Mike’s Top Ten Films of 2019
We’re closing out a decade with this one. We’re ending the 2010s with my tenth annual Top Ten list. Can you believe that? I’ve been making these things for ten years. Which coincidentally matched up with the entire decade in film.
This year felt pretty underwhelming all throughout it. I know I say a version of that every year and it’s basically tradition for me to say that in this article. This year’s version means that, throughout the year, I was aware that I wasn’t liking stuff as strongly as I have in years past. Fortunately I did decide not to even consider this list until very late, so I didn’t do the thing I usually do of, “How am I gonna get ten films out of this?” This year was actually pretty easy for that. When I first started looking to do it, I came up with most of the list very quickly, and it turned out to be just one spot I had to put any sort of real consideration into.
The one thing I did notice was that I struggled to really figure out the lower tiers. There’s some stuff that went higher this year than it would have in other years just because there was so little for me to put above it. It felt like a much thinner year than others. But unlike other years, I do feel really confident about this list holding up over time. These are pretty consensus films for me, and it would surprise me to see more than one jump up and take the spot of some of the things on this list.
Overall, while it might be a bit top-heavy, and the year as a whole falls apart after the top 20-25, I do feel pretty good about this one and the cool stuff hidden inside it. So let’s get into this.
Here are my Top Ten Films of 2019:
This is one of the most intense emotional experiences I had this year. I didn’t expect it to end up in the top ten, but here we are.
Trey Edward Shults takes a huge leap forward in his development as a filmmaker, after Krisha and It Comes at Night, both sure-handed efforts. This is a film that is bold and promises greatness from its opening shot, a 360° revolving camera in between the two front seats of a car, driving down a Miami highway. It’s a breathtaking image, and the film only ascends from there.
There’s a power in not knowing what a film is about or where it’s going, especially when it’s not trying to be a plot-heavy film and is instead building its story through the lives of its characters. The film starts leisurely as the story of a family. You just get dropped into their lives and only really find a main character because the film decides to focus on them the most for a while. And you just become so invested in what you’re watching, even as things build and build to that incredibly emotional centerpiece sequence of the film. It’s a stunning piece of work that leaves you in awe. And then the film just completely shifts gears for its second half, which is equally wonderful.
The acting in the film is so wonderful, anchored by Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Taylor Russell, supported by Sterling K. Brown, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Alexa Demie and Lucas Hedges. The cast gives some of the best performances I’ve seen this year. and Shults really provides masterful direction.
I’m so surprised this went almost nowhere once it came out. I had such a visceral emotional reaction to this, I felt like it had to be something that others felt while seeing it. So I can only chalk it up to the fact that no one actually went to see it. Which means that this is destined to go down as one of the biggest hidden gems of this entire decade. Because man, what a movie this is.
9. Little Women
I wasn’t sure what exactly Greta Gerwig was gonna give us with her second film, but after Lady Bird and with this cast, I knew it would be good. And boy, did she not disappoint at all.
Little Women has been adapted for the screen a bunch. Though there are three previous major film adaptations before this one. The first is 1933, George Cukor directing and Katharine Hepburn starring as Jo. Then there’s 1949, with Mervyn LeRoy directing, June Allyson as Jo, Margaret O’Brien as Beth, Elizabeth Taylor as Amy and Janet Leigh as Meg. And then there’s 1994, Gillian Armstrong directing, Winona Ryder as Jo, Kirsten Dunst as Amy, Claire Danes as Beth and Christian Bale as Laurie. I love all of them, so I was sure I was gonna like this one. Especially with a cast of Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, Emma Watson, Eliza Scanlen, Timothée Chalamet, Laura Dern, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper and Tracy Letts.
I know it’s too soon to tell, but this feels like it’s gonna go down as the best of the Little Women adaptations. This one feels like it achieves so much more than just a great adaptation of a beloved novel. Greta Gerwig tells the story in a way to get across the message she wants to send, and it’s a beautiful piece of work all around. I love how she jumbles timelines, creating an atmosphere of family and sisterhood rather than telling a linear story of ‘this is what happens to them’. So you get the events of the novel without having the same old, “And then this happens and then this happens.”
The best part, though, is how Gerwig changes the ending, having her cake and eating it too, giving the ending people know and love for the book while also allowing Jo to maintain her independence and further the statement she wants to make. That statement is one of the most powerful things I’ve seen in a film this year and possibly even this decade, about being an artist — a female artist — in a world that is trying to hold you down, and discovering your self-worth and maintaining that worth even when you’re being told to compromise. It’s a bold statement that feels directed at all female filmmakers and all women in general. And it’s quite beautiful and is really the thing that turns this movie from a very good adaptation into a great and beautiful film. I am so glad to have this in my top ten.
8. Jojo Rabbit
Taika Waititi does it again. I loved his previous couple of films, starting with What We Do in the Shadows and then Hunt for the Wilderpeople. He, of course, blew up when he made Thor: Ragnarok, and took a stagnant franchise with a character that no one really cared about and turned him into one of the best characters in the entire Marvel universe. So when they announced his next movie was about a boy with Hitler as his imaginary friend — with Taika himself playing Hitler — I was all in and pretty much assumed the film would probably make this list. So it’s great to see that it was as good as its promise.
What I love about this film is how it manages to brilliantly thread the line between silly comedy and high drama. You expect comedy from Taika and you know it’s the Holocaust, so you know there’s gonna be drama. But it’s the way the film manages to weave expertly between both, turning from one to the other at a second’s notice at times. There’s one moment in the film where they pull the rug out from under you so quickly that you almost gasp for breath. It’s really hard for a film to pull off that moment — the one I always shout out is one in Rachel Getting Married, where a joyous family moment turns into one of pure heartbreak within seconds — and this one does manage to pull off that moment pretty spectacularly.
