As always, it is important to stress that this list is a compilation of my ten personal favorite movies of the year, and not necessarily the “best,” though I do consider the top three to be timeless, unassailable classics. The bottom three are, on the other hand, a few that I feel have not gotten the love they deserve on lists like this one. 2019 saw feature film conclusions to two of my all-time favorite television series in Deadwood and El Camino, both of which I considered for this list before ultimately deciding to count them as TV in order to make room for other, equally worthy movies. It is a bit of a cheat, necessary because of the difficulty of ranking my ten favorites out of the 113 movies I managed to see in 2019, so allow me to indulge in a bit more cheating…
Easily my pick for Most Underrated movie of 2019 is Steven Knight’s batshit insane Body Heat/Dark City mashup Serenity, which is already beginning to develop the cult it deserves. The craziest movie of the year, though, and therefore my pick for what I call the Buckaroo Banzai Award (which I invented in 2006 when Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales angrily demanded it), is David Robert Mitchell’s stoner-noir mind-fuck Under the Silver Lake, which may or may not make sense after a few more viewings but is just chock full of transcendent moments either way. And, while I didn’t consciously exclude either category from the main list, now is a good time to mention my favorite Documentary of the Year, Penny Lane’s insightful, informative and hilarious Hail Satan?, and my favorite Animated Movie of the Year, the somewhat inessential but surprisingly great Toy Story 4.
Before we get to the main list, though, a brief bit of hate, because life is too short not to. Most Overrated movie of the year goes to Taika Waititi’s well-meaning but toothless satire Jojo Rabbit (or Moonrise Holocaust, as I am fond of calling it), but that is far from the Worst of the Year. There are enough contenders for that title to fill another list (most likely coming soon), but the most enjoyably terrible movie I caught in 2019 was Jeremy Saville’s Loqueesha, a movie possessed of a level of narcissism and technical incompetence to (almost) rival Tommy Wiseau. The absolute Worst of the Year, though, has to be The Haunting of Sharon Tate . That movie is fun for no one. Fred Durst’s John Travolta-as-stalker-Rain Man thriller The Fanatic lies somewhere in between. On to the good stuff!
- PARASITE – South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho (Snowpiercer, The Host, Memories of Murder) has made his finest film yet with this tightly controlled masterpiece of dark comedy, suspense, and heartrending social commentary. Despite the fact that it is technically a domestic drama, Parasite is the thrill-ride of the year, charging through various genre tropes and moods with incredible energy, ultimately landing on a surprisingly melancholy note. In a year stacked with cinematic triumphs, I saw nothing better than this one.
2. ONCE UPON A TIME … IN HOLLYWOOD – Quentin Tarantino’s supposedly penultimate feature feels like a swan song of sorts, an incredibly accomplished artist looking back on his legacy through the perspectives of those who created the Hollywood entertainment he grew up watching. It is a wildly entertaining tribute to an idea of a time and place that never quite existed, at least not in the way it is remembered. Beyond its wistful, Peckinpah-esque portrait of a bygone era, it is also a wonderful hangout movie, with Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio as the thoroughly lived-in lead characters, and it has the absolute Best Movie Dog of the year.
3. THE IRISHMAN/I HEARD YOU PAINT HOUSES – No, I am not cheating again and calling this one a tie, as anyone who saw Martin Scorsese’s career-defining masterwork should know. As far as I am concerned, the latter is the correct title, and The Irishman is just what we have agreed to call it for short. By any name, this is an incredible movie, a decades-spanning epic of American history that lives and dies on intimate details and calm, subtext-heavy conversations as much as its bigger moments and bursts of shocking violence. Joe Pesci and Al Pacino both make comebacks of sorts (Pesci to movies in general, and Pacino to really great movies, with this and the aforementioned Once Upon a Time …), and Robert De Niro gives an equally amazing lead performance of great subtlety and quiet tragedy. This is not likely to be Scorsese’s final film, but it nonetheless feels like a worthy finale to his astonishing career.
