Des Moines Film Society: The Top 10 Films of 2019

From Disney’s unprecedented dominance at the box office (aggravated by the worrisome Disney/Fox merger and launch of the Disney Plus streaming service) to the emergence of Netflix as a legitimate awards contender, 2019 was a tumultuous year for cinema — one marked by shifts in viewing habits and viewing tastes. 

 

But beyond the deadening debate surrounding Marvel movies as “true cinema” and the increasing corporatization of films from art to asset, there was actually plenty to excite cinephiles in 2019. To use an overused adage, you just had to know “where to look.” 

 

The proliferation of studio-owned streaming platforms has raised concerns about the death of the movie theater, but it has also led to a level of access to movies that had until now been reserved for a select few. As a result, the onus is now on us — the film lovers of the world — to seek out the inventive, personal and substantive films that, while readily available, are often hidden in plain sight, behind skewed streaming algorithms and headline-grabbing franchise fare.

 

What follows, then, is a sampling of our own expansive search, an account of what we consider to be 10 of the best films of the year. These are just some of the many movies that shook us to our core in 2019, reminding us of both the gargantuan scope and the penetrating intimacies that the cinema can provide.

 

10. “Uncut Gems” (dir. Josh & Benny Safdie)

 

 

Adam Sandler turns in his best dramatic performance since 2002’s “Punch-Drunk Love” in this anxiety-inducing crime thriller by directors Josh and Benny Safdie.

 

“Uncut Gems” follows Howard Ratner (Sandler), a Jewish jeweler whose unchecked gambling addiction draws the ire of loan sharks and other unsavory characters in New York City’s Diamond District. The film’s executive producer is Martin Scorsese, and the Safdies invoke the legendary director’s gritty New York-centered films of the 1970s and 1980s, from “Taxi Driver” to “After Hours.” 

 

Much like those earlier films, Josh and Benny revel in suspense and apprehension, making use of confined spaces (Howard’s claustrophobic jewelry store repeatedly serves as a hub for high-wire confrontations) and, paradoxically, the public sphere of Midtown Manhattan. As a result, the drama of “Uncut Gems” really unfolds on two levels: as an intensely crafted character study and as a razor-sharp vivisection of American greed. 

 

With this singular work (along with their 2017 neon-lit nightmare “Good Time”), the Safdies have carved out a distinctive niche in contemporary cinema, uncovering the underbelly of American society to reveal the paranoia that unites — and divides — us all.

 

9. “Jojo Rabbit” (dir. Taika Waititi)

 

 

The Third Reich is skewered and set ablaze in “Jojo Rabbit,” the whimsically irreverent anti-hate satire by writer-director-actor Taika Waititi. The movie is ostensibly set during World War II, but the setting is more akin to a child’s imaginative dreamscape, not unlike a pop-up storybook.

 

It’s within this dreamscape that we meet the titular Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis), a timid Hitler Youth whose worldview is rocked with the discovery of Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), a Jewish girl hiding in his mother’s attic. All the while, Jojo must contend with an imaginary, buffoonish version of Adolf Hitler (Waititi) who repeatedly tears at his conscience, complicating the young boy’s still-developing moral code.

 

Boasting strong performances by Davis, McKenzie, Scarlett Johansson (as Rosie, Jojo’s mother) and newcomer Archie Yates (as Yorki, Jojo’s best friend), “Jojo Rabbit” is really a comedy of character relationships, and its irreverent humor feels that much sharper because of it. 

 

With classic Nazi satires “The Great Dictator,” “To Be or Not to Be” and “The Producers” serving as clear inspirations, Waititi has harnessed his whimsical sensibilities to craft something else entirely in “Jojo Rabbit”: a storybook satire, illustrated with the boundless imagination of a child and the subversive sting of a dissident.

 

8. “Marriage Story” (dir. Noah Baumbach)

 

 

In “Marriage Story,” writer-director Noah Baumbach explores the intricacies of a once-loving relationship on the point of collapse. The fault lines that led to that collapse are revealed gradually, but so is the love that was once felt unconditionally. It all unfolds with vast empathy and unflinching honesty, thanks in large part to Baumbach’s fine-tuned script of piercing dialogue and moment-to-moment truth.

 

Anchored by career-best performances from Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver, “Marriage Story” centers on Nicole (Johansson), a stage and television actress, and Charlie (Driver), a New York City theater director. Formerly beloved husband and wife, the two have grown apart due to irreconcilable differences, both professional and personal. Baumbach chronicles the breakdown of this relationship in equally compassionate terms, refusing to “take sides” and, instead, allowing his dramatic material to ring true on its own. 

