Top 10 of the Year
|1. Vitalina Varela||Pedro Costa|
|2. Midsommar||Ari Aster|
|3. About Endlessness||Roy Andersson|
|4. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood||Quentin Tarantino|
|5. Ad Astra||James Gray|
|6. Parasite||Bong Joon-ho|
|7. The Irishman||Martin Scorsese|
|8. Waves||Trey Edward Shults|
|9. A Hidden Life||Terrence Malick|
|10. 1917||Sam Mendes|
Vitalina Varela. Pedro Costa’s darkly-lit, glacially paced character study of a woman’s grief may be one of the more obscure films in my top 10, but even in this year loaded with masterpieces, it manages to come out on top. Vitalina Varela is also the name of the non-professional actress playing herself, wandering the gloomy remnants of her deceased husband’s derelict home in a decaying Portuguese village, and as Costa studies her grief and resentment, he hypnotically slips through a series of cinematic paintings that challenge us to peel back the layers of its solemn visual poetry. His rigorous presentation of such an immersive visual style effectively sets Vitalina Varela up as a work of astounding formal beauty, meticulously rendered through static tableaux that demand patience from its audience.
About Endlessness. Roy Andersson’s deadpan gallery of absurd dioramas is missing from the TSPDT list entirely, meaning it isn’t considered to be in the top 31 films of 2019. It is a meditation on war, loss of faith, and a binding love that pulls us through the miasma of the mundane. But even more than this, it is about exactly what its title states – the concept of infinity, which we can either perceive as soothing or terrifying. It very much follows in the style and form he has been returning to for almost 20 years of rigorously presented tableaux, though he also weaves through a voiceover which delivers observations of its scenes ranging from unassumingly basic to beautifully profound. Such is the nature of eternity’s rhythmic ebb and flow.
First Cow. This might have ended up in the top 10 if 2019 was any weaker. Unfortunately for Kelly Reichardt though, this is one of the strongest years in film history, and #4 is far too generous given the competition. Much like McCabe & Mrs Miller, First Cow often feels like it is skirting around the edges of America’s grand historical legends in the Old West, letting every instance of violence play offscreen while we sit patiently with those who traditionally go unnoticed. This is a microcosm of modern society – a region where almost everyone is an immigrant looking to tame this strange, unfamiliar environment, only to find the cogs of capitalism at work, forcing the disadvantaged into petty crime just to get ahead. With some fantastic, authentic production design on its side as well, it is certainly an admirable film, but far from the top 5 of the year.
Best Directorial Debut
Swallow. Carlo Mirabella-Davis sets up a disturbing character study here of a housewife slowly taking back control of the life she handed over to her domineering husband – something she achieves by eating small objects like marbles, tacks, and trinkets. The oppressive lines and angles of her house feel very inspired by Todd Haynes’ psychological drama Safe, and our central character seems to blend right into the light colour palettes of her surroundings. This a very visually inspired yet uncomfortable piece of body horror, boding well for Mirabella-Davis’ future efforts.
Gem to Spotlight
The Souvenir. There is a quiet frustration in seeing haughty intellectual Anthony emotionally manipulate ambitious film student Julie in The Souvenir, but Joanna Hogg’s autobiographical self-reflection on toxic young love takes a touchingly nuanced understanding of the matter. This is a gently paced study of flawed characters, and the frequent symmetry of Hogg’s compositions is integral to the framing of this tempestuous relationship, shooting her actors through corridors and doorways that open into small, isolated frames. Julie is a woman not yet fully sure of the space she inhabits in the world, but Hogg quietly reassures us – she’s getting there, even despite her many blunders and setbacks.
Best Male Performance
Adam Driver solidifies his 2010s reign with his single greatest performance in Marriage Story – a raw, naturalistic display of bitterness, regret, fury, love, and resignation. Charlie Barber is a thorny, complex character who has cheated on his wife, built a prosperous career, proved himself to be a loving father, and is now finding it all ripped away from him in his divorce. Like his wife, he makes some impulsive mistakes in the heat of the moment, and when Driver delivers venomous lines like “Everyday I wake up and I hope you’re dead!” you can feel both the savageness of the barb and the tender sensitivity of the wound it comes from. This is pure, psychological pain rendered onscreen.
Next, Brad Pitt has the slightly better year than his Once Upon a Time in Hollywood co-star Leonardo DiCaprio for also leading James Gray’s space epic, Ad Astra, with quiet introspection. Solely within Tarantino’s hang-out film though, their achievements are relatively even, displaying humour and charm as old friends ruefully coming to the end of their careers in the film industry.
Joaquin Phoenix’s take on the Joker in Todd Phillip’s psychological thriller is pure expressionism, like a character lifted from The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and twisted into a disturbed clown. He is hunched, painfully cackling, and unhealthily gaunt.
