Best movies of 2019: ‘Parasite,’ ‘Knives Out’ and 18 more – Los Angeles Times

In Joanna Hogg’s “The Souvenir,” one of the best movies I saw this year, an aspiring filmmaker, Julie, struggles to write and direct her first feature, a grotty working-class drama set in an English port city. Julie is working in early 1980s London, but her challenge is one that a lot of independent filmmakers right now would surely recognize: the difficulty of reproducing, accurately and empathetically, the experiences of people whose lives are markedly different from her own. At one point, gently arguing with someone about these and other challenges, Julie declares, “I’m not trying to make a documentary. … I’m making a feature film.”

There’s a sly meta-irony in the fact that Julie (played by gifted newcomer Honor Swinton Byrne) is a thinly veiled stand-in for Hogg herself. “The Souvenir” is a skillful weave of fact and fiction, selective fabrication and personal memoir — a combination that could describe more than a few great movies this year, Pedro Almodóvar’s marvelous “Pain and Glory” not least among them. This is hardly a new phenomenon; narrative filmmakers have been drawing on their own life stories for ages, even when the inspirations aren’t explicitly clear. (Agree with it or not, Fellini’s dictum that “all art is autobiographical” can’t help but come to mind.)

Still, I can’t remember the last year so many filmmakers drew so deeply on their own experiences — and, to an astonishing degree, emerged with works so creative and singular that you wouldn’t necessarily guess their real-life provenance. At a time when so much movie discourse revolves around the usual array of sequels, remakes and reboots, most of which have less to do with cinema than with brand extension, there is something to be said for work whose inspirations can’t be filed under that ubiquitous and increasingly useless term “intellectual property.”

There is something to be said for work whose inspirations can’t be filed under that ubiquitous and increasingly useless term “intellectual property.”

Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story” has generated well-deserved acclaim but also the criticisms that often arise when a white male artist puts a fictionalized version of himself — and even his own bourgeois privilege — under a seriocomic microscope. The movie has also triggered endless debate about which of its two divorcing parties comes off as more sympathetic, which strikes me as not a weakness but rather a sign of the movie’s compassion, to say nothing of its craft.


Nadav Lapid’s brilliant “Synonyms” is rooted in his own experiences as a young man who chose to shed his Israeli identity and hurl himself into self-imposed exile. “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” Joe Talbot’s directing debut, is a lovely, melancholy and hyper-stylized telling of his close friend Jimmie Fails’ life story, starring Fails himself.

“Give Me Liberty” follows a young Russian immigrant driving a medical transport van around Milwaukee — a job once held by the picture’s gifted director, Kirill Mikhanovsky. And in “The Farewell,” Lulu Wang tells the story of an elaborate family deception with acute wit and sensitivity, the family being her own.

Even Bong Joon Ho’s wildly entertaining thriller “Parasite” has some basis in its director’s personal experience. Like the character who sets the story in motion, Bong worked as a tutor in South Korea as a young man, though he and his family have never infiltrated and wreaked havoc on a wealthy household, to the best of my knowledge. Bong, unlike Julie in “The Souvenir,” has few questions about his rights as a storyteller; his characters, who hail from across the entire South Korean class spectrum, are at once recognizable and surprising, endearing and unbearable. They’re some of the most real people you’ll meet this year.

Here are my favorite movies of 2019, listed as a series of themed pairings. With the exception of my top two, the rankings are pretty arbitrary and might look different tomorrow.

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