2019 was a flat-out incredible year for film. Even discounting stuff I haven’t seen yet like A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood, Knives Out, and Uncut Gems, I had to fight myself repeatedly in trying to come up with something as arbitrary as the top 10 best movies I saw this year. In a 365 day period in which I saw 31 of the movies that dropped, You’d have to get to maybe the bottom 5 before you’re even talking about movies I lightly disliked1.
In fact, I normally detest rankings, as I feel that any ranking I make today won’t hold up even 24 hours later as my thoughts and mood evolve. Nevertheless, this is my best opportunity to dive into some amazing films from a year where I’ve had much less chance to write about them than I might have hoped. Without further ado, here’s my top 10 for 2019:
10 – Gemini Man
Ang Lee is a storyteller of operatic emotions, told with a repressed interiority. While he has had a varied career in terms of ultimate quality, one thing has remained fairly consistent across the breadth of his work, and that’s an earnest and honest engagement with the way his characters feel about the stories they are living. You see this in films like Hulk, where every character is given a unique and singular point of view about the traumas they share. Rather than follow the trend at the time to make an empty effects-driven cash-in when given a comics property, Ang Lee chose to make a cerebral melodrama about the effects of abuse and repression in the face of childhood trauma.
Similarly, when given a shot at making a high-concept thriller about a wounded assassin facing his own clone, Ang Lee presents the story in terms of how these characters reckon with this concept as human beings. The movie isn’t content to let the concept work as a draw, to then be undermined or neglected. The outlandishness of the premise is given a sort of thematic heft it would not normally be afforded in a blockbuster by the grace of Lee and the cast working in harmony to explore aging, obsolescence, and the humanity of those who choose (or are chosen) to serve society through armed combat. What’s possibly most exciting about Lee’s approach is how much dignity is afforded to every single character, including the clones. It’s almost the antithesis of Michael Bay’s approach, where characters are purely existent to progress his manufactured moments, and then almost disdainfully discarded.
Beyond the earnestness with which Lee wrestles with his themes, the action filmmaking on display is jaw-dropping, especially because of Lee’s choice to film in 60fps HFR. There’s a motorcycle chase through Colombia in this film that stands toe-to-toe with the best action scenes of the decade. Some wonky effects work in the fights aside, the action is immediate, immersive, and intensely thrilling, without ever sacrificing the humanity of the characters.
9 – Lords Of Chaos
When I was in high school and college, I was obsessed with metal. Metal was the way that I related to others. I’ve been a musician my entire life, and up to that point, no form of music ever spoke to my love of composition and immediacy of emotion quite the way that metal did. However, anyone familiar with not only metal, but all forms of counter-cultural music built on extremism of craft is familiar with the darker side of that coin; the pursuit of the next barrier to break. Metal and punk at their essence are built on provocation. It builds a community based upon pushing the envelope. With that sometimes comes a form of pride and ownership that, more often than not, leads to the kind of gatekeeping and purity-testing that alienates the casual explorer. Anyone unable to keep up is a ‘poser’.
During this time, I read the book Lords of Chaos: The Bloody Rise of the Satanic Metal Underground, which explicitly chronicles the extreme Black Metal scene in early 90s Norway, complete with provocation, nationalist extremism, murder, and terrorism. I was shocked and excited by the story of these kids not much older than I was building the most vicious and extreme form of music they could conceive of, and changing the face of their own sleepy country while they disintegrated into fascism and violence. When it was announced that there would finally be an adaptation of this book, I was extremely dubious about it, given what I assumed would be the natural inclination to paint some of these people as protagonists, when at best they were performative transgressivists and at worst, vile homophobic facsist murderers. But Jonas Åkerlund (formerly of the band Bathory) was not interested in sugarcoating the past or sanding down the edges.
