There are likely at least 10 reasons why you are already sick and tired of top 10 lists this time of year. There is a natural point, after all, when every film critic’s “top” picks start to blend together in a unified chorus of Marriage Story, Parasite, Uncut Gems and The Irishman (I plead guilty on all four charges). To offset the familiar December accolades, here is an alternative Top 10 for 2019 cinema: a collection of the most overlooked, underrated and unfairly dismissed films of the year.
1. A Bread Factory, Parts 1 and 2
At one point in A Bread Factory, Patrick Wang’s impossible-to-classify opus on the American imagination, a tour bus pulls in front of a local arts centre, spilling out a half-dozen outsiders eager to explore all that the fictional upstate New York hamlet of Checkford has to offer. Suddenly and unexpectedly bursting into song – A Bread Factory is not, strictly speaking, a musical – the group’s guide marvels at the parking lot before spouting a nonsense bit of trivia: “The oldest parking lot in America / designed by Benjamin Franklin!” she croons, as her enthusiastic followers bust out their selfie sticks. Not too long afterward, Checkford’s main café is transformed into a pop-up stage, as various diners trade their club-sandwich lunches for tap-dancing routines. In-between, Wang lets the meat of his narrative fall to the background, devoting nearly half an hour to a staging of Euripides’s Hecuba. Viewed, or described, in isolation, these moments may seem needlessly jarring. But taken together with the rest of Wang’s 242-minute epic – technically two films, Part 1: For the Sake of Gold and Part 2: Walk with Me a While, each with the potential to be viewed as standalone works – they reveal what A Bread Factory is all about: community, creativity and how there is a performative element in every little thing we do. By mining a disparate group of influences – the multicharacter narrative walkabouts of Robert Altman, the patient docudrama of Frederick Wiseman, the touching small-town goofiness of Christopher Guest – Wang has created a singular work of contemporary idiosyncratic cinema.
2. High Flying Bird
Netflix and Steven Soderbergh placed all their 2019 awards-race bets on their financial-corruption comedy The Laundromat, which hit the film festival circuit in September and quickly encountered critical bankruptcy. But the prolific filmmaker and his newfound financial partner should have flipped their year upside down, and remind everyone of the greatness of High Flying Bird. A nervy satire about professional sports and its reliance on exploitation, the film was shot on an iPhone 8 but with the ambitions of a production many times its actual budget. Even if you have no interest in sports, technology or business, you will be captivated by André Holland’s lead performance as an agent playing both sides, and Soderbergh’s ability to turn any movie into a heist movie.
3. Long Day’s Journey Into Night
Bi Gan’s elliptical drama Long Day’s Journey into Night is an often ponderous, sometimes incomprehensible work whose rigid defiance of convention begins right with the title (the movie has nothing to do with the work of Eugene O’Neill, and its Mandarin title translates to The Last Night on Earth), continuing through a mid-film flip that is brazen, confounding and dazzling. The feature’s first hour is the most challenging, as Gan takes a severe delight in testing the endurance of his audience, letting his tale of lonely drifter Luo (Huang Jue) returning to his hometown of Kaili unfold at a supremely leisurely pace. Atmosphere stands in for story – the drip-drops of rainwater are practically a supporting character – and Luo seems as confused by his surroundings as we are. But then Gan flips the movie on its head – or, more accurately, tosses the thing headfirst into a parallel universe, as the story turns into a cinematic dare: a 59-minute 3-D single-take that defies the rules of storytelling, when it’s not defying the rules of physics.
4. Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese
Forget that other 2019 Martin Scorsese-Netflix collaboration for a moment. Instead, let the director and streaming giant pull the wool over your eyes with this fabulist take on the Bob Dylan myth. I’ll admit to being one of the critics briefly tricked by Scorsese’s “documentary” about Dylan’s 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue tour. Who is to say, for instance, that a young Sharon Stone wasn’t involved in the proceedings? Or that a German performance artist named Martin von Haselberg wasn’t in fact hired to film the original concert footage? Those both seemed like plausible realities. Yet, a good portion of the film is, in fact, full of fantasy, a spin on the blurred line between truth and fabulism that Dylan so often favours in his own work. Some duped critics have taken supreme umbrage at Scorsese and Dylan’s prank, while others such as myself belatedly appreciate the cinematic high jinks. Wherever you come down depends on your mileage for Dylan himself. But there is no denying the power that the film delivers with its real-deal concert footage, in which Dylan and his merry band of co-conspirators (including Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell), treat the stage as their own private rehearsal hall, delivering intimate yet incendiary performances.