Roman Griffin Davis is tremendous as Jojo, and really has to carry the film on his shoulders for the majority of it, despite this being his first film. It’s very impressive work. Scarlett Johansson does a great job as his mother, and it’s the strength of her performance in the first half of the film that allows that moment I mentioned to work as well as it does. The real standout performance of the film, to me, is Thomasin McKenzie. She’s absolutely wonderful in a role that could have easily been more more of a ‘victim’ role. But instead she manages to bring such life and ferocity to her character that really elevates the film. Archie Yates is also really great as Jojo’s best friend, Sam Rockwell is hilarious as the inept commander, and Taika himself is just so funny as Hitler, which was going to be the case the minute he was cast in the role.
The real strength of the film is its heart. Making fun of Nazis is easy. Treating Hitler as a buffoon has been done for 80 years. Making a comedy set during the Holocaust, however, is not an easy feat to pull off, and the way this film does it is by being totally earnest and honest, and never once making light of the horrors that happened, but instead finding moments of joy in between all the horrors. And honestly, any film that ends with dancing is, in my book, just fine.
7. Motherless Brooklyn
Edward Norton has tried to make this movie for 20 years, and I’ve been following him trying to do so the entire time. I didn’t think he’d actually do it. And, while I’m not wholly surprised this is gonna go down as a massively underappreciated film, I did think that more people beside me would flock to it and call it one of the best movies of the year.
The book the film is based on is set in the 90s, giving it a bit of an ironic feel, sort of like Brick, taking the tenets of the detective story and setting it in the modern day. Norton, however, sets his story in the 50s, taking a Chinatown-view of New York and telling an under-reported story about the building of the city and the intrinsic racism that went into it. The major point of both the novel and the film is its central character, Lionel Essrog, a detective with Tourette’s, which of course is going to overshadow most things when talking about the film in the abstract. Norton’s performance is front and center in the beginning of the film and in its trailer, and I suspect that’s what turned some people off/made them think it wouldn’t be good, since even I had concerns that his stuttering and facial tics would overwhelm the film. But really, you settle into it pretty quickly, and soon its the mystery that takes over, with the usual colorful cast of characters and tense moments that make the genre great.
Mostly what I love about the movie is just how personal it all feels. Norton had a story he wanted to tell, and told it to the best of his ability, never once going for something that made himself look better at the disservice of his story. He makes something that feels low-key remarkable, gorgeously recreating 1950s New York without an overwhelming feel of CGI. You can tell when certain parts are, but it doesn’t feel like they hung their hat on it to create their environments. And the story always has these nice, juicy moments for all the other actors to shine. It’s a film that I feel is only going to get better as I go back to revisit it.
I wasn’t entirely sure what this film was going to be for the majority of the year, but — Sam Mendes, Roger Deakins, World War I — I was always 100% in on this all the way. And there was almost no way this wasn’t gonna make my top ten. And that was all before I found out that the film was being shot as if it were one single, continuous take, a la Birdman. Though fortunately, this one isn’t as concerned as that one is with masking the cuts. Which makes sense, as that one was theatrical and this one is a war piece.
The story is very simple, and based on the stories Mendes’ grandfather would tell to him growing up. Two soldiers have to go warn another company not to go forward with their planned attack because the enemy knows and is prepared for it. And that’s it. That’s the film. The beautiful trick, which may be a detriment if you ask some people, is that you don’t really engage with the main character for the majority of the film. You feel for him, because he’s your focal point, but it begins almost by random, settling on a soldier among a crowd and then having us/him be told, “You’ve got to go do this thing.” So you start to engage with him throughout the quest, as you see all the things happening to him, and it’s really only at the quest’s end when you start to engage with him as a human being. Which is a really bold and powerful choice.
There’s a bit of a video game level aspect to the story — once they finish one obstacle they move on to the next one — but it does allow for some really tremendous set pieces along the way, along with a gorgeous cinematographer’s dream in the middle of the film during a night sequence. Which, again, might be a little too obvious of a ‘descent into Hell’ metaphor for some, but I didn’t mind it.
This is a film that, I know, will not be liked by everyone. Some people don’t like World War I (I love it. Trenches are the shit). Some people don’t like war films. Some people won’t like the video game aspects of the story. Some people will think the one-take aspect is a gimmick and that’s really the only selling point of the film. Some people won’t like the lot of it. This is all for me, so this was almost a default choice for me as a top ten.
This movie is a masterpiece. You know you’ve stumbled onto something great when you can’t even explain why it’s great and can’t even pigeonhole it into a particular genre. And then you have all walks of people going to see it and excitedly telling their friends, “You gotta go see this!” And then they go, “Okay, what’s it about? And all you can respond with is, “I can’t really tell you, just you gotta go see it.”
And that’s what this movie is. It defies all genre, and the more you try to explain it, the more you give away all the great things inside it. My advice is to go in knowing as little as possible and just let the film surprise you. In the future I’ll feel comfortable talking more about it, once the secrets are out enough that it won’t ruin someone’s first viewing of the film. But now, I’d rather get the last of the stragglers who are hung up on the fact that it’s a foreign movie and are refusing to go see it.
What I really love about the film is how simple it is — it’s basically two sets: rich house, poor house. That’s really about it. They go to a few other locations, but by and large, it’s two locations, and it’s the juxtapositions between the two and the overlapping between the two that really make the film work. And, of course, all the little secrets we discover along the way. Also, that Mission: Impossible sequence in the house in the middle is just so great.
This is one of those films that is a consensus ‘best of the year’, and it’s so good that I don’t even feel guilt when recommending it to people. Because there hasn’t been a person I’ve known who’s seen this and not felt the same way about it once it was over.
