It is that time of year again. Time to create an exceedingly subjective, by-no-means exhaustive list of the “best” movies of 2019. 2019 was a good year in film. There were plenty of strong contenders for this list (find my full ranking of 2019 films at Letterboxd). I could have stretched this list out to 30 or 40 films, but I decided to keep it short and sweet. I just crammed in as many honorable mentions as felt appropriate, instead.
You can find my candidates for worst movie of the year here.
Honorable Mentions: American Factory, Apollo 11, Arctic, Ash is Purest White, Birds of Passage, Hail Satan?, A Hidden Life, Horror Noire, Midsommar, Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood, One Cut of the Dead, Rolling Thunder Revue, The Souvenir, The Vast of Night, Wild Rose
20. Knives Out
Rian Johnson’s drawing room mystery Knives Out initially put me off. Not terribly; I enjoyed its energy from viewing one. But for an ensemble picture, I found it not making sufficient use of its ensemble. On a second (then a third) viewing, though, I came to enjoy more and more what works with the film. The script is lively and engaging. The production and costume design are gorgeous. The editing is crisp. The score is bouncy. And the ensemble, despite the limited screentime per actor, is fantastic.
19. Tigers Are Not Afraid
Tigers Are Not Afraid is more delicate than most recent horror films. Issa Lopez has a soft touch, and her blend of supernatural fairy tale and gritty realism is a transfixing experience. Her ability to direct a coterie of young actors, who all give impressive performances, is also noteworthy.
Tigers Are Not Afraid is a recent watch for me, so I am still processing everything that it is doing. But it nevertheless struck me upon first viewing. It is more than likely a horror film I will return to when I am looking for something somber and sobering.
Jordan Peele’s sophomore effort, riding off of the runaway success of the adequately provocative Get Out, is ambitious. Taken literally, the world of Us is not logically sound. But taken as a world slanted as if out of the Twilight Zone, or as an allegory for the forgotten population of the American impoverished, it is a refreshingly original perspective.
As a horror movie, Us is a lot of fun, mixing the bloody indulgences of the slasher with Peele’s natural inclination for cogent humor. As a drama, the film brings out a riveting dual role performance from Lupita Nyong’o, who adds an element of tragic weight to that mix of horror and humor. For what it’s worth, Us cements Peele as an auteur and a blank check figure in Hollywood.
17. Her Smell
I have a turbulent relationship with Alex Ross Perry films. He followed up my least favorite of his films, Golden Exits, with what is perhaps my favorite of his films, Her Smell. For what it’s worth, though, Queen of Earth also struck me. Maybe it is the effect of Elisabeth Moss, who seems to control both Queen of Earth and Her Smell with her performances.
At least three-fifths of Her Smell is chaotic and dissonant and grimy, and Moss’s raw energy propels these acts to a new level. Then, there is the middle act, the quietest one, where Moss dials into an entirely different yet no less entrancing energy. Her Smell might not be for everyone—it is grating and ugly in a number of ways—but it hooked me early with Moss’s performance and didn’t let go until the final moments.
16. For Sama
2019 was a fairly good year for documentaries, but none were as emotionally potent as For Sama. From journalist Waad Al-Kateab and her husband Edward Watts, the film is a documentation of the crisis in Aleppo for the sake of the directors’ son Sama. The film is intimate while also being a stellar piece of political journalism.
There is something special about the emotional power that is created by Al-Kateab in For Sama. Comparing the film to another 2019 documentary about the conflict in Syria, The Cave, the emotional resonance feels like night and day. I cannot quite put my finger on why one works so much better than the other, but For Sama was a substantially more powerful experience for me.
15. Long Day’s Journey into Night
Long Day’s Journey into Night is bifurcated in a jarring way, and the two halves may be too uneven for some. But each half has its own merits. The first half is a temporally elusive character study steeped in the imperfections of memory. The second half is a single long take lasting almost an hour. This second half has the quality of showing off, but it is nevertheless an impressive feat. And the real-time dream state director Bi Gan is able to create using this trick is engrossing.
The film is imperfect in a way that initially lost me, but the longer I reflect on the experience of watching the film, the more I appreciate this imperfection. It adds to the dreamy quality, making the film feel more like a melancholic fantasy. There is a profound sadness to the intangibility of the protagonist’s experiences, and the feeling of loss permeates through the long take as he struggles to find something real within the illusory world being constructed around him.
