Well, ladies and gentlemen, we’re finally here. 2019 was a fantastic year for cinematic growth, both on the production front with numerous indie filmmakers debuting to glorious spotlight and blockbuster films just throwing it all up on the screen for out enjoyment, and on the critical front for myself and many others; I watched over 140 films this year alone, blowing my previous high of 72 out of the water. Many of those were foreign films, a few were documentaries, some I was actually able to see at early screenings so I could get a review out to you guys before the films’ releases, most I was able to actually watch in theaters, and I was able to actively seek out smaller movies (when I had access to them) that normally I might never have been able to see. It has been a truly astonishing journey on the whole. Throughout 2019, there were some incredible cinematic achievements, from Avengers: Endgame snagging the crown from Avatar as the highest-grossing movie of all time worldwide while also being a satisfying conclusion to a 22-movie grand story that never got straight-up bad, to Martin Scorsese getting back into the gangster sandbox so he could tell us the sand was poisonous, to DC finally finding its family-centric groove in Shazam!, to yet a fourth adaptation of a classic novel being received as perhaps the best ever undertaken, to leaps in animation and animated storytelling in Toy Story 4 and I Lost My Body. Alas, despite all of those wonderful things, and some late discoveries in my own viewing, like The Two Popes and the Netflix indie film Paddleton, which both stole my heart in the most unexpected ways, it comes down to me at the end of it all to declare which films were truly the absolute best of the entire year. With only 10 slots, leaving some of the honorable mentions off of this list was excruciatingly difficult, as I love all of them and would highly recommend checking them out if you haven’t already. As is stands, though, with only 10 slots come only 10 films to fill them, and now, it is finally time for this journey through the cinematic year of 2019 to come to an end. As happens every year, some things have shifted positions higher or lower, some things have dropped off the list just because of there only being 10 slots, and these are only my personal picks, so don’t expect only the most technically masterful films with the grandest stories and the most to say to live entirely at the top of the list; ratings don’t matter here, and neither does any of that (well, except as qualifiers to be considered for the list in the first place, anyway), hence the top films not being just completely stuffed with movies to which I gave 10/10 scores. Your list would probably look different than mine, and mine will look different than a lot of other people’s lists as well. And now, I think we’ve delayed this piece quite long enough. Here, at long last, and with great effort in the choosing, are my picks for the Top 10 Best Movies of 2019!
10. Toy Story 4
This and The Two Popes fought each other tooth-and-nail for this spot on the list, and the absence of the latter here does nothing to diminish its perfect performances or brilliant screenplay (in fact, if there were 11 spots, it would claim #11), but quality-wise, the fourth installment in Pixar’s banner franchise just squeaks by with the victory. It is astounding to me that Pixar even greenlit a new Toy Story sequel after the third film had wrapped things up so well for almost all of our favorite characters, and yet, when I saw Toy Story 4 for the first time, I could not hold back from falling deeply in love with it. The animation is beyond stunning, with every fine detail as crisp as can be, and whatever lighting engine Pixar is using for their films now is definitely one they’ll want to use again and again. The true pull of this story, however, besides it being easily the funniest of the whole bunch, is the relationship between Woody and new character Forky, and how it allows Woody to explore his internal struggles with no longer being the leader in his kids’ heart, whereas 3 dealt more in the external, as Andy’s departure from him in that film is literal, not symbolic. The vocal performances are magnificent (particularly Keanu Reeves as Canadian stuntman Duke Caboom and Tony Hale as Forky), the movie flows so quickly that you barely notice how fast the time has gone by, and the animation itself is so jaw-droppingly stunning, you won’t even bother to care about that time. Toy Story 3 may have bid a fond farewell to the original settings we know and love from these films, but it’s 4 that ultimately allows the main character that started the whole thing some sense of genuine closure on no longer being in the limelight, and offers its audience the privilege of getting to see that there’s always a new adventure out there – you just have to get out of your own way, and go find it. This is a film about belonging, and where one goes when they no longer belong somewhere, but are too scared to let go because that’s where they’ve always belonged. Pixar is no stranger to mature themes or symbolic meaning, but even I didn’t quite expect this.
