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New Year Post: Best Movies of 2019 and Best Movies of the Decade

The Ten Best Movies of 2019


Below are very brief descriptions of my favorite films of this past year. Most have been the subject of longer reviews.  For reference to these I have indicated both the blog post dates and the page number(s) in the 2019 collected reviews document.  I have also added a list of a dozen documentaries that most impressed, with information links and review dates and page numbers if applicable. 
Parasite
South Korean director Bong Joon Ho’s savage satire of his society’s class divides earned the Cannes film festival’s top prize Palme d’Or and should be the favorite for the best international feature film (previously best foreign-language film) Oscar to be announced February 9.  Don’t be surprised if it also makes it into the main best picture category, nominations for which will be announced on January 13.  (Reviewed 30 October, p. 67)
The Two Popes
Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles’ insightful imagining of this unusual relationship features stellar performances from Jonathan Pryce as Pope Francis and Anthony Hopkins as Pope Benedict XVI.  As much as Meirelles admires Pope Francis, he does not gloss over controversial elements of his backstory.  Nor does he neglect the very human side of Pope Benedict.   (4 December, pp. 75-6)
The Irishman
Master filmmaker Martin Scorsese returns to the familiar territory of the criminal underworld and the corruption of power in relating the story of the title character Frank Sheeran, mafia hitman and enforcer for legendary Teamsters Union boss Jimmy Hoffa until his violent end. (15 November, pp. 70-71)
Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Writer-director Celine Sciamma was awarded best screenplay at the Cannes film festival for this luminous story of a female painter in 18th century Brittany hired to do the bridal portrait of a sheltered elusive young woman who becomes the beguiling subject of female desire that society disallows. Exquisite in every detail.  (29 September, pp. 56-7)
Pain and Glory
Spanish master Pedro Almodóvar helms this intimate semi-autobiographical story of an aging film director Salvador Mallo (played by Antonio Banders, named best actor at Cannes) looking back over significant moments from his youth, career and closest relationships. The pathos is palpable.  (22 October, p. 66)
A Hidden Life
Another veteran master director Terrence Malick tells the true story of an Austrian peasant farmer, Blessed Franz JägerStätter, who refused to swear allegiance to Hitler, was imprisoned during the Second World War and ultimately executed.  Based on his letters to his wife and young family. (29 September, p. 57)
Corpus Christi
Poland’s much-praised Oscar submission has made the short list of 10 from which the five best international film nominees will be announced.  When a young man Daniel (a remarkable Bartoz Bielenia) is paroled from juvenile detention to a workshop in a small town, the residents of which are reeling from a tragedy, circumstances result in him impersonating the role of local priest. This most unusual spiritual journey allows the outcast with a criminal past to become the pastor to a flock that is also in need of healing.  (29 September, p. 57)
The Lighthouse
Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson are superb as a mismatched pair of keepers in this dark and stormy 19th century tale of isolation, confinement and madness, the atmosphere of which is strikingly evoked through suggestive black-and-white cinematography.  (30 October, p. 68)   
JoJo Rabbit
Unconventional New Zealand director Taika Watiti plays a parody of Adolph Hitler befriending a boy Nazi in this self-described “anti-hate satire” that mocks its subject and seems designed to provoke, which it surely does.  Toronto film festival audiences gave it their “people’s choice” award but it may be too controversial for Oscar consideration. (9 November, pp. 69-70)
Joker
This is another love it or hate it drama of disturbing subject matter, both much praised (awarded the top prize at the Venice Film Festival) and denounced.  In a crime-ridden Gotham City, a severely alienated misfit Arthur Fleck is dumped from his job as a clown and humiliated as an aspiring comedian. By morphing into the “joker” nemesis of society, Fleck takes his revenge public and becomes a violent folk hero.  It’s on my list because of the extraordinary performance of Joaquin Phoenix in the title role, and that’s no joke. (14 October, pp. 63-4)

