The Best Movies of 2019
Wow, 2019 was a great year for movies. From massive spectacle (Avengers: Endgame) to a potential Oscar-nominated turn for Adam Sandler (Uncut Gems), to enthralling sci-fi fare such as the low-budgeted High Life and whatever you’d classify Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood as, this year proved that creativity, boldness, and risk taking is still alive and well in the world of moviemaking.
There is continued disruption, of course, as studios and theaters rely ever more heavily on blockbusters—Disney is the only studio that appears to truly understand and be capitalizing on this trend, for better or for worse—and viewers continue to be presented with more options than ever before, as new streaming services (again, Disney) arrive to compete for your precious dollars.
Driven by those streaming services, the overwhelming array of options makes it impossible for even the most dedicated of entertainment consumers to get to all of the quality material on the market, which in turn is fueling more debate about what constitutes a movie, a TV series, or something in between. Should a movie released on Netflix be considered a TV movie? Where does a mini-series qualify? Do consumers care? The industry cares, and critics care, because these were once natural distinctions that helped define the channel of delivery, the quality of said production, and the budget.
Further, as the entire world continues to globalize, we’re continuing to see more foreign language films gain broader exposure within the U.S. While “subtitle fear” still persists, Netflix and other streamers have opened up new access to fantastic foreign language movies and shows that viewers would have otherwise previously rebuffed in theaters, but now can be watched with little risk at home. Germany’s Dark is a perfect example, and then of course there is South Korea’s Parasite, which has made $120 million worldwide, including over $20 million within the U.S.
Times they are a changing. Movie theaters are, sadly, going to continue to face fierce competition from at-home options. The major studios are going to increasingly look to blockbusters to fuel theater revenue, while relying on at-home options for more creative fare. And the streaming landscape will presumably look far different a few years from now than they do today, as it seems consumers are at a breaking point when it comes both to allocated dollars and sheer time to watch everything they want to watch.
But back to 2019. A lot of great movies were released this year, but even still, when I look to make my Top 10 List, only a few meet my very simple requirements:
- Was I entertained?
- Would I watch the movie again?
- Would I recommend the movie to others?
“Requirements,” of course, is a strong word—they’re more like guidelines. But they are, what I believe, help me stay grounded to audience wants and needs. While entertainment is subjective, most audiences don’t want to be told to watch some artsy metaphorical film from Albania, so my top 10 list isn’t going to be full of movies you’ve never heard of and will never see (for the most part).
So let’s dive into the best movies of 2019…
Disregarding my guidelines right off the bat, of course, is Gaspar Noe’s Climax, a movie so enthralling, so insidiously mesmerizing I couldn’t possibly not include it, even though it’s a film I would never recommend to most of my friends—nor do I think I’ll ever watch again. And yet this movie—no, this experience—immediately sucks you in with incredible dance choreography, an unsettling soundtrack, and fluid cinematography that, combined, bring to life Noe’s vision: to show a gradual but undeniable descent into Hell.
Released in January and thus completely overlooked come award season, Joe Penna’s Arctic is an emotionally searing and physically gripping survival tale that rests almost entirely on the shoulders of Mads Mikkelsen. Beautifully shot, tightly told, and often breathtaking, Arctic boasts little dialogue but plenty of adventure, and of course another fantastic performance by Mr. Mikkelsen. It’s available to stream on Amazon Prime.
Riley Stearns’ The Art of Self-Defense is dark humor at its finest. Boasting a fantastically written screenplay and great performances by Jesse Eisenberg, Alessandro Nivola, and Imogen Poots, the movie is very funny—as long as you appreciate Stearns’ literal and dry sense of humor. Further, the filmmaker’s takedown of toxic masculinity is masterful, the equivalent of a black belt systematically defeating his or her opponent a limb at a time, wearing them down emotionally, physically, and everything in between. And while he isn’t subtle about it, his message never overwhelms the film’s entertainment value.