4. Knives Out
Rian Johnson gets the last laugh on Star Wars. It’s funny that his worst film and the only one he’s made that’s divisive is his biggest film. Whenever he makes his own stuff, the films are always incredible. Of course, they never seem to catch the right amount of praise at the right time or make the kind of money they should, but they’re all just so amazing. Brick, The Brothers Bloom, Looper, and now this.
This is a straight up, old-fashioned murder mystery. Agatha Christie style. The entire film is set inside a house (essentially), and the plot is very straightforward, albeit twisty — someone got murdered, and a detective has come in to figure out whodunit. And the writing of the film is so good. Johnson somehow manages to not cheat and also basically tell you 90% of what happened within the first hour of the film and yet still find a way to maintain tension in the second half and still give you the ‘whodunit’ speech at the end. It’s a tremendous piece of work.
And of course, the cast. Standouts are Christopher Plummer, Ana de Armas and Daniel Craig. Everyone else is very good, but those three are the ones that most impressed me. Johnson’s direction is steady without being overly flashy so as to take away from his story. And the editing is absolutely top-notch. Pound for pound, this is one of the most watchable movies of the year, which is always my measuring stick for what the best stuff is. If I know I can put it on and just rewatch it whenever, that’s one of the best films and one that I liked the most. And this is for sure one of those films.
3. The Irishman
I saw this in theaters the first day it came out. And I sat through all three-and-a-half hours of it. And coming out, I knew I really liked the film, but I wasn’t sure if it was because I felt like I should like it, or if it was just really good, or if the answer was somewhere in between. So I decided to sit on it and let my feelings develop in the ensuing eight weeks between then and now. And I waited and rewatched the film a week ago in anticipation of this article. As you can see, I came out positively on it.
The real key for me with this was going to be how easily I could go back and rewatch it. It’s one thing to put this on and critique it that first time. “It’s too long;” “The pacing is too lax;” “They spend five minutes talking about fish;” “The movie goes on another 30 minutes after the big ‘scene’ happens.” It’s easy to pile on to the obvious complaints. But you know what? I sat with all those complaints for two months and made a bunch of jokes along with everyone else. But when I put this movie back on the second time… I wasn’t bored. I was completely invested and I went along with it the way I went along with all of Marty’s other ‘epic’ crime movies. Goodfellas, Casino… it was the same as those. You put it on, and you sit with it. And only Marty can make a movie like that.
I’ve said this before, and I feel like this will end up playing out — this feels like his Cheyenne Autumn. That was famously John Ford’s final western (not his final film). And this felt like Marty bringing the band (De Niro, Pesci, Keitel) back together for one last rodeo. One last big crime epic to end the story. And you feel it in this. That’s what the last act of this movie is about. Aging, regret. It’s treading similar ground as Scorsese’s earlier films, especially when he goes into his spiritual side, but never is it doing it from this age. And that’s what makes it feel of a piece with all his other gangster pictures.
It’s too easy to hate on or dismiss this movie. I think this one’s gonna hold up as a tremendous piece of work, which is impressive considering it basically never came out in theaters and has the de-aging going on, which didn’t feel like everyone was on board with/liked, even though I was perfectly fine with it (and even impressed by it at times). I really feel like this is a perfect epilogue to the gangster genre as made by Martin Scorsese.
2. Ford v Ferrari
This is old-fashioned moviemaking. This is the kind of movie they made in the 60s, 70s, 80s… it’s just watchable. It’s fun, it moves, the characters are great, the actors are big stars and it never hits a false note.
Even people who don’t care about car racing will get something out of this movie. Because really it’s the story of creative tension. I have a friend — Colin, you know him. He’s helped on stuff on here before — who is very much into all this stuff and knows the history. And he said the film really isn’t about Ford versus Ferrari. Which, in a way, it’s not. They simplify it for the title, but really it’s about Shelby and Miles versus Ford. Because, in the reality of things, when you really consider the companies of Ford and Ferrari, the plot of this movie would be like if the scrappy, upstart New York Yankees with their $300 million payroll managed to win the World Series against the small market team that spends no money that won the past few.
Really, to me, what this one is about is watching two creative people use a big company in order to make the perfect car and win a race. Because really what a lot of the film is — it’s Damon and Bale fighting against all sorts of bullshit nonsense from the corporate suits, who constantly have another stupid idea or regulation they want to impose on them. It’s kind of like how it feels for creatives when movies are made, and studio executives have another note that’s been passed through the committee and given after it’s gone through so many different hands it doesn’t make sense anymore.
But apart from all of that, it’s just a thrilling movie. The scenes are well-written, the characters all matter (even the usual ‘throwaway wife’ character has more agency in this movie than she usually would), the direction is incredible, the editing and sound design (as expected) are all tremendous, and the race scenes are thrilling. All the racing sequences have their own arc and their own development for the characters and overall plot. It’s a really well-put-together movie.
The strength of this one is how easy it is. It fits like a glove. This is the kind of movie you don’t see all that often anymore, even though it was commonplace in earlier decades. I spotted it immediately — this is the movie, out of almost all of these, that I’m gonna go back and just put on and watch and watch and watch. It’s that kind of movie, and those movies, to me, are worth their weight in gold.
1. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
It’s Quentin. No one should be surprised. Even though this is the one film of his I had the most reservations about going in, it’s rare for him not only to not make a top ten list, but not be real close to #1 every time. He’s had at least three of them for me, historically, if not four (though admittedly other things may have overtaken a few of them in the years since). So even though it felt rough and rocky getting here, there was almost no doubt this was gonna be the #1 for me this year.
It’s just a hangout film. That’s what makes it so great. You can just sit and live with the film and the music and the atmosphere and the characters, and it’s just wonderful. This is, in a way, the magnum opus of Quentin’s career. All the other stuff is amazing, and Pulp Fiction is a masterpiece and Kill Bill is amazing and Inglourious Basterds is up there too. But this one feels like it perfectly encapsulates everything about who Quentin is as a filmmaker and what his voice is as it pertains to his films.
