After recently wrapping up The Decade’s Best: 2010-2019, I’m right back at writing up the last year in the decade as a whole. I put a few films on The Decade’s Best already from 2019, so slight spoilers for this list, but it’s Oscar week, so that means it’s time for my A Year in Film! 2019 is a pretty great year at the movies, a deep bench of movies I’d give an A- or higher, and 50+ movies I’d say are easily worth your time. So let’s get to a couple of awards and the list!
Best Scene Of The Year: The Family Comes To Cielo Drive – Once Upon A Time In Hollywood
After two plus hours of watching Rick and Cliff hangout, while Sharon Tate dances around the perimeter, we all knew we were going to end up on that fateful night on Cielo drive. What I didn’t expect was the bloodbath that we got. Tarantino’s ending to his Hollywood fairytale all comes into focus as an orgy of violence breaks out. It’s brutal, incredibly staged, hilarious, and is exactly where everything before it was building towards. Easily a Top 5 scene for the director, which is an accomplishment. Dude knows how to end movies.
Best Shot Of The Year: Cap + Mjölnir – Avengers: Endgame
This shot made me lose my shit in the theater, I never dreamed this would happen, and the outcome is amazing. We are all Thor when he yells, “I KNEW IT!”
Best Score Of The Year: Alexandre Desplat – Little Women
Desplat is a perennial favorite to win this award, the guy has pumped out so many great pieces this decade, but his score for Little Women helps elevate and guide us through the emotional highs and lows of the March sisters. It also feels classic without losing a modern touch, which falls right in line with Gerwig’s approach to her source material. Throw this on in the background and I dare you not to get swept up in it.
Most Underrated Film: The Laundromat
Steven Soderbergh released a film about the Panama Papers that lays out how corrupt our capitalistic “principles” are and how many people are getting rich on the backs of the little guy, that told this story in an entertaining and funny way, and stars Meryl Streep, Antonio Banderas and Gary Oldman with a crazy accent and the world just shrugged. What the fuck, people? It’s good! We deserve to be swindled…
Some Movies I Really Wanted To See, But Didn’t Get The Chance:
Ash is Purest White, One Cut of the Dead, Tigers Are Not Afraid, The Day Shall Come, Sword of Trust, Bombshell, Lucy in the Sky, Gloria Bell, Luce, Birds of Passage, Dark Water, Synonyms, Motherless Brooklyn, Sweetheart, Fast Color, The Mustang, Cats
To The List:
The Also Rans (All Movies Worth Your Time And Discussion):
High Flying Bird, Apollo 11, Under the Silver Lake, It Chapter 2, Honey Boy, The Report, The King, The Last Blackman in San Francisco, Cold Case Hammarskjöld, Between Two Ferns: The Movie
The first film on these lists is often a sort of protest vote, but I also genuinely enjoyed Dark Phoenix. Simon Kinberg, who has been behind the scenes spearheading this “First Class” reboot of the X-Men delivers a film that fits right in line with that through line. I’m not arguing it’s better than First Class or Days of Future Past, but Dark Phoenix stands on its own as a look at what having such immense powers in the hands of a young person can do to them. Is Jessica Chastain in this movie? I think so? But, it’s Sophie Turner’s movie and she makes the most of it. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender continue to be the most compelling versions of Professor X and Magneto (Come at me!) and the final set piece of this film is genuinely fantastic. As good as Endgame’s (COME AT ME!). It gives everyone something to do and is beautifully choreographed and shot in and outside of a moving train. I was enthralled. I’ve always had a soft spot for X-Men movies, I admit it, and I think Dark Phoenix stands as a solid send off for the Fox era of these heroes. I look forward to their entry into the MCU.
John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum
Who doesn’t want more John Wick? I’m down for it as long as the quality remains this good, as the only thing going against this latest entry is that it comes out of the gate too hot. The premise Chapter 2 leaves us with, John Wick having to escape New York City with every assassin coming after him, is brilliantly and brutally realized for the first 20 to 30 minutes of the movie. After that, it’s not like the film isn’t any good, it just never again reaches the heights of that opening act. It comes close with a crazy fight where John teams up with Halle Berry and her two awesome dogs, but it never quite captures the beauty of an all out brawl in a hallway full of knives. I think the world building in this film is also the weakest of the three, it’s all getting so complicated!, and it might be best if the future movies focus on a plot more so than just adding new elements to this underground assassins’ world. Still, John Wick has become an action movie god this past decade, lets see if Keanu Reeves can keep his body in one piece for another decade of dominance.
A Hidden Life
Terrence Malick has become quite prolific this past decade, and A Hidden Life feels like his most focused work since Tree of Life. The story of a conscientious objector, Franz Jägerstätter, who wouldn’t fight for the Nazi’s during WWII is an engrossing study of how people act in the face of fascism and how hard it can/could/will be to do the right thing. Jägerstätter sacrificed everything to maintain his principles, even if it might not have changed anything in the moment. What it must take to make a sacrifice like that, it makes you wonder how far you would go in the face of the worst kind of evil. Malick’s film serves as a warning for the impending creepy of nationalism and fascism in the world today, and works best when it is in the world of the everyday people that are being affected by these changing feelings. August Diehl and Valerie Pachner are wonderful as the couple Jägerstätter, and you can feel the pain these decisions put on this family every step of the way. Even if stretched a tad too long, Malick’s film is never not gorgeous and never keeps you from contemplating these heavy ideas he wants us to ponder.
