-A list of my favorite films of the year.
This has become a tradition every January/February for me to do some writing and end up ranking my favorite films of the year. Somehow, despite a barren first few months, 2019 really rounded into form during Oscar season, and I was able to compile a list of films I really enjoy.
Last year, I did an article around a month before I finalized my list with some recommended films that missed the cut but still stood out to me as some of the best. When you watch as many every year as I do, narrowing it down to twenty-five movies with some honorable mentions is very difficult. So, in order to do the same this year, I will start with just a quick alphabetical naming of some recommendations that missed the cut, then I’ll shout out some of the movies I never got to see, followed by the actual substance of the list (twenty-five films with some discussion of honorable mentions).
As usual, this list is merely a personal ranking of what I enjoyed the most. I try to take craft and filmmaking into account when deciphering my thoughts on movies I see, but this list will have a healthy mixture of prestige drama and genre films. If you’re a reader and think I missed one, let me know. I often look back at these years later and cringe at some of my choices, so I can be swayed.
Good Movies That Missed The Cut
Let’s start with the alphabetical listing of some shout-outs that I liked but didn’t do quite enough for me to really make it into final consideration:
Arctic, The Art of Self-Defense, Avengers: Endgame, Booksmart, Brittany Runs a Marathon, Dolemite is My Name, Fast Color, Her Smell, Honey Boy, Hustlers, Judy, Just Mercy, The Laundromat, Long Shot, Ma, The Mustang, The Nightingale, Ophelia, Paddleton, The Perfection, Ready or Not, The Report, Rocketman, Stockholm, Wild Rose
Notably, from the above, I really appreciated the epic finale of the MCU’s ten-year story with Avengers: Endgame, loved the performances from Eddie Murphy and Renee Zellweger in Dolemite is My Name and Judy, respectively, and also note that I thought Serenity was the best so-bad-it’s-good movie of the year.
Notable Movies I Missed This Year:
Now, when you live in the suburbs, there are scenarios where certain movies just don’t open in theaters near you, or if they do, they’re only present for a few days before moving on. I think it’s important to acknowledge where your knowledge is lacking, and so, here are ten movies that I really wanted to see, but didn’t get to last year:
Alfre Woodard was at the periphery of the Best Actress conversation, but Clemency was put in limited release on the very last day of the year. It never made it out to any of my theaters, but my understanding is that it really tackles the crises of over-incarceration and death row in a substantive manner. This movie won a jury prize at Sundance and has picked up some Gotham and Independent Spirit nominations.
In a year filled with stories of men reflecting on their past lives, some of which will certainly be mentioned on this list, Diane focuses its reflective energy on a motherly figure, played by the apparently extraordinary Mary Kay Place. This never made it out to me, but I’ve heard it’s among the best IFC films of the past several years.
I just have a bit of a blind spot when it comes to animated film, and although every year I say I will watch more of the international animated releases that garner great reviews stateside every year, as well as keep up with Disney and Universal, I just never do. I rather enjoyed the first Frozen, but just haven’t seen the second one. I’m sure I’ll play catch-up now that it’s on Disney+.
-A Hidden Life
While many film buffs have a love/hate relationship with director Terrence Malick, he, in my view, has never made a movie I haven’t liked. Both The Tree of Life and Badlands are among my favorite films. But, there was something about this release that really turned me off from a watchability standpoint, and so, in an end-of-year rush packed with so many deserving movies to see, I allowed myself to skip A Hidden Life despite some decent buzz.
With how much I loved the last two efforts from director Olivier Assayas with Clouds of Sils Maria and Personal Shopper, I really should have immediately rushed out to see Non-Fiction when it came out this year. This is a french-language meta-text in fiction, and perhaps no director is more prepared to take on such a project. It’s now streaming on Hulu, so I will definitely be watching it on a free night soon.
