“Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?”
– Arthur Fleck, Joker
It’s not just you, Arthur. By nearly every definition, 2019 sucked, and it looks like 2020 is only going to get worse. Not only has the usual political discourse ruined relationships and family reunions (with ongoing arguments intensifying relating to healthcare, taxes, civil rights, and whether an immigrant can be considered a person), but with the 2020 elections ramping up, more idiots from both sides of the aisle are shouting at each other louder than ever (especially the President himself). By nearly every metric, 2019 has been one long, pulsating, cancer-sized headache, and 2020 is only going to grow into an even bigger one.
Normally this is where the optimist in me would pipe in and say “But at least we have the movies!” Nope. Not this year. In a year full of crappy sequels, prequels, reboots, and remakes nobody asked for, most of the legitimately great movies came out at the tail end of the year between late November and December. Of course, this is not a new trend in Hollywood: studios like to release high-profile releases late in the year so they can get more consideration closer to awards season. Still, this year seems particularly worse even by Hollywood’s already desperate standards. On Christmas week, eight high-profile releases (count them: EIGHT) were released all at once, including Richard Jewell, Bombshell, Uncut Gems, A Hidden Life, Little Women, 1917, Just Mercy, and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. Good lord, is that enough movies for one week? I’m lucky I caught even a handful of them before the year ended. To be honest, part of me just wanted to say to hell with it and just go with my original top 10 and forget the rest. But that wouldn’t be responsible film journalism, so I powered through and fit in as many screenings as I could before January 1 rolled around. Yay me.
As with any other year, these are my 10 favorite films that came out in 2019. A few disclaimers here. One: my list equals my opinion. There are going to be several films that many cinephiles will feel belongs on this list and will wonder why they aren’t on here. There are two possibilities: either I didn’t see the film in question, or it just wasn’t good enough to make my top 10. I know some of you probably loved Harriet and The Lighthouse, but I saw both of those movies on the same night and disliked both of them equally. Sorry to disappoint.
Also, as evident in my earlier rant, I have not seen every film released this year, despite how much I tried to do so. Probably the biggest releases that slipped past my radar this year includes 1917 and Rocketman, but what can I say? Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker came out, and I have priorities.
So without further adieu, let’s wrap up the year – and for that matter, the decade – with my top 10 favorite films of 2019, starting with…
10. Uncut Gems
A tense, anxious, and heart-racing crime thriller that keeps building on the pressure and never lets up. Adam Sandler gives an unexpected breakout performance as Howard Ratner, a desperate Diamond District jeweler who’s neck-deep in debt to several dangerous loan sharks. Sandler does a brilliant job in completely immersing himself in this self-absorbed and egocentric character, a man consumed by his own greed and selfish desires. This is a man who starts the movie in a hole six feet deep, digs himself out of it a little bit, then digs himself like 15 feet deeper. Writers and directors Josh and Benny Safdie do a mesmerizing job showing this man’s life spiraling out of control. Just when you get a moment to breathe for even a second, the film escalates to even further stress and insanity. A little too quick-paced for some viewers, but Uncut Gems is a taut masterwork to behold. Sandler better get nominated for an Oscar next year. He’s earned it. Three and a half stars.
A dazzling and spectacular action movie that fulfills the inner child fantasy of being a superhero. When 12-year-old orphan Billy Batson (Asher Angel) comes into contact with an ancient wizard (Djimon Hounsou) that bestows him with supernatural abilities, Billy becomes a powerful superhero named Shazam (Zachary Levi) and is told to use his newfound powers for good – or at least, however much good a 12-year-old is capable of inside a 30-year-old’s body. Asher Angel and Zachary Levi do wonderful jobs in playing the different sides of Billy Batson, with Asher portraying the rebellious and mischievous little pre-teen and Zachary playing the grown-up man-child that just smiles and has fun with every new superpower he discovers. Director David F. Sandberg (Lights Out, Annabelle: Creation) tells a unique, emotional, and hilarious coming of age story in this out-of-body superhero experience. Shazam! is a fresh, bold, and surprising lightning-in-a-bottle superhero epic that’s akin to the unexpected success behind the Guardians of the Galaxy movies. Three and a half stars.
