Making a list of the year's best films is an overwhelming endeavor for a film critic. Having seen more than 150 cinematic works this year, I found it tough to limit the stellar ones to 20. The list lost exciting films as ambitious and messy as the Matthew McConaughey-starring Serenity, as provocative and intriguing as Holiday, and as gorgeously animated and tender as Weathering With You.
This list misses out on exploring the dance-fueled hellscape of Climax, the weight of The Irishman, and the gleefully absurd Diamantino. Short films such as In Dog Years and Is That All There Is?, documentaries like Black Mother and Amazing Grace, and performance art films like When I Get Home often get sidelined despite being as good as, if not better than, most narrative features released during the year. Then there are the ones that get festival play but never make it into South Florida theaters, such as Divino Amor, Vision, Las Niñas Bien, Luz, and Golden Youth.
So take this roundup as a chance to explore some of my favorites, as a chance to dive into some great features (and some oddities) that you might not have experienced this past year. (Editor's note: Some of these entries have been pulled from past reviews by this writer.)
The visual spectacle of Alita: Battle Angel and Gemini Man, each designed gorgeously to suit its intent and overflowing with queer themes, made them two of the best blockbusters of the year. Some delicious horror was brought to us in the form of Rob Zombie’s 3 From Hell, Peter Strickland’s In Fabric, Mike Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep, Neil Jordan’s Greta, Jordan Peele’s Us, and (in the form of deep existential anguish) Claire Denis’ High Life. Films such as Hustlers, Late Night, and Long Shot brought plenty of laughs, while features like A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Atlantics, Pain & Glory, and The Farewell broke our hearts and put them back together. And there is so much to say about exciting ensemble works such as High Flying Bird, Parasite, Marriage Story, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but there’s only so much space here.
20. Sorry Angel (Christophe Honoré)
Sorry Angel serves as a quieter but no less affecting companion piece to Robin Campillo's 120 BPM. Neither film leans hard into sentimentality when depicting how queer men handled AIDS; tragedy exists, but it's never exploited because characters are too focused on figuring out how to live out the moments they have left. Sorry Angel is about wanting each of those moments — whether it's a long-distance phone call turned playful lecture, a long walk between apartments complete with kissing and conversation, or lying naked in a hospital bed with the sick man you love — to last as long as possible, before we all inevitably end up back at "One.”
19. Transit (Christian Petzold)
Transit, Christian Petzold's latest work, is a sobering tale of what it’s like to live as a refugee, being as invisible as you can while floating through a world that loathes you. Adapted from the novel of the same name, this story of a man running from a fascist regime and assuming identities to survive World War II is transposed to a space that exists in both every time and no time at all. Every facet of the film's production, from costumes to sets, feels timeless. By refusing to ground it in any one era, Petzold makes Transit a universal story, one that’s all the more terrifying in its understanding that refugee struggles are not limited to any one period.
18. Dragged Across Concrete (S. Craig Zahler)
Dragged Across Concrete is a film that's just as controlled as it is indulgent, as chock full of provocative elements as it is willing to explore race, class, and power in a sometimes messy, sometimes sobering way. Despite being a filmmaker who's as subtle as a bullet through the skull, S. Craig Zahler takes his sweet time allowing characters to develop, to go through the motions of their plans, to allow them to succeed and fail. It's as much Michael Mann as it is Michael Haneke, but citing both of those filmmakers (and most of the directors to which Zahler is unfavorably compared) is a disservice to Zahler's latest film, which focuses on two men foolishly doing whatever they can to right the wrongs they believe have been made against them.
17. Long Day's Journey Into Night (Bi Gan)
Focusing on the technical marvel that is a 59-minute take (that closes a 140-minute film), presented in 3D, would be a waste, as brilliant as it is. Long Day’s Journey Into Night is less of a labyrinthine work of narrative threads than one might expect from its many conflicting stories, though. It’s more a garden of sentiments through which the viewer can stroll, where individual characters and conversations bloom in their own unique ways and complement others. To some viewers, the experience as a whole will feel purposely obtuse and, some might even argue, boring, but those willing to engage with the romantic vision that Bi Gan has created will find themselves swept off their feet more than once.
16. Deep Tissue (Meredith Alloway)
There's a good chance most Miamians haven't seen Meredith Alloway's marvelous short film Deep Tissue despite its screening at Popcorn Frights Film Festival and Borscht Film Festival this year. Its premise is simple — a woman invites a man over for what seems like a haphazardly planned massage — but Alloway allows the tension to rise slowly as time passes. The director, who also plays the woman, and actor Peter Vack expertly bounce between excitement and discomfort, making small jokes along the way. Similar to the way Stranger by the Lake approaches the eroticism inherent to dangerous situations, Deep Tissue dives into the appeal of indulging in carnal pleasures, in fantasies, and in fetishes in a gory and sexy way.
