The Best Films of 2019

Cinematically, 2019 began in the stale, flat sea of the doldrums.  My list of the worst movies is coming soon, and you’ll find most of those duds emerged in last year’s winter months.  Things got worse before they slowly got better, and we ended up with a strong run of instant classics.  The Oscar nominations have come and gone.  They lopped off some great movies, but they always find a way to do that.  Rest assured, I’ll make sure to include them here.  No list could ever satisfy everybody everywhere, but the following compilation makes me happy, and that’s the most important thing of all.  Now, let’s roll that beautiful bean footage:

Honorable Mentions:

Photo by Lacey Terrell – © Sony Pictures Entertainment

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

You’d have to be a cold, wet beach towel to not love Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers.  Neighborhood takes a gentle look at the man behind the magic.  I don’t think Hanks will pick up another Oscar for his work here, but I wouldn’t be shocked–or displeased–if he did.  This doesn’t blow the lid off Mr. Rogers, or his neighborhood, but does anybody anywhere actually want that?  If so, they’re just sick.

Dark Waters
© 2019 Focus Features

Dark Waters

We’ve seen this type of movie before (see: A Civil Action), but it’s rarely been done with the finesse, intelligence, and genuine alarm of Dark Waters.  Mark Ruffalo plays a fast-rising lawyer who risks his career when learns that DuPont has been knowingly dumping poison into a town’s water supply.  To make matters worse, they might be slowly killing all of us.  The fact that this is based on real events only makes it more gripping.  This film could very well make you angry and afraid, all at once.

© Marvel Studios

Avengers: Endgame

The piece de resistance of Marvel’s sprawling cinematic franchise, Endgame probably represents the peak of popcorn entertainment.  Directors Joe and Anthony Russo cram superheroes into this movie like clowns in a Volkswagen, and it’s a wonder that we care what happens in this epic circus at all.  But care we do.  It’s ingeniously plotted, endlessly exciting, and disarmingly funny.  And all those endings?  I’m not crying, you’re crying.  As a beatnik poet named Montell Jordan once observedthis is how we do it.

– © 20th Century Fox

Ford v Ferrari

It should tell you something that I don’t give a flying flippity-flip about racing, and I still think this a damn good movie.  Christian Bale and Matt Damon play the F1 version of Lennon and McCartney, respectively.  Those white-knuckle race scenes will grab you, but it’s the strong performances and well-rounded script that really keep things moving.  If this year’s Oscars were a bear market, this might be a Best Picture frontrunner.  As it is, Ford v Ferrari can only be the best of the rest.

© 2019 A24 Films

The Lighthouse

Take a bit of Kubrick, a dash of Hitchcock, and a just a smidge of…hell, I don’t even know what, and you get the caged insanity of The Lighthouse.  A crusty, farty old sea dog and his scraggly Padawan find themselves holed up in a lighthouse.  They proceed to play psychological Jenga with each other, until the bricks are scattered all around them.  It’s smart, wacky, and fascinating, but it also ain’t gonna be everybody’s barrel of monkeys, either.  If you have a weak stomach, well…I done warned ya.

© Pathe UK

Judy

Just like the wise man said:  “It’s better to burn out/than to fade away…”  Judy sings the sad song of someone who actually found a way to do both.  Judy Garland faithfully played the Hollywood game, and it ended up playing her right back.  Rene Zellweger shows Judy as a Molotov cocktail of proud and pitiful, ready to bust into a million flaming pieces.  We root for her during every inch of this spiritual free fall, even though we know there’s no parachute on this ride.

Now, the Top Ten:

Annapurna

10.  Booksmart

adored this movie.  It’s salty, sweet, and way smarter than the trailers made it look.  Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein play smug geeks who, on their last weekend as high school students, find that their elitism has only shunted them to the social margins.  They resolve to live it up for once in their damn lives, and general shenanigans result.  As someone who was is pretty dorky, I related to every bit of Booksmart.  This is the most underrated release of 2019, and I hope it finds a new life on Hulu.

Netflix

9.  The Irishman

If Goodfellas and Casino showed us the savagery of men destined to die before their time, The Irishman depicts the unlucky few who lived long enough to look back and regret.  This is Scorsese working in top form, with a mind-blowing cast.  Pacino could very well take home an Oscar for his performance as the tempestuous teamster Jimmy Hoffa.  Is this as good as Scorsese’s best work?  Almost, but not quite.  But that’s unfair, kinda like comparing Iron Man 2 or Thor to Black Panther or Endgame, amirite?

© Courtesy of TIFF

8.  The Two Popes

Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce are phenomenal as the diametrically opposed pontiffs.  Both men display complex emotions in a host of languages, including Spanish, Italian, and German.  They make the impossible look effortless, a trait that could land them Oscars.  The Academy loves to reward multilingual performances, whether it’s De Niro in Godfather II or Benicio Del Toro in Traffic.  Just sayin’.

