Aquick glance at the highest grossing films of 2019 can induce a certain despair about the state of modern movies. Of the top ten earners, seven were produced by Disney, of which two were remakes of 1990s cartoons and five were sequels or franchise extensions; of the three non-Disney offerings, two were comic book movies (Spider-Man: Far From Home and Joker) and the last a Stephen King sequel (It: Chapter Two). Whatever the merits of these films individually—and I did enjoy one or two of them—I can hardly improve on the words of another writer in contemplating the slate as a whole:
What’s not there is revelation, mystery or genuine emotional danger. Nothing is at risk. The pictures are made to satisfy a specific set of demands, and they are designed as variations on a finite number of themes.
They are sequels in name but they are remakes in spirit, and everything in them is officially sanctioned because it can’t really be any other way. That’s the nature of modern film franchises: market-researched, audience-tested, vetted, modified, revetted and remodified until they’re ready for consumption.
That writer was Martin Scorsese, courting controversy in the New York Times this November for daring to suggest that Marvel movies might not be cinema (they’re more like theme parks, he said). Scorsese’s larger point was not so much to disparage superhero fandom as to question the incentives of a film industry increasingly averse to risk and disinclined to bring mid-range films to market. Perhaps Scorsese had in mind his recent experience with The Irishman, rejected by all major film studios despite the pedigree of its cast and director; perhaps, too, he was thinking of Kundun, his 1997 Dalai Lama drama that so offended Beijing it prompted Disney’s CEO to fly there to apologize for the “stupid mistake” of releasing it. At a time when Disney’s immense market power is ever expanding (read Matt Stoller) and the Chinese veto over Hollywood’s content is a given (read Martha Bayles), Scorsese offered a timely warning: If you want a vision of film’s future, imagine Mickey Mouse stamping on a human face—forever.
Thankfully, we’re not there quite yet. Amid all the tentpoles and remakes, some genuine cinematic imagination found its way onto screens large and small this year. As the year draws to a close, then, here are ten reasons to believe that the movies still have some life in them.
Jordan Peele’s follow-up to Get Out is another horror film featuring a predominantly black cast, this time haunted by sinister alter egos. Us, however, is more open to interpretation than the straightforward racial allegory of Get Out—which only makes it more fun to argue about. Is this tale of an uprising by a doppelgänger underclass an allegory of race, or class, or just a deliberately ambiguous bit of Twilight Zone spookery? Whatever reading you prefer, Us succeeds because it is not a mere succession of gory horrors but a nightmare that taps into elemental human fears. In her dual role as Adelaide, Lupita Nyong’o delivers a convincing portrait of a woman grappling with childhood trauma and terrified by the notion that she cannot protect her children; it’s a surprisingly nuanced performance in a genre not often known for them.
German director Christian Petzold likes to re-imagine historical traumas through the prism of classic genre conventions: his Phoenix (2015), for instance, channeled Hitchcock with the tale of a Holocaust survivor coming home to Berlin and going unrecognized by her husband. With Transit, Petzold offers an even bolder spin on a WWII thriller. Adapting a 1944 French novel set shortly after the German invasion, Petzold transports the action to the present day, placing a tale of wartime refugees, desperate lovers, and forged transit papers into a strangely analog 21st-century Paris. In lesser hands, this would be a gimmicky allegory about the resurgence of modern-day fascism; in Petzold’s, it is something more interesting. The film’s anachronisms and temporal dislocations heighten the suspense and highlight the existential angst of the protagonist, played with tortured ennui by Franz Rogowski. The results have been described as “Casablanca by way of Kafka,” but even that apt description can’t fully capture this film’s strange power.
8. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Quentin Tarantino has often spoken of his admiration for “hang-out movies,” films less concerned with the forward motion of a plot than in spending quality time with characters who come to feel like friends. Among its other virtues, Once Upon A Time in Hollywood is a hang-out movie par excellence. As B-list action star Rick Dalton and trusty stuntman Cliff Booth, Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt offer a warm and credible portrayal of male friendship, while allowing the typically juvenile Tarantino to muse on themes of aging and obsolescence. The movie is also proudly, resolutely nostalgic, lovingly recreating a certain version of pre-Manson murders 1969 Los Angeles and coming down firmly against the counterculture that would soon displace the ways of Old Hollywood. As for the ending, well, there’s a reason the film’s title evokes a fairy tale: Tarantino knows the value of a true Hollywood ending, where the princess is saved and the dragons are slain. It’s an appropriate capstone to what may be, violence and all, the most good-natured film of Tarantino’s career.
