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2019 Top 10

The Year's Best Films

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1. The Lighthouse Robert Eggers’ blinding vision, set in a psychosexual landscape of a mind on the brink, has everything we go to the movies for: meticulously effective sight and sound, confident storytelling, humor and horror, dream and nightmare. One of the all-time two-handers, The Lighthouse pits Willem Dafoe’s eccentric lighthouse keeper against his new number-two (Robert Pattinson) in what’s either an external battle of wills between two men of dubious sanity or an internal battle of Jungian archetypes trapped in a Freudian phallus trapped in a disturbed brain. Eggers’ film can be read in a number of equally satisfying ways, each a comment on fraught humanity and its fragile rationality.

2. Parasite  The year’s sharpest comedy, Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite examined the economic chutes and ladders that drive and plague a capitalist society. Bong mines both the comic and poignant possibilities of his carefully unfolded fable on economic inequality, as family exploits family exploits family. Keen production design, insinuating camerawork, and well-calibrated performances (including that of Bong regular Song Kang-ho) helped this South Korean stunner to cross over as multiplex fare likely to score not only a Foreign Film Oscar but a Best Picture nomination.

3. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood Marielle Heller’s finely sensitive Mr. Rogers dramedy gets the magical appeal, the outsized specialness, of Fred Rogers—children’s show host, ordained minister, husband, father, and friend to all. As played by Tom Hanks, Rogers could have made the convincing center of a hagiography. But Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster’s ingenious adaptation of Tom Junod’s Esquire profile "Can You Say...Hero?" sees Rogers as the most extraordinary kind of human: capable, like all of us, of succumbing to anger and selfishness, but choosing again and again, moment by loving moment, to look beyond himself and truly see and hear each person he encounters, choosing optimism and, by doing so, helping to heal the temporarily broken (embodied by Matthew Rhys’ world-weary journalist).

4. Portrait of a Lady on Fire Celine Sciamma’s doomed but rapturous romance patiently observes the spark, the fire, and the sad extinguishment of love. As William Butler Yeats noted, “love comes in at the eye,” dramatized here as a painter (Noémie Merlant) falls in love with her subject (Adèle Haenel), the artist’s gaze slowly, by trial and error, achieving an X-ray vision of the soul. Beautifully realized, Portrait of a Lady on Fire works as a feminist historical drama (foregrounding customarily forgotten late-18th Century female painters), but soars as a love story of swoony beauty.

5. The Irishman Flawed but still essential, Martin Scorsese’s culminating statement on American life through a mobster lens appears at first to be a neat capper to a thematic trilogy formed with Goodfellas and Casino, stories that likewise run on the insider knowledge of mob protagonists, sourced from non-fiction books. But the pivotal truths in question in The Irishman may not be true at all, which little concerns Scorsese, star-producer Robert De Niro, and ultimately audiences. For here is a Shakespearean history laced with the tragic limits of loyalty. Gifted with great performances (count also Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel, and Al Pacino as a funhouse-mirror Jimmy Hoffa), elegantly crafted, innovative, and pure, uncut Scorsese.

6. Long Day's Journey Into Night In a year of strong Chinese imports (see also An Elephant Sitting Still and Ash is Purest White), Bi Gan gave us the greatest stunner with his visionary and transportive neo-noir (natively titled “Last Evenings on Earth”). A classic cherchez la femme narrative gradually reveals itself to be a meditation on untrustworthy memory, as well as unconscious and celluloid dreams. As such, an amateur detective’s plodding path to find his lost love leads to an astonishing “one-take” 3D dream sequence forming the film’s final fifty minutes. A lyrical, gorgeous, but devastating reminder of precious time, in the vein of Wong Kar-wai.

