There were two movies that came out at the end of 2019 that tackled the death penalty, this and Just Mercy. While both are great, Clemency is the one that has stuck with me the most. The way writer-director Chinonye Chukwu is able to observe this controversial subject from both within and outside the walls of a prison is raw and honest. Both Alfre Woodard and Aldis Hodge deliver remarkable performances that deserved much more attention. Do not let this indie film slip under the radar and seek it out as soon as you can.
19) The Two Popes
Regardless of your own personal views or experiences on religion, I believe this is a movie that will engage a wide variety of people. A quiet story of a Pope discussing the current state of Catholic faith with the future Pope could easily have been a drag but Anthony McCarten’s script looks at its subject matter in a way that is both broadly accessible and thought-provoking. It will have conservative and liberal thinkers questioning the Catholic church’s modern role going forward and the role religion plays in society as a whole. It also goes without saying that both Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins completely disappear into their roles and earn their respective Oscar nominations.
18) The Peanut Butter Falcon
This is one of the most charming films to come out all year. The Peanut Butter Falcon follows a young man with Down syndrome as he escapes an institution to pursue his dreams of being a wrestler. The heart of this film is easily the friendship that grows between Zack Gottsagen and Shia LaBeouf’s characters and the small ways they grow throughout the story. While it seems simple on the surface, there is plenty to appreciate about this one and I am certain anyone who seeks this out will be happy they did.
17) Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood
It has been interesting to see where Quentin Tarantino has gone as a filmmaker at this stage in his career. His movies have begun to get slower and guided by characters and dialogue than specific plot points or set pieces. Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood is definitely a strong example of that and it might be polarizing because of it. Fortunately, the characters that Tarantino has given us here are among his strongest and do an excellent job of keeping you engaged throughout. The film also captures the aesthetic of late 1960s Los Angeles beautifully and is incredibly strong from a technical standpoint. This is a unique one from Tarantino and even if it doesn’t totally work, I respect the ambition all the same.
16) Pain and Glory
This is the first film by Pedro Almodóvar I have seen and it was definitely an interesting place to start. Pain and Glory is easily one of the most personal films of 2019, seemingly being inspired heavily by Almodóvar’s own life and experiences as an aging filmmaker. Antonio Banderas is the clear heart of this film, giving a nuanced and quiet performance that makes it incredibly easy for you to emphasize with. I imagine this is a treat for longtime fans of Almodóvar, but even as someone who is less familiar with him, I found a lot to love about this intimate story.
15) Avengers: Endgame
What else is there to say about the highest-grossing movie of all time? This was a movie over ten years in the making, with 21 Marvel movies preceding it, and the way they were able to make all these characters fit into this story in a satisfying way was a joy to see. It struck a nice balance of being epic in scale while also including personal character moments that gave this film a solid emotional core. The final battle of this movie is also one of the most gratifying blockbuster experiences of the last decade and will undoubtedly become a pop culture staple.
14) Little Women
This was my first experience with the story of Little Women, so I went into this pretty blind, hoping it would be a solid follow-up to Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut Lady Bird. I found myself instantly charmed by the presentation of this movie. The setting, score and script all worked together to create a warm, intimate environment for these characters to live and interact in. The passion that Gerwig has for the source material is clear as she does everything she can to tell this story with the most respect possible. This is an ambitious step forward from Lady Bird and I am glad to report that Gerwig has solidified her spot as one of the best new directors we have.
13) The Lighthouse
Technically speaking, this film is breathtaking. The cinematography is top-notch, taking full advantage of the black and white presentation, the production design is detailed, the sound and score both work to lock you into every scene of this bizarre story. Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe give the best performances of their entire career, especially Dafoe who absolutely runs away with this role, and by the end you feel like you have definitely witnessed something unforgettable. This is not a movie for everyone, I am not even sure if it is a movie for me, but there was just so much to admire about it that I have not stopped thinking about it since I saw it over three months ago.
I might have a slight bias because of my love for Elton John but this is pretty much everything a biopic about such a colorful figure should look like. Replacing the standard musician biopic tropes that we have been plagued with for decades, Rocketman takes the music of Elton and uses it as fuel for a bigger production that captures the energy and excitement that should be associated with its subject matter. These musical sequences are all insanely well done and Taron Egerton completely transforms into Elton. Fans of Elton John, or musicals in general, will absolutely be satisfied with this and I look forward to rewatching this one for years to come.
Ari Aster’s debut Hereditary was my favorite film of 2018 so it is no surprise that I was excited for his follow-up. While Midsommar is still horrific, it is much different than Hereditary in presentation. The world is bigger and brighter, which should be more comforting, but Aster sets an uncomfortable tone early on that carries throughout the film. Florence Pugh’s performance carries so much of this film, capturing the grief and anxiety that the audience is feeling so well. This is not a movie for the faint of heart, but fans of Hereditary will be impressed with how fast Aster was able to add another classic to his filmography.
10) The Farewell
Few movies moved me in 2019 like Lulu Wang’s heartfelt autobiographical The Farewell. The way Wang tells this seemingly crazy story in such a raw, human way is beautiful and deeply emotional. The themes of family, acceptance and cultural differences are all perfectly explored here and the performances are all outstanding, especially from Awkwafina who shows that she is capable of more emotion than I ever imagined. This film has slowly grown on me more and more throughout the year and I hope it continues to find a bigger and bigger audience.
