Every year, we search curiously for movies we love. Often, we miss. I find that I am insufferably dour when it comes to deciding if a given year is a good year for movies up until the very last month, when the Oscar-eligible films come rushing in like the downpour after a drought. This year, we found movies we adored, and we honored some of them here. And when “Joker” wins best picture in February I will only hold this list closer.
— Anish Tamhaney, Daily Film Editor
10. Uncut Gems
To call this film a rollercoaster would be to describe a ride that doesn’t exist. “Uncut Gems” is unlike most other movies you’ll watch in that it doesn’t pause for a moment to give you your bearings, allow you to unpack what is happening or even explain to you what in the world is going on. The movie moves like a firecracker, throwing Adam Sandler (“Punch-Drunk Love”) into all kinds of just-crazy-enough-to-seem-real situations and demanding that the audience stay out of the way. Sandler is an actor unhinged in this sometimes frightening, sometimes funny, always surprising film that doesn’t let you ask any questions, because you simply don’t have the time.
— Ian Harris, Daily Arts Writer
9. The Lighthouse
There’s something otherworldly about Robert Eggers’ second feature. It’s probably the mermaid.
The film works hard to embed its characters in the dramatic circumstances of their prolonged stay out tending the light. When their transport doesn’t arrive on time, time itself begins to bend and break. We’ve got no more clue than they do about how long they’ve been stuck out on the rock.
It’s always a joy to see an artist thrill themselves with the prospects of allegory. To anyone intimately familiar with the Greek myths of Proteus and Prometheus, the characters Willem Defoe and Robert Pattinson respectively play come as refreshing iterations on two age old tales. The risk of such heavy allegory is that it will take the viewer out of their experience. When watching something like Darren Aronofsky’s “Mother!,” it’s hard not to nudge the person beside you in the theater and point at Cain and Abel and the fall. “The Lighthouse” manages its allegory brilliantly, distancing itself enough to feel fresh while still managing to soak up some of the gravitas of the source material.
— Stephen Satarino, Daily Arts Writer
8. Marriage Story
Noah Baumbach has always been an artist interested in separation. His breakout 2004 film “The Squid and the Whale” tells the semi-autobiographical story of two New York City writers’ caustic divorce, their two children hanging in the balance. Films like “Frances Ha” and “The Meyerowitz Stories” deal with the severance of friendships and with serialized isolations. The ways people fall out of relationships and the lasting effects that linger seem to always be at the front of the writer/director’s mind when he’s developing his films. “Marriage Story” is no different.
There’s a tremendous amount of potential energy stored up in a relationship that has passed the point of no return. Two people, once in love — maybe still so — hold the details of the other’s most piercing insecurities and defeats up their sleeves. As Scarlett Johansson’s character Nicole says early in the film, “It’s not just about not being in love anymore.” “Marriage Story” explores what two people are pushed to do and feel and say when life as they know it begins to come apart. The film earns its accolades in its last fifteen minutes with two scenes that show what’s really lost in a divorce, two peoples’ reasons for being alive.
— Stephen Satarino, Daily Arts Writer
There’s this moment in “Midsommar” that stuck with me more than any other. It got memed to hell, so that hasn’t helped me forget the scar of watching it for the first time either. After Florence Pugh’s (“Outlaw King”) Dani discovers her boyfriend (Jack Reynor, “What Richard Did”) participating in a Pagan sex ritual, she returns to her cabin and promptly collapses onto the floor. So her companions from the May Queen celebration gather around her and begin to imitate her agonized wails, in a blood-curlingly hideous chant. Their voices only grow, their breathing in sync; her pain is their pain. Their sobs become cries and their cries become shrieks, ripping violently into a viewer’s ears. It’s cathartic and spine-chilling. “Midsommar” is a movie that horrifies a viewer by literally passing the limits of what they thought could be horrifying. It is anxiety incarnate.
On top of the fertility rites and the carnage and the claustrophobic tone of it all, “Midsommar” is also hilarious. From one perspective, it’s about the worst-case scenario of competing PhD theses gone wrong. Watching Dani’s American companions grapple with the sheer weirdness of the commune is endlessly entertaining. Oh, not to mention Will Poulter (“War Machine”) juuls and broods the entire time.
— Anish Tamhaney, Daily Film Editor
6. The Farewell
“The Farewell,” based on its premise alone, may just be the saddest film of 2019. The film, which follows a young Chinese American woman (Awkwafina, “Crazy Rich Asians”) who is asked by her family to keep her grandmother in the dark about her terminal illness in accordance with traditional Chinese customs, asks painful, emotionally resonant questions about what it means to die and, conversely, what it means to live. Though “The Farewell” is very much centered around non-Western, specifically Chinese perceptions of death, it also reminds us of something universally true: everyone is afraid to die.
Clearly, “The Farewell” is a bit of a downer. But it’s also not a downer at all. In demystifying death, in capturing it with honesty and a complete lack of romanticization, the film reminds us of just how special it is to be alive, and in doing so encourages us to be present, to live as though every day might be our last.
— Elise Godfryd, Senior Arts Editor
5. Jojo Rabbit
Taika Waititi’s “Jojo Rabbit” made me cry. And not just in the theoretical, texting exaggeration sense, but in the very real, sniffling in the theater sense. The film takes the Nazi regime and thinly layers it with moments of comedic relief. The overall effect is an unsettlingly funny exploration of the blind faith of youth.
