The more I do this, the more it seems wrong to call these the “best” movies when I only saw a fraction of the entries. Well over 1,300 new films were released in the U.S. this year; I saw a couple hundred of them. And that’s just the U.S.! So it should be “Best Movies Among Those I Watched, Which Wasn’t Many, Comparatively Speaking.” But that’s too long a title, bad for SEO.
Six of these are wholly original (including #9 and #10, which are semi-autobiographical); two (#1 and #8) are based on true stories; and the other two (#5 and #7) are original pieces of fiction loosely inspired by true stories. There were good sequels, remakes, and franchise entries this year, too, but it turns out the stuff I liked best was original.
THE BEST MOVIES OF 2019
The way director Dexter Fletcher incorporates music and emotion into Elton John’s life story — energetic, imaginative musical numbers; an impressionistic approach to history — should be instructive to anyone making a rock biopic hereafter. Taron Egerton shows range and vulnerability as a man who spends his life struggling to feel worthy of love, and the audience falls in love with Elton John.
Rich vs. poor was a big theme this year, never more shrewdly than in Bong Joon-ho’s funny, farcical, tense, and shocking account of a family of strivers who weasel their way into the employ of a rich, clueless family. As a society, we did a great job of recommending this movie to people without hinting at anything that happens in its wholly unforeseeable second half. Well done, everybody.
What happens when two stoic men are confined to a lighthouse together, slowly going mad? You get hallucinations, farts, and two striking performances by Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson in Robert Eggers’ fabulously unnerving follow-up to The Witch.
Issa López’s magical-realist urban fairy tale about Mexican street children running from drug lords is a perfect example of how genre films can help us engage with real-world crises without being overwhelmed by their brutal realities. López doesn’t shy away from the tragedy and violence of Mexico’s drug war, but she still presents the kids as kids, full of imagination and playfulness even while negotiating for their lives. Such a beautiful film in such a bleak setting.
5. The Irishman
The gangster movies of Martin Scorsese account for something like 20 percent of his total output, but they’re so iconic that some people think it’s the only kind of movie he makes. (A lot of those people probably think he directed The Godfather, though.) The Irishman, an engrossing, sprawling, funny, tragic epic, does employ some of Scorsese’s favorite themes (and actors), but it’s the kind of mature, introspective entertainment that could only come from a veteran filmmaker looking back on his career.
6. Knives Out
A gloriously clever and funny whodunit from Rian Johnson (Brick, The Brothers Bloom, Looper, Star Wars: The Last Jedi), who’s now five-for-five on smart, entertaining high-concept movies. This one makes great use of its large ensemble cast as it glides through the Agatha Christie tropes in the service of a genuinely unpredictable story.
Not happy with merely killing Hitler in Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino revises history again with what is essentially a buddy comedy set around the time of the Charles Manson murders, with Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt as a fading Hollywood star and his stuntman. Their friendship might be the most affecting of any pair in a QT movie. (I also appreciate that over the course of the year we dropped the ellipsis from QT’s version: Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.)
Easily the most wholesome and good-hearted movie on this list, Marielle Heller’s not-a-biopic about a cynical journalist whose life is changed through his interactions with Mister Rogers (a perfectly cast Tom Hanks) has just enough weirdness and melancholy to keep it from being sappy.
9. Marriage Story
Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson are both excellent as creative theater types going through a divorce. Noah Baumbach’s approach isn’t Kramer vs. Kramer, though: The movie is surprisingly funny, albeit with moments of gut-wrenching emotion (more potent, I suspect, if you’ve been married). Laura Dern, Ray Liotta, and Alan Alda help immensely as three lawyers with very different approaches to the law.
You’d never know this was the first film by director Joe Talbot and writer/star Jimmie Fails, as thoughtful and as gorgeously filmed as it is. The story of a black man seeking to buy his childhood home before the neighborhood is fully gentrified is artful and poignant, a rumination on changing with the times and choosing which parts of the past to keep.
THE WORST MOVIES OF 2019 THAT SHOULD HAVE KNOWN BETTER
The actual “worst” movie (and again, I didn’t see everything) was probably some low-budget indie thing that barely got released and was seen by nobody. There’s no reason to crap on films like that. But big-budget studio productions that got all the time and attention they needed and still turned out bad? Crap away!