My Favorite Films of 2019
It’s the time you’ve all been eagerly, desperately, impatiently waiting for (it’s getting to be a bit embarrassing to be honest), the time when Lonnie releases his list of the best films of the year (read: his vanity project).
I’ve heard lots of people say 2019 wasn’t a great year for film, but I don't think that's true. What I think is that it feels this way because so many independent movies (the good ones) are overshadowed and out-marketed by big releases like Star Wars and that's a shame. I’m not saying you shouldn’t see those giant corporate CGI dick swings (even I sucked it up and saw JJ Abrams & Friends and the fucking goat rope that is Cats). What I am saying is that you also need to seek out and support the smaller films. Otherwise all we’ll have at the cinemas in ten years are superheroes and jedis, and, frankly, that’s not a world I’d like to live in. Hopefully there’s at least one film on this list that sounds interesting to you. And hopefully you’ll seek it out because these filmmakers are the ones pushing the medium forward, using it to further our understanding of humanity, and so they deserve at least 90 minutes of your attention and 10 bucks out of your wallet.
Jennifer Kent’s follow up to The Babadook is nothing like its predecessor and while it took some people by surprise I believe it’s for the better, marking the director as one who holds uncompromising vision regardless of the project. The Nightingale is a rape/revenge film, and that alone should tell you it’s not for everyone. The film utilizes the subgenre and formula to set up a chilling, brutal narrative. In contrast to The Babadook, which is perhaps intentional on Kent’s part, the horror is not based in the supernatural, but rather is based in (unfortunate) historical accuracy, and just when you think you’ve seen the worst history has to offer, there’s always more atrocities to uncover. This is what separates The Nightingale from other recent revenge cinema. Kent feels a constant need for deviation from the tropes and cliches. The harsh, relentless violence depicted on screen (and I’m talking about children being murdered and upwards of 5 on-screen rapes) is indeed gratuitous, but it works because it never feels romanticized. It’s in your face about the fact, however sad it may be, that such cruelty is as period authentic as it is gut wrenching. Through it all, Kent not only handles the sexual violence subject matter with tact, but also manages to make scathing commentaries about racial inequality in Australia. There’s a lot going on in The Nightingale and it’s impressive that Kent ties it all together without making its lack of subtlety feel didactic. With all this said, the film isn’t just 2 hours of in-your-face savagery. It’s funny. It’s touching. It’s thought provoking. There’s a balance at work between the moments of violence and the moments of quiet repose, and beauty hides in the shadows of its harsh world.
A lot of people who are much smarter than myself have written about Us at length and there’s so much to unpack that I’m afraid a single paragraph won’t begin to do it justice (the same could probably be said about any film on this list). Jordan Peele’s follow up to Get Out is a more sophisticated, ambitious outing. While I think a lot of people (me) were expecting another film about the white man’s contempt for (and simultaneous fetishization of) blackness, Peele, rather brilliantly, goes the opposite direction. While the film defies any specific reading, in my mind it’s about how Americans are all the same, whether you’re a Trump supporter or a Bernie bro, and how the circumstances we are born into have a greater impact on our lives than any of us care to admit. While this isn’t a novel concept, what makes the film stand out is the source of the horror. It’s not just that circumstances dictate the course of our lives, it’s the sheer randomness, the lack of choice that we have when it comes to our inhereted social spheres. If you’re a 10th wave feminist living in LA, you just as easily could have been born into a family of poor, gun-touting racists. That’s a horrifying thought and Peele exploits this to great effect in order to extract both terror and sympathy. Ultimately he’s asking what an age-old philosophical question that’s perhaps more relevant than ever, “Is it possible for us to see ourselves in the Other?”
A neo Giallo absurdist dark comedy that’s inspired by Dario Argento and David Lynch while never feeling derivative. Peter Strickland is an auteur through and through, having made some of the most unique films of the past decade (Berberian Sound Studio, The Duke of Burgundy). While he hasn’t become a household name among cinephiles like Yorgos Lanthimos, the two are cut from the same cloth. I hate that I’ve only written about Strickland in comparison to others because he’s not like anyone else, but I rely on such reductiveness because his style is difficult to define. In Fabric was probably the most singular viewing experience I had all year. Strickland seems to be so utterly uninterested in standard narrative form that it gives the film a sense of freedom and playfulness rarely seen in a “horror” movie. The journey as a whole feels like you being stuck some nightmare world of neon lights and killer fashion and demonic washing machines that you can’t wake up from.