4. AVENGERS: ENDGAME – Yes, I intentionally put this one right next to The Irishman (which could have easily swapped places with Once Upon a Time … in my estimation) in order to address the “controversy” about Scorsese not considering the MCU movies to be cinema. To me, the fact that a (relatively) quiet, contemplative work of art like The Irishman can fit so comfortably alongside a blockbuster amusement park ride like Endgame in my mind just shows the remarkable range of what cinema can do, and I was thoroughly moved by both. In fact, seeing Endgame in a mostly packed theater at 3:30 a.m. opening weekend is easily one of the most epic and enjoyable moviegoing experiences I have ever had, and if that is not cinema, then this is easily the best amusement park ride of the year instead.
5. MIDSOMMAR – Ari Aster’s acclaimed first feature, Hereditary, could never have lived up to the reputation cultivated by six months of trailers proclaiming it the scariest movie in decades or whatever, but it did show an impressive command of the medium and a remarkably evil tone. Aster delivered on the promise of his debut in a big way with Midsommar, a darkly funny, beautifully shot Wicker Man (See Matt Cale’s stunning review)pastiche that lives up to that 1973 cult classic far better than Neil LaBute’s Nicolas Cage-starring remake (which is actually rather fascinating in its own right). This is daylight horror at its creepiest, and there are few subgenres I love more.
6. UNCUT GEMS – Scorsese’s presence looms large over 2019, not only in his own incredible work on The Irishman, but also in the equally acclaimed and reviled Joker, as well as Uncut Gems, which crackles with the nail-biting energy of Marty’s first great movie, Mean Streets. Directors Benny and Josh Safdie keep the stress mounting and Adam Sandler delivers his finest performance as doomed (basically possessed) gambling addict Howard Ratner. It is rare to see such an intimate character study also function so well as crackerjack entertainment, hilarious and tragic in equal measure.
7. JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 3 – PARABELLUM – Keanu Reeves is the greatest American action star currently working, and in this movie he absolutely demolishes a giant (former NBA player Boban Marjanovic) armed with nothing but a book in the very first fight scene. It only gets crazier from there, with Keanu’s titular badass employing everything from standard weapons like knives and guns to more unconventional ones like motorcycles and horses, but it is the strange, fascinating world-building that really makes this series stand out. Pure action cinema at its finest.
8. RELAXER – One of the weirdest and flat-out grossest movies of the year, Joel Potrykus’s apocalyptic Y2K nightmare is also one of the funniest and most original. Like Cast Away or The Life of Pi on a sofa, Relaxer is an edge-of-your-seat survivalist thriller that takes place entirely in a scuzzy living room, where Abbie (Joshua Burge) must defeat level 256 of Pac-Man to win a bet with his bizarrely abusive brother, Cam (David Dastmalchian). Potrykus and company expertly tap into the strange paranoia of the final days of the 1990s, as well as the nostalgia for that era currently overtaking the culture, and they achieve a singularly weird and unforgettable vision of weaponized sloth.
9. ONE CUT OF THE DEAD – This highly meta Japanese comedy is continually unpredictable, positioning itself as a movie-within-a-movie before breaking down even more walls to reveal a surprisingly sensitive and poignant center within all the madness. Its layers of repetition and subjective reality recall Alfred Leslie’s classic experimental short The Last Clean Shirt , but it is also a hell of a good time, beyond its more academic pleasures. Anyone looking for a groundbreaking zombie movie will be disappointed (try 2016’s excellent Train to Busan instead), but anyone who has ever worked on a low-budget movie set will be delighted.
10. DRAGGED ACROSS CONCRETE – S. Craig Zahler is perhaps the most underappreciated writer-director working today, as evidenced by the token one week in New York City theaters his latest feature received. Though it is my least favorite of his movies so far (after Bone Tomahawk and the gut-wrenchingly awesome Brawl in Cell Block 99, which has only continued to grow in my estimation over the past two years), Dragged is still far superior to 90 percent of the movies released in any given year. Full of moral complexity, well drawn characters, and novelistic detail, this is a crime movie for the ages, as well as one very specifically rooted in our here and now.