As I look back on the last year in film, I feel like I still have a lot of catching up to do. I didn’t see nearly as many movies in 2019 as I did in 2018, so there’s no way I could do a top 50 movies list. Yet even though I’ve missed some acclaimed films from 2019, I doubt many movies will knock something out of my top five. Three of the movies listed I saw before the fall, so there’s no recency bias in effect.
I look forward to eventually tweaking my personal top 20 for 2019. That will probably take a backburner as I think about my favorite movies of the 2010s. There is always more to see, and always more catching up to do, and never quite enough time.
Before hopping into the top five, just some quick honorable mentions to Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir (a haunting semi-autobiographical Künstlerroman), Todd Douglas Miller’s Apollo 11 (a moon mission doc with tremendous footage), Rian Johnson’s Knives Out (a joyous ensemble whodunit), Greta Gerwig’s Little Women (a heartwarming adaptation with a modern flair), and Waad Al-Kateab and Edward Watts’ For Sama (a heartwrenching chronicle of survival during Assad’s onslaught of Aleppo).
But now, the list.
5. The Farewell
Lulu Wang’s The Farewell is a semi-autobiographical movie about an actual lie. Note how the phrases “semi-autobiographical” and “actual lie” mix fact with fiction, and yet how those mixtures can convey the truth. In the film, a family stages a sham wedding in China in order to see their ailing grandmother one last time. She’s dying from terminal cancer, and no one in the family intends to tell her. They worry that the grief will kill her, or at least that’s what the Chinese tradition says. It becomes clear that they (and we) also conceal truths from each other because love and concern and fear of disappointment can be too painful to bear.
There is so much about family expressed in The Farewell, but it is often understated if not unstated. Even the most heartfelt feelings are somehow indirect. Wang tenderly, deftly explores notions of Asian stoicism and the cultural tensions that most first-generation children go through. I can’t wait to see what Wang makes next now that she has the clout to do what she wants. The same can be said for Awkwafina in a potentially star-making performance, and perhaps even her elderly co-star Zhao Shuzhen.
The Farewell was shut out at The Oscars, which was a shame, but not the worst thing in the world. Many great films don’t need an Academy Award to prove they’re worthwhile. What we remember about great movies isn’t an award, the same way we typically don’t remember the inconsequential details in the lives of the people we love. Instead, we remember the way the work makes us reflect on our relationships, and how can we express what we mean even when we lack the ability to say it outright. The statuette is prestigious, and it is an honor just to be nominated, but The Farewell is so exceptionally human to its core and memorable on its own.
4. Amazing Grace
Amazing Grace is one of the best concert documentaries I’ve ever seen. Directed by Sydney Pollack and shot over the course of two nights in January 1972, we watch Aretha Franklin record the live album Amazing Grace at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles. Accompanied by a choir and session musicians, Franklin belts out gospels tunes with awe-inspiring passion. It gave me chills watching her perform; when there were no chills, I was usually moved to tears. If I were there live, would I feel the same thing, or do I feel such reverence for Amazing Grace because it is a document of a moment that cannot be recreated, and that the mere existence of the movie feels a little miraculous?
While Amazing Grace was originally shot to coincide with the release of the album, Pollack failed to synchronize the audio and 16mm film recordings while shooting. The project was abandoned. The 20 hours of raw footage was stuck in a vault until the mid-2000s, when producer Alan Elliott purchased the footage, had it synced, and then pieced together the final film. Legal battles with Franklin herself left the finished documentary in limbo for several years. After Franklin passed away, her estate agreed for Amazing Grace to be released. The final documentary was worth the wait.
What makes Amazing Grace fantastic isn’t just Franklin’s commanding performance. There’s a joy in spotting all the little details, like when Franklin’s father lovingly wipes the sweat from her brow just as she’s starting a song. Or the unexpected glimpse of bonafide music royalty in the audience. Or Pollack himself busy directing amid the splendorous music. My favorite detail, though, is the young girl asleep in a pew, completely oblivious to the magic happening around her. This may be one of the best concert films in recent memory, but for that young girl, Amazing Grace was just another day with her family at church.
Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire is one of the most beautiful movies of 2019, and also one of the most heartbreaking. Its tableaux are so painterly and balanced, its observations about falling in love so poetic—the film is a work of art. I haven’t stopped thinking about this doomed love story since stepping out of the theater. I still feel haunted by its imagery, its precise use of sound and music, its different renderings of desire, and its sense of helpless yearning. I wish France had picked Portrait of a Lady on Fire as their entry for the Best International Film Oscar, just so it would have a shot at nominations for cinematography and costumes.
