A wild whirlwind of a mess, without any coherence, without even a guiding principle.
It’s that time of year when critics take a look at dozens of different pieces of art and try to put them in the same box. There’s something inherently odd about pitting films against each other, but it’s also a way to draw attention to things you love and want to share with more people. It’s often a way to consider themes in art, but I was struck more this year by what my top ten says about my personal taste more than overall motifs in the world of moviemaking. I spoke to Barry Jenkins earlier this month, and he commented on how he’s attracted to what he calls genuine filmmaking. That’s clearly a through-line in my picks too, none of which were made purely to garner awards or fatten wallets. They are deeply personal films from masterful filmmakers, across the spectrum of genre and style. What do Boots Riley and Debra Granik have in common other than a deep passion for what they do? They share that passion with us, and lists like this, at their best, amplify it just one step further. I saw around 250 films released this year. This list could be different with rewatches or even just over time. It’s always subject to change. But, as of today, these were my favorites of a very good year:
10. “Sorry to Bother You”
It’s the rare film that can feel both completely current and ahead of its time. Boots Riley’s incredible social satire, anchored by a performance from Lakeith Stanfield that is only getting a fraction of the year-end attention it deserves, is the best debut of the year (and it was a strong one for debuts with this, “Hereditary,” “Minding the Gap,” “Eighth Grade,” and more). Riley’s film echoes his music in its blending of different styles and influences into something that feels both defiantly new and classically funky. It is often hard to tell when you’re in a year what movies from it that people will be watching five or even ten years from now. I would bet money they’ll be watching this one.
Lynne Ramsay’s award-winning “thriller” (the quotes because there’s not really one genre appellation that feels like it captures everything this movie does) is such a perfectly calculated work of art that it’s easy to take for granted the first time you see it. Every choice here has been carefully considered by a master craftsman, but that attention to detail is offset by an organic, emotional, borderline dangerous performance in the center from Joaquin Phoenix, doing what I consider the best acting work of the year. Phoenix is mesmerizing, capturing a man who has to access his trauma to do his very unusual job, and someone who dives deeper into his own nightmarish abyss each time. It’s a challenging, unforgettable film, and a testament to the overall quality of the year that it’s this far down the list.
Hirokazu Kore-eda is one of our best living filmmakers, a man who personifies the Ebert principle of cinema as an empathy machine. He makes movies about real people, using them to encourage conversation about complex issues like masculinity, justice, and the definition of family. His Palme d’Or-winning latest is arguably his masterpiece, a film that reconsiders so many of his previous themes, but also works purely as heartbreaking melodrama. He spends 90 minutes getting his viewers deeply involved in the life of a family on one of the lowest rungs of society, and then challenges how we feel about them with stunning revelations in the final act. Directing some of the best performances in his catalog (Ando Sakura’s work here may be the most underrated of the year), this is an example of a master working at the top of his form.
What’s the cinematic equivalent of an earworm? You know those songs, or even ad jingles, that burrow their way into your brain and don’t go away? You think of them at random times, humming them to yourself without even knowing you’re doing so? Alex Garland’s latest is the movie version of that, a movie I saw early this year that will not go away. The images, the themes, the faces, the horrors—there’s something about "Annihilation" that has lodged itself in my memory in a way films rarely do. Part of the reason for that is how open the film is to interpretation, relying on imagery instead of plot twists. Those are the movies that last. We may remember a line or some shocking twist from films we like, but it’s the images from the movies we love that sneak up on us. “Annihilation” will be doing so for decades.
I smile every time I think of Joel and Ethan Coen’s latest Western anthology, which is somewhat ironic given it’s a movie about death. Maybe that’s part of the game. After all, the final segment in Netflix’s film is about bounty hunters who distract their targets with stories. We’re all just distracted by the stories of life, many of my favorites told by the Coens, on our way to shuffling off this mortal coil. These stories work on their own or taken as an entire piece, elevated by the Coen’s incredible attention to detail in every element of the production, including Bruno Delbonnel’s stunning cinematography, one of Carter Burwell’s best scores, and a simply perfect ensemble. I wrote more about the excellence of this film here, and I’m still smiling.
Every once in a while, there’s a movie that gets dismissed as pulp by the critical Illuminati. What’s funny is those pulp movies more often find their way into the cinematic firmament than the most buzzed Oscar bait. I'm not worried about the future of "Widows." It didn’t help Steve McQueen’s masterfully entertaining and enlightening examination of corruption and agency in Chicago that it was horrendously advertised, leaving viewers who might like it at home and those who probably wouldn’t angry in their theater seats. Suffice to say, “Widows” was mishandled, but I am as confident in anything on this list that “Widows” will find a loyal, devoted audience over time. Great movies always do.
My top 2-4 are relatively interchangeable, all films that did what is so much harder and harder to do every year—broke through our increasingly diffused attention span. With the amount of distractions in this tech-heavy world, it’s getting more difficult even for film critics to “give themselves over” to a movie. For me, I’m often distracted by the other work I have ahead of me—pieces I have to write or editorial duties at this site. Our brains seem to increasingly be asking “what’s next?!” And so there’s something breathtaking about a movie that is powerful enough to push out the “next” with the “now.” Lee Chang-dong’s masterful thriller does exactly that, weaving a mesmerizing tableau for over two hours and then throwing you back into the world, dazed and marveling at what you just watched.
3. “Leave No Trace”
I had a similar reaction to Debra Granik’s poignant drama when I saw it in Sundance. All the other films in Park City faded away as I became deeply invested in the lives of two strangers. Granik’s compassion for these two people is contagious. We feel for the young Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) and her PTSD-afflicted father Will (Ben Foster) in ways that is rare in cinema. We want Tom to be happy. We want Will to find stability. We want them to be their best selves, and yet Granik doesn’t even remotely judge Will for his trauma or Tom for her increasing need to leave him. It’s that rare subgenre of the character study that isn’t designed to make some grand statement about all of humanity but fully capture the lives of the people in its center. Will and Tom feel real. We know them and we root for them. And we don’t forget them.
I couldn’t possibly capture why I love Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of James Baldwin’s “unfilmable” novel more completely than Odie Henderson did in his brilliant review, so just read that first. My top two films of the year—and this clearly reflects a personal preference in what I’m looking for lately—blend the lyrical and the realistic. The story of Fonny (Stephan James) and Tish (KiKi Layne) is tragically real in its injustice and examination of broken dreams. And yet there’s also a poetry to Jenkins’ filmmaking that’s simply beautiful. There is poignant tragedy here, of course, but there’s also overwhelming joy. The joy of a family, of love, of hope, and of filmmaking artistry. It’s the rare movie that I feel will shift ever so slightly every time I watch it, offering me something new to appreciate and adore.
That last sentence also holds true for Alfonso Cuarón’s masterpiece, the best film of 2018. So many movies lately feel like they “take” from their audience, whether it be with lazy filmmaking or CGI extravaganza that leave you more exhausted than exhilarated. “Roma” gives and gives. I put so much of myself —what I value in both film and criticism—into my review that I’m not sure what else I could say other than I walked out of this movie on a high that films rarely give me any more. Perhaps it’s a reflection of the state of the form or just getting older and busier, but that “spark,” that “movie magic” doesn’t come along like I wish it would as often as it did when I was younger. I was floating after “Roma.” I still am.
The 2020 Oscar nominations.
A review of Netflix's Dracula, from the creators of Sherlock.
A review of the new Netflix crime docuseries about former New England Patriot Aaron Hernandez.
A collection of the reviews given our highest possible grade in 2019.