Our demanding critics choose the best films (along with some disappointments) of the year.
10 Best Narrative Films of 2019
1. Uncut Gems – The Best Film of 2019
The rest of the Ten Best:
2. Little Women
3. The Irishman
4. Marriage Story
6. Asako 1 and 2
8. Honey Boy
10. The King
10 Best Documentaries of 2019
1. American Factory-The Best Documentary of 2019
The rest of the Ten Best:
2. Apollo 11
3. Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice
5. Love, Antosha
6. One Child Nation
7. Midnight Traveler
8. Knock Down the House
9. For Sama
5 Best Foreign-Language Films
1. Asako 1 and 2-The Best Foreign-Language Film of 2019
The rest of the Five Best:
3. Pain and Glory
Best Actor: Joaquin Phoenix, Joker
Runners-up Antonio Banderas, Pain and Glory; Adam Sandler, Uncut Gems; Jonathan Pryce, Two Popes; Adam Driver, Marriage Story
Best Actress: Charlize Theron, Bombshell
Runners-up: Saoirse Ronan, Little Women; Lupita Nyong’o, Us; Awkwafina, The Farewell; Mame Bineta Sane, Atlantics
Best Supporting Actor: Joe Pesci, The Irishman
Runners-up: Shia Laboeuf, Honey Boy; Brad Pitt, Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood; Ray Liotta, Marriage Story; Wesley Snipes, Dolemite Is My Name
Best Supporting Actress: Laura Dern, Marriage Story
Runners-up: Taylor Russell, Waves; Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Dolemite Is My Name; Margot Robbie, Bombshell; Florence Pugh, Little Women
Best Director: Josh and Benny Safdie, Uncut Gems
Runners-Up: Todd Phillips, Joker; Greta Gerwig, Little Women; Noah Baumbach, Marriage Story; Martin Scorsese, The Irishman
Best Screenplay: Noah Baumbach, Marriage Story
Best Cinematography: Claire Mathon, Atlantics
Best New Director: Annabelle Attanasio, Mickey and the Bear
Most Overrated films:
Most Overrated: Jojo Rabbit
Runners-up: Booksmart, Maiden, Judy, The Last Black Man in San Francisco
Best films of 2019
1. Parasite – Bong Joon-Ho’s tragicomedy runs the gamut from antic slapstick to existential angst, and his ensemble of actors handles everything masterfully along the way. At its heart, it’s not so much an upstairs-downstairs satire of hyper-capitalist contemporary society as a reflection on class consciousness. And its cinematography and production design serve up a visual feast.
2. The Last Black Man in San Francisco – A triumph because of its poetic portrayal of regular people who are outsiders, whether because of race, social class, or circumstances that they cannot control. The story reflects on families, the power of art, and, most eloquently, the nature of masculinity and male friendship. The musical score and exquisite editing accent the film’s sad beauty.
3. Long Day’s Journey into Night – I’m still feeling this one months afterward. It is the Proustian-inspired story of a middle-aged man who goes on a journey to reclaim something worthy from his past. Yes, the technical wizardry is impressive (the second hour is a dream sequence captured in one magical, uninterrupted shot), but director Bi Gan echoes the great 20th-century masters (Tarkovsky especially) in a way that shows he’s the future of Chinese cinema.
4. Hail Satan? – Penny Lane has a knack for making documentaries that are humorous and entertaining while also digging deep into the political and social contradictions of 21st-century American discourse. Here, she traces the rise of the Satanic Temple of America, which transformed itself from trolling pranksters into a legitimate political and religious movement whose goal is to expose the banality and corruption of the Christian Right and its efforts to chip away at the separation of church and state.
5. Ash Is Purest White – A mobster’s girlfriend yearns to reconnect with her past life after serving a prison term for his crimes. Utterly heartbreaking while also romantic and humorous, the story unfolds over two decades in various regions of China. Lead actress Zhao Tao is hypnotic as she displays an impeccable emotional range: tough and assertive, yet vulnerable and fragile.
