurricane Jo is surrounded by a superstar ensemble (Timothée Chalamet, Laura Dern, Meryl Streep just to name a few) all attuned to Gerwig’s precise, musical rhythms, and you would definitely want to be a member of this family – well, maybe not Beth. Bonus fact: Florence Pugh shot her scenes mere days after the fiery finale of Midsommar.
10. US (dir. Jordan Peele)
Proving it’s possible to make $255 million at the box office with original IP, Us delivered on what viewers craved more of after Get Out: another stylish horror that offers social commentary, cathartic humour and audacious action sequences. Yet Peele, facing enormous expectations, makes it look easy. Hiring the same cinematographer as It Follows, Us also plays on the 24/7 terror of humanlike monsters who won’t stop and can’t stop chasing their prey – but who, here, is the monster? Above all, when you have Lupita Nyong’o and Winston Duke battling it out with Lupita Nyong’o and Winston Duke, everyone’s a winner. After Us, you will never hear “I Got 5 On it” or brutally murder your doppelganger in quite the same way again.
9. LITTLE JOE (dir. Jessica Hausner)
A thriller that is not a thriller, a comedy that is not a comedy, a sci-fi that is not a sci-fi. It’s hard to define Little Joe other than by listing the genres it slyly defies. Starring Emily Beecham as a scientist with tangerine-coloured hair, Hausner’s English-language debut asks a key question of human existence: does happiness really exist? A genetically modified plant called Little Joe supposedly spreads “happiness”, whatever that is, but Beecham fears that the pollen has hypnotised her loved ones. Hausner’s masterstroke is that plant’s effect on its victims is so minimal, it’s impossible to tell if anyone’s really changed – and thus the film, and its lack of conventional narrative and direction, totally succeeds as an inversion of the bodysnatchers.
8. THE LIGHTHOUSE (dir. Robert Eggers)
The phallic imagery of a lighthouse is no coincidence. Whereas Eggers’ first film, The Witch, was colourful, feminine and deadly serious, The Lighthouse is a black-and-white comedy about toxic masculinity. It’s also deeply homoerotic. More or less the only people in the boxy, claustrophobic aspect ratio are Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe, two stubborn, sexually frustrated men on the verge of fucking or fighting – in every scene, you don’t know whether their arguments will end with fisticuffs or a full-blown make-out session. If the period-specific dialogue wasn’t so difficult to memorise, it’d be the most quotable film of the year.
7. ATLANTICS (dir. Mati Diop)
“I could feel a ghostly atmosphere in Dakar,” Diop told Dazed earlier this year, “and it became impossible for me to contemplate the ocean without feeling its fatal power of attraction.” However, before the jinn and faru rab enter Diop’s supernatural debut, the French-Senegalese filmmaker depicts a different kind of terror – construction workers, unpaid for months of labour, are forced to cross the Atlantic Ocean to start a new life. Meanwhile, 17-year-old Ada pines for one of the disappearing men as an arranged marriage awaits. Amidst the biting politics and teenage love story, Atlantics glides at its own gentle pace, allowing the poetry of its haunting images to infiltrate the viewer’s mind. As for the fatal attraction of the ocean, partial credit must go to cinematographer Claire Mathon who did further aquatic-based lensing on Portrait of a Lady on Fire.
6. THE SOUVENIR (dir. Joanna Hogg)
In Hogg’s magnificent memory movie, a young filmmaker, Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), discovers her creative voice while dating an emotionally manipulative heroin addict, Anthony (Tom Burke). Loosely based on Hogg’s own experiences, the ‘80s-set drama mimics how one remembers the past: the fragmented scene structure picks up speed and slows down depending on traumatic incidents, while specific objects, like a broken mirror, stick out like moments you wish you could forget. But it’s also in how Hogg depicts the wide-ranging humanity of Anthony – not so much the mansplaining and drugs, but his romanticism, the way he’s genuinely interested in her art, and that his influence on Julie lives on in Hogg 30 years later. Plus, in casting Honor alongside her mother, Tilda Swinton, Hogg offers a solution to The Irishman’s CGI de-ageing conundrum. Doesn’t Robert De Niro have a son?
5. MARRIAGE STORY (dir. Noah Baumbach)
Despite its simple premise, Baumbach’s tale of divorce is one of the year’s most divisive movies. For those in the pro camp, there’s Adam Driver and ScarJo in career-best performances; there’s Baumbach’s masterful, almost musical meshing of humour and heartbreak; and there’s an eye-opening peek into the absurd and absurdly lucrative industry of custody battles. Then, for the haters, there’s judging an entire movie based on one scene taken out of context. Seriously, type “Baumbach” into Twitter if you want to know what it’s like to want to punch a wall.
