We conclude this recap of 2019 movies with a traditional top 10 list, only a month and a half (or so) late! This marks the fourteenth year in a row that I’ve posted a top 10, which is a pretty respectable streak. For reference, previous top 10s are here: [2018 | 2017 | 2016 | 2015 | 2014 | 2013 | 2012 | 2011 | 2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006]
I always try to find some sort of themes for the year in movies, which is a total fool’s errand, but I guess I’m a fool because I enjoy trying it out. This year’s biggest theme seems to be an “Eat The Rich” sort of thing. I would list some examples, but it appears that the grand majority of the below films actually comment on wealth and inequality, directly or indirectly (alright, fine, some of the more notable examples include Parasite, Knives Out, Hustlers, Ready or Not, Us, and many more). I would normally say that this isn’t my favorite theme or anything, but then, these are some pretty fantastic movies, so what do I know? Another theme worth mentioning is the continued influence and growth of streaming. One film in my top 10 and three more in the honorable mentions are streaming exclusives, which is a pretty solid showing… We’ll see if the Oscars will get over the hump and recognize some streaming stuff tonight, but it’s clear that there’s some interesting stuff happening on streaming services.
As of this writing, I’ve seen 98 films that could be considered a 2019 release. While this represents an increase over the past few years and is certainly significantly higher than your average moviegoer, it’s still a much smaller number than your typical critic, so take this all with the appropriate boulder of salt. Standard disclaimers apply, and it’s especially worth noting that due to regional release strategies, some of these would be considered a 2018 movie, but not available until 2019. Eagle eyed readers may notice one particular entry reappearing on this year’s list from last year (which had to do with unofficial release shenanigans last year), but I love the movie so much and most people haven’t seen it, so in it goes! Anywho, I think that’s enough caveats for the moment, let’s get to the list:
Top 10 Movies of 2019
* In roughly reverse order
Us – Jordan Peele’s sophomore directing effort isn’t as lean or focused as Get Out was, but it is jam-packed with interesting ideas, visual flare, amazing dual performances, and yet it remains entertaining and rewatchable. It’s bold and exciting filmmaking, and I’m intrigued to see what Peele does next.
Dolemite Is My Name – Eddie Murphy’s triumphant return to comedic greatness comes in what is clearly a labor of love. For some unknown reason, Rudy Ray Moore movies were a staple of my teen years, and this bio-pic of Moore is supremely entertaining and funny; an excellent example of the “I’m pretty sure it didn’t happen this way, but who cares because this is really fun!” style of movie. Murphy’s performance alone makes this worth the watch, but the whole thing is just so much fun.
Parasite – Bong Joon Ho’s films don’t often work for me, but this one really opened my eyes. It’s a fantastic con movie with lots of thematic heft bubbling under the surface. It’s one of those movies where I never really knew where we were going, but once we got there, it felt inevitable. Impeccably crafted with great performances all around, I’m glad this one is garnering lots of attention.
Shadow – Zhang Yimou’s tale of palace intrigue sometimes approaches Shakespeare-esque grand historical drama while also featuring excellent wu xia action sequences and a muted but somehow still visually striking visual palette. Zhang handles the intricate plot and action with a clarity and fluidity that is impressive (and beyond most other directors).
Apollo 11 – This documentary is an astonishing document of one of humanity’s greatest achievements.
It winds up being more informative, exciting, and emotionally potent than any “dramatization” of the same events can manage, and the restored 65mm footage looks astounding.
Knives Out – Rian Johnson’s whodunit perfectly captures the Agatha Christie ouvre; tons of red herrings, mysteries within mysteries, an old creaky house, a will reading, cozy sweaters, and so on, all expertly crafted and knitted into an airtight narrative. While some of its surface politics might initially feel ham-handed, the real lesson at the heart of the movie is that it doesn’t matter what ideological position you take, it’s your actions that matter.
The Standoff at Sparrow Creek – Taut single-location thriller about a militia member trying to ferret out a killer in their midst, this movie is gravely underseen and underrated. Smart, sharp writing anchors the film and manages to ratchet a lot of tension out of what are essentially a bunch of conversations.
One Cut of the Dead – Longtime readers may recognize this as my favorite movie of last year, but due to various release date snafus, it’s probably more apt to put it in this year’s list. It obviously has traction among genre fans, but it deserves wider recognition so I’m including it near the top of this year’s list too.
