Congratulations everyone, we’ve survived yet another year. It wasn’t easy, and just as it has been for the last few years, things just seem to be getting worse and worse, but we made it. True, things in 2020 have already become as bleak as possible, witnessing the drums of war starting up yet again and the looming specter of an absolute mess of an election year, there’s a whole lot to be mad, depressed, and stressed about. And, in times of turmoil the need for art, for something to remind us of the best of humanity, is paramount. And, as with every year that I’ve been running this website, 2019 turned out to be an incredibly solid year for movies. We constantly see click-bait driven websites decry that film is dead, that nothing good and original gets created, and that there’s not hope for cinema. And yet, year after year, they’re proven wrong. Even in a year like 2019, where for several months it genuinely did seem like we were getting hit by mediocre film after mediocre film, things turned around in a very strong way. Hell, I really considered making this a top twenty list, because there were just so many films released this year that I absolutely adored. As always, these aren’t necessarily the films that I would say are “best,” but they’re the ones that I personally enjoyed the most, and which I’ll probably remember 2019 for.
15. Jojo Rabbit
Who would have guessed that a wacky comedy about a little boy and his imaginary friend, Adolph Hitler, would be so damn enjoyable? I know this film has become pretty polarizing, with people questioning everything from the taste of making a Holocaust comedy to people debating if the satire was even satirizing anything specifically, but this was a movie that ended up working for me far more than I anticipated it would. I’ve become a real fan of Taika Waititi, but even I was a little hesitant going into the movie that he could pull it off. And yet, what we got was a really touching film about how easy it is to hate, how ingrained hate is into our society, and how imperative it is to break those trends. Because hate is a ludicrous thing, and should fall apart after really any scrutiny, we just have to understand that it’s possible.
Jojo Rabbit was written and directed by Taika Waititi.
14. Uncut Gems
Definitely the most recently seen film to make it onto this list, if I’m being honest I’m still wrestling quite a bit with the latest film from the Safdie Brothers. Uncut Gems is an absolutely insane film, full of repellent imagery, a character with absolutely no endearing characteristics, and a fairly nihilistic understanding of the world. It’s a slow-moving train-wreck of a movie, a two-hour long anxiety attack that you’re utterly unable to stop looking at, just watching a man completely and thoroughly self-destruct. And, I can’t stop thinking about it. It’s a beautifully crafted symphony of dirtbags, just making each other miserable and letting themselves be completely controlled and destroyed by greed and avarice. Adam Sandler puts in a brilliantly depraved performance, leaving a trail of emotional and physical destruction in his wake as he constantly strives for what he doesn’t have, ignoring what’s in his hands for what could be. Which ends up making Howard Ratner a perfect representation of 2019, someone who will gladly fuck over everyone around him in order to theoretically better his own life.
Uncut Gems was written by Ronald Bronstein, Benny Safdie, and Josh Safdie and directed by Josh and Benny Safdie.
13. Avengers: Endgame
I am on record as being a huge fan of superheroes in general, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe in particular. It’s a fascinating feat, unlike anything else ever attempted in the history of film. We could debate for hours what the ramifications of the popularity of the MCU are, what corporate evils it’s helped inspire in Disney, and of the objective quality of the films, but it’s undeniable the power that these movies have over pop culture. And, it’s all culminated in this film, a movie that is incredibly impressive, unbelievably entertaining, and somehow not at all what I expected. The movie took insane choices and made a thrilling heist story that honors the history of this insane movie franchise, while delivering some of the most potent bits of joy to be found this year. It’s a movie that seems to be a direct refutation of any casual dismissals of the franchise, erasing a majority of the characters, and showing us how much they actually mean to us when they all come triumphantly back. It’s a terrific piece of blockbuster film-making, and as a life-long fan of superheroes and comic books, a genuinely moving experience. It’s not a perfect film, but it fills me with so much joy.
Avengers: Endgame was written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeeley and directed by Anthony and Joe Russo.
12. Ready or Not
As someone who spends a lot of time thinking about movies, seeing movies, and reading movie news, one of the things I appreciate most is a genuine surprise. It’s pretty rare for me to sit down for a movie that I know very little about, that kind of comes out of nowhere, and just knocks me on my ass. Which, is a major factor of why I found myself loving Ready or Not so much. It was a premise that seemed destined to either be one of my favorite films of the year, or the stupidest thing in the world, and thankfully it landed in the realm of the sublime, giving us a murderous game of hide and go seek that’s just an absolute joy to experience. It’s goofy, beautifully designed, insanely gory, and doesn’t pull any punches. Hell, it’s a movie that straight up has a reveal at the end that the devil exists and helps save the day, some sort of Luciferum ex Machina, that just caps off a wonderfully madcap evening of violence and laughs. There were a lot of brilliant movies this year about the evils on the ruling class set in stunning mansions, and I feel like this one may be slipping through the cracks. So, if you didn’t give it a shot, I really do implore you to check it out.
