I obviously intended to put this together much sooner, but the end of February is better than never. This has been one of the best years for film in recent memory. This is the fourth "best of" list that I've put together and the only one where I didn't feel like I was scrounging around for options. I actually struggled to figure out what I wanted to include because there were many worthy options (some have even crept onto my all-time favorites list).
As much as I love reading, movies continue to be the most inspiring medium with infinite creative potential. With all of the great releases slated for 2020, I can't wait to see what the future holds. I should mention that this list is in no particular order, but "Portrait of a Lady on Fire" and "Atlantics" were my clear favorites. As you will quickly realize, I've been guzzling the A24 Kool-Aid this year.
2019 Top Ten Films:
- "Portrait of a Lady on Fire" by Céline Sciamma | in theaters now | read my review - I saw this at the Angelika in December and couldn't stop crying. I cried for the last 30 minutes and then continued to cry while walking uptown on Broadway. Without a doubt, this is my favorite film of 2019 ... maybe even the entire decade. It's hard to capture the slow magic of falling in love with someone for the first time, but Sciamma does it with ease 💕
- "Atlantics" by Mati Diop | streaming on Netflix | read my review - Diop tells a story that is simultaneously universal and specific. A deep current of feminism runs throughout. There are several images that will stick with me forever: white eyes against black skin, pulsing green and blue lights, and a speeding train interspersed with windswept faces. Claire Mathon, who is responsible for the cinematography on this film and "Portrait of a Lady on Fire," is a genius.
- "Parasite" by Bong Joon-ho | rent on Amazon - I saw this movie on Halloween with a bunch of drunk University of Michigan students. I bought tickets late and had to sit in the front row, which initially seemed like a bad idea but ended up working out in my favor ... I felt like I was inside of the movie. The performances, set pieces, house (s/o to production designer, Lee Ha Jun), and the last 20 minutes!!! The metaphors are pretty on the nose but ultimately serve the movie well. I don't generally consider myself a member of the #BongHive, so I have no reason to pander. This movie is fucking legit.
- "Honey Boy" by Alma Har'el | streaming on Amazon - I love movies about fucked up family dynamics, especially ones that center on emotional abuse. I relate to that shit more than I’d like to admit, especially the feeling of spiraling out emotionally and being too afraid/proud/stubborn to confront the damage that lurks beneath. It’s easy to write Shia LaBeouf off as some privileged, attention-seeking asshole but he’s far more complex. His screenplay is vulnerable and self-aware, personal and universal. It is elevated art therapy thanks to stellar performances and Alma Ha’rel’s skilled direction. I knew that I was in for something special from the opening sequence.
- "Booksmart" by Olivia Wilde | streaming on Hulu - This movie is a wild, delightful ride that highlights a beautiful bond between two young women that will hopefully last for the rest of their lives. It champions female sexuality, features a lesbian sex scene set to Cautious Clay's "Cold War," and makes great use of a diverse, young cast. If I were a douchey male critic, I would probably say some shit like, "Wilde proves that she's more than just a pretty face with this sharp, smart debut." Since I am not a douchey male critic, I'll say that Wilde proves she has technical chops and immense creativity with this delightful debut feature.
- "Uncut Gems" by Josh and Benny Safdie | streaming on Amazon starting February 25 - I've never seen a movie that more perfectly encapsulates American "culture" aka this idea that if you're not working yourself to death every day, you're not doing it right. On its face, UNCUT GEMS is about a weirdly likable dude who can't stop making bad decisions. He's a delusional addict who believes that if he just keeps going, everything will eventually fall into place. Don't we all kind of have that, though? Life can be exhausting and it's easy to see why people get beaten down over time. This movie works so well because it uses a wild story to amplify common experiences. In the throes of capitalism, we are all some version of Howard Ratner.
