The 25 Best Movies of 2019
2019 would be remembered for Martin Scorsese’s long-awaited, dream project ‘The Irishman’ starring Joe Pesci, Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino and Quentin Tarantino’s holistic, nostalgia-driven ride in the 60s ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’. It will also be remembered for the phenomenal business of Hollywood – Marvel superhero movie Avengers: Endgame. The hype and the madness surrounding it would qualify it as the movie event of the decade. But the films that I really loved are small budget films that left a mark one way or the other. Here is the list of the best movies of 2019 that I loved. The list does not include Indian films as they are separately ranked in the Best Indian Films of 2019 list. In case you have missed our annual list of the best movies of 2018, please find it here.
Gloria Bell | Sebastián Lelio | Drama
Sebastian Lelio remakes his own career-defining film “Gloria (2013)” keeping the soul and writing intact, just shifting the base from Santiago to Los Angeles. Julianne Moore reprises the role played by Paulina García in her Berlin Best Actor (female) winning performance. Gloria Bell is an independent woman, divorced a decade ago, having a stable life, and relentlessly doting on her children.
Her life turns upside down when she reluctantly starts dating Arnold (John Turturro) who is caught between the demanding ex-wife and subnormal children. The instability in the life of Arthur makes Gloria question about the midlife romance. Julianne Moore is a revelation here, but its John Turturro’s comically vulnerable and unpredictable performance as Arnold that deserves an applaud.
The Beach Bum | Harmony Korine | Stoner Comedy
The Beach bum is freewheeling poetry in motion. It gives no two fucks about a few disgruntled audiences due to the string of outrageous scenes bordering disgust. But hey, how good and civilized are we to judge a beat poet describing ass of his dead wife to the daughter.
Recall how does it feel after you smoke up. Like in another dimension. Transcending time and hard to believe reality. Caught up between glorious illusion of being a slacker and freefalling deadweight of problems. The Beach Bum is 95 mins extension of that another dimension which you would wish to have one. And you can’t have it, because you cant write poetry of a dick the way Moondog (Matthew McConaughey) does.
25. The Farewell | Lulu Wang | Drama
A searing family drama that’s intimate, sombre and yet hopeful, The Farewell – inspired from Wang’s personal life – is a deeply felt observational comedy that navigates through the generation and cultural differences to find a connecting tissue that emotionally connects them as a family. It could not be possible without the stellar cast that seemed to born to play the respective characters in the film, specially Billi (Awkwafina) and Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao). There’s unspoken warmth, underlying melancholy, and unbridled emotions on a ride that feels organic, real and close to heart.
24. Scattered Night | Kim Sol and Lee Jihyoung | Family Drama
KIM Sol and LEE Jihyoung directorial Korean film ‘Scattered Night’ base the plot on this unfortunate event but they give an intimate and internal perspective from the children’s point of view, especially from the youngest daughter Sumin, with no melodrama and glossy arc to feel their state, or with no resolution at the hindsight.
The visual of the film is minimalist and colours are muted that creates a melancholic feel to it. The camera composition is swift and static to capture the tension in its rawest form. The third act is a masterstroke and deservingly left an open end. Scattered Night is a vivid dramatization of an event that would be hard to resolve, hence the ending feels earned rather than a modern art hour gimmick. Read the complete review of Scattered Night (2019).
23. Paddleton | Alexandre Lehmann | Drama
The sophomore feature film of cinematographer turned director, Alexandre Lehmann’s “Paddleton” is brimming with bittersweet and poignant moments and deadpan conversations that carry existential philosophy, seen through the lens of pessimism. Like Blue Jay, Pendleton is a two handler, about Michael (Duplass) and his neighbour Andy (Romano), who lives above him in a shabby pea-size apartment. Read the complete review of the film here.
22. System Crasher | Nora Fingscheidt | Drama
Bernadette (Helena Zengel), but she likes to be called Bennie, is a nine YO time-ticking bomb harbouring aggression & anger, ready to explode at the drop of a hat. Her erratic and passive-aggressive behaviour makes it impossible to engage with her, to reason with her.
Underneath all the fury and violent streak, Bennie is a delicate, fragile girl, longing for unconditional love, and trying to reconcile with her mother. If Bennie’s temperamental behaviour is deeply rooted, there are reasons for it – which is never explicitly dealt with in the film. Writer-director Nora Fingscheidt roots the intense drama around Bennie’s overwhelming need for love which no one understands except Maria Bafané.
