Another strong year at the movies means, once again, I can’t stop at ten.
Top Ten lists are so limiting! And there are many films in this roster of 15 more that, for me, will be equally defining of the past year in film. We were fairly spoiled in 2019, not just in the quality of the films we saw but also in the way those films were received. Some years, none of my favorite films are nominated for Best Picture. This year, four of my Top 10 were — and another two from this list. The majority of these films factored somewhere in the awards season conversation, and though I might be raising a brow at a major Oscar contender or two, I stand to be either pleased or very pleased by the winner in nearly every category. When was the last time that happened?
So here’s one last final celebration of 2019 in film, before I’m officially ready to look forward into 2020. The past decade has seen monumental changes in the way films are made, marketed, and consumed, and a lot of that is terrifying to those of us who truly love seeing a well-made, thoughtfully told story in the theater. It’s especially heartening that as the past decade in film comes to a close, we saw such a strong roster of movies that were not only made, but widely seen and duly awarded.
So unless Ford v Ferrari somehow sweeps every category it’s nominated in, let’s hear it one last time for the best movies of 2019, the awards they won, and the people who saw them.
Okay, so we’ll get right back to that whole “best, most awarded, widely seen” thing in a moment. It’s become a tradition for me to use my #25 slot to troll you all with a much-maligned movie that only I like — even while fully acknowledging all the flaws that critics and audiences derided. The last two years saw The Greatest Showman and Ready Player One occupy this spot. This year, the film in question is not so much derided as shrugged off, so it’s up to me to raise a defense and ƒbe the lone voice of dissent. Neil Jordan’s Greta stars the peerless Isabelle Huppert as a lonely widow who grows increasingly attached to the young ingenue Frances (Chloë Grace Moretz) who returns her lost handbag. Greta starts off as endearingly kooky but soon reveals herself to be full-on deranged. Frances, a New York City newcomer, is too naive to see the warning signs, but her savvier BFF Erica (Maika Monroe) does. Soon, Greta is showing up at inopportune times to perform such dastardly deeds as spitting gum in Frances’ hair. Jordan manages to put a whole new spin on the idea of a “crazy bag lady.”
Greta is a female-on-female stalker film in the tradition of Single White Female, The Hand That Rocks The Cradle, Obsessed, The Roommate, and Unforgettable. It’s a genre that rarely aims for high art, and Greta doesn’t exactly clear that bar, either. But thanks to Huppert, there’s an elegance in these otherwise preposterous proceedings, and it’s refreshing to see an entry in this genre where men are almost entirely inconsequential. I was satisfied by the unlikely but engaging female-driven climax, and I’ll happily show up for just about any film starring a critically acclaimed actress of a certain age going batshit crazy on a bunch of millennials (which is how I ended up seeing Octavia Spencer in Ma, a much guiltier pleasure). Greta is my “just for fun” pick from 2019 — genre camp with a touch of class.
24. UNDER THE SILVER LAKE
Under The Silver Lake is quite the mystery. Is it one of the best movies I saw in the past year? I don’t know! I wouldn’t recommend it to most people, but of all films I saw in 2019, it may be the one that most haunts me. David Robert Mitchell’s follow-up to It Follows has some evocative visuals and menacing moments, but it’s not the neo-noir or the horror that gets to me. It’s how accurately it depicts the East Side of Los Angeles. Andrew Garfield plays Sam, a jobless stoner who spends his time seeing obscure local bands in concert and showing up to random parties where he’s bound to run into nearly everyone he knows. There’s something slightly surreal about the way Sam floats from place to place, fro, situation to situation, from person to person, without a single true attachment to anything. But it’s also so L.A., which is surreal in its own way.
Sam becomes fixated on Sarah (Riley Keough), a blonde bombshell neighbor who disappears from his life as quickly as she entered it. Sam begins picking up on strange coincidences and diving into some incredibly heavy conspiracy theories. But Mitchell is less interested in definitively solving this mystery than in asking questions about our slacker “detective,” a 21st century hipster Philip Marlowe who is just as problematic as the boozy bruisers who used to slap women around to get answers back in 30s and 40s noir. Under The Silver Lake joins Mulholland Drive and Southland Tales as a distorted love letter to Los Angeles, and in its own weird way, might be the most accurate depiction of the City of Angels ever put on film. It really is about “living the dream.”
