It’s the beginning of a new year and a new decade, which means it’s time for one last look at some of my favorite films from 2019. Admittedly, 2019 was a slow start for the movies, but in the second half of the year, we were given a slew of excellent outings from equally wonderful directors. As always, my disclaimer is that I have not seen every film to come out this year, but I did see many good ones and a few great ones. Here are my top 10 films of 2019:
Avengers: Endgame (Dir. Anthony & Joe Russo)
Apollo 11 (Dir. Todd Douglas Miller)
I Lost My Body (Dir. Jérémy Clapin)
The Report (Dir. Scott Z. Burns)
10. Midsommar (Dir. Ari Aster)
Though it is billed as a horror film, Midsommar offers less in the way of jump scares in favor of a disturbing, yet cathartic look at how we cope with grief. In that respect, it becomes a perfect follow-up to Aster’s stunning debut Hereditary in 2018. The film follows Dani (Florence Pugh), a woman who journeys to a mysterious Swedish festival with her inattentive boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) following a family tragedy. An unsettling situation unfolds for them in broad daylight as Dani and Christian become sucked into this culture.
Upon seeing it back in July, I did not think it would make my list, but much like last year’s Annihilation, it has stuck with me ever since I watched it. Dani experiences virtually every emotion on the spectrum, and Pugh hits each note with unyielding commitment. From its performances to the mythology it builds within its premise, Midsommar earns my tenth spot this year.
9. Ad Astra (Dir. James Gray)
Ad Astra is perhaps the most underrated film of the year. After a series of power outages threatens Earth, Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is tasked with journeying to the edge of the solar system to confront his father (Tommy Lee Jones), whose secret project for the U.S. Space Command may be the cause of these surges.
The phrase Ad Astra means “to the stars,” and though Roy must travel farther than any other human would dare, the film is really a character study about the truths we must confront within ourselves and those closest to us. Roy is Atlas, shouldering the weight of the world by shouldering the sins of his father, and in so doing strives to learn from their collective mistakes.
Pitt has garnered acclaim for his turn in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, but I would argue his subdued, stoic performance here is just as enthralling. Hoyt van Hoytema’s cinematography echoes a cyberpunk color palette a la Blade Runner while also ensuring the film feels grounded. If there were any justice in this world, Max Richter would win the Oscar for Best Original Score with his atmospheric score.
8. Uncut Gems (Dir. Josh & Benny Safdie)
The Safdie brothers understand how to bottle tension like no one else. This is a constant thread throughout their films, and Uncut Gems is no exception. Here, Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler), a jeweler addicted to gambling, uses his ample savvy and charisma to make high-stakes bets on basketball games and places himself into increasingly precarious circumstances.
Sandler’s jovial disposition imbues Howard with more likeability than the character probably deserves, aligning our sympathies with him despite the cyclical, destructive nature of his behavior. The Safdies understand Sandler’s strengths, and it was a welcome change of pace to see the actor nail a more dramatic role. The real surprise, however, was seeing former NBA player Kevin Garnett give an excellent performance. Though his part is small, Garnett is a bright spot in every scene he’s in. All of these elements culminate into a heart-pounding gut-punch of a finale that I didn’t see coming.
7. Jojo Rabbit (Dir. Taika Waititi)
On paper, the premise of Jojo Rabbit seems like something that couldn’t work on screen — a satire about Johannes “Jojo” Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis, in a star-making role), a Hitler youth who discovers his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding a young Jewish girl named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in their house. As he slowly befriends Elsa, Jojo begins to question his belief system while his imaginary friend Adolf Hitler (Taika Waititi) remains a constant presence.
In retrospect, this film was only possible with Taika Waititi at the helm, whose signature comedic flair and smart storytelling offers a bold, unapologetic look at this dark time period in our history. Despite this backdrop Jojo Rabbit is funny, genuinely moving, and a worthy addition to Waititi’s filmography.
6. Booksmart (Dir. Olivia Wilde)
Booksmart burrows deep into the intricacies and intimacy of female friendship for heartfelt, hilarious results. Best friends Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) have prioritized schooling over partying, and are poised to attend great colleges. On the eve of their high school graduation, the girls discover that the popular kids who partied hard also got into good schools and thus resolve to shed their “booksmart” ways over the course of their last night of high school.
The authentic relationship between Molly and Amy radiates from the screen, making us feel as if we’ve known these characters as long as they’ve known each other. In her directorial debut, Olivia Wilde offers a strong sense of style and proves she’s unafraid to make daring choices — from a completely stop-motion sequence to a dance number in the third act. I fell in love with Booksmart the moment I left the theater, and I’m so excited to see what else Wilde will do.
