The year of 2019 was a BUSY year at the movies – legendary directors released their newest pictures, promising new filmmakers further expanded upon their debut hits, and new talent arrived on the scene. It’s often very hard for me to identify consistent, overarching themes for a whole year in movies, but this year felt different. The 2019 films that stuck with me were ones of passion, empathy, and overall, a certain kind gentleness towards one another.
Before I jump into my list, just a few quick reminders: as the title suggests, these are just some of my favorite movies, not the “definitive objective best.” If you don’t see a movie on here that you think should be here, feel free to tell me which one and why in the comments!
Also, a few films from 2019 *barely* missed the cut, and so mentions are in order for The Irishman, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Uncut Gems, Booksmart, Jojo Rabbit, and The Lighthouse.
- Apollo 11 – Directed by Todd Douglas Miller
Everyone knows the story of how the human race first touched down on the moon in 1969, but many people (myself included) did not get to witness such a historic event in person. This documentary is a compilation of news footage, radio broadcasts, and officially documented video that’s all strung together to tell the story of the moon landing, and it does a great job at doing so.
The best part of this documentary is that all the footage has been restored in 4K, and the end product is a stunning and exciting illustration of the Apollo 11 mission. Neil Armstrong understood the weight of his words when he famously said, “That’s one small step for man…one giant leap for mankind,” and this documentary seeks to bring the same kind of weight back into such a historic moment.
- Ad Astra – Directed by James Gray
Ad Astra is a slow, intentional film that’s more concerned with things like human destiny and the meaning of life than thrills. It feels disingenuous to refer to it as “heady,” however, because even though it has a lot on its mind, Ad Astra is not driven by ideas – it’s driven by a beating heart and a pulse in the form of Brad Pitt and Tommy Lee Jones delivering career-high performances. It’s deeply emotional as it forces us to confront the cost of progress in ways that are genuinely moving.
As if two knockout performances aren’t enough, the thing that really knocked me off my feet was just how gorgeous Ad Astra looked. Its use of color is so incredibly effective – the warm, radiant reds of intimacy and human connection contrast really well with the cold, artificial blue shades of technological advancement. It’s not the exciting, space opera as it was marketed, but if you’re in the mood for a more contemplative movie, Ad Astra might just be for you.
- Marriage Story – Directed by Noah Baumbach
This particular “end of the year” list is accidentally split into two parts. The first part consists of films that might not be for everyone and the second contains films that I would recommend to almost everyone. As a heart-wrenching drama about the end of a fraught marriage, Marriage Story definitely falls into the former category.
This isn’t your typical “tear-jerker” type of movie where certain scenes are devised with the express purpose of making you cry – there is real depth to this movie and no single person is responsible for it. Noah Baumbach weaves an incredible tale with characters you understand and care about, and Adam Driver and Scarlett Johanssen bring those characters FULLY to life. Also, Adam Driver isn’t just a good actor – he’s one of the best actors working today.
What I really appreciate is just how close this film gets to its leads without actually taking a side in the fight that ensues from divorce. And that’s really what the movie is about: when years of resentment and unspoken needs turn a marriage into a war. The results are emotionally devastating.
- Ford v Ferrari – Directed by James Mangold
Ford v Ferrari is way more fun and exciting than it has any right to be. The dynamic between Matt Damon and Christian Bale is incredibly entertaining and the racing scenes are downright thrilling. Overall, it’s just a really joyful story about two friends facing overwhelming odds together to defend their shared passion.
At one point in the first act, Jon Bernthal’s character observes that Ferrari is outselling Ford because “Ferrari is selling victory,” but can true victory really be sold? The film is called Ford v Ferrari, and it features two automotive giants going to war to see who makes the “better” product, but the real war isn’t actually between the two mega-corporations. The real war is between passion and product, fought by those who create and those who sell the creation. A brand can’t win that war; only passionate, committed people can.
- Us – Directed by Jordan Peele
While his directorial debut Get Out was a puzzle that begged to be solved, Jordan Peele’s sophomore horror film Us is like a red, white, and blue rorschach test that asks us what we see in the symmetrical images. The story of the film is frightening enough on its surface – a family on vacation is terrorized by their twisted doppelgangers – but it’s the subtext regarding class warfare paired with Lupita Nyong’o’s outstanding performance that makes the film soul-shakingly terrifying.
It’s quite fitting that at TIFF 2018, Keegan Michael Key made a funny, off-hand comment about Jordan Peele being “the black Stanley Kubrick” because traces of The Shining run throughout this movie. Us has so much on its mind and it’s packed with genuine scares that creep you to your core, even during subsequent rewatches. It’s such an artful, creative film that I will not soon forget.
