Movies. They just keep making them!
According to my document, I watched 57 new 2019 releases this year, and I still feel like I missed so much. Unlike most years, and unlike my games list this year, I don’t feel particularly strongly about the order of much of this list, and it was a struggle to figure out what films make the cut for the 7–10 spaces. I resisted the urge to expand the list to 15 or 20.
So I should probably talk briefly about how I make the list. I don’t think it’s possible to individually rank movies based on pure quality. I’m not claiming my #9 pick is better than #10 and the #8 is better than both. Rather, it’s a list of which movies meant the most to me this year. The movies that, to me, represent 2019, with #1 being the one I would beam directly into everyone’s eyeballs if I could.
tdlr: don’t @ me
dir. Josh & Benny Safdie / A24
It’s easy to sound like a fancy smart galaxy-brain filmgoer if you really want to. Simply praise Adam Sandler as an actor. Explain that the movies he writes are trash, but he’s capable of great performances as evident in Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories (2017) or PTA’s Punch-Drunk Love (2002). You can even throw in You Don’t Mess with the Zohan if you want to play on hard mode.
Try it now, because this trick will get harder to pull off soon in light of Sandler’s impending Oscar nomination (do it you cowards! please!). He, and Lakeith Stanfield, and a host of character actors, carry Uncut Gems throughout and push it over the line from tense drama to true Safdie thrill ride.
dir. James Gray / 20th Century Fox
From the guy who brought you The Lost City of Z comes a cocktail of everyone’s three favorite things: space, daddy issues, and Brad Pitt. An emotionally distant Pitt undergoes a journey in search of his father that is at times self-destructive, regular destructive, or both. I won’t fault it for wearing the metaphor on its sleeve. What’s important is the execution. Also there’s a gunfight on the moon.
I am loving this trend of critically-acclaimed “serious” filmmakers making personal dramas set in space. Between this, Claire Denis’ High Life… there’s probably more. Or hopefully there will be soon.
dir. Jordan Peele / Universal
Can anyone else blend horror and comedy as effectively as Jordan Peele? I would go so far as to call this a comedy first and horror movie second. Instinctively we’ll want to compare this to Get Out, which is unfair and impossible. Instead we should focus on how different it is from Get Out. It may stumble more, but it proves that Peele is far from a one-trick pony and has more masterpieces left inside him to realize.
And then there’s Lupita Nyong’o. I’m assuming the reason she’s being left off so many awards ballots is because some of her performance is a little hammy. But it’s exactly the type of ham a movie like Us should go for.
Pain and Glory
dir. Pedro Almodóvar / Sony Pictures International
I tend to resist movies about movie making, but if anyone has earned the right it’s Almodóvar. A resplendent Antonio Banderas brings Almodóvar’s self-insert protagonist to life and briefly convinces you that sure, the struggles of a film director are relevant to me, a viewer. Watching a movie like this almost feels like intruding on a therapy session.
Also, gay romances are better in Spanish. It is fact. Shoutouts to Sense8.
dir. Greta Gerwig / Sony Pictures
Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of the classic novel achieves something no other adaptation has done: It sold me on the idea that Jo would actually want to marry Friedrich. (Sorry for the 150 year old spoilers.) It does this by breaking up the structure of the story and presenting it nonlinearly, a technique that also allows the film to use later events to comment on earlier ones. Often the commentary is for the sake of the 21st century audience, who may ask questions like “Why does Jo have to marry Friedrich anyway?”
It’s fast paced to the point where I’m not sure I could have kept up if I hadn’t read the book, but my mom who hasn’t read it seemed to keep events straight. Though she did find it weird that Florence Pugh plays a 13-year-old, and I probably agree. But Florence Pugh can do what she wants. She and Saoirse Ronan are quickly becoming two of my favorite actors.
Most Surprisingly Good
As someone who doesn’t particularly care for Marvel movies, Infinity War left me dreading the follow-up. Turns out it’s a smartly written film about dealing with failure and moving on from loss, with explosions. Up there with Iron Man 3 and Guardians 2 among the best MCU films.
Most Disappointingly Bad
Godzilla: King of the Monsters
Very often trailers oversell what they’re advertising. Very rarely is the trailer a better film than the one it’s advertising.
Most Deserving of Being on This List
The Last Black Man in San Francisco
This was actually #10 for a while and I was excited to talk about it, but then I saw Little Women and it got bumped off. I feel guilty for it. It’s streaming on Amazon Prime in the US right now.
