It’s humbling to realize that out of the twenty films I’ve selected as the finest of the year, only a small handful have received a wide theatrical release. Such is the plight of great cinema in the era of Marvel blockbusters and increasingly competitive streaming channels. If you are lucky enough to experience any of the below titles on a big screen with an engaged audience (as I have in many cases), you will be reminded of how the communal experience provided by theaters is one half of the whole show. As grateful as I am to Netflix for financing creative endeavors that major studios have failed to support, my hope is that they will reserve a portion of their towering wealth for efforts designed to keep the practice of public moviegoing alive, even if it means opening their own theater chains. Either way, the show must go on!
With that said, here is the first half of my list ranking the Top 20 Films of 2019, eight of which were directed by women, including my #1 pick. One of these pictures also hasn’t received distribution, yet it is easily one of the most essential cinematic works I’ve had the privilege of experiencing in 2019, and quite frankly, what’s the purpose of my platform as a critic if not to champion titles deserving of an audience? After all, that has always been my mission at Indie Outlook as well as RogerEbert.com, and I look forward to continue shining a light on great films in the years to come. Without further ado, here are ten of them…
20. Knives Out
Following the racist backlash endured by newcomer Kelly Marie Tran during the release of her polarizing and positively excellent 2017 blockbuster, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” it seems only appropriate that the film’s director, Rian Johnson, would follow it up with a biting satire about white privilege cloaked in the guise of a whodunit. With his playful and meticulously crafted script, Johnson succeeds more than practically anyone ever has in making an Agatha Christie-inspired ensemble piece translate to film with its wit and suspense intact. Like John Gillerman’s “Death on the Nile,” which unforgettably paired Bette Davis with Maggie Smith, this seriocomic mystery is howlingly funny at least half of the time. Daniel Craig shines as Benoit Blanc, a pleasingly un-Bond-like detective with a southern drawl and penchant for delivering dizzying monologues about doughnuts, yet it is Ana de Armas who dominates the picture as its unlikely heroine. She plays Marta, the devoted caregiver of famed novelist Harlan (Christopher Plummer, as magnetic as ever at age 89), who’s found with his throat slit, making his large family of greedy eccentrics—including Michael Shannon, Jamie Lee Curtis and Toni Collette—all prime suspects. This is a richly enjoyable treat from its hilarious pre-title opener to its absolutely perfect, richly satisfying final shot.
19. The Distant Barking of Dogs
Simon Lereng Wilmont’s documentary is one of those miracles of nonfiction cinema where the camera seems to be hovering like a ghost in the presence of its subjects, never noticeably intruding on the action or drawing attention to itself, even as danger encroaches on the horizon. Set in the small Ukrainian village of Hnutove, located a mile from the front lines of a seemingly unending battle between government forces and pro-Russian separatists, the film centers on 10-year-old Oleg, an endearing soul with a face that appears to have been lifted from Norman Rockwell’s easel. With his parents both gone, he lives with his beloved grandmother, Alexandra, who insists on remaining in their longtime family home even as neighbors flee to safety and missiles threaten to obliterate them at any moment. The illusion of safety is what all parents and guardians desire to craft like a mental cocoon for their children, and this mighty grandma has gone to great lengths to block out the nightmares for Oleg and Jarik, from wallpapering the house with transporting images of tranquil forests to singing nightly lullabies as nearby explosions cause the walls to shudder. Yet she is also choosing to live in denial, staving off the inevitable. It’s only a matter of time before the distant, bloodthirsty dogs are perched on their doorstep.
Pippa Bianco’s debut feature is anchored by its mesmerizing central performance from Rhianne Barreto, who draws us in even as she keeps her feelings to herself, avoiding any move that could brand her as the object of attention. Barreto plays Mandy, a 16-year-old who awakens on the lawn outside her house, after a night of heavy drinking with various classmates. She goes about her typical daily routine until an iPhone video begins circulating online, showing her lying unconscious with her pants pulled down, while surrounded by a group of chuckling guys. The film soon proves to be a deeply haunted one as Mandy’s world grows smaller. There’s as much palpable tension in this story as in any thriller, with Bianco heightening Mandy’s disorientation in numerous inventive ways. After the teen’s friendly chat with a sensitive peer, Dylan (Charlie Plummer), editor Shelby Siegel cuts to one of the ants that have wandered into the house. This visual linkage between the ant and Dylan accentuates how he serves as an embodiment of the outside world that Mandy yearns to rejoin, even if it requires her to look beyond certain horrific truths. Scene after scene illustrates how cinema can channel what filmmaker Deborah Kampmeier dubbed “the female experience,” immersing us in the sort of fleeting nuances often left on the cutting room floor.
