It feels like I, as well as many others, say this every year, but what a year for film. 2019 saw the closing of a decade and has come to mind as maybe being the best year of the decade when it comes to cinema. Overall in 2019 I clocked in at seeing 170 movies, a collection that had big highs and low lows. There was such a massive amount of so many incredible films, that it was shocking how much were still left off. But with all that said, as the year has closed, its time to countdown my top 25. But first, some honorable mentions…
Honorable Mentions (In Alphabetical Order):
- The Art of Self Defense
- A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
- An Elephant Sitting Still
- The King
- Mary Magdalene
- Native Son
- The Sound of Silence
An obvious, but important note: This list was extremely difficult to make and will probably be different tomorrow, as the rankings continually jump around in my head. This list isn’t just my 25 best films but more of a meld between my favorites and the straight-up best.
25. Light of My Life
With post-apocalyptic dramas now being such a staple of modern storytelling that many nowadays often take the backdrop for granted, as if audiences all know the way the world is going to end so well that it requires little elaboration. In many ways Casey Affleck’s Light of My Life — which he co-stars, writes, and directs — falls into this loose genre category of talky, character-based survival dramas. But, while delivering an original scenario, Affleck has placed a gorgeously lyrical backdrop — a father-daughter story that envelops you in an atmosphere of subtle humanity and powerful emotional depth.
24. Dark Waters
Despite initial hesitations towards the contrary, Dark Waters is wholeheartedly a Todd Haynes film. In fact, it’s perhaps an even greater accomplishment than some of his strictly arthouse fare, for he was able to take a timely, issue-focused story and subvert every expectation, scene by scene. In this story of greedy capitalism at the cost of human health, there are no grandstanding speeches that feel engineered for an awards reel nor are there easy, comforting answers when it comes to what to do next. Coupled with cinematographer Ed Lachman’s cold, clear-eyed vision, Mark Ruffalo’s simmering lead performance, and an always-excellent Bill Camp, Dark Waters sets the bar for what a certain kind of activist-geared thriller should be.
23. The Souvenir
Much like the dashing, troubled Anthony (Tom Burke), The Souvenir is always hiding something. Joanna Hogg’s semi-autobiographical drama manages to be many things at once — a portrait of addiction from the outside, a making-of-the-artist story, a tale of obsessive love and the ways it can make even the most sensible a fool — without ever feeling overstuffed. At the center, as young filmmaker Julie, Honor Swinton Byrne remains our constant in the story that keeps ruthlessly, elegantly cutting ahead in time; her endless empathy anchors us form the moment we arrive in a new present tense. Hogg’s compositions, meanwhile, marries immense vulnerability with restraint; through her lens, the sight of bodies standing in a room can almost be breathtaking in their beauty, in all their cruelty, fragility, and terrible life.
22. Pain and Glory
Across a career of over thirty years of filmmaking, Pedro Almodóvar has accrued the highest respect an auteurist can receive, his distinctive romantic whimsy carries such weight that the tagline “a film by Almodóvar” conveys more brand than vision. Pain and Glory, the filmmaker’s best and most personal movie in years, brings him back to mortal terrain. A grounded melancholic rumination on aging and artistic intent steeped in the aging director’s own experiences, it may be the closest Almodóvar comes to crafting a memoir in the medium he knows best. At least, it looks that way on the surface. Pain and Glory stars a world-weary Antonio Banderas, his face caked in salt-and-pepper stubble and head full of an unruly mop of a hairdo, as an acclaimed director wrestling with his past and present. The actor looks so much like his long-time collaborator that Pain and Glory may well be deemed “a film about Almodóvar.” At the prime age of seventy, Almodóvar has made more than a career summation; he’s delivered a movie that consolidates the best of his work while making it seem fresh all over again. For movies to survive the next decade, filmmakers need to prove their own vitality. Almodóvar offers living proof that no talented filmmaker’s journey ever has to end.
