The year of 2019 is over, and with it passes what appears to be a turning point in the moviemaking landscape. Major blockbuster franchises like Star Wars and Avengers “ended” (for better or worse), leaving major voids in their pop culture wake, while the debate over whether such films even count as “cinema” has grown more pronounced. Conversely, streaming services never looked more prestigious than in the year where Martin Scorsese released a Netflix film.
But in the midst of all this “discourse” a slew of great movies, big and small, have been released and our Den of Geek editorial staff is here to cheer them on. Consisting of more than just our critics (who had their own picks here), 11 members of the Den of Geek staff voted on the Must See Movies of 2019. The ranking of those votes can be found below!
Two years ago, you didn’t know you even wanted a shared M. Night Shyamalan universe, and now it’s a fact of life. Fresh off birthing the Shyamalan-aissance at Blumhouse Productions, the eclectic filmmaker connected his previous movie the wonderfully twisted Split, with one of his earliest psycho-drama successes, Unbreakable. And 19 years later its resurgence could have been more timely. When Unbreakable was released, the superhero entertainment it deconstructed was still clinging to the fringes of pop culture, now the obsessions of Samuel L. Jackson’s Elijah Price (aka Mr. Glass) have inherited the Earth.
The result is a movie that is of its moment and not. Shyamalan crafts a picture that his collaborators, including Anya Taylor-Joy, marvel at for its ability to both embrace and comment on comic book stereotypes while making something human. It is also proudly divisive, offering a gutsy ending that shattered its critical reception. But we standby there is something quite audacious about Glass‘ creative celebration of itself. Filled with one-of-a-kind choices, we suspect this will be one that grows on people who give it a second chance, because it really is only a movie Shyamalan could make, and we mean that in both the worst and best ways.
59. Late Night
Never a standup comic in real life, Emma Thompson nonetheless enjoys a famed wit in her own screenwriting duties and barbed comic timing. This is also immediately visible via her interpretation of Katherine as a razor-sharp stiletto that has spent a lifetime practicing against a whetstone. She has climbed to a dizzying height, but it is a performance of an intellectual woman at comfort with the awkward stance of always fending off others trying to push her off. Additionally, the nuanced relationship between Katherine and her Parkinson’s suffering husband (John Lithgow) adds a layer of raw humanity that elevates Late Night above its feel-good disposition.
58. Apollo 11
You’ve never seen the moon landing like this. Todd Douglas Miller’s hard hitting documentary gives audiences a fresh and immediate look inside NASA’s earth-shattering voyage to the moon. Memorably told as an intimate dramatization last year in Damien Chazelle’s underrated character study of Neil Armstrong, Miller’s documentary is conversely epic and breathtaking in scope. With rare footage, it places you in the zealous need to be the first to take that fateful small step for man. And if you were lucky enough to see this on the big screen, it was a giant leep into the startling ambition and reach of a unified mankind.
57. How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World
It’s also one of many moments in the film where the viewer is keenly aware of just how visually astonishing this trilogy has continued to be. The Hidden World is the series’ crowning glory, where color, texture, shading and movement all blend to create a world that is wonderfully, kinetically alive. There are scenes in the movie that are just jaw-dropping in their visual splendor; the film is already one of the best-looking of 2019 without question.
A world without the Beatles sounds a little bit like a world without sunshine or blue skies. As a member of one of the many generations born after the fab four even broke up—never mind Ed Sullivan—my awareness of their place in our culture is wordless. They’re as firm a foundation in Western music as Beethoven or Mozart. Hence why the premise of Yesterday could, on the surface, be some kind of dystopian Twilight Zonenightmare: One day after the power goes out all around the world, a struggling musician realizes he’s the only person alive who remembers the Beatles. But if it is a dash of Rod Serling styled magical realism, it’s the rosiest and most rainbow-encrusted twilight we’ve ever entered.
55. Blinded by the Light
Sometimes you find salvation in the unlikeliest of places. For Blinded by the Light’s Javed (Viveik Kalra), a British-Pakistani boy growing up in ‘80s Luton, it comes in the form of denim-clad all-American rocker Bruce Springsteen. A first generation immigrant, Javed is caught between the desire of his strict father Malik (Kulvinder Ghir) to become a doctor or lawyer, and his own yearning dream to express himself through words and lyrics. All of this plays out against the backdrop of rising unemployment, the encroaching National Front, and Thatcherism.
