2019 found me returning from a year in China and settling into a new life, job, and city here in America, totally recontextualizing and complicating my relationship to American cinema and culture. During this significant transition–but just like with any other before it–the movies were there for me. To comfort, to converse, and to confront. This year, I once again chose films for this list that stuck with me, that triggered deep and lasting emotional responses, and that provoked and confronted me. It’s the end of a year, but also the end of a decade. This all urges us toward reflection. Yes, reflection on self. But like, way more importantly, ranking all those movies you saw.
This year, my list could perhaps be best summarized by the appearance of three films that can all legitimately be coded as “hangout pictures,” but each in their own wholly unique way: a perverse murder romp, a protracted stakeout picture, and a rollicking ode to a bygone era. So, thankfully, it’s another year of polar opposites and oscillating ideologies that all manage to mesh together.
It’s worth noting, to contextualize things further, that two of my favorite visual artifacts this year were Damon Lindeloff’s beautiful, ambitious, searing Watchmen and Nicolas Winding Refn’s completely audacious Too Old to Die Young. No, I haven’t seen Uncut Gems. Yes, I have to give a shout to Alita: Battle Angel and Crawl. You have my love. Okay, anyway. 2019.
Honorable mentions: 6 Underground, Honey Boy, The Lighthouse, Parasite, Avengement
10. Ash Is Purest White (Jia Zhangke)
A film about the evolution of Chinese cultural codes, seen through the lens of one relationship that stands against the behemoth of time and the unrelenting push of modernity. Through a mixture of choice and unstoppable movement, Qiao (Zhao Tao) is pushed from the social familiarity of a small gangster community in Datong (a mining city feeling the impact of economic forces) to prison and, eventually, a completely shifting China where her companion (Liao Fan) has changed. Writer-director Jia Zhangke guides Ash is Purest White with a perceptive eye for the colossal transformations that take place in this rapidly-evolving culture, just as he does for the two souls that bend, change, and snap like twigs in the forest of progress and globalization. A nuanced and culturally-precise work, unromanticized in its moment-to-moment language, yet deeply empathetic in its touch.
9. Ad Astra (James Gray)
Ad Astra finds director James Gray returning to the textural nirvana of his last film, The Lost City of Z, and swapping the jungle for a cosmic voyage that balances interstellar spectacle with the tiniest of human gestures. Gray retains his ability to immerse us in a world both foreign and tangible, funneling the hallucinatory fever of Apocalypse Now with a tenderness that looks inward at our own beating hearts. Here, Gray once again meditates on the role a father plays in a child’s upbringing–through absence or presence–and the lengths we go for those we love, anchoring the journey around Brad Pitt’s understated and deeply affecting performance as a man slowly opening his soul. Elevated by Max Richter’s sublime score, Ad Astra oscillates between Mad Max-style moon chases and a hand gliding through glittering particles on that same moon, resulting in a rousing and profoundly moving ode to human connection. Now you may want to go call your dad.
8. Glass (M. Night Shyamalan)
Culminating a trilogy on otherness, heroism, and myth told over two decades, M. Night Shyamalan crafts the year’s most empathetic and resonant superhero film with Glass. Functioning in part as an archetypal narrative of good and evil, Shyamalan manages to deliver requisite (and genuine) thrills, while still pulling the rug out from under us in a way that is neither cheeky nor superfluous. In fact, his investigation into the nature of superhero mythos is beautifully and crushingly supplemented by a terrifying truth about normative, centric thought and power. These ideas are cultivated throughout the film, but nowhere are they more striking than during a coda that uses the structure of the hero’s journey against itself, dismantling a genre currently overflowing with the wrongful notion that scale equals resonance. This finale, full of fascinating ideas and visual conceits around otherness and togetherness, leaves us battered and wowed. By its final shot, Glass as a whole can be summarized with the same language that could describe James McAvoy’s powerhouse performance: haunting, complex, and exquisitely tender.
7. 3 From Hell (Rob Zombie)
Another trilogy capper from a genre master, 3 From Hell completes Rob Zombie’s Firefly family saga that began with House of 1000 Corpses and continued with The Devil’s Rejects. Like Rejects, Zombie positions his latest in the trappings of revisionist Western iconography, obliterating morality and continuing his aggressive embodiment and subversion of Americana. Here, he embraces his messiest digital language to date, creating a film as ugly and enticing as the tattered murderers at its center. The closest Zombie has gotten to a hangout picture, 3 From Hell is also his most deceptive creation: underneath its conversational and drifting tendencies is a stinking, rotten, sordid fiend that grabs the very seams that were stitched together (from human skin and a pile of corpses) to create Our Great Country–and rips those sutures out. Continuing his confrontational and incendiary tendencies, Zombie then waves the sinewy skin of our foundation like an American flag, carving a narrative full of broken bodies, warped camaraderie, and white killers dressed in indigenous garb killing South of the Border. Helluva decade, America!