Christian Petzold’s adaptation of a 1944 Anna Seghers novel collapses the past and present into one place in time. The plot and dialogue evokes WWII — mentionings of occupied France, talks of camps and cleansing, refugees anxiously waiting for safe passage — but Petzold uses a modern setting, eschewing period signifiers entirely. The choice engenders a hazy sense of cognitive dissonance that perfectly meshes with his characters’ anxious, transitional state. We see Georg (a phenomenal Franz Rogowski) flee from Paris to Marseilles with the manuscript and identification papers of a dead writer. A document that may be his ticket out, but also ends up with him wrestling with deception after he falls in love with the writer’s wife (Paula Beer). With a steady mix of Casablanca, mid-’50s Hithcock, and Kafka, Petzold paints a portrait of romance and displacement amid national unrest that feels entirely his own. In this fraught political climate, rarely has a film made such an obvious point so effective.
20. The Last Black Man in San Francisco
There is no shortage of beautiful images in The Last Black Man in San Francisco, from the Golden Gate Bridge engulfed in the gray morning fog to the flowers growing by the city’s shipyard. But the center piece is the loveliest. It’s a Victorian house located in the city’s Fillmore district, topped off with a conical “witch’s hat” tower peaking from the top. Our lead character, Jimmie Fails — who’s named after the first-time actor who’s playing the character, which is also based on him — spent the good part of his childhood in the aforementioned Victorian house. Throughout it’s the filmmaking that rises this film above so many; in the intense, sumptuous hues of Adam Newport-Berra’s cinematography, the woozy, dryly comedic Spike Jonze meets Spike Lee direction by Joe Talbot, and the spellbinding, majestic strains of Emile Mosseri’s score. This film’s two centric performances from Fails and Jonathan Majors are easily two of the best of the year, together they achieve the engaging chemistry and understated pathos of a great-silent comedy duo. A soul-gripping elegy of wry, melancholic enchantment, The Last Black Man in San Francisco is an astonishing debut from Joe Talbot.
A skillful orchestrated trap is exactly what our protagonists (George MacKay & Dean-Charles Chapman) in 1917 are attempting to stop, and at the same time that’s exactly what the movie itself is. And the film takes the rawness and brutality of the Great War and largely tames it into aesthetic submission — as the film is designed to look as one unbroken take. And the result is a two-hour tight rope walk that keeps us intently focused on the two lead men and their mission, never allowing us to look away when we’d like to. With the powerful collaboration of director Sam Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins, the two unfold 1917 with a visceral charge and bold, lyrical stillness, combining the two for a virtuosic experience.
18. Knives Out
Rian Johnson’s witty and phenomenally entertaining whodunit may have been inspired by classic Agatha Christie adaptations, but its underlying story of fortune and upward mobility owes more to Charles Dickens. Explaining why, however, would involve spoiling some of the film’s crucial twists. Following after a famous mystery novelist (Christopher Plummer) dies of an apparent suicide on his 85th birthday, an anachronistic southern detective (Daniel Craig) arrives to investigate the family of the deceased — a rouges’ gallery of useless modern-day aristocrats that includes a trust-fund playboy, an “alt-right” troll, and a New Age lifestyle guru. Johnson, who made his name with geeky delights like Brick and Looper before hitting it big with Star Wars: The Last Jedi, finds ingenious solutions to the rules of the murder-mystery movie formula — while also directing some top-notch performances from the likes of Craig and Ana de Armas. But maybe most impressively, he manages to stake out a moral position in a genre in which everyone is supposed to be a suspect.
17. Little Women
Much will be written in the coming months (and likely years) of Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, based on a beloved novel with several nearly-as-beloved adaptations. This new version doesn’t diminish the earlier ones — it elevates them, and its source material, by eschewing reverence in favor of treating the March sisters like living, breathing, messy, contradictory people. Gerwig’s almost masterful scrambling and reassembling of the story’s chronology, is a choice that allows us to see the growth and transformation of Louisa May Alcott’s famous characters through a new lens, and which even grants an unexpected ambiguity to a narrative that will be familiar to many viewers. Like a flat piece of paper folded upon itself and cut along the seams, the film unfurls to reveal a beautiful design; the uniformly excellent performances are the candle that sits behind it, sending lovely shadows dancing on the wall.