What starts as a somewhat rote zombie story (albeit one that is made more interesting due to the filmmaking), eventually morphs into something that is so much more. Highly recommended Japanese flick, very entertaining and surprisingly resonant.
Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood – Quentin Tarantino’s latest love letter to 60s Hollywood and the power of cinema continues some of his more indulgent tendencies and at first glance feels a bit disjointed, but after watching a couple times, any reservations have been obliterated. Tarantino is still at the height of his craft, he’s able to harness star power while getting great performances, and he managed to redefine Sharon Tate as a real person while he was at it. A supreme hangout movie, I have a feeling this will age very well.
The Quantum Jury Prize:
Awarded to films that exist only in a quantum superposition of two or more states. If you’re not sure what that means, but that’s kinda the point, and I’m going to confuse matters even more because while I’ve had this section in the last few years’s Top 10 lists, I’m using it in a completely different way this year. In the past, the quantum state had to do with my respect for films that I didn’t particularly love watching, or things that I went back and forth on.
This year, it’s more about which film would end up in the tenth slot (astute readers may have noticed that there’s only nine films listed above). Like Shcrodinger’s Cat, the actual #10 film exists in a superposition that will only experience a waveform collapse once we observe it. But every time I observe it, I get one of four answers. Or something like that. I guess I could have just done a four way tie for #10, but it’s my list and I’m doing this instead.
1917 – The single take conceit dominates the conversation around this affecting WWI drama, but I found it effective at emphasizing the tension and claustrophobia of the young soldier’s mission. The story is perhaps a tad simplistic, but the execution is so spectacular that it deserves some recognition. This is the sort of film that I do tend to gravitate toward, so it could easily have taken that #10 slot.
Dragged Across Concrete – S. Craig Zahler’s latest crime thriller is a real doozy. It gets off to a bit of a rocky start, but once the unconventional bank robbery at its core gets going, it sinks its teeth in and never lets go. This movie occupies a similar space as several others on my top 10, but that’s because it’s sorta in my wheelhouse.
Little Women – Greta Gerwig’s impeccably appointed adaptation of the famous Louisa May Alcott novel hits on all cylinders, but the performances of a large ensemble are what really shine for me. As I understand it, Gerwig’s spin on the story was to introduce some chronology tinkering, and I have questions about one bit in particular, but I ultimately loved the movie. This film would make my top 10 a more rounded list.
John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum – Just in terms of pure action, this film is worthy. In particular, the knife fight is one of the most spectacular sequences I saw on film all year. The only thing holding this film back is the plot, which is starting to feel a bit creaky and strained at this point. That said, it’s still supremely entertaining to watch, and that’s the sort of thing I like in my top 10.
* In an order I dare you to discern
Uncut Gems – The Safdie brothers pull an exceptional performance out of Adam Sandler and the last hour or so of the film is almost unbearably tense, but I can’t help but thinking that I’d enjoy this movie a lot more if I cared at all about pretty much any of the characters. The artistry is evident and the film is very well made, but it’s far from a crowdpleaser. I liked it, but it’s a far cry from the top 10.
Prospect – This indie science fiction flick about a doomed prospector and his daughter’s fight for survival on an alien planet has some setup issues, but is ultimately a very well done thriller with good performances and worldbuilding (I particularly like the decision to make wearing the space suit with helmet at almost all times a necessity; it’s one of those things that seems like a limitation but is actually an opportunity and actually makes for a good aesthetic choice.)
High Flying Bird – Steven Soderbergh shot this film on an iPhone, and it’s true that the film mostly consists of simple conversations, but there’s a nifty plot baked in, with sharp dialogue and plenty of unexpected twists and turns. This is one of those things that got kinda dumped on Netflix early in the year, but is worth seeking out (also of note: I hate basketball, but I still enjoyed it!)
The Irishman – Martin Scorsese’s epic gangster flick is an unwieldy 3.5 hours long, but it’s also an interesting character study about a man who (very) slowly hollows out his soul over the course of decades of working for the mob. By the time you get towards that last hour, it becomes utterly devastating. De Niro and Pacino put in their best performances in years (decades?), but Joe Pesci is the real standout, and that’s saying something. It’s not a “fun” film, but it has grown on me, and is well worth checking out.