21. The Two Popes | Fernando Meirelles | Comedy Drama
In the backdrop of Vatican leaks scandal that rocked the Catholic Church in Vatican city, Fernando Meirelles crowns a character study of an Archbishop Bergoglio [played by Jonathan Pryce] and Pope Benedict XVI [played by Anthony Hopkins]. He takes us in their amusing, often riddled with existential and spiritual crisis, journey to showcase their vulnerable humane aspect that is often ignored in films. A pope-mance between two individuals who can’t get along with each other are pushed to resolve their personal difference for a better future of Catholic Churches. Laced with two incredible performances and dash of organic humour, The Two Popes is one of the best comedies of the year.
20. The Criminal Mind | Dmitry Mamuliya | Psychological Drama
Dmitry Mamuliya’s glacially paced, taut psychological thriller The Criminal Man (Borotmokmedi) thematically stems out of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s tranquil spirit. A slight, minimal narrative with sparse dialogues harbors mammoth of a complex subliminal conundrum of the lead protagonist George Meskhi (Giorgi Petriashvili), a 28-year-old deputy-chief engineer from an industrial town.
George’s humdrum life turns upside down after he accidentally witnesses the murder of a famous football goalkeeper. The only eye witness to the sensational murder, George’s life find new meaning through his romantic obsession with the murder that leads him onto a perilous journey.
19. The Lighthouse | Robert Eggers | Psychological Horror
What? What? What?
What? What? What? What?
What? What? What? What? What? What? What? What?
What? What? What? What? What? What? What? What? What? What? What?
You contradict that this ain’t the best romantic film of the year, yer a twat.
18. One Child Nation | Nanfu Wang | Documentary
Most of the developing countries face acute economic problems due to population explosion, and when Thanos revealed his agenda of wiping out half of the population, you might have thought, even for an ephemeral moment, he was right.
Nanfu Wang’s One Child Nation, based on strict One-Child Policy in China, is part investigative journalism and part personal journey that lay bare open the ramification of the brutal ‘One Child’ policy that left an emotional scar on millions of people, and left their lives skewed forever, for worst. It doesn’t end here, Nanfu exposes how the second child, if born, was handed over to the orphanages for international adoption that, in turn, had its own issues.
17. Comets | Tamar Shavgulidze | Romantic Drama
Tamar Shavgulidze’s sophomore film ‘Comets’ (2019) unfurls at an unhurried pace in airy, pastoral villa, like an indolent and languid life in the idyllic countryside of Georgia. The time feels suspended in the lush green backyard as if the forthcoming drama would crumble under its weight. The sound of still air, of insects and birds, appear vivid.
Even at a modest running length of 70 mins, Shavgulidze languorously let the past of two teenagers trickle into the narrative without frantically opening it up to establish the intensity of their torrid affair. She indulges in long pauses, aching silences and leisure moments to make aware of the characters, the conflict, and their boundless love. Read our complete review from TIFF.
16. Honeyland | Ljubomir Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska | Documentary
Winner of Grand Jury Prize for best documentary at this year’s Sundance Film Festival (alongside Best Cinematography Award & Special Jury Award), Macedonian film-makers’ Ljubomir Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska’s Honeyland (2019) tells the moving ethnographic tale of a lone beekeeper and her perfect communion with nature.
It is an affecting, poignant and beautiful documentary about the last female bee-hunter in Europe and her delicate relationship with nature. The only conversation with her ailing mother is heartwarming but melancholic too. Even the flickering light of the candle couldn’t swallow the sadness spread in every corner of her hut.
15. For Sama | Waad Al-Kateab, Edward Watts | Documentary
Documentary films are tricky. If not done with utmost honesty, it could feel like propaganda. Waad Al Kateab “For Sama” comes directly from the horror of living in the city that could turn into ashes any moment. It captures the horror of Russian bombing in the Aleppo city (SYRIA) with shells, chlorine gas, bombs, cluster bombs. A local woman calls it “the bombing soap opera.”
But the honesty comes from the motive behind filming such horrendous act that could put humanity to shame – a melancholic apologizing letter to her daughter explaining the ecosystem she is born in. There are films that move you, that make you emotional, leave a lump in your throat, but how you respond to a film that not only question the existence of humanity but put it to the shame.
But “For Sama” is not all bleak, it has parts filled with hope and perseverance. The film in itself is a sombre love letter to Waad’s daughter Sama.
14. House of Hummingbird | Bora Kim | Coming of Age
In her feature debut, Bora Kim tells an intimate and delicate tale of a lonely and whimsical eighth-grader Eunhee (Ji-hu Park). She deliberately slows down the pace of narration for nuanced observation of the Korean culture and marginally reduced the role of women in society.
