Jacob Hall's Top 10 Movies of 2019
Here’s the dirty little secret about end-of-the-year lists on movie websites: every year is actually a great year for movies if you see enough of them. Still, with that out of the way, 2019 was an exceptionally great year for cinema. The films that didn’t make this list could fill another top 10 and no one would blink! But because honorable mentions are a coward’s way out, I’m only offering you the final list after I scraped away everything I could afford to lose. Sorry, everything else.
These are the 10 best movies of 2019 according to little ol’ me.
Jacob Hall’s Top 10 Movies of 2019
10. The Farewell
Lulu Wang’s autobiographical drama is a low-key miracle, a tale of a culture clash that has equal respect and love for both sides while being unafraid to be brutally honest about each of them. What sounds depressing on paper – a grandmother is diagnosed with cancer and her Chinese family decides to keep the truth from her while her American granddaughter struggles to say goodbye without saying goodbye – is surprisingly joyous and funny in execution, with Awkwafina turning in a career-redefining performance. This is a movie about little moments, the tiny interactions with the people we love that linger long after the chaos of major events has settled. Wang is patient enough with these moments to make them feel like her own. And our own.
9. Marriage Story
Noah Baumbach’s surprisingly hopeful, wryly funny, and emotionally devastating dissection of a relationship in its final stages is one of the most human films of 2019. Rather than reduce one half of this failed marriage to a villain, Baumbach forces us to accept the harsher truth – these two people loved each other, still know each other better than anyone else on the planet, and both of them deserve our empathy as they endure the shittiest moment of their lives. Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson give the best performances of their careers, culminating in an argument that cuts deeper than most horror movies. No one knows how to wound you quite like the person who loved you.
8. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Quentin Tarantino’s ode to a Hollywood that once was, never was, and never will be again is his most joyful, melancholy, and sweet movie. Even though it does indulge in his trademark extreme violence (one of the funniest and most shocking scenes of 2019), it’s mostly a hangout movie, allowing us to experience a few days in Hollywood in 1969, right as the industry, and the world, was about to change forever. As an aging actor and his devoted stuntman, Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt showcase a chemistry that is second-to-none and their ambling adventures are as entertaining, and as surprisingly poignant, as anything on screen in recent years.
7. One Cut of the Dead
I’ve been evangelizing Shin’ichirô Ueda’s One Cut of the Dead since I saw it nearly two years ago at a film festival (it finally had a North American release in 2019) and I’ll say here what I’ve been saying for this entire time: watch this one knowing as little as possible. What begins as a shoddy zombie movie filled with bad acting, lousy staging, and poor production values soon reveals itself to be something else entirely. This is not a z-grade horror film – it’s a love letter to moviemaking, an ode to families (both found and natural), and a screamingly funny comedy whose very, very odd first 30 minutes sets up one of the most brilliant series of gags and payoffs I have ever seen. Skip this at your own peril.
Get Out suggested that Jordan Peele was one of the most exciting filmmakers of the 21st century. Us proves it. This high-concept horror film showcases the power of genre filmmaking at its finest – outrageous and terrifying and impossible concepts that cannot exist in a traditional story are allowed to run wild here, illuminating harsh truths and asking big questions that could not fit within a traditional narrative. Us manages to have to have its cake and eat it too, delivering a visceral, crowd-pleasing horror movie while also offering a buffet of biting social commentary that inspires conversation and debate for weeks after the credits roll. And if the Oscars actually mattered, Lupita Nyong’o would be in consideration for her astonishing work here, playing two roles that could not be more different (including the movie villain of 2019).
5. The Lighthouse
Robert Eggers’ follow-up to The Witch is one of the best movies ever made about having a terrible roommate. Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe tear into each other as two lighthouse keepers who slowly go nuts while isolated on a tiny island and the results are terrifying, hilarious and powerfully, deeply, intoxicatingly weird. Pattinson quietly stews and Dafoe shouts and farts and seagulls may bring curses and there could be an evil mermaid and maybe the gods of the sea have cursed these men and this forsaken rock. It’s…well, it’s a lot. The horror imagery suggests that these men are haunted by something cosmic and powerful, something beyond their control. Ultimately, The Lighthouse is the story of machismo run amuck in a space where there’s nowhere to go and no escape to be found.
4. The Irishman
The Irishman uses your knowledge of Martin Scorsese’s own movies against you. Just when you think it’s another riff on Goodfellas, just when you think it’s Casino 2.0, just when you get cozy with something that feels familiar, the greatest filmmaker of the past 50 years starts asking the harsh questions and offering harsher answers. Much has already been said about the impressive visual effects that de-age and age Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Al Pacino (all giving tremendous performances), but that’s no gimmick. Instead, this film forces us to watch as these men, powerful and seductive and assured, age before our very eyes, with years sometimes passing in a single cut. The rapid-fire pace of those first two hours is all a misdirection – the final agonizing 90 minutes intentionally slow down as we linger with these men in their old age, their youth gone in a flash as they face a future with no legacy. The Irishman isn’t just about gangsters. It’s Scorsese intentionally echoing his oldest tricks before asking himself, and us, “Who is going to remember me? Will my work matter?” This film answers that definitively: of course.
3. Knives Out
The first time I watched Knives Out, I understood it was one of the most entertaining films of the year. The second time I watched it, I realized this Agatha Christie-stlye throwback carefully masks one of the most spectacularly constructed and humane movies of the year in the most crowd-pleasing and accessible shell possible. Daniel Craig’s southern-fried detective is the initial draw here (and he’s wonderful), but writer/director Rian Johnson realizes that Ana de Armas is the real heart of the film, playing a young immigrant nurse who finds herself embroiled in a vicious murder mystery that exposes the darkest corners of the American nightmare. It’s funny and it’s sweet and every twist lands and every scene is an absolute pleasure to witness.
2. Little Women
As an emotional experience, it’s hard to beat Little Women, a film that had tears of joy and sorrow streaming down my face for its entire back half. Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel still draws an audience for a reason: it works, damn it. But beyond those classic pillars, writer/director Greta Gerwig quietly infuses her adaptation with a modern sensibility, drawing from Alcott’s own life and experiences to further enrich the text and offer a bridge to modern audiences. By restructuring the story to jump between the past and the present, Gerwig allows the tragedies and the joys to coexist and intermingle, a cocktail of memories and experiences that feel as gloriously, powerfully messy as a human life. It’s just plain wonderful.
If Alfred Hitchcock had a conscience to match his breathtaking skills as a purveyor of cinematic chills and thrills, he would’ve made Parasite. Bong Joon-ho’s masterpiece is impossible pin down when you’re watching it and impossible to define after it’s over. It’s a satirical comedy. It’s a low-key heist movie. It’s a twisted thriller. It’s a horror movie. It’s a family tragedy. It is all of these things at once, never allowing itself to be boxed in, never content to be familiar or to do anything expected. But even as it thrills and shocks and barrels down left turns that no one saw coming, Parasite never loses sight of its characters and their plight, landing one devastating blow after another. And through our blurred vision, we realize that Parasite isn’t just about these characters. It’s about all of us.
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