Writing top ten lists is a bizarre thing to do, really. They represent a single critic's opinion at a single point in time, yet we treat them as some kind of etched-in-stone statement on cinema. They often include films critics saw at festivals ages ago, making their assembly an exercise in looking up release dates and comparing films you saw a year apart. And if you don't include whatever popular film is on people's mind, you'll get harangued for it. In advance: no, I did not "forget" whatever film you might care to mention. I probably even love that movie. I just didn't love it as much I loved these ones. Ten spots isn't many, and I am what I am.
Further disclaimers: due to lack of access, I have not yet seen Uncut Gems, Portrait of a Lady On Fire, The Lighthouse, A Hidden Life, or Little Women. I also want to point out that three of the films on this list don't actually see full releases until next year, and I'm duty bound to say that three films on this list are distributed by NEON, which was co-founded by Tim League, who also co-founded and acts as CEO to Birth.Movies.Death's parent company, Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas. (They're #4, #3, and #2, and I promise none of this factored into my decision-making.)
My 2019 was dominated by mental health issues and soul-searching. My 2019 top ten is too. Here we go: my ten favourite films of the year, as of today, the 24th of December of the Year of Our Lord 2019.
10. Blood And Flesh: The Reel Life And Ghastly Death Of Al Adamson (releasing 2020)
The first half of this special-feature-turned-actual-feature plays out like a lot of exploitation cinema docs do. We get the story of Dracula Vs Frankenstein director Adamson's start in showbiz, hear anecdotes from his rise to infamy as a director of numerous trashy genre flicks, and watch talking heads discuss his character in retrospect. But anyone familiar with Adamson's story knows it's going to take a turn, and holy shit, does it ever. Even with foreknowledge of Adamson's fate, this doc manages to startle and unsettle, filling in bizarre and tragic details around the director's untimely death. In a sea of documentaries about similar subjects, this film is something special.
9. The Art of Self-Defense
An indie comedy-thriller set in an alternate universe where masculinity is even more ridiculous than in ours, this film had me consistently laughing throughout its runtime. It's a savage takedown of macho culture, shot through with absurdism and driven by truly odd and earnest performances by Jesse Eisenberg, Imogen Poots, and Alessandro Nivola, and I love it. Everything from the deliberate camerawork to the slightly surreal dialogue to the very texture of the picture is a tangible delight. What's more, its eventual dark turns are some of the year's bleakest, yet lead to the most unexpectedly satisfying Chekhov's Gunfire of the year. Yellow belts forever. (review)
A good horror movie and a great breakup movie, Midsommar is all about what's simmering under its ritual-sacrifice surface. Florence Pugh had been great elsewhere before, but she becomes a true star here, in one of the more unconventional horror films to be made about college kids getting picked off one by one. The direction here is immaculate, with a huge cast marshaled into striking tableaus that manage to unnerve and even terrify in broad daylight. Through the central relationship, the film explores notions of gaslighting and emotional abuse, and through the larger picture, it applies those ideas to the wider world. It's also, just quietly, one of the funniest movies of the year. For real.
7. Marriage Story
As a child of a divorce in which the father didn't fight for custody at all, Noah Baumbach's latest is a weird sort of retroactive wish-fulfillment fantasy for me. But it's also a peerlessly-acted drama about relationships, and somewhat surprisingly, also a very funny procedural satire about divorce law. Sure, it's not a flashy movie, but Baumbach's back-to-basics directing here is absolutely dead-on. Adam Driver had a big ol' year this year, but none of his performances connected with me like this one. It's the one Big Awards Season Movie I truly love (sorry, The Irishman, I can only admire you), and I wish it the very best in the punishing season to come.
6. The Twentieth Century
You wouldn't expect a biopic about Canada's longest-serving Prime Minister to be not just one of the funniest, but one of the strangest films of the year, but here we are. Whether or not The Twentieth Century accurately retells the life of William Lyon Mackenzie King is indisputable (it does not). What it does, however, is tell a damned funny story, through bizarro performances and a disarmingly beautiful lo-fi expressionist aesthetic. It's absolutely unlike anything else you'll see in this day and age: handcrafted, near overbearingly earnest, absolutely bonkers, and self-effacing in a way only a country like Canada could be. Come for the style, stay for the jokes, decide whether or not to leave because of the compulsive shoe masturbation. (review)
5. Knives Out
I've written about it already, but Rian Johnson's murder mystery not only tells a terrifically twisty tale, but does it with kindness too. A top-notch cast of movie stars and character actors breathes life into a Trump-era parlour mystery par excellence, delivering Johnson's snappy and hilarious script with relish. As notable for the ways in which it adheres to whodunit formula as it is for the ways in which it subverts it, Knives Out is unique in that it actually doesn't "keep you guessing," as the pull-quotes often say. No: for a time, you end up sitting back, confident you know the whole story. But you don't. Because Knives Out is smarter than you. Soz about it.
4. The Lodge (releasing 2020)
I don't think any film this year knocked me on my ass harder than this one did. From a startling turn a scant few minutes into the film, this psychological horror made me feel like I was sinking into my seat for two hours, after which I spent some time sobbing into a friend's arms. Telling the story of two kids and their father's much-loathed new partner trapped in a lodge over winter, it goes to truly horrifying emotional places. Saying too much would spoil it, but rarely have I seen a film so full of such total, unforgivable cruelty. Not everyone's going to connect with its story of abuse and mental illness, but those who think they might should be forewarned: The Lodge is a fucking freight train of despair. I never want to see it again.
The film everyone lost their minds over, and for good reason. Every single element of Parasite is on fire: the versatile ensemble cast, the instantly iconic production design, the crisp cinematography, and of course Bong Joon-Ho's fiendishly subversive screenplay and deadpan direction. Many films dealt with class this year, but Parasite delivers the hardest hits, whether through its literal story or its visual storytelling. Plus: it's one of those rare films to win the Palme D'Or that's also super-entertaining. An American remake seems almost inevitable, but this is the real stuff, right here. Bong has finally started getting the widespread recognition he's always deserved, and I am, as the kids say, here for it.
2. Wild Rose
I never expected to love Wild Rose. For one thing, I'm not the world's biggest fan of country music, and for another, the film looked to me like a formulaic, feel-good pursue-your-dreams movie. Well, it is that, to a degree, but it's a damned good one. Jessie Buckley delivers a luminous, spirited performance as a single-mom ex-con with dreams of becoming a country singer, anchoring a movie with plenty to say about creativity, responsibility, ambition, and class. Oddly enough, the film I thought about the most after seeing this was Rocky, which Sylvester Stallone wrote as an analogue to his experience in Hollywood. I feel like a lot of people can map their stories onto Rose-Lynn's. I sure did.
1. Swallow (releasing 2020)
Carlo Mirabella-Davis' strange and intimate drama is the perfect partner to the also-great Ready Or Not's genre charms. Haley Bennett delivers subtle and heart-rending work as a woman newly-married to a wealthy asshole, who copes with her claustrophobic housewifery through the consumption of small household objects (a condition known as pica). Bennett's stoic exterior betrays her inner pain in this spare and provocative film that uses its squirm-inducing concept to closely examine repression, expression, and depression. Constantly foiling expectations, this is a smart and sensitive movie that doesn't offer any easy answers to its many questions. Its final shot is the best of the year, and I pretty much knew immediately it was going to be my favourite film of the year. Here we are: it is. (review)
See you in 2020, The Movies.