16. The Nightingale
Jennifer Kent could have haunted a hundred different houses in the aftermath of her spooky sleeper hit The Babadook, and gotten paid handsomely to do so. Instead, the Australian writer-director chased her debut with a much riskier kind of horror movie: a wilderness “rape-revenge” thriller of such extreme violence and despair that it screened with a trigger warning at some venues. Set in the occupied Tasmania of 1825, The Nightingale starkly depicts the evils of colonialism as visited upon an Irish convict (Aisling Franciosi) and the Aboriginal tracker (Baykali Ganambarr) she’s hired to guide her through the bush in pursuit of the English soldiers who destroyed her life. There are sequences almost too brutal to watch, but this harrowing plunge into a dark historical chapter never slips into grindhouse gratuitousness. Those who stick with it are rewarded with a powerfully moving vision of solidarity among survivors — a film that resonates, like most of the great Westerns, with the present world.
With so many coming-of-age films premiering each year, and many getting lost in the undistributed ether after small festival runs, it can be small miracle when one manages to show us burgeoning adolescence in a new light when it comes to both style and structure. In only his third narrative feature Genesis, Canadian director Philippe Lesage expands from his previous film The Demons with the confidence of a helmer that has dozens of movies under their belt. Led by striking, star-making performances by Théodore Pellerin and Noée Abita, Genesis keys in on the impulses and pains of young heartache and the euphoric power of the love to come.
In the foggy mountains of what could be Colombia, teenage militants guard an American hostage. Eventaully, they’re driven into the jungle below, where their makeshift adolescent society begins to unravel. Though it caught fair comparisons to everything from Apocalypse Now to Lord of the Flies to Dogtooth, Monos casts its own tactile, hallucinatory spell. The mythic imagery never undercuts the human stakes — the way writer-director Alejandro Landes divides our sympathies between Julianne Nicholson’s imprisoned engineer and her tragically conscripted young captors. As a whole, Monos provides a window into power-hungry mayhem on the fringes of society that could happen anytime, anywhere. With a deep intensity that’s aided by composer Mica Levi’s thunderous score, Landes delivers a suspenseful encapsulation of alienated youth enmeshed in pointless battles that can only lead to further destruction.
13. Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood
You have to spend some time with Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood to really appreciate it. It’s a film that rewards multiple viewings: knowing the explosive finale to come somehow takes the pressure off, allowing the viewer to put up their feet, grab a pitcher of margaritas, and just hang out with Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) and Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) for a couple of hours. Cliff and Rick aren’t quite over the hill, but they’re definitely cresting it, and the film grapples with the collision of the male ego against the brick wall of middle age with both comedy and pathos. The first is to be expected from Quentin Tarantino, who’s made a career out of witty, reference-laden banter. But the second, a bittersweet wish that the good times could go on forever, reveals a wistful new side to the writer-director. Rick likes to yell about hippies, but Tarantino’s hate is focused on Charles Manson (Damon Herriman) and his followers, who not only deprived the world of the sweetness and virtue of Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) but also ended the dream of the ’60s in one horrific night. Through meticulous costume and production design (from Arianne Phillips and Barbara Ling), Tarantino rebuilds the Los Angeles of his childhood for Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood, letting his vision of an unspoiled 1969 stand as a temple both to what was and what might have been.