9. The Lighthouse
Robert Eggers’ The Witch is one of my absolute favorite horror films of all time; his mastery of atmosphere, period dialogue, and scene geography, as well as his ability to pull the most perfect performances out of his actors in every single scene, are just a few of the things that leant to that film’s ultimate success as a critical darling, especially among indie and horror fans. So when it was announced that he would be making a new horror film in black and white, starring Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe, I got immensely excited. Here were two actors still climbing to the top of their peak ladders, and a director whose sensibilities in making movies would pair perfectly with his actors’ particular brand of performance in this story. And although I wasn’t quite as impressed with this movie as I was The Witch when it came out, I have been entirely unable to shake it from my mind. The now Oscar-nominated cinematography from DP Jarin Blaschke is remarkable, the score is haunting, and whole thing is filled with an acute sense of eeriness only Eggers has been able to pull off, so much so that many viewers of the film don’t think of it as horror; rather, they think of it as a psychological madness drama. It is both of those things, and a few others, but one thing it never is is boring, which is the highest danger one can run into when making a movie like this. The stark black and white gives the film a sheen of fatigue, as we’re seeing a very old picture book from the time period being opened, and the pages are turning themselves just soon enough so that we can’t stay too long on one for fear of ourselves going mad. Pattinson and Dafoe are perfect here, and while I do contend the latter did deserve a Supporting Actor nod at Oscars that I knew he’d never get, it takes two to tango, and Pattinson matches Dafoe step for step, sometimes almost out-performing him. It’s very difficult to describe The Lighthouse well to those who haven’t seen it due to its singular nature making it almost impossible to capture in words what one becomes witness to during the course of it, but so far as I’m concerned, Robert Eggers is two for two, and I can’t wait to see what he does next.
8. The Irishman
Martin Scorsese made a mob movie with Robert De Niro, an out-of-retirement Joe Pesci, and first-time collaborator Al Pacino. That really should be all the pitch anyone needs to at least be interested in this 3-and-a-half hour long epic, but the buck does not stop there. In all his years of directing, Martin Scorsese is known primarily as the guy who directed Goodfellas, arguably the greatest gangster movie of all time, but with The Irishman, he takes all his old gangster films that people have idolized for decades, and tells us all that none of that sort of lifestyle ends up being worth it in the end. You can “protect your family,” provide for them, and make a lot of money along the way, but in the end, what’s the use of all that if you never spend time with them and end up alone at the end of your life? With that in mind, it might be best to view The Irishman not as a gangster epic, but as an anti-mob tragedy. That life is never as glorious as it’s been depicted, and in fact, it will drain your soul so quickly that by the time you realize it’s time for heaven or hell to take it, there’s nothing left of it. At the end of it all, as Frank Sheeran is sitting in his death chair (in a brutally layered final shot), he’s forced to reckon with the question he kept running from each time he had the opportunity to walk away: was any of it even worth it? That is the point of The Irishman, and that is why it is on this list as one of the absolute best movies of the entire year. Also, how about that Joe Pesci performance, huh? Crazy good stuff.
7. Marriage Story
Saying I’ve never seen a Noah Baumbach film before is gonna get film Twitter jumping down my throat for the rest of time, but in the spirit of truth, I must admit that before Marriage Story, I never had. As such, I was completely unprepared for the raw honesty at the heart of his characters, for the ugliness that comes with divorce, even if it’s just between two people who decided they didn’t want to be together anymore that don’t hate each other’s guts. Baumbach hits a nerve with his brilliant screenplay here, displaying emotional struggles and the grey areas of divorce in ways most movies are afraid to touch, and yet he makes it work because at the end of the day, they don’t hate each other, and we don’t hate them, as a couple or individually. The central couple of Charlie and Nicole as played by both Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson are full of life and memory as the two actors deliver career-best performances, with Laura Dern coming in every couple of minutes to steal the show right out from under both of them. This movie is at points hilarious, at times heartbreaking, and sometimes hard to watch, but at all times, it is honest and real, and I haven’t seen another movie in 2019 even attempt going this raw with how ugly that honesty can be, or how emotional the simple act of tying one’s shoe can become when the dust of that ugliness is all settled and brushed away.
