The best movies of 2019 reflect the frustration of being on the fringe for most filmgoers, the conundrum of access and elitism that most people don’t much care about confronting when it takes $25 just to go out to the theater anymore. Here at Paste, we support independent theaters and cash-strapped filmmakers (many of the films listed below benefit incalculably from seeing them on a big screen with an audience), but we also understand that many of these movies aren’t going to make it to your local second-run establishment any time soon, if they ever did, or will. We get, too, that most modern festivals are markets for distribution companies and not fans, and so most likely what critics praised out of Cannes or TIFF weren’t available to you until long after thinkpieces and Twitter moved on. One’s ability to “catch up” is now very much an indication of class status.
In turn, our list of the 50 best movies of 2019 tends to be a confounding, even contradictory thing. Picks were culled and arranged based on the tastes of our staff, the order made with love, titles in conversation with one another, a very scientific points-based system used until it wasn’t, the only salient intent here to recommend 50 movies at least one of Paste’s writers loved this year.
So before we, heads down, slump into 2020, let’s pause to remember all the money Marvel paid us to give them good reviews and celebrate some of the most wonderful movies released in the U.S. in the past 12 months.
50. Alita: Battle Angel
Alita: Battle Angel begins with Dyson Ito (Christoph Waltz), doctor to cyborgs, scavenging through a junkyard full of spare parts in order to find anything he can use. What better way to start a film than with a metaphor about itself? Just like Dr. Ito, director Robert Rodriguez and co-writer/co-producer James Cameron sift through the remnants of established sci-fi and cyberpunk properties in order to glue together a recognizable and cohesive narrative within the confines of its genre. Considering the talent involved, it’s not surprising that the finished product is a frequently fun and kinetic, visually pleasing sci-fi/actioner, albeit one that doesn’t have a single new or fresh part embedded in it. Again considering the talent involved, that feels like a lost opportunity. Based on the popular manga, Gunnm, Alita: Battle Angel mostly takes its visual cues and narrative structure from a 1993 anime adaptation. That anime is barely an hour long, yet manages to pack in a sprawling cyberpunk universe with a deep and complex lore that supports whatever over-the-top tech fetish cyber action it throws at you. The story follows Alita (Rosa Salazar), whom Dr. Ito finds during his junk hunt and brings back to life. Her brain is human, but the rest of her is artificial. Just like a cyborg version of Jason Bourne, she doesn’t remember her past, but has supreme ass-kicking instincts, leading Ito to suspect some sinister military use in her past. The future world that Battle Angel inhabits is the lovechild of Blade Runner and Mad Max, a grimy post-apocalyptic city that’s also a grand, overpopulated cyberpunk metropolis. Apart from Alita gradually figuring out her ass-kicking skills, there’s another clear reason for giving the character amnesia: So she can be used as an exposition dump to settle the audience into the story’s world and the hodgepodge of various sub-plots that co-screenwriters James Cameron, Laeta Kalogridis and Robert Rodriguez cram into a two-hour runtime. However, when the fighting finally begins, Battle Angel gets its metallic ass in gear. Rodriguez pushes the confines of the PG-13 rating to create some genre- and source-material-appropriate hack-and-slash gruesomeness with a significant amount of cyborg bodies split in half, decapitated and torn to pieces. For fans of the manga and anime, there isn’t much in the way of new material to be found here, though nor is it likely to grate on one’s fandom to the extent that the Ghost of the Shell live-action adaptation did. For fans of futuristic sci-fi/action, it should provide an engaging experience. —Oktay Ege Kozak
Director: Liza Mandelup
Social media influencer manager Michael Weist flippantly remarks to the camera, “Influencers come and go, the business stays the same.” He says it dispassionately—the same way he treats his clients. He understands that this is fundamentally work, a form of labor, a kind of risky, fleeting employment; the influencers he manages represent a fruitful, but ultimately short-lived, gold rush. The only person who knows that better than him is Jawline director Liza Mandelup, but she extends to these subjects—particularly to the primary one, live streamer and aspirational influencer Austyn Tester—empathy and kindness. Perhaps it’s because she can grasp so well that the social influencer economy is an extreme, fraught business that her kindness and fairness reveals itself through her filmmaking. If social media influencing is a new kind of American Dream, maybe even more illusory than whatever that idea represented before, she takes no joy in watching the struggle of someone like Tester, from lower socioeconomic means, try to reach for a transient status that considers him disposable. And though Tester might not himself understand his appeal to fans, Mandelup, again, does: He’s naive and young enough so that his positivity and his idea of authenticity are free of jaded calculation and conscious performance. He is, apparently, as he presents himself, and whatever is omitted from his streams or posts is an extension of that innate charm and ambition. Mandelup crafts a film of impressive insight into the way our identities, consciously conceived or otherwise, maintained online have become a lot of work, and how some people are willing to make that a vocation, no matter the cost. —Kyle Turner
Directors: Tamara Kotevska, Ljubo Stefanov
With great warmth and reverence, Honeyland mourns a fading way of life—a way through which we’re introduced to Hatidzhe, whose whole life resonates, on some primordial level, with beekeeping. She climbs steep heights and navigates narrow ledges of rural Macedonia until she brings us to a honeybee colony she’s discovered deep in the face of a mountainside. She takes a few combs, carefully wraps them for the slow journey home. She lives without electricity in a village all but abandoned were it not for her bedridden mother, whose head’s half-wrapped with a scarf to hide a wound or large sore, it’s not clear, whose only company when Hatidzhe walks to town to sell jars of honey are the flies she attracts. Hatidzhe tends to her bees—only taking “half” the honey, leaving the rest for the burgeoning colony—in the ruins of what might have once been a thriving town, and her mother sleeps, occasionally rising to eat honey, or a banana, just a little. This is how their days pass, until a big family of neighbors rolls up with a camper, some cattle and a desperate ambition to make something out of all that land.
