This year was an embarrassment of riches when it comes to quality filmmaking. Long-established directors were firing on all cylinders, while new talents were upping their game. Top-tier work could be found at all levels, from megaplexes to arthouses and even on demand.
So, while these are my picks for the best of 2019, they are not the only great films of the year. If your list is different, we’d love to see it!
1. The Nightingale
3. Little Women
5. Uncut Gems
7. The Farewell
8. The Irishman
10. In Fabric
Please note that The Nightingale is one of the most harrowing, disturbing films I’ve ever seen. This is recognition, not recommendation. If you consider yourself a movie-lover in the sense that you enjoy a night out at the pictures, this is not that. If you’re a believer in the power of cinema to explore the most essential problems of humanity, including our most ugly, violent, and vicious tendencies and the systems we create to enshrine those vices (colonialism, private property, human servitude, and slavery), then you have to recognize The Nightingale as an unmitigated masterpiece.
After assembling this list, I was struck by the prevalence of sophomore features. Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale, Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, Jordan Peele’s Us, Ari Aster’s Midsommar, and Lulu Wang’s The Farewell are all the second full-length films for their respective directors. It’s a fascinating trend; the follow-up is usually where the wunderkind stumbles, but not only do these films succeed on their own terms, they each show a singular and uncompromised vision for what are sure to be long, rewarding careers behind the camera.
For the more established directors, we saw a tendency toward reflection and self-examination. Many of Martin Scorsese’s films feature characters on a collision course with one of two outcomes: death or regret. The Irishman works as a coda to the excitement of Goodfellas; in the latter, Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) never lost the gleam in his eye from a life of crime; he simply acted out of self-preservation and wishes he could still live his old life. Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), on the other hand, outlasts and outsmarts everyone, but can you consider yourself a successful criminal if the end of your life is spent wishing for repentance?
Quentin Tarantino, similarly, digs deeper on his prototypical hero in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood. Long an admirer of 1960s and ’70s pop culture, his dive into the making of Hollywood mythology questions what it means to be that archetype. Is it all great clothes, tough attitudes, and excellent soundtracks? How much of it is fed by toxicity, and how complicit are we in overlooking the dirty deeds of those we admire? Fun, funny, and endearing in its own right, it’s also his most thoughtful film yet.
With more space we could examine our remaining three films: Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, the Safdies’ Uncut Gems, and Peter Strickland’s In Fabric, but let’s summarize it this way: producers, please finance any films these people want to make. Audiences, please see any film of theirs that gets produced.