You know the drill—it’s the end of the year, and as you may have guessed, I saw a bunch of movies! Let’s talk about the best of them! Here are my top 20 films of 2019 (including, for the first time, a few ties)!
- TIE: Joker (R, dir. Todd Phillips) AND Avengers: Endgame (PG-13, dir. Joe & Anthony Russo)
The more comic-book movies we get, the more I crave something new from them. Joker offers a strong aesthetic with its visual style, musical score, and lead performance; Endgame has a strong running theme of how people deal differently with grief. I would have preferred for both movies to have both of those things, but as is, I’m glad we got what we got.
- Us (R, dir. Jordan Peele)
Some of this decade’s best films have dealt with identity, and how we often suppress one part of ourselves in order to maintain a better public image. Us translates that idea for the horror genre, and although I wouldn’t call it as clever as Peele’s Get Out, it’s still very strong. Also, Lupita N’yongo is incredible.
- Ad Astra (PG-13, dir. James Grey)
You’d think that a sci-fi film with this much money behind it wouldn’t have the guts to take its time developing introspective characters—but that’s what Ad Astra is about, and I’m glad it got made. I’d even argue that Brad Pitt is better here than he is in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood.
- A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (PG, dir. Marielle Heller)
Even if you didn’t grow up with Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood like I did, there’s something really arresting about Tom Hanks as a gentle TV show host talking to camera at the beginning of the film about how hard it is to forgive. Thankfully, after a strong start, the film never becomes any less compelling.
- The Souvenir (R, dir. Joanna Hogg)
This British film, based on the director’s real experience of falling in love with an addict, is one of this year’s most personal and raw films, right down to the improvisational acting, the observational camera, and the autobiographical nature of the story.
- Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (R, dir. Quentin Tarantino)
I’m not on great terms with Tarantino films, but Hollywood was a nice surprise. It’s a quite thoughtful film that constantly wrestles with what could have been in a past age of Hollywood and what really happened. And it’s not nearly as indulgent or episodic as I anticipated it to be.
- Ford v Ferrari (PG-13, dir. James Mangold)
As a straightforward, based-on-a-true-story film about racing, Ford v Ferrari is incredibly enjoyable. As an allegory for art (filmmaking in particular) and the constant battle between creative freedom and corporate interests, it’s quite thoughtful. Either way, it’s a crowd-pleaser.
- Honeyland (NR, dir. Tamara Kotevska & Ljubomir Stefanov)
This slice-of-life documentary, about Macedonian beekeepers struggling to get by, is one of this year’s finest. There is no narrator, musical score (for the most part), or interviews; the camera just takes a step back and lets the characters be. And the results are truly amazing.
- Knives Out (PG-13, dir. Rian Johnson)
One of the year’s funniest films with one of the year’s best casts, but most importantly, a whodunit with the guts to reveal certain information at certain times so that the story is less about “who” and more about “what now”. Hopefully this will get even Star Wars fans to admit that Johnson is a talented filmmaker.
- The Lighthouse (R, dir. Robert Eggers)
If you see light in a world full of darkness, and you keep that light to yourself, preventing others from discovering it instead, eventually, you’ll all go mad. That’s exactly what happens in The Lighthouse, which (in addition to its stellar cinematography and performances) is what makes the film so compelling to me.
- Uncut Gems (R, dir. Benny & Josh Safdie)
Whether the filmmakers know it or not, this film has Luke 12:16-21 all over it. A dizzying and captivating character study of a guy who makes so many promises that he forgets to be present with his finances, friends, and family. I love seeing Adam Sandler be great in dramatic films like this.
- ANOTHER TIE: Apollo 11 (G, dir. Todd Douglas Miller) AND Amazing Grace (G, dir. Alan Elliott & Sydney Pollack)
I’m listing these two films together because I love them for the same reasons. Essentially using nothing but archival footage of true events, they transport you back in time in a way that makes you feel like you were there. Best documentaries of the year, as far as I’m concerned.
- Little Women (PG, dir. Greta Gerwig)
What could have been a melodramatic, episodic period piece turned out to be a film about life itself, and how we can only put the pieces together after we have truly lived through and reflected upon both the good and the bad. Maybe I’d feel differently if I’d actually read the book, but as a standalone film, I thought this was beautiful.
- Toy Story 4 (G, dir. Josh Cooley)
In a year where many film and TV franchises struggled to finish well, Toy Story 4 delivered an unexpected coda about truly letting go of the past. I’ll admit this is my least favorite Toy Story movie, but it’s still my favorite animated film of the year.
- Marriage Story (R, dir. Noah Baumbach)
A good movie makes the audience empathize with its characters, and you certainly do in Marriage Story—but the conflict is that the husband and wife in the film are struggling to empathize with each other, as are their families, peers, and lawyers. And it’s an appropriately heartbreaking film, and the best American screenplay of the year.
- Parasite (R, dir. Bong Joon-ho)
A film that left me shaking my head in complete disbelief the whole time because of how absurd the story became—but how much I also bought into it. A strong cautionary tale on class, selfishness, and greed that has deservingly become a runaway international hit this year.
- A Hidden Life (PG-13, dir. Terrence Malick)
A contemplative, lengthy, and beautiful film, but not for its own sake—I think it’s so that we identify with our protagonist as he protests Hitler in World War II Germany, even when those around him call him a traitor, and consequently suffers for it. I know I’m biased towards Malick’s work, but I truly believe it’s one of the year’s best.
- 1917 (R, dir. Sam Mendes)
The technical achievement of 1917 would mean nothing if it didn’t help tell its story, but it does. A simple yet powerful story of two young men braving the dangers of World War One in order to relay a life-saving message, told with filmmaking that doesn’t look away from those dangers or manipulate time to assist our protagonists. This is probably a weak comparison, but I consider it the Gravity of war films—and I wanted to see it again as soon as it was over.
- The Farewell (PG, dir. Lulu Wang)
The first film of the year that I could confidently call truly great. It’s funny, but it also breaks your heart. It’s smartly written, but it also contains a lot of strong visual storytelling. And most of all, it has a lot to say regarding how we relate to another culture, even when that means relating to our own family. One of those films that basically acts as a window to another way of life. I loved it.
- The Irishman (R, dir. Martin Scorsese)
Scorsese’s previous gangster films put more of an emphasis on how their characters lived. The Irishman, however, is much more concerned with how they die. And when they do, there’s nothing glamorous or stylish about it. The film acts not only as a confession from its mobster protagonist, but also arguably from Scorsese himself. It’s a film that I would truly consider “epic”—not just because of how long of a time period it covers, or how long the movie itself is, but because of how deep it dives into its themes of mortality and regret.
Films I haven’t seen yet: Bombshell, Dark Waters, Waves, and pretty much any Netflix/foreign/documentary film that’s not listed above lol
Thanks for reading! Feel free to write what movies you enjoyed most this year below!