Chris Dashiell talks about his favorites among the films he saw in 2019.
Thinking back on 2019, preparing to put together a list of my favorite films from last year, I was struck more than ever by how my movie experiences were determined by the realities of film distribution. Reading other critics’ end of year pieces, I noticed many films on their lists that never played in my city, many that have not yet been released on DVD or streaming platforms, or perhaps never will be. The amount of money behind a film helps determine whether or not you have a chance to see it, and even whether or not you’ll hear about it. So with a nod to all the films I didn’t or couldn’t see, and a fervent wish for a broader and more inclusive world of distribution in the art form that I love, here are my favorites among the films I did see in 2019.
A Hidden Life (Terrence Malick).
Malick is a filmmaker with a unique style that combines subjective voice-over with lyrical visual editing. In recent years he has seemed stuck within this style, without a compelling theme or story grounding it. But in his latest film he has found an important story, that of an Austrian farmer in the 1930s and 40s who refused to say the loyalty oath to Hitler, or to fight in Hitler’s war. Perhaps what moved me most was the idea of a single individual saying “No” to evil despite the opposition of society and government against him, and especially saying “No” even though, as people in the film point out to him, his action will have no effect on the war, which will go on anyway, and whatever punishment he suffers for it will go largely unnoticed. Malick puts a laser focus on the loneliness of conscience and affliction, and his gorgeous shots of the natural world create a tremendous contrast between the spirituality he identifies with nature and the horrors being perpetrated by human beings on one another. August Diehl is riveting as the main character, and Valerie Pachner is unforgettable as his wife, who struggles to understand what her husband is doing, yet doesn’t waver in her love. This is a shattering film, and one that I think is particularly relevant for today.
Parasite (Bong Joon-ho).
This is one of the most cleverly constructed film narratives in recent years, and one of the funniest and most exciting as well. The story concerns a family—father, mother, daughter and son—that live on the bottom rung of society, but seek to escape poverty by scamming a wealthy family that the son happens to meet. Bong takes us on a roller coaster ride from edgy comedy to horror to satire, each step of the way dramatizing how class, the wide gap between rich and poor, is a social condition that invites chaos and insanity. Even though they’re grifters, the poor family is not evil, and even though the rich family is privileged and clueless, they’re not evil either. It’s the social order itself that is the problem, the parasite, and every detail of the film has a double or triple meaning in this respect. Even a brilliant sequence in which the poor family has their basement slum apartment ruined by a flash flood can’t help but bring climate change to mind. But Parasite is much more than a political allegory. What’s left when the dust settles are broken dreams and relationships, as beautifully presented in the film’s understated ending.
Capernaum (Nadine Labaki).
This important film tells of a tough 12-year-old street kid navigating the poverty, abuse, and factionalism that makes living in Beirut a kind of hell for children. With an amazing central performance by a boy named Zain Al Rafeea, Capernaum is powerful and heart wrenching, yet refuses to wallow in misery. We admire the resilience and cunning survival skills of this boy, who ends up having to take care of a refugee’s baby while the baby’s mom is thrown into jail—yet we still experience the full dramatic impact of Labaki’s main idea: the irresponsibility of an adult world that creates such a terrible mess for its children.
Pain and Glory (Pedro Almodóvar).
Almodóvar’s uncharacteristically mellow yet incisive new picture has stayed with me as a fine example of a filmmaker looking back on the important things in life and art with passion, reverie, and ultimately acceptance. Antonio Banderas shines as a film director who is confronted with the pain of aging and the memory of love affairs from the past, in a story that deals with addiction, life and loss as a gay man, and humorous insights into the art of film itself.
The Irishman (Martin Scorsese).
In a return to his most popular narrative form—the gangster film—Scorsese presents, in a most vigorous and comprehensive way, the poison of toxic male rage infecting American history. Al Pacino’s Jimmy Hoffa is the epitome of our special brand of political corruption. And his friend, a hit man played by Robert De Niro, exemplifies the weakness and moral emptiness behind our phony culture hero: the tough guy.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco (Joe Talbot).
For a young man named Jimmie (Jimmie Fails) trying to reclaim his family’s old house in San Francisco, home symbolizes a time when African Americans had a solid presence in the life of the city. His best friend, the aspiring playwright Mont (Jonathan Majors) balances Jimmie’s dreams with a commitment to telling the truth. Vividly evoking a sense of place, this is a film of great beauty and tenderness.
The Souvenir (Joanna Hogg).
A film student (Honor Swinton Byrne) trying to find her voice in 1980s London, finds out how a love affair with an inspiring but dominating man (Tom Burke) can threaten to overshadow her own creative path. Hogg fashions her story not through dramatic high points, but by a careful accretion of details from ordinary daily life. This is exemplary feminist cinema, foregrounding a woman’s experience and point of view with scrupulous honesty.
Little Women (Greta Gerwig).
By shifting back and forth within the time sequence of Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel, Gerwig skillfully displays the contrast between an imperfect yet blissful young environment of loving sisterhood and the frustrating demands of an adult world that wants women to serve as adjuncts to men. The film’s conflation of Jo March the character with Alcott the real-life author is delightful and clever. And Saoirse Ronan, as Jo, confirms her place as one of our best actresses.
Non-Fiction (Olivier Assayas).
Assayas is one of the few directors devoted to making films about ideas. Here, the theme is traditional culture versus the new digital culture that is threatening to supplant it. The pleasure of discussing and arguing about such matters is conveyed through a group of Parisian literary types (portrayed by Juliette Binoche and Guillaume Canet, among others) that is sexually as well as intellectually entangled. The film is so charming and funny in its low-key way, that you may not notice at first how poorly these people match their behavior with their ideals.
Ash is Purest White (Jia Zhanke).
Want more good 2019 films? Here are some excellent B-sides:
Marriage Story (Noah Baumbach).
High Life (Claire Denis).
Atlantics (Mati Diop).
Sunset (László Nemes).
La Camarista (Lila Avilés).
The Heiresses (Marcelo Martinessi).
Uncut Gems (Josh & Bennie Safdie).
Birds of Passage (Ciro Guerra & Cristina Gallego).
The Farewell (Lulu Wang).
The Dead Don’t Die (Jim Jarmusch).
And may your 2020 be happy, hopeful, and full of good movies.