1. Atlantics — Dir. Mati Diop
Based on her short film of the same name, Mati Diop’s Dakarian portrait follows Ada, a young woman on the eve of her arranged marriage, vying for an impossible life with a lover she’ll never have. Although the film is set against the backdrop of the economic plight of Dakar’s unpaid workers and young men on an ocean dingy set for Europe, what could be regarded as a romantic-social commentary film slowly morphs into a waking nightmare that flips all sorts of convention—ghosts, zombies, and the other unnameable of the undead interact in a finale that’ll leave you baffled and mystified. On Netflix.
2. An Elephant Sitting Still — Dir. Hu Bo
2019 was a remarkable year for Chinese independent cinema: An Elephant Sitting Still alongside A Long Day’s Journey into the Night and Ash is Purest White take drama, romance, and thriller to new heights, respectively. They laid the groundwork for Chinese art-films to gain more recognition at home and abroad. An Elephant Sitting Still, in particular, is a beautiful poem, reveling in a certain dichotomy of grandeur and monotony over the course of one day in a small Inner Mongolia city. The downward spiral of the ensemble cast may have foreshadowed first and last-time director Hu Bo’s tragic suicide after the film’s completion, but the beauty and grace linger on. Rent on Amazon/iTunes.
3. A Hidden Life — Dir. Terrence Malick
If you’ve ever seen a Terrence Malick picture, you know what you’re getting yourself into: slow, long takes, set under natural light, loose on narrative, and grounded in a philosophical tradition. A Hidden Life is no different. But unlike his last four rapidly produced, critical and commercial failures, his newest film approaches narrative in a way that harkens back to his work from the 1970s. Telling the story of a conscientious-objector farmer under Nazi-ruled Austria, we are absorbed into the Edenic beauty of his home life and family, yet his ardent view of faith that strips all of it away. At three hours, it’s a marathon, but you’ll walk out of the theater a lot more unsure of yourself and your life than when you walked in. On Amazon Prime Video.
4. Marriage Story — Dir. Noah Baumbach
Perhaps the most tragic film of the year—and certainly the most conventional on this list— Noah Baumbach chronicles a couple and a child caught in midst of the ugliest of divorces with dire consequences. Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson are pitch-perfect in a moral tale of fighting for life, love, and a child against a judicial system that rewards none of these. There is no winner, no loser, no side to take—and that’s the most tragic part. On Netflix.
5. Parasite — Dir. Bong Joon-ho
Parasite might be the movie of the year; critically, commercially, and artistically, it has pushed the boundaries of what film and genre can be. Is it a comedy? Romance? Moral tale? Horror? Thriller? Bong Joon-ho’s newest film revels in the undefined. Featuring a lower-class family hatching a plot to break into upper-class strata, the twists, turns, and schemes pan out into a full-fledged war that continually perplexes and questions morality, duty, and society. It’s the perfect film for the screen-obsessed, class-conscious, politicized modern world. In theaters.
6. The Souvenir — Dir. Joanna Hogg
Joanna Hogg’s near-minimalist love story semi-autobiographically recounts the first relationship of a film student in 80s London. With grace and clarity of style, Hogg brilliantly utilizes dramatic irony to showcase the woman’s increasingly destructive relationship with someone who we come to realize she doesn’t know at all. As the film luxuriates in first love, tragedy, and shattered ambition, we want to love this character, but know she’s doing it all wrong. On Amazon Prime Video.
7. Sunset — Dir. László Nemes
Sunset is László Nemes’s sophomore effort after his stunning 2015 Academy Award-winning Son of Saul. Shot in mostly close-up, it continues in his distinct cinematographic style. The film alters our perception: we are claustrophobically centered on a young woman as she wanders around 1913 Budapest, looking for a brother she never had. It doesn’t achieve quite the same depth or clarity as Son of Saul, but still enigmatically reaches a level of eeriness and visual intrigue that’s among this year’s best. Rent on Amazon Prime Video, Youtube, or iTunes.
8. Uncut Gems — Dir. Josh Safdie, Benny Safdie
The Safdie Brothers got no love from the Academy this year, but the pulsing, effervescent Uncut Gems is running a hundred-miles-a-minute from beginning to its euphoric, tragic end. Adam Sandler’s performance is the best of his career as he plays a hard-cut New York-style diamond dealer with a gambling problem that consumes his family, friends, and life. With stand-out performances by Kevin Garnett, Lakeith Stanfield, and Julia Fox, we are thrust into a hellish, Sisyphian world lurking under Westchester ritz, diamond district glass, and Ethiopian jewels. In theaters.