The best movies of 2019 (and some others we want to stick around)
We ate popcorn for dinner this year so you didn’t have to. Here are our film critics’ top 10 movies of 2019.
Sometimes the movies of the year lay themselves out in almost programmatic fashion for me. This was not one of those years. So here is a mix of the genuinely excellent movies that may not be “the best” in the traditional sense but contain moments and themes that resonated, perhaps more than one hopes they might. But that is 2019 for you: You are not going to get what you want, and you have to look hard to get what you need.
10. “Little Women”: Greta Gerwig rethinks a stone classic, cutting back and forth through time EXACTLY the way a writer (Louisa May Alcott, for example, or, say, Jo March) would move back and forth while conceiving a novel. A tour de force from Saoirse Ronan; Timothée Chalamet remains disconcertingly beautiful; and it all hangs together brilliantly.
9. “Uncut Gems”: I walked into this Altman-on-Adderall epic hoping for the world, and I left it feeling unsettled and unsatisfied and more than a little annoyed. But the more I thought about it, the more I found myself thinking about it, the more I am impressed by it and the more I want to see it again. Adam Sandler is, as has been documented, absolutely brilliant as a lowlife jeweler with a gambling addiction who gets in over his head with almost everyone in his life. And as Josh Safdie put it in an interview: “There’s a strong correlation between Judaism and Knicks basketball, and it has to do with suffering and trying to understand your life.”
8. “Terminator: Dark Fate”: This one ended up being something of a bomb, but it is easily the most visually political action movie in years, from the trio of women fronting it to Ahnold being a perfect male ally. Indeed, the girls-are-icky fanbase this film might traditionally attract probably stayed away. But Tim Miller is a sharp director of action, so their loss. Note the wish-fulfillment scene of Gabriel Luna’s bleeding-edge Terminator absolutely wrecking ICE agents in an immigration detention facility.
7. “The Peanut Butter Falcon”: This feel-good story has its own feel-good story: Two novice filmmakers who happen to be working at a camp for folks with disabilities sense that the very charismatic man with Down syndrome they work with might be able to anchor a movie. Then it gets funded and made and turns out to be some kind of wonderful. Shia LaBeouf will get deserved kudos for “Honey Boy,” but don’t sleep on his all-in performance here.
6. “Knock Down the House”: Remember that time a bunch of women ran for House of Representatives seats in 2018? Some campaigns flamed out early, some went the distance and lost, and a few won. Four campaigns are profiled in this striking documentary, but the obvious star is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat currently representing the New York 14th. Spectacular and moving and hopeful.
5. “Apollo 11”: From what we are doing now to what we used to do. Todd Douglas Miller’s documentary should now be the standard non-fiction look at the United States’ first trip to the moon. Miller worked with a mess of recently unearthed footage (in glorious 65mm!) of all stages of the moon shot, from behind-the-scenes labor to the launch itself. A must-watch for anyone into wonder.
4. “Parasite”: Nobody expected “Parasite” to be a smash hit. Director Bong Joon-ho was, until now, a cult figure in the States. But, man, if you had to pick a year when folks were thinking about class inequality and fantasies of vengeance, 2019 was the year to do it. Anger is an energy.
3. “The Lighthouse”: Some folks thought Robert Eggers’ 2015 debut “The Witch” might be a one-off fluke from a first-time filmmaker. Not so, as this claustrophobic lunacy-dive proves. The mist is deep and damp, the movie is black and white, while Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) and Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) work their lighthouse, stay alive in the isolation and slowly lose their minds. Extra credit goes to Mark Korven’s flesh-crawling score (one of the best since Mica Levi’s work for “Under the Skin”) and whoever found those sweaters, which are as good as the sweaters in ”Knives Out.“
2. “Booksmart”: Olivia Wilde is going to close out the year by being in “Richard Jewell” (lady, it is time for a tough conversation with your agent) and saying some dumb things in interviews, but that does not make her directorial debut less of a blast, a tale of two young ladies who realize they have been thinking about their lives kind of backward and aim to correct it. The Teens Going Wild Comedy movie is a genre that’s too often filled with stupid for its own sake, but Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever, under Wilde’s almost savantlike direction, capture not just something about female friendship in particular but smart-kids friendship in general that is very hard to get right in general and get hysterically funny in particular.
