My Favorite Directorial Efforts of 2019
I’m doing these way early this year, because of the truncated Oscar schedule. A lot of the time the nominations have already happened by the time these lists go out. Usually I’m using them to fill time between nominations and the second half of the Release Calendar, or before it’s time to start category breakdowns. But we’re in a weird year, so here we are. I barely got to watch a lot of the films more than once before these lists go up. But it’s also not like they really matter all that much outside of some more content.
I will specify what I always need to specify — these are my lists. These are the performances that I personally preferred the best. They do not always line up with what the awards groups and the herd believes. They are literally me going through the list of every film I saw this year and jotting down the performances from each film that I thought were noteworthy and then paring the article down to a list of 15 and then creating some sort of ranking of those 15. So any problems — keep ’em to yourself. I’m only here to talk up the things I liked the best, not to create any sort of objective list. So if you’re butt hurt that this doesn’t match up with the slideshows on the other websites, then stick to the slideshows.
Today we’re finishing it all up with my favorite directorial efforts of the year. This one’s more straightforward. It’s less nuanced than figuring out performances, but it’s also more difficult, because you’re gauging things as a whole. It’s like what we do with Best Editing every year, where it’s like, “Are we picking most editing or are technically our favorite movies the best edited because we liked them the best?” I have my own weird rubric for figuring this all out, but generally, I go with the efforts that actually made me feel something and felt like they stood out to me on the year.
So here are my favorite directorial efforts of 2019:
1. Quentin Tarantino, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Tom Hooper narrowly missed out for Cats. It kinda goes without saying that the #1 film of the year is probably gonna be #1 on direction too. Not always. And I’m usually pretty honest about that. Django was my #1 movie in 2012, and Quentin placed only fifth for me on favorite direction. I think he’s an incredible director. But for me, usually the writing and the acting and the storytelling come before the pure nuts and bolts of the direction. When I come up with this list, I’m truly thinking about which efforts impressed me the most more than anything else. Thinking back on his career… maybe I’d have had him #1 in 2009 (it’s tough between him and Kathryn Bigelow), and 1994 is really the only other time I’d do that. But with this one, he kind does make his masterpiece. The big thing for me is that it’s just a hangout film. You just wanna hang out with these guys and in this world. And the fact that he recreated 1969 Los Angeles without any CGI is just incredible. You could claim that he did (and really I think it’s just the little bit when he pans from one house over to the other on Cielo Drive), but I saw all the different storefronts and things they changed during shooting, because they were up on the streets for a couple of days at a time. He did most of that shit naturally, which is incredible. Those car scenes where Pitt’s just driving up Hollywood Boulevard are stunning. And the rest of the film is just incredible to watch. Every little sequence is its own perfect entity. So yeah, as much as I really liked other efforts from this year, this stands as #1 for me.
2. James Mangold, Ford v Ferrari
Him and Quentin are basically 1 and 1A because they accomplish something I hold in very high esteem, which is crafting a movie that is rewatchable. It’s one thing to make a masterpiece. Sometimes you make one of those and it’s unquestioned and that’s that. But to make a movie that’s just good and fun to watch, that’s really hard. And Ford v Ferrari in particular, that’s a movie you can just put on and enjoy. You turn on the TV one day and go, “Oh, it’s on. And they’re up to the (x) scene.” And you just watch it all the way through. That, to me, is an invaluable trait for a movie to have. Plus Mangold — he’s one of those great, workmanlike directors who’s never made a bad movie. Ever. Not a single bad movie on the resume. And he’s got about four or five now that are just so rewatchable. Which is really a gift. Plus, here, he’s got all the car stuff and he weaves the story and the style and the finesse — it’s just the total package of a film. I go back and forth about which one is #1 and which is #2 between him and Quentin, but man, there’s no denying how great both of these efforts are.
3. Bong Joon Ho, Parasite
I had to. Because man, did I walk into this movie knowing nothing about it, and, while I expected it to be good, because he makes great movies and I loved his last two a lot, I truly didn’t know what to expect. And when you walk in with the expectations of buzz from outside, I’m always pretty weary. But this movie — not only did he grab you pretty immediately, but he kept you and he really twisted the room down some unexpected corridors. For a film like this to work, the direction has to be great. And the fact that not a single person I know who’s gone to see this movie (many of whom don’t watch a lot of foreign films and don’t care about most foreign films) has had a single bad thing to say about it — and most of them even say, “Oh my god, it was amazing” — how can you not say it’s one of the best directorial efforts of the year?