6. Dragged Across Concrete (S. Craig Zahler)
S. Craig Zahler caps off his first decade of filmmaking with Dragged Across Concrete, maintaining his trend of conceiving the greatest titles in modern cinema (Bone Tomahawk, Brawl in Cell Block 99) and crafting dense exploitation pictures that seduce and bruise in equal measure. Zahler achieves this, in part, by treating each moment the same, his lexis rarely wavering from a stillness and confidence that forces you to delve headfirst into his sordid worlds; here, his molasses-rich yet buttery-smooth dialogue takes center stage, with each word a conduit for character and atmosphere. Conversations drift and scenes meander, recalling Twin Peaks: The Return through that odd static electricity of something being off, but very much alive. Zahler also achieves this by committing completely to each moment, and to the characters in them. This is a stakeout picture that is focused on the people on either end of the binoculars. It is confrontational, morally ambiguous, kinda heartbreaking, kinda righteous, and utterly compelling.
5. John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (Chad Stahelski)
John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum is a ballet of bullets, bodies, and blood; a film committed to motion and heart and the complete union of action and narrative. This is a splintering harmony of cracked bones and flung knives, coupled with an emotional undercurrent and a subtly mythic world built patiently over three films. Keanu Reeves is in peak form here, all gritted teeth and sheer focus, handling munitions like Cordite Jesus and carrying his memories and love with him through each moment and movement. This is pure cinema by way of blood and brain matter, ammunition and shin kicks. No film in 2019 made me feel such flow in the theater, erasing my anxieties and flaws and leaving me astounded, bewildered, exhausted, and giddy. A total, blistering action masterpiece, ranking among the decade’s most staggering cinematic hire-wire acts. Thank God for the movies.
4. A Hidden Life (Terrence Malick)
A tender film brimming with details, A Hidden Life finds Terrence Malick returning to more traditional narrative territory than most of his work this decade, while maintaining their poeticism, vastness, and grace. Not unlike James Gray, Malick is as fascinated with sweeping terrain and vistas as he is with the slightest human gestures or the simplest portraits, like a child’s feet dangling over a kitchen table in the afternoon, held by a parent. But what makes A Hidden Life so fascinating (and truly heartbreaking) is the way Malick uses the rhythmic sequences and motifs he is known for to show the invasion of ideology and modernity upon a simple life and a small community. Even on paper, the story of an Austrian conscientious objector during WWII is stirring, and Malick turns this note into a symphony. I felt its hulking three-hour runtime, and I think this is intentional: this is a film about time and rhythms and the ebb and flow of synchronicity (and asynchronous elements, brought about by war and change) which is spread out across spaces and years and moments, woven together and folding around each other.
3. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino)
The most pure hangout picture of the year is Quentin Tarantino’s latest. It’s also his most restrained, formally intricate, and structurally elaborate work to date. On a first watch, Brad Pitt’s ultra-smooth (and morally gray) stuntman was the centerpiece; on a rewatch, DiCaprio and Margot Robbie stole the show (and my heart). Robbie, as the late Sharon Tate, floats through each frame, simply existing as a Hollywood starlet we lost too early. She is the least Tarantino character he’s ever written, and his allowance for her to simply exist in this world is the most tender decision of his career. DiCaprio, on the other hand, is where the film sings. He embodies sheer, brutal anxiety like few others, and wears his sweet, stuttering heart on his sleeve in such a sincere way that it is breathtaking. Between Pacino ranting about films-within-the-film, Pitt and DiCaprio giving their own in-world commentary track, and the aching question of “what’s behind the green door,” Once Upon a Time.. in Hollywood is jam-packed with so many little moments and melodies that you get completely swept away… and almost forget you’re in Hollywood, 1969. Yeah, history is heartbreak. So smash it to pieces–even if the very intention behind this act leaves you melancholy. Maybe life only works out in the movies.
2. The Irishman (Martin Scorsese)
A life full of regret not for your actions, but for the direct and (perhaps more importantly) collateral damage of those actions. Toweringly, Martin Scorsese crafts a work both antithetical to the crime epics that made him, while also coding The Irishman with so much of its predecessors’ language, movement, and rhythm. This is a film where everything is stripped to the bone, until all that remains is your own deteriorating body. Without a doubt, this is the most complex, dense, and well-crafted film on my list, and probably of the year. It’s a melancholy masterpiece, destined to reward further and hit harder with each rewatch. The Irishman is Scorsese closing the decade like only he could: with a film so searingly questioning, even hypercritical of its subject, but that still refuses to leave their side. That door is still cracked open. Do you feel sorry for what you’ve done? Why bother asking. It’s what it is.
1. Midsommar (Ari Aster)
Midsommar split open my year like few films can. Getting the chance to catch both cuts (the director’s cut is tremendous) throughout the summer solidified writer-director Ari Aster’s sophomore feature as the horror odyssey to beat. Aster ditches the stilfied interiors and calculated precision of Hereditary for a more elemental, flowing picture, capitalizing on Florence Pugh’s God-tier performance and backing her talents with visual ingenuity and immersive sound design. Aster’s orchestration of bodies within a frame, and his play with wide angle and deep-focus photography creates a rich sensory experience, allowing the film to glide like the breeze while still twisting the screw toward incurable puncture wounds. This all builds toward a coda carried on Pugh’s shoulders, elevated by a searing, cranked up score, and bellowed like an exhalation—and obliteration—of trauma and grief.