2019 was a strong year in film. As I look over my Top 10 films for the year, a few things stand out. There are no sequels on my list. None of these films belong to any “cinematic universe.”
They are stand-alone creations from their writers and directors, and they all have one thing in common: Originality.
A few of them are unlike anything I’ve ever seen, and some of them are such fresh takes on well-worn ideas that they seem new all over again.
With $ 200 million at the global box office so far, this clever whodunit from writer-director Rian Johnson has an all-star cast that clearly appeals to viewers of all ages. When mystery writer Harlan Thrombey dies under mysterious circumstances, everyone in his eccentric family is a suspect. Enter super detective Benoit Blanc played by Daniel Craig. He interviews the family, tests theories, and in true Agatha Christie fashion, reveals all by the end of the film. You’ll have a hard time figuring out who’s having more fun: you or all the actors who get to take turns chewing the scenery. Knives Out is proof that a film doesn’t need a superhero or a Star Wars character in it to make big money at the box office. Smart, original filmmaking still sells tickets. (Knives Out is currently playing in theaters.)
#9 – 1917
Hands down the best war film since Saving Private Ryan. Director Sam Mendes teams up with legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins to put audiences in the trenches with British soldiers on the front lines of World War I. The film plays like one long uninterrupted take. The edits have been hidden, but the technique is not a gimmick. The digital trickery makes 1917 one of the most immersive war films ever made with one jaw-dropping visual sequence after another. It hits theaters nationwide on January 10th. See it on the biggest screen you can find.
#8 – Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
Quentin Tarantino has done the unthinkable by making a 2 hour and 45 minute film that I wish was even longer. Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt play a Hollywood action star and his stunt double as they navigate their fading careers in 1960’s Hollywood. Throw in a surreal subplot involving Charles Manson and his cult “family”, and Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood offers dozens of characters whose lives become intertwined over the course of the film. Many critics have referred to Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood as a “hangout film, and this was one get together I never wanted to leave. (Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood is currently available on all rental platforms.)
Have you ever been sick, running a fever and then wake up from the craziest dream you’ve ever had? That’s what I felt like as I emerged from the theater after seeing The Lighthouse, writer-director Robert Eggers’ follow-up to his debut film, The Witch. Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson play sailors who are assigned to man a lighthouse for a couple of months. When their replacements are delayed indefinitely by a storm, they slowly begin losing their minds in their isolation. The Lighthouse is filmed in gorgeous black and white with an old-timey aspect ratio like a film from the 1930’s. You have to see it to believe it, and even then, you’re going to think you imagined the entire thing. (The Lighthouse is currently available on all rental platforms.)
#6 – The Farewell
The beloved grandmother of a large Chinese and Chinese-American family is dying. The relatives schedule an impromptu wedding as an excuse to get together and say their goodbyes. There’s just one catch: the grandmother doesn’t know she’s dying. It sounds like the set-up for a slapstick comedy. Instead, it’s a touching, heartfelt family drama based on an event from the real life of writer-director Lulu Wang. Rapper, comedian and actress Awkwafina who’s best known for her hilarious work in Crazy Rich Asians plays the young granddaughter who has trouble accepting the family’s ruse to keep this crucial information from her grandmother. The film is a poignant look at mortality, racial identity and cultural customs. (The Farewell is currently available on all rental platforms.)
The trials and tribulations of divorce may not sound much like “Netflix and Chill”, but writer-director Noah Baumbach’s film is so well-written and so well-performed that it demands to be seen. Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson play a couple who’ve grown apart, and Laura Dern, Alan Alda and Ray Liotta play the attorneys who are happy to help them with their parting. Not many people are referring to this film as a “dramedy”, but it has many moments of laugh-out-loud humor to balance the sadness of its subject matter. Watching Adam Driver interact with the court-ordered custody evaluator is one of the funniest scenes of 2019. Marriage Story is a profound tale of what happens when love fades over time. (Marriage Story is currently playing on Netflix.)
#4 – Waves
Trey Edward Shults is one of the most interesting writer-directors working in film. His movies seem to flow straight from his brain on to the screen. He doesn’t appear to compromise when it comes to realizing his creative vision. Waves takes an ordinary middle class African American family living in modern America and chronicles what happens as that normalcy begins to crack and crumble. Sterling K. Brown, Kelvin Harrison, Jr. and Taylor Russell all give awards-caliber performances. At only 31-years-old, Shults has quickly become a master at depicting family dysfunction, and Waves is his best film to date. (Waves hits home video at the end of January.)
Do we really need another gangster film from Martin Scorsese? That was the big question leading up to the release of The Irishman. With Goodfellas, Casino and The Departed already in the can, do we need one more trip down Memory Lane for this somewhat tired genre? America’s greatest living filmmaker answered these questions with a resounding YES. Robert Deniro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci team-up for the first time ever to deliver the gangster film to end all gangster films. The Irishman pays tribute to the genre and pushes it to its full existential potential. Evidently we didn’t know just how much we needed another Scorsese gangster film. (The Irishman is currently playing on Netflix.)
#2 – Uncut Gems
Adam Sandler delivers the best performance of 2019 as an out-of-control degenerate gambler named Howard Ratner. Howard has a wife … and a girlfriend. He owns a jewelry business, but he constantly pawns the merchandise to cover his debts from sports betting. His life is spinning out of control, and Uncut Gems generates a never-ending sense of dread right up until its final minute. We feel that this isn’t going to end well for Howard. But, maybe we’re wrong. Is the long shot going to pay off this time? (Uncut Gems is currently playing in theaters.)
At face value this sounds like a snooty, “film critic” kind of choice for Best Film of 2019. It’s an art-house film from South Korea with lots of subtitles and even more subtext. But, I swear on my stack of Criterion Collection Blu-rays, this film is a genuine masterpiece. A family of grifters insert themselves into a well-to-do family. What follows is the most unpredictable film of the year, and I mean that as the greatest of compliments. I’ve seen Parasite three times, and it improves with each viewing. Parasite hits home video later this month. Don’t miss it.