If the best films of 2019 have anything in common, it’s that they each feel somehow emblematic of the decade that they closed. Following on the heels of “Silence” and “The Wolf of Wall Street,” Martin Scorsese delivered another morally ambiguous period epic about the weight of our sins. Less than three years after looking for “The Lost City of Z,” James Gray shot the moon with “Ad Astra,” his greatest movie about the search for a mythic place to make us whole.
After establishing her extraordinary talents with the likes of “Tomboy” and “Girlhood,” “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” auteur Céline Sciamma rocked Cannes with her most shattering tale of love and loss and self-discovery, and capped off a remarkable decade of gay screen romances in the process. Bong Joon Ho, never capitalism’s biggest cheerleader, weaponized his usual proclivities in a way that saw him become a genre unto himself. And Agnès Varda, who died shortly after the world premiere of her final film, made the most affecting documentary of the year by literally revisiting her life’s work.
Which isn’t to dismiss the year’s many wonderful surprises, including the delightfully unclassifiable “Diamantino,” Mati Diop’s haunting “Atlantics,” and Jérémy Clapin’s “I Lost My Body,” the best film ever made about a severed hand crawling across Paris.
Once again, I’ve distilled each of my 25 favorite films of the year into a single memorable moment. And, as always, I’ve also edited those moments into a giant supercut that looks back at the year in cinema and counts down my personal highlights.
Memorable Moment: J. Lo, storming back from the 20 years of terrible movie roles that followed her incendiary performance in “Out of Sight,” smokes on a Manhattan rooftop and invites Constance Wu to climb inside her fur coat. This one simple gesture makes sense of everything that happens next.
Memorable Moment: Jordan Peele’s wild American horror story — a film about how we are our own worst enemies — inverts itself with a twist so thrilling and right that it recalibrates all of the story’s logic stretches as part of its elastic charm.
23. “The Hottest August”
Memorable Moment: Brett Story’s powerful documentary — a mesmeric vivisection of New York City on the brink of the unknown — is more of a swallowed breath than it is a film with peaks and valleys. But nothing locked me in quite like the moment when a self-styled “afronaut” pops open the hood of his space visor and stops to shine light on his mission: “Jumping to the future,” he says, “we can think more clearly about the past.”
22. “The Beach Bum”
Memorable Moment: Captain Wack (Martin Lawrence, making a glorious return to the big screen), gets a little too excited about swimming with dolphins.
21. “I Lost My Body”
Memorable Moment: The star of Jérémy Clapin’s morbid animated wonder — a severed hand looking for the meek and traumatized man to whom it once belonged — climbs inside a can like a hermit crab and rolls onto the Paris Métro.
20. “A Hidden Life”
Memorable Moment: Terrence Malick’s profoundly moving return to terra firma is galvanized by a conversation between its hero — an Austrian pacifist who resists the rise of Nazism — and a man who paints murals of Christ on church ceilings. The painter laments the cowardice that has kept him from painting Jesus suffering on the cross. “How can I know what I haven’t lived?,” he asks Franz. “Someday I’ll have the courage to venture. Someday I’ll show them a true Christ.” Over the three hours that follow, Malick lifts that gauntlet himself.
Memorable Moment: Mati Diop’s elliptical debut feature suddenly contorts into a bewitching supernatural tale as the departed souls of a Dakar suburb return to possess the people they left behind. One shot of the girls in gray contact lenses and you feel it in your bones: Every ghost story is a love story.
Memorable Moment: Christian Petzold’s “Transit” — which premiered at the Berlinale in February of 2018 and has lingered with me ever since — unfolds like a remake of “Casablanca” as directed by Franz Kafka. That recipe is never more potent than in the film’s last moments, which fittingly leave us stuck between feelings.
Memorable Moment: “Diamantino” is a demented 21st century fairy tale centers on a beautiful, child-like soccer phenom named Diamantino who reacts to a devastating World Cup loss by adopting a Mozambican refugee who claims to be a teen boy but is actually an adult lesbian on an undercover mission from the Portuguese government to investigate a money-laundering operation run by the athlete’s evil twin sisters. So yeah, memorable moments are really the only kind of moments that it has. But it’s hard to top that opening soccer match, when viewers are let inside the title character’s unique way of calming himself down on the pitch. Hint: It involves Pekingese. Big ones.
16. “Varda by Agnès”
Memorable Moment: Every second of this movie is a gift, but longtime Varda devotees will be particularly chuffed by new footage of the filmmaker catching up with “Vagabond” star Sandrine Bonnaire.
15. “High Life”
Memorable Moment: “Shall we?” “Yes.” (No spoilers here.)