6. The Farewell
This was the first 10/10 I gave in 2019 after seeing it in a theater in Chicago, and for a very long time, nothing else came close to catching that rating. Lulu Wang’s directorial debut about a young New Yorker struggling with the cultural barriers between America and China as her grandmother develops cancer and can’t be told about it is easily one of the most stunningly directed, written, and acted films of 2019. Awkwafina delivers a career-best performance as Billi, as we see her trying to grieve without shedding a single tear, as she knows she’s not allowed to. She truly carries this movie’s soul to every place it needs to go, and I really would like to see her do more stuff like this, cause she’s insanely goo at it. The movie’s heart, though, to match its soul, is Zhao Shuzhen stealing the whole show as the heartwarming and hilarious Nai Nai, in a performance so strong, many Oscar predictions outlets still had it in their Supporting Actress predictions right up to the moment the nominations were announced. The film’s attempts to grapple with China’s method of not putting the emotional burden of death onto the person who is dying makes for a fantastic showcase of Wang’s ability to walk the tightrope of cultural struggle, especially as Billi may not be able to withstand the emotional burden she also carries of lying to her grandmother, with whom she shares a very close relationship. It is a true shame that this wonderful film received zero Oscar nominations, but that does nothing to diminish its power as one of the best of 2019.
5. Ford v Ferrari
James Mangold continues his great dad movie streak with Ford v Ferrari, a loud, fast, purely entertaining film from start to finish that’s two and a half hours long and (like the cars at its center) refuses to slow down. Both Matt Damon and Christian Bale give performances so natural, you could swear they’d been doing these jobs for years, the structure of the thing is just perfect, and the racing scenes are as frenetic and thrilling as any sports movie sequences have ever been, with sound design the like of which you’ve never heard quite this way before. These two friends that drive the story fight against corporate interest, blue-balling from the higher-ups, and blockage from just about every corner of the Ford Motor company on their way to making real art in the form of a motor vehicle capable of winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans against Ferrari, and the film’s perfect pacing means not a second of those non-racing sections ever drags. From top to bottom, this is just a damn good movie, directed, acted, and shot exceedingly well, and there’s not a single person I know that’s seen it that didn’t either like it or absolutely love it.
4. Knives Out
Knives Out is so. much. fun. Rian Johnson returned from his “defeat” after helming a billion dollar Star Wars movie that pushed the boundaries of what Star Wars could be, and delivered one of the best movies of the year in the form of a classic whodunnit murder mystery with performances that chew up every single scene. The stellar all-star cast all do remarkably good work, from Michael Shannon to Jamie Lee Curtis to Don Johnson, Toni Collette, and Christopher Plummer, but this movie truly belongs to Ana de Armas, Daniel Craig, and Chris Evans, especially those first two. Ana de Armas has been my girl since Blade Runner 2049 made her a superstar, and she absolutely crushes it here as the ostensible lead of the movie; she carries the comedy with ease and the more dramatic scenes with perfect precision, and it’s so wonderful to see her getting much more work now, as she’ll be appearing alongside Craig in the upcoming new Bond film, No Time to Die. The screenplay is as brilliant as could be, a love letter to immigrants’ goodness of heart that ends on a final shot so packed with power, Johnson might as well be flipping off any rich or white naysayers who dare to use them as pawns for their own purposes, and Ana de Armas as the physical embodiment of that is a stroke of genius. And speaking of Bond, I haven’t seen Daniel Craig have this much fun maybe ever. Sure, he got to do a similar riff on this character in the super underrated Logan Lucky, but here, he really gets to turn the dials up; you can tell he’s just immensely enjoying himself every second he’s on screen, and I’m so excited to be getting more Benoit Blanc movies in the near future, as a sequel/spin-off title has been greenlit. And of course, as mentioned above, Chris Evans in this movie is simply delightful. His performance in this movie as the asshole of the family (though Don Johnson certainly gives him a run for his money) is nothing short of delicious, matching Craig and Ana de Armas step for step. It can be hard to remember for anyone who hasn’t seen him as anything but Captain America for so long (and he does crush it in that role), but Chris Evans has a pretty broad range as an actor with the right material, and seeing him get to go so far in the opposite direction of his most iconic character is a real treat to witness. He kills it here, and so does his costume designer; tell me you don’t also want that cream colored cable-knit sweater in your collection. I could go on and on about this movie and how insanely good every bit of it is, the mystery itself, the layers you unpack on multiple viewings, how much fun it is to just sit back and watch these characters interact, how not a single performance is wasted or out of place, but we have the rest of the list to get to, so for now I’ll just say that while it’s still in theaters, see it with the largest audience you can find (that actually keeps their phones off and mouths shut). It is an unforgettable experience.
