Best Films of 2019

Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio in “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood”, 2019 | Columbia Pictures

“When I was writing La Belle et la Bête, I tried to make the film I used to imagine – at a time when I was still too young to go to the cinema or the theatre – from my parents’ mysterious outings and the programmes that they left in my room. […] The only hope for a film is that the audience, less deaf and blind than the critics, or I should say more childlike and more ready to be won over, may not obey the veto handed down by literary judges and, as happened with La Belle et la Bête, will view with innocence and love what was hidden from the intelligentsia of the capital by their blinkers.” Jean Cocteau’s words from his book, The Art of Cinema, rang so true to me as I was rounding up my favourite films of the year. These are the films that spoke to me, moved me, thrilled me, made me wander off this past year.

But before getting to them (with the mention that I will update my selection once I’ve had the opportunity to watch more international releases, Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night being one of them), I would like to say a few words about cinema and online streaming. As much as I appreciate a few of the films produced by Netflix these past two years, like Roma and The Irishman and Marriage Story, I have to have my say: It is a shame that Martin Scorsese had to find backing from Netflix for his latest film. If Martin Scorsese had to do it, then is there any future in true filmmaking and movie theaters? Yes, I do see Netflix as a threat to cinema. But the movie industry is at fault itself. In a film industry that puts its money only on safe bets, namely public-pleasing blockbusters and trademarked stories, a film like Ford v Ferrari, a first class Hollywood entertainment movie for grown-ups, an original true-life film, almost did not get made. The independent, visionary artists are starting to be seen as old-fashioned when in fact they are the torch-bearers of individual creation and forward-thinking resisters to corporate production. And some of them are turning to Netflix because no other production company would take the risk. But in a society that is more and more immersed in living life attached to a smart phone or smart tv screen, I don’t exactly see Netflix as the savior of cinema, but rather as a flood of audio visuals by the yard that just keeps people glued to the screen. They do not exactly promote cinema and filmmakers, they promote the consumerism of online streaming.

Everybody is talking about what to binge-watch this holiday season. I don’t have the time, patience, nor appetite to consume hours on end of silliness and mash productions and tv shows. I have not watched any tv series since Breaking Bad. This holiday season, too, I will skip the Netflix offer and will venture out instead and watch as many films as possible at the cinema – I am praying for a decent movie theatre offer. From the way things are going, I will soon be labeled as traditionalist because I still prefer the cinema to potato couching in front of the tv. But, alas, I am a lover of the art of cinema (although I would rather prefer Jean Cocteau’s term, du cinématographe) and movie-making and I would rather wait until a new film is released on Blu-ray than join the tracks of mass tv- and online-consumerism. I wish you a good time at the cinema!

Note: The films included here are films which premiered in 2019, even if some were only viewed at certain festivals for the time-being (Ash Is Purest White, for example, Burning and Capernaum, some of my favourite films of last year were released in cinemas only this year, but I take as reference the time of the premiere).

Brad Pitt in “Ad Astra”, 2019 | New Regency Pictures, Bona Film Group, Twentieth Century Fox

Ad Astra, directed by James Gray

Brad Pitt in his most subtle, understated performance. I’ve never seen him in such a role and I wish I saw more of this minimalist acting on screen in general. Why is it that this kind of performances are always overlooked to the benefit of physically and mentally challenging or over-the-top characters? The film itself is minimalist, a sci-fi that is not showy, but meditative and realistic, space travel demythologised. The cinematic simplicity achieved by director James Gray, while conveying psychological turmoil and a feasible imaginary future, turns Ad Astra into an instant classic that reminded me of Andrei Tarkovsky’s sci-fi movies.

Penélope Cruz in ”Dolor y gloria”, 2019 | El Deseo, Canal+

Dolor y gloria, directed by Pedro Almodóvar

Pedro Almodóvar’s incredibly intimate film is enveloped in such a quiet and ravishing beauty and enlivened by Antonio Banderas’ exceptional, career-best performance. There is a laundry washing scene by the river in the film that has made such a huge impression on me, because even if I am from a different country and from a different generation than Almodóvar, there are many similitudes between our cultures (both Latin) and that sequence took me down the memory lane of my childhood and stirred up so many emotions. And if you don’t judge a film by the emotions it provokes in you, then why are we watching movies for?