4. Trey Edward Shults, Waves
He had me from the opening shot. That revolving camera inside the car. You just go, “Oh my god.” And even if that shot doesn’t get you — which I get. You could see that and go, “Oh, he’s trying to do some pseudo-Moonlight thing with the ethereal kind of visual atmosphere.” But pretty soon he gets you, and he gets you for good. The way he changes aspect ratios and really gives you this overall portrait of a family while giving you two intensely different stories in the first half of the movie and the second half, never once really making you go, “Why is he doing this?” He gets you totally invested in this story, not really caring what’s gonna happen, ratcheting up the emotion little by little until there’s this big moment of exhale when the big centerpiece sequence happens. And then he just sort of lets you breathe and the movie just goes on its way to the second half and you just move along to that part of the story. It’s incredibly effective and truly the only movie of the year that managed a visceral emotional reaction out of me. I’m not really someone who gets worked up during movies, and I felt myself getting that internal anxiety like when you’re really worried or stressed about something. That happened to me during this movie, and I can’t say that for any other film I watched this year. It’s a beautiful film.
5. Greta Gerwig, Little Women
When you see what #6 is, you’ll see how much I mean this. Because there’s no way #6 should not be outside my top five. But it is. Because I loved what Greta achieved with this movie. There’s nothing better than seeing an adaptation of classic source material done well, and done fresh. I get worried when up-and-coming directors are doing material I’ve seen before, because I always get worried, “How is that gonna work?” I had it with Bradley Cooper last year with A Star Is Born. And he totally made it work and made it fresh and new and maybe made the best film version of that story in a lot of ways. Or like, Joe Wright with Anna Karenina. He told that story in a way that made it feel vibrant and energetic (even if that source material wasn’t necessarily as engaging for me as this one is). This is a story that’s been told three previous times, all the while with some heavy-hitter actresses, all the while being told well. But what Greta Gerwig achieves with this version of the movie is nothing short of stunning. She breaks the story up between the sisters as young girls and as adults. She jumps back and forth between the timelines (sometimes nonlinearly, jumping forward or back within timelines as she pleases), creating not a straightforward narrative as much as a story of these women and who they are and the bond they share with each other and those around them. It’s brilliantly handled. And she manages to put forth a loud and clear statement about her intentions and her reading of the source material — a statement that might be spoken in the other films, but doesn’t mean as much as it does now. I loved everything about how she handled this movie and think it deserves to be spoken about among the absolute best efforts of the year.
6. Sam Mendes, 1917
Dude made a World War I movie shot to look like it all happens in a single take. And somehow he’s not in my top five. I could not have imagined that would ever happen. I’d have given you money six months ago that he was gonna be top three for me at worst. But here we are. And honestly I think what did it for me was that as much as I love World War I and the trenches and get crazy excited whenever they put that on screen (which is basically never), and as much as I love Mendes and Roger Deakins and love the notion of a oner film… it just kinda feels like muscle flexing to me the way he does it. Maybe I’ll watch it again and feel otherwise and come to my senses and go, “Of course he needs to be in the top five.” But for now… just kind of feels like him going, “Hey guys, I’m a really good director and can pull this off.” And then he does. Really well. Feels kinda like executing a really nice trick shot. No one really asked for the trick shot, but you can do it, which is really cool. The other five films above this I had really strong reactions toward and felt a certain warmth toward. This one I just kind of liked as a technical exercise and respect the hell out of more than I love. But again, maybe that changes. There’s no denying how strong the effort is and how great Mendes is as a filmmaker. I just, liked five more efforts better than this in the end.
7. Rian Johnson, Knives Out
This is an effort that got squeezed because the other six were just so incredible. Another year, he’d for sure have been in my top five. This is probably the best directing of Rian Johnson’s career. Which is nuts. Since he’s made some great films, and Looper is astoundingly good. But here… he just weaves this wonderful mystery and feels in control of the whole thing the entire time. Plus — and this says as much about the writing as it does the direction — he gives you a whodunit movie where he basically gives you whodunit within the first 45 minutes, and then you’re not really waiting to find out what actually happened. Since you really know what happened. The only question is maybe a couple of particulars that come out in the end, but otherwise, the tension comes from something else entirely. Which I really liked. But the entire time, he adds these precise little details that work so well within the context of the film, little character beats and things that add to the atmosphere of the whole film and give you something to realize the true context of when you watch it the second time. It’s really well done.