The Standoff at Sparrow Creek
The Reservoir Dogs of the alt-right, Henry Dunham’s feature debut makes the most of a single location thriller, letting the tension ramp as the whodunit is sussed out by the always great James Badge Dale. Seriously, James Badge Dale, people! When a militia gets blamed for a shooting at a police funeral, the local members lock themselves down and begin to try and figure out who is to blame. Trust wavers, tempers flare, and the threat of violence is always in the air. Every member get their moment to shine as Dale questions them one by one, while the twists and turns surprise you along the way. At 88 minutes, Dunham’s film flies by and ultimately lands on a great finish to the story. Maybe it gets a little too explainy, but, the tension pays off wonderfully. A little gem of a movie, I can’t wait to see what Dunham gets to do next.
Toy Story 4
Pixar’s Toy Story franchise has been a part of children’s lives for multiple generations now, but the latest entry feels like an ode to retirement and moving from a life centered around your children. It is an interesting take for these films that are about friendship and family, but I think in the end the team at Pixar mostly pulls it off. Josh Cooley makes his feature debut, and while I think Toy Story 4 is the lesser of the series, it still serves as an emotional send off for Woody and a road that goes ever on for the rest of the toys. It’s hard to follow up Toy Story 3, which ended the Andy portion of the toy’s lives perfectly, while the adventures in and around Bonnie have remained quite good, even if they haven’t transcended greatness (except for Partysaurus Rex, A+). The new faces we get in Toy Story 4 are a lot of fun, Duke Kaboom in particular, while Pixar’s animation continues to take steps forward, even when locked into a visual aesthetic that the first started with these toys over 25 years ago. Pixar has such a high bar for greatness with me, one they haven’t cleared as much this decade, but lesser Pixar is still usually pretty great stuff, and I might be being a bit too harsh Toy Story 4 because of that. There is so much to love, and who doesn’t want to hang out with this crew one more time (well, besides maybe Woody…).
David Eggers follow up to The Witch was not what I expected. Not to say that is a bad thing, but I think I was not prepared for just how fucked this movie is. A two hander all the way, Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe’s descent into madness is riveting stuff. It never tips fully into genre fare, just psychological warfare among two men strapped to an island for months on end, but Eggers peppers the edges with the supernatural to fuel the struggle of these men to keep it together with themselves and one another. I don’t know quite what I was getting into going in, but I can only imagine this film gets better on future rewatches. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot to be appreciated on first go. Are possibly satanic seagulls up your alley, how about evil mermaids, Willem Dafoe farting, well, this film has got all of that and more. Eggers’ two features so far are so unique and so original to his voice, he’s quickly established himself as one of our great up and coming genre filmmakers. The Lighthouse is a wild movie, you should take the trip.
M. Night Shyamalan’s trilogy capper really made an impression on me the first time through. While it wavered a bit on a re-watch, I still think Shyamalan’s attempt to subvert the superhero genre has a lot to love in it, even if I wasn’t quite as blown away. I think that has to partially be because the film is full of surprises that make that initial viewing so damn exciting and memorable. The finale in particular has balls, I couldn’t believe he makes some of the choices he does, in a good way, and I would gladly watch him spin out this world of superheroes even further if he chooses to. In fact, let some other filmmakers run with this world Shyamalan has set up, that could be great to see some other low budget takes on the genre. Still, Glass has so much going for it, especially with the work James McAvoy and Samuel L. Jackson are turning in. McAvoy’s second go at his character created in the previous entry, Split, really is a tour de force acting showcase. His ability to just glide between all of these personalities inside him really is astonishing, while Jackson’s Glass feels like an evolution of a guy who is pissed off and has been methodically planning his revenge for twenty years. I wish Bruce Willis had a bit more to do here, but his stoic David Dunn is a nice balance to what his two co-stars are doing. Glass remains entertaining without the surprise elements, but I wish it had a bit more meat on the bones to dive into on future visits.
Jordan Peele’s follow up to his solid debut, Get Out, feels like a step forward in his filmmaking and features possibly the best performance of the year. What are we doing here, Oscars? Lupita Nyong’o is INCREDIBLE in this film, playing two completely distinct parts, one of which is absolutely tragic and terrifying. Future generations will looks upon this Oscar year in shame for not awarding her a statue. Still, Peele fills his cast with likable performances and duel takes from the main family that impress at every turn, and he puts together a roller coaster ride of a movie in the middle hour that is about as fun a time as you can have at the movies. That said, I don’t think he quite nails the ending, Peele goes for a bit too much bravado in his final act, even if I like the twists and turns he puts in there. Us still, ultimately, works, and I think a bit of the disappointment I felt in the end was the come down from the brilliant middle act of the movie. Pelle has quickly become one of our sharpest directors, and I still think he has better films in front of him; and that’s saying something. People scared away by Us’ brilliant trailer should probably give this one a shot, it’s genre fun filled with as many laughs as scares. More please, Mr. Peele.
