2019 was a one of a kind year. A year that featured the most films by female directors and POC both in front and behind the camera. Absolutely stellar storytelling, original filmmaking and breathtaking cinematography. Film in 2019, in a nutshell, can be summed up in two words: Life itself.
So with that, it is my immense pleasure to revisit all the screenings, streamers, and theaters I stepped into last year and conjure forth what are my personal Top 10 films of 2019. And would also be yours if you thought exactly like me, which you definitely should, but I digress.
These are films that really captured the entire essence of not just the year, but possibly the decade. A lot of these films were breakthroughs, surprise phenomenons, or just blew it out of the water in every conceivable way. So without further ado, I bring to you, the definitive (totally subjective) Top 10 Films of 2019.
We begin with number 10….
#10 – Avengers: Endgame
With the overwhelming amount of genuinely original and impressive films that came out this year, it seems strange that I would place a comic-book film at the coveted 10th spot, but I had to. Not just because it’s hands down one of my favorite film experiences of the year, but also because it’s not your average comic book movie. I say this as someone who walked into 2008’s Iron Man, wide-eyed and clueless to the character’s origin and backstory and walked out an official stan for Marvel.
After 21 films and ten years, the expectation levels had risen to unprecedented heights, and then we saw Infinity War. It was action-packed, intense, high stakes, but still pretty much a comic book film, right up until its ending. Which meant Endgame had some big shoes to fill. And it did. With a 3 hour long runtime, we finally get to see the heroes in unfamiliar territory: As losers. What I especially liked is that, that fact isn’t glossed over. In fact, a huge chunk of the film’s runtime is devoted to the weight of that loss.
It elevates these characters in a way anyone who’s not a comic book film fan might also see them as: Humans. Real life humans, who have to deal with their failure, who can’t just put on a mask or a fancy suit and escape their problems like we all wish we could. They come to us this time flawed, insecure, damaged, and yet hopeful. It’s what makes the film’s final act so triumphant because it is that return to fantasy, but by then, it’s earned. For a franchise that’s got a lot of work to do to get back to this level, this is the film that has earned a place on the top our list and in the bottom of our hearts. We love you 3000!
#9 – The Irishman
Deny Martin Scorsese at your own peril. This man is a true master filmmaker. In his lengthy mobster epic, we recount the events of hitman Frank Sheeran and his time running with the Italian mafia and as bodyguard to Union president Jimmy Hoffa. What Scorsese does in this film is nothing short of sheer brilliance. He explores the full life of crime. From the perks of the work to the necessary kills and the uncomfortable decisions one has to live with at the end of their life especially when you’re the only one left.
Robert De Niro is fantastic as Frank Sheeran but its Pacino and Pesci who steal the film with expert performances. All around the film is a master class from cinematography to costumes to visual effects, but especially as a screenplay. There’s one moment in the film where Frank has to weigh the possible outcomes on a hit by picking out which gun(s) to use. It’s that kind of writing you can only get in a Scorsese film and it’s worth every second of the 3 1/2 hour runtime.
#8 – Hustlers
There were a significant number of films that were done by women this year. More than any other time in film. And what they brought to the game was amazing. One of the best offerings this year was Lorene Scafaria’s “Hustlers” about a group of female strippers who begin robbing their wealthy clientele blind after the wall street crash of 2008. The film looks absolutely stunning. Offering glitzy set pieces, dazzling wardrobe, and a cast that is as funny as it is ferocious. But what makes the film hold up is it’s clear understanding of sisterhood, motherhood, and the protection women need from the world and for each other.
Every character is given a moment to shine in this script from Keke Palmer running away from a hospital in heels and cut-off shorts to Constance Wu recounting the horrors of what goes down in VIP rooms, even to Julia Stiles playing the reporter covering the scandal and all she has to question to understand their stories. But it’s no doubt in anyone’s mind, the standout from this film is unquestionably Jennifer Lopez, whose turn as Ramona is uplifting, empowering, courageous and daring.
It’s a film like this that proves why we need more women behind the camera and writing the stories to see the things no one else could see and understand the motivations everyone else would just be guessing at. Hustlers is a joy to experience.
#7 – Honey Boy
Speaking of female directors, an emerging talent burst onto the screen in a big way crafting Shia Lebouf’s semi-autobiographical retelling of his childhood in “Honey Boy”. Alma Ha’rel was gifted with Lebouf’s script about his time in rehab and breaking down his life as a child performer and having to live with his dad in a motel growing up. The film is deeply personal, cathartic, and you feel every beat.
Lebouf is masterful at playing the role of his father with a breadth of understanding, nuance, and thoughtfulness. Noah Jupe plays young “Otis” and carries what has to be considered the best performance by a young actor this year. There’s a scene where he relays his mother’s argument over the phone in character that as you’re watching, immediately makes you see how unseemly this kind of childhood experience must’ve been.
