Best Films of 2019: The Ones You Won't Find at the Oscars
2020 began with a stand-off teetering on the edge of WW3 and was followed by the shameful acquittal at the impeachment, the mess of the Iowa caucuses, and a worldwide outbreak of an unknown coronavirus. Within this cloud of dread and menace stand the Oscars, which showered Todd Phillips’ Joker (a turgid and inept film) with 11 nominations including Best Picture. Gratefully, Sam Mendes 1917, a middling but markedly less offensive melange of tropes, is building steam and aims to spare us from a Todd Phillips speech about the ‘forgotten man.’ Better still that the Academy’s love of generic war movies could also save us from the indignity of JoJo Rabbit: a satire so toothless it attempts to bring Trump-era centrist civility discourse to Nazi Germany.
Of course, there is still the chance that name recognition of the heavy-hitter directors will have The Irishman or Once Upon a Time in Hollywood winning the top prize, as both are better than average entries into their director’s filmographies. The Tarantino, in particular, should resonate strongly with those who love Jackie Brown. Yet, if we wanted to push towards the best possible outcome, having the riveting anti-capitalist satire Parasite or the immaculately constructed and shockingly current Little Women seizing Best Picture would be the way to go.
The above feels like an appropriate amount of attention to pay to an award show that is so out of sync with the state of film that Do The Right Thing turned 20 by the time Spike Lee won his first and only award. With this in mind, I wanted to highlight how often the Academy ignores some of the boldest and most interesting films of the year and so none of the films selected below have an Oscar nomination. Given that my favorite films largely fall into this category naturally made the process pretty easy. I even had to omit many favorites that could have easily made a longer list including The Farewell, Apollo 11, Us, Her Smell, Uncut Gems, and High Flying Bird. There were only three nominated films which I consider comparable to the below: Parasite, Little Women, and The Lighthouse.
A somber film about women navigating post-war trauma might sound like a tough sell, but Kantemir Balagov’s Beanpole is nothing short of astonishing. The young protege of Alexander Sokurov (Russian Ark) delivers a film bursting with sumptuous cinematography recalling Vermeer paintings, sound design that sticks in your throat, and a shocking debut performance from Viktoria Miroshnichenko. The story is inspired by The Unwomanly Face of War, Svetlana Alexeyivich’s book of oral histories of Soviet women soldiers, and takes place in 1945 Leningrad, telling the story of two women struggling to rebuild their lives post-siege. Those disappointed by 1917’s bland Call of Duty aesthetics, will find a thoughtful, piercing, and unforgettable alternative in Beanpole.
Last Black Man in San Francisco
More than just a tender ode to a city, Last Black Man in San Francisco captures the essence of the last decade like no other film. It’s a dazzling fable that covers a variety of intertwining themes including capitalism, gentrification, race, climate change, friendship, and millennial angst. Director Joe Talbot weaves around the subject matter with sophistication and charm, remaining wry and approachable even as it dives into intense emotional sequences. Jimmie Fails and Jonathan Majors are fantastic as the leads, but there are great performances all around including a brief but achingly tender one from Danny Glover. Double-feature this with Parasite for some remarkable parallels.
Long Day’s Journey Into Night
Just when you thought that neo-noir might be exhausted as a genre, here comes Bi Gan’s writhing neon-soaked dreamscape calling to mind Tarkovsky and Wong Kar-wai. Long Day’s Journey Into Night follows in the footsteps of Kaili Blues, Bi Gan’s debut, distinctive for its bravado single-take sequence and his poetic disregard for separating past and present, reality and dreams. This film drips with style and culminates in an unforgettable sequence that single-handedly makes the tedious 3D trend unleashed by Avatar worth it. Screenings of this come back around with some frequency so keep an eye out, seeing it in a theater is a singular experience.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Celine Sciama’s mysterious romance Portrait of A Lady on Fire carries the air and confidence of an already established classic. Certain scenes, in particular, are so breathtaking and memorable they sear into the brain as if part of some forgotten cinematic canon. The hook of the plot is an artist traveling to an isolated island tasked with painting a woman who refuses to pose, this unfurls into a taut game of cat and mouse palpating with sexual tension between the two women. Sciama elegantly weaves in an incisive feminist deconstruction of the artist/muse dynamics that have historically devalued and obscured women’s contributions to the art world. The resulting film is smart, erotic, and has some thunderous tricks up its sleeve.
Ray & Liz
A burnt-out lightbulb, worn leather, the pitter-patter of rain, the opening title hangs over yellowed drapes. Ray & Liz is a film bursting with texture and throbbing with nostalgia. Photographer turned director Richard Billingham imbues so much life into the mise-en-scene that each shot is like a raw fragment of memory dense with emotional heft. Terrence Davies’ aching reminiscences in The Long Day Closes might be the immediate reference to come to mind, but those who enjoyed Sean Baker’s tender, yet unflinching, The Florida Project will find a lot to love here. Much like the Dusty Springfield song that closes the film, this tale of childhood in poverty is as lush and beautiful, as it is heartbreaking.
The Souvenir is a film about first love and toxic relationships, and how easy it is for the two to intertwine. British director Joanna Hogg has been quietly building a reputation for her sharp naturalistic explorations of class and family, and with The Souvenir, Hogg commands a story so personal and authentic that it oozes off the screen. Honor Swinton Byrne, Tilda Swinton’s daughter, plays a young film student attempting to juggle her artistic ambition and a new relationship that slowly but surely begins to dominate her life. The story is told with a bold cinematic flourish that seamlessly incorporates photographs and 16mm footage in surprising ways, while accompanied by a spectacularly curated soundtrack to create a heart-rending cinematic feast.
Noah Hutton’s sci-fi satire Lapsis may stumble at times, but its punchy riffs on the gig economy make it worth a look.
A staggering work that uses clips from over 400 films to tell a personal story about cinephilia, alienation, and loss, while speaking directly to our anxious moment. Read my review in The Quietus.
A Sylvia Plath poem comes to life in this meditation on loneliness, infatuation, and love as it exists in our inner worlds. Read my review at Ultra Dogme.
Equal parts Errol Morris and David Lynch, this oddball journey through the world’s largest retirement community reveals a startling portrait of American alienation. Read my review at In Review Online.
With 2020 finally drawing to a close, lets take one last look at the wonderful films that came out in this otherwise devastating year.
Aubrey Plaza shows off her considerable talents and range, overcoming a messy script to once again prove her mettle as a formidable dramatic lead.