 

Taken all together, “Marriage Story” is one of those rare portraits of love in action and inaction, capturing love’s ability to co-create, scar and, ultimately, heal.

 

7. “Pain and Glory” (dir. Pedro Almodóvar)

 

 

With a 30-plus year career marked by themes of family, love and identity, legendary director Pedro Almodóvar finds himself looking inward to explore those same themes in his latest film, “Pain and Glory.” The movie, which is quite transparent in its autobiographical elements, follows film director Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas) in the twilight of his career. 

 

Stuck in a creative slump, Salvador now lives in relative obscurity, riddled with chronic pain and in constant reminiscence of his childhood. However, through a series of chance encounters, the director finally confronts, among other things, unresolved feelings tied to a past lover and the recent death of his mother, Jacinta (Penélope Cruz).

 

In many ways, “Pain and Glory” feels like the movie Almodóvar has been building towards throughout his long and illustrious career. Yes, Almodóvar’s directorial trademarks are here in full force, from the intense color palette to a bevy of intertextual allusions. But aesthetics aside, “Pain and Glory” is more than another glossy entry in the director’s rich filmography; it’s a therapy session, an opportunity for Almodóvar to finally turn his camera back in on himself, on his own life, and simply watch.

 

6. “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” (dir. Quentin Tarantino)

 

 

Quentin Tarantino’s brand of pop culture pastiche and aestheticized violence has garnered as many critics as admirers throughout his one-of-a-kind career. But now, the director appears to have added a new ingredient to his gumbo of stylistic excess: a healthy dose of self-reflection.

 

“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is that long-awaited step forward for Tarantino — or is it backward? As it so happens, the director’s ninth film is firmly fixated on the past, serving as a lovingly crafted tribute to the last days of Hollywood’s golden age. 

 

The movie, set in 1969 Los Angeles, centers on washed-up television actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), presenting a day-in-the-life account of the pair’s struggles to adapt to a changing film industry. It’s a disarmingly unhurried plot that contrasts sharply with the film’s cultural milieu, which repeatedly foreshadows the ominous Manson Family murder of Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie).

 

Awash in rose-tinted textures and buckets of blood, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” soars as a multi-hued ode to a bygone era. In it, Tarantino reminds us that nothing in life is truly permanent — except, maybe, for the magic of the movies themselves.

 

5. “The Farewell” (dir. Lulu Wang)

 

 

It’s not easy saying goodbye. 

 

Writer-director Lulu Wang confronts this uncomfortable truth, ironically enough, through a series of lies and deceptions in “The Farewell,” her true-to-life tone poem on the shifting nature of family, culture and life itself.

 

Inspired by Wang’s own family experience (or, “based on an actual lie,” as the opening title card playfully puts it), “The Farewell” follows a Chinese-American family in the process of saying goodbye to their grandmother Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen), whose terminal lung cancer is being kept secret from her. As the family plans one last visit under the pretense of a cousin’s impromptu wedding, Nai Nai’s granddaughter Billi (Awkwafina) expresses criticism for the deception, even as her family explains it to be a common practice for Chinese families.

 

With this seemingly somber setup, “The Farewell” launches into a surprisingly uplifting exploration of familial love in the face of loss, buoyed by Wang’s empathetic direction and the cast’s emotionally tender performances. Awkwafina, in particular, grounds the film with a complex and conflicted turn that intimates a kind of limbo, as Billi struggles to move fluidly between cultures and, especially, between truth and deception, love and loss, life and death.

 

4. “The Lighthouse” (dir. Robert Eggers)

 

 

Forget “Joker.” The best movie from 2019 about shackling alienation and slipping sanity is “The Lighthouse,” director Robert Eggers’ psychologically-charged horror opus.

 

The film, set in the late 19th century, follows the hallucinatory odyssey of Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson), a young lightkeeper who comes to work at a remote lighthouse off the coast of New England. The job is a lonely one, as Ephraim’s only companion is veteran lightkeeper Thomas Blake (Willem Dafoe), an irascible old man whose disposition is only as noxious as his cooking.

 

As the days and weeks (or is it months and years?) pass by, the two men’s grip on reality starts to slide, their identities appearing to merge into one. Eggers conveys this narrowing psychological space through constricted screen space shot in the blocky Movietone aspect ratio. The tightening compositions that emerge induce a visual claustrophobia, heightened by Jarin Blaschke’s stark black-and-white cinematography.

