Oh, what a year it was. 2019 has come and gone as we’ve already hit you with our best of the decade list and recently our best documentaries of the decade list, it’s time for our annual countdown of the best films of the year. Despite marking the foreboding shift into Disney owning everything and us being none the better for it, there were plenty of tremendous works of cinema this year, even if the domination of tent-pole films made finding independent films in theaters all the more difficult. Directors such as Greta Gerwig, Ari Aster and Jordan Peele followed up on their staggering feature debuts with sophomoric efforts just as good, if not better, than their predecessors.
Netflix proved to be great home for smaller films worthy of your time, introducing a fresh behind the scenes talent with Matti Diop and gave Eddie Murphy the return he was destined of and deserved for. Not to mention the return of cinema titans such as Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese and Bong Joon-ho. As always, there were treasures if you sought them out. Ghost stories, eat the rich narratives, classic old school throwbacks and whodunit’s. There’s plenty of reasons we should be looking ahead, especially as the back half of the decade has left most of us emotionally and mentally fatigued, but if there’s anything worth reflecting on, it’s how film in 2019 held up a dirty mirror to viewers and society, subconsciously imploring that we do better. [Allyson Johnson/ Film Editor]
The looks that Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré) and Ada (Mame Bineta Sane) share across train tracks cements Atlantics, Mati Diop’s debut feature film, in the audience’s memory. That connection, sold through the actors’ performances and Diop’s bewitching filmmaking, weaves throughout this unpredictable supernatural gothic. It is this genre-bending that contributes to the film’s intoxicating appeal. Diop takes Ada on a romantic journey that is both complex and unique as it is haunting. Ada is promised to another man, despite being in love with Souleiman, who she then loses when he and the construction crew he is a part of take off at sea. As she awaits news of her lover’s fate, her wedding day approaches and strange things begin to happen. With Atlantics, Diop presents a tale of love that transcends the body and conjures its own kind of magic. [Gabrielle Bondi]
19. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
No, Tom Hanks doesn’t look like Fred Rogers. He’s bigger in stature, his face a bit wider than the slim, unassuming children’s TV show host. Does that matter? Not in the slightest, as the two-time (soon to be three-time?) Oscar-winning actor miraculously captures the mannerisms and soul of the man behind Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. While there’s already a thorough documentary of Rogers and the impact he had on society (2018’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor?), Marielle Heller’s drama confronts his approach to life and shows where it can be applied. Though the movie’s true lead is a cynical world news reporter (Matthew Rhys) trying to find a heart to share with his difficult dad (Chris Cooper), Hanks steals every frame of the movie by taking Rogers’ beliefs and using them to tend to one’s emotional wounds. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood shows that Fred Rogers was not an angel from Heaven or invincible to life’s sadder moments (the film’s final scene is a quiet gutpunch), but he was just a man trying to connect with people. [Jon Winkler]
18. The Lighthouse
Madness incarnate. A24 closed our their year of cerebral and highly emotional films with a feature by the director of The WItch, Robert Eggers. Deceptively simple in it’s conceit, The Lighthouse puts too lighthouse keepers portrayed by Willam Dafoe and Robert Pattinson on a remote New England island in an anxious twisting decent into isolation and madness, with imagery more claustrophobic and provocative than any film in ages. Dafoe delivers a fierce storm of performance that reminds the world that he can act like no other man, and has half of the internet in his clutches as we chant “Why’d you spill your beans?!” [Evan Griffin]
17. Pain & Glory
Films are composites of a life lived. The pain of making a film—the heartache, struggle, and disappointment—have always resonated with the weariness that comes with getting older. Fewer experiences thrill. The physical body reveals its limits. But there is also glory to be attained through legacy. An honor in the memories we choose to push us forward, and perhaps share with others using the power of story.
Pedro Almodóvar’s latest Spanish-language film, Pain and Glory illustrates the filmmaker’s semi-autobiographical take on what has made his own life worth living. Antonio Banderas delivers a peak performance as Salvador Mallo, a gay filmmaker in Madrid who receives the unexpected news that a passion project of his youth has now been deemed a classic film. As Mallo meditates on this past era, he revisits memories from his boyhood, particularly his relationship with his mother, played by Penélope Cruz. And ultimately, Mallo finds himself remembering what made him want to immortalize the past through film in the first place.