5. Parasite (Dir. Bong Joon-ho)
From the performances to its cinematography to its actual premise, there is always more bubbling beneath the surface of Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite. In South Korea, the Kims, a lower-class family living in a basement apartment, supplants themselves one-by-one into support staff roles for the wealthy Park family — often employing morally questionable methods to do so. What begins as a comedy deftly morphs into a thriller as this symbiotic relationship between both families begins to crumble under the weight of unexpected secrets.
I have never seen a film transform genres the way that Parasite does. By slowly peeling back the layers of both these families, Bong unveils a power struggle between classes and socioeconomic statuses, as well as how certain events can be entertaining for some and devastating for others. It’s a mesmerizing film that hooked me from start to finish.
4. Marriage Story (Dir. Noah Baumbach)
Pulling from his own life-experiences, Noah Baumbach offers a personal look into the process of divorce. Charlie (Adam Driver), a stage director, and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), an actress, try to maintain an amicable relationship for the sake of their young son. As the legal issues of their divorce become heavier and heavier, Charlie and Nicole struggle to keep long simmering tensions from overflowing.
Marriage Story is a masterclass in acting. Driver and Johansson are so achingly human in their portrayals of this couple, and when Charlie and Nicole’s issues do boil over, the pair leave everything on the screen in knock-down-drag-out fashion. Laura Dern is similarly excellent as Nora, Nicole’s lawyer. It’s a heartbreaking watch, but Marriage Story is not without its moments of levity and humor — because that, too, is how we cope with the most difficult situations in life. Marriage Story deserves every award it will get.
3. Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Dir. Céline Sciamma)
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a visually gorgeous, emotionally raw romantic tale. In eighteenth century France, Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is commissioned to paint a portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), a young woman who is to be married. Upon her arrival at the estate, Marianne learns that Héloïse drove off the last painter who attempted to do her portrait, and that Marianne must paint in secret, spending time with Héloïse under the guise of her walking companion. The two women form an intimate bond as Marianne paints Héloïse only from memory.
Love and memory are the two key themes driving this film. Further underscored by the characters’ debate about the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice, Portrait of a Lady on Fire presents the idea that nothing — good nor bad — lasts forever, and sometimes our memory of someone feels more significant than the person themselves. Merlant and Haenel offer two of the best, most vulnerable performances of the year in depicting this relationship and all of its subtleties.
2. Knives Out (Dir. Rian Johnson)
You won’t find a more clever, meticulously plotted film this year. In his latest offering, Rian Johnson presents a slick whodunnit mystery; when Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), a successful crime novelist and the white patriarch of the Thrombey family, dies under mysterious circumstances, eccentric private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) is called in to investigate the case and determine whether “foul play” was involved.
As we quickly learn, Harlan’s family members each have some nasty baggage — if not for murder, they’re all surely guilty of something — and that’s precisely what makes this film so much fun. Although this is still a whodunnit, Johnson flips the genre on its head — as he’s wont to do with each of his films. As such, he keeps us guessing until the very end, moving the puzzle pieces around the board until they all smoothly fall into place in a way that feels inevitable in hindsight. Knives Out features a large, star-studded cast, but particular standouts include Daniel Craig (I could watch twenty more movies of Benoit Blanc solving mysteries), Ana de Armas as Harlan’s nurse Marta, and Chris Evans, who gets to shed his good-boy persona as Harlan’s entitled grandson, Ransom.
Whether it’s a big blockbuster film or a smaller indie flick, Rian Johnson remains an original voice.
1. Little Women (Dir. Greta Gerwig)
Without a single cynical bone in its body, Little Woman is a warm blanket that wraps you up in a delightful story about family, sisterhood, and coming of age. Based on Louisa May Alcott’s novel, Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Little Women follows the March sisters — Jo (Saorise Ronan), Amy (Florence Pugh), Meg (Emma Watson), and Beth (Eliza Scanlen) — and their relationship with one another throughout their lives.
Traversing from the golden hues of childhood to the cooler blues of adulthood in nonlinear fashion, Gerwig juxtaposes the past and present versions of these little women, and thus their ideals with their realities. Through Jo, Ronan captures the character’s fiery aspirations as a writer and shows us that women can possess agency over their passions, even if they aren’t in line with what society tells them to be.
Though Ronan captivates with her central performance, Pugh proves to be the standout as Amy, the tamer, if more naive sister who possesses a talent for painting. Petulant but endearing, Amy becomes her own character in addition to just Jo’s foil. With this performance, Pugh is one of the top performers of the year. In another layered role, Timothée Chalamet continues to be a young actor to watch as Laurie, a young man who vies for the affection of both Jo and Amy.
Gerwig as a director has become a huge inspiration for me. Both Little Women and 2017’s Lady Bird portray their female characters with authenticity, as though these women really existed and Gerwig is merely documenting their triumphs and tribulations. Little Women is, without a doubt, the film of the year.