Top 25 Films of 2019
I know lots of critics bemoan the yearly requirement of making year end lists, but I love it. I keep my movies in lists constantly, and I use year end as an excuse to assess what my current feelings about films are after I’ve had some time to sit with them.
And yet, with my love of keeping things in lists, you’d think I’d have a better idea on what my lists mean. Is it my 25 favorite films of the year or the 25 films that I consider the objective best? Yes? It’s definitely some combination of the 2, but mostly it’s just a gut feeling. I place movies in their place on the list because that’s just what I feel.
One more thing before I get to the list, there are a handful of films that I didn’t get to see yet that very well may end up on this list. I’m going to be revisiting the list up through the Oscars and will be editing it as necessary. Anything that drops off the list will be added as an honorable mention instead of removing it.
And now, my Top 25 Films of 2019:
- 1917 (Sam Mendes)
The Oscar front-runner sneaks onto my year-end list based entirely on it’s beauty and craft. After finally breaking his 12-time cinematography Oscar losing streak with 2018’s Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villeneuve) Roger Deakins is almost guaranteed to win his second consecutive award. The entire sequence in Écoust-Saint-Mein is beyond beautiful with Deakins’s night photography taking center stage.
- Gloria Bell (Sebastián Lelio)
Full disclosure, I’ve not seen 2013’s Gloria also by Sebastián Lelio which this film is just an American remake of, but I don’t care; Gloria Bell deserves a slot in my year end list even if it is a remake. It’s so seldom that anyone creates a love story staring someone in their 50s. Watching Julianne Moore spend her evenings in L.A. dance clubs still searching for love when the rest of her life is solidly figured out puts a different emphasis on the story than a similar story about 20 somethings would have.
- A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (Marielle Heller)
This film was weirdly the hardest for me to place on the list. Part of me though it should clearly be in the top 10 while another part thought it didn’t belong on the list at all. I think that uncertainty reflects the film a lot. Like the character he portrays, the moments with Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers are frustratingly perfect. Similarly, the moments with just Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) are uneven and messy much like the character. I found myself wishing the film were more even, but I think the discrepancies are deliberate meta filmmaking. Only when Fred and Lloyd are together to their peculiarities balance each other.
- The Irishman (Martin Scorsese)
I have more problems with The Irishman than not, but it makes it onto my year end list regardless by its prowess in craft alone. De Niro, Pacino, Pesci, and Keitel all put in great performances throughout the 3.5-hour decade spanning film. The digital de-aging is done very well (the main exception being that a de-aged De Niro still fights like a much older De Niro). All in all, Scorsese is just exceptional at executing the story that he sets out to tell.
- The Lighthouse (Robert Eggers)
In 2015 Robert Eggers proved that he could create one of the scariest films of the decade despite everyone talking in old English with his debut feature The Witch. In 2019 he one-upped that by proving he could make a film completely bat-shit insane a critical success. I’m beating around the bush because I don’t really know how to talk about The Lighthouse. One thing I do want to call out is the 1.19:1 aspect ratio. By using such a tight aspect ratio, Eggers enhances the claustrophobia in the film significantly. Just one detail of a film from a director well versed in how to use his craft.
- Dolemite Is My Name (Craig Brewer)
Dolemite is My Name was written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski who’s previous writing credits includes Ed Wood (1994) and it shows. Both films are able to depict passion in their artistic protagonists, even when that passion is not accompanied by a similar level of skill. Eddie Murphy is dynamic in his return to big screen as Rudy Ray “Dolemite” Moore. The character gives Murphy plenty to play with in his signature verbose persona, but also allows him a chance to explore more emotional depth than many of his previous charters.
- The Edge of Democracy (Petra Costa)
The first of three of the Oscar nominees for best documentary, Petra Costa’s The Edge of Democracy follows the rise of fascism in Brazil and it’s overthrowing of a socialist driven party. The film provides context of how former president Lula founded the Worker’s Party and rose to power, but then focuses on the fallout of Operation Car Wash and Bolsonaro’s eventual election. A documentary without much in the way of long term hope, it brings important context to the rise of fascism that is plaguing the entire country.