Pain and Glory is a touching tale about aging manhood, but it’s also layered in believable tragedy. Like life itself, the demons of self-doubt and substance abuse rear their heads to dull the senses. But I can’t imagine anyone feeling numb after experiencing Almodóvar’s latest landmark tale. [Jon Negroni]
16. The Irishman
A ruthless deconstruction of and funeral dirge for the very genre he helped perfect, Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman is the natural end point of the gangster film. An emotionally taxing and existentially grueling three-and-a-half-hour epic about the life of Frank Sheeran, mob hitman and self-professed murderer of Teamster Jimmy Hoffa, the film holds a magnifying glass to the world of organized crime and discovers nothing but broken, empty men using, killing, or discarding each other in the name of hollow loyalty. The film is overlong and over-indulgent, but it’s difficult to imagine where anything could be cut as Scorsese manages to make even minuscule details like the method for making vodka watermelon or the perfect chili dog seem essential to the organic whole. And while the lauded digital de-aging software used on its cast had mixed results, few can argue against the caliber of performances on display: both Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci give career-best performances while a refreshingly restrained Al Pacino, an over-talkative Ray Romano, and a poignantly silent Anna Paquin round out one of the best casts of 2019. That anyone had the temerity to question Scorsese’s wisdom on filmmaking when he challenged the merits of Marvel’s current box-office supremacy is astonishing; this film was a pre-emptive mic drop everyone should’ve heeded. [Nathanael Hood]
15. Dolemite Is My Name
Craig Brewer’s film, about a sharp-tongued and fiery-hearted creative looking to tailor his own space in entertainment, is a genuine riot — with much of the sensation traceable to an Eddie Murphy who is as ablaze as his costumes (yet more stellar work from Black Panther’s Ruth E. Carter!) and a Wesley Snipes who can bring the house down just by showing up. What seems to be lost in the discourse, though, is how wistful everything is: Beneath the drum hits and wild whistles that make Dolemite is My Name comparable to 2017’s The Disaster Artist, the U.S. these characters are in still welcome dreamers, still encouraging one to push on in the face of countless “well, nah”s to find the one “well, yeah!” So when that thank you from a radiant Da’Vine Joy Randolph arrived? Tough to not feel it from deep inside. Let’s hope that when the awards season is most heated, one of the top talks of the town will be in the vicinity of “Eddie Murphy is the name and snatching awards is his game!” If Rudy Ray Moore wins, we share the baadasssss glow. [Nguyen Le]
14. Once Upon a Time In Hollywood
Once Upon A Time in Hollywood acts as a love letter to a Hollywood of years past. Whether or not you were familiar with this Hollywood, or how the Manson murders seemed to mark the end of it, Quentin Taratino’s ninth film is more than just a nostalgic look at that particular time in history. It’s a redefinition of the time in which it takes place. The whole film has a meandering quality to it, making it feel like a dream even as we spend ample screen time on set with Leonardo DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton or driving the streets of Los Angeles with Brad Pitt’s Cliff Booth. Not everything’s a dream, though, and Once Upon A Time in Hollywood has some of the best tension on screen this year. As the title suggests, it’s a bit of a fairy tale, complete with a fairy tale ending in which the bad guys lose and the memories of a time longed for are preserved in a time capsule of what could have been. [Katey Stoetzel]
13. High Life
In a year bristling with explosions, epic space battles, and economy-sized budgets poured into captivating special effects, High Life stands out as a film crafted under a higher purpose. French filmmaker Claire Denis has been delivering powerfully personal dramas for years, and High Life may be her most haunting, isolated piece yet, set on a space-ship “prison” years in the future. Robert Pattinson and Juliet Binoche are the centerpiece performers, not just in the detail of their acting, but to the extent they write the characters themselves, putting their own experiences, wishes, and wants into every dimension played out onscreen.
