Okay, I’ve waited long enough. It’s time to stop organizing and reorganizing my year-end list.

[You’re looking at Part Two of my year-end movie list — these are the Top 21. If you missed Part One, and you haven’t seen my parade of Honorable Mentions — the long list of movies that I wish I could have found room for on this list of favorites — well… here it is.]

Sure, I’m going to see more films that were accessible on Seattle’s big screens in 2019, films that I missed during my busiest year of full-time teaching yet. That’s the irony of my new career: In teaching writing, I struggle to find time for writing. In teaching film classes, I have fewer opportunities to catch current releases in theaters. I still need to see quite a few heavy hitters: 1917, The Hottest August, and Just Mercy, for example. And more. And when I do, if they merit special attention, I’ll revise this list.

But it’s time to post a rough draft of my 2019 favorites list.  Why am I posting 21 instead of 20? Well, a couple of days ago it was a Top 20. Then I discovered that one of my must-see movies was streaming on The Criterion Channel — and, wow! It surpassed my expectations. Now, Black Mother has leapt up onto the list. So here they are — my 21 favorite films of 2019… for now.


21.

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote

directed by Terry Gilliam, written by Terry Gilliam and Tony Grisoni

Am I dreaming? Or did I actually see this? It finally exists?

I really should have included The Man Who Killed Don Quixote in the Honorable Mentions list, but I’m just so glad — so relieved, really — that Terry Gilliam can finally say “It is finished” at the end of his long Quixotic passion play. Do you remember Lost in La Mancha, the 2002 documentary about Gilliam’s many failed attempts to make this movie? Today, that documentary feels like ancient history. (Perhaps a sequel documentary needs to be made about the 19 years since then!)

Here’s my essay about the movie. It was published at Good Letters, the Image blog.

In short, like the story of how it came into existence, the movie is a glorious mess. Of course it is — it’s Terry Gilliam, after all. The pacing — if you can call it that — is erratic, relentless, and in dire need of some quieter passages. Gilliam’s everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach overcrowds the film, which prevents us from falling in love with his Quixote the way we should (in spite of Jonathan Pryce’s sly performance). Late in the film, we suffer one of the most abrupt and baffling departures of a major character I’ve ever experienced. And exchanges between Adam Driver’s Toby and Pryce’s Quixote too often resemble the chemistry between Jeff Bridges and Robin Williams in The Fisher King.

But this is a Big Screen Movie built on Big Ideas, boasting whole-hearted performances from both Pryce and Driver. I enjoyed every minute of its colors, its light, its locations, its ambitions, its madness. I can’t wait to find time to watch it again.


19., 20. (tie)

Homecoming: A Film by Beyoncé

written and directed by Beyoncé Knowles-Carter

and

Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story

written and directed by Martin Scorsese

Two extraordinary concert films, both of which capture stellar performers at their very best onstage, both of which preserve the mysteries of their artists.

And both serve as perfect portraits of their featured artists.

Beyoncé makes the movie about herself, her family, her ancestors, and the generations of young black women she aims to inspire. She is both egomaniacal and humble, self-indulgent and collaborative. I may not be the biggest fan of her singing, but I’m a huge fan of how she uses her influence to stir up a generational tidal wave that can wash over the stubborn stones of prejudice and hatred that demean, diminish, and discourage African American women today.

Dylan’s movie is made by Martin Scorsese, and good luck finding the “Real Dylan” in it at all — which is why it’s such a great representation of the real Dylan. Fictional characters are woven into the fabric of real history, so that we’re often unsure what’s documentary and what might be mere mischief.

I expected Rolling Thunder Revue to be pure indulgence for Dylan fans. I didn’t expect it to be the laugh-a-minute marathon that would set the comedy bar high for the rest of the year. Nor was I prepared for the intensity of the concert footage, which had the audience in the film and the audience in the theater cheering. What a joy to see it on a big screen at Portland’s Cinema 21, with several of my closest friends, and the movie played at concert-level volume. I wish I could relive the experience.

One question: How could this movie feature so much footage of T Bone Burnett live onstage and never once pull him aside for an interview?

I wrote at length about Homecoming: A Film by Beyoncé in an essay about three recent concert films for Image‘s Good Letters blog.


18.

Wild Rose

directed by Tom Harper; written by Nicole Taylor

I’m exercising restraint in praising Wild Rose as one of the best times I spent in the theater during 2019… with a suspicion that I might enjoy it even more the second time. For all of its formulaic turns, Tom Harper’s country-music fairy tale cut right through all of my skepticism and made me a fan.

That has a great deal to do with actress Jessie Buckley, who is everything you’ve heard about and more. She rules the screen as Rose-Lyn Harlan, a Glawegian 23-year-old who, released from prison, immediately launches herself into a mad pursuit of her dream to conquer Nashville as a country music star.