15. Dark Waters (Todd Haynes)
One of the bleakest pieces of American cinema last year was Todd Haynes' legal thriller about a corporate lawyer who stands up to DuPont for the company's pollutive practices. Every time the film cuts to another year (and it does so frequently as it spans decades), it feels like a knife twisting, like poison working its way through your system. Director of photography Ed Lachman brings a sense of mistrust to every frame, be it the fluorescent hell of a law office or the homes we inhabit. Keeping in tune with the rest of his career, Haynes has created a bold work about being isolated by the communities and power structures we have willingly bought into and must exist within, and the exhaustiveness of trying to affect change within them.
14. Glass (M. Night Shyamalan)
Glass is more academic than its given credit for, more interested in constant conversation and questioning, exploiting and milking M. Night Shyamalan’s fascination with the stories we tell, how we tell them, and who gets to tell them. The film visually plays out like a comic book, every frame practically an imitation of what a comic book panel might look like. The way the script navigates the creation of mythologies and the power dynamics that come with said myths is its own kind of riveting. Though some viewers might want a more bombastic finale full of special effects, inhuman abilities, and a high body count. Glass is perfectly content existing as a film whose tension lies almost entirely in wondering whether its protagonists are human after all.
13. Midsommar (Ari Aster)
Where Hereditary felt like two souls at odds with each other in one body, Midsommar is a work of cathartic camp, dedicated to the journey that Dani (Florence Pugh) must take toward enlightenment. There’s no second-act shift, no lean into something like Hereditary's drag-like aping à la Rosemary’s Baby, but rather a constant presence of offbeat humor mixed into the horror. It’s in a head exploding upon its smashing, the petals of a flower contracting and expanding ad nauseam in a crown, the synchronized moaning and screaming present in a group’s collective consciousness. The beauty goes hand-in-hand with the grotesque, and the distinct style of Ari Aster’s filmmaking is even noticeable in the flowery presentation of decaying bodies.
12. The Nightingale (Jennifer Kent)
Following up The Babadook isn't an easy feat, but Jennifer Kent's gear shift into The Nightingale is nothing short of stellar. Where her first feature created a monster that embodied everything from guilt to loathing of the self and others, Kent is more interested in exploring monsters that actually exist here. It's a harrowing experience through and through, not simply because it presents violence (especially sexual violence) bluntly as a means of wielding power over another human, but because it refuses to let any of its characters off easily. It's an excellent film about trauma, assault, indoctrination, corruption, cultural divides, colonialism, and genocide, and one that will stick with you for a long time.
11. John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum (Chad Stahelski)
Calling Chad Stahelski one of the best action filmmakers isn't a stretch, as anyone who has had the pleasure of watching any one of the three John Wick features can testify. Each one has its share of stunning set pieces, crafted around an ultimately simple tale of a man seeking vengeance for the wrongs done to him. But where the first sequel expanded on the universe, Parabellum is all about challenging that universe and diving deeper into the power dynamics that exist within it. Much like a great videogame, Chapter 3 establishes rules designed to be tested, and the violence is seemingly endless, but at least there are a plenty of extended cutscenes, delicious fatalities, and a wide cast of co-op fighters to keep you engaged till the next day.
10. Her Smell (Alex Ross Perry)
"These people deserve a show," Elisabeth Moss' punk-rock star yells during one of her breakdowns, and Her Smell gives us a great one from beginning to end. Describing Alex Ross Perry's latest film as "What do you get when you take the life of Courtney Love and turn it into a five-act Shakespearean tragedy?" may be reductive, but it's not untrue either, for Her Smell is a fascinating and frequently panic-inducing tale about self-destruction. It's a film that's as funny as it is chaotic, full of frustrating characters (expertly acted by one of the best ensembles of the year) who can't seem to help themselves or one another but who you desperately hope get their acts together.
9. A Hidden Life (Terrence Malick)
Any year that sees a new Terrence Malick release is a year to be celebrated. A Hidden Life, which many viewers have foolishly referred to as a "return to form" for the filmmaker, is yet another exciting installment in the filmmaker's late career that has seen him experimenting with his established form. Where works such as Song to Song and Knight of Cups might feel more sprawling in their explorations of a protagonist, A Hidden Life grounds itself in one man's refusal to align himself with Nazis and unfolds mostly through heavy conversations (by letter or in person) and gorgeous visuals. Much like some of the most exciting faith-based films of the decade (including Silence, Princess Cyd, and First Reformed), A Hidden Life reminds us that faith means more than religion and the establishments that exploit it; the Catholic Church may be awful and complicit in atrocities (in this case the Holocaust), but God can be found in every mountain, every river, and every community despite the wrongs of the world.
