It was an odd year for film, a year that saw the future of cinema more uncertain than ever. However, despite the shift in how we consume our preferred content, there was a wide range of superb offerings demonstrating, no matter what the genre, that great storytelling can still be found at the cineplex, the art house, and at home.
That in mind, regardless of how indifferent or captivated you were with everything from blockbusters to indies these past 12 months, many were memorable in their own ways. So much so that narrowing a list down to 10 was difficult, but among the countless films that were viewed this year, here’s what resonated most as the Best Films of 2019:
1. Once Upon A Time In Hollywood
For his ninth film, Quentin Tarantino triumphantly returns in a haze of hippies, faded movie stars, and psychedelic rock with Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. This is a mellower, more nostalgia-heavy trip from Tinseltown’s purveyor of ultra-violence, wielding a dream team of Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, and Margot Robbie at the top of their respective games. A fairy-tale with divisive “what if” sequences, Tarantino’s practical rendering of 1960’s Los Angeles is nevertheless jaw-dropping in its attention to texture and opulent atmosphere. It is a strange, messy, oftentimes laid-back journey, filled with sharp edges while teetering on the precipice of change, much like the town Tarantino has worshipped since birth. The outcome is not a love letter, but an obituary for a Hollywood that is no more.
2. Uncut Gems
Josh and Benny Safdie’s anxiety-filled rollercoaster ride delivers a career-best performance from Adam Sandler. Playing Howard Ratner, a debt-ridden New York jewelry dealer, his indulgences of gambling, scheming, and self-defeating madness equate to a flesh and blood pinball simulation onscreen. Chock-full of colourful characters and a pulsating electronic score, Uncut Gems is as gripping as it is side-splitting, placing you between a rock and a hard place.
In Florida, a high school wrestler’s life unspools with tragic gradations in Trey Edward Shults’ elliptical yet vividly explosive domestic drama Waves. A film of two halves, the snapshot it presents of post-millennial teenagers comes sternly counterbalanced with Sterling K. Brown’s performance as the domineering family patriarch. Eschewing coming-of-age clichés while fearlessly delving into American life in 2019, Waves sucks you in and spits you out, allowing you just enough time to catch your breath to soak it all in.
Darkly funny and razor-sharp, director Bong Joon-ho was awarded top prize at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival for his savage story of two Korean families: One rich and one poor who come together under one roof. Wise in its observations of class disparity and capitalism, the film’s camera pensively glides with satirical instinct, too, magnifying the upstairs/downstairs dynamics of its dystopic family plot. All said the universe Parasite lives in – marked by visual wit and well-defined characters – is a wickedly jolting thriller that evokes comparisons to Hitchcock.
5. Pain and Glory
Spanish auteur Pedro Almodóvar sees himself pulling back the curtain to critically examine his adolescence and lauded cinematic career in the beautifully realized Pain And Glory. Antonio Banderas gives his most nuanced performance in decades as a famous film director whose past secrets unfold with profound clarity and morality over a two-hour running time. Colourfully composed in Almodóvar’s trademark symmetry, Pain and Glory considers both portions of its title. However, it’s the latter that ultimately prevails, culminating in perhaps the best closing shot of 2019.
6. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Fresh off the heels of last year’s excellent Can You Ever Forgive Me? director Mary Heller explores the legacy of Mr. Rogers not through biography, but as a guiding light. Tom Hanks dazzles as the American icon, side-stepping imitation to reveal deeper depths of the man and his red cardigan. Equally strong is Matthew Rhys as Lloyd Vogel, a jaded journalist whose profile assignment on Mr. Rogers alters his life forever. Filled with humour, bitterness, and loving weirdness, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a much-needed hug in today’s challenging times.
7. Toy Story 4
Twenty-four years since the first Toy Story made animation history, the fourth installment somehow manages to bring new life to the beloved Pixar franchise. Supplying an even bigger toy-box this time around, a spork named Forky throws an existential monkey-wrench into the equation, propelling the film’s subsequent high-flying road adventure. Honouring Woody, Buzz, and co. (and their destiny to love and be loved) Toy Story 4‘s exceptional screenplay delivers on comedy, bittersweet goodbyes, and happy reunions all at a brisk, yet wistful, 100 mins.
8. The Lighthouse
Director Robert Eggers follows up his acclaimed debut The Witch with a film that plunders the soul of man in luminous black and white. Set on a desolate Atlantic island circa the 1890s, two grizzled workers (Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe) engage in a tense relationship that descends into the surreal. Offering visions of demented seagulls, screeching mermaids, and a light-obsessed Dafoe in the nude, The Lighthouse‘s strange odyssey exhibits a compelling tug-of-war between anguish and dark humour. An unclassifiable film that remains unforgettable.
This haunting debut from French filmmaker Mati Diop casts non-actors against a hypnotic vision of ghosts on the coast of Senegal. Focusing on the city and the youth of Dakar, Atlantics follows a group of women left behind when their boyfriends vanish on a pilgrimage at sea. Through its eerie cinematography of dusty streets and nocturnal possession, Diop creates an unshakable mood that feels like an ancient folk tale, honouring love and grief while punctured by details of class tension and corruption.
10. Hail Satan?
A film that asks: What does religion look like in 2019? Penny Lane’s Hail Satan? slyly builds on that notion, offering a fascinating case for the Satanic Temple of America. Despite its seemingly controversial subject matter, one of the film’s remarkable discoveries is that the disparaged group are actually misunderstood people centred on protecting essential human rights. Accompanied by wild archival footage and candid interviews, this off-beat political documentary keenly captures the superstition and hypocrisy of a country built on the motto, “In God We Trust.”