Towards the end of Summer, the year in film was looking pretty bleak. Endgame had smashed box office records, but moviegoers had precious few truly great films to choose from. Fast forward to December and to consider 2019 anything less that great year in film would seem crazy.
Like most years, the best movies in 2019 were reflections of the world around us. Some of the most resonant films put a microscope on the global inequality we see today. We were treated to films that thoughtfully explored economic hardship, the uphill battle faced by women in male dominated worlds and the zero sum nature of late capitalism. It’s truly been a spectacular year for movies and here are my 10 favorites from 2019.
10. For Sama
2019 was a good year for documentary filmmaking with films tackling subjects from famous sex therapists and Macedonian beekeepers to the Satanic Temple and struggling democracies in South America. Though the year brought many great documentaries, none moved me as much as ‘For Sama.’
It’s the story of the war in Syria told by folks on the ground willing to risk everything to breath free. Co-Director Waad al-Kateab captures some of the most harrowing images of any film this year as she and her husband run the last hospital in Aleppo. While the rest of the world sits in board rooms debating the fate of desperate people fleeing war torn Syria, ‘For Sama’ shows just how brutal things have become and how difficult the decision to flee is for Syrian refugees.
‘For Sama’ is currently streaming on the PBS Video app
9. Toy Story 4
The most common criticism leveled against ‘Toy Story 4th is that it was unnecessary. That criticism couldn’t be further from the truth. Not only is ‘Toy Story 4th a lovely conclusion to Woody’s arc, it is an essential repudiation of our current moment in history. ‘Toy Story 4th dares to chart a path forward for a character who has spent his entire existence looking back. It posits that true progress cannot be made by returning to the status quo. The film itself returns to a beloved franchise and takes it in a wholly new direction. In this way ‘Toy Story’ reminds us that when you love something — be it as small as a movie or as big as your country — you have to challenge it and change it. The future is not found in the past.
My review from August
‘Toy Story 4th is available to buy or rent on most platforms and should be on Disney+ in early 2020
8. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Marielle Heller has a real talent for relaying stories about insecure people. Perhaps that’s what made her the perfect director for a film about the man who helped generations of children deal with their insecurities. Heller turns the microscope onto Mr Rogers and turns in one of the most fresh biopics in recent memory.
I’m not one who thinks that the problems of 2019 boil down to people not getting along, but ‘A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood’ is a timely call to be more caring and empathetic. It’s also also a reminder that doing so is not easy, it takes daily effort.
My review from November
‘A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood‘ is currently playing in select theaters
7. I Lost My Body
‘I Lost My Body’ touches on a lot of the themes that really resonated in film this year. It’s a film ostensibly about a human hand that has been removed from its body trying to find its way back. But really it’s a film about loss, a film about class and most importantly it’s a film about feeling like life is out of your control. All of this may sound like a lot for an 81 minute animated movie, but that density is what makes Jeremy Chapin’s film so powerful. No matter how bleak things may seem, there is still hope that something better is within your grasp.
‘I Lost My Body’ is currently streaming on Netflix
6. Marriage Story
‘Marriage Story’ on the surface seems pretty bleak, it is after all a story about the dissolution of a family, but it’s so much more complex. Easily the best acted film of the year, ‘Marriage Story’ delivers knockout performances from some of the finest actors working today. What makes it great though is just how grounded the film feels. Never does director Noah Baumbach’s semi-autobiographical film stray from the humanity and hurt of these two people who were once so in love. Baumbach infuses his melancholic tale with moments of humor and even a bit of hope.
‘Marriage Story’ is currently streaming on Netflix
5. The Farewell
Grief can be a mysterious process. It affects us each differently and often resides outside our control. ‘The Farewell’ is a film about coping with the loss of a loved one before they’re even gone. It’s a film that I’ve thought a lot about in recent weeks as I’ve dealt with the loss of my uncle. While I may not have needed to keep his dying a secret, I could feel the parallels of holding back that grief, that frustration with the inevitability of loss, and the experience of those emotions breaking through. With ‘The Farewell’, Lulu Wang delivered the most honest, lived in film of the year.
‘The Farewell’ is available to rent or buy on most platform
4. Ad Astra
While the box office may define 2019 as a year dominated by big franchise action films, the lasting legacy for me will be a lot more tender and introspective. ‘Ad Astra’ is a film that perfectly straddles that line, one foot on each side representing the best of what both studio filmmaking and independent direction had to offer.
At moments ‘Ad Astra’ is truly thrilling with some of the most interesting action set pieces of the year. In between those set pieces though James Gray’s space epic is personal and delicate. As Brad Pitt’s Roy hurdles through space, further and further from home, the microscope intensifies on his fragile psyche. ‘Ad Astra’ is exactly the kind of movie that has become boxed out by a steady stream of Avengers films, the kind of film that deconstructs the myth of the hero in an achingly personal way.
‘Ad Astra’ is currently available to rent or purchase
3. Little Women
Greta Gerwig proved her directing chops in a big way with her debut ‘Lady Bird’ — my #1 film of 2017 — and with ‘Little Women’ she has brought it once again. Like so many of the great films of this year, ‘Little Women’ tackles head on the idea of economic anxiety. Specifically, Gerwig points her focus on the unique economic anxiety faced by young women during the civil war to illuminate the costs of ambition women and girls still face today.
Back in the time of Jo March, love was an economic consideration often before it was an emotional one. While many things have evolved since Louisa May Alcott first published her acclaimed novel, women in America still face many barriers to achieving the same level of success as their male counterparts. The newest adaptation of ‘Little Women’ is a potent reminder of such disparities and a major step for Greta Gerwig as one of the premier directors of our time.
‘Little Women’ is currently playing in theaters everywhere
2. Portrait of a Lady on Fire
You’ll have to wait a little while to see ‘Portrait of A Lady on Fire’ — It doesn’t get its US wide release until Valentine’s Day — but believe me when I tell you that patience will pay off. It’s a film about art, love and how the latter can forever alter our conception of the former. A period piece with a modern sensibility, ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’ is as beautiful as any piece of art. That’s all I’ll say for now but I will have more to add when the film gets its US wide release.
‘Portrait of A Lady on Fire’ will get a wide US release in February 2020
What to say that hasn’t already been said, including on this very site? ‘Parasite’ resonated with a lot of people this year and broke through with US audiences in a way that no foreign language film has in quite some time. If you’ve seen the film it isn’t hard to figure out how that happened. Bong Joon-ho’s masterwork captures something so essential about the time in which we live. Late capitalism has delineated the world into those that have everything they could ever want and those who have to scrape and claw just to survive. The gulf between those two groups is so much wider than the Park family’s staircase.
‘Parasite’ tapped into a global well of frustration with some of the most magnificent film craft of the the decade, let alone the year. Bong’s film doesn’t get into blame however. Instead, as his modern tragedy unfolds, we see how each character vacillates between callous and caring, victim and villain. The only true evil in play is the system that put Kim Ki-taek below Park Dong-ik in the first place.
My review from October
‘Parasite’ is slated for a DVD/Streaming release in late January.
Hustlers, Us, Booksmart, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, Queen & Slim, Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood, Transit, Pain & Glory, High Life, Little Woods, Knives Out, Dark Waters, Jojo Rabbit, The Two Popes