The 10 Best Movies of 2019—Richard Lawson’s List – Vanity Fair
This year in moviegoing was indelibly marked by the semi-ends of big franchises—adios, Avengers; sayonara, Star Wars. But surrounding all that franchise fanfare was a wealth of films, ones that spoke poignantly to the human experience, movies that drilled deep in their explorations of what it meant to be alive in 2019, or in the past. Many worthy films are left off this list, as happens every year, but these are the 10 movies that really struck me in 2019, pictures (thanks, Marty) that offered some welcome counterbalance to all the I.P. shuffle.
10. Uncut Gems
After their unpleasantly jangling last feature, 2017’s Good Time, I expected to hate the Safdie brothers’ new feature, Uncut Gems. Not only did the film promise to be another scuzz-bro dive into a New York City prized for its squalor, but it stars Adam Sandler, a good actor who has seemed mostly uninterested in making good things for much of the past decade. What a happy—well, happy in a way—surprise, then, that Uncut Gems proves such a dizzying wonder, a stress-thriller about a Diamond District jeweler and gambling addict trying to keep his head above water as the forces of debt collectors and nothing less than cosmic fate bear down upon him. Sandler is sweatily mesmerizing as desperate Howard, while newcomer Julia Fox slyly steals focus as Howard’s not-so-hapless mistress. A fascinating glimpse of a certain system of New York economy, Uncut Gems lets the viewer revel in the almost amiable sleaze of Howard and his cohort, before issuing a brutal—and vaguely metaphysical—reminder of the long fibers that bind the world, ones that tether Manhattan flare to real and tangible danger far-flung. Ambitious and rattlingly busy (I love the way Daniel Lopatin’s spacey score swirls discordantly with all the frenetic camerawork), Uncut Gems somehow isn’t the showy bit of Film Twitter posturing I feared it would be. It’s instead a serious, humane piece of filmmaking, as unnerving as it is satisfying.
9. Her Smell
A similarly feverish descent into something, Alex Ross Perry’s (to date) magnum opus is an awesome (in the old sense of the world) trek into the inner sancta of a drug-addled rock star, played with controlled chaos by a maybe never-better Elisabeth Moss. We certainly haven’t seen Moss work in this vein before, so loose and prowling, as her maybe sorta Courtney Love–esque girl group frontwoman Becky tears down everyone and everything around her. Perry stages five dazzling set pieces, ranging from hellish tailspin all the way to the pale, tentatively glimpsed glow of possible recovery. Her Smell is utterly exhausting; but it’s supposed to be. Few movies this year were as bracingly immersive. It plunges us in, full-body and gasping for air, as its fine company of actors (among them Virginia Madsen and Dan Stevens) manage Perry’s tricky poetics. It’s mostly the Moss show, though, and she rockets through, leaving a Becky-shaped hole in every room that attempts to contain her. Astonishingly, Moss consistently pulls things back just before she stumbles onto the emotive third-rail. Her Smells hurtles—and scrapes and crawls and thrashes—with glaring intent.
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8. The Ground Beneath My Feet
Though plenty of people loved 2016’s Toni Erdmann, about a tightly wound businesswoman dealing with a difficult family member while trying to get her cynical job done in the E.U., I much prefer this darker, graver, more sinister version of the story. Marie Kreutzer’s film is a psychological thriller haunted by tragedy—and, maybe, by an actual ghost. The Ground Beneath My Feet concerns Lola, an intense corporate consultant trying to escape the specters of family demons by losing herself in her work. It doesn’t do the trick, of course, and soon Lola has to confront not just her ineffable fears of inherited trauma, but the very real challenge of her sister, institutionalized and plagued by paranoia—and, in Lola’s repulsed assessment, dripping with hideous need. More people will likely see the exciting Austrian actor Valerie Pachner in the 2019 Terrence Malick sweeper A Hidden Life, but for my money, this is the Pachner performance of the year, a precise and insightful look at one woman’s gradual unraveling. Kreutzer fills her film with ominous beauty, while her screenplay achieves an eerie ambiguity that never falls into lazy abstraction. An elegant, deeply sad chiller, The Ground Beneath My Feet followed me out of the theater and has lingered since, tantalizing and terrifying in equal measure.
Mati Diop’s arresting look at the impact of West African migration on those left behind—and, in a way, those who venture out—is a peculiar marvel. So many movies about African and Middle Eastern immigration these days focus on strangers in a strange land, tracing a lone migrant’s journey through the dingy and despairing corners of the European dream. In Atlantics, we never see the boat full of men leaving Dakar, Senegal, nor the Spain they’re headed toward. Instead, we only hear about this dangerous journey, as teenage Ada (Mame Bineta Sane, terrific) and her friends navigate the loss of the young men, their friends and lovers, who left to seek out some better fortune in the still of the night. Diop has in mind a mighty reckoning, a mission that carries her film into horror, while remaining ever dialed-in on the everyday concerns of Ada and those around her. Atlantics moans with an urgent plaint, one that grounds Diop’s remarkable film both in the present tense and the fraught hereafter. How callous those of us on other sides of oceans have been to not truly consider the cost and meaning of modern diaspora, how one nation’s economic lack in no way voids it of humanity. A ghost story that demands the remembrance of so many drowned lives, Atlantics stretches its empathetic and grieving energy out across continents. It mourns stolen justice, it revels in small, sensory pleasures. Diop’s film is about the dead; it’s so much about the living too.
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