DiCaprio and Pitt are just so good here. I could sit and watch them live their lives for hours. And everything else just fits in alongside wonderfully. All the little cameos and side stories and sequences he throws in for the two of them, all of which build to a narrative that sneaks up on you by the end. That’s what I really love about what he did. He wouldn’t have paid off the things he pays off in this in other films. And you really feel an arc of the characters. Well, namely DiCaprio. He, in particular, impressed me, because he does a lot of subtle things that for sure weren’t on the page that help round out his character much more than is already there. And Pitt is just wonderful. Everything he does in this movie is just perfect.
Mostly what I love about this movie is how easily I’ll be able to go back to it and just groove to the soundtrack and see those gorgeous shots of 1969 Los Angeles, which aren’t even done with CGI 90% of the time! They recreated it with signs and practical set dressing. What a magical movie, this is. And what a fitting #1 to end our decade with.
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11. Dolemite Is My Name — And fuckin’ up motherfuckers is my game! This movie is so great. All of the Scott and Larry movies are great, from Ed Wood to People vs. Larry Flynt to Man on the Moon to Big Eyes. They make such great biopics of people you wouldn’t expect to have biopics made about them. Who’d have expected Rudy Ray Moore’s story in making a blaxploitation film would be so funny and emotional and moving? And to get Eddie Murphy back on the screen in a meaningful role is also huge. This movie is just a joy from start to finish. Wall to wall great music, great performances, great writing, and just a wonderful message about following your dream and making things happen for you even when the world seems against you. I love this movie.
12. Freaks — This was the first movie I saw this year and it’s held up all throughout it as one of my absolute favorites. It’s still under the radar for most people. Of course, I won’t shut up about it, so chances are if you read any of the nonsense I write you at least have heard me do this before. But the public at large knows nothing about this movie. It’s a very low budget character piece that starts as a little drama/thriller inside a house, where you’re not quite sure what’s going on. And then after about 25 minutes, it goes outside the house, and becomes something else. And then it becomes something else and something after that. I didn’t know where this movie was going 20 minutes before it ended. And it ends up in a wildly different place from where it starts. And I got worried that it wouldn’t hold up for me the second time when I knew where it was going, but it did. I found myself even more excited as I watched it, going, “Oh, so that’s the tipoff to that…” It’s a really tremendous movie and one of the smartest written pieces of sci-fi I’ve seen in a long time.
13. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood — It’s Tom Hanks as Mr. Rogers. Or, take it back a step, even. It’s Mr. Rogers! How can you not love this movie? I know some people thought it was weird that they didn’t focus on Mr. Rogers as the main character, but you couldn’t possibly have pulled off that movie. The movie is best suited the way it is. Watch it again. It’ll grow on you. It’s a really tremendous story. Hanks, as expected, is wonderful here, and is probably the only person who could have played Rogers in a movie like this. The real standout, though, is Chris Cooper. He is wonderful here, and he’s gonna get no credit for the work he puts into this movie. Matthew Rhys, too. He’s the lead of the film, and has a really tricky part to play and pulls it off admirably. And he won’t get any credit for it. Marielle Heller really hits a home run with this one, especially coming off two really solid doubles in Diary of a Teenage Girl and Can You Ever Forgive Me. The documentary about Mr. Rogers was my #1 film when I posted this list last year, and this film is a beautiful companion piece to that one, that shows what a beautiful, beautiful soul that man was and the lasting legacy he’s left on the world through his actions and words.
14. The Nightingale — 2019 seems to be the year of the giant leap by filmmakers. We’ve had a couple of these so far, where there’s someone who made a movie I really liked, and then, rather than follow it up with something of a similar level or slightly better, they made something so much better that it made me go, “Oh, wow.” That’s Jennifer Kent. Her first film was The Babadook, and this is her second film. When I tell you what it’s about, it’s not gonna sound at all like something you might want to see. But trust me on this one. It is. It takes place in Tasmania and is about an Irish convict who is the victim of unspeakable violence and goes out for revenge on the soldier who did it. And holy shit. You want a revenge movie? This is a fucking revenge movie. Aisling Franciosi delivers one of the best performances of the year in this, and Jennifer Kent directs the absolute hell out of it. This is one of the true gems of this year and one of the absolute best movies of the year. Everyone should see this even if the period aspect sounds like it’s gonna scare you off. It’s wonderful.
15. Ad Astra — James Gray is one of those eternally underrated filmmakers. His movies are just so solid all the time and he never gets his proper due. This one is probably his best film (though he seems to be getting better every time out). It’s just wonderful space film that not only is epic in scope (it’s Heart of Darkness in space, but going after your own father instead of Kurtz) but also feels wonderfully grounded and realistic. This is the kind of future you might expect we’ll be in one way, with our giant space towers that can transmit to bases on other planets and shuttles that go back and forth to the moon. There’s something really restrained and beautiful about this film. And I suspect that people expecting big action might have been turned off by how cerebral this film is, and how it wasn’t trying to be one of those other films. Brad Pitt gives one of the best performances of his career in this (in a year where he gives another one of the best performances of his career), and it’s just a wonderful, wonderful film that feels like it’s not getting (or will get) its proper due for being as good as it is.
16. Dark Waters — The weirdest thing about this movie is that it’s a Todd Haynes movie. This is a dude that made Velvet Goldmine and I’m Not There and Carol and Far from Heaven. And here he is making a straightforward trial movie. It’s very weird. And yet, just like his other stuff, the movie’s great. This is literally a straight trial movie, with Mark Ruffalo as an attorney who takes on a case against DuPont, a company his firm normally represents in matters like this, because he finds evidence that they knowingly poisoned people and not only kept it quiet, but kept doing it because doing otherwise would have hurt profits. It’s not unlike the cigarette companies in The Insider. So most of the film is Ruffalo finding out more and more, meeting opposition along the way and eventually building his case. David vs. Goliath. It’s really good. And the fun little bonus easter egg is that DuPont is the family that started the wrestling team in Foxcatcher, so this is some weird cinematic revenge for Ruffalo against that family. Which is kinda nice too.
