By Thanksgiving this year, I wondered if I'd see a film that would thoroughly knock me on my ass – I had seen and loved and greatly liked many films this year, but none of them had shaken me on a visceral level. It's a feeling I chase in the movie theater year after year, like an addict or some weirdo who gets their jollies watching motion pictures. Shortly after discussing this with a few of my colleagues, I saw two films that gave me that feeling: Uncut Gems and A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. One got under my skin and picked at my nerves in a way that was both anxiety-inducing and exhilarating. The other reminded me why I see movies at all – because of their power to elicit empathy, the most important ability we possess.
This year I decided I'm not going to agonize over my top 10. In addition to compiling this list, my local critics group asked for my 10 favorite films of the past decade. When I looked over each list from the previous nine years I noticed a couple of things: There were a few movies I probably wouldn't include now and a couple titles I felt compelled to include for whatever reason (because I should, because it made sense at the time); and the ranking for almost every list would be different in hindsight – like, I love Carol but there is no way that's a better movie than Fury Road, the greatest film of the fucking decade. Come on, Past Me. Get your shit together.
Every year I include a disclaimer about the subjectivity of these things and how the ranking is always in flux, and that became even more clear when looking over lists from prior years. Honestly, only my top six or seven are certain; the rest are somewhat interchangeable, either in ranking or with the honorable mentions below. With that said, here are my top 10 films of 2019 (as of this writing). It'll probably be different tomorrow.
Honorable mentions: Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Holiday, John Wick: Chapter 3, Us, The Perfection, The Art of Self-Defense, Atlantics, Dolemite Is My Name, Climax, and Daniel Isn't Real.
I said it before and I'll say it again: the female gaze is a hell of a thing. Lorene Scafaria delivered a film that is pure, unfiltered joy from top to bottom – not unlike the experience of watching Magic Mike XXL. It's empowering, intoxicating, and immensely heartwarming. Some of this year's best films deftly explored class struggles and differences in ways that were wildly entertaining and eye-opening (and extremely of the moment), and Hustlers was no exception. If 2019 were a movie, it might be a double bill of Hustlers and Parasite.
Bong Joon-ho's latest film is, put simply, perfect. Masterfully and meticulously crafted from beginning to end, Parasite juxtaposes the desperation of the lower-class with the excesses of the privileged. There are no heroes or villains, just the haves and the have nots. Perhaps in keeping with the film's themes, Director Bong proves himself a rather efficient craftsman – not a single thing goes to waste because every character, line of dialogue, plot beat, shot, and set piece feels imperative to the story.
8. The Lighthouse
Robert Eggers followed up The Witch with something completely different: A bleak comedy that perfectly captures the banal frustrations of having a shitty roommate and/or co-worker – particularly when said opposition is the embodiment of everything you fear becoming, your own personal ghost of Christmas future. Willem Dafoe absolutely owns The Lighthouse with his salty monologues, the pathological flatulence of which is echoed in his actual farts.
7. The Souvenir
A living and breathing memoir inspired by filmmaker Joanna Hogg's own experiences, The Souvenir follows a young aspiring filmmaker (played by Honor Swinton) and her increasingly fraught relationship with a drug addict (Tom Burke). Despite the privileged background of her fictional avatar, Hogg manages to deliver an intensely relatable story of irrational, willfully ignorant love and the desperation to maintain it at all costs. It's a relatively low-key and unfussy film that ultimately becomes a brilliant work of meta-fiction, exploring how our worst experiences can inform our best selves. (Tilda Swinton is also excellent, playing fictional mother to her real-life daughter, who is clearly a worthy heir.)
6. The Golden Glove
I'm fairly certain the only other person who included Fatih Akin's The Golden Glove on their top 10 list this year is John Waters – because of course he did, but also I feel so validated. Based on the story of real-life German serial killer Franz Honka, The Golden Glove is an immersive and utterly repulsive odyssey, not only through this particular man's psyche, but through the nooks and crannies of the lower-class. Akin finds odd moments of beauty in the grotesque, forcing the viewer to look at the lives of the sort of people they often willfully ignore – the disenfranchised and impoverished, many of whom cling to vice as their only solace (and a fleeting, fickle solace at that). Jonas Dassler is remarkable as Honka, delivering what is easily one of the most impressive transformations and performances of the year in a film that is arguably on par with Zodiac. I cannot stop thinking about this movie, for better or worse.
