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Double Feature: Critic Justin Chang Pairs His Favorite Films Of 2019

<em>Parasite</em> and <em>Knives Out</em> top Justin Chang's 2019 list of movie pairings. At left, Lee Sun-kyun and Cho Yeo-jeong play a wealthy couple whose hired help isn't quite what it seems in Bong Joon-ho's thriller, <em data-stringify-type="italic">Parasite</em>. Chris Evans (right) is a trust-fund playboy in <em data-stringify-type="italic">Knives Out</em>.
Neon CJ Entertainment and Claire Folger/Lionsgate

For the past few years I've gotten in the habit of not only ranking my year-end favorites, but pairing them together thematically. I saw no reason to quit the habit this year, given how many great movies I saw in 2019 and how many of them seemed to be in conversation with each other.

Parasite and Knives Out

In a year where wealth inequality and class rage were hot movie topics ( Us, Hustlers, Joker), few had more to say — or said it more entertainingly — than Parasite, Bong Joon-ho's wickedly multilayered satirical thriller, and Knives Out, Rian Johnson's ingenious throwback to the classic detective story.

Ash Is Purest White and The Irishman

Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro play friends — and mobsters — in <em>The Irishman. </em>
Niko Tavernise / Netflix
Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro play friends — and mobsters — in The Irishman.

Jia Zhangke and Martin Scorsese, two of the most important filmmakers working today, gave us a pair of gripping, deeply ruminative mob dramas in which lives of crime are sadly undone by the passage of time and the whims of history. Zhao Tao's performance is to Ash Is Purest White what Robert De Niro's performance is to The Irishman: the haunting culmination of a career-long collaboration.

The Souvenir and Marriage Story

Two near-perfect elegies for two beautifully imperfect couples, both rooted in personal experience. Joanna Hogg's The Souvenir, starring Honor Swinton Byrne and Tom Burke, is an exquisite portrait of the artist as a young London filmmaker. Noah Baumbach's Marriage Story, with Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, devastatingly anatomizes a relationship and the American divorce industry that helps tear it apart.

I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians and Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood

How should we memorialize the atrocities of the past — with scrupulous accuracy or wild reimagination? Radu Jude's thrillingly brainy drama, I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians, follows a Romanian theater director's attempt to draw public attention to their country's complicity in the Holocaust. Quentin Tarantino's deeply transporting Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywoodis a fairy tale of 1969 Los Angeles, complete with an ending so happy it hurts.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Little Women

Winner of best screenplay at the Cannes Film Festival, <em>Portrait of a Lady on Fire </em>stars Adèle Haenel and Noémie Merlant.
/ Neon
Winner of best screenplay at the Cannes Film Festival, Portrait of a Lady on Fire stars Adèle Haenel and Noémie Merlant.

The costume drama as corrective: Two 18th century French women are briefly freed to make art and love in Céline Sciamma's Portrait of a Lady on Fire, while Greta Gerwig's vital new adaptation of Little Womenlovingly reshapes a beloved text. Both movies are fiercely intelligent, swooningly romantic and passionately opposed to the inequities that female artists face in every era.

Long Day's Journey Into Night and An Elephant Sitting Still

Two stunning works by two of the brightest new talents in Chinese filmmaking, one of them sadly no longer with us. Hu Bo died shortly before the 2018 festival premiere of An Elephant Sitting Still, a bleak roundelay of lives intersecting in contemporary northern China. In contrast with that picture's stark realism, Bi Gan's Long Day's Journey Into Night (no relation to Eugene O'Neill) is pure romantic dream, with an hourlong tracking shot that ranks among the year's great technical and emotional achievements.

High Life and A Hidden Life

Similar titles but very different movies about an outcast's lonely voyage into the unknown. Claire Denis' High Life is a hypnotically strange story of survival and sexual transgression in outer space; Terrence Malick's more grounded A Hidden Life tells the story of a World War II conscientious objector whose fight against fascism offers invaluable lessons for our own.

Synonyms and Transit

<em>Synonyms</em>, starring Tom Mercier, took home the 2019 Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival.
/ Kino Lorber
Kino Lorber
Synonyms, starring Tom Mercier, took home the 2019 Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival.

Two movies about what it means to be a man without a country. Synonyms is Nadav Lapid's furious, formally explosive portrait of a young ex-soldier forsaking his Israeli identity for a French one, while Transit is Christian Petzold's hauntingly restrained drama about a migrant crisis that could be happening anytime, anywhere.

Give Me Liberty and By the Grace of God

The ensemble movie first as big-hearted farce, then as somberly affecting drama. Kirill Mikhanovsky's Give Me Liberty spends a hilarious, heartbreaking day in the life of a Russian American man as he drives a medical transport van around Milwaukee. François Ozon's By the Grace of God dramatizes a real-life Catholic sex-abuse scandal in Lyon with cool procedural intelligence: The horror may be collective, but the scars are devastatingly unique.

Her Smell and Uncut Gems

Spinning brilliantly out of control: Elisabeth Moss and Adam Sandler give two of the year's most ferociously sustained performances, respectively, in Alex Ross Perry's bravura backstage psychodrama, Her Smell, and Josh and Benny Safdie's diamond-hard dark comedy, Uncut Gems.

Five favorite documentaries: American Factory, Black Mother, Honeyland, One Child Nation, What You Gonna Do When the World's on Fire?

Copyright 2020 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Justin Chang
Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.