The kids aren’t all right in Monos — but neither is anyone else. Alejandro Landes’ suspenseful drama unfolds somewhere in the mountains of South America, at some point in the near future, amidst some kind of major international conflict. Landes keeps the details intentionally vague, introducing us to a rag-tag group of adolescent commandos without any sense of who they used to be, where there parents are, or how they came to be gun-toting mercenaries. The “Monos” are charged with the safekeeping of a presumably American hostage known as “Doctora” (Julianne Nicholson). We don’t know why.
By withholding so many details, Landes forces us to rely on our instincts. Doctora seems like a perfectly nice woman, so we think we want her to escape. Most of the Monos, too, seem good at heart — they’re being used by political forces they don’t seem to understand, as young people have been for centuries. We don’t want any harm to come to them, either — so what do we want? The lack of context reduces war down to its most elemental levels, much like 1917 does — though in a very different manner. The only thing that matters in this hopeless, meaningless scenario is minute-by-minute, day-by-day survival — and even that begins to feel futile, after a while. When we look at war as objectively as Monos forces us to, we see that there is nothing to root for. Monos is Lord Of The Flies by way of Apocalypse Now, and Mica Levi’s score just piles on the dread. Distinct and nightmarish, Monos is a striking cinematic experience that’s hard to shake.
22. THE CLIMB
I’ll spoil this right now — Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story isn’t on this list. There’s a lot I liked about that film — some very strong comedic moments, the performances of Laura Dern, Merritt Weaver, and Adam Driver in particular (though the whole cast is solid), and the increasingly war-like legal proceedings. On the whole, though, I didn’t find that it fully updated 1979’s Best Picture winner, Kramer vs. Kramer, for 2019 as sharply as it might have. The film explains Scarlett Johansson’s point-of-view, but doesn’t really show us. It still pretty squarely favors the male side of things — he’s the protagonist, reacting to her antagonism. It’s a fine film, but it paints a fairly rosy view of divorce.
Michael Angelo Covino’s The Climb, on the other hand, gets the curdling acidity of a bad breakup just right. There are a few romantic couplings and decouplings in the film, but the central relationship is the heterosexual bond between best friends Kyle and Mike. In the opening scene, Mike cops to a pretty devastating transgression, which plummets the friendship (and other aspects of Kyle’s life) into chaos. Kyle writes Mike off, but Mike keeps coming back, and Kyle keeps letting him come back, because their friendship is somehow stronger than the damage Mike keeps doing to it. Mike is a pretty toxic individual; our brain tells us Kyle would be better off without him, but our hearts can tell that these men need each other in different ways, at different times, and that might be worth the price of forgiving someone who doesn’t deserve it. The Climb takes place in a series of long, single-shot scenes, like a lo-fi 1917, but it’s the writing and performances that make it a must-see indie.
21. A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD
Nobody asked for a Mr. Rogers biopic just one year after the comprehensive documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? explored the man in depth. Thankfully, A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood isn’t that. Casting America’s male sweetheart as a gentle, puppet-loving children’s television personality ran the risk of saccharine overload, but fortunately, Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster’s screenplay knows just when enough heart-tugging is enough. A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood is an earnest film, but not a treacly one. It centers on journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), whose profiles are so scathing that only one man dares to subject himself to such scrutiny. Lloyd enters the arrangement determined to find flaws in the kindly Fred Rogers, and instead finds himself challenged to reexamine his own fraught relationship with his father (Chris Cooper).
It’s simple stuff, but Marielle Heller avoids making any of this more sticky-sweet than it inherently is, and the seemingly on-the-nose casting of Hanks turns out to be cannier than you’d expect. Hanks doesn’t take the easy way out, portraying Mr. Rogers as the flawless saint many of us would conjure up in our minds. He’s a good person, but in Hanks’ eyes and measured responses to Lloyd’s antagonism, you can see him working at it. Hanks’ Rogers feels anger and sadness just as the rest of us do, but he’s learned to control that. He naturally spins any aggression he receives into a positive output, and we can actually see Hanks doing that in the pauses he takes before speaking. It’s a brilliant performance, well worth Hanks’ nomination this year. Heller also elevates what could have been a trite film by reframing the whimsical world of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood for a grown-up audience. She recaptures a piece of childhood we thought we’d lost, one we didn’t think could be reconciled with harsh reality, and shows us that this kind of make-believe is always possible. It’s the perfect tribute to a man whose legacy is so urgently needed in the 21st century.
