Was 2019 a good or bad year for movies? Who’s to say. Regardless of what the immediate outcome is at the Oscars in a few months, we won’t know for sure until years down the road. Although one immediately clear trend is the growing influence of world cinema in the states, thanks in large part to trendy distributors such as A24, Neon, and even Netflix that invested heavily in it, most notably with runaway hits The Farewell and Parasite. There’s no question that this movement has affected my favorites of the year.
The second half of this decade has been very kind to independent cinema, even though it feels like the world still revolves around Marvel from time to time. (Relax, I like Marvel too!) The influx of new, exciting voices has been greatly appreciated. Even though I refuse to make any sweeping judgments about 2019 in exchange for clicks, it certainly feels like the decade in film improved by the year. The last year of the decade brought some awesome films with it — many that I’m sure I’ll revisit over and over again.
Below are my choices for the best movies of 2019 with a heaping serving of honorable mentions. Because I’m far too indecisive to keep this article to just ten movies. As with any list, this is not set in stone. Every critic knows that no matter how hard you worked throughout the year, there are always gaps to fill. As I stated last year, there are three guarantees in life: death, taxes, and changes to end-of-the-year lists. Time changes our perceptions of many things, especially films. To paraphrase the opening credits of Adam McKay’s Vice: I did my fucking best.
Let’s get to it:
The “Very Solid Movies That Deserve Some Type of Recognition for Their Craft” Group
The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part
The Death of Dick Long
The “I Really, Really Like These Movies But There’s a Few Slightly Better Movies Out There” Group
I Lost My Body
The Last Black Man in San Francisco
The “Impossibly Tough Omissions that Might be in My Top 10 if You Asked Me Tomorrow” Group
Under the Silver Lake — An intensely imaginative movie that challenges everything from Hollywood’s treatment of women to meaning itself as all its disparate parts threatening to cave in on each other at all times. It’s messy, but one of the more interesting and puzzle-like movies of the year. Its construction begs for multiple viewings; with time, it may sneak higher up on my list.
Klaus — A new Christmas classic. Seriously, Klaus is so delightful.
The Irishman — Scorsese uses all his tricks to great effect in an epic that looks back on both his work and life. I imagine I’ll love this movie more as time passes. And no, it’s not too long.
Ad Astra — What can I say, Sad Pitt does a number on me.
Honeyland — One of the most humane movies of the year that deftly shows the delicate balance between man and nature.
Little Woods — Why is no one talking about Little Woods? I feel like I am the only one championing it and that needs to change. This is a top-tier movie for both Tessa Thompson and Lily James.
John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum — Keanu Reeves shoots people while riding a horse. What else could you possibly need in a movie?
Her Smell — Elisabeth Moss gives the female performance of the year in a movie that made me so anxious I had to pause it halfway through to catch my breath.
Scandalous: The Untold Story of the National Enquirer — A highly entertaining documentary that gets at the insidious creep of nationalism and sensationalism in journalism. In a lot of ways, it’s the most vital movie of the year.
Parasite — Aside from an epilogue that gets worse on every repeat viewing, Parasite is urgent, harrowing, and intoxicating on just about every level and as good as advertised.
Finally, let’s move on to the top ten:
Atlantics is a curious little genre-bender that bleeds stark naturalism together with the supernatural. The result: a crushing, atmospheric ghost story that feels all too real.
Much horror lurks on the outskirts of this Senegalese film, whether it be a looming tower built downtown that has shades of the Monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey or ghosts that take over the bodies of the living that aimlessly roam the hot, dusty streets. But Atlantics isn’t scary per se, more so haunting as it lingers in every which way. A melancholic sadness hovers above each individual in the region, especially our lead character Ada, who must endure the loss of her love, her freedom, and integrity in a social landscape where she must act passively above all else.
I may never have to watch Atlantics ever again for its sensations to stayed latched to me. But for many powerful films, once is enough.
#9: Apollo 11
An argument could be made that Apollo 11 was the best theater experience you could have had in 2019. I’m about to make that argument.
Director Todd Douglas Miller cuts footage of space, the control room, and everyday American life together for an always spaciously aware epic of a documentary. However, nothing was more awe-inspiring than seeing the Lunar Module’s descent to the moon’s surface from 50,000 feet up in space. In honestly documenting this incredible journey, Apollo 11 was the most proudly American experience I’ve had at the movies in some time.
It’s vital in more ways than one, as it was the result of a laborious preservation effort that saved and cleaned over 11,000 hours of never-before-seen footage of the moon landing. Kudos to you, Todd Douglas Miller and crew!
