2019 was a dark year for the human race. Politics, fires, floods, war, anger, and sadness were rampant. I haven’t ever seen so many incredible films that were so consistently bleak yet compelling. It’s hard to imagine that we fix many of these problems during this new decade, but at least we are chronicling modern times with a heavy dose of cinematic creativity. Many of the films on this list will be unwatchable for people that just want to be entertained. But if you want a break from the banality of social media and depressing stories on the news, here is a welcome dose of darkness.
1. Uncut Gems — Dir. Benny & Josh Safdie (Adam Sandler, Kevin Garnett)
This is the most frenetic and relentlessly edgy film of the year. If you love sports gambling and the gangsters behind it, the Safdie brothers go deep into the belly of the beast. Set in the diamond district just off of Times Square, this film is about money and our endless preoccupation and addiction to it. Not unlike the brother’s prior full-length film “Good Time,” there is very little levity and joy, instead it is a relentless journey into madness.
Although it is deeply dark, it moves so lightly through the slow-motion implosion of its star Adam Sandler, in very a welcome off character role. With small contributions from Judd Hirsch and Eric Bogosian, this is Sandler’s film, and he runs wild and loose trying to keep the wheels on the car, even though he seems to know he’s at the end of the line. Nothing goes where you think it will which is why it’s such a gem.
2. 1917 — Dir. Sam Mendes (George MacKay, Dean Charles Chapman)
Like the opening sequence of “Citizen Kane” on hyperdrive, “1917” rolls along in one seemingly endless shot. The transitions are so seamless that you have to pay very close attention to even detect them as the camera never stops following the journey through the relentless and often gruesome journey through the burned-out wasteland of Germany and France at the end of WW1.
With a largely fresh faced and a sublimely costumed cast of soldiers, Mendes captures the kind of rugged and noble bonds of the last almost civil seeming war. After WW1, each war seemed to became even more barbaric and political, as the boundaries of the world became more rigid while starting to become more homogenous. Like “Dunkirk” before it, just when you thought there couldn’t be another great war film, “1917” is one of the very best ever.
1. Parasite — Dir. Bong Joon Ho (Song Kang Ho, Jang Hye Jin)
It’s rare for a film that is filled with such scorching social commentary to exist as a comedy, a long con, a thriller, and a blood fest so comfortably. The inequality gap, as seen through the lens of two Korean families, is so shockingly universal, shining a bright light on the struggle and ingenuity of the poor, and the superfluous “problems” of the rich.
Bong is both a master storyteller, and a stylistic genius. Each character is just deep enough to understand fully, but not so deep that anyone steals too much of the oxygen. As the film shifts from light to dark, the camera finds every rich detail effortlessly. There wasn’t a more creative film this year.
4. The Nightingale — Dir. Jennifer Kent (Aisling Franciosi, Baykali Ganambarr)
This starkly beautiful, infuriatingly bleak, and relentlessly morbid romp through Australia during the 1850’s is as unsettling a film as you are likely to see at the theater these days. It is by no means a mainstream work of art, but it’s oddly watchable, and intensely compelling once you tip-toe through a few gruesome scenes.
Early on in the film a young Irish servant watches as her family is brutalized, while the balance focuses on her unstoppable thirst for revenge. Despite being set halfway around the globe, 175 years ago, all of the themes seem strikingly similar. Her friendship with the marginalized aboriginal guide, echo’s the race relations we still struggle with today. The abuse she suffers from the powerful people around her also seem chillingly familiar. In the end we are all just animals.
5. Marriage Story — Dir. Noah Baumbach (Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson)
Divorce isn’t rational. It’s isn’t fair to anyone. It’s people at their worst with collateral damage to boot. For anyone with a generally happy marriage this film might feel like unnecessary and unbelievable drivel. But the story is largely inspired by director Noah Baumbach’s own messy divorce to his ex-Jennifer Jason Lee so there is little speculation, mostly just experience.
Scarlett Johansson plays the unappreciated Nicole, who is largely stripped of makeup and glamour, and is an understated powerhouse, while Adam Driver’s self-absorbed Charlie is filled with a kind of clueless but arrogant intensity. The thing about divorce is that at some point, for outsiders anyway, things can’t get any worse. Rip the band-aid, make the leap, no one is guilty sometimes … Baumbach understands all this.
6. Once Upon A Time In Hollywood — Dir. Quentin Tarantino (Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio)
The first two hours of “Once Upon A Time” flow like a laid-back old Hollywood honey, slowly at first until it explodes with that classic Tarantino adrenaline shot to the heart. More “Jackie Brown” than “Pulp Fiction,” Pitt and DeCaprio seem to be having as much fun as we do watching them muddle through their own mid-life malaise.