Speaking of grown men who play with dolls, Alvaro Delgado-Aparicio’s Retablo follows a father-and-son team of artists who specialize in building model retablos. The scenes they construct are colorful and mostly religious in nature, and Noé (Amiel Cayo) is the very best. Segundo (Junior Bejar Roca) is proudly following in his father’s footsteps, until he witnesses an act that calls Noé’s sexuality into question. Noé is married to Anatolia (Magaly Solier), living in a conservative Andean village. Segundo has no context for what it might mean for his father to be attracted to men — he only knows their religious, male-dominated community would disapprove. Segundo knows he has to keep his father’s secret to himself, while struggling with his own confusion and shame.
Like A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood, Retablo is a story that could go in an overly sentimental direction in the wrong storyteller’s hands. Delgado-Aparicio remains understated throughout. Junior Bejar Roca conveys everything Segundo is feeling without directly speaking a single word about it, and when Noé’s secret eventually becomes more widely known, Segundo finds his shame transforming into something else entirely. Quietly, we watch Segundo transition from boy to man, from a willing shadow of his father into his own master. The film’s final sequence goes from tense to heartbreaking to deeply moving all in one fluid motion. Retablo is a beautiful showcase for Peruvian landscapes and culture we’re rarely treated to on the big screen, spoken mostly in the indigenous Ayacucho Quechua language. It’s also a riveting family drama and coming-of-age tale in its own right.
Taron Egerton’s Elton John enters Rocketman strutting down a hallway dressed as a bejeweled Lucifer, which adequately sets the tone for the next couple of hours. Rocketman is unabashedly queer, and unabashedly a musical — a welcome swish of cinematic Scope to wash the bad taste of Bohemian Rhapsody out of our mouths.
“You’ve got to kill the person you were born to be in order to become the person you want to be,” a fellow musician tells Reggie Dwight early in his career. That’s how he ends up adopting the stage name Elton Hercules John, and the flamboyant onstage persona that made him a superstar. Behind the scenes, Elton John struggles with substance abuse and toxic relationships — the usual suspects for a musician biopic. Amazingly, Dexter Fletcher’s film manages to feel fresh all the same, mainly by leaning into the theatricality of John’s music and performance stylings. So many splashy, iconic musicals are written or performed by gay men, but they’re so rarely about them. Rocketman is a coming out party for the modern movie musical — ’cause, yep, they’re gay. But there’s plenty of room for our heterosexual brethren at the party, too — the film’s central relationship is between John and real-life his lyricist, Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), whose bromance grounds an otherwise buoyant film. Fletcher stages the musical numbers with surreal panache that echoes the sentiment they profess, as well as Elton John’s emotional state in the moment. It’s one of the stronger movie musicals we’ve seen in a while — and, at the same time, one of the best musician biopics, too.
18. HER SMELL
Elisabeth Moss teams with filmmaker Alex Ross Perry once again to play troubled punk rocker Becky Something, one of the most noxious and abrasive characters ever brought to the big screen. Becky has an ego typical of rock stars, and a drug problem to match, but what’s really outsized is her delivery — she delivers verbose, almost Shakespearean monologues about her own glory, and the inadequacies of everyone around her. Her mother, her ex-husband, her bandmates, and her manager are all recipients of Becky’s toxic ire. She spits rage and spouts insults like a woman possessed; though this is essentially another drama about a famous singer caught between the demands of motherhood and the pressures of fame, leaning on booze and pills to get her through, Her Smell has less in common with Judy than it does with The Exorcist.
