Best of 2019

Last year, 2018, was the biggest year ever at the domestic box office. There were some great movies, sure, regardless of their financial success, but it still felt like a weird year for Hollywood. The dark pall cast by the Weinstein case revealed the industry to be hopelessly stuck in the past (to understate the matter), run by rich white men and increasingly monopolized media conglomerates. Green Book winning Best Picture did not help.

So, how did 2019 respond? Essentially in two ways:

  • Martin Scorsese refers to Marvel movies as “not cinema”. He goes on to clarify and reclarify his position, which is in turn either refuted or bolstered by nearly everyone in Hollywood. But the point is out there now, whether you agree or not: there’s the Hollywood that cares about money, about starpower, about IP, about all four quadrants, about comic-book fandoms and release calendars and streaming services and cosplay-riddled convention hall trailer reactions; and yet, somewhere, there’s still the Hollywood that truly cares about the movies, quaint an idea as that may be. Partly due to Scorsese’s willingness to speak truth to power, many spent 2019 redefining and rediscovering cinema.
  • Disney, meanwhile, spent 2019 expanding its revenue base by a record $10 billion.

I watched about 100 new movies in 2019 and it seemed like Adam Driver was in most of them. The first one I saw was Alita: Battle Angel and the last one was The Two Popes, both of which were full of guns-blazing action. Chris Evans holds the distinction of starring in the year’s biggest (Avengers: Endgame), one of the year’s best (Knives Out) and also one of the year’s absolute worst (The Red Sea Diving Resort). And just when you thought toxic discourse about Star Wars fandom couldn’t explode any further, The Rise of Skywalker and Baby Yoda brought us to the brink of an Alderaan-level event.

But those aren’t the stats you care about. You just came for the best:

10. Us

Us (2019)

“Like Jordan Peele’s debut Get Out, the American Dream — as a white-picket-fence fantasy and as a dark reality — is crucial not only to the implicit themes of the film, but to the reason both films are scary in the first place. Yes, Us has a preponderance of classic horror moments, from jump-scares to home invasions to creepy coincidences foreshadowing a coming threat. But these tropes become entertaining again only in context of a strong underlying assertion that speaks to something in our everyday life, and while Us may not speak as explicitly as Get Out, the potency of the film is drawn from a similar source.”

Read the full review.

Where to watch: streaming on HBO.

9. Atlantics

Atlantics (2019)

Despite a methodically slow pace, Mati Diop’s debut Atlantics lands like a weight in your stomach. Much like the sleek new tower that looms over the impoverished suburbs of Dakar, this is a ghost story that looms over the hearts of the characters (and maybe over yours). You know that frustrating Hollywood penchant for Americanized remakes of good foreign films, set instead in New York or LA? Diop turns Dakar, the coast of Senegal, and the very ocean into characters themselves, such that the power of Atlantics could never be recaptured anywhere but here.

Where to watch: streaming on Netflix.

8. Marriage Story

Marriage Story (2019)

2019 had several movies that still made an impact even while declining to break new narrative ground. Though they operated in familiar territory, The Mustang and Ford v. Ferrari took long and clichéd film histories and gave them a convincing polish. Marriage Story is the year’s best example of that; instead of simply carrying on a tradition of cinema about divorce laid by Kramer vs. Kramer and The War of the Roses and Noah Baumbach’s own The Squid and the Whale, Marriage Story now stands as the finest of that tradition.

Where to watch: streaming on Netflix.

7. Little Women

Little Women (2019)

This is a BEST list, so you expect the entries herein to be great. Greta Gerwig’s Little Women is definitely that, but it’s also good: pure of heart and willing to wear that heart on its sleeve. It may not have been entirely irrational to fear that Gerwig’s distinct voice would turn Little Women into Lady Bird: 1800s Edition, or that a modernized bent would render it absurd like Marie Antoinette or The Favourite. But this Little Women is somehow convincingly set in the aftermath of the Civil War and pitched perfectly for this century, with nary a whiff of pandering along the way. And while year-end acting awards will likely go to more bombastic performances or well-known faces, both Saoirse Ronan and Florence Pugh deserve any and all praise coming their way.