The Art of Self Defence
I had zero expectations going into this one and it was one of the most surprisingly enjoyable films of the year. Tightly written and directed with a Kafkaesque coldness that matches Jesse Esienberg’s purposely stiff performance (he was born for this role, and my god is it an improvement on his Lex Luthor), The Art of Self Defence takes a look at toxic male culture through the lens of a martial arts gym and the lengths we go to to change ourselves to better fit into toxic ideals even though we know they’re toxic (that’s a lot of toxicity). There’s a turn halfway through the film where it goes from dark to pitch black and I think this may be the hardest I laughed at any movie in 2019.
Robert Patinson takes care of a crying baby on a decaying spaceship approaching the unknown reaches of space. Andre 3000 becomes one with a vegetable garden on the same spaceship. Juliette Binoche is a witch scientist who has a dark magic dildo machine, again, on the same spaceship. Are we worthy of such awesome sights? High Life also has my favorite title screen of any movie this year. Calculated, poetic, inimitable, and sets the tone perfectly for what’s to come.
The only thing I knew about Monos before seeing it was that Mica Levi, who composed two of my favorite soundtracks of the past ten years (Under the Skin and Jackie), did the score. That was enough to get me in the theatre. Describing the plot of the film makes it sound more bizarre than it actually is and such is a testament to director Alejandro Landes’ ability to draw us into his world. It follows a group of child soldiers who are stationed in remote Columbia as they guard a POW and a milk cow. The background war is never given context and the film is so much engaging for it because the kids don’t know what they are fighting for. How could they? This is a war passed down to them. And the same can be said about their inevitable turn toward savagery. How could they turn out any other way when such is what they’ve been taught? The film plays out like the Columbian Harmony Korine was forced to read Lord of the Flies and thought it was a bunch of bullshit and so he decided to retell the story, giving it a backbone, a stronger political message, and actually earning the famous deus ex machina ending. This is the watermark for how adaptations should be crafted. Transformed and transfigured with new ideas that engage in a dialect with the original work.
The Beach Bum
Harmony, oh Harmony. How I missed thee. If you know me, you know my obsessive love for Korine (I have a T-shirt that looks like it says Korn but it actually says Korine and that’s not something you needed to know). I think he’s the most important American filmmaker of his generation, and underappreciated genius following in the Southern Gothic footsteps of Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner with a little (a lot) of that Herzogian charm that can’t be bought. The Beach Bum is Korine’s first film since Spring Breakers back in 2012, and it is a welcomed return as much as it is a new path for him. I think The Beach Bum, like every other one of his films, is ahead of its time and misunderstood by critics and mass audiences alike. It fuses the “high art” aesthetic of a European independent cinema with the “low art” of American stoner comedies and hip hop music videos, showcasing how there is no distinction between the two. Any division in art is fabricated. All art is art. Just like Moondog’s crass poems in the film, it’s proof that sometimes the most revolting parts of our culture are the most revealing about us as a species.
Under the Silver Lake
Critics panned it. Audienced skipped it. Not even the distributor knew what the fuck to do with Under the Silver Lake. After seeing the film I understand why, but it’s heartbreaking because this is brave, eccentric, relentless new filmmaking that I wish we had more of. Part Rear Window style neo noir mystery, part Kafka-esque meandering tour of LA, Under the Silver Lake is a simultaneous celebration of all the things that make Hollywood wonderful and a relentless critique of the very same culture it’s bred, and persists to this day. However, all this is hidden under layers of genuine weirdness. If you’re expecting a mystery with a satisfying ending, I’m afraid this is the wrong place to look. What you get instead is something closer to the truth. Something that’s too late to condemn or condone.
Knife + Heart
If you imagine what a gay French arthouse slasher might be like, that’s exactly what Knife + Heart is. Erotic, aggressive, smart, artful, and trashy all at once, this is the kind of innovation we need if we’re going to continue making slasher movies. It pushes the genre to new places rather than remaining in the stagnant shadow of Halloween. Of course we needed the French to show us such was possible. The deadly soundtrack by M83 seals the deal.
