Two three-hour odysseys plus three Mandarin-language features plus two Netflix productions plus three genre-defying mind-blowers add up to 2019. Hard to say what that means for 2020, beyond the inevitable rise in streaming and a possible surge in long-winded movies, but read on.
For those who like their black comedy acid-strength, a social satire that suddenly shifts gears into horror-thriller mode. Ace South Korean director Bong Joon-ho is at his fearless peak, rolling out gloriously over-the-top visual metaphors—squalid basements, glowing teepees, and water, water everywhere—as adeptly as his critique of class disparity in the 21st century. Electrifying and deeply unnerving.
Lulu Wang’s funny-sad story about a Chinese family that hides the truth about a grandmother’s cancer diagnosis isn’t just about saying goodbye to your nai-nai. Intently focused on the 20-something Billi (a beautifully unaffected Awkwafina), The Farewell gets at that indescribable ache that comes from letting go of your childhood and losing what you always considered “home”.
Huge risks come with even bigger payoffs in a film that somehow manages to be both one of the funniest and most moving of the year. Taika Waititi’s deliriously absurdist story about hate and wartime works where Life Is Beautiful was cringe-inducing. He dances a razor’s edge of comic farce and tragedy—Adolf Hitler as a goofy imaginary friend?!—but, with huge help from Scarlett Johansson and Sam Rockwell, centres it all in a message of kindness.
Believe it or not, even amid the ugliest divorces, spouses can retain a fondness for each other—right down to their untied shoelaces. As Alan Alda says in one of the movie’s many brilliant lines, “Divorce lawyers see good people at their worst.” The implosion that happens to the genuinely decent couple here feels like an experience that could only have been lived. Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson’s powerful performances are backed up by colourful supporting characters—a lawyer who kicks off her heels to snuggle up to her client, or a social worker who sits blank-faced as Driver’s dad loses his shit. Painfully real.
One Child Nation
Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang’s documentary works not just as a powerful personal reckoning with one woman’s family, but as that rarity in our times: dogged investigative journalism. Almost everyone has heard of China’s one-child policy, which ran from 1979 to 2015, but no one’s exposed the implications of it in such damning human detail. It sounds an alarm about both the power of mass indoctrination and the corruption that can drive “population control” experiments.
Okay, so the digital de-aging is occasionally distracting. But only Martin Scorsese could pull off a sprawling epic like this—covering Teamsters, Cuba, JFK, the Mob—distilling it all through a lonely old man staring into the abyss. The director’s exploration of morality and mortality reads like the culmination of his entire career—and the countdown of his own clock. The richly designed settings, which conjure a time when shootouts took place in barber shops and nightclubs had tables with little lamps on them, are the added bonus.
Call it folk-horror, call it pagan nightmare: whatever-the-hell genre it is that Ari Aster has concocted here, the dude is such a master at creepy, slow-building dread that you start to think of Stanley Kubrick or Roman Polanski—without their aversion to gore. In the hands of the writer-director, a Scandinavian cult’s pastoral setting is a little too emerald-green, the shrooms are a bit too strong, and, hey, what’s that hair in the meat pie?
Because death umbrellas with flying dagger blades. It’s hard not to be a sucker for Zhang Yimou’s insanely choreographed martial-arts epic—washed in the dream-world grey tones of a Chinese watercolour landscape. Bring on the battling zither masters and evil doppelgängers.
Once Upon a Time In… Hollywood
Quentin Tarantino’s outsized ode to a lost era operates as both a dazzling period piece and a revenge story to rank with Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Amid the many tangents, Brad Pitt gives the performance of his career, with not much dialogue beyond a smirk. Above all, it’s a popcorn movie—one that brashly allows us to rewrite American history, even if just for a moment.
You can only get away with this kind of feminist reframing of a classic when you have such a loving appreciation for the spirit of the book—and the smarts to back it up. Helped by Saoirse Ronan’s clear-eyed performance as the ever-unkempt Jo March, Greta Gerwig finds a fresh way to speak to women’s ambitions in Louisa May Alcott’s time, while expressing the importance of sisterhood today.