Olivia Wilde’s one night from hell highschool comedy works so well because Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein are about as good as a duo as you could ask for. You buy into their friendship from second one and every decision they make along the way feels appropriate to who these girls are. Each segment of the night delivers the laughs, while everytime Billie Lourd shows up you wish she didn’t disappear so quickly. Lourd steals the show, to be honest, and I can’t wait for her to continue to get even more, bigger roles going forward. Wilde’s direction is also assured and great throughout, with her take on a big fight scene late in the film being one of my favorite scenes and choices in a film this year. Booksmart is always funny, full of heart and feels like a modern high school experience. I think it holds the title for best high school movie of the last five years (I feel like Lady Bird transcends this genre, or else that would be the clear winner), a genre that’s been taken over by female driven stories, and, frankly, I hope that trend continues.
Alita: Battle Angel
This is the action spectacle of the year, and fits in nicely into my futuristic sci-fi epics film festival that I want to program one of these days. James Cameron and Robert Rodriguez deliver a gorgeous and action packed tale of a robot figuring out who they are, and it just so happens that they are a kick-ass assassin that also excels at the sport of motor-ball. It feels like a four hour movie squished into two, but I’ll take a film that makes me wish we got more, than a boring slog that feels like it is stretching itself thin. The boyfriend character in this film is its weak point, he’s terrible, but Rosa Salazar’s Alita almost sells us on him. He almost ruins the movie, but Salazar is undeniable as Alita. We buy her wide eyed curiosity and optimism from the get go, and I really, really hope we get more of her in a sequel or three. The supporting cast is so game for the tone of this movie, you only wish you got more of them. I get the desire to focus on the action set pieces, but I really would watch the three hour cut of this film that dives into the weird political machinations we only get a taste of in the theatrical cut. Alita: Battle Angel should have been a bigger hit, I hope you people are finding it on streaming.
The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part
The follow up to the pretty great The Lego Movie is a pretty great look at growing up and having the urge to only embrace the “dark and gritty” content that is provided to teenage boys. At the heart of this story is still the optimistic and good natured Emmet, but the film finds a way to investigate how the changing world around him might pull him in one way or another. The introduction of the brother/sister relationship elements work great as well, as the film pivots to full on musical and never loses its sense of humor. It’s a shame this film wasn’t the success it was hoped to have been. The animation is still great and the story and lessons it serves to our children are strong. This film is a great take on toxic masculinity and how you don’t have to embrace it as a young boy, something a lot of young boys in our culture should probably take a look at in this day and age. I was still charmed by this movie, I don’t really get why it got written off so quickly. Catch up if you missed it, on this one or both Lego Movies, they are great.
I Lost My Body
This French animated story from Jérémy Clapin is a surreal reflection on a young man’s love life, one that feels a bit retrograde and kind of creepy, actually, but the ingenuity in the animation and storytelling around his severed hand is what makes this film special. Yes, I said severed hand. Intercut with flashbacks to the hand’s original owner’s struggle to connect with a woman he meets over intercom, we watch as this hand journey’s across Paris in an attempt to be reunited with his owner. There is sweetness to the hand’s journey that its owner might not deserve, but I was consistently blown away by the animation and setpieces Clapin puts this hand through. Imaginative and original, I Lost My Body shows you how animation can tell stories no other mediums can. I look forward to whatever Clapin does next.
This Stephen King/Stanley Kubrick adaptation from Mike Flanagan was the director’s first shot at a big budget genre film and he pretty much hits it out of the park. Not only does Doctor Sleep stand alone on it’s own, but it also marries King and Kubrick’s visions for the original adaptation, all while elevating the story of Doctor Sleep at the same time. Ewan McGregor is a solid rock in the middle of this movie, which finds its more interesting characters swirling around him. Not so much a horror film as it is a vampire tale mashed with a superhero origin story, Rebecca Ferguson and Kyliegh Curran provide the drama around those two elements, respectively. Both are great, Ferguson as the shine sucking leader of a band of powered misfits, Curran as the super powerful shiner that becomes in touch with McGregor’s Danny Torrance. Doctor Sleep is at its best when it isn’t trying to be Kubrick’s The Shining, but that said, Flanagan does a pretty fantastic job of recreating The Overlook and the shots Kubrick crafted inside it. Once you know what Flanagan was doing with the finale, merging Kubrick to King’s original visions, the callback feel a bit more essential, but at the same time I would have gladly watched a conclusion that had nothing to do with The Overlook. Doctor Sleep is a great detective/adventure film at its heart, anyone turned off by the over The Shining marketing campaign should really give this shot.
Alejandro Landes’ film takes us into the world of child soldiers living in the mountains and jungles of some unnamed South American country, for a visceral and raw story about the dangers of putting power in the hands of young people and how we can’t let the craziest ones among us dictate where we move forward. A vague kidnapping plot is at the center of this film, but it’s mostly about the fraying relationships among this group of teenage soldiers who are, for no real given reason, in charge of protecting this kidnapped individual. Landes’ filmmaking is what sucks you into this film, not the story, but you also don’t know where this thing is going to go, which keeps you on your toes from start to finish. The set pieces in the film put you on the edge of your seat, while the drama unfolding in the dynamics among this group of soldiers always keep you guessing who is going to betray who. Brutal at every turn, this is another film that is tough to get through, but Monos is a film unlike any I’ve ever scene, and one worth your time if you can get into the subject matter.
