List: Top 10 Movies of 2019 (Jay Ledbetter)
The year in film was a rocky road. In July, I was convinced we were in one of the absolute worst movie years of the decade. Going to the theater felt like a chore. But, boy, did the year turn itself around in dramatic fashion. The last three months of the year were some of the best times at the movies I have ever had. There was a spring in my step that had been missing during blockbuster season. I was constantly being moved and challenged. It was a year dominated by films about the way the power structures of the world set us up for failure. Things may seem a little dour, but the great filmmakers were able to steal a degree of hope from the darkness that seems to be surrounding us, now, and I am very grateful for it.
We do encourage you to listen to Episode 360 to hear more about our picks, but as we do every year, listed here are my Top 10 Movies of 2019.
When I first saw Bong Joon-ho’s latest, I was blown away by the direction but a little befuddled by the messaging of the film. It is a film of incredible nuance with a great degree of trust in its audience. Bong’s masterful control of the craft, however, was undeniable. From the production design (that house!) to the delicate tonal balances (that kick!), it is a film that could be broken down for hours. It took me a second watch to fully get behind what the film wanted to say about the state of the world, but when it clicked, boy, did that sense of clarity reveal a wonderful film. It treats all its characters so evenhandedly, refusing to give in to the “good guys vs. bad guys” impulses. It is a film about not only how the gears of society out the rich against the poor, but, honestly, *everyone against everyone*. Parasite is a tragedy, at its core, a movie about the inherent competition in the world today. In a year dominated by films very directly about class struggle, Parasite is the cream of the crop. You couldn’t certainly make the argument that it is the film that best defines the world in 2019. Click here to listen to our full review.
Based on a novel set during the German occupation of France, Christian Petzold cleverly abandons the period setting, creating a setting that almost feels out of time. It is a world with advanced military technology, but mostly devoid of the handheld technology that we use to communicate with the rest of the world (which can make some plots, especially ones with any degree of espionage, impossible to believe). Immigration issues across Europe and even in America frequently spring to mind watching the film, testing the viewer on how far they would go and the lies they would be willing to tell to pursue a life of safety and comfort. Transit is a film about the unease of staying put, especially in the face of a fascist regime. But it is also about the unease of not really knowing where to go. Franz Rogowski and Paula Beer ground the film with performances that always reflect a sense of heartache, never giving us a sense that everything will be alright. The story winds in ways that you won’t see coming and ends with the best, most unexpected end credits needle drop of the year. Petzold continues to establish himself as one of the world’s premiere filmmakers. Click here to listen to our full review.
8. The Irishman
Yes, the 210-minute runtime can be a bit daunting, but The Irishman, especially the film’s final 45 minutes, features some of the boldest filmmaking of Martin Scorsese’s career. The film’s opening shot, a haunting tracking shot inside a senior care facility, immediately brings to mind the famous Copacabana sequence from Goodfellas and immediately establishes what kind of film this is. Scorsese, now 77 years old, is reflecting on his career and his legacy. This movie does not have the sleek, cool sequences of Goodfellas or The Wolf of Wall Street, films that, in certain circles, have the (incorrectly applied) reputation of condoning the actions of despicable characters. All of that is nixed here, giving Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) a great degree of pathos, throughout. More important to Scorsese than Frank’s career as a killer is his relationship with his family. This is not a man who loves his job or lives a life of excess with his earnings. It’s a living, and one that earns without a sense of pride. The inclusions of Al Pacino and Joe Pesci in the film five the entire affair a weight, making it feel like a cinematic event the likes of which you rarely see. Some of the trappings may feel a bit familiar for parts of the film, but when it turns the tables on itself in the final 45 minutes, it is unlike anything I saw this year. Rarely are Scorsese films hard to watch, but Frank coming to terms with what has become of his life and the people he surrounded himself with sent chills down my spine. And those chills turned to frostbite with a haunting final shot that encapsulates everything that the film is about. Click here to listen to our full review.
