Picking the best film of any year is a virtually impossible task. At the time I am writing this, there have been 15,669 films released in the calendar year of 2019. When I was fretting about not being able to see 1917 or Clemency for consideration of this list (I live in a smaller market so I have to wait for some releases if I missed an advance screening) I didn’t realize that I would still be about, oh, 15,400 short of seeing the entire year’s output even if I did get to see those pictures.
In one sense, this is a terrible thing, because I like to be as complete as possible. But it is also a great thing. Of the 250 films I watched in 2019, 190 were not from 2019. When you see a film truly doesn’t matter if it stirs in you an emotion, be it positive, negative, or a good hearty ‘meh’. So while I may not be able to truly encapsulate all of 2019 here for you, dear reader, I certainly did my best now and may get around to it eventually.
What you see below is a list of fifteen films. First are some films that deserve a mention even though that might not serve as the best of the best of 2019. Then, in reverse order, I present to you my Top 10 of the year. Compiling a list like this is difficult if only because personal taste interferes with historical and cultural impact. As a result, you might see some interesting choices.
In 2019, we saw the end of a mega-franchise’s uber-successful decade, two established filmmakers cementing their legacies and possibly ending their storied careers, and had wily newcomers and journeymen making strong impressions to shape the future of cinema. It was truly a wild and varied year. And if there is one thing I can guarantee you with this list it is this: you will likely disagree with me.
But that is what comments are for! Comment away! Curse my name! Sing my praises! Let’s discuss. I know the Midsommar fans on this very website may call for my firing for not including it on this list at all. But that’s the wonder of cinema: someone’s shoulder shrug is another person’s masterpiece. What a great year to talk about, no?
3 From Hell — Rob Zombie is certainly an acquired taste. But once you have acquired it, only smiles (and a few winces) occur. 3 From Hell is Zombie’s return to the Firefly clan, who we first met in House of 1000 Corpses and then in the cult classic The Devil’s Rejects. In this newest installment, we see how the Rejects survived the bloody end of their last film and their subsequent escape from prison and the eventual mayhem that would cause once they get across the border.
If House was a horror film and Rejects was a ’70s throwback then 3 From Hell is Zombie’s exploitation extravaganza. His ability to shock is still there but so is his ability to pay homage to the films he clearly loves. His take on the prison exploitation subgenre is particularly delicious with a can’t-miss appearance by Dee Wallace as a twisted prison warden that must be seen to be believed.
Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror — Xavier Burgin’s feature-length debut is a fascinating look into horror films from a black perspective. Pulling from a murderer’s row of interviewees, including academics (Tananarive Due, Ashlee Blackwell), actors (Tony Todd, Keith David), and filmmakers (Jordan Peele, Ernest R Dickerson) and many more, Horror Noire taps into a near-century of progressions, transgressions, and regressions for men and women of color in the complicated history of filmmaking.
A Hidden Life — Terrence Malick is back and amongst the expected long shots of people farming and clouds forming, you get a powerful tale of morality, frailty, and faith (or lack thereof). Malick never shies from going big (in The Tree of Life he compared ’50s family life to the creation of the damn universe!) and in A Hidden Life, he makes not only his characters but the audience itself, question the positives and negatives of morality and if there truly is a God. In the end, can you ask from more of a movie than to question your very existence?
All Is True — This one was mostly forgotten by critics and audiences but, to me, is Kenneth Branagh’s magnum opus as a director and an actor. And that is saying a lot since the multi-talented filmmaker has quite the storied history in both areas. All Is True focuses on Shakespeare’s final years at home after he essentially quit writing once his beloved Globe theater burned down. It features an incredible cameo by Ian McKellen and a nuanced script featuring family/gender dynamics on a realistic scale. With Shakespeare, there is the desire to perhaps go melodramatic, but Branagh finds just the right tone. It also doesn’t hurt that the makeup, costumes, and cinematography (by Zac Nicholson) is some of the best of the year.
Ford v Ferrari — I almost missed seeing this one in the theater but this racing/sports drama is such a hit that it was still playing in theaters, to a packed house, two months after release. And I’m glad I didn’t miss it. In any other year that doesn’t feature Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood, Ford v Ferrari would sweep awards season for its incredible craftsmanship in set design, costumes, cinematography, sound mixing, sound editing, and film editing.
But the drama isn’t bad either. Director James Mangold makes the acquired taste of motorsports exciting and tense. Plus the overall cast, which includes Matt Damon, Christian Bale (at his normal size with his normal voice), Josh Lucas, Jon Bernthal, Caitriona Balfe, and the always-excellent Tracy Letts is to-die-for. It might be a bit too predictable to make the Top 10 but you definitely shouldn’t miss it.
TOP 10 of 2019
10. Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood (Director: Quentin Tarantino; Columbia/Sony)
Tarantino’s most recent feature, his ninth and maybe his last, is a film I think about every day. Every. Single. Day. It sticks with you as most of Tarantino’s film do, of course, but mainly for the visual and audio experience of it all, not necessarily the plot or characters. And that is the reason why it has made the list but is at the bottom. For all of Tarantino’s wonderful accomplishments with period settings and pitch-perfect song and score selection, he still tends to meander around with side-quests, for lack of a better word, and to get characters worthy of our care on an emotional level (though they are pretty darn cool). This disconnect spoils some of the fun.
