Big Screen Berkeley: Our critic’s 15 favorite films of 2019

Once again, it’s time for me to rank my favorite films of the year. The usual caveats apply: I didn’t see every film released in 2019, and this is not an attempt to list the ‘best’ films of the year. In addition, there are films I’ve missed that I am certain would factor into this list if I’d had time or opportunity to see them. Films that would have made last year’s list if I’d seen them in time include BlacKkKlansman, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, and The Hate U Give.

This time next year, expect to see me retroactively waxing poetic about The Irishman.

And now…the envelope, please!

1. Birds of Passage

José Acosta and Natalia Reyes in Birds of Passage

This drama about western cultural intrusion into the daily lives of Colombia’s indigenous Wayuu people is gorgeous to look at, intellectually stimulating, and (as a bonus) exciting. How it failed to secure a Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award nomination is beyond me.

2. The Man Who Killed Hitler and then the Bigfoot

Roll your eyes at that title all you want, but this showpiece for the great Sam Elliott was one of the most heartfelt and moving films I saw this year.

3. The Man with the Silver Case

The Man with the Silver Case. Photo: Courtesy Another Hole in the Head

Perhaps I’m ranking this Swiss-made thriller this high because of recency bias, but so be it.

4. Cold Case Hammarskjöld

This remarkable documentary about the apparent assassination of UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld in 1961 was supposed to screen at San Francisco’s Alamo Drafthouse, but the theatre caught fire the night before and the screening was cancelled. Not sure where (or if) it can be seen now, but for anyone interested in the history of intelligence agency dirty tricks, it’s well worth tracking down.

5. Stan and Ollie

Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly in Stan and Ollie

A sentimental favorite carried by the brilliant performances of Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly as the world’s greatest comedy team. Sorry, Crazy Gang and Ritz Brothers fans.

6. Tigers Are Not Afraid

A visually stunning and affecting slice of magical realism from Mexico.

7. The Invisible Witness

Maria Paiato and Riccardo Scarmacio in The Invisible Witness. Photo: Courtesy Larsen Associates

More recency bias? This tragically overlooked Italian feature was the best mystery of the year.

8. Shadow

Zhang Yimou’s gorgeous, large scale tale of Three Kingdoms-era intrigue deserved to be a huge hit, but the googolplex needed that extra screen to squeeze in more customers for Avengers: Endgame. Such is movie-going life in the 21st century.

9. Joker

And speaking of super heroes (and villains), I had to be dragged kicking and screaming to see this but was ultimately convinced by the offer of a free ticket and a free bucket of popcorn. I’m glad I succumbed. Joaquin Phoenix may not be your favorite actor, but he’s great as the man whose perpetual smile masks deep tragedy.

10. How About Adolf?

How About Adolf? Photo: Courtesy Menemsha Films

I haven’t seen Jo Jo Rabbit yet, so this German film has a clear path to being my favorite Hitler comedy of 2019.

11. The Invisibles

Readers struggled to believe this film (in part, about Jews being outed to the Nazis by other Jews) was based on a true story. Quietly effective and rather sobering.

12. American Woman

Narrative flaws couldn’t obscure the brilliance of Sienna Miller’s performance in this study of working class life in contemporary America.

13. Piranhas

Piranhas. Photo: Courtesy Music Box Films

The best gangster film I saw in 2019, though I’m sure The Irishman will have something to say about that once I catch up with it.

14. Safe Spaces

Classroom power relationships are deftly explored in this frequently hilarious and very pointed comedy about academia.

15. Aniara

Feeling pessimistic about the state of Planet Earth? This bleak, intelligent science fiction film probably won’t make you feel much better.

Honorable mentions: Diane features an Oscar-worthy performance by Mary Kay Place, while Midnight Traveler was the most impressive film shot entirely on a phone I’ve ever seen — and that’s not intended as damnation by faint praise.