Al Pacino and Joe Pesci beat out their co-star Robert de Niro who sadly won’t get a mention here for The Irishman. Pacino is loud, bombastic, and incredibly likeable as the leader of the Teamsters, while Pesci comes out of retirement to play against type as the more level-headed of the two.
Coming towards the end of these mentions, Adam Sandler proves again that he is more than just a lowbrow comedian in the thriller Uncut Gems, though he still gets his own share of dark humour. His descent feels like watching a train crash in slow motion, heading towards inevitable disaster through a series of bad choices. Lastly, Song Kang-ho gives the single best performance in Parasite’s ensemble as the father of the Kim family, suffering the prejudice of his employers.
Best Female Performance
Florence Pugh’s major breakthrough comes in the last year of the decade in two of 2019’s best films, Midsommar and Little Women. Her portrayal of Amy is certainly deserving of praise, but it is her performance as the severely traumatised Dani which marks her as a truly special talent worth watching. When we first meet her, she is on edge, unable to make contact with her sister, and then a few minutes later we see her at her lowest point – awful, guttural sobs erupt from deep in her chest, making the sort of noise no human should be able to make. From there, she undergoes a drastic transformation and brainwashing at the hands of the Swedish cult at the film’s centre, and in its very final shot, leaves us with an uncomfortably cathartic smile in close-up.
Pugh’s co-star in Little Women gets the second mention of the year – Saoirse Ronan gives the definitive take on literary heroine Jo March, beating out Katharine Hepburn with a performance that is bleeding with all the contradictions of adolescence and young adulthood. She is self-assured yet insecure, intelligent but reckless. Her line deliveries are so natural, stumbling over herself as she laments the position women are relegated to in society as wives, while expressing a profound loneliness in the exact same line.
The second-last mention in this category rivals the two above her – Scarlett Johansson gives her most purely realistic performance to date in Marriage Story, chipping away at her image as sex symbol and revealing the true ugliness of divorce. Quite essentially, her rapport with Adam Driver opens up an incredibly rich, bitter relationship between them, and those scenes where they are just going at each other’s throats are some of the best. Johansson has proven her range before, but this still feels like yet another level for her.
A little bit below these towering top 3 performances is Haley Bennett for her work in Swallow. There is so much going on in those eyes, at times looking completely dazed and entranced, yet slowly clearing over the course of her character’s awakening. Laura Dern doesn’t have nearly as much screen time as Johansson playing her lawyer in Marriage Story, but she is a real scene stealer. Sometimes you’re not sure whether you love her or hate her, but this only speaks to the nuances she brings to the part.
Best Cinematography: Vitalina Varela
|1. Vitalina Varela||Leonardo Simões|
|2. 1917||Roger Deakins|
|3. Midsommar||Pawel Pogorzelski|
|4. About Endlessness||Gergely Pálos|
|5. A Hidden Life||Jorg Widmer|
|6. Ad Astra||Hoyte van Hoytema|
|7. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood||Robert Richardson|
|8. Waves||Drew Daniels|
|9. Joker||Lawrence Shur|
|10. Swallow||Katelin Arizmendi|
|11. Parasite||Hong Kyung-pyo|
|12. The Souvenir||David Raedeker|
|13. Portrait of a Lady on Fire||Claire Mathon|
|14. Little Women||Yorick Le Saux|
|15. The Lighthouse||Jarin Blaschke|
|16. The Irishman||Rodrigo Pietro|
Best Editing: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
|1. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood||Fred Raskin|
|2. Little Women||Nick Huoy|
|3. A Hidden Life||Rehman Nizar Ali, Joe Gleason, Sebastian Jones|
|4. Midsommar||Lucian Johnston|
|5. Waves||Trey Edward Shults, Isaac Hagy|
|6. Marriage Story||Jennifer Lame|
|7. Parasite||Yang Jin-mo|
|8. The Irishman||Thelma Schoonmaker|
|9. The Lighthouse||Louise Ford|
|10. Joker||Jeff Growth|
|11. Uncut Gems||Ronald Bronstein, Benny Safdie|
Best Screenplay: Marriage Story
|1. Marriage Story||Noah Baumbach|
|2. Parasite||Bong Joon-ho, Han Jin-won|
|3. Midsommar||Ari Aster|
|4. The Irishman||Steven Zaillian|
|5. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood||Quentin Tarantino|
|6. The Lighthouse||Robert Eggers, Max Eggers|
|7. Little Women||Greta Gerwig|
|8. Ad Astra||James Gray, Ethan Gross|
|9. The Souvenir||Joanna Hogg|
|10. Uncut Gems||Ronald Bronstein, Josh Safdie, Benny Safdie|
|11. About Endlessness||Roy Andersson|
|12. Portrait of a Lady on Fire||Céline Sciamma|
|13. A Hidden Life||Terrence Malick|
|14. Swallow||Carlo Mirabella-Davis|
Best Original Music Score: Midsommar
|1. Midsommar||Bobby Krlic|
|2. A Hidden Life||James Newton Howard|
|3. 1917||Thomas Newman|
|4. Parasite||Jung Jae II|
|5. Joker||Hildur Guonadottir|
|6. Little Women||Alexandre Desplat|
|7. The Lighthouse||Mark Korven|
|8. Marriage Story||Randy Newman|
|9. Swallow||Nathan Halpern|
|10. Waves||Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross|
|11. Uncut Gems||Oneohtrix Point Never|
|12. Ad Astra||Max Richter|
2019 is the best year of film this decade, and the only real competition is 2017 – but not even that can compete with the seven masterpieces here. When you have a film as strong as 1917 just barely cracking the top 10 list, you know that there are going to be some brilliant ones left off, so it is worth shouting out Little Women, Marriage Story, and Portrait of a Lady on Fire which would all make appearances in any ordinary year. This is also the year before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the industry hard and sunk the quality of films for a short while – perhaps the universe knew what was coming and lined this up for us.
