My choices for the films of the year, the runners-up, and the losers of 2019 follow:
1. “The Irishman” (Martin Scorsese): Picture “The Sopranos” if its final episode were closer to that of “Six Feet Under,” which followed every character through their entire lives, showing their aging and moment of death. I’m still stunned by the way this film uses its 210-minute running time to create a sense of complicity and identification with the life of its protagonist and then dives into its ultimate emptiness and despair. Few elderly directors have made films this remorselessly devoted to staring down death and the physical deterioration that comes with its approach. Scorsese’s dis of the Marvel Comic Universe scandalized fanboys, but this film is a far more successful and self-critical version of the elegiac take on a changing cinema Tarantino tried in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” And the silence of its women is an active, judgmental one that winds up spinning its protagonist’s narration of his own life on its head.
2. “Transit” (Christian Petzold) “Transit” lays the horrors of the past over an uncertain but oppressive present in a way that makes the continuity between all forms of fascism clear without preaching. German director Christian Petzold has spent most of his career making art films informed by Hollywood genre work. Here, he takes the raw material of “Casablanca” into a saga of refugees’ desperation with no obvious exit route.
3. “Souvenir” (Joanna Hogg) Hogg shaped the raw experiences that formed her as a student filmmaker, especially a relationship with an older man who turned out to be a heroin addict, into a narrative built by connecting jagged fragments. Drawing on Maurice Pialat, “Souvenir” tells a story full of gaps and apparent digressions, conveying the horror of how Hogg’s alter ego got used without reducing her to a victim.
4. “The Image Book” (Jean-Luc Godard) Nearing the end of his life, Nouvelle Vague legend Godard reflects on the history of cinema, sitting in front of his video collection and laptop loaded with editing software, and decides that it made the world more violent and racist (especially toward Arabs). “The Image Book” is made up almost entirely of clips from other films, shown in a degraded form that looks like a fourth-generation VHS dub. But the longest section shows Godard dipping into the history of Arab cinema and expanding his notion of the canon. While “The Image Book” is an even bleaker missive from an elderly director than “The Irishman,” it suggests the future lies in the Middle East.
5. “End of the Century” (Lucio Castro) Theorist Jack Halberstam has written about the notion of “queer time”: the possibility that we can escape from the treadmill that heterosexuals are expected to automatically live out. By depicting three different encounters between an Argentine and Spanish man that can’t all take place in the same reality, “End of the Century” needs to go outside naturalism to illustrate the dizzying changes in the options available to gay men over the past 25 years, queering the Latin surrealist tradition.
6. “An Elephant Sitting Still” (Hu Bo) An elephant sits over this film: its director killed himself before its release. But its bleak monumentality, which draws in time frame (it’s four hours long) and style from Hu’s teacher Béla Tarr’s “Sátántangó,” would remain even if he went on to direct rom-coms for Netflix. This is the saga of people struggling not to be trapped by a society with few options, set in one day, where hope exists only in metaphorical form.
7. “Parasite” (Bong Joon-ho) Combining Spielberg spectacle and a desire to entertain with a cutting view of class warfare and Buñuelian lack of sentimentality about the poor, Bong managed to make an intervention into pop culture around the world even though his film is in Korean. There are no heroes or villains here, just a conviction that the status quo can’t continue, as difficult as it is to change.
8. “In My Room” (Ulrich Kohler) Allegorically rich while remaining vague, “In My Room” turns to post-apocalyptic sci-fi devoid of explanations. It resonates most as a reflection on freedom and its price: it’s the story of a man who can only improve his life when no one else is left on the planet. “In My Room” also affirms that not everyone is meant to live in a heterosexual couple, even if they’re the last two people on Earth.
9. “Los Reyes” (Iván Osnovikoff & Bettina Perut) This Chilean documentary, shot in a skate park where teenage stoners and elderly dogs alike spend their days, is as concerned with growing old as “The Irishman” and “The Image Book,” but plays the theme out in a far less literal form. The directors use image and sound as two paths to a similar destination, layering the kids’ talk over footage of the dogs. Even though it’s a fairly gentle and mellow film, its evocation of life in the park with little to do and diminishing prospects cuts to the bone.
10. “Atlantics” (Mati Diop) Finding poetry amidst exploitation in contemporary Senegal, Mati Diop makes a remarkable feature debut with this ghost story, where one has to die and come back to life to have any chance of getting justice or living out love.
The runners-up were:
“Ali Aqa” and “None of Your Business” (Kamran Heidari)
“The Art of Self-Defense” (Riley Stearns)
“The Burial of Kojo” (Sam “Blitz” Bazawule)
“Cellophane” (Andrew Thomas Huang; music by FKA Twigs)
“Chez Jolie Coiffure” (Rosine Mbakam)
“Cunningham” (Alla Kovgan)
“The Farewell” (Lulu Wang)
“Ghosts of Sugar Land” (Bassam Tariq)
“High Flying Bird” (Steven Soderbergh)
“A Man of Integrity” (Mohammad Rasoulof)
“Memento Stella” (Takashi Makino)
“Midsommar” (Ari Aster)
“Movies” (Natalie Mering; music by Mering aka Weyes Blood)
“Pain and Glory” (Pedro Almodóvar)
“Pasolini” (Abel Ferrara)
“Synonyms” (Nadav Lapid)
“Us” (Jordan Peele)
The worst films of 2019 were:
“Jojo Rabbit” (Taika Waititi)
“Joker” (Todd Phillips)
“Luce” (Julius Onah)
“Sauvage/ Wild” (Camille Vidal-Naquet)
“Yesterday” (Danny Boyle)