One of the most controversial movies of the year, “Joker” did two impossible things: it became the first superhero movie to win the prestigious Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival and it brought us a new version of the emblematic villain that managed to live up to Heath Ledger’s iconic performance while at the same time being its own thing. Oh, and it also proved Todd Phillips (“The Hangover”) to be a competent filmmaker – even if taking inspiration from Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” when constructing the film’s narrative and visual style.
But it’s Joaquin Phoenix’s transformative performance that raised the movie from good to great. Phoenix shined as Arthur Fleck, the mentally troubled party clown and aspiring stand-up comedian who succumbs to violence and embraces the Joker alter-ego.
9. Marriage Story
Unlike its ironic title makes you believe, Noah Baumbach’s latest film is the story of a divorce more than anything else.
“Marriage Story” stars Adam Driver and Scarlett Johannson as a couple of New Yorkers whose relationship is about to end. Driver’s character, Charlie Barber, is a successful theatre director who is currently producing a play that stars his wife Nicole, a former teen movie actress. The two of them have a young son called Henry and we are first introduced two their family through a somewhat misleading first scene.
The film starts with a voiced-over montage in which the two spouses tell (the audience?) what they like about each other. This scene makes you believe you are about to watch a love story, but as soon as it ends, we find out that what we heard so far were lists written by Nicole and Charlie for a counselor they are seeing because of their marital problems. But Nicole is not happy with how the counseling goes on and she angrily leaves the mediator’s office, feeling that he is biased towards her husband. In fact, we are witnessing the story of a love’s end.
Then the film proceeds to show us the complicated thing that a divorce is (even an amicable one) and we see the main characters go through each of its steps, from meeting lawyers to going to court, battling for their child, dealing with a custody evaluator and so on. But all of these things are presented in a very humane way and the film never becomes a courtroom drama, neither too melodramatic.
As for the performances, Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson are phenomenal and their work in this film was deservedly much lauded. As with most of the characters in Baumbach films, Charlie and Nicole feel like real people with little quirks, anxieties, and complex personalities. However, the unsung stars from “Marriage Story” are Laura Dern, Alan Arda, and Ray Liotta, who steal the scenes as three lawyers who help the couple with their divorce case.
In the end, “Marriage Story” is another great entry to Noach Baumbach’s catalogue and his most personal to date (Baumbach himself went through a divorce with actress Jennifer Jason Leigh, with whom he has a son together). And while it doesn’t have a script better than “The Squid And The Whale” and isn’t charismatic as “Frances Ha”, “Marriage Story” is – while not the best – the most mature film of his career.
8. Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood
Who thought that Tarantino can be this good even when he is not trying to be Tarantino?
Similar in scope with 2009’s “Inglourious Basterds”, “Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood” is a film that tries to rewrite history and come up with a what-if scenario that offers a happier alternative to one of the darkest moments in Hollywood’s golden age.
Mostly lacking Tarantino’s signature style, the film perfectly recreates the atmosphere of the 1960’s Hollywood through the eyes of Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), an aging actor who is facing a midlife crisis, and Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), his longtime stunt double. The two partners ultimately intersect with Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), the real-life actress who was married to Roman Polanski and whose life and career was cut short on August 9, 1969 by members of the infamous Manson Family.
While this is not the best entry in Tarantino’s catalogue, the film’s great direction and cinematography, amazing set design, strong performances, and memorable ending make it one of the most enjoyable experiences we had at the cinema in 2019.
7. Little Women
Greta Gerwig’s follow-up to “Lady Bird” acts as the 8th film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 classic novel of the same name and features a dazzling cast which includes Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Timothée Chalamet, Meryl Streep, Laura Dern, Chris Cooper, and Bob Odenkirk – we’ve told you it’s impressive.
Jumping back and forth between timelines, “Little Women” tells the coming-of-age story of four sisters in the post-Civil War America who try to make their way in life. Featuring an award-worthy performance from Saoirse Ronan and striking a perfect balance between joy and sadness, Greta Gerwig’s film is a thoughtful adaptation of its 150-year-old source material, but at the same time a modern and relatable movie for a new generation of viewers.
Filmed to appear as one continuous shot, Sam Mendes’ “1917” is one of the most impressive war movies of the 21st century and a remarkable technical achievement.
The movie follows two soldiers (George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman) who are sent across enemy lines to send an urgent message that will result in saving the lives of 1,600. Despite its straightforward story, “1917” manages to be one of the most intense films we’ve seen in 2019, and this is mostly due to the way it was shot.
With Roger Deakins handling the cinematography, there is no surprise that “1917” looks gorgeous, but what he achieved here is remarkable even for his standards. Designing the film to look this way must have been a huge challenge and the results speak for themselves: this is one of the most enthralling war movies we’ve ever seen and for its entire length we felt as being part of the experience.
But the film does great in every other aspect too. The production design and costumes are excellent, the two lead performances from MacKay and Chapman are engrossing and genuine, and the pacing is perfect, with something new always happening and forcing us to keep our eyes glued to the screen for the entire runtime.
