My Top 10 Films of 2019

Well, another year, a bunch more movies. Once again I have failed to see some of the most talked about films of 2019. Films like 1917, The Irishman, and The Farewell are not included on this list – not because they’re not good, I simply haven’t gotten around to viewing them yet. I hope to correct this soon, but I also want to get this out around Oscar time. After all, they get to have opinions without seeing every movie that came out last year so I can do the same.

In total, I saw 51 films from 2019, at least that I can immediately recall. You can find them listed here. From this list, I have chosen my top ten to highlight. Are they the absolute best films of 2019? Who knows – it’s all subjective! Before I get into it, I want to give a couple honorable mentions. Highlighting ten films means that some gems get left behind – so a brief shout-out to Toy Story 4, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, Booksmart, Hustlers, and Dolemite is my Name. These are all great movies and you should check them out if you haven’t already. Okay, let’s get into it:

Klaus

Christmas movies come out every year and most of them are terrible. It’s really easy to be lazy in a Christmas film, check the boxes of goodwill and positive emotions – shoehorn in a message like “family is the real gift” or something like that and just get it out the door. After all, there’s a season and, during that season, people will watch nearly anything Christmas-y. Heck, the Hallmark Channel has practically made an industry off it.

What makes Klaus so exceptional is the fact that it, at first glance, feels like it may be another of these movies. Oh great – a Santa Claus origin film – have only seen that a few times before (three times at least by Disney alone). But Klaus shows that every good story gets in right in the details. It is a character-focused tale that ditches trappings like dance numbers and modern lingo for simplicity and silent moments.

It has a story to tell and it tells it really well. We get Christmas movies every year, but this has been the best the genre has been since Jon Favreau’s Elf. It’s on Netflix so, do yourself a favor, if you didn’t watch it this past Christmas – check it out this coming December.

Marriage Story

I’ve seen a lot of great romance films but very few about divorce. I mean, the only other film that comes to mind when I think divorce is Mrs. Doubtfire…man, we’ve come a long way. Marriage Story walks a narrative tightrope. It seems aware that divorce is a touchy subject and filled with numerous stereotypes that it (primarily) avoids. There is no bad parent – it’s not his fault or her fault. That would be too easy.

Instead, the film spends its two-hour run time flushing out each character, beginning by listing their strengths and showing you them at their best. What follows is a descent into relationship hell as these two struggle to remain parents while putting a needed distance between each other. What I really love is that writer/director Noah Baumbach knows which scenes to show his audience directly and what to leave to the imagination.

We don’t see everything – meaning we have to take characters’ opinion on certain key details, rather than having a concrete leg to stand on. It helps keep the flow just ambiguous enough to keep the audience from comfortably choosing a side. Like many films on this list, there were a lot of ways Marriage Story could have gone wrong. It is no accident that it is great.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

I feel like a description of this film short-changes it. Saying it’s a movie about Mr. Rogers and the incredible person he was is cool – but that’s not it. Not entirely. If it was, it would be very easy to dismiss A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, putting it with other generic bio pics that just give a synopsis of someone’s life.

Instead, director Marielle Heller and her writing team have given us a movie that highlights Mr. Rogers against someone who feels a little more like us, while also giving a movie that plays out like an extended episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. We’re kept at a distance from the movie’s heroic figure, staying instead with the perspective of the damaged reporter who has been assigned to interview him.

The reporter – a man named Lloyd – cannot belief that Mr. Rogers is for real, that someone this good can exist in our world. As the audience, we are allowed to share in this skepticism. What I love about A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is how it constantly states and reminds that yes, Mr. Rogers was human – and everything that means. Rather than undermining his work, it just helps showcase exactly how extraordinary he was.

Also that Tom Hanks fella is not bad in this.

Doctor Sleep

Okay here’s the job: Make a film that’s a sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining – as well as a movie that Stephen King likes. No big deal, right? Writer/director Mike Flanagan has grown tremendously since he emerged around ten years ago. Coming off the brilliant Haunting of Hill House adaptation for Netflix, Flanagan brings his character-focused approach to King’s source material. He wisely never attempts to emulate Kubrick’s meticulous framing and filming techniques, instead opting for a movie that feels all his own.

I have never read Doctor Sleep, but I know this film makes several large changes (partly in honoring Kubrick’s Shining). Judging it solely as a film, Doctor Sleep is a dark fantasy that explores the horrors of the human soul. Alcoholism, greed, the fear of death, these are the things that can turn people into monsters. Arguably Flanagan’s biggest mark on the film is a sense of optimism in the face of the terrifying and the horrible. If The Shining was a descent, Doctor Sleep is an ascension. It, somehow, feels like the perfect sequel to one of the best horror films ever made.

Jojo Rabbit

If you’re like me and you go on the internet, you may have seen this meme or one like it:

Blazing Saddles Political Correctness

So, the logic behind this gem of insight is that people get too offended in today’s “P.C.” culture. Then comes along a movie like Jojo Rabbit – which proves that’s nonsense. A film about a young boy growing up in Nazi Germany with his imaginary best friend, Adolf Hitler, is not at all concerned about whether or not it might be provoking a reaction from its audience.

