True confessions: I haven’t seen Greta Gerwig’s Little Women (no screener, doesn’t open until Christmas day), so the fact that it doesn’t appear on this list is no judgment against the film. Putting that aside for the moment, here is a list of ten notable feature films of 2019, in alphabetical order, because while choosing ten films out of all those released in a year is a dodgy proposition at best, rank-ordering them is really taking the horse-race analogy too far.
1917: Sam Mendes brings all his skills as a theatre director to make a film that is both epic and surprisingly intimate about two British soldiers sent on a near-suicide mission in the spring of 1917. The cinematography by Roger Deakins is as stunning as you would expect, and it’s an added bonus that the film is cleverly constructed so it appears to consist of one continuous take.
Bombshell: I was surprised at how much I liked Jay Roach’s film about the downfall of Roger Ailes, aka Jabba the Hut, at Fox News. This film understands that sexual harassment is all about power and that it impedes the ability of women to earn their living, to say nothing of robbing us of their voices. Bombshell also features a great cast of actors, including Charlize Theron, Margot Robbie, Kate McKinnon, and John Lithgow, and some of the most convincing makeup you’ll probably ever see.
A Hidden Life: Terence Malick brings all his skills to bear on this story of an Austrian conscientious objector who refused to serve in Hitler’s army and paid dearly for that principled decision (as did his family). The cinematography by Jörg Widmer is stunning, the screenplay by Malick is both straightforward and philosophical, and the questions raised by this film are as relevant today as they were in the 1930s.
The Irishman: There’s no question that Martin Scorsese’s epic drama drags in places, but what is good in it is so good that it far outweighs the bad. The Irishman is an epic story about someone you’ve probably never heard of—truck driver Frank Sheeran—and involves quite a few people you have, including John F. Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, and Jimmy Hoffa.
Les Misérables: I don’t know if it’s encouraging or discouraging to realize that the United States is not the only city where the police and the nonwhite community often see each other as enemies, but the French film Les Misérables will convince of that fact if it does nothing else. It’s also a gripping drama and, remarkably, the feature debut of Ladj Ly, who drew on his own experiences growing up in Montfermeil when creating it.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: I’m definitely not the kind of person who regards everything Quentin Tarantino does as pure gold (personally, I think he peaked with Jackie Brown in 1997), so I found Once Upon a Time in Hollywood to be a pleasant surprise. It shows off Tarantino’s strengths while concealing many of his weaknesses, and, let’s face it, no one does fake retro better. An endearing performance by Brad Pitt goes a long way toward selling the movie, as does an absolutely committed performance by Margaret Qualley as one of Charlie Manson’s “girls.”
Parasite: If I had to pick a film of the year, it would be Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, the first Korean film to win the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Parasite is a parable about two families in Korea—one rich but dim, one poor but clever—and what happens when the poor household decides to scam the rich.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire: If there’s anything French director and screenwriter Céline Sciamma can’t do, I have yet to see it. Her latest masterwork is Portrait of a Lady on Fire, a period film about a female painter hired to paint the portrait of woman being forced into a marriage she doesn’t want. It has a great sense of time and place, and, most appropriately for a film about art, the cinematography is exquisitely painterly.
The Souvenir: Joanna Hogg draws on her own experience as a film student to create an unforgettable portrait of a young woman (played by Honor Swinton-Byrne, Tilda Swinton’s daughter) finding her way in the world while becoming embroiled in a relationship from hell with an older man who has a serious drug problem. The rhythms of The Souvenir are unique to Hogg’s sensibilities, and unlike those of any other filmmaker, but they perfectly express the uncertainties of the central character as she stumbles toward her true path.
Us: Jordan Peele enjoys his second success in as many films with a straight-up horror flick that’s also an acerbic social commentary. Sometimes the most familiar things are also the creepiest, a lesson the Wilson family, played by Winston Duke, Lupita Nyong’o, Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex learn to their peril. | Sarah Boslaugh