The Top Ten Films of 2019 (and the Three Worst)

The year 2019 was a pretty good year at the movies, and as the end of a decade, it really feels like a culmination of something and hopefully a fresh step forward to something new. If you haven’t already, read my Top Ten Films of the Decade post to get a sense of what the last ten years in movies can tell us about where we’ve been and where we’re going. However, the issue at hand is 2019. A lot of movies were released in 2019 thanks to the proliferation of streaming services and their dedication to releasing incredible amounts of quality content on top of the traditional studio and independent releases. So let’s get on to it. 2019: The good, the bad, and the ugly.

The Good…

10. Knives Out – This one wins the audience award for sure. Of all the films on my list, no film had the audience howling like this one. Billed as a Rian Johnson whodunit, an all-star cast is full of suspects after a wealthy mystery writer suddenly falls dead, and foul play is suspected. Queue two-hours of dark, maddening hijinks that keep the audience guessing but most of all amused. This is a modern-day Clue or Gosford Park full of suspense and laughs.  This movie feels like a subtle “jab” at one of the films in my worst of the year list, as one of his previous films was somewhat “sliced and diced” by another with diminishing returns. Well played, Mr. Johnson.

9. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood – I thought I knew what I was in for when I walked in to see this movie. After having seen the wonderful 2018 documentary about Fred Rogers, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, I expected a sentimental dramatization of the true events of Rogers’s life. That is not what this film is, and that is a good thing. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a perfect companion piece to the 2018 documentary rather than an adaptation of it by letting us see the power of people like Rogers and the impact a kind, contemplative person can have on all of us. Most will be surprised to find Tom Hanks’s portrayal of Rogers as more of a secondary role in this film. The main story follows Matthew Rhys as investigative journalist, Lloyd Vogel who reluctantly accepts a job to write a fluff piece on Rogers only to have his life changed immeasurably. A true heart-warmer, and an understated success for director Marielle Heller.

8. The Lighthouse – Two lighthouse keepers arrive for a four-week shift looking after a lighthouse. At night, there’s little to do but eat, drink, and talk and much of the film is dedicated to these activities, but that’s where we as the audience learn the most. These men have secrets. This actor’s journey of minimalist, psychological horror is one fascinating ride! Willem Dafoe puts out a vicious, raw, funny, and technical performance, and Robert Pattinson too gives a layered and impressive character. This is a challenging but amazingly engrossing film. 

7. Parasite – Word of mouth has been non-stop for this South Korean comedic horror satire. Writer/Director Bong Joon Ho has been quietly dominating critical and box office success with films like Snowpiercer, The Host, and Okja just to name a few. With Parasite, it seems like he’s broken through completely by creating a universally relatable parable of class and culture that begins one way and takes a dramatically fascinating turn. Both halves of the film are tremendously compelling and enjoyable, but for entirely different reasons. This is Ho’s masterpiece in a catalog full of near-masterpieces.

6. Midsommar – This is the most beautifully shot film on my list this year. Ari Aster’s latest film is a slow burn with some of the most unsettling horror seen on screen in some years. A group of students arrive in a rural and secretive Swedish community with the hope of learning about their culture and studying their anthropological presence. The beauty of the film starkly contrasts some truly terrifying stuff, and the result is a highly effective and deeply effective.

The Top Five:

5. Avengers: Endgame – This movie is actually epic, and I use that term without hyperbole. The Russo brothers have assembled a true love letter that spans the entire run of the most successful film franchise in history. This is how a saga should end (a certain film in my worst of the year list should take notes). A strength of all four Avengers films is that even with such bloated cast of characters, every one of them gets a moment to shine. The heart, the humor, the excitement, and the impact of events is as strong as in any of the MCU films, and for my money this is the best Avengers film of the four, and it is also one of the best films of the year.

4. The Irishman – I had to sit with this movie for a while. I’m of the rare minority who when this 3-hour gangster volume ended, I wanted more. I knew I liked it, but I wasn’t sure if my nostalgia and good faith for what this film represented was why I liked it, or if it was truly good. Seeing Martin Scorsese revisit the mobster genre and direct Joe Pesci, Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, and a host of other notables is hard not to tickle the fancy of any fan of cinema. So, over a month has passed, and the jury is in; The Irishman is a great film (but only one peg higher than a superhero movie, Marty!).  

3. Marriage Story – Noah Baumbach has been a powerful force in telling human stories about the fallouts of the fractured family dynamic. His films The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the wedding, While We’re Young, and The Meyerowitz Stories all predominately explore this central theme, so it’s fitting that his latest film is simply called Marriage Story. Here Baumbach is in familiar territory, but never has been so keyed in on the complexities of coupling and then uncoupling in modern America. Baumbach teams up with Adam Driver for the fourth time in this crushing yet beautiful human drama about how marriage and family can be very different things.