8. Robert Eggers, The Lighthouse
This movie is so tightly directed. It’s really precise. He shoots it perfectly framed, in crisp black and white, and in a style that truly could have been done as a Murnau silent film. It looks that good. You wouldn’t want him to do it, but you truly could have cut out all the dialogue and put intertitles and the film would have came across exactly the same way. And honestly, I kinda hope they do that on the Blu-ray or something. Just recut a silent version of the film. Because you could do it, and it would be stunning. Maybe a lot of the humor would go away, but still. It says something about the direction and visual style of a film when it’s so strong and so taut that you could cut out all the dialogue and still have the story work. This is one where, in a weaker/different year, I’d have really considered him for the top five. But instead he ends up just outside it, which is a shame. But the effort still stands as one of the strongest of the year.
9. Jennifer Kent, The Nightingale
Oh boy. This film. This one is just full of tension and emotion. I loved how she shot this. Jennifer Kent was on everyone’s radar after The Babadook, but not a lot of people seemed to follow her into this, her second film. Maybe that’s because it takes place in 1830s Tasmania and doesn’t really star any actors you’d know. But holy shit, was this one of the most intense and gratifying experiences of my cinematic year. I loved every single moment of this film. It was stunning to watch. Kent creates such a wonderful atmosphere for her characters, puts her lead through absolute hell, and then gives us the room to watch this woman extract her well-deserved revenge. It’s an incredible film, and one I wish that I could have ranked higher than this. But man, this is a really strong year. The fact that I’d be cool with having her on a nominees list and she’s my ninth overall choice… there’s some great shit this year.
10. James Gray, Ad Astra
James Gray makes nothing if not classy, wonderful movies. They’re getting better as he goes along. Lost City of Z made my list in 2017 around this area, and here, he one-ups himself. That movie was mostly set in the jungle and really was well made. This movie does more than that… going deep into space and creating a look and a feel that you don’t really see in space movies all that much. Because most space movies are interested in the adventure portion. You can add emotional stuff and all that, but at the end of the day, there are big thrilling cinematic sequences. But this movie doesn’t really give you a lot of that past the very opening. Most of the film is an emotional journey. And I love how much he created and envisioned within this world. Because space is kind of easy to do. Either it’s high sci fi and you’re creating new worlds, or it’s just, “Here’s the ship, we’re going into space, and this kind of shit is happening.” But what Gray does is go, “Well, in this version, we’re in space, but like, space 30 years from now.” So you’ve got the big communications tower that goes from Earth into space so we can communicate with military outposts on other planets. The Moon has become colonized, but in this version it’s basically just a giant shopping mall for tourists to go to. It’s all the shit that would actually happen. And then he tells this story of a guy going into deep space to confront his father and all his personal shit. And it’s wonderful. Gray directs the absolute hell out of it, and he does a fantastic job all around. It’s a tightly-controlled story, and he never goes into full ‘action movie’ territory. Every major action scene (save maybe one) feels earned and furthers the character and the journey in some way. I really thought he did a great job here and can’t wait to see what he ends up making next.
11. Taika Waititi, Jojo Rabbit
How great is this movie? It’s almost an impossible feat, taking a movie like this and making it fun, and funny. There’s always gonna be people who think you can’t joke about Hitler. But Mel Brooks did it. And he made it work. And this movie makes it work. You gotta have a certain level of sweetness to your movie and a heart to it so it doesn’t seem like you’re just punching for punching’s sake. And also, it’s Nazis. Fuck those guys. But I just love what he achieves here, giving you a wonderful coming-of-age story, this wonderful mother-son story, and this story of survival, in a way. Thomasin McKenzie’s story in this movie is amazing. And he weaves it all together really terrifically, never going too far into “holy shit that’s too intense” and never going into treacly territory either. Plus, like I said — anyone who can achieve that moment he does with the shoes… that immediate and sudden tonal shift that just lands and immediately takes your breath away… that’s some amazing direction. I had to shout him out on this list for that moment alone. But the rest of the film, he completely nails all of that too. It’s just an amazing piece of work.
