Looking Back: Alex's Top 10 Favorite Films of 2019 - 'Parasite' Reigns
by Alex Billington
February 7, 2020
"Let Neptune strike ye dead Winslow! HAAARK!" Another year, another Top 10. And although we're already well into 2020, it's never too late to share this list. Better late than never, as they say! It's time to present my personal list of my Top 10 Favorite Films of 2019. I really wish I had more time to revisit all of these, and so many other films, but there's never enough time. Most of these I really wanted to see again before writing about them, but, I went with my gut feeling. With every film below, as soon as I finished watching it, I knew it would be on my Top 10. There is that feeling deep down that I have seen something extraordinary and I just know it won't be topped. And my final three, same as last year, I kept switching around because they're masterpieces. With that said, I am more than happy to reveal my faves, the films that left me floored.
For last year's Top 10 of 2018 list, topped by Jennifer Kent's The Nightingale, click here. You can also see Adam's list of his Top 10 of 2019 here, also with Parasite at #1, then Once Upon a Time in Hollywood at #2.
A few notes: this is a list of my favorite films, not the best films of the year, these are the ones that I love for my own reasons and I'll try to explain why with each one. As always, I wish I had so much more to time to watch/rewatch films, and see everything else that played in 2019, but that's impossible so this is just what I decided to run with. Also - my film selection is based on the date when I originally saw the film at a public event, including film festivals (Venice, Sundance) or public releases limited or otherwise. This is not based on only films released in 2019, but the ones I experienced in 2019, and is a good representation of the best cinema has given us, in my opinion. I'm always a bit shy to share these picks, but they really are films I love.
#10. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood directed by Marielle Heller
I will admit: Marielle Heller is one of my top directors making films. It's pretty much a guarantee I'll love any film she makes, and this one especially swept me off my feet. It's not a film about Fred Rogers, despite the fact that he is a main character him. Heller gets more and more confident with each film she makes, and you can feel that confidence in every shot, every scene, every cut, every performance. She knows what to show, how to show it, why to show it, and how to let scenes and moments breathe. She trusts the audience, which is rare these days, to understand the story and what she is showing and why, and therefore believes that you'll be as moved as she is by the story she's telling. Every scene with Tom Hanks as Mr. Rogers is bliss. You can feel him missing from every other scene, which isn't entirely a criticism, because that's the point. At one point, Lloyd runs off and goes straight to Pittsburgh to be with Fred because he's so comforted by him. And THAT is what this film is really about - a good friend. Kidness and compassion. A shoulder to cry on. Someone who listens and understands, and lets you express yourself. It's a heartwarming connection and Heller captures that so beautifully, letting the twinkle in their eyes speak just as loudly as any dialogue.
#9. For Sama directed by Waad Al-Kateab & Edward Watts
What a film! This really deserves the Oscar nomination. How much of a difference there is when a woman makes a war documentary. The story of a young mother in Syria, made as a film for her daughter the story of her parents. It's remarkable. Truly horrifying and astoundingly beautiful all at once, an unfiltered story of humanity. I'll even call this is a seminal film in the documentary genre. The unique perspective we get from Waad Al-Khateab making this is phenomenal. There's footage in this that we're not usually supposed to ever see. I don't think any western country would ever show this kind of footage - uncensored shots from a hospital. It's so sad and yet also inspiring to see these two keep fighting. Not only the harrowing footage, but some of the things they say in this film really dig deep into my mind. "It's a long road with danger and fear but freedom awaits at the end." "You've only ever known war since your birth." "I just need to see people alive. To live a normal life is to fight against this regime." "This is not about the place, places are about the people." These kind of unfiltered thoughts are the ones you'll never forget once you hear them in this film…
#8. Uncut Gems directed by Josh & Benny Safdie
I wasn't sure if I'd enjoy this one, but I did. It's as crazy and electric and nerve-wracking and enthralling as everyone has been saying. Goddamn, Adam Sandler is a slam dunk of awesome in this. He really deserves acclaim for being pretty much perfect as Howard Ratner. One of his best roles ever in his long career. What an absolute banger of a movie. Truly a big bet trying to make this and make it just right and the Safdie Brothers hit it big with this. Catching on with audiences and critics, and the perfect balance of the Safdies' style and intensity and New York City storytelling. And thanks to A24 for putting their weight behind it, too. Ballsy to close with D'Agostino's "L'Amour Toujours". As anxiety-inducing as the film is, I think there is a good point to it all – and it has to do with those trippy shots of the camera doing that crazy slow dive into gems and into people. This will end up being regarded as a modern classic, and rightfully so, it's ambitious filmmaking with biting commentary on modern society's addiction to money. It's a slam dunk in that regard.
