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Decalogue: Top 10 Films of 2019

The best films of 2019 rose to the top of a strong and diverse slate of releases throughout the calendar year. In a movie marketplace dominated by superhero epics and franchise sequels, a legendary veteran auteur took a controversial stand for old-fashioned cinema about ordinary, complicated people, first in the public discourse and then with a sweeping artistic statement of his own. Provocative and impressive sophomore efforts mined the nautical past for psychosexually-charged descents into madness and masculine dominance, crafted indelible and ambiguous symbolic reflections on social inequality and segregation, and found emotionally resonant and deeply unsettling meaning in a rural Swedish pagan murder cult.

A haunting parable of ghostly love emerged from a directorial unknown from West Africa while audiences and critics embraced a leisurely, sunkissed summer cruise through romantic (though hardly unproblematic) Hollywood nostalgia from one of the industry’s most famous filmmakers and two of its biggest working movie stars. The year’s most memorable documentary slipped half-unnoticed onto the goliath of streaming platforms, using the raw emotion and dramatic twists of a personal memoir to tell a powerful buried story about abuse in the #MeToo age. In a time of government corruption and moral degradation, a narrative based on true events forcefully detailed the value of documenting the actions of the powerful and attempting to hold them accountable for them; as elite capitalist exploitation, much of it grounded in racial inequality, swallows up every aspect of public life, a fictional narrative breezily imagines a canny (if limited) economic rebellion. And standing above the rest, a relentlessly clever and entertaining visual/spatial metaphor for contemporary socioeconomic realities and their insidious penetration into every aspect of social life, all patterns of relation, and each psychological aspiration of those caught within their sway. This was 2019 at the movies, as I experienced it.

1. Parasite (Directed by Bong Joon Ho)

“With Parasite, Bong Joon-ho crafts his richest, most compelling and layered exploration of the social and personal costs of capitalist economic assumptions. This film, the Palme d’Or winner at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, is among the most urgent, persuasively uncompromising, and hard-to-shake portraits of the operational effects of class in 21st-century cinema, and perhaps in cinema of all eras. It’s also tense, shocking, frequently hilarious, and never anything short of remarkably entertaining. […] [The film’s] events unspool with clever writing, sharp editing, and keen performances, words and ideas and images planted in fertile cinematic soil in early stages sprouting and flowering productively as matters become darker and more terrible in the film’s later movements; it’s a witty confidence-scheme caper comedy before transgressing into full-blown and urgently resonant social horror.”

Review – 24 November 2019

2. The Irishman (Directed by Martin Scorsese)

“Directed by a septeganarian and starring three more of them, The Irishman is perhaps unsurprisingly a legacy-minded film of aging, patience, and contemplation. […] If The Irishman does not exactly tread brave new ground in Scorsese’s oeuvre, then it gazes wistfully but harshly back on that oeuvre, as on an era of the American underworld’s ascendance that defined the country that lives in its long shadow. […] As old-fashioned as The Irishman is in its casting, themes and ideas, setting and genre and subject matter, it’s also about something very contemporary: toxic masculinity and its costs, for the men who perpetuate it, the women subject to it, and for its many victims across society. Martin Scorsese’s first film made in the Trump Era unflinchingly examines the careworn visages of men shaped by an old order of ruthless power and deadly loyalty and finds in them the darkly settling ravens of a corrupt, lawless, and fraught future which is our present world. […] Cinema is about forward motion, and The Irishman ultimately finds Martin Scorsese moving encouragingly forward, embracing his legacy while interrogating, complicated, and even deconstructing it.”

Review – 5 December 2019

3. Atlantics (Directed by Mati Diop)

“The spare, unexpected directorial debut from Mati Diop is set in [Dakar, Senegal] and is similarly haunted by water, particularly by the vast unknowable ocean expanse that gives the film its title. […] Atlantics is a quietly stunning film, its cinematography a model of grainy magnificence from French DoP Claire Mathon and its burbling, unsettling score from German-based Kuwaiti composer and conceptual artist Fatima Al Qadiri weaving a vision of ghostly, evocative realism. […] Atlantics is a film about the now, with an undercurrent of urgent vitality that belies its spectral rhythms. […] Atlantics is a unique and memorable creative expression of a new film artist worth watching, a work of beauty and febrile, elegiac fragility.”

Review – 27 December 2019

4. The Lighthouse (Directed by Robert Eggers)

The Lighthouse, the second film from Robert Eggers, is a mesmerizing, ambiguous descent into madness, as spare and bare as it is fulsomely baroque. […] [It’s] a claustrophobic chamber piece, with its two caged beasts of men tearing themselves and their small, limited world apart. […] Its focal-point themes of male power dynamics, psychosexual dominance, and even harmful alcoholism are stronger than any hint of political applicability. This is not to say that The Lighthouse is a lesser film than its director’s prior effort. In many ways, it is stronger, more focused and more boldly, gleefully provocative in its writing, performances, and especially in its imagery. Perhaps nothing good can happen when two men are left alone in a giant phallus, but if a film as memorably strange, evocative, and troubling as The Lighthouse is the result, then it can’t be all bad.”