7. Ad Astra
Too massive for the arthouse and too meditative for the multiplex, James Gray’s sci-fi drama failed to reach much of an audience this fall. That’s a shame, because Ad Astra has plenty to offer both crowds. Opening with a brilliantly orchestrated, made-for-IMAX set piece that sends Brad Pitt plummeting Earthbound from a space antenna, the movie proceeds in a slower, ruminative register, following Pitt’s taciturn astronaut as he accepts a mission to find his long-lost father (Tommy Lee Jones). There are shades of Heart of Darkness in this story (Gray’s last film was the Conradian Lost City of Z), but Ad Astra is also an existential drama and a moving meditation on the unspoken feelings between two terminally introverted men. Along the way, Gray delivers an imaginative yet plausible vision of future space exploration—especially in a sequence set on a colonized moon that is part airport, part shopping mall, and part Wild West.
6. The Farewell
Lulu Wang’s The Farewell is the rare film about immigration that is neither oversentimental nor ponderously didactic. Rather, this movie—written and directed by a Chinese-American filmmaker drawing heavily from her own life—is wise to the ordinary triumphs and tribulations of one first-generation family. Awkwafina gives a rare dramatic turn as Billi, a twentysomething artist in New York who is outraged when her parents refuse to inform her grandmother of her terminal cancer diagnosis, instead concocting an elaborate ruse to reunite the whole family under false pretenses in China. Billi’s core dilemma—to tell or not to tell her grandmother the truth—illustrates the film’s themes about the pull of conflicting identities, and the contrast between Western ideals of individualism and Eastern ideals of collectivism. The Farewell is funny, heartfelt, and occasionally heartbreaking, both universally applicable in its portrait of a fractious family but stubbornly particular in its observations of cultural difference.
5. Knives Out
Rian Johnson’s Trump-era twist on an Agatha Christie whodunit strikes just the right balance between sour and sweet. This is a movie about nasty, backstabbing relatives, each mooching off the family inheritance and deflecting suspicions around the untimely death of their grandfather. But it’s softened by the good-hearted appeal of Marta (Ana de Armas), the trusty domestic servant to the late deceased, and Benoit Blanc, the eccentric private eye who enlists her help in solving the mystery. (In the latter role, Daniel Craig puts on a southern drawl and has such evident fun that one yearns for him to finally break free of the James Bond straitjacket.)
At times, the movie’s political subtext can be overbearing—it’s a house divided, see, with alt-right Twitter trolls and intersectional feminists each fighting for their share of the pie. But at its best, Knives Out skillfully integrates its thematic concerns of wealth and inequality with the contours of a clever murder mystery that never goes quite where you expect. Bonus points, too, for one of the best needle-drops to close a film in recent memory.
4. A Hidden Life
Terrence Malick has always been attracted to saintly figures and holy fools, characters with ecstatic visions of higher things in a world that is indifferent if not outright cruel to them. Think of the mother in The Tree of Life, who looks upward to the sky “where God lives” and serves as the embodiment of grace in counterpoint to her Hobbesian husband, or the army private in The Thin Red Line, who goes AWOL at Guadalcanal to live in Rousseauian paradise with the Melanesian natives. With A Hidden Life, the writer-director finds his most compelling such character yet: Franz Jägerstätter, the Austrian farmer who refused to swear a loyalty oath to Hitler and was eventually martyred for it.
Jägerstätter, as played by August Diehl, positively radiates holiness, as captured by Malick’s ever-roving camera and expressive close-ups. But what keeps the film grounded is its relentless depiction of the costs of his convictions. Jägerstätter gives up an idyllic existence in the Austrian mountains to follow his conscience, subjecting his wife and daughters to a life of toil and mockery as he is jailed and eventually killed for his intransigence. And to what end? This three-hour film brings out so many characters who ask that question—exhorting Franz to be reasonable, to think of his family, to acknowledge that his refusal to fight won’t make a whit of difference—that we can come to share their frustrations, even as our admiration grows.