Her Smell is a harrowing, claustrophobic, and borderline maddening experience. For as much as 2019 films like Judy and Rocketman were about the substance abuse of recording artists, Her Smell actually puts us through that kind of hell. (If Becky Something and Uncut Gems‘ Howard Ratner ever shared a scene together, I’m pretty sure the screen would have a nervous breakdown and combust.) Spending select moments in the presence of Becky Something is like watching a train wreck in slow motion — and then, just when it all becomes too much, Becky shows a tender side and the film takes a jarring break from chaos, only to ratchet up the emotional suspense again in its final act. Moss is astonishing throughout. I’m not just a fan of Her Smell — I’m a survivor.
For a film that directly references the global financial crisis of 2008 and features a band of bad girls making off with tens of thousands of dollars of other people’s money, Lorene Scafaria’s crime drama has an awfully light touch. Though based on a true story, Hustlers isn’t much weightier than Ocean’s Eight or Rough Night. If it were, it might be a flat-out masterpiece. As is, Hustlers is a fizzy, kinda-naughty romp, with a quartet of strippers playing to their strengths and ripping off guys who could never believe these bawdy bombshells might get the upper hand on them in their wildest dreams. It’s hard to feel too sorry for the victims, who are spending money they probably screwed someone else out of on drugs and strippers.
Viewers of Sex And The City often wondered how Carrie Bradshaw could possibly afford her lavish lifestyle and couture wardrobe. Hustlers plays out the same kind of fantasy, but provides a plausible answer to the central mystery — she fucking stole it. Hustlers is essentially Sex And The Recession, ultimately more concerned about the relationships between these women than the consequences of their criminal actions — or their victims’ criminal actions, for that matter. Jennifer Lopez’s star turn in Hustlers is so perfectly cast, you’d think she was born clutching the script. She’s not our protagonist, but she steals as much of this movie as her character, Ramona, steals from the wolves of Wall Street she lures into her honey trap. In the film’s best scene, Usher cameos as himself to show the club at the height of its powers — just before the economic crash — to the tune of his own “Love In This Club.” It’s the most sublime decade-ago period piece you could possibly ask for, cementing Hustlers‘ place among the big screen’s most vital pieces of commentary on the 21st century (so far, anyway).
What’s left to say about Parasite? The Cannes sensation went on to become a critical favorite, an international box office hit, South Korea’s first Oscar nominee, and finally a Best Picture frontrunner, second only to 1917 of Gold Derby’s predicted winners — surpassing former frontrunners like The Irishman and Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. We could be looking at the first time a Palme d’Or winner has also been awarded the Best Picture Oscar since 1955’s Marty. In so many ways, Parasite is already “the movie of the year,” even if it only takes home the Academy Award for Best International Feature (which it is all but certain to win).
The divide between the “haves” and “have-nots” has never been wider, which is why many 2019 films — including Hustlers, Us, Ready Or Not, Joker, and Knives Out — conjured fantasies of retribution against the former by the latter. Parasite does so deftly and nimbly, with twists and turns that are impossible to anticipate. Bong Joon-ho is already the maestro of putting an imaginative spin on genre pieces. This one begins as a sly comedy, letting suspicion and resentment between three families from different classes build until it explodes into feral bloodshed. The Park family is polite and naive, because they can afford to be; they live in what might be the single most stylish house ever built. The Kim family is opportunistic and crafty, because they can’t afford not to be. And yet, eventually the Kim family comes to hold considerable power over both the Parks and a third set of characters, revealing layer upon layer of dependency between these outwardly genteel people. Parasite doesn’t demonize the exorbitantly rich so much as the system that allows them to exist. It knows humankind well enough to show that we’ll all take as much as we can get our hands on. All we need is the right opportunity — and some misplaced trust in our complacency at the bottom of the food chain.
15. THE LIGHTHOUSE
Robert Eggers’ follow-up to the macabrely stylized The Witch is ever more macabre, and even more stylized. It swaps meticulously recreated 17th century Puritan New English for arch 19th century sailor talk, and it trades the killer goat Black Phillip for an ill-fated gull that gets on Robert Pattinson’s bad side. The Lighthouse is moody and violent, and there’s plenty of foul play to be found, but it strikes a different tone than The Witch. Above all else, The Lighthouse is a tongue-in-cheek black comedy — more absurd than horrifying, despite the foreboding setting and violence. It stars Robert Pattinson as Ephraim, an amateur wickie spending four weeks on an isolated island with gruff Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe). No feat of casting is more sublime than Dafoe as an irritable, flatulent, heavy-drinking lighthouse keeper. No performance has ever been so exquisitely salty. The first act builds tension and resentment between these men, though Ephraim does, eventually, “spill his beans” and open up to his reluctant mentor. I won’t spoil what happens next, because I don’t understand it.