Director Mike Leigh is among the most lauded living filmmakers, and I didn’t get a chance to fully view his three-hour epic through Amazon about the British Peterloo massacre in the 1800s. I think it’s pretty easy to access on streaming, so my guess is that I’ll get to this one pretty soon. Reviews were a bit mixed, however.
-Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Through odd rules about how countries submit films for the Best Foreign Feature award at the Oscars, this movie is not on the Oscars shortlist despite being one of the most lauded international films of the year. It never opened near me, but it is widely considered to be among the best of LGBTQ cinema in 2019, so the wait for it to pop up on a streaming service has commenced.
Joanna Hogg’s semi-autobiographical film about her time in film school, starring both Honor Swinton Byrne and Tilda Swinton, focuses on a young woman’s ambition and the impact of a destructive relationship with an addict. By all accounts, it is among the best films of the year and was a huge boon for A24 when it garnered so much critical consensus. It never opened in a theater near me and remains in my Amazon streaming queue.
-Toy Story 4
You can pretty much cut-and-paste my explanation about why I didn’t see Frozen II for this movie. I enjoyed all three of the prior ‘Toy Story’ films, and everything I read about this one is that it continues the legacy. I’m sure I’ll get to it eventually.
This was my most-regretted omission from what I saw this year, as so many different critics that I really respect have praised the daylights out of this movie. It has the A24 label, a great cast, and a promising director in Trey Edward Shults, and it opened and closed out of theaters when I was on my honeymoon. I think there’s a narrative building that this movie deserved much more awards attention, and I’ll happily join the chorus of those complaining after I see it.
The Honorable Mentions:
-The Beach Bum
If you aren’t a fan of Harmony Korine’s style, The Beach Bum may evade your sensibilities, but I had such a good time watching the joyously destructive performance of Matthew McConaughey as Moondog that I ended up hanging on to this as one of my favorites all year. The full embracing of nihilism in this movie can be a little grating at times, but the equal and opposite reaction to being disgusted by the occasionally frivolous waste of time is to take to heart the message of living a little looser.
-The Dead Don’t Die
The Dead Don’t Die is another divisive pick, but I spent the entirety of Jim Jarmusch’s zombie dark-comedy rolling with laughter. Some of the humor is so obvious and unapologetically bland that the entire film has a really committed deadpan style. Adam Driver, Bill Murray, and Chloe Sevigny really embrace the flat delivery, and outside of a mildly pretentious ending that features a monotonous monologue by Tom Waits, this was a really fun time at the movies. It’s also immensely rewatchable.
-Ford v. Ferrari
Armed with Christian Bale literally in the driver’s seat, Ford v. Ferrari is a classic throwback to older American cinema, where our American characters are thrust into some international competition with foreign actors. There isn’t anything particularly substantive in this movie, outside of a pretty worthwhile father-son dynamic, but it does land plenty of really intense and well-directed racing sequences. I also think the small nods at these two creative friends (Matt Damon co-stars) opposing the corporate system give the film some timeliness despite its classic nature.
Director Sebastian Lelio (A Fantastic Woman, Disobedience) remakes his critically acclaimed Spanish-language film Gloria for American audiences with the Julianne Moore vehicle Gloria Bell. This movie wonderfully captures a middle-aged character in a time of wanting to be more social and less dependent on her children, and it really humanizes a type of lead that we rarely get in American cinema. Julianne Moore gives a committed and captivating performance, bolstered by solid supporting players like John Turturro and Brad Garrett. This is a movie that gets the small things right, from badly singing in the car to the type of loneliness she experiences. This is an ardent and positive expression from a good director.
-High Flying Bird
Perhaps this is a movie that is just completely in my wheelhouse, but the way High Flying Bird tells a sports movie story surrounded by this meta commentary on how to pitch alternative ways to watch sports in media was really a revelation. This is a movie that’s grounded in its own fact, deferring to the expertise and say-so of actual NBA players who appear as interviewees, but it also feels really modern and chalk-full of interesting commentary. In a year where Netflix’s release publicity is all about some of the higher awards contenders, this little movie by Steven Soderbergh (who I have a love/hate relationship with) stuck around since I saw it in February.