Part fact, or at least embellished details, part extrapolated fiction (inspired in part by Burt Reynolds and his stuntman) in some ways you know where things are going but really can’t ever be sure about how it will all play out. How do the Manson killings intersect with a washed up actor and stunt man, in Tarantino’s hands you just roll with it enjoying every nuanced twist.
7. Midsommar — Dir. Ari Aster (Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor)
“Midsommar” is one of the slickest most creative horror films I can remember. For starters it takes place in Sweden at a bucolic community and almost entirely during daylight. All three of these aspects create strange textures and scenarios that disorient the viewer who is expecting merely “horror.”
The plot is simple, a bunch of beautiful college students go traveling during summer break and end up at a cult where human sacrifice is still part of the program. That is as much as director Ari Aster needs to build one of the nastiest but most compelling films of the year.
8. The Farewell — Dir. Lulu Wang (Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin)
Of all the quirky, politically correct seeming movies that somehow managed to claw its way above the fray, without a free Netflix or Amazon boost, this innocent family reunion seems like an odd one to take off. Supercharged by its star, Awkwafina, fresh off “Crazy Rich Asians” is a quirky force of nature, but the film is a calm mediation on life, family and the inevitability of death.
For a largely subtitled film, this is a surprisingly easy film to follow. Given the subject matter, a terminal lung cancer diagnosis, it is genuinely upbeat throughout. Even though the cast is aligned around trying to do the right thing, the film makes you second guess whether good intentions can actually justify a lie. Good question.
9. Joker — Dir. Todd Phillips (Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro)
Frighteningly “The Joker” wasn’t even in my top three darkest films of the year. It’s portrait of 1981 Gotham is a starkly apocalyptic nightmare of a city, making it easy to understand how a character like the Joker could come to be. A comic book film in name only, Joaquin Phoenix disappears into the black soul transforming his emaciated body into a fragile shell of horror.
More than just a tragic character study or a plot driven thriller, seeing De Niro in the film makes you a consider the similarities with his own minor masterpiece “King of Comedy” set in NYC and following a delusional unfunny comedian. Although there is no redemption, no soul, and no light, this is a film that will be remembered and although not “enjoyed”, I think will be appreciated for a very long time.
10. The Dead Don’t Die — Dir. Jim Jarmousch (Bill Murray, Adam Driver)
In some ways this might be the most straightforward, and just plain funny Jarmoush film in a long and darkly funny career. For Zombie fans perhaps this will seem too flat and tame, but for those of us that just don’t dig the Zombie, this kind of understated meander is just what the doctor ordered.
Bill Murray and Adam Driver play two small time cops who end up having to save the world, or at least their town from the living dead. They are as dead pan much of the time as the lifeless Zombies who can only be killed by blowing up their heads. Like all Jarmousch films, there is a rather relaxed sense of cool that moves this film effortlessly through its strange landscape.
11. The Irishman — Dir. Martin Scorsese (Al Pacino, Robert De Niro)
If this film clocked in at 2.5 hours, most people would be calling it a classic up there with “Goodfellas” and “Casino.” It would be easy just to love it just for the beautiful nostalgia of seeing the cast and director reunited one last time, but despite its heft it is a killer story impeccably made.
That is was largely made to be seen in you’re living room, made it easier for Scorsesee to get lazy about editing, because like most serialized TV, you could easily break it into four easy sections. But that is why a great film is great, and great TV is another thing all together. In the end who doesn’t love a mob film, and who doesn’t miss Keitel, Pesci, Pacino and De Niro?
12. Jojo Rabbit — Dir. Taika Waititi (Roman Davis, Scarlett Johansson)
This film is a surreal daydream of one of the most despicable horror shows of all time. Seen through the eyes of a young Nazi in training, the world looks more like something out of a Wes Anderson film than “Schindler’s List.” There is a lightness and innocence that saturates every scene in the film as the magnitude of the crime gets lost in the soul of a child.
Roman Davis is a star, wise behind his years, understanding both the rich material and the mindset of his character in way most child actors never even get close to. Taika Waititi again proves that he is an underrated genius, telling a story so bizarre with such a deft touch you almost forget we are watching a film about the Holocaust.