Christian Petzold’s Transit attaches realism to an alternate reality France that is oppressed by fascism. It is based on a novel which is set during World War II, but it is the present day. The slippery nature of time makes the film feel like a dour fantasy, but the simple drama of its characters is made painfully real.
Transit is not as magnetic as Petzold’s previous film, Phoenix, and it lacks that film’s powerful lead performance from Nina Hoss. But Franz Rogowski is no slouch, and Petzold makes good use of the world he has created, adding details in background space that makes it feel lived in. As this acts to draw the viewer into the film, there is an omnipresent feeling that this world is inescapable. As you watch, you feel more and more trapped in this place, thereby making the characters’ ultimate goal feel all the more urgent and necessary.
13. The Irishman
Martin Scorsese’s gangster epic is in some ways a love letter to his own career. Alongside previous collaborators Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Harvey Keitel, Scorsese and screenwriter Steve Zaillian tell a ruminative story about what it is like to age within the gangster lifestyle. In doing so, The Irishman is also an exercise in ruminating over a career in putting the gangster lifestyle on film. It is Scorsese’s most delicate gangster film, and it is has a lot to say without saying anything loudly.
12. High Life
Like many other space films, Claire Denis’ High Life is concerned with themes of isolation and loneliness. Unlike most other space films, it is also concerned with the chaos and insidiousness of human nature. Denis’ manipulation of time gives the viewer equal measure of humanity and inhumanity, suffering and hope. The film is as intimate as it is grotesque, ugly as it is beautiful. This tonal push and pull that Denis loves so much may ultimately bear riper fruit in some of her previous films, but High Life is transfixing nonetheless.
11. Pain & Glory
Antonio Banderas gives, I think, the best performance of his career in Pain & Glory. This coming from a guy who has seen only roughly 20 of his 111 screen credits, but who’s counting? Banderas puts so much passion and soul into this performance that it functions as the gravity around which other pieces of the film revolve.
This is not to say that the other pieces are substantially lesser. Pedro Almodovar crafts a personal, emotionally powerful film that looks beautiful and contains numerous quality performances. From the set design to the cinematography to the acting, Pain & Glory is aesthetically brilliant.
10. Marriage Story
I have a strained relationship with Noah Baumbach films. The one’s I enjoy the most, Mistress America and Frances Ha, read more like Greta Gerwig films than Baumbach films to me. And Baumbach’s last film centering around a divorce, The Squid and the Whale, reads overly spiteful and pessimistic. As such, I was not expecting much from his latest, Marriage Story. Color me surprised.
Marriage Story depicts divorce as a tormented process even at its most cordial. The script gives Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver meaty roles from which they draw emotionally resonant performances, and it tells a bittersweet tale of how we use storytelling to paint our own lives how we want to see them.
9. Amazing Grace
A 2019 film only so far as it was released in qualification for this year’s awards season, Amazing Grace is nevertheless a transcendent experience. Left unfinished since it was shot in 1972, Sydney Pollack’s concert film of Aretha Franklin’s legendary performance at the New Temple Baptist Mission church was completed in 2018 by Alan Elliott. If nothing else, the painstaking process of syncing the concert’s audio and video tracks is noteworthy.
The concert turned into a massively successful gospel record in 1972, but watching Franklin’s performance in Amazing Grace adds to the experience. It might be the greatest concert film to come around since Stop Making Sense.
8. The Last Black Man in San Francisco
The idiosyncrasies of The Last Black Man in San Francisco may not work for me front-to-back, but they accumulate in such a way that the film is a unique, singular piece. The screenplay from Jimmie Fails, Joe Talbot, and Rob Richert is hauntingly sad yet alive with a whimsical energy. It is hopeful and devastating, incisive and ruminative. And it is also an excitingly confident first feature script.
My favorite aspect of The Last Black Man in San Francisco is Jonathan Majors, whose performance is flooring. What sticks in the mind is his character’s powerful one-man show, but Majors’ performance is transfixing from start to finish.
7. Uncut Gems
Benny and Josh Safdie’s latest has a similar feel to their last film, Good Time, only it is more aggressively frantic. Uncut Gems has a nonstop pace liable to put a knot in your stomach and palpitations in your heartbeat. It is quite possibly the best paced film of the year, and it sports one of the finest acting performances of the year in Adam Sandler.