-The Last Black Man in San Francisco
This indie hit was one of the most humanizing but also folksy films of the year, focusing on the effects of gentrification. It tells the story of a character in his 20s with a desire to move back into his family’s ancestral home, taken from them with the rising tide of costs in the early aughts. Bolstered by two good central performances, a strong sense of community, and a good soundtrack, this was one of the early-year standouts.
Maybe once a year, a young filmmaker is able to present a very emotional and compelling look at the rural parts of this country that get less attention. Little Woods is partially a story about sisterhood, but it’s told through the lens of hardship, focusing on the lack of healthcare and job security in a small Dakota town. This movie is sometimes emotionally draining, but largely works to remind the audience of the plights facing smaller parts of our country and turns what normally would be more of a crime epic on its head.
-The Two Popes
I tend to enjoy a good fight about ideology, and The Two Popes accomplishes that and more by humanizing these figures and providing them with reasons for and against their eventual ascensions to the top of the Church. The performances are good and the conversations better, but it tends to become fairly forgettable after watching it. It seems like a fine, occasionally toothless exploration, and although insightful and well-presented, it’s often a bit too light to be considered up with the best films of the year.
Velvet Buzzsaw may have been a bit too odd and too meta-critical of the stereotypical critic, prompting a slew of mixed reviews for a movie I found to be bizarre and filled with energy. I really like what a lot of this cast does, especially Jake Gyllenhaal, under Dan Gilroy, and although it never crosses into being completely scary, it has enough really good commentary and trolling to be worth a mention in this article. It’s a nice 90 minutes on Netflix.
This movie is not always an easy watch, as we follow Olivia Wilde through her vigilante-revenge tale about domestic violence in a very up-close and personal way. We see the way her prior abuse has affected her body and posture, but we also see how she lashes out at new perpetrators, almost in a female-superhero kind-of way. There’s a ton of unresolved tension beneath the surface, and this ended up being a movie I thought a lot about during the year.
#25. Knives Out
Rian Johnson returns from the recesses of internet hell to direct a really fun, original whodonit mystery film with an excellent ensemble cast. The plot isn’t always super easy to follow, and it does suffer from some of the shortcomings of many mystery films by over-explaining things at the end, but I had fun through every twist and turn. It felt great to watch Ana de Armas’s Marta slowly get better and better at sticking it to the entitled members of the main family, and Chris Evans does a really nice job playing against type as a rebellious grandson. This is a type of movie rarely seen these days, and I’m glad it’s been so successful.
#24. Pain and Glory
Antonio Banderas stands out as Salvador Mallo in his triumphant return to collaborating with Spanish director Pedro Almodovar, this time as a famous director in his twilight years who has become a bit of a shut-in due to broken relationships and various physical ailments. It’s a movie that allows Salvador to make very human choices and reflect with nostalgia on his more formative years, resulting in a series of very effective flashback scenes. This is a beautiful movie, but it does drag in its pacing in a few moments.
Luce is a movie that plays with a lot of complex themes, stemming from the fallout of colonization and landing in the educational crises plaguing the country. It manages to tell the story of a teenager stuck between the idea of being an ethnic revolutionary or falling in line with stereotypical descriptors to rise his way to a nice college. Luce is a track star, an adopted immigrant, and a bright young man, but he also is fed up with the double standard presented to him versus his other black classmates. A tale that would normally support his rise turns him into a person of questionable character, and multiple people in this movie could be viewed as the villain. It doesn’t necessarily always nail the plotting, but this movie stuck with me after I saw it.
#22. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Helmed by rising director Marielle Heller (Can You Ever Forgive Me?), this film showcases a relationship that blossoms between Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks) and a journalist (Matthew Rhys) assigned to write a story about him. Albeit somewhat hokey and overtly inspirational at times, Hanks really captures the essence of Mr. Rogers in a sincere and charming way, carrying this film to being a really enjoyable and introspective watch despite its faults. It’s all a bit too perfect at times with the way Mr. Rogers influences the lives of people around him, but I do think that you can chalk this up to being a love letter to one of America’s greatest child entertainers.