Though she may be too gregarious and giving for her own good, Hatidzhe welcomes the company, even if the family’s patriarch, Hussein, can be an abusive blowhard. Even if he gets a touch too curious about Hatidzhe’s talent with bees, squeezing her for secrets. Even when he starts his own beekeeping operation, but has nothing of Hatidzhe’s respect or patience or preternatural connection to the insects. Even when his hives ruin hers. Devoid of voiceover or chyrons describing location or anyone’s name—told only through a language most English-speakers admittedly wouldn’t recognize and a bed of sound on which rests a beautifully remote, mountainous ecosystem—Hatidzhe’s story quietly unfolds. There’s not much she can do as Hussein co-opts her calling, especially when Hussein’s investor insists he drive his hives into the ground to reap “enough” honey. One can easily catch metaphors about mass-market industrialization, or conjure up less material parables about humans’ insatiable urge to annihilate everything in their paths. Honeyland resists the tendency to sprawl out. Instead, Hatidzhe must accept what’s happened and move on. We do the same. —Dom Sinacola
Director: Nadav Lapid
It takes Yoav (Tom Mercier) all of 10 minutes to arrive at his swanky Parisian Airbnb, strip for a shower and step out of the tub to find that he’s been robbed blind and naked, with only a workmanlike grasp on French to help him get by. As he lies freezing in the bathroom, he’s rescued by two good-enough Samaritans living in the same building, Emilie (Quentin Dolmaire) and Caroline (Louise Chevilotte). They carry Yoav to their flat, wrap him up in fur blankets, and bring him back from the brink. “I have nothing anymore,” he tells them, staring up at the ceiling as if watching Heaven’s gates slowly receding from view. Materially, he’s right. In terms of identity, he’s wrong, and Nadav Lapid devotes the following 110 minutes of his film to proving as much. Selfhood is Lapid’s chief concern. It’s Yoav’s impetus for abandoning his country for another. He has valid justifications for his exodus; Israel, as he describes it, is an odious nation, one synonym among many in his arsenal for excoriating his birthplace. (“No country is all that at once,” Emilie gently tells him after entertaining Yoav’s fiery tirade. “Choose.”). But Yoav recklessly believes he can cash in his old nationality for a shiny new one to solve his worldly woes, change who he is, where he comes from, and better himself in so doing. Synonyms, in its hyperkinetic and eccentric fashion, argues that trading one’s national identity simply means trading one problem for others; every national identity, either within or without, has its own unique and inescapable baggage. Synonyms takes its title literally and very, very seriously, though mercifully the film isn’t an especially serious one. One moment, an Israeli man is being dragged through Paris’ streets by the bumper of a black SUV; the next, Yoav’s having a good, delirious time at a nightclub, the evening crescendoing as he and a strange woman tear into bread at either end of the loaf, gyrating and staring into each other’s eyes with feral desire. Whichever mode Synonyms operates in, Lapid presents the viewer with motifs and ideas with overlapping meaning, with eventually the overwhelming realization that virtually everything in all of human existence becomes synonymous with anything else, given the proper framing: Style with outsidership, modeling with pornography, isolation with autonomy, identity with violence, with grief, with spiritual desolation. That’s Synonyms’ great tragicomic epiphany: No matter how different they sound or seem, words and identities are all ultimately the same. —Andy Crump / Full Review
46. The Hottest August
Director: Brett Story
The Hottest August has a novel structural hook: Director Brett Story spent every day of August 2017 interviewing people across New York City, getting to know them, observing them at their jobs, at their homes or during their downtime. And while she asked them lots of different questions, one common inquiry kept popping up: Do you worry about the future? What Story learns is that, for the most part, the answer is yes. Why people are worried—and how they’re learning to cope—is what powers this remarkable documentary.
With the help of wizard editor Nels Bangerter—who previously worked on Let the Fire Burn and Cameraperson, two documentaries absolutely dependent on editing to establish their rhythm and pacing—Story moves from subject to subject, only occasionally returning to an interviewee later in the film. We meet someone working in virtual reality. We meet someone who runs a facility where people can break stuff in order to relieve stress. We meet skateboarding teens. We meet a middle-aged married couple relaxing outside their home. We meet flood victims. We go to baseball games and bars and parties, and we hang out with folks who are checking out that month’s total solar eclipse. And if you remember a cataclysmic moment that happened in America that month, well, you’ll see that integrated into The Hottest August as well—integrated so offhandedly and elegantly that the moment shocks and stings all over again.
What precisely is Story driving at? The Hottest August’s beautiful mosaic invites a personal, intimate interpretation—the movie is about a dozen things if it’s about any one thing. There’s an apocalyptic tenor to the film, which touches on global warming and the seemingly systemic belief (especially among her younger subjects) that the future will be bleak—if there’s even a future at all. And yet, the movie finds such warmth in its depiction of these sometimes kooky individuals. Story doesn’t judge her interviewees, and the cacophony of different voices, if anything, speaks to what’s still so extraordinary about human beings, despite their endless limitations and idiocies. —Tim Grierson
45. Under the Silver Lake
Director: David Robert Mitchell
There are red herrings, unkempt structures and plot threads that go nowhere in David Robert Mitchell’s quasi-slacker noir Under the Silver Lake—its “shortcomings,” in terms of conventional taste, don’t really matter. Rather, like the best pulpy “mysteries,” Under the Silver Lake knows what actually matters most: thrusting its audience into the delirious eyes of the protagonist. In this case, that’s old-movie- and vintage-game-addled Sam (Andrew Garfield), who stumbles into a quest to both find the hot neighbor (Riley Keough) with whom he’s infatuated and unearth a conspiracy that lurks beneath the entirety of LA. Mitchell pulls us by the hand down a rabbit hole of Sam’s making.