Åkerlund and his cast (an exceptional young crew including Jack Kilmer, Sky Ferreira, and a terrifyingly pathetic Emory Cohen) commit to unfolding the story of ambition, childish transgression, small-town ennui and the ultimate emptiness of provocation for its own sake. Mostly told from the point of view of the murdered Euronymous, founder of the form, Lords of Chaos is one of the most honest and unflinching explorations of the fragile male psyche at the heart of extreme music I’ve ever seen. While the film displays sympathy for the loneliness and immaturity of its subjects, it never once lets them off the hook for the damage they have left in their wake. It’s a brutal and emotional look at the consequences of egotistical provocateurism, and the tragedy of realizing too late the cost of your soul.
8 – John Wick: Chapter Three – Parabellum
Counterpoint to the last 2 movies: Murder is awesome. As the Dead Milkmen once said: Violence rules.
In my top 10 for 2017, I said of John Wick: Chapter Two, “As surprising and delightful as the original is, it would be folly to try to replicate the specific alchemy that birthed it.” While I think this series has done an excellent job of tinkering with the mixture of world-building and virtuosic hyperviolence, I must admit that I felt the second installment lost a step when it comes to pulling us into John’s specific mindframe. The movie was by its nature meant to distance us a little from the legendary hitman, in demonstrating just how all-consuming his reawoken wrath could become. Where that film bridged the gap with relentlessly crafted and executed setpieces, this installment aims to slow things down just a hair as John tries to rescue some semblance of his life, if not his humanity.
This is not to say that the action in this chapter is any less impressive. In fact, I’d wager that Chapter Three ups the ante in every way over the second film, creating an intricate and escalating brutal ballet while pulling you back into John’s POV by adding new characters, alliances, and reintroducing more personal stakes to the series. By introducing Halle Berry, Mark Dacoscos, and Asia Kate Dillon and squaring them off against returning stars Ian McShane, Lance Reddick, and Lawrence Fishburne, this film creates a more complex and involving dynamic than Chapter Two. It’s more reflective of the first film, which squared Willem Dafoe against Michael Nyqvist as a nice framework to house John’s story.
This movie has twin malanois with little combat vests who rip everyone apart at Halle Berry’s command so I’d put it at number 1 if I were being totally honest.
7 – Ad Astra
“I always wanted to become an astronaut, for the future of mankind and all. At least, that’s what I always told myself. I see myself from the outside. Smile, present a side. It’s a performance, with my eye on the exit. Always on the exit. Just don’t touch me.”
A movie that has already proven plenty divisive amongst the writers at Lewton Bus, Ad Astra came out of nowhere and grabbed tightly onto my psyche. James Gray managed to transcend a difficult edit to deliver a contemplative and vulnerable exploration of isolation, delusion, self-destruction, and catharsis, framed against one of the most beautifully static backdrops I can remember in decades. Bold in the ways that Interstellar was not, Ad Astra wears its broken heart on its sleeve and explores the way that we cut ourselves off from others, chasing the love we never had. In the final half hour, it commits firmly to that metaphor, demonstrating how seeking the idealized fathers we crave at the expense of the lives we build will roll across everything we know in a slow cataclysm. Brad Pitt’s woundedly stoic Roy McBride wears his neglect and his dysphoria like a badge of professional pride, all the while the world is literally crumbling around him. Given one last chance to repair the damage in his life as he sees it, it’s the subtly shifting vista around him that tells the real story, all the while he doggedly pulls on the thread of his own isolated pain, until he’s come to the limits of his known universe to make his choice about the man he wants to be. This is the point where Ad Astra recontextualized itself from a movie that I appreciated, despite some unnecessary and distracting voiceover, into a movie that clicked fully into place for me. It’s one of the most somber, beautiful, dirgelike, yet hopeful movies of the decade.
