List: Top 10 Movies of 2019 (JD Duran)
Making a Top 10 list is always difficult, but especially when a year ends in the ways that 2019 did with its robust fall season. Starting with Once Upon A Time in Hollywood at the end of the summer, the fall snowballed drastically as it incessantly gave us one great film after another with the likes of Ad Astra, The Irishman, Marriage Story, Little Women, A Hidden Life, Knives Out, Parasite, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Pain & Glory, The Lighthouse, Invisible Life, Uncut Gems, I Lost My Body, Honey Boy, Waves, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, The Report, The Peanut Butter Falcon and so many more. The list goes on and on. It even gave us stellar documentaries such as For Sama and One Child Nation. And while the first half of 2019 wasn’t always memorable, we still got the likes of Us, High Life, The Beach Bum, The Mustang, Her Smell, Wild Rose, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, and few others as well, all film I really loved. Mainstream films in 2019 may have been lesser than, but a big shoutout to Avengers: Endgame, which I adored with every fiber in my being. It just misses my Top 20 and sits at #21, but it’s by far the best blockbuster of the year and a great ending to that saga. All in all, a little inconsistent, but 2019 ended up being a great year overall.
We do encourage you to listen to Episode 360 to hear more about our picks, but as we do every year, listed here is my Top 20 of 2019. It pains me that not all of these films could be in my Top 10 (and trust me, I tried), but math is math, so what are you going to do? That being said (after the jump), let’s get into it and go over my Top 10 Movies of 2019.
10. Once Upon A Time in Hollywood
There’s a chance that some of you will think this is too low on my list, but trust me, I love Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time in Hollywood. It’s the film from Tarantino that I’ve been yearning for since Jackie Brown in that we get to see more of the tender and poignant side of him that we’ve only experienced in small chunks in his previous films. And while I adore Tarantino’s screenplay, I think it’s his direction that renders the film’s emotion more resonate. Where Once thrives the most is in its more quiet tranquil moments. It’s in Cliff and Rick just hanging out, it’s Cliff at Spahn ranch compassionately checking in on a friend, it’s Rick having an emotional moment with a young actress, it’s Sharon Tate enjoying a screening of a movie she’s in, it’s in how movies become a savior at the end rendering redemption for all three of its main characters. Those moments don’t carry weight because of what’s in the screenplay, but rather Tarantino’s sublime direction. There’s a tenderness to Once Upon A Time in Hollywood that’s soaked in nostalgia and heartache for what happened to Sharon Tate in real life. So Tarantino creates a space for him to explore the power of movie saviorism, and that’s to me his revisionist history approach works here, even more so than Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained. Click here to listen to our full review.
9. Ad Astra
I’m very much on the record of being a fan of Terrence Malick, so as you could imagine, it was really fascinating to see James Gray essentially channeling his inner Malick with Ad Astra. And I cannot emphasize that enough as there are healthy doses of that patented Malick poetic wandering and reflecting, coupled with elegantly laid voiceover and glimpses of flashback to demonstrate characters pondering on life circumstances. Not to mention that aesthetically, all of that is channeled through an ethereal ambiance that never relents, especially thanks to Max Richter’s incredibly stirring and graceful score. The only thing missing in Ad Astra is a space wheat field for Brad Pitt to run his fingers though. But I loved all of that because Ad Astra is a film about abandonment, emotional lostness, and a yearning for closure. Ideas that come through palpably, and not just because of James Gray’s direction, but Brad Pitt’s career-best performance. Yep, you heard that right. I think it’s his very best. It’s an understated performance that impeccably taps into Roy’s turmoil and his eagerness to find the truth. It’s almost spiritual in a way, and I think that’s why overall this film feels more Malickian to me than something like Apocalypse Now, which most seem to compare it to, and I was very moved by it all. Then add in space pirates, space monkeys, and an Andrei Tarkovsky Mars sequence and you have one of the very best movies of 2019. Click here to listen to our full review.
8. A Hidden Life
Speaking of Terrence Malick, he’s back in a big way. Aesthetically speaking, A Hidden Life is classic Terrence Malick in how it channels his patented poeticism. There’s plenty of voice over to help navigate the audience through the mostly introspective performances and visual storytelling. The cinematography and imagery by Jörg Widmer is nothing short of breathtaking. The way he uses the camera, the close ups on his actors, the natural light he captures, it’s all vividly evocative. The way Malick edits between sequences continues to be uniquely his rhythm and style. James Newton Howard’s score is heavenly and exquisite in every way, a major factor to the film’s arresting emotion. Simply from how it moves and breathes, it’s everything you would expect from Malick. The big difference with A Hidden Life is that there’s a narrative backbone that’s linear and rather easy to follow. And we just haven’t seen that with Malick the last few years, but it goes a very long way as we see Franz wrestle with his faith + how he sticks to his convictions regardless of the cost. That’s not only accessible narratively, but I love how attainable its dualities are thematically. Given Franz’s choices and the ramifications that come about, you could argue that what he does is very selfish as there are consequences toward his wife Fani their three girls. However, at the same time, what he’s doing is clearly affable and honorable as well. Those dichotomies are fascinating, and what it says about faith and the difficulties of having conviction in a secular world that does not care about your faith is provocative. A Hidden Life is also moving because of its great romance. Valerie Pachner and August Diehl create something that will linger with me for a long time. Click here to listen to our full review.
