Brad Pitt, left, and Leonardo DiCaprio star in Columbia Pictures’ Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood. Sony Pictures Entertainment

Looking back: The best of 2019 on the big screen

Monday’s Kyle Wells shares his top 10 list for the year – and the best films of the decade

There’s been some chatter in the film fan world (OK, Film Twitter world) that 2019 has been a bit of a weak year for the movies. And if I’m being honest, I wouldn’t disagree.

There’s a handful of films I would passionately defend, but overall, I don’t believe we had the abundance of riches we saw in 2018 or other past years. Or in the 2010s as a whole. More on that later.

Kyle Wells

That said, there’s still plenty to celebrate … and debate, as anyone who follows film knows is impossible to avoid. But that’s the beauty of the movies, right? They inspire, thrill, delight, challenge, provoke and enrage, and if they don’t, well, what’s the point?

These are the films that made me feel those things and more in 2019.

10. The Farewell, directed by Lulu Wang

Wang’s patient and deeply emotional tale of a young woman returning to China to be with her dying grandmother, who doesn’t know she’s dying, is a beautifully contemplative exercise in grace, grief, love and family. Featuring an impressively grounded and nuanced lead performance from Awkwafina, The Farewell is equal parts warm and heart wrenching, and entirely lovely.

9. Waves, directed by Trey Edward Shults

Admittedly, I’m a person who has a lot more time for a movie that’s an ambitious mess than something that’s well executed but takes zero risks. Waves is at times unruly and truthfully, I was tempted to give up on it during its first hour. But then a tonal and narrative shift in its second half takes the movie into rewarding, heartbreaking places it would never have reached without the grind of its first. Its themes are potentially basic (forgiveness, family, growth), but its execution and its humanity are anything but.

8. Parasite, directed by Bong Joon-ho

Not necessarily the gamechanger others are making it out to be, Parasite is nonetheless a riveting and twisty tale of the have-nots trying to manipulate and fight their way into hanging with the haves. Touching the very relevant nerve of income inequality, Joon-ho’s latest works not only as thrilling piece of entertainment, but also an indictment of a system that allows, even encourages, the comfort of the few at the cost of the many. And what a finale.

Adèle Haenel and Noémie Merlant star in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, the No. 5 film on Kyle Wells’ list of best movies from 2019. Photo: Neon

7. Amazing Grace, directed by Sydney Pollock

Is it cheating to include a movie filmed in 1972, directed by someone who died in 2008? Maybe so, but after footage of Aretha Franklin’s jaw-dropping live recording of her gospel album of the same name was finally released this year, it’s time it got its due. The music is incredible, Franklin is one of the greatest of all time and this documentary will make you want to thank Jesus it was finally released. Amen.

6. Marriage Story, directed by Noah Baumbach

People seem to be bringing a lot of their own baggage to this movie, and much like in a real divorce, they’re picking sides. Is this the story of a man screwed over by a bored, but loved wife and the inequity of the divorce legal system? Or is it a tale of a forgotten wife and mother, whose own needs have been ignored one time too many by an entitled jerk? My answer: yes. In many ways the movie is a divorce procedural, a brutally honest one at that, but what makes it all work is the complex, emotional relationship at the heart of it, the love that lingers even as it is being lost, and the sheer messiness of it all. A sad, painful film that leaves you with a deep sense of warmth and hope.

5. Portrait of a Lady on Fire, directed by Céline Sciamma

Set in 18th-century France, Sciamma’s tale of forbidden love between an aristocrat and the woman commissioned to paint her is thrilling and joyful while also gut wrenchingly sorrowful, much like love itself. With stunning cinematography and a deliberate, delicate pace enveloped in longing and love, the film is a portrait of romance and lust, but also of women finding solace and strength in friendship, art and solidarity.

Joe Pesci, left, and Robert De Niro appear in “The Irishman.” (Netflix)

4. The Irishman, directed by Martin Scorsese

Oh boy. OK. Scorsese’s latest came in hot, mired in online debates over its length, whether dialogue is the true measure of a performance, and how its director feels about movies where people fly around in spandex. This is our culture now. The thing is, none of this matters once you actually turn off Twitter and simply watch the damn thing. Because the movie isn’t some boomer moan over changing culture, it’s a thoughtful, graceful reflection by one of cinema’s greatest voices on violence, God, family and aging, told with experience, depth and empathy, earning every minute of its runtime along the way.

3. High Life, directed by Claire Denis

When I saw this in theatres, there was a palpable sense in the auditorium that the audience didn’t know what to do with this one. And fair enough. I’m not sure I saw a stranger film all year. But I’m also not sure I saw a more visually beautiful one either. And that’s what makes the movie so fascinating: it’s dark, violent, disturbing themes of imprisonment, violence and incest presented in such gloriously cinematic ways, filled with beauty and awe. Also did I mention it’s set in space, stars Robert Pattison and features a room called the “f**kbox”?

2. Pain & Glory, directed by Pedro Almodóvar

I’m not an Almodóvar diehard as many are, but I respect and admire his work. And for my money, this is his greatest yet. Another film by a veteran director reflecting on aging and art (something of a theme for this year’s list), Pain & Glory is about a filmmaker, brilliantly played by Antonio Banderas, looking back on his past as he faces the autumn of his years. Addled with regret, sorrow and physical pain, he sets on digging up the past to find peace and meaning in his present. The journey is a bittersweet one, just as all meaningful memories tend to be, filled with love, longing and humour, which makes for a beautiful, rich movie.

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

Another divisive one, as all Tarantino movies tend to be, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is simply the best time I had at the movies all year, so nice I saw it twice. It’s a hangout film about male friendship, it’s a love letter to an era of movies and culture clearly dear to the director, and it’s a surprisingly mature take on lost potential and societal shifts. Don’t get me wrong, this is still old-school Tarantino and your mileage may vary with the finale and other flourishes. But to me, that’s what makes the movie so great: it’s not a rejection of youthful excesses, but a reframing, and one carried out with infectious joie de vivre. Its remaking of history isn’t a copout or conservative wish fulfillment, it’s expertly using all the tools of film to offer a personal vision of what could be, versus what is. And if cinema isn’t the stuff of daydreams, I don’t know what it is. This was the best daydream I saw this year.

Honourable 2019 mentions: Under the Silver Lake, The Souvenir, Uncut Gems, Atlantics, Mouthpiece

The Tree of Life earns the nod from Wells as the top movie of the decade. Photo Criterion Collection

But wait, there’s more!

In addition to my usual moviegoing, this year I also took on the extremely rewarding project of re-watching 25-plus movies I considered candidates for best of the decade, based on my own opinion and general critical consensus.

I can’t express what a pleasure it’s been. Revisiting these films has reinforced for me what an exceptional 10 years we’ve had at the movies, how film has grown and changed and yet remains as vital as ever; how it can exist as powerful personal statement, or social/political provocation, or magnificent entertainment, or all of the above and more; how it continues to enrich my life. This list is a love letter to the past 10 years of movies.

10. The Master, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

9. The Rider, directed by Chloé Zhao

8. Carol, directed by Todd Haynes

7. Margaret, directed by Kenneth Lonergan

6. Mad Max: Fury Road, directed by George Miller

5. The Grand Budapest Hotel, directed by Wes Anderson

4. Inside Llewyn Davis, directed by the Coen Brothers

3. Lady Bird, directed by Greta Gerwig

2. Moonlight, directed by Barry Jenkins

1. The Tree of Life, directed by Terrence Malick

(Honourable mentions: The Wolf of Wall Street, Call Me by Your Name, Before Midnight, The Social Network, Under the Skin)



editor@mondaymag.com

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