Ready or Not was written by Guy Busick and R Christopher Murphy, directed by Matt Vettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett.
11. The Irishman
Any year that Martin Scorsese decides to give us another film is usually cause for celebration, and there’s a pretty good chance that the film is going to end up on my list. I really love his films, and his latest was no exception, even though it really seemed to poison the discourse on film love. People were up in arms on Scorsese’s personal opinions on the state of Hollywood, the film’s staggering run-time, and a general frustration with its pace. But, if you give yourself over the film, meet it half-way and strive to get on its own wavelength, you get one of Scorsese’s absolute saddest films, a haunting mediation on his own mortality and career. It’s a towering work, an examination of a life led wrong, and he horrible ramifications that that has on a person, sending them down the path of solitude and regret. It’s playing with a lot of the same ideas that Scorsese has built his career examining, but giving us no real room for misinterpretation, grabbing you by the face and demanding that you understand what he’s laying out. A master-class in acting, directing, and writing, it’s just an exquisite statement, possibly the final one of an American master.
The Irishman was written by Steven Zaillian, directed by Martin Scorsese.
Two years ago I named Jordan Peele’s debut film Get Out as my second favorite film of he year. I was absolutely blown away by the movie, like just about everyone else in America, and at the time I felt pretty confident that we wouldn’t be seeing anything from Peele for a while. Get Out seemed like a dream project, something that he’d been thinking about for his entire life, and I assumed it would take him a while to find something that he had to say with the same amount of passion. But, it turns out that that was completely wrong, because Peele came out of the gates with his second feature, Us, absolutely swinging for the fences. It’s weirder, more allegorical, and as a result a bit more contentious with people. But, there’s no denying that Peele really went for it with this film, making a story unlike anything else, full of fascinating ideas, a career-best performance from Lupita N’yongo, and a really damning examination of the horror of modern life, living in a world where a person in America almost certainly is living at the expense of another person somewhere in the world, who they’ll never meet. Capitalism has created an unending horror show on this planet, and Us plays with that guilt and anxiety beautifully.
Us was written and directed by Jordan Peele.
9. High Flying Bird
The beginning of any year is usually a pretty barren place for new movies. January is generally relegated to end of the years awards-bait trickling out and films being dumped by distributors who have no faith in them. As a result, the first few movies I see every year are generally pretty underwhelming, and when I find something that I actually like it usually hits me pretty hard. And, I was absolutely stunned in February to find that a Netflix movie shot on iPhone’s about basketball negotiations ended up hitting me as hard as it did. A big part of that it probably thanks to the fact that it has helmed by Steven Soderbergh, but High Flying Bird is just a hell of a movie. It made it onto my list quite high, quite early, and has spent the rest of the year just perched up there, and anytime I think about maybe moving it lower I just remember what a fun time it was, and keep it so high. Soderbergh is a master at heist movies, and he has really cracked the idea that you can turn any story into a caper and make it 100% more interesting. I feel like I haven’t heard anyone talking about this movie, and maybe most people just don’t find it worthy of much praise or remembrance, but I think it’s a hell of a good time.
High Flying Bird was written by Tarrel Alvin McCraney, directed by Steven Soderbergh.
8. Dolemite is My Name
The only film on this list I hadn’t found time to write about in full, Dolemite is my Name is a movie that there was never any real doubt I wouldn’t love. One of my favorite films of all time is Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, the story of a man whose entire life is spent trying to create, largely in vain, and it’s a movie that really speaks to me. So, when I learned that the same screenwriters were going to work with Eddie Murphy, bringing the beloved comedian out of self-imposed exile, to tell the true story of Rudy Ray Moore, a very similar figure to Ed Wood, I was very interested. And, as I expected, Dolemite is My Name ended up feeling very similar to Ed Wood, just a joyous examination of the power of the pictures, and the need to be a storyteller. Eddie Murphy is terrific in the movie, putting in a hilarious and heart-felt performance that really gets to the heart of Rudy Ray Moore, a guy who has been told her doesn’t have the talent to live a life based on his art his whole life, and who does everything within his power to prove them wrong. It’s a beautiful little film about the drive of creativity, and it makes me genuinely emotional, something that you probably wouldn’t have expected from a movie about the making of a Blaxploitation classic, but it helps show that everyone’s story is worth telling.