- High Life (Claire Denis)
While everyone else’s favorite high-concept science fiction franchise came to an end this year (spoilers, Rise of Skywalker didn’t end up anywhere near this list) Claire Denis’s low-concept High Life was the only science fiction film to crack my year end list. High Life uses its science fiction setting to explore deeply personal human traits. Robert Pattinson’s struggle with isolation in deep space is emotional and resonates on a visceral level. Bonus points also award to High Life for shooting a scene with Juliette Binoche in a “fuckbox”.
- 3 Faces (Jafar Panahi)
The other film on my list that was a film festival exclusive, I at least have faith that 3 Faces will find distribution on Panahi’s name alone. Panahi’s most recent illegally made film once again casts itself as non-fiction with Panahi playing himself in hopes of subverting his film making ban. While Panahi is ever prevalent in the film, he instead focuses on 3 women Behnaz Jafari, Marziyeh Rezaei, and Maedeh Erteghaei all also playing themselves. The film questions the Iranian traditions that traps the two younger women, preventing them from living the life they would prefer, that Jafari exemplifies.
- Hustlers (Lorene Scafaria)
Yes, I put the film affectionately dubbed “Scorsese in Stilettos” above the actual Scorsese film. What of it? What heightens Hustlers above the likes of The Irishman and Scorsese films in general is Lorene Scafaria’s attention to character. Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez aren’t only depicted as bad ass criminals, but as humans. The scenes around Christmas where the women involved in the scheme celebrate together and act as family reflects a warmth in character that crime movies seldom possess.
- Honeyland (Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov)
Honeyland is a devastating documentary following Hatidze Muratova, a Macedonian bee keeper whose livelihood is threatened by greedy practices. The tragedy of the tale is that it’s not her greed that threatens her life, but that of her neighbor whom she befriended and taught her business. Honeyland is immersive in it’s portrayal of Muratova’s pastoral life. Her seemingly banal existence lends beauty to her circumstance, but proves all the more heartbreaking when capitalism’s evil takes it all away from her.
- I Lost My Body (Jérémy Clapin)
The only animated film to make my list, I Lost My Body stands far above its animated competition. A heartfelt story about Naoufel, a young man trying to find his way in the world with no family to speak of. The film is emotional and personal, but uses it animation to add a level of surrealism that couldn’t be mimicked in live-action. Be beauty of the film is paired with what might be one of the best scores of the year (all done by Dan Levy) to create a beautiful whole of a film.
- Booksmart (Olivia Wilde)
So much more than just Superbad (2007) but with young women, Booksmart is a brilliant depiction of regret at wasted opportunities and fear of change coming to a head at a major junction in one’s life. Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein) balance their comedy and tragedy well as leads, but Booksmart’s really strength lies in it’s supporting cast. Initially portraying all supporting roles as traditional teenage comedy tropes, the film spends time lingering on each one allowing them their own moments of humanity. This is exemplified no better than with Billie Lourd as the standout Gigi.
- Climax (Gaspar Noé)
I’m so glad I saw this movie in theaters. If you’re going to see it, make sure you see it somewhere very dark and with the volume very loud. Gaspar Noé is known for his provocative film making and Climax is no exception. With a basic storyline that members of a dance troop have their punch spiked with LSD at an after party, Noé does everything he can to recreate the sensation in his audience. Unsettling sounds, extreme camera movements, and ever escalating graphic imagery creates a crescendo of unease without reprieve for the 100-minute runtime.
- The Farewell (Lulu Wang)
Casting Awkwafina as lead in a dramatic film where a young woman struggles to say goodbye to her dying grandmother was certainly a gamble, but it proved to be one that paid off. Awkwafina proves she is more than just a comedian in Lulu Wang’s touching film, but still uses her comedic flare to impart some much-needed levity into the otherwise depressing premise. Lulu Wang grounds the emotion inherent in the premise just enough to keep it’s meaning while preventing the film from moving into the realm of melodrama.