6. The Irishman – The skeptic in me didn’t want to watch another Martin Scorsese mobster movie starring his usual suspects. Thankfully, the movie let me savor the work of a master filmmaker reevaluating his career making mobster movies. More of a reflection on sin than a crime story, the film’s last hour lands an emotional gut-punch that’s unlike any previous Scorsese film. A restrained Joe Pesci is quite a sight to see.
7. The Farewell – Awkwafina deserves praise for her portrayal of Billi, a young woman bucking the traditional Chinese ritual which her parents follow: to choose to avoid acknowledging the imminent death of a loved one, in this case Billi’s grandmother. Writer-director Lulu Wang’s filmmaking is confident — assisted by a tight script and a wonderful ensemble that rounds out Billi’s extended family.
8. High Life – It pains me that this film is getting left out of 10-best lists. Director Claire Denis takes some big risks in this philosophical outer-space genre-bender, part psychological thriller, part satire. Robert Pattinson has had quite a year. This was my favorite of his recent roles: he played a complex, repressed, but genuinely humane man who redeems himself. Juliette Binoche is about as evil as I’ve ever seen her.
9. Dolemite Is My Name – A late entry in 2019, and Netflix’s algorithms may bury it. But Eddie Murphy deserves accolades for the true-ish story of comedian-actor-singer Rudy Ray Moore and his quixotic efforts (in 1974) to make his own Blaxploitation film. The movie Moore completed (Dolemite) is technically terrible on all fronts, but Murphy revels in this surprisingly touching underdog story that’s also rip-roaring hilarious. Wesley Snipes steals the movie in a small role, a standout among a large cast of strong supporting players.
10. Jawline – A documentary that reveals the ugly truths behind contemporary “influencer” culture on social media, specifically among young male teenagers who strive for stardom. It focuses on a boy from rural Tennessee who attempts to capitalize on his newfound YouTube notoriety, exploring both our ephemeral notions of fame and the birth of a highly profitable “industry” that exploits dreams of stardom.
Honorable mentions (documentary):
63 Up, American Factory, Apollo 11, Aquarela, Black Mother, For Sama, The Great Hack, Honeyland, The Hottest August, Kifaru, The Kingmaker, Midnight Traveler, One Child Nation, Pahokee
Honorable mentions (narrative): Atlantics, A Hidden Life, Hustlers, Knives Out, Midsommar, Monos, Pain and Glory, Shadow, Us
My Best Films for 2019 fall into three somewhat arbitrary categories: City Tales, Dark Visions, and Family Stories.
The Irishman – Throw together a brilliant cast of Martin Scorsese regulars as real life reprobates and 159 million dollars and you have a masterpiece. This is a reflective work from a master filmmaker. (Review)
Uncut Gems – Under the right direction, Adam Sandler turns out to be a great dramatic actor. The Safdie Brothers have been honing their style for over a decade. Supported by an eclectic cast, the film takes us on a jittery nonstop ride into the dark world of a hapless jewelry merchant.
