The purpose of this list is not to declare what I believe to be the “best” (whatever that means) movies of the year. Instead, it’s to let you the reader know which films affected me the most, the ones that wormed their way into my brain and refused to leave. Most importantly, this exercise is meant to shed light on a few titles that may have escaped your radar. If you take a chance on any of these, I sincerely hope they bring you the same joy they did me. Without further ado, here are my favorite films of 2019.
10. Knives Out
At first glance, Knives Out looks like an exceptionally well-cast riff on an Agatha Christie whodunnit, yet it’s actually another instance of writer / director Rian Johnson (Brick, Star Wars: The Last Jedi) performing an autopsy of a well-known genre — examining each of its cliches, character archetypes and story tropes, only to disassemble them and construct something new. Knives Out deals multiple hands at a time: a riveting murder mystery, an uproarious dysfunctional-family comedy, an eat-the-rich social satire and a meta-commentary on detective films.
The murderer’s row of talent (which includes Toni Collette, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Jamie Lee Curtis and several others) all have a blast playing the money-grubbing family, not to mention Daniel Craig as the renowned sleuth Benoit Blanc. A goofball Southerner with a fondness for donuts, he’s either way smarter or dumber than he lets on. This would just be a wink-nudge subversion of murder mysteries if it wasn’t for Ana de Armas’ performance as Marta, the saintly nurse and close confidant of the murder victim (Christopher Plummer). She lends Knives Out a refreshing nobility that cuts through the cynical characters surrounding her.
9. High Life
In many ways, High Life is another genre film that does the exact opposite of what you expect. The story follows Monte (Robert Pattinson), who with his newborn daughter, is the last aboard a roaming space shuttle with zero chance of making it back to Earth. There’s no death-defying action sequences of man fighting against the elements of space; this is not a thriller along the lines of Gravity.
Rather, High Life is a challenging piece of arthouse sci-fi, framing obscene sexuality against creeping space madness. It also features prominent use of a device called the Fuck Box. Seriously. Despite the demented subject matter, the bond between Monte and his young daughter anchors their miserable voyage with a powerful streak of tenderness. It’s at once impossibly bleak and optimistic. A strange brew, but a worthwhile expedition for brave passengers.
8. The Lighthouse
Filmmaker Robert Eggers’ debut feature, The Witch, was a masterclass in mounting dread and a harrowing vision of a family being torn apart by superstition. The Lighthouse, while equally dense, is a different beast altogether: a dark comedy about two 19th-century lighthouse keepers (Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson) plagued by the monotonous sounds of seagulls and crashing waves, menial physical labor, bad food and too much booze. That would all be tolerable if they didn’t find each other insufferable; Pattinson’s inexperienced lightman constantly butts heads with his crusty sea-dog companion, in instances that sometimes come to blows and other times settle after the men get too drunk to speak. Dafoe’s unbelievable performance elevates an amusing cartoon sailor into a menacing and hilarious figure.
Together, the pair are an old married couple from hell, and their shifting dynamic is the film’s backbone even as what’s actually happening becomes increasingly ambiguous. Eggers has horrors to unveil in The Lighthouse, but the meticulous period details and delirious tone prove he has plenty more to show you.
When I’m sick, I like to pop in classic teen comedies — Clueless, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Dazed and Confused, etc. They’re like an extra blanket to curl under when you can barely get out of bed. So I’m pleased to add Olivia Wilde’s directing debut Booksmart to that list of comfort films. Countless critics have compared this to Superbad, but Booksmart isn’t as interested in that brand of mile-a-minute improv riffing. This is an insightful comedy about the painful feeling that you’re on the outside looking in at your fellow high-schoolers having more fun, friends and success than you.
That’s not to say this is some mopey coming-of-age dramedy. Co-leads Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein are among the breakouts of the year, and they have the comedic timing and chemistry to match the confident filmmaking on display. As the two wind up at the last big party of their senior year, Wilde imbues the sequence with the life-altering sense of promise every high-school party held back in the day. A night where reciprocated affections can lead to soaring highs, and the soul-crushing disappointment when things don’t end quite as planned.
6. The Beach Bum
Who knew that Harmony Korine, the experimental director behind such bizarro nightmares as Gummo and Trash Humpers, would be responsible for the most joyous film of the year? The Beach Bum is likely unwatchable to casual audiences with little plot of which to speak. But that’s all secondary to hanging out with Moondog (Matthew McConaughey), a washed-up poet who stumbles around spewing half-baked proverbs with a PBR in one hand and an oversized spliff in the other. His mumbled musings are inane and inspiring: “This life’s a fucking rodeo, and I’m gonna suck the nectar and fuck it rawdog ’til the wheels come off.”
The Beach Bum itself lives by that same code. There’s no doubt an underlying sadness to Moondog’s quest for the world to give as few fucks as he does, but Korine isn’t going to let reality get in the way of a good time. Moondog wanders his way through various vignettes, encountering an array of misfits portrayed by the year’s strangest ensemble cast, which includes everyone from Martin Lawrence to Jimmy Buffett to Zac Efron. Some of these detours float by with ease and others veer into unexpectedly dark territory. No matter: Moondog walks away unscathed every time, completely content with wherever life takes him. Watching this underappreciated gem, you’ll find that attitude is infectious.