- "The Lighthouse" by Robert Eggers | streaming on Amazon - Pattinson and Dafoe are excellent; the pacing is perfect (c/o editor Louise Ford); the claustrophobic 1:19 aspect ratio is perfect 🤯 It combines all of my favorite things: crusty sea people, a descent into madness, dudes who are afraid to be vulnerable with each other, and insatiable horniness. What a wild ass ride.
- "The Farewell" by Lulu Wang | streaming on Amazon - I saw this movie with my mom when she came to visit me over the summer. We both loved it (although it made us very hungry). Awkwafina is a legit dramatic actress and the rest of the ensemble cast is great. I especially loved Han Chen as Hao Hao. He didn’t have many lines, but the dude’s face acting is tremendous. Wang, who also wrote the screenplay, has a real skill for writing dialogue that doesn't sound manufactured. I laugh out loud just thinking about the scene of everyone in the graveyard. "Enjoy the cigarette, dad!"
- "The Souvenir" by Joanna Hogg | streaming on Amazon - I spent most of my early 20s dating people who gave me great stories to tell but completely shattered my self-confidence, trust, etc. I guess I can understand why people would dislike this movie. It centers on a relationship that makes zero sense to the viewer unless a) they've experienced something similar or b) can suspend some disbelief and just give in to the plot as it unfolds. I'm hesitant to say too much because there's no way I could do it any kind of justice in a tiny blurb. I'll try to write a full review soon because it certainly deserves critical thought.
- "For the Birds" by Richard Miron | streaming on Netflix - This documentary is an underrated gem. I went into it thinking that it was going to be a straightforward story about a mentally ill woman who can't stop collecting birds, but it became so much more than that. It's a meditation on love, loss, and what makes life meaningful. Miron tells the story in a way that is truthful but never unkind. The careful editing (by Miron and Jeffrey Star) gives a wealth of different perspectives and makes every character sympathetic.
Honorable Mentions: "For Sama," "Varda by Agnès," "Knives Out," "Long Shot," "The Last Black Man in San Francisco," and "Her Smell." I'm sorry to say that I really didn't love "Little Women" or "Hustlers" as much as everyone else.
I feel like I watched a lot of TV this year, but there's still so much that I haven't seen (like "Dickinson," "Euphoria," and "When They See Us"). My favorites were actually kind of surprising. Despite great performances, I thought "The Morning Show" was a shiny, expensive turd that had nothing interesting to say. It's a real shame to see it get another season when "Tuca & Bertie" was tragically cut short. With so many different streaming platforms and endless content, some of the best shows got buried.
2019 Top Ten TV Shows:
- "Watchmen" by Damon Lindelof | streaming on HBO - This is not something I would typically watch. I'm not generally a fan of graphic novel adaptations and was surprised by how obsessed I became with this show. The first few episodes were a little frustrating because I kept waiting for them to explain things I didn't understand, but it all came together quickly. For a show that had many different themes and a lot to say, it never felt overloaded or disjointed. Even if this one doesn't immediately appeal to you, I recommend giving it a chance because the payoff is significant.
- "Better Things" by Pamela Adlon | streaming on Hulu - I binged all three seasons of this show when I was sick with the flu in January. After Louis C.K.'s bullshit, Adlon split ties and took on S3 solo. I'll admit that I was worried there would be a noticeable drop in quality after C.K.'s departure (not because I think Adlon isn't talented, but because it would be hard for anyone to make that shift); thankfully, S3 was the best yet. Adlon has a wry but lovable voice that is unlike anything else I've seen on television. My only criticism is that there wasn't enough of a focus on Phil, played by the wonderful Celia Imrie.
- "Sex Education" by Laurie Nunn | streaming on Netflix - This show is smart, consistently surprising, and deeply empathetic. Even the peripheral characters are well developed and handled with care. Motivations feel natural instead of simply manufactured for drama. I am deeply obsessed with Gillian Anderson and Ncuti Gatwa, the two strongest actors in a sea of talent. Since I'm writing this so late, I'm able to assure you that S2 is just as good.
