There’s a sea change coming, both literally and figuratively. Amid growing awareness of the dangers of climate change and increasing unrest over economic inequality, trouble increasingly brews over what kind of world we’re going to create. Cinema reflects these anxieties and conflicts, and the best movies of this past year do so in indelible ways — sometimes humorous, sometimes tragically, sometimes brutally, and sometimes all of those (and more) at once. Hyperallergic polled some frequent contributors on film to find their favorites of 2019, and then assembled their top picks in this list. Many of them are available for you to watch right now, so get to it! —Dan Schindel
Bong Joon-ho’s penchant for caustic, all-implicating class commentary reaches a new peak here. With camera placements as geometrically precise as the modernist home in which the wealthy Parks live, Bong elucidates the codependent rot of the haves and have-nots, and pointedly underlines that not even the most well-thought-out scheme can overcome the dehumanizing structures of class. The particulars of the film’s satire are specific to Korea, but its message is brutally universal. —Jake Cole
2. High Life
Claire Denis continues her corporeal obsession through meditative drama. In the isolation of a stark space prison, sex becomes an obsession, as well as an object of power and control. Far-flung from the daily problems of Earth, the film examines the nature of humanity itself, asking what separates us from the animals and the gods in a sweet, brutal, occasionally comic space movie like no other you’ve seen before. —Justine Smith
3. Ash Is Purest White
At first, Jia Zhangke’s latest bears all the traits of an epic crime film. A stoic Liao Fan and a transfixing Zhao Tao star as the unofficial power couple of a crime syndicate in the gritty Northern Chinese city of Datong. Under their steering, all goes well … until it really doesn’t. Jia then changes pace, moving to the cold reality of criminality exposed. But at its heart, this is a story of love and longing — for a relationship, a person, and even a city that once was. Sweeping shots of the area that will later become home to the Three Gorges Dam nod to Jia’s previous Still Life, offering oblique commentary on the rapidly changing state of China’s small cities. Like his other works, it attests to transformation, offering a meditation on the passage of time that is at once thrilling and mundane. —Dessane Lopez Cassell
4. Long Day’s Journey Into Night
Much fanfare has been made about the virtuosic 59-minute 3D tracking shot that comprises the second half of Bi Gan’s second film. For once, the hype is earned. The dreamy, half-remembered scenes of romance in the first half set the stage for a real-time journey into the depths of memory (and the literal depths of Kaili, Bi’s hometown). Visually stunning, heart-stirring, and melancholy, the film sets the stage for a Tarkovskian career of explorations into the unknowns of memory and love. —Dana Reinoos
5. Uncut Gems
Twice in New York City in 2019, I heard groups of kids playing the Penis Game. You know, when you take turns saying the word “penis” in a public space, each time louder than the last person said it, until you’re screaming at the top of your lungs and everyone’s either scowling at you or cringing at their own feet. Actually, make that three times if you count Uncut Gems. New York native rubbernecking dirtbags Josh and Benny Safdie construct their film like a game of chicken, from the wouldn’t-it-be-funny-if… casting — “Mike Francesca!” “The Fat Jew!” “Julia Fox!” “Kevin Garnett!” “ADAM SANDLER!” — to the compulsion that propels the plot, to the relentlessness filmmaking that matches it. Each moment is brasher than the next. —Mark Asch
6. The Farewell
Awkwafina slouches through this movie like her body is knotty, taut, tightly wound. Caught between East and West, tradition and modernity, guilt and freedom, past and present, her character is not unlike the film itself. On her trip to China for a sham marriage as a final goodbye to her dying grandmother, she doesn’t unwind uncritically, but instead makes sense of the complicated, irreconcilable paradoxes of the East Asian diaspora. With bold reds and blues, director Lulu Wang wades through the thorns of emotional, geographic, and temporal displacement, interrogating identity and grief. —Kyle Turner