3. Little Women
This is the only movie on this list I didn’t get to do a full review for due to time constraints and just being too busy at the time, but believe me, I desperately wanted to immediately after seeing it. At first, this sat at #4 and then #5, and then #4 again, and now it’s climbed all the way to #3 on the sheer power of its emotion alone. Greta Gerwig has this uncanny ability to mine the most emotional parts of any given story without making them feel dishonest or in any way manufactured, and the brilliant, moving score by Alexandre Desplat does nothing to quell that emotionality. Gerwig’s ability to imbue natural human conversation into every scene without it feeling like she’s trying too hard is a wonder to behold, as everyone talks over each other, but no one says anything you can’t actually hear because of that; this world, this family, feels lived in, like real people we know and are familiar with, and it’s that familiarity which breaks our hearts when tragedy comes and makes them soar when triumph arrives. Gerwig also unpacks the nuances of leaving adolescence as a woman so carefully, you may not even realize what a miracle it is that every facet of life around Jo plays out through the three other sisters before she even gets to her big moment, and then seems forced to declare by circumstance that she doesn’t want to be thought of as fit only for love, but is so lonely in its absence that she can’t help but want some warmth around her again. This film is a masterwork of adaptation packed with performances so genuine, so sincere, you can’t help but fall in love with each and every character, moment, and musical motif, and though my memory of other film versions is fairly foggy, I feel confident that this is perhaps the best adaptation of the classic novel ever undertaken. There is no fat to trim here from the story, not a thing out of place, and not one single moment where I did not enjoy being with the March sisters, either individually or as a whole. If Gerwig is Scorsese, Saoirse Ronan is her De Niro (or DiCaprio), her muse, her ultimate super weapon, crushing it as Jo March as she crushed it playing Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson or Eilis from Brooklyn. She truly is a magnificent talent, and I feel like when she finally does win her Oscar, it will be seen as something long overdue, and we’ll all wonder why she didn’t receive one sooner. Florence Pugh, too, ends her banner year of 2019 with perhaps her best performance of all as Amy, stealing the show in almost every scene, and commanding sympathy, even in her most comedic moments. I could gush about Pugh’s ability as an actress for hours, but for now I’ll say that she is absolutely worthy of her Oscar nomination, and if Laura Dern by some ungodly injustice doesn’t win Best Supporting Actress, I’d be okay with her taking the stage instead. Little Women is a masterpiece as much as the next two movies on this list, but it is easily the best movie in the English language released this year, and the finest version of itself that it could ever be. Should Greta Gerwig have been nominated for Best Director? Probably. But the lack of a nomination does nothing to diminish the power and wonder of her film, and for many households, this is sure to become a Christmas-time classic.
2. Portrait of a Lady on Fire
There are only so many things one can wish for in life, but the ability to watch a particular movie again for the first time ever might top the list for me when it comes to Céline Sciamma’s French film, Portrait of a Lady on Fire. There was simply nothing I saw in 2019 that had the same quiet power, the same delicacy to its performances, its screenplay, the direction, the cinematography, editing, sound design, costumes – it all teeters on the brink of being too much or too little, but it never once strays to either side. This movie defies any soft of hard and fast definition; it is smooth, ever-changing yet constant, a perfect version of itself so exquisitely crafted, you could swear you were watching a painting develop right before your eyes. The performances of Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel are nothing short of miraculous, and the script allows those performances to say so much by doing so little. Every movement of the lip, twitch of the eye, all of it means something, and Merlant in particular embodies that sense of desire that can only be accompanied by fear, of what you might do with it or what it might do to you. Every single frame of this film is a portrait all its own, and it is this slow, methodical but free cinematography by DP Claire Mathon that grants this film the right to be called a work of art. It is truly a magnificent feat what Mathon and costume designer Dorothée Guiraud have wrought here, bringing so much meaning out of such simple images and a single green dress. Luàna Bajrami and Valeria Golino, also, do remarkable work as Sophie and the Countess, the former so delicate, one would think she could burst if squeezed too tightly, and the latter so firm but tragically unable to burst due to her circumstance, it would be futile to even try. Portrait of a Lady on Fire explores womanhood, place, time, purpose, art, love, and duty much in the same way that Little Women does, but whereas that movie is a little more explicit in its exploration of those themes due to both the popularity of its source material and the abundance of storylines meaning too much subtlety could be read as lack of development, this movie’s dedication to its own delicacy means those themes rise to the forefront all on their own, and the result is a graceful exploration rather than a full one. Perhaps we don’t get to explore every facet of all of those themes, but we don’t need to, because the mere introduction of them invites those facets to come to us, laid bare in their greetings but allowing us to choose whether to explore them ourselves or let the film do so one by one. It is truly a masterpiece, as perfect a film as was ever made, and as powerful a story as was ever told, packed with layers there for the uncovering, without ever having to tell one to uncover them or present more than the most basic elements of its own story for those elements to contain enough subtle but raw, honest power to make you have to simply sit there for a while after it’s all over. I could say even more about this movie, but I think the best way I can describe everything it is comes from my review: “Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a film of rare poise, its quiet power seeping into one’s soul, manifesting there in the same manner a lover’s kiss, placed just so upon the lips, moves subtly into one’s veins so that you would never dare to shake its warmth from your heart. In telling a story so simple, its complexities are laid bare by passion, Céline Sciamma has crafted the embodiment in film of the art which she seeks to elevate.”