6 – Us
With Get Out Jordan Peele showed us he could transcend comedy roots to deliver horror that stands up firmly in the Serling/Hitchcock tradition. Only his second feature, Us already feels like a bit of a quantum evolution in style and storytelling, with Peele aiming squarely at the more Kubrickian influences (that’s not to say he abandons his higher concept leanings, at all). While Us frankly didn’t have the same kind of immediate impact on me that Get Out did, it absolutely lingered in my head, slowly unraveling for longer. If the first film is a direct and immediate hit of awe and surprise, this film is a firm statement that Jordan Peele is not looking to pigeonhole himself as some sort of woke-horror avatar. Us’s layers are a lot more complex and mutable, and the film itself is more intriguing and involving because of it. The central concept of the film is undeniably about class and American privilege, but this is also a movie that actively resists fitting into a tidy metaphorical jigsaw outside of the simple truth that for one to live in comfort, another suffers silently. The real joy of the film is an incredible cast, led by Lupita Nyong’o doing the best work of her career, navigating an increasingly menacing and evolving series of setpieces based on that dread you can only feel when you look across a dimly lit street to see a figure staring directly at you, intent unknown. By the end of Us, that dread is applied at an apocalyptic scale, leaving the precise nature of tomorrow an alien concept.
5 – Marriage Story
Until this year, I had never seen a film by Noah Baumbach. His particular type of story is frankly not very appealing to me in general. With Marriage Story, I had heard so much from other writers about the incredible performances, I decided to give him a go. I was floored. While Adam Driver is already one of our most exciting modern actors, the performances across the entire film are mesmerizing and incredibly realized. Particularly that of Scarlett Johansson, who is neck and neck with Lupita Nyong’o in my mind for Best Actress on the strength of this performance. Were the cast the only standout, I think Marriage Story would have ended up much lower on my list, but the way this film frames the dissolution of a relationship, and the inexorable path from private to communal fallout is riveting, tragic, hilarious, and honest. Driver and Johansson are given pathos and imperfection to live in, but we never lose empathy for either of them along the way. The visual storytelling Baumbach employs to put us directly into their POV from moment to moment is totally engaging. Marriage Story is the most precisely and warmly executed version of this particular kind of story that I can readily remember. I’ll be living with these characters in my head for years to come.
4 – The Irishman
Every aspect of the online discourse surrounding The Irishman makes me wish that cyberpunk terrorists from Shadowrun would destroy the Internet. For some unknowable reason, Martin Scorsese’s poetic, ruminative dirge on the nature of his own career in totality has unleashed nothing but bad-faith bickering and self-important squabbling. If there exists a dichotomy of modern film for you that you can either love and appreciate the work of a cabal of our greatest living cinematic masters, painting a vulnerable and lyrical portrait of the nature of legacy, or you can enjoy popular cinema based upon beloved four-color characters who have impacted generations, then you should probably stop watching movies. They’re doing you no good.
But that is all beside the point that in The Irishman, Scorcese has concluded his 2010s journey into the true dichotomy of human ego and faith. An engrossing and enigmatic exploration of the stories we weave and the stories we tell ourselves in the lonely cold light of day, as the firelight myths and the companions we shared them with slowly fade from view. The fact that via Netflix, Scorsese was able to pull together $200 million and one of the most impressive ensembles in history to tell this deeply personal and inexplicable tale of reflection and regret is a minor miracle. And it’s one that I would much preferred to have spent the waning hours of 2019 and potentially Scorsese’s career discussing.
3 – Doctor Sleep
Few films this year have stayed with me and refused to let go in quite the way that Doctor Sleep has managed. I’ve been a fan of Mike Flanagan’s work (and I quite liked the novel the film is based on), and I was excited for this based on the cast and subject matter alone. On paper (or on screen), a long term legasequel to both Kubrick’s and King’s defining works sounds potentially dire. But the beating heart of kindness and redemption at the center of both of these works acquits them ably, and that’s before you even realize how stunningly humane this film and its portrayals are. This has been a massively tough year for me and those close to me. Overwork, health emergencies, and death itself have exacted personal tolls while the world around me seems to be constantly sliding into chaos and fear at all times.
