This list was originally going to be a Top 10 list as is probably most common, but as I started listed out the honorable mentions I wanted to highlight that I just said “screw it, I’ll do a Top 20 instead. If people really only care about my Top 10 or Top 1, they all know how to scroll down.” On my Top Games list, I wrote about how this was a bit of a lighter year in terms of my tastes but on the film front, especially when I remembered to step away from only seeing big blockbusters, this was an absolutely banner year. So without further ado:
Honorable Mention: Dark Waters
Even with twenty other slots, I still found myself needing to highlight one more film that just missed the cutoff. Despite reviewing and scoring the film higher than some others on this list, Dark Waters falls just outside because when I looked back at all of the films I saw this year, I ranked them with a mix of incalculable things related to rewatchability, overall enjoyment, performances, direction, design, writing, etc. Dark Waters is a powerful story with an incredibly grounded central performance from Mark Ruffalo but at the end of the day, it’s a story about David fighting a powerful chemical company Goliath and barely making a scratch and it sort of makes me hate the world we live in a little bit more whenever I think about it.
20. Uncut Gems
Adam Sandler’s stellar performance here gets this film onto the list. It’s too tense for me to ever really want to sit through again but he delivers and incredibly engrossing look at a guy who can’t help but be self-destructive. And as somebody who was in a production of Talk Radio and spent a number of theatre classes in college studying ‘80s performance art, it was also really cool seeing Eric Bogosian show up.
19. The Last Black Man in San Francisco
I believe this is the last 2019 movie I squeezed in at the end of the year (technically I started it when I was flying back from San Francisco in November, but I finally got back around to it yesterday). A lot of people I’ve talked to say it hits way harder if you grew up in San Francisco, but even with my outsider perspective, I found it to be the most powerful story about gentrification since I saw the play Clybourne Park a few years back. It may be cliche, but San Francisco itself really is the star of the show here, even with many of its flaws laid bare.
This unsettling showcase for Joaquin Phoenix felt really powerful on an initial in-the-moment viewing, with the anarchic origin story playing out against civil unrest and the mental health debate in the country today. But I agree more and more with the idea that a lot of the “controversial” aspects of the film suffer from only tackling the issues with a surface-level interest. A very visceral surface-level interest in the moment, but ultimately afraid to really say much about the topics it pretends to confront.
17. Honey Boy
Shia LaBeouf’s inspired-by-his-own-life story, portraying his own father is exactly what it is aiming to be: a therapeutic exercise designed to help LaBeouf revisit and confront metaphorical demons of his past. Part cautionary tale about the life of a child actor thrust into the spotlight and part intense family drama about a man trying and failing repeatedly at being a father to his son. LaBeouf’s performance and script make for a powerful one-two punch.
16. Ford v Ferrari
I’m not sure what I expected going into Ford v Ferrari. The trailers seemed fine and it had good word of mouth but my driving factor for seeing it was honestly that my San Francisco hotel room wasn’t going to be ready for a couple hours and it seemed like a decent way to pass the time. What I got was a pair of award-worthy performances from Matt Damon and Christian Bale and a flurry of unexpected emotions rushing back to me as I thought back on memories with my own father watching car races. I was almost watching this film through the lens of Noah Jupe’s character, who was also wonderful in Honey Boy above and cemented himself as an incredible young actor in my eyes.
Despite its flaws, the latest Star Wars film still has a lot of fun behind it. The core cast is all great. The action is fun, I love the lightsaber duels, the score is – as always – brilliant, and the practical nature of so many of the effects allows the movie to really feel like Star Wars. Even if it makes a lot of decisions I wouldn’t have made, it’s still an exciting adventure.
The live action version of Aladdin is my favorite of the live action Disney remakes. Mena Massoud and Naomi Scott are delightful as Aladdin and Jasmine and Will Smith brings his usual charm into the role of the Genie. The weakest moments for me fell when Guy Ritchie tried to push Smith into Robin Williams bits instead of just letting him have a completely new take on the character. On the plus side, the film does a better job giving Jasmine agency and “Speechless” was a solid number, even if it feels (understandably) like it was written in a completely different era to the rest of the songs.
13. Frozen II
Frozen II may not reach the same heights in pop culture as the juggernaut that housed “Let It Go” but I think it tells a tighter story and takes its characters in unexpectedly adult directions, fully recognizing that the children who have spent the past few years sing-screaming Elsa’s power ballad to the delight of their parents have grown up a bit and might be able to handle some of the themes explored here. And the entirety of the “Lost in the Woods” sequences was one of my favorite surprises in film all year.
12. Toy Story 4
Toy Story 4 serves as a wonderful epilogue to Pixar’s iconic trilogy. Toy Story 3 gave a nice sense of closure to the whole gang of toys and this film gives a much more focused tale of closure to Woody as he struggles going from Andy’s favorite to someone else’s not favorite. New characters like Forky, Ducky, Bunny, and Duke Caboom are all great additions and help make this probably the funniest installment of the series.
11. Spider-Man: Far From Home
From one franchise epilogue to another, Spider-Man: Far From Home had the unenviable task of following up Endgame to close out the “Infinity Saga” of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Jake Gyllenhaal is an inspired choice for Mysterio and clearly has a ton of fun in the role and the closing moments of the story left me incredibly excited for the story potential of future installments (thank goodness Disney and Sony worked through their contract negotiations).
