It’s peak list-making season, and we’ll turn to the best (and worst) of 2019 and the 2010s in a moment, but first, let’s have a look at a list with legs. Having consulted with members of the National Film Preservation Board and other film curators, Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden has selected twenty-five films to be added to the National Film Registry. These films, now prime candidates for preservation, “are not selected as the ‘best’ American films of all time,” explains the Registry, “but rather as works of enduring importance to American culture. They reflect who we are as a people and as a nation.”
Seven of this year’s round of twenty-five films were directed by women, more than in any other year since the Registry began adding titles in 1989. With A New Leaf (1971), Elaine May became the first woman to write, direct, and star in a feature backed by a major American studio, and the Registry notes that Madeline Anderson’s I Am Somebody (1970) is “considered the first documentary on civil rights directed by a woman of color.”
This year’s selection also skews a little more toward newer titles than usual with what seems to be a particular emphasis on the heyday of American independent cinema. Four debut features are widely recognized as landmark works of the era: Claudia Weill’s Girlfriends (1978); Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It (1986); Kevin Smith’s Clerks (1994), which the Registry notes was “this year’s biggest public vote getter”; and Kimberly Peirce’s Boys Don’t Cry (1999), starring Hilary Swank as a trans man who was raped and murdered in Nebraska in 1993. “I fell in love with Brandon Teena and his desire to live and love as himself in a time and place where that was impossible,” Peirce tells the Registry. “It is meaningful to me as a filmmaker, a genderqueer, and as a person that the Library of Congress has recognized Boys Don’t Cry. This moment is a culmination, unimaginable and wonderful.”
Two popular hits from 1984, both of them movies based on the lives of musicians, have made the list: Miloš Forman’s Amadeus (1984), with Tom Hulce as Mozart, and Albert Magnoli’s Purple Rain (1984), starring Prince as a mercurial Minneapolis funk rocker very much like himself. Golden-age Hollywood, strictly defined, is really only represented by one title, George Cukor’s Gaslight (1944), the film that won Ingrid Bergman her first Oscar. And chronologically, this year’s list is bookended by documentaries. Alfred C. Abadie shot Emigrants Landing at Ellis Island, a “short actuality” for Thomas Edison’s company, in 1903, and Errol Morris interviewed former secretary of defense Robert McNamara for Fog of War in 2003.
Top Films of 2019
Film Comment contributors and editors have voted up a list of the top twenty films of the year. Placing first and second, respectively, are Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite and Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, which also happen to have been named the best films of 2019 by the editors and writers at RogerEbert.com, albeit with the order flipped. The Detroit Film Critics Society is going with Parasite, while the San Diego Film Society has named The Irishman the best film of 2019.
In a piece for the New Republic,Ryu Spaeth sets these two films next to each other. Noting that hustles drive both narratives, Spaeth finds it “tempting to place Scorsese and Bong in two distinct political categories: the liberal filmmaker, who asserts the primacy of the individual in all his fathomless complexity, versus the Marxian filmmaker, who grimly pronounces the triumph of systemic-materialist forces over individual notions of beauty and truth. One suggests that dignity is possible in a thoroughly corrupt world, falling back on the timeworn idea that dignity lies in the struggle—another word for the hustle. The other argues that the hustle is a sad, delusional exercise, in which the individual goes around in circles in the mental prison yard in which he is unwittingly caught.”
As a quick but not at all unrelated diversion, here’s Bong talking about one of his favorite films by Scorsese, Raging Bull (1980):
For the Washington Post’s Ann Hornaday, the best film of the year is American Factory. Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert’s documentary about a Chinese conglomerate’s takeover of a shuttered factory in Ohio “summarizes issues of deindustrialization, wealth inequality, immigration, and cultural assimilation in a way that is compassionate, observant and emotionally resonant,” writes Hornaday. American Factory places seventh on David Fear’s list of the ten best documentaries in Rolling Stone. His #1 is Todd Douglas Miller’s Apollo 11, which is “less a history lesson than a fully immersive experience, a vital work of nonfiction artistry—and a masterpiece.”
Fear has also written about his favorite horror movies of 2019, placing Jordan Peele’s Us at the top of his list: “It’s a profound take on our divided nation and the return of the repressed.” The African American Film Critics Association has not only named Us the best film of 2019 in any genre, but also given its awards for best director and actress to Peele and Lupita Nyong’o.
Best Performances of 2019
This week’s New York Times Magazine comes with six covers, each of them featuring a photograph by Jack Davison of one of the actors whose work A. O. Scott and Wesley Morris have found “most captivating, challenging, shocking, and inspiring in 2019.” One of them is Lupita Nyong’o, who “alternates, terrifyingly, between poles of psychological extremity” in Us, writes Morris. Scott and Morris’s nine other choices include both stars of Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson; both stars of Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood, Brad Pitt (also selected for his turn in James Gray’s Ad Astra and interviewed by David Marchese) and Leonardo DiCaprio; and Antonio Banderas (Pain and Glory), Robert De Niro (The Irishman; also interviewed by Marchese), Jennifer Lopez (Hustlers;Scott finds that she excels at playing “women with ambition and complexity and the kind of magnetism that goes beyond sex”), Julianne Moore (Gloria Bell), and Elizabeth Moss (Her Smell).
IndieWire’s list of the year’s top fifteen performances is alphabetical and includes Christian Bale for his turn as a “gifted, tightly-wound” racer in James Mangold’s Ford v Ferrari. For the Los Angeles Times’ Kenneth Turan, this is the best film of 2019. Writing up his list, he found that “nothing excited me so much, nothing so revived my spirits, nothing made me feel the kinds of films I love just might survive more than the one film I could not live without, and so to the top it went.”
Bale has also been nominated for a Screen Actors Guild Award. “Actors revere Bale,” notes Kyle Buchanan as he takes a close look at the SAG’s dozens and dozens of nominations in fifteen categories in the New York Times. Buchanan is paying such close attention to this list because “most of the five actors nominated in each individual category will go on to be nominated for Oscars, too.”
Debating the 2010s
One of the most ambitious—and entertaining!—listing projects in recent memory is the one undertaken by Vulture critics Angelica Jade Bastién, Bilge Ebiri, David Edelstein, and Alison Willmore. They’ve sorted through 5,279 films made in the 2010s—and ranked them. Naturally, they don’t write about each and every one of them, but they do dwell on the top fifty-three and a good number of the “absolute worst” as well. At #1: Melancholia. “Lars von Trier’s 2011 magnum opus is a film about depression, and it’s a film about the end of the world, and more than anything, it’s a profoundly resonant film about how the two can feel indistinguishable from one another,” writes Willmore. Part of what makes this list such fun is that, all up and down this long, long page, one or another critic will chime in with a friendly rebuttal to another’s assessment, either to take a favorite down a notch or two, or towards the bottom of the list, to come to the defense of a film he or she deems unfairly maligned.
Cahiers du cinéma’s editors and writers have briefly revived the debate on social media over whether Twin Peaks: The Return (2017) is the third season of a classic television series or, as David Lynch has claimed, an eighteen-hour movie. Or can it be both? Does it matter? Cahiers, at any rate, is siding with Lynch, and the magazine has placed The Return at the top of its list of the ten best films of the 2010s.
Two programmers, Eric Allen Hatch and Nellie Killian, have been sorting through their favorites of the decade on Twitter, while at Letterboxd, Michael Sicinski is concentrating on the best “experimental/avant-garde features” of the 2010s. Film Comment in the meantime has launched a series of podcasts that editor Nicolas Rapold is calling the Decade Project in an effort to “map out a vivid but often hard to characterize time.”
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