Marianne (Noémie Merlant) must paint a portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) to attract a suitor, yet this painting must be done in secret. Marianne studies her subject closely, but because Héloïse is the subject of the painting and not a mere object in a painting, she studies Marianne in return. That active-subject/passive-object distinction seems to encapsulate the difference between the female gaze and the male gaze. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a study in the female gaze, the agency of women in the film, and the mutuality of seeing and being seen. For the vast majority of the movie, there are no men anywhere. It is a shock when a man appears again, as it portends an end of bliss.
The play on seeing and being seen takes on greater significance as Sciamma invokes the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. I’m such a sucker for that myth, and it feels like film’s gaze has met mine. Right now as I write this, I think about Marianne watching Héloïse with the hem of her skirt in flames, and of the final shot of the film and how it destroys me. I wish Portrait of a Lady on Fire got a wider theatrical release in 2019 than just NYC/LA, but I can’t wait for others to finally experience it in theaters on Valentine’s Day this year.
One of the characters in Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite winkingly exclaims “It’s so metaphorical!” Any object could be the source of symbolic weight, or maybe a rock is just a rock.
Regardless, I got into an argument with a friend about the importance of toilets in Parasite.
Toilets are one of the key objects in this black comedy/thriller. The poor Kim family live in a basement apartment at the bottom of society. A vagrant pisses outside of their apartment—they live in a toilet. When it rains, all the water swirls down into their low-lying slum—they live in a clogged toilet. Funny enough, the toilet in their apartment is at ground level, which means it stands above the heads of the Kim family. They have to ascend steps to use their own toilet. So, scratch that, they live beneath the clogged toilet of society.
As you can tell, so much about Parasite is wonderfully over-the-top, but it is executed with the Ho’s meticulous control over tone, composition, and plotting. This feels like a natural culmination of the themes he has explored over the course of his career. It is a delight watching the Kim family’s grifter-home-invasion of the affluent Park family’s hilltop mansion. Just when the con game seems to be going well, there’s an unexpected complication. Given the realities of poverty, one setback means that the Kims could be back in the toilet in no time. What will they do to avoid that fate?
Apart from toilets, Parasite makes me think about Martin Scorsese likening the MCU to theme parks rather than cinema. Why differentiate? Parasite is theme park cinema. It is an emotional thrill ride through class resentment; it is also a clever examination of the myth of class mobility, and the casualties of late capitalism.
Certain movies feel made just for you. They somehow key into a personal mood or an aesthetic, and in doing so the filmmaker has mapped your emotional life. That’s how I felt watching An Elephant Sitting Still, a deeply despondent and wounded debut film by the late Hu Bo. Bo committed suicide shortly after completing the movie. He was just 29 years old. If An Elephant Sitting Still was the map of his emotional interior, it’s no wonder he took his own life. What an unbearable ache he must have felt; what an unabashedly human movie he’s left as evidence of such feelings.
An Elephant Sitting Still is a 234-minute movie about a mundane quest. A disparate collection of characters in an economically depressed Chinese town want to travel to see an elephant. They hear that despite the pain it feels, the elephant is able to sit quietly and serenely. The characters want to see the elephant for themselves, as if the beast might have an answer for making existence just a bit more tolerable, or the next day not quite as crushing.
I watched the film completely enraptured, and it felt only about half as long as it was (which is still kind of long). Bo’s use of extended, minutes-long takes were reminiscent of Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr (Sátántangó), who was one of Bo’s major influences and a teacher. Tarr, in an introductory dedication to Bo at a festival screening, described his young student as “a person constantly surrounded by a storm.”
What do we make of this elephant, a creature who might, if we see it, show us how to overcome a life without hope? Fittingly, someone asked Tarr “Where is the hope?” at a film festival. The gifted student makes us ask similar questions as his favorite teacher.
I think Bo has an answer about hope in An Elephant Sitting Still. It’s a dispiriting answer in some ways, yet an ennobling answer in others: there’s never quite enough hope for anyone, but there’s sometimes just barely enough. At least I think that’s what the answer is. It’s a tragedy that we’ll never have the opportunity to ask Bo anything else.