After Wonder Woman, Shazam! Is my favorite installment of the recent DC films. I have been a huge fan of Zachary Levi since Chuck so watching him just relish every moment he’s playing the titular character onscreen filled me with joy. The supporting cast is wonderful (I’ve really enjoyed Mark Strong since Stardust and all of the kids are great). As somebody who wasn’t overly versed on this character’s origins, the third act of the film struck me as something fun and novel and stands out as one of my favorite third acts of any superhero film.
9. Marriage Story
Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson put on an acting clinic in this film. Supporting roles from Laura Dern, Alan Alda, and Ray Liotta are also wonderful. There is a lot of raw hurt in this film showing in big and small ways the tragic nature of falling out of love, even when there’s still love there.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect going in to Parasite but enough friends were putting it up there as one of the best of the year films that I snuck it in right at year-end. I loved how the story of the two central families unfolds over the course of the film, constantly revealing new information to the other characters and the audience that left me continuously feeling uneasy, all the way through the dramatic and climactic final moments.
I missed this one when it originally came out but a lot of people sang its praises throughout the year so I sat down with it a few weeks ago and found it to be a wonderful, better version of Superbad. Olivia Wilde delivers an incredible debut directorial performance and the pairing of the core duo of Kaitlyn Deven and Beanie Feldstein are electrifying onscreen.
Logan was a little cooler on this film than I was in in his review. I agree with him that the 2018 documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a better product because it puts the focus wholly on Mr. Rogers, but I still think this makes for an incredible companion piece. Tom Hanks delivers and expectedly wonderful performance as Mr. Rogers; focusing more on capturing the spirit and mannerisms of the man rather than a direct imitation. Matthew Rhys’ Lloyd Vogel is a great reflection of how the inescapable kindness of Rogers could transform a broken man.
5. Knives Out
Contrasted with the last entry, I was a bit cooler on Knives Out than Ben in his review, our first, and as of writing only, 10. But I agree that Rian Johnson is one of the most interesting directors of the moment. Anyone can subvert expectation in an artform (they’re called “twists”) but to do it really well, as Johnson repeatedly does, you have to first be a master of the artform, knowing what those expectations should be, how to set up for the audience, and then how to surprise the audience. Add in a top-to-bottom murderer’s row of actors in this film’s ensemble and you have a great character piece that makes the film enjoyable even after you know the ins and outs of the mystery.
4. Little Women
I never read Little Women growing up and I hadn’t seen any of the prior iterations going in to this one. I knew very broad strokes of the characters and story but I mostly went into this film riding the residual love of the previous Greta Gerwig/Saoirse Ronan collaboration Lady Bird and once again, they blew me away. Florence Pugh also delivers an incredible performance and the entire rest of the cast shine in their roles within the ensemble. I still have a lot of these “Best of” blurbs to write up, but I want to really sit down and give this one a proper review because there’s such great joy in this movie.
3. Avengers: Endgame
In a year that brought us the “conclusion” of so many definitive franchises in pop culture, Endgame might have had the hardest challenge: telling a story that would serve as the conclusion of a 21-film arc laid out across multiple franchises within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And by most accounts, including mine, they nailed it. Avengers: Endgame is filled with moments that could easily be written off as “fan-service” but they are fan-service done right. In my criticisms of Rise of Skywalker, I mentioned that their moments felt like fan-service for the fans instead of the characters. Endgame’s moments resonate because they are true to the characters. “On your left” means the world to Steve Rogers first and foremost and we just happen to be along for the exhilarating ride.
2. The Peanut Butter Falcon
Consuming pop culture as I do means I follow along with the ins and outs of casting or production news or at the very least see a lot of movie trailers when they release or before the movie. So it was an incredibly odd sensation going into The Peanut Butter Falcon on nothing more than the recommendation of some friends. And the film was a revelation. Between this and Honey Boy mentioned above, I thought this was a banner year for Shia LeBeouf, who gave excellent performances in both. But most importantly, this film was exactly why I love art. It gave me a look into a character or a perspective that I myself have never experienced so directly, allowing me a greater understanding and empathy for a story outside my own.
1. Jojo Rabbit
When I first saw trailers for Jojo Rabbit, I immediately thought about how easily somebody could mess up the premise: a World War 2-era German boy who has Adolf Hitler as an imaginary best friend discovers a Jewish girl hiding in his own home. Roman Griffin Davis and Thomasin McKenzie deliver a wonderful depiction of the conflict those two characters would naturally face, as well as the insecurities hiding beneath their initial bluster and bravado toward one another and they are a pair of the finest young performances in recent memory. Scarlett Johansson, as with LeBeouf above, had an incredible year bouncing from her arc in Endgame to this film, and then to Marriage Story mentioned earlier. Wonderfully charming and heartbreaking in equal measure. Not only does Taika Waititi expertly nail the satire he’s aiming for as his pompous imaginary Hitler (who occasionally lets loose his furious rhetoric on an unsuspecting child) but the imagery he evokes in the film is a magnificent blend of beautiful, absurd, and haunting. A few images in particular stand out as some of the most memorable shots of the year and they will stick with me as I think back on this movie for years to come.
Thank you for reading my thoughts on my favorite movies of 2019. Please consider checking out similar write-ups on my favorite games and television shows of the year if you have not and you can hear my thoughts on all three in this week’s That Nerdy Site Show.