7. Wild Rose
My love for Wild Rose has no bounds. This film arguably moved me more than anything else I saw in 2019. But it’s not just a subjective pick for me, I think it’s objectively one of the best films of the year as well. I’ve seen a lot of criticism about Nicole Taylor’s screenplay and how some find it “trite.” I’m sorry, but I find that notion disingenuous and reductive. The conventional version of this film sees Rose-Lynn overcome her adversity, move to Nashville and witness her dreams come to reality. That’s the Hollywood version of this story. Forgive me if this is too spoiler-y, but that’s not at all what happens. This is more Inside Llewyn Davis in how Rose-Lynne ends up in the end exactly where she started in the beginning, with the difference of her having a massive emotional progression throughout the film. So, I think Taylor’s screenplay does a great job of avoiding trite expectations regarding Rose-Lynn’s dream of becoming a country music star, and instead it’s really more of a movie about her realizing the costs of those dreams as it relates to her parental responsibility. And there’s a specificity to that dichotomy that I haven’t really ever seen in a film like this, which is another reason I find those criticisms absurd. As you may have heard on the show, the examination of that duality in Rose-Lyne destroyed me emotionally. Parents have dreams too. They have ambition. But at what cost are we willing to go after them when it comes to our kids? Watching Rose-Lynn grapple with that was intensely personal and relatable to me. Jessie Buckley gives a performance of the decade. She’s stunning in Wild Rose. And that last song at the end…well I can’t talk about it without welling up. Click here to listen to our full review.
6. The Farewell
There are two films in my Top 10 that blow my mind that they were directed by first-time filmmakers (Lulu Wang has stated in interviews that she considers this her directorial debut), and this is one of them. It’s a beautiful film about morality, duality and coming to terms with cultural differences that you may not wholly agree with, but you still respect and honor. The nuances of that in Lulu Wang’s screenplay is staggering. But as I mentioned in our Awards show, it’s also in her direction with how she manages tone, the film’s editing and pacing, and in how she uses the camera to capture this small part of China. In how she captures these characters who are conflicted about this particular lie they are having to carry. It’s sublime writing and direction. Not enough good things can be said about Awkwafina’s performance. She was a Best Actress nominee for me, and for very good reason. She gives an engrossing performance that’s funny in parts, while being dramatically inviting and emotionally stirring as well. Especially as Billi’s conflicted feelings start to boil up, eventually spilling over into catharsis near the end. There’s just so much texture to what she does in this film. Then add in the best supporting actress of the year for me in Zhao Shuzen, a first-time actress that slays every second she’s on screen. The Farewell is one of the ore thought provoking films of the year. I think there’s a fascinating conversation to be had about what you would do in this situation. Would you want to know the truth? Or would you want it hidden from you? I love how the film provokes that discussion and how Lulu examines it through the lens of cultural differences. Click here to listen to our full review.
5. The Last Black Man in San Francisco
Joe Talbot’s The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a stunner. This is the other film by a first-time filmmaker on my list that’s hard to believe it was done by a newcomer. Talbot’s direction is incredibly inspired and wildly creative. The cinematography is astounding and a nominee for me for Best Cinematography. The song “San Francisco” is breathtaking and a nominee for me for Best Use of Soundtrack Music. The performances that Talbot gets from his actors is incredible, especially Jonathan Majors who was my best supporting actor of the year. The score by Emile Mosseri was another nominee for me, and might be my #2 score of 2019. Everything about The Last Black Man in San Francisco is gorgeous, and it all starts with Talbot’s captivating vision and control. But it’s more than just a technical exercise. It’s a powerful film about gentrification, identity and nostalgia we have for places. Even more interesting, the film digs into the notion that we don’t have to be defined by walls and spaces or how the circumstances we find ourselves in, but rather “people are more than one thing” as Monte says at one point. A brilliant and moving film that I absolutely adore. Click here to listen to our full review.
4. Her Smell
The fact that Her Smell isn’t my #1 speaks to how great of a year 2019 ended up being. Along with Wild Rose, Her Smell is the film that moved me the most this year. They’re also great companion pieces in how they’re both about music and motherhood, and feature a stunning lead actress. Elizabeth Moss gives a performance for the ages in Her Smell. It’s the best performance of 2019, period, as far as I’m concerned. The first three acts are agonizing to watch as Becky incessantly spiral’s out of control. She’s fiercely monstrous, explosive, and even harrowing at times as she uncertainly roams around terrorizing those around her. It’s incredibly tense and anxious to watch. But then those last two acts come, and it gloriously rewards your investment as Becky transitions from anarchy, and detours down this path of redemption, love, regret and finding her true self. Moss gives extraordinary credence to both Becky’s fragile downfall and her journey of seeking redemption. It’s also in Alex Ross Perry’s writing and directing, which for my money is equally as important to the film. The way he uses the camera, he way he edits and stages each scene, the way he paces this film, it’s all very good. I cannot begin to articulate what the “piano scene” did to me emotionally. Slayed me. There’s already something endearing about watching someone overcome their demons and addictions, but when it’s rooted in parenthood, I can’t help but me moved by it even more. And seeing Becky transform her life for her daughter…I’m welling up again. Click here to listen to our full review.