In many ways, Parasite is like a caterpillar: it starts off looking like one thing, but then it slowly evolves until it changes into something completely different. When an impoverished family begins to infiltrate a rich family’s life, they soon realize that this family isn’t everything they appear to be, and they discover hidden secrets that they would much rather have stayed buried. Writer-director Boon Jong-Ho (Snowpiercer, Okja) illustrates this unusual and elusive tale with mystery and deceit, constantly questioning each family’s motives and flipping between who you should feel sympathy towards and why. The cast is skilled and meticulous in their mannerisms and changes in behavior, with Song Kang-ho and Choi Woo-shik being the most memorable as the poor family’s father and son. Parasite is an unexpected, unpredictable master analysis on classism and economic structure, and it constantly keeps you guessing until the film delivers its jaw-dropping conclusion. Parasite makes you question who the real villains are by the time the end credits roll. Three and a half stars.
7. Ford v Ferrari
A David-and-Goliath-sized underdog tale that tells the rivalry of not two massive automobile tycoons, but rather creators versus corporations. When Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) decides he’s going to unseat Ferrari as the Le Mans Grand Prix champions, he recruits automotive designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and hot-headed racer Ken Miles (Christian Bale) to build the fastest racecar in existence. The cast is exceptional, with Christian Bale in particular outshining the rest of his talented cast with his hotshot attitude and constant need to go against the grain. Director James Mangold (3:10 To Yuma, Logan) tells this story like an industrial western, with the tension and anticipation building up like a lone cowboy stepping out of the saloon to duel with the outlaw. The racing scenes are among the most exciting ever put on film and places you in the driver’s seat as the rubber tires burn against the pavement. Ford v Ferrari is an excellent film: dramatic, moving, and dripping with enthusiasm, like oil gushing from an exhaust pipe. Four stars.
6. Marriage Story
A tender, heartfelt, and raw picture that shows the devastation that comes from divorce and the healing that comes after it. Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver star as Nicole and Charlie Barber, a theater couple who slowly come to the realization that their marriage is falling apart. Sharing custody of their only child, Henry (Azhy Robertson), the duo must work to divorce respectfully so they can remain friends while continuing to raise their son. Writer-director Noah Baumbach (The Squid And The Whale, Frances Ha) illustrates an intimate and heartbreaking narrative that never feels melodramatic or out of step, but instead genuine and vulnerable in a way that only couples can truly empathize with. Scarlett Johannson and Adam Driver give vivid, grounded, and provocative performances that treats its subject matter seriously while not placing all the blame on either one parent or the other. Marriage Story is not a happy film by any means, but it is a real one and it shows that there is hope after people’s lives fall apart. Four stars.
A captivating tragedy-turned-comedy that shows one of comic book’s greatest villains’ descent into madness. Joaquin Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck, a clown, aspiring comedian, and son to a loving mother who falls from grace and becomes Gotham’s infamous clown prince of crime, the Joker. Director Todd Phillips (The Hangover trilogy) tells a haunting origin story that doesn’t play so much like a comic book flick as it does a psychological breakdown, not unlike Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, The King Of Comedy, or Shutter Island. Joaquin Phoenix plays both sides of Arthur Fleck and the Joker in a beautiful and mesmerizing fashion, playing a meek and cowardly fellow in one beat and then a deranged and psychotic killer clown in another. Joker is not so much a Batman prequel as it is a social observation on humanity’s flaws and how they whittle away at our moral integrity and sense of self. The fact that it just happens to feature a comic book character is just the icing on the cake. Four stars.
4. Once Upon A Time In Hollywood
A movie that feels equally as crazy and side-wined as Quentin Tarantino’s life has been, but in many ways, also serves as a personal and heartfelt homage to the movies. Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt play a big-time TV star and his stunt double in the dog-eat-dog world of 1960’s Hollywood as they look for work in this devilishly wacky and zany dark comedy. Tarantino’s trademark violence surprisingly takes a backseat to the rest of the film’s wit and charm, all while Tarantino packs twice as much satire and self-awareness as he possibly can in the pages of his screenplay. DiCaprio and Pitt are equally exemplary in this film, with DiCaprio being the ecstatic and self-absorbed Hollywood has-been and Pitt being the sly, slick, Cool Hand Luke-type of character. Oh, and Charles Manson and his murderous cult are involved in this movie as well. If movies, murder, and the Manson family tied into one storyline doesn’t describe a Quentin Tarantino movie, then nothing ever will. Four stars.