Instead, director Taika Waititi wisely puts in the effort to tell a story that is moving, funny, and horrifying all at the same time. Jojo Rabbit walks a tightrope of tone throughout its run-time. It is one of the few movies I’ve ever seen pull off the shift from authoritarian horrors to childish pranks. While some found issue with the depiction of Nazis as buffoons and people to be mocked (instead of vile evil villains), I found it refreshing (not to mention accurate).

Jojo Rabbit succeeds because it never stops looking at any of its people as people. There are no stereotypes – no shortcuts, just great storytelling and fantastic acting. The result is a satirical gem that fits in perfectly in today’s culture.

Knives Out

Man, this movie is a hell of a lot of fun. Knives Out marks Rian Johnson’s first cinematic outing since his well-received but still somehow controversial The Last Jedi. It’s a love letter to Agatha Christie and the whole cozy mystery genre. Put a bunch of talented actors in a mansion and kill one of them right away.

Add in an amazing script that toys with your expectations while delivering every beat you wanted. In a year when many films tackled the class struggle between rich and poor, none did it with more panache than Knives Out. There’s no real point to go on about this one, just do yourself a favor and go see it.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

If you believe Quentin Tarantino’s ego, then Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is his penultimate film. Even when this likely turns out to not be the case, I doubt he’ll ever direct another film as Tarantino-y as this one. This is the movie that he was made for. A film about old Hollywood set in the height of the sixties (so no shoes on many of the characters) that tackles the brutal murder of Sharon Tate.

So many of Tarantino’s films are filled with old film references, barefooted characters, and tributes to this bygone age of film-making, but here everything just feels right. It’s not intrusive at all to take a detour into the filming of a 1960s show when your main character is a neurotic actor trying desperately for a comeback. Or to have someone casually meet (then fight) Bruce Lee. Everything just works and it works pretty darn well.

Also, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood serves as a good fourth in Tarantino’s revenge quadrilogy – which also includes Kill Bill (1 & 2), Inglorious Basterds, and Django Unchained.

The Lighthouse

You know, there was a lot of focus on one movie about madness this year – and I can’t help but feel that it was the wrong one. The Lighthouse is director Robert Eggers’ follow-up film to 2015’s The VVitch and holy heck, is it one wild ride. The film somehow manages to be a trip and very straightforward at the same time. The plot, such as it is, follows two men (Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe) who are dispatched to a remote lighthouse somewhere off the coast of New England in what looks to be the late 19th century.

What follows is a story that is simultaneously funny as hell, weird as who-knows-what, and completely horrifying. Willem Dafoe may have reached his peak as a grizzled old man of the sea who spouts Shakespearean style soliloquies but can’t stop farting. It’s a real bummer that he received almost no recognition for the performance – which to my mind was the best of any actor this year.

In his second outing, Eggers has proved that no one does period pieces like him. I cannot wait to see what this guy does next. If you missed The Lighthouse, track it down and give it a watch – it is an amazing movie.

Little Women

When I went into Little Women, I expected to have a pleasant afternoon and leave thinking “that was good” before forgetting about it all together. After all, that is pretty much exactly what happened when I watched Lady Bird, director Greta Gerwig’s last big feature.

Holy crap.

This film is a tour-de-force. Gerwig is at the top of her game as she expertly recrafts a classic story with modern sensibilities, all while restructuring its events to give each character a more clearly defined journey. All of this is overlaid with a clever meta narrative that pokes fun at the rampant sexism that existed when author Louisa May Alcott first published her story back in 1868.

Every expectation I had was blown away. The acting is stellar across the board with Laura Dern in particular doing an awful lot with little screen-time. Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, and Emma Watson all prove the case that they can carry award-winning feature length films, and Timothée Chalamet shines as the pretty boy who could just never quite grow up.

I did not expect Little Women to be my #2 movie of the year but man did it earn it. In fact, for most of my setup in writing this blog post, this film was number 1 until I saw…

Parasite

I watched Parasite the day of the Oscars. It’s a film I heard so many rave reviews of. A film I had nothing short of sky-high expectations for.

And it met them!

Holy crap it actually is as incredible as people say it is. I have been a fan of director Bong Joon Ho since I saw The Host back in the mid 2000s, but this may be his best film so far. I don’t want to keep throwing Joker under the bus but well, it’s not my fault there were such obviously better comparisons this year. If you want to watch an amazing film about madness, check out The Lighthouse. If you want to see a movie that actually tackles how society turns people into monsters rather than just having a speech about it at the end, watch Parasite.

Everything is so well crafted in this film that I left it scratching my head as to how it could have been better. Bong Joon Ho is no stranger to films that tackle class structure – it’s pretty much in all of his movies. That said, he’s never done a film quite like this, one where every character has just felt so…real.

There are no villains. Indeed, in the hands of a lesser director, I doubt I would have liked anyone in this movie – there were plenty of scenes where it would have been easy to go to far. Instead Bong Joon Ho knows when to push and when to pull, when to disgust and when to empathize. There are no villains, no heroes, just a line of dialogue that sums everything up perfectly: “She’s nice because she’s rich.”

I can’t wait to watch this movie again. It will become a classic – a film that perfectly captures the complex feelings on class that exist not only in Korea but in the United States as well. There is no movie more 2019 than this one.

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