Joanna Hogg’s autobiographical story about early love and the red flags it can make you avoid is one of those films that sneaks up on you. Never a very light and “entertaining” film, Hogg takes you down the path of Julie as she navigates the fuck-upery of her boyfriend Anthony. He might have some charm and be brilliant, but his self-destructive tendencies leave Julie at a constant crossroads over how she should handle him and their relationship. Raw and lived in, Hogg lets you sit in it, and it all just builds towards its conclusion that feels sad and freeing for both Julie and the viewer. A much watch for young women for what not to brush off when it comes to love, the film also serves as a great breakout performance from Honor Swinton Byrne. She commands the movie, even if Julie can be indecisive and make head shaking decisions, she pulls us into her world and her performance right from the start. I can’t wait to get more of her in this role in Hogg’s follow up to this film.
Alex Ross Perry’s five act structure centered around his fictional punk music queen, Becky Something, allows us to see her evolve through five extended scenes and watch Elisabeth Moss turn in one of the best performances of the year. Moss plays Becky with such an unhinged ferocity, you can’t look away from the trainwreck she is steering all over everyone in her life. It’s mesmerizing work, but Perry also shows you how the people around her make her who she is, and how growing up can change a person as they gain perspective and assess the pain they caused along the way. Perry’s filmmaking is also quietly brilliant here, as his camera weaves in and out of the mayhem Becky is causing backstage or in studio, showing her antics in a completely unglamorous way, but you also sort of get why all of these people in her life let this bullshit fly. It’s an often intense experience, but a worthy one, even if just for Moss’ performance alone. Luckily, Perry fills the film with even more beyond that, guiding a fantastic cast around the tornado that is Becky Something. An underseen gem.
This follow up of The Babadook from Jennifer Kent is a brutal tale of survival, colonialism and race in the Tasmanian wilderness of the early 19th century. A penal colony of England, what starts as a story of a young Irish family trying to break free, turns into a tale of revenge after brutality is laid upon everyone in our lead Clare’s family. The film pulls no punches, and even though it is set 200 years ago, it’s messages on misogyny and race, sadly, still feel relevant. A sort of road movie structure arises as Clare and her guide, the native Billy, hunt down her offenders and just plain try to survive the encounters you endure in this setting. Aisling Franciosi and Baykali Ganambarr are an excellent duo at the heart of this film, somehow finding moments of levity through the grim terror and historically accurate nightmare. Not an easy watch, but one that enthralled me all along the way.
El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie
Vince Gilligan’s coda to his all-timer television series was an idea I was weary on when announced, but actually serves as a great, and much needed, ending for Jesse. The final season of Breaking Bad, rightfully?, became mostly focused on Walt and his story, but the one element that always felt a bit off about it all was Jesse’s sad and depressing end to this story. Him racing out into the wild, with no idea where to go, was not an ending I feel that character deserved, so color me grateful when Gilligan’s film gave him a more than proper send off. Folding in characters from the shows past, dead and alive, through the use of flashbacks and plot devices they provided, the film feels like an extension of the Breaking Bad world, not a cheap homage to the renowned series. Aaron Paul has never been better as Jesse? and Vince Gilligan creates a number of great set pieces and tension filled moments as Jesse tries to free himself from the horrors of Albuquerque. If you are a fan of Breaking Bad at all, you owe it to yourself, and Jesse, to see his story wrapped up in as satisfying of a way as Walt’s was.
The Top 22:
22. Pain and Glory
Pedro Almodóvar is a director I’ve mostly loved every time I’ve seen one of his pictures, only seen a few, and Pain and Glory only gets better in my mind every time I think about it. People are coming to this movie, rightfully, for Antonio Banderas’ performance as a director at a crossroads, but Almodóvar’s film slowly builds towards a finale that just kind of hits you out of nowhere. When you reflect back on the film you can see Almodóvar putting everything together, but the reflection Banderas’ character is going through feel a bit like short stories and the ending makes you realize how the wheels were turning all along. Banderas really is great as Almodóvar’s avatar and the two create such a sensitive tale of a man trying to figure things out without relying on stereotypical midlife crisis tropes. Granted, Banderas’ Mallo isn’t going through a midlife crisis, but a middle aged man dealing with personal dilemmas has never been shown in this way before. Pain and Glory made me realize I probably need to dive into early Almodóvar, let this be your gateway drug for him if you haven’t given him a try yet.
21. Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese
Martin Scorsese and Bob Dylan are up to some shenanigans here. Full of authentic concert footage from the Rolling Thunder Revue, Scorsese crafts an imagined and honest look back at the tour through a series of talking head interviews with people acting like they were there. From unfamiliar faces to Sharon Stone, Scorsese never flinches at blending fact and fiction, even if he opens with Bob Dylan telling us he doesn’t remember shit that happened 40 years ago. The interview portions of the film are engaging and fun, but the concert material they have assembled looks and sounds incredible. You can feel and experience how unique a tour this was, and they did an amazing job of restoring the footage. Dylan has never sounded better on this tour and some of the behind the scenes stuff the original filmmakers captured is a rare look inside tour life from the seventies. A great concert doc from one of our greatest filmmakers and greatest musicians of all time.