5. Portrait Of A Lady On Fire
“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” takes place in 18th century France and tells the story of Marianne, a female painter hired to paint the wedding portrait of Héloïse, a young woman who is about to get married to a man she doesn’t love. But despite the century’s customs, the woman doesn’t want to have her portrait painted, so Marianne has to secretly make her portrait by memory. During the day, she is following her and quietly analyzing her features, while at night she paints her by firelight. As the portrait starts to take shape, the two women grow a forbidden love.
With its slow pace and many meditative moments, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” creates a suspenseful feeling of isolation and is spellbinding from the very first frame. It is the kind of film which really connects with its viewer and transcends the screen and this is also due to the fantastic chemistry between its two leads. The film also features one of the 2010s best cinematography (it was shot in 8K) and it might as well rival with “Barry Lyndon” for the top spot in the movies that look like paintings ranking.
4. Pain And Glory
Antonio Banderas gives a career-best performance in this bittersweet semi-autobiographical drama directed by Spanish cineaste Pedro Almodóvar.
The film intertwines childhood memories with later life experiences and present-day events from the life of Salvador Mallo, a fictional film director who struggles with problems related to his aging, declining creative success and troubled personal life.
Mallo, who is played to perfection by Antonio Banderas and based on Almodóvar himself, reunites with Alberto, an actor who starred in one of his early films. The two discuss the upcoming release of the film’s remastered version and get high on heroin, which causes Mallo to recollect the days of his childhood, living with his mother (Penélope Cruz) and father (Raúl Arévalo) in a modest cave house in 1960s Paterna.
This is one of the most intimate character studies/auteur confessions we’ve ever seen. While it is a pretty laid back film, acting less plot-driven and more like a diary, where each entry is a well-chosen moment from the main character’s life, “Pain and Glory” is masterfully crafted and never feels dull for one second.
With 2011’s “The Skin I Live In”, 2016’s “Julieta” and, of course, “Pain of Glory”, it is impressive how many great films Almodóvar managed to add to his body of work in this past decade.
3. The Lighthouse
Directed by Robert Eggers, whose debut film “The Witch” (2015) was a critical success and one of the best horror films of the 2010s, “The Lighthouse” revolves around two lighthouse keepers from the 1890s (played by Robert Pattinson and William Dafoe) who live alone on a remote island. When after a storm they find themselves stuck together in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by alcohol, pouring rain, screeching seagulls and mysterious appearances, the two men slowly start to lose their sanity.
Reminiscent of “The Shining”, this is a slow-burn cabin fever type of horror film. Instead of the all-too-familiar jumpscares and gore, “The Lighthouse” builds its atmosphere of dread with a maddening soundtrack, menacing visuals, indecipherable mythos, and last but not least, the two ferocious performances from Pattinson and Dafoe.
“The Lighthouse” is also one of the best-looking films of the year and an ode to the cinema of the 1930s. The film was shot on black and white 35mm film in the nearly square Academy aspect ratio and it looks as if it was filmed in the early days of cinema by pioneers such as Fritz Lang and G.W. Pabst. The unique cinematography combined with the powerhouse performances from its two leads and the masterful direction and hallucinatory script from Eggers place “The Lighthouse” as the best horror movie of 2019 and one of the biggest cinematographic achievements of the last decade.
2. Uncut Gems
Who would have thought that one of the best movies of 2019 would star Adam Sandler as its lead character?
Adam Sandler has proved himself to be a good actor when in the hands of the right director (his work in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Punch-Drunk Love” and Noah Baumbach’s “The Meyerowitz Stories” come to mind), but his role in The Safdie brothers’ movie is probably a career-high.
Here, Sandler gives one of the year’s best performances as Howard Ratner, a Jewish-American who owns a jewelry store in New York City and has an eccentric temperament. After getting in over his head with some money and jewelry loans and angering the people he works with, Howard finds himself in a hard to escape situation that seems to go from bad to worse.
Similar to their previous film “Good Time”, The Safdies’ new movie is yet another fast-paced, funny, entertaining and anxiety-inducing thriller that takes place over a short amount of time and grabs your attention from start to end. It is one of our favorites of the year and we will go as far as saying is the best film the two directors have made so far.
A perfect example of genre mixing, Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite” is a drama, comedy, thriller and social commentary film all at the same time.
The film became an unexpected hit, grossing over 123$ million worldwide, and was also a critics’ favorite. Bong Joon-ho, whose previous works include “Memories of Murderer”, “Snowpiercer”, “The Host” or “Okja”, has earned the Palme d’Or award with this film, thus becoming the first Korean director to win the prestigious award.
The story in “Parasite” starts from a simple yet inventive premise: the Ki-taeks are a poor family of four who devises a plan to get work and tricks the Kims – a much wealthier family – into getting rid of their current servants and employing them by posing as unrelated, highly-skilled workers. But later in the film, they discover that the trick is on them and the Kims’ ex-employees had secrets of their own.
Bong Joon-ho broke the line between popcorn flick and arthouse movie. “Parasite” is a highly entertaining box-office hit, but at the same time a very serious piece of cinema and it never ceased to amaze us with its impressive cinematography, camerawork, clever script and underlying social commentary.