Comparing her former life inside a convent to being forced into a hastily arranged marriage, the reluctant bride in the gripping period romance Portrait of a Lady on Fire expresses a preference for the nunnery. At the convent, she argues, she had use of a library, and she could sing and hear beautiful music. Pausing, she adds, “And equality is a pleasant feeling.” No truer words were spoken on-screen in this final year of the 2010s.
The struggle is real, in movies and in every corner of the world, to understand what it means to feel equal, free, united. Everybody wants to experience some measure of liberty and happiness, whether they’re a Lady on Fire or Elton John, an Avenger or a Jellicle Cat. Let’s call it a theme, though, not a mood — because cinematic superheroes and outlaws in 2019 confronted the struggle for equality with strength and sacrifice, with song and dance, with sex and maturity, but none of them in exactly the same fashion, except memorably.
10: Queen & Slim
Queen & Slim
Before they’re stopped by a police officer who assaults them, Queen and Slim had both stood up in their own ways for equal justice. But from that night forward, neither one trusts in equal justice in the eyes of the law, not for black and brown kids. So they go on the run, and their flight becomes a cause, and this folk-hero thriller, written by Lena Waithe and directed by Melina Matsoukas, shrewdly complicates matters by having the pair double-down as criminals, relying on criminals to attain their freedom and a dose of justice. Maybe the world doesn’t owe Queen and Slim further justice beyond infamy and their indelible bond, portrayed with elegance and humility by Jodie Turner-Smith and Daniel Kaluuya. Armed and determined, the film’s photogenic twosome will be remembered for standing their ground and not just taking shots.
9: Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Portrait of a Lady On Fire
Writer-director Céline Sciamma’s women-in-love feature wants to look like a painting, and it does so beautifully, due in part to the windswept island scenery and to the talents of cinematographer Claire Mathon (Stranger By the Lake). Set in 1760s France, this 2019 Cannes Best Screenplay winner also means to capture the shifting dynamics between painter Marianne (Noémie Merlant) and her subject Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), between the voyeur and the viewed. Sciamma’s spare pas de deux earns its prizes, as Marianne and Héloïse’s slow-burning romance portrays, with flush familiarity, how falling in love both pins the women down and sets them free.
8: End of the Century
End of the Century — Photo: Cinema Guild
On being constrained by a perceived lack of choices, or flying gloriously free, Lucio Castro’s time-shifting love story speaks eloquently, and with more raw sex appeal than just about any 2019 big screen release. Carnal passions are, of course, judged on a personal scale, as are the concepts of freedom and compromise contemplated by wandering Ocho (Juan Barberini) and the seemingly more stable Javi (Ramon Pujol), who meet, then meet again, in this sublime, Barcelona-set fantasy of finding a path to abundance regardless of which path you choose.
A movie is onto something when, scene after scene, it evokes the electric, excruciating tension of glimpsing a brief, bared moment of someone else’s most private self. That tension surfaces consistently in Trey Edward Shults’ drama, starring Sterling K. Brown, Taylor Russell, Renée Elise Goldsberry, and Kelvin Harrison, Jr., as a suburban black family struggling towards success without compromise, and spinning out of control. In turn, Shults sends the camera spinning, from Florida beaches and bayside bonfires, to the scene of a sudden and devastating crime, amid a lush pop/rock soundtrack and formidable performances that propel the film’s high-wire first half into the tender, reflective second half, completing the well-crafted rollercoaster ride to redemption.
6: Avengers: Endgame
In 2019, what movie was more movie than Avengers: Endgame? The culmination of over a decade’s worth of Marvel/Disney’s global box office-dominating mythmaking, the all-heroes-on-deck epic made a case that size does matter — although you’ve still got to nail the rhythm. As sibling directors Joe & Anthony Russo proved before (and again) orchestrating the far-flung intrigue of 2018 hit Avengers: Infinity War, they and their team have mastered pacing multiple tracks of effects-driven action and multi-verse melodrama on a massive scale. Yet, eclipsing all the spectacle — and contrary to the opinions of some Marvel detractors — the film’s characters cut through the CGI to register affecting authenticity, leading generations of fans towards a hopeful vision of peace. And the next phase of Marvel movies.
5: Pain & Glory
Pain and Glory — Photo: Sony Pictures Classics
Hopefully not the endgame, but still the culmination of a lofty film franchise, Pedro Almodóvar’s cheeky, subversive, and appealingly mellow masterpiece makes excellent use of Pedro film history, while telling the fresh and compelling story of fictional cinema maestro Salvador Mallo. As Salvador finds himself getting older much faster than he’d like, Almodóvar addresses aging from fascinating angles, particularly by casting his early movie muse Antonio Banderas as the creatively blocked sexagenarian director. Banderas has never been better, and Almodóvar’s work has rarely hit more honestly on how hard it is to maintain an audience’s interest, or a superstar artist’s pace.