Buckley, who apparently took second-place in 2008 on a BBC talent show I’ve never seen (I’d Do Anything), is absolutely convincing in every aspect of this complicated character. Rose-Lyn radiates recklessness, convincing us that she was rightfully incarcerated. She implodes under the pressure of crushing anxiety when she looks at two children she has somehow introduced to the world, children she must raise at the risk of her dreams.

Read my whole review here.


17.

Toy Story 4

directed by Josh Cooley, screenplay by Andrew Stanton and Stephany Folsom

I hope Andrew Stanton, in particular, feels great about this movie. After being unfairly punished for the record-setting box-office failure of John Carter—which was a failure of marketing, not a failure of filmmaking—he’s more deserving of a substantial “comeback” than any filmmaker I know. And with the help of an inspired team, he completes a stunt here that few would have thought possible (not unlike one of the jumps completed by Duke Kaboom, the stunt motorcyclist perfectly played by Keanu Reeves in this episode). Can we restore Stanton now to his rightful place in the pantheon of Great Family Filmmakers?

Instead of focusing on Woody’s community and their chemistry, Toy Story 4 is the first story in this world to focus on the children as much as the toys. And in this, it finds three important new questions to explore:

First: What happens in this world when a child goes beyond loving the toys she’s been given and applies her imagination to making toys of her own?

It’s surprising to realize how little attention was given, in the original trilogy, to what a child brings to imaginative engagement with toys. In the first three movies, Andy and Bonnie played with what they were given. But my memory of childhood was all about improvisation,  repurposing what I was given into crazy new inventions. With the introduction of Forky, Bonnie’s first homemade toy, the Toy Story universe has exciting new questions to consider.

And that leads us directly to this story’s Second important question: Can someone who has been taught they are trash be redeemed and given a sense of their true value by someone else’s love?

Third: Is a person’s value ultimately defined by having found someone who loves them, or is their value defined by finding a way of showing love?

Here’s my three-part review: Part One, Part Two, and Part Three.


16.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

directed by Marielle Heller, written by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster

Director Marielle Heller needs a bright spotlight. So few women have opportunities to direct pop culture events as significant as this one.

And Heller isn’t content just to give the people what they want: She, working with a brave script from Transparent and Maleficent screenwriters Micah Fitzerman and Noah Harpster, takes real risks from the very opening scene. She asks us to engage in some imagination games (just as Rogers would have wanted it!). She asks audiences to reckon with the public prominence of Rogers’ Christian faith and his dedication to prayer (which are portrayed here as clearly as they have been in any Martin Luther King biopic).

Then, later, she asks us to lean into just how strange this guy was.

Here’s my full review.

And here’s Steven Greydanus at DecentFilms.com.


15.

Diane

written and directed by Kent Jones

Mary Kay Place is magnificent here as a longsuffering mother and a humble servant to her community. Rarely do we see feature films devoted to figures of such relentless day-to-day kindnesses and quotidian graces.

But the whole ensemble in Kent Jones’s first feature-length narrative film is fantastic. There are more delicate and intimate moments between friends and family members here than you’ll see in a whole year of moviegoing. The turbulent relationship between Diane and her son Brian becomes a bit too crisis-movie-severe for me, but builds to their best and most affecting conversation. For me, the highest highlight is the quiet, tender, platonic friendship between Diane and Tony, whose exchanges are near miraculous.

I feel obligated to note, given my usual film-coverage beat, that this movie takes an unexpected and alarming turn into one of the most frightening and upsetting depictions of tell-don’t-show Christianity I’ve ever seen. Having grown up in a world focused of seize-preach-and-convert evangelism, I recognized the missionary ferocity of the “Christian” in question, and I was sore afraid. I felt like I was watching a horror movie, the scene bringing me so powerfully and empathetically into the experience of being on the receiving end of that kind of shallow and unrelenting religious zeal. It shook up me up and I won’t recover anytime soon. Christian love is not and should never be wedded to the strategies of high-pressure salesmanship. In any of the countless gestures of unconditional love that Diane shows to her friends and neighbors, we see more Jesus than we can find in the whole show from these vampiric churchgoers.

Anyway, I’m making too much of one short episode in a rich, soulful movie. I found myself thinking of Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours and Kogonada’s Columbus (which Cohen also worked on) — there’s a similar human authenticity to moments in this film. This is one of the year’s very best. Don’t miss it.

But don’t just take my word for it. Here’s Filmspotting‘s Josh Larsen at Larsen on Film.


14.