The black-and-white cinematography is gorgeous, but pretentious; ditto the square aspect ratio, an overdone trick these days. In a film that took itself more seriously, this might all be cloying, but Eggers seems to be winking at severity in cinema. Despite great attention to detail in costuming and production design, The Lighthouse has the feel of a student film parody of The Seventh Seal, simultaneously revering Bergman’s craft and gleefully sending up its portentous tone. Mostly, though, Eggers seems to be mocking the audience that shows up for this kind of arthouse nonsense. The Lighthouse is an in-joke for adventurous moviegoers who have been told so many stark, unpleasant stories about taciturn men in distant periods, in exotic locations, grappling with existential dread and madness. If I were to read deeper into it, I might say that The Lighthouse‘s horror elements represent a man’s fear of growing too intimate with another man. This, of course, must erupt in violence to stave off any actual meaningful homosocial connection between them in any such story. The Lighthouse might be a skewering of old-timey masculinity, or it might just be a kooky experimental art project. Either way, it’s a singular delight.
14. PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE
Portrait Of A Lady On Fire could be The Lighthouse‘s female counterpart. Both films hone in on two characters stranded together on an island, the close quarters drawing them nearer to each other in life-altering ways. Both films occasionally venture into the surreal, and neither ends very happily — but only one depicts a seagull being brutally bludgeoned to death, and it’s not Portrait Of A Lady On Fire.
Céline Sciamma’s romantic drama is so female-driven, it hardly seems like men exist in this world at all. Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) has been promised to a Milanese nobleman, if he likes what he sees in the portrait Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is commissioned to paint of her. But we never meet this man, because Héloïse has never met him. The marriage is arranged. There’s no love between them. Who cares who he is? We know what he’s not — Marianne.
Héloïse and Marianne fall quickly but deeply in love, but of course, this neither a time nor a place where this romance is sustainable. They have only a blissful few days to be who they want to be with each other, and the rest of the world falls away completely. Portrait Of A Lady On Fire obliterates any expectations we might have of a romance, or a costume drama. We’re so used to seeing such stories through a male gaze, it’s jarring to encounter one that’s so thoroughly female from every angle. But Haenel and Merlant sell the magnetic attraction between these women, even in their very first encounter. Their chemistry is next level. Their love feels inevitable, even as it’s all but a given that it can’t last. Movies about art have an unspoken obligation to look beautiful, and Sciamma doesn’t disappoint in that regard, either. Every frame is portrait-worthy, transporting us to a world that is vividly drawn but not quite of this earth. Like the central romance, the film ends quickly — but like any great piece of art, it lingers in the mind and heart ever after.
A young man shows up in Paris. He has only a handful of possessions, and soon loses all of them — including his clothes. Naked and cold, he seeks help from his curious neighbors, a young, very French couple that accept Yoav and help him out as only a young and very French couple in a movie would.
Yoav comes from Israel, but he’s determined to shed that identity and become a full-on Parisian. His new friends embrace him whole-heartedly, but Yoav can’t shake the militaristic worldview of his past life. He wanders the street muttering French words — the “synonyms” of the film’s title — as if to indoctrinate himself into a culture he can’t yet fully understand. But his obsession with becoming French only sets him further apart from his laissez faire companions.
Filmmaker Nadav Lapid never quite lets us get a handle on who Yoav used to be, but it’s clear that he’s too shaped by his experiences to ever fully become what he yearns to be. Tom Mercier’s mesmerizing live-wire performance crackles with authenticity, the way the subject in a documentary would. He’s a tightly-wound time bomb that could go off at any moment; Synonyms is as unpredictable as real life. It’s hard not to feel for Yoav, even as, near the end, he tests the limits of our sympathy. Synonyms could be a story of redemption, or rebirth — but it’s not. It’s something else. When it’s over, it does not leave us with an impression, but an absence — as if we’ve just spent two hours watching a story that tried to be told… but couldn’t quite make it.