#7. Long Shot directed by Jonathan Levine
An unexpected pick for my Top 10, but damnit, I have to put this on here. I love it. Really, really love it. It's a subversive, funky, hilarious comedy that goes against what is expected. It throws all the bullshit back in the face of those that try to use it against them, and is a bold reminder that love conquers all. It's soooooo sweet and funny and smart. Jonathan Levine!! I've been following him ever since The Wackness (2008) and his Hollywood work has been hit or miss, but this is his best in a long time. A really pure and charming romance that also balances real-world issues. Seth Rogen is so adorable in this, and Charlize Theron, really the only thing to say is: fuck yes. They have such believable chemistry which made it really work so well. It takes a bit of time to build but once it gets going it just keeps building and I kept laughing more and more and smiling more and more. And then - using "Can't Do Without You" at that moment sealed the deal for my love of this film. I know I'll be rewatching this many times over and over. It's positive and uplifting and gives me that warm, fuzzy feeling while watching it, which really matters when it comes to my favorites.
#6. Blinded by the Light directed by Gurinder Chadha
Another movie that I just unabashedly love with all my heart. I ADORE THIS MOVIE! So much. Everything about it is perfect. The friendship between Javed and Roops. The cute romance between Javed and Eliza. The performance by Viveik Kalra as Javed is absolutely wonderful. I might go so far as to say this is one of the best movies ever made about being a child of immigrants growing up in a different country, learning to find your voice and your place without losing your identity and your family. Gurinder Chadha's Blinded by the Light is a joyful, upbeat, heartfelt 80s Springsteen musical set in small town Britain and it's everything we need right now. I rewatched this recently and it left me with that same euphoric music-fueled feeling of wonder and happiness that I felt the first time around. The dancing sequence set to "Born to Run" is one of the best in any movie, so uplifting it makes you want to get up out of your chair and dance along with them.
#5. The Specials directed by Olivier Nakache & Éric Toledano
This film won me over big time. It first premiered at the closing night film at the Cannes Film Festival, but I didn't catch up with it until the San Sebastian Film Festival (my full review). This is the latest work from the French filmmakers behind The Intouchables. Olivier Nakache & Éric Toledano's The Specials (also known as The Extraordinary for some English-language releases) is really something wonderful. This is one of those movies that reminds you how much movies matter when you wonder "why do I go watch movies?" It's so pure and joyful, talking about serious things but handling it all with such care and integrity. It pulls you in, gives you plenty to laugh at and smile at, and warms your heart as it plays out. The Specials also turned me into a big fan of the music duo known as Grandbrothers, since their music is used throughout this. It's powerful and evocative, and dug right into my heart. This outstanding French drama based on a true story is a lively, endearing, uplifting story about the few who dedicate their entire lives to helping young people with autism. Vincent Cassel & Reda Kateb are exceptional and so heartfelt in their lead roles. A gem of a film.
#4. Marriage Story directed by Noah Baumbach
Baumbach!! Baumbach!! Baumbach!! There are two amazing scenes in Marriage Story that I wanted to give an instant standing ovation to. This might just be Baumbach's best film so far, and that is saying a lot, since he's made some really exceptional features before (I also love The Squid & The Whale). Marriage Story has a remarkably earnest mix of sadness and humor and love and depression and honesty all rolled into one. Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson both deserve ALL the awards. The editing by Jennifer Lame is immaculate. And I adore the score by Randy Newman. I honestly love every little last thing about the film. From the moment it starts, it's so delicate and fresh and welcomes you with a big hug, despite the sad story being told. Perhaps that's the brilliance of this - it is truly a love story wrapped in a divorce story - opening with the letters they wrote about each other. The big fight scene in the apartment is an utter masterclass in editing. The back and forth between them is perfection. It's phenomenal and this scene floors me every time.
