Cinephilia

2019 [in films]

For the last three years, I’ve managed to watch more films than I did the year before. In 2017, I saw 181 films. In 2018, it was 182. In 2019, I watched 184 films in all, not counting rewatches and works in progress. I know this because I’m a big old nerd and I keep track of what I see in not one but two places: a spreadsheet I keep for my own records, and my tracking online over at Letterboxd (go ahead and give me a follow!).

I do it for the fun of it, because when you watch as many films as I do (which actually pales in comparison to friends I know who manage two or three times that) you want a way to remember them all at a glance. And around this time every year, I’m grateful for all that effort (really, it’s not much) so that I can make a Best of the Year list that’s as comprehensive as possible.

I always see interesting trivia in my viewing habits once I look back on the year, and 2019 is no exception. I learned that:

  • Of the 183 films I watched, 52 of them were documentaries and 30 of them were foreign productions, from countries including South Korea, Iceland, Israel and several from France.
  • I’m really, really slacking on my classic film screenings, as I didn’t log any new old films this year, a fact I’m terribly embarrassed by. That doesn’t mean I didn’t watch old films, just that whatever I did watch I’d already seen (I don’t count re-watches in this annual tally).
  • While I saw 56 films in the theater (that’s roughly one per week), I really increased the number of films I screened via streaming links (often the most accessible way to see films for review), as 106 of the films were seen this way.
  • I was apparently swamped with other obligations on my time in June, as I only notched four new films that month; in September (thanks to a week at TIFF), I saw 28 films.

So that’s the geeky part. Now for what you really came here for (and apologies in advance, this gets long): what I loved best this year. I’m doing something a bit different this time around by breaking out my favorite narrative films from my favorite documentaries, mainly for selfish reasons. It’s just impossible to pick my favorites when all these impressive works are in one big bucket; by splitting them up, I can give each more of the credit they’re due.

Narrative Films

It should come as no surprise that my favorite film of 2019 is Greta Gerwig’s Little Women. I gushed about this film from the moment I saw it, and as I reviewed the list of my favorites overall, it just kept popping up as the frontrunner. I loved other films for other reasons, but none so entirely as Gerwig’s utterly charming, thoroughly modern retelling of a classic, chock full of some of the strongest performances of the year. From Florence Pugh’s scene-stealing Amy and Saoirse Ronan’s fierce and fiery Jo to stellar supporting turns from Chris Cooper, Louis Garrel and Tracy Letts, the ensemble is as winning as it gets. I said of Ladybird that if Gerwig had more of that top-notch filmmaking up her sleeve, I’d be all in and I’m beyond pleased to keep my word with Little Women. Read my full review here.

I don’t have numbers on the remaining picks, but they are actually in a particular order; I’ve listed the rest by what I most loved on down…

Pain and Glory — a magical reflection on life, love, childhood and ambition as only Pedro Almodovar could deliver. Plus, Antonio Banderas at his career best. Ready my full review.

Parasite — Bong Joon Ho delivers one of the sharpest satires of our time in a film that will surprise you as much as it will make you think. Read my full review.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire — smoldering, simmering and nearly boiling over with passion, Celine Sciamma proves once again that the female perspective is every bit as compelling and essential as its male counterpart.

The Nightingale — best know for The Babadook, Jennifer Kent makes a different kind of horror movie about a traumatized woman hell-bent on righting horrible wrongs. Aisling Franciosi delivers one of the best performances of the year. Read my full review.

Honey Boy — I will always have a soft spot for films that expose the genuine vulnerability of the human condition, and Shia LaBeouf’s screenwriting debut, about his own tumultuous years as a child actor, is no exception. Read my full review.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco — see above re: vulnerability. Joe Talbot’s film is so fragile and special you might just break in two by the end, but it’ll certainly be the most beautiful heartbreak you’ve ever experienced. Read my full review.

The Farewell — Lulu Wang’s story of a child of immigrants and her relationship with her Grandmother (who everyone knows is dying except Nai Nai herself) is a charming, thoughtful debut. Read my full review.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood — I was entirely charmed by the film that explores Fred Rogers’ influence on the world through the eyes of a broken, struggling writer. Tom Hanks and Matthew Rhys are pitch perfect; just try to get through that moment of silence without being moved.