- Uncut Gems (Benny and Josh Safdie)
This movie is a lot. The Safdie Brothers continue their habit of filling their films to the brim with stimuli in Uncut Gems. This stimuli-heavy direction works wonders with Adam Sandler’s manic acting. Sandler once again proves that when in the hands of a capable director is an excellent actor, and it’s arguable that in Uncut Gems, Sandler surpasses even his performance in Punch-Drunk Love (2002, Paul Thomas Anderson). Everything about this film just clicks under the speed and intensity of the Safdie Brothers’ direction.
- Her Smell (Alex Ross Perry)
The most displeasing film title of the year is one of the best films of the year. The entire purpose of the film is to allow Elisabeth Moss the chance to act her ass off and she succeeds. Moss stars as punk singer Becky Something who struggles to maintain her fame because of her own self-destructive behavior. The film centers exclusively on her through 5 scenes in her flailing career while she first loses control and then struggles to regain it. Alex Ross Perry has bemoaned his inability to put any money behind an Oscar campaign for Moss and her inevitable snub will be egregious as the success of this film is exclusively because of her.
- Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino)
As much as Tarantino has been a pillar of independent film over the past 25 years, in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, he has never been better. Tarantino has always been defined by his love for film (often depicted in homage) and his understanding of spectacle. In Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, Tarantino creates a spectacle laden love letter to classic Hollywood that also manages to tap into an understanding of character unseen in his films since Jackie Brown (1997). It’s because of this emphasis on Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt’s character that this film rises to the top of his oeuvre.
- Parasite (Bong Joon-ho)
While lower on my list than most you’ll probably see, that doesn’t mean I have any faults with Parasite. Bong Joon-ho uses his understanding of genre and its ability to depict reality to blur the lines between drama and genre. Bong Joon-Ho continues to explore how classism affects society, but instead of doing so with a giant CGI beast (Okja 2017) or on a class segregated train (Snowpiercer 2013) Parasite eschews that use of dystopian symbolism and grounds the classist discontent in reality. The Parks have everything while the Kims have nothing.
- Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Céline Sciamma)
Arguable whether this should be a 2019 or 2020 film, I’m putting it here. The obvious comparison for Portrait of a Lady on Fire is 2013’s Blue is the Warmest Color (Abdellatif Kechiche), and while an easy comparison that doesn’t make it any less valid. Both French films are stories of lesbian love featuring brilliant performances from their leads. What separates Portrait of a Lady on Fire is that it avoids falling into the male gaze trap of its counterpoint. Marianne (Noémie Merlant) and Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) still have sex, but instead of focusing on those moments, Sciamma instead lets the emotion and love between the women be enough in telling her beautiful story of forbidden love.
- Little Women (Greta Gerwig)
Greta Gerwig follows up her feature debut Lady Bird (2017) by proving that her directorial prowess wasn’t a fluke. Reuniting with stars Saoirse Ronan and Timothée Chalamet, Gerwig delivers another perfect film depicting the lives of young women. By abandoning the chronological framing of the books, she manages to merge the two volumes into one thematic whole rather than two differing stories. The two halves intertwine showing parallels between the eras and highlight traits inherent in the individual characters. Gerwig also manages to address my one major problem with Jo’s character brilliantly, but I won’t give away that spoiler.
- Pain and Glory (Pedro Almodóvar)
Almodóvar’s semi-autobiographical Pain and Glory is an emotional experience to behold. Perennial Almodóvar figure, Antonio Banderas portrays the director in a tumultuous stage of his career. Riddled with physical pain he is reunited with old friends and loved ones to remind him of his passion, and re-instill his will to live. The frequent flashbacks to his young childhood, featuring Penélope Cruz as the young version of his mother, provide context to the character’s demons and enhance the scenes in the present rather than distract.
