It’s a new year (I know, I know, it’s nearly the end of January… but still), and as is tradition amongst film lovers, movies cannot be left unlisted and unranked. There is an innate urge to assess the best and the worst in a single year within list form. I’ve decided to mostly stay positive and only look at the very best on offer last year. In all, 2019 was a stunning success for movie making. There were so many dynamic, interesting and game changing films on offer. I couldn’t just make a standard top 10. Some movies just had to be on the list. Thus, here is my top 15 movies of 2019
15) Booksmart (Dir. Olivia Wilde)
Much of the discussion surrounding the state of film in the last few years has surrounded the transformation of the horror genre from quick cash grabs to sophisticated social satires. What many neglect to see is that Comedy is going through an equally fresh moment, and Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut Booksmart is one of the funniest and most refreshing comedies of the decade. Anchored by star making turns from relative newcomers Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever, Booksmart subverts the typical “girls” comedy to make a film that truly celebrates female friendship and the modern teen life.
14) Joker (Dir. Todd Philips)
An inevitably controversial placement. Some will criticise me for not putting it at number one, others will lambast my inclusion of it in the list at all. No movie has been more divisive and surrounded with such vitriolic discussion this year as Joker. The multiple Oscar nominee has sparked such discussion (from the responsibility of its message to its relationship to the works of Martin Scorsese) that it should be commended simply for having such an impact. In the end, when looking at the film without the context of its controversy, it’s a supremely accomplished, stunningly acted and stylish thriller, which is able to truly shock and resonate like few other comic book movies. This is truly one that will be remembered for years to come, for better or worse.
13) Toy Story 4 (Dir. Josh Cooley)
I don’t think anyone truly thought that another Toy Story film needed to be made. The third instalment was an instant classic, that brought the themes of the trilogy to a heartbreaking conclusion. Enter Toy Story 4, a film that did the impossible by not only justifying its presence, but also by managing to be just a thought-provoking as the previous entries. While conversation has cooled slightly since its release back in the summer, the film has one of the best animated movie endings of all time, and truly serves as a wonderful end to Woody’s story. Pixar is on great form, and I look forward to more original movies and sequels in the coming decade.
12) Ford vs Ferrari (Dir. James Mangold)
If you had told me after initially seeing Ford vs Ferrari back in November that it would be included in my best of the year list, I wouldn’t have believed you. I’ve always held that it’s a wonderfully enjoyable picture, but my initial reaction was that it followed the beats of a regular inspiring story, a lesser The Martian if you will. However, as time has passed, that enjoyment has simply grown. The performances of Christian Bale and Matt Damon have stuck with me and I appreciate the technical wizardry of the racing sequences more and more. It’s a deeply rewarding film, and something I can see myself rewatching multiple times in the future.
11) Pain and Glory (Dir. Pedro Almodovar)
Featuring a career best performance from Antonio Banderas (one which resulted in a much deserved Oscar nomination), Pain and Glory is both uplifting and heartbreaking. It’s a meditative reflection from Almodovar on his own career, featuring knowing references to his own feud with Banderas through the lead character’s relationship with a difficult actor. The movie is effectively an emotional autobiography, creating a fictionalised narrative whilst basing the thematic material in his own experiences. It’s a study of pain, creativity, love and the queer experience all in a neat two hour bow. To top it all off, it features the best closing shot of the year, one which completely pulls the rug out from beneath the audience, leaving them gasping for air, not too unlike Banderas emerging from water in the opening scene.
10) Ad Astra (Dir. James Gray)
Some complain that Ad Astra is fundamentally too slow and quiet to stand alongside the great science fiction films of the last decade, but I wholeheartedly disagree. The movie is visually stunning (The entire third act as well as the Lunar chase are simply breathtaking) and the deliberately meditative performance from Brad Pitt is a masterclass of patience. The film is also thematically ambitious, exploring the nature of fatherhood, masculinity and loneliness in a journey across the stars. Never has space felt so big, terrifying and beautiful all at once.
9) Midsommar (Dir. Ari Aster)
No movie this year unnerved me quite like Midsommar. After the critical success of Hereditary, Ari Aster knocks it out of the park once again with a skin-prickling exploration of grief and the need to belong through the lens of a Wicker man-esque cult setting in Sweden. Florence Pugh dominates the film for its 2 and a half hour runtime, screaming and crying her way through a relentless summer solstice festival, filled with human sacrifice, cannibalism and ritual. Who knew a horror set predominantly during the day could be the scariest film of the year?
8) Knives Out (Dir. Rian Johnson)
Possibly the most tightly plotted and effortlessly enjoyable film of 2019, Knives Out is a sort of rehabilitation for both the whodunnit genre and director Rian Johnson (who has been treated rather unfairly since his work on Star Wars). Featuring an instantly memorable ensemble cast led by a wonderful Daniel Craig (with added southern drawl) and a breakout performance from Ana de Armas, the film is impeccably crafted, visually striking and all in all, a barnstorming good time at the movies.
