Well, folks here we are at the end of the year, and what a year it has been. As always, it’s been a particularly good year for film because it’s always a good year for film.
I have seen more than eighty films from 2019’s slate and believe you-me it is hard to pin down my favourites to just ten, so I have narrowed it down to twelve. This didn’t actually help much, and I still had to leave a ton of films out.
I’m also going to do something a little different this year and highlight a few performers who really blew me away this year. So without any further ado, let’s get into the best of 2019
Films I Didn’t See & Honourable Mentions
As I said there are just a ton of films that I had to leave off this list that I love, and a few more that I haven’t seen at all.
For example, I haven’t seen Uncut Gems which has everyone talking about giving Adam Sandler an Oscar, or Her Smell which is apparently an unapologetic look at the dark side of rock & roll, 1917 which cuts together an entire epic war movie so it looks like one continuous shot. These and others all sound like films that would definitely make my list.
There are several films I did see that didn’t quite make the cut for this list too.
- How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World was a lovely finish to my favourite of the Dreamworks Animated franchises.
- Happy Death Day 2 U is the perfect iterative sequel.
- Spider-Man: Far From Home is the best live-action Spider-Man movie since Spider-Man 2 all the way back in 2004.
- Booksmart is one of the most honest, hilarious, and relatable high school comedies I’ve seen in ages
- Ad Astra has one of Brad Pitts best performances in ages
- The Lighthouse, which is best described as The Shining crossed with Step Brothers features Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe going all-in with their performances.
- Hustlers is a brilliant heist movie and a great story about the family we choose to boot.
- The Irishman is a near-perfect end to Scorcese’s series of De Niro starring Gangsters You Kind of Like even though their awful franchise.
- Little Women is just lovely and makes me hope that Greta Gerwig and Saoirse Ronan will keep making movies together for ages like Scorcese did with De Niro (and DiCaprio).
There are two more to mention also. First, The Realm, the Spanish political thriller which I loved but technically was released last year and Chernobyl which is honestly probably my favourite thing from 2019 but since this is a list of movies and not TV shows it is ineligible.
Favourite Performers of 2019
I’ve only seen three of Adam Driver’s four released performances this year, but even if The Dead Don’t Die turns out to be awful that wouldn’t overrule how great he is in The Report, Marriage Story, and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.
The Report has him digging through the CIAs records of prisoner abuse and losing himself in it, and fighting the good fight to make sure that information makes it to the light of day while facing resistance from the CIA itself as well as the government.
Marriage Story has him locked in a bitter divorce proceeding, one that feels honest and true and what it looks and feels like to go through nearly hating someone who you love.
The Rise of Skywalker continues the story of Ben Solo and while I didn’t enjoy the film and thought that the material he had to work with was not great, what he did with it is nothing short of fantastic.
To each of these roles, he brings sensitivity and physicality that I would say is unmatched this year so far.
Florence Pugh’s big break came a couple of years ago, but 2019 was definitely her breakout year.
Fighting With My Family isn’t going to win anyone any awards but it’s a film built on the strength of its performances and Pugh’s charisma really carries and elevates what is otherwise a totally fine film.
Midsommar is the ultimate breakup movie, placing a fracturing relationship at the centre of a series of pagan rituals, and she goes through the wringer by both of those things.
In Little Women she plays Amy, the artist of the family, and most convincingly switches between the 13-year-old and 20-year-old version of the character.
These roles highlight her incredible range, and I look forward to years of great performances from her.
Already an Oscar winner, Lupita Nyong’o is a known talent but this year she outdid even herself with her performance in Jordan Peele’s Us, in which she played both of the lead roles, and each of them is completely different but entirely linked to the other. I hope that the fact that the film is horror doesn’t keep her from winning awards like it did with Toni Collette last year.
Joe Pesci came out of retirement at the behest of his friend Martin Scorcese to join the cast of The Irishman. He hadn’t been in a film in 9 years and still turned in one of his best performances. Playing totally against type, Pesci plays Russell Buffalino as reserved and quiet, but never not knowing the score. When something needs doing, “it is what it is” and that’s that. It’s an understated performance, but one that manages to be entirely magnetic at the same time.
In a storied career of performances for the ages, it’s a performance for the ages.
Jennifer Lopez hadn’t really been on my radar over the past few years, but she landed firmly back on it with Hustlers this year. As the experienced dancer and mother figure to the group that ultimately starts drugging men and stealing from them, she is utterly captivating in every frame of the film she appears in.
She’s already up for both a Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild award and I honestly hope she wins both and every other award she can.
Here’s one to highlight. Doctor Sleep is only Kyleigh Curran’s second appearance in a film but she is fantastic as Abra, a young woman with the shine and target of the film’s antagonists. She has a natural charisma and charm, and when she needs to be she’s terrifying. Keep an eye on this one, she’s going places.