Melodramatic space operas of this kind are a rare breed, and High Life doesn’t aspire to obtain the sort of broad appeal we typically see rewarded by box office receipts and Hollywood’s self-selected intelligentsia. But if the best film of 2019 is to be judged as the picture most concerned with leaving a lasting, maybe even permanent effect, High Life deserves to be seen, discussed, and widely celebrated for the heights it achieves. [Jon Negroni]
12. Ad Astra
Ad Astra may be Daddy Issues The Movie, but that simplistic take fails to consider the grief and sometimes traumatic experience of losing a parent. Brad Pitt plays Roy McBride, an astronaut on a mission across the universe to find his father, played by Tommy Lee Jones, who went missing 30 years ago. McBride must reconcile his feelings for his father and his dedication to his mission, and in that journey, the film delivers an intimate experience in such a vast setting of outer space that delicately uncovers and confronts pains from the past. Director James Gray takes a conventional if moving father-son relationship to the stars to say something more about who we are as humans and our place in this universe. [Gabrielle Bondi]
11. The Last Black Man in San Francisco
The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a cinematic tour de force that profoundly tackles society’s most crucial issues. It’s a testament to the profound impact on the way a location can shape our peers and the world around us. Talbot’s version of San Francisco feels like a finely crafted fairy-tale. The stunning cinematography and shot composition paint a beautiful and moving portrait of San Francisco; a city that is in a constant state of flux.
Director Joe Talbot and lead actor/writer Jimmie Fails created this film as a love letter for the city and it shows in this wildly vivid and engaging tale of family, culture, and the appreciation for the history of those who came before. For a debut film, it approaches these issues with a unique sense of tact and love. Environments may change, but history will always remain. At its core, the film is simply a beautiful ode to a city lost in time. [Mark Wesley]
10. Little Women
What else is there left to be said about Greta Gerwig’s triumphant adaptation of Louise May Alcott’s Little Women? For a story that’s been told time and time again, the key in an update is to approach it with fresh eyes and so Gerwig does, tackling the tale of Jo (Saorise Ronan) in non-linear fashion. The performances by Ronan, Florence Pugh and Timothée Chalamet are particularly rich and the design of the film is stunning from the evocative score to handsome set styling and Massachusetts based locations that make you feel the autumnal wind in your bones. However, the greatest aspect is the depiction of the overwhelming bonds between Jo and her loved ones, and how these “little” women lived extraordinary lives.[Allyson Johnson]
9. Marriage Story
Divorce is messy. No matter the good intentions of either party or the possibly amicable nature of the proceedings, divorce is such that it breaks everyone involved to some extent. This is exactly the devastating message and picture Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story presents. For Scarlett Johansson’s Nicole, the divorce from Adam Driver’s Charlie comes with the realization that she’s been trapped, unable to do what she’s always wanted, weighed down by Charlie’s ambitions, work, and false promises.
But, despite the film’s attempts to remain balanced, Marriage Story is really Charlie’s journey toward certain realizations — of his selfishness, self-involvement, and how these things all played a role in the disintegration of his marriage. Baumbach masterfully crafts a story that is so personal, often painful, and emotionally raw. Driver and Johansson are immeasurably good at selling the crumbling status of Nicole and Charlie’s marriage and their performances are specifically exceptional when showcasing the myriad of emotions that go along with it. In short, Marriage Story is an emotionally resounding and gripping film that realistically and meticulously details the downfall of a relationship and the baggage that comes with it. [Mae Abdulbaki]
Hustlers feels what an authentic “girl power” film should be: a film focusing on the dynamic between women. Jennifer Lopez, Constance Wu, and the rest of the gang aren’t merely accomplices; they are a family—a family with money. In the hands of the wrong (or male) director, Hustlers could have turned gratuitous and exploitative. However, Lorene Scafaria handles it with a dynamic female gaze that seeks to celebrate women’s bodies instead of sexualizing them. Whenever the women are dancing on stage, Scafaria studies their faces and the emotions they are feeling in the moment, humanizing them rather than just making them blatant sex objects. You can’t get a better love story in 2019. [Yasmin Kleinbart]
7. Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Céline Sciamma didn’t just make a beautiful, passionate, non-exploitative love story between two women in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, she sensitively explored the relationship between artist and muse, how women are portrayed in the art world, how it barely acknowledges their history, and advocating that their lives are just as worthy of exploration as our most epic myths and fables. It’s a lot to cover, but Sciamma not only more than fulfills her ambitions, she movingly suggests that perhaps women who were supposedly silenced nevertheless found a way to speak their own truths…even if they could only be heard by those who knew how to look. [Andrea Thompson]
