I have achieved gender parity! Look at the list below, and you’ll find five movies directed by men and five directed by women. On the one hand, somebody throw a parade for me, because I’m so woke. On the other, it’s kinda pathetic that it took more than 100 years of film history and almost 20 years of me doing this job to reach this point. At any rate, this means something. You can ponder what that is while going through my recap of the best of 2019.
1. Marriage Story. Noah Baumbach’s movies are all about educated white coastal elites, and so he gets on people’s nerves, but when he’s on top of his game, look out. Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson are both scary good as a divorcing couple who turn on each other while going through the hell that is the divorce industry in America. As scathing as this is, Baumbach heals up all the wounds with his compassionate look at two good people who do really bad things to each other.
2. Parasite. This may not be the best Korean film of the century, but it is the one that seems to have started the most conversations among American moviegoers. Bong Joon-ho’s fable about a poor family taking over a rich family’s house is both a brilliant farce and a disquieting look at the effect wealth has on people’s characters. My review never mentioned a Dante-esque sequence in which the less fortunate family escapes the house where they’re not supposed to be and must journey on bare feet through a downpour to their flooded apartment.
3. Booksmart. Oh, to have a best friend to wear a matching blue jumpsuit with and tell you how awesome it looks! Destined to go down as one of the great teen movies of all time, Olivia Wilde’s comedy is one hellacious ride with Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein bouncing off both each other and a plethora of weird comic characters to great effect.
4. The Nightingale. This film’s full frontal assault on Western civilization is the only reason I can think why Jennifer Kent’s Australian rape-revenge epic isn’t getting more play in the awards conversation. Lush photography accompanies this panoramic portrait of how colonialism, slavery, and genocide specifically played out Down Under. If Jane Campion had been more alive to racism in Oceania, this is the sort of movie she would have made.
5. Pain and Glory. When Pedro Almodóvar directs one of the best movies of his career, what else can you do except put it on this list? The story of a filmmaker making peace with his mother, his ex-boyfriend, his childhood, and his medical problems plays out against gorgeously photographed interiors in Madrid and exteriors in Paterna. It also reminds us that Antonio Banderas has never been better than when acting for this director.
6. The Last Black Man in San Francisco. Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair when you see Joe Talbot’s uncategorizable and incredibly beautiful essay on architecture, racism, and gentrification in Northern California. Cinematographer Adam Newport Berra and composer Emile Mosseri contribute greatly to this feast for the eyes and ears, but the story about the last working-class holdouts in this storied city is truly heartbreaking.
7. Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Céline Sciamma levels up her game in her first big-budget movie. The story of an 18th-century French artist who falls in love with the woman whom she’s supposed to paint so a prospective husband can see if she’s attractive enough to marry, this lesbian love story set to the sound of waves crashing on the beaches of Brittany is slated for a wide release on Valentine’s Day, which couldn’t be more appropriate.
8. Knives Out. If you really must, you can cite this murder mystery for sneaking in commentary about conservative heartlessness and liberal hypocrisy on the immigration debate. The rest of us will come to this movie for its impeccably designed plot, funny lines, and larger-than-life characters portrayed by terrific actors who make this so much fun. For this, Rian Johnson, Daniel Craig, and everyone else deserve all the donuts and donut holes we can give.
9. Little Women. Louisa May Alcott’s novel had already been filmed four times before this (more if you count the silent era), and while it helps to have a cast of tremendous actors filling out the roles, what really differentiates this from previous versions is Greta Gerwig’s unorthodox, graceful approach to the story that conflates Jo March with Louisa May Alcott in a fresh and modern way. The nuanced and serious treatment of Amy March is reason alone for seeing this.
10. The Farewell. Bow down before the jeweler’s eye of writer-director Lulu Wang as she tells the autobiographical story of her Chinese family and how they handled their grandmother’s diagnosis of terminal cancer (a premature one, as it turned out). Mark the unobtrusive way the filmmaker swings from light comedy to grim drama, but her small-scale wonder raises some troubling questions about how cultures handle death and the place of individuals in a society. Ponder these while you’re yelling at the caterer for your grandson’s sham wedding.
Honorable mention: Asghar Farhadi’s twisty Spanish kidnapping mystery Everybody Knows … Lorene Scafaria’s stripper comedy and critique of late capitalism Hustlers … Ari Aster’s disturbing, funny daylight horror film Midsommar … Jordan Peele’s evil twin horror film Us … Sebastián Lelio’s comic meditation on sex and aging Gloria Bell … two superb decade-spanning crime thrillers, Jia Zhangke’s Ash Is Purest White and Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman … Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre’s prison Western The Mustang … Alex Ross Perry’s drugs-and-rock redemption story Her Smell … Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego’s tale of Colombian drug cartels and indigenous peoples Birds of Passage … Joanna Hogg’s delicate coming-of-age story The Souvenir … Trey Edward Shults’ volcanic family tragedy Waves … Alejandro Landes’ Andean breakdown of civilization Monos … Lee Byeong-heon’s romp with cops and Korean fried chicken Extreme Job … Robert Eggers’ trippy study of isolation and madness The Lighthouse … Julia Hart’s uncanny generational African-American superhero movie Fast Color … Jake Scott’s epic crime saga American Woman … Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett’s hilarious dysfunctional-family slasher flick Ready or Not … Riley Stearns’ takedown of karate masters The Art of Self-Defense. l