2019 has been a funny old year as far as my film ratings have gone. There have been a whole bunch of solidly good films, but there’s been nothing which has really taken my breath away or stopped me in my tracks in the manner that, say, Moonlight did a couple of years ago.
But nevertheless, here are my top 10(ish) picks from 2019. It was neither planned nor engineered, but 5 of them turn out to be directed by women. Click on the title of any of them to read my thoughts at the time of watching.
A complete list of my 2019 viewing can be found here on Letterboxd or click on the titles to see my thoughts on the top ten.
I say 10(ish) because I just couldn’t separate these two for a place in the list so I’m cheating and having both. Although they are very different in content, I think they belong together for a number of reasons.
Both are very difficult to watch but worth it, both have excellent performances at the centre, both were their country’s nomination for Best International Film for the Academy Awards (although neither was selected for the shortlist, unfortunately).
Queen of Hearts features Trine Dyrholm as an ice cold woman having a relationship with someone she shouldn’t, and the film will make you squirm with unease. System Crasher is all about a disturbed young girl who is being failed by the social care system despite everyone’s best efforts to help. Neither may sound too enticing, but they are worth the time investment.
9 Avengers: Endgame (USA)
This one is on the list not so much for the standalone film (although it is highly entertaining), but for the way it beautifully tied up so many strands from the last decade and gave (most) characters a satisfactory ending to their story. It also made Infinity War a much better film. Reader, I cried.
8 The House of Us (South Korea)
My favourite film that I saw at this year’s London Film Festival. A tale of children from dysfunctional families very much in the Kore-eda Hirokazu mode, but with additional side-swipes at Korean contemporary society.
7 The Irishman (USA)
Forget all the talk about de-aging technology. What’s so special about The Irishman are the considerations of an aged, lonely, former hitman – the last of his crew – and Joe Pesci’s performance.
6 Rojo (Argentina/Brazil/France/Germany/Netherlands)
An air of unease reflects society in a pre-coup Argentina of the 1970s. The wealthy get away with – literally – murder, and there’s a creeping but unacknowledged disquiet. The exchanges between Dario Grandinetti and Alfredo Castro are electric.
5 The Mustang (Belgium/France)
Director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre – in her debut feature – has done something quite remarkable with the sound in The Mustang. Matthias Schoenaerts, who plays Roman Coleman, is no stranger to the silent, damaged criminal role, but this is the most repressed character of his I think I’ve seen. He barely speaks at all for the first third of the film – it’s almost as if he’s not physically capable rather than it being a choice not to participate.
4 Atlantics (Belgium/France/Senegal)
Magical realism meets the undead as Mati Diop comments on inequality, corruption and emigration in Senegal in a most unexpected way. A film that lingered and which I have appreciated more as time has gone on.
3 Transit (France/Germany)
Casablanca, if it had been written by Kafka. The gates of hell are the visa offices in the US Embassy, and purgatory is a wine bar in Marseille. Heaven is watching Franz Rogowski realise he’s never going to leave. He’s amazing.
2 Ash is Purest White (Japan/China/France)
A film of three parts, following the relationship of two people, unable to really commit to loving each other, over a period of almost two decades. Intertwined – and perhaps even more importantly – we also see the development of modern China. Full of impactful long takes and beautiful cinematography, what stands out way above anything else is the performance of Tao Zhao as Qiao. And in some ways Qiao also personifies modern China – rooted in history but constantly moving forward, fiercely self-sufficient with a backbone of steel and in complete control of her emotions.
1 Parasite (South Korea)
Everyone’s a parasite, at all points in the class system, and the ending is perfection. Some outstanding cinematography from Hong Gyeong-Pyo too. Brutal, funny, touching and honest. Bong Joon-ho is a master. This doesn’t get its UK release until February 2020; I saw it in Germany, in a dubbed-into-German version, and it was still the best film I’ve seen all year. Can’t wait to see it again!
(This article first appeared on The Movie Isle)