The best 50 films of 2019: Odd, rich, startlingly varied. And brilliant
Oh look, it’s that person again.
“I haven’t been to the cinema for years as there’s never anything good on.”
“Really? Did you not enjoy Marriage Story or If Beale Street Could Talk or Midsommar?”
“I didn’t see them. I never got to the cinema because there’s never anything good on.”
The debate that defined the year in film kicked off when Martin Scorsese asserted that Marvel’s superhero films weren’t really cinema. The director of The Irishman never fully backed away from that statement, but, in an opinion piece for the New York Times, he later intimated that his real beef was the shrinking range of alternatives in mainstream cinemas.
There’s some truth in that. Readers who do not live within range of a specialist movie house may have struggled to see some of the titles below on the big screen. (I am going to take a punt and assert that this is the first occasion The Irish Times’s films of the year have featured two successive Colombian submissions for the best foreign film Oscar in the top 10.) But nobody who has paid proper attention can reasonably claim that there were not — for those who look in the right places — a startling variety of brilliant films in cinemas this year. The oddness and richness of our top 50 speaks noisily of the medium’s resilience.
There wasn’t much argument over our movie of the year. Alejandro Landes’s Monos, a breakout at Sundance, kicked up memories of Apocalypse Now and Lord of the Flies with its tale of young warriors isolated on a remote (yes, Colombian) mountainside. With television in the apparent ascendant, Landes’s film — scored brilliantly by young legend Mica Levi — confirms that cinematic values remain worth defending. It could start a movement.
Not everybody got on board with Ari Aster’s Midsommar, folk horror of the most extreme hue, when it emerged (a few weeks late) in early July. But if gifs and memes are any measure of resonance then — recall all those social media riffs on Florence Pugh’s flowery triumph — the freaky, sexy feature has really set in. And, yes, it was supposed to be funny in places.
Second place for Noah Baumbach’s magnificent Marriage Story, following Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver as they split bitterly, speaks to that director finding the perfect balance between his comic and dramatic instincts. It also reminds us of Netflix’s apparently unstoppable advance on cinema. Three films from the streamer make it into our list and, unlike in previous years, no Jesuitical sophistry was required to justify their place in a chart of best cinema releases. Marriage Story, The Two Popes and The Irishman all played for several weeks in Irish movie houses before emerging on the streaming service. Netflix do not report figures. So we can’t tell for certain if this blitz of awards releases is making any money for the giant, but anecdotal evidence suggests The Irishman has packed out Irish screens. It will need to go some to make a dent on its rumoured $160 million budget.
The Jesuits were called in to offer justification for our inclusion of Alex Ross Perry’s Her Smell in the top five. What can we say? We saw it in a cinema. It was possible for Irish people to pay money and do the same. Nonetheless, Her Smell has, infuriatingly, been largely a streaming pleasure here. Don’t miss it. Elisabeth Moss is transcendent as an awkward pop star in a film that makes extraordinary use of call-and-response dialogue. The streaming revolution now gets such films in places they would hitherto have struggled to reach.
What else? Well, Avengers: Endgame became the highest-grossing film of all time, but neither it nor any other non-cinema (© M Scorsese) made it into our list. Todd Phillips’s Joker was deliberately finessed into controversy, but, though we enjoyed the ride, it didn’t make the cut either.
There was so much else that qualified as the right kind of strange: Yorgos Lanthimos’s deservedly award-winning The Favourite, Joe Talbot’s meditative The Last Black Man in San Francisco, Claire Denis’s bonkers High Life, László Nemes’s novelistic Sunset. Pedro Almodóvar delivered a late masterpiece in Pain & Glory. Nadine Labaki gave us a humanist masterpiece in Capernaum.
Go to the cinema. There are good things on. Don’t listen to that person.
THE TOP 50
1. Monos Magical, disturbing Colombian combat epic that works Herzogian pessimism in with magical atmospheres from a region beyond nightmare. Utterly itself. Certain to be influential.
2. Marriage Story If Adam Driver doesn’t win the Academy Award for Best Actor, let’s all just give up on cinema altogether.
3. Midsommar Ari Aster confirms his position as the laureate of bereavement with a folk horror that extracts tarry humour from the grimmest demise.
4. If Beale Street Could Talk Barry Jenkins’s tragic romantic follow-up to Moonlight is bolstered by extraordinary performances and cinematography.
5. Her Smell For once we can use the word “Shakespearean” in a sense that hasn’t been worn to the bone. Elisabeth Moss is transcendent as an awful pop star.
6. Can You Ever Forgive Me? Melissa McCarthy and Richard E Grant make for an irresistible pair of rogues in Marielle Heller’s second feature.
8. Madeline’s Madeline Dreams, reality, and performance collide in Josephine Decker’s playful, experimental drama. Newcomer Helena Howard is extraordinary in the Proustian-themed title role.
