What a year for cinema! There was pretty much something for everyone. Robert Eggers, Ari Aster and Jordan Peele all made successful returns to the horror genre. Hollywood heavyweights, Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, and Sam Mendes reminded us why we hold them with such high regard. There were also plenty of independent as well as foreign films that took the world by storm. As is the case every year, I start my list with my favorite film of the year; the rest of the films are listed in no particular order. Without further ado, here are the ten best films of 2019.
Robert Eggers’ “The Lighthouse
Robert Eggers’ “The Lighthouse” is a strange and bizarre Lovecraftian horror unlike anything you’ve seen before. The film plunges viewers into the depth of madness, but as you fall into the abyss of insanity, you’ll find yourself laughing hysterically at the brilliant comedic performances delivered by Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson. Set on a remote island in New England, “The Lighthouse” is loosely based on the Smalls Lighthouse tragedy in which two lighthouse keepers, both named Thomas, got stuck in a lighthouse during a storm.
The articulate writing is something to behold with language is so rich and rhythmic, it almost sounds Biblical. Dafoe delivers an almost Shakespearean monologue that is as memorable as the famous Indianapolis monologue delivered by another seaman, Quint in “Jaws”. Eggers has officially cemented himself as one of the most important filmmakers working today with his Kubrick-level attention to detail. Just like his directorial debut, “The VVitch”, this sophomore masterpiece is filled with period-accurate dialogue that is destined to be quoted for years to come. The film also looks as good as it sounds.
Aesthetically, “The Lighthouse” has an almost antique quality to it. Not only was it shot on 35mm black-and-white film stock, but Eggers insisted on shooting the film using vintage equipment from the 1930’s. The compositions are so vivid, you can almost taste the sea-salt and smell the stench of booze in the air. Robert Eggers’ “The Lighthouse” is a sea yarn full of sailor superstitions; it could be the most haunting film about sea-lore ever made. Save it for a cold stormy night.
Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story”
There’s a subtle yet incredibly hard-hitting moment midway through Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story” that sums up this beautiful picture perfectly. It’s the first legal meeting between both parties. Both of them are sitting at the table, their lawyers by their side, when a waiter comes to take orders. They all make their picks, but when it’s Charlie’s turn, he looks at the menu and shrugs with no idea what to order. Nicole then grabs the menu and orders for him: “Greek salad with lemon and olive oil instead of Greek dressing.” It’s an incredibly revealing moment. She knows him better than he knows himself, and despite everything they’ve been through, she still cares for him deeply.
Baumbach’s compassionate work is full of tender moments bursting with humanism and kindness. The observant writing illuminates a dynamic relationship between two complex yet sympathetic characters. “Marriage Story” could’ve easily been called “Divorce Story”, but the contradicting title suggests that marriage is a failed institution. The film follows in the footsteps of Robert Benton’s “Kramer vs. Kramer” and Ingmar Bergman’s “Scenes from a Marriage”- a once in a generation type of film.
Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite”
Bong Joon-ho is a master when it comes to genre-fusion. Just like his magnum opus, “Memories of Murder”, Joon-ho skillfully mixes humor with pathos in one of the most original motion pictures of the year. “Parasite” is a thrill ride from start to finish, but what makes it stands tall above other thrillers is its message. Like a centerpiece in the middle of a delicately furnished interior, you can’t miss the social commentary at the heart of it all. Families at both ends of the wealth spectrum intermingle in a class warfare that is equally entertaining as it is thought-provoking. Who exactly is the title referring to?
Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon A Time in Hollywood”
Tarantino’s love letter to the Golden Age of Hollywood is the funniest motion picture of the year. The film takes its time and forces us to surrender to its pace. Instead of going for a story-driven narrative, Tarantino makes us spend quality time with his main characters, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his best friend and stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Their on-screen chemistry is the stuff of legend, a duo the likes of which we haven’t seen since Paul Newman teamed up with Robert Redford in “The Sting” and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”. Who would’ve thought a film about the Manson murders would turn out to be the feel-good movie of the year? The ninth film from Quentin Tarantino is his best work this decade.
Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman”
Martin Scorsese brings forth a gangster film we haven’t seen before. “The Irishman” is a meditation on time and death. Scorsese doesn’t glamorize a gangster’s lifestyle by showing them indulge in excess. Instead, he draws our attention to the latter part of their lives, the part we rarely see on the big screen, when their time on Earth is nearing its end. We see them look back at their legacy with regret, numbness, and shame. We feel the loneliness of their last days, hours filled with melancholic reflection and hopelessness. In a lot of ways, this film is the antithesis to “Goodfellas”, a eulogy to the gangster genre the same way “Unforgiven” was a eulogy to the western genre. Martin Scorsese takes big risks and his approach remains as radical as ever. He is a master behind the camera; watching “The Irishman” was like watching a top Michelin chef put together a killer dish, only you get to consume it at the end.