But Marriage Story has struck a chord primarily because those who love it, really love it. There’s obviously the Laura Dern speech, the envelope shenanigans, and the physical pratfalls of Charlie’s pen-knife incident. But on repeat viewings (I’ve seen it four times), every scene is littered with odd details, like the babysitter doing up her zip when the parents return home, a pie that might be more than a pie, or the way Alan Alda retorts, “I wouldn’t expect too much from that cat.” Baumbach transforms dialogue-driven scenes into show-stopping sequences and then tops it off with an actual show-stopping rendition of Sondheim. Incredible.
4. EMA (dir. Pablo Larraín)
Ema depicts a feuding couple (Mariana di Girolamo, Gael Garcia Bernal) who don’t want custody of their child. Instead, Ema, a pyromaniac and nymphomaniac, sets cars alight with a flamethrower and explores her sexual fluidity with the coolest, freakiest people she can find. Which means, yes, Larraín, the Chilean director behind Jackie and Neruda, has not made it three biopics in a row. At least, we suspect not, because Ema would not last long in the real world. If not dancing on drugs with her girl gang or endangering the lives of strangers, Ema’s raising ethical questions by stalking the son she gave up for adoption. In other words, you can’t take your eyes off her. Virtually plotless but stylish as hell, Ema is Larraín having a blast – with pyrotechnics, countless orgies and a Nicolas Jaar score, how could you not?
3. PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE (dir. CÉLINE SCIAMMA)
12 years after Water Lilies, Sciamma reunites with Adèle Haenel for another sophisticated tale of youth, loneliness, and female desire. This time, though, Sciamma locates her lesbian love story in the 18th century and frames it like Titanic: there’s a boat, it’s told in flashbacks, and Noémie Merlant draws Haenel like one of her French girls. But instead of an iceberg-related catastrophe, there’s life-changing passion communicated through two characters collaborating on a piece of art that will last forever.
In a way, Portrait can be viewed as a film about filmmaking – the endeavours to document a single, intimate moment that will later be shared with total strangers – but it’s also a love story told through tiny, escalating gestures. Unlike Girlhood, there’s barely any music; instead, the drama unfolds over crackly fires, creaky floorboards and other ASMR-centric sounds. And at the end, from Haenel, is a lengthy, single-take crying scene that surpasses Timmy’s in Call Me By Your Name.
2. UNCUT GEMS (dir. Benny Safdie, Josh Safdie)
Combining the pure thrills of a high-stakes sports event with the emotional intensity of Heaven Knows What and Good Time, the Safdie brothers’ Uncut Gems is an exhilarating assault on the senses – when there isn’t overlapping, shouted dialogue, the silences are filled with an original score by Oneohtrix Point Never or the headache-inducing cacophony of the Diamond District. As for the film’s uncut gem, it’s Howard, a gambling addict and self-destructive dirtbag played with jaw-dropping dedication by Adam Sandler. Surrounding him is an ensemble of Lakeith Stanfield, The Weeknd, Julia Fox, Kevin Garnett, and, via her voice, Tilda Swinton. From the get-go, it’s stressful; by the end, it’s unbearable (in a good way). An Oscar for the Sandman, please.
1. PARASITE (dir. Bong Joon Ho)
Our favourite film of the year was also the most fun one to catch in a cinema. A laugh-out-loud comedy, a gasp-inducing thriller and a furious social satire all at once, Parasite is a South Korean genre-bender with twists so delicious that it’s best enjoyed with an unknowing audience. So much so, Bong’s Palme d’Or winner and follow-up to Okja is simultaneously the most talked-about movie of recent months and also a rare example of a pop culture juggernaut that’s respectfully unspoiled by social media – like the train passengers agreeing to keep Peter Parker’s identity a secret at the end of Spider-Man 2, viewers bitten by the Parasite bug have remained tight-lipped at Bong’s behest.
If you need to know the bare minimum (UK viewers must wait until February), Parasite begins as a non-violent home invasion drama about a poor family in Seoul who conspire to be employed by a disgustingly wealthy family. And then – well, everything changes. But as Bong has mentioned in several interviews, we all live in a country called capitalism, and thus a specifically Korean movie (for instance, the “Ram-Don” dish doesn’t really have an English translation) can also be a subtitled box-office smash. It’s not only smart, bizarre and speaking to the core themes of inequality that ruins millions of people’s lives, Parasite is also the kind of movie you want to recommend to all your friends and rewatch just to see their reaction when that moment happens.
If Parasite doesn’t score big at the Oscars, it will be a tragedy. But at least, for years to come, we’ll all be able swap our favourite non-spoiler-y moments. Altogether now: “Jessica, only child, Illinois, Chicago. Classmate Jim Jin-mo, he’s your cousin.”