Well, we’ve reached the end of the year. 2019 has had a healthy mixture of cinematic disappointments, surprises, and true originals. Instead of wasting time bashing the films that weren’t very good with a Worst of 2019 List, we thought it’d be a good idea to send off 2019 by only celebrating the very best of what cinema had to offer this year. Without further ado, let’s jump right in!
10) Marriage Story
Noah Baumbach’s film about the dissolution of a marriage takes what sounds like a depressing slog and makes something profoundly human and often painfully funny. It also gave us two of the best performances of the year in Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver, who bring Baumbach’s writerly dialogue to life with such honesty and vivacity. Marriage Story may be about divorce, but it has love coursing through much of its narrative. It’s a full-hearted look at heartache, and you can watch it right now on Netflix.
9) Uncut Gems
Adam Sandler gives one of his best performances (if not his best) in the latest piece of anxiety-inducing cinema from the Safdie brothers. The filmmakers are able to sustain a frenetic energy throughout pretty much the entire run-time, following its protagonist from one poor gambling decision to the next. Never has such an inherently frustrating character been so compelling, and its all thanks to Sandler and the Safdies’ knack for making us understand their criminal characters. The film also boasts a bevy of terrific supporting performances by both seasoned actors and first-time actors, adding an immediate realism that makes the tension work that much better.
8) Portrait of a Lady on Fire
This French romance film from writer/director Celine Sciamma is a beautiful (and beautifully shot) story of forbidden love. Most of this film is very quiet, allowing the sizzling chemistry of its two leads to really stand out. Noemie Merlant and Adele Haenel speak volumes with the smallest of gestures, and the gradual development of their relationship feels intensely intimate, thanks to the very restrained and vivid direction from Sciamma. Gentle and poetic in ways that few romances are nowadays, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is the best love story of the year.
7) Knives Out
One of the more cleverly constructed whodunits in recent years, writer/director Rian Johnson’s Knives Out assembles an all-star cast led by an amusingly goofy Daniel Craig and a warm, compassionate Ana de Armas for a murder mystery that plays by its own rules. You can feel the immense joy Johnson must have had in playing around with a genre he loves, with each subversion and new wrinkle in the story giving us a consistently funny and fresh take on a well-worn formula. And the cast is clearly reveling in the opportunity to play along with him. This is one of the more enjoyable experiences I’ve had in a theater in 2019. And man, do I love that last shot!
6) Avengers: Endgame
The culmination of 21 interconnected superhero films takes all your emotional investment in these various characters and gives us a hugely satisfying and structurally sound conclusion that earns pretty much all of its emotional payoffs. The “fan service” and playful references to the previous films are in service of a story about reflecting on the mistakes of the past and coming to terms with those you’ve failed. Ambitious and exciting in equal measure, Endgame does right by its fans by refusing to feel like a made-by-committee response to what fans want to see, but rather by telling a compelling story that prioritizes character.
5) Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Nostalgic in the best of ways, Quentin Tarantino’s ninth feature film takes a fairy tale look at the end of an era in 1969 and gives us an alternative ending to an incredibly tragic real-life story. DiCaprio, Pitt, and Robbie all do great work here, but the real star of Hollywood is Tarantino’s infectious love for the city and the art of making movies, which pours out of every frame of this contemplative and melancholic, yet wholly entertaining, day-in-the-life-type story of an actor, his stuntman, and the actress who’s given the life she was robbed of in our reality. I could watch this movie over and over and over. And I still haven’t stopped thinking about that “Out of Time” sequence.
4) Little Women
Greta Gerwig’s sophomore feature is an absolutely lovely adaptation of the classic novel, overflowing with heart and crafted with a modern sensibility. The rearranged narrative structure emphasizes certain emotional beats and adds a nostalgic layer to the character’s individual journeys that heightens the drama. Every performance adds something special here, and there are moments of genuine kindness and warmth, whether it’s the giving of a gift or a nurturing embrace, that are handled so tenderly and moved me so deeply. Major props to Alexandra Desplat’s pleasant score, Yorick Le Saux’s luscious cinematography, and the gorgeous costume and production design. Just lovely.
3) The Irishman
Martin Scorsese + Robert de Niro + Joe Pesci + Al freakin’ Pacino = my cup of tea. Scorsese brings together the most influential actors in the gangster genre for a film that takes a new perspective on the types of gangster stories the director has told in the past. This is a film that is more concerned with the consequences of the gangster lifestyle than the lifestyle itself, and the way themes of loyalty and regret come to the fore in the final third of the film makes for some of the best filmmaking Scorsese has ever put together. The Irishman earns its 209-minute runtime, which also allows us to revel in seeing veteran actors continuing to perform at the top of their game in their older age, reminding us why they’ve been so influential all these years.
2) The Farewell
Lulu Wang’s semi-autobiographical dramedy about a Chinese family that hides their grandmother from the truth about her cancer, and stages a wedding to see her one last time, moved me like no other film has this year. The familial dynamics are extremely relatable and funny, which makes the emotional investment in this culturally specific situation pretty much immediate. Wang’s direction is artful and subdued, and the entire ensemble cast make their respective family members feel distinct and real. For a film that’s based on an actual lie, there’s a whole lot of emotional truth in The Farewell. I love this movie.
Refusing to conform to any one genre, writer/director Bong Joon Ho’s latest is a masterwork of technical filmmaking and smart-minded storytelling, managing to be very accessible without losing any of its artistic integrity. As a piece of entertainment, the movie fires on all cylinders, by turns funny, dramatic, and suspenseful. As a satirical commentary about class division, it is as incisive and clever as ever. The editing, the camerawork, the score, the amazing ensemble cast, the production design, it all works in cohesion to help tell a story. Parasite is a highly entertaining Swiss watch of a film, and it is the best piece of cinema to be released in 2019.
There you have it. The top 10 films of 2019. We highly encourage you to check ’em all out, whether it be in theaters or on home video. Here’s looking forward to a new year, and a new decade, of cinema just around the corner. Happy New Year, everybody!