4: The Farewell
The Farewell — Photo: Big Beach
Lulu Wang’s delightful second feature addresses aging predominantly from its Millennial heroine’s view of her elderly grandmother and aunt. Specifically rooted in the Chinese culture of lead character Billi’s often disapproving family, the laugh-out-loud funny film wields a universal power to make viewers fall in love with every one of her nutty relatives. Crazy, Rich Asians breakout Awkwafina bridges Billi’s New York City upbringing and her sincere respect for tradition, with woke feminism and a tear-jerking devotion to the woman who forms the backbone of their family.
3: Amazing Grace
Photo: Amazing Grace, LLC
What a friend we had in Aretha Franklin. Such powerful human emotion flowed through the music and voice of the Queen of Soul, captured in this breathtaking documentary film, shot in 1972, of Franklin recording the eponymous best-selling gospel album. Over two nights, the singer blew the roof off L.A.’s New Bethel Baptist Church, before an audience that included Amazing Grace co-director Sydney Pollack, a low-key Mick Jagger, and Aretha’s proud papa, the esteemed Reverend C.L. Franklin, who praises her “intangible something that’s hard to describe.” Her gifts are not so hard to describe after watching the lady bring the crowd to their feet again and again, finally taking us all to church now that this long-unfinished treat at last has graced the screen.
Does cinema provocateur Gaspar Noé (Irreversible) fear immigrants, or cultural diversity, or maybe just black people? It’s hard to tell, and hard not to wonder, watching the filmmaker’s indescribably intense dance horror drama, set in a remote, snowbound school where a troupe of dancers rehearse and relax, until a party bowl of acid-laced punch sends the voguing, breaking ensemble beyond the edge of sanity. Noé, an immigrant himself as a native Argentinian based in France, stages a show-stopping musical number right off the top, featuring dancers of various racial and ethnic backgrounds, representing different nationalities, genders, and sexual orientations. The film evinces a respect for queer kids, club kids, and the hip-hop generation in every beat of its thumping, house music-heavy soundtrack. But once that high drops, and the party turns sinister, the troupe divides into clear camps of villains and victims. Whether Noé is confessing, or merely pointing out, a certain fear of globalization, he ultimately delivers a punchline clever enough to make the whole gut-wrenching journey worthwhile.
George MacKay as Schofield in 1917
Few and precious are film sequences as perfectly effective as, say, Gene Kelly dancing and singing in the rain, or Glenn Close’s defeated Marquise bitterly removing her makeup at the end of Dangerous Liaisons. Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes contributes another to the pantheon in a bravura scene from this triumphant depiction of a perilous World War I mission attempted by two British soldiers. The film, shot and edited to appear as a single, fluid plunge into the muddy trenches and over the deadly fields of war, arrives at a bombed French town through which the soldiers must pass. In the pitch darkness of night, the world falls away, the camera races forward, and bombs bursting overhead punctuate composer Thomas Newman’s stirring score. The mission rests on the shoulders and in the hearts of soldiers who fight to feel and remain free in a film that hits every target within its storytelling aim.
And for good measure, here’s five films from 2019 that missed their mark — some by a bit, some by a mile…
5: High Life
Ambitious in concept, if not in scope or production design, Claire Denis’ space opera stumbles like a wayward drunk over the line between quirky and skeevy in its depiction of a lunatic scientist (Juliette Binoche) experimenting on prisoners (Robert Pattinson and André 3000 among them), in hopes of reproducing human life in space.
4: Escape Room
It seems not exactly fair to brand a low-budget, studio-released teen horror flick as one of the worst of the year. But even by the low, low standards of its dead zone January release date, this mean-spirited number offered scant entertainment or escape.
3: Dark Phoenix
The X-Men film franchise’s second stab at the comics’ legendary Dark Phoenix storyline somehow blew even harder than the first much-maligned attempt, X-Men: The Last Stand.
Credit where credit’s due: they don’t really make thrillers like this Matthew McConaughey-Anne Hathaway dud anymore, those lurid post-Fatal Attraction potboilers headlined by big movie stars seducing each other into bed and murder, generally resulting in some embarrassment for nearly all involved. So…congratulations?
1: The Beach Bum
Heartiest congratulations, however, are reserved for Harmony Korine, impresario of film freakshows Spring Breakers and Gummo, among others, who manages to bring McConaughey in for a second starring spot on this worst list, playing the title character, a wealthy South Florida wastoid who lazes from one dull scenario to another, without being funny, sexy, or interesting — even opposite the talented, but thoroughly misused Isla Fisher.