If you see Uncut Gems, prepare yourself to watch an aggressively unlikable person make terrible decisions for two hours and 15 minutes. That doesn’t sound inherently entertaining, but it (almost inexplicably) is. With Uncut Gems, the Safdie brothers have crafted one of the more unique crime dramas of the decade.
6. The Farewell
Lulu Wang’s The Farewell is delicate and emotionally full. As the narrative struggles with issues of cultural identity and truth-telling, the style is light and neat. What comes from this juxtaposition is a distinctly human film, one where you easily feel the complex emotional conflict of Awkwafina’s Billi. And the indelible sweetness of Zhao Shuzhen’s portrayal of the unknowingly terminally ill Nai Nai is perfect.
Wang’s script is elegant. The performances are top notch. And the compositions shot by Anna Franquesa Solano are picturesque without being showy or distracting. The Farewell is an easy-to-champion indie.
5. Little Women
I have to admit it: I am not, generally speaking, a fan of the film genre Little Women is a part of, that of the 17th or 18th century period piece drama about courtship. Often, I find them too staid and dry. Of course, there are ones out there I do like, and I am pleased to add Greta Gerwig’s Little Women adaptation to the list. Hers is one of the more vibrant and well-rounded adaptations of this sort that I have seen. The ensemble takes the rich, clever script and makes three course acting meals out of it. Had I seen this prior to filling out my voting ballot, it would certainly net a screenplay, directing, and at least two acting nods.
The performances are massive. The cinematography is beautiful (especially the wides). The script is whip-smart. And the ending is nothing short of genius.
4. The Lighthouse
There is something about Robert Eggers that checks all the boxes for me. With both The Witch and The Lighthouse, there are elements which scratch a cinematic itch I did not know I had. His intricate camera choices, dissonant sound design, dream-like character arcs, and detailed use of colloquial language combine to make for films that I want to watch multiple times over.
The Lighthouse is a fascinating depiction of cabin fever, loneliness, and repressed sexuality. It houses two of the best acting performances of the year, and it is shot in gorgeous black and white. If nothing else, Eggers’ film is an entirely unique cinematic experience, and I can wholeheartedly endorse that.
3. An Elephant Sitting Still
Hu Bo is tragically no longer with us, but his magnum opus An Elephant Sitting Still will live on. The epic tragedy, which depicts a day in the life of four troubled people in Manzhouli, is an exceedingly deliberate tale that is achingly sad and momentarily hopeful. Fan Chao’s cinematography takes in the distinct grayness of the world around these characters while continuously isolating them within frames marked by their vast emptiness.
An Elephant Sitting Still is a long, difficult watch, but it is crafted with an extraordinary grasp on style. It is a style that plays with visual depth and long takes in such a way that it enhances the narrative. Quite possibly, the feeling of isolation has never been depicted as cinematic as this.
Bong Joon-ho has a fantastic track record. I would argue that the man has not made a bad film, and his seventh feature film, Parasite, might just be his masterpiece. It is a film whose seamless, beautiful mix of tones yields a wholly satisfying experience. Parasite houses a commentary about classicism within a compassionate family drama that is equal parts humorous and tragic, equal parts idiosyncratic and universally human.
Parasite is a difficult film to encapsulate into a pithy blurb. I won’t do it much justice here. But the film has received almost universal praise, so there isn’t much work left for me to do anyway. The film is as good as everyone says it is. It would be the film of the year, if not for…
1. Portrait of a Lady on Fire
The characters in Portrait of a Lady on Fire re-interpret the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. It is suggested that, perhaps, Orpheus’ decision to turn around and lose his love forever was the act of a poet, that he chose the memory of love in its highest form over continued love. Celine Sciamma’s film is a film of looking. It hinges on how its two leads look at one another and how the camera chooses to depict those looks. It is also a film about memory, about how these looks preserve finite relationships in perpetuity.
Sciamma crafts the looks of Portrait of a Lady on Fire exquisitely. Rarely do I find a movie which draws me so fully into its characters’ romantic relationship. Sciamma’s depiction of this relationship floored me, mesmerizing me until the breathtaking final minutes. Her film is a true work of art which she paints with a seeming effortlessness. It is beautiful.
As always, thanks for reading!
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)