Knives Out — Rian Johnson is one of the most creative filmmakers working today, a true storyteller who’s at the top of his craft in this one (which is probably why so many A Listers signed on to star).

Non-Fiction — I don’t always laugh out loud when I’m watching a comedy on my own, but Olivier Assayas’s Non-Fiction had me nearly in tears (of laughter, to clarify), as the mile-a-minute dialogue and sharp self-awareness makes this one exceptional. Juliette Binoche is a treasure. Read my full review.

Marriage Story — I’ve had to live with Noah Baumbach’s deeply personal story of a marriage breaking down to really appreciate it. I’m not convinced it’s perfect, but it is so, so honest that it’s undeniably effective. Read my full review.

By the Grace of God — a tense journey through the very real child sex abuse scandal in France (so fresh that the film features an epilogue indicating the case is still making its way through the courts), Francois Ozon’s drama puts the focus where it should be: on the victims and their fight for justice. Read my full review.

Jojo Rabbit — Taika Waititi’s send-up of life in the Nazi-era is certainly divisive, but I found it equally entertaining and devastating thanks in no small part to young actor Roman Griffin Davis and the cast surrounding him.

1917 — single-shot gimmicks aside, Sam Mendes crafts a compelling war story expertly framed by cinematographer Roger Deakins, its strong central performances boosted by exceptional cameos.

Documentaries

In order to give these great works of non-fiction filmmaking their due, I decided to split out my favorites this year. Each of the films in my top five favorite documentaries are incredible, but in reflecting on how they’ve stayed with me over the last several months, Maiden takes the top spot as my favorite documentary of the year. As soon as the film ended, I wished there was more of it to watch, more of the story of these women on the first all-female crew to sail a round-the-world race. From captain Tracy Edwards’ unlikely journey to professional sailing to the harrowing story of that months-long race, the women on that ship are an inspiration and Maiden gives them the spotlight they deserve. Read my full review here.

For Sama — a truly exceptional example of the power of documentary filmmaking, director Waad Al-Kateeb puts herself and her family at the center of this devastating chronicle of their lives during wartime. Read my full review.

The Kingmaker — Lauren Greenfield’s profile of former First Lady of the Philippines Imelda Marcos is as damning as it is intriguing, edited to perfection to juxtapose Marcos’s own words with the brutal history of her husband’s administration. Read my full review.

Varda by Agnes — the death of Agnes Varda this year is a loss the film community will feel for generations; it’s only fitting that her final film is one as personal, reflective and honest as this. It’s like sitting down for a cup of tea and a chat with a master. Read my full review.

Apollo 11 — all the history classes you’ve ever taken can’t quite match the sheer wonder and awe captured in Todd Douglas Miller’s Apollo 11 about the fateful space mission to land on the Moon. I dare you not to get chills as that rocket ship begins its ascent to the heavens.

Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am — the world lost a legend this year when author Toni Morrison passed away. Thankfully, we have Timothy Greenfield-Sanders heartfelt documentary that recounts her life in her own words. A truly special experience. Read my full review.

One Child Nation — what could’ve been a narrowly focused film about one woman’s experience with an oppressive, unjust policy becomes a powerful indictment of a nation and a generation.

Amazing Grace — if ever you question whether some of us are anointed to be greater than our fellow human beings, this spellbinding documentary, a concert doc of Aretha Franklin’s 1972 performance in a Los Angeles church, will remind you that angels walk among us.

Cunningham — a late entry to my favorites list (I only just reviewed it), Alla Kovgan does something quite impressive here, intertwining the art of film and dance in ways that captivate and dazzle.

Hail Satan? — any film that inspires picketing protesters outside the theater is a good one in my book; it must be doing something right to elicit such a passionate response. And Penny Lane’s exploration of modern-day Satanism, freedom of speech and activism does a lot of it. Read my full review.

So there you have it: more than 1,500 words on my favorite films of 2019. Let me know in the comments what you saw and loved, or what this inspires you to seek out!

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