From one perspective, the year in cinema that was 2019 was a letdown. Massive flops, both critical and commercial, littered the Hollywood landscape. Even Disney, which had its most financially successful year on record, could be accused of running into a creative slump, with remakes and sequels winning out over more thoughtful original content.
And yet, for folks who see a lot of movies (like me), 2019 was easily the best year for film in recent memory. I would go so far as to say that it was my favorite year for film overall since I began this blog in 2012. Some of the industry’s most celebrate auteurs dropped new defining works (hello Tarantino, Malick, Scorsese and Baumbach), and I was consistently impressed with how many movies moved me or stunned me with their technical prowess (The Lighthouse and 1917 are two standouts on that front).
Sure, there were some disappointing films that didn’t live up to their potential, but I found a lot to like even in movies that weren’t technically great (It: Chapter Two and Godzilla: King of the Monsters are two of my greatest guilty pleasures of 2019). Overall, I’ve found so many movies this year that stretched the boundaries of what it means to make good art, and I was saddened putting together this year’s list to discover that so many wonderful movies did not have room in my top 10 or even my top 20.
2019 was truly a landmark year for cinema, and you will find not only my favorites of the year below, but also some of my favorites of the decade and perhaps even of all-time. Without further ado, here is my personal list of the top 10 films of 2019.
10. John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum
The latest and most vibrant evidence of the action movie as a true art form, this third film in Keanu Reeves’ increasingly popular action franchise is the best one yet. It’s a true stunner, with beautifully (and brutally) designed action sequences (hello horses!) along with a gripping story that continues to expand the intriguing mythos of this world of gentlemen assassins. I loved seeing more of Laurence Fishburne’s Bowery King, continuing the Matrix reunion we didn’t know we needed, and Asia Kate Dillon’s Adjudicator makes for an intimidating antagonist. Director Chad Stahelski is set to helm chapter 4 in 2021, and action afficionados like me are already counting down the days.
Jordan Peele’s stunning follow-up to his electric Get Out is a much more epic affair, using the horror genre as a backdrop for a larger examination of racial identity in America and the ways in which systems marginalize the already vulnerable. The fact that Us is so immensely satisfying as a pure genre exercise is icing on an already delicious cake. Anchored by Lupita Nyong’o’s stunning dual performance as both captive (Adelaide) and tormentor (Red), the film is a downright disturbing descent into madness. The theme of duality and doppelgangers is hammered home in a terrific twist that, while not making tremendous logical sense, serves to deepen the thoughtful themes and provocative questions. Peele has got a lot on his mind, and I am along for every disturbing and twisted minute.
8. Little Women
Greta Gerwig’s incessantly charming adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s often-filmed novel is a work of tremendous beauty, kindness and grace. Suffice it to say, these are traits we could use a lot more of. As a terrific actor herself, Gerwig pulls pretty incredible performances from her cast (including a never-better Saoirse Ronan, Laura Dern, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen and Timotee Chalamet), and her script is anchored by a deep reverence for the source material along with a modern feminist streak that infuses the story with an energetic sense of defiance over a woman’s perceived inability to choose what will become of her life.
This film left a huge smile on my face, and it will likely be the gold standard for a whole new generation of fans. I hope they treasure it as much as I do.
7. Apollo 11
Seeing Todd Douglas Miller’s arresting documentary in IMAX was a truly transformative experience. I’ve always loved space stories and the wonder they inspire and seeing never-before-released footage of Neil Armstrong and company’s legendary expedition to the moon was mind-blowing. It’s hard to imagine how some of this footage was even captured, but Miller does a great job of letting the images speak for themselves. There are no talking heads, no narration—just the infectious energy of a moment in history that changed how we see ourselves and our place in the universe. Apollo 11 is a living testament to the endless ingenuity and indefatigable hope of humanity and seeing actual color video footage of that first step onto the moon ranks among my favorite cinematic moments of the year.
6. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
I will readily admit that I am a Tarantino fanatic—I love the energy he brings to his projects, his passion for cinema that radiates out of every frame. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood contains many of the director’s hat tricks—historical revisionism, a vintage soundtrack, witty and profane dialogue, sudden bursts of graphic violence—but it is also tinged with a sense of tragedy and loss of innocence that bear the mark of a more mature filmmaker. The brilliance of the film is in the way those two sides of Tarantino are balanced—the hubris and the humanism, the provocateur and the ponderer.