Penguin Highway

directed by Hiroyasu Ishida, written by Makoto Ueda

I’m not sure how this film slipped past the radar of anime-enthusiasts and Studio Ghibli fans. It is strong in ways that remind me of the best examples of the genre.

As animator and author Ken Priebe raves, “It’s like a Shaun Tan book, a Spielberg film, a Wes Anderson film, and a Studio Ghibli film all at once. It’s like a really strange dream, a trip through the looking glass, a chess game, and a science-fiction story, all at once.”

Penguin Highway may be the most difficult movie to summarize for a review since Upstream Color. I’m not going to try. Suffice it to say that a young boy and his friends decide to apply scientific methods to solving the mystery of unexpected penguin appearances, and their investigation leads them into deepening mysteries related to sex, climate change, alien life forms, and a strange Annihilation-like bubble that is threatening the barriers that give our world its particularity.

Despite the difficulty I might have in describing it, this is a strangely moving film (emphasis on strangely).

Right now, I’m reading it as a child’s emotional and imaginative endeavors to reconcile the enormity of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, the inconceivable loss of life in that disaster, the complicated relationship that the Japanese must now have with the ocean’s beauty and terror (now that it has swallowed up so many lives) … and the increasing signs that the catastrophe was just a tremor, a precursor to a coming environmental apocalypse.

I’m making it sound dreadfully despairing, but it isn’t.

For all the deep currents of grief coursing through the film’s complex, indirect, Murakami-like symbolism, this is a film that chooses hope — even hope through and beyond death into whatever new forms life might take. It’s a poem in celebration of the interconnectedness of everything.

And rather than lose itself in abstraction, it feels firmly grounded by bringing its main character — a boy on the edge of adolescence — to life in all of the sexual naïveté and confusion that boys know at the age. Even though the world is out of balance, penguins are showing up in metropolitan areas, and the debris of the ocean is suddenly everywhere, he still has a huge crush on a curvaceous and flirtatious woman from the local dental-clinic, and their unlikely relationship is not like anything I’ve seen in a movie before.

Sound heavy for a movie that tempts us with Totoro-like penguins? It is heavy. I also think it’s beautiful. It avoids the sticky-sweet sentimentality of Your Name that kept me from surrendering to that seemingly unstoppable pop-culture favorite. It has bigger, deeper things on its mind and heart.

At the moment, I’m surprised at how few of my cinephile friends have seen this. \I want to know what you think, friends.


13.

The Lighthouse

directed by Robert Eggers, written by Robert Eggers and Max Eggers

Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse is a thrilling follow-up to The Witch. The performances, the imagery, the sound design — it’s an immersive experience in a meaningful vision of hell, one that got me thinking about Moby Dick, Apocalypse Now, and Raiders of the Lost Ark, a combination I can’t recall associating with a movie before.

This is what might happen if a filmmaker were stranded on an island with only a small DVD library of There Will Be Blood, The MasterEraserheadPirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, the documentary Leviathan, and that beautiful edition of Moby Dick illustrated with those astonishing Barry Moser woodcuts.

And all those ignorant fanboys who thought Robert Pattinson wasn’t worthy of playing the role of Batman will now have to accept that Batman isn’t worthy of being played by Robert Pattinson. His performance here earns comparisons to Daniel “Plainview” Day-Lewis and Naked‘s David Thewlis. That he delivered this and High Life in such short order, and so soon after Good Time, is very impressive.

And yet, Willem Dafoe’s performance is the film’s crowning glory. His face looks as if it were truly carved from the rock by the lashings of a relentless storm. And there is one extended close-up near the end that is so exquisitely and grotesquely compelling I’m afraid that I’m going to dream about it.

The rock — it barely qualifies as an island — quickly becomes a singular cinematic subject, a location unlike anything I’ve visited before, possessed by a dark spirit that foghorns an alarm reminiscent of the T-Rex’s commanding bellow. I feel as though it hath split my skull in twain.

Robert Eggers is the real deal. I swear I saw the Criterion Collection ‘C’ floating in a tidepool. My only reservation — and the only thing that makes this feel like a lesser film than The Witch — is that it plays at such a fever pitch throughout that when it tries to crescendo it doesn’t really have anywhere to go. The glory of The Witch had so much to do with its pacing.

Nevertheless, I was delighted that a good crowd responded with enthusiastic applause when it was over. I wasn’t expecting that.

P.S. There’s a line in this film that I think deserves “I drink your milkshake” status, but I’m not going to spoil it by writing it down here.

Here’s Filmspotting‘s Josh Larsen at Larsen on Film. And here’s Joel Mayward at Cinemayward.


12.

Ash is Purest White

written and directed by Jia Zhangke

Ash is Purest White begins like a flashy hybrid of Wong Kar-Wai’s kaleidoscopically exhilarating expressionism and Martin Scorsese’s gritty gangster dramas of the ’70s and ’80s. But we have a long way to go, and we’re about to veer into a subtler and more challenging kind of drama, an intimate and interior struggle that serves as a poignant portrait of political desperation.

And you might even be reminded, as I was, of how Krzysztof Kieslowski, in Blue, drew us down into the continental shift of a woman’s heart during a season of loss.

Here’s my full review.


11.

A Hidden Life

written and directed by Terrence Malick

I haven’t reviewed this film yet, so I’m doing that here.

In A Hidden Life, Terrence Malick applies what has unfortunately become an extremely predictable filmmaking method to the story of Austrian farmer Franz Jägerstätter, a man who surrendered himself to Nazi forces when he refused to fight for Hitler’s hateful campaigns in World War II. It is also the story of Jägerstätter’s wife Franziska (Fani), their children, and his mother, who are left behind to keep the farm going, to pray, and to suffer the persecution of their compliant and compromising community, burdened further by their fear that Franz might never return.

As I watched A Hidden Life, I was moved. Mostly that was because of the fundamentals of its story about standing up against fascism and the agendas of an Antichrist. At this particular point in the history — the tearing down of American democracy by an uprising of white supremacists, nationalists, and religious extremists — it’s hard not to feel surges of emotion at the sight of a conscientious objector staying true to the ideals of the Gospel.

Still, for all of the film’s swells of aesthetic and musical beauty, its constant enthusiasm for timely rays of light, for panoramic views of natural beauty, and for symphonic crescendos of familiar classical compositions (Arvo Pärt’s Tabula Rasa gets particular attention here) gives me the impression that Malick is just too eager this time to achieve a familiar transcendence, and not willing enough to live with these characters in substantial scenes, observing the distinctive details of their days and their difficulties.

It has exactly one scene that sticks with me, only one that feels particularly thought-provoking. It involves a painter, played by Johan Leysen, who is illuminating the walls and ceilings of a church with depictions of saints. As he does, he laments — like the self-doubting artist of Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev — the insufficiency of his artistic endeavors: “I paint their comfortable Christ, with a halo over his head. Someday, I’ll paint the true Christ.” (In this moment, we may be hearing the filmmaker himself; his next movie, after all, will be the first he has made about Jesus, the Apostle Peter, and the Devil.) Here, I see a glimmer of what could have been a far more interesting and compelling film. As stories of Christian martyrs go, A Hidden Life doesn’t strike me as being nearly as curious about, or as attentive to, its characters; for examples of more compelling portraiture, see Xavier Beauvois’ Of Gods and Men or Marc Rothemund’s Sophie Scholl: The Final Days.

From his debut Badlands in 1973 to his greatest masterpieces The New World and The Tree of Life in 2006 and 2011, Terrence Malick has made many of my favorite films.

Since then, he has made three more narrative features (To the Wonder, Knight of Cups, and Song to Song) that have been, by my lights, both stunningly beautiful and deeply moving — and yet, they’ve also begun to expose what appear to be disappointing limitations in Malick’s aesthetic vision, stumbling into distracting stylistic redundancies. Malick’s ambitions in wrestling with philosophically and theologically complex questions through imagery and editing reminds me of what cinema, at its best, can be; his best material deserves the kind of attention drawn by masters like Kieslowski and Tarkovsky. But it’s increasingly obvious that his actors wander around without a great deal of guidance or focus, as if all animated by the same simple script of existential question. And, ever since The New World, their body language, like the scripts of their interior monologues, has devolved into a kind of ‘sameness,’ as if they’re all working with the same unimaginative dance coach. Even more disappointingly, Malick’s visual poetry, which has worked in such distinctive, complex, and surprising ways in the past, is becoming increasingly predictable — and, also, simpler, as if he’s been listening to those impatient critics who, like literature students who want to “solve” a poem upon first reading, punished The Tree of Life for being confoundingly inscrutable.

Since The Tree of Life‘s startling and excitingly abstract tangents, Malick has explored a sort of improvisational and impressionistic style. Some have described him as pushing a new visual style to its breaking point. I’ve found it interesting, often exhilarating. But these films have often felt strained by their commitment to narratives about characters who never rise above their existential questions to become human beings of specificity and idiosyncrasy. I’ve often wished for a return to the successful balance of imagistic poetry and sophisticated prose that he achieved in The New World and in the best stretches of The Tree of Life. I miss the man who gave us the unforgettable characters played by Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek in Badlands — they had the voices of real people, the physicality of antiheroes in great American literature.