Memorable Moment: The centerpiece of Ari Arister’s extraordinary “Midsommar” — a long, psychedelically enhanced dance sequence to determine which girl will be crowned as the village May Queen — isn’t just a remarkable feat of ominous choreography, it also hinges on Florence Pugh delivering some of the best non-verbal acting of the year, as she runs the gamut from confusion to joy and back again while circling her way down the rabbit hole.
13. “Pain & Glory”
Memorable Moment: Pedro Almodóvar’s lightly autobiographical drama is beautiful from start to finish, but it’s hard to remember the last time a film reframed itself in its final moments with such satisfying results. Sometimes a little perspective is all it takes to reconsider an entire life.
12. “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”
Memorable Moment: It’s been six months since Quentin Tarantino’s Tinseltown eulogy premiered at Cannes, and I’m still wrestling with its violent grand finale. It turns out there’s a fine line between revisionism and repeating yourself; was there another, less pulpy way of saving Sharon Tate and solving the schism that ended old Hollywood? Whatever the case, Leonardo DiCaprio cocking a prop gun and muttering “Rick Fucking Dalton” was unambiguously perfect from the moment we first heard it in the trailer — there wasn’t a purer movie star moment on screen this year.
11. “The Irishman”
Memorable Moment: Watching “The Irishman,” especially for the first time, you get the sense that it’s teeming with hidden moments that will cling to you like barnacles for the rest of your life. Some of them are more apparent than others: Pacino chanting “Solidarity!” Pesci saying “It’s what it is.” Ray Romano asking De Niro if he’s really guilty at heart. The film’s most indelible treasures are lurking a bit deeper under the surface. On my second viewing, nothing hit me harder than the rhyme between two distant confrontations: As a child, Peggy suspects that her father is hiding some demons, but Frank directs his daughter back to her breakfast. Years later, Peggy wordlessly confronts her dad with daggers in her eyes, and Frank is so far beyond salvation that his only recourse is to keep eating his cereal like nothing ever happened.
10. “Knives Out”
Memorable Moment: Let’s just say that Rian Johnson knows how to pay off his props.
9. “Her Smell”
Memorable Moment: Alex Ross Perry’s epic portrait of a riot grrrl on fire — a fall and rise story told in five acts — makes an abrupt about face in its penultimate chapter when a sober Becky Something (Elisabeth Moss) sits down at her piano and plays a rendition of Bryan Adams’ “Heaven” for her daughter. It’s not just that the stripped-down song is tenderly performed and aching with regret and raw urgency, but also the smash-cut that Perry uses to cap it off; it hits like a lifetime of soured friendship.
Memorable Moment: A Paris meeting between two macho Israeli men turns violent as the volatile slapstick energy of Nadav Lapid’s singular masterpiece clicks into place.
7. “Uncut Gems”
Memorable Moment: It’s hard to know where to start with the Safdie brothers’ frantic masterpiece, but what better place than in Adam Sandler’s colon? Welcome to the world of “Uncut Gems,” where even the most disgusting sights have a strange kind of beauty.
6. “The Souvenir”
Memorable Moment: Joanna Hogg’s tender cine-memoir ends with tragedy, and then a kind of creative transfiguration, as an unforgettable series of shots releases her young proxy out into the world with hard-won sensitivity and her own story to tell.
5. “The Farewell”
Memorable Moment: The rear-view mirror shot in “A Star Is Born” was great. The back windshield shot in Lulu Wang’s heartstopping family dramedy is even better.
4. “Ad Astra”
Memorable Moment: Brad Pitt’s best performance of the year peaks with astronaut Roy McBride’s uncharacteristically emotional appeal to his long-lost father: “Dad, I’d like to see you again.” A message flung into space like a bottle on the vastest of oceans. Roy’s dad might not be listening, but — through Pitt — you can hear the hermetically sealed Campbellian hero begin to hear himself.
3. “Little Women”
Memorable Moment: Greta Gerwig’s electric adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel is, of course, all about the March sisters. But the way that Gerwig subverts Chris Cooper’s screen image by casting him as the heartbroken Mr. Laurence… it’s almost unbearable. The scene where he overhears his daughter’s piano being played for the first time in ages is one of the best moments of a movie that feels — similar to “Lady Bird” — like it exclusively consists of its best moments.
Memorable Moment: The dream of a better life turns out to be just that, as Bong Joon-ho’s beloved Palme d’Or winner ends with a devastating feint that borrows a page from “25th Hour.”
1. “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.”
Memorable Moment: It all comes back to Page 28, where star-crossed lovers Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) has Marianne (Noémie Merlant) draw her in a book; the memory sticks with both of them, and us.