2019 will always be remembered by me as the year that so many of the greatest directors in history gave us such intimate entries in their filmography, from Martin Scorsese, Greta Gerwig, Terrence Malick, Bong Joon-ho, Quentin Tarantino to Noah Baumbach. My Best Films of the Year List gratefully includes all these movies but also includes those of other incredible filmmakers with singular visions that are just as impressive as those of the legendary ones. It’s a great time be a cinema fan, and let’s appreciate that in an era when many bemoan the onslaught of sequels and remakes, there were so many truly original, thought-provoking, remarkable films that came out in 2019.
One Friday in October, I managed to inhale an Alamo Drafthouse salad bowl full of popcorn while watching Parasite on its opening weekend. It was absolutely mesmerizing – a thriller so clever, gorgeous, wildly entertaining, funny, shocking, and brilliant that I was beside myself. Bong Joon-ho has consistently delivered exceptional films (my previous favorite in his filmography is the haunting 2010 movie, Mother), but Parasite is a stunning cinematic achievement. What I love most about the class warfare storyline is how Joon-ho ensures none of his characters, played by a note perfect cast, are stereotypes. They are all fully realized and beautifully flawed, which makes it all the more exciting to watch what they do in the unexpected situations in which they find themselves.
2. MARRIAGE STORY
A devastating film that is also deeply hopeful and compassionate. It is about so much more than bearing witness to a complicated divorce between an actor and stage director. It also explores the meaning of marriage, the bond it forges between two people, the language that is created between them, and what can happen to each of their lives when these ties are severed. The quiet moments in this movie are what were most affecting- a wife crying softly in her bed, a father taking his son out on Halloween alone, and even shoe laces being tied. But the scene that completely broke me was Adam Driver’s character reading a list that his son asks to help him read. Randy Newman’s glorious score is infused with tenderness, warmth and pathos.
A riveting cinematic experience and a technical marvel, crafted by Sam Mendes and Roger Deakins. We are plunged into an immersive, breathtaking journey following two British soldiers on a mission to deliver a message that may save the lives of 1,600 men. I was gripping my arm rests in my theater chair throughout the entire running time. The illusion the filmmakers provide of one continuous shot of this expedition is fierce, visceral and astonishing. This is visual storytelling at its best.
4. HAPPY DEATH DAY 2U
The sequel to slasher film, Happy Death Day jumped head first into the Sci-Fi genre and totally knocked me flat. I was hoping for a fun time at the movies but wasn’t expecting the film to also be incredibly moving, life affirming, hilarious, and inspired. When college student, Tree, is thrust into an alternate timeline where her Mom never tragically died but the love of her life is no longer by her side, she is forced to make a choice. Does she give up her soulmate so that her Mom can be alive again? Or does she fight to make it back to her original timeline and lose her mom all over again? This is heartbreaking stuff, all told against a backdrop of witty banter and a sharp, well-constructed script dealing with one of my favorite themes, time travel. On top of it all, Jessica Rothe’s sheer talent is electrifying, and this film is worth checking out just to witness a star being born.
5. ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD
Quentin Tarantino at his most nostalgic, as he recreates 1969 Hollywood to provide fascinating character studies of an actor, stuntman and rising star. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood simmers with life from the magnificent shot of Brad Pitt as Cliff Booth driving into a Van Nuys drive-in theater, to Leonardo DiCaprio as Rick Dalton in his bathrobe carrying a blender as he confronts what he believes are hippies, to the exquisite revisionist history ending. It’s all pure magic and makes a movie junkie like me incredibly thankful that I live in an era when I get to see first run films of one of the greatest storytellers and directors of all time.
6. LITTLE WOMEN
Greta Gerwig’s Little Women is simply wonderful. It radiates affection for the source material, its characters, and their motivations in every loving shot of this luminous film. Gerwig’s non-linear choice of storytelling is bold and confident, making this iteration of the March sisters feel classic and modern at the same time. I literally felt like I was glowing from the inside out after watching this lively yet poignant adaptation.
7. UNCUT GEMS
At one point during this film, I was reminded of Albert Brooks asking Julie Haggerty in Lost In America, “Why didn’t you tell me when we got married that you were this horrendous gambling diseased person?” The Safdie Brothers bring their signature kinetic filmmaking style to Uncut Gems, where we follow a “horrendous gambling diseased person” played fearlessly by Adam Sandler as a New York City Diamond District shop owner. This movie is relentless with overlapping dialogue, anxiety-inducing situations, and bombastic characters all set against a synth score that seeps under your skin, and it’s utterly exhilarating.
8. A HIDDEN LIFE
I always ensure I see Terrence Malick’s films on the big screen because they are a bit of religious experience for me. A Hidden Life may have been the ultimate one. The film is based on the true story of an Austrian farmer, Franz Jägerstätter, who refused to fight for the Nazis in World War II, and was later declared a martyr by the Catholic church. It’s a spiritual feast for the soul and the most transcendent experience I had all year.
9. THE IRISHMAN
“It is what it is.” When Joe Pesci’s character delivers this simple yet densely layered bit of dialogue to Robert DeNiro’s character in this blistering story of organized crime, it’s chill inducing. Martin Scorsese concocts a palpably raw epic, which feels like the perfect bookend to the crime dramas he has gifted us since the 70s.
10. THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO
A staggeringly beautiful film about a young man, Jimmie, trying to reclaim the home his grandfather built in San Francisco. Jonathan Majors is a revelation as Jimmie’s best friend and his searing performance would be enough reason to seek out this movie alone, if it also wasn’t for its gentle literary quality, every frame looking like a work of art, and its extraordinary depiction of genuine male friendship. I loved every poetic second of this small American film.
Honorable Mentions: HONEY BOY, DIANE, TERMINATOR: DARK FATE, MIDSOMMAR, LUCE, BOMBSHELL, JUMANJI: THE NEXT LEVEL, THE FAREWELL, AMERICAN FACTORY