- "Russian Doll" by Natasha Lyonne, Leslye Headland, and Amy Poehler | streaming on Netflix - Natasha fucking Lyonne, everyone! Has there ever been a more perfect role for her? I was intrigued by this show from the moment I learned about Oatmeal the cat. I don't want to say too much for fear of spoilers, but it's a wild ride that incorporates different philosophical concepts with ease and asks tough questions (like how the fuck we're supposed to deal with generational trauma and depression). Like some of the best things in life, it's heavy but in a fun way!
- "Fleabag" by Phoebe Waller-Bridge | streaming on Amazon - Waller-Bridge is one of the most talented, creative people in television right now and has a real knack for portraying the deeply fucked up human condition. Sian Clifford, Andrew Scott, and Olivia Colman are likewise fantastic. I was worried about S2 because I thought there was no way that S1 could have ever been topped. I was deeply wrong. If your heart didn't absolutely break while watching the final episode, you are not human.
- "Summer Camp Island" by Julia Pott | streaming on Cartoon Network - If you struggle with depression, this show might make you feel a little bit better. It does for me, at least. It reminds me of a time when I used my imagination and had fun going on random adventures with friends. In the world of SCI, everyone is pure, good-intentioned, and respectful. Even the grouchy sourpuss characters (like Susie) have secret hearts of gold. It's hard to get children's programming right, but this show kills it. Each episode teaches a lesson in a way that doesn't make me want to barf, which is no small feat.
- "Work in Progress" by Abby McEnany and Tim Mason | streaming on Showtime - It's always impressive to me when a show centered around mental illness manages to poke fun without diminishing its seriousness. It probably helps that the show is loosely based on McEnany's own life (she and her character even share the same name). "Work in Progress" is unapologetically queer, very funny, and a great debut project from McEnany. Her deliciously on-point comedic timing brings humor to all situations, even those that are uncomfortable. Theo Germaine, who plays Abby's girlfriend Chris, is likewise delightful.
- "Pen15" by Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle | streaming on Hulu - The premise of this show is so wild that I don't understand how it was ever greenlit (although I'm glad it was): two women in their thirties play versions of themselves as pre-teens against a cast of actual pre-teens. It sounds like something that would never work, but somehow comes together almost immediately. If you're one of those people who get extreme secondhand embarrassment watching other people awkwardly move through the world, prepare to cringe nonstop for the entire season. It's worth it, though! I promise.
- "Unbelievable" by Susannah Grant, Ayelet Waldman, and Michael Chabon | streaming on Netflix - I remember reading the article that inspired this miniseries and feeling simultaneously flummoxed and unsurprised. Framed harshly, it's a story about men fucking everything up and women coming in to pick up the pieces. Spoiler alert: patriarchal systems have zero interest in helping or believing women. This adaptation is faithful to the original article and features powerful performances from Kaitlyn Dever, Toni Collette, and Merritt Wever. It takes the true-crime procedural and removes all of the patriarchal bullshit, making it refreshingly feminist. I'd respect cops much more if they were all like Duvall and Rasmussen.
- "Fosse/Verdon" by Steven Levenson and Thomas Kail | streaming on Hulu - My husband and I were singularly obsessed with this show and binged it over a few days. Neither of us are big into Broadway or really had any idea who Gwen Verdon and Bob Fosse were, but quickly went down the rabbit hole. The show's format is creative, with flashes backward and forward in time that keep you guessing, especially if you have no idea what happened IRL. Their relationship is endlessly fascinating - both personally and creatively - and I appreciate that while the showrunners are male, Verdon's agency and POV were well-represented.
Honorable Mentions: "Tuca & Bertie," "The Righteous Gemstones," "Bojack Horseman," "Shrill," "Schitt's Creek," "Broad City," and "Sorry For Your Loss." I was let down by S2 of "Killing Eve," never got into "Succession," and couldn't finish "Chernobyl" because although brilliant, it gave me too much anxiety.
This post's header animation is from Dano Palacios 🍿