20. The Irishman
Martin Scorsese has still got it, people. This epic is full of some of the greatest actors of their generation, all doing fantastic work, as they and the director all tackle what it’s like to get old and to reflect on all the decisions we made before that. Long and deliberately paced, I was still riveted from start to finish. Robert De Niro delivers one of his best performances in decades, as a quiet painter of houses that moves through the ranks of the east coast mob scene and Hoffa labor unions all at the same time. Based on his character’s (Frank Sheeran) probably exaggerated real life exploits serves as a canvas for Scorsese to examine the choices and sacrifices people make to protect their family, protect themselves, and protect their livelihood. While not as flashy as his most renowned films, Scorsese’s craft has not dulled in the slightest. With this and his last film, Silence, he is still out there creating epic stories that ask not just his characters to examine themselves, but also ask us to look at ourselves. He’s a master for a reason.
19. Downton Abbey
The series this film was an extension of was always in entertaining and soapy drama. The upstairs downstairs dynamic was a tried and true genre of British filmmaking, but when the drama was great, with the many characters we’ve come to love over the years, this show could rival some of the best bits of prestige TV. Julian Fellowes understood this when he wrote the script for this long awaited film adaptation, which takes all of our favorite characters and gives everyone a moment or two to shine in basically what is the perfect representation of Downton Abbey. I had almost as much fun watching this on the big screen as I did Avengers: Endgame, and they would make an interesting double feature. They both can stand on their own, but they both work best as amazing culminations for their respective fanbases, paying off arcs, giving everyone great material, and filling the frame with exactly what fans would want. That’s not to say they are both too fanservicey, far from it, they both just are exactly what audiences would have wanted. Not necessarily in plot terms, but in an emotionally satisfying way to see all your old friends together again.
18. Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker
So. A second viewing of this film really unlocked it for me, as the first time through was such a mad dash Star Wars thrill ride that you never really had a chance to stop and think about how all of this was coming together. What it comes down to is that J.J. Abrams decided to settle in and finish the story of Rey, and I really can’t imagine something better than this? Rey’s arc is wonderful across these three films, and while I was a little disappointed the film doesn’t really find much closure for anyone else, I think if you step back and view this trilogy as Rey’s story, it all comes together quite well! Abrams’ film is fast paced, that might be an understatement, but I don’t think that makes the film lesser than because of that. Sure, I would have loved some more of Luke and Leia’s post Return of the Jedi background. Yeah, a bit more explanation about how Palpatine is doing whatever he’s doing could have been great. But Rey figuring out who she is (and she’s still a no one from nowhere, no matter her bloodline) is a compelling conclusion to the arc The Last Jedi sent her off on. The only major strike against the film for me was the lack of a more compelling conclusion for Kylo Ren/Ben Solo. If still feels a bit rushed, but I think Abrams did his best with the unfortunate death of Carrie Fisher who was supposed to be the rock of this film. Guiding her new apprentice and lost son towards the light, together, is in this film, but I think the only way this film is better if Fisher was alive. Still, I love it, I love Star Wars, and I look forward to where the films go on from here.
17. Homecoming: A Film by Beyoncé
Beyoncé’s Coachella show was instantaneously a thing of legend. Unless you caught the live stream or were there, she kept it off the internet as she crafted a fantastic little documentary inside her concert film. The interstitial elements of the film are looks into the making of this concert, and how Beyoncé was empowering black musicians, production designers, dancers, costumes, you name it. She wanted to make this an experience that felt culturally relevant to where she came from, while also lifting these artists to a platform that only Beyoncé can provide. The stories we get to see between some of the songs are compelling and vital, and they serve as a great reminder of how great these artists are as we watch all their work pay off in the INCREDIBLE performance Beyoncé and her team put on. This has to be one of the best concerts ever? Really, it’s so well orchestrated, never dull, and sees Beyoncé slaying in every facet of her many abilities. Don’t sell this concert film short, bow to the power of Bey.
16. Knives Out
Rian Johnson has been a filmmaker I’ve adored ever since Brick, and that trend continues today as he is now five for five with Knives Out. Johnson’s script are full and intricate, rewarding on future visits, and this is one that I imagine my appreciation of will only grow on as I throw it in the blu-ray player. Daniel Craig and Ana de Armas are great at the center of this Agatha Christie inspired whodunit, with the rest of the whos filled out with an all-star cast. Johnson’s best trick is that he takes away a lot of the mystery by showing us the crime in the first twenty minutes, and instead chooses to focus on de Armas’ Marta flapping in the wind as we know her secrets as she tries to uncover the larger Thrombrey skeletons at play. Political without waving it in your face, fast paced and hilarious, with really an all-timer performance for Craig’s filmography, there is so much to enjoy in Knives Out; which still hits all of those whodunit notes even as it subverts the genre at the same time. I can’t wait to watch this one again and again.