Strangest about the followup to the director’s critical hit It Follows is that it walks the line between being profoundly stupid and extremely acute. It is content to follow the logic of someone very stoned (perhaps even further than something like Inherent Vice did), where paths in the maze end abruptly, tantalizingly teasing, but Mitchell also seems to know the weirdest parts of Hollywood and its spell-like legacy, making each step in Sam’s odyssey clear and (internally) logical. As we’re plunged deeper into the weed-laced mind of its ever-broke lead and his adolescent attitude towards women and cultural objects (and women as cultural objects), Under the Silver Lake reveals itself to be a film about the ways in which nostalgia perverts the present and rots perspective. —Kyle Turner
44. High Flying Bird
Members of the “keep your politics outta my sportsball” crowd will probably hate High Flying Bird, Steven Soderbergh’s basketball drama, his latest experimentation with iPhone and his first collaboration with imminent playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney (of Moonlight fame and success). The film forces audiences to confront the implicit and innate racial biases woven throughout American sports culture, settling specifically in the NBA’s court. Granted, the apolitical type probably wouldn’t give High Flying Bird a second thought browsing their Netflix queues anyway, and that’s just fine. Soderbergh’s filmmaking and McCraney’s writing gel together with up tempo pacing and nearly lyrical dialogue exchanged between its tight cast of characters, chiefly Ray Burke (André Holland), a sports agent doing his best to serve his client, star prospect Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg), while navigating a fictionalized lockout.
The lockout’s not that fictionalized (recall events that impacted the NBA through 2011, for instance), it’s just that Soderbergh and McCraney aren’t referencing anyone or anything in particular here, beyond systemic biases, both casual and fully intentional, woven into basketball’s DNA. The film makes a surgically precise study of how governance over the game, wrested from the hands of its players and bequeathed to their owners, leads to grim power dynamics recalling the days of slave trades and auction blocks. In regards to material, it’s merciless. In regards to craftsmanship, it’s unforgiving. But curious viewers will be rewarded with one of the year’s most economical bits of closed-circuit storytelling, anchored by Holland’s towering lead performance—so long as they can keep up. —Andy Crump
43. Black Mother
Director: Khalik Allah
When any advertising agency is commissioned to shoot a Jamaican tourism commercial, they’ll inevitably wend their way around to the same old hook: Bob Marley’s “One Love.” Come and visit Jamaica, the land of All Right! Everything’s all right, all the time here on the Jamrock! The ad people are just following the path most traveled (and perhaps even dictated by travel agencies and tourism boards), promoting Jamaica as a land of leisure and ease, where the sun shines, people smile, life is good, and no one wants for anything, especially spiritual assuaging. Advertising may sell audiences on a Jamaican ideal, but with his documentary, Black Mother, director Khalik Allah achieves a goal far greater: presenting audiences with the truth, however lovely or hideous it may be. Allah’s approach takes the form of a visual essay/tone poem. It’s a fractured piece of work, a story about Jamaica the way that Hale County This Morning, This Evening is a story of Alabama. Allah’s filmmaking functions as stream of consciousness. He eschews narrative documentarian traditions. This approach poses a challenge to the viewer—Black Mother is made in a language rarely spoken in cinema, be it multiplex or arthouse. Allah throws his audience into the ocean and forces them to tread water, soaking in the country’s textures and contradictions and trauma. Through his lens, Allah presents a nation decayed by oppression, whether political, social or even religious, and a people forced to do whatever they can to sustain themselves. That doesn’t mean Allah is committing poverty tourism. Instead, he’s a character in the film, made invisible by the tool of his trade. But he lets the people he meets tell their stories in their words, and anchors those words to truth through imagery. The effect of Black Mother’s technique—Allah shot on both 16mm and HD—is dizzying to the point of overwhelming, but the discipline required to engage with it is rewarded by a singular moviegoing experience. —Andy Crump / Full Review
42. The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open
Directors: Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, Kathleen Hepburn
Nothing pays off in The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open. Every narrative detail, demanding resolution, goes mostly unnoticed: When Rosie (Violet Nelson) takes money from Áila’s (co-director Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers) purse, for example, we expect that the ensuing time they spend together, the 90 minutes or so, will teach Rosie a lesson, will encourage her to return the bills. That doesn’t happen. Instead, The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open tells of a chance meeting between two First Nations women, divided by socioeconomic stability but united in having both just experienced violations—Rosie’s is the latest in a string of domestic abuse incidents, while Áila’s had an IUD inserted amidst a cold, impersonal procedure, shot by cinematographer Norm Li on 16mm with a commitment to capturing Áila’s every near-traumatized grimace and wince. Li follows Áila from the office, into the street, where she spots Rosie barefoot in the rain, maybe in shock, and from there the two escape Rosie’s infuriated boyfriend to Áila’s dry, airy loft apartment. Li is always just behind, the rest of the film edited together into one, continuous shot as Áila tries to figure out what to do to help Rosie, and Rosie tries to figure out how to keep from being victimized by virtue signalling outsiders. That Áila is also a FIrst Nations woman hardly matters to Rosie; she barely even looks the part. Of course, when they do part, Rosie swallows whatever guilt she may have developed over stealing from Áila, and the caretakers at the safe house remind Áila when Rosie doesn’t want to stay that it sometimes takes people seven or eight times to relent and leave their abusive situation. We wait for resolution, for a sign that things will get better. When they don’t, we look for other signs, and we wait, left only with patience—to watch, and to never stop watching, and to sit with the weight of that, to afford the cost of empathy. —Dom Sinacola
