Every year I make it a habit to try and list out the best movies of the year, as is the requirement for any person who consumes more media than they should. For the past month, though, I made it my task to find and watch as many of the movies deemed “the best of 2019” to try and make an informed decision on my personal faves.
As the end of January approaches, I have fallen just short of my task, but I feel like I can say that I have watched at least 80% of the movies on most best of lists, plus the standard stuff that doesn’t wind up on many lists. Movies I have yet to watch, include Booksmart, Little Women, The Farewell, Pain and Glory, Dolemite is my Name, I Lost My Body, and A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. Still, if I had, this may have made my decision even harder. 2019 was a phenomenal year in cinema. One of the best in recent memory. Truly. I had a list of 30 I had to pair down to 10 plus 5 honorable mentions.
Also, in preparation for this list, I made myself an Excel sheet so I could remember exactly what movies I had seen and make sure I don’t miss any from my list. And to help me drill down into those top choices. I thought I’d share that here too, because they you can see how much (or little, depending on your perspective) I have seen from 2019.
This makes it easier to pinpoint what my tops are going to be, but not exactly which order. Not to mention, that one of my 4 star movies did not make the final ten. But more on that soon.
So without further ado, let’s get into this top ten.
10. El Camino: A Breaking Bad Story
In 2013, when Breaking Bad finished its five season arc, I realized this was the best television could ever get. Since then, I have been hard pressed to find better examples of character and story molded so seamlessly. When Vince Gilligan announced a sequel in the form of a movie, I was worried. But I shouldn’t have been. This was a fitting conclusion to the story of Jesse. He was arguably the most human part of Walt’s descent, and that element is highlighted through the runtime of this near perfect film. It is a must watch for anyone who appreciated the series.
9. The Lighthouse
Robert Eggers has made two films thus far: 2015’s The VVitch (The Witch) and 2019’s The Lighthouse. Both movies are polarizing. Either you love them or hate them, I don’t think there’s much of an in-between. Unfortunately, I was not nearly as positive about his 2015 film, as I had no idea what I was getting into when I saw it. This time, I went in knowing full well what to expect. The Lighthouse is shot in black and white and uses mythology and symbolism to tell a period-perfect story of madness. This is a psychological horror where two men, wickies (lighthouse keepers), must spend weeks on an isolated island, maintaining a lighthouse, only to miss their transport back off the island. From there, the descent is clear, with Willem Dafoe’s Thomas often gaslighting the younger Rob Pattinson’s Ephraim, who does not seem to need much of a nudge in that direction. It’s a very strange, hypnotic ride, and one I will not forget in a very long time.
8. Jojo Rabbit
Perhaps only Taika Waititi (director of Thor: Ragnarok and What We Do in the Shadows) could get away with playing Hitler in a comedy. It seems an odd choice for a production, but this comedy is so much more than just a gimmick. The movie tells a very timeless, human story of Jojo, a young Aryan boy living in Germany during the 1940s. He is a Nazi sympathizer and absolutely believes everything that is told to him about Jews. But when he discovers his mother is keeping a Jew hidden in the walls of their home, he is forced to reconcile with his feelings of blind patriotism and his own humanity. It is outrageously adorable and funny while being heart warming.
7. Avengers: Endgame
This movie was unprecedented. Endgame was an accumulation of ten years of storytelling across twenty-two movies, and somehow, against all odds, it stuck the landing. It ended the first phases of this universe and saw the conclusion of several plotlines, several characters. The spectacle of it was the grandest that has ever been seen on the silver screen, and it is hard to believe that while comic book movies are still not considered true art, that this movie was able to toe the line of regret and hope in one package. I can’t imagine a better way to end a series.
6. Marriage Story
Netflix have finally done it. With last year’s incredible Roma, and this year’s Marriage Story and The Irishman, they have proven that they can release legitimately great cinema. While I did watch and somewhat enjoy Martin Scorsese’s crime drama, Marriage Story left an indelible mark on me. It begins with Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson reading a list of things they love about their spouse in the lead-up to getting a divorce. It’s beautiful and melancholy and shows how two people can love each other but aren’t right to be married to one another. The movie does not place the blame on either person, as they begin the divorce process. It is the lawyers who become the bad guys, twisting words and conversations in the proceedings to get their way.
5. Uncut Gems
The Safdie brothers have proven now with two films (this and Good Time) that they are able to bottle up and serve nerve-inducing, frenetic drama. Adam Sandler plays, in the best performance of his career, a Jewish jeweller in NYC. He runs his own business and purchases an uncut opal that he believes is worth millions. He’s frantic to get it sold to pay off a debt that has two loan sharks chasing after him. In a bad-day-gets-worse, he loans out the jewel, gets beaten up, and stripped naked all in the span of a few hours. The pace of the film, as well as Sandler’s performance, really sells this movie. While my heart was racing for all of its run-time, I was enthralled by it too. The Safdie brothers are great at using grainy film and keeping the camera focused on one person, leaving you feeling claustrophobic and feeling the emotions of the characters.