During a particularly tough time, I saw Doctor Sleep, and it’s not been far from my mind and my heart, since. In telling the story of little Danny Torrance, a span of decades and demons removed from the events that took place in The Shining, Flanagan zeroes in on the inherent brokenness of an adult Dan. Borne of a trauma that began before he ever set foot in the Overlook, Dan’s alcoholism and constant psychic terror form a cloak for his repression and deep inherited rage. Ewan McGregor gives a masterfully subtle performance as a man who has run out of places to store the horrors inflicted upon him during a life of constant indignity. Where the film gains wings is in Dan’s heartfelt journey toward healing through service to others. First, to the terminal residents of his hospice, whom he grants companionship and comfort in their final hours, and second in the fiery little girl, struggling with the same gifts he possesses, who is therefore a target for depraved and hungry avatars of the greed and cruelty of our world. Dan has to weigh the security and peace he’s finally scratched out against his reawakened empathy and drive to care for those who are lost. The intense central battle within Dan to preserve and protect his found family or to succumb to the demons ready to devour him is vibrantly realized by a cast wholly committed to this vision, and to telling a story that is unwavering in presenting genuine emotional stakes, and a real empathy for the vulnerable souls at stake.
While many have struggled with the more bombastic and literal approach of this film’s climax, I found it to be a gripping metaphor for the ways that we have to learn to use our darker aspects to wrestle light into the world at any cost. And when that light seems most at risk, Dan Torrance’s words give me the strength to keep fighting:
“We go on.”
2 – Dolemite Is My Name
In the performance of his career, Eddie Murphy has become a legend by telling the story of a legend. Craig Brewer’s biographical comedy Dolemite Is My Name chronicles Rudy Ray Moore’s tireless quest to create a place in this world. A legacy that will show the world that he was here, and that he mattered. Along the way, he creates a retinue of cast-offs and oddballs (including an incredible performance by Wesley Snipes), swept up in his boundless enthusiasm for his own impossibly ambitious dream. Dolemite Is My Name is a fucking blast. It’s basically a movie that was made for me at 15, that celebrates the kind of unbridled creativity, hubris, and willpower that creates art that actually matters. The whole reason I even write about film is because of the kind of pure expression and anti-elite sentiment that this movie celebrates. This movie is my source. This movie is the most punk rock shit I’ve seen in decades.
1 – Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood
If I could drink this movie out of a bottle, I would do it (and then yell at myself in the mirror about it the next day in my trailer). Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, the 9th film by Quentin Tarantino, is a paean to the dying days of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Continuing his trend of alt-history revisionism, it circles the lives of fictional and real life stars of that liminal period where the 60s gave way to the 70s, and the American identity of film was shockingly and irrevocably altered as New Hollywood was born. Essentially a fairytale, the film imagines a world in which a great tragedy was avoided, on the back of a near-marital friendship between an actor quickly approaching washed-up and his stunt double / go-fer / lifemate, who is quickly approaching washed out. Featuring possibly the best performances Leo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt have ever given, this is also the warmest and sweetest film that Quentin Tarantino has ever made. In framing the story on the periphery of a great evil (the Manson family) gathering above the charmed and angelic princess, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie at her most divine and adorable), Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood plays with the mythology and iconography of a bygone era in fabulous ways. But the central friendship of Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth is the shining star in the crown. While Rick’s all flabbergasted and woeful anxiety, bemoaning the chances he pissed away, Cliff Booth’s manful support and steel give him the stability and strength he needs to get out of bed in the morning. Cliff may be a pure monster, living off of Rick’s charity, but at this point in their lives they’re holeplessly lost without one another. The scene where Rick is thrilled that Cliff will sit and watch the episode of FBI he’s guested on (scored by their banal discussion of filming locations and scene partners who are pricks) is one of the most absurdly touching moments of 2019. When Cliff is unceremoniously hauled away in an ambulance so that Rick can enter the gates to Movie Star Heaven, it feels like the perfect goodbye to an era built on the backs of goons like this. Knights Errant in the crusade of the ridiculous industry that is Hollywood.
This is the film Quentin Tarantino has been waiting his entire career to make.
Spider-Man: Far From Home – The best-directed movie Marvel has made in a few years. This thing is a triumph for the studio.
6 Underground – When Michael Bay creates such an outstanding jolt of adrenaline that it almost makes my top 10 of the year, you better pay attention.
Alita: Battle Angel – I can’t believe how adorable and bad-ass and fun and emotional this movie is. Y’all did it dirty in the multiplex.
- For anyone who cares to do so, you can see my full ranking on LetterBoxd