54. Always Be My Maybe
Oh romantic comedies, where have you gone? One of the oldest genres that was once as synonymous with Hollywood as men on horses, rom-coms have vanished from the major studios in this decade. Thank goodness for Netflix being there to pick up the slack with movies like Always Be My Maybe. As comfortable as an old sweater, the film from director Nahnatchka Khan pairs Ali Wong and Randall Park as two childhood friends that lost touch after a brief romance in high school. Now many years later they’re reunited as “just friends,” but if you believe they’ll stay that way then you must’ve never seen When Harry Met Sally. Not that we’d have it any other way in this warm, bubbly, feel-good confection. Plus, it has a major celebrity cameo that’ll make you go…. woah.
53. Zombieland: Double Tap
What ultimately powers Double Tap though is the chemistry and repartee among our four leads. There’s even character growth… sort of. While Woody Harrelson repeats his “nut up or shut up” catchphrase two or three times, there’s no mention made of his Twinkies addiction from the first film. Harrelson, of course, is a national treasure: from his outsized response to even the word “Berkeley” to his clumsy yet sincere attempts to be a father figure for Little Rock, the actor somehow makes what could have been a coarse post-apocalyptic stereotype into a real person.
52. The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then Bigfoot
At this stage of his life and career, Elliott has become the perfect onscreen vessel for moody character studies (as director Brett Haley demonstrates in the stunning I’ll See You in My Dreams and The Hero, both starring Elliott). The Man Who Killed Hitler is yet another perfect showcase for the mustachioed man’s man, and first-time writer-director Robert D. Krzykowski understands that to let Elliott truly shine, you’ve got to capture all of his signature idiosyncrasies, all of the little nooks and crannies of his performance. Every raise of an eyebrow, every slump in posture, every piercing glare, every nigh inaudible gravelly grumble speaks volumes about his character’s state of mind, and Krzykowski has written a script that’s simple enough to let the nuance of Elliott’s performance breathe and lead the story.
51. The Aeronauts
As much of a rip-roaring Jules Verne fantasy as it is a biopic, The Aeronauts takes some heavy historic license as it reimagines a lost age of exploration and discovery. Depicting the hot air balloon phenomenon of the mid-19th century in Europe as something akin to a Victorian space race, the film tracks a historic ascent made by Amelia Wren (Felicity Jones) and James Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne). Picking one particularly bad and stormy afternoon in 1862 London to climb to the heavens, the odd couple face every type of crisis one could anticipate in a hot air baalloon as they travel higher than any before them, scratching the very top of the atmosphere and learning the high price of knowledge in this thrilling slice of underrated escapism.
Does it all have a point? Well, yes. Although Climax doesn’t end on the totally nihilistic note one might expect, Noe’s bizarro mash-up of Step Up and Suspiria (with a little Day of the Dead thrown in, although fortunately no one starts eating anybody) still arrives at a place of profound grief. There is a hint at the end of who engineered this cataclysm, but that’s really not important. What is crucial to understand is how all things human can collapse into pieces so quickly and easily, without us even realizing what is happening until it’s too late.
49. Frozen 2
A sequel intent on growing with its core audience who’ve been singing along with Elsa and Anna since 2013, Frozen II is a bigger movie and, theoretically, a more sophisticated one. Very much pulling from the George Lucas philosophy that sequels should be darker reexaminations of the first instalment’s joyfulness, this is (by Disney standards) a more somber affair, occasionally even erring toward a type of high fantasy Tolkien enthusiasts should recognize. But it’s also a top-heavy endeavor when those elements are placed beside traditional Disney formulae, such as adorable sidekicks like a talking snowman. Even in it attempts to be a sincerer example of the Broadway tradition than the first film, it does so in a way that recalls Stephen Sondheim following up the earth-shattering Sweeney Todd with Merrily We Roll Along. Sure, Frozen II is a lovely collection of songs that are brilliantly realized by the production around them, but what’s missing is the tangible genius at its core that made ice castles out of pixels.
48. The Report
As pure cinema, The Report is a worthwhile effort but one that will only appeal to those already fascinated with the truths hidden, and the horrors enacted, during a time of extreme paranoia. For those allergic to the truth, it will be as easily ignored as the buckets of hard facts being evaded each day in the U.S. House. Ironically, many of those patriotic lifelong public servants that resisted Senate oversight are now sounding the alarm of executive malfeasance—only to find that millions of Americans, including its leaders, have grown comfortable looking the other way.
47. Little Woods
Little Woods is an assured directorial debut by the upcoming filmmaker—so strong, in fact, she’s helming the Candyman remake based on Jordan Peele’s script—and it features strong, nuanced performances from Thompson and James as Ollie and Deb, two sisters living in North Dakota and who are oscillating between being fragile as kindling and flinty as flame.
46. It Chapter Two
It Chapter Two is a disappointment, but a fascianting one. Director Andy Muschietti bites off more than he can chew in this gargantuen-lengthed adaptation of half of Stephen King’s It novel. Indeed, the film should in theory have the luxury to tell the story of the adult Losers’ Club without worrying about flashbacks to their childhood adventures. Yet this film attempts to do it all by bringing the kids back… it also might simply do too much.
Even so, the film has merits going for it. Chief among them is much of the new cast, including Jessica Chastain as Beverly Marsh and especially Bill Hader as Richie Tozier. As funny and smart-mouthed as the younger and literary version of the character, Hader and Muschietti add subtle depth and sadness to Richie’s loneliness, and an extra level of ugliness to Pennywise’s sing-songy sadism. And any movie with Bill Skarsgård’s go-for-broke performance of the dancing clown is worth seeing once.
45. Good Boys
Not at all coincidentally like a South Park adventure come to life, Good Boys is a taboo-pushing comedy about young kids saying the darndest things, many of which could not be printed in newspapers or repeated on broadcast television. Aiming to shock by design, director Gene Stupnitsky and his co-screenwriter Lee Eisenberg have crafted an outrageous R-rated comedy about childhood that, while ostensibly for adults, will also play well with kids in the same age group as its stars. However, the reason it truly works isn’t because it’s destined to cause much handwringing, but because like all childhood fancies, there’s a clean innocence underlining even its dirtiest thoughts; it has the unshakable tenor of truth spoken by angels with (very) dirty faces between all the four-letter words. It also helps that more often than not, it’s quite hilarious, even as you realize the direction of these kids’ lives before they do.
44. Richard Jewell
Based on the true story of the security guard who was at first praised for his heroic actions during the 1996 Centennial Olympic Park bombing and then dragged through the mud as a suspect, Richard Jewell is easily director Clint Eastwood’s best film since 2006’s Letters from Iwo Jima. Although problematic in some areas, the movie tells Jewell’s story in understated yet often heart-rending terms, and is powered by knockout performances from Paul Walter Houser as Jewell, Sam Rockwell as attorney C. Watson Bryant, and Kathy Bates as Barbara “Bobi” Jewell–the proud and anguished mother.
43. Little Monsters
Good teachers more than inspire; they make the foreboding seem fun. Be it science math, or hordes of undead zombies, as is the case in Little Monsters, problems are but calls to adventure. They also can formulate one of the genuinely happiest surprises at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Apparently inspired by the kindergarten teacher who writer-director Abe Forsythe says taught him to let go of his own anxieties for his five-year-old son, Little Monsters is an unexpected feel-good zombie comedy that is as equal parts The Magic School Bus as it is a grisly, R-rated undead slaughterfest stuffed with disemboweled guts and endangered goats. Obviously utilizing discordant elements, Forsythe ably creates a peculiar harmony of sunshine and carnage, particularly whenever Lupita Nyong’o picks up a ukulele and gets her Taytay on.
42. Fighting with My Family
Ultimately, Fighting with My Family is a well-worn and appreciable Hollywood Cinderella story, yet one with jet black hair and a pierced lip. (And also one blessedly free of any mandated love interest.) Embracing the oddity of professional wrestling, it adds layers of reality to a dream come true fantasy, and provides wrestling fans with something increasingly unknown: legitimacy and even understanding. For that it is more than worth going to the mat over.
41. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
Simply put, this is one you need to see for yourself. Arguably the most divisive Star Wars movie ever released–which is saying something–Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker attempts to bring closure and finality to the most beloved franchise of all time. To say we were disappointed is an understatement. The movie backtracks and betrays much of what made Star Wars: The Last Jedi so refreshingly bold.
Nevertheless, The Rise of Skywalker does bring a final curtain down on the story of Luke, Han, and Leia (even if how it’s done is at the expense of Rey, Finn, Poe, and Kylo Ren). The result is uneven, but undeniably important in how Hollywood franchising, and Star Wars itself, goes forward. Decide for yourself if the film ultimately lands more in the Light or the Dark.
40. Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Constructing a slow boil romance between two women whose shared words barely rise above an innocuous simmer, Sciamma creates a vision as detailed as the best of 18th century artistry. The toast of Cannes and now the New York Film Festival, Portrait of a Lady on Fire asks the audience to study each hushed frame, and in the process reverses the suggestion that portraiture is at its most haunting when it looks like the eyes are moving. In the case of the stolen glances between Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel, it is the layered detail of their performances, and the way that they’re photographed, that makes it seem as if they’re not moving at all. This is cinema distilled to the minute, and characters whose visible inner lives can take on the immortalized quality of a mural’s subject.
Every bit a standard bearer for the Dewey Cox playbook, what makes Rocketman sing beyond Taron Egerton’s actual vocals being utilized on-screen is the fact it is a genuine musical in addition to being a musical biopic. For every generic montage of Elton on tour or reaching for a handful of pills, there is a stylish and singular sequence in which as a teenager, Reggie Dwight (Elton’s real name), is already singing “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” while being chased by back-up dancers through a carnival, or moments of symphonic bliss when as an adult he imagines his boyhood self at the bottom of a swimming pool, mumbling beneath a space helmet the first verses of “Rocketman.” It’s in the musical flourishes where Rocketman lifts off from its boilerplate foundation.
38. Dragged Across the Concrete
Three films in, writer and director S. Craig Zahler has established himself as a thoroughly unique filmmaking voice: his movies to date, which include Bone Tomahawk, Brawl in Cell Block 99, and now Dragged Across Concrete, are a blend of the lurid and the langorous, a pulp fiction sensibility and eye combined with a thoughtful, novelistic approach toward character and motivation. The latter film is certainly his most epic in scope and as violent as his previous two, yet at the same time his most leisurely paced. And yes, it’s his most humorous offering to date too.
Netflix’s Fyre (sometimes subtitled “The Greatest Party That Never Happened”) is the superior Fyre Festival doc, and one of the most purely enjoyable documentaries in some time, because it is almost pathologically obsessed with story. This is simply the non-fiction story of the Fyre Festival. Front to back with no other frills. The access that Smith has received is expansive and the diversity of interviews from behind the scenes players gathered is impressive.
It’s official: the Zack Snyder era of the DCEU is over once and for all. The dark, brooding, nihilistic tone that the director tried to surgically graft onto the entire breadth of characters he’d been given to work with has been dispensed with. Starting with Wonder Woman — which partially escaped his grasp — and continuing with Aquaman, viewers began to see DC superheroes who actually relished their roles as protectors of humanity. And now Shazam! has brought the franchise a complete 180 degrees from where it started, creating a fun, heartfelt, occasionally soaring adventure as far from the likes of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice as you can imagine.
While some of the plot turns in the film’s second half seem either perfunctory or veer close to misery porn, the spiritual transformation of Williams and Woods is simply devastating, and the sheer awfulness of what the death penalty means on a granular level permeates the entire film with a sense of grief and cruelty. Woodard deserves to be in the Best Actress Oscar race, and there’s an extended shot near the end of the movie that is unlike anything else we’ve seen this year.
34. The Art of Self-Defense
Perhaps a comedic answer to the question of what would happen if Travis Bickle took a martial arts class, The Art of Self-Defense is a pitch-black comic gem that deserves much greater attention after premiering at SXSW. Moving the disgruntled white male’s entitlement out of a lone taxi cab and into a communal dojo (suggesting the widening aggrievement of privilege in recent years), the picture ruminates on loneliness, toxic masculinity, and just how cool it is to be able to kick so hard you’re “punching with your foot.” In the film, Jesse Eisenberg plays Casey, an introverted sad sack whose unisex name is treated as a point of derision and ridicule in this film’s heightened reality. After being almost brutally murdered in a mugging he joins a self-defense class with actual late-night fight clubs, homoerotic massages, and a cult-like sensei (Alessandro Nivola) who thinks murder is part of the learning process, and that his best student (Imogen Poots) should be punished for being a woman.
It’s darkly hilarious and is a cult classic in the making.
33. Captain Marvel
The film has some tough competition in Marvel’s recent fare. This movie is no Black Panther or, if we’re expanding the field of comparison, Wonder Woman, which benefitted greatly from being the first major superhero blockbuster to headline a female protagonist—frankly, a milestone race that was Marvel’s to lose. Luckily, Captain Marvel doesn’t have to be better than all of the MCU’s previous films to be something enjoyable. The MCU has a pretty impressive narrative median, but, past that, like the Avengers, this is a team sport and Captain Marvel is nothing if not a team player.
32. Godzilla: King of the Monsters
Make no mistake: Michael Dougherty is much more interested, and rightly so, in massive beasts bringing the Earth crashing down around everyone’s ears. Godzilla: King of the Monsters has plenty of money shots of pure spectacle, and while some of the action gets a little confusing on the ground (the death of one major character almost goes by before you realize it), he stages the battle royales with elegance, scope, and power. The four main monsters always feel huge and their destructive power vast, but there are several quieter moments–one between the humans and Mothra, another between a dying human and Godzilla–that hint at a supreme and unknowable intelligence at work as well.