Director: Zhang Yimou
Zhang Yimou’s latest is Shadow, a wuxia film based on the Chinese “Three Kingdoms” legend. Where Yimou’s recent filmography either favors substance over dazzle (Coming Home) or dazzle over substance (The Great Wall), Shadow does what the best of his movies do by sewing them together into one seamless package. As in Hero, as in House of Flying Daggers, the anti-gravity fight scenes are stunning to behold, but those movies put performance and action on the same plane, and Shadow deliberately separates them with a gorgeous monochrome palette, backgrounded by gray scale that lets the actors, and the copious amount of blood they spill throughout, hold its forefront. Here, in this tale of palace intrigue, Commander Yu (Deng Chao) employs a double to act in his stead (also Deng Chao)—his shadow, if you will—to seize control of a city of strategic value from invading forces against orders from his king (Zheng Kai). The film twists and turns, but through Zhang’s devoted stylization, the exegesis and intricacies never overwhelm, only ground the increasingly graphic, masterful action to come, some of the most beautifully astounding the director’s crafted yet. —Andy Crump
40. The Nightingale
Director: Jennifer Kent
Calling The Nightingale a revenge film sets an expectation of triumph, found in the satisfaction of grim justice done on the unjust. Let it be known that there’s no such catharsis in Jennifer Kent’s followup to her 2014 debut The Babadook. Revenge, while indeed a dish best served cold, tends to be prepared in one of two ways in cinema: with fist-pumping vigor or soul-corroding sobriety. The Nightingale sticks with the recipe for the latter. This is neither a pleasant movie nor a pleasing movie, but it is made with high aesthetic value to offset its unrelenting pitilessness: It’s fastidiously constructed, as one should expect from a director of Kent’s talent, and ferociously acted by her leading trio of Aisling Franciosi, Baykali Ganambarr and Sam Claflin, respectively playing Clare, an Irish convict driven by rage; Billy, an Aboriginal tracker driven by vengeance; and Hawkins, a British military officer driven by cold ambition and bottomless malice, who’s also Clare’s master and rapist. They’re three peas in a horrible pod, being 1820s Tasmania during the Black War, when English colonists slaughtered Aboriginal Tasmanians to the latter’s near extinction. It’s an altogether dark time in the country’s long history. Thus, The Nightingale is an appropriately dark film—but Kent is too shrewd a filmmaker to argue that Clare’s suffering trumps Billy’s, or to make any equivalency between them. She understands what must happen to fulfill Clare’s part in the story, and what must happen to fulfill Billy’s part. That she’s able to so seamlessly achieve both is an incredible accomplishment. The Nightingale is a far cry from The Babadook on obvious grounds of genre and style, though there are horrors here aplenty: Nightmare beats where Clare dances with Aidan, then with Hawkins and her other attackers. But the film expands on Kent’s interest in women’s stories by telling Billy’s tale alongside Clare’s, and shows once more her gift for making well-tread genre elements feel unique. If The Nightingale denies the traditional satisfactions of revenge cinema, it discovers new ones as well. —Andy Crump / Full Review
39. What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?
Director: Roberto Minervini
Roberto Minervini’s hybridized films skirt the fringes of documentary and drama as oneirically as they float on the sidelines of civilization. An Italian filmmaker who concentrates almost wholly on the American South, Minervini is a preternatural outsider, observing the daily goings on of a nonprofessional cast, often populated by those who would otherwise never find the chance to have their stories, however ostensibly ordinary, told. His films, like those of Frederick Wiseman or more recently celebrated impressionistic documenters, Khalik Allah and RaMell Ross, gracefully examines whatever “ordinary” is supposed to mean. He’s an outsider revealing the lives of outsiders, bound to his subjects by their shared liminality more than most Americans would ever be. So it makes sense that he never feels obliged to stick to straight objectivity, but never has much of a desire to fictionalize the events of those he follows either. He nudges his subjects into a cinematic frame without contrivance. The starkly political messages of his films flow consequently from the intimacy of the images he captures, grasping the deeply personal and overtly public as one in the same.
In his 2015 film, The Other Side, Minervini explored the margins of the deep South—meth addicts, militia members and racism abound, as do Hillary Clinton supporters, which in retrospect feels near-whimsical—at the end of the Obama presidency, finding, without judgment, horror and violence paired irrevocably with tenderness and peace. His latest feature, What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?, predictably sticks to the same region, this time to New Orleans, though with less noticeable framing devices and even less context. Minervini expects viewers to understand the cause and effect coursing through the three African-American stories he weaves together, to have a notion of why 50-year-old Judy Hill is losing her bar, her life’s dream, to a tide of gentrification; why brothers King (14) and Titus (9) navigate a world of subcutaneous fear; why Krystal Muhammed is so unrelenting in her activities chairing the New Black Panther Party for Self Defense, why they’re so righteously angry. Minervini isn’t compelled to lay bare the lifetime of sexual and drug abuse that haunts Judy and so many of her peers, or carve out a procedural around the police’s killing of Alton Brown, or dissect the gang violence that has King and Titus’s mom begging them to be home before the streetlights come on. Instead, inside of cinematographer Diego Romero Suarez-Llanos’s handsome, stentorian black-and-white, Minervini refuses to dredge drama from these lives, preferring notions of the everyday that represent more empathetic truths: how the film begins with King gently soothing the frightened Titus as they move through a fun house, or how Judy’s seemingly ancient, ailing mother bears no memory of her daughter’s trauma in passive conversation, or how the Mardi Gras Indians, in a city forever recovering from Hurricane Katrina, still practice, still put on a show, still summon the strength to give their community a celebration. This is the “ordinary” for Minervini’s subjects; its power, Minervini knows, needs no background. —Dom Sinacola
