2019 started off with a bang, thanks to a very strong lineup at Sundance. Four of the movies that made this list were there, and others easily could’ve been added. The rest of the year had its ups and downs, and other than Avengers: Endgame I felt the superhero lineup was average at best. But in their place were a number of films I simply didn’t see coming, and that’s why I don’t listen when people claim there are bad years for movies. That’s simply not true. With nearly 1000 movies released annually, there’s great stuff everywhere, and it’s easier than ever to find them.
I want to again apologize for the lateness. You already know the reason why, but on the plus side I was sorta able to put this together concurrently when not pulling what little hair I have left out.
These are my picks for the best movies of 2019. It’s cool if you don’t agree. That’s why it’s mine. Hit me with your picks because I always dig seeing what others choose. Enjoy!
20. Terminator: Dark Fate (review)
Director: Tim Miller
Cast: Linda Hamilton, Mackenzie Davis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Natalia Reyes, Gabriel Luna
19. Little Women
Director: Greta Gerwig
Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen, Emma Watson, Laura Dern, Meryl Streep, Timothee Chalamet
18. Alita: Battle Angel (review)
Director: Robert Rodriguez
Cast: Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali, Ed Skrein, Keean Johnson
17. Luce (review)
Director: Julius Onah
Cast: Kelvin Harrison Jr., Octavia Spencer, Naomi Watts, Tim Roth
16. Brittany Runs a Marathon (review)
Director: Paul Downs Colaizzo
Cast: Jillian Bell, Michaela Watkins, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Lil Rel Howery
15. Knives Out (review)
Director: Rian Johnson
Cast: Daniel Craig, Ana de Armas, Jamie Lee Curtis, Chris Evans, Toni Collette, Don Johnson
14. Dolemite Is My Name (review)
Director: Craig Brewer
Cast: Eddie Murphy, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Wesley Snipes, Craig Robinson, Mike Epps, Titus Burgess, Keegan-Michael Key
13. The Lighthouse (review)
Director: Robert Eggers
Cast: Robert Pattinson, Willem Dafoe
12. The Two Popes (review)
Director: Fernando Meirelles
Cast: Jonathan Pryce, Anthony Hopkins
11. Ad Astra (review)
Director: James Gray
Cast: Brad Pitt, Donald Sutherland, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, Liv Tyler
10. Uncut Gems (review)
Director: The Safdie Brothers
Cast: Adam Sandler, Laketh Stanfield, Idina Menzel, Eric Bogosian, Kevin Garnett, Judd Hirsch, Julia Fox
Thank goodness I took my blood pressure meds before seeing Uncut Gems. The anxiety-inducing drama has Adam Sandler in a career best performance as the ultimate gambler, a diamond jeweler with a heavy load of debt and no shortage of those looking to collect. Following on their hit film Good Time, the Safdie Brothers offer another gritty, street-level character study that manages to stay at an incredibly high level of tension throughout, right up until the moment it suddenly stops, practically giving you a heart attack in the process.
9. Marriage Story
Director: Noah Baumbach
Cast: Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson, Laura Dern, Alan Alda
At this point I should probably just rip my heart out. Noah Baumbach’s scalpel sharp look at the painful process of divorce is almost too real to bear. Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson both give heartbreaking performances as the couple trying to navigate through the implosion of their marriage with a minimum of collateral damage, and finding it to be virtually impossible. Based in part on his own troubles, Baumbach does eventually weave in a hopeful thread which makes the emotional exhaustion you feel worth it.
Director: Ari Aster
Cast: Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, William Jackson Harper, Will Poulter
Please don’t watch Midsommar if you’re thinking of breaking up with your significant other. It might give them ideas, ideas of burning bears and flower crowns. I really dug Midsommar the first time I saw it, the vibrant colors, hypnotizing, pulsing atmosphere, and weird cultish behavior all in service of what turns out to be a relationship movie. It’s not right to simply call this a horror movie because there’s so much more going on, which becomes even clearer upon with Aster’s full director’s cut. In a tremendous year for star Florence Pugh, it’s her grief-stricken tour-de-force here that stands as truly unforgettable.
7. The Report (review)
Director: Scott Z. Burns
Cast: Adam Driver, Annette Bening, Jon Hamm, Tim Blake Nelson, Ted Levine
As we would see from Scott Z. Burns later in the year with The Laundromat, making entertaining movies out of serious, dense subject matter is hard. Burns managed to pull it off early in the year with The Report, a deep, incisive and gripping political thriller about the real-life Daniel Jones, a senate staffer investigating the CIA’s torture program. The film exposes with raw nerve the moral rot at the heart of our government post-9/11, all done under cover of the American flag and in the name of national security. This was Adam Driver’s first of many performances during the year that proved he can pretty much do whatever he wants and I’m going to be down for it.