When I first discovered that my local Cinemark theater would be playing Bong Joon Ho’s Palme d’Or-winning Parasite, I was unbelievably excited, especially with how many outlets were dubbing the film a masterpiece, how intriguing the trailer was, and the fact that my area doesn’t tend to get a whole lot of foreign films in the first place, so I now had the opportunity to see something in a theater that I thought I would never get the chance to watch until it hit home release. When I went in to see it, I was excited; here was now a film that many outlets were also projecting was a major Oscar contender outside of the International Feature category. And when I came out of it, I was raving about it to my co-workers for hours on end. Parasite is a masterpiece unlike anything you’ve ever seen, easily the best commentary on class separation and conflict since Titanic, and a little more precise at exploring that divide. Every performance in this film is operating at its peak, from So-dam Park and Kang-ho Song to Sun-kyun Lee and Yeo-jeong Jo, and literally everyone in between. The production design by Ha-jun Lee is some of the most beautiful of any movie this year, the cinematography by Kyung-pyo Hong operates with pitch-perfect precision as every frame drips with symbolism and symmetry, and the film editing by Jinmo Yang operates with so much of the same precision, it’s as if the film was sliced and diced by a professional chef. There is an entire 40 minute sequence in this film which starts with one family leaving to go camping and doesn’t stop in its increasing tension until after a rainstorm has consumed another family’s home (though I won’t spoil the context for those who haven’t seen it yet). Every minute of this film is engaging, and the central rug-pull behind it all is so bizarre but so utterly brilliant, the shock factor of how well it works after morphing into something totally different than what it was never wears off. And yet, even as it changes, the themes and characters never feel inconsistent or altered from their original forms; rather, they feel evolved, new, added to; each and every one of them is a fascinating character study, and all of them are perfectly performed using a masterful screenplay that goes in so many disparate directions, it’s a miracle it all ends up at the same place. There could not be a more perfect title for this movie than Parasite, which packs so much meaning into just one story, and Bong Joon Ho should feel so lucky that he gets to be on Earth at the same time as himself; Parasite truly is his masterpiece. This film is more than deserving of the 6 Oscar nominations it has received (5 of them outside of International Feature), and if I had it my way, I would hand it Best Picture tomorrow. I hope that many of you seek it out to see (it’ll be back in Cinemark theaters this weekend), and I am so happy and so excited to declare once and for all that Parasite is, without a doubt in my mind, full stop, no questions asked, the best movie of 2019.
And those are my picks for the Top 10 Best Movies of 2019! What are your favorite movies from last year? Anything else you think should be up here? Let me know in the comments section below, and come back soon as we dig into the movies of 2020, and which ones I’m looking forward to the most. Thanks for reading!
- The Friendly Film Fan
Honorable Mentions: 1917, American Factory, Apollo 11, The Art of Self-Defense, Avengers: Endgame, Booksmart, Brittany Runs a Marathon, Hustlers, I Lost My Body, Klaus, Knock Down the House, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, Paddleton, Pain and Glory, Rocketman, The Two Popes, Us