2019 may go down as the year that the mega-franchise blockbuster fever dream that took over movie theaters finally settles down. When I look over my list of favorites for the year, there isn’t a comic book movie in sight. And I enjoyed Endgame! I enjoyed Spider-Man: Far From Home! But at the end of the day I am fatigued, and I was just way more excited about the films on this list. I was more excited by old school mysteries, period pieces, horror movies, and fresh concepts. I’m ready for movies to…go back to normal?
Anyway, here are my top 10 movies of 2019.
10 – Knives Out
Rian Johnson’s whodunit is the film on this list that I’m most looking forward to rewatching. My first time watching it, I loved it until the last 20 minutes or so. It lost me a little, oddly enough, because it was a little too neatly constructed. I like a mystery that takes me for a ride, and I learned that I was less excited by a mystery I was able to solve on my own. The classic moment where the detective explains it all to the audience felt like going through the motions for me, because I already understood the twists and turns.
Still, I have to give credit to Johnson for writing a mystery that doesn’t cheat on its path to the finale. I suspect that when I rewatch it I’ll be able to enjoy the entire film for more than the twists and turns. After all, the writing is sharp, the social commentary adds another layer, and the performances are fun across the board.
9 – Arctic
I’m a huge fan of films that can tell a compelling, entertaining story in a single location. Arctic’s setup is as simple as can be. Mads Mikkelson is stranded in the Arctic. He has to survive. No flashbacks, no jumps to other characters, Arctic is as pure as you can imagine.
That it remains entertaining from beginning to end is an accomplishment alone, but it’s often truly harrowing. As I mentioned in my review, a simple setback felt like the end of the road for our protagonist, and every victory felt like a small triumph. And that’s exactly how I’d describe this film: a small triumph.
8 – Little Women
I try not to let my tastes stop me from checking out a well-reviewed film, but I still have my limits. A period piece like Little Women should be kryptonite for me. I’m just not really into the era, the fancy dresses, dances, and high society bullshit.
Thankfully, Greta Gerwig’s adaptation quickly moves beyond that fluff with great characters and a modern feminist’s touch. Without ever betraying the source material or the realities of the period, the film manages to feel vital and current. Each of the “little women” are developed and human, and watching them all play off of each other is equal parts heartwarming, hilarious, and heartbreaking. If this doesn’t look like a movie you’d ever watch, I’d recommend giving it a shot anyway.
7 – The Lighthouse
If there is some critique of modern society or deeper allegory at the heart of The Lighthouse, I don’t think I want to hear it. To me, this is the story of two men slowly going mad from isolation, filmed in a claustrophobic aspect ratio, and devoid of color. The film uses the vibe of a very specific era of old cinema to capture something strange and otherworldly. It’s meant to keep you off kilter from beginning to end. This is another one I’m really looking forward to rewatching.
6 – Us
Us is not as pure and perfect as Get Out. It’s a messier film, with some big ideas at the heart of it. It doesn’t completely work, but it’s entertaining as hell, with some incredible performances across the board (that goes double for Lupita Nyong’o).
By the end I found myself wishing that some things were explained in a little less detail, left up to the audience to come to different conclusions. In a weird way, this is Jordan Peele pulling a Hideo Kojima move, excitedly explaining his ideas to a fault. But that’s the thing about Kojima, right? There’s still something really fun and unique at the core of his ideas, and Peele is absolutely channeling that energy in his own way.
5 – Ford v Ferrari
I have to pat myself on the back a little for being open to pretty much any movie that gets a decent amount of critical acclaim. I got the sense that people had a lot of reasons to dismiss Ford v Ferrari. It’s a dad movie, it’s a car movie, it’s a typical sports movie. I think there might even be something boring about the idea of Christian Bale and Matt Damon acting their asses off for 2.5 hours. Oh, and that runtime! Snore!
I’m so glad I ignored any of these notions, because I was treated to a phenomenal theater-going experience. I wrote about it at length in my original review, but Ford v Ferrari is a brisk, fun, exciting, emotional film with a unique angle and story to tell. And damn, those races are on another level!
4 – Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood
Tarantino’s films have always been referential, honoring obscure corners of Hollywood’s past, but always in a way that most people can enjoy. I know this, because I’m not particularly well-read in regards to classic cinema, and yet I’ve enjoyed all of his movies.
With Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood, Tarantino goes beyond referencing and honoring, and instead dives deeply into an infamous Hollywood story—the cult of personality around Charles Manson, and the murder of Sharon Tate. To fully enjoy this film, you really need to know the backstory. I can’t imagine fully appreciating it without that context.
But if you do know the story, Once Upon a Time becomes a surprisingly compassionate and beautiful take on a tragedy. Tarantino’s indulgent, deliberate, referential fingerprints are all over it, but if you like his films and you know the story, it’s easily one of his best.
Side Note: It’s not an amazing movie, but Charlie Says is a pretty good companion piece to this film. I’d recommend watching it before you see Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood for a little extra context.
3 – Uncut Gems
A.K.A. Anxiety Simulator 2019. Uncut Gems has an energy to it that’s in a class of its own. Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) is a guy with an obvious addiction to winning, scheming, and gambling. He’s already in trouble when we meet him and it only gets worse from there.
This trashy, street-level view of New York is busy, loud, and full of character. There are entire scenes where multiple people are having multiple arguments all at once. It’s total madness with a purpose: to throw you off-balance.
When the final act begins we are right there with Howard, breathlessly awaiting his fate. A thousand Star Destroyers and 20 movies worth of comic book superheroes don’t have half the energy of Uncut Gems’ final scenes. It’s an incredible achievement and an instant classic.
2 – Midsommar
Director Ari Aster captures a side of horror that’s so rarely explored I’d almost call it taboo. Much like his previous film, Hereditary, Midsommar’s scares are the haunting pains of everyday existence. Both films eventually go into the surreal or supernatural, but the scariest parts are the realistic trauma the characters are subjected to.
I don’t recommend Midsommar lightly. I just recently showed it to a few people, and for the first half hour I felt like I was inflicting pain on them rather than showing them a movie I liked. But Midsommar triumphs because it works towards something cathartic in all the horror. It’s bright, beautiful, graphic, shocking, and hilarious all at once. I’ll take another one in 2020, thanks Mr. Aster.
1 – Parasite
I went into Parasite completely blind. I never watched a trailer (one of the wonderful things about foreign film is that you aren’t force-fed spoiler-laden trailers over and over), I just saw the 99% score on RottenTomatoes, the director behind it (the incredible Bong Joon-ho), and a convenient showtime.
If you love South Korean cinema for its ability to transcend genre, transform, and surprise, then Parasite is essential viewing. If you’ve never watched a South Korean film, this is an excellent entry point. It’s darkly human, with twisted humor and a critical mirror on modern society that’s deeply relatable right now. And that’s all I’ll say. Go watch it.