Ari Aster made a formidable feature debut with Hereditary, a terrifying and potent exploration of grief, the burden of family, and inheritance. Midsommar is an astonishing follow-up; it almost feels too good to be a second feature. Aster continues plumbing the darkest depths of the human psyche with a story that begins in the stark shadows of horrific loss (like Hereditary) before transitioning to a sun-bleached commune where Florence Pugh's Dani is given the opportunity to see her codependent relationship for what it is – and find a new perspective on death, love, and family in the process.
Special shout-out to the butt-pushing granny in the fuck-yurt, the MVP of supporting characters in 2019.
4. Her Smell
In some ways, Uncut Gems and Her Smell feel like thematic siblings – both elicit a similar feeling of slow-building, visceral dread, but the way the filmmakers ultimately release us from that tension couldn't be more different. Alex Ross Perry's latest psycho-drama collab with Elisabeth Moss tracks the seemingly endless fall of Becky Something, a riot grrrl-esque rocker whose drug addiction is exacerbating her narcissism to the detriment of everything she's built – her band, her friends, her child. Becky isn't just a force to be reckoned with; she is the reckoning. To label her bandmates and friends enablers is reductive (her manager is another matter), considering every attempt to push back against Becky is met with more chaos and destruction. Her Smell is one of the very best biopics about a person who doesn't exist: a compilation of legends made tangible; a reflection of its subject as much as it is a reflection of our own feelings about redemption. I hope Elisabeth Moss and Alex Ross Perry make movies together forever.
3. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
I've already written extensively about this exceptional film (and recently), in which filmmaker Marielle Heller eschews biopic tropes in favor of something more complex, provocative, and human. It isn't a recollection of Mister Rogers' life (Won't You Be My Neighbor? already did an excellent job of that), but an exploration of his practiced, graceful empathy by way of the lives he touched – and one life in particular: that of Lloyd Vogel (a fictional version of Rogers' real-life friend and journalist Tom Junod). Roger Ebert once called movies "empathy machines," and A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a poignant, perfect example of what he meant. I can think of no actor better-suited to the role of Rogers than Tom Hanks, and no filmmaker more suited for the task of tackling such emotionally-charged and thoughtful material than Heller. The moment in the diner, when Rogers asks for a single minute of silence, is perhaps the single most perfect minute in cinema this year.
2. Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood
Quentin Tarantino's ninth film is a masculine sliding doors daydream in which the should've, would've, and could'ves are not burdens of regret, but small moments that change the course of histories both personally experienced and collectively shared. I still struggle a little with how violent and deranged that male fantasy becomes in the final act, but I reckon it's fitting for the revisionist and unreliable perspective of Cliff Booth. Once Upon a Time... feels like Tarantino's most confessional work yet, and thus might – in due time – go down as his best. Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio have never been so great, but the thing that sticks with me is the sparkle of hope and joy in Margot Robbie's Sharon Tate, and the way Tarantino gives her the most impossible gift: a life. And, as Scott pointed out, the "Out of Time" sequence is a stone cold all-timer.
1. Uncut Gems
It was just a few days after remarking that I'd yet to have a film thoroughly knock me on my ass that I saw Uncut Gems – easily the most intense and immersive experience I've had in a theater all year, but also such a perfect confluence of circumstance and talent: maniac geniuses Josh and Benny Safdie, continuing to master their craft in simple ways that feel revelatory, and Adam Sandler absolutely annihilating the role of Howard Ratner. Sandler didn't owe us another great performance, and while many have come to believe that he's grown lazy and ambivalent with his string of generic cash-generating comedies, his work in Uncut Gems is a bold assertion to the contrary. And the film itself is every bit as bold, beginning as it does with the audience stuck firmly up Howard's ass and ending with the cosmic mind-fuck of a reminder that we're all just atoms and dust.