13. Ad Astra — Dir. James Gray (Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones)
Like” Gravity,” and to a lesser degree “Inception” before it, this film has a kind of hazy flow about it and is as much of a modern age space film finally accurately managing to capture movement without gravity. This time this ambiguous motion tends to mirror the broader questions of the film: is there intelligent life beyond earth, is our profession more important than family and the tangible pleasures of the world.
In some ways Brad Pitt is even better here than in “Hollywood,” always cool as glass but this time a bit more distant and meditative, searching for scientific answers that seem to outweigh those of the people in his world. The cinematography is breathtaking, while the story meanders through time and space at a most comfortable pace. There is a quiet distant magic at work throughout.
14. Her Smell — Dir. Alex Ross Perry (Elizabeth Moss, Eric Stolz, Cara Delevigne)
This is a legitimate classic punk rock masterpiece. Like “Sid & Nancy” before it, Elizabeth Moss becomes a Courtney Love-esque character (the singer for the fictional band Something She), a riot girl messiah imploding in an infuriating brilliance right before our eyes. Like so many of our idles who flame out young (Elliot Smith, Kurt Cobain, Janis, Hendrix) it is so often that it is real psychic pain that births great art.
The pace and chaos of the direction and cinematography so perfectly matches the psychosis of the character that you find yourself woozy and right there in the journey. The first half finds Moss in the midst of a drug and alcohol fueled madness, but the second half is a calmer sadder reconciliation as she works through her recovery trying desperately to live. It is two very different movies, but both are bold and beautiful.
15. David Crosby: Remember My Name — Dir. Cameron Crowe (David Crosby)
Our idles are dying quietly and often expectedly. But in David Crosby we get to relive a career and a life filled with massive highs and lows. He is a living legend finally at peace with his journey. For all the beautiful music he made along the way, behind the scenes there was a restlessness and an anger that drove him off the rails for large swatths of time.
Cameron Crowe has always loved music and musicians more than just about any journalist in the modern age. His soft touch allows the camera to give Crosby the freedom to try to understand and make peace with all of the troubles and heartbreak in the past. Fame and ambition is a dangerous drug, and when combined with the drugs that are so often used to soften the pressure, you end up detached, a shell of the person you were meant to be. It’s never too late to make amends.
A few more that are very worthy …
16. Dolemite is My Name — Dir. Craig Brewer (Eddie Murphy, Craig Robinson) It is so nice to see Eddie Murphy again, dominating every scene in this wickedly funny biopic about one of the best comedians you’ve probably never heard of.
17. Harriet — Dir. Kasi Lemmons (Cynthia Erivo, Janelle Monae) Although this accounting of the Harriet Tubman’s extraordinary freedom fighter watches more like an adventure film than another bleak film about slavery, it makes this hard road watchable.
18. The Confession Killer — Dir. Robert Kenner, Taki Oldham (Henry Lee Lucas) In this fascinating documentary about a long forgotten serial killer hoax where the filmmakers uncover one of the strangest accounts of our broken criminal justice system ever
19. The Last Black Man In San Francisco — Dir. Joe Talbot (Jimmie Falls, Jonathan Majors) The San Francisco in this surreal indie places a dagger in the heart of the post Internet city of our Utopian future, only it is a sour place filled with haves and have nots, and although there are not real answers the questions are profound.
20. Booksmart — Dir. Olivia Wilde (Kaitlyn Dever, Beanie Feldstein) The hilarious directorial debut from Olivia Wilde is a pitch perfect accounting of the what it’s like to be an overachieving high-schooler in 2019.
21. Tell Me Who I Am — Dir. Ed Perkins (Alex and Marcus Lewis) This is a heartbreaking and truly remarkable story about two brothers piecing together two childhoods that are remembered very differently.
22. The Peanut Butter Falcon — Dir. Tyler Nilson (Shia LaBeouf, Dakota Johnson) This is a beautiful little film about second chances, never giving up on dreams, and the power of just being good. The rustic setting and naturalistic tones make this an absolute delight.
23. Bombshell — Dir. Jay Roach (Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman) The perfect companion to the “Loudest Voice In The Room,” this is a an acting tour de force about one of the most insidious conceptions in the history of media.
24. The Inventor: Out For Blood in Silicon Valley — Dir. Alex Gibney (Elizabeth Holmes) The finest documentarian of the modern age tackles one of the most spectacular corporate crimes of the past decade in a mind bending film about one of the most intriguing scams in technology.
25. American Factory — Dir. Stephen Bogner & Julia Reichert. We are where we are in the world today largely because globalization has created an interconnected set of overlapping values and traditions. No film has found an anecdote as clear as this to demonstrate our current world.