 

It all adds up to a deeply subjective cinematic experience, plunging viewers into Ephraim’s frayed subconscious and trapping them there — not unlike a siren luring sailors to their doom.

 

3. “Little Women” (dir. Greta Gerwig)

 

 

After setting the bar exceedingly high with 2017’s masterful “Lady Bird,” her first solo effort, writer-director Greta Gerwig is now officially two for two. Yes, “Little Women,” Gerwig’s adaptation of the 1868 novel by Louisa May Alcott, is just as funny, affecting and, most of all, original as her Original Screenplay-nominated debut. 

 

One might think that bringing something original to a book that has seen no less than six earlier film adaptations would be an impossible task. And yet, Gerwig’s “Little Women” overflows with originality, bursting at the seams with personal vision and a ferociously feminist sensibility. 

 

The film, like earlier versions, orbits around Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) and her sisters, Meg (Emma Watson), Amy (Florence Pugh) and Beth (Eliza Scanlen), as they wrestle with family, work and romance in a post-Civil War America. What’s different this time is that Gerwig reframes Alcott’s source material from the vantage point of its artistic construction, positioning Jo as a surrogate for Alcott and, in many ways, for Gerwig herself. 

 

Gerwig presents the events in Jo’s life (and in the lives of her sisters) in a nonlinear prism, refracting events with shifting hues, both aesthetic and tonal (scenes that take place around the time of Beth’s illness, for example, feature bluer, wintry color timing). This kaleidoscopic recreation of Jo’s life reflects, for many artists, the creative process — that frenzied emergence of inspiration, whirling in and out of view.

 

For Jo, her inspiration happens to be lived-in experience, which, in spite of her cantankerous book publisher’s advice, sells quite well after all.

 

2. “The Irishman” (dir. Martin Scorsese)

 

 

At first glance, “The Irishman” may seem like a retreat to familiarity for Martin Scorsese, whose legendary career is most synonymous with the crime and gangster genre. However, “The Irishman” is not so much a retreat as a response — in many ways, an epitaph that reframes the genre in reminiscence, outlining the aftershocks of a life of sin and magnifying the fault lines that splinter families and destroy relationships.

 

Scorsese wastes no time in revealing these far-reaching repercussions for his protagonist, beginning the movie in the denouement of the life of hitman Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) in, of all places, a nursing home. From there, Scorsese launches into flashback for Sheeran to recount his long life of sin, including his association with mobster Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and, later, Teamster union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino).

 

To allow Sheeran’s long-winding life map to unfold, Scorsese employs a fluid story structure that returns to certain timelines, jumping to the past and then ahead and then back to the middle. Patterned in a way that mimics true reminiscence, “The Irishman” forms a rarefied view of a man on the verge of finality, frozen in a fleeting moment of reflection that’s channeled through a lifetime of regret.

 

1. “Parasite” (dir. Bong Joon-ho)

 

 

Yes, no surprise here. The movie that has seemingly topped every top 10 list from the past year also tops our list. And for good reason. “Parasite,” writer-director Bong Joon-ho’s grand and gripping treatise on class and greed, is a mutating masterpiece of pulse-pounding thrills and bottomless thematic depth.

 

Without giving away spoilers (it’s best to know as little about the plot as possible when first watching “Parasite”), the film centers on the Kims, a poor family who finds a way to “infiltrate” a rich family’s home. Devising a facade in which they each pose as domestic help looking for jobs (a chauffeur or a tutor, for example), the Kims get hired on by the wealthy Park family and burrow themselves within the decadent home and lifestyle.

 

The two groups, as vastly different in social and economic status as they are, find a way to coexist, at least for a time. Their relationship is deemed symbiotic, but the inordinate benefits that the Park family reaps from the subordinate Kims reveals the power balance to be quite parasitic — a notion that later manifests itself in a shocking series of twists.

 

Again, without providing spoilers, suffice it to say that “Parasite” mutates into something completely unexpected. Thanks to Bong’s vast and variegated worldview, “Parasite” seamlessly shifts from comedy to drama to horror (and back again), all while raising serious questions about class division and elitism.

 

And that, in essence, is where the genius in “Parasite” resides: in its cinematic sleight of hand. The movie is, in many ways, a magic trick — an illusion that morphs right in front of us, becoming more elusive the closer we get to it. It’s a multi-layered story whose layers regenerate as soon as they are peeled away, suffusing its moments of dread with disarming humor — only to twist the knife in when we’re too busy laughing to notice.

 

— Clinton Olsasky