15. First Cow
Feel-good movies tend to follow a formula and feel like they’re tricking us in some way, but Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow is uniquely heartwarming without ever being contrived. It takes us deep into the frontier and builds simple, yet nuanced characters who show the beginnings of American culture. We hardly ever see the domesticity of friendship between two men like we do in this film and it’s something to cherish. (Emily Kubincanek)
14. Dolemite is My Name
Confidence in self is a weapon. The world will happily explain your failings if given a chance. The trick is to ignore the bastards and move forever forward to your predetermined goal. Rudy Ray Moore knew he was funny, but if others wouldn’t have him, then he’d give them Dolemite. Craig Brewer built his career from celebrating such stubborn creativity, and Dolemite is My Name feels like his ultimate statement on DIY entertainment. Bonus points for returning Eddie Murphy to the height of his abilities, achieving less of a chameleon-like turn in Rudy Ray Moore and more of an emotional mimicry. (Brad Gullickson)
13. Martin Eden
Look no further for the panoramic class commentary of the year. Parasite’s incredible, of course, but Bong Joon-ho takes a more rousing approach where writer-director Pietro Marcello uses his Jack London adaptation as a microscope through which to examine the scintillas of the political, expressive, socio-economic depths of class relations. Titular performer Luca Marinelli earned his Coppa Volpi for Best Actor at Venice for good reason, his transformation from eager, passionate, and poor student of culture to bourgeois literary A-list an awe-inspiring expression of the cynical toll our dreams take on us in the midst of an all-consuming pursuit of justice that ultimately neglects the humanity of those nearest to us. (Luke Hicks)
12. The Lighthouse
One day. That’s how long I lasted before calling a festival film a masterpiece. But in my defense: I am correct. I don’t have evidence that Robert Eggers made this film for me personally, but one thing’s for sure: this film is for coastal folk. For people who like the smell of rotting seaweed and who’ve been in fights with seagulls. It’s for people who’ve earnestly said the word “squall” and who have special snacks for storms. I’m not saying The Lighthouse is only for coastal folk. But I am saying that this film started and I grinned like a maniac for two hours and texted fellow FSR TIFF attendee Anna Swanson to let her know that I want to go to there.
Look: this is a film about Robert Pattinson and Willem Defoe having magnificent facial hair, and the time of their goddamn lives drinking, farting, and gaslighting the hell out of each other like it’s an Olympic goddamn sport. The Lighthouse is my favorite horror-comedy of 2019, with frequent laugh-out-loud moments that add to the tension rather than defusing it. It’s a bacchanal in a wool sweater and the question shouldn’t be “how long have we been on this rock,” but “how do I get to that rock?” The Lighthouse is a gorgeous, hypnotic ride; a masterfully turned descent into madness. I cannot wait to watch it again. (Meg Shields)
11. The True History of the Kelly Gang
True History of the Kelly Gang is a film in which a character, in order to test the bulletproof-ness of a metal helmet, puts it on and shoots himself in the head. True History of the Kelly Gang is a film in which Nicholas Hoult holds a baby hostage and occasionally wears nothing but socks. True History of the Kelly Gang is a film in which 19th-century Australian mythology meets a punk rock aesthetic and produces a gnarly, unhinged masterwork centering on the most famous folk hero to ever traverse the outback.
I’ll be honest, despite loving director Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth, after the disappointment of his Assassin’s Creed adaptation, I went into Kelly Gang with lowered expectations. Turns out, I was wrong to doubt him. I was left gobsmacked and enamored by his Ned Kelly biopic; my jaw on the floor and my heart beating out of my chest. This is a truly wild film, capable of being as bleak and brutal as it is riotous and fierce. It’s also a breathtaking and impeccably crafted movie, with some of this year’s most stunning cinematography and production design that puts other period pieces to shame. This outlaw odyssey has been picked up by IFC for 2020 distribution and I for one cannot wait to experience it again and to watch audiences be absolutely floored by it. (Anna Swanson)
10. Ad Astra
Forget the Terrence Malick comparisons, James Gray’s intimate sci-fi epic is far too captivating, engaging, and suspenseful to be mistaken for a Malick joint. Brad Pitt’s subdued but ultimately affecting turn as an astronaut sent into the reaches of space to confront his father and save humanity is the heart of the film, and it’s a strongly beating one at that. Tragic accidents and violent encounters mar his journey, but it’s his inner struggle that moves him forward, and viewers follow along caught up in a personal story that could easily be their own. It’s a beautiful movie, both visually and emotionally, and it’s told with the scale of an epic with a focus brought down to human size. (Rob Hunter)
Gael García Bernal spends a fair chunk of Ema wearing overalls and that’s not even the best part of this bonkers, buckwild relationship drama. Pablo Larraín’s latest stars Mariana Di Girolamo as the eponymous character, a dancer whose marriage to Gastón (Bernal) becomes rocky when they encounter problems with their adopted son. Ema refuses to accept this rockiness and responds accordingly. I hesitate to expand further on plot details because this intricate narrative perfectly reflects the unpredictability of its protagonist. Whether she’s dancing or dealing with a caseworker, Ema operates like a bat out of hell. She’s mesmerizing, bewildering, and a little dangerous.