Review – 3 November 2019

5. Tell Me Who I Am (Directed by Ed Perkins)

“Ed Perkins’ Tell Me Who I Am is a compelling documentary portrait of a complex and conflicted shared trauma that is hard to shake. […] At the core of this unpredictable and deeply thought-provoking film is the nature of psychological trauma: how it is inflicted, how it is manifested, how it is protected against, how its wounds can be patched up, healed, and moved beyond. […] Tell Me Who I Am‘s climactic summit of the Lewis twins is one of the most powerful scenes in cinema this year even though it is among the simplest: two men sitting at a table together, talking about their feelings. It’s because those feelings are complex and raw and are tied up in love and resentment and protectiveness and fragility that makes the negotiation of them so fraught but also so necessary. […] Perkins’ nimble and empathetic documentary tells a fascinating, surprising, and wrenching story before staging a session of emotional reckoning that exposes painful feelings to a soothing flood of truthful light.”

Review – 11 December 2019

6. The Report (Directed by Scott Z. Burns)

“A sober, no-nonsense political message film of laser-focused outrage, The Report plucks out one of the most heinous instances of moral and legal degradation perpetuated by the post-9/11 national security apparatus of the United States of America (and there were more than a few) and goes hard at it with even-keel righteous anger and quietly thunderous factual force. […] The Report is a mildly fictionalized drama film […], but it organizes its revelations with the persuasive effectiveness of a great documentary on the subject. […] In the absence of legal remedies for such crimes, the movies step ambitiously but inadequately into the breach. […] Movies like The Report, however good they are, cannot do all the work of winning justice for heinous moral and legal crimes that the politically powerful refuse to do.”

Review – 9 December 2019

7. Us (Directed by Jordan Peele)

“As in Get Out, the grander allegorical meanings of Us are accompanied and enticingly flavoured by social observations and cathartic humour. […] Us is a rich and ambitious but not always focused and coherent text in its political and social metaphors. […] Perhaps, amidst Get Out‘s thunderous success, Jordan Peele was put off, if only a little, by how his film’s thesis was smoothly delineated in so many critiques and thinkpieces. Perhaps Us is the reaction to that, a film full of charged ideas and symbols and reference-points that is less confidently parsed and interpreted, an unruly work whose meanings don’t stand still and allow themselves to be deconstructed and apprehended. […] [It] conceives of this terrifying, inequitous tableaux as the model for the relation of the powerful to the powerless, which in America is always already a relation predicated on and inextricably tied up in race. […] Us is another expertly crafted elevated entertainment from Jordan Peele, and it shakes us just enough to make our question our place in a world that is never for a moment as safe or as fair as it may seem.”

Review – 26 March 2019

8. Midsommar (Directed by Ari Aster)

“On one level, Ari Aster’s Midsommar is a handsome and grandiose new folk horror classic. […] But on another level, Midsommar is a peculiarly-pitched but extraordinarily powerful artistic statement on the isolation of grief and the power of community compassion in mitigating that isolation. […] Midsommar is the sort of hyper-real, indelibly haunting high-horror film that demands elevated attention to detail. […] Midsommar can be a nasty film, but it also can be a beautiful one. There is a delicately poised balance between the two, and Aster’s film frequently finds it.”

Review – 16 December 2019

9. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (Directed by Quentin Tarantino)

“Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a fairy tale, a fable, a fantasy […] presenting an alternate reality version of a historical event in a manner that critiques the conventional Hollywood happy ending, which our own flawed and dissatisfying world is almost never accorded. […] Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a hopelessly tangled dialectic of messy positions and counter-positions, of nostalgic invocations and their cynical, worldly negations. […] The ideas percolating beneath the sunsoaked cool and brutal climactic slapstick of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood cannot be so easily channeled into revenge tropes, and Quentin Tarantino seems to at least partly realize this as he goes on, and even leans into it before he’s done. […] Like all good fairy tales, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood troubles the waters as much as it stills them, and quite possibly unsettles far more than it serves to comfort.”

Review – 28 August 2019

10. High Flying Bird (Directed by Steven Soderbergh)

High Flying Bird is a sharp-witted dissection of the big business infrastructure of American professional sports and how it manipulates and asserts power over the valuable, talented players that it relies upon, enriches, and exploits. It’s smart and fleet of foot, like a speedy, crossover-dribbling point guard. […] High Flying Bird […] crackles with verbal energy and clever sophistication of ideas. It’s also shot in a direct, intimate style by Soderbergh. […] There’s an immediacy to the way the film looks and feels […] that gives its thoughts about the business of pro sports a similar urgency and force. […] High Flying Bird is an enjoyable, slashing dribble-penetration into the packed zone defense of pro sports’ complex capitalist superstructure, but does it take the high-percentage layup or kick out for the dagger of a three-pointer? Honestly, a good, balanced measure of both.”

Review – 23 December 2019

 

 

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