5. The Irishman
When Netflix gives a filmmaker a gargantuan budget and total freedom, it frequently leads to disaster. (Remember Bright? Probably best you don’t.) In the case of The Irishman, that filmmaker happens to be Martin Scorsese who, at 77 years old, remains peerless. Bringing back actors with whom his previous collaborations were iconic (Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel) plus Al Pacino, Scorsese returns to the gangster genre he helped define for a meditative crime picture unlike anything else he’s made. Scorsese and his longtime editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, replace Goodfellas’ zippy energy with that of a funeral dirge, and even at three-and-a-half hours, it’s always riveting.
Proving that Scorsese isn’t entirely immune to the public discourse, his latest comes off like a response to the criticisms that have peppered his career, namely his tendency to go easy on his virulent male protagonists. That observation is often lobbed carelessly, underselling some of America’s most complex critiques of masculinity. Elderly hitman Frank Sheeran (De Niro) is what happens to these men once they can no longer back up their ego with violence. Alone, dying, and past the point of spiritual redemption, Frank isn’t worth the quick death he used to dish out for a living, let alone any parting words from his estranged daughter. As he continues to recollect a long, bloody career in taking orders, he never comprehends the weight of his sins, but you certainly will.
4. Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood
Walking out of 2015’s The Hateful Eight, I couldn’t shake the notion that Quentin Tarantino had finally reached the limits of his self-indulgence. It was a letdown I didn’t anticipate, so I approached Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood with trepidation. Thankfully, the director’s latest is also one of his finest hours, a riotous hangout joint that’s as much a full-bodied embrace of 1969 Hollywood as it is a lamentation of a place that never really existed.
Hollywood resembles Jackie Brown over any of Tarantino’s recent output, radiating the same wistful, borderline-sweet energy. The camaraderie between Leonardo DiCaprio’s aging TV star Rick Dalton and Brad Pitt’s former stuntman Cliff Booth is among the sweetest friendships in the director’s filmography. DiCaprio gives career-best work as Dalton, a deeply insecure man who falls apart without others validating his success. Dalton’s journey is a microcosm for the fading of one decade’s culture and the emergence of a new one. Finally, you can’t talk about this movie without mentioning Margot Robbie’s performance as Sharon Tate. She serves as the story’s hopeful center as well as its thesis: The past residing in our minds is a sweet place to visit, yet it’s seldom more than a fairy tale.
Film nerds have championed South Korean director Bong Joon-ho for some time now. For almost 20 years, Bong has been unmatched when it comes to blending genres that should never work together: 2003’s Memories of Murder combined a gruesome police procedural with broad slapstick comedy, and 2017’s Okja, was an R-rated take on E.T. So no surprise that Parasite, perhaps his best to date, is similarly impossible to categorize. Is it a satire of the upper class? A con-artist thriller? A heartfelt family drama? All of the above and then some. This is the most fun I had at a theatre in 2019, and the movie whose themes I wrestled with the longest. It has a lot to say, but you may not realize it while you’re in its grip.
Parasite is a stellar introduction to South Korean cinema, a country whose master filmmakers rarely receive their due credit. Bong is in full command of his craft here: the incredible ensemble cast, the whiplash turns of the screenplay and the astute social commentary converge to deliver a demanding and exhilarating package. This is the only movie listed here in which I refuse to reveal so much as the basic premise. Trust me: Go in cold, then thank me later.
2. Uncut Gems
Uncut Gems is like a rollercoaster whose steep drops push you to the brink of nausea but are thrilling enough for you to hop back on afterwards. Howard Ratner (seamlessly brought to life by Adam Sandler) has a wife, kids, a decent jewel business in New York’s Diamond District and even a young mistress to fall back on when his divorce goes through. Still, all those are secondary to his greatest love: sports gambling. Howard is a guy who lives for the rush of high-stakes betting and whose white whale is hitting a massive score. He’s lived this way for so long, he doesn’t know anything else.
Directors Josh and Benny Safdie might be too good at building suspense; riding alongside Howard as he scrambles for any tree branch that might soften his fall, only to ignore it the moment it’s within grasp, is maddening to witness. Uncut Gems could also be called Horrible Decisions: The Movie. The Safdies’ grainy camera trails behind Howard as he scurries from one abysmal situation to an even worse one, all while extreme close-ups emphasize every ooze of sweat pouring from his face. Of course, the movie has no interest in justifying Howard’s behavior. It’s a wild, stressful ride, but ultimately one with a hefty toll.
1. Marriage Story
Maybe it’s growing up a child of divorce, but where many of my acquaintances found watching Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story similar to gazing at a festering wound, I thought the whole thing was rather … comforting. Marriage Story isn’t a scorched-earth screed on the pointlessness of monogamy or a hellish look at spousal abuse. Neither Adam Driver’s husband or Scarlett Johansson’s wife characters are the antagonists of this story: The villain here is the divorce process that strips away the humanity of those involved. Relationships are so multifaceted that when it’s time to decide who’s at fault for their ending, the real answer is hidden beneath years of personal baggage.
What makes Marriage Story remarkable is its complex, empathetic view of divorce. It’s the way Baumbach attaches you to its two central characters. Even as they’re going through terrible anguish, they are delightfully authentic. In one of the most honest scenes of the year, Driver is served his divorce papers. Instead of playing it as overwrought melodrama, Baumbach stages it as farce. Life is routinely absurd, even amid tragedy. Marriage Story is the kind of drama that runs the gamut of human emotions that felt commonplace in the ‘70s — prime examples being Annie Hall or Modern Romance. It’s a cathartic experience and one I look forward to revisiting.
- The Art of Self-Defense
- Dragged Across Concrete
- Her Smell
- In Fabric
- Knife + Heart
- Little Women
- Mister America
- Portrait of a Lady on Fire
- Rambo: Last Blood
- Under the Silver Lake