17. Avengers: Endgame — I’m the first one to give Marvel shit. Every single year. So let me be the first to praise them when they do something very right. To me, they’ve released a lot of fine, fun films and only a few really good ones. To me, the real good ones are: Iron Man, Guardians of the Galaxy, the first two Captain America films, the first Spider-Man, Ragnarok and this film. This film ties up every piece of the Marvel universe that came before it and ends the stories of almost all the original main cast of the Avengers. Of course, you need Infinity War for this film to work. And while I didn’t love Infinity War, what did I say last year? I’ll be okay with it if they stick the landing. And boy, did they stick the landing better than I ever thought they could. I’ve seen this movie about three times now (twice in full, once in segments), and it totally works. All the characters fell generally well-represented. They focus on their core group rather than trying to give everyone the proper time, and it feels like most of them get the endings they so greatly deserve. The film is really about the main bunch, but in the end, it’s Downey and Evans who are the anchors of the film. And their stories are the ones that dictate how this comes across. And they end those two really well. Everyone else is done well, but those two are done exceptionally well. And there’s really nothing I can complain about with this movie. They’ve pulled off one of the greatest feats in the history of cinema with this film. I’m eternally impressed.
18. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker — Honestly, as much as we all want to argue and talk about the things each film does or didn’t do that piss us off, they’re all fun. It’s space action. It’s characters we all know and a story we all generally like on some level. So I’m fine with this movie. Sure, it’s the weakest of the three, but all three are among my top 20 for their years just because I enjoy the universe and I don’t hold it sacred. So anything that annoyed me while watching it, I’ll forget about (until we do the Fun with Franchises article for it, of course *wink*), and I’ll just watch the movie and enjoy it for a piece of entertainment. So that’s why this goes here. It’s not trying to change the goddamn world. It’s people in spaceships fighting. It’s perfectly fine.
19. The Lighthouse — “Why’d ye spill yer beans, Tommy?” Robert Eggars. This is his second film after The Witch, which was a really nice surprise for me a few years ago. I saw that movie a year before it came out and couldn’t stop talking about it for the entire year until everyone else could see it too. And while that one felt like it was a tightly-controlled genre piece of building tension and hysteria, this one felt like it was gonna be weird. And man… is it weird. It’s so good. He said that his basis for this film was, “Bad things happen when two men are trapped inside a giant phallus.” And that’s just it. Robert Pattinson, Willem Dafoe, in a lighthouse, in black-and-white. It’s so great. It’s fucking bizarre, the performances are off-the-wall and perfect, and the direction is magnificent, and it’s so well-shot and lit that it could have been a silent movie. Of course, you want the insane sea captain speeches and farting and all that stuff, but visually, this could have been a silent movie. That’s how strong the direction is. I loved this. I loved everything about it.
20. Where’d You Go Bernadette — The year was a roller coaster ride for me and this film. I was really excited for this one going in, because I know how great Richard Linklater is and how his films always end up more solid than you think they’re going to be. And then it got pushed to the dead spot of the summer and the reviews were very mixed and it seemed like it wasn’t that great a movie. So I held off in seeing it and assumed it would disappoint me. And then I saw it and it was exactly the opposite. This movie was tremendous. I don’t know what everyone who didn’t like it was on about. This movie was terrific. Cate Blanchett gives one of the best performances of the year, and it’s this beautiful portrait of creative block and need to do something with one’s life. What I love most about it is how it takes its time getting to the ‘where’d you go’ portion of the film. Because it’s a larger portrait of this woman and how she gets to where she feels the need to ‘go’. I loved it. I’m not sure how much I can or want to recommend it to people, since I don’t know how likely other people are gonna be to share my opinion of this one, but what I can tell you is that I’ve now seen this movie twice and I really like it a lot and it remains one of my favorite films of this year.
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- The Aeronauts
- The Beach Bum
- Blinded by the Light
- The Farewell
- A Hidden Life
- In the Shadow of the Moon
- John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum
- Just Mercy
- Light of My Life
- Long Shot
- The Peanut Butter Falcon
- The Perfection
- Queen & Slim
- The Standoff at Sparrow Creek
- The Two Popes
- Toy Story 4
- Uncut Gems
In the Shadow of the Moon is one of my absolute favorite discoveries of 2019. I had zero idea of what I was getting with this going in and I loved it. The first act is a simple police drama — cops on the beat happen upon multiple murders that seems to have come from the same source, and spend the night tracking down this suspected serial killer. And then the rest of the film turns into this mystery sci-fi movie that’s just wonderful. I love having movies like this on my lists and get so excited when I can help other people discover them. Similarly, The Perfection is another crazy discovery from this year that I just love. Directed by Richard Shepherd, who gave us The Matador, The Hunting Party and Dom Hemingway (all wonderful hidden gems in their own right), it’s about a cellist (played by Allison Williams) who stops her study when her mother gets sick and returns ten years later to visit her old teacher and the student who took her place, now a famed performer. And… man, things get weird from there. The first 40 minutes of the movie are among the best I have ever seen. It gets even weirder and crazier after that, which may not be for everyone, but those first 40 minutes are so good. Booksmart is a great twist on the high school genre and a great debut by Olivia Wilde. Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever are tremendous and while the film doesn’t break new ground, it finds new shortcuts to get there that feel quite fresh. Just Mercy is a trial movie with Michael B. Jordan defending southern prisoners on death row, specifically Jamie Foxx, a man convicted of murder who clearly did not do it. It’s a strong film with good performances. And as I always say, trial movies are always interesting. A Hidden Life is Terrence Malick’s story of a pacifist farmer in Austria during World War II, who refuses to fight for Germany even though he knows it means his own death. Think A Man for All Seasons but directed by Terrence Malick. The Two Popes is a great two-hander with Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce. Hopkins plays Pope Benedict, who abdicated and Pryce plays Pope Francis, his eventual successor. It’s like The Queen in that it takes a historical event and shows you the behind the scenes conversations that had to have taken place in between the public moments. Both actors are really good in it.