6. Avengers: Endgame (review)
Directors: The Russo Brothers
Cast: Pretty much everybody Marvel has under contract
As anybody who just saw The Rise of Skywalker knows, it’s damned hard to just stick the landing. I think that was all of our concern going into Avengers: Endgame, especially after the shocking finale of Infinity War. How do you go about wrapping up a full decade’s worth of storylines? It turns out, you just turn it into the massive superhero spectacle everybody wants it to be. Who will ever forget the massive finale battle (“On your left.”), with literally hundreds of characters on screen at once, the Avengers broken and Thanos appearing triumphant? The beginning is a bit somber, as it should be, but the story eventually rebounds with a lot of wonky time travel and science mumbo-jumbo that doesn’t make any sense and, honestly, doesn’t really need to. It’s just meant to the kind of fun you’d find splashed on your favorite comic book pages. When the MCU began with 2008’s Iron Man, I don’t think any of us thought it would lead to this, the highest-grossing movie of all-time. So yeah, it’s damned hard to stick the landing, but Avengers: Endgame proves it isn’t impossible.
5. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (review)
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie
Tarantino’s love letter to a turbulent era in Hollywood history is the director’s eccentricities boiled down to their essence. He indulges in cinematic details like none other, gives actors like DiCaprio and Pitt room to breathe in fictionalized, heightened portrayals, and can’t stop himself from the occasional controversy. Its meandering pace, colorful violence, and frequent diversions aren’t for everyone, but at this point in his career who would want Tarantino to change? I certainly don’t.
4. Parasite (review)
Director: Bong Joon-ho
Cast: Song Kang-ho, Lee Sun-kyun, Cho Yeo-jeong, Chang Hyae-jin, Choi Woo-shik, Park So-dam
The thing about any movie by Bong Joon-ho is they are very rarely what they appear to be on the surface. Parasite is absolutely a film you want to go into knowing as little as possible because it takes so many twists and turns, reorienting itself on a dime so you don’t know who you’re supposed to be pulling for. Is it the poverty-stricken family of grifters? Or the naive and out-of-touch family of wealth? After a tense game of cat and mouse orchestrated beautifully by Joon-ho and cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo, you won’t know which way is up and feeling of unpredictability is extremely satisfying.
3. The Farewell (review)
Director: Lulu Wang
Cast: Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Zhao Shuzhen
A fake wedding and cultural misunderstandings make for a funny and deeply intimate gem from writer/director Lulu Wang. Starring Awkwafina in a breakthrough dramatic performance, this biographical drama is as personal as it is universal in exploring familial reconciliation, mortality, and even gentrification, all done with a sense of humor that connects when you need it most.
2. Ford v. Ferrari (review)
Director: James Mangold
Cast: Matt Damon, Christian Bale, Noah Jupe, Tracy Letts, Jon Bernthal, Caitriona Balfe, Josh Lucas
In my favorite scene of James Mangold’s incredible, thrill-a-minute Ford v Ferrari, Tracy Letts’ Henry Ford III gets taken on the ride of his life in the GT40 MK. Thinking he’s man enough to handle it, Ford is shaken, rattled, and rolled into tears, not of terror but of pure joy. That’s how I felt, having been reminded that big-budget studio can be both wildly thrilling popcorn entertainment and well-crafted human drama. Sometimes we overstate that Hollywood doesn’t make movies like this anymore, but it’s really true in this case. Studios just aren’t willing to take a gamble, even with stars the caliber of Damon and Bale, but it paid off and I hope this is a sign of things to come.
1. 1917 (review)
Director: Sam Mendes
Cast: George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman, Mark Strong, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Richard Madden
I also had this very high in my Top 100 of the decade, and think its placement there is entirely justified. I don’t think anybody expected this much from Sam Mendes, coming out of too-long stint in the massive Bond franchise, with the prior film being a major letdown. And to learn his WWI film would be a single continuous take (yes, there are hidden edits), it all sounded like an overwhelming prospect for the former playwright. But once again, Mendes proved he is among the greatest filmmakers working today. The technical achievements, given incredible weight and searing beauty by cinematographer Roger Deakins, only add to the visceral sense of being there in the trenches, never knowing where the danger might be coming from one moment to the next. The emotional stakes are established early and only increase as these two British soldiers go on their suicide mission, and we are right there with them through every horrific second. Not only will this go down as one of the great war movies but one of the great films, period. In a storied career, this is Mendes at the absolute pinnacle of his talents.