Bong Joon-ho brings his trademark satire to a home invasion narrative and in doing so has crafted a story as rich as it is funny, as unique as it is thrilling, and as engaging as it is profound. Combining Hitcockian suspense with a brilliantly plotted narrative, it’s the kind of film that is entirely impossible to predict, dragging audiences along toward its inevitable, hand-over-your-mouth climax. While all of his past films have been politically driven in some way or another, Parasite tackles class structure more deftly, never preaching, and delivering unique insights into the injustices that trickle down from the top of the pyramid all the way down to the bottom. Of all the films I saw this year, Parasite is the one that feels most like you’re in the hands of a master. Every aspect of the film – from directing to writing to acting to production design – is perfect.
It should come as no surprise that The Lighthouse finds itself near the top of this list. In my mind, Robert Eggers is making the kind of cinema that will save us all. This is a movie that should not exist. It’s peculiar. It’s challenging. It’s black and white (shot on film). It has a modest budget. There are fart jokes. There’s masterbation. There’s barely a plot. And yet, thanks to the success of The Witch and the intrepid spirit of A24, Robert Eggers was able to see his vision through to the end without compromise or concern. And yet, the premise is simple. Two lighthouse keepers are locked in their fallus-of-a-building, and the longer they remain, the longer they teeter on the edge of madness. Their descent is interrupted by bursts of (homo)eroticism, mythology, folklore, and even a little homage to H.P. Lovecraft. Dafoe and Pattinson deliver career-defining performances. Eggers delivers his signature dedication to period authenticity and detail. While it’s being positioned as a horror film, I’m not sure it is. It seems to defy genre at all. If you go in expecting The Witch, you’ll be disappointed. If you go in expecting nothing, you’ll come out the other side with a head full of unforgettable images – a one-eyed seagull, mermaid sex on the rocks, and Willem Dafoe shooting light from his eyeballs. It was made for me and The Lighthouse will be the altar upon which I pray for years to come. HARK!
On the topic of young horror auteurs, I enjoyed Ari Aster's Hereditary, but I didn’t love it as much as many other horror nerds. Midsommar feels like Ari Aster matured as a filmmaker, taking all the tools he learned from making a supernatural horror movie and applying those techniques to a simpler narrative with more profound themes about the nature of grief and relationships. His visual sensibilities and creeping camera movements bring to mind a more palatable Gaspar Noe, combined with existential dramatic writing that harkens back to Bergman. One of the most impressive aspects of Midsommar is it’s refusal to abide by horror conventions despite being a movie packed with familiar elements. It’s a remixing of things we’ve seen in films like The Wickerman and Rosemary’s Baby in order to form a new, relatable perspective. The result is a sunny, flowery, mushroom trip gone wrong which leads to the most disturbingly cathartic cinematic moment of the year. I have thought about Midsommar almost every day since seeing it, and films like that, the ones that linger your mind, are always the most valuable to me.
Long Day’s Journey Into Night
Cinema is often said to be the closest art form we have to approximate dreams. This is apparent from the sheer number of dream sequences we see in movies on an annual basis. Many filmmakers have attempted to capture the quality of dreams in their work, some more successfully than others. The film world always talk about the dream sequences in 8 ½, American Beauty, Brazil, and The Exorcist. However, the director that immediately comes to mind is David Lynch. He’s created a means of delivering uncanny dreams through cross-fading imagery, uncomfortable pacing, and his signature background droning sound design. Lynch has since become a touchstone for dream cinema and, for the past decade or so, it seems anyone who attempted to enter this territory was walking in his shadow. Enter 30 year old Bi Gan and his second feature film, Long Day’s Journey Into Night. This ever-drifting narrative captures dreams on celluloid in completely radical ways that divert so far away from Lynch, and anyone before him, it proves just how malleable and varied dreams – and cinema – can be. The film follows a man who returns to his hometown after many years away and his longing for a lost lover. Sort of. Because Long Day’s Journey Into Night works on a new kind of dream logic, everything sort of just floats on and shifts in its natural course. Nothing stays the same for too long. Scenes meld together. And the film itself goes from 2-dimensional to 3-dimensional (literally halfway through the movie you have to put 3D glasses on) and the dreamlike nature escalates until it reaches its beautiful, unforgettable, romantic finale. The level of ambition on display is staggering. If it didn’t already seem challenging enough, the second half of the film consists of a 59-minute long take (with no cuts, hidden or otherwise). Alongside Twin Peaks: The Return, this is an easy contender for film of the decade. Seek it out. Experience it. And let it’s dreams become yours.
Favorite movie I watched this year not from 2019:
Wings of Desire
Favorite story I experienced this year not from 2019 and not a movie and maybe my favorite thing ever:
Haven’t seen them yet but they’d probably be on my list: