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The five best movies of 2019
January 25, 2020
2019 was a great year if you like movies. If you like the Amazon Rainforest, England’s solid position in the European Union, presidents that aren’t impeached, Australian wildlife, democracy being freely and peacefully awarded to citizens of Hong Kong, or Juice Wrld, then 2019 probably wasn’t your year. But if your thing was movies, you did alright.
In a year where the bad news never seemed to stop, the good news was found in the movies of 2019. Jordan Peele’s sophomore showing Us was the first great movie of the year, proving that Peele really knows what he’s doing and giving us one of the best performances of the year via Lupita Nyong’o.
Avengers: Endgame was next. Endgame showed that if filmmakers focus on making a good movie, instead of on wild and impossible to achieve fan expectations, their movie might just become one of the most significant releases in recent pop culture history (and also make 14 trillion dollars.)
Toy Story 4 was sadly dethroned as my favorite film of the year as other movies were released in later months. There were similar themes of familial connections in Ad Astra and The Farewell. Both were unique, excellent movies with even better lead performances. Speaking of leads, Elisabeth Moss infused Her Smell with just the right scent of alcohol, drugs, and rock-n-roll to make that movie the backstage buzz that it was.
I don’t really know what The Lighthouse was, but I know I liked it. Was it horror, suspense, comedy, terrifying, comforting, a dream, pointless, or an allegory for grief and guilt? Yes.
And then there was Rian Johnson’s Knives Out. We didn’t deserve this movie. It was just that good.
2019 was a good year for movies. It was so good, in fact, that there were way too many movies to watch. I tried the best I could to see all that I could, but due to a film’s release date, its streaming availability, or me running out of time, I couldn’t see everything that I wanted in order to make this list. Notable misses include Ford v. Ferrari, Midsommar, Pain and Glory, and The Souvenir. There were also movies that haven’t seen a wide release yet, such as Waves and Portrait of a Lady on Fire, that I’ve heard great things about but had no way of watching.
So, my list isn’t exactly fair. There’s a lot of holes that need to be filled in. But I tried my best. And I still watched some pretty extraordinary movies.
5. Marriage Story
The divorce of two well-off, talented, and gorgeous people might not sound like something you would care about, but you will. You’ll care quite a lot.
Noah Baumbach’s not-autobiographical-but-also-not-fiction movie is carried on the shoulders of Scarlett Johannson and Adam Driver. Both are incredible here as they grow from pained divorcees into each other’s least favorite person on Earth. The film makes a mostly successful effort to not skew audiences’ opinions either way, and the result is a conflict that seems easily solvable, but neither spouse is able to admit that it is. The movie is heartbreaking, but also incredibly hopeful.
4. Little Women
Almost every moment in Little Women feels like “the moment” – the scene or line that is the heart of the film, what you’ll remember. That’s a testament to Greta Gerwig’s directing and unique screenplay adapting Louisa May Alcott’s novel. She breathes life into Civil War-era Massachusetts, managing to stay relatively true to the source material while also making it distinctively hers.
The March sisters annoy, fight, and love each other just as any siblings would, no matter what century they live in. Florence Pugh as Amy is a highlight, capping off a breakout year for her. But any Little Women movie will live and die by its Jo, and Saoirse Ronan stands up to the challenge. She’s able to exude confidence and freedom at the same time that she is pulled apart by her desires for independence and for love, whether it be familial or romantic. She’s exceptional. And Timothee Chalamet is there too.
What is there to say about Parasite that hasn’t already been said? It’s funny, exciting, creepy, brilliant, and probably the best movie of the year.
There is something to be said, though, about how Bong Joon-Ho was able to walk the thin line of commentary. He’s not trying to keep it a secret that his movie is about class. It’s evident within the first five minutes.
But where lesser movies would both ask and answer the questions he presents, Joon-Ho hides his ideas behind a shiny coat of paint that is Parasite. It isn’t until the film’s end, when the paint begins to scratch away ever so slightly, that you begin to ask your own questions: who exactly is the parasite? In the meantime, you’re left to simply sit back and enjoy Bong Joon-Ho’s masterpiece.
2. The Irishman
The Irishman accomplished the impossible: making workers’ unions interesting. It took violence and organized crime, but it made it interesting. The film presents the Teamsters and Jimmy Hoffa’s (Al Pacino) history through the eyes of Frank Sheeran (Robert DeNiro), a mob hitman who grows close to Hoffa.
Sheeran is pulled between his friendship with Hoffa and his loyalty and gratitude towards Russ Buffalino (Joe Pesci), the kingpin who took Frank under his wing. The three men deliver great performances even when their faces occasionally look like rubber due to experimental de-aging effects.
Martin Scorsese plays with the gangster tropes and characters audiences have come to accept. Because the movie is presented as Frank recounting his life story from a nursing home, Scorsese is able to show decades of a life through the lens of an old man.
The murder, parties, and power struggles all seem sadder. It’s all pointless. Even as Frank lives moment to moment, he’s filled with regret. This pain underscores the entire three and a half hour movie, and propels it to its quiet yet powerful conclusion.
1. The Last Black Man in San Francisco
Watching this movie on mute would be enjoyable in and of itself. Every building, every tree, and every person is beautifully shot in Joe Talbot’s debut film. It’s semi-autobiographical, with Talbot’s friend Jimmie Fails playing the main character of the same name, which explains why it looks like a tribute to the city of San Francisco. Talbot and Fails are able to find beauty in everything in their city, even if their subject doesn’t seem beautiful at first glance.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco follows Jimmie and his best friend Mont (Jonathan Majors) on a quest for Jimmie’s familial house, a house his grandfather built by hand. Their journey is unpredictable and deeply personal. Everything that happens is real life in real time.
It is as much about gentrification as it is about finding home, but the core of the movie is the friendship between Jimmie and Mont. Majors turns Mont into a wholly original character, and Fails is reserved, hiding a world of struggle behind his eyes. They are both similarly brilliant. They are friends who need each other, both because they need the companionship and because they are the one true thing in the world, the one person they can look to to be honest and remind them what their lives in the Bay Area are for. Let’s skate.