#21. Uncut Gems
Uncut Gems is the kind of movie that will likely be toward the very top of some people’s lists, especially viewers who really relish in being ingrained within absurd tension for the entire run-time of a film. The Safdie Brothers have created a unique rhythm of constantly awaiting the tragic fall of this movie’s lead character, played by an uncharacteristic Adam Sandler. I really appreciated the way this movie spins its narrative and weaves in background characters who are really famous athletes or musicians, but it also was occasionally a bit too loud and busy for me. This film is a sensory experience, for good and for bad, and overall it’s a strong recommend for me despite some of my misgivings.
Although this garnered a little bit of controversy, I thought Bombshell was packed with great performances and took on the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace effectively enough to make the movie emotional and intelligent. Charlize Theron really transforms into Megyn Kelly, and although in a more background role, Nicole Kidman gives the film a steady presence as Gretchen Carlson. The real stand-out in the film is Margot Robbie as an amalgamation of different stories surrounding the Roger Ailes problem, and she really shows the slow emotional breakdown of being excited to begin a career to being full of resentment and pain. It’s not the type of script that will win any writing awards, but the performances and awareness of the situations keep the film lively and issue-oriented.
#19. The Peanut Butter Falcon
One of the indie hits of the year, and it deserves the credit. The Peanut Butter Falcon is a really good addition to the recent group of solid southern dramas and is also a really inspiring tale to cast a person with Down Syndrome, Zack Gottsagen, to actually play a version of himself in the film. This is a heart-warming movie about an unlikely friendship and features Shia LaBeouf’s best performance to date. A movie this saccharine rarely generates this much enthusiasm, but it was really well-executed and acted. The always-reliable Dakota Johnson is a welcome third star as well. Count me in for a southern drama with heart.
A divisive pick to make this list, I cannot completely write off how well-acted and well-shot Todd Phillips’s unlikely combination of early Scorsese and comic book fodder really is. Bolstered by a transformative Joaquin Phoenix, Joker checks all the boxes as a shocking movie that will leave its audience totally stunned. Although I am not convinced the movie does not represent and condone a rather violent perspective, I’m not willing to leave a movie off just because I may disagree with its messaging.
#17. The Farewell
Based originally on a This American Life podcast, The Farewell was an early season hit which showcased a very different set of cultural norms. Based on director Lulu Wang’s personal experience, this movie really understands the bonds and stresses of extended family and presents it through a culturally unique way that would not have a comparison to the United States. Zhao Shuzhen as the protagonist’s dying grandmother is a complete revelation in the supporting cast and may be the largest Oscar snub of the whole season. Its motifs are outwardly manifest, the cinematography is really good, and I’d really advocate for more films like The Farewell to become hits here in the States.
#16. Ad Astra
Ad Astra tells a fractured father-son story through a space odyssey traversing time and space. The action here is surprisingly good, the effects stunning, but the surprisingly subdued and focused Brad Pitt performance makes this movie pretty magnetic as we yearn to learn more about this character. Like any science fiction project, it disguises big ideas as scientific abnormalities, and it may occasionally lack for good pacing or structure, but I left the theater pretty happy with the final execution. This is one of the best science fiction pictures of the year.
#15. Jojo Rabbit
A timely satire about the dangers of Nazi-ism and blind nationalism couldn’t possibly be an important piece of 2019 cinema (sarcasm). Director-writer Taika Waititi has been hit-and-miss for me in the past, but in Jojo Rabbit, he totally nails the right balance of comedy and drama in this farcical, but surprisingly touching, WW2 film. Touching moments about the cost of war and the immense loss it entails let solid actors like Scarlett Johansson or Thomasin McKenzie to operate, while hilarity between random character actors like Sam Rockwell and Rebel Wilson consistently ensues. This is a difficult tightrope to walk on, but it’s mostly successful. I had a lot of fun with this one.
