Didn’t see something you truly loved in 2019? You weren’t looking hard enough. Rarely have 12 months contained so much vitality, from old pros and young punks alike. Increasingly, film fans grapple with the delivery device: Netflix continues to attract major auteurs even as the big-screen experience gets deprioritized. Still, an international language was being spoken loudly and proudly by Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite and Céline Sciamma’s fiercely cinematic Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Movie after movie, the ambition was stuck at an impossibly high place. Here are 20 times when the end results were just as stellar—and trust us, we could have gone longer.
Joshua Rothkopf's top 20 movies of 2019
The future of guerrilla warfare—waged by young people who barely understand themselves, much less their opponents—comes to life in Alejandro Landes’s atmospheric stunner, a movie that confronts the viewer like no other this year. Its churning, keening synth score by Mica Levi (Under the Skin, Jackie) confirms her as an all-time giant.
Where is the sense of community in our movies? Where are the virtues of charity and sacrifice? Writer-director Kent Jones did his best to address those shortcomings in this modestly resourced but infinitely rewarding drama about an upstate New York woman (the revelatory Mary Kay Place) who volunteers in a soup kitchen while fighting the good fight for strangers and her own opioid-addicted son.
Met with the usual uproar by the easily offended, Taika Waititi’s long-cultivated passion project—a comedy about fascism’s effect on the impressionable and lonely—received a polarized response from critics. Give it time. The movie’s boldness will be discernable in years to come, when it will be singled out as an accurate read of a climate of fear.
Awkwafina arrived in a big way with Lulu Wang’s dramatic showcase, one that glowed with an unusually deep commitment from its star. The Queens-raised rapper-comedian plays Billi, a New Yorker in China hoping to reconnect with a past that’s fading. The performance is notable for how quiet it is: Billi is someone who only wants to bask in her grandmother’s teasing affection before it’s gone.
Plumbing his deep well of Dylanology (as he did on 2005’s No Direction Home), Scorsese reconstructs a pivotal moment in the singer’s musical life: an embrace of artifice, masks and pure invention for a 1975 tour of an America roiling in post-Watergate transition. Turned on by Dylan’s creative liberation, Scorsese takes liberties with the facts, never with the truth.
That question mark is a clue: Penny Lane’s irreverent and refreshingly smart documentary isn’t celebrating Satan. As it happens, neither are many of today’s Satanists, co-opters of the devil’s horns in service of a well-organized global program of rational activism, with the goals of promoting gender equality and religious freedom. It’s the rare film that persuades through humor.
Acting treasure Julianne Moore topped her already crammed filmography of complex Los Angeles women (Safe, Short Cuts, Magnolia) with this incredible showcase for her talents. A divorcée working out her pain on the disco floor, Moore’s Gloria is someone you want to hug protectively. Thanks to its star, Sebastián Lelio’s update of his own 2013 drama is now the definitive version.
No one is making movies like the British retro-stylist Peter Strickland, who cops the grammar of early-’70s exploitation cinema—all zooms and blurs and synth squiggles—and infuses it with modern-day pain. His fourth feature represents a continuing evolution: It’s the most sensitively acted and smartest film you’ll ever see that also includes sex with mannequins.
You can watch Robert Eggers’s hypnotic black-and-white psychodrama and walk out talking like a pirate. The dialogue, supplied by Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson as crusty lighthouse keepers, is exquisitely baroque. Even in a film this gorgeous and lushly scored, their cantankerous speech is the true music of the film—the sea shanty of lost men.
Indie dramatist Trey Edward Shults found his film’s main character—a gifted high-school wrestler whose star plummets—in collaboration with his lead actor, Kelvin Harrison Jr. (also of the director’s It Comes at Night). They chart a descent that’s harrowing, with unthinkable casualties. But Waves’s second half, marked by forgiveness and rebirth, signals Shults as something even more major: a healer.
Loaded with energy, impudence and a hint of fear about its director’s own future, Quentin Tarantino’s latest was the year’s most sophisticated comedy of obsolescence. It’s a cosmic revenge story—very him—but you had to reach back to Jackie Brown to find middle-age anxieties expressed so feelingly. The final flurry of violence is both disquieting and moving: an ardent wish against history.
Buried under a wave of early bad press, David Robert Mitchell’s neo-noir struggled to find its audience. But even in the best of circumstances, movies this risky are never an easy sell. This one’s a stoner odyssey that tests the boundaries of what we expect from onscreen mysteries. For those of us in love with Pynchonesque L.A. conspiracies, it’s nothing less than catnip laced with crack.
We may be witnessing the smartest move of Greta Gerwig’s already brilliant career: She follows up Lady Bird, an autobiographical film about her own teenhood, with an adaptation of the classic novel that basically defined the bildungsroman for American girls. Gerwig proves herself worthy of Louisa May Alcott’s creative spirit, exploding the material with timely notes of authorial independence.
When a movie opens your eyes to a new way of seeing, it’s almost insufficient to praise it. Céline Sciamma’s radical feminist love story turns its viewers into artists close to the canvas, sketching out a line that leads to expression, desire and the remaking of identity. The story takes place within the strictures of 18th-century Brittany but gives way to something frank and modern.
It takes a certain kind of genius—part social scientist, part sadist—to build a stinging contraption like this one; to a list that includes Alfred Hitchcock and David Fincher, let’s now add South Korea’s Bong Joon-ho. Sleek and impeccably acted, his movie taps into an undercurrent of class resentment, the defining emotion of our tantrum-clouded age.
July marked the 50th anniversary of humankind’s most inspiring adventure. Though we may have been swamped by tributes, testimonials and that constantly beeping moon footage, Todd Douglas Miller’s documentary found a way to stand out. The purity of its emotion stays with you; if we take a giant leap again, it will be because our wanderlust has been stirred by films like this.
Memoir is tricky, doubly so when one’s life can charitably be called privileged. But filmmaker Joanna Hogg pulls it off magnificently, striking just the right balance between sincerity and self-deprecating awkwardness via a star-making turn by Honor Swinton Byrne (as Hogg’s arty 1980s self). Tom Burke, playing a troubled boyfriend, steers the film to the dark place it needs to go.
A distilled shot of tough New York Jew attitude, this was the year’s most hyperventilating watch: a daredevil act of narrative propulsion. Adam Sandler triumphs, subverting expectations by playing a salesman, a wayward father and—in every possible sense—a gambler. But equal praise belongs to codirectors Josh and Benny Safdie, whose singular style has been vindicated.
In the wake of his Hereditary—a horror movie so impressive, it had snobs grappling for words like “elevated”—writer-director Ari Aster burrows even deeper into his pet preoccupations, with undeniable results. Family tragedy modulates into something wholly unexpected, this time with Florence Pugh transitioning from vulnerable and gaslighted into a force of nature.
It’s easy to underrate what Noah Baumbach has done over his past few films, expanding his cozy sense of neuroticism into something more universal, and grappling with big subjects like life, death and the unraveling of love. On this last matter, Marriage Story feels definitive: It’s the most nuanced movie about divorce, in all its heartache and banality.