Eunhee is trying to navigate life through her dysfunctional family, abusive brother and her bullies in school while figuring out her place in the society. Bora Kim presents an honest and poignant take on youth, filled with warm cinematography from Gook-hyun and introduces a powerhouse performance from the young Ji-hu Park. Read the complete review of House of Hummingbird.
13. Queen of hearts | May el Toukhy | Drama
May el Toukhy’s Dutch drama ‘Queen of hearts’ bold narrative harbours illicit desire and forbidden love which when threatened translates to a nasty outcome where a winner loses everything. Anne (played remarkably by Trine Dyrholm who imparts vulnerability and power with acute charm) is a successful lawyer, living an affluent life with her physician husband Peter (Magnus Krepper) in a tasteful home.
Their mundane but comfortable life experiences uneasy strain after Peter’s troubled son Gustav (Gustav Lindh) starts living with them. Anne, who works on teenagers abuse cases, does something unimaginable that morally and legally corrupt her inside out. It’s an uncomfortable film that further blurs the ethical and moral lines by the end of it.
12. A Hidden Life | Terrence Malick | Drama
As envisioned and realised by Terrence Malick, A Hidden Life is a meditative & lyrical biopic questioning the ethos and morality that transcends beyond the confines of 174 mins running length and an individual’s struggle not to succumb to hate. The rise of hatred and violence in Germany compels Franz (August Diehl), a modest farmer married to the love of his life, to take conscience and moral stand that throws his life downward-spiral. He refuses to take the oath of allegiance to Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich, that could mean execution.
11. The Irishman | Martin Scorsese | Crime Drama
It’s a wet dream for any cinephile to see Martin Scorsese in his usual element, but taking a less travelled path, and making a gloomy, elegiac gangster drama that reflects regrets and poor choices with an underlying mournful tone to it. The sprawling narrative is rich in detail, enthralling and awe-inspiring, and the dream cast makes it impossible to even blink once in its 210 mins running length. The last hour of the film is cathartic and moving in a way no other Scorsese film is.
10. The Souvenir | Joanna Hogg | Drama
Unlike several tragic romantic movies dealing emphatically with the whole conundrum of a toxic relationship, British film-maker Joanna Hogg’s ‘The Souvenir’ feels like an aching silence that echoes in eternity. Joanna Hogg is in complete command of her craft; nothing in the film feels contrived or obvious. The writing is a masterclass. It’s restrained and often subtle to misunderstand it for abstract narrative.
It’s the story of the baffling toxic relationship Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), a young girl studying in a film school, had with a charismatic, manipulative Anthony (Tom Burke), a middle-aged man working in a Foreign Office. Anthony wears thin air of mystery throughout the film effortlessly. He gives Julie undivided attention and intently listens to the story of her film project. He takes a keen interest in her story, challenges her ideas, questions her constantly about the story, the reality of it, and the characters. Though he reeks of arrogance, there’s an undeniable charm & gravitas to him.
Julie, the innocent and gentle loving with no opinion of herself, falls head over heels with Anthony. She surrenders herself to the relationship. Her naivety becomes apparent when she couldn’t understand the needle scar in the arms of Anthony. Even when a cocky acquaintance asks her outright what she is doing with a habitual heroin user, she doesn’t get it. Their relationship starts showing cracks as the mystery around Anthony gets deepen. It reaches to the point to threaten her dream of making the film. Anthony shows toxic behaviour, yet Julie is helplessly seduced by him.
Joanna Hogg avoids the usual tropes of portraying the toxic relationships. She doesn’t indulge in unwarranted camera movements, no display of loud behaviour to assert the development of an abusive relationship. A lot of drama happens offscreen but don’t misunderstand it for the weakness as the full-blown honesty ‘The Souvenir’ brims with would take you by surprise. The inconspicuous sharp edges would leave your soul trembling.
9. Portrait of a Lady on Fire | Céline Sciamma| Romance
It’s a tormenting, tragic love story that is spun out of the fabric of Orpheus and Eurydice, set in the 18th century at Brittiany Coast. An employed painter, Marianne (Noémie Merlant), believes that love is a fleeting emotion while her subject Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) has never tasted it. The growing discord over solitude, Milan, marriage and love while strolling on the beach, they inexorably fill the contours with an impossible love that could only survive in memories. It’s a poetic choice, as Marianne explains why Orpheus turns to see Eurydice behind him, not a lover’s choice.
8. Beanpole | Kantemir Balagov | War Drama
Unlike a lot of other PTSD drama, especially the American films, that overtly lay bare the psychological and physical consequences of war, and starting over the life from scratch, Beanpole avoids the genre trope to offer a subtle, inward experience that is overwhelmingly melancholic but not hopeless.
