I’m writing this on January 4th, 2020, and I’m sorry, but I’m not ready to share my list of the best films of 2019.
Due to an especially busy (non-screening-related) December, I’m still catching up on a few of the year’s purported-to-be best films, and a number of them, if advance reviews are to be believed, are still coming: Sam Mendes’ 1917, and Just Mercy, the legal drama with Michael B. Jordan and Brie Larson, will be in cinemas on January 10th. Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life will arrive January 17, and the Safdie Brothers’ Uncut Gems is expected on Netflix by the end of the month, though I may get a chance to see it before then in cinemas elsewhere.
In the meantime, I offer this alternative list. For years I’ve compiled an annual set of lesser-known picks, movies that maybe didn’t get much attention through the year due to the vagaries of distribution, marketing, or the absence of hype when something gets dropped on a streaming service, but films that deserve more attention.
A change to my list-making this year: in my consideration I’m including the films I watched at FIN Atlantic International Film Festival. In the past I waited until the festival films earned some kind of distribution in cinemas, but I’ve changed my mind on that. From now on, if I saw it and loved it in 2019 and can herald a new movie before it’s opens later, I’m doing it.
That’s the housekeeping taken care of.
Here’s an alphabetical list of a few good-to-great movies from 2019 you may have missed. Click on the film titles to read my original reviews where they exist on the blog. I also indicate where you can find the films on streaming services, if they’re available.
Arctic | Amazon Prime
A gritty and intense survivalist thriller where barely a word is spoken. Mads Mikkelsen and Maria Thelma Smáradóttir are the stricken pilots of a crashed aircraft making their way across trackless, icy wastes. It’s basic, brutal and brings an unmatched intensity in Mikkelsen’s performance—if the world were a more just place, he’d be earning plaudits this awards season.
Before You Know It | iTunes
A disarming comedy-drama about a New York theatrical family, where Hannah Pearl Utt, co-writer and director, and Jen Tullock, the other writer, also star as sisters. They discover their long-lost mother (Judith Light), is alive and working as a soap opera actor in the city. If the charm gets curbed by implausibility from time to time, the heartfelt script, performances, and a gamboling originality make it worth your time.
The Last Black Man In San Francisco | iTunes
A first feature from Joe Talbot, starring his buddy Jimmie Fails, it’s a deep dive into the friendship between two black men just barely surviving in present-day San Francisco, one of the most expensive cities in the world. It’s about managing the grief that comes when your home is gentrified to the point where you can no longer live there, and what that does to your sense of identity. It’s a gorgeous film—the cinematography is easily amongst the most glorious I’ve seen this year—but it’ll test those who like plot, and it doesn’t quite stick its ending. Still, an important and contemplative picture, worth seeing on the biggest screen you can find.
The Little Stranger | Netflix
Lenny Abrahamson’s gift (evident in his films Frank and Room) hasn’t deserted him in this odd period mystery, the post-war tale of a young doctor’s connection with a traumatized family in a rotting, old mansion. The film suggests notes of supernatural horror but it never really commits, and as such it’s got more to offer someone looking for a moody drama with a talented cast managing a heavy subtext of poisonous class issues than a horror aficionado.
Never Look Away | iTunes
The filmmaker behind the Oscar-winning The Lives Of Others has been largely absent since his ill-fated Hollywood dalliance, The Tourist, in 2010. German auteur Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck came roaring back in 2019 with this film, a sprawling epic about the life of an artist wresting with his craft, given the trauma of his youth in Nazi Germany. Deftly managing an almost 30-year story arc, we get something rare for this kind of a biopic—a better understanding a painter’s inspiration—and while it isn’t a perfect film, it lingers in the memory long after its (albeit) capacious running time.
Ready Or Not | iTunes
A darkly humorous and very bloody comedy about a woman (Samara Weaving) marrying into a family whose riches come from its massive success in the board game business. The family also demands a midnight ritual for anyone looking to join them, which involves hunting the most dangerous game through their sprawling estate. The film’s ambitions aren’t to scare or horrify, but to entertain with salacious verve, and in that it delivers. While some of the young cast are a little flat, the veteran performers in support—especially Henry Czerny and Andie MacDowell—bring the good times.
Sometimes Always Never | iTunes
It’s a concept that shouldn’t work, but this is an oddly moving little film about a tailor (played by the always watchable Bill Nighy) who’s never given up the search for a lost son, to the point where it’s soured his relationship with the adult son (Sam Riley) who’s still around. Indebted to the heavily art-directed confections of Wes Anderson, a pervading sense of melancholy and singular Englishness distinguishes the picture.
The Souvenir | Amazon Prime
A surprise throwback to British kitchen sink cinema of the 1960s, Joanna Hogg’s semi-autobiography about a film student in 1980s London and her co-dependent relationship with a liar, a thief, and addict—who, it turns out, is all one person. Honor Swinton Byrne and Tom Burke share an austere connection in this awkward drama, and the film works almost despite itself, with nice supporting turn from Byrne’s mother on film and IRL, Tilda Swinton.
The White Crow | iTunes
A biopic of legendary dancer and Russian ex-patriot Rudolph Nureyev (done justice in both movement and acting by Oleg Ivenko) that avoids the genre’s cliches by bringing a great sense of the era and a sharp focus on the weeks around Nureyev’s defection to the west. Filling a key role in the supporting cast (while speaking Russian) and also in the director’s chair, Ralph Fiennes does a terrific job telling the tale of an egoist who nonetheless earns our compassion.
Wildlife | Netflix
Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan bring a Richard Ford book to the big screen, the story of a woman who, having moved to Montana in the 1960s with her family, makes changes to her life under the weight of isolation and depression. If Wildlife takes a wrong step it’s in the writing of a child who’s too often wiser than the adults in the room, but otherwise this is fully Carey Mulligan’s film. Her performance here is as powerful as anything else out there in 2019, and only this picture’s relative obscurity should keep her from earning prizes.