15. The Farewell
Lulu Wang’s adaptation of a story about her own life folds you into her familial setting and lets you learn to love everyone involved. The premise that brings Awkwafina to China, to say goodbye to her dying grandmother without ever telling her she is dying seems like a high concept idea for a movie, but is real life for her Chinese family. We feel the western pull on Awkwafina’s emotions, as she wants to embrace her grandmother and let her share in her pain, but at the same time we wonder why anyone would ever want to take away the joy and spirit of Nai Nai by letting her know she is going to die. Wang’s film never really settles into a specific genre, but I think it’s all the more powerful for that. She keeps us on our toes, letting us get to know this family a bit more with each passing scene, all while finding the sadness and levity that can come around the reflection around a death in a family. The finale set me into tears, while the film’s coda made them come even harder, but for entirely different emotions. The movie on this list I wish I got to watch a second time the most, I think this could climb higher on future rewatches. Don’t miss The Farewell, there are few stories about family out there like it.
Joker is not an easy sit. Joaquin Phoenix is incredible (but, when is he not?) and Todd Phillips proves his filmmaking bonafides outside of the comedy genre, but the film’s dive into how we leave the mentally ill behind in our society worked as an empathy machine on me. Phoenix’s Arthur is someone we might not be able to truly ever walk in their shoes, but we can see and understand why Arthur is so wounded by the way the world treats him, until we can’t. I think Phillips’ film does a great job of making us feel compassion for Arthur’s plight, he does just want to put a smile on people’s faces, but it also doesn’t ask you to sympathize or root for him when he crosses the line. A film that can make you hope for the best, then completely make you abhor your main character’s behavior, without just making them act abhorrent out of nowhere, is a compelling one to me. And even though we stop rooting for Arthur in the final act, Phoenix’s performance crescendos as Arthur goes full Joker, culminating in the electrifying talk show sequence that caps off the film. Gorgeously shot and hauntingly scored, Joker sucked me in, Phillips’ best trick is then making you wish you hadn’t as you still can’t look away. Not an easy film, but one of the most viscerally affecting films I saw all year.
13. High Life
Claire Denis’ journey into deep space is an unsettling journey much of the way. Intercut between flashbacks to earth and the mayhem that erupted on this ship of convicts and unbenounced test subjects, Denis’ film feels wholly original. Robert Pattinson’s stoic center to the film is perfect, as we see him deal with the struggles of raising a child in deep space, juxtaposed against the man he was before he was put into this position. A number of terrible things happen along the way in this film, a lo-fi interpretation of deep space travel, and while it might not feel like the most accurate representation of what a trip into the far reaches of our galaxy might look like, the psychological toll that it has on these passengers feels 100% spot on. Still, the ending of the film is kind of incredible, and stands as one of the most hopeful and compelling finales to a space exploration film I’ve ever seen to date. Another “not for everyone” entry on this list, but I was captivated from start to finish.
12. Dragged Across Concrete
S. Craig Zahler is three for three for me, and he just keeps getting better each time out. This hard nosed, slow burn, cop drama is not afraid to get ugly. Whether it’s the character’s point of views, the nihilistic violence, or absolutely gruesome gore, this film isn’t an easy watch. But the dark comedy buddy cop movie buried inside it, bumping up against an underestimated criminal payback film, slowly comes together and collides into a mess of cat and mouse insanity that is tense and calculating in the best ways possible. I kept slowly creeping more and more towards the edge of my seat, swept up in each player’s move on this three man chess board, never really knowing how it was all going to shakeout. Unflinching in a don’t give a fuck way most films wouldn’t dare to be nowadays, I can’t help but appreciate Zahler’s attitude to just tell his stories without giving two shits what anyone else thinks about them. Not for everyone, but if you like your cop films gritty and brutal, give this one a shot.
Bong Joon-ho is a filmmaker I’ve always liked and appreciated, but I feel like his recent attempts to breakthrough into more western cinemas hasn’t felt quite right. With Parasite, he looks inward into his own country’s class struggles, which (sadly) is as universal of a theme as any in today’s crushingly capitalistic global economy. That’s not to say he is preaching about the ills of capitalism, but this story of the haves and the haves not is relatable to just about anyone, while also dissecting what living in a society driven by wealth and the disparity around it can do to just about anyone involved in that vicious cycle. On top of that, Bong also just makes one hell of an entertaining picture. A roller coaster ride that never stops surprising you, and is always flipping the script on the Kim family at the center of this all. An incredible cast, beautifully shot and designed, Bong has made his second best film in Parasite. This guy will get to probably do anything he wants to after this film’s success, I can’t wait to see what he does with that power, and I hope he keeps his sights set on a story that feels most personal to him, and not trying to create something that feels more palpable to the world at large.
