A beautiful year in the theatres: 2019’s finest

Michael O’Sullivan

THE WASHINGTON POST – Apparently, we really like documentaries at The Washington Post. Of the 17 films that we awarded our top rating in 2019 – four stars – roughly half were non-fiction films.

But along with those sometimes searing, sometimes transcendent stories of real life were just as many brilliant flights of the imagination: movies that moved us not with fact, but fiction that nevertheless told the truth about the world in which we live.

Here’s the full list of movies that merited our highest praise, on both side of the genre divide. Most of these titles are available on DVD or through streaming platforms.

63 UP

“As addictive as the best reality TV, but with the epic perspective of decades, not days, of observation, the (Up) films are a hybrid of the world’s second-longest running soap opera (next to General Hospital) and deep sociological field research.” – Michael O’Sullivan


“Unsullied by talking-head interviews, sentimental reminiscences and other interstitial distractions, Amazing Grace simply chronicles two incredible concerts, as (Aretha) Franklin, (James) Cleveland, the (Southern California Community) choir and the congregants seek fellowship and find transport and transcendence.” – Ann Hornaday


“Filmed with extraordinary attention to environmental detail and revealing human interactions, American Factory is that rare documentary that’s not only compelling in its content but a profound sensory pleasure, with its themes of transparency and reflection aptly captured by the sparkling sheets of glass and spotless machinery of the Fuyao plant, a visual backdrop echoed in the woodwinds that dominate Chad Cannon’s graceful musical score.” – Ann Hornaday

ABOVE & BELOW: Tom Hanks (R) and Matthew Rhys in ‘A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood’; Awkwafina in ‘The Farewell’; and Yeo-jeong Jo in ‘Parasite’. PHOTOS: THE WASHINGTON POST

British World War I soldiers in ‘They Shall Not Grow Old’
A scene from the documentary film ‘American Factory’
Duke Caboom (voice of Keanu Reeves) in ‘Toy Story 4’ and Chris Hemsworth as Thor in ‘Avengers: Endgame’


“The new movie, which centres on the efforts of Captain America (Chris Evans) and the remaining Avengers to implement a do-over – essentially rewinding the effects of Thanos’ snap – feels at once sad and deeply satisfying, complicated and surprisingly comic.

If many of us have grown up with the MCU, the films themselves have also grown more complex.” – Michael O’Sullivan


“The film’s finest scene – reminiscent of a similar moment in Won’t You Be My Neighbor? – is the work of a filmmaker of superb judgment and confidence, who knows exactly what her movie is about: not a cuddly figure from baby boomers’ collective past or the ‘emotional arc’ of a flawed protagonist, but those moments of grace – vagrant, unearned, numinous and liberating – that can turn everyday life into a miracle. In an era that seems fatally mired in fear, anger and mistrust, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood arrives as something more than a movie. It feels like an answered prayer.” – Ann Hornaday


“(Feras) Fayyad – who directed a team of cinematographers remotely when he was prevented from entering Ghouta himself – films The Cave with a grace and compositional sensitivity all the more impressive for being achieved under the most difficult circumstances.” – Ann Hornaday


“In this unsettling, formally slippery documentary, the entire notion of investigative documentary is turned on its head, as viewers are led down an increasingly vertiginous path to the mercenary underside of global realpolitik.

A cut-and-dried murder mystery that becomes a gnarly thicket of hegemonic ruthlessness, racism, shadowy cabals and a proudly unreliable narrator, this trippy junket to the dark side is ideally suited to our conspiracy-minded age.” – Ann Hornaday


“Known mostly as a comic actress and YouTube star, Awkwafina delivers a muted, subtly expressive performance in The Farewell, which possesses a generous helping of laughs, but never at the expense of the rueful tenderness at its core, a tonal balance that is skillfully maintained by a wonderful ensemble of mostly Chinese actors.” – Ann Hornaday


“But by the end of this absorbing, gracefully constructed and deeply moving documentary, (Nobel Prize-winning immunologist Jim Allison) will have audiences wanting to join the fan club and get the T-shirt.

This is a ‘just see it’ movie, as in: Forget flowery language, redundant synopsis, clever paraphrasing or hyperbolic praise. Just see the dang thing.” – Ann Hornaday


“Some movies tell you a story. Others invite you into a dream. The Last Black Man in San Francisco, an extraordinary debut from best friends and collaborators Jimmie Fails and Joe Talbot, obeys the intuitive rhythms of a reverie, leading viewers on a graceful journey through the collective memory of a city and the deeply personal aspirations of one of its dispossessed.” – Ann Hornaday


“There are other direct references to (Pedro) Almodóvar’s life, including his early education in a religious boarding school, where he was expected to one day become a priest, and his struggles to work while in pain. But the story of a mature artist looking simultaneously back on his life and ahead, to his mortality – an intimate, moving mediation that is at once deeply personal and universal – is in no way a straightforward autobiography of the 70-year-old filmmaker.” – Michael O’Sullivan


“In the second half of the movie Bong (Joon-Ho) twists his knife so deeply into this festering wound of class warfare that you begin to wonder if there can be any heroes in this story at all. Where the film lands on this train of thought is fully earned, even if the fervor with which Bong gets to that point threatens to sweep you away at times.” – Hau Chu


“There’s a bizarre love triangle at the centre of The Proposal, an odd and fascinating documentary by Jill Magid in which the filmmaker, a conceptual artist whose practice often addresses power structures, is both the storyteller and the story (or at least a huge chunk of it).

“In one corner of that love triangle is Luis Barragán, one of Mexico’s greatest architects and, since 1988, a dead person: one whose professional archive – or, rather, access to it – is the issue around which the film revolves.” – Michael O’Sullivan


“It’s an unexpectedly contemporary-feeling experience, in large part because of the way the faces on the screen seem to reflect those in the audience. Is it simply an effect of the colorisation, which reminds us how pink is the flesh of youth, and how red its blood? For whatever reason, They Shall Not Grow Old has the effect of a window that has never before been thrown open so wide.” – Michael O’Sullivan


“Between the exquisitely detailed antique store, full of perfectly rendered artefacts from a multitude of eras, and the gem-coloured richness of the carnival grounds, this is probably the most visually rich Toy Story film yet. Every dust mote, every linoleum scuff and porcelain glint has been crafted with breathtaking care.

The light work is particularly impressive in a movie that can shift with ease from the neon luridness of the midway to the delicate tracery of sunlight refracted through a stately retinue of chandeliers.” – Ann Hornaday


Waves is as exhilarating and terrifying as the roller-coaster ride of adolescence itself, plunging viewers into a world brimming with music and colour and movement and hair-trigger reflexes that feels exterior and interior at the same time.” – Ann Hornaday


“A sweet, stirring, and yet refreshingly unsentimental tale of a singer with ambition (and pipes to match), the movie Wild Rose is like the anti-A Star Is Born. Set in Glasgow, Scotland, and centering on a young single mother and ex-con who dreams of moving to Nashville to become a country singer, this small, glitz-free drama is a bracing counterpoint to that Oscar winner, which garnered several nominations, including one for its star, Lady Gaga.” – Michael O’Sullivan