So, yes, I have come to praise Malick, but also to confess that I’m also quite frustrated with this film. And I feel some call to justify my lack of enthusiasm to friends of mine who have been exalting A Hidden Life as one of the greatest movies ever made. I’ve held back for more than a month since the advance screening I attended, reluctant to share my observations about what I perceive to be the film’s weaknesses because I believe that what we need now more than ever in cinemas are films like this that appeal to the conscience, that ask us to remember the teachings of Jesus Christ, and that urge us to refuse to sign any contracts with an Antichrist. In the light of this film, it is easy to see how that too many in America’s evangelical Christian culture prefer to do deals with the Devil than to the hard and sacrificial road of following Jesus.

A Hidden Life is overwhelming and often glorious, stirring up some of the most breathtaking sights and sounds of 2019. I admire this film. I’m glad it exists. And I am including it among my 20 favorite films of the year because B-grade Malick is, in my book, still more meaningful and magnificent than most filmmaker’s A-grade work.

I just miss the days when Malick movies surprised me and gave me that sense of revelation, that I was experiencing a kind of cinema I’d never experienced before. I suppose it’s unfair of me to make an issue of this, since artists who can break through to such new visions come along once or twice in a generation, and even rarer are those who sustain a drive for innovation and discovery to the end of their careers. Here’s hoping that Malick will, in his upcoming film about Christ, Peter, and Satan, bless them with distinctly human voices, as Wim Wenders did with such poetry and distinction in his masterful Wings of Desire.

Clearly, my views on Malick’s cinema are complicated. Here’s Steven Greydanus, who picked this film as his #1 of 2019. I have nothing but respect for his perspective.


10.

Us

written and directed by Jordan Peele

Jordan Peele’s follow-up to Get Out exceeded my expectations, delivering a powerfully suggestive and provocative story that teases us with several possible interpretations that strike me as not only complementary but necessary.

As Peele makes one wild storytelling gamble after another, the film begins to lost its balance a bit mid-movie, with some sequences that feel too familiar, too thrill-happy, too jump-scare familiar. But I’ll argue Peele restores the film’s balance in time to deliver a a thrilling conclusion full of mind-boggling implications. And then, second and third viewings suggest that there might be ever greater storytelling sleight-of-hand at work — but that’s a conversation for another time.

Us is about two women. It’s about two families. It’s about two Americas. It’s about this moment in time.

But  — the following might be considered vaguely spoilerish, so jump ship now if you don’t want any ideas at all before you see it it’s also prophetic about any human being, any nation, at any moment in history: The selves that we neglect and hate and suppress will rise up. The idols that seduce us into living in denial will fail us in the end. God is sovereign. God’s justice will prevail. Fear God, repent, and return to the path of embracing the poor, the weak, the outcasts, even and especially those pieces of yourself.

And, yeah, it’s one of those movies in which just about everything is deliberate and meaningful, even the appearance of a VHS copy of The Goonies on a shelf.

Better, though… it has me thinking about how it contributes substantially to a dialogue that involves so many other impressive films, not the least of which is Annihilation: the finales of those two films bear some striking resemblances.

And Nyong’o gives a performance for the Horror Movie Hall of Fame. Any other choice for Best Actress this year will last as another Oscar embarrassment.


9.

Knives Out

written and directed by Rian Johnson

Or… Whodonut?

How rare is this? A large cast of big movie stars gather for an up-and-coming director to collaborate on a major commercial-entertainment event, and they all seem perfectly cast, delivering every line of a sensational screenplay with giddy enthusiasm, in a film that constantly sparks with inspiration, imagination, and even wisdom!

Don’t worry — I aim to avoid spoilers here.

My wife Anne reads and watches murder mysteries as effortlessly and enthusiastically as most people eat their favorite chips. She also reads books about the art of writing murder mysteries. She enjoys almost any entry in the drama — formulaic or experimental, quaint or grisly, solemn or satire — but she has demanding standards of excellence. And she loves this movie.

That’s impressive. Me, I approached Knives Out eager to see what Rian Johnson had done with the time that opened up for him after he completed The Last Jedi, which had impressed me as the most imaginative, surprising, and thought-provoking Star Wars movie in almost 40 years. What would he do with an Agatha-Christie-like murder mystery? I love a good mystery, but good mysteries are very, very rare, in my experience, and more often than not I come away aggravated by my pet peeves with the genre than grateful for having invested my time in it.

What pet peeves? Well…

First, whenever the Who that Hath Dunnit is revealed. I rarely ever find the resolution satisfying. I usually feel that the revelation fails to lead to any kind of meaningful takeaway. The identification and incarceration of a criminal resolves almost nothing—in fact, it just moves the pageant of human suffering from one stage to the next. My idea of a perfect whodunnit is Gosford Park, in which the whodunnit is, at least for much of the film, one of the least interesting aspects of the film. The last murder-mystery movie that won my enthusiastic support was Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz. And in recent years, the only murder-mystery TV series to inspire my applause has been Broadchurch, Season One — which somehow arrived at a deeply moving resolution.