© Sony Pictures Entertainment

7. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

When you see every movie, you realize just how bland most of them are.  And behind those productions, just picture a buncha dudes in expensive suits, pouring over spreadsheets, trying to determine the best way to pilfer your hard-earned cash.  That’s how stuff like the live-action Lion King lands in theaters with a dull thud.  Quentin Tarantino answers these cinematic saltine crackers with a steaming bowl of jambalaya.  His dialogue flows like shaggy poetry.  He chucks endings at us like a madman in the throes of a fever dream.  Scenes meander for minutes at a time.  The camera pans in weird places.  And you know what?  QT doesn’t give a rat’s ass what you think about any of that.  So many filmmakers are so worried about not offending anybody that they forget to make anything that’s worth a good goddamn.  Tarantino’s reckless abandon isn’t just weird and different.  It’s liberté de cinema, and nothing less.  Hollywood takes us to the director’s favorite time:  The late 60s, when mods, rockers, and mockers ruled the world.  Leo DiCaprio plays a has-been, while Brad Pitt’s a hunky, durable stuntman who happily never was.  Throw in Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate, a few of Charlie Manson’s looney tunes, and you get the recipe for general wackiness.  Some people hated the ending, but it was just my kind of nutty.

Netflix

6.  Marriage Story

Or, Kramer vs. Kramer updated for the social media generation.  Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver fall out of love and endure the emotional crisis of divorce.  Director Noah Baumbach based the spirit of this story on his ill-fated marriage to Jennifer Jason Leigh, giving this film a deeply personal feel.  It’s sad, wry, and genuinely moving, sometimes in the same moment.  Johansson and Driver are Oscar frontrunners in my book, especially Driver.  I don’t think it wins Best Picture, but rewarding these two amazing performances would be a nice consolation prize.

5. Parasite 

This movie forced me to look up whether “batshit” was one word or two.  It’s brilliant, defiantly unpredictable, awkwardly funny, and downright friggin’ strange.  The Kims, a family of whipsmart ragamuffins, move in on the hopelessly naive Park family.  Once the plot starts cranking, you’ll fall under Parasite‘s spell.  This offbeat masterpiece will probably be a lot like Roma–2018’s best movie–and win Best Foreign Film instead of Best Picture.  As long as this gets recognized for its uncommon greatness, I’m okay with it.

© 2018 – Fox Searchlight

4.  Jojo Rabbit

With Jojo Rabbit, writer-director Taika Waititi delivers the funniest movie of the year.  But wait, there’s more: This entire film feels like a bravura high-wire act, teetering between socio-political satire and heart-piercing drama.  Scarlett Johansson continues her banner year as the doting mom to a Hitler Youth with a hidden heart of gold (Roman Griffith Davis, who’s great in a deceptively difficult role).  Meanwhile, Sam Rockwell steals his scenes as a blithering Nazi officer.  In a society that’s become politically correct to the point of being watered down, we need movies like Jojo now more than ever.

A24

 3.  The Farewell

For all the time and money movies have spent on death and destruction, they rarely deal with the grief that comes with actually saying goodbye.  Most of the ones that do never come close to the humor and heartbreak of The Farewell.   When the matriarch of a Chinese family gets diagnosed with terminal cancer, the family opts to keep this information from her.  Her Western-raised granddaughter (Awkwafina) is incensed by the decision, believing that this robs the woman of chance to confront the end on her own terms.  This wasn’t nominated for Best Picture or Best Actress, two of the Academy’s biggest blunders in a good long while.

© 2019 CTMG, Inc

2.  Little Women

For everything wrong with the Oscars, they got this one just right.  Louisa May Alcott’s masterpiece has been evergreen for 150 years, but it’s never looked better than it does here.  The March sisters get perfectly cast, with Saoirse Ronan’s unsinkable Jo leading the way.  Director Greta Gerwig fills her film with life and color, humor and sadness.  And romance.  And social commentary.  Amazingly, this Women never founders under the weight of its own significance.  This could very well take Best Picture, and it would wear that crown well.

1917
© Universal Studios

1,  1917

The idea of presenting a movie as one unbroken take could’ve been a distracting gimmick. With 1917, it actually services the story.  Set during WW1, we follow two couriers with a desperate dispatch for the frontlines.  Thousands of lives are at stake, including the brother of one of the couriers.  This movie never stops racing along, in an any sense of that term.  Director Sam Mendes puts us neck-deep in the action, as the lead characters wind along trenches, tiptoe through bunkers, and dodge crashing planes.  It’s intense, jaw-dropping, and unlike any war movie you’ve ever seen.  This is my favorite to take home Best Picture and Best Director, along with several of the technical awards.  1917 is a monumental achievement and a great movie, a rare feat for modern cinema.

See also:

The Top Ten Movies for 2018

Author: Todd Wofford

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