- Knives Out – Directed by Rian Johnson
How many more movies would I like to see with Daniel Craig as James Bond? 0
How many more would I like to see with Craig playing Benoit Blanc? 1,000,000
This movie is fun as heck. Rian Johnson is a master of turning genres on their heads, and as such, it only makes sense that he has concocted the most delicious and entertaining mystery movie I’ve seen in a long time. There is not a single line of dialogue out of place and there are no purposeless shots. There are so many laughs, so many rich character moments, and so many inventive storytelling tricks that I dare not reveal in a review.
Knives Out is an exciting, clever film with great characters and a darn good story about the nature of wealth and the American dream. Stop reading about it and go see it as soon as you possibly can.
- Little Women – Directed by Greta Gerwig
Greta Gerwig delivers a touching adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s novel that is absolutely beautiful in every way. It’s one of those movies that has a very specific focus but covers so much emotional ground in the spanse of its runtime. Seriously, this film is so incredible.
One of the things I love about this film is that even though the source of the March sisters’s strength and joy in life is shown to clearly be rooted in the past, before each sister left the comfort and unity of their family to go off on their own, Little Women never looks at the future in bleak terms. Even when each individual sister endures hardships in adulthood, even when tragedy strikes the family, and even the warm glow of childhood fades into the dim greys of reality, both time periods are looked upon with promise. And it’s not that things are better, and it’s not even necessarily because there is reason to be optimistic, it’s because each of the March sisters makes it so. The love and care that they show each other as a family and in sisterhood gives them the fortitude to chase their dreams, no matter where they may lead.
- The Last Black Man in San Francisco – Directed by Joe Talbot
Based on the lead actors real life experiences, The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a soulful, humorous, and bittersweet tale of a man who seeks to reclaim his childhood home; a house that his grandfather built in a now-gentrified San Francisco neighborhood. Of all the films I saw this year, this one moved me the most with its instantly empathetic characters and deeply human story of a man who’s not just trying to take his house back – he’s trying to find his home. It’s the most warm and lovely movie, but it’s also pretty melancholic.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco loosely revolves around the themes of place, but it’s not just about home. It’s about your environment, your city, your community – all of the place-related things that play such major roles in our lives. Where do you go when it feels like all the places you’ve called home have pushed you out? Even if you haven’t asked yourself this specific question before, The Last Black Man in San Francisco helps you to see through the eyes of the people who have.
- Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Following the lives of an aging movie star, his stuntman, and up-and-coming actress Sharon Tate, this film is an extremely personal ode from Quentin Tarantino to things that are gone, whether they be people, professions, or experiences. I love how intimate the movie gets by taking its sweet time in the long car rides, lingering shots, and deep dives into the characters’ daily lives. It’s a reminder to all of us in a time where the last vestiges of old Hollywood are being swept away to take our time and cherish what’s in front of us while we can.
The film’s most poignant aspect, in my view, is how it’s really just a fairytale told in the far away land of 1969 Hollywood that never existed and never could exist. Instead of illustrating in detail the ugliness of reality, Tarantino uses his fictional characters to reflect the things that were the truest about Hollywood: everything and everyone carries around their own flaws, tragedies, or dark histories. It’s not a fast-paced movie, but rather, a hang out movie that gives old Hollywood the sendoff it deserves, for better or worse.
- Parasite – Directed by Bong Joon-ho
If there’s one particular theme that ran throughout the best movies of 2019, it’s class warfare, and Parasite is the near-perfect flagship film leading that thematic charge. Defying any specific genre labels, this South Korean black comedy/drama/thriller follows the lives of a poor family as they run a brilliant con on a wealthy family. While the poor family believes they hold all the cards, things quickly escalate out of control.
One of the greatest strengths of Parasite is not just how thrilling, funny, and emotional it is, but that it knows precisely how to illustrate the ways in which class infiltrates every part of our lives. Through the direction, dialogue, characters, set design and even the props, Bong Joon-ho brings the differences between rich, poor, and poorer front and center. It’s the kind of movie that serves as a window into the lives of people different than you, helping you to understand people who might otherwise be characterized as bad. Lemme tell ya – walking out of this film into a fancy mall movie theater nearly gave me whiplash.
2019 was clearly a fantastic year for all different kinds of films, and I cannot wait to see what 2020 has in store. Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention this: Just because I don’t post on this website very often doesn’t mean I’ve stopped writing about movies! Follow me on Letterboxd to see my reviews of every single movie I watch.