Director: Gaspar Noé
Gaspar Noé has been so openly confrontational and provocative for so long that it’s easy to forget just how powerful a filmmaker he can be. He is deliberately repulsive, sometimes to the detriment of his own films; I don’t care how structurally inventive Irreversible is, I am never, ever sitting through that goddamned movie again. But there is an undeniable hypnotic fervor to his movies, from the sordid (but also sort of lovely) kink of Love to the elliptical madness of Enter the Void. The immediate thrill of Climax, Noé’s newest and unquestionably best film, is how, for the first time, you see him letting go a little bit, releasing some of his notorious control, letting his characters breathe a little bit—to be themselves. It opens with home-camera footage—the film takes place in 1996of a series of dancers, readying for a troupe tour of the United States, answering questions about their hopes and dreams, their desires, their fears, their basic motivations. It’s a slick, kind of cheap, but still incredibly effective way for Noé to give us just enough information about these dancers that we feel for them when they go through whatever Noé is about to put them through. (And you know he’s going to put them through something.) But it’s what comes next that’s most exciting: during rehearsal, a glorious dance routine featuring the entire crew, both meticulously choreographed and thrillingly improvised, expressing themselves the best way they know how. Noé’s camera swirls around in one long take, and the effect is breathtaking: It is as alive and electric as anything Noé’s ever done. Now you’re really invested in this crew…which, as Noé’s counting on, was your first mistake. It turns out, someone has spiked the sangria for the post-rehearsal part with LSD, and, apparently, a lot of it. Even if he puts all these people through the ringer—and oh, does he!—there is inspiration here: For the first time, it feels like the pain he’s putting everybody through is something he feels, too. It’s turned him into less of a Lars Von Trier geek show. Not to say that the ending doesn’t pack a wallop regardless. Noé, for all his newfound pseudo-humanism, isn’t going to send you home wanting for misery. But there is…well, not hope, exactly, but call it catharsis. He’s as uncompromising, and as resolutely himself, as ever. It’s just that there might be a little more shading and warmth inside Noé than maybe even he himself realized. Don’t misinterpret, though: This is Gaspar Noé Warmth, not normal human being warmth. Rest assured, his world remains no place for children. —Will Leitch / Full Review
37. Chained for Life
Director: Aaron Schimberg
Throughout Chained for Life, director Aaron Schimberg forces his characters into a tete-a-tete between sympathy and empathy, between acting as object and as subject. In fact, Ingenue Mabel (Jess Weixler) might think that sympathy and empathy are effectively the same thing. They come from the same place. When speaking to a journalist on the set of the schlocky horror movie she’s starring in, she avoids broaching controversial subjects. On casting, particularly the casting of differently-abled people for said movie, she demurs, saying that it’s up to the director, but in her avoidance of discussing the social and political implications, ends up defending Orson Welles doing blackface for his adaptation of Othello. Rookie mistake? When the people playing the “creepy” hospital residents in the film arrive, everyone (other actors, the craft person, the cinematographer, etc.) treats them nicely in such an overly practiced way they can barely keep the contempt from seeping through their teeth. Most of these performers new to the set don’t seem to care, but Adam (Adam Pearson, seen in Under the Skin) smells the crew’s shit. He’s right to: Mabel literally practices in the bathroom how to conduct herself. So nice, so perky, so happy to give Adam, who has neurofibromatosis, acting tips on his first day and corny platitudes like “you’re too hard on yourself.” They play an acting game, with Mabel performing emotions: happiness, sadness. Adam then offers “empathy.” Mabel is caught off-guard. She makes a face. “I think that’s pity,” he says, unsurprised. Sympathy is hierarchical, and empathy is supposed to ask people to identify with others for the sake of justice—as if it’s a replacement for justice—but empathy is peanuts in the face of systematic discrimination and oppression. Schimberg wrestles with this idea, navigating a cultural landscape saturated with (necessary) conversations about representation in media, but what he posits is unlikely to make your garden variety self-identified woke person feel better. Representation is a double-edged sword, particularly when the site of representation (movie, TV show, book) is created or directed by someone not of the group being represented. Pearson, whose performance swings easily between actor acting and his own character traversing the landscape, bounces back and forth, object and subject, whether being condescended to by Max, struggling with the director regarding blocking or talking of his dreams with his friends. He commands scenes with no time for our pity. Chained for Life has no time for it. The film just wants to see its characters live. —Kyle Turner / Full Review
Director: Jesse V. Johnson
The second of three films directed by Jesse V. Johnson released in 2019, Avengement is as crystalline, as empirically precise, as micro-budget VOD martial arts action can aspire. With that kind of prolificacy, a journeyman director’s bound to do something right—which would be a valid assessment, were everything Johnson’s done not so undeniably solid. Thanks goes, of course, to Johnson’s muse, Vicious Beefcake Scott Adkins, a flawlessly sculpted humanoid so squarely planted in Johnson’s sweet spot—melodramatic, archly brutal action cinema with enough wit and heart to leave a bruise—a Johnson film without him as the protagonist doesn’t quite feel fully realized. Look only to Triple Threat, Avengement’s 2019 predecessor, to yearn for what could have been, mollified by a scene in which Adkins body slams a sedan going at least 40 mph. Triple Threat boasts three writers and a cavalcade of international action cinema stars, from Iko Uwais and Tony Jaa, to Tiger Chen and Michael Jai White (still in decent shape, but so outclassed by Adkins and his peers’ athleticism he seems pretty much immobile), while in Avengement Johnson works from his own script, winnowing the plot to a series of increasingly higher stakes brawls as wronged nobody Cain (Adkins) makes his bloody way through the criminal organization (led by his brother, no less) that left him to rot in prison. As is the case with Savage Dog and The Debt Collector (both on Netflix), Avengement thrives on the preternatural chemistry between director and star, the camera remarkably calm as it captures every amazing inch of Adkins in motion, beating the living shit out of each chump he encounters, Adkins just as aware of how best to stand and pose and flex to showcase his body. Charming character actors cheer from the sidelines; the plot functions so fundamentally we hardly realize we care about these characters until we’ve reached a satisfying end at their sides. Perhaps Scott Adkins is a better dramatist than we’ve come to expect from our kinetic stars anymore. Perhaps we’ve set our expectations too low. —Dom Sinacola