9) Knives Out
There was not a second of this movie that I did not enjoy. Rian Johnson’s script does not only create about a dozen memorable and colorful characters but incorporates them all in a satisfying way into this seemingly conventional murder mystery. The directions this movie takes, however, are not what I was initially expecting, which is great. What starts out as a whodunit mystery ends up turning into an exciting thriller with deep political overtones. If there was a way for Rian Johnson to earn respect among filmgoers following the divisive Star Wars: The Last Jedi, it would be by making a movie like this.
8) Greener Grass
No movie has been overlooked in 2019 more than Greener Grass. This is probably because this style of humor is for a niche audience but if you are a fan of the odd humor that you would find on Adult Humor at 3 AM, this is a movie for you. Despite being so overtly weird and uncomfortable, this movie gave me more genuine belly laughs than nearly any other film this year. It struck a very unique chord with me and I love it for that. The best way for me to describe this would be if a Wes Anderson and David Lynch movie had a baby and it grew up in the suburbs. That description is strange, but this movie is far stranger.
7) Marriage Story
I have recently been on a binge of Noah Baumbach movies and while I appreciate the authenticity of them, there has always been a layer of artificiality that I struggle to look through. That is until Marriage Story which is easily the most vulnerable I have seen Baumbach get as a writer. He tells the story of his own divorce and custody battle in a very honest way, clearly presenting the two sides as they happen and making it easy to feel as conflicted as the central characters. Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson’s performances are among the year’s best and the supporting characters around them are all given plenty of time to shine. It is Baumbach, however, who is the heart of this film, which will likely go down as his finest work for me.
6) Jojo Rabbit
There are many ways the story of a young Nazi with Hitler as an imaginary best friend could go wrong. Somehow, writer-director Taika Waititi turns an absurd idea into a heartfelt coming of age story about love and acceptance. The blend of genuine comedy and drama worked for me, with many scenes blending the two very well. The ensemble of actors are all great, with Roman Griffin Davis giving the best child performance of the entire year. Despite some messiness in tone, the emotional connection is undeniable and the seemingly touchy subject matter should not deter anyone from taking the time to seek this one out.
My expectations for most war movies are usually set fairly low. Not that I think they will be bad but I always fear they won’t be memorable. That is definitely not the case here as very few films have stuck with me the way 1917 did. The obvious thing to mention is the one-shot technique that works alongside detailed production design and visuals to make this an immersive, stressful environment. The two central characters do plenty to carry this simple story that does not get dull for a moment, even during the film’s quieter moments. Sam Mendes has always been a favorite director of mine and this is easily his best technical achievement to date.
4) Uncut Gems
The Safdie brothers were able to take the tension I felt while in a war zone in 1917, and bring it to the streets of New York. Even after seeing this movie for a second time there was not a moment I was not completely gripped by whatever Adam Sandler’s character was doing. Despite being completely unlikable, Sandler’s career-best performance highlights his character’s charming and more sympathetic qualities that make you ultimately want to see him succeed. The aesthetic of this film is also worth noting, with the editing and cinematography all only adding to the tension of each scene. Truly a one of a kind movie going experience that I hope leads to a new era in Sandler’s career.
I truly believe this might have been A24’s best year to date. They are responsible for a good quarter of this list, but none hit me quite as hard as Waves did. Trey Edward Shults story of a suburban family is a journey from scene to scene, taking its character in places that are truly unpredictable and will leave you in shock. Every aspect of this movie is handled masterfully, whether it be the editing that ties this ensemble together in a unique way, the intimate cinematography, or the soundtrack which features some of my favorite artists being used in clever and inventive ways. The performances of Kelvin Harrison Jr., Taylor Russell and Sterling K. Brown were all worthy of awards this year and will hopefully catapult them into thriving film careers. No movie left me as emotionally exhausted this year and it will be awhile until another movie comes along and has a similar impact on me.
2) The Irishman
The obvious thing to mention here is that Martin Scorsese has reassembled Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Harvey Keitel, and added Al Pacino to the mix to tell another classic mobster story, this time about Jimmy Hoffa. That alone is worth sitting through the 209 minute runtime. But this is more than a mobster movie, instead feeling like a bit of a swan song for the people involved. The film does not only reflect on the fascinating story of Jimmy Hoffa and the people around him, but then reflects on the consequences of being a mobster and reflects on how these people’s lives end up. It is a unique reflection on these topics and it makes this long story feel even more justified. You patiently sit through these people’s lives and by the end you feel a connection to every single one of them. It is Scorsese at his best and another classic film to add to his legendary filmography.
There is no other film that captures my feelings towards the year of 2019 better than Parasite. It is a film that works best the least you know about it, but what I will say is that when it comes to addressing the issues of social and economic inequality, no movie has done it like this. The tale of the haves and the have nots is not uncommon, not even in 2019, but the genre-bending journey that Parasite takes you on to tell this story is unlike anything I have ever seen. Bong Joon-Ho proves he is a master at his craft, taking the various tones and truly blending them together into a flawless narrative that will have you second-guessing where the film might go until the climax which features one of the best scenes of the entire year. Do not let the subtitles scare you, this is an important film that is just as relatable to American audiences as it is for any international audience. This is not just the best film of 2019 but quite possibly one of the best movies of the last decade and is certain to become a classic.