It certainly helps that Tarantino has eked out some career-best performances from the likes of Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio and Margot Robbie, performances that help this charming and affable tale of the end of Hollywood’s golden era come magically to life. To me, it’s ultimately the small moments that make this movie so special, from the plethora of hilarious cameos to the conversations that unfold between friends over a couple of drinks.
And one more thing: some critics were not fans of the movie’s final act, which re-frames the Manson murders as a night of cathartic violence, rather than unbearable heartbreak. I found it to be shocking, funny, and, ultimately, moving, my favorite ending to any movie released this year. I never saw where Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was going next, and I imagine I will enjoy plumbing its depths for years to come.
5. The Irishman
Martin Scorsese is nothing short of a cinematic legend. Over his long career, he has crafted some of the most technically daring, profoundly moving and downright entertaining films of his generation. I am happy to consider one of his breakout films, Taxi Driver, as my all-time favorite film. All this to say, when I heard of the director making another gangster epic in the vein of Casino or Goodfellas, I assumed I knew what I was getting. But, as he ages, Scorsese finds new ways to keep surprising us, and The Irishman has as much in common with the director’s more spiritual works (Kundun, The Last Temptation of Christ, Silence) as it does his gangster flicks.
Make no mistake, this is still a top-tier mob movie. Steve Zaillian’s meaty script is rife with rich time-hopping moments charting the rise of union boss Jimmy Hoffa (a brilliant Al Pacino) and his eventual mysterious disappearance. The film is not a biopic, but instead uses the historical relationship between Hoffa and hitman Frank Sheeran (Robert DeNiro) as a jumping-off point for a rumination on the personal cost of a life of crime. Much like Clint Eastwood re-contextualized the westerns that made his career in Unforgiven, Scorsese seems to be reflecting on the legacy of a life lived for the purpose of taking life from others. At the end of the road is isolation and regret, as we see in a haunting final image that is seared into my memory. Yes, The Irishman may be long, but it is an uncommonly rich and rewarding tale, even in a career filled with them.
4. Avengers: Endgame
One of the biggest pop-culture moments of 2019 also produced one of its most emotional and satisfying movies. What Marvel has done with its cinematic universe is nothing short of legendary, and part of that success is owed to the film that caps it off. Endgame is a true stunner, an epic payoff that wraps up the main story thread of Marvel’s 20(+) film universe while also standing on its own as a great example of the way artistry can still be infused into big-budget blockbuster entertainment.
From its quiet and somber opening sequence, it’s clear that this is a different caliber of comic book superhero film. While the lengthy film (3 hours!) is full of generous humor and memorable character moments, the weight of what faces our heroes is conveyed with appropriate gravitas and even despair. But Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely’s script also satisfies on a pure story level, guiding us through delightful time-hopping adventures that leave plenty of space for most major characters to have their moment in the spotlight. And, in a year where “fan service” could be identified with laziness (I see you, Star Wars), here is a film that fleshed out that term to the best possible degree. It’s hard to imagine any fan of these characters or this decade-spanning series of movies being anything other than enthralled and moved by this power punch of a finale. Endgame stands out not only for what has come before it, but for being one of the best comic-based films of all time on its own merits.
3. A Hidden Life
I saw this film just a few days ago and was almost ready to write my list without it. As a gigantic fan of the films of Terrence Malick, I’m so glad I waited. No other film this year so stirred my emotions and my yearning to live a life of true calling and conviction. Easily Malick’s best film since his masterpiece The Tree of Life, the film is a somber meditation on the cost (and reward) of faithful Christian discipleship in a world consumed with turning a blind eye to evil. As Malick chronicles the true story of Austrian Franz (the underrated August Diehl) and his refusal to swear an oath of loyalty to Adolf Hitler during WWII, we see a deeply personal and moving example of how people of faith can engage in quiet, non-violent acts of disobedience in their struggle to render unto Caesar while still standing apart for the cause of Christ.
As a Christian, I’ve long championed the work of Terrence Malick as a prime example of how to integrate faith and art into modern cinema. The travesty of many “Christian” films is their desire to preach a message rather than use art to tell a story. The result is often artless and a poor imitation of the might and majesty the true love of Christ can engender in a human being. Malick doesn’t preach a message so much as bare his soul. His films are best experienced by letting them wash over you: everything from James Newton Howard’s gorgeous score to Jorg Widmer’s stunning cinematography is meant to be a sensory experience that lingers in the mind.