What also stands out about this film is it’s cinematography. Every shot of this film is deliberate. The deep purples and oranges of life around the motel create an atmosphere of constraint and instability while the bright yellows and whites of the outside world fade in and out almost effortlessly to show the characters never ending battle with depression. It’s such a good film that will leave its mark on you.
#6 – Little Women
Director Greta Gerwig found space to create an adaptation of a book that’s 151 years old. If that’s not incredible, I don’t know what is. Her take on Alcott’s novel and the three previous films made out of it, feels fresh, competent and luscious. Each frame looks like a painting, and it is kept up through its impressive ensemble cast led by Saoirse Ronan, whose Jo is ferocious, determined, and incredibly protective of her sisters.
What’s great about Gerwig’s take is she gives Jo something she didn’t fully have before: an arc. Jo goes from just being an athletic, tomboyish shut-in to being a tenaciously creative adventurer who seeks a place in the world of her own. She’s admirable, cocky, steadfast and rejects the patriarchy of her time.
But it is Florence Pugh’s Amy who grows the most throughout the film from being an impish child to a conscious woman. Gerwig gives her a monologue that is incredibly apt and reflective of the times, but it’s her own ability that sells it throughout the entirety of the film. Little Women can be watched and rewatched, but let’s hope it’s the last time it’s remade because this was it. This is the way you tell this story. You nailed it.
#5 – Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
Quentin Tarantino’s 9th film is an homage and a love letter to 1960’s hollywood and a big middle finger to the Manson Family, which you gotta love. The movie boasts an dangerously long 2 hr and 40 minute run time that borders on unnecessary and there’s a lot of masturbatory shots of the city (he was really angling for that Production Design nomination), and let’s not forget feet. It can’t be a Tarantino film unless she doesn’t have any shoes on.
All that aside, this is one hell of a ride. We follow Rick Dalton and his stuntman Cliff Booth (played brilliantly by Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt respectively in their best performances of the year) as we see the tale of a falling film star at the time of a changing Hollywood.
Tarantino is downright masterful with how he coalesces these two stories into one and it’s done with enough head fakes, curveballs, and film nostalgia in there to throw you off to an explosive and riotous ending that’s worth every penny of admission. It’s silly, controversial, and a whole lot of fun. Or you know, a Tarantino movie.
#4 – Joker
Joker might be the most dangerous film of 2019. It scared the hell out of critics who panicked thinking it would inspire a series of incel shootings. But it was critically lauded coming out of both the Toronto International Film Festival and the Venice Film Festival which it won the Golden Lion for Best film, so by the time it hit theaters, it didn’t take long for it to become the highest grossing R Rated film in history, scoring a billion dollar box office, and shocker, no one got hurt.
But that could be because Joaquin Phoenix is so damn captivating as the titular character that it was hard to peel yourself away from the screen. He goes into some dark places to come up with this mentally disturbed, unreliable, failed comedian who has some scenes that are genuinely really hard to watch. Fans of the comic book character may or may not take a liking to this interpretation of the Clown Prince of Crime, but even if it’s #NotYourJoker, this clown is too intense to ignore.
#3 – Parasite
When I walked in to see Parasite, I had no idea what I was expecting. I’d never followed Bong Joon-Ho’s career, didn’t know anyone in the cast, wasn’t familiar with Korean cinema. I just kept hearing that there was this movie called “Parasite” and it’s one of the best movies of the year, and I said, “Yeah, sure”, so I went to check it out. An hour in, I was so mesmerized by the first act, it wasn’t until they were descending into the basement that I began to wonder, “What exactly is this movie about?” Once all is revealed however, it ratchets up to a whole new level of tension and terror.
But the strength of it is what it says about class structures, poverty, and the system of capitalism as a whole. The screenplay is uniquely original, its message lands in a way you weren’t expecting and its a film that has you thinking about it months after you’ve seen it, so yeah, it’s one of the best movies of the year.
#2 – Marriage Story
Marriage Story is a love story told in reverse. That’s the premise for what has to be considered one of the most heartbreaking films of the year. If you’ve ever been in a long relationship either a friendship, dating, or marriage and it comes to an abrupt end, it’s probably going to go this way. Especially if there was some level of love between the two parties.
Throughout this film we see Charlie and Nicole (played so damn well by Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson respectively) face the end of their relationship and the blunt reality of divorce. The film’s score paces the story beats perfectly, while we watch people who used to love each other try to remain amicable even though it’s tearing them apart to have to go through this. What made Marriage Story stand out is the way it handles this all-too familiar tale. It doesn’t rely on the drama, but rather on the act of letting go, moving on, and how that process is dealt with. Sometimes in very uncomfortable ways.