35. Knife + Heart
Director: Yann Gonzalez
Yann Gonzalez’s gleeful genre mashup Knife Heart is a queer provocation, a delirious journey through celluloid mirrors, daring to assert that pornography is as ripe for personal catharsis as any other art form. In the wake of a breakup with her editor Loïs (Kate Moran) and the murder of one of her actors, gay porn producer Anne (Vanessa Paradis) sets to make her masterpiece, one saturated with her rage and heartbreak. She sends a clear message to her lover etched into a reel of dailies, one of her performers’ head back in ecstasy as if in Warhol’s Blow Job: “You have killed me.” As her cast and crew are killed off one by one, Anne pushes on, driven to put herself in her work, literally and figuratively, the spectre of doom for her shared community growing ever closer. Gonzalez’s film pulsates with erotic verve and a beating broken heart, as if giving yourself up to cinema is the only thing that can keep you alive. When the lights go down and the wind screams through the room, it’s as if Knife Heart, and by extension all film, is the last queer heaven left. —Kyle Turner
One suspects that Sam Mendes’ latest film might have made a bigger splash at the box office with slightly different timing. Like most cinematic sub-genres that have experienced robust popularity and saturation during a decade or two, the war movie benefits from “lying fallow.” (Someday, the same will be true for superhero films, as well.) With Dunkirk, another artfully shot and presented war film—albeit a different World War—still “fresh” in movie-goers’ minds, and another type of Wars movies dominating discussion, it seems unlikely many from those most sought-after demographics are going to say, “Hey, you know what I want to see? A film set during World War I!” No matter that both its director and cinematographer have Oscar statuettes, or that the latter is the Roger Deakins (no slight to Mendes—but just check out Deakins’ resumé). Nonetheless, 1917 is one of the most technically challenging and visually satisfying movies of the year. The “continuous shot” approach, so often a gimmick in lesser films, is executed here with such deftness that it’s fascinating to observe in and of itself—it’s like watching a juggler or tightrope walker pull off a routine …for two straight hours. In this case, the approach meshes perfectly with the setting and story, pulling the viewer into the tension of trench warfare and the overall horror of a prolonged stay in a place where the enemy is always trying to kill you, while also achieving a certain character-centric intensity that may feel familiar to anyone who has logged many hours in videogames. (It may sound strange to praise a film in those terms, but “viewer immersion” is one quality to which all great art—from brows low to high—aspires.) As a result, if you give 1917 an inch of attention, it will drag you along for miles. —Michael Burgin
33. Ash Is Purest White
Director: Jia Zhangke
Ash Is Purest White’s story spans decades, a staggeringly beautiful epic, as comedic as it is heartbreaking, that stills feels impossibly intimate—confined, even, and not by space or imagery, but by emotion. China, over the decades through which the film sweeps, tumbles amidst modernization with little care for those who can’t afford to change with the times. Then there is love, passion and crime: At its heart, Ash Is Purest White is a romance between two criminals, Qiao (Tao Zhao) and Bin (Fan Liao). They are serious people with serious demeanors, their day-to-day lives oscillating between the nothingness of a routine lifestyle and violence. Yet, the violence is rarely ever seen—though when it is, Zhangke Jia directs it with a sense of relentless desperation and urgency—and most of the violence of the emotional sort. Yet, there is also a grand sense of human comedy that hangs over the film’s proceedings, as the stories of Jia’s core characters reflect China at large: Everything is changing, nothing is sacred, the past pales in comparison to the rapidly approaching future. Reality can be fought, but time is inescapable—always encroaching and always passing us by. —Cole Henry
32. An Elephant Sitting Still
Director: Hu Bo
Filmmaker Hu Bo’s suicide shortly after completing this epic drama added extra layers of melancholy and bleakness to a movie that hardly needed them. Judged on its own considerable merits, An Elephant Sitting Still is a despairing look at modern China, as four disparate individuals navigate a dreary industrial town while coping with their individual woes. (A teenager has severely injured a bully by accident. A classmate is involved in a relationship with one of her teachers. An adult male reels from the consequences of having an affair with his best friend’s wife. A senior citizen isn’t ready to be put in a home.) Sporting long takes in which the camera moves down the street or through apartment complexes, the film immerses us in these character’s dire circumstances—making showoff-y efforts like 1917 look downright shallow by comparison—and, over the course of an eventful day, leaves us pondering how much lives can change over the course of a few hours. We’ll never know what else Hu, who was 29 when he took his life, could have achieved as an artist. (He also wrote several novels.) An Elephant Sitting Still is haunted by that question, as well as the many others his film lays out for audiences. —Tim Grierson
31. The Wild Pear Tree
Director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan
A foundational knowledge of modern Turkey does not preclude an investment in the meandering, occasionally magical The Wild Pear Tree—in fact, a lack of context may lighten the film’s sometimes leaden pace. When we meet college grad Sinan (Aydin Dogu Demirkol), he’s returned home with little money, with the manuscript for his first book and with even less of a plan for the rest of his life, except to put off his obligatory military service for as long as he can to see his first serious work as a writer published. Stubborn and resentful of his hometown, Sinan still believes in his slim collection of words (which bears the same title as Ceylan’s film) even if it operates as a sort of metaphysical memoir of his time growing up and, according to a local politician, bears no fruit, no practical use as a tourism aid or piece of political propaganda to justify government subsidies. He could self-publish, but what kind of writer has to stoop to such indignity? Like Albert Camus’ protagonist in The Stranger—the author’s picture hanging in Sinan’s childhood bedroom—our protagonist holds an unreasonable annoyance for the exigencies of post-collegiate Turkish life, a malcontent attitude toward the world around him that manifests in philosophical arguments always seeming on the precipice of violence. Then there’s Sinan’s father, Idris (Murat Cemcir), a former teacher and disgraced gambling addict who insists on revitalizing his family’s farm by digging a well that everyone but Idris believes to be a ridiculously futile project. Sinan resents his father most of all, and in that well sees his father’s respect and education and ambition wasted, sunk beneath the man’s inability to overcome his lot in life. And yet, as Sinan wanders around town, having drinks with Imams and authors and old friends, debating everything from religion, to politics, to romance, his conversations push him inexorably back to that farm, his family’s shame, to that waterless well and his father’s unending series of failures. Poignant and quietly transportive, The Wild Pear Tree imagines a world in which everyone must come to bittersweet terms with the life they lead not living up to the life they wanted. Were you not told otherwise, you could mistake it for your own. —Dom Sinacola
Directors: Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt
Everyone in the world loves football—or, as we Americans lamentably call it, soccer—and everyone in the world loves Portuguese player Diamantino Matamouros (Carloto Cotta), an athlete of such status, notoriety and power that he might as well be a modern deity. Diamantino, or, as his friends call him, “Tino,” is such a virtuoso on the field that everyone, a few in particular, wants to know what makes him such a genius player. (It’s imaginary giant fluffy puppies. No, I’m not joking.) With his athletic skill and international ubiquity, he is, shall we say, a vision of modern Portugal. Or he could be. Events in which people implicitly or explicitly present themselves as a kind of synecdoche for a nation is political, and Diamantino is a comedy about when someone is that body of politics and doesn’t really understand it. There is no secret to Diamantino’s performance; he’s a beautiful, brainless jock, whose heart would be on his sleeve if he had a shirt on long enough to justify the metaphor. Also, if he could find said sleeve. But just because he’s kind of a moron doesn’t mean he’s not lovable. Rather, Cotta gives Diamantino a sweet honesty, a preciousness which is carefully etched on his occasionally vacant, bemused expressions. The cult of celebrity he experiences both firsthand (he gets meme’d, hilariously) and by proxy (he has pillows and bedsheets with his face and body) is beyond his control, which is why he’s the perfect specimen to use for an explicitly political agenda by Portuguese nationalists who want to leave the EU. The sweetness of the film finds an amusing complement in its strange eroticism, itself part of the queerness of its genre mixing. It’s part study of masculinity as politic, part examination of the politics of sporting events, part espionage thriller, part sci-fi, part family comedy. The film has a slyly satirical edge, not merely for the way that Diamantino is repurposed for a nationalist cause, but for its subtle sympathy and skepticism of the role that celebrities play in public political discourse. It’s not hard to imagine a future in which a brainless famous person is manipulated into becoming the poster child for a nationalist movement; after all, there are enough famous people who do that of their own volition. —Kyle Turner / Full Review
29. The Mountain
Director: Rick Alverson
As his boss, Dr. Wallace Fiennes (Jeff Goldblum), flirts with a group of hospital staff, our young, torpid protagonist Andy (Tye Sheridan) fixates on a corner of the hospital hallway so ordinary it may be invisible, so dusty it may not even exist. No one usually notices seams like this—the literal borders where pieces come together, where we’re given spaces to live within. He stares at the corner; so do we, noting the molding and dust particles gone matte-green and bored symmetry. Until our attention’s suddenly broken by Andy taking a picture. He’s driven here with Wally (as the “ladies call” him, a guy Andy’s only recently met who “knew” Andy’s “mother”) to help convince these doctors and nurses populating these hospitals and asylums and assorted holding facilities, all hidden within the morass of forests and mountain country spreading from Washington down into California’s Mt. Shasta area, of a controversial new mental health procedure Wally’s pitching. Traveling lobotomist, Wally enlists Andy to document his exploits. And for a man like Andy, who spends large portions of his day staring—at walls and floors and middle distances and nothing—observing and documenting seem like constructive uses of time. Scrunching their world within a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, director Rick Alverson and cinematographer Lorenzo Hagerman seem obsessed with frames—with how hallways and doorways and stairwells and roadways and limited fields of vision define the bodies of our characters, confine them to estimable empty space. Andy and Wally—two tall, lithe men—say very little, as is the case with most people they encounter on their sojourn throughout the Pacific Northwest, spreading the gospel of Wally’s methods. What little we learn of those methods we learn alongside Andy, who comes to realize that the same methods were used on his mother, a former patient of Wally’s. They involve electro-shock therapy, then an ice-pick-like tool inserted into the patient’s frontal lobe through the eye socket. We stare as someone maybe dies on the operating table. “Bring in the next one,” Wally demands, blood splotched across his own eye socket.