1. “Pain and Glory (Dolor y gloria)”: Genius isn’t necessarily consistency; genius (or at least some of it) is the belief that the brilliance that has happened before will happen again. Some of Pedro Almodóvar’s movies are terrible, and some are classics of global cinema. This is very much the latter, a late-ish life masterpiece about how our past is never past the present, how physical health informs the creative process and how dealing with the primal (say, sexual awakening) ripples though our entire lives. Antonio Banderas gives his all-time best performance as an Almodóvar stand-in who must break a creative block by figuring out how his earlier life is informing his present, from his time with his mother to early lovers to earlier movies he has no idea how he made so well. Befitting one of the best movies about movies, it is both bright and lived-in, a visual trick few can pull off. Spectacular.
» RELATED: Read Joe Gross’s review of “Pain and Glory”
10. “Ready or Not”: The “Pacific Rim” Memorial Award for the movie that made me literally scoot my butt out of a seat goes to this blood-spattered horror-comedy. Shot through a thin layer of tar, Samara Weaving — my favorite escaped laboratory clone of Margot Robbie — is an everywoman bride who marries into a game-obsessed family of obscene wealth. They are cartoonish demon-worshippers who proceed to hunt her around their mansion on honeymoon night; she is increasingly pissed. Plenty of movies said “eat the rich” this year. No other did it with such Grand Guignol glee. Plus: You let Adam Brody sulk around dark corridors as a haunted, old-money do-nothing of dubious morality, I put you in the newspaper.
9. “Marriage Story”: Noah Baumbach’s divorce tale is kind of a horror comedy like “Ready Or Not,” if you think about it. Even has its own blood-gusher scene. The whole team gets to shoot the shot here, but Laura “LeBron” Dern? Good gracious. “Marriage Story” takes a hard look at life, puts a “Bless This Mess” sign over it and means every word.
» RELATED: Read Eric Webb’s review of “Marriage Story”
8. “Midsommar”: After which I left Alamo Drafthouse and drove down MoPac Boulevard during golden hour until the highway ended, because I picked my day off to see Ari Aster’s waking-terror meditation on grief and relationship health. Bright light. Real fright.
7. “Honey Boy”: What did your parents give you, exactly? Director Alma Har’el and writer/star/thinly veiled subject Shia LaBeouf pull off a heart-rending exhumation of childhood trauma. Based on LaBeouf’s own dysfunctional kid acting days, the movie wouldn’t work nearly as well without him playing a simulacrum of his insufferable, shattered father, a veteran and rodeo clown. However, co-star Noah Jupe’s star turn would still be, well, stellar.
6. “Hustlers”: Hard to believe that Jennifer Lopez, using nothing but a pole and a Fiona Apple song, exposed the systemic exploitation of the working class by the wealthiest and most powerful among us. (It is 2019; that is not actually hard to believe.)
» RELATED:Read Eric Webb’s review of “Hustlers”
5. “Wild Nights With Emily”: For most of its 84 minutes, Madeleine Olnek’s Emily Dickinson portrait is a deadpan, subversive riot. (It hit festivals in 2018 but got a theatrical release this year, so I’m counting it.) Comedy laureate Molly Shannon giving life to a queer reading of the legendary poet’s legendarily “lonely” life? Give it to me in an IV drip. But in its final minutes, the movie’s face turns grave. It stares at you from the depths of sorrow. The sweet, bleak final scene is an all-time heartbreaker.
4. “Little Women”: Greta Gerwig’s glorious gold and gray take on the March sisters puts the thing down, flips it and reverses it. I never wanted to leave Concord, especially if I could hang out with Saoirse, Florence, Timothée and the gang forever.
3. “The Farewell”: My favorite moment in Lulu Wang’s sensational, semi-autobiographical tale about an “actual lie” is the closest thing the movie has to a farewell. Billi (Awkwafina) is leaving in the early morning light to return to America. She’s already in the cab; it’s driving off. Her beloved Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen, and we give her a best supporting actress nod or there will be riots) chases after the cab to keep waving goodbye, like a grandma might. But then she clutches her hand to her mouth, far off in the distance and only visible through the back window of the cab. It’s a quiet moment, pregnant with detail that Wang does not give up. There are always things we’re not telling each other, aren’t there?