Second, I can’t stand how these stories almost always devolve into a long and preposterous act of explaining. There’s nothing I dread more than a detective’s long “How I cracked the case” speech in front of a cast of suspects, or the criminal’s long (and entirely implausible) step-by-step explanation of how the thing was done as he closes in for his final kill (which always goes wrong). The way that these resolutions play with our ugly appetite for the lurid leaves me feeling unhealthy and a bit ashamed. “What’s in the box?” “Surprise! Depraity!

And I’ve gotta say, in the second hour of Knives Out, the explanations pile up to extraordinary heights, and villains get their big speeches. The speeches go on and on and on. And I’m not sure I’m finding any deeply meaningful takeaways here — unless you count the film’s surprisingly sharp political commentary.

And yet, in spite of all of this… I love this movie.

Avoid all spoilers. Avoid reading even the cast list. The less you know, the more surprises you’ll enjoy, and the more satisfied you’ll be. This movie has something I rarely experience in American moviemaking: a sense of joy. The cast is so much fun, with everyone in their right place. (The surprise casting of the family lawyer made me cheer.) The production design is hilarious. The jokes are very, very funny. The movie’s final moment is one of the most enormously satisfying punchlines I’ve ever seen in a movie. And I find myself hoping for a sequel—an impulse I almost never experience.

This year, when my Thanksgiving guests asked what I was thankful for, I think I said “Rian Johnson.”

Here’s a review by Evan Cogswell at Catholic Cinephile.


8.

Honeyland

directed by Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov

Honeyland begins as a startling portrait of an extraordinary beekeeper, and then turns suddenly into a suspenseful drama with life-and-death stakes. And that detail that makes it so much more compelling is this: It’s a documentary, comprising footage from four years of attentiveness in the rocky wilderness of the Republic of North Macedonia by the filmmakers Ljubomir Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska.

Their subject, Hatidze Muratova, is a genius — she seems to be known and even welcomed by swarms of bees as she carefully and routinely extracts honeycombs and honey from the rugged rises of rock near her home, leaving plenty behind for the bees to continue their architecture and art. She sings to the bees. She speaks to them. She reminds them of the terms of their contract. It’s the central principle of her stewardship: half for her, half for them. And she seems to go unstung — which is hard to believe, considering the immensity of the swarms and the sizes of those hives that are so impressively concealed in the landscape.

The story becomes a psalmic lament over injustice. The righteous and innocent suffer the consequences of action taken by the wicked — or, at best, the desperate and irresponsible. And creation groans under the abuses of industry.

But bees aren’t the only agents in this environment that have the capacity to sting.

Here’s my full review.


7.

They Shall Not Grow Old

directed by Peter Jackson

Peter Jackson has saved his best Middle-Earth movie for last.

I know — it sounds like I’m baiting a hook just to get you to read about a documentary. But no, I’m serious: If you want to understand The Lord of the Rings, you should probably understand the furnace into which Tolkien was thrown, from which he somehow emerged alive, and by which a fire was lit within his mind and heart — an ache that could only be expressed in languages he invented, in vocabularies beyond the limitations of realism or allegory. 

It would be inappropriate to treat The Battle of the Somme, the bloodiest and deadliest day in the history of British military engagement, as a footnote in the life of the guy who gave us Hobbits. Tolkien’s service there is not why the subject interests me. But I am interested in how a story that goes on inspiring readers with beauty and hope was born from such a hellish occasion. And so it’s remarkable that Peter Jackson, whose big-screen adaptations of Tolkien’s beloved fantasy trilogy were so celebrated (and whose three film adaptations of The Hobbit were maligned, and rightly so) would be the driving force behind They Shall Not Grow Old, an extraordinary tapestry of World War One testimonies by the surviving soldiers who were sent into that madness against the Germans.

Read my full review.


6.

I Heard You Paint Houses

written by Steve Zallian, based on the book by Charles Brandt, directed by Martin Scorsese

Someday I’ll write about this film in detail, and why, after a shaky first act that was unnecessarily compromised by insufficient special effects, it ultimately moved me so powerfully.

For now, though, allow me to point to an extraordinary review I discovered on Letterboxd by Neil Bahadur:

The Irishman is a terrifying and ruthlessly deterministic work that actually plays side-by-side with Silence in an interesting way: more than Wolf of Wall Street, Irishman is partially the polar opposite of the 2016 film, one that might confirm that Scorsese holds a brutal, borderline Darwinian vision of the world where no matter which side you are on, good or evil, left, right or centre, there is one fundamental law and it is that the strong will always defeat the weak — a worldview that Scorsese perhaps holds but does not necessarily endorse and moreso than ever here. Instead, it’s the first time Scorsese has managed to reach the realm of Greek Tragedy which he so often speaks about. This also clarified Silence for me in a way — of course Scorsese would need religion, how could he have any hope in the world as brutal as this?”