Where to watch: a cinema near you.

6. Knives Out

Knives Out (2019)

“In a pre-recorded clip before the New England premiere of Knives Out, writer/director Rian Johnson — whilst thanking us for seeing the film and imploring us not to spoil it — said flat-out that making it was “a blast.” It’s not hard to believe, and evident from the film’s very first scenes: everyone in front of the camera (Daniel Craig, Ana de Armas, Christopher Plummer, Don Johnson, Jamie Lee Curtis and a million others) breezes through having the time of their lives. And Johnson, too, exudes a confidence here as both a writer and a director that can only be borne of exciting material in the hands of a craftsman coming into his prime… Knives Out is a romp with heart, and an exciting bottle rocket from the guy who just made a space epic in the biggest franchise of all time. It ain’t always fun, the movies — but Knives Out, on both sides of the camera, sure as hell is.”

Read the full review.

Where to watch: a cinema near you.

5. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

Meticulous, melodic movements made for many a memorable Movie Moment™ this year. The ‘shrooms scene in Midsommar. The “tuberculosis shuffle” in Parasite. The fight in Marriage Story (memes notwithstanding). Moments that are emblematic of and crucial to the film and yet content simply as moments-on-film, fleeting (the flare-red silhouette in Sweetheart) or lasting (Mysterio’s trap for Spidey in Far From Home), eye candy that is more than just eye candy.

…but none of those matched the classic neon signs lighting up at dusk on August 8th, 1969, burning one final time in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood.

Where to watch: a cinema near you, but probably streaming soon.

4. Luce

Luce (2019)

“Is Luce the model young American everyone makes him out to be? Or is there a darker side within him, manifesting itself as a sociopathic danger to others? Luce doesn’t completely refuse to answer that question, but it does decline to provide any of the easy moral leanings that one might expect from such a setup. This is intentionally a film with more inquiry than explanation, what [director Julius] Onah calls “a conversation starter, not a conversation finisher”, an intense interrogation that never ultimately corners a solution. That purposeful ambiguity would make Luce anticlimactic only if you didn’t recognize yourself somewhere in the story, or if you simply weren’t paying attention. The overarching absence in Luce — the things we’re not privy to, or the things that are actively obscured from our view — forces us to participate in the narrative after the credits roll.”

Read the full review.

Where to watch: a cinema near you, but probably streaming soon.

3. The Lighthouse

The Lighthouse (2019)

The Lighthouse at first appears to be a handful of pretentious cinema tropes, from the black-and-white presentation to the boxy aspect ratio to the period-accurate accents to the freakin’ bird symbolism. But by the end of the film you’re helpless to ever see those as independent elements again, now that they’ve stewed together under the careful eye of writer/director Robert Eggers. Together they provide a wet atmosphere to The Lighthouse that will stay frozen to your bones, trapping you on an island for either two hours or eternity.

Read the full review.

Where to watch: a cinema near you.

2. Parasite

Parasite (2019)

“In Parasite‘s first scene, the Kim Family receives a gift: a large gray rock. It’s meant to bring them material wealth, and for the most part the Kim Family is pleased and thankful. “It’s so metaphorical,” Ki-woo swoons excitedly. But unlike in Snowpiercer, Bong Joon-ho manages to simultaneously call attention to an in-film symbol and yet allow it to carry zero weight as far as pure entertainment is concerned. It’s one of the most remarkable and paradoxical instances of film symbolism I’ve encountered in a while, wherein the rock is utterly unobtrusive despite a main character literally highlighting it as a metaphor. Bong’s maturing as a filmmaker and as a writer can be traced to this rock, because in Snowpiercer, the entire movie was a rock.”

Read the full review.

Where to watch: a cinema near you.