10. Ad Astra
Brad Pitt goes on an Apocalypse Now inspired trip into space to solve his daddy issues doesn’t seem like the fodder for a great movie, but here we are. I think the knowledge of the Apocalypse Now influence really lets you settle into the films structure, whose look is heavily influenced by 2001: A Space Odyssey, but James Gray’s film still feels like an original piece of work all the same. His set pieces are all compelling, the moon chase in particular is unlike anything you’ve ever seen, while his extrapolation of space travel into our future feels thought out and authentic. It tickles the filmmaking and hard sci-fi bones in my body, while Pitt’s journey surprises in what it doesn’t get into by the time it is all said and done. I was expecting a bigger, more revelatory ending to the film, but the message it ultimately lands on is one that is most important and a reminder that humanity and how we interact with one another is what is ultimately going to save us all. Epic and beautiful, but focused and emotional, Gray’s latest is my favorite film from him yet.
9. Uncut Gems
It took two viewings of Josh and Benny Safdie’s latest to get on its page. On the first take, I was intrigued and engaged, but I never really felt like I settled into the rhythm of the film until the brilliant final scenes. Knowing where the film is willing to go helped unlock the second viewing. I was able to view Howard Ratner (an incredible Adam Sandler) not as our potential hero, but the dirtbag degenerate that we can’t help but root for in the end? But are we actually rooting for his girlfriend Julia (the also great Julia Fox) to get out of this mess? My appreciation of Fox and her performance is what really took the film to another level for me on the second time through, as her journey and her love for Howard was the most human and sympathetic thread of the film. Everyone else is driven by greed, Julia is driven by love, and you can’t help but get swept up in her genuine and compelling expressions of it. Fox is a star, let’s put her in everything people, and Sandler also lands a Top 3 performance for himself, as he continues to prove to be a great actor when he wants to take a swing at it. I’ve only seen the two most recent Safdie films, this included, but I can’t wait to see where these two go next.
Christian Petzold’s drama is an adaptation of a book written during the rise of the Nazi’s in France in 1942, but he chooses to shoot the film in modern day France and it is terrifying that the film feels like it is actually believable something like this could/is/still happening today. The refugee and immigration parallels around the world today, and how we are treating these people, is eerily similar to what the Nazi’s were doing before they just started exterminating whole swaths of people, Petzold’s choice is bold and brilliant. The film’s twisty nature and structure only builds on top of the brilliant setting, all while being acted wonderfully by his cast. The ache and humanity Franz Rogowski and Paula Beer bring to the lead roles is felt throughout, while the anxiety and rush to evade the impending crush of fascism is never far behind; until it is in front of you. A harrowing reminder of what humanity is capable of, maybe we should all see this film and be reminded of why we can’t go down this road again; because the car is already back in the slow lane towards facist states spanning all across the globe.
7. The Art of Self-Defense
Riley Stearns’ deadpan comedy about a man trying to claim his “masculinity” is great for a number of reasons. First, Jesse Eisenberg has only been better in The Social Network, as he plays a vaguely spectrumy accountant who has no idea how to function in society. The whole film has a certain affect to the dialogue and delivery, but Eisenberg still stands out as someone unique. The world of this martial arts dojo is so bizzare and engaging, you get sucked into along with Eisenberg, only to discover things get darker and darker the closer you get to the night classes. I can’t even really describe this movie, it feels so much its own thing, but I can tell you it had me laughing throughout as Eisenberg evolves as his confidence builds. Imogen Poots is also excellent as a fellow classmate, and her arc is just as compelling as the loan woman in this dojo, led by the equally excellent Alessandro Nivola. I don’t know what more to say than, just see the damn thing. It’s weird, but in the best way possible.
6. Marriage Story
Noah Baumbach has been keeping himself busy as of late, but his last two films feel like his most personal films to date. The Meyerowitz Stories is a look at family and how you can reconcile that around a sickness inside it, while Marriage Story looks at how you function as a family when divorce is on the table. And both are quite funny! I know a story about a couple’s divorce doesn’t seem like a riot, but Baumbach’s writing is always sharp and full of wit, and his two leads are both written and acted so wonderfully that you can’t help but laugh as things are coming apart. A lot of the film’s humor is built into the lawyers presiding over the divorce in question (Nicole & Charlie), all of which are played to great effect by Laura Dern, Ray Liotta and Alan Alda. If Dern is worthy of an Oscar, so are Charlie’s lawyers too! Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver deliver two of the most human performances of the year, they are both so comfortable in their roles, you can’t help but feel for them, neither of which is ever painted as the bad guy in all of this. An easy watch, and probably Baumbach’s second best film?, Marriage Story is a film I plan on revisiting a lot in the future, I just have to turn off Baumbach’s Frances Ha first.
The most empathetic film of the year, Trey Edward Shults put you right into the shoes of his protagonists and has the courage to not look away when it gets rough, and not cast stereotypes to make it easier to assume what feelings we are supposed to be having in this film. Told in two parts, the first is an ever ramping up escalation of high school feelings. Showing how stupid humans can be at that age and how a series of small incidents can stack into something terrible. The second half is about forgiveness and finding calm in the pain, the perfect antidote to the turning of the screws the first half is based on, all while informing how we could feel about how that first part shakes out. Forgiveness doesn’t mean acceptance, and I think that, sadly, complex look at feelings is somewhat lacking in both our personal and social discourse nowadays. Schults gets great performances out of everyone in his cast, they are all perfect in building complex and deep characters, and he never misses a chance to try something new or interesting with his set-ups and camera work. A beautiful film, one that had me weeping by the end, and nobody saw this, let’s change that.