7. Ad Astra
In Ad Astra, a beautiful, poetic, and pensive sci-fi thriller that doesn’t entirely deliver answers or salvation, James Gray has created one of the year’s most fascinating films. Ultimately, the film itself falls just ever short of greatness, but the journey is entrancing, an experience that seems torn from another era of film.
Ari Aster’s follow-up to Hereditary is an overly long film, one that doesn’t blow you away in the moment. And yet it’s a film that stays with you long after it ends, an inescapable death trap that even upon multiple viewings presents new details and subtle moments that make you appreciate Aster’s masterful detail. Absolutely beautiful—and bold—in its delivery, Midsommar proves to be a gorgeously delicious and quietly fucked-up horror film. Oh, and Florence Pugh is downright terrific—one that runs laps around her turn as Amy in this year’s Little Women.
Waves grabs you from the first second and proceeds to ripple through your body for its entire runtime, even if it often feels as if director Trey Edward Shults is reaching for and tightening his grip on your throat. The enthralling cinematography by Drew Daniels and mesmerizing score by Trent Reznor make for a one-two punch, one that strikes with incredible accuracy and strength. The movie is bold in other ways—its massive pivot halfway through is a risky one, but one that sends the film down a completely different and rewarding path—and the big screen introduction to Taylor Russell is a notable achievement.
4. Toy Story 4
Just when you roll your eyes at an unnecessary sequel to a series that wrapped up beautifully years ago, Disney-Pixar reminds you why they hold Oscars the way Thanos holds infinity stones: they know how to deliver the goods. Toy Story 4 is a visually beautiful, wonderfully written animated adventure that works on so many levels. Whether this is the end, who knows, but like its predecessor, #4 once again brings things home, an emotional sendoff that hits hard but in the warmest of ways.
1917 isn’t a perfect film, and yet it is one of the most staggeringly impressive accomplishments of the year. Director Sam Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins draw audiences into a bleak yet stunningly entrancing war film, feigning a single-shot experience that literally never gives you a second to breathe.
Parasite, as you’d expect from Bong Joon-Ho, is a precise film. Every spoken word, every character expression, every action large and small, is part of a precise vision, one not easily attained due to a thousand intermixing parts swirling—no, orchestrated—around the core and heart of this Korean drama-satire-thriller. Every moment is building toward Bong’s inevitable, ultimately unpredictable vision, because as calculated as everything is, it’s completely unclear which direction the movie is going to go.
I considered putting Parasite in the #1 spot—and history may prove it to be the most timeless of the movies on this list. But as good as that movie is, I walked out of Ford v Ferrari on a wave of unbridled energy, meaning I drove my Toyota Corolla home just a little faster than usual. Ford v Ferrari is a pure jolt of adrenaline, grease, and burned tires, a highly entertaining and surprisingly funny experience that features another sensational performance by Christian Bale (Matt Damon, too), superbly shot racing scenes, and a witty, stick-it-to-the-man screenplay. Director James Mangold has quietly built an impressive resume dating back to the 90s, and Ford v Ferrari may be, arguably, his best yet.
Bonus: Chernobyl & Dark: Season 2
HBO’s Chernobyl is not a movie but a mini-series. Dark is a TV show on Netflix. While I’ve resisted shifting away from traditional movies on this list—per my introduction, which you probably didn’t read, the line between movies and TV continue to blur, and it’s a distinction that most consumers probably don’t care about anyway—when I think about the most rewarding viewing experiences of 2019, no movie comes close to these two incredible productions.
Chernobyl is one of the most gripping and powerfully told nightmares put to screen. Incredibly acted and beautifully filmed, it is a horrific reenactment of the Soviet disaster that killed thousands of people.
Also dealing with nuclear disaster, but in a completely different way, is Dark: Season 2, an impressively complex, suspenseful, and unpredictable sci-fi thriller that builds on the calculated chaos of the first season and propels the show into new, exciting territory.