*To read the site’s full review of Apollo 11, please click here.
#8: The Beach Bum
I’m debating whether or not I should turn this website into a Beach Bum stan site. Stay tuned for updates on that front.
I will happily die on Beach Bum island as one of its most passionate defenders. Tossed aside as one-note, surface-level junk by many, The Beach Bum is destined to become a stoner favorite with Matthew McConaughey’s performance as Moondog, the titular character and connoisseur of all things pleasurable — which mostly boils down to him drinking gallons of PBR. (We can all relate.)
Harmony Korine’s signature blend of seedy characters and an offputtingly glamorized aesthetic is all over this film. Although The Beach Bum is also his most accessible film to date in a lot of ways. Korine never criticizes Moondog; he shoots him with a noticeable warmth and acceptance. In doing so, The Beach Bum is largely about a character whose happy ending occurred before the film started. In a way, Moondog has already found inner peace with his current lifestyle. He’s not going to change, and that’s precisely the point in what is strangely a deeply humane movie.
Not to mention that the film also has outrageous extended cameos from stars such as Jonah Hill, Zac Efron, Martin Lawrence, Snoop Dogg, and Jimmy Buffet as himself. Let Buffet’s “A Pirate Looks at Forty” wash over you, and prepare for some raucousness in the Florida Keys.
*To read the site’s full review of The Beach Bum, please click here.
From the very first shot of the picturesque, foggy mountainside in Colombia, I knew that Monos was a special one. From there, we descend into an abyss that is filled with nothing but animalistic rage and torment.
Monos follows a group of teenage guerilla soldiers, and you can imagine that it’s not exactly comfortable watching them separate further and further from their humanity. By the time we meet them, these young adults are 95% id, and that last 5% that isn’t is fading fast.
Alejandro Landes has complete control over this film, juxtaposing the beauty of nature with the hardening of the soul that takes much from Lord of the Flies. However, it’s Mica Levi’s harrowing score that wins the movie. Between Levi’s work in Monos and Under the Skin, she is quietly responsible for some of the most iconic, distinct scores of the decade. In Under the Skin, Levi’s use of almost cacophonous, disparate sounds set the stage for an unparalleled science fiction film. With Monos, the use of propulsive ramping underscores all the tension and rage that is at the forefront.
#6: High Life
Claire Denis’ English-language debut is a wild, harrowing journey into oblivion. In more ways than one, High Life is unrelenting, becoming more difficult by the second to handle on a visceral level, but also to parse through, as it deliberately obfuscates itself with circular editing while tackling ideas of humanity and existence as it follows a crew of prisoners getting closer to being consumed a black hole.
Between The Lighthouse and High Life, 2019 was another stellar year for Robert Pattinson, who is unquestionably one of the most interesting actors working today. In High Life, Pattison’s Monte is very tender and quiet as a prisoner that was cast off into space to take part in sexual experiments performed by the venerable Juliette Binoche. Some of my favorite scenes of the year are Monte caring for his baby daughter between performing his daily duties on the space barge, which include dumping dead bodies into the blank black void of space.
Binoche’s encounter with a machine iconically named ” the fuckbox” has and will continue to stir conversation, but it’s Denis’ call out to hope in High Life‘s final seconds that still has me ruminating over it to this day.
*To read the site’s review of High Life, please click here.
#5: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
For the most part, Quentin Tarantino’s movies are famous in the popular consciousness by redefining how cinema conveys the notion of something being “cool.” He’s also masterful at expressing the things that he loves, which is what Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is in a nutshell. He’ll never write his characters to say “I love you” or “you mean the world to me”, but you get that feeling by how he lovingly shoots late-1960s Los Angeles. In many ways, this is Tarantino’s most sentimental movie yet.
The power that Tarantino has accumulated from years of success in Hollywood certainly allowed this movie ample time to breath as it purposely meanders from scenes such as Brad Pitt’s now-iconic Cliff Booth relaxing with his dog Brandy and Margot Robbie’s angelic Sharon Tate out on the town…until Tarantino later blows the lid off the entire story with an incendiary final act that once again rewrites history.
Understandably, there are conversations to have about the ethics of how Tarantino brings everything together, though I do find a lot of the controversy overblown. Regardless, it’s a movie that shifts from iconic scene to iconic scene, each filled with iconic characters and rich meta-commentary on the industry. In my estimation, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is quietly climbing the ranks in Tarantino’s oeuvre, warts and all.