I am sorely uneducated on Pedro Costa’s career (the only other film of his I have seen is 1997’s admirable Ossos), but Vitalina Varela feels huge for him, landing in the #1 spot of an already crowded year. In fact, there is a huge wealth of established auteurs working at the height of the powers and creating their single best films to date – Bong Joon-ho (Parasite), James Gray (Ad Astra), Ari Aster (Midsommar), Sam Mendes (1917), Greta Gerwig (Little Women), and Noah Baumbach (Marriage Story) to name a few. Meanwhile, Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese, and Terrence Malick are heading towards the tail-end of their careers, and yet are still putting out hugely impressive works of cinema that land in the top 10 of the year.
Parasite makes history in multiple ways this year, dominating the awards circuit and playing to both arthouse and mainstream audiences. It grosses almost $300 million, wins the Palme d’Or, becomes the first non-English language film to win Best Picture at the Oscars, and climbs to the #1 spot on Letterboxd’s ‘Top 250 Narrative Feature Films’ list. It is also the third film in history after The Lost Weekend (1945) and Marty (1955) to win both big prizes at the Academy Awards and Cannes Film Festival.
Thematically, Bong’s film is part of a 2019 trend which saw socially-conscious films take aim at class inequality, joining Us, Knives Out, Hustlers, and The Last Black Man in San Francisco in this vein. This may speak less to what’s going on in the world of cinema than it does the world at large though, with directors using the medium as an outlet for their own frustrations and filtering them through a wide expansive of genres.
Despite the Parasite-mania, Avengers: Endgame is the bigger talking point among mainstream audiences at large, becoming the highest grossing film of the year, and the second-highest grossing film of all time. It also ends a massive decade-spanning saga in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It is an entertaining watch, but there is little argument to be had regarding its value as a piece of art. The superior comic book movie of the year is quite easily Joker, which features some brilliant expressionistic filmmaking from Todd Phillips and one of the genre’s finest performances from Joaquin Phoenix.
|A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood||Marielle Heller||R|
|A Hidden Life||Terrence Malick||MS|
|About Endlessness||Roy Andersson||MP|
|Ad Astra||James Gray||MP|
|Doctor Sleep||Mike Flanagan||R|
|El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie||Vince Gilligan||R|
|Extremely Wicked, Shocking Evil and Vile||Joe Berlinger||R|
|First Cow||Kelly Reichhardt||HR|
|Ford v Ferrari||James Mangold||R|
|I Lost My Body||Jérémy Clapin||R|
|Jojo Rabbit||Taika Waititi||R|
|Knives Out||Rian Johnson||R|
|Little Women||Greta Gerwig||MS|
|Marriage Story||Noah Baumbach||MS|
|Once Upon a Time in Hollywood||Quentin Tarantino||MP|
|Portrait of a Lady on Fire||Céline Sciamma||MS|
|Richard Jewell||Clint Eastwood||R|
|Sound of Metal||Darius Marder||R|
|The Farewell||Lulu Wang||R/HR|
|The Irishman||Martin Scorsese||MS/MP|
|The Last Black Man in San Francisco||Joe Talbot||R|
|The Lighthouse||Robert Eggers||HR|
|The Peanut Butter Falcon||Tyler Nilson, Michael Schwartz||R|
|The Souvenir||Joanna Hogg||HR|
|The Two Popes||Fernando Meirelles||R|
|Toy Story 4||Josh Cooley||R|
|Uncut Gems||The Safdie Brothers||HR|
|Vitalina Varela||Pedro Costa||MP|
|Waves||Trey Edward Shults||MS/MP|
|American Factory||Steven Bognar, Julia Reichert|
|Honeyland||Tamara Kotevska, Ljubomir Stefanov|
|For Sama||Waad Al-Kateab, Edward Watts|