My 10 favourite films of 2019

DECEMBER 21 ― We've come to the end of 2019 and of course the end of the decade as well, and even though I've always come to expect cinematic excellence every year, provided one knows where to look, 2019 was a very strong year, maybe even one of the strongest of the decade.

In addition to the 10 films I've picked this year, I could name another 10 that could've easily made it to my list, and I haven't even seen one of my most anticipated films of the year (because it's made by the Safdie brothers, a long-time favourite of mine) Uncut Gems, or Rick Alverson's latest film The Mountain and a host of other festival titles that will only probably get released in 2020 like Liberte, Zombi Child, It Must Be Heaven, Anne At 13,000 Ft, or Beanpole, yet.

Just take note that this is a list of my favourite films from 2019, not films that I think are the best of 2019, because I'd rather write about films I love (and why I love them) than argue why certain films are “better” than others.

So, without wasting time, let's dive right in, shall we?

Ad Astra

My most transcendent cinematic experience this year came courtesy of Ad Astra by director James Gray, a long-time favourite of mine especially with his masterpiece The Immigrant, which I thankfully got to experience in the cinema here in Malaysia thanks to its status as a big budget movie (reportedly around US$100 million) starring Brad Pitt.

A beautiful swoon of a movie about an astronaut (Pitt) tasked with looking for his father, long thought to be dead during a space mission years ago, Gray manages to still make a James Gray film despite the blockbuster budget; deeply intimate and full of beautifully thought out shots while still having enough thrilling set-pieces to satisfy those expecting a more visceral experience instead of the cerebral and achingly emotional one on offer here.

Transit

Phoenix may still be my favourite Christian Petzold film, but his latest film Transit is now a pretty close second.

Still ruminating on his favourite theme of the slipperiness of identity, Petzold goes even further in the slippery stakes by setting this World War II story of Georg, an anti-Nazi German who escaped from a concentration camp and is now in occupied France and trying his best to get the proper transit and travel papers to flee France by ship to South America, in what looks like modern-day France.

That clever piece of Brechtian distancing technique made the movie even more dreamlike, and results in another swooning film experience like very few others, as the viewer gets drawn into its suspenseful story and feels just as trapped and in limbo as its characters.

Like Casablanca meets Kafka's The Trial and Albert Camus' The Stranger, Petzold has added another brilliant film to an already impressive oeuvre, as slippery and seductive as they come.

Crawl

The trailer seemed to promise something like The Shallows, but set in a house basement and with alligators instead of sharks and the sea.

What I'm sure not many expected was how excellently director Alexandre Aja managed to fulfill that promise with his latest film Crawl, which is every bit as suspenseful, thrilling, scary and ingeniously executed as The Shallows, which was one of my favourite films of 2016.

It may lack some of the transcendent visual passages that made The Shallows a bit more than just another creature feature, but in terms of expertly staged suspense and thrills, Crawl is every bit as good as recent standouts like Don't Breathe and A Quiet Place.

This is heart attack moviemaking of the highest order, and a damn fine example of termite art and expressive esoterica this year.

Once Upon A Time In Hollywood

Quentin Tarantino's warmest and sweetest movie yet, or at least since the chillax wonder that is Jackie Brown, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood has a way of sneaking up on you and leaving you awash with memories of a time that probably never was, as Guillermo Del Toro famously tweeted about the movie, but still feels like a legit memory anyway.

Using the same guiding principles as his previous films Django Unchained and Inglourious Basterds, in which he uses cinema as wish fulfillment to change the course of history (in this case the Manson Family murders), whereas those films have vengeance and anger as their core, this one has love, sweetness and that old school white cowboy hero code of honour as its beating heart, and it's simply beautiful.

Marriage Story

With The Irishman and Marriage Story, Netflix may have two big awards season contenders on their hands, but of the two, Marriage Story is clearly the one that stole my heart and crushed it to pieces, while still sprinkling enough tenderness and hope, to make it an unforgettable and stunning viewing experience.

Noah Baumbach (whom I will always love for making Kicking And Screaming) has explored divorce before, but from the point of view of the children in The Squid And The Whale, and this time he gets a bit more personal as we now get to see things from the parents' perspective.

Any movie about marriage and divorce will always have the shadow of Ingmar Bergman's Scenes From A Marriage looming over it, and I'm very impressed that Baumbach (aided by the remarkable acting of Scarlett Johanssen and Adam Driver) has managed to craft something that feels totally worthy of that legacy.

Toy Story 4

Part 4 of any movie series, let alone an animated movie series aimed at kids, will always be looked upon as a cash grab, because let's face it, there are very few good reasons to have even parts 2 and 3 for a movie.

So to encounter a movie as rich in subtext and allegory as Toy Story 4 is always going to be something special.