And if you have a few hours to keep reading, feast on this review by Roderick Heath.


5.

Waves

written and directed by Trey Edward Shults

Embracing a visual style as ecstatic and as exhilarating as Terrence Malick at his best, Trey Edward Shults — who once worked or Malick — delivers a human drama filled with characters, contexts, and crises that I believe in and care about.

Waves zooms in on the tragic collapse of a promising young man’s hope. Young Tyler is a high school student who is deeply in love, full of ambition, and dedicated to wrestling. But when an injury threatens to do lasting damage, and when his relationship takes a terrible turn, his fears get the better of him. Terrified that he’ll fall short of his father’s masculine ideals (which are deeply flawed), and panic-stricken by the consequences of his mistakes, he begins spiraling out of control.

And then, the movie makes an abrupt turn, shifting attention from Tyler to his younger sister. We begin to see what all of this drama and calamity have done to her world, to her sense of security, to her capacity to trust. When a charming young man (Lucas Hedges, who is showing up in as many movies as Adam Driver these days) takes an interest in her, she responds with a passionate interest in his family dramas. By urging him toward doing the right thing, she ends up teaching herself about how to respond to her own family troubles.

The result is an unconventional but intuitive motion picture about the dangers of living in fear and the reconciling power of long-suffering love and forgiveness.

I was surprised to walk out of Waves feeling so deeply moved, gobsmacked, and bedazzled, and then look around at my neighborhood of critics to find that most of them didn’t dig it at all. This really, really worked for me. Having been underwhelmed by the new Malick — mostly due to how familiar and predictable his vocabulary has become — I was buzzing with excitement at how consistently Shults’ film surprised me. What many found “showy,” I found purposeful and effective in its immersive effect. What many found simplistic and melodramatic, I found persuasively and engagingly specific. And instead of going sentimental or despairing, Waves arrives at a place of substantial hope by gambling on what seems at first to be a narrative tangent in its final 30 minutes.

This is my third Trey Edward Shults film, and each one impresses me more than the last. But this is the first one that completely suspends my disbelief beginning to end. I couldn’t help but think, as I walked back to the car, about why this worked for me so much better than A Hidden Life. And I think it’s in the distinctiveness of its characters, their dialogue, and the sense that the filmmaker is so inspired even he doesn’t know what his cameras are going to discover next.

This is one of only three or four movies I’ve seen in 2019 that I would gladly go back and see again on the big screen the next day.


4.

Black Mother

directed by Khalik Allah

Perhaps I should start giving a specific honor to the year’s most innovative documentary, and name it after a landmark film. I don’t know — I’d like to honor Errol Morris, but the Fast, Cheap and Out of Control Award doesn’t sound right. Instead, I’ll could go with some recognition for Kirsten Johnson, whose Cameraperson was my favorite film of 2016.

Shall we try this out?

This year’s Cameraperson Award goes to Khalik Allah for the spellbinding montage he has woven in celebration of, and lamentation for, Jamaica.

Allah, who, like Seattle’s Khalil Joseph, worked on Beyoncé’s Lemonade visual album, has a talent for soaking up colors, textures, faces, and suggestions of stories with a style that emphasizes portraits. During this collage of images that challenge us to attend with poetic intuition to sharp juxtapositions, we observe joys and horrors, pride and pain.

My heart is heavy as I observe just how desperately Jamaica needs the love of Christ manifested in hands of healing. Instead, they’ve received a Christianity polluted by colonialism, a culture of church that celebrates materialism instead of sacrifice and service. We hear this exchange between two men early in the film:

“Jamaica has more churches per square mile than any other country in the world. And we understand that the religion came along with slavery.”
“Yeah, but it … took a different twist, though. It’s business. Church is like a big business now. … Just imagine 20,000 people do some social work every Sunday, and it would be better.” 

This could easily become just a form of hand-wringing and rage. But it comes in a generous pageant of loving portraiture, so that we admire and love these people — particularly woman, from sex workers to grandmothers. The emphasis on these neglected, abused, and exploited women underlines the film’s formal emphasis on stages of pregnancy. This is a world deep in labor pains, and it is difficult to avoid a sense that something powerful and beautiful might soon be born, even as these suffering mothers can become (whether Allah intends this or not) reflections of Mary and her sorrows.

For some insight into this filmmaker’s passion and imagination, read what he shared with Vox‘s Alissa Wilkinson.

Then read Michael Sicinski’s perspective on the film at Letterboxd.