4. Knives Out
This Rian Johnson ensemble-led cast murder mystery is one of the absolute best written movies of the year! Murder mysteries done right are always a lot of fun, and this one is no exception. I loved Daniel Craig’s Detective Benoit Blanc, but I didn’t expect to also love the female lead, Marta, played by Ana de Armas. She was absolutely a standout for me. She shares the screen with such great actors as Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Toni Collette, and Chris Evans, and she still managed to steal the show. Truly, I cannot speak enough praises of this movie. Even as I type this, I want to go out and see it again.
3. Portrait of a Lady on Fire
This 18th century French drama is one of the most beautiful films of the last decade, let alone the last year. This movie follows three women, and while men do appear at the beginning and the end of the movie, really it is focused on the intellect and emotions of these women. Marianne is a painter who has been commissioned to do the wedding portrait of Heloise, a young woman recently returned from a convent. Heloise does not wish to be married and refuses to sit for a portrait. In order to paint her, Marianne must steal glances at Heloise during daily walks and then paint from memory in the night where Heloise cannot see. What unfolds is a tragic and beautiful romance between the two, and a subplot of unwanted pregnancy in the maid.
I struggled, I will admit, with whether to put 1917 in first or second spot. This Sam Mendes, WWI film, is easily one of the best war movies of all time. It is utterly breath-taking. It lost out by the narrowest of margins, and only because number one affected me the greatest this year. 1917 is the story of two corporals charged with running through No Man’s Land and beyond to get a message to the otherside of the front. It is a simple enough premise, told in one of the most gorgeous packages. Director Sam Mendes and Cinematographer Richard Deakins did an impossible task. They made this film look as if it was in two continuous shots. It is the best editing I have ever witnessed, so much so that the Oscars didn’t even nominate it for editing, because they didn’t realize it wasn’t in two shots. This gives the film an I’m-in-the-action-with-them feel, and wow, it is effective! There are great moments of warmth and other moments where you can almost feel the fire surrounding you. 1917 is a technical achievement and if it takes home the biggest prize at the Oscars this year, I will be very happy.
Before I talk about number 1, here are some of my honorable mentions.
Apollo 11 – easily the best documentary I have seen in a long time. It takes footage and recordings from broadcasts and NASA at the launch of Apollo 11, the one when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. It is absolutely incredible and shows the sheer number of people on the ground that helped to make that flight possible.
Doctor Sleep – This The Shining sequel was everything I wanted from a follow-up. It paid homage to the Shining without leaning too heavily on it. I feel like Mike Flanagan can do no wrong now, with this and Gerald’s Game and Haunting of Hill House under his director’s belt. I can’t wait to see what else he does.
Us – This Jordan Peele horror/thriller was a very good follow-up to his wildly successful Get Out. Lupita Nyong’o was at career best in this crazy tale of evil doppelgangers. The ending doesn’t quite stick for me, but it was still a great piece of cinema!
Waves – This movie is told by two halves. The first half focuses on the rage that comes from hypermasculinity, while the second half navigates regret, forgiveness, and love. While watching the first half, I could feel my heart beating through my chest for the main character, but then as the focus shifted from him to his sister, I could see hopefulness again. It was beautiful and well worth a watch.
And the number one movie of the year (in my humble opinion) is….
I said before, 1917 came close to being number one, but something about Parasite has stuck with me since I saw it. If only all people could overcome the 1in barrier that is subtitles, this movie would be getting far more praises than it currently is, and it’s already getting a lot.
Parasite is a movie about classes. The main characters come from a half-basement apartment. In the first scene of the movie, they are trying to find a signal to a free wifi service in order to watch a video to show them how to make pizza boxes for a local store. The money they get from it would hardly feed them. But their luck changes with the eldest son becomes the tutor for a wealthy family. As time goes on, he manages to get jobs at the house for every member of his family, all under the guise that they tangentially know the other. The patriarch of the family becomes the chauffeur, the matriarch is the housekeeper, and the daughter is an art therapist. Over the course of the film, there are some moderate twists and turns. But it isn’t until you see this rich family and how they treat their hired hands that you begin to realize the truth of the name of the movie. While it may appear on the surface that the poor family are the parasites, it is actually the rich people that are.
This is an important film, and maybe after some awards during this Oscar race, it will open up new conversations about how cinema is far more than just American film. Everyone should see this movie, subtitles or not.