2. Joker At its core, Joker is a character-driven story about Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a meager, struggling performer hoping to someday be a stand-up comedian. Phoenix is excellent in this film allowing Fleck’s struggles to feel very real and human. His decisions, as radical as they are, all come from a raw and authentic place within the character that Phoenix is able to capture and put on display in a very captivating way. Joker as a film also does an excellent job of pitting this dynamic individual against a society that is crumbling into chaos and compartmentalizing into a vastly unsettling class struggle, and what transpires is compelling and profoundly unsettling. Not because it is necessarily “shocking” but because of what it does to us as viewers who will no doubt be feeling a variety of conflicting emotions by the end – all worth examining.

1. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood What we have here is a modern-day auteur at the top of his technical game taking chances and making movies that still make an audience appreciate the medium and the experience it can offer. There’s tremendous atmosphere populated with thrilling takes on movies, dreams, American culture, music and the divisive nature of society. Plus there’s a bitching soundtrack! Many will cite this as being the least “Tarantino” of all of his films, whatever that means; however, while the plot is perhaps more loose than his previous films, Tarantino captures the atmosphere of this dynamic time with great success. There’s a lot going on in this film. On one hand, we have Rick Dalton’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) quest for fame, attempting to leverage some television notoriety into a film career without aging out, becoming typecast, or losing his game all the while battling an internal conflict about whether he is worthy of fame in the first place. Then we have Cliff Booth’s (Brad Pitt) ambiguous, deliberate sojourn through the land of broken dreams. While the two main characters are on two very separate personal journeys, Tarantino craftily balances this film on the relationship between the two men allowing the film to move along nicely despite their uniquely different paths. There’s no arbitrary cliché-constructed conflict dropped on the audience for cheap drama. There’s a sense of history between them both, and this comes through mostly thanks to the exquisite performances given by Pitt and most notably DiCaprio. I have almost nothing bad to say about this movie other than it’s not Tarantino’s best, which is to say it’s still the best movie of 2019 by a long shot, just not the best movie of 1994.

…the Bad and the Ugly

3. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker – Just writing these words under this heading fills me with great sorrow. Star Wars movies made my list of the best films of 2015 (The Force Awakens), 2016 (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story), and 2017 (The Last Jedi). All that being said, it pains me to have to put Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker on the list of the worst films of the year, but here it is. Just five short years after this critic touted J.J Abrams as the true geek-legend who will take the franchise light years beyond where it had been, he now ends it all by leaving me with a bad feeling about where the future of Star Wars once again sits. The film is action packed, but it is also, bloated, uneven, full of loose plotlines, and most of all it’s boring. The Rise of Skywalker did not just disappoint me as a film, but it actually made me like the previous two installments less knowing now where it all was heading.

2. Ford v. Ferrari Speaking of boring movies, let me give you exhibit B; Ford v. Ferrari. To me, this films is another installment in a troubling cinematic trend. Every year, a handful of “Oscar darling” films are released that follow a virtual template of style and perceived wit. Essentially odd-ducks are paired up to navigate an unkind social climate full of architypes and caricatures that must be thwarted. Upon examining these films, what you really have is a film where everyone is uni-dimensional except the principal characters, and the film progresses with a style that broadly spoon feeds audiences hearty portions of quippy one-liners and unlikely conversations practically winking at the camera instead of being in the moment. The style of this film matches those precisely. These historic, character-driven dramas shot with this disingenuous style ring so false to me, and I wind up caring less and less. Ford v. Ferrari, unfortunately, has little gas in the tank and more or less feels like it’s just going in circles, taking too many pit stops before ultimately just being totaled (puns intended).

1. The Lion King – All in all, The Lion King is very rote, stale, and unimpressive (aside from the visual effects, which are stunning). The decision to play it so safe with this film is a real disappointment and the result is a clunky film with no personality. It boils down to a forgettable rehash that could have been a wonderful update on a classic. When these films do not bring something new to the table, it is hard to see them as anything but a shallow attempt to take our money with familiar branding. And that may have been their goal all along with these films, but if you want me to have a Hakuna Matata attitude about these things, at least make me feel the love. My statement with giving this film the unhallowed designation of being worst film of the year is simply to say to Disney…stop. You had a good year financially, so why not take that green and invest in the new. You hung up Star Wars and The Avengers as we knew them, so use this decade to give us what comes next, not a warmed over reminder of what once was.

Well that does it! What did you think about 2019 or about the decade as a whole in regards to movies? I’d say as a movie year, 2019 fits snugly in the middle of the 2010s decade. Nothing with the explosiveness of 2017 or 2014, but also not a mediocre year. Let me know what you think in the comments.

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