Contributed by Jonathan Stevenson / It’s been a fine year for movies, their demise due to streaming having been greatly exaggerated notwithstanding awkward episodes like the theatrical release of Netflix-backed The Irishman. Here is my inexorably subjective and eminently debatable list of the Top Ten dramatic films of 2019.
- The Irishman. Still the king of the realm but far from a lion in winter, Scorsese unleashes his judgment and sublimates any dark sentimentality about violence as a source of personal power in a valedictory movie of profound if stealthy humanity. Wise guys in their dotage aren’t pretty, and can’t be forgiven. Theirs were not the good old days. Scorsese’s genius is to drive that point home while unearthing vestiges of virtue in scoundrels.
- Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood. Tarantino visits the old Hollywood of understated tough guys, damsels in distress, and good buddies on the Manson murders and produces a super-stylized counter-history that celebrates a paradigm of American heroism that was fading even in 1969 – and, implicitly, let Sharon Tate and her fellow victims down. If only terminally unimpressed men with no names who were quick with their hands could conquer all evil.
- Parasite. South Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s exquisitely black comedy is an inventive, sophisticated, and searching take on class antagonism, and deserved winner the Palme d’Or at Cannes. In a tour de force of tonal and thematic control, Bong eases his family of amiable grifters seamlessly from farce to social comedy to horror to melodrama.
- Uncut Gems. Confirming their arrival as American auteurs of top rank and maestros of enlightened sleaze, the Safdie Brothers elicit Adam Sandler’s best performance. He’s a 47th Street diamond merchant and degenerate gambler trying to keep several potentially lethal balls in the air over the course of a nerve-stripping two days of transactional chaos – arguably a microcosm of Trump’s presidency.
- High Life. Marrying Lord of the Flies’ gloomy specificity about the ruthlessness of humans’ self-preservation with 2001’s profound uncertainty about their cosmic significance in a dystopic space movie, Claire Denis provides in Robert Pattinson’s grim astronaut an anti-hero whose adversary is human nature, and he fights it to an improbably inspiring draw.
- Midsommar. Ari Aster’s “folk horror” movie is a snarky creep-fest set among contemporary pagans in Sweden, and a scintillating commentary on how horror works in movies, slowing down and domesticating the process, as well as how cults operate. There are some similarities to the great 1973 crime-horror film The Wicker Man, but this one is more expansive.
- Les Misérables. As frenetic and kinetic as Uncut Gems, Ladj Ly’s visceral and transnationally relatable French film – the title of which merely alludes to Victor Hugo’s classic – traces the fluid line between cops and criminals in a tough Paris banlieue while illuminating the street-level clash of nationalism and multiculturalism.
- Rojo. Benjamin Naishtat’s film, set in 1970s Argentina at the beginning of the “dirty war,” locates the banality of evil in a craven, blinkered lawyer. He relentlessly cultivates denial as repression poisons his life and his country, his aloofness becoming complicity.
- The Souvenir. Joanna Hogg’s subtle but incisive coming-of-age film explores the challenge – especially acute for an artist – of integrating work and self, requiring as it does not jettisoning one’s background in favor of something nobler but optimizing the tension between the familiar and the new.
- Three Peaks. Jan Zabell’s spare, cagily Hitchcockian examination of the pernicious dynamics of divorce, keying on the relationship between a boy and his prospective stepfather and set in the Alps, starts edgily and ratchets up the tension with agonizingly fine calibration.
Twenty more in the mix (in alphabetical order): Ash is Purest White, Charlie Says, Clemency, Diane, Dolemite is My Name, Ford v Ferrari, The Ground Beneath My Feet, Her Smell, Invisible Life, The Lighthouse, Little Joe, Little Women, Marriage Story, Mickey and the Bear, The Mustang, Motherless Brooklyn, The Nightingale, Pain and Glory, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Transit.
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Two Coats 2019 Art and Film posts:
Art and Film: Rogue plant
Art and Film: Merchants of nostalgia
Art and Film: Joker is the wrong movie
Art and Film: Issa López’s fierce children
Art and Film: Tarantino’s glourious layer cake
Art and Film: Argentina’s haunting precedent
Art and Film: Robert Frank’s will to believe
Art and Film: Joanna Hogg’s sublime deliberation
Art and Film: Claire Denis’ cosmic noir
Art and Film: The lives of artists