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.
1. “Parasite” / 2. “Knives Out”
A wealthy family gets its comeuppance; a fabulous house becomes a labyrinth of secrets; a woman dismissively treated as the help knows more than she lets on. Although hardly alone among the 2019 pictures that fearlessly confronted class rage (“Us,” “Hustlers,” “Joker,” “Ready or Not”), these two bitingly funny, righteously political and unexpectedly cathartic puzzle-box thrillers gave me my happiest moments in a theater this year — and, in the case of “Parasite,” the most wrenching. Bong Joon Ho and Rian Johnson honor, subvert and weaponize the conventions of genre with masterly brio, an architectural sense of plot construction and a bone-deep understanding of just how deeply, truly appalling people can be.
3. “Ash Is Purest White” / 4. “The Irishman”
Martin Scorsese has championed Jia Zhangke’s work since the latter’s 1997 debut feature, “Xiao Wu”; Jia has idolized Scorsese for even longer. This year both directors gave us decades-spanning, career-culminating crime dramas, each set in a mob underworld whose brutal honor codes and hierarchies are undone by the steady passage of time. In “Ash Is Purest White,” Jia and his magnificent longtime star, Zhao Tao, give the gangster’s moll her rightful due with a character study of incomparable truth and grit. In “The Irishman,” Scorsese plunges us back into his iconic world of mobster machismo but brilliantly defamiliarizes it — a point lost on those who claim that he’s simply recycling a formula.
5. “The Souvenir” / 6. “Marriage Story”
Two achingly bittersweet, superbly acted, personally inspired movies about the death throes of a romantic relationship, observed from a poignant if ultimately incalculable distance by one of its participants. In “The Souvenir,” Hogg returns us to a posh 1980s London where an aspiring young filmmaker is finding her way in life and love. In “Marriage Story,” Baumbach turns his camera on the American divorce industry and one of its many brutal casualties. Where the facts end and fiction begins isn’t always clear, but the ring of truth is unmistakable.
7. “I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians” / 8. “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood”
“Only the fittest massacres survive in the collective consciousness,” a character declares in “I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians.” That glib bit of Darwinian cynicism is just one of many reasons why Radu Jude’s movie — a furious indictment of historical amnesia and Romania’s complicity in the Holocaust — mustered only a fraction of the attention lavished on “Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood,” Quentin Tarantino’s deeply transporting valentine to an L.A. where (spoiler alert) the Manson murders never happened. Together these movies would make a richly combative double bill on the necessity of remembering (sometimes by brazenly rewriting) the atrocities of the past.
9. “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” / 10. “Little Women”
In these visually radiant, conceptually ingenious period pieces — one a lustrous chamber piece set in 18th-century France, the other a vital new adaptation of a beloved work of American literature — Céline Sciamma and Greta Gerwig slyly confront the social and institutional sexism that female artists have had to grapple with in every era. Without skimping on the pleasures of great costume drama — gorgeous scenery, literate dialogue, heart-stopping emotion — they suggest that the stories of the past may hold the key to a richer cinematic future.
11. “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” / 12. “An Elephant Sitting Still”
It was a remarkable year for Chinese imports, and two of the greatest were made by prodigiously talented filmmakers in their late 20s. Bi Gan pulled off the year’s most dazzling cine-magic trick with his dreamlike diptych “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” a Wong Kar-wai bliss-out with an hour-long tracking shot that must be seen to be believed. Sadly, Hu Bo’s powerfully bleak debut feature, “An Elephant Sitting Still,” is also his final work; he died just a few months before this triumph of sociopolitical critique and human portraiture stunned festival audiences in 2018.
13. “High Life” / 14. “A Hidden Life”
OK, so apart from similar-sounding titles, Claire Denis’ sex-and-space odyssey and Terrence Malick’s drama of political and spiritual resistance don’t have all that much in common. Or do they? In each of these piercingly intimate, visually astonishing movies, forged in a poetic idiom that could be mistaken for the work of no other filmmaker, a man cast out from society embarks on a long, brutal voyage into the infinite — a death sentence that approaches the sublime.
15. “Synonyms” / 16. “Transit”
A man without a country faces an uncertain future in two of the year’s boldest conceptual gambits. In “Synonyms,” Nadav Lapid, one of Israel’s most exciting filmmakers, follows an ex-soldier hurling himself into a new culture — and forges his own mercurial cinematic language to match. In “Transit,” Christian Petzold, a master of wartime romance, brings his customary rigor to the story of a refugee on the run, but leaves it to us to determine whether the conflict is happening then or now.
17. “Give Me Liberty” / 18. “By the Grace of God”
Ensemble storytelling at its most grandly human and affecting. Kirill Mikhanovsky’s big-hearted comedy begins as a day-in-the-life farce on wheels and by the end has come to feel like nothing short of a state-of-the-union address. François Ozon’s ripped-from-the-headlines investigation of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church has the style of a procedural and the soul of a symphony; it’s a moving reminder that drama can be economical without being reductive.
19. “Her Smell” / 20. “Uncut Gems”
Masters of the blistering psychic meltdown, Alex Ross Perry and Josh and Benny Safdie gave us these two thrillingly unpredictable studies in self-immolation and controlled chaos. As a punk singer and a jeweler, respectively, each in thrall to an all-consuming addiction, Elisabeth Moss and Adam Sandler don’t just give master classes in bad behavior (and worse parenting). They create the very world that swirls relentlessly around them even as they threaten, at every moment, to tear it apart.
Five favorite documentaries
“American Factory,” “Black Mother,” “Honeyland,” “One Child Nation,” “What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?”
15 honorable mentions
“Atlantics,” “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” “Clemency,” “Diane,” “The Farewell,” “Fighting With My Family,” “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” “The Lighthouse,” “Midsommar,” “The Nightingale,” “Pain and Glory,” “Peterloo,” “Sorry Angel,” “Us,” “Waves”
The year’s best movies are led by the hit true story that proved audiences will still support adult dramas.