But not by much. I am not necessarily a huge Tarantino fan but I found myself in awe of a fully budgeted, fully unstoppable director given carte blanche to do whatever he wants. The positives surely outweigh the negatives and, in the end, I now have a film I can sit back and just think about every single day. Brad Pitt steals some of Leonardo DiCaprio’s thunder with his blunt and dry charisma but Margot Robbie is the true draw here. She embodies an entire era of ’60s joy that threatens to be destroyed by evil (in this case, the Manson Family).
9. The Irishman (Director: Martin Scorsese; Netflix)
At the beginning of 2019, my two most anticipated films were Avengers: Endgame and The Irishman. And while The Irishman is a fantastic film, and maybe Scorsese’s best in decades, it slowly fell down my list as the year went on as I started to forget details about the film and lost emotional love for the characters. It doesn’t necessarily cover new ground on the gangster drama but it isn’t also a retread of what Scorsese has done before; it is somewhere in the middle.
But since it is Scorsese, even a middle-of-the-road outing for him matches some director’s best work. And The Irishman is an impressive accomplishment on many levels. With essentially a blank-check, Scorsese has created an epic landscape that spans decades and generations (he reportedly filmed at over 110 locations) and had the power to bring Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, and Harvey Keitel into one damn picture!
Pesci is getting most of the acting praise but, to me, the film truly comes alive once Pacino makes his appearance. The actor has come under scrutiny in the last few decades for either phoning in performances or simply screaming through movies but his nuanced performance deserves all the Oscar love. There is one scene in particular (no spoilers) where Pacino takes in some information, processes it, realizes a change is imminent, and then reacts that only takes about two seconds of screentime and only takes place within his eyes that is the clincher for me.
Our website’s creator and editor-in-chief wrote a fantastic review of the film here.
8. Marriage Story (Director: Noah Baumbach; Netflix)
(Currently) the internet’s most meme-able film, in which acting experts of the Twitterverse offer their insights into the process, Marriage Story is one of those character-driven movies that is designed to basically pump out Oscar nominees, if not winners. And Marriage Story has the goods to deliver on that promise, with a compelling, realistic script and mega-watt performances from Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver, Laura Dern, Alan Alda, and Ray Liotta.
In the year of Scarlett, however, it is Driver who deserves the most praise. Noah Baumbach’s script wasn’t exactly meant to favor one side over the other but by positioning Driver’s character’s arc during the last half of the film, the audience can’t help but feel for him and take his side. And while Joaquin Phoenix gets a lot of love from the Oscar prognosticators out there, Driver singing Sondheim in a bar late at night should be enough to net him the gold. It certainly made this already great film even greater.
7. Jojo Rabbit (Director: Taika Waititi; Fox Searchlight)
Satire is a difficult thing to pull off but luckily we have director/actor Taika Waititi around to make it look easy. The man already gave a facelift to the “Marvel Method” of filmmaking with Thor: Ragnarok and returned in 2019 to allow us to “Make America Hate Nazis Again” with Jojo Rabbit. Jojo was the first (and only) film of 2019, and perhaps in a very long time, that I saw multiple times in theaters just so on subsequent visits I could see the audience react to portions they were not expecting.
Jojo Rabbit is the film America needs right now as the consequent-less Nazi behavior informed by our own leaders is rippling through our society at ever-increasing speeds. And while Waititi might not be quite as direct as Dead Kennedy’s “Nazi Punks Fuck Off”, its ability to subtly separate the humans from the monsters, even amongst the Nazi characters, is a balancing act that takes balls to pull off.
The film moves a few spots ahead of more high profile projects from more established directors mainly for the reason that none of those other films elicited a large gasp from me, followed by gushing tears, during a sold-out screening. Jojo Rabbit is certainly funny, but it also pulls at the heartstrings.
Fellow writer Hawk Ripjaw had a look at the film here.
6. Ad Astra (Director: James Gray; 20th Century Fox)
Very few films, or any media for that matter, have been able to capture the loneliness and the endless emptiness of space. We sometimes forget, on this terrestrial soil, that we are but one tiny speck in a larger universe. Thankfully, director James Gray hadn’t forgotten that and offered up one of the most chilling, but awe-inspiring, space adventures ever put to film with Ad Astra (which, in Latin, means “through hardships to the stars”).
Led by the cool-as-hell Brad Pitt (making his second appearance on this list), Ad Astra takes a page from Terrence Malick’s book by looking at life on a micro and macro scale. We can’t help but be drawn into Pitt’s personal struggles but also see how ridiculous they are when placed on the canvas of an unforgiving expanse of space.
With the exception of Star Trek: The Motion Picture and portions of the Ray Bradbury book The Illustrated Man, I’ve never felt in any media source how large our universe is and how inconsequential my role is in it. And while this may seem like a downer way to view a film, Gray manages to show the exquisite grandeur of space, despite its lack of care for you or me, in his near-masterpiece.