Aside from its heart wrenching plot and adorable cast, Waititi’s newest film came at an opportune time in American politics. As we enter a new election year, “Jojo Rabbit” highlights the teachable nature of bigotry and racism and gives hope that even those who seem intensely rooted in their belief system can find a way to change.
— Emma Chang, Daily Arts Writer
Actress Olivia Wilde’s (“Richard Jewell) directorial debut is warm and funny, filled with kinetic camerawork and dynamic performances. Beanie Feldstein (“Lady Bird”) and Kaitlyn Dever (“Beautiful Boy”) team up to play Molly and Amy, smart and uptight high school seniors who want to have some fun on their last night before graduation. This pair is the heart and soul of the movie, carrying an infectious energy and love for the other, as well as the kind of lore that can only be built on the back of a decade-long friendship.
However, they are in no way dominant over the movie, and the mini universe the film builds up around them feels just as real and interesting as the protagonists. To watch “Booksmart” is to enter a tight and carefully constructed world, with every ancillary character having a defined personality and a purpose, and every joke well-timed and executed. The teenagers feel real, not like studio-mandated projections, and every space they occupy, from high school to the rich kid’s house to the local pizza parlor, feels lush and well lived-in. “Booksmart” is the very best of what teen movies can do — full of laughs and horribly awkward moments, but also full of love and honesty. It’s hilarious, sweet and tender. There’s no doubt that it will come to join the pantheon of the great high school movies.
— Asif Becher, Daily Arts Writer
3. Knives Out
Rian Johnson’s (“Star Wars: The Last Jedi”) “Knives Out” was one of my 2019 movie highlights. Though it didn’t necessarily go the way I was expecting it to go based on promotional language and trailers, as I expressed in my review of the film, I genuinely enjoyed watching it.
Despite the primary cast member being Daniel Craig (“Casino Royale”) in his role as Benoit Blanc, the stars of the show for me were Ana de Armas’ (“Blade Runner 2049”) Marta Cabrera and Chris Evans’ (“The Avengers”) Ransom Drysdale. De Armas’ portrayal of an innocent and shockingly real character among a family of snobs was heartwarming and Evans’ dedication to a character so unlike Steve Rogers was steadfast, though I’ll admit it was incredibly strange to see him play a jerk after watching him play the golden boy, Captain America, for so many years.
The movie doesn’t play out as the ‘whodunnit’ it was promoted as, at least not by my standards, but even though I was initially slightly annoyed by that, after some time, I was able to appreciate the movie for what it was: not necessarily an Agatha Christie-esque enclosed murder mystery and ‘whodunnit,’ but a story of an unconventional and yet very real, family. Though many of the family members were exaggerated caricatures and obviously overplayed to dramatize their relationships and circumstances, they were almost unnaturally relatable as well — even the cruel ones (perhaps, especially the cruel ones).
— Sabriya Imami, Daily Arts Writer
“Parasite” is so powerful that its cinematic excellence is almost taken for granted — one is too focused on the crushing plot to notice the airtight vessel it comes in.
In “Parasite’s” immersive narrative, the Kims, an impoverished family, con their way into working for the Parks, an affluent one. But isn’t just a masterwork of suspense and thrills; it’s scathing social commentary. Throughout the film, the grimy sub-basement where the Kims live is contrasted with the Parks’ Edenic mansion. Without a single word, Ho conveys a more brutal and heart wrenching message than the best documentaries or political ads could ever hope for.
In the context of the first few days of 2020, the film is terrifyingly relevant. In “Parasite,” the rich complain as their servants stink from the rising, pollutant filled water that has filled their homes. No wonder blood is spilled.
“Parasite” is a finely crafted, Swiss watch of a movie that becomes a social hand grenade at the end of its flawless runtime. As the credits roll, viewers have something to both wonder at and endlessly contemplate when the lights come back on. What else could one want?
— Andrew Warrick, Daily Arts Writer
1. Little Women
The first time Timothée Chalamet’s (“Beautiful Boy”) Laurie steps inside the March sisters’ household, he just stares. The titular little women are melting into the choreography of sisterly dynamics, all undergirded by undeniable love, and he watches. Yes, he’s a man, yes, he’s gazing — both key components of the male gaze — but that’s not what presents itself. His look does not belittle them, or their individuality, or their collectivity; it gathers all of that up somehow and returns it to us, glowing with admiration.
Greta Gerwig’s (“Lady Bird”) adaptation of “Little Women” does not stand out because it is radical. It’s occasionally revisionist — suggesting Jo’s marriage was not the original ending of her story — but that’s not it, either. It is special because of moments like this, for its habit of asking us to look with indiscriminate kindness upon people who are struggling to love each other, and themselves.
And it’s asking us to look up to them, too. Not just to the subversive woman. Gerwig gives us reason to look up to the woman who chooses not to marry as well as the one who does. The woman who wants to leave, and the one who chooses to stay. The woman who stands up for herself, and the one who stands down when her sister asks her to. To anyone who’s looking for their place in the world, at the same time that they’re fighting for it, at the same time that they’re just trying to get through another day in it. That may not be everything, but it is outstanding.
— Julianna Morano, Managing Arts Editor