A brilliant, haunting, and harrowing horror experience that says a lot about the current state of our political culture while at the same time not playing specifically to either side of the fence. When Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o) and her family go out to their Lake House in Santa Cruz for a fun family vacation, they suddenly find themselves haunted by their twisted doppelgangers later that night. Now on the run from their literal selves, Adelaide and her family need to survive and discover where their Tethered counterparts came from. Lupita and her on-screen family do a phenomenal job in portraying the duality of their mirrored families. Even her on-screen children, Shahadi Joseph and Evan Alex, are mesmerizing in portraying their fearful selves in one beat and their psychotic and violent alter-egos in another. This dizzying and creative premise comes from Get Out writer-director Jordan Peele, who uses this idea to tell a socially relevant story about political partisanship and socioeconomic divide. Us is a thought-provoking, contemplative cinematic experiment that makes you think for hours on end about what monsters you might have created without even realizing it. Four stars.
2. Avengers: Endgame
It’s hard to maintain excitement for a colossal 22-movie saga over the course of 11 years, not to mention build up to an emotional payoff that no franchise has aspired to before. Yet Avengers: Endgame knocks it out of the park in every way imaginable and more. After Thanos (Josh Brolin) wipes out half of all life in the universe in Avengers: Infinity War, the remaining Avengers have to team up to undo Thanos’ actions and save everything they hold dear. The beginning of Avengers: Endgame is very mournful and reflective as it stays on the Avengers’ failure and how much it has cost them: as somber as a funeral and twice as quiet. It isn’t until the third act where the movie explodes into the pure comic-book fun and madness that you’ve become accustomed to throughout the franchise, and it left me feeling fulfilled to every bone in my body and then some. To say Avengers: Endgame meets our gargantuan expectations is a severe understatement. It is nothing short of a cinematic epic not unlike Ben-Hur or The Lord of the Rings – one that we definitely won’t forget anytime soon. Four stars.
1. Knives Out
I didn’t know a movie could be this creative, this captivating, this intelligent, clever, crafty, ingenious, deceptive, cunning, surprising, emotional, poignant, and socially relevant in 2019. Daniel Craig plays Benoit Blanc, a Kentuckian detective trying to solve the suspected murder of famed mystery writer William Thrombey (Christopher Plummer). Writer-director Rian Johnson (Looper, Star Wars: The Last Jedi) manages an all-star cast that is just as funny as they are infuriating, with Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Ana De Armas, and many more offering stellar and memorable performances. Johnson puts his characters through one puzzling scenario after another and giggles mischievously as he manipulates his audience’s unsuspecting emotions, like how a maestro conducts his orchestra or how a puppeteer commands their puppets. Knives Out is a movie that’s best seen knowing as little as possible about it, because it flips the script so many times that it becomes dizzying by the time you arrive at the film’s head-spinning conclusion. Enough praise could not be said about this film and Rian Johnson’s masterful handling of it. It is nothing short of a masterpiece and my pick for the best film of 2019. Four stars.
And finally, this year’s special prize. Every year, I recognize one limited release film that did not get as much attention as many wide releases did, yet achieved more emotionally despite its smaller viewership. This year’s special prize goes to a movie that is as controversial as it is conversational, as charming as it is challenging, and as irreverent as it is important. That film is…
Special Prize: Jojo Rabbit
For the life of me, I cannot understand why Jojo Rabbit bombed so precariously at the box office. Sure, it tells a relatively uncomfortable story about fascism and Nazi Germany. Sure, the movie centers around a 10-year-old boy in a day and age where child actors aren’t really that reliable. And yes, the movie does feature a 44-year-old New Zealander playing a child’s fanciful version of history’s most hated human being, Adolf Hitler. Yet, there is so much more to this movie than its mere appearances. Writer-director Taika Waititi deconstructs humanity’s most hateful period in a tone that is equally as jeering as it is joyful, like when Mel Brooks hilariously mocked racism in 1974’s Blazing Saddles. He’s also surprisingly brilliant as Jojo’s imagining of Adolf Hitler, playing a fun, cartoonish parody of the tyrant in one moment, and the more egotistical and maniacal variation of him in another. But even more impressive is the 12-year-old Roman Griffin Davis as the titular Jojo, having to witness the horrors of the holocaust through the innocent eyes of a child. For many, Jojo Rabbit will be mistaken as making light of Nazism and the hateful legacy that it inspired. Those viewers will have misinterpreted Jojo Rabbit and its genius. It’s a story of humanity, it’s a story of hope, and it shows that there is the potential for good in every human being – including a 10-year-old Nazi named Jojo. Four stars.
And that’s all of got for 2019, folks! Really, for the decade. As always, thanks for sticking with me through thick and thin. Whether you’re a consistent follower or a more casual reader, I appreciate all of you for reading my reviews and tuning in to hear my opinions about ongoing film and pop culture topics. From the bottom of my heart, thank you.
I’ll see you at the movies, in 2020, and beyond.
– David Dunn