Beanie Feldstein (Molly) and Kaitlyn Dever (Amy) play high school overachievers who, on the day before their high school graduation, realize all the fun they’ve missed out on in four years. Their determination to make up for all of that in one night turns into one of the most memorable high school comedies in years. Feldstein and Dever’s performances are pure gold; the chemistry between them makes every moment of joy and tension feel earned and real. Billie Lourd’s Gigi steals every scene she is a part of as the girl that seems to just show up everywhere, commanding everyone’s attention the moment she comes on screen. Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut is a celebration of girlhood and friendship, refusing to place any single person into the boxes high school and movies so often do. [Melissa Linares]
Menacing. Gripping. Eerily captivating. Us combines the stellar direction and writing of Jordan Peele with a tone that draws on all the great elements from the horror genre. Us is shot so captivatingly with uses of shadow, light, and dynamic camera angles – every little detail heightens the horror tone and puts us in the shoes of the potential victims. Peele infuses themes of privilege and classism into the dialogue that offers new depth to the plot; similar to his previous horror film, Get Out. Backed by a great cast like Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, and Elisabeth Moss, the characters (both the main roles and their “Tethered” versions – creepy and murderous doppelgängers) pull us into their family dynamics and the night from hell where the Tethered begin their uprising. It’s a film you can’t look away from! [Justin Carreiro]
This decade has been one of redefining and refining genre films and A24 has done nothing but innovation after innovation with horror in its catalogue, two of which by writer/director Ari Aster with Hereditary and Midsommar. Not unlike Get Out, Midsommar’s genius is in the subversion of what an audience should find scary, and through carefully crafted themes and cinematic decisions and confident editing build an atmosphere of unease, and turn a scenery that some may find tranquil into something of anxiety inducing terror. Midsommar, from it’s director’s perspective, is really a rough break up story. Perhaps, from the audience, it’s the challenges of cultural assimilation. Through the lens of genre, however, we’ve been delivered a generation’s version of The Wicker Man, and it’s even more unsettling by tenfold. [Evan Griffin]
3. Knives Out
Rian Johnson showed off his directing skills yet again with Knives Out, a murder mystery whodunnit that was a breath of fresh air in the second half of 2019. The cast was full of incredible actors such Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis and Christopher Plummer. The story is like a well-crafted game of Clue that revolves around the death of a wealthy patriarch of a big family of unique individuals and the investigators tasked with solving the case. Each member of the family seems like they could be the killer, as there is a large inheritance on the line that everyone wants. With a brilliant script, some great performances, and a story filled with twists and shocking reveals, Knives Out is a film that will leave you needing to watch it again and again! [Tyler Carlsen]
2. The Farewell
Director Lulu Wang didn’t spare us a moment of tangible grief in her phenomenal The Farewell, a movie just as much about goodbyes as it is a celebration of family, communities and values. Awkwafina and Zhao Shuzhen shine in this intimate story about cultural and generational divides and the love and bond between families that can pull together any sort of miracle. Be it a makeshift wedding to appease an old heart, or that seemingly fragile heart fight a seemingly fatal diagnosis for much longer than medical advice might’ve suggested. The film, above all else in all it’s painted on vibrancy , is about our resilience in the face of tragedy, and the beauty that comes when we try and rally for hope. [Allyson Johnson]
We need to be completely clear: Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite is not only the best film of 2019, it is also the most important film of 2019. Yes, this year we saw several amazing pieces of filmmaking, featuring harrowing acting performances, visually stunning sequences, spine-tingling musical moments, and ingenious scripts driven by an uncompromising narrative vision, but there is a difference between something powerful and something that is era-defining.
This South Korean masterpiece is not only a cinematic achievement in itself, a tasteful incorporation of different styles, genres, colors and sounds, but it is the film that should be watched by everyone. No other movie gave us such a crushing portrait of inequality and class horror, two of the most urgent topics of the present time. No other film gave us such honesty in tackling the nuances and heart-breaking adversities of the downtrodden, in the face of a system that benefits from their mutual discomfort, distrust, and violence. No other film showed us Capitalism’s ugliest face so clearly.
Parasite should be watched by everyone because it tells the truth; by providing us with some of its symptoms, in its modern Korean context, it revealed the dimensions of a global disease. We are approaching a new decade filled with unprecedented challenges — our standards of living get worse and worse, our forests are on fire, our political systems have been overrun by the powerful, and our most vulnerable people are dealing with consequences of it all. We still have some hope, it is up to us to correct the course, dismantle our structures of oppression, and start offering some justice for a change. We needed a movie like Parasite to show us what we have to fight for, by showing us what we have to fight against.
Here’s to a new decade. Let’s make it a good one, for everyone. [Leonel Manzanares]