Throughout, Tye Sheridan embodies Andy as a physical manifestation totally uncomfortable with what that means. Tilted and inward, Andy stipples through every set as if he can’t get the performance of being human quite right, and his many dreams of sex in flux confuse that alien feeling even further. He wonders where his mother’s mind went because that’s where he’s supposed to be—not exactly dead, but not exactly regulated by all these hallways and doorways and roadways and other kinds of frames and borders and structures that keep us down. By contrast, Jeff Goldblum wields his large body like the force for good it could be, knowing he holds sway with those in his orbit, but equally aware of how exaggeratedly he also holds the weight of what kind of travesties his character’s committing. Both actors—one near the end of his career and one only beginning—occupy the screen magnificently, effortlessly, as if they’re conjuring strange iconography from a collective traumatic past. It’s heartbreaking stuff. —Dom Sinacola / Full Review
28. Dark Waters
Director: Todd Haynes
In Dark Waters, we follow corporate defense lawyer Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo), whose primary job is, for all intents and purposes, to find legal loopholes and excuses to protect large chemical companies, such as potential client DuPont. With a city job in Ohio, he has a nice home and burgeoning family. But a farmer (Bill Camp) in Parkersburg, West Virginia whose stock has been mysteriously dying comes knocking to ask Robert to turn away from the big corporate institution that provides him such personal security (two cars, private school tuition for the kids) so that he can return to the part of his past he usually sweeps beneath the rug. Through the tedium of paperwork and a case that lasts over a decade, Bilott pieces together a scandal about unregulated forever chemicals and Teflon and the illusion of safety—the American Dream—that’s been sold to us since the 1960s. For Haynes, the systems and institutions at play present themselves in multiple scales: as small as the pan in your dishwasher and as gigantic as an international company. It recalls Haynes’ relationship to the legacy of AIDS, which informs nearly all of his films in some way, notably [Safe] and Poison. Here Dark Waters conjures the ghosts of corrupt pharmaceutical companies in the late ’80s and ’90s, reminds of their fraught relationship with patient testing and the safety of such drugs as AZT. The trauma of the AIDS crisis, and the people with the power to stop who didn’t, haunts the film. Those same companies with beloved slogans (“Better Living Through Chemistry”) embed themselves deeply into public consciousness, into communities, parasitically, tricking them into believing their success and sustainability is predicated on the success and sustainability of the company. If Haynes’ career-long project is to situate the United States as a kind of “house,” one with rules and systems, one that keeps a watchful eye on its inhabitants, one that operates like an institution filled with other powerful institutions, then that house has the stench of secrets. Not just of how willfully chemical companies put people at risk, particularly those of Parkersburg, WV—the stench is the American Dream itself. —Kyle Turner / Full Review
27. Marriage Story
The way that Adam Driver ends “Being Alive,” which his character in Marriage Story has just sung in full (including dialogue asides from Company’s lead’s friends), is like watching him drain what’s left of his spirit out onto the floor, in front of his small audience (which includes us). The performance starts off kind of goofy, the uninvited theater kid taking the reins to sing one of Broadway’s greatest showstoppers, but then, in another aside, he says, “Want something… want something…” He begins to get it. He begins to understand the weight of life, the dissatisfaction of squandered intimacy and what it might mean to finally become an adult: to embrace all those contradictions, all that alienation and loneliness. He takes a deep exhalation after the final notes, after the final belt; he finally realizes he’s got to grow up, take down his old life, make something new. It’s a lot like living on the Internet these days; the impossibility of crafting an “authentic self,” negligible the term may be, is compounded by a cultural landscape that refuses to admit that “authenticity” is as inauthentic a performance as anything else. Working through identities is painful and ugly. Arguably, we’re all working through how to be ourselves in relation to those around us. And that’s what Bobby, the 35-year-old at the center of Stephen Sondheim’s 1970 musical Company, is doing.
The current cultural landscape doesn’t know what to do with sincerity, especially as it relates to ideas of authenticity. In a late capitalist, postmodern world, everyone has a little bit of a jaundiced eye. If our entertainment is a little more cynical, it’s only because we became that way first. In a letter to director and producer Hal Prince, composer Richard Rodgers said, “I think Company is to cynicism what The Sound of Music is to sentimentality.” Sondheim’s music is for the cynic trying to be positive, the jaded person trying to confront what being authentic might mean in a material way. His characters are alienated and lonely; many of us are that way, too, pulled in as many ways as social media and the content machine want us to be pulled. “Being Alive,” when Adam Driver sings it in Marriage Story, forces the viewer to make connections about their humanity, the art they’re experiencing, and the ever deadening world in which it all exists. Charlie grabs the microphone, drained, realizing that he has to figure out what he has to do next, to re-put his life together again. All of us, we’re putting it together too. Or trying, at least. That counts for something. —Kyle Turner / Full Article
Director: Christian Petzold
In Christian Petzold’s Transit, based on Anna Segher’s WWII-based novel of the same name, the writer-director strips all context from his story, but not by pulling it out of time. Instead, Petzold’s limned his adaptation in modern technologies and settings—contemporary cars line the streets of today’s Marseille; flat screens hang unimpressively in bars; military police dress in black riot gear, not a swastika in sight—though no one uses a cell phone or a computer, doomed to repeat themselves in bureaucratic offices and waiting in endless lines, all while the enemy, an occupational force, quickly sweeps across France. Odd and surprisingly high-concept, though never pleased with itself, Transit removes context by confusing it, treating its characters as if they’re in a kind of existential wartime limbo, forever fated to keep looking: for escape, for a lost loved one, for some food to eat or a bed to lie in, for a reason to keep enduring. Transit could’ve been a sci-fi drama were its characters ever shown an alternate reality. One character, Georg (Franz Rogowski) is a German refugee scratching his way through his adopted country, tasked with delivering letters and documents to a writer named Weidel, but, upon arriving, discovers the writer’s committed suicide (leaving an awful mess for the hotel staff). Hearing that the German forces are quickly consuming France, Georg travels to Marseille, where he hopes to make accommodations to leave before the Axis powers arrive, taking with him the identity of Weidel and an omnipresent narrator (Matthias Brandt) who speaks of Dawn of the Dead and Georg’s every emotion even though the narrator never hides that he’s the bartender of the bar Georg silently frequents, piecing together this long forlorn story Georg’s woven for him. Georg isn’t aloof or indifferent or even remotely manipulative, just adrift, and not long after he sets up camp in Marseille, he realizes the beautiful and strange woman who floats through the streets and consulates tapping men on the shoulder is Marie (Paula Beer), Weidel’s widow, looking for her husband. Only Georg knows he’s dead; Georg falls in love with Marie. Though touch screen technology obviously exists in its world, characters do not use phones, can’t Google anything or dig up maps or get immediate confirmation that a loved one has died. Instead, they walk, and they carry letters to one another, and find happiness in individual, brief moments—because maybe they know of nothing better out there, or maybe because that is what defines them. Defines us. Transit is a powerful film, equally celebrating, mourning and fascinated by the ability of people to keep going. At one point, Georg describes to a Mexican official a short story about a waiting room in which denizens take turns entering hell, only to discover that the waiting room is hell. Knowing this, we still sit there. It takes a magnificent spirit to keep waiting. —Dom Sinacola / Full Review