I understand that this is a weird pick to have this high on the list, especially considering all of the flack Gaspar Noe has gotten over the years, but if I’m being honest, Climax was probably the most shocking theater experience I had all year. It starts with a dance montage and ends with a literal house of horrors as our dance group becomes drugged with LSD and begins airing their secrets and grievances. It becomes so ugly but so technically grand, so gross but so physically enthralling. This movie isn’t for everyone, but it was really memorable.
#13. High Life
I can’t pretend to have Claire Denis’s filmography down like I do some of our more acclaimed U.S. directors, but if the rest of her work is as socially interesting and shocking as High Life, I’d be really interested. High Life is high-brow sci-fi, taking a prisoners-in-a-confined-location idea and mixing it with the concepts of procreation and the growth of life. It’s not always an easy watch, it’s mildly hallucinatory, but it represents the kind of science fiction that we should all root for more of. This was a movie I saw very early on in the year, and it stuck around my favorite films on this list.
#12. Spider-Man: Far From Home
Maybe I’ve just completely shot my credibility in the foot by putting a Marvel film this high, but I have to be honest: I saw Spider-Man: Far From Home multiple times in theaters and liked it more each time. I loved that they humanized Peter Parker again, I really appreciate casting Zendaya against type as M.J., and Jake Gyllenhaal is the world’s best over-acting super villain. He’s such a parody of himself in this that I just bow to the self-awareness. This movie is funny and engaging, a great time at the movies, and ends up being one of the best of the MCU.
#11. Official Secrets
Considering the current wave of U.S. unilateral military engagements, Official Secrets came at a great time in showcasing a reasonable person deciding to become a whistle blower and oppose the status quo. The legal aspects are interesting, if exaggerated, and the focus on the geopolitical appeal of this fight was handled very effectively. This inflamed my political sensibilities and also gave me an excuse to again defend Keira Knightley as one of the best living actors.
#10. Dark Waters
Although I have a very personal connection to the subject-matter of a lawyer making a choice to step away from corporate America, Dark Waters worked on a dramatic level not just because of its commitment to being a story about the underdog but because it showcases the need for courage in the face of waste and corruption. Based on a string of cases against the DuPont corporation for gaslighting the community over Teflon and other forever chemicals being released into local water supplies. Mark Ruffalo shines as the lead, and this movie, directed by acclaimed filmmaker Todd Haynes, lives in the nuance. Between this and Official Secrets, there were a couple really solid legal thrillers in 2019.
Some of the hype around 1917 was specifically because of the use of long takes to have the film cut together to look like a continuous shot, but it really does look incredible from the setting to the battle scenes. A bit free on character development and substance, it just shows the cost of war through a two-hour snapshot of the lead characters’ mission to warn another base about an upcoming trap in WWI. Some of the guest-star appearances are a fun add-in, and this movie was a really exciting addition to the canon of great American war films.
Last year’s best picture winner comes in at Number Eight, the excellently satirical and economically populist film by Bong Joon-ho. It completely nails the class dynamics, culminating in a flood scene that is pretty devastating as we watch our characters trek from the wealthy family’s home where they serve in gig capacities to their own tiny flat. It contains a commentary for everything, from blind worship of the more fortunate to showing the rot of late-stage capitalism. I may not have had as much of an emotional connection to the film as some, and thus, this will likely prompt complaints from people who think it clearly is the best film of 2019. However, the more time goes by, the more this movie rose on my list because of how important it is for its themes and for its inclusion in the public discourse. I’m excited for my second viewing.
Ari Aster’s follow-up to the cult hit Hereditary goes even darker, even as the film takes place entirely in the sunlight. After a family tragedy, the now fragile graduate student Dani (Florence Pugh) goes to a Swedish commune’s midsummer celebration with her boyfriend (Jack Reynor) and some of his classmates. It starts as a movie relishing in Dani’s pain but morphs into a study of a decaying relationship built on resentment and necessary reliance after a tragedy. The movie looks beautiful, occasionally simple but occasionally showcasing some really shocking and memorable imagery. It’s long, but it’s well worth the fiery finale.
