The last year was relentless — local, national and international events crashed against me day and night and eroded some of my mental defenses. Things seeped in, and they wore on me. I felt 2019 in a way that I don’t know that I’ve felt any other year. It was hard for so many. It was sad for so many. And it doesn’t look like 2020 is likely to be any easier.
But one place I was able to find peace was in the movie theater. More than ever, I felt myself running to the big screen to get lost in a story or experience that took me away for a few hours.
So, in that context, I am somewhat surprised that my favorite movie of the year is one that is also a relentless wave of anxiety and exhaustion. It’s like a two-hour heart attack because of the breakneck speed the main character moves from one bad decision to another. Due to this, some people disliked “Uncut Gems.”
But on this high-speed train into the heart of a certain kind of darkness, I found some clarity. I saw in it a parable for the world around me.
It is sometimes only in the darkness that we see the light.
(By the way, despite the bleak drama outlined above, I’m feeling quite good and expect many great things from 2020. No matter what the world throws at us, we’ve got to jump into it and do what we can to make the best of things …)
Here are my top 10 films of 2019:
1. “Uncut Gems”
How was this not nominated for the Best Picture or Best Actor Oscars???
2. “Marriage Story”
Love is a many-splendored thing. And when love ends, it is also many things and they are seldom splendid. This is a universal story told with great affection for its characters who, brought to extraordinary life by Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver, are as familiar and lovable as they are frustrating. Just like most of us in real life …
3. “An Elephant Sitting Still”
A four-hour existentialist epic that manages to find hope amidst the dreary lives of the lower-class residents of a gray industrial city in northern China, “An Elephant Sitting Still” never overstays its welcome. It finds beauty in the mundane, and keeps you so close to the characters on screen you almost feel stuck with them. Sadly, director Hu Bo took his own life after finishing the film so it will be the last vision we’ll see from him.
We all have Dianes in our lives — people who are constantly helping others and making the world a better place. This is a powerful, transcendent film that inspires while meditating upon mortality.
5. “Pain and Glory”
Spanish director Pedro Almodovar gives us a glimpse into the pain and regrets of a fictional director played wonderfully by Antonio Banderas. It’s funny, sad and ultimately invigorating.
6. “Knives Out”
A murder mystery that balances wisdom, wit and great performances to also comment upon class and society. Possibly the most fun I had in the theater this year.
One of those magical film experiences where I knew next to nothing about the movie and was awestruck from the first frame. The soundtrack, the beauty of the cinematography and the mystery of this Colombian tale unfolding before me gave me an adrenaline rush. It’s part “Lord of the Flies” and part “Apocalypse Now” but a totally unique vision that left me wondering how they could have possibly made it.
There is a reason Bong Joon Ho’s Korean film won a Golden Globe and is drawing in audience numbers unusual for a foreign-language film — it’s smart, funny and very relatable as an exploration of class. It’s also just a very well-told story with a wild payoff.
Like “Monos,” I knew next to nothing about the thrill ride that awaited me with “Freaks.” It’s the best superhero movie of the year — one of the most underrated films of the year — and is anchored by the unbelievably precocious performance of young actress Lexy Kolker. As the film reached its climax, I was on the edge of my seat and my heart was racing.
10. “Beach Bum”
You may recall that I found 2019 to be a challenging year. Well, there was an undeniable thrill in watching Matthew McConaughey as the poet “Moondog” — a man who engages with life on a primal level and embraces hedonism and excess. This is a man who will play the bongos and party as he watches the world burn. Yeah, he’s not a particularly good human being, but there is also something irresistible about Moondog as he wanders the beaches with the sole purpose of making his next party.
Other movies I loved this year and were hard not to put in the top 10 were: “In Fabric,” “Paddleton,” “Her Smell,” “Apollo 11,” “Ash is Purest White,” “Birds of Passage,” “Honeyland,” “For Sama,” “The Nightingale,” “Peanut Butter Falcon,” “The Irishman” (yes, I, too, question how this Martin Scorsese film did not make my top 10) and “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” “A Woman at War,” “The Farewell,” “Gloria” and “Wild Pear Tree.”