Jordan Peele’s second feature is a more opaque and ambitious work than his smash hit debut Get Out. It’s a creepy (often hilarious) tale of social reclamation via C.H.U.D.s, as upper-middle-class families across Santa Cruz reap what’s been sown by the powers ruling America. It’s also an astonishing showcase for the talents of Lupita Nyong’o, as well as a reconfiguration of how we listen to Luniz’s “I Got 5 On It.” — Kambole Campbell
8. Asako I & II
Ryusuke Hamaguchi cribs from Vertigo’s premise but casts aside its perversities. A young woman falls hard for a shaggy-headed guy who up and vanishes, then goes steady with his suit-and-tie doppelgänger for five years. Hamaguchi shoots the long progress of this looks-based relationship in a naturalistic style, puncturing it every so often with subtle world-warping expressionistic flourishes. Never fine, always refined — a romance of equipoise. —Tanner Tafelski
9. An Elephant Sitting Still
The first and tragically last feature from 29-year-old Hu Bo, this four-hour epic emanates resigned resilience, tracking its characters as they navigate their entanglements in a decaying industrial city. Hu’s particular fusion of his subtly emotive actors, his sinuous extended tracking shots which frequently rest in close-up, and above all his sense of duration result in a constant, moving sense of empathy and the struggle for understanding. —Ryan Swen
10. La Flor
With an intimidating 14-and-a-half-hour runtime forming a labyrinthine series of six episodes, each a different genre and lacking traditional plots (or endings), this film nestles itself into a uniquely prickly category. But viewers willing to take part in Mariano Llinás’s venture will be rewarded with a rich and transgressive take on the mythologies we build around movies, bolstered by the masterly performances of Elisa Carricajo, Valeria Correa, Pilar Gamboa, and Laura Paredes. It’s thrilling to watch their performances and personas blossom as each episode unfolds. —Susannah Gruder
11. A Hidden Life
Every Terrence Malick film is, on some level, about America and what it means to be American. Even this, an Austria-set WWII drama, is a film that only an American could make. Indifference to political specificities is for once a boon, as it allows Malick to paint Nazism and resistance to it as a moral dichotomy, and suggest in no uncertain terms that any inch given to evil is one inch too many. Malick works in his by-now-familiar style of montage, creating the kind of urgency that many films strive for, but few earn. —Forrest Cardamenis
12. Birds of Passage
Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra wanted to make a film about the Colombian drug trade, but decided to tell it like a Wayuu folktale. It has magic, color, and flamboyance cloaking an extremely macabre context of crime, duplicity, and immorality. It’s a lesson in culture related through a masterful epic tragedy. —Bedatri D. Choudhury
13. Portrait of a Lady on Fire
This is a lush meditation on the ways that life and art can imitate one another, all told through the sensual and at times fraught relationship that emerges between an artist and her subject. Director Céline Sciamma and cinematographer Claire Mathon treat the film more like a painting, as if the works of a museum were its storyboards. With its beautifully composed and rendered frames and ethereal camerawork, the film quietly but powerfully reminds us that our need for authentic and organic beauty is far from frivolous, but essential to human feeling. —Beandrea July
In theaters February. Read our original review.
The best movies of this year dealt with the ever-growing gulf between the rich and poor in the spookiest ways. This film dives deep into a far less gory and far more heartbreaking approach than Us or Parasite. In her first feature, Mati Diop presents a reality in which we are literally drowning in the specters of the past. It seems that in 2019, a haunting was nigh. —Zoe Guy
15. The Irishman
This is a story about collaboration — between the mafia, American labor, and on occasion the government for their respective interests. But that harmony of postwar America was much more combustible than sustainable. The subsequent back-stabbing, conspiracies, betrayal, and violence pile up in this too-good-to-be-true story of the soldier turned teamster turned hitman Frank Sheeran (Robert DeNiro), who eventually emerges as the last man standing in the most heartbreaking manner possible. This movie is also the ultimate collaboration and culmination of many careers. Martin Scorsese stares straight at mortality like he never has before. —Caden Mark Gardner
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