The Best Films of 2019
A great year in cinema which told more diverse stories than ever before
Every year film critics and fans alike come out with lists of their favorite films of the year. Often these lists are rankings. Each person putting one film after the other in an order that reflects their taste in movies. This naturally leads to movie fans arguing over who’s list features the right films and who’s ranking is most correct. While comparing and contrasting movies is an exercise that can yield interesting results, I’m not a fan of the way it causes factionalism in a culture who’s spirit is rooted in cooperation. Below I have listed my favorite films of 2019 in no particular order or ranking. Each one is a unique and incomparable story from a thrilling year of diverse and rich cinema.
As a note, I should mention some potentially great films that I have unfortunately not yet seen: Parasite, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Apollo 11, A Hidden Life, Her Smell, For Sama, and a whole host of other great films that I’m sure I am forgetting. Two thousand and nineteen was a great year, here’s to twenty twenty being even richer and more diverse.
Director/writer Rian Johnson gained a lot of attention for his previous film Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Whether you like The Last Jedi or not you have to acknowledge Johnson has an ability to create fresh takes on saturated genres. When it was announced that Johnson was doing a whodunit movie in the vein of an Agatha Christie novel, many were excited but curious about how Johnson would put a fresh spin on this very familiar genre. He ended up crafting a fun and hilarious murder mystery with all the tropes we love about the genre while putting a surpassingly topical and contemporary spin on it. With notable standout performances by Daniel Craig, who plays the very southern detective Benoit Blanc, and Ana de Armas (in a career best role), as the personal nurse to the murdered. The result is a very smart and endlessly fun piece of genre movie making that is rewatchable again and again.
One of the most saturated genres in movies is space/sci-fi. Each year we see a trailer for a new space movie that looks very existential and epic, but these films don’t always deliver. What’s great about Ad Astra is the fresh approach it takes with the genre. Often times the genre is about how everything above us is so much bigger and more important. If we could just reach the cosmos and beyond we could achieve some higher purpose or meaning in our lives. Director/co-writer James Grey and co-writer Ethan Gross subvert this genre convention by conveying to the audience that the most noble and human thing a person can do is look within themselves and to those they love. This combined with a tremendous lunar chase scene and a stellar performance by Brad Pitt, Ad Astra is a worthy addition to the genre.
Adam Sandler to many is know for his comedy, some good and some bad. What Sandler rarely does is Drama, but when he does he excels at it. From films like Punch-Drunk Love to The Meyerowitz Stories, Sandler proves how dynamic he can be as an actor. His latest performance as the overconfident Jeweler Howard Ratner is no exception. The directors/writers Josh Safdie and Benny Safdie really hit their stride with the 2017 film Good Time, which stared Robert Pattinson as the eternal fuckup Connie who’s always allowing himself to get in the way of his own progress. Here in Uncut Gems we see a very similar story with Howard. No matter how many times Howard gets ahead, he always doubles down and tries to score even bigger. His foolish ambitions create a very unpredictable life for himself and the others around him. This gives the tone of the film an unease that makes you feel like you are having one feature length panic attack. The great direction of the Safdie brothers and the nervous energy of Sandler yields a character study of a guy who can never really get out of his own way.
Coming of age films, with the exception of some few great ones, often feature heterosexual white males at their front. The purpose of a coming of age movie is to try and relate to the audience about how scary, silly, and confusing it is to grow up. The one problem with the genre is that people of the LGBTQ community and women never have many options to choose from, especially when it comes to comedic coming of age stories. With Booksmart director/co-writer Olivia Wilde gives us a hilarious and enduring story about a friendship between two girls (one lesbian) at the end of their high school education. Many of the scenes from this film feature some of the most honest moments of what it’s like to grow up queer. It’s a beautifully fresh take on a genre that’s been focused on the heteronormative perspective for most of its life.
This is a story about divorce. While divorce is often a story about the end of a relationship, not all are. Writer/director Noah Baumbach tells a very human story that is partially based on his own marriage and subsequent divorce. Baumbach directs each scene with erratic talent that is similar to that of a stage play. Characters move around their environment in such a way that each dialogue scene is impossible to be anything less than engaging. This combined with career best works by Scarlet Johansson and Adam Driver, Baumbach has arguably created his best and most personal work thus far. What Baumbach is doing here is showing a story of falling out of love yes, but also what can come after.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco
The first thing you notice when watching this movie is how personal it is. Not only to the filmmakers, but also how personal a story it is to the unique African American struggle. I’m white so I won’t pretend to understand or speak about that struggle. But this movie left me profoundly moved by the story of our main character Jimmie Fails. Jimmie’s journey is a story about a city he loves that doesn’t quite love him back. The gorgeous score by Emilie Mosseri is one of the years best and the camerawork by Adam Newport-Berra is gloriously indulgent and reminiscent of Wes Anderson’s style of filmmaking (only less comedic but just as romantic). In the end this is a story about increased gentrification of a city, the ghosts our parents create for us, and the impossible task of belonging in a home that doesn’t want you.