Best Horror Movie and/or Documentary
More than just the stunningly clear images, what impressed me about Apollo 11 was how the editing created a compelling narrative purely out of archive footage for an event you already know the result of.
Best Animated Film - I Lost My Body
Most Adam Driver - The Report
Special Award for Being Better Than Bohemian Rhapsody - Rocketman
Best Nickelodeon Reboot That Got Sold Off To Netflix - Invader Zim: Enter the Florpus
dir. Noah Baumbach / Netflix
It’s been interesting to see people in the weeks after release attempt a forensic analysis of Marriage Story. Whose fault was it really? Who does the film bias toward? Who deserves to win? They’re fair questions, but not ones that approach the film on the terms the writer would like. It’s nobody’s fault. Screen time is hopefully more or less equal. It’s a movie about how sometimes things go wrong and we can’t control them. Or about how lawyers are evil. And we can stop things from going wrong by not being lawyers.
Everyone involved in this movie gives one of the best performances of their careers. It’s the best feel-good divorce drama this side of Kramer vs Kramer, and I propose we go ahead and replace all copes of that with this so we won’t have to think about Dustin Hoffman anymore.
dir. Rian Johnson / Lionsgate
Walking out of seeing Knives Out the first time, I had two words on my mind: surprisingly political. And turns out Rian Johnson deeply understands the current political moment. The film mocks indirectly not just the president’s supporters but anyone who selfishly benefits from him. It’s a rejection both of the right’s ideas and of the so-called “woke” white left’s integrity. Hence the constant references to Twitter, Instagram, anything that explicitly dates the film. It may be a throwback to 20th century crime stories, but this film could not possibly take place any time but now.
Seeing Daniel Craig in any character role always makes me irritated that he’s been forced to star in a major action franchise for the last 15 years. Between Knives Out and Logan Lucky it’s clear his spiritual home is here, in weird crime comedies, indulging in the hammiest southern American accent he can. The rest of the cast pull their weight accordingly, and I am all in on Rian Johnson.
dir. Bong Joon-ho / CJ Entertainment
It’s been a great year for class struggle!
To talk about Parasite is to talk about Parasite’s main character: The House. What a house. That yard, that window. That staircase. That staircase shot, you know the one. (I’m thinking of two!) The way Bong Joon-ho films The House brings it to life and makes the struggles of its inhabitants almost trivial in comparison. Servants and residents come and go. The House is forever.
dir. Martin Scorsese / Netflix
Some of the highest praise I can give to a 3.5 hour movie is to say every second of that runtime is earned. The Irishman is an elegiac tour through an bygone era, and perhaps a bygone genre. It is appropriately obsessed with death. Age, and death. We’re continuously reminded of the often violent ends of these characters by overlaid text stating how they die. We’re continuously reminded of the age of everyone involved by the subpar CGI de-aging.
That’s a joke. The de-aging is very noticeable and not good but doesn’t take away from the film. If anything maybe it adds to it. Scorsese, Pesci, and De Niro are in their 70s. Pacino is nearly 80. This movie is about their careers as much as it’s about Frank Sheeran and Jimmy Hoffa.
And if this is a last hurrah for these New Hollywood titans then it’s a deserving one. We know this isn’t the end. I think everyone except Pesci, who came out of retirement for this movie, has their next projects lined up already. They’re not done. But gathering them here still feels like an event. Whatever happens next, at least they made The Irishman.
dir. Lulu Wang / A24
I want to squeeze a word in before that monkey’s paw finishes curling: as hilarious as an Oscar nomination for Adam Sandler would be, getting Zhao Shuzhen one is higher priority.
The Farewell is a humble ode to the power of grandmothers. It’s about cultural differences between China and America in a way that’s conversational, not combative. It is a simple story given layers of complexity by the bold decisions and personal touch of Lulu Wang, who has lept towards the top of the list of exciting young directors, and Awkwafina, who can singularly sell me on any movie. And of course the whole thing hinges on Nainai, and Zhao Shuzhen’s performance elevates not just the film but everyone else’s performances too.
I cannot emphasize enough the quiet modesty of this movie. I’m not a Chinese immigrant, but what this movie hits on about family and generations is universal. In a year of “okay boomer,” it’s touching to see that love and positivity. Call your grandma. I miss my grandma.
Looking back at this list, 8 of the top 10 contain at least one death, three being very much about death. Maybe it’s been a year of death. Maybe something is ending before our eyes.
But from death comes new life, right? Something new and exciting will have to usher in the new decade. Let’s look forward to the new adventures that await us in 2020.