The film’s best scene features Jägerstätter in conversation with a painter at his local church, who complains that churchgoers want him to depict a “comfortable Christ,” one who inspires fuzzy feelings but no sacrifice, “admirers but not followers.” “Someday I’ll paint the true Christ,” the painter declares. With A Hidden Life, Malick seeks to do precisely that, asking what it would actually mean for Christians to live out their faith—and challenging all of us, believers or no, to have the courage of our convictions. (For another perspective, read Peter Blair’s review of the film in our pages.)
3. Marriage Story
On paper, Noah Baumbach’s divorce dramedy has all the makings of a maudlin melodrama. Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson are a yuppie theater couple, married with child in New York, who decide to divorce when she moves west to pursue a film career. Why care? In part, because Baumbach is the movies’ foremost chronicler of unhappy families, writing with Larkinesque insight into the ways that husbands, wives, and children can compound each other’s faults; in part, because the film’s bitterness is tempered by genuinely likable performances and good-natured comedy. What really sets Marriage Story apart, though, is its focus on divorce as an institutional process, one that turns even the most amicable partners against one another. A courtroom scene where the spouses’ lawyers (Laura Dern and Ray Liotta) escalate their lines of attack, amplifying and distorting their opponents’ failings into irredeemable flaws, is as devastating as the couple’s big blow-up. It all adds up to a searing portrait of a couple—and a culture—eager to make commitments too easily and to cast them aside as soon as the going gets tough.
If Parasite isn’t the best film of 2019, it may be the one that best captured the year’s zeitgeist. Bong Joon-ho’s twisted parable of class warfare, economic inequality, and ecological disaster was a sensation in his native South Korea; that it also became a sleeper hit stateside testifies to its power. As with previous films like Snowpiercer, Bong treats such weighty material with a deft touch and a savage wit; what begins as a cheeky comedy of manners takes a detour halfway through to mutate into something darker. To say much more would be to spoil the surprises of a movie best entered into cold. Suffice it to say that this is no mere eat-the-rich screed, where the proles are more virtuous than the prosperous, but rather a tragicomic allegory about a system that amplifies the worst of human nature to pit one against the other. As Jean Renoir put it in The Rules of the Game, “The awful thing about life is this: everyone has their reasons.”
1. The Irishman
No, it’s not just another mob movie. Martin Scorsese’s three-and-a-half-hour magnum opus may trade on nostalgia for his gangster classics—starting with an opening tracking shot that recalls the most famous scene in Goodfellas—but it just as often subverts that nostalgia. That first shot, after all, substitutes the glamour of a high-end nightclub for the sterile emptiness of a nursing home, where an elderly Robert de Niro seeks to put a happy spin on a life of crime that has left him utterly alone. It’s an ironic opening, a clear rebuttal to the perennial complaint that Scorsese glorifies the criminals he depicts, and a telling indicator of the movie’s real concerns: aging, death, and the wages of sin.
The Irishman is also a showcase for three veteran actors given surprising room for growth. Joe Pesci, so often the hot-blooded motormouth, is a quiet revelation as Russell Bufalino, the menacing mob boss who can command fates with a look of the eyes and a meaningful whisper (“It’s what it is.”) Al Pacino hams it up, appropriately so, as Jimmy Hoffa, capturing the working-class charisma of the crooked labor leader and the raging hubris of a man who refuses to understand when his time is up. And De Niro gives a performance whose complexity grows over time, a strangely passive hitman who doles out death obediently and only belatedly realizes how far his actions have taken him.
If there’s a classic counterpart to this movie, it might be John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance—another elegiac, late-career masterpiece haunted by death and history, the stories preserved in popular memory and those that are deliberately swept aside. “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” goes the famous aphorism in Ford’s film. Scorsese’s film does its fair share of legend-printing (don’t mistake its Hoffa narrative for fact), but it also serves a demythologizing purpose. Tales of bygone glory, the movie suggests, are what the wicked comfort themselves with—when the world has forgotten them and they’re left, alone with their conscience, in the still of the night.