Mati Diop’s “Atlantics”
“What is a ghost? A tragedy condemned to repeat itself time and again? A moment of pain, perhaps. Something dead which still seems to be alive. An emotion suspended in time. Like a blurred photograph. Like an insect trapped in amber. A ghost. That’s what I am.” _Guillermo Del Toro
“Atlantics” is a ghost story that gets it right. Diop’s haunting tale about refugees disguises itself as a melancholic love story. The film revolves around a group of unpaid workers in Senegal who set off on a boat in hopes of reaching Spain. The main protagonist is a young girl who longs to be reunited with her lover. This tender mood-piece integrates elements of the supernatural into an otherwise realistic setting- the type of magical realism that reminded me of the literary work of Gabriel García Márquez. “Atlantics” is about the countless souls lost at sea, and the loved ones they left behind- it will cast a spell on you.
Ari Aster’s “Midsommar”
Aris Aster’s twisted cult-horror “Midsommar” took me completely by surprise. Instead of making you a spectator or a non-participant observer to the occurrences at the Midsommar festival, Aster uses psychotropic visuals to pull you in and make you part of the experience. We are not merely onlookers to strangers in distress, we are the strangers in distress. Aster utilizes the viewer’s natural curiosity to suck you into daylight horror. Instead of relying on things creeping in the shadows, Aster makes you fear what you can see in broad daylight, and believe me when I say, he isn’t afraid to expose you to the type of disturbing imagery that will stick with you for a very long time. Part fairytale, part break-up movie, Ari Aster’s twisted cult horror will surely stand the test of time.
The Safdie Brothers’ “Uncut Gems”
The Safdie Brothers came back with another adrenaline rush of a movie. Just like, “Heaven Knows What” and “Good Time”, “Uncut Gems” is another rollercoaster ride that goes straight through the underbelly of New York. This time around, the focus is on Howard Ratner, a high-stakes gambler in pursuit of a big win. Ratner is played by Adam Sandler who is firing on all cylinders in a career defining performance. Over the years, I watched the Safdie brothers deliver one anxiety inducing film after another, but this time, they definitely hit it big in Hollywood. With a filmography that feels like an ode to the gritty crime thrillers of the 70’s, each film is an improvement on the last. From this moment on, every Safdie Brothers picture will be an anticipated event, and I can’t wait to see what they have in store for us next.
Joanna Hogg’s “The Souvenir”
Probably the most underrated entry on this list, Hogg’s memoir film is a brutally honest portrayal of a young filmmaker in a toxic relationship with an intellectual wrestling with their own demons. But the film is really about the connection between life and art, and how to become an artist, you must draw from your own experiences. One character argues that if you don’t, your artistic expression would simply not ring true. The strongest aspect about Hogg’s fourth feature is its almost meta-narrative structure, an autobiographical film about an artist derailed and then strengthened by her own experiences. Tom Burke and Honor Swinton Byrne (Tilda Swinton’s daughter) deliver wonderfully nuanced performances in one of the year’s most devastating yet intellectually stimulating films.
Pedro Almodóvar’s “Pain and Glory”
“Pain and Glory” is Almodóvar’s most personal work to date- a moving look at an ageing artist coming to terms with his past while facing creative paralysis. Antonio Banderas shows depth and sensitivity in a beautifully textured performance as Salvador Mallo. Penelope Cruz delivers an understated yet effortless performance as the mother. But it’s Asier Etxeandia who absolutely steals the show as a habitual heroin user/actor who is desperate for a comeback. “Pain and Glory” is a soulful reflection on life and love, it simmers with tenderness, charm, and warmth. Almodóvar made a film about finding the will to create as you deal with the physical and emotional pains that come with ageing.
Honorable Mentions: “Monos”, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”, “A Hidden Life”, “Ride Your Wave”, “Ad Astra”, “An Elephant Sitting Still”, “For Sama”, “Honeyland”, “1917”, “The Farewell”, “Just 6.5”, “The Nightingale”, “Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound”, “Sea of Shadows”, “Sorry We Missed You”, “Ford v Ferrari”, “Togo”, “Waves”, “US”, “The Peanut Butter Falcon”