The Farewell is the indie darling of the year, which Lulu Wang based on her own life and her own grandmother’s illness, which her family decided not to tell her about. 85% of the movie is in Cantonese and it’s absolutely incredible. Zhao Shuzhen and Awkwafina are particularly incredible in a film that makes you feel like you’re hanging around family at a relative’s house. It’s great. The Peanut Butter Falcon is one of those across-the-board charming movies. About a man with Down’s Syndrome who dreams of becoming a professional wrestler and escapes his living facility to go live out his dream. And so it’s him and Shia LaBeouf (and eventually Dakota Johnson) on this journey to go to a professional wrestling school. It’s hard not to enjoy this one. Toy Story 4 is an incredibly worthy continuation of the franchise that ties up Woody’s story quite beautifully and emotionally, an impressive feat considering how amazing 3 was. The Standoff at Sparrow Creek is a tense, single-location thriller with shades of Hitchcock. It’s about a group of militia men hiding out in a warehouse after a militia man shoots up a cop’s funeral and every officer in the state is looking for who did it. They discover that it was one of their own, so they spend the night figuring out which of them is the shooter. It’s great. The Aeronauts is an awesome balloon adventure with Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, him a scientist studying the atmosphere and altitude and her a daredevil pilot. They spend the majority of the film in a balloon 20,000+ feet in the air, and it’s so much fun. Long Shot is a very surprising rom com that was way better and more mature than I expected it to be. Jonathan Levine scores again with Charlize Theron and Seth Rogen as an unlikely couple, her Secretary of State and presumed presidential candidate and him a journalist she used to babysit who becomes her speechwriter. I really liked this one a lot. Piercing is Nicolas Pesce’s followup to The Eyes of My Mother (which is a really solid debut film), which is basically a grindhouse B movie. Adapted from a Ryu Murakami novel, it starts Christopher Abbott as a man with urges to kill his infant daughter, so he decides to go to a hotel and kill an unsuspecting prostitute (played by Mia Wasikowska). Only, when he actually tries to put his plan into motion… it doesn’t go quite as he expects. It’s like a B movie version of Phantom Thread.
Light of My Life is a post-apocalyptic two-hander drama written and directed by Casey Affleck, who stars with Anna Pniowsky as a man and his daughter in a world where almost all women have died in the wake of a virus. So now he travels around (like The Road), disguising his daughter as a boy and trying to keep her safe, which is becoming increasingly difficult as she approaches puberty. It’s a really strong film with great lead performances. Uncut Gems is the Safdie brothers’ followup to Good Time that is a great exercise in maintaining pace and tension, as it’s basically two hours of Adam Sandler constantly on the verge of losing everything and constantly trying to wiggle his way out of it. It’s really effective and features Sandler’s first real acting performance in a solid decade. Queen & Slim is a great debut by Melina Matsoukas, about a couple on the run after a traffic stop gone wrong. Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith are fantastic, as (again) is Bokeem Woodbine. Joker is a great distillation of the comic book drama into a 70s-style character piece. Joaquin Phoenix delivers an utterly committed performance and Todd Phillips steeps the movie in setting and atmosphere and provides a movie that breaks out of the comic book mold and just becomes a solid movie. Parabellum is the third John Wick movie, and it’s just as fun as all the others. Keanu Reeves murdering people for two hours. What’s not to like? Blinded by the Light is a lovely film about the power of Bruce Springsteen. It’s basically Bend It Like Beckham but with Springsteen instead of soccer, it’s about a Pakistani teenager in London in the 80s who discovers Springsteen’s music and uses it to overcome the racism in his city and his strict upbringing by his parents. It’s really charming and it’s got a lot of great Springsteen numbers in it. The Beach Bum is a wonderful, plotless film with Matthew McConaughey on various substances, making his way around southern Florida. It’s just a series of him getting into various shenanigans with a revolving door of cameos, and it’s so much fun.
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- The Art of Self-Defense
- Fast Color
- Fighting with My Family
- Honey Boy
- Jumanji: The Next Level
- The Last Black Man in San Francisco
- Les Misérables
- Marriage Story
- The Public
- Ready or Not
- The Report
- See You Yesterday
- The Souvenir
- Terminator: Dark Fate
Fast Color is a superhero movie by way of a Jeff Nichols film. (Which, I realize, Jeff Nichols made a superhero film, but you get the general idea.) Gugu Mbatha-Raw is a woman on the run from people who want to capture her for her powers, trying to get back to her daughter, who she abandoned years earlier. It’s a straight indie drama where the super powers are ancillary, and if anything, it’s a movie about black girl magic, which is quite wonderful. Ready or Not is a horror-comedy with a really great premise: on her wedding night, a bride who marries into a board game empire must play a game with her new family. However, what seems like an innocent game of hide and seek turns into the rest of the family hunting her throughout the house, planning to murder her if they find her. It’s very fun. Dark Fate is the best Terminator film since Judgment Day. Finally, after three failed attempts, they’ve finally pushed past the same old boring mythology and found a fresh angle to continue the story further. I can only hope they actually decide to push a bit further with it and try something completely new next time. The Art of Self-Defense is a very weird, black comedy from Riley Stearns, who made the underrated Faults a few years ago. This one’s about Jesse Eisenberg as a meek man who gets attacked by a motorcycle street gang and decides to take karate lessons to be able to defend himself. It’s so weird, but so funny. Hala is a coming-of-age movie about a Muslim teen in high school dealing with the crumbling marriage of her strict parents. It’s really well-done and Geraldine Viswanathan delivers a fantastic performance in the title role. Midsommar is Ari Aster’s followup to Hereditary, which is basically elevated Wicker Man, with a lot of weird Swedish shit and bad things happening to teen doing drugs. Florence Pugh delivers a powerhouse performance and the film looks really great. And, Toy Story 4 notwithstanding, it’s the only film of 2019 to feature someone running around naked with blood on their dick.