7. Pain and Glory
Any conversation about Pain and Glory has to begin with Antonio Banderas, who gave my favorite performance of 2019. Banderas plays the Pedro Almodóvar stand-in in the director’s latest, a work of auto-fiction that shows the creation of art as form of physical and mental therapy. Banderas’ Salvador is a broken man, unable to do the thing he loves because of the constant pain he suffers from. In addition, he has a knack for pushing away those that he loves and is confronted by his past in unexpected ways. Almodóvar’s color palate is as striking as ever, adding to the themes of the film in powerful ways, especially when it comes to the contrasting designs of the present-day sequences with Banderas and the flashbacks featuring Penélope Cruz as young Salvador’s mother. This is a film that could be played on mute and be fully understood through Banderas’ performance and the visuals; some of the most effective visual storytelling of the year. The meta nature of both the storytelling and the filmmaking is unforgettable. Click here to listen to our full review.
6. Dark Waters
To watch Dark Waters is to watch a man run into a wall for two hours. Based on the true story of lawyer Matthew Michael Carnahan’s battle against DuPont, the film’s sense of inevitable disappointment is potent. A corporation is knowingly poisoning people, running the numbers, and treating the penalties, including the cost of human life, as an investment. History is written by the victors and, time and time again, the victors are enormous corporations with seemingly limitless resources. The film’s digital photography looks as sickly as the system it depicts, a yellow haze shrouding the events of the film. It was the most frustrating viewing experience I had in 2019, and that is exactly what Haynes wanted it to be. Mark Ruffalo, one of the most environmentally-conscious celebrities in the world, viewed this as somewhat of a passion project. His enthusiasm clearly rubbed off on the rest of the crew, because, in the hands of someone who did not believe in the material, this could have been an utterly forgettable film. Instead, Haynes and co. gave us one of the best surprises of the year. It will leave you gasping for air and making you question everything in your kitchen. Click here to listen to our full review.
5. Ad Astra
Look, making Apocalypse Now… in Space is kind of a slam dunk. It seems we usually get one quality, high-minded sci-fi film each year, and this was 2019’s edition. With his last two films, James Gray has shown that he has a deft hand with large-scale filmmaking. While the scope of Ad Astra’s story and geography are massive, the themes are extremely intimate. Yes, there are moon pirates and space baboons, but the stuff that stays with you are things like the look on Brad Pitt’s face when he sends a message to his dad and Hoyte van Hoytema’s gorgeous cinematography. The narration may feel a little extraneous, but the prose is potent, adding to the weight on Roy’s shoulders. And that scene with Pitt and Tommy Lee Jones coming face-to-face? Just perfection. Don’t be fooled by the marketing, this is not the intergalactic adventure it is sold as. Rather, it is a journey inward; a journey to find Roy’s soul in the heart of darkness. Click here to listen to our full review.
4. Little Women
Prior to watching Greta Gerwig’s adaptation, I had absolutely no relationship with Little Women. It was a property I scoffed at as a young boy, because that is what young boys do, and a property I simply never got around to as an adult. Now, I’m almost worried about experiencing any other version of the story, because I don’t know how it could possibly be any better. Gerwig has found her muse in Saoirse Ronan, who has become one of the best actresses of this, or any generation. The two can seemingly do not wrong together. I look forward to their collaborations for years to come. But the real star of the film is Gerwig’s screenplay, that weaves through emotions as effectively as it weaves through time. There is a joy to Gerwig’s films, even when sadness is not far away, that is unmatched. The unbridled enthusiasm of the film is overwhelming. I laughed, I cried, and I felt the familial love of the March family. The filmmaking on display is a marvel, as well, with the flashbacks being shot warmly and fondly, while the times of Jo as an adult are shot with a blue hue casting doubt on the idea that the family can ever return to the happiness captured by the March children. Times change, people change, dreams are altered. But, 2019’s Little Women argues, there will always be people to help you through times of strife. The finale of the film is a triumph, combining the beauties of creativity, craftsmanship and compromise. You may not always get what you think will make you happy, but there is always happiness to be found. It’s a beautiful sentiment in a film I never wanted to end. Click here to listen to our full review.
