2019 is certainly a highlight year for cinema, so making a list of just 10 films is nearly impossible. Just naming this many films means leaving out many others I truly cared for. There are countless films that didn’t even make my honorable mentions that are great pieces of work. I recommend seeking these films out if you haven’t already, which looking at some of these titles, is a likely scenario. So these are my 10 best films of 2019.
1. The Last Black Man in San Francisco (d. Joe Talbot)
“The Last Black Man in San Francisco” covers many different themes. Dealing with friendship, gentrification, our personal worthiness and where we feel our place in the world is, it tackles so much, yet this never feels like a “statement movie”. No other film in 2019 manages to fill your heart and move you in the way “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” does.
Presented in such a unique, original fashion, first-time director Joe Talbot crafts a bold look at the friendship between two men in their ever-changing home of San Francisco. The bond between the two leads is authentic and portrayed with a sophisticated grace and sensitivity that feels new and unexplored. There’s a poeticism to the way this film moves and breathes that feels so strange, but somehow organic. This film is funny and heartbreaking in the most genuine of ways. Talbot has a real signature as a filmmaker, particularly in how he tackles some heavy themes that contrast with some of the film’s lighter moments, “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” is a bittersweet, authentic and unique film that manages to be small in size, but large in its impact.
2. Uncut Gems (d. Josh and Benny Safdie)
The Safdie Brothers had already made a name for themselves with films like “Good Time” and “Heaven Knows What”, but if you think they couldn’t level up any further, “Uncut Gems” disproves that in spades. Starring Adam Sandler in the performance not only of his career, but of the entire year, “Uncut Gems” is breakneck, endorphin-raising cinema in its purest form.
It’s a raw depiction of self-destruction and addiction that is brilliantly realized through the eyes of a pulse-pounding thriller. It borrows from greats such as Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman and Paul Thomas Anderson without feeling derivative. The entire supporting cast impresses and the Safdies have now cemented themselves at the top of the director food chain. “Uncut Gems” makes you feel as if you just ran a marathon and yet you can’t wait to do it all over again.
3. The Irishman (d. Martin Scorsese)
“The Irishman” is Martin Scorsese at his most reflective. In how it chronicles the final chapter of its titular character, “The Irishman” feels like the finale of Scorsese’s gangster trilogy after “Goodfellas” and “Casino”. What truly separates this film from Scorsese’s other gangster epics is in its melancholic depiction in how regardless of how you lived your life, ignoring your most valuable loved ones and pushing everyone away for the sake of grasping the true American dream, death still awaits us all.
Robert De Niro gives one of his all-time best performances as does Al Pacino, but Joe Pesci and Anna Paquin steal the show from under them. Despite the 209-minute runtime, “The Irishman” is thrilling and devastating in equal measure. It’s rare to see a legendary filmmaker like Scorsese still churning out some of his best work this late in his career.
4. Marriage Story (d. Noah Baumbach)
Divorce, it sucks. As someone who has experienced everything that comes with two parents separating, it speaks volumes that “Marriage Story” authentically portrays the ups and downs of divorce, but never feels overtly heavy. This is a film with numerous heart-wrenching sequences, but director Noah Baumbach doesn’t revel in the misery of his characters. Featuring two of the best performances of 2019 from both Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, “Marriage Story” shows divorce from the angle of a couple who deeply care for each other, but their marriage simply doesn’t work.
Every emotion is authentically captured from the worst moments, to the best. This is the type of film that could easily fall into many cliché trappings, but Baumbach is too skilled of a filmmaker to let that happen. This is an incredibly moving film that might be one of the few times a film about divorce will leave you with a sense of hope.
5. Booksmart (d. Olivia Wilde)
Every generation has their quintessential high school film. For every “The Breakfast Club”, there’s a “Clueless”, “Mean Girls” or “Superbad”. It seems safe to say “Booksmart” will soon join the ranks of said films. In a spectacular directorial debut from actress Olivia Wilde, “Booksmart” is uproariously funny – Billie Lourd’s eccentric “Gigi” is seriously the best character of any movie this year – perfectly cast and holds plenty of insight when it comes to the inner workings of a tight friendship.
The anxiety of growing up and the fear of growing apart is something this film captures exceptionally well and with an emotional punch to boot. This is one of the most well-rounded films of 2019 and perhaps the most rewatchable.
6. High Life (d. Claire Denis)
Claire Denis’s elliptical and audacious film, “High Life” sits right alongside “Under the Skin”, “Arrival”, “Blade Runner 2049” and “Annihilation” as one of the best Sci-Fi films of the 2010’s. Presented in a fragmented narrative that doesn’t spoon-feed its audience with answers, “High Life” examines human nature at its worst and most redemptive. Robert Pattinson – not his only appearance on this list – further solidifies himself as one of the best actors working today.
Denis creates a claustrophobic, yet intoxicating atmosphere that can’t properly be described in words. “High Life” is a truly haunting experience that you will not forget and leaves you with a sense of awe that only the best films can pull off.