9. Pain and Glory Pedro Almodóvar is back on top form with a poignant, autobiographical tale of a fading film director. Expect Antonio Banderas to finally get that Oscar nomination.
10. Bait Shot on 16mm and developed in coffee-grind solution, Mark Jenkin’s exceptional first feature reminds us that cinema is still light and magic.
11. Eighth Grade Young Elsie Fisher is achingly touching in a film that, while admitting that childhood is tough, allows that it’s not all misery. Inspiring.
12. Transit Christian Petzold adapts Anna Seghers’s 1942 Nazi-era novel to the present day to urgent and thrilling effect.
13. Sunset László Nemes follows up Son of Saul with a perambulatory drama set in early 20th century Budapest that recalls great modernist novels of the era. Worth the effort.
14. Holiday Watching a Danish gangster take his girlfriend Sascha (Victoria Carmen Sonne) on a luxury vacation makes for the most nerve-wrecking experience of the year.
15. Border Part horror, part fable, Ali Abbasi’s bizarre drama works emotion from the tale of a customs officer who can sense evil at a distance. Might she be something other than human?
16. Burning Two Korean men squabble for a woman’s affections in a mysterious murder-mystery. Or is it?
17. Ash Is Purest White Jia Zhangke delivers his best film yet with an vast drama concerning a young Chinese woman who takes the fall for a gangster. Exciting, beautiful, intricate.
18. Capernaum In chaotic, contemporary Beirut, 12-year-old Zain (Zain al Rafeea) fights for survival amid dangers reminiscent of the great Italian neo-realists.
19. The Souvenir Joanna Hogg icily surpasses her best with an autobiographical drama about a young filmmaker and her drug-addicted boyfriend. Austere, witty, original.
20. Support the Girls Andrew Bujalskia directs a heartfelt salute to female camaraderie against the ugly end of patriarchal capitalism.
21. Us Jordan Peele takes a huge bite out of America with his eerie, complex doppelgänger thriller. Lupita Nyong’o and Lupita Nyong’o are both outstanding.
23. The Irishman Scorsese finds an impressively sombre tone for his enormous, elegiac gangster drama. Jury still out on the de-aging.
24. The Last Black Man in San Francisco Railing against gentrification, a young African-American man and his best friend try to reclaim the house built by the hero’s grandfather in Jimmie Fails and Joe Talbot’s original debut.
27. The Chambermaid Hypnotic, moving study of the trials endured by a chambermaid in an upmarket Mexico City hotel. Extraordinarily subtle storytelling.
29. Apollo 11 Thrilling documentary on the first moon landing featuring delicious images not seen since 1969.
30. Knife + Heart Vanessa Paradis is a 1970s porn director in Yann Gonzalez’s delightfully bonkers slasher movie.
31. Thunder Road Fascinating, low-budget indie featuring polymath Jim Cummings — actor, writer, director, composer, editor — as a police officer with problems.
33. Ray & Liz Brilliantly unsettling drama referencing photographer Richard Billingham’s childhood in the Black Country during the Thatcher era.
35. Only You Out of nowhere, Harry Wootliff’s awkward romance became the breakout British film of the summer. Laia Costa and Josh O’Connor tremendous in the lead roles.
37. Sorry We Missed You Ken Loach remains on form with a searing, heart-rending story from the gig economy. Rigorously researched. Stunning juvenile performances.
39. Diego Maradona You know what this is. Propulsive, gripping documentary on the great footballer from the reliable Asif Kapadia.
40. I Lost My Body A disembodied hand crawls across Paris in search of its owner in this romantic, award-winning animation.
41. The Farewell Lovely tragi-comedy concerning a Chinese-American woman’s journey back to the old country. Director Lulu Wang arrives with a (graceful) bang.
42. Gaza Co-directors Garry Keane and Andrew McConnell explore human stories in a region under siege. Ireland’s entry for the Oscars’ Best International Feature Film category.
43. The Nightingale Aisling Franciosi is stunning in a drama concerning an Irish emigrant seeking justice after being raped in 19th century Tasmania. A hard watch, but worth the pain.
44. Long Day’s Journey into Night Luo Hongwu returns to his hometown in search of a woman he once loved in Bi Gan’s mysterious drama.
45. Blue Story YouTube star Rapman conquers the larger medium with a yarn concerning disputes in south London. Feels like a whole new cinema.
46. A Bump Along the Way Pamela (Bronagh Gallagher), a divorced Derry mother of a teenager, is shocked to find that she is pregnant again.
47. Wild Rose Jessie Buckley deserves all the awards for her ear-shattering role as an aspiring country singer in contemporary Glasgow. Ends up somewhere unexpected.
48. One Cut of the Dead A low budget Japanese zombie movie is disrupted when the crew are attacked by real zombies.
50. Hustlers Strippers — including Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu — fleece their Wall Street clients during the financial crisis in this surprisingly moving caper.