My Favourite Films of 2019
And so here are my favourite dozen films of the year. If there’s an overriding theme this year it’s clearly “eat the rich” with several films tackling class divides in their own unique ways. Art reflects the times, and this is one of the things we’re all thinking about one way or another.
Please note that they are presented in alphabetical order (ie: not ranked) with the exception of my favourite film of the year, which comes last.
(written by Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely, directed by Anthony & Joe Russo)
Yes, this is the biggest piece of pop art maybe ever. The highest-grossing film of all time and maybe the single biggest spectacle of all time, the culmination of 11 years of storytelling and featuring a middle act that is effectively a greatest hits album.
It also happens to be a thoughtful look at a decimated world, and the relationships between characters put under immense strain. We all knew that the losses suffered at the end of Infinity War were never not going to be undone, but with Endgame we got to see what the world would look like after that loss. The main complaint about Infinity War was that it never stopped to take a breath and let the characters interact. Endgame spends nearly its whole runtime doing that.
I can’t imagine what the pressure must have felt like to be making the 22nd film in a franchise and be a proper ending for the story they were telling and a fitting sendoff for some of the main characters, but they stuck the landing. I almost can’t believe it.
(written & directed by Mike Flanagan)
Doctor Sleep was never going to be an easy film to make. Adapted from the book by Stephen King it is a sequel to The Shining.
While both are classics, the book and film versions of that story left things in very different places. So what would you do? Make a sequel to the book or the movie? The answer that Mike Flanagan came up with is “both”.
This would be no easy task but Doctor Sleep threads that needle nearly perfectly, paying homage to both of the beloved versions of the story and bringing both a satisfying close to the story of Danny Torrence and opening up a whole new set of possibilities with Abra Stone.
Godzilla: King of the Monsters
(written by Mike Dougherty & Zach Shields, directed by Mike Dougherty)
In the past year, I have watched or rewatched a number of Godzilla movies, partly in preparation for this film and partly just because I like Godzilla movies.
The complaints about 2014’s Godzilla were mostly that there wasn’t enough action, and this film seems to have been engineered to answer that. You see, Godzilla movies are at their best when they are laden with metaphor or when they feature giant monsters having ridiculous and destructive fights. You could argue that the previous film wasn’t metaphor-laden enough, but I don’t think that anyone could argue there isn’t enough action in this one.
The monster fights in this are incredible, pretty much exactly as if director Mike Dougherty was a kid playing with toys. Add to this the human good guys suddenly having enough money to have a giant underwater base and a giant flying stealth bomber base, and you have the makings of a great big fun movie.
Sure, the characters are all archetypes but why is that a problem? The cast of this film is made up almost entirely of character actors who are always welcome in movies and every one is 100% bought in. Also, the score completely rocks.
Godzilla: King of the Monsters underperformed at the box office and I have no idea why. It’s great.
John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum
(written by Derek Kolstad, Shay Hatten, Chris Collins, and Marc Abrams, directed by Chad Stahelski)
The John Wick franchise is a gift to all mankind from people who love making movies. Everyone seems committed to the bit, and committed to the most brutal and practically achieved fights possible.
Where John Wick: Chapter 2 went maybe a little out of balance with it’s world-building over action premise, John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum brings things back to the balance achieved by the first film: just enough new world stuff to make it more interesting, and a ton of kickass and inventive fight scenes to keep us entertained. This includes probably the best fight in the entire franchise, which takes place in a goddamned knife museum.
The John Wick movies are the gift that keeps on giving.
(written & directed by Rian Johnson)
Rian Johnson isn’t a filmmaker who makes a lot of movies, but he does take an extra measure of care with the movies he makes. Knives Out is the best example yet of this as an old fashioned locked house murder mystery in the style of Agatha Christie, but with a modern sensibility and message.
Every scene is crammed with details both in the sets and the dialogue, so much so you might actually miss some of it the first time through. But almost everything that is said in the first act pays off somehow in the third and that level of precision feels almost unheard of today. The story leaves no dangling threads to be picked up in sequels and its cast of thousands is made up almost entirely of legends.
The real standout is Chris Evans who plays the stereotypical bastard character, every good mystery has one (and that’s apparent from the marketing lest you think this is some kind of spoiler), a nice about-face from his long-formed person as Captain America.
Ana de Armas, whose role in the story is downplayed in the marketing, is also brilliant and while she’s been up and coming for a while maybe this will be the movie to really launch her to stardom.
More than anything Johnson is clearly having a blast making this movie. He weaves the story to and fro masterfully, with red herrings and dead ends and twists that will keep you interested and guessing until the ultimate reveal.
(written & directed by Noah Baumbach)
This may be the best movie about divorce since Kramer vs. Kramer, but whether that’s true this movie features incredible performances by both Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson as the couple the titular story is about.