1. The Last Black Man in San Francisco

The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019)

It’s not possible to compare the finely-tuned, architectural Parasite with the elemental experience that is The Last Black Man in San Francisco. Joe Talbot’s semi-biographical portrait of Jimmie Fails is an odd blend of realism and fable, tracking Jimmie and his best friend Mont as they try to reclaim his childhood home. But that discordance — what’s “true”? what’s “fiction”? — prompts us to evaluate Jimmie’s search for home in both a literal and a metaphorical light. Mont, who despite having a literal home has always felt out-of-place in his community, further complicates these evaluations. But much of that is after-credits reflection; important as that is, no film felt quite as honest and cathartic in the moment as The Last Black Man in San Francisco.

Where to watch: streaming on Amazon Prime.

Honorable Mentions:

Uncut Gems, Monos, The Irishman, High-Flying Bird, Jojo Rabbit, The Sound of Silence, Share, Behind the Curve, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, Ford v. Ferrari, I Lost My Body, The Mustang, Ad Astra, American Factory

Biggest Disappointments:

Alita: Battle Angel, Glass, Dark Phoenix, Gemini Man, Terminator: Dark Fate, Zeroville

Worst of 2019:

Serenity, The Perfection, Primal, Velvet Buzzsaw, The Red Sea Diving Resort, Greta

Best TV:

This year was huge for television, so we’re fleshing out a Top 5 in place of last year’s one-sentence superlatives. And no, Game of Thrones is not mentioned.

5. Russian Doll

Russian Doll (Netflix)

Nadia from Russian Doll is the unsung heroine of 2019. It doesn’t matter that time-loop stories have been done to death. If Season Two is just Nadia in another time loop, I’d be cool with that.

Where to watch: streaming on Netflix.

4. Chernobyl

Chernobyl (HBO)

Yes, the physical effects of the radiation leak at Chernobyl are revolting when rendered onscreen in HBO’s limited series. But Chernobyl is a painful watch moreso for the largely-accurate retelling of the Russian government’s terrifying and systematic mishandling of the crisis, which risked literal extinction for the sake of propaganda. Not recommended for date night.

Where to watch: streaming on HBO.

3. Mindhunter

Mindhunter (Netflix)

The second season of Netflix’s Mindhunter is the best single season of television the streaming giant has ever produced. I’d entertain an argument for the best series overall being something else — Stranger ThingsNarcos — though with a five-season plan Mindhunter might someday change that. And the show’s not without problems, of course. Still, pound-for-pound, on a season-by-season basis, the second chunk of the David Fincher-led serial killer show is the most finely-tuned and commanding character study you’re going to find.

Where to watch: streaming on Netflix.

2. When They See Us

When They See Us (Netflix)

The only reason — the only reason — When They See Us isn’t a clear-and-away winner is the nature of the four-episode limited series. Ava Duvernay could have pulled a Scorsese and presented When They See Us as a lengthy film, but a series format offers a slightly wider canvas that makes all the difference. Much like Chernobyl, Duvernay’s retelling is painful to watch, knowing the real lives destroyed by bureaucracy and racism; unlike the HBO series, though, When They See Us feels like it’s still unfolding every day.

Where to watch: streaming on Netflix.

1. Watchmen

Watchmen (HBO)

“Wounds need to air,” says Will Reeves in the finale of Watchmen. There are a number of miraculous qualities to Damon Lindelof’s 2019 update/continuation of Alan Moore’s earth-shaking 1985 comic, not least of which is that it lived up to the name at all. But Watchmen‘s power is in its ties to the real world, and this was the true miracle: for an alt-history about blue gods, squids, teleportation and mind control, the memorable moments largely concerned real-world issues and events. #TulsaRaceMassacre was trending on Twitter for a week after the finale, which is about a week more than that particular wound had been permitted to air since 1921. It’s a small thing, of course, but even that is more substantial than any other superhero property has ever managed.

Where to watch: streaming on HBO.

Honorable Mentions:

True Detective, Succession, The Umbrella Academy, Big Little Lies, The Boys, Years and Years

What were your 2019 favorites? Hit the comments!

Get all of our full-length film and television reviews here.

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