Only in his second film, Kantemir Balagov – who studied under prolific filmmaker Alexander Sokurov, displays a matured command over his direction and writing that is restrained having a strong undercurrent of disturbing brutality and shock. For such a piercing subject matter, he neither romanticises with miserabilism nor slips in a contrived subplot to pull the heartstrings. Read our complete review.
7. Alles Ist Gut | Eva Trobisch | Drama
Alles Ist Gut is a heart-wrenching masterclass on thinking in textures. Artfully restrained, incredibly acted and masterfully edited, Alles Ist Gut would leave you trembling. The film-maker from East Berlin, Eva Trobisch weaves a mature narrative having psychological complexity that would leave its audience distressed. And it is her debut feature film. Her approach on the complex subject is intimate and elementary, hence it strikes much deeper in the conscience of the audience. ‘Alles ist Gut’ is a portrait of a strong woman brought to quivering by a tumble of emotions, from outrage and shame to anger, that is left with nowhere to go. We stay, clenched with her, to the last. Continue reading our review of Alles Ist Gut.
Alles Ist Gut featured in our list of The Best Netflix Movies of 2019
6. I Was at Home, But | Angela Schanelec | Surreal
It could also be the most divisive film on the list. Schanelec is often referred to as Berliner Schule auteur. She discards the traditional narrative structure and typical character sketch, and merely use them as a secondary tool to makes us observe and experience at the moment which is ever-changing.
“I Was at Home, But” is a sombre mood piece puzzle. It calls for complete submission into its spiritual arc that often communicates through the cold but moving poetic visuals and strong subtext probing deep into the psychology of the characters. Read the complete review of the film from the Berlin Film Festival.
5. Pain and Glory | Pedro Almodóvar | Drama
Confronting his own past in this elegiac, meditative meta-narrative film, Pedro Almodovar blends in the autobiographical elements with fiction having a meta-protagonist – filmmaker Salvador played by Banderas, suffering from artist block, drowned in regrets and guilt.
Salvador recounts his childhood memories in a hope to find peace and salvation from his tragic present-state that leaves him immovable, physically and emotionally. Banderas brings the required gravitas of an auteur filmmaker that he was once and the emotional frailty of a washed-up writer at present.
4. So Long, My Son | Wang Xiaoshuai | Drama
By the time we weep past the second act, the thick air of despondency and sadness fills you with insurmountable pain that won’t ease til the end. The seeping melancholia will consume you, wretch you, such is the film. Wang Xiaoshuai pulls this off without a hint of melodrama or contrived nature of storytelling. “So long, My Son” chronicles the biting journey of two families full of miseries & disappointments, from the period of adoption of one-child policy to the present day. The film opens with a tragedy that defines the two neighbouring families. One family coping with the loss of their only son and the other family carrying the terrible burden of guilt. As time decays, the emotional wound turns sore. When the guilt is unburdened, forgiveness becomes impossible.
3. Lara | Jan-Ole Gerster | Drama
Lara is a beautiful and successful woman who has everything but the shocker opening scene of her attempting to commit suicide says a different story. Over the period of one day, director Jan-Ole Gerster gives us a profound insight into the personal life of Lara to understand for the shocking opening scene.
We learn about her restrained relationship with his son, her bitter divorce and unaccepting mother. But what is even more confounding is a small revelation by once Lara’s music teacher that changed her life forever. The greatest accomplishment comes to those who risk humiliation at the cost of scathing criticism.
2. Sorry We Missed You | Ken Loach | Social-Drama
Ken Loach, in his latest film ‘Sorry We Missed You’, examines the far-reaching consequences of the shifting economy in the lives of English working-class people that ultimately benefit the capitalists. Ken Loach has been an active political voice of working-class through his cinema, and “Sorry We Missed You” further solidifies his position as an artist who brings the grievances of working-class, and shows how the fractured political and economic system leeches on the voiceless.
The film is a didactic eye-opener, that in spite of giving a perspective from a family and neglecting how popular contractual-gigs are among millennials, it works because it shows the long term adverse effect of celebrating the popular gig-economy.
1. Marriage Story | Noah Baumbach | Drama
Noah Baumbach’s incisive and searing drama about love and parting away is written with an extra ounce of compassion that makes it endearing & hopeful. Baumbach throws the ace card in its opening sequence where Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlet Johansson) in a montage read out each other’s qualities that they fell for to ensure we don’t judge them and choose our sides for the flaws they show while their life derails.
Ironically titled, Noah, implicitly examines what makes the marriage work in the first place and explicitly observes the absurdities and ugliness of it falling apart. Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story leaves us with a pertinent question, if marriage is the first step towards divorce, is divorce an end of a relationship?