7. Midsommar (d. Ari Aster)
Director Ari Aster’s first feature “Hereditary” was my #1 film of last year, so expectations were high with his follow-up. Although “Midsommar” doesn’t carve itself inside my soul the way “Hereditary” does, Aster still excels in his filmmaking craft. “Midsommar” is a trippy, shocking and gorgeous experience that could only come from the mind of a twisted auteur like Aster. As “Hereditary” was a deconstruction of a broken family, “Midsommar” works as a deconstruction of a broken relationship. Florence Pugh gives an otherworldly performance that demands so much of her and she gives it everything she has.
Like other films on this list, words can’t quite do this film justice. It’s breathtaking colors bring a sharp contrast to the many horrors we’re subjected to throughout the film. This is an unsettling film that is entrancing from beginning to end and with one of the best finales of recent years. This is what original filmmaking is all about.
8. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (d. Marielle Heller)
No other film in 2019 is more warm and inviting than “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”. Never lazily piggybacking off the nostalgia of Mr. Rogers, this is an emotionally honest and rewarding film that earns its many, many tears. Matthew Rhys is understated and complex as Lloyd, a cynical reporter tasked with interviewing Fred Rogers over the course of a few days. The dynamic between the two men is wonderful and Tom Hanks truly embodies Mr. Rogers. Hanks infuses a layered vulnerability to Rogers that helps guide the character from potentially being one-note.
Director Marielle Heller uniquely helms the film, allowing the authenticity to shine through the emotions, rather than settling on melodrama. “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” expertly explores forgiveness and trauma in ways that would make Rogers himself proud.
9. The Lighthouse (d. Robert Eggers)
“The Lighthouse”, Robert Eggers follow-up to his hit film, “The Witch”, is as unique and challenging as anything put to the screen in 2019. Playing like a sea shanty come to life, this is a descent into madness unlike anything you’ve ever seen. Exploring themes of masculinity, past sins and identity under the guise of two Lighthouse keepers slowly going mad, Eggers further elevates his craft with this exceptionally layered and gothic piece of work.
Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe are impeccably matched and both give some of their finest work to date. The old school black-and-white cinematography gives the film a timeless quality to it and the sound design is completely immersive. There’s no film quite like it and there mostly likely never will be.
10. Portrait of a Lady on Fire (d. Celine Sciamma)
Absorbing and enlightening, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is one of the most delicate and sensual love stories of the modern era. Director Céline Sciamma’s stunning craft is remarkable in every fashion. There’s an intense feeling of desire with a subtle, yet brimming sense of urgency. Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel give two of the best performances of the year with some of the best on-screen chemistry I’ve seen maybe all decade.
This is one of the most intimate and thematically rich films all year. “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is an unforgettable love story that leaves a lasting mark.
Toy Story 4 (d. Josh Cooley)
While not able to reach the highs of the previous 3 films, “Toy Story 4” is nevertheless a stunning and emotionally affecting film that takes the franchise to new directions and ends exactly where it should.
The Beach Bum (d. Harmony Korine)
After “Spring Breakers” proved to be one of the most unexpectedly influential films of the 2010’s, Harmony Korine takes the style of said film and decides to create a more laidback, comedic film that features an unexpected spiritual element that makes it more than the basic stoner comedy you would see on the surface. Matthew McConaughey also gives what might be his best performance to date.
Little Women (d. Greta Gerwig)
The newest incarnation of “Little Women” from Greta Gerwig is a wonderful ode to creative expression and the independence we all seek. Featuring the best ensemble cast of the year and a welcome update of the classic novel, Gerwig further cements herself as one of the finest new filmmakers working today.
Ad Astra (d. James Gray)
Visually arresting and daring in its ambitions, “Ad Astra” is a grand, yet intimate piece of visionary filmmaking. A film that explores loneliness and self-destruction with an authentic lens. It’s a character study that also doubles as an awe-inducing visual masterpiece with some of the best suspense I’ve seen all year. It’s bleeding heart shines through its austere exterior.
I Lost My Body (d. Jeremy Clapin)
Certainly one of the most original films to be released in quite some time, “I Lost My Body” is best seen not knowing anything, as the journey is immensely rewarding with every turn it takes. It’s a beautifully animated film that showcases some brilliant storytelling.
Honorable Mentions (Other strong titles of 2019–In Alphabetical Order)
Climax (d. Gaspar Noe)
The Farewell (d. Lulu Wang)
Giant Little Ones (d. Keith Behrman)
Hustlers (d. Lorene Scafaria)
Knives Out (d. Rian Johnson)
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (d. Quentin Tarantino)
One Cut of the Dead (d. Shin’ichirô Ueda)
Parasite (d. Bong Joon-Ho)
Rocketman (d. Dexter Fletcher)
The Russian Five (d. Joshua Riehl)