Di Girolamo’s breathtaking breakout performance is a wonder to behold and Larraín knows it. He’s provided her with a role so meaty that my arteries clog just writing this and she runs with it, never looking back. This is a role that requires absolute commitment in order to capture Ema’s beguiling nature and ability to manipulate everyone around her. Ema — both the character and the film — feels like a rarity, a beautiful and shocking feat in filmmaking that deserves to be treasured. This isn’t just one of the best films from the festival season, it’s one of the best of the year. (Anna Swanson)
8. Why Don’t You Just Die
A young punk in a Batman hoodie stands in front of an apartment door. Behind his back, he tightly grips a claw hammer. Who knows what the hell is buzzing around his brain, but the moment that door swings open a whole world of hurt will certainly come spilling forth. Rage, violence, and confusion. The combination is as deadly as it is hilarious. Why Don’t You Just Die sets its audience to gnawing their nails at frame one, and by credits roll, they’ll either have chewed themselves down to the skeleton or choked on their own maniacal laughter. First-time filmmaker Kirill Sokolov goes for broke inside the tiny apartment on the other side of the door, giving all of himself to the whirlwind of mayhem rampaging within. The director is the only one left standing unscathed, having announced himself to the world as a fully-formed talent ready to destroy his next movie. (Brad Gullickson)
Good, solidly entertaining creature features are a dying breed as filmmakers seem split between going big with CG monstrosities or going indie with cheap monsters barely glimpsed, so when a great one comes along it’s something worth celebrating. J.D. Dillard’s latest is that great one. Part monster movie and part tale of survival, the film drops the always fantastic Kiersey Clemons on a deserted island only to reveal that she’s not nearly as alone as she first thought. The creature reveal is an all-timer, the survival aspects feel like Castaway if Wilson had been replaced by a carnivorous beast, and Clemons gives us one of the great female action heroes in recent years. It’s a fun little movie that’ll leave you both satisfied and wanting more, and that’s never a bad thing. (Rob Hunter)
6. Jojo Rabbit
Jojo Rabbit is a film only Taika Waititi could have made. The exploration of a fanatical Hitler Youth’s desperate desire to belong as witnessed through his imaginary relationship with the Fuhrer and the hidden Jew in his attic is awkward and uncomfortable and difficult to navigate emotionally. When the laughs come, they’re the kind you tend to question as others cackle around you. Are they laughing for the same reasons you’re laughing? Waititi delights in pairing gags with squirms, savaging the Reich by highlighting the absurdity of hatred without neglecting the violent consequences of such poisonous and wretched thought. A mind given freely to others is a dangerous weapon easily manipulated, and freeing oneself from outside infection requires assistance and a willingness to consider a life beyond the one they’ve always known. In 2019, when Nazis are as real as they ever were, witnessing a Hitler cub break free from his hateful den of belief ignites a fury. Ignorance is not an excuse. Yet, these cancerous children are ever-expanding, and Jojo Rabbit offers hope through conversation. (Brad Gullickson)
5. The Vast of Night
Framed in the cathode ray glow of something like The Twilight Zone, The Vast of Night is Pontypool meets Close Encounters of a Third Kind and it absolutely rips. Sierra McCormick and Jake Horowitz are Fay and Everett, a crackling duo of fast-talking high school nerds obsessed with radio and always looking for a good story. Fay runs the switchboard in their sleepy New Mexico Town and Everett mans the local radio station. Late at night, while the rest of the town enjoys a basketball game, Fay and Everett trip into a mystery: a bizarre frequency that leads them down a rabbit hole through the airwaves and eventually…to the stars.
