If I’ve learned anything from the past years of my exploration into film, it’s that creativity has never died, and 2019 proved no exception to that. Hollywood blockbusters took creative chances, while the growing auteur cinema saw growth in maturity and a wealth of quality and compelling emotion. A banner year of cinema, ranging from soulless cash-grabs to independent masterpieces. This year proves why cinema is made.
Much like any year for film, the year wasn’t exactly at an enthralling start. We had some modest successes like Booksmart and Us that came out early in the year, but mostly nothing to write home about. But as the year went on, it became one of the most daring and impactful times for movies in memory. Of course we’ve had stinkers like the meandering It: Chapter 2, the disappointing Brightburn, the confusing Terminator: Dark Fate, and of course the overhated (but still not very good) Cats, but the year ended in a dazzling display of ambitious and inspiring cinema from Hollywood and independent artists alike.
Here is a list of the best the year had to offer. Here’s to a new decade of cinema and art!
Runner-Ups: I Lost My Body, Peanut Butter Falcon, 1917, Booksmart, Knives Out, El Camino, Avengers: Endgame
#10. John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum
Directed by Chad Stahelski
When coming up with lists like these, I find objectivity to be key to being a successful writer and critic. I glared at the options this year had in store, and I debated with myself on what should objectively go at the start here. There are undoubtedly objectively better pieces of cinema that have come out this year that have bested John Wick: Chapter 3. But after much deliberation, I couldn’t stand the thought of it NOT making it to this list in some form or another. There are problems to be had with the film, but who cares when this is a movie where villains are killed with books, horse kicks, and an axe being hurled from the background?
While it would be a bit exaggerated to say John Wick as a franchise SAVED the action film genre, it’s no doubt an important piece to a long-mistreated genre rampant with CGI porn, young and busty women, and tall muscular dudes in expensive cars. John Wick: Chapter 3 transcends the action genre with deeper characters, a complex world, and hyper-violent, balls-to-the-walls action and cinematography that holds you hostage throughout. Chapter 3 doesn’t hold a candle to the remarkable first two, but still an unforgettable experience to treat your action sweet tooth.
#9. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
The film destined to take over everyone’s ‘Best Of 2019’ lists, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is a dazzling blast to the past ridden with everything that’s vintage. The plot, however simple it may be, remains unpredictable and engaging. The movie is filled to the brim with detail, colors, and authenticity. Long takes of characters driving through the streets of 1960’s L.A., radio and television from the era, and music and movie posters bringing the world to life with detail and energy with every scene.
Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt are unforgettable as action star Rick Dalton and his stuntman Cliff Booth in a dialogue-heavy film, both on their own adventures in L.A. and going through the grind of their disparate lives. Margot Robbie brings life and fresh air to the late Sharon Tate, the movie star being treated with respect and dignity (but those foot shots, Quenty? C’mon.). A movie full of love, atmosphere, and nostalgia.
#8. The Irishman
Directed by Martin Scorsese
If this is Scorsese’s last grandstand, then what a way to go out. While not every minute of The Irishman felt necessary, nothing felt like a waste of time. The movie weaves together seamlessly, an entertaining and enthralling piece, especially with the gut-punching third act. No performance is wasted here, DeNiro in-particular bringing possibly his most emotionally-charged performance in years.
While the three-and-a-half-hour runtime can be intimidating and does constantly desire your attention, but is a moving and unforgettable venture into power, mortality, and guilt. What’s in store for Martin Scorsese now? Will this be the end of his long and epic career as a filmmaker? We’ll have to wait and see, long as the Marvel fandom doesn’t get to him first.
Directed by Ari Aster
While still not quite as effective or impactful as Aster’s unforgettable debut feature Hereditary, Midsommar is a grotesque and insane experience. Stunning cinematography and colors are abundant. Colors are vibrant and pop out, giving the film a very strong comic book-y vibe. The implementation of daylight creates an absurdly unconventional horror experience, the remote Sweden town of Hälsingland being both welcoming and claustrophobic.
Midsommar is more character-focused than the average horror flick, with Dani and Christian remaining believable characters – Dani suffering through a tragic loss, with Christian being emotionally distant. The themes of trauma and grief are powerful and blunt, with one of the most memorable and gruesome cold openings in all of 2019. Ari Aster is a legend of the craft, and with only finishing his sophomore effort, I await what future, complex horrors he will deliver next.
#6. Little Women
Directed by Greta Gerwig
I’m glad to have been alone in the few rows around me, or else somebody would have caught the embarassing, cheesy smile on my face while watching Little Women. Not that it matters too much, because Little Women was the most heartwarming and genuine film to be released this year. Every one of the main cast brought in their best roles, save for newcomer Eliza Scanlen as Beth March who brings in her first major role with passion and heart.
The movie weaves the plot perfectly, the cinematography and editing style changing to represent the past and present. It’s confusing at first but once you understand what the film is trying to do, the pacing and storytelling is seamless. The third act is full of self-awareness and a commentary on tired Hollywood adaptations, but never forgets the heart of the story it’s telling. Greta Gerwig is doing something special with this and 2017’s Lady Bird. Too bad she’s gonna be losing it all to a depressed clown.