Whereas “Share” premiered on HBO, Deborah Kampmeier’s fourth feature has yet to make its official festival debut, and is sorely deserving of a proper release. The exceptional Isabelle Fuhrman delivers her most riveting work to date as Pearl, an aspiring actress whose dreams for success are revitalized by the manipulative words of Lux (Tarek Bishara), a predator-in-director’s clothing. He spouts empty, authoritative terms — “Sprezzatura! Claim your power!” — like a shield, clouding the air with white noise as a diversion from his true intentions. When he gets Pearl alone in a room with him for what he promises will be the filming of a career-launching audition tape, Lux insidiously places the blame on his intended victim, causing her to feel as if she must prove herself by having sex with him. What neither of them know is that the room has been secretly fixed with hidden cameras by one of the man’s previous targets, Rosa (Annarosa Mudd), who intends on utilizing the footage to take him down. Just as Jennifer Fox’s “The Tale,” a movie also co-starring Bishara, found an ingenious method for its filmmaker to reexamine her forgotten memories of abuse while interrogating her childhood self, this film allows Rosa to peer into her own past by observing Pearl, and eventually rescuing her from the prison of unearned shame.
To read my interview with Deborah Kampmeier, Isabelle Fuhrman and Annarosa Mudd at KillerAndASweetThang.com, click here.
16. The Farewell
As elated as I was by the financial success of “Crazy Rich Asians,” and what it meant for an industry that dragged its heels for a quarter-century following the success of “The Joy Luck Club” to release a picture featuring an all-Asian cast, I found the movie itself lacking in dimension. It left me hoping that the film’s box office dominance would lead its actors to receive meatier roles moving forward, and in the case of its scene-stealing comic relief Awkwafina, my wish has already been granted thanks to Lulu Wang’s semi-autobiographical triumph. The versatile comedian displays formidable dramatic chops as Billi, a Chinese-American woman bewildered by her family’s refusal to inform her grandmother (Zhao Shuzhen, a top contender for Best Supporting Actress) of her ailing health. Instead, they contrive a wedding between two painfully awkward youths just so all the relatives can bid their beloved matriarch adieu. This results in some darkly uproarious set-pieces that never manage to undermine the aching bittersweetness at the film’s core. Wang portrays the absurd aspects of these traditions without a hint of condescension, illuminating the primal human desires that fuel them. How wonderful that a picture of this depth and texture played on screens all throughout the country this year, thanks to leading indie distributor A24.
15. Gloria Bell
Shot-by-shot remakes of beloved films are almost always pointless, a truth affirmed by such abominations as Gus Van Sant’s “Psycho” and Jon Favreau’s “The Lion King.” Remaking foreign gems in the English tongue is even more loathsome, since they seem to exist solely for audiences unwilling to read subtitles, despite the fact that iPhones have caused our eyes to practice the art of multitasking on a daily basis. Sebastián Lelio’s remake of his own 2013 Chilean gem, “Gloria,” is the rare exception, in part because its universal premise could be potentially placed in any culture, and in part because the impeccable ensemble he’s gathered bring fresh layers of nuance and humor to every scene, proving that there are multiple ways to interpret a great work of art a la “A Christmas Carol,” provided the artists are skilled enough to do it justice. Julianne Moore gives one of the most luminous performances of her career as the film’s titular fifty-something heroine who’s still on the lookout for love in the years following her divorce. Love blossoms between her and Arnold (John Turturro) on the dance floor, yet his personal life is a cautionary tale of codependency, leading her to bluntly urge the man to “grow a pair.” The picture’s inevitable yet unexpected final moments are as cathartic and rejuvenating as anything I’ve seen on the big screen this year.