4.5. Portrait of a Lady on Fire
I’m adding this film, three days after publishing, because, well it can’t be forgotten. Portrait of a Lady on Fire, from Céline Sciamma, is a lesbian romance in a period setting, but Sciamma makes it feel new and original by making the romance delicate and building the emotions until they can’t be held back. She does the same with the film’s conclusion, as everything is perfectly placed along the way to make the ending work perfectly. Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel are just as perfect as the romantic leads, making themselves vulnerable, then consummating their love in such a way that makes their inevitable separation wreck us along with them. The film is gorgeous, a number of Sciamma’s frames could qualify as the best of the year, and that ending might be the absolute best. It’s perfect. Sciamma also does an amazing job of showcasing the art at hand, while also giving focus to the many pitfalls of being a woman during this time through the housekeeper. The film just slowly pulls you in, and never lets you go. I can’t wait to see it again.
Ari Aster’s Hereditary wowed me in the end. A quieter and more domestic drama than I anticipated as a whole, not a complaint, the unnerving nature of the film still resonated throughout, but the ending was really the high point. I think that is the same here with his second feature, Midsommar, only instead of a domestic drama about grief we are given a pitch black comedy about grief of a loss in your family and the end of your relationship. I was laughing pretty much throughout this movie, minus the brutal opening scenes, and I think that was the wavelength Ari Aster wanted us on. That doesn’t mean we won’t see some messed up shit along the way, we do, but the way he depicts the ancient rituals of Hårga is done in a loving and non-judgemental way, in a way that a citizen of this fictional Hårga would probably appreciate if they saw this film. Aster’s imagination around these rituals is inspired, and well researched!, while his filmmaking skills are flexing for the pictures final act. Once things get rolling, this nightmare for Florence Pugh’s Dani can not be stopped. Pugh is excellent, she is worth the price of admission alone, and I can not wait to see what she does moving forward. Aster says he is moving away from horror with his next feature, I get it, this one two punch of Hereditary and Midsommar will be hard to top.
3. Little Women
Greta Gerwig is quickly becoming one of our great filmmakers. Her run in the last decade can go toe to toe with any of my favorite filmmakers, and by the end of the next decade she could be in that Top 3 favorites. Lady Bird only gets better everytime out, and I expect the same from Gerwig’s adaptation of Little Women. Her cast is impeccable, her direction is growing stronger, and I love how she brought her voice into an adaptation of this classic tale of young women. I’ve seen a few of the modern adaptations of Louisa May Alcott’s most remembered work, and this one takes the cake by a mile. I could watch Saoirse Ronan and Florence Pugh do anything, forever, but they bring so much life into Jo and Amy that you get lost in their performances. The March family as a whole is just a group of people you want to hang out with, and Gerwig’s script makes this classic family feel modern. You get Laurie’s attraction to be a part of this family, they are infectious and you want to be infected.
2. Avengers: Endgame
You will be hard pressed to find blockbuster cinema done much better than this. Kevin Feige put into motion all the pieces that would culminate in this film 11 years ago, and it somehow all paid off. This film does an amazing job of not only taking us down memory lane, but also culminates storylines that have been weaving in and out of one another throughout this entire MCU run. The film is a showcase for the entirety of the cast, which narrows it down to the OG core Avengers and a few of the desolation survivors from the latter films. Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans cap off brilliant runs for Iron Man and Captain America, Scarlett Johansson and Jeremy Renner cap off their arc through tragedy, while Chris Hemsworth and Mark Ruffalo turn in hilarious turns that put Thor and Hulk in places I could have never predicted. Also, the most hyped I got in a movie theater this year was probably during Endgame. As an MCU fan, I couldn’t have asked for more.
1. Once Upon A Time In Hollywood
Quentin Tarantino has been at this for three decades, and my personal Top 3 of his films now has one entry from each of them. Pulp Fiction was his breakthrough smash, Inglourious Basterds was his pivot to dissecting history, and Once Upon A Time In Hollywood sees him maturing into his, supposed, final phase before retirement. This Top 3 can go toe to toe with just about any other director (his bench is full of greatness too), but I wonder if Hollywood might be able to climb to the top of these 3 over time thanks to his lead duo being his best to date. Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt are both making their second appearances in Tarantino films, and they both are delivering career best work? Which is saying something. Rick “Fucking” Dalton and Cliff Booth are two characters you could hang out with forever, and they are brought to life with such excellence by these two superstars, there isn’t a bad beat in the movie. But in the end, Tarantino’s magic trick is Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate, who is so full of life and love and beauty, you can feel Tarantino’s love and frustration with the fact that she was taken away from films in the most tragic of circumstances. That’s why the orgy of violence works at the end, that’s why the flipping history on its head works again for him. You want the devil to die, and to see Cliff Booth put him in his grave. This film feels perfect after only two viewings and I could see it being in my Top 5 films of the decade in another decade or so. Tarantino is a master, I hope he decides not to quit after his next movie. We would be robbed of more greatness from one of our greatest directors.
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