#5. Uncut Gems
Directed by Benny Safdie & Josh Safdie
If Good Time was a psychedelic two-hour chase scene, then Uncut Gems goes for something far wiser and impactful. Adam Sandler is out of this world, producing one of his rawest, moving performances since Billy Madison. But, really, it seriously goes to show how Adam can shine when given the right team, and not him just hanging out with his SNL buddies for a quick check.
Uncut Gems is unrelenting and uncomfortable, the plot air-tight and unpredictable as it brings you further and further into the underbelly of Howard Ratner’s descent into chaos and disorder. It’ll leave you gasping for air until it’s merciful and heart-crushing end.
#4. Marriage Story.
Directed by Noah Baumbach
Marriage Story is one of the most brutally honest movies I have seen this year. Charlie and Nicole are so real, so sentimental in their efforts to fix each other’s shattered bonds while knowing everything is impossibly out of reach. Both have their sympathetic sides, and both have their major flaws that make them all the more hateable, but all the more human and real. Their fights are sincere and heartbreaking, despite what the out-of-touch, clueless nay-sayers may say.
Marriage Story hits hard, but knows when to be loving. It’s a tear-jerker, but knows when to make you smile. It speaks to you, but is never condescending. Despite what the themes of heartache and bonds breaking may suggest, it knows more about love than any movie in 2019.
#3. Jojo Rabbit
Directed by Taika Waititi
The biggest obstacle in watching Jojo Rabbit is getting past the idea of it being a coming-of-age comedy during Nazi Germany. How does one make a comedy out of the most tragic event in human history? The answer is having heart, passion, and soul. Director Taika Waititi has all the above, showcasing the strength of fighting against a corrupt system. Every performance is a delight, especially Roman Griffin Davis as young and brave Jojo. Sam Rockwell is a delight in every scene he’s in, and Taiki Waititi brings about a memorable and underappreciated performance as Hitler, able to transform from childish and funny to dark and serious like the madman he’s portraying.
Jojo Rabbit is about how easily the naive, impressionable youth is corrupted and brainwashed by systematic racism. It’s about overcoming that bigotry through love and friendship, then realizing the potential good in humanity. It’s a beautiful exploration of destroying the industry of hate and bringing about love to all.
Directed by Bong Joon Ho
Parasite is a master class of blending acid-black comedy and bone-shaking thriller. It masterfully weaves its tones together in a way that’s amusing, twisted, and discomforting. You feel bad for laughing, but the film has a hold on you and you can’t control it. The first half or so of the movie is a romp, never letting go even within its dark fairy tale. But as the movie goes deeper, so does the madness and characters within. The montage of the Kims successfully and expertly infiltrating the Parks’ household and bringing themselves into their lives is perfectly paced, edited, and contains a dark, poetic beauty as the lower-class family takes over. It’s a movie that’s only predictable in its unpredictability.
Parasite is a film that goes in a certain and predictable path at the start. You know what’s happening and you can probably expect what’s to come. What’s beautiful about that, however, is that it never goes in that direction. Instead, it hits its brakes and takes a complete detour into something darker and far more sinister. It holds your attention and never lets go.
Parasite has earned itself a multitude of awards, including a nomination for Best Picture and Best Foreign Film at the Oscars, both firsts for Korean cinema. It’s one of the most prolific and acclaimed films of 2019 for a reason. How a foreign film has taken over the west and became as big as it is is a testament to the sheer impact and power this movie has. Parasite is destined for a legacy of cult success and the power of non-English filmmaking. It’s a movie that not everyone will love, but it’s a movie everyone should see.
#1. The Lighthouse
Directed by Robert Eggers
My experience with Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse was unmatched with any other movie-going experience I’ve had this year. Eggers’ obsession with keeping his films historically accurate in language barriers and proverbs transcends what we understand in cinema, as well as our own culture, his debut film The Witch both taking documentations of the movies’ respective time era to reflect an authentic and immersive experience. It all pulls through, creating an incredibly haunting and engaging film experience like no other.
The use of the condensed 35mm film adds to the discomfort and claustrophobia found within the film. Being a black and white feature, lights and shadows are used effectively, the two colliding together to create images of unease and somber comfort. The set design itself is left simple, creating a place somehow familiar but also hugely eerie. Setting a film entirely in one location could be tiring but Eggers takes care to make each scene visually distinct enough that it carries the narrative while being visually haunting. Everything from the lighting, cinematography, and editing keeps every scene fresh and gorgeous to watch unfold.
Pattinson and Dafoe both carry the film, the latter truly giving it his all in perhaps his most demanding and energetic role to date. Dafoe is the old drunk Tom, equal parts charming and crude, as you’ll never know what future tricks or schemes he has up his sleeve. Pattinson also gives it his all as Winslow, his emotional range and energy an absolute powerhouse as his mental state slowly crumbles apart.
The film is very metaphorical and rarely literal, and begs to be dissected at every angle and action. It’s a shame that A24 didn’t do this film justice with a wider release, as most people will miss this. Granted, this movie is destined to be divisive and likely won’t speak to everyone, but there’s no denying its somber tone and its full-throttle eeriness is something that’ll be devoured. I cannot wait to see this one again. And again.