Parasite is exactly why we go to the movies. It’s quintessentially what we love about cinema. It’s aesthetically evocative. The camerawork and imagery is ravishing. It’s narratively thrilling, with some of the best twists we’ve seen in recent years. It’s dramatically riveting. That house escape sequence is one of the best scenes of 2019, and the action toward the film’s climax is tensely sensational. The performances all around are mesmerizing. This is quite easily one of the best ensemble casts of the year. Cinematically speaking, it doesn’t get a whole lot better than this. Then you add in the film’s themes on class and it’s even more enthralling. Which is interesting because class dynamics aren’t anything new in Bong Joon-ho’s films, but what makes him such a prolific filmmaker is the varying ways in how he taps into it. And what he does with this film is nothing short of brilliant, especially with how he makes every character both loathsome and tragic. At some pt you question everyone’s morals, but you also sympathize with their humanity. And that’s very important as Parasite gets deeper into its politics, and we see the gap between the Kim family and the Park family begin to widen more, and more, and more. Until we realize that no matter what the Kim’s do, no matter how far they infiltrate, the inevitable truth is that they’re always going to be trapped. They’re always going to be second tier in society. A notion that is devastating when we see what happens in the end and the ramifications that come to the Kim family. It’s truly heartbreaking. But also beautiful and stimulating. Click here to listen to our full review.
2. Little Women
There really is no disparity between my #1 and #2 films of 2019 (and even Parasite at #3 really, they’re all interchangeable). Little Women is so incredibly charming and fun. In fact, to say that it’s charming is almost a disservice as I’m not sure there are enough words to describe how charming this film is. It savors every once of joy and is just endlessly delightful. But it’s also quite poignant and thematically invigorating as well, giving the film deeply rooted texture that’s as cinematically enthralling as it is striking in its commentary. There’s a lot that’s been said about how it examines the roles women play in society, and the way Gerwig toys with those tropes is endlessly fascinating for all the reasons we mentioned in the Awards show when talking about Greta Gerwig’s screenplay. The way she adapts this material, while implementing elements of Louisa May Alcott’s real life, is nothing short of masterful. She even throws in a few touches of originality because of how inspired Gerwig was to make this film. As a result, the film’s themes on independence, family, love and ownership are palpably riveting. That ending scene with all of that comes together, both dramatically but also in a meta way, is astounding. And this cast…wow. Talk about one of the best ensemble casts of the year. There is so much to love about Little Women. It’s probably the film of 2019 that I revisit the most. Click here to listen to our full review.
1. Marriage Story
Other than Her Smell or Wild Rose, no other film in 2019 emotionally wrecked me like Marriage Story. I was stunned by it. And for me it all comes down to the film’s symmetry, and how Noah Baumbach builds that within his writing and directing. His diligence and care for both characters allows for us to love both Nicole and Charlie equally, seeing both of their flaws and mistakes, while also witnessing how we loving and tender they are at the same time. Especially when it comes to their son Henry and how they want the best for him, no matter what inconveniences them. And that’s exactly why I love the film’s title, and the irony of it. Yes, it’s a divorce story practically speaking, but there’s still a marriage of ideas, parental philosophies and life mechanics that are still very much at play, even though Nicole and Charlie’s legal marriage is now gone. The film is no doubt moving with what these characters go through, but it’s clear that Baumbach wanted to exhibit that this process doesn’t have to be a nightmarish event. Particularly when children are involved in it. Baumbach has stated that this was always meant to be a love letter to something that most people don’t see as a good moment in their lives, and that’s the true irony of the film. And why it’s so affecting. Some people want to debate their allegiances or whose side the film stands with this most, and that conversation is insanely futile and reductive. Because Marriage Story compassionately loves all of its characters, and it’s heartbroken for Nicole and Charlie. It deeply empathizes with them both and sets out to examine the beauty of their story. And boy, did I find that beauty. Not just because of Baumbach’s screenplay either, it’s also because of his powerful directing. This is the most inspired he’s ever been behind the camera, and it shows. His camerawork and editing here is absolutely remarkable. The film may open with great symmetry at the hands of his screenplay, but the symmetry in that closing scene is all about his direction, composition and visual storytelling. Breathtaking in every way. Click here to listen to our full review.
To round out my Top 20, here is the rest of my list:
11) Portrait of a Lady on Fire
12) The Irishman
14) Pain and Glory
15) The Lighthouse
16) Uncut Gems
17) High Life
18) The Nightingale
19) Knives Out
Let us know what you think. Do you agree or disagree? We’d like to know why. Leave a comment in the comment section below or tweet us @InSessionFilm.