For anyone who has been through a breakup with a long term partner, this movie is likely to hit hard. There are scenes in this film that resonated with me because they felt honest and true, and they really capture that feeling of what it’s like to fight as though you hate someone you actually love.
And then, of course, a great ending.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
(written & directed by Quentin Tarantino)
A love letter to 1960s Hollywood, Tarantino has used his exacting vision to get the period details down pat. As a story about friendship and about recognizing that your industry is changing around you and maybe you aren’t keeping up, it’s also maybe the most introspective that Tarantino has ever been.
Yes, the story assumes you have some foreknowledge of the Manson Family but I’m not sure that’s unreasonable given that they are at the centre of one of the most famous crimes in the history of America.
Most of all this movie gives us something I love. Sharon Tate, the up and coming film actress who was murdered by the Manson Family, simply gets to exist in this movie and reminds us that she was a real person with a real life. So often portrayals of this time and these events reduce her to a statistic, this movie celebrates her life.
Plus, Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt are great in it.
(written & directed by Bong Joon-ho)
Bong Joon-ho makes movies that I love and Parasite is no exception. A darkly funny and twisted tale about class structure and greed, about a poor family that manoeuvers their way into cushy jobs as servants and service providers for an affluent family.
This is a Bong Joon-ho movie so there are no clear cut good guys and bad guys (although, I’d argue there’s a clear indication who the titular parasites are). The poor family aren’t malicious, they just want to get paid. The rich family aren’t malicious, they’re jerks by indifference.
There are some weird twists and turns and shocking violence in the last act (did I mention this is a Bong Joon-ho movie?) and definitely doesn’t end up where you think it might, but it will definitely leave you thinking.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire
(written & directed by Céline Sciamma)
One of things I like about this movie is how quiet it is. For all the happenings in the story and between the characters, a lesser film would have a sweeping score and a lot more dialogue, but there are stretches of this movie where nothing is said and really only the environment makes any noise. This means that you’re drawn in by the visuals and by what’s happening, and it lets you empathize with the performances in these moments and not the way the film wants you to feel. It’s kind of amazing.
That, and it’s just a beautiful story of two women who fall in love. It’s not a spoiler to say that an 18th-century romance between two women doesn’t necessarily work out for the best, but the way it works out is well written and realized, and the last shot of this movie is the best last shot of any movie that was released this year.
Ready or Not
(written by Guy Busick and R. Christopher Murphy, directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett)
Another exploration of the class divide and what lengths rich people will go to to stay rich, Ready or Not is a perfect blend of thrills and laughs.
As the new bride played by Samara weaving is hunted on her wedding night by her new family in a deadly game of hide and seek, we’re treated to thrills from hunting accidents and near misses and laughs from the ridiculous lengths the family will go to and the way they envision themselves in the world.
It’s a star turn for Weaving, or it should be, and at a tight 95-minute runtime, there isn’t a single wasted scene or even moment. It’s one of those movies that is exactly as long as it should be and not a moment shorter or longer, and features probably the second-best ending of any movie released this year.
(written & directed by Jordan Peele)
Imagine meeting your doppelganger. Instead of just looking like you though, they are a dark and twisted version of you, an image in a broken mirror, and entirely vengeful. This is exactly what happens in Jordan Peele’s Us. Led by Lupita Nyong’o, a family on vacation is accosted by sinister versions of themselves.
What follows is an exploration of class in America, and also about the excuses that people use to not think about what class in America (and other places, too) means. The doppelgangers stand-in for every marginalized group in America and every detail of the film is meticulously thought out and presented. A movie that rewards your attention and then rewards it again when you watch it again.
(written & directed by Ari Aster)
So here we are at my favourite film of the year. The divide was nowhere near as wide this year as it has been in previous years. Nearly every movie on this list could take the top spot but none of them affected me quite like Midsommar.
The story follows Dani and Christian, played by Florence Pugh and Jack Raynor, and their friends who travel to a remote part of Sweden to see a midsummer festival in the home village where one of their friends, Pelle, grew up.
Dani and Christian are on the verge of a breakup, and Dani is shattered by a personal loss, and all of this comes to a head during the days-long festival. I don’t want to spoil anything here but this is a horror movie so suffice to say that things don’t go as expected for our couple, and after ingesting drugs and witnessing all kind of weirdness, the film takes on a trippy feeling itself.
At nearly two and a half hours long the film is a long one to watch, but deliberately so. Writer & director Ari Aster seems to want to let the audience marinate in the feelings that the film is bringing up, which are hallucinatory but also paranoid. There’s an ever-growing sense of dread and a despite a few short bursts of absolutely gruesome violence the film will keep you guessing as to what exactly is going on right up until the very end.