7) Avengers: Endgame (Dir. Joe and Anthony Russo)
Some may say that Avengers: Endgame is nothing more than a theme park movie (looking at you Scorsese). That may be so, but when they’re this solidly crafted and emotionally resonant, I don’t care in the slightest. Marvel is the biggest film brand in the world and this film was the culmination of over a decade of build up, character development and complex storytelling. It’s a 3 hour sugar rush filled with action and visual effects to make you sing. What more could you want?
6) Marriage Story (Dir. Noah Baumbach)
It says something about the quality of filmmaking on display this year that a movie as perfect as this lands at number six. Divorce is a thorny subject that has been the subject of film controversy before. To a modern eye, the previous gold standard of this genre, Kramer vs Kramer, is a problematic (and arguably misogynist) look at the all too human issue of the end of a marriage. Noah Baumbach was gutsy in giving it another whirl in this story, but by gum does it pay off. What makes the story so remarkable is its ability to place you between this couple. You aren’t an outsider looking in, you are friends of both Charlie and Nicole. You feel the heartbreak of their separation because you grow to love them both. Scarlett Johannsenn and Adam Driver deliver some of the best performances of the year in order to make this possible. This is a film to be seen again and again, and any director looking to portray a divorce has a new benchmark.
5) Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (Dir. Quentin Tarantino)
Tarantino’s ode to a completely different Hollywood is one of the most uniquely structured movies of the year, and, like with Pain and Glory, it serves just as much as a comment on the Director’s remarkable career than a simple narrative. The film is a delicious game between itself and the audience, subverting typical Tarantino-esque tropes by delivering effectively 2 hours of Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt expertly swaggering around Los Angeles and watching TV. Then, as you begin to think you’ve grasped what this film is, it hits you around the head with the most violent and virtuosic sequence in recent memory. It’s a celebration of filmmaking in general and filmmaking according to Tarantino, a conversation between a director at the peak of his career and the audience who have come to love him. What a wonderful concept.
4) Little Women (Dir. Greta Gerwig)
Like I discussed with Toy Story 4, this film was initially met with the question: “Do we need another adaptation of Little Women?”. The answer is an emphatic yes, in every respect. Greta Gerwig’s screenplay is a masterwork in updating classic material, acknowledging what makes it timeless whilst being aware of its limitations for 21st century audiences. As one of the rare movies that puts a vast ensemble of supremely talented women at the centre, each with competing goals and passions, Gerwig’s reimagining of this tale is a love letter to female ambition, and the ideology that one doesn’t need to fit a fixed definition of femininity (whether it be the traditional or the progressive type) in order to want, and deserve, happiness.
3) Uncut Gems (Dir. Josh and Benny Safdie)
Uncut Gems is defined by revelatory work from Adam Sandler and the Safdie Brothers. The fact that the former carries the third best movie of the year is quite frankly baffling given the laughable quality of the majority of his performances. But it cannot be overstated how Sandler’s performance is nothing short of extraordinary. He imbues the infinitely unlikeable Howard Ratner with such dynamism and charisma. His every move is charged with nervous energy and the audiences attachment to him feels as sick and dysfunctional as his addiction to gambling on basketball results. Yet this tour de force of a performance is lifted by the singular style of the Safdie’s, whose penchant for chaotic visual and audio filmmaking makes them a trailblazer in anxiety inducing cinema. I can’t wait to see what they do next!
2) The Irishman (Dir. Martin Scorsese)
Martin Scorsese is no stranger to a mob masterpiece, but who knew that he would deliver one for the history books so late in his career? The Irishman is an epic, sweeping story, uniting titans in the acting field (Joe Pesci being the most impressive…just), and delivering a thoughtful and heartbreaking final act that ruminates on the idea of ageing and the consequences of a life of crime. Like Tarantino, Scorsese could often be criticised for glorifying the violent criminal lifestyle, but in The Irishman, Scorsese is stark but beautiful in his pessimism. Frank (Robert DeNiro) is broken by his life in the mob. We as an audience witness a whole life compressed in to a three and a half hour runtime. It’s pure cinematic poetry.
1) Parasite (Dir. Bong Joon-ho)
I have never seen a movie quite like Parasite. Bong Joon-ho’s Korean language masterpiece defies genre conventions, delivering the best aspects of comedy, thriller, horror and social satire in a tight yet resonant package. Every technical aspect of this film is pitch perfect. The production design responsible for the central house is a masterwork of storytelling through space and the cinematography that captures it is lush and sweeping. Yet what makes Parasite so accomplished is the way it encapsulates such a singular sentiment in our time. Many films this year tried to present the core issue of class and strains across the wealth divide, but none have been able to express it in such a coherent way as this. Bong has achieved a once in a lifetime film, and whilst this year gave us what feels like the end of a master’s journey with a genre he inspired (see my number 2 pick), Parasite gives us the birth of a new master filmmaker. There’s nothing more special.