If Toy Story 3 made it abundantly clear that the relationship between the toys and their kid is that of a parent (the toys) and their children (the kid), and in that instalment the parent needs to learn to let go, part 4 goes deeper into that letting go part and envisions the possibility of happiness and second chances (Second Chances is coincidentally the name of the antique shop in the film) for empty nester parents.

Toy Story 4 even raises questions about the validity and happiness of life outside the typical “nuclear family” unit, as the “lost toys” here make a case for their own happiness without having to have a kid to call their own.

Now how about that for the fourth movie in an animated movie franchise aimed at kids?

Parasite

I usually don't agree with most films that have the honour of winning the Palme d'Or at Cannes (because like everyone else with opinions, I will have my personal pick of what I feel is a worthier winner), but I have no objections whatsoever to this year's winner, Parasite, by Korean auteur Bong Joon-Ho (of The Host, Memories Of Murder and Snowpiercer fame).

Already the highest grossing foreign language film in the US this year with US$20.4 million (RM84.4 million) and still counting, and a worldwide total of US$125.5 million so far (including US$70 million from South Korea), Parasite is that very rare beast ― a film universally loved by both audiences and film critics ― thanks to Bong's by-now trademark way of using familiar and comforting genre beats to tell very personal stories that are rich with universal resonance.

A hugely entertaining social comedy-thriller about two families, one rich and one poor, although which one is the true parasite is left naughtily open to interpretation by Bong, this one's best experienced cold, as it's full of wicked twists and turns that will delight, outrage and sadden you in equal measures.

Bacurau

Respected arthouse auteurs taking cues from or exploring genre films do seem to be a theme happening across the major film festivals this year, especially Cannes, but never in a million years would I have expected Kleber Mendonca Filho, whose previous films Neighbouring Sounds and Aquarius graced my favourite films list in 2013 and 2017 respectively, to embrace genre as wholeheartedly and enthusiastically as he did with his third film Bacurau, which he co-directed with Juliano Dornelles (production designer on the two previous films) and which won the Cannes Jury Prize this year.

An ultraviolent siege movie that plays like an honest to goodness homage to John Carpenter, with shades of The Most Dangerous Game and Wake In Fright, it's quite clearly a critique of new Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right politician who has often been criticised for repeatedly pursuing anti-democratic policies, including claims that he incites his followers to commit genocide against indigenous people, traces of which can be seen in the film's story involving a bunch of foreign tourists on some kind of package to hunt the locals who make up the residents of the town of Bacurau.

Executed with supreme confidence and style, even without that layer of subtext Bacurau is already a super fun, exciting and thrilling Western.

With that layer added, it just becomes something even more special.

Portrait Of A Lady On Fire

I went to see this at the Singapore International Film Festival because of its Best Screenplay win at Cannes this year and because of director Celine Sciamma's previous works Girlhood and Tomboy, but little did that knowledge prepare me for how immaculately constructed the screenplay turned out to be and how moving and shatteringly romantic the film is.

A feminist take on the by now archetypal painter and subject/muse story, Sciamma uses the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice, especially Orpheus' descend to Hades to see his now dead wife Eurydice, in which Hades tells Orpheus that he can take Eurydice back with him, provided that he not turn and look at her before coming out into the light (which he tragically does), as a springboard to tell her story of the love affair between painter Marianne and her subject Heloise.

The act of looking, the gaze, is a pivotal part of the story, and Sciamma ingeniously works this part of the legend into her story, resulting in a beautifully poetic and painterly film that will live long in the memory of anyone who sees it.

Relaxer

Having been a long time fan of US indie provocateur Joel Potrykus, thanks to his previous films Buzzard and The Alchemist Cookbook, it's just amazing to see him take his signature obsession/theme about young men who are obsessed with beating the system (which is the basic premise of all three of his previous movies, and also this one, his fourth) to its most minimalist and logical extreme.

Set entirely inside a living room, with its hero Abbie never leaving the couch as he accepts his older brother's challenge to beat level 256 of the original Pac Man, no matter how long it takes, and without leaving the couch before he's done with it.

Deeply uncomfortable, hilarious, gross and unflinchingly sad to the extreme, Relaxer is an unforgettable endurance test, both for its hero and the audience, and is one of the most overlooked and unsung cinematic achievements of 2019.

Forget whatever your idea of “indie film” is, because I suspect it won't even come close to the courage of Potrykus' convictions here. This, folks, is the real thing, and Potrykus is the real deal.

Honourable mentions: Her Smell, The Souvenir, Ash Is Purest White, Vitalina Varela, Synonyms, Gully Boy, The Beach Bum, High Life, Late Night, The New King Of Comedy.

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.