7. The Last Black Man in San Francisco Joe Talbot’s impressive debut serves up a highly personal and locally resonant story that begins as a screed on gentrification but turns out to be a lively and complex salon on family history, friendship, community, and the folly of belief in ownership. Playing characters that exhibit differing shades of naïve sentimentality, Jimmie Fails and Jonathan Majors deliver breakout performances, while Talbot fearlessly creates a heightened reality that’s also grounded in some uncomfortable truths about American life—particularly its insistence on buying and selling stolen property to establish and maintain the land of the free, home of the brave.

8. The Souvenir Joanna Hogg’s agonizingly honest and mature semi-autobiographical drama explores the agonizing self-delusions and inexperience of youth. As Hogg’s stand-in, Honor Swinton Byrne comes to hard-won realizations in her vocational and personal lives, each informing the other as the film student succumbs to the overtures of an older lover (Tom Burke) who’s harboring a dark secret (Byrne’s mother Tilda Swinton plays along as Byrne’s uneasy screen mother). Hogg’s understated approach and self-examined privilege accumulate for a distinctive take on the young-adult coming-of-age narrative.

9. End of the Century Writer-director Lucio Castro’s deceptively simple story of chance encounters, possibility, and regret comments specifically on gay romantic culture (and its sometime collateral damage) as well as universally on love and sex, playing out as they do on individual but intersecting timelines. In a fleet 84 minutes, Castro dramatizes the lovers’ two meetings (at either end of a twenty-year gap), a flashback, and a daydream to clarify the tension between the power of desire and the indifference of reality. Naturalistic performances (by Juan Barberini and Ramon Pujol) and direction make this zen koan on time linger in the mind and heart.

10. The Mountain Going mad and breaking bad in 1950s America. As downbeat as they come, Rick Alverson’s rigorous The Mountain functions as an eccentric commentary on the horror of historical ignorance and the pain of existence in a world that’s gone insane. With just a dollop of deadpan black comedy, Alverson plays out a corrupted mentor-mentee relationship between the emotionally prone, newly orphaned Andy (Tye Sheridan) and a semi-charming lobotomist (Jeff Goldblum) as they travel the backroads spreading traumatic brain injury to the mentally ill and the socially ostracized. The year’s most unsettling American self-portrait.

Honorable mention: High Flying Bird (Netflix)

Runners-up: Little WomenTransit; Peterloo; The Farewell; Luce; One Cut of the Dead, An Elephant Sitting Still, A Hidden Life, Knives Out, Rocketman, Avengers: Endgame; Atlantics.

Top docs: For Sama 5B; American FactoryHoneyland; Love, Antosha.

Animated winners: Toy Story 4, Missing Link, I Lost My Body, How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, Frozen II.

The Year's Worst Films

1. Playmobil: The Movie What do you get when you bring together dull animation, charmless characters, unthrilling adventure, flat attempts at humor, and generic-brand songs? This tedious, talent-deficient Lego Movie ripoff.

2. Cats A special kind of bad, this adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s famous/infamous spandex-and-whiskers stage musical becomes an unintentionally funny and uncannily unsettling big-screen monstrosity by digitally infecting stars like Dame Judi Dench and Idris Elba with cat-scratch fever. There aren’t enough CGI artists in the world to make this work.

3. Rambo: Last Blood Co-writer/star Sylvester Stallone goes back to the bloody well with this sadistic sequel in his popular vigilante-killer franchise. Mechanical and morally wrong, and long removed from the day when John Rambo was more of a character than an icon, this one’s strictly for those who enjoy watching self-righteous murders in bulk.

4. The Art of Racing in the Rain One of three—count ‘em, three—2019 films in the increasingly popular genre of soggy dog movies where we hear the pooch’s thoughts in voice-over. Dog lovers, start your engines and turn off your brains for this Nicholas Sparks-gone-doggie-style grab at your heartstrings.

5. El Chicano This brownsploitation actioner billed as the "first Latino superhero movie" teases itself as a Mexican-American Batman but has the moral sense of The Punisher. El Chicano wastes a fine actor (leading man Raul Castillo) as it mechanically goes through its painfully dull, occasionally gruesome paces.

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