Joker – An examination of a DC comic villain becomes an unnerving study of psychopathology highlighted by Joaquin Phoenix’s unnerving performance. Director Todd Phillips turns every comic trope on its head. It is as though Pennywise (from IT) fuses with Phoenix’s Joe from last year’s You Were Never Really Here. (Review)
Midsommar – Director Ari Aster starts his story off-balance and continues with a descent into a kind of hippie hell. I laughed and cringed in equal measure. Audacious and preposterous, the final shot of a deranged Florence Pugh echoes the final shot in her earlier film, Lady Macbeth. (Review)
The Lighthouse – A hallucinatory blend of myth and folktale. Shot in black-and-white in a square aspect ratio, as was the practice of early German Expressionist films (1.19:1), the film descends into a battle between God and man, with an ending straight out of the story of Prometheus. (Review)
Marriage Story – This droll script tugs at your heartstrings. A stunning Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson are a married couple navigating what could be a friendly divorce — were it not for the intervention of combative lawyers marvelously played by Laura Dern, Ray Liotta, and Alan Alda. (Review)
Souvenir – Joanna Hogg’s film, with its static and pastel compositions and subtle acting from Honor Swinton Byrne, Tom Burke, and Tilda Swinton, respects the audience’s ability to piece things together. We stare at the edges of a young woman’s relationship — one that was not meant to be. I had to watch it twice out of sheer joy. (Review)
Little Women – Director Greta Gerwig was a writer before she was an actress. She has penned a script that honors Louisa May Alcott’s classic by making the story feel modern, particularly with a surprising last scene. The acting ensemble is delightful and this is the first version of the story shot in Concord. It’s just about the perfect Christmas film. (Review)
Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood – Film geeks, history buffs, movie star fans, and Tarantino aficionados couldn’t ask for more than this epic tale of Hollywood in the late 1960s. (Review)
Waves – Trey Edward Shults’s kinetic directing style is well suited for this devastating reflection on fate, redemption, and healing among families and generations. (Review)
10 BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILMS. These innovative films deserve their own list.
- Les Miserables
- For Sama
- Under the Pear Tree
- By the Grace of God
- I Do Not Care if We Were Once Barbarians
- Pain and Glory
- Long Day’s Journey into Night
- Sound of My Voice
- American Dharma
- Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese
- One Child Nation
- Where’s My Roy Cohn?
- Amazing Grace
- The Apollo
- The Raft
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker – Watching the products of this franchise I often feel like a dog trying to make sense of what’s on television. I loved the crazy space creatures, explosions, and cyberpunk spaceships — I had no idea who was doing what to whom and why. I kept wondering how many of the world’s hungry could be fed by the film’s budget.
Where’d You Go Bernadette? – As much as I love Richard Linklater, this adaptation of the best-selling book was so static I felt like I needed toothpicks to prop my eyes open. With the exception of Kristen Wiig, a cast of good actors gave embarrassingly artificial performances.
Serenity – The idea of a movie taking place in a (spoiler alert) reality generated by a video game reality might work. But not with a script this idiotic. I was lost from beginning to end.
Frankie – I liked Ira Sachs’s previous films, but with this one you felt that the performers were reading their lines off cue cards. A good cast was unable to infuse any life into this effort. It even managed to make Isabelle Huppert look ridiculous.
Laundromat – A worthwhile topic — global money laundering — in the hands of an innovative director (Steven Soderbergh). Alas, the attempt to provide comedy fell flat.
1. Midsommar – By turns hilarious, terrifying, erotic, violent, trippy, mythic, authentic, and disturbing, this tale of grad students on a touristy jaunt to a ritual celebration in Sweden has some of the year’s most dizzying cinematography and stunning production design.
2. Little Women – Greta Gerwig once again directs a coming-of-age film with impressive invention and precision. Her version of this literary classic is subtly infused with a very contemporary sense and sensibility.
3. The Last Black Man in San Francisco – An elegiac yet hopeful debut from Joe Talbot, with fine performances from a number of newcomers and luscious cinematography.
4. Jojo Rabbit – Biting satire and silly madness from Taika Waititi, who plays Hitler as the imaginary friend of a fledgling member of the Hitler Youth, played brilliantly by the very young Roman Griffin Davis.
5. The Nightingale – A harrowing yet achingly beautiful story of an Irish immigrant to Australia who sets off on a journey accompanied by an indigenous tracker to exact revenge. An impressive historical thriller follow-up to Jennifer Kent’s horror debut The Babadook.
6. Portrait of a Lady on Fire – Sensuous and subtle, this period piece from French director Celine Sciamma is enthralling, as much about art as it is about love.
7. Hail, Satan? – Sobering, fascinating, and well-balanced look at the efforts of The Satanic Temple to fight infringements of the First Amendment.
8. 1917 – Tense and thrilling from start to finish, this real-time single-shot tour de force from director Sam Mendes follows a WWI soldier on a dangerous, urgent mission on foot through war-torn France. Photographed by Roger Deakins and featuring some excellent cameos.