12. The Mountain
Jumping from a film dealing with the longing for a bygone era to one that peels back the placid surface of midcentury Americana to reveal the squirming hotbed of anxiety, repression, and predation lying just beneath the so-called “good ol’ days.” With The Mountain writer-director Rick Alverson continues what has become his signature in his filmography; for each of his film’s to essentially open wounds left to fester and disconcert, but which nonetheless sporadically display a showcase for the willful neglect of what makes is human. Through Alverson and his cinematographer Lorenzo Hagerman, The Mountain‘s formalist milky-gray still imagery finds the film in a mesmeric, challenging and altogether singular portrait of America’s broken identity. Known for his provocative explorations of outsiders, Alverson’s vision of 1950s America bears little resemblance to the one that’s come to dominate the pop-culture imagination. There are no white-picket fences, no ostentatious displays of economic prosperity, no hallmarks of Space Age newness. We follow a lobotomist (Jeff Goldblum) who takes a young, lonely man (Tye Sheridan) on the road as he goes from hospital to hospital demonstrating his barbaric lobotomy technique; the banal horrors Sheridan’s character witnesses along the way lay bare the ugliness of out national character.
11. Ad Astra
“We’re all we’ve got,” Brad Pitt’s sadsack astronaut declares at the end of his journey and the edge of space. It’s an admission of therapeutic hope in James Gray’s bluntly sentimental, visually awing (from the help of the great cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema) sci-fi melodrama about a stoic spacemen crossing the solar system in search of a father (Tommy Lee Jones) who never taught him how to handle his feelings. With the world on fire, it’s no wonder so many major filmmakers are looking now to the stars. But to Gray, the inky unknown is less escape route from earthbound concerns than a roundabout path back to them. Structured like a zero-gravity Apocalypse Now but gooey as Xenomorph guts, Ad Astra says it’s the mysteries of inner space rather than the outer kind that really matter. All the same, it finds fresh wonders up there, from lunar pirates to fast-food franchises gone intergalactic.
10. High Life
Claire Denis’ meditative sci-drama High Life lives in the extremes of the human experience. It’s a film about cold stars and warm bodies, set in a claustrophobic prison hurtling across an endless vacuum. This is a vision of space travel that completely rejects the square-jawed, all-American NASA model, populating its self-sustaining spacecraft en route to intergalactic oblivion with a crew of dirtbag convicts that includes Robert Pattinson, Mia Goth, and Andre Benjamin. They’re ruled over by a mad scientist played by Juliette Binoche, whose perverse obsession with human reproduction makes her a kind of warped creation goddess. High Life is Denis’ first movie in English, but as in many of her films, long stretches of time pass in silence. As a result, its most potent moments are visual (Yorick Le Saux’s cinematography is staggering in its tactile nature). They’re also provocatively sexual and strange, as Denis stares into the void and finds little to inspire hope. Not nothing, but not a lot either.
9. Under the Silver Lake
When life seems difficult or incomprehensible, it can be comforting to believe that everything is secretly controlled by some sinister force or faction, and energizing to find “clues” hidden everywhere in plain sight. That’s the central idea of David Robert Mitchell’s wonderfully weird pseudo-noir, Under the Silver Lake, in which a blissfully unemployed, perpetually lascivious, morally dubious L.A. goofball (a hilarious Andrew Garfield) starts investigating the mysterious disappearance of a new neighbor (Riley Keough) and finds himself sucked deeper and deeper into what appears to be an elaborate citywide cipher. Some folks mistook the protagonist’s paranoid, borderline misogynistic viewpoint for the film’s, but Mitchell is unmistakably ridiculing the prevalence of outlandish conspiracy theories, even as he acknowledges their visceral appeals (and throws in numerous coded puzzles for fans to solve). Possibly no other 2019 movie spoke so clearly to the mess we find ourselves in today.