While its subjects sometimes seem to receive too soft of a touch, Bombshell is nonetheless a vital piece of the #MeToo conversation. One can only hope that it is the beginning of a trend, and that someday there will be an entire subgenre in which Bombshell can exist as one story for one group of women. For now, it is compelling enough to reach a variety of audiences looking for a fair and mostly balanced account.
30. High Life
High Life won’t be to everyone’s tastes: Denis relates the story at her typically methodical pace, leaving a number of blanks for viewers to fill in on their own, but she punctuates the hypnotic tone with moments of raw, ugly violence drenched in bodily fluids. A strange, heady mix of Tarkovsky’s Solaris and Carpenter’s Dark Star, with a seasoning of early Cronenberg body horror, High Life is nevertheless all Claire Denis and all-consuming — and, on its own terms, great, challenging science fiction.
29. The Two Popes
The chemistry and repartee between two of England’s national acting treasures is what makes the film endlessly entertaining to watch. And you don’t have to be religious to appreciate the issues and profound questions that it brings up, even if some of the Church’s moral failings are not given the depth of examination required.
28. Ready or Not
As a movie that intends to speak to our times (and likely any other) of extreme income inequality, Ready or Not is a gonzo bloodbath about the most thrilling round of hide and seek you’ve ever seen, one where the stakes are life, death, and eternal damnation… maybe? It’s not really clear on that last bit since even members of the Le Domas doubt the family history about a deal with the Devil, but their dedication to carrying on with tradition creates a horror-comedy rife with political allegory that’s as pointed as the axe used to remove a maid’s head. Yet it’s when the movie revels in this gruesome giddiness, as opposed to commenting directly on privilege, that Ready or Not makes a far better investment in becoming a budding cult classic.
27. Dark Waters
Director Todd Haynes makes his most conventional film to date with this straight forward legal thriller biopic. Yet there is nothing straight forward about the grotesque web of lies lawyer Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) uncovers regarding DuPont, a chemical company, and the West Virginian town it both employed and polluted. And that is just the tip of the iceberg in this staggering depiction of American greed and corrpution, and one corporate lawyer’s about-face to save a community he came from after receiving a fateful phone call from a cantakerous farmer. The film follows a certain familiar pattern, but its implications are downright apocalyptic.
26. Doctor Sleep
Mike Flanagan makes the disparate elements between the Stanley Kubrick film and Stephen King books work, gets the most out of his actors and their roles, and provides moments that are genuinely shocking. Credit must go as well to cinematographer Michael Fimognari and production designer Maher Ahmad for their sterling, textured, and genuinely resonant work. Pulling from a book that had perhaps inordinately high expectations placed on it before it even came out, Flanagan and his cast and crew have crafted one of the richest Stephen King adaptations in years. Sleep through this one, you won’t.
25. Toy Story 4
It’s those characters, led by the complicated and flawed Woody, that keep drawing us back to the Toy Story saga and who ultimately make Toy Story 4 endlessly funny, empathetic and, toward the end, deeply moving even if the stakes aren’t life-and-death as they were the last time out. Add in glorious, immersive, and detailed rendering from the Pixar team, that familiar yet heart-tugging score by Randy Newman, and an ending that is poignant and yet organic to the story, and Toy Story 4 more than makes the case for its own existence–an oddly meta aspect of a movie we’d never thought we’d want, but are now glad to have in the world.
24. Ford v Ferrari
James Mangold’s follow-up to Logan, which for our money might be the finest superhero movie of this decade, reunited him with his 3:10 to Yuma star, Christian Bale, plus Matt Damon. A true story two-hander, Ford v Ferrari jumps back to the 1966 when Henry Ford II decided to take on Ferrari by building one of the definitive American muscle cars, the Ford GT40, for the epic 24 Hours of Le Mans race. But perhaps real credit deserves to go to American engineer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and British driver Ken Miles (an again transformative Bale), who actually built the damn thing and then won the race despite corporate interference from Ford’s executives every step of the way. It’s a familiar tale given an old-fashioned Hollywood sheen. But in the age of blockbusters and endless sequels, there is something refreshing about this classic underdog story told with zeal and high-octane machismo. It’s a gorgeous production that flies by like the vehicles at Le Mans, which is all the more impressive since the movie is 152 minutes.
23. The Peanut Butter Falcon
There is something quintessentially optimistic about the rolling of a river and the drift of the sea. It represents endless possibility, which could be argued is a distinctly American trait. Author Samuel Clemens (under a certain nom de plume) tapped into that with his transcendentalist novel that reached for sunny aspirations, even while exposing the hypocritical rot beneath. I imagine he’d get a kick out of The Peanut Butter Falcon too, an infinitely sweet indie that wears its Mark Twain inspiration on its sleeve just as readily as it does the cardboard box that makes up its wrestling gear.