3. Once Upon A Time in Hollywood
I have always liked the films of Quentin Tarantino, but Once Upon A Time in Hollywood was the first time I ever left a Tarantino film and thought, ‘I need to see that again to fully wrap my head around it.’ He is a master technician and writer of crackling dialogue, certainly, but I don’t think I would call any of his prior films particularly nuanced or complicated. Hollywood was something new. It was shaggy, lived in and, dare I say it, kind of sweet. You feel Rick’s self-doubt and Cliff’s apathy. The Sharon Tate’s joy is infectious. It is Tarantino’s most emotionally-charged film. Tarantino, like Scorsese and Almodóvar, is starting to reflect on his career. He views himself as a Rick Dalton, in the twilight of his career, seeing the Sharon Tates of the world ascending around him. The film is relentlessly entertaining, showcasing some of the funniest, most cathartic and even most terrifying moments of the year. DiCaprio may never have been better and Brad Pitt more than earns his Oscar. It is a story of innocence lost and how we might have preserved it. Movies, Tarantino posits, have the power to save the world and he makes you consider their power. Click here to listen to our full review.
2. Uncut Gems
The Safdie Brothers thrive in worlds of grit and grime. The New York duo effortlessly establishes worlds without needing any exposition or flashbacks. New York’s Diamond District immediately feels familiar and you somehow understand everything that drives Howard after just a few sentences. Adam Sandler’s performance as Howard is a career best. But it is everything outside of Howard that makes the film truly special. Former NBA superstar Kevin Garnett makes his acting debut as some version of himself, capturing everything that made him such a compelling figure in the world of sports. Newcomer Julia Fox goes toe to toe with Sandler, matching his flip-of-the-switch mania and his confounding charisma. Every character in the background feels like they could have a movie of their own. The Safdies have a knack for casting that reminds you of someone like Robert Altman. That comparison becomes even more apt when you see how they direct dialogue. Characters talk over each other. A lot. It can be overwhelming. But that’s the point. The film is two hours of anxiety. The choices made by Howard are inexplicable and, yet, they all make sense in the context of the movie. Howard wants to win. He wants to win at capitalism. He thinks of himself the same way he thinks of Kevin Garnett. No lead is big enough. He wants multiple championships. No margin is great enough. Somehow, things always seem to work out for him. But, eventually, everyone’s luck runs out. The Safdies imbue Uncut Gems with so much style and character. It is a movie you experience and live in. Only the Safdies can make a movie like this. Click here to listen to our full review.
1. Portrait of a Lady on Fire
If ever someone says that the idea of the female gaze has no merit, immediately show them Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire. When I was contemplating whether this or Uncut Gems was my favorite film of the year, I brought myself back to our Extra Film discussion on Portrait, during which I had a period of about 45 seconds where I simply lost all control of my thoughts. I could not put together a coherent sentence because of how overwhelmed I was by the film. The film features a handful of images the likes of which I have never seen on film. Moments of intimacy in the film deliberately defy the traditional (male-driven) imagery we are accustomed to. Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel are electric, conveying intense levels of sensuality just by looking at each other. It is not a sexually explicit film, but it is one of the sexiest films of the year. The yearning oozes through the screen, but the relationship eventually goes far beyond that. The evolution to truly caring for each other feels entirely organic and the fact that these women know that a long-term relationship is impossible is heartbreaking. Seeds are planted throughout the film to make the film’s final scene shake you to your very core. It is a scene that I will never forget, and it is one that embodies everything that is great about the film. It has top notch performances. It has patient, striking camerawork. Everything has a purpose. No hair is out of place. Vivaldi’s Four Seasons will never be the same. And honestly, neither will I. It is a film I could watch over and over again. Click here to listen to our full review.
To round out my Top 20, here is the rest of my list:
11) Under the Silver Lake
12) Ford v Ferrari
13) Knives Out
15) Ash Is Purest White
16) A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
17) A Hidden Life
18) John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum
19) High Life
20) Marriage Story
Let us know what you think. Do you agree or disagree? We’d like to know why. Leave a comment in the comment section below or tweet us @InSessionFilm.