The best (and worst) movies of 2019
The best (and worst) movies of 2019
Hard-squint Hollywood cowboys, sensational Korean exports, and one very unexpected Adam Sandler: It’s nearly impossible to sum up 365 days of cinema in just a few words, let alone pick 10 films to represent the best of them. But that was also the pleasure of watching movies this year — how many wild, affecting, and genuinely unexpected places they took us to. As a little poop-emoji aperitif to all that, this list is followed by the five flicks we loved the least.
THE BEST — 10. Us
If he hadn’t already made Get Out, this could easily be Jordan Peele’s masterwork; the kind of movie whose meta winks and jump scares are mere pretext for all the brilliant ideas and allusions crammed inside his magpie mind. His creeping doppelganger tale extends the idea of upstairs-downstairs to a sort of peak metaphysical horror, but Us is also so much more: Canny class commentary, trenchant family drama, surreal comedy, and not least, a showcase for Luniz’s 1995 new jack anthem “I Got 5 on It.”
9. Amazing Grace
Lost for years in the vaults and plagued by legal troubles, this raw chronicle of Aretha Franklin’s 1972 gospel sessions isn't just a concert documentary; it’s something close to God. The beads of sweat her reverend father lovingly mops from her brow mid-song; a single sticky tear rolling down a choir member’s cheek; the beatific disbelief on a young Mick Jagger’s face as he watches it all from a back row: Nearly half a century on, every moment captured by Sydney Pollack’s cameras feels as real, and as holy, as being in the room where it happened.
8. Uncut Gems
Adam Sandler has done Serious Actor business before (see: Punch-Drunk Love, The Meyerowitz Stories) but never quite like this. His electrifying turn as a reckless Manhattan jeweler in the Safdie brothers’ kinetic, close-to-the-bone thriller doesn’t just land miles away from his habitual role as America’s beloved Big Daddy Sweatpants; it flips the idea of who he is and what he’s capable of entirely.
7. The Farewell
The pleasures of Lulu Wang’s wry, gently subversive dramedy aren’t just in knowing it’s true — she based the story on her relationship with her own terminally ill grandmother, played with tender white-haired whimsicality by Zhao Shuzhen — but in all the tiny perfect moments it accrues: a whisper-fight squabble over a gravestone; a drink-sodden karaoke sing-along; a pivotal confession set against the far-out backdrop of a wedding photo session. “It’s a good lie,” a young doctor assures Awkwafina’s Billi of the family’s choice not to tell her nai nai she’s dying. Maybe not, but it’s a pretty great movie.
Existential horror laid out to bake in the flowered fields and midnight sunshine of a Swedish death cult, Ari Aster’s follow-up to last year’s stellar Hereditary might also be the best metaphor for a terrible breakup ever committed to film. It doesn’t hurt that his mad Maypole dance is anchored by one of the year’s most indelible actresses, Florence Pugh (also unmissable in Fighting With My Family and Little Women). She has the kind of face that says everything without a word, even when her world is burning down. In fact, she might have lit the match herself.
5. Jojo Rabbit
Hitler comedy? That word pairing sounds about as welcome as Kim Jong-un musical or Mussolini soft-shoe. But watching Taika Waititi, the guy who brought you Thor: Ragnarok unleash his loony Führer fantasia on the world (while slipping into the brush mustache himself, no less) was one of the year’s sweetest and most unexpected joys — a daffy satire wrapped in real pathos, with startling great performances from its mostly unknown child actors and an unforgettable turn by Scarlett Johansson as a young mother who understands the Reich far better than she shows.
4. The Last Black Man in San Francisco
A pensive, perpetually beanie-wearing searcher named Jimmie (Jimmie Fails) attempts to reclaim his childhood home — a stately Victorian pile as magical as anything anyone ever walked through a Narnia wardrobe for — with the help of his loyal best friend (Jonathan Majors). Really though, Joe Talbot’s lush, lyrical swoon of a movie is as much about real estate as Citizen Kane is about a sled.
3. Marriage Story
Two beautiful people come together and then fall quietly, spectacularly apart in Noah Baumbach’s heart-wrecking divorce drama. Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson star as the bohemian Brooklyn couple whose seemingly blissful world suddenly crumbles when Johansson heads to L.A. for an acting job. But in meticulous, almost forensic detail, Baumbach shows exactly where the cracks were all along, hitting every story note with the pure ringing clarity of a bell.
2. Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood
Overstuffed? Absolutely. But it’s nearly impossible not to love every starry, shaggy minute of Once’s wild California rumpus, from the impeccable cinematography that captures Los Angeles at its most surreal and saturated state-of-‘69ness to the murderers’ row of cameos. (Quick, name another film this year that featured Al Pacino, Lena Dunham, and the man who played Friedrich von Trapp in The Sound of Music). The movie’s cracked heart and soul, though, lies in sublime central performances by Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, and in Quentin Tarantino’s stacked Jenga tower of a script — easily the richest work of his career, and the most tender, too.
Rich man, poor man; hero and villain; host and parasite. Whatever presumptions the viewer brings into Bong Joon--ho’s thrilling, eviscerating drama (or is it a horror comedy?) will be left pulverized and forgotten on the cineplex floor. That’s how brilliantly confounding the director’s high-style exploration of two families — one smug and wealthy, the other broke and wily — is. But for all its cool-eyed commentary on the vagaries of class, the movie has a heart and soulfulness to it that few other films could match this year. Kim patriarch Ki-taek (Song Kang Ho) isn’t just a man willing to lie and cheat to feed his family; he’s a wounded lion, stubborn and proud. The film, too, is its own kind of fantastic beast: shrewd, unnerving, and utterly unforgettable.
Honorable mentions: Pain & Glory, 1917, Little Women, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Atlantics, Gloria Bell, The Souvenir, Booksmart, Knives Out, Ford v. Ferrari, Ready or Not, The Report, Ash Is Purest White, One Child Nation, Varda by Agnes, and The Cave
THE WORST — 5. The Disney live-action remake juggernaut (Aladdin, Dumbo, The Lion King)
This is less about the quality of the films themselves — which fall mostly within the range of meh to middling — than the oxygen they suck out of the cinematic room. With so much accumulated money and power at hand, it's hard not to wish that Disney would step away from the cold calculus of a sure-thing remake and get back to the magic of making original, inspired content for all ages. It's harder still to imagine they actually will.
4. The Kitchen
Three of the most talented (or in Tiffany Haddish’s case, at least the most fun) actresses working today are so badly served by this tone-deaf '70s mob drama, it feels like some kind of bizarre favor or bribery plot that they even participated in it. There is no heat in The Kitchen, but get out anyway.
3. Godzilla: King of the Monsters
Oh Mothra, they did you dirty. But even the Monster King hardly gets off better in this joyless Kaiju cash grab, featuring a strenuously international cast and some of the jankiest dialogue this side of Ed Wood.
2. Gemini Man
All the more disappointing for its pedigree: Oscar winner Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain, Life of Pi) directed; Will Smith stars, alongside his digitally altered "younger" self; Game of Thrones creator David Benioff co-penned the script. But somehow this sci-fi thriller felt airless, emotionally acrylic, and (literally) out of time.
What if those Matthew McConnaughey Lincoln ads were two hours longer, 89% more pretentious, and...porny? That’s pretty much the premise of Serenity, a rum-soaked palm tree noir so spectularly overwrought it almost — almost! — circles all the way back around to camp. Pass the rum, Matthew, and maybe we'll get there.