Hustlers is a classic crime parable where audiences are invited to cheer on the misdeeds of the “wrong” side of the law, which is made especially easy in Scafaria’s hands. There have been many Wall Street movies that include strippers and sex workers as background filler or punchlines; these can range from Martin Scorsese’s intentionally debauched The Wolf of Wall Street—where the line between documentation and exploitation is intentionally blurred—to even Hustlers producer Adam McKay’s own The Big Short, which might be the definitive cinematic tragi-comedy about the housing crisis. Rarely though are women treated as more than men’s playthings. So it is a delicious irony that Hustlers fits right alongside those other defining post-financial crisis movies when it’s told from the perspective of the “entertainment” taking the Visa card away.
21. Queen & Slim
Queen & Slim, directed by Matsoukas (Beyoncé’s “Formation” video) from a script by Waithe (The Chi, Boomerang), more than delivers on its killer logline. The duo previously collaborated on the “Thanksgiving” episode of Master of None, about queerness and family traditions, so it is a delight to see them take on such different material for their feature film debuts: a crime thriller, an on-the-road romance, and a meditation on immortality in an era of so many lives needlessly, violently cut short. Matching Waithe and Matsoukas at every step are the incredible performances of leads Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out, Widows), who continues to prove his incredible versatility, and newcomer Jodie Turner-Smith (Nightflyers). The latter brings dignity and grace to such an incredibly demanding role.
20. Spider-Man: Far From Home
The first Marvel movie since the studio “ended” its saga, as well as the sequel to 2017’s bubbly reboot, Far From Home has the unenviable task of justifying the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s continuation on top of maintaining the “low to the ground,” sideways-slouched aesthetic of its predecessor. And honestly, it has way more success when it’s being a Spider-Man movie than a post-Avengers MCU movie. Yet when it succeeds, it is nothing short of jubilant about the opportunity to put on a joyful show, stopping just short of actually buttering your popcorn mid-scene. Not that you’ll want it to stop.
19. Jojo Rabbit
Even with its robust cast, and Taika Waititi’s way with both verbal humor and sight gags, the movie as a whole seems oddly evanescent. Its message, of course, is both relevant and simple, yet when weighed against the horrors of its historical setting does not quite match the latter in gravitas and potency. Jojo Rabbit is both enjoyable to watch and yet weirdly unmoving, although its pleasurable attributes outweigh the latter enough to make the film largely successful with the risks it takes. He may not be Chaplin or Lubitsch (yet), but Waititi does no dishonor to the trail they blazed.
18. Honey Boy
Shia LaBeouf is aware that his off-screen reputation and media narrative is bigger than many of the films he plays in. This is perhaps one of the smaller reasons he sought creative reclamation in Honey Boy, an intimately personal film he writes and stars in, and which acts as a poignant self-portrait. It is also a wildly inventive film for both LaBeouf, the actor, and Alma Har’el, the director. Making her first narrative feature after several documentaries, she pulls from LaBeouf’s own truth to create a bittersweet fiction bathed in authenticity, which is all the more impressive since LaBeouf refuses to actually portray himself. A semi-autobiographical piece, Honey Boy is an open invitation to study LaBeouf’s childhood in which the actor embodies a version of his father. Technically the troubled child star at the heart of the film is named Otis Lort, played as a boy of 12-years-old by Noah Jupe and 22-years-old by Lucas Hedges at different points in the film. But Har’el and LaBeouf are not shy about us making the connection. The opening shot is Hedges’ budding movie star on the edge of a breakdown as he stands in a shot with a wire on his back, waiting to be ripped away into a hazy golden-hued sunset of carnage like a million Michael Bay paper heroes.
17. Dolemite is My Name
A true heir successor to Ed Wood, Dolemite is My Name is possibly the funniest movie of 2019 and certainly the most pure in its love for putting on a show. Even if that show involves questionable martial arts choreography and rubber intestines hanging from Eddie Murphy‘s hands. Such is the world of Dolemite, an affectionate and good natured account of Rudy Ray Moore (Murphy), a lifelong entertainer who finally hits it big by writing, producing, starring in, and arguably directing his verry own blaxploitation epic. The fact that the film is of questionable quality doesn’t matter when he is giving people of color a mirror on the big screen (a rarity in 1975) and a comedy that actually plays well. Director Craig Brewer chronicles this odyssey with a sweet warmth that provides Murphy his best role in years, if not decades. It’s fantastic.