9. Knives and Skin – Full of dark cinematic homages — from Donnie Darko to River’s Edge — but more biting and intersectional, Jennifer Reeder’s surreal tale of a girl gone missing features a dreamy 1980s production design and music palette.
10. The Souvenir – Haunting autobiographical fiction based on Joanna Hogg’s college days in London, this first half of a two-part series is compelling, subtle, and closely observed, with an uncanny vibe akin to the best of the French New Wave.
11. The Lighthouse – This shit is nuts and I loved every minute of it: cursed seagulls, apoplectic invocations of ocean deities, plenty of bodily functions, and slowly encroaching madness filmed in deliriously beautiful black-and-white.
12. Ophelia – With heart-stopping visuals and letter-perfect performances, this retelling of Shakespeare’s tragic tale is bold and beautiful. From Australian director Claire McCarthy and starring Daisy Ridley and 1917‘s George MacKay.
13. Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood – This is pretty much perfect from start to finish, a delicious dive into the aesthetics and mentality of 1968, fantastic performances all around, and a clever revisionist take on the Manson Family’s evil deeds.
Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice
11 BEST FILMS OF 2019 (in no particular order)
1. The Lighthouse — Robert Eggers. For the inspired pairing of Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson, and the wild dark humor they generate — but why was I the only one in the theater laughing? Also its art historical references, and Eggers’s quote, “Nothing good happens when two men are left alone in a giant phallus.”
2. Pain and Glory — Pedro Almodovar. For making hypochondriacs feel better about themselves. And giving us Antonio Banderas as Latino mensch.
3. 1917 — Sam Mendes. Master D.P. Roger Deakins’s single take through WWI makes you feel like you’ve gone through the war yourself (and likely would have deserted). Fab Brit actor George MacKay wears an expression throughout of WTF world is this? His heroism partially rehabs the battered image of masculinity.
4. Portrait of a Lady on Fire — I’m partial to French elegance of mind. Celine Sciamma’s wondrously coiled screenplay plays like 17th-century classical French theater.
5. Parasite — Bong Jun-ho. The message gets a bit muddled here — the director got it better in Snowpiercer — but at least this auteur is eyeballing economic inequality.
6. Marriage Story — Noah Baumbach. A crafty object lesson in working out your private demons (and misdemeanors) through artistic endeavor. Scarlett Johansson deserves an Oscar.
7. A Hidden Life — Terrence Malick. I get all shivery at the sound of those voice-overs — who the hell are they addressing? Who else makes films like this? Malick’s reverence for life speaks to the season; his paean to principle to the political moment.
8. Diane — Kent Jones. It’s hard to imagine anything more daring than to make a movie about old, sick people. In this affecting first feature Jones pulls you in, thanks to Mary Kay Place, and a Chekhovian sense of community in blue-collar Massachusetts.
9. Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood — Quentin Tarantino. Don’t even try to resist the mellowed-out Brad Pitt (and lats and pecs) in this billet-doux to vanishing Hollywood.
10. Little Women — Greta Gerwig. For amplifying the book’s feminist message while burnishing it visuals from Currier & Ives. Turning a spotlight on Florence Pugh and her marvelous deep voice. And in the midst of it all, having a baby.
11. The Irishman — Martin Scorsese. I haven’t seen it yet but high expectations impel me to leave a space for it.
10 Best Films of 2019
Portrait of a Lady on Fire
The Last Black Man in San Francisco
I Lost My Body
I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians
Honorable mention: A Hidden Life, Honey Boy, The Souvenir, In Fabric, Marriage Story, Toy Story 4, Uncut Gems, The Farewell, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, The Lighthouse, Ray & Liz, The Irishman, Knives Out, Jojo Rabbit
Foreign language honorable mention: Asako I & II, Les Misérables
Documentary honorable mention: Hail Satan?, American Factory, Honeyland, Amazing Grace, Buddy, Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché, Ask Dr. Ruth