Shaft is one of the great surprises of this year. It’s so funny. Samuel L. Jackson reprises his role as Shaft, with Richard Roundtree reprising his role as Shaft as well. They introduce a grandson into the equation, so you have all three generations of Shaft men together. Which could have gone so wrong, but instead they focus on the jokes, with Jackson in particular being crude and crass and very much anti-PC in the best way. The Public is a real throwback movie from Emilio Estevez about a librarian who has to deal with a large group of the city’s homeless who refuse to leave the library on a cold winter night for fear of freezing to death, which soon turns into a nationally-televised police ‘hostage’ situation. It feels like something you’d have seen in the 90s. Polar is a fun John Wick-knockoff with Mads Mikkelsen as a retiring assassin whose employers are trying to kill him, so he takes matters into his own hands and decides to kill them first. Honey Boy is Shia LaBeouf’s autobiographical story of his childhood in which he plays his own father in one of the boldest, therapeutic statements you’ll see in a film. It’s a tremendous piece of work. The Souvenir is one of the more acclaimed indies of the year. It looks gorgeous and is very well-made by Joanna Hogg, who based it on her own experiences as she came of age in the 80s. A very fine debut performance by Honor Swinton Byrne (Tilda’s daughter). The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a wonderful indie about gentrification, about a man who grew up in a particular house with his father who is determined to get it back and might have a way to do so once the previous owners suddenly move out. It’s beautifully-shot and is an incredible debut from director Joe Talbot. Yesterday is a fun fantasy-musical from Danny Boyle and Richard Curtis. The conceit of everyone in the world forgetting who the Beatles are except one guy, who records their songs for posterity (and personal gain), backs the film into a corner in the third act, but it does manage to be pretty charming throughout nevertheless.
See You Yesterday is a great time travel movie with a social message behind it. Two overachieving teens create a time machine on the same day one of their brothers gets murdered by police. So they keep trying to go back in time to prevent it from happening, which causes all sorts of complications. It’s a fantastic debut by Stefon Bristol. Fighting with My Family is a really charming movie about a professional wrestler coming into her own and joining the WWE after growing up in the UK in a wrestling family. Florence Pugh (again) is really good and the movie manages to work for those who don’t even like wrestling. Shazam! is a really fun superhero movie that never tries to do too much. It’s basically Big in tights. Kid says the word and becomes an adult superhero. So you have Zachary Levi as the hero who is really a middle schooler. Good stuff. Les Misérables is a terrific slice of life film that echoes some of the themes of Victor Hugo’s novel, but set in contemporary France. It’s a really great slow burn of a movie that’s part Les Mis, part Do the Right Thing. Really strong work. Jumanji: The Next Level is a really fun follow-up to the first one, finding a way to go back into the game with new twists so it doesn’t feel like exactly the same movie as the first one. The notion of having The Rock do a Danny DeVito impression is just wonderful. Marriage Story is Noah Baumbach’s story of a marriage falling apart between New York and LA. Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson, based loosely around his own divorce from Jennifer Jason Leigh. Great supporting turns from Alan Alda, Laura Dern and Ray Liotta, and pound for pound probably Baumbach’s best film. The Report is a solid political drama with Adam Driver investigating the CIA’s role in torturing detainees after 9/11. One of those movies that’s essential for being out there, even though it might be a bit depressing to watch.
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- Always Be My Maybe
- Before You Know It
- Captain Marvel
- Feast of the Seven Fishes
- Give Me Liberty
- High Flying Bird
- Portrait of a Lady on Fire
- Point Blank
- Spider-Man: Far from Home
- The Song of Names
- Tigers Are Not Afraid
- To Dust
- Triple Frontier
- Velvet Buzzsaw
- Zombieland: Double Tap
We’ve got five very under the radar indies in this tier. First, Give Me Liberty, which is a fun, madcap comedy that takes place over the course of a day as a medical shuttle driver has to pick up and drop off patients and deal with all sorts of issues along the way. It’s very charming and a lot of fun. Feast of the Seven Fishes is a wonderful little coming of age story that takes place in the 80s and is about an Italian family gathering together on Christmas Eve. Before You Know It is a great New York indie with a fresh perspective about two daughters who grew up in a struggling theater who find out their mother, who they long thought was dead, is not only alive but starring in a famous soap opera. Another very under-the-radar one is Villains, with Bill Skarsgard and Maika Monroe as a pair of criminal lovers on the run who take shelter in the wrong house and now have to deal with what’s inside. Very offbeat and fun. And then To Dust is a great little comedy with Geza Rohrig from Son of Saul as an orthodox Jew whose wife dies. He becomes obsessed with how her body will decompose, so he goes to Matthew Broderick, a pot-smoking high school science teacher, to find out. And it becomes this weird little buddy comedy of sorts.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a beautiful story that evokes 40s melodrama in the right ways. Triple Frontier is J.C. Chandor’s first movie in five years, since A Most Violent Year. It’s a fun action movie that never seems to go the way you’re expecting it to go. Definitely one of the more solid efforts that’s held up despite being released early in the year. The Song of Names is a solid little drama about a child prodigy violinist who goes missing on the eve of a concert and then his adopted (of sorts) brother who goes out in search for him years later to find out what happened to him. I quite enjoyed it. Bombshell is also really solid, with the actors doing pretty spot-on portrayals of famous faces and telling an important story in today’s era. High Flying Bird is Steven Soderbergh doing a play, essentially. This feels like what he would have done with Moneyball, had he not been kicked off it. It’s a very underrated little gem from this year. Velvet Buzzsaw is Dan Gilroy’s third foray into elevated B movie territory, after Nightcrawler and Roman J. Israel. A horror-satire of the art world, it’s pretty off-the-wall, and has some great and insane performances in it, specifically by Jake Gyllenhaal, who seems to be taking glee in playing these weird characters in recent years.