Dolemite is my Name was written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski and directed by Craig Brewer.
7. The Lighthouse
2019 was a great year for directors to release their second features after getting success making genre-defining horror movies a couple years ago. And, of the three films that fit that description, Robert Eggers’ the Lighthouse ended up being my favorite. It’s an absolutely insane film, one that almost defies explanation. It’s a film about madness and boredom, about the hell of other people, and a weird fable all at one. Completely carried by the spectacular duo of Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe, we get two strange men trapped in a strange location, just bouncing off each other. It’s got moments of genuine horror and genuine comedy, just adding to the difficulty to pin this film down with some sort of description. It’s really unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, and it’s a film that has utterly captivated me this year, never really straying too far from my mind, while also looming as a complete oddity, something that I doubt I’ll ever see the likes of again.
The Lighthouse was written by Robert Eggers and Max Eggers, directed by Robert Eggers.
The whole point of these lists is to discuss my personal favorite films of the year. But, if I had to select what I think was the objective “best” film, the one I think deserves the awards and whatnot, I really think that I’d have to go with Bong Joon-ho’s blistering examination of class warfare, Parasite. This film was an absolute juggernaut this year, earning an insane amount of accolades and even commercial success in America, which is shocking for a South Korean film with subtitles, but it just goes to show that Bong really tapped into something amazing with this film. Like almost all of his films, it manages to juggle several different tones, all while telling a story about a world gone mad, all thanks to the horrors of the economy. Bong Joon-ho has been on record of being shocked that the film got the reputation that it ended up getting, thinking that he was making a story very specific to South Korea, but it turns out that the whole world was ready for a story about people just trying to survive, forced to kill one another to get the scraps given by a the wealthy elite while they just sit around, bleeding the working class dry. Who’d have guessed?
Parasite was written by Bong Joon-ho and Han Jin-won, directed by Bong Joon-ho.
5. Ad Astra
Over the last few years I’ve really found myself becoming in the bag for the films of James Gray. They all tend to me a little melancholic and contemplative, telling very human and universal stories within somewhat pulpy genre conventions, and I think that he’s made his masterpiece with Ad Astra. Essentially a retelling of Hearts of Darkness in space, the film becomes so much more than that. It’s a story about fatherhood, about purpose, about emotional repression, and finding the ability to do things for yourself, not for the expectations of other people. It’s a gorgeously shot piece of adult science-fiction, while also featuring moon-pirates and killer space baboons. It’s a film that shouldn’t work nearly as well as it does, but which places you firmly in the world it has created, and takes you along on an incredibly emotional journey with one of America’s most under-rated actors. Ad Astra’s one of those movies that I find myself thinking about randomly, and getting choked up about all over again, just a pure piece of emotional film-making that somehow manages to tell a deeply personal and human story while being surrounded by pure spectacle.
Ad Astra was written by James Gray and Ethan Gross, directed by James Gray.
4. The Farewell
Another film that I’m pleasantly surprised hit American audiences as hard as it did, I’m still kind of bowled over by how perfect the Farewell is. I’ve seen some people dismiss the affection people have had towards it as some sort of cultural tourism, as if the film wasn’t just an incredibly honest and truthful examination of loss and family, something almost everyone in the world can relate with. True, the specific situation probably isn’t something that the average person has dealt with, but everyone has lost a loved one, and well know the pain and absurdity that that can cause in your life. Juggling your own emotions with those of your family, and the person who is dying, is a major thing that you have to learn to navigate throughout life, and it’s not easy. Everyone grieves in their own way, and this film really finds a universal truth in that sentiment. It’s legitimately one of the most affecting films I saw all year, and the last minute twist of reality that plays over the credits is enough to keep you from becoming an absolute puddle of a human being after finishing the film. This is the type of film that has me completely on boar with whatever Lulu Wang has up her sleeve next.
The Farewell was written and directed by Lulu Wang.