At the beginning of Bong Joon-Ho’s Palme d’Or winner Parasite, a family’s cramped basement fills with menacing-looking fumigation chemicals, and for a moment it seems that this might be one of the writer-director’s more overtly fantastical horror stories, like The Host or Snowpiercer. Parasite is not quite that, but its genius lies in the way it zigzags around some genres and zips straight through others; this is a con-artist movie and farce, a family drama, and yes, a horror movie of sorts, even if it’s not a creature feature. Despite the movie’s electric pulse, Bong’s sharp turns are executed with sleek precision, never dropping focus from how this family will do what they can to spend some time above ground, head above water, inside the wealthy host home where they’ve insinuated themselves. Likewise, the filmmaking never loses its controlled sense of showmanship, as rhythmic and catchy as Park So-dam reciting her mantra-like story: “Jessica, only child, Illinois, Chicago.”
Ari Aster, it just simply can’t be denied, is a filmmaker who possesses an almost supernatural command of dread. He knows how to hold a shot just long enough to create pinpricks of discomfort, to disorient with an abrupt cutaway, to drop stomachs with the godlike perch and glare of his camera. And it’s exactly what he does with his sophomore effort, Midsommar, a film that follows a group of friends who are taken by another to a remote village in northern Sweden for a midsummer festival, a place where the sun never completely sets. It’s there where they’re met by a community of calm, welcoming, very Swedish hippies, smiles plasters everlastingly across their faces. It’s from there where things, as you might expect, go a little sour. With Aster’s startling control he take’s Midsommar to dissections of grief, masculinity, and relationships. Lead by a striking lead performance from Florence Pugh, Midsommar, in its final stretch delivers an ending that’s frankly stunning in where it’s willing to go in search of catharsis. Reminding us madness can look like wisdom through the right eyes, or like liberation in the wrong (blinding day)light.
6. Marriage Story
In Noah Baumbach’s most rapturous film to date, the filmmaker combines the vivid slice-of-life vignettes of Frances Ha with the unflinching self-examination of The Squid and the Whale. He also tells a rich and provocative story, about two basically decent people who suffer mightily once they turn their irreconcilable differences over to the rough justice of family court. Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson — joined by an all-star cast of supporting players of the likes of Laura Dern, Alan Alda, and Ray Liotta — are at their best, bringing such masterclass nuance to their characters that the audience can see both why this couple fell in love and why they have to split. But Marriage Story is really Baumbach’s show as he delivers not only 2019’s best screenplay, but also finds ways into breaking the arc of a messy divorce down to a series of riveting set pieces.
5. Uncut Gems
Expanding the frenetic, jittery cinema of their previous film Good Time with novelistic ambition, filmmaker brothers Josh and Benny Safdie have created a thrilling study of one man’s compulsive self-destruction with this tragicomedy about a hustling Manhattan jewelry dealer (a live-wire Adam Sander) who owes a fortune in gambling debts. Already on the brink of implosion, Sandler’s Howard Ratner can’t stop making bets, convinced that his financial (and personal) salvation will come by way of a Ethiopian black opal. He’s reckless, neurotic, self-deluding, an addict, equal parts sucker and scammer. Packed with memorable supporting characters (and impressive turns from newcomers like Julia Fox, Keith Williams Richards, and NBA star Kevin Garnett, who plays himself), Uncut Gems establishes the Safdies as masters of anxious existential grit; their style of overlapping dialogue, tension and outright confrontational close-ups feels like an unlikely fusion of Robert Altman and Abel Ferrara.
4. Portrait of a Lady on Fire
A thread of quiet rebellion runs throughout Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Painter Marianne (Noémie Merlant) challenges the limits placed on female artists in the 18th century, while young noblewoman Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) refuses to sit for a portrait that’s part of an arranged marriage she doesn’t want. Together, the two women push past the boundaries of social propriety with their slow-burning romance. Writer-director Céline Sciamma tells all this through the power of observation, glances and gestures saying so much. The subtle lushness, the romance and period completely realized, Portrait of a Lady on Fire steadily carves out a space of its everlasting own.