Rocketman is no Bohemian Rhapsody, but it’s fun and has some great fantasy musical numbers. Us is Jordan Peele adequately following up Get Out with another solid horror-thriller. Captain Marvel and Spider-Man are the usual Marvel fare. Lower tier for Marvel, but perfectly fine as far as films. The Far from Home teaser tag is the best thing Marvel’s ever done, in my mind. Zombieland 2 is a pretty solid sequel to the first one, considering it took them a decade to make it. Always Be My Maybe is a really nice rom com written by and starring Alli Wong and Randall Park. And it features that great Keanu Reeves cameo in the middle and a great end credits song at his expense. Point Blank is a fun Netflix action movie with Frank Grillo and Anthony Mackie that features a fistfight through a car wash. Tigers Are Not Afraid is a really good crime-fantasy movie set in Mexico with young kids joining their own gang and trying to survive the drug wars. It’s got a Pan’s Labyrinth kind of feel to it, as the main girl’s mother is missing/presumed dead and she believes she has a piece of chalk that will grant her three wishes. It’s really well done and one of the better hidden gems of the year. And finally, of course, Serenity, which is not a good movie per se, but it’s so insane that you have to love it for the entertainment value. It has, quite possibly, the most insane twist of the entire decade. Top five for sure. And it’s one of those movies I found that I’m liking more as time goes on, because I get to excitedly tell people how insane it is and all of a sudden they want to see it and then we can discuss how crazy it is together. That’s more valuable to me than almost any other decently solid movie that’s out there.
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Be Natural: The Story of Alice Guy-Blaché
The Black Godfather
Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened
Hitsville: The Making of Motown
Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice
The ReMastered Series
Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story
To no one’s surprise, about half of the list is music docs. Amazing Grace is Aretha Franklin recording her great 1972 live album in a church in Los Angeles over two nights. And it’s just astounding. Hitsville is mostly just a doc of Smokey Robinson and Berry Gordy talking about the old days, but it is a great documentary that showed the fantastic creative atmosphere that helped create Motown and create some of the greatest music ever made. Linda Ronstadt is a documentary about her career, and is just an amazing portrait of one of the greatest voices in this century of music. Pavarotti is, as expected, a documentary about him. And even if you don’t care about opera (as I do not), it’s a wonderful portrait of the man and a really fascinating doc to watch. Rolling Thunder Revue is a Dylan concert film by Scorsese that takes footage of his 1975 concert tour and then creates a very Dylan-esque portrait of it, introducing a little fiction here and there to the point where by the end, at least a third of what you’re seeing is just completely made up. It’s fun. Western Stars is Bruce Springsteen performing his album in a barn on his ranch for some friends. It’s pretty awesome. And the ReMastered Series is an eight-part Netflix doc series (all about an hour long), all centered around a particular story involving music. One is Johnny Cash’s trip to Nixon’s White House during Vietnam. One is about the killing of Jam Master Jay from Run-DMC. One is Bob Marley’s assassination attempt. One is Victor Jara’s assassination. One is about the rights to the song “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” One is about a Miami Showband that gets killed during the ‘Troubles’ in Ireland. One is about the myth of Robert Johnson selling his soul to the Devil. And one is about the mysterious murder of Sam Cooke. They’re all really good and it’s a fantastic little doc series that not enough people know about.
We also have three more music-adjacent docs, bringing the total of ones generally related to music to ten of the fifteen. The Apollo is a documentary about The Apollo theater in New York and its importance to history and culture and its neighborhood. The Black Godfather is about Clarence Avant, a man who’s been instrumental in the success of so many people in the last half-century, who has been a mentor to just about everyone. One of the best docs you’ll see from this year. And Fyre is a documentary about the disastrous festival and all the shit that went wrong as they tried to put it on and the fraudster (and other culpable people) behind it. I recommend that one be seen with Fyre Fraud, the Hulu doc, for the full picture, but if picking between the two, the Netflix one is the more entertaining of the two. And then, after music, we have only one film doc on the list, which is surprising. The fact that 11 of the 15 are music or film is not surprising, but that there’s only one film one is. Be Natural is about Alice Guy-Blaché, one of the pioneers of early cinema whose name has been overlooked in the history books for years.
And now for the remaining four docs — Aquarela is just cool images of water with no dialogue. That’s it. Just water in various forms. It’s like watching the visuals of a Planet Earth episode before they record David Attenborough’s narration. Apollo 11 is a doc about the Moon landing, with all pre-existing footage and nothing added. So everything you see and hear is from the footage and there’s no narration, no talking heads, none of that. It’s just everything about the mission, and it’s incredible. For Sama is a beautiful portrait of a mother documenting what it’s like to raise a young daughter in Syria during the Civil War. It’s a record she made for her daughter to show her what it was like while she was at an age she won’t remember. It’s truly beautiful. And Maiden is the doc that will for sure be turned into a film soon because the story is so good — it’s about Tracy Edwards who, in 1989 at 24, became the captain of the first all-female crew to enter an around-the-world boat race. It’s so awesome.
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And that, my friends, is a decade in film completed.
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