I’m willing to admit that this lengthy rumination on faith and courage could have been cut down a bit, but the film has a quiet momentum that builds to a powerful climax that had me weeping openly. It stands along the likes of Silence, Calvary, and First Reformed as a prime example that religious filmmaking can still look more like the Sistine Chapel than God’s Not Dead. And I say “Amen” to that.
2. Marriage Story
Writer/Director Noah Baumbach has always been a thoughtful examiner of the human condition, but I’ve felt his work to be more clinical than emotional. I’d say his films are often more interested in what makes people tick than in what brings passion to their lives. Throw all of those criticisms out the window with Marriage Story, because it is a warm, humanist miracle of a movie.
Baumbach’s chronicling of the disintegration of a marriage is devastating but also funny, trading in the idiosyncrasies of a shared life falling apart at the seams. We see moments of savagery and moments of great love. We see the ugliness of humanity alongside its indescribable beauty. We see the paradox that forgiving someone doesn’t mean you have to forget how they have hurt you.
Baumbach’s compassionate perspective is enhanced by truly mesmerizing lead performances from Adam Driver and Scarlett Johannsson as the couple in question, a struggling playwright and a breakout actress both suffering their own share of insecurities and egos. The truly stellar supporting cast includes Wallace Shawn, Laura Dern and Alan Alda in roles that will have you alternately wanting to pull your hair out and breathe a sigh of relief. Randy Newman’s sensitive score also heightens the emotions of the film considerably.
This is the kind of film that sinks its teeth in you from first frame to last. It’s not exactly a “fun” movie, but it has more moments of joy than the subject matter may suggest. Mostly, I am in awe of how Baumbach can treat each of his characters with such grace, patience and kindness. There is nary a false note or wasted moment in this truly great film.
Korean director Bong Joon Ho’s savage tale of the haves and the have-nots has been the obsession of cinephiles ever since it won the prestigious Palme D’or at the Cannes Film Festival. Allow me to join in the praises. “Instant classic” is not a phrase that should be thrown around lightly, but it’s the first that comes to mind when I think about this completely unpredictable, endlessly imaginative and technically brilliant satire.
One of the things that has drawn me to Joon Ho’s work is his passion for social justice and caring for the environment (see Snowpiercer, Okja, The Host). Here, he takes those themes to new levels of profundity and absurdity, as he mixes dark comedy and truly powerful ruminations on the relationship between poverty and opportunity. The Kim family represents the working class, with side hustles and get-rich-quick schemes abounding. The Park family represents the upper class of society—oblivious to the world around them and clueless (perhaps even hostile) to the suffering of those around them.
We would be remiss to call any of these people role models, filled as their story is with deception and struggles for power, but they are immensely sympathetic. This is apparent not only in how they are written, but in the performances. Terrific Korean actors such as Kang-ho Song, Sun-Kyun Lee and Yeo-jeong Jo help us to understand the plight of their characters through both their subtleties and their extremes.
Rarely has a film been so thoroughly unpredictable as this one. For a film to truly surprise you moment-by-moment—with its heart, its humor, its twists and its technical brilliance—is a rare thing indeed. Bong Joon Ho has used all the pleasures that cinema has to offer—haunting music, unforgettable imagery, astounding performances and brilliant plotting—to craft a picture that fires on every possible cylinder. Don’t let the subtitles scare you. As Joon Ho himself said when he accepted the Golden Globe for best Foreign Language Film, “Once you overcome the 1-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” Indeed, no English-language film (or film in any language) released this year was more amazing than this one.
Since I had such a hard time narrowing my list down to 10, here are my picks for the best films 11—20 I saw in 2019. Knives Out
11. Knives Out
12. The Farewell
14. Ad Astra
15. Just Mercy
16. Toy Story 4
17. The Lighthouse
18. The Peanut Butter Falcon
19. American Factory
20. The Art of Self-Defense
I saw a lot of movies this year, but there were still some blind spots. Here are the major ones:
For Sama, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Pain and Glory, The Wild Pear Tree, Honeyland, Ash is Purest White, Birds of Passage, Atlantics, Booksmart, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, Western Stars, Funan, Gloria Bell, Waves, High Life, The Nightingale, Brittany Runs a Marathon, Late Night, Honey Boy, Peterloo, Judy, Bombshell, Richard Jewell.