The Kid Who Would Be King – Joe Cornish’s modern-day take on Arthurian legend is probably more entertaining than you expect. This seems like one of the more chronically underseen films of the year, with great performances from a young cast and properly archetypal characters. Maybe it’s a little silly, but it’s actually a lot of fun.
Avengers: Endgame – The culmination of more than a decade’s worth of films somehow manages to mostly stick the landing. It doesn’t break the mold of your typical Marvel movie, but that sort of thinking doesn’t work for the MCU. The real strength is not the individual films, but rather the way they underline and reinforce one another. This may or may not be your thing, but it is still a pretty amazing achievement. (Oh, and this particular film is, in itself, pretty damn entertaining.)
The Farewell – Lulu Wang wrote and directed this drama about cultural differences between China and America (as illustrated by a family crisis precipitated by the matriarch’s cancer diagnosis). Wang manages a fine balancing act between the specific and the universal. We all have families and events (ranging from happy to sad and everywhere inbetween) like those highlighted in the story, but the movie also portrays a very specific family and a very specific culture clash with oodles of keenly observed details. I liked this a lot more than I thought I would (it’s one of those films I probably wouldn’t have caught up with if I didn’t go out of my way for posts like this).
Little Monsters – Lupita Nyong’o leads this goofy Australian zombie flick about a down-on-his-luck musician and a teacher protecting a field trip from a zombie outbreak. Well worth checking out.
Klaus – Animated Christmas movie that plays with the origins of the Santa Claus (er, Klaus) myth, this is a gorgeous movie with a clever script and fun story. I’m not sure if it’s destined to become an annual tradition, but you could do a lot worse in that respect…
Marriage Story – I’m not a big fan of Noah Baumbach’s general obsession with dysfunction, but there seems to be a bit of balance here that helps this story about bitter divorce proceedings. There’s a somewhat even hand between the two aggrieved parties, but the real insight of the film is just how shitty lawyers are and how the legal system can intensify an already brutal and vicious event into something even more severe. Exceptional performances abound, and even a touch of hope in the end.
Ready or Not – A new bride becomes enmeshed in her new family’s gaming tradition, which sometimes involves a hunt to the death. One of the most fun times at the movies of the year, with an eye opening and unexpected ending which I’m probably ruining for you just by talking about it, sorry. Worth checking out for you horror bloodhounds out there.
Good Boys – Surprisingly affecting story about a group of tweens going on an epic quest to fix a drone (or something, that part isn’t important). I thought this would be a rote, one-joke affair (tweens cursing!), so when it turns out that this movie had some pretty sharp insights into the nature of growing up and friends who come together or drift apart, I was quite surprised, and you might be too.
Hustlers – A group of strippers band together to scam a bunch of Wall Street clients, this sorta has the feel of a Scorsese gangster epic; the rise and fall of a brash criminal enterprise, anchored by Jennifer Lopez’s magnetic performance and her relationship with costar Constance Wu.
Just Missed the Cut:
But still worthwhile, in their own way. Presented without comment and in no particular order:
- Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror
- The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley
- Toy Story 4
- Cold Case Hammarskjöld
- Ford v Ferrari
- Jojo Rabbit
- American Factory
- Captive State
Should Have Seen:
Despite having seen around 90 of this year’s releases (and listing out 30+ of my favorites in this post), there are a few that got away. Or never made themselves available here. Or that I probably need to watch, but don’t wanna because reasons. Regardless, there are several movies here that I probably should have caught up with:
- Doctor Sleep
- Under the Silver Lake
- Pain and Glory
- Portrait of a Lady on Fire
- Her Smell
- Fast Color
- The Last Black Man in San Francisco
- Gemini Man
- The Nightingale
Normally, I’d do a whole post of Oscars predictions, but since they pushed the ceremony up this year, I basically ran out of time and in the end, who cares about my predictions? I’ll be on Twitter during the show, so feel free to hit up @mciocco for incisive commentary (or, more likely, retweets of people funnier/more insightful than me). For the record, my guesses are for Best Picture: 1917, Director: Mendes (maybe Bong Joon Ho), Actor: Joaquin Phoenix, Actress: Renée Zellweger, Supporting Actor: Brad Pitt, Supporting Actress: Laura Dern, Original Screenplay: Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood (though maybe Parasite), Adapted Screenplay: Little Women (though maybe Jojo Rabbit). So there.