14. Memory: The Origins of ‘Alien’
I have long believed that video essays are as valid and rewarding a form of film analysis as anything achieved by the written word, yet documentarian Alexandre O. Philippe has taken the art form to a whole new level of authorship in his two most recent directorial efforts. The title of his 2017 film “78/52” juxtaposed the number of shots that comprise Hitchcock’s game-changing shower scene in 1960’s “Psycho” with the slim number of seconds that it lasts onscreen. This sequence tore through the very fabric of American identity and culture, setting the tone for what would be a volatile decade of change. There’s no question that there are multiple parallels that can be drawn between “Psycho” and Ridley Scott’s 1979 horror classic “Alien,” not just in regards to their most notoriously violent moments. Whereas Mother Bates’ stabbing of Marion is lensed like a rape, with the phallic knife penetrating its nude victim, the chest-burster scene in Scott’s film features a phallic alien exploding out of a man’s body (one of the film’s stars, Veronica Cartwright, likened the creature to “a penis with teeth”). Though Philippe’s new film never touches upon these connections, it does provide spectacular insight into the profundity of “Alien”’s artistry, from H.R. Giger’s visionary sexualized imagery to Ripley’s rousing reclamation of female power. It’s catnip for movie lovers.
To read my interview with Veronica Cartwright, click here.
The oft-parodied scene in Sam Mendes’ debut feature, “American Beauty,” in which a young man gazes tearfully at footage he filmed of a floating bag, observing how it magnifies the vastness of beauty in the world, is emblematic of the director’s approach. Even in a Bond picture like “Skyfall,” Mendes loves holding on an image in order to watch it evolve and take on new meaning before his lens, with two examples being the silhouetted fight scene and Javier Bardem’s eerie monologue he performs while creeping toward the camera. Mendes’ eighth movie, a WW1-era thriller, takes this idea and literally runs with it during the entirety of its two-hour running time, following two young British privates, Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), as they navigate their way through enemy territory in order to deliver an urgent message that will prevent a massacre of soldiers, one of whom happens to be Blake’s brother. Though the film’s premise is evocative of “Saving Private Ryan,” its style is a hybrid of the Dunkirk-set tracking shot in Joe Wright’s “Atonement” and the battle scenes in Nolan’s “Dunkirk,” two pictures where time is of the essence. Utilizing seamless visual trickery spawned from Hitchcock’s “Rope,” Mendes and his frequent cinematographer Roger Deakins make their film appear as if it is unfolding in one unbroken take, and the results are jaw-dropping.
12. The Souvenir
Mike Nichols sought to make films that could be summarized in a single image, and that is precisely what many of the greatest movie posters have done, such as the one for Robert Redford’s “Ordinary People,” where the relationships between its three family members are reflected by how their photographed faces are positioned in a hinged frame. The eyes of the central couple in Joanna Hogg’s stunning tour de force are out of view on her film’s poster, save for their reflection on a mirrored table that comprises its majority. It’s clear that Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne, daughter of Tilda) and Anthony (Tom Burke) are facing opposite directions, yet it is only in their ghostly echoed doppelgängers where we see their faces in full, as the tagline notes that “the past never stays in focus.” Hogg based her film on a formative yet unhealthy relationship she had thirty years prior with an older man that continued to haunt her throughout the decades, and she allowed her unscripted narrative to be informed not by precise events but the residue of her memories. David Raedeker’s cinematography makes endlessly intriguing use of reflective surfaces, underlining how the actors themselves embody alternative views of Hogg’s own experiences. Like Margaret Qualley and Maya Hawke, Byrne is the offspring of renowned performers who has proven to be a marvelous and singular artist in her own right. Cannot wait for Part II.
After garnering a reputation as one of the most respected critics and programmers in the country, Kent Jones follows up his previous four documentaries (the first three co-directed by Martin Scorsese) with his first narrative feature, and cements his status as a filmmaker of the highest order. Though the crestfallen expression of its leading lady, Mary Kay Place, may cause viewers to expect some sort of misanthropic dirge, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Sure, the picture isn’t lacking in uncomfortable moments, yet it also delivers some of the biggest laughs in recent cinema, some of which arrive late in the game courtesy of Jake Lacy as the drug-addled son of Diane (Place), whom she is trying to rescue despite his seeming disinterest in his own fate. There are demons in Diane’s own past that she’s attempting to ward off by performing good deeds throughout her daily routine, while yearning to acquire some semblance of peace. The cast is loaded with amazing women such as Andrea Martin, Estelle Parsons, Deirdre O’Connell, Phyllis Somerville and even Danielle Ferland, who originated the role of Little Red Riding Hood in “Into the Woods,” yet this is Place’s film, through and through, and she is sensational. As time leaps forward without warning, rendering many of its characters a cherished memory, the film builds to a death scene unlike any I’ve experienced: sudden, poignant and oddly comforting. What a magical movie.
Stay tuned for #10-1 in Part II of this list.