#3. The Lighthouse directed by Robert Eggers
"Why'd you spill yer beans?!" Holy hell The Lighthouse is a masterpiece. It's true. Two men on a rock in the ocean slowly go mad. Absolutely extraordinary, visceral, intense, funny filmmaking. Every shot is masterful (oh hell yes, DP Jarin Blaschke got that Oscar nomination). The score by Mark Korven is astounding. Willem Dafoe & Robert Pattinson are incredible, plumbing the depths of insanity. It's utter perfection. There are so many iconic and wacky lines that will be quoted for years. "Monkey pump!" "You're fond of me lobster! Say it!" All the farts and lobsters and seagulls and crashing waves and fog horns and beards and everything else - instantly iconic. It's pure madness, a masterpiece of madness. Part of the beauty of the film is the way it can be interpreted so many different ways, everyone's viewing experience is different – despite the fact that it is a meticulously constructed film with every shot perfectly framed. Cinema at its very best.
#2. The Last Black Man in San Francisco directed by Joe Talbot
This was listed as my #1 film (on Letterboxd) for most of the year. I caught this as one of my final films at Sundance in January, and was then raving about it all year long. The Last Black Man in San Francisco is so smart, so original, with an amazing score by Emile Mosseri, along with great vibes, and two phenomenal lead performances. It's a superb film right from the start, with that breathtaking opening scene, and it sticks the landing. Glorious. I am madly in love with this film, and with its star Jimmie Fails (who also co-wrote the script). There's a bit of a Wes Anderson vibe in it, but it's really its own thing. So rich and stunning and engaging, with an uplifting feeling despite the distressing aspects of the story (gentrification, racism, losing your roots). It's also another film with stunning cinematography, thanks to Adam Newport-Berra, who establishes himself as one of the most unique DPs on the scene. "You don't get to hate it unless you love it."
#1. Parasite directed by Bong Joon-ho
After much consideration, and a second viewing, I've decided that Parasite deserves the #1 spot this year on my Top 10. Bong Joon-ho reigns!!!! Parasite is remarkable. A complete and total knockout. A brilliant dark comedy and fantastic take down of rich people and capitalism. Much like my #2 and #3 films, this one is also a masterpiece. I am not ashamed to say it, just the truth. Parasite is a masterclass in filmmaking, with perfect composition, every performance dialed in, and a genius screenplay with so much depth and intelligence and humor. The audience always cheers at this one major moment every time and I love it and applaud with them and it just makes me smile. And there's so much more I saw in the film this second time, so much depth and so many layers to it ahhhh my god Bong Joon-ho you mad genius. Aside from all the references to society worked right into the characters in the film, one aspect of this that I enjoyed even more the second time is the score. It's SO important to the film, and brings even more gravitas and emphasis to the story as it plays out. At times it's beautiful, at times it's haunting, at times it's intense and plays right into the action. One of the best screening experiences in Cannes in ever had. This is my Best Picture winner.
Runner Ups - Additional Faves: Ericson Core's Togo, Jérémy Clapin's I Lost My Body, Feras Fayyad's The Cave, Lorene Scafaria's Hustlers, Riley Stearns' The Art of Self-Defense, Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia's The Platform, Aretha Franklin concert doc Amazing Grace, Steven Bognar & Julia Reichert's American Factory, Garret Price's doc Love, Antosha, and Petra Costa's extraordinary doc about Brazil The Edge of Democracy.
That's it for now! Most of my favorite actors and favorite shots of the year are in these 10 films mentioned above. I think Willem Dafoe gave one of the best performances of his career in The Lighthouse, and I wish he was getting more awards recognition for this. I'm smitten with both Jimmie Fails and Jonathan Majors in The Last Black Man in San Francisco, especially Jimmie. I had a chance to meet him last year at Sundance and he's so down-to-earth and sweet, and this film genuinely captures him and his honest thoughts about gentrification in SF. I couldn't be happier for the Parasite cast winning the Best Ensemble SAG Award. I was delightfully surprised by how much I truly loved watching Little Women, and Saoirse Ronan is especially excellent in it. I also enjoyed The Farewell - both Awkwafina and Lulu Wang deserve all the acclaim. And I'm a huge fan of Jérémy Clapin's I Lost My Body, I'm extremely happy it got that Oscar nomination, too.
I could discuss all of my favorites endlessly, so if you ever want to chat about cinema, just ask me something about any of them. You can always find all of my ratings and additional thoughts on every film I watched in 2019 on my Letterboxd profile. There were a few films I did not get the chance to watch last year due to time constraints, including: Just Mercy, Richard Jewell, Judy, Her Smell, and Fighting with My Family. I am always watching new films throughout the year, craving exhilarating experiences - films that deeply move me. If you have any more questions or thoughts about my Top 10 picks, please get in touch: @firstshowing. Now let's continue onward into 2020 with high hopes of discovering and enjoying more phenomenal films.