5. Booksmart (Director: Olivia Wilde; United Artists Releasing)
While on its face it appears to be a female version of a typical high school comedy, director Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart is a wildly (no pun intended) inventive comedy that not only turns the typical boys club on its head but also provides progressive and/or transformative stances on sexuality, gender roles, clique culture, academics, and friendship. In the end, you’ll still have someone drinking something untoward out of a Solo cup, sure, but you’ll also be crying at the film’s sometimes brutal honesty.
The film is commandingly owned by its cast, which includes the incredible duo of Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein, as well as the inimitable Billie Lourd as a spacy, but loyal, firecracker named Gigi. For a feature-length directorial debut, Wilde confidently inserts her own voice into the proceedings with marvelous sight gags and a smooth touch when it comes to music and score. If her next film is anything like Booksmart, we could be seeing the Jordan Peele-like rise of another young, vibrant director looking to change the culture of cinema.
4. Avengers: Endgame (Directors: Anthony and Joe Russo; Marvel Studios/Disney)
You can argue the cinematic legitimacy of the world’s highest-grossing franchise all day and probably convince absolutely no one that either side is in the right. Thus are the divisive times we live in. But one thing that can’t be denied is that Marvel Studios have spent the last decade spinning some of the most compelling storytelling webs in movie history with one sustained narrative that essentially culminates with Endgame.
Though not as good as the previous entry, Infinity War, Endgame gets bonus points for being such a surreal experience in the theater. I saw it opening night on the first showing with a packed house here in Phoenix and the crowd reaction…gasps, sobs, laughs, cheers…were louder than any local Arizona Cardinals game. To have that kind of communal experience with strangers on such a grand scale pays tribute to the power of emotional/meaningful cinema, not the opposite, as some suggest.
The fact that it was also able to meet up to its expectations in this aforementioned divisive era is stunning, as multiple characters and story arcs get the send-off fans wanted that also, somehow, someway, were justified dramatically. It is hard to satisfy story requirements with so much fan demand but Endgame pulled it off. Whether you love or loathe these films, Marvel did it. They pulled it off, and millions were in its embrace.
3. Us (Director: Jordan Peele, Universal)
Jordan Peele’s follow-up to the glorious Get Out might be centered in genre territory but is no less potent in its discussion of current political themes. In fact, layered under the tense surroundings and bloody goings-on, Us might be a more subtle approach to those themes than Get Out was. Peele himself dictated Get Out was a documentary while Us is simply a horror film but both genres of film offer insight into real issues. Like my #1 choice in this list, Us is a fantastic examination of class warfare and not one simply between white and black people.
But even if you strip all the subtext out and just look at the story as is, you have a best of the year performance from my favorite actress Lupita Nyong’o, who delivers not one but two complete, nuanced performances in Us. It is the highest honor to an actor to be told that you couldn’t tell it was the same person playing two roles and Nyong’o pulls that off here. And thanks to a twist ending, Us is endlessly rewatchable as Nyong’o’s character beats and performance choices seem even more brilliant when seen on a second or third watch.
Our staff had a roundtable discussion of the film which you can read here.
2. Uncut Gems (Directors: Benny and Josh Safdie; A24)
Much like my #4 choice on this list, Uncut Gems is just as much an experience as it is simply a movie to watch. But while Avengers: Endgame provides the joy, Uncut Gems delivers the dread with a pulse-poundingly tense narrative that never gives the audience a chance to breathe. Led by an Oscar-worthy performance from Adam Sandler (yes, Adam Sandler), Uncut Gems is that rare film that makes you physically feel the addictive chaos Sandler’s character sows.
Despite being a crime thriller, Uncut Gems is hardly violent and does not provide any cheap jump scares or subscribe to any thriller tropes. The film is, instead, a character-driven affair that makes the white knuckle intensity presented all the more complementary to the Safdie Brothers’ direction and Sandler’s amazing performance. And none of it feels like award bait either. This is a film that exists from talent and emotion alone. The awards attention, as well as Top 10 list positioning, is just a bonus.
1. Parasite (Director: Bong Joon-Ho; CJ Entertainment/Neon)
The year’s best film is also it’s strangest. Defying any type of genre classification, as it exists as satire, comedy, drama, horror, thriller, and mystery, if not more, Parasite takes the excitement of Avengers: Endgame and the dread of Uncut Gems and combines them into a cinematic experience like none I’ve ever had. It’s always good to see an audience member stand up at the end and go “what the hell was that” and then start to have a conversation with complete strangers about what they saw for more than half an hour.
In essence, Parasite will have you discussing what you saw with anyone and everyone because it can’t exist as simply a piece of fiction. I’ve used the word “experience” a lot in this list and Parasite is likely the most complete example of it as it touches on every nerve. I’m hard-pressed to find one film where I winced with agony, laughed a belly laugh, put my hand to my mouth in shock, and nearly wept from both tears of joy and sadness. Such is Parasite, whose title alone has multiple meanings: the experience of the year, if not the decade.