But the film does have it’s major blow up and by the time it comes, it’s definitely earned. By the time Driver hits us with his rendition of Sondheim’s “Being Alive”, you wish you could hand him the Oscar yourself. It’s an emotional haul of a movie that will have you all in your feelings and remembering every mistake of your past.
Before we reveal our number 1 pick for the best film of 2019. We have to cover the honorable mentions. Unlike our past list, this honorable mentions list will be ranked. As there were so many good films in 2019, it would only be fair to honor as many as we can. So here is our best of 2019 films numbers 11 – 25.
Honorable Mentions (11 -25)
11. 1917: Sam Mendes’ WW1 epic is a one-take thrill ride with a simple premise and a real feel to it that puts you on the path with the main characters.
12. The Last Black Man in San Francisco: Beautifully shot, scored to perfection, with personable characters who all have a love for something they can’t hold on to.
13. Queen & Slim: Matsoukas hit it out of the park with her debut film. Capturing the essence of black martyrdom and the threat of living while black in America.
14. Booksmart: Olivia Wilde took on the classic coming-of-age trope and flipped it on its head. The funniest movie of the year filled with the inappropriate traits of an American Pie mixed with the slapstick of a Monty Python.
15. Uncut Gems: a 2 hour long car crash that you fill stuck in the middle of. This film is an experiment in raising one’s anxiety levels to uncomfortable heights. Check your heart rate before watching this one.
16. The Farewell: Based on an actual lie. This movie features one of the most beloved characters in cinema this year in Nai Nai. She’s so lovable and adorable that you understand the family’s dilemma when dealing with her illness. You will sob, probably uncontrollably.
17. Frozen II: This second installment in Disney’s hit series hits all the right notes and grows up with it’s audience. It even makes fun of “Let It Go”, which after 6 years of hearing it nonstop, you can understand.
18. Us: Jordan Peele’s sophomore directorial effort is a haunting orchestra of puzzles that you have to figure out as the film unfolds. It’s an absolute treat and a frightening possibility.
19. Alita: Battle Angel: Don’t listen to the haters. This movie was AWESOME. The animation is incredible, the story is intriguing and we want more dammit! Give me my sequel!
20. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood: Mister Rogers and the world of Make Believe aren’t done making you cry yet. This time we look at the man through the eyes of a cynic, and it will transform you.
21. Harriet: Cynthia Erivo stars in the first ever biopic about Harriet Tubman. It gives this American Hero the legendary story she deserves, and lives up to her legacy with a powerful anthem to match.
22. Jojo Rabbit: Watitti’s imaginative Hitler-satire balances humor and the ugly reality of the regime through the eyes of a young sycophant. It’s delightfully charming and abrasive at the same time.
23. Knives Out: Donut holes inside of donut holes, this murder mystery gives a fresh take on the whodunnit genre and has many clamoring for a Benoit Blanc spin-off that we just might get.
24. Dolemite Is My Name: Eddie Murphy’s return to form in this sharp comedy about film legend, Rudy Ray Moore is one of the best feel-good films of the year.
25. The Lighthouse: Robert Eggers directs this gothic masterpiece about two lighthouse workers descending into madness as they’re lost at sea for too long. The monologues, the cinematography. It’s haunting and yet, so so good.
There’s a lot more I could add as well as animation, documentary and international films also had some stand out years, but alas we’ve reached the end of my list. And I must bid you adieu with my final pick for what I believe has to be considered the best film of 2019, and it is…
#1 -Portrait of a Lady on Fire
This will be one of the best movies you’ve never heard of as it doesn’t even get a wide release until mid-february, but my God is it gorgeous. Celine Sciamma directs this film as if she’s not even there. Her presence is effortless, and makes you feel like a fly on the wall watching this entire story unfold. And how it unfolds is a true treat. Led by deceptive circumstances, then given time to explore each other until ultimately, the intimacy of the portrait becomes true intimacy. We are given a glimpse into how two strangers meet, clash, and fall madly in love, but are restrained by the standards of their time.
Every scene feels like their fighting against themselves and then fighting against time as they know their relationship will not last. Claire Mathon has to be considered one of the best DP’s working today. Don’t believe me? Check out her work in Atlantics for proof. Every scene looks as if she painted them herself. Getting the right texture, light and hue to match the emotion of every scene. Brilliantly shot, expertly directed, and a script that leaves the feeling of longing in every beat. It will capture hold of you and stay in your heart forever. This is undoubtedly my favorite movie of 2019.
And there’s my long exhaustive list guys. Hope you enjoyed and I can’t wait to see what 2020 has in store for all us film fans.
Till next time…see you at the movies!