After getting off to a bit of a rocky start, 2019 turned out to be a pretty good year for movies.
Although only three of the films on my top 10 list for the year came out before the fall, the last couple months of the year have been packed with great, interesting, fun, exciting movies.
As with any top 10 list, this one is personal, as these are the 10 releases of the 90 (and counting) I saw in 2019 that resonated, entertained, provoked, satisfied and moved me the most. I love all these movies.
10. “Ford v Ferrari“
If you had asked me at any point before I saw this movie if it would end up on my top 10 list, I would have said “I highly doubt it.” But here we are at the end of the year, and “Ford v Ferrari” stands as one of the best-made, most entertaining films of 2019.
Christian Bale and Matt Damon deliver two great movie star performances as Ken Miles and Carol Shelby, a couple of mavericks in the automobile industry tasked with winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans race in 1966.
Director James Mangold delivers some terrific action set pieces with the racing scenes, but what really puts this movie over the top is how this studio film serves as a thinly veiled critique of corporations getting in the way of true artists like Bale and Damon’s characters. That is something quite bold to say in a movie whose parent studio is owned by Disney.
9. “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood”
As an avowed Quentin Tarantino skeptic, it also surprised me how much I loved the ninth film from the controversial and beloved writer-director.
Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt give two of the best performances of the year as aging TV star Rick Dalton and his stuntman Cliff Booth, respectively. And Margot Robbie, in an almost silent role, provides the real heart of the movie by imbuing Sharon Tate (yes, that Sharon Tate) with warmth and humanity.
For his part, Tarantino dials back much of the vulgarity and violence that defines so much of his work to give moviegoers his warmest, most sentimental and contemplative film yet. It’s also easily the legendary director’s funniest film that simultaneously serves as a love letter to 1960s Hollywood, which Tarantino looks to preserve with an uproarious, touching climax.
It was true for me in May when it came came out and its still true now: “Booksmart” is the funniest movie of the year.
The directorial debut from Olivia Wilde follows best friends and high school overachievers Molly and Amy (a perfect Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever) as they attempt to have all the fun they didn’t have in high school on the night before graduation.
The script by Katie Silberman, Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern and Sarah Haskins does so much to freshen up this potentially trite story with how it adds nuance to lead characters and depth to supporting ones, while Wilde shows plenty of promise with strong visual choices.
This movie made me laugh all the way through, and it has an emotional heft that added another layer of enjoyment.
7. “The Lighthouse”
My next three picks are the least mainstream on my list, none more so than “The Lighthouse.”
This is a black-and-white film with period-accurate 19th century dialogue starring a tremendous Robert Pattinson and spectacular Willem Dafoe as two lighthouse keepers struggling to maintain their sanity while living on a remote island in New England.
This, the sophomore effort from director Robert Eggers, is among the most technically accomplished films of the year, with the cinematography, editing, score and sound design all being perfect.
That helps make this one of the most immersive and engrossing cinematic experiences I have had in recent memory. It truly captures what going insane would feel like for these characters.
“Parasite” has been perhaps the most praised movie of the year, and for good reason.
This South Korean film from director and co-writer Bong Joon-Ho is the best movie about class differences in a year that saw several of them. It follows one lower class family who slowly infiltrates the life of a higher class one.
The entire ensemble cast is superb, but it’s Bong who is the real standout here. Every visual choice he makes is sublime, the characters and themes are complicated and fascinating and the twists and turns this genre-defying film takes are hilarious, incredibly tense, thought-provoking and moving.
If you are someone who is put off by international films, give this one a try as it’s also very accessible to an American audience. It is well worth a shot.
5. “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”
This Cannes Film Festival prizewinner is one of the most romantic films I have ever seen.
Written and directed by Céline Sciamma, it centers on a painter (Noémie Merlant) tasked with creating a wedding portrait of a young woman (Adèle Haenel). The catch is, Haenel’s character refuses to sit for the painting, so Merlant’s painter must paint her by memory from time spent walking on the beach.
The lead performances are extraordinary, the film is gorgeous in both its color and composition and the way Sciamma moves the camera is effective and subtle. But it all comes back to how wise this movie is in its portrayal of what it is like to fall in love, so much of which happens in furtive glances and seemingly innocuous lines.
There are plenty of barriers to entry to this movie – it’s French and focuses on a lesbian relationship, after all, but viewers who give themselves over to this picture will be rewarded.
4. “Little Women”
Writer-director Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of “Little Women” has far fewer obstacles and is just as rewarding.
Gerwig, who made one of the best movies of the last few years in 2017 with “Lady Bird,” assembles a peerless cast led by the incomparable Saoirse Ronan, rising star Florence Pugh and immaculate Timothée Chalamet for this version of the classic novel about a family in Civil War-era New England.
This emotionally affecting film brilliantly uses color to contrast the ebullience of childhood with the reality of adulthood. It perfectly captures the dynamic between siblings. It modernizes this story with multiple timelines in a way that only adds to the emotion.
In short, don’t miss this Christmas release.
3. “Marriage Story”
Gerwig’s romantic partner, Noah Baumbach, also made a masterpiece this year with “Marriage Story,” which is about a couple (Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson) going through a divorce.
Driver gives the best performance of the year, while Johansson may very well be doing career best work. Similarly, Baumbach as director is at the top of his game, using subtle visual elements to add to the storytelling.
As screenwriter, Baumbach has written what is probably the best screenplay of 2019 with how wise, human, well-observed and compassionate this film is. There are moments here that ring so true they are heartbreaking because this is actually a love story, even if it is one about that love no longer working.
This in on Netflix right now, so there is no reason why subscribers to that streaming service should miss it.
2. “Avengers: Endgame”
Granted, my Marvel Cinematic Universe and general superhero fandom color my opinion year, but this climax to 21 Marvel movies spread out over 11 years is everything I want in a blockbuster.
Terrific acting? Check. Exhilarating action sequences? Check. Hysterical jokes? Check. Heartrending emotional moments of geeky giddiness, unbridled joy and devastating loss? Triple check.
If nothing else, this film deserves to be on this list for how it closed out perhaps the most influential saga in the pop culture in the last 10 years, and we saw twice in 2019 alone how difficult that can be.
When I saw this at the St. Louis International Film Festival in November, I called it the best movie of the year and that held true despite tough challenges.
The third film from Florida-based writer and director Trey Edward Shults, “Waves” tells the story of an upper-class African American family as they navigate love, trauma and forgiveness.
Kelvin Harrison Jr., Taylor Russell and Sterling K. Brown all deliver some of the best performances of the year as members of that family. Shults masterfully uses every trick in his book – including changing aspect ratios, camera movement color and music – to tell this story in an honest, authentic, captivating and intense way.
The bold style may get in the way for some moviegoers, but if what Shults is up to here works for you this becomes an outstanding story about coping with trauma and forgiveness that is a gut punch of the highest order.
Honorable mentions: “The Nightingale,” “Knives Out,” “Uncut Gems” and “Pain & Glory.”