Published Dec 09, 2019
8. Honey Boy
Directed by Alma Har'el
What could've been a massive eye roll ended up being a powerful tearjerker as Shia LaBeouf turned the lens on himself in more ways than one. Honey Boy was written by Shia while in rehab, and it's really about three Shias. There's the child Shia, the adult Shia and the actor Shia's father (played by Shia). It's a meta mess on paper, but the film itself is a stunning and profoundly personal look at a troubled upbringing made all the more powerful thanks to Alma Har'el's directorial magic. You may go into this film still thinking it's about Shia the meme, but you'll leave with a deeper understanding of Shia the man.
7. The Lighthouse
Directed by Robert Eggers
Though its premise of two gruff labourers trapped on a New England island by the elements leaves little question that it will lead to blood-curdling madness, Robert Eggers' The Lighthouse draws out this inevitability for all of the tension, comedy, pseudo-romance, and stomach churning horror it is worth. An aggressively textured film which envelops you entirely into its diabolic Lovecraftian rhythms through Eggers' formal design, the film is held down by enrapturing performances by Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson, who come across as coarse as the space they inhabit, while they probe the ugliness of man's very soul over one too many swigs of liquor. As haunting, harrowing and downright repugnant as this maritime hell might get, The Lighthouse is still one of the most raw and entertaining films of the year.
Directed by Ari Aster
At once nauseating and exhilarating, Ari Aster's latest film is a psychedelic-fuelled descent into the demonic rituals of a Nordic pagan cult. Adopting the folk-horror genre, Aster's Midsommar is essentially a breakup movie but with extra steps — and gore. Young partners Dani (Florence Pugh) and Christian (Jack Raynor) enter the film bound together by their own emotional trappings, but they soon take a trip that will tear them apart forever. At over two hours long, the movie is saturated with all the elements that make for great horror: psychological conflict, suspense and betrayal. In its hefty runtime, Midsommar dismantles preconceived assumptions about culture, gender, relationships, academia and more with ferocity — never straying away from the unsettling or animalistic. And it does so on the backdrop of cartoonishly beautiful folk art and wildlife, proving that Aster is just as adept at fantasy as he is at horror.
5. Jojo Rabbit
Directed by Taika Waititi
There was a time where one could lampoon Nazis with abandon (see: The Producers, Inglourious Basterds) but that's over, thanks the resurgence of white supremacy into mainstream politics. And yet, Jojo Rabbit — where director Taika Waititi explores the mindset of a Hitler Youth cadet by portraying a buffoonish, imaginary version of the dictator — succeeds by juggling over-the-top gags with a touching story of familial love and compassion. With a wholly original concept and fresh take on enduring themes, Jojo Rabbit delves into the mindsets of Nazi sympathizers and dismantles them with the power of good ol' fashioned character development, heartfelt storytelling and silly jokes.
4. Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Directed by Céline Sciamma
The romantic mythos of Orpheus and Eurydice, the tale of a man who tried to bring his wife back from the dead with music, is symbolically referenced throughout director Céline Sciamma's latest work. Weaving this Greek tragedy of love and loss into Portrait of a Lady on Fire makes it one of the best and most beautiful films of the year. This star-crossed love story is a rarity, as it relies solely on the female gaze. Its technical achievements and romantic imagery perfectly capture the collaboration of creator and muse. It feels like something out of the Louvre.
3. Marriage Story
Directed by Noah Baumbach
Marriage Story isn't always fun to watch. It chronicles a divorce that goes from amicable to tense to cutthroat, as successful couple Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) are pitted against one another by their ruthless attorneys, while their young son becomes a bargaining chip in their legal drama. We see how a difficult situation can bring out the worst in two otherwise decent, reasonable people who used to be in love. And yet, for all of the heartbreak and frustration, audiences come out the other side with genuine catharsis. Much like a real breakup, Marriage Story is an emotionally fraught journey that that's ultimately cleansing.
2. The Last Black Man in San Francisco
Directed by Joe Talbot
Not everyone wants to be rich. Some just want to live a rich life.
A spiritual successor to last year's surreal satire Sorry to Bother You, Joe Talbot's debut feature film The Last Black Man in San Francisco tackles similar themes, like racial identity and the homogenization of once-working-class neighbourhoods in the Bay Area and beyond. But it's also a beautiful film about two lifelong buddies trying to do what's right for each other, no matter the cost.
It's a rare but welcome respite from today's divisive society and a reminder that friendship takes many forms.
Directed by Bong Joon-ho
In 2019, amidst news story after news story about one-percenters who use their wealth and privilege for evil, amidst diminishing affordable housing, stagnating wages, cuts to health care and childcare, amidst cries of "eat the rich," came Bong Joon-ho's Parasite. The winner of this year's prestigious Palme d'Or at Cannes (ironically, one of cinema's most elitist festivals), this hilariously fucked-up thriller about an eccentric lower-class family who scheme their way into working for the South Korean elite resonates so powerfully in a world where the divide between rich and poor grows wider every day.
Bong has touched on class warfare before, most recently in his 2013 English-language debut Snowpiercer, but the sharp, satirical, perfectly paced Parasite is on another level entirely. Parasite's central heist builds from low-stakes schemes (stealing free Wi-Fi from the neighbourhood cafe) to sociopathic ones (deliberately staging a peach-induced allergy attack for job-stealing purposes).
For a while it's diabolically fun to watch this family of ragtag misfits con the rich...until things start getting extra weird. It's relentless, ferociously funny and fascinating, laddering up to an inventive twist that drives home the film's central thesis about the desperation of the poor and the clueless cruelty of the rich.
Laura Di Girolamo
Check out more of Exclaim!'s Best of 2019 lists here.