Best Documentaries of 2019

Varda par Agnès (https://mk2films.com/en/film/varda-by-agnes/) Reviewed 29 September, p. 55
Apollo 11 ( https://www.apollo11movie.com/) Reviewed 16 March, pp. 11-12
Chasing the Moon   (https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/films/chasing-moon/ available on the Kanopy platform) Reviewed 4 September, p. 51
The Cave (https://www.nationalgeographic.com/films/the-cave/#/) Reviewed 4 December, p. 76
For Sama (https://www.forsamafilm.com/) Reviewed 4 December, pp. 76-77
American Factory (https://americanfactoryfilm.com/ on Netflix) Reviewed 25 August, pp. 48-49
Honeyland (https://honeyland.earth/) Reviewed 25 September, p. 53
The Edge of Democracy (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Edge_of_Democracy on Netflix)
Reviewed 29 June, pp. 31-32
One Child Nation (https://www.onechildnation.com/home/  on Amazon Prime Video) Reviewed 14 December, p. 81
63 Up (https://www.imdb.com/title/tt8929142/) Reviewed 27 November, pp. 73-74
Nîpawistamâsowin: We Will Stand Up (https://mediaspace.nfb.ca/epk/we-will-stand-up/)
Margaret Atwood: A Word After a Word After a Word is Power

The Ten Best Movies of the Decade

I’ve reviewed hundreds of films over the past 10 years.  Reflecting over that period here are ten in particular that have both impressed me at the time and that continue to stand out.  Nine of them I have reviewed in print as included in my 2018 book The Best of Screenings & Meanings: A Journey through Film (giving the relevant page references). All can be found on DVD or Blu-ray. In addition to the online links given, it’s also worth checking whether some may be available on streaming platforms. 
From writer-director Richard Linklater, the story of a Texas boy Mason growing up, filmed over 12 years. Unique and deservedly the decade’s highest rated film. Available on Kanopy. (Reviewed in The Best of Screenings & Meanings, pp. 350-353; on Linklater see also pp. 416-420)
The Tree of Life (U.S. 2011 http://www.foxsearchlight.com/thetreeoflife/)
Terrence Malick’s masterwork awarded the Cannes film festival’s Palme d’Or is a transcendent meditation on the flow of time through the lives of a Texas family. (Reviewed in The Best of Screenings & Meanings, pp. 280-284)
Roma (Mexico 2018 https://www.romamovie.com/)
The first true masterwork produced by streaming giant Netflix, writer-director Alfonso Cuarón’s semi-autobiographical drama lovingly recalls scenes from a Mexico City childhood.
Of Gods and Men (Des hommes et des dieux, France 2010 https://www.sonyclassics.com/ofgodsandmen/)
Xavier Beauvois directs this superlative dramatization of the lives of a group of Catholic monks in rural Algeria whose quiet life in harmony with the local population was cut short by their Christmastime abduction by Islamist extremists. (Reviewed in The Best of Screenings & Meanings pp. 264-268.)
First Reformed (U.S./UK Australia 2017 https://a24films.com/films/first-reformed)
Writer-director Paul Shrader’s searing portrait of a pastor, played by Ethan Hawke (Mason’s father in Boyhood), who is undergoing an existential and spiritual crisis. (Reviewed in The Best of Screenings & Meanings pp. 508-511)
Spotlight (U.S. 2015 http://spotlightthefilm.com/)
Tom McCarthy helms this Oscar best-picture winner that dramatizes the work of an investigative team at the Boston Globe which exposed a terrible history of sexual abuse of minors by clergy in the Boston archdiocese, known to a hierarchy long protected by its political influence. (Reviewed in The Best of Screenings & Meanings pp. 401-405)
The Artist (France/Belgium/U.S. 2011)
From writer-director Michel Hazanvicius, a glorious enchanting black-and-white throwback to Hollywood at the close of the silent era. (Reviewed in The Best of Screenings & Meanings, pp. 299-301)
Son of Saul (Hungary 2015)
One of the most remarkable directorial debut’s ever by László Nemes, winner of the best foreign-language film Oscar, this Holocaust story centres on the spark of humanity that survives in a death-camp prisoner. (Reviewed in The Best of Screenings & Meanings, pp. 411-413)
Manchester by the Sea (U.S. 2016, available on Amazon Prime Video and Kanopy)
Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s seaside tale features a career-best performance from Casey Affleck as a withdrawn loner with a hurtful past who is forced by circumstances to become the guardian of a teenage nephew. (Reviewed in The Best of Screenings & Meanings, pp. 428-429)
The Story of Film: An Odyssey (UK 2011 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Story_of_Film:_An_Odyssey)
Scottish film scholar Mark Cousins is our guide to this 15-hour documentary series which, along with the companion book, is unsurpassed as an insightful immersion in the history of the cinema up to the first year of the past decade.  One hopes for a sequel as the story continues.  (Reviewed in The Best of Screenings & Meanings pp. 311-315)

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