#6. The Irishman
Martin Scorsese returns to his collaborations with Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci, adding Al Pacino into the fold, with a three-hour plus epic spanning several decades. DeNiro plays a trucker who slowly gets involved with a crime family (led by Pesci) and also has connections to Pacino’s Jimmy Hoffa, a corrupt Teamster union leader. It’s a meta-commentary on Scorsese’s career, culminating in DeNiro reflecting on his past mistakes, such as his crimes and the alienation of his family by his descent into darkness. We usually view nostalgia as positive, but this film questions the morality of loving the choices made by these larger-than-life characters. It’s long, but it’s so personal and intriguing that it is worth an entire afternoon to devote to this film.
#5. Little Women
Greta Gerwig’s fantastic reworking of the oft-adapted Little Women is among the most emotionally impacting films of the year, bolstered by an ensemble cast delivering terrific performances such as Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, Timothe Chalamet, and Laura Dern. It’s a movie that really understands family and provides a modern sensibility to women rebelling against the need for marriage or patriarchal oversight. The scenes taking place in March sisters’ drab home are filled with so much warmth, while the fast-forward scenes to adulthood are directed colder, bound with nostalgia and sacrifice. This movie deserves to be seen by all, and Greta Gerwig remains a bright talent as a director.
#4. The Lighthouse
While The Lighthouse may be ludicrous and not particularly accessible, the power struggle it depicts between Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson’s characters, set in backdrop of Greek mythology, is one of the most isolating, confounding, and darkly hysterical plot threads to appear in a movie this year. This movie is a frantic, disorienting, and punishing viewing experience, but it also resolves to be occasionally funny and ends in full-blown hysteria. I love the ideas the film explores, and, like with Ari Aster in Midsommar, completely announces Robert Eggers as a player in the game.
Jordan Peele’s capitalist critique of the United States set in the clone-filled horror film was not quite as widely beloved as his first film Get Out, but, driven by performances as legitimately frightening as Lupita Nyong’o’s, Us manages to be one of the smartest written and rewatchable films of the year. It lives partly in the material, but also contains a subtle disguise of what happens to someone after they elevate their circumstances. The villains seem purposefully armed with seamstress scissors and miner’s suits, a relic of industries past in late-stage capitalism. Many will feel that Parasite most effectively tells a story like this from 2019, and I don’t disagree, but there was something visceral about Us that I favor over almost anything I watched this year, from the excellent score to extremely memorable visuals.
#2. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Maybe they don’t make movies and adventure television the way they used to, but Quentin Tarantino’s Hollywood fairytale, a what-if the hippies and the Manson clan hadn’t had such a large impact, really affected me as I yearn for some of the older movies that went out of style. Led by an oddly vulnerable and terrific Leonardo DiCaprio, and further anchored by the best Brad Pitt has been in years, I loved all two-and-a-half-hours plus of this movie. It was funny, electric, ends in complete carnage, and takes its place toward to the top of an already acclaimed director’s filmography.
#1. Marriage Story
My #1 movie of the year was not a very tough decision, as Marriage Story completely floored me when I saw it back in the fall. The two central performances are so committed and feel so natural that it allows director Noah Baumbach to include long, winding scenes filled with dialogue without needing to cut. It completely nails the litigation aspect, completely nails the fractured family dynamic and how it affects their son, and ended up being a movie-watching experience that I will never forget. I found this movie to be so enthralling and well-presented enough to be a multi-Oscar winner, and I think it has definitely become underrated as some of the other noisier pictures picked up more acclaim. It might not be the most influential film or be remembered in the way Parasite or Once Upon a Time in Hollywood will be, but I think this is the best movie of the year start to finish. Every scene is emotional, consequential, and feels extremely lived in.