If anything marked the movies in 2019, it was that (not withstanding the top-grossing tentpoles and Disney animation remakes) the unexpected swamped the familiar. Who would have guessed a black comedy from South Korea would become a major hit in the United States, or that documentaries would top so many fiction films in dramatic power and resonance? Or that a streaming service, Netflix, would become a leading producer of films, not just a conduit of product from established studios?
Of course, we did see some familiar names – Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Pedro Almodóvar – among the year's most accomplished movies, but it was primarily a year for indie upstarts and newbies, which gave audiences things we hadn't seen before, which is exactly as we like it.
The Top 10 films of 2019:
1. "Parasite" (South Korea)
A destitute family hits upon a brilliant scheme: ingratiate themselves into a wealthy family as hired help so that they may enjoy the moneyed security of their beautiful house, far from the below-ground hovel in which they reside. It helps that the wealthy Park clan are vain, gullible, and can't see the truth behind the new tutors, the new chauffeur or the new housekeeper. But what starts off as a comedy about class suddenly turns decidedly horrific as director Bong Joon Ho ("Snowpiercer") spins genre expectations on their heads. Superbly acted, "Parasite" is an invigorating piece of cinema with twists, shocks and blood (yes, this home is indeed to die for).
Watch a trailer for "Parasite":
2. "The Irishman"
Based on Charles Brandt's 2004 book "I Heard You Paint Houses," Martin Scorsese's latest mob film is an epic story of power, loyalty and corruption centered around hitman Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), who is taken under the wing of crime boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), and becomes a virtual aide de camp to Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). Scorsese's technical mastery is undeniable, and while there are some callbacks to his earlier work, and the period detail is exceptional, the film's defining characteristic is the space the director gives to De Niro, Pesci and Pacino to strut their stuff, creating characters representing the human capacity to demonstrate loyalty, or disloyalty, at sometimes painful personal cost.
Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) conducts a mob assassination of "Crazy Joe" Gallo (Sebastian Maniscalco):
3. "3 Faces"
This captivating Iranian drama opens with a shocking video that may or may not depict a young girl's suicide in a remote mountain village. In a brief clip recorded on a smartphone and addressed to a prominent actress, an emotional teenager, Marziyeh (Marziyeh Rezaei), explains that her life is being stifled by her family who are rejecting her desire to become an actress herself. The video ends with her apparent hanging. But is it real, or a performance – an audition, as it were? The celebrity who receives the video, Behnaz Jafari (played by Behnaz Jafari), tries to confirm the video's authenticity, but resigns herself to traveling to the village to find out if the girl is really dead. Trekking to the desert town near the Turkish border with writer-director Jafar Panahi (playing a version of himself), the pair's road trip and their discovery of the truth behind Marziyeh's video triggers first explosive anger, and then an empathetic outpouring of compassion. Panahi, banned by Iranian authorities from making movies, has managed to produce and smuggle out films under their noses, his creative impulses as sharp and incisive as ever.
Watch a trailer for "3 Faces":
4: "Knives Out"
Writer-director Rian Johnson ("Looper," "Star Wars: The Last Jedi") brings a true fan's love of murder mysteries to this twisty tale of a family patriarch's demise, and the crowd of family members who each would have reasons for seeing him dead. Splendidly written, the expert cast includes Daniel Craig, Jamie Lee Curtis, Toni Collette, Michael Shannon, Chris Evans, Don Johnson, Christopher Plummer, and, in a star-making performance, Ana de Armas as the nurse at the center of the mysterious death.
Investigator Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) makes a "gentle request" of the Thrombey family during the reading of the will, in "Knives Out":
5: "For Sama"
With video camera close at hand, over the course of several years journalist Waad al-Kateab captured the gripping story of Aleppo under siege by Syrian forces and Russian warplanes, as she and her husband, a doctor in one of the few hospitals left standing, give birth to a child in the midst of hell. Hardly a non-partisan documenter, al-Kateab nonetheless brings great humanity to her narration, and spotlights those fellow citizens who either proudly stay in the midst of war, to protect the city that is, they feel, their birthright, or who flee out of fear for themselves and their families. The fact that al-Kateab herself is torn about whether to stay or go, with her precious infant's life in the balance, makes the narrative of "For Sama" all the more moving, and disheartening.
Excerpt: Waad al-Kateab films during artillery strikes upon the hospital in "For Sama."
6. "Transit" (Germany)
In this tale of 1940s Marseille, but filmed in contemporary settings and costumes, fascistic police squads kitted out with modern weapons check people's papers with the burr of helicopters heard overhead, as a refugee, Georg (Franz Rogowski), narrowly escapes detection when trying to deliver important letters to a member of the Resistance. When he discovers that the man has died, he acts to take his identity in order to use his visa and passage to Mexico. But the mystery surrounding this dead writer is further compounded by his estranged wife, Marie (Paula Beer), who is frantically searching Marseille for her husband in order to secure her own escape. Though based on a 1944 novel by Anna Seghers, the contemporary settings, and the excellent, restrained performances under Christian Petzold's direction, reinforce the characters' responses to dramatic wartime challenges and moral tests as timeless.
In this scene Georg (Franz Rogowski) narrowly escapes capture from police:
7. "Portrait of a Lady on Fire" (France)
What happens when the subject of a painted portrait refuses to pose? The artist must resort to duplicity, and furtively-scratched sketches, in order to observe the essence of a woman and preserve that impression in paint. But that isn't quite enough, and so the dynamic between the painter, Marianne (Noémie Merlant), and the young woman, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), whose portrait is to be delivered to a prospective groom, becomes by turns confrontational, conspiratorial and erotic. Celine Sciamma's enthralling period romance, set on an island off the French coast in the 18th century, has volumes to say about the representations of a figure in art, the power of memories, and the unspoken, shared experience that may result from an artist trying to capture the presence of a person on canvas.