Utterly stylish and kinetic as all hell, The Vast of Night is a story about the power of storytelling that boasts a fantastic screenplay and unflappable performances from its young leads. First-time director Andrew Patterson delivers a rare gem where dialogue is king, presenting one of the oldest sci-fi tropes in the book with a fresh spin and a palpable love for testing the limits of cinema (Lengthy blackouts! Audaciously long takes! Be still my heart!). This is good radio, folks. It’s a damn good film too. (Meg Shields)
4. A Hidden Life
The best Terrance Malick films leave me in a daze, a little slack-jawed, glamoured, and comfortably quiet. Well, folks, Malick is back. And his granular approach to storytelling has never been more necessary; a heightened particularity weaponized here to tell a story that is, to its credit, very particular. The film follows Franz and Franziska, an Austrian couple whose idyllic life is complicated by Franz’s conscientious objection and refusal to make an oath of loyalty to the Nazi Party. Malick isn’t trying to make a sweeping humanist statement about World War II and the Holocaust, or simplify his message into something as trite as: “do the right thing.” He’s trying to tell this story and to attend to the choice of this man. Not to tell us how we should feel about Franz’s decision, but to present it for what it is: complex and deeply personal. A Hidden Life is an emotionally gripping experience with a contemplative rhythm and a lyrical sensibility. Every shot could be framed and James Newton Howard’s score is awe-inspiring. Trying not to cry while exiting a packed theatre is a good feeling. I promise. (Meg Shields)
3. First Love
As our own Rob Hunter pointed out in his review from Fantastic Fest, this marks 59-year-old Takashi Miike’s 88th feature film as a director. And while we can’t promise that you’ll like every single one of the other 87, we’re pretty sure this is one of his best. First Love is the story of Leo, a young boxer with a brain tumor, and Monica, a young woman on the run from the sex-traffickers who have been holding her captive. Their meet-cute is interrupted by a brewing street war between the Japanese Yakuza, the Chinese Triad, and the cops. It’s a lively affair, set over the course of one night, that deals equally in sweetness and splatter. Miike is as fresh and vibrant as he’s ever been, just wanting to show you a charming love story alongside a critical mass of violence. It’s such a lovely gesture. (Neil Miller)
2. Uncut Gems
No other movie this year — not even those in the horror genre — has topped the heart-pounding, nervous-sweat-inducing, seat-gripping tension of Uncut Gems, the Safdie brothers’ crime thriller follow-up to Good Time. Adam Sandler, in a whirlwind, career-best performance, stars as Howard Ratner, a Jewish jeweler and compulsive gambler working in Manhattan’s diamond district who finds himself out of his depth trying to dodge collectors while on a quest to make his next big score. The titular uncut gem is an African opal as enchanting as it is a harbinger of catastrophe, a jewel so mystical and enticing that Howard can’t possibly resist it, no matter the consequences. Howard’s criminal odyssey proceeds at a breakneck pace and it’s all any of us can do to try to hold on as the Safdies pull us into his world of chaos, resulting in a film unlike anything that’s been released in a long time.
And where to even begin with the Sandman’s performance. His portrayal of Howard is immersive, absolutely transforming into the character and embracing all of his blunders and manic tendencies, but imbuing them with an optimism that makes Howard surprisingly endearing, even when he’s frustratingly inept. Uncut Gems is so good that after being floored by it at a TIFF screening, I went back the next day to see it again. Audiences can’t prepare for what this movie has in store for them, but they’ll find out soon. Uncut Gems is set to be released this December, just in time for Hanukkah and an awards season push for Sandler. Frankly, carve his name on the Best Actor Oscar statue now and call it a day. (Anna Swanson)
All movies have twists and turns, but sometimes, every once in a while, a film comes along that is so preciously constructed, unwinding in a fashion that elicits chills, gasps, and laughter, that demands film critics to circle the wagons. DO. NOT. SPOIL. PARASITE. Bong Joon-ho has crafted a jewel of a movie destined to be chattered about for decades in the same fashion as Alfred Hitchock’s Psycho. The details of the plot will eventually spill their way into the public conscious, and its revelations will find most viewers well before the film itself does, but even in those tragic circumstances, Parasite will still manage to surprise through its magnificent construction. The film is a gem, one to be cherished and worshiped in our most hallowed halls. (Brad Gullickson)