Like society as a whole, Hollywood needs systemic change, from top to bottom. Despite the new opportunities that have opened up for a wider range of filmmakers to tell their stories, change is not happening quickly enough. There are still a higher percentage of women and people of color in the White House than in Hollywood’s writers’ and directors’ guilds. This list celebrates filmmakers inside and outside the Hollywood system who are part of that systemic change, shifting power and perspective with their stories. Before I get to the top films of the year, here are some other films that challenge power.
Class struggle was a major theme in films this year, from Todd Haynes’ Dark Waters, a true story of how poverty allows chemical companies to get away with murder; to Uncut Gems, directed by the Safdie Brothers, in which Adam Sandler in a deeply unsympathetic serious role demonstrates the ugliness of greed. Steven Soderbergh’s The Laundromat is an entertaining summary of the story of The Panama Papers, revealing ways in which the wealthy avoid taxes and hide from responsibility. Like Adam McKay’s The Big Short (2015), which attempted to make the story of Wall Street profiteering on subprime mortgages humorous and accessible, The Laundromat is a captivating deep dive into some of the ways in which capitalism is a rigged system.
Three years after water protectors made their stand at Standing Rock, Indigenous filmmakers and actors created several of the top films of the year, including Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers and Taika Waititi, who wrote, directed and starred in their films (more on those films below). Among other Indigenous stories this year: Melina León’s Song Without a Name (Canción sin nombre), based on actual incidents of babies stolen from Indigenous women and Peru for international adoption. The Peruvian film is lifted by a powerful performance by actor and activist Pamela Mendoza.
In the horror genre, filmmakers often find an easier time finding funding, distribution, and some level of freedom. Ari Aster’s hallucinogenic horror film Midsommar mines horror in scandanavian cultural traditions, grad student competitiveness, and toxic relationships. Jordan Peele’s Us may not have the same cultural reach as Get Out, but he continues to create horror films that explore what’s happening beneath the story on the surface. (His take on Twilight Zone on TV this year was also a sometimes-powerful updating of that show). And Adam Stein and Zach Lipovsky’s low-budget science fiction film Freaks is a riveting and surprising story with a smart subtext.
From Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind to Disney’s Song of the South, much of Hollywood’s wealth was created from glorifying white supremacy. Kasi Lemmons’ Harriet is an important correction in a system that has rarely told the stories of Black resistance. Hollywood has also made countless stories where the prosecutors are heroes (see, for example, hundreds of hours of Law and Order), but defense attorneys are almost always shown as villians. Destin Daniel Cretton’s Just Mercy, an earnest adaptation of Bryan Stevenson’s book about his work with Equal Justice Initiative, features powerful lead performances by Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx, with Brie Larson, Tim Blake Nelson, and O’Shea Jackson Jr. among the heavy talent in supporting roles. I hope it brings more well-earned attention to the work of Equal Justice Initiative. While not on the same level of these other films, Craig Brewer’s Dolemite is my Name is Eddie Murphy’s best film since 1999’s Life, and an entertaining comedy that also lifts up the history of a pioneering Black independent filmmaker.
Alex Rivera and Cristina Ibarra’s The Infiltrators is a bold fusion of documentary and re-enactments, revealing the story of how undocumented teenage immigrants intentionally got arrested so they could enter for-profit detention centers and organize against the US deportation system from the inside. Richard Rowley’s documentary 16 Shots begins with the police killing of Laquan McDonald, but focuses on the activist response, showing how Chicago organizers fought for systemic change, including ending the political careers of State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez and Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Melina Matsoukas’ Queen and Slim is a Bonnie and Clyde for the era of Black Lives Matter. The stylish film grapples with the history of Black radicalism and this present moment, but doesn’t go as deep as many would like.
Several of the best films released this year were from Ava Duvernay’s Array Releasing, which has made excellent independent and foreign films accessible to a mass audience through Netflix and theatrical releases. Before being distributed by Array, Burning Cane began as a high school project by director Phillip Youmans while he was a high school student at New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. He went on to become the youngest filmmaker to ever screen at Tribeca Film Festival, as well as the first Black director to win Best Narrative Feature.
