The year’s 10 best movies: From ‘Honeyland’ to ‘A Beautiful Day’

Why We Wrote This

In a year in which movie controversies often fizzled, critic Peter Rainer found himself drawn to documentaries when considering his top 10. For him, they offered a lens on how life is really lived.

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Documentary "Honeyland" is about Hatidze Muratova, a beekeeper in what is now North Macedonia. It brims with universal truths about the human condition.

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Looking back at the year, I had thought the biggest movie controversy would be about “Jojo Rabbit,” a rollicky black comedy about a boy in Nazi Germany whose imaginary friend is none other than a goofily portrayed Adolf Hitler. But the film wasn’t taken seriously enough to provoke much rancor.

And then there was “Joker,” which I deemed too pitch dark to be a mass audience hit. It has so far grossed more than $1 billion worldwide. With Joker’s usual nemesis Batman not even making an appearance, it makes one wonder how hungry audiences are for dark depravity.

The biggest controversy turned out to be Martin Scorsese’s remarks calling out comic book-inspired movies for being “amusement parks” and “not cinema.” Aside from the fact that it’s kind of silly to narrowly define what cinema is, or that Marvel movies do indeed have their moments of emotional power, I can still certainly sympathize with what Scorsese is bemoaning here.

My top 10 choices reflect those sympathies. Half of them are documentaries – including my top pick, “Varda by Agnès”  and I think this speaks to a desire on my part to learn more about the way people really live, especially in regions, mental and geographical, far from my own. 

Of the several hundred films I saw in 2019, at least two dozen were eminently worth seeing. Before I get to my top 10 – drumroll, please – a few quick thoughts about the year just past. 

I had thought the biggest movie controversy would be about “Jojo Rabbit,” a rollicky black comedy about a boy in Nazi Germany whose imaginary friend is none other than Adolf Hitler, goofily portrayed by writer-director Taika Waititi. But the film wasn’t taken seriously enough to provoke much rancor.

And then there was “Joker,” which I deemed too pitch dark to be a mass audience hit. It has so far grossed more than
$1 billion worldwide. So much for my powers of prognostication. (I was certainly not alone in missing the mark.)

“Joker” was controversial all right, but the controversy mostly centered on what the movie was actually saying. Was it about the chasm between the haves and the have-nots in Donald Trump’s America? The failures of the mental health system? The rage of single white males? Or was it just the imprimatur of a famous comic book villain that sold it? I’m afraid it’s still somewhat of a mystery to me and to many others. With Joker’s usual nemesis Batman not even making an appearance, it makes one wonder how hungry audiences are for dark depravity.

The biggest controversy turned out to be Martin Scorsese’s remarks calling out comic book-inspired movies for being “amusement parks” and “not cinema.” He told Empire magazine, “It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.” Aside from the fact that it’s kind of silly to so narrowly define what cinema is, or that Marvel movies do indeed have their moments of emotional power – the depth of feeling Robert Downey Jr. gave to the death of Iron Man, for example – I can still certainly sympathize with what Scorsese is bemoaning here. And my top 10 choices reflect those sympathies. You’ll also notice that half of them are documentaries, and I think this speaks to a desire on my part to learn more about the way people really live, especially in regions, mental and geographical, far from my own. Compared with these films, the typical Hollywood movie seems counterfeit. I could go on, but, without further ado, let’s bring on the bounty. In roughly top-down order, here are my year’s 10 best, followed by a brief list of some other films that I found, in whole or in part, deserving of mention.

1. Varda by Agnès – The final documentary by Agnès Varda, who died in March, is framed as a series of lectures but is marvelously playful and discursive and chock-full of clips. It’s a glorious, homespun valedictory to her 60-year career as director, still photographer, installation artist, and wife and mother. Varda was at the forefront of the French New Wave that produced filmmakers François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, and many others. Her films over the years – high points include the masterpieces “Vagabond” (1985) and the documentary “The Gleaners and I” (2000) – are reflective of her filmmaking philosophy, which is really a philosophy of life: “Nothing is trite if you film it with love and empathy.” (Not rated)

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The documentary “Varda by Agnès” is the last movie by the late Agnès Varda, whose philosophy was “Nothing is trite if you film it with love and empathy.”