8. Wild Nights With Emily (Madeleine Olnek)
Madeleine Olnek's Wild Nights With Emily upends traditional ideas of Emily Dickinson. Where there was once misery, there is now joy mixed with morbidity. Where there was nothing but a recluse, there is now a queer woman who loved deeply — and who loved many things in life even though she frequently didn't want to live. Best of all are the seemingly endlessly unique ways Olnek brings Dickinson's words to life: an actor reciting lines as though in a stage play, an overlaying of Dickinson's handwriting over scenes that feel like home videos, and in fantasy sequences that place subtitles onscreen to visualize the poetry. Every moment of Wild Nights With Emily screams a true love for the poet.
7. Ad Astra (James Gray)
Many jokes have been made about Ad Astra being a move about daddy issues, but it's much more insightful than one might expect. Rather than focus entirely on one man's issues with his father (who left for space and was presumed dead but recently reappeared), filmmaker James Gray is more interested in painting a picture of a man whose life is in stasis, floating aimlessly in zero gravity. It's about the isolation that comes with depression, about the methods we take to avoid discussing our pain, and about the ways we push people aside under the guise of moving on. Ad Astra is the best kind of science fiction, as meditative, intimate, and therapeutic as it is grand in scale, speculation, and beauty.
6. Under the Silver Lake (David Robert Mitchell)
Despite mixed reviews from festivals throughout 2018 and a distributor that seemed hellbent on burying it, David Robert Mitchell's Under the Silver Lake is, hands down, one of the most exciting films of the year and one of the best neo-noirs of the decade. It's a film that builds a sprawling narrative through the streets of Los Angeles that's as ridiculous as it is unsettling, with Andrew Garfield starring as the pathetic man at its core. So rarely does a film have as much contempt for its own protagonist as this one, but watching Mitchell put this character through a mountain of conspiracies, cultural references, and absurd situations is a thrilling journey like no other.
5. Little Women (Greta Gerwig)
Greta Gerwig's career as a writer and director has been full of tenderness, and her adaptation of Little Women is no exception. There's always a sense she truly cares about the characters she's presenting to an audience — she takes great caution to ensure none of them is framed as villainous despite making mistakes and doing uncouth things. Her approach to this old tale feels fresh, cutting between past and present, between fiction and reality, in order to present the lives of these young women in a way that's heartwarming and heartbreaking. These are characters who feel lived in, and though there's never really been a bad version of Little Women (from the novel to George Cukor's to Gillian Armstrong's and beyond), this one feels like exactly the one this generation needs and deserves.
4. Uncut Gems (Josh and Benny Safdie)
Uncut Gems is the sort of thriller you dream of. The camera and the characters are perpetually in motion, and even when they're forced to take a seat, there's still the heart pounding, the fingers texting, the body wishing it could be anywhere but where it is. If you get the chance to watch this film with an audience, you'll hear constant laughter of folks enjoying themselves and the pleasure of witnessing the unhinged movements of anxious viewers. Brothers Josh and Benny Safdie have designed a film that involves waiting for the other shoe to drop every single minute, and it's nothing short of amazing they've made something as tense, exciting, and funny as this film.
3. Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Céline Sciamma)
Céline Sciamma builds her tale of romance Portrait of a Lady on Fire deliberately, allowing the viewer to sit and watch as these two women get to know each other rather innocuously. The filmmaker goes to great lengths to create a world of isolation and repression in 18th-century France, not only in the dated customs of the era but also in the home these women inhabit — a massive, nearly empty house surrounded by cliffs and shores. At the same time, she challenges what the audience might expect from such an environment by literally questioning why all "great art" must be made by men and more subtly offering depictions of drug use, queer romance, and abortion without an ounce of the judgment and scandal that would befall many other directors. It is simply life, and Sciamma knows there’s beauty to be found within a stifling environment.
2. Knife + Heart (Yann Gonzalez)
One could easily mistake Knife + Heart for nothing more than a good-looking horror film, but it carries decades of queer history in its bones, from the haven of watching blue movies to the AIDS epidemic to the way internalized homophobia sneaks into the safest of spaces and hurts us all. Yann Gonzalez has made a queer film that understands that representation isn’t, and shouldn’t be, clean-cut by allowing its characters to feel, fight, and fuck even when the world is telling them they shouldn’t.
1. My First Film (Zia Anger)
Zia Anger closed her tour of My First Film in 2019 with a screening at Borscht Film Festival, on her birthday, leaving many in the audience amazed and quietly crying with her work. Describing My First Film is difficult only because it is as much a film as it is a performance art piece — an intense piece of self-reflection by an artist that feels as innovative as it is disarmingly sincere. At its core, it's an experience that has the audience reading every word of Anger's story as she types it — the ultimate monologue for a world that communicates primarily through screens. Anger presents her story through a number of fragments, from text windows to scenes from an unfinished feature, creating a stream-of-consciousness effect that one could connect to Terrence Malick's form of exploring memory and experience. But My First Film is entirely its own being, uniquely designed and performed by Anger, and it's hard to imagine anything like this will ever be produced again.
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