And witness Scott Tafoya’s enthusiasm — he compares the significance of seeing this to his first experience of Malick’s The Tree of Life.


3.

Little Women

adapted for the screen and directed by Greta Gerwig

How rare is it that a classic work of literature is translated into a feature film so beautifully? Greta Gerwig follows up her masterful directorial debut — Lady Bird — with one of the greatest book-to-screen adaptations I’ve ever seen. She honors the heart of the work, bravely reorganizes the narrative by splicing up the timeline, casts the characters beautifully so that the March family becomes company we don’t want to leave, and satisfies audiences profoundly without sacrificing complexity.

Here are a few notes I made about this beautiful film moments after I emerged from the theater:

Give me a whole movie of Beth (played by Eliza Scanlen) playing that piano and Mr. Laurence (Chris Cooper) strolling around his mansion listening to the music.

Give me a whole movie of Marmee March (Laura Dern), going from door to door in her community offering gifts of love and compassion. And give me a prequel about Marmee and her husband (Bob Odenkirk), so we can watch Dern and Odenkirk together. It’s an intriguing combination.

By the way, Dern has now played the scariest character I’ve seen in 2019 — Marriage Story‘s divorce lawyer — and, in this film, the most benevolent. And she’s perfect as both.)

Create a spinoff of Amy March sketching things. Florence Pugh is 2019’s MVP. (She’s good, and often great, in Fighting With My Family and Midsommar — both films that would fall apart without her.)

Create a spinoff about Mr. Dashwood, his publishing work, and his daughters who influence his publishing decisions. Tracy Letts is now the name that will get me out the door to see any movie.

I love the light in this movie.

I marvel at how much I believe that these four actresses are sisters.

I wish the film had paused from time to time to let some moments — and some images — settle in music or in silence: Beth at the piano, Jo and Laurie on the frozen lake, Friedrich at the piano, Jo and Beth at the seaside. This movie, like Lady Bird, is driven by its dialogue, and Gerwig choreographs so many voices beautifully. I just wish it had paused occasionally to let the movie catch its breath — or at least to let me catch mine.

But that is a minor quibble.

This is as beautiful and as satisfying as any literary adaptation I can recall. The bold and creative non-chronological approach is immensely rewarding. The casting is perfect.

And when Gerwig allows Jo a variation on her own famous Frances Ha downtown dash, I cheered. I hope they give Gerwig an Oscar, and that instead of an acceptance speech she just grabs it and dances up and down the aisles.

Let this be remembered as the first time I stayed through all of the end credits just because the font was so right.


2.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco

directed by Joe Talbot, written by Talbot and Rob Richert, based on a story by Jimmie Fails

I haven’t had sufficient time since seeing this film to compose a review worthy of it. It’s an innovative combination of poetry, theater, cinema, history, and music. It’s anchored by a singular friendship between two distinctive characters, both performed with endearing idiosyncrasy and heart.

If the movies are a map, I’m not sure where to place this. What other movies would be in its vicinity?

It’s as quiet as Do the Right Thing is brash; it’s as meditative as Ghost World is sardonic; it’s as intimate in its character studies as If Beale Street Could Talk; and it’s as personal and particular in its view of a familiar time and place as The Long Day Closes.

Actually, I like that last comparison best: There is something of Terence Davies in this film’s elegiac nature, in its remarkable soundtrack, and in its intoxication with light.

I’m looking forward to seeing it again. This is a movie to have a relationship with. I hope everyone in San Francisco sees it, meditates on it, and talks about it. No feature film has stayed on my mind as much as this one in 2019, mostly for the distinctiveness of its style and its voices, the subtlety of its lament over loss, and the beauty of its love for its characters.

Lo… it’s streaming on Amazon Prime!


1.

Amazing Grace

directed by Sydney Pollack

I can promise you that Amazing Grace is the film from 2019 that I will revisit the most in the years to come.

I’ve seen it four times already, and it continues to heal my heart and strengthen my faith. It’s about as close as I’ve seen a movie come to capturing the movement of the Holy Spirit.

I suppose that some might argue that I’m responding to music, not cinema — but Sidney Pollack’s direction and the labor of thoughtful editors have turned this event into an extravagant narrative full of characters, rich with suggestions of stories, constantly reinforcing that this is a community in crisis receiving the kind of consolation and reinvigoration that they need most. Again and again I’m surprised by what these cameras capture. Again and again I’m intrigued by the details the photographers and editors choose to highlight. The marriage of sound and image make this as immersive and as visceral as any moviegoing experience I can recall.

I wrote about my love for it in an essay about three recent concert films for Image‘s Good Letters blog.

And here’s a 60-second video review by Steven D. Greydanus.

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