Twenty-nineteen was another powerful year for world cinema, if not an entirely compelling one for American films—hence the fact that six of my entries for the past year were international movies. But it’s a masterpiece from one of the dominant voices of American independent cinema in the aughts that claims the No. 1 spot.
10. Ash is Purest White
“Ash is Purest White,” the master Chinese director Jia Zhangke’s existential spin on the gangster epic, follows Qiao, the fiercely faithful girlfriend to Bin, a middling mobster. After serving five years in prison for firing a gun to protect Bin, Qiao must forge a new life, grifting from one mark to another while searching for Bin, whose allegiances have shifted. Zhangke’s direction and narrative preoccupations drift much like his unorthodox heroine, following her on boat and train, and culminating in a fascinating reversal of fortune. Doubling as a metaphor for China’s own complicated growth over the 21st century, “Ash is Purest White” is a pristine jewel of movie with stylistic associations ranging from Antonioni to Scorsese.
Writer-director Trey Edward Shults’ stirring “Waves” is a combustible family drama of unusual enormity, and one that hits literally close to home: It was filmed in Broward and Dade counties. When a shoulder injury threatens to derail a star athlete’s plans for the future, it sets off a chain of tragic consequences presented with almost unbearable tension. A diptych of a movie, its second half, which follows his sister Emily through her first budding romance, is more contemplative, but no less profound. Set against the backdrop of the brutal Darwinism of the college admissions process and the double standards society places on black Americans to excel, “Waves” is a guidebook for coping in the 21st century. It’s emotionally draining, and worth every minute.
This German import marries the harrowing solitude of a survivalist drama with headline-ripped social commentary. During a character’s solo voyage to lush Ascension Island, she faces a brutal storm—one rendered with a camera that yaws from side to side along with her yacht, and an unnerving sound design that places us among the creaking infrastructure of the boat and the apocalyptic torrents of Mother Nature. But the movie’s darkest turn arrives later, when she happens upon a wrecked fishing trawler of abandoned passengers, of whose plight the Coast Guard seems curiously unmoved. Examining the human capacity to turn a blind eye to the suffering of others, its moral heft reverberates like an unanswered SOS call.
In director Christian Petzold’s slippery adaptation of Anna Seghers’s World War II-era novel, he transforms her story about an unnamed French narrator fleeing the German invasion into a temporal jumble of historical rhymes and repeats. It could be 1944, 1984 or 2014, and maybe it’s all three of these. Petzold wants us to feel unmoored; this is a story, after all, about dislocation as a permanent state. Transit is propelled by enough bureaucratic cul-de-sacs and absurdist ironies that it’s as if a Kafka story was filmed in the slick style of late 1960s Hitchcock, to say nothing of the looming influence of Samuel Beckett. Petzold’s unspecified dystopia has plenty to say about the Nazi regime, about third-world dictatorships, about today’s unfolding migrant crisis, all of them connected by a universal condition of stuckness.
6. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Quentin Tarantino’s black comedy, set against the backdrop of the Manson Family/Sharon Tate murder 50 years ago, is a chronicle of inside-Hollywood metafiction. It’s a layered love letter to the films Tarantino himself famously binged while working the register at Video Archives in Los Angeles in his ‘20s, and is thus a cinephile’s heaven. Tarantino’s trademark leisurely pacing—his propensity to let scenes play out past other filmmakers’ expiration times—works to the movie’s loosely structured favor. There is very little plot to speak of but a great deal of insightful observations, witty asides, and generous dips into kidney-shaped pools of Hollywood nostalgia. Yet the movie’s revisionist history, boisterous humor and self-referentiality skate over its blunt assessment of a studio system in its death spasms and a generation losing its innocence.
5. Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Celine Sciamma’s historical romance is a defiant erasure of the male gaze, a domineering fixture and a theoretical bugaboo since the dawn of cinema. The story is simple enough: A painter, Marianne, travels to a remote island in Brittany to paint a commissioned portrait of the aristocratic Heloise, an unwilling subject who is soon to be shipped off to Milan in an arranged marriage. The women end up falling in love, which is, of course, forbidden. What could have been the stuff of Merchant-Ivory prestige cinema instead borrows its syntax from rigorous filmmakers such as Ophuls, and Powell and Pressburger, co-opting their rigorous melodrama as a shot across the bow to patriarchies everywhere. Distinctions between artist and model, mistress and servant, and form and content burn away in the movie’s crackling fireplace, while its symbolic send-off is at once subversive and heartbreaking.
4. Little Women
Greta Gerwig’s masterly follow-up to Lady Bird extends her affinities for young women who chafe against society’s strictures. She shuffles the source material into an ambitious bifurcated narrative that oscillates between the characters’ young adulthood, after three of the sisters have left the March family home, and a formative period seven years earlier, when they all lived together as the Civil War wound to its bloody close. This approach allows past and present to rhyme in ways that are both richly ironic and devastating, so that its themes of proto-feminism, gender roles, sacrifice and patriotism can ripple across the canvas like leitmotifs. Though in some ways her movie is a modernist, playful adaptation, she is in the best way a reverential classicist, with countless images that evoke John Ford. Every shot resembles the sort of painting you would like to step into.
3. Pain and Glory
Pedro Almodóvar’s tender memory film—about a reclusive, physically hurting filmmaker whose latest festival invitation prompts his past to lap against his present like waves on a beachfront—is unlike anything yet made from this naughty provocateur of candy-colored melodrama. Yet as a remembrance of things past and a lucid reckoning with the director’s own weaknesses and misgivings, Pain and Glory is a pinnacle of autofiction, in many ways representing everything his oeuvre has been building toward. He saves the film’s most self-reflexive masterstroke for the marvelous final sequence—an act of bravura magic that, once you unpeel its layers, speaks to the curative properties of filmmaking.
With Parasite, the South Korean mad genius Boon Joon-ho has crafted a satire so funny, so savage and so necessary in our present moment of global unrest and anxiety that it makes Luis Bunuel’s bourgeois vivisections look almost tame. Think pieces will be written about popular culture’s response to this young century’s grift, class envy and income inequality; many will lead with Parasite. But it’s his refusal to demonize or caricature either of the movie’s warring families that renders the film’s pathos so powerful. Parasite has a great deal to say about a range of other topics, too—like globalization American cultural appropriation—but it’s the moments of casual malice, whether delivered from the bubble of privilege, in one family’s case, or by the need to feel superior to anyone else, in the others’ case, that condemn both sides.
1. Marriage Story
The title is seemingly cynical, as no movie has better explored the brutality and absurdity of the soulless divorce industry than Marriage Story. Yet writer-director Noah Baumbach, whose screenplay drew partly from his own divorce from Jennifer Jason Leigh, takes the sober, cosmic view of marriage’s inextricable hold on people even when documents, and feelings, and life itself suggest otherwise. Marriage Story is chock full of lived-in insights that perhaps only a middle-aged person could reliably write. And without much of a plot to propel the scenes forward, the movie assumes its power from its accretion of accurate details, its micro set pieces, its deadpan wit even in times of pain and sorrow. All of which is to say that Marriage Story is—despite its achieved sublimity, the tears it will doubtlessly induce, and its characters’ (literal, in one case) open wounds—an unlikely comedy.