(In alphabetical order, out of 224 movies viewed total)
1. APOLLO 11: Director Todd Douglas Miller and a deep team of archivists spend a few years combing through every single media artifact NASA had pertaining to the 1969 moon shot wherein Buzz Aldrin, Neal Armstrong, and Michael Collins were sent to the lunar surface. This CNN production may cover an event both well-photographed and 50-years-old, but watching it laid out in linear order from a billion vantage points grabs one by the neck. I might have known the broad strokes of the mission, but seeing it unfold with uncertainty and wonder is as close to living through it in 1969 as we can possibly get. As much as this is a film, it’s also a paean to a lost age in America where people had pride in public works.
2. ATLANTIQUES: Somehow, director Mati Diop was able to fuse social realism, film noir, and the supernatural in one grim story about the wages of capitalism in Africa. Dakar, Senegal is shot to look like home, but it’s filled with exploitation and poverty; the men of a neighborhood take a crude raft to try their luck with the ocean, but all are lost. What happens next is a mystery and a miracle as their spirits return to inhabit the remaining women to argue for stolen earnings, which drove them to try for Spain. Everything depicted therein is directed soberly and believably, a remarkable achievement for a debut feature. The influence of Claire Denis is strong in this project.
3. THE BEACH BUM: Harmony Korine is a hit-or-miss guy responsible for many art-house digressions, his last two films have been lush visual projects based on simple premises: Let’s follow around a dissolute jerk and see what kind of world he lives in. Korine gets a single-focus performance from Matthew McConaughey as Moondog, a sot and a doper, as he wanders through the Florida Keys satisfying every carnal need at great expense to the people around him. Rather than being cast a villain, the story treats him as a folk hero, someone akin to Paul Bunyan or Walt Disney. I don’t quite know why it works, but it does. Martin Lawrence briefly pops into the frame to reinvent his career with a thoroughly delightful turn.
4. DEADWOOD THE MOVIE: They said it couldn’t be done, and some said it shouldn’t be done, but it got did, and it was awesome. Director Daniel Minahan found the tone from the original three-season run and was able to envision David Milch’s script in a lovely elegy to strikingly realized characters and one of the greatest settings in all of prestige cable television. The actors are in it for love, and their delight is evident — the fortunate thing is the material is superior than most other series revisitations. Deadwood was, at its heart, a story about demographics, and this capper never forgets that mission statement.
5. DIANE: New York Film Festival honcho Kent Jones has only directed two films, and this most recent effort has been long in the making. It was produced by his friend Scorsese, and Jones uses the bully pulpit to write and direct the story of Mary Kay Place’s eponymous character as she experiences aging and death in her rural upstate New York town. The sagacious casting of Place gives the audience a wide view of what punishments (and rare joys) life dishes out if you live long enough, and I applaud Jones for his unflinching vision and persistence in bringing a story like this to a resistant market.
6. HER SMELL: Alex Ross Perry has always done it his way, and there’s something very indie and Brooklyn-navel-gaze about the types of stories he shoots — but he’s also gotten the finest feature performances from Elizabeth Moss, one of the greatest talents of her generation. She wears the skin of a faded riot girl rocker, having burned through her bandmates, friends and lovers with her borderline personality. Perry uses a five-act structure here, and that coupled with the patterns of women fighting in claustrophobic studios conjure the ghost of Rainer Werner Fassbinder. This missed with a lot of folks, but I was agog at the storytelling.
7. MIDSOMMAR: Ari Aster’s first movie Hereditary wasn’t as great for me as for some other people, but the guy’s promise is all over this sophomore effort featuring the titanic Florence Pugh. Blending grief into horror is nothing new, but stacking a family tragedy in the opening scene with the unfolding terror of a pagan murder ritual in a hermetic village is a masterstroke when essayed by Pugh. At turns depressed, desperate, needy, self-loathing and scared, the young actor plays every critical phase of what the picture needs to lock you into Aster’s vision of unrelenting doom. That the guy also conjures some sui generis visuals to be added to the Horror Hall of Fame is icing on the cake: Come for Pugh, stay for the burning ursine.
8. PARASITE: I’ll agree with many commenters in that I think this ends very soft; but months after I saw the thing I don’t think about the end, I only remember the beginning and middle. Bong Joon-Ho never suffers from bad casts or weak performances, and his ensemble led by company regular Song Kang-Ho portray well the impulses which lifelong poverty evokes from people. The plot is a fine clockwork of intertwined self-interest, from the wealthy family exploiting the lower classes of Seoul to the devious and anti-social poor family who scheme to overthrow the old house staff. There have been more movies about class coming from Asia recently (like 2018’s Shoplifters), and it’s fascinating to see how inequality rivens societies separated from us by oceans and cultural systems.
9. THE SOUVENIR: What seems like it’s intended as a staid English drama about a young woman in film school quietly reveals itself to be a turbulent and honest look at the disease of addiction, and the toxin of the addict on the people around him. Julia Hogg is a new director to me, in spite of having a small arsenal of fine-boned British films, but this semi-autobiographical story has hot blood in its veins. She directs actors Honor Swinton-Byrne and Tom Burke to beautiful and dangerous places, ultimately leaving us with a crash of tragedy when what we suspect all long will happen actually does. It may sound hard to watch, but it’s actually quite thrilling.
10. UNCUT GEMS: The Safdie boys are doing the thing we all say we want more of, namely the kind of movies we regularly got in the 1970s. As has been said often, these dudes are auteur filmmakers who also have a holistic and collaborative style, on display in this amazing work featuring an immersive performance by Adam Sandler. The story is wholly original and the viewer has no idea where it’s zigging and zagging from moment to moment. Any 2019 list without this film is incomplete.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: American Woman (dir. Jake Scott); Daughter of Mine (dir. Laura Bispuri); Dogman (dir. Matteo Garrone); The Irishman (dir. Martin Scorsese; In Fabric (dir. Peter Strickland); Knives Out (dir. Rian Johnson); The Lighthouse (dir. Robert Eggers); Marriage Story (dir. Noah Baumbach) Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood (dir. Quentin Tarantino).
WORST: (Tie) Child’s Play; X-Men: Dark Phoenix
MOST FUN BREAKOUT: Billie Lourd, Booksmart
BEST CAMEO: John Amos, Uncut Gems
BEST LINE OF DIALOGUE: “Strong” (Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood)
BEST SINGLE SHOT OF THE YEAR: Peering eyes from a dark staircase, Parasite
A STAR IS BORN: Florence Pugh
MOVIE IN NEED OF MORE LOVE: Meeting Gorbachev (dir. Werner Herzog)