2019 was as good a year for film as it was bad for, well, (gestures broadly to the world) everything else. There was plenty to be thankful for on screens both big and small, and as is always the case, some worthy films had to be left off my list. In the end, these are the movies that most spoke to me this year, conveying something unexpected about what it feels like to be alive right now.
Full disclosure: I have yet to see Tom Hooper's unnerving new film adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber's equally wild musical "Cats," so there's every chance I'll be tossing this entire list aside to make room for the alarming sight of Dame Judy Dench, Jennifer Hudson, and Taylor Swift (among many others) playing humanoid felines pleading their case for death and reincarnation. But deadlines are deadlines.
1. "Portrait of a Lady on Fire"
Set on a remote island in 18th-century France, Céline Sciamma's gorgeous love story explores the slow-burning romance between a young bride-to-be (AdèleHaenel) and the artist hired to paint her wedding portrait (NoémieMerlant). A pitch-perfect blend of exquisite visual storytelling and raw emotion, with two indelible lead performances. (Opens in Rochester in early 2020)
Bong Joon-ho's tale of class warfare was a surprise through every twist and turn. Seeing it during a packed screening with 1200 other people at the Toronto International Film Festival back in September was one of the best theater-going experiences I had all year, as it became clear from the very first moment that Joon-ho had every single one of us completely in the palm of his hand.
What could have been just a standard Fred Rogers biopic turned out to be so much more, as director Marielle Heller glided past the expected tropes to tell a lovely, deeply humane story that fully embodied Rogers' teachings. Possibly the most unexpected and welcome surprise at the movies in 2019.
4. "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood"
Few films this year inspired as many critical analyses and think pieces as Quentin Tarantino's sprawling, nostalgic ode to Hollywood's myths and legends, and it's a testament to the strength of the film that I never tired of reading them.
5. "The Farewell"
Lulu Wang's semi-autobiographical dramedy packed an emotional wallop as it examined the bonds of family, stretched but never broken even when forced to cross continents and oceans.
6. "Knives Out"
After delivering the best "Star Wars" movie in ages (no arguments) with "The Last Jedi," Rian Johnson gifted audiences with this wildly entertaining twist on the classic whodunit. A pleasure from start to finish, while packing in some sly political bite and a host of great performances from its wonderful ensemble, led by MVP Ana de Armas.
Ari Aster injects a dark sense of humor into this audacious and horrific tale about a troubled couple travels abroad to visit a fabled mid-summer festival in rural Sweden. A break-up story for the ages, featuring one of Florence Pugh's three phenomenal performances this year.
8. "Little Women"
Greta Gerwig absolutely nails this adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's classic 19th-century celebration of sisterhood and the complicated women of the March family. A warm, cozy blanket of a movie, with another great turn from Florence Pugh. (Opens in Rochester Christmas Day)
9. "In Fabric"
A hypnotic, hallucinatory horror-comedy about a cursed dress and the havoc it wreaks on the lives of everyone who comes to possess, containing my favorite performance of the year in Fatma Mohamed's indelible portrayal of a most bewitching saleswoman.
10. "Uncut Gems"
Benny and Josh Safdie create some of the most anxiety-inducing films I've seen, and this one starring Adam Sandler as a gambling-addicted diamond district hustler tumbling from one bad idea to another, is no exception. Beautiful chaos. (Opens in Rochester Christmas Day)
11. "Marriage Story"
The slow dissolution of a marriage becomes both heartbreaking and surprisingly funny thanks to Noah Baumbach's clear-eyed, endlessly empathetic perspective and incredible work from stars Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver.
For my money, the funniest comedy of the year was Olivia Wilde's sweet and salty high school comedy, about two over-achieving best friends (Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever, in star-making performances) who try to cram all the partying they've missed out on into the final night before their high school graduation.
13. "The Irishman"
Focusing on Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), and the Bufalino crime family, Martin Scorsese's epic gangster story unfurled over its three-and-a half hour runtime into an unsparingly melancholy tale of grief, aging, and the gaping divide between the legacies we long to create for ourselves and the ones built for us when we're not looking.
14. "American Factory"
Documentarians Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert chronicle the reopening of a former GM plant in Dayton, Ohio under the new ownership of a Chinese windshield company called Fuyao Glass, ending up with a compelling story of cultural divides, global economics, and the struggling workers caught in the middle.
15. "One Cut of the Dead"
This innovative, exceptionally charming horror-comedy from Japan took what seemed like a shopworn premise — the crew of a low-budget zombie film end up caught in a real-life zombie attack, while their determined director fights to keep the camera rolling — and made something fresh and giddily entertaining. With his feature debut, Ueda Shin'ichirô crafts a shaggy tribute to the mad chaos and blind perseverance required to make a movie, even if you have to drag its bleeding corpse across the finish line.
Honorable Mentions: "Ad Astra," "Amazing Grace," "Apollo 11," "The Brink," "Hail Satan?" "Honeyland," "Hustlers," "The Last Black Man in San Francisco," "The Lighthouse," "One Child Nation," "Pain and Glory," "The Proposal," "The Report," "Transit," "Us"
Adam Lubitow is a freelance writer for CITY. Feedback on this article can be directed to [email protected].