*To read the site’s full review of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, please click here.
#4: Portrait of a Lady on Fire
In a decade full of impassioned romances, Portrait of a Lady on Fire might be the best of them all. Céline Sciamma’s intimate late-1700s story is all about the “look” as Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is tasked with painting a portrait of Héloïse (Adéle Haenel) that is for Héloïse’s suitor in Milan that she has never met. Marianne must paint Héloïse in secret, as she has refused to sit for painters in protest of the marriage. Sciamma delicately focuses on the emotional gaze that two people in love develop for each other, with each more passionate than the last. Without an ounce of voyeurism that most likely would have been present if the movie had a male director, Portrait is overflowing with emotion, culminating in a final shot that calls back to Call Me By Your Name.
The subtle sound design and the breathtaking cinematography are also nothing short of masterful. With all due respect to the powerful Les Misérables, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is the best French movie of the year.
*To read the site’s full review of Portrait of a Lady on Fire, please click here.
#3: Little Women
You’re my hero, Greta Gerwig.
Little Women feels like a direct rebuttal to the general frustration with reboots and remakes that grew over the 2010s. Greta Gerwig’s remix of the classic Louisa May Alcott story is brimming with the joy and energy that many retellings lack by altering the structure of the story and letting the extremely talented cast play. My favorite moments in Little Women are what are normally the most mundane in movies: a group of actors in a room talking. I found so much enjoyment in watching some of the most talented actors we have lovingly argue, joke, and roll around on the floor together. Finding ways to bring out such excitement in any scene is quickly becoming Gerwig’s signature as a director.
The entire cast is sublime together, with Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, and Timothée Chalamet all acting as the standouts. It’s all in service of a movie that is utterly timeless. One that feels like part of the past and present in so many ways.
With Lady Bird and now Little Women, anything Great Gerwig touches should be appointment viewing.
#2: Marriage Story
While I’m quick to defend Noah Baumbach’s films, even I would admit that he tends to tell stories about terrible people that are the cinematic equivalents of “white people problems.” But not with Marriage Story. Noah Baumbach’s latest divorce movie is refreshingly honest, taking the best parts of Baumbach as a filmmaker and molding them into one, heartbreaking film.
Many of Marriage Story‘s extended scenes function like a play, which mirrors the work of the main characters played by Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson and also allows for plenty of opportunities for the two to show off their acting chops. Saying that Driver and Johansson are “good” in Marriage Story is the understatement of the year.
From soaring moments like Driver singing “Being Alive” to soul-crushing moments like Johansson explaining her inner turmoil to Laura Dern’s Nora Fanshaw, Marriage Story is an emotional roller coaster that is respectability balanced and immensely thoughtful.
*To read the site’s full review of Marriage Story, please click here.
#1: Uncut Gems
When it comes to making these lists, by the time you get to the #1 spot, it’s probably a choice that resonates with you deeply on a personal level. With that in mind, I still don’t understand how the Safdies raided my brain during my last fever dream and put everything I love into Uncut Gems. From a good Adam Sandler performance to great stunt casting to a New York crime story to even a 2012 playoff series between the Celtics and my beloved Sixers that still rips me apart, the Safdies crafted a rough, tough crime thriller that is the perfect mix of artistry and thrills. The memes are top-notch too.
Uncut Gems is Good Time, the Safdies’ last film, on steroids (with a dash of cocaine for good measure). Everything is turned up to the nth degree, especially Adam Sandler’s seminal turn as Howard Ratner, a scuzzy, irredeemable excuse of a person that is under more pressure than the gems themselves during their formations.
Never lost in the debauchery is a strong sense of morality, however, which is ultimately why I love Uncut Gems so much. Uncut Gems is never asking you to root for these people. Quite the opposite! These are terrible individuals, but the movie always knows that to be the case. One of the best moments I had in a theater this year was a clearly exasperated woman, who could not take the anxiety of Uncut Gems, blurting out, “That might have been the worst movie I’ve ever seen” in a fit of total revulsion. To that, I give a crisp chef’s kiss!
All hail the Safdies, the new kings of the New York crime thriller.
*To read the site’s full review of Uncut Gems, please click here.
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I think Pain and Glory is a pretty notable omission.
It’s right below the ones I included here! Banderas is outrageously good in it, but I have issues with it structurally — I find everything up until the play/reunion with his lover somewhat useless. The rest of the film is solid, if a bit obvious a lot of the time. I’d like to watch it again, however. Maybe it jumps up after that!
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