- Marriage Story (Noah Baumbach)
Yes, the Gerwig-Baumbach household own a significant portion of my top 5. They deserve it. The film is Noah Baumbach’s love letter to Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage (1974), and he understands the purpose of the Swedish classic. Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson are both fully formed characters with individual passions and needs who I can genuinely believe once loved each other but have since fallen out of love. Their divorce is brutal but necessary. It takes its toll on both of them, yet both end up the better for it. Driver’s character beginning to understand this while impromptu singing “Being Alive” at a restaurant is the scene of the year and is just one of the many emotionally poignant moments the movie has to offer.
- For Sama (Waad Al-Kateab and Edward Watts)
Not only is For Sama the best documentary of the year, it’s one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen. The Oscars have nominated a documentary about the ongoing war in Syrian each year since the conflict began (they actually nominated two this year), but For Sama elevates itself almost entirely by it’s framing device. The titular Sama is the infant child of director Waad Al-Kateab. Waad and her husband Hamza are the heads of the last standing hospital in Aleppo, and the film follows their struggle balancing their personal need to help the people of the city they love and to protect their infant. Sama’s presence brings a sense of reality to the ongoing conflict, and the film left me visibly shaken.
- The Souvenir (Joanna Hogg)
This movie! I don’t know how to explain the artistic beauty that is this film. Incredibly personal, I felt intrusive just watching this semiautobiographical video memoir. The film is quiet and understated and I can’t possibly do it any justice. Honor Swinton Byrne is perfect in her first ever feature. Her depiction of uncertainty in a world that assumes she knows what she’s doing resonates intensely. Tilda Swinton (Honor’s real life mother) is perfect as always, and understands that it’s her job to support her daughter both as a character in the film and as a supporting actor. This film is just perfect in every way.
Alice (Josephine Mackerras)
Now for my one film that no one has seen because it’s not even officially been released. If Alice had a 2020 release date, I’d have punted it to next year’s list, but unfortunately the film currently has no release date at all. I was lucky enough to see this film at the Seattle International Film Festival and instantly fell in love. What could have been a story as old as time, Alice (Emilie Piponnier) finds herself in need of money and becomes an escort, is reclaimed with a decidedly feminist twist. Alice refutes the sexism that tells women they should be ashamed of ways they choose to use their body.
The Beach Bum (Harmony Korine)
I’m definitely more predisposed to be on the side of a Harmony Korine film than most (Spring Breakers was in my top 5 of 2013, and I think Gummo is an underappreciated masterpiece). If anything, The Beach Bum lost some points in my eyes as being Korine’s most approachable film to date. But even if the film lacks some of Korine’s more artistic flare, he and McConaughey combined to create a brilliant character study that fits well in Korine’s body of work.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco (Joe Talbot)
This film left me with so many questions. I had no idea how many of the surrealist moments were intentional, or if the entire film was one big surrealist fantasy. I do know that this film spoke to me on multiple levels. The anti-gentrification message spoke to me as a socialist, Jonathan Majors’s character resonated with me as someone constantly uneasy in public, and Joe Talbot’s direction moved me artistically.
Teen Spirit (Max Minghella)
I may be the only person with this film on her year end list, but I don’t care. This film was infinitely better than it had any right to be. In the year 2019 we have zero need for an American Idol commentary film, yet Teen Spirit just works. Much of why it works is because of Elle Fanning. Entrusting a 20 year old (at time of release) with an extremely personal character study is a recipe for disaster, but Fanning proves more than able. Her rendition of the best pop song of the decade (Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own”) doesn’t hurt my recommendation any either.
Queen & Slim (Melina Matsoukas)
If you’re looking for proof that melodrama isn’t a bad thing, look no further than Queen & Slim. Every moment of this film is heightened beyond reason. Every action is one of life or death for the titular characters either figuratively or literally. Jodie Turner-Smith and Daniel Kaluuya lean into the altered reality of the film and accept their transformation for Bonnie and Clyde proxies to resistance figureheads. The result is a film that is exaggerated beyond belief in the best possible way.