There have been many film adaptions of Louisa May Alcott’s novel throughout the years (notably the 1994 film directed by Gillian Armstrong). But none quite capture the proper soul and intention of the novel like Greta Gerwig’s Little Women. Many know Gerwig for her splendid 2017 film Lady Bird, which told the story of what it’s like to grow up as a young girl in Sacramento California during the early 2000s. Little Women does something similar, except it’s during the late 1800s. Women struggle enough in contemporary society but their hardships back in the 1860s were even more challenging. Even with the very serious themes of what women have to do to survive in a world dominated by men, Gerwig’s Little Women is exceptionally warm. Nothing this year captured the bond of family quite like watching Jo March (our main character played by Saoirse Ronan) spending time with her sisters under oil lanterns and candlelight.
Family can be difficult. What’s more difficult is having different families with completely different nationalities and cultures. Writer/director Lulu Wang tells the semi autobiographical story of what it’s like to be caught between two different cultures and not knowing where to belong. While simultaneously dealing with an impossible moral dilemma regarding someone you love. Wang’s script here is so damn smart and sensitive. Showing the difficulties of navigating the different viewpoints of different generations and cultures. At the emotional head of all of this is the musician and comedian Awkwafina, who is breathtakingly vulnerable in conveying the emotional intelligence of Wang’s script. Very rarely do you see a lead actor and writer/director so in sync. Similar to Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, these very serious topics don’t take away from the extreme amount of love and warmth that comes off of this movie. The interactions between characters is often heartbreaking, but just as often hilarious and comforting.
Writer/director Jordon Peele’s breakout 2017 film Get Out surprised many. The comedian and actor created something hauntingly relevant to so many African Americans. Here Peele continues on a relevant path with an even more action packed and heavy handed critique of Americas treatment of minorities. Each viewing draws more light onto a consistently satisfying metaphor. As intriguing as the movie is, it’s also terrifying. Most of that terror comes from an exceptional duel performance by Lupita Nyong’o as Adelaide Wilson and her frightful doppelgänger Red. Nyong’o somehow creates a unique and compelling antagonist while also being very scary, proving year after year that she is one of the greatest actors working today.
Martin Scorsese has one of the most diverse and exceptional body’s of work out of any director living or dead, often crafting stories in the gangster genre. Scorsese being the excellent director he is, never does the same thing twice. With The Irishman he puts a new spin on the gangster genre. While I would argue Scorsese never exactly romanticizes the characters of his gangster movies, The Irishman is a clear critique of the genre. We see what comes of a life full of violence and deception, the fruit of ones horrible labors. For the first time ever we have Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, and Robert DeNiro all in one movie. As three of the greatest actors of their generation, it’s quite something to see. Each gives fantastic performances that in tandem with Scorsese’s writing turns this 209 minute film, filled mostly with dialogue, into a riveting masterclass in filmmaking.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Audiences have come to expect what its like to watch a Quentin Tarantino movie. Typically they are in love with genre, extremely violent, and often feature characters on a grand adventure. While his latest film isn’t necessarily lacking those things, there is something different about this movie. Tarantino has easily crafted the sweetest and most lovely film of his career. The story mostly features characters just hanging out (with the incredible exception of the last 30 minutes of the film) while Tarantino gushes over the themes of 1969. But there is something awfully wonderful about that. Tarantino, maybe more than anyone else, loves movies and this movie allows us to bask in the glory of filmmaking. The movie also features the greatest platonic love story between two men in 2019. Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) and Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) are the best of friends and their chemistry is completely charming. With 2019 having two of the greatest living directors focus on the past, it was nice to have Scorsese focus on the melancholy of a genre and Tarantino to focus on the joy of a genre.
This movie is easily the wackiest and most far out movie on this list, and perhaps in all of 2019. Writer/director Robert Eggers who is known for his excellent horror flick debut The Witch, returns to create yet another wholly original and thoughtful work of art. The film centers on two lighthouse keepers, Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) and Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe). We watch their slow decent into madness, one moment bickering like a married couple, only to be dancing and drinking together at another moment. The parallels to Greek mythology are fascinating and rewarding if rewatched to notice the deeper symbolism. This feels like the characters both Pattinson and Dafoe were born to play, and oh boy do they play them to their fullest.