Rodica Lazăr in “La Gomera”, 2019 | 42 km Film

La Gomera, directed by Corneliu Porumboiu

The most under-the-radar film on my list and one of the most pleasant surprises of the year. La Gomera (The Whistlers) is a neo-noir thriller with inflictions of black humour and it is woven around El Silbo, the whistled language used by the locals on the island of La Gomera. In the true vein of classic noir, the film portrays a post-crisis period, with morally ambiguous characters, a world where the time of day is appropriately night, because the day always seems to vanish rapidly like the cigarettes the characters are incessantly smoking, where the idyllic island of La Gomera gradually turns into a dark and chilly place, where the meandering scenario only thickens as the plot advances, and everybody is making you doubt them. It is a life and death world.

But Corneliu Porumboiu’s world is a highly stylized world, skillfully constructed, blending reality and imagination, a clear and intentional departure from the realism of the Romanian New Wave and taking a new and fresh direction. It is also an homage brought to cinema in general and to classic cinema in particular, with Hitchcock, Jean-Pierre Melville and western film references throughout the entire story. Ultimately, it is a beautiful piece of cinema and a visually complex film where every camera movement, every frame, every use of colour, every piece of clothing, every dim light counts.

”The Farewell”, 2019 | Big Beach Films, Depth of Field, Kindred Spirit

The Farewell, directed by Lulu Wang

It is about the power of positive thinking. It is about family. I believe in this kind of stuff.

Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver in ”Marriage Story”, 2019 | Heyday Films, Netflix

Marriage Story, directed by Noah Baumbach

The film addresses parental separating and its effects on children. But it’s not the story of every divorce, as director Noah Baumbach draws on his own experience, both as a child and a parent, to tell a very personal story. The film does not take sides, it gives each part, husband and wife, equal gripe time, equal blame and merit. Because that’s how it usually is in a couple. It is painfully relatable and painfully real and the child is not always the one who suffers the most.

Christian Bale and Noah Jupe in ”Ford v Ferrari”, 2019 | Twentieth Century Fox

Ford v Ferrari, directed by James Mangold

This film gave me joy. I like cars, I like beautiful car designs, I don’t like car racings. But it was thrilling to watch a film about car racing because in fact it was about two men who had a passion and who wanted to do something with their lives. This could very well translate to anyone who has a dream or who is dedicated to doing what he/she loves. As from the point of view of movie-making, it felt like a good old-school, entertaining Hollywood movie grounded by a great piece of storytelling, something very rare these days. It felt liberating. And after talking with the production designer, François Audouy, about the crafting of a 1960s world and of the rebel-vibe of the California car culture of that decade, I became even more devoted to the film.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt in “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” | photo: Andrew Cooper, Columbia Pictures

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, directed by Quentin Tarantino

I have debated with myself over and over and over again: Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was clearly, from the first time I watched it in cinema (I went to see it three times), bound to be one of my favourite films of the year, but was it really the favourite? As it has turned out, it is. And this comes from someone whose favourite film of any particular year is unlikely to be American or big-budget Hollywood production – for example, this was my favourite film of 2018 (and Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters was one of the runners-up, unlike this year’s Palme d’Or winner, Parasite, which I believe is the most overrated movie of the year, along with Claire Denis’ High Life) and Andrei Zvyagintsev’s Loveless was my favourite of 2017. But, in 2019, Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film was everything I hoped it would be and more.

Delirious, funny, shocking, exhilarating, beautifully crafted around movie lore and history, blending fiction with reality, brimming with pop culture detail and an idiosyncratic soundtrack that takes you to another time and another Hollywood. You can not remain indifferent to Quentin Tarantino’s black comedy crazy bravura and auteurist excursion. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is ultimately about what it is like to live and die in L.A., by way of Tarantino’s liberal take on history and freeing visionary mind. I still believe that Edith Bowman’s description of the film is the best – she said that watching Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood felt like “I had Christmas with Quentin Tarantino and he bought me everything that I wanted for Christmas” – but here is in detail everything I liked so much about this film, and one of the reasons is this: Quentin Tarantino is one of the last purveyors of movie making. So how about celebrating it? He loves cinema. He shows that artistic freedom is still possible, that you can still think in terms of making movies just for yourself, that he puts every thought and every sense and every emotion into making a film, that, yes, he can do what he likes and say what he likes – it’s his story. And he transports you to another time with the kind of film that requires the luxury of taking the time to watch it at the cinema, as one should.
Related stories: Production designer François Audouy takes us behind the scenes of Ford v Ferrari / Watch a non-Christmas Christmas movie this December / The art of film poster: Interview with illustrator Tony Stella

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