12. LITTLE WOMEN
“You will be bored of him in two years, but we will be interesting forever.”
Not many stories have the potential to feel as musty and safe as Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. It’s been filmed six times previously. The novel was slyly feminist when published back in 1868, but its old-fashioned values are far from radical a century and a half later. It’s a rite of passage for grade school readers. The spirit of Jo March has wormed its way into female protagonists for at least the last 50 years. Even Disney princesses these days are heroines in their own right. What could Greta Gerwig say in a Little Women update that hasn’t been done to death before?
As it turns out, plenty. After co-writing Frances Ha and Mistress America and writing and directing Lady Bird on her own — all films that made my Top Ten lists — I had faith that Gerwig would deliver something special in her refashioned Little Women, but I had no idea what. Gerwig’s film doesn’t mix in anachronistic elements like Marie Antoinette did, nor is it in any way edgy like The Favourite. Yet it still emerges as one of the most modern-feeling costume dramas ever made. Despite the elaborate frocks and outdated slang and its setting in the shadow of the Civil War, somehow it feels like it’s happening right next door. It’s a three-pronged attack from Gerwig’s sharp screenplay, her careful direction, and the performances she draws from a stellar cast, with Saoirse Ronan, Timothée Chalamet, and Florence Pugh emerging as clear standouts. Romance has always been a key ingredient in telling the tale of the March sisters, but Gerwig restructures the story to emphasize the sense that while men may come and go, it’s sisterhood that lasts a lifetime. Gerwig’s take on the material is a romance — between a woman and her talent.
Many things have changed in the world since 1868, but many things haven’t. Gerwig emphasizes the constants, including the lesser value we assign to stories for, by, and about women. Alcott’s Little Women was a testament to women telling their own stories, mostly on their own terms. More than 150 years later, Gerwig’s Little Women is, too — and somehow feels just as urgent.
“To all those who are about to take my life… may God have mercy on your souls.”
In the past several years, there have been exactly two titles that are especially painful to leave out of my Top 10. I desperately wanted to include Little Women as a counterpoint go the male melancholy and rage that so dominated my list, but its polite exuberance just couldn’t fight its way in amongst the darkness and danger I tend to favor.
Clemency was even more difficult to exclude. Mired in misery, dripping with death, it’s a perfect match for Scorsese’s The Irishman, which also dealt with the tortured souls of executioners. But while those mobsters acted outside the law, death row warden Bernadine Williams is acting very much within it — in fact, she’s working for the law, as an agent of justice. Clemency opens on a botched execution. We don’t know the man who’s being put to death well enough to know if he’s guilty or innocent, or what crime he’s convicted of. We know him only as a fellow human we watch suffer, in anticipation of a death that’s just moments away, and then in pain, when his lethal injection goes awry and Bernadine hastily shuts the curtain at the viewing window to shield witnesses from truly observing how cruel this death is.
Death row dramas are popular enough to be their own subgenre. Traditionally, they’re told from the perspective of the inmate, and someone on the outside fighting for their exoneration. Trial By Fire, a little-seen 2019 film starring Jack O’Connell and Laura Dern as exactly those characters, solidly but stolidly follows the formula. Clemency tackles the topic from a different angle — from the villain’s. Bernadine kills convicted criminals for a living. She’s not a malicious or immoral person. If she didn’t do it, someone else would. She doesn’t decide who lives or dies; she couldn’t stop it if she tried. She does the job as humanely as possible, believing that to be the best she can do. (And in this role, Alfre Woodard does do the best she could do. She’s phenomenal.)
Bernadine’s position in this narrative alone would be enough to make for an intriguing take on this story, but writer/director Chinonye Chukwu makes her protagonist a black woman, adding layers of complexity to an already searing drama. The Clemency screenplay could follow the same beats with the expected white male lead at its center. It would have felt more familiar — instead of Bernadine’s black husband growing frustrated with her growing despondency, it would have been a white wife. But we’ve seen that before. Bernadine’s race and gender aren’t just novelties that breathe new life into a tired tale; they make us take in these circumstances in a whole new way by shaking up our expectations. The guilt and doubt a white male in this position might feel could make for a compelling story, but a white male is exactly who we’d expect to be calling the shots on death row. We expect to see a black woman through glass during visitation hours, telling her husband to be strong; or watching from the window, crying for her son as he’s executed. We don’t expect to see her in the room, nodding to indicate that it’s time to kill this man, then coolly calling out the time of death.