Trailer: "Portrait of a Lady on Fire"
A young woman (Florence Pugh) recovering from a devastating personal tragedy might think a summer trip with her grad school friends to a festival in the Swedish countryside would be fun, peaceful and invigorating. Oh, would she be wrong! Ari Aster's creepy film about a pagan cult harks back to the folkloric horror of "The Wicker Man," and is all the more chilling in that not all of the newcomers witnessing the group's bloody rituals are creeped out by what they see. But you will be!
Christian (Jack Reynor) drinks a liquid he shouldn't, while Dani (Florence Pugh) participates in a May Queen rite, in "Midsommar":
This beautifully-shot film by Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov observes a Macedonian beekeeper, Hatidze, tending her ailing mother and her bees in a village that's been pretty much abandoned, and how her life is upset by the arrival of what appears to be a family of squatters next door. Their intrusion brings friendship, at first, but then strife as they plunder her bees' honey, threatening her meager livelihood. Wonderfully evocative of a fading rural lifestyle, the filmmakers remarkably present the subjects with a clear-eyed dispassion; you wonder how the neighbors ever agreed to be photographed in this not-very-flattering light.
Watch a trailer for "Honeyland":
10. "Carmine Street Guitars"
Walk into Rick Kelly's Greenwich Village guitar shop in New York City, where he and his apprentice Cindy Hulej build beautiful and beautiful-sounding instruments from reclaimed wood at least 150 years old, and you can appreciate why noted musicians like Nels Cline, Bill Frisell, Charlie Sexton, Stewart Hurwood, Eszter Balint, Lenny Kaye, Marc Ribot and filmmaker-musician Jim Jarmusch, among others, beat a path to his door. This fly-on-the-wall documentary from Ron Mann shares not only the bonhomie of a craftsman and music aficionado, but also the love that musicians put into their art, as they put Kelly and Hulej's guitars through their paces in an enjoyable cinematic jam session.
In this clip Captain Kirk Douglas of The Roots tries out one of Kelly's guitars:
Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order):
"Apollo 11" – Using recently-discovered and never-before-seen 65mm footage and 11,000 hours of audio recordings from the National Archives of the Apollo 11 mission, director Todd Douglas Miller created a tense hour-by-hour document of the most incredible journey yet taken by Man – to set foot on another world, using barely-tested technology that pushed the outer boundaries of engineering and human ingenuity.
"Aquarela" – Victor Kossakovsky's experiential film – there is no storyline, narration or even identifiable locations – is a mesmerizing look at the power of water in all its forms, from the forbidding ice on Siberian lakes that, as the weather warms, cracks and opens up underneath cars being driven across it, to the mountains of water that terrify the sailors trying to pilot their puny craft through a storm-tossed southern sea, to torrents of rain battering Miami during Hurricane Irma, underscoring how unforgiving Nature can be.
"Booksmart" – Two high school seniors realize all their studious labors and abstinence from partying have been for naught, as the rest of their graduating class got into as good or better schools than they did. With one night left before graduation, Amy (Kaitlyn Deaver) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein) are intent upon packing four years of missed high school hijinks into one night. The game cast sparkles under Olivia Wilde's nimble direction.
"Dolemite Is My Name" – Eddie Murphy is terrific as Rudy Ray Moore, a failing musician who reinvents himself as a standup comic, and whose character, Dolemite, he self-finances into a blaxploitation movie star. A great satire of low-budget filmmaking, but also of the powers of self-promotion, and self-delusion, in the pursuit of one's dreams.
"Jojo Rabbit" - Taika Waititi's rollicking World War II satire features a German boy who fantasizes about his best buddy Adolf Hitler while discovering his mother is harboring a Jewish girl in their house. What's a young Nazi to do? With Scarlett Johansson, Roman Griffin Davis, Thomasin McKenzie ("Leave No Trace"), and Waititi himself as Der Führer.
"Marriage Story" – The acting (by Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson, Laura Dern, Ray Liotta and Alan Alda) is peerless in Noah Baumbach's dramedy of a marriage's dissolution, and the painful after-effects on the husband and wife, child, and extended family who try to maintain a life that is forever altered.
"Midnight Family" – In Mexico City, the lack of government-operated ambulances is addressed by privately-run ambulances, such as the service provided by the Ochoa family, with whom director Luke Lorentzen tags along on nights both eventful and devoid of income-generating accident victims. Effectively shot and edited with some chilling imagery, the film witnesses the Ochoas deal with bribe-taking police and competing ambulance drivers, while putting their own patients at risk by transporting them to privately-run hospitals much further away that, they know, will pay them in cash.
"Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood" – Quentin Tarantino, aided by terrific performances from Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, recreates 1960s Los Angeles and the movie-TV industry in all its surface gleam and undercurrents of jealousy, vanity, and desperation. (Too bad the final act's revisionist history involving the Manson Family-Sharon Tate murders is so distasteful.)
"Pain and Glory" – Antonio Banderas gives an exceptional performance as a noted filmmaker who has withdrawn into himself as he feels the increasing physical deprivations of age, and who turns to the past by delving into memories and regrets as he enters what may be the last act of his life. From such a dark juncture director Pedro Almodóvar has conjured a story that is ultimately positive and resistant to doubt, as he examines the aging of the body (which can defeat the artistic will), and the power of memory (which can rescue it).