2. “Parasite”: No, seriously, movies were NOT here for rich folks in 2019. In the pantheon of on-screen villains, clear a spot next to Thanos and add that immortal devil, money. Korean auteur Bong Joon-ho’s latest thriller is a witty clockwork murder machine that reminds us just how universal and corrosive inequality is.
» RELATED: Read Eric Webb’s review of “Parasite”
1. “The Last Black Man in San Francisco”: In one standout scene, our hero skateboards through his hometown hills to Grace Slick, the very sound of San Francisco. He’s not sure where home is anymore, though. He wipes out; the music and the camera cut. “Last Black Man in San Francisco” is about the limits of belonging, both to places and to people. And shot for shot, line for line, it feels like co-writer and star Jimmie Fails, playing a version of himself, had been waiting his whole life to put these images in a movie. I am so glad he and co-writer/director Joe Talbot did. Lucky for you, it’s streaming on Amazon Prime now. Let me know when Jonathan Majors, playing the too-good-for-this-world Montgomery, rips your beating ticker out of your chest.
Honorable mentions for things I also loved a lot: Performances that made pretty good movies much greater (Renée Zellweger in “Judy,” Lupita Nyong’o in “Us,” Honor Swinton Byrne in “The Souvenir,” Roman Griffin Davis, Archie Yates and Scarlett Johansson in “Jojo Rabbit”); “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” for making me cry over Trying to Be Good in ways big and small; “Matthias & Maxime” for making me cry gay tears in an underground mall in Montreal; the sound and color in “Waves”; the topical popcorn pleasures of “Spider-Man: Far From Home” and “Terminator: Dark Fate.”
We’re not too worried about the rewatch value of “Avengers: Endgame.” But here are our six picks for movies from the 2010s we hope endure into the 2020s.
“The Diary of a Teenage Girl” (2015): First-time feature director Marielle Heller (now famous for “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” and “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”) directs a brilliant Bel Powley is this complicated story of a young woman’s sexual awakening in mid-’70s San Francisco, based on cartoonist Phoebe Gloeckner’s semi-autobiographical novel of the same name. “Teenage Girl” is a heady mix of ambivalence and contradiction, power and vulnerability, and easily my favorite movie of that year.
“Waste Land” (2010): A tour de force documentary on how art can transcend circumstance, set in the world’s largest garbage dump. “Inspirational” isn’t even the word — it should be shown in schools, then middle-class kids should be advised never to complain about material things again. If anything, its lessons have become more important over the past decade — our moment may be a garbage one, but dignity is just not that difficult to grant people, and art is a good way to make the world seem new, over and over.
“Inside Llewyn Davis” (2013): Maybe the movie that I have come back to the most over the past decade. I find it comfortable, melancholy, sometimes hysterically funny, and always, always, always beautiful. From the exquisitely realized music to note-perfect performances, the Coens’ complicated ode to the pre-Dylan folk scene ended up flummoxing audiences at the time, but I suspect it will resonate as long as or longer than anything in their very odd canon.
“20th Century Women” (2016): When people ask me to name the most underrated movie, I always mention Mike Mills’ sweetly sad and sadly sweet ode to growing up in 1970s SoCal. And everyone, no matter how old they are, has some growing up to do. Annette Bening literally flies off into the sunset, and then my tears fly off into my sleeve.
“Call Me by Your Name” (2017): Saw it at Austin Film Festival. Screamed at God in a Car2go on the way home. Saw it roughly 10 more times in theaters. It’s not obscure, to be sure — peep the peach memes and the award noms. If there’s a 2010s prestige film we’re still talking about in 2029, I hope it’s this one summer in Italy, with its luxurious, aching, troublesome depiction of desire. (Also still hope we’re doing the peach memes.)
“Sing Street” (2016): In the 2010s, I found out how much coming-of-age stories about young people in Margaret Thatcher’s U.K. meant to me. (See also “Blinded by the Light,” “Pride” and probably others.) “Sing Street,” though, has an original soundtrack that goes so much harder than it had any right to.