5. Happy Death Day 2U
Who would have thought that a quick and cheap sequel to a PG-rated horror sleeper would turn out to be one of the most purely delightful 90 minutes of the year? Christopher Landon’s Happy Death Day 2U is not exactly a horror film like its predecessor, but more a spiritual sequel to the Back to the Future series that we never knew we needed. Whereas the 2017 film was a just-fun-enough slasher focusing on the live-die-repeat adventures of a co-ed who was forced to perish over and over again until she learned some grand cosmic lesson, Landon’s parallel-universe sequel raises the stakes and ironic winks to create a masterpiece of self-knowing time-travel nonsense.
6. Wild Rose
Wild Rose was not a film meant for the middle of June. It was not a film meant for those seeking relief from hot summer days, or even for those looking for counter-programming to the big deadly summer blockbusters. It was not a film that deserved to die in the early days of the season, which it of course did after going up against the likes of Spider-Man: Far From Home. Wild Rose is, though, a film that gives birth to a brand-new star named Jessie Buckley, and she absolutely deserves all of your undivided year-end attention. This is an awards-season-primed performance if I’ve ever seen one, and I can only hope that distributor Neon still has some stealthy For Your Consideration campaign and rerelease strategies lined up for Buckley at this exact moment, when everybody will be anxiously looking for the next big thing only to realize that she has already come and gone.
7. Long Shot
After dying an unfair death at the box office this spring, December is an ideal time to bask in this Seth Rogen-Charlize Theron rom-com, which is like a big warmhearted bear hug. By this point in his career, Rogen could mine gold in the most dusty and outdated of comedy (go back and watch parts of Knocked Up, I dare you). And here, with the gentle nudging of frequent collaborator, director Jonathan Levine (50/50, The Night Before), the actor again delivers a performance that balances guttural outrage with sweetness, goofiness with sincerity. Theron, meanwhile, seems like she’s been doing this sort of smoothly confident rom-com shtick her entire career, even though this is the first time she’s been afforded such a prime opportunity. Together, they are delightful, and clearly enjoying each other’s comic vibes so much that we can’t help but do the same.
8. Tigers Are Not Afraid
Sicario by way of Pan’s Labyrinth – but not at all as misbegotten as that sounds – Issa Lopez’s magical-realist blood-bath Tigers Are Not Afraid was one of the best surprises of this past summer. Although it’s unfair to call it a 2019 movie, as Lopez’s startling work has been making the festival rounds for almost two years now, collecting awards along the way but struggling to find a distributor savvy enough to market its dark narrative and darker aesthetic. (The horror-streaming service Shudder has finally picked it up, with TIFF’s Lightbox securing a short Toronto-exclusive theatrical run.) The wait has been worth it, though, as general audiences are now finally able to witness Lopez’s deft, enormously affecting genre-juggling act. In a Mexican town torn apart by drug violence, a group of orphaned children do their best to survive. Their existence is pitiless and cruel, until one day the young Estrella (Paola Lara) makes a wish to see her missing mother, presumed to be dead at the cartel’s hands. And so begins a ghost story that mixes supernatural horror with the everyday terror of life under relentless gang warfare and police indifference.
9. The Standoff at Sparrow Creek
A tight tick-tock thriller that doubles as a how-to guide for resource-strapped rookie filmmakers, The Standoff at Sparrow Creek was one of last year’s biggest surprises at 2018′s Toronto International Film Festival. Since its brief festival run last year, though, the film bypassed Canadian theatres for a straight-to-digital release and is at risk of being forgotten about altogether. Don’t sleep on writer-director Henry Dunham’s sometimes no-frills production, though, as its novel premise – a group of militia men gather for one long night to suss out who among them is a traitor – and carefully considered performances from today’s best character actors (including James Badge Dale and Chris Mulkey) add up to a captivating, delightfully twisty drama.
The only thing that I expected from Dexter Fletcher’s Rocketman was nothing at all. The best-case scenario was that the director’s Elton John biopic would be a mild headache, not as bad as Fletcher’s pick-up work on the hagiographic and insulting Bohemian Rhapsody but not as good as, say, listening to Goodbye Yellow Brick Road on repeat. In a delightful upending of expectations, Rocketman sets the standard for what a jukebox drama can be: bright, bouncy, fantastical and off-kilter in every possible way. With a blistering lead performance from Taron Egerton – who, unlike Rhapsody’s Rami Malek, actually sings on-screen – and an extraordinarily imaginative vision for musical numbers that actually tell a story, instead of substituting for one, Rocketman is one of the year’s best big-budget surprises.
Live your best. We have a daily Life & Arts newsletter, providing you with our latest stories on health, travel, food and culture. Sign up today.