2. Transit – The time is an indeterminate present where fascists are about to close off Paris. A German refugee (Franz Rogowski) flees to Marseille, hoping to ship out to Mexico. This haunting drama by writer-director Christian Petzold, updated from a 1942 novel by the German-Jewish novelist Anna Seghers, is like “Casablanca” reimagined by Kafka. Although it seems set as much in the past as in the present, it touches on the modern, existential anxieties of asylum-seekers. The past, this movie is saying, is always with us. (Not rated)

3. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood – Despite the ideal casting of Tom Hanks, a biopic about TV icon Fred Rogers didn’t sound promising. But hold on – it’s not a biopic; it’s about a cynical journalist (Matthew Rhys) who sets out to write a dirt-digging magazine piece on Rogers and instead falls under his spell. As directed by Marielle Heller and written by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster, this is one of the few movies that portrays goodness in ways that ring absolutely true, no small achievement. It has a lingering enchantment. (PG) 

4. Honeyland – A documentary about a Macedonian beekeeper sounds like a Monty Python sketch, but “Honeyland,” directed by Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov, is an extraordinary testimonial to an extraordinary life. Shot over three years in an isolated mountain region deep within the Balkans, it’s about Hatidze Muratova, who harvests raw honey and cares for her ailing mother. The incursion of a family of knockabout neighbors disrupts both her traditional lifestyle and the beekeeping biodiversity she seeks to maintain. It’s a movie brimming with universal truths about the human condition. (Not rated)

5. Ash Is Purest White – Taking place from 2001 through 2018, this movie by Chinese director Jia Zhangke essentially tells two stories simultaneously. It’s a crime story involving the girlfriend of an ungrateful gangster who sacrifices herself for him before finally achieving retribution. It’s also a meditation on the difficult passage from traditionalism to modernity in contemporary China. As the girlfriend, Zhao Tao, Jia’s wife and frequent collaborator, gives one of the year’s finest performances. (Not rated)  

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Starring Liao Fan (left) and Zhao Tao, the drama “Ash Is Purest White” is both a crime story and a meditation on the passage from traditionalism to modernity in contemporary China.

6. The Cave – Physician Amani Ballour risks her life saving others in a subterranean hospital in war-ravaged Syria in Feras Fayyad’s powerfully immediate documentary, shot under extreme conditions. There are lots of cooked-up comic book heroes in the movies. Ballour is the real deal. (PG-13)

7. One Child Nation – Now living in the United States, Nanfu Wang, who co-directed this documentary with Jialing Zhang, grew up in China during the 36-year government-mandated one-child policy that ended in 2015. A first-time mother, she returned to film the effect that policy had on her neighbors, her family, and, ultimately, herself. The film is about her rediscovery of both her country and her own past. (R) 

8. 63 Up – This is the ninth film in the celebrated documentary series that began in 1964 when Britain’s Granada TV first filmed a group of 7-year-old children from widely varying economic backgrounds. The movie was meant to illustrate the Jesuit saying, “Give me the child until he is 7 and I will give you the man.” Since then, every seven years director Michael Apted has revisited many of the original subjects. The inexorable passage of people’s lives has rarely been so movingly recorded. (Not rated)

9. Parasite – Although it goes off the rails by the end, this black comedy by South Korean director Bong Joon-ho about a poor family that infiltrates a wealthy one is a sly, subversive take on class distinctions – a kind of deranged “Upstairs, Downstairs.” (R)

10. Booksmart – Actresses Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever are snobby graduating high school seniors who try to cram into a single night all the partying they missed while studying for four years. It’s a female “Superbad,” but even sharper and funnier, and a terrific directorial debut for Olivia Wilde. (R)

Some runners-up: “Apollo 11,” “Toy Story 4,” “Knives Out,” “Ford v Ferrari,” “A Hidden Life,” “Photograph,” “Marriage Story,” “Diane,” “Les Misérables,” “The Mustang,” “For Sama,” “The Eyes of Orson Welles.” 

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