Flash back five years or so, and a film like Clemency wouldn’t be financed without a white lead giving mainstream audiences a supposed “way in” to the story. But in 2019, both Clemency and Just Mercy depicted a justice system that stacks the odds against black men through the eyes of black protagonists. Filmmakers trusted audiences not to need a white proxy to tell us why we should care about these stories. (Both Clemency and Just Mercy deserved a lot more attention than they got during awards season, though — so maybe we’re not quite ready to leave the Green Book model back in the dust where it belongs.) Just Mercy is a compelling courtroom drama with standout performances from a killer cast, and a criminally Oscar-snubbed turn from Jamie Foxx. But Clemency has more grit, and ultimately, more weight, because it tells its story through the character we’d expect to care least about, and still manages to sock us right in the gut.
Bernadine has overseen a number of executions in her time, and in the opening scene, carries out one more. But she’s less convinced that the next inmate whose number is up, Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge), is truly guilty of the crime that put him in her trust. Bernadine is steely and smart, and not easily rattled. How could she be, in her position? But over the course of the film, we watch her composure crumble before our eyes. And, in the film’s brutal final scene, we observe as the humanity drains out of her once and for all. Potently, Clemency calls the institution of government-sanctioned eye-for-an-eye executions into question. If even this woman sees a convicted murderer put to death and believes an injustice has been done, shouldn’t we all reexamine what good, exactly, the death penalty is doing for us? If all the misery in Clemency happens in the space of a few weeks, in just one prison, how much horror has been done all across America in the guise of justice?
Clemency watches one woman wrestle with the inhumanity of capital punishment, but her moral burden is one we all carry, even if we don’t often reckon with it. We live in a society that selectively kills, in a system that certainly gets it wrong sometimes. (Way more often than you might think.) Life on death row is long, slow, agonizing torture with an unhappy, near-certain ending. Like many other 2019 films, Clemency confronts the moral price we pay to live in America. Innocent men will die to perpetuate the myth that we are safer, and better off, and that justice has been done… so we can sleep at night. They’ll sleep forever.
Here is every film I saw from 2019, ranked:
2. Uncut Gems
3. Once Upon A Time In Hollywood
4. Pain & Glory
5. The Irishman
7. Queen & Slim
8. Ad Astra
12. Little Women
14. Portrait Of A Lady On Fire
15. The Lighthouse
18. Her Smell
21. A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood
22. The Climb
24. Under The Silver Lake
26. Honey Boy
27. Dark Waters
28. For Sama
29. The Art Of Self-Defense
30. Just Mercy
31. The Report
33. Marriage Story
34. The Souvenir
35. The Mustang
36. Les Misérables
37. Love, Antosha
39. Knives Out
40. Toy Story 4
41. The Last Black Man In San Francisco
42. Burning Cane
43. Giant Little Ones
46. Where’d You Go, Bernadatte
48. High Life
49. A Hidden Life
50. The Goldfinch
51. The Farewell
52. The Two Popes
54. The King
55. Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark
56. The Man Who Killed Don Quixote
60. Wild Rose
61. Dolemite Is My Name
62. Trial By Fire
63. El Camino
64. Jojo Rabbit
66. Avengers: Endgame
67. Teen Spirit
68. Gloria Bell
69. Blow The Man Down
72. Ford v Ferrari
73. The White Crow
74. High-Flying Bird
75. Spider-Man: Far From Home
77. Rust Creek
80. The Laundromat
81. After The Wedding
82. J.T. Leroy
83. Velvet Buzzsaw
84. Captain Marvel
85. The Vast Of Night
87. Invisible Life
89. Long Day’s Journey Into Night
90. Richard Jewell
91. Ready Or Not
92. Give Me Liberty
93. To Dust
94. The Mountain
95. The Beach Bum
96. Isn’t It Romantic
98. Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil And Vile
102. The Fanatic
104. The Lion King