12. Tom Harper, The Aeronauts
Oh boy, this movie. I had no expectations for this other than assuming it would be solid for the leads. The director also did Wild Rose this year, but I really didn’t see him as someone who did action. But Amazon was pushing it, and I saw it was gonna be in IMAX, so I figured, “Okay, there’s gotta be something here.” And holy shit. There are scenes in this movie that feel like what The Walk (aka Man on Wire: The Movie) should have been. The balloon scenes in this movie are just stunning to see. There’s a scene where they’re like 35,000 feet in the air, altitude is thin and the balloon is freezing, and they have to stay conscious while also finding a way to get themselves down, even though everything is frozen, and Felicity Jones climbs to the top of the balloon with nothing but a rope keeping her from plummeting to her death, and it’s one of the most thrilling things I have ever seen in a movie. It’s stunning. It’s so exciting to watch. That’s the thing The Walk should have given you. You should have constantly had that instinct kick in where, even if you’re not someone who is afraid of heights, you should go, “Nuh uh. Not cool. Do not want. This is scary as shit.” And The Walk has that in fits and bursts, but not the way this movie has it. You’re really on the edge of this balloon with her, and it’s the kind of thing where, any time she slips or almost falls or anything remotely perilous, you instinctively gasp and go, “Oh holy fuck.” It’s nuts. And I know this movie is gonna fly totally under the radar for this year, but I absolutely loved Harper’s direction. This is one of the best action movies of the year.
13. Martin Scorsese, The Irishman
This is one of those efforts I’m most curious about seeing where it lands on people’s lists. Because some people thought the movie was overlong and boring (but those are the same people who constantly complain that all films are too long. Which is the same as me complaining that all TV shows have too much filler and that unless it’s something like CSI where it’s the same shit every week, half of each episode can be cut out and all seasons could be like three hours long and be way better. Both of us should just stop being such little bitches and grow the fuck up and either except things for what they are or just not fucking watch them). People had problems with this aspect or that aspect. I think it’s an incredible achievement and I have, since I saw it, likened it to John Ford’s Cheyenne Autumn. This feels like Marty’s gangster movie swan song. It feels like this was the last rodeo and he went out with an elegiac, meditative eulogy of sorts for that genre that he’s been so closely connected to all his career. I think it’s an incredible achievement that does actually hold up when you rewatch it the second time. This is a movie I can go back and rewatch a bunch. Can I quibble about it? Sure. But, like Cheyenne Autumn, I think it’s a fantastic achievement that serves as a beautiful end to a distinguished director’s career within a genre (though admittedly there’s no telling if this is the last one for him. It just feels that way to me right now that it is). And, like that movie, I wouldn’t have it in my top ten directorial efforts of that particular year. It’s great, I just wouldn’t vote for it or anything like that. So I mention it here, and I think Marty’s still got greatness in him. But this, to me, feels more like Casino. Like it a lot, think it’s a great movie… just not gonna automatically vote for it like a Goodfellas or something like that. Marty’s been around this area for most of his last couple of movies. Hugo’s really the only one I had him way higher for, and that’s because he used 3D in a way that literally no one but James Cameron did.
14. Zach Lipovsky & Adam B. Stein, Freaks
This was the first movie I saw this year, and all year I’ve been telling people how great I think it is, and how I think it’s one of the best sci fi films I’ve seen in a while. It’s such a wonderfully crafted story. The big knock against it is that it doesn’t have the budget that other films get and is made in Canada. So it’s not gonna look as sleek as maybe it could have otherwise. But it’s also not the biggest scale movie ever, and it’s also not Netflix quality… and usually you can tell when it’s Netflix, with those really bad CG effects for brief moments that show very clearly. But this movie is really great because it starts in a place where… you can guess about three or four directions as to where that set up is gonna go, but you can’t say for sure. You’re presented with characters and a situation, and you can go, “Well, it’s either this, or this, and then this and this…” and you’ve kind of got a handle on it. But then the movie switches, and gives you something else. And then something else. And it’s tossing in all these little things within the margins that slowly start to pay off and become part of the narrative as the movie goes on. And I said it when I saw it… twenty minutes before the end of this movie, I didn’t know where it was going. And every little thing they throw in there pays off or means something later on in the film. It’s a really terrific piece of work and I’m really trying to beat the drum for it, because these dudes should be making much higher budget movies. This is the kind of movie that turns people into the Russo brothers, shepherding complex Marvel narratives. I’m telling you, it was that impressive to me.
15. Benny & Josh Safdie, Uncut Gems
The only reason they’re not higher than this is because Good Time is basically the same kind of movie. It’s a tense thrill ride all the way through and you follow someone over the course of a limited time frame where the stakes are high and they’re just doing their best to try to get out unscathed. But there’s something to be said about their ability to create and maintain tension all the way throughout the film. The camera is constantly moving and the entire movie has an energy to it. You feel the situation that Sandler is in throughout the film and you’re with him all the way, as shitty a human being he may be and how bad the decisions he makes are. It’s a really impressive piece of work, and really all I’m gonna say about it is — welcome to the party, everyone he didn’t bother to watch Good Time two years ago.
– – – – – – – – – –