3. John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum
The John Wick franchise has quickly become some of my favorite movies of all time, and easily my most anticipated franchise going today. And, while some people have felt more and more alienated by these movies as they’ve gone on, feeling like they’re getting a little too weird, and not featuring enough of the insane action that put the original film on the map, I’m of the opposite opinion. The more this series goes up its own ass, the more I love it. The action in these films is jaw-dropping and fantastic, but the reason that I keep coming back to these movies is the way that they’ve been building this utterly insane world, piece by piece, making it completely lived in, and someone never collapsing under the sheer absurdity of it all. And, just when I thought I had the series figured out, when I felt like it was going to come to some sort of conclusion, the rug gets pulled out from under us and we get set up for another story, going in places that I never would have imagined. It’s just a purely joyous series of films, and Parabellum ratchets up the insanity, taking everything to the next level, which will surely be topped by the next entry to the series. And I’ll be there, grinning from ear to ear, eager to eat up whatever fresh batch of nonsense that they have ready for me.
John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum was written by Derek Kolstad, Shay Hatten, Chris Collins, and Marc Abrams, directed by Chad Stahelski.
2. Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood
I love the films of Quentin Tarantino, and I’ve especially loved this strange period of his career that he’s found himself in, making revisionist history films that try to tackle the various genres he loves while attempting to right historical wrongs. So, I was expecting to enjoy Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood, but I really don’t think I was expecting the film we got. It’s Tarantino at his most quiet and reflective, still featuring all of his usual quirks and trademarks, especially on display in the insane climax, but the film is certainly far more slow moving and character driven than anything he’s made since perhaps Jackie Brown. It’s a story about a world passing you buy, the change from Old Hollywood to New Hollywood, the loss of innocence, and at it’s heart, a story about friendship and loyalty. Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt put in two of their finest performances of all time as Rick Dalton and Cliff Boothe, two incredibly flawed and tragic figures doing their bet to survive in a world that doesn’t make sense to them anymore, and holding onto each other for dear life. I figured that Tarantino would deliver a film that I would love, but I wasn’t anticipating he’d give us a film that would contain a scene that would utterly gut me like the one of Rick Dalton realizing that his best years are behind him and that he doesn’t have anything left to give the world. It’s a mythic and wild ride from one of America’s finest living filmmakers, still clearly at the height of his powers.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was written and directed by Quentin Tarantino.
1. Knives Out
From the very first moment I heard about Rian Johnson’s Knives Out, I had the inkling that it was going to end up being my favorite film of 2019. I have loved every single film that Johnson has directed, and hearing that he was going to make a star-studded whodunnit parlor room mystery got me extremely excited. And, when I finally got to see the film, it ended up exceeding any sort of expectations. The film ended up being a mystery that quickly became completed different than you were intending it to be, the acting was phenomenal across the board, and it ended up having a whole lot more to say that you’d think it would. There was a real theme among my favorite films of 2019, primarily revolving around one simple idea. You can’t trust the rich, and they will destroy us all if they have the chance. It’s a through-line in quite a few great films, and the way it was added into this murder mystery ended up working spectacularly. It’s a hilarious film that bucks any expectations, and that reminds us that rich white America will stand for itself at the expense of everyone around them, which clearly become more and more true with every passing day. It’s a hell of a movie, and I would love if we get to experience more Benoit Blanc mysteries every few years, because seeing a film like this, that’s completely original and full of such life and passion, really helped recharge me after a tough year. We have a film from one of my favorite living directors, playing in one of my favorite genres, with a cast of some of my favorite actors. It’s a real mystery how this ended up becoming my favorite film of the year, huh?
Knives Out was written and directed by Rian Johnson.
And, there’s 2019. Another year in the books, and yet another incredibly solid year of film. Every single year we hear that cinema is dead, that nothing new or interesting get released, and every year that gets proven unequivocally false. 2019 was not a great year for big budget blockbusters, but it really showed that smaller cinema is alive and well, against all logic. Plenty of small films have made huge impacts on pop culture, and have been commercial successes, hopefully showing the folks in Hollywood that people still want original and interesting film. There are a handful of things I never got to see this year, primarily 1917 and Pain and Glory, but I ended up seeing a pretty shocking amount of films this year, and a majority were really great. Hell, I considered putting this list to 20, because films like Little Women, Midsommar, Booksmart, Hustlers, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, and Hail, Satan? were all also terrific. There’s plenty of good films out there to enjoy, you just need to go looking for it. Things are bad out there, and the film industry is facing some strange and rocky times full of monopolies and diminishing returns, so we need to get out there and love the movies that mean something to us. And, 2019 had a lot to love.
Categories: Reel Talk