I don’t like top 10 lists. It’s not that I dislike sharing my joy of movies – I enjoy it very much. I just despise the arrogance involved in watching a few dozen or maybe even a hundred films from a particular year if I’m lucky, then declaring 10 of them superior to the thousands I didn’t see. So just know going forward that this is not a comprehensive “best of” list, but rather my personal picks for movies I believe are most worth the watch. That’s the name of the site, after all.
Also, I realize that I’m several years late on this piece, but distance has a way of shaping one’s opinion on art. And timeliness is for people who are well paid for their thoughts, which I am most certainly not.
10. The Lighthouse
Robert Eggers has made good on his promise as an up-and-coming horror maestro with sophomore effort The Lighthouse, a brine-soaked shanty of a film with a decidedly Lovecraftian tinge to it. Willem Dafoe’s Thomas Wake might be the saltiest sea dog I’ve ever come across at the movies and this two-hour descent into nautical madness is all the better for it – just be prepared for gratuitous amounts of bodily fluids and excrement.
Roughly halfway through Ari Aster’s Hereditary follow-up, I realized I’d incorrectly expected a continuation of the themes and tones he explored in his first film. Midsommar exists instead as something much closer to comedy, dancing its way into hallucinatory folk absurdism as the themes Aster sets in motion in the first act are carried out to their logical – and satisfying – conclusions in the third. Settle in and enjoy the festivities.
8. Ad Astra
Dad Astra. Sad Astra. Rad Astra. Mad Astra. These are all terrible wordplay generalizations of this Blade Runner / Moon / Apocalypse Now mashup I never knew I wanted. If James Gray keeps making movies about sad men searching for meaning at the ends of human existence, I’ll keep watching.
7. High Life
If Ad Astra is a meditative whisper into the cosmos, High Life is a primal scream, demanding the universe know that, even for just one moment, it existed. Claire Denis has made something truly wild (nothing can properly equip you for “The Fuckbox”) yet heartbreaking, forcing us to contend with the horrid fate of every character we join aboard the doomed spaceship, struggling to maintain some semblance of hope as they draw ever closer to their final destination.
6. Island of the Hungry Ghosts
This criminally underseen docu-drama will only become more relevant as the months and years pass, I’m afraid. Gabrielle Brady’s poignant portrait of Christmas Island juxtaposes the reverence shown for its renowned red crabs and the respect afforded to the ghosts of its dead with the clinical, traumatizing and brutal nature of government detention centers just a few miles out of public sight. Legal asylum seekers languish away in isolation as their existence is used to stoke the fires of nationalist fears 2,000 miles away in mainland Australia. I’ve seen embarrassingly few documentaries this year, but this was, and I have to imagine will remain, the most powerful and urgent.
5. The Last Black Man in San Francisco
There isn’t a more triumphant or proud film on this list. Jimmie Fails and Joe Talbot have poured their hearts and souls into The Last Black Man in San Francisco, an indomitable tale of learning to love things on their own terms and accepting the flaws in the people and places we care for most. The movie is imperfect, to be sure, but deserving of far more recognition than it’s garnered this awards season. Perhaps it’s fitting. This is an underdog story through and through, and no statue can make Emile Mosseri’s perfect score sound any better.
4. Uncut Gems
The anxiety-inducing pace of Josh and Benny Safdies’ newest feature is often cited as its biggest strength, but a fully-realized Diamond District and an endlessly fascinating cast of New Yorkers might actually be the secret ingredient here. The brothers’ love of Cassavetes shines through Uncut Gems in a myriad of ways, the best of which make for some truly uncomfortable moments involving a never-better Adam Sandler. Isn’t scum bum cinema great?
3. Long Day’s Journey Into Night
Bi Gan’s enigmatic arthouse thriller, featuring a 59-minute, single-take closing tracking shot that may or may not all be a dream was marketed as a traditional romance film and perfect New Years Eve date in its native China. The gamble paid off to the tune of a $37.9 million opening night, well over double the estimated budget – and a $1.5 million second day once the moviegoing public caught on to the bait-and-switch. The film’s promotional ethics notwithstanding, Long Day’s Journey Into Night is an ambitious work worth seeking out and celebrating, as mystifying and alluring a watch the second time through as it is the first.
I hesitate to call something equal parts Lord of the Flies and Heart of Darkness “fun,” but that’s exactly what the first 30 minutes of this sophomore feature film effort from director Alejandro Landes is before the titular squad of child soldiers are blindsided by the fear, mistrust, jealousy and rage that comes with growing up, to say nothing of waging war. Given a little bit of time and distance, Monos should enjoy a healthy reputation among combat cinema hounds as one of the most transfixing and worthwhile works to come around in a quite a long time.
Bong Joon-ho seems to be bewildered and a bit amused by his film’s stateside success, but the director of such sublime works as Memories of Murder and Mother has to know the power of what he’s created here. Parasite refuses to be confined to a single genre, blending Hitchcockian suspense and slapstick humor seamlessly. The performances are all on point. The set design is incredible (the Park family’s house was built from scratch!). It’s perfectly executed from every aspect and was hands-down the most exhilarating experience I had going to the movies in 2019.