Neither comedy or tragedy, Joker is an invitation to bear witness to a searing transformation by Joaquin Phoenix. Whether your first instinct is to revel in the performance or be repulsed by it is of no apparent consequence to writer-director Todd Phillips. No matter what you do, you’re compelled to respond. There is something faintly dishonest about trying to have it both ways, but there is also something admirable. As many a comedian might tell you, it’s all about leaving an impression, and Joker’s has been haunting me for days.
15. The Last Black Man in San Francisco
Do you love your city? This is a question Jimmie Fails asks two white city transplants on a bus during the third act of The Last Black Man in San Francisco. A dogged hero who is romantic to a fault, Jimmie is the eponymous African American who has seen one setback after another in achieving his dream of reclaiming his grandfather’s historic Frisco home on a hill. Disillusioned but not depressed, Jimmie cannot fathom why these two relatively affluent young women are complaining about how much they hate this overpriced town. You cannot hate a place unless you love it. It is for that reason there is nothing but love, even in its bitterest and most melancholic shadings, that comes through in The Last Black Man in San Francisco. A lyrical note of endearment to the Golden City, and one filled with words of anguish and betrayal too, the film is a revelation for director Joe Talbot and Jimmie Fails—both the real man and the character of the same name Fails portrays onscreen.
1917 might be the most intimately photographed war movie ever produced. Already renowned for filming in a way that suggests everything takes place in a single shot, director Sam Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins’ camera sticks to the backs of its soldiers like the lice in their hair and the gnawing trench rats in their beds. That is save for one masterful shot in which a soldier runs out of a building and into a burning French village. Following LCpl Schofield (George MacKay) through a window, the camera descends onto him as he enters the apparent mouth of hell. It’s utterly horrifying, yet inescapably beautiful—a snapshot of the end of the world as everyone knew it a hundred years ago.
As a community founded on an empathy as endless as their summer sun, these true-believers keep both feet firmly planted in the old ways, lacking a modern sense of perpetual springtime or perpetual self-interest. And during the height of their midsommar solstice, they’ll smother you in kindness. Yet what’s most unnerving about this oversaturated, leafy green hell is that if you spend enough time with them, their traditions are more than inviting to contemporary eyes; they’re intoxicating.
12. The Lighthouse
At its height, German Expressionism was celebrated (and in some circles derided) for its severe unreality. During a silent film era dominated by adventure or romance, here was a style bathed in madness and psychological perversions as stark as its shadows. Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse isn’t quite pure expressionism—the young auteur is too fascinated by naturalism for that—but it may as well be with its pitiless gray skies, often desolate black and white shores, and two stormy performances by Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson that are so touched by madness that the cracks in their unblinking stares and crusty whiskers cast an unreality all their own.
11. Little Women
Picking up where Lady Bird left off, with Ronan playing an artiste spreading her wings and reluctantly leaving the nest, Greta Gerwig’s Little Women adjusts this story for a 21st century, millennial gaze in the same way earlier adaptations reflected the values of their eras. To be sure, this most certainly remains Alcott’s March Family, whose domestic lives have been immortalized for over 150 years by each generation discovering the book. But Gerwig shoots and edits their childhood revelries with a liveliness and rapidity that more closely resembles a modern indie comedy than traditional period piece stateliness.
10. The Farewell
A film about culture clash, writer-director Lulu Wang pulled from her own life for this surprisingly funny, yet ever poignant, goodbye to a loved one. The film centers on Billi (Awkwafina), a young woman who is about to say goodbye to her grandmother Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao) for the last time. The problem is, however, that Nai Nai lives in China where the custom is that loved ones do not tell their elders when they’re sick. So Billi, who moved to the United States when she was a child, must return home while pretending she is there to celebrate a cousin’s wedding… one the whole family knows is a lie in order to spend time with Nai Nai. It seems like a sad premise, yet the life and humanity percolating from this east meets west concept is warm and enduring.
Whatever minor reservations there may be about the third act will fade away quickly over time, as Us is a magnificent achievement that will reward diligent rewatching and debate for years to come. A massive effort that far exceeds its humble home invasion conceit, Jordan Peele’s sophomore effort holds as many secrets as the families it follows on both sides of the looking glass. Like the radiance of a sunrise striking fire on a crummy boardwalk’s white sand, the glow of the film’s vision outshines any of the debris it leaves in its wake.
8. The Irishman
It turns out wiseguys really can grow old. This fact of life has been obscured by both the violent ends of murdered mafiosos and the filmmakers who told their stories. Still, it remains a poignant reality for the characters in The Irishman—and the talent portraying it. Comprised of some of the greatest screen legends of their generation in front of and behind the camera, including Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Al Pacino, what is almost certainly Scorsese’s final gangster picture is akin to an Irish wake for times gone by. Be it for the generation of filmmaking they inspired, or the sort of cinematic anti-hero this film methodically eviscerates.
7. Avengers: Endgame
After 11 years and 22 films, the ongoing saga of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has come to a turning point. Avengers: Endgame serves not just as the conclusion to the story started last April in Avengers: Infinity War, but it also works to wrap up character arcs and story threads that began seven, eight, or even 10 years ago. That it does so successfully, in a massive, incredibly entertaining epic that is as emotional as it is spectacular, is due to the craft, world-building, and devotion to character empathy and development that has marked the best efforts of this franchise.
6. Marriage Story
Reminiscent of the more sophisticated comedies of the ‘70s, there is a pervasive melancholy throughout Marriage Story that makes the laughs more ludicrous and the subsequent reality unbearable. Through it all Johansson and Driver offer peerless work. One special highlight is near the end of the film where Charlie, ever the showman, can finally find the words to express his anguish by singing (in full) a musical number by Stephen Sondheim. It’s a devastating crescendo of bottled up emotion. Finally, the workaholic artist who cannot find the words to direct his own life bares it all. It is a true high-note after the preceding two hours, which featured its own chorus of tears and smiles, and an acceptance that even after the final curtain. the feelings left behind will always linger. Including the love story that remains.
As a winning directorial debut for actress Olivia Wilde, Booksmart reinvents the youth-party movie with a deft hand. Exhibiting a raucous sense of humor that has no qualms with shifting gears from the gross-out to the surreal, the filmmaker hints we’ve only seen a fraction of her talent (or sense of humor). And by presenting the story of two high school seniors who attempt to have their first evening of debauchery on the last night of school, she’s zeroed in on a central relationship so intoxicating (even before they get to the alcohol) that it can anchor an entire sea of gags and potentially unwieldy ideas. Demented, but not desperate, clever, yet never quite crass, Booksmart is ahead of the curve as a modern R-rated comedy.
4. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Most importantly, Quentin Tarantino re-contextualizes Sharon Tate as more than just the victim; she was a woman full of life and at the beginning of taking control of her career. Before she became a tragic figure and a symbol for gross internet conspiracy theorists, she was largely considered an enchanting presence her whole life, which is one of many reasons why Tate’s real-life sister has been so taken with this movie and Robbie’s performance. It gives her back her life. It also gives her that dawning sense of control over her destiny, which is crystallized when she decides to watch herself on the screen at a matinee of The Wrecking Crew (1968), an admittedly dippy James Bond knockoff starring Dean Martin. In that meta-funhouse of a film within a film, Robbie’s Tate watches the real-life Sharon engage some Bruce Lee-taught martial arts moves and be the butt of Martin’s unfunny jokes. Even so, Margot Robbie’s Sharon is exhilarated by hearing the audience respond so well to the movie.
3. Uncut Gems
As shiny as one of the film’s titular stones, there is a cutting edge to Sandler’s depiction of Howie, a New York jewel dealer, gambler, and family man who lives his life with one hand always hovering just above the self-destruct button. It’s electric to watch, but it’s more satisfying still that the Safdies utilize it as just the centerpiece in their showroom: a brilliant distraction that will draw audiences in while the film crafted around it is more intricate than it appears. Indeed, I can safely say that while Uncut Gems is an exercise in seedy pressure cooker storytelling, I have never seen a movie quite like this rascally, weird, and ultimately addictive hybrid.
2. Knives Out
The top standouts, however, in a cast full of them may be Ana de Armas and Daniel Craig. The former is appealing, enigmatic, and sympathetic as the woman who is sort of the moral center of this little universe, while the latter is having the time of his life as the suave, effortlessly cool “gentleman detective” who is the latest in a long line of literary and cinematic predecessors. Rian Johnson has said that he wouldn’t mind exploring further adventures with Blanc, and if Knives Out is a hit, and Craig is up for it as he begins the post-James Bond portion of his career, we’d like to see that happen too.
While one family, the Kims, are introduced literally occupying space below sea level in a scuzzy apartment they insist is a “semi-basement,” another lives on a hill. Scratch that, the Park family lives above the hill, complete with a landscaped and walled off garden that acts like a mini-Eden above the unseen, urban riffraff. Such are the incongruous realities of living in the same Seoul. Within this juxtaposition Bong Joon-ho presents Parasite, which premieres this week at the New York Film Festival, as a “tragi-comedy” (his words) that’s funny until it’s not. Showcasing how one enterprising family is able to latch on to the wealthier one’s fortunes, with no one being the wiser, this is a darkly amusing masterwork about the never-ending tale of two cities. All in one.