My Top Eleven Films of 2019:
Raising the bar for concert films, Homecoming cuts between behind-the-scenes preparation for Beyoncé’s legendary 2018 performance at Coachella, and the show itself. Beyond conceptualizing the spectacular performance, a celebration of the artistic breadth of the African diaspora, Beyoncé also directed the film (co-directed by longtime collaborator Ed Burke), which is filled with energy and urgency for all of its two and a half hours.
No film this year made class struggle more fun and exciting than Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers, based on a true story of strippers robbing the rich. I only wish filmmakers would learn that, just because their film is based on the work of a journalist, that journalist doesn’t need to be a central character in the film (see also: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks). Hustlers is at its best when the women are the protagonists, without the filter of the person telling their tale.
9. Edge of Democracy
Brazilian actress and filmmaker Petra Costa had intimate access to Brazilian presidents Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff as a coup brings about their downfall, and she has a family that spans from corporate elites to her militant parents who lived underground during the military dictatorship. All of which makes her the perfect storyteller for the story of how right wing elites successfully overthrew democratically elected government in Brazil and installed an unpopular fascist. As political polarization takes hold in Brazil, inflamed by right wing media, it’s impossible to live in the US and not see the parallels to our own experience.
Mati Diop, niece of legendary Senegalese director Djibril Diop Mambéty, was the first Black woman film-maker to compete in the main competition in Cannes festival history. Her film Atlantics is a beautiful and magical evocation of the struggles of refugees, the crimes of exploitative bosses, and the corruption of police.
7. Knock Down the House
Showing the rise of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (as well three other less successful candidates), Rachel Lears’ Knock Down the House is an emotional and uplifting story of women fighting to change the electoral system from the inside.
Gaspar Noé’s Climax begins with one of the greatest dance numbers ever to appear on film, and keeps going for 97 minutes that veer from breathtaking to traumatic. A druggy and sometimes violent film that is definitely not for everyone.
5. Little Woods
A moving performance by Tessa Thompson is at the center of Nia DaCosta’s Little Woods, an aching and tense drama focusing on healthcare, opioids, and working class people in rural North Dakota struggling to get by for one day more.
Lord of the Flies plays out among child soldiers for an unnamed cause in an unnamed country, in Colombian-Ecuadorian director Alejandro Landes’ Monos. The film is beautifully shot and acted, with a mix of professional actors and newcomers.
3. The Body Remembers When The World Broke Open
Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, a member of the Kainai First Nation and also descended from Sámi Indigenous people of Norway, co-wrote and co-directed the stunning The Body Remembers When The World Broke Open with Canadian filmmaker Kathleen Hepburn. Tailfeathers co-stars with Violet Nelson, of the Kwakwaka’wakw First Nation, who delivers one of the best performances of the year as a young woman in an abusive relationship. Playing out almost entirely in one shot (and far more powerful than the film 1917, which attempts a similar style) the lead actors negotiate privilege, race and identity in another excellent film that reached a larger audience thanks to Ava Duvernay’s Array.
Bong Joon-ho’s bleak satire Parasite finds humor in class antagonism, with multiple levels of scheming and deception playing out between the wealthy and poor families at the center of the story. Like Bong’s previous films, including his English language movies Snowpiecer and Okja, Parasite is a tight balance of biting satire and realistic drama. It’s also original and unforgettable, simultaneously embracing and subverting conventions of genre.
1. Jojo Rabbit
Perhaps it takes a filmmaker that is both Māori and Jewish to make a politically sharp comedy about Nazism, featuring a fanatical young boy who has Hitler as an imaginary friend. Sadly more relevant than ever, Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit made me laugh and cry, often just moments apart. The cast is excellent throughout, including Waititi’s over-the-top performance as imaginary-Hitler.