3. The Irishman
One day, Martin Scorsese will die. That’s a difficult thing to accept — difficult because it will be a staggering loss for the film culture, but also pretty hard to even believe. Scorsese, at the spry age of seventy-seven, was everywhere in 2019: igniting a debate about what is or isn’t cinema; inspiring autumn hits so indebted to his style that he should have received royalties; executive-producing two of the other movies on this list and delivering a Bob Dylan documentary. And yet to watch The Irishman, his gangster opus to end all gangster opuses, is to be constantly reminded of the promise of mortality — his, ours, everyone’s. Make no mistake, this is a remarkably brisk three-and-a-half-hours, dramatizing half a century of organized crime through dark-comic confrontations (a perfectly outsized Al Pacino performance) so deliriously funny, they’ve already generated a slew of memes. But right from his opening shot, Scorsese foregrounds the inevitable. As his film becomes, in its magnificently bleak final stretch, a meditation on the true consequences of the mob life, the ignoble end awaiting men like the film’s own protagonist, mafia hitman Frank Sheeran (a devastating Robert De Niro). However firmly planted on the vanguard Scorsese may be, however relevant and vital and, yes, alive he remains as an artist, his latest triumph is a stark acknowledgment of what’s coming. If we’re lucky, The Irishman says, we get to pick our coffin. Watching the movie, it’s hard to shake the feeling that Scorsese has picked his.
2. The Lighthouse
Set on a slab of rock off the coast of 1890s Maine, The Lighthouse fully announces writer-director Robert Eggers as a full-on cinematic tour de force. Centered on two lighthouse keepers (each brought to ferocious life by Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe), the film very early on arranges the two side by side in the frame by way of introduction. Staring right towards the camera, they look starved and weary, as though they’ve walked straight out of an early, faded photograph. Or maybe, we’ve walked into one. It’s from there where the film turns into a powerhouse of cold clammy suspense and a deep descent into cabin-fever madness, containing visions of beautiful-grotesque, alluring creatures and slimy, erotic tentacles, and farts, a fair-share of farts. Eggers blurs the line between madness and supernatural danger, not dismissing the latter as illusion so much as treating it like an outgrowth of the former. Much like his previous film, The Witch, The Lighthouse is another New England folktale, another homegrown period piece of incredible period accuracy, flavorfully archaic language, isolation, and menacing seagulls. An even less commercial venture than its predecessor. Brought to life by possibly the year’s best cinematography by Jarin Blaschke, The Lighthouse is emblazoned on chalky, foggy black-and-white 35mm, Blaschke bathing its images with expressionistic shadows all captured in the square-like, silent film-era 1.19:1 aspect ratio. The Lighthouse, all together, is a film that sinks you into its maddening psyche of sea shanties and enchanting hallucinations, to encompass to something of near-masterpiece stature.
1. A Hidden Life
Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life is a period piece where historical detail takes a backseat. The film tells the true story of Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl), a devout Austrian farmer who became a despised conscientious objector when he refused to pledge loyalty to Hitler. It’s a film of staggering emotional power, philosophical and spiritual heft, all brought to soul barring life by Malick, using light, movement, sound, and texture to portray a consciousness hovering between earthly reality and metaphysical conviction. There are countless fleeting moments in A Hidden Life, many are so heartbreaking because of how recognizable they are. All of which come from the extraordinary and for some reason overlooked performances from Diehl, Valerie Pachner and Franz Rogowski. It seems that almost every minute of A Hidden Life brings new revelations, in all shapes and sizes, their full power registering often in the moment or even heavily in hindsight. And though Terrence Malick doesn’t give interviews, I don’t think we really need one to understand why he would create and release a film of this nature in 2019, at a time when the United States is being torn apart over the issue of obedient support of an authority figure, and have the dialogue alternate German with English (for the most part). But A Hidden Life is rich and sturdy enough to transcend the contemporary one-to-one comparisons that it is sure to invite. The social dynamics at play are timeless. In the end, A Hidden Life is a soul grasping experience; a spiritual journey of solitude and resilience brought to life through light and sound; one that doesn’t transcend cinema, but truly sanctifies it.