Posted January 19, 2020 |  Edited February 15, 2020

I thoroughly despise it when common folk vehemently complain that film critics hate movies and can't be trusted.  Or, on an even more anger inducing tangent, they lash out that critics aren't fans of the medium and go out of their way to trash what they see.

Sigh.

I don't consider myself some sub-human species that can't enjoy movies because I'm not a fan of the art form.  What kind of nonsensical hooey is that?  I love the movies.  I love watching them.  I love going to the cinema.  And I see a lot of them, arguably more than a majority of people these days.  I'm as big of a fan as they come, which is why making yearly TOP 10 lists is something that I hold really dear to my heart.  These are movies to be savored and placed on a high pedestal of hero worship.  It could be said that 2019 wasn't as routinely strong of a year as most, but I do grow tired of the constant annual refrain that people don't go to the movies anymore because there isn't any good movies out there. 

My short answer to that is simple: you're not looking hard enough.

As is the case with my previous lists, I aim for an eclectic mixture of films to champion here, and I think that the year that was offered up some rich variety.  Making my list: a much talked about (and highly divisive) R-rated comic book film; a compelling and awe inspiring documentary about space travel; two thoughtful and contemplative sci-fi dramas about space travel; two third films in respective action and animated trilogies (that's ultra rare for lists like this!); a pulp fiction inspired love letter to 1960's Hollywood, a whodunnit murder mystery thriller, a South Korean made thriller that would have made Hitchcock proud, and a Netflix produced crime epic made by the greatest living director in the world.   

If you didn't actively seek out these films over the last twelve months...you weren't looking hard enough.

So, as the Joker himself might say..."Here...we...GO!"  My list of the BEST FILMS of 2019 begins with a Top 10 offering, followed up by a longer list of 15 other worthy picks to form a greater TOP 25.  After that, I'll chat about all of the other films from last year that I liked in some form or capacity, but couldn't find a way to put them in the Top 25.

NOTE: As of the date of this article's first publication I have yet to screen UNCUT GEMS and A HIDDEN LIFE.  Once I see them and I deem that they're worthy of inclusion here I will, in turn, amend my rankings below. 

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WATCH me talk about some of my picks below on CTV:

 
 

1.   THE IRISHMAN

 

So, yup, I kind of let the cat out of the proverbial bag a few months back by announcing on CTV that THE IRISHMAN was far and away the best film of 2019...and my opinion has not changed. 

To say that there were unprecedented levels of anticipation for this Netflix produced fact-based mob drama was an understatement.  It marked director Martin Scorsese's first return to the genre he made masterfully his own since his 2006 Best Picture and Director winning THE DEPARTED.  That, and it also showcased his first re-teaming with Robert De Niro since 1995's CASINO.  THE IRISHMAN also brought the long-in-retirement Joe Pesci back to the movies and alongside his frequent co-star in De Niro.  And finally, this film also astoundingly represented the first teaming of star Al Pacino and Scorsese...like...ever.  In short, and if you excuse the sarcasm and referencing to a very recent public movie controversy, THE IRISHMAN was the AVENGERS: ENDGAME of Scorsese gangster films. 

More crucially, though, the grand and epically staged drama (clocking in at three and a half hours) felt like a superb culmination of Scorsese's entire crime centric film career, which kicked off 46 years ago with MEAN STREETS and then segued towards better films like GOODFELLAS, CASINO, GANGS OF NEW YORK, and THE DEPARTED.  Utilizing an unprecedented partnership with the streaming giant (and a massive $180 million budget), Scorsese envisioned and executed one of the most ambitiously daring crime dramas in many a moon, one that spawned five decades in the lives of its respected characters (realized using some much publicized, thanklessly convincing and cutting edge de-aging technology).  And unlike previous gangster sagas, THE IRISHMAN separated itself apart from the pack for how melancholic it was in showing how mortality, loss, and regret deeply affected these men in crime (the wise guys here either died dreadful deaths or lived in isolated existences forever estranged from loved ones, leading to a pathetic and lonely death all alone).  This film was easily the biggest cinematic gamble of the past year, but one that highlighted Scorsese - the greatest living director - at the height of his aesthetic powers.  

 

My CTV Review of THE IRISHMAN:

2.  PARASITE

 

If it were not for the existence of THE IRISHMAN then this would have definitely made the cut for the finest reason to enter a cinema in 2019.  Part psychological horror film, part home invasion thriller, part black comedy, and part social/economic satire, Bong Joon ho's PARASITE covered an awful lot of tonal and thematic terrain, but it's a testament to the South Korean filmmaker that he managed to gel it together with such confident fluidity.   

The film's cunningly crafted narrative - concerning a have-not family on the lowest end of the economic ladder engaging in a long con game to infiltrate and take advantage of a disgustingly rich clan of one per centers - was one that joyously created ways to keep audiences legitimately guessing throughout its well earned and never too bloated 132 minutes.  The first half of Boon's film was a damning - and darkly hilarious - portrait of social and economic disparity and the levels that both poor and rich families will succumb to in order to maintain their respective ways of life.  Yet, as PARASITE careened towards its wickedly crazy and startlingly violent second half Boon shifted gears away from social commentary and satire and fully committed his film to becoming a ghoulish home invasion thriller.  The manner that the South Korean director expertly segued between divergent genres and tones here was a masterstroke, and very little of what occurred throughout PARASITE rarely hinted at the macabre detours it took late in the game.  Like great Hitchcockian thrillers of old, Boon's film - to sort of quote Hitch - "always made the audience suffer as much as possible."  

I mean this in the most complimentary manner possible.  

3.  JOKER

No film of the past twelve months was more talked about and dissected than Todd Phillips' JOKER, which was his ultra hard R-rated alternate take origin story of Batman's greatest and most famous arch nemesis (which, in turn, occurred outside of the current and ever changing DC Cinematic Universe). 

For better or worse, JOKER permeated the pop culture zeitgeist, and hyperbolically became a launching off point for the news media in their commentary about the nature of movie violence and its effect on society.  Phillips' film was a graphically violent comic book effort, to be sure, but it certainly was not the first mature and adults-only comic book film, nor was it ever even close to being the most violent film of recent memory.  What made JOKER so nightmarishly compelling was that it didn't pass moral judgment on its deranged titular character (it also never advocated his violence either), but rather it disturbingly pulled us into his troubled vortex to explore the societal reasons behind his turn towards insanity.  In an age when so many super hero blockbusters offer up obligatory VFX heavy and easy to digest spectacle, the fact that JOKER - for as chilling as it was to sit through - was actually about something that compelled endless debate and reflection was pretty damn groundbreaking for the genre.  DC and Phillips deserve all the props in the world for taking multiple creative risks that handsomely paid off here.  And let's not forget about the performance of 2019 in Joaquin Phoenix's tour de force portrayal of this classic villain-to-be, one that stealthily found the wounded humanity of this figure while fully harnessing his squirm inducing rage.  JOKER was an unforgettable game changer. 

4.  THE LIGHTHOUSE

Writer/director Robert Eggers' THE LIGHTHOUSE was one of the most hauntingly perverse and undeniably unnerving films of 2019.  It has wonderful symmetry with his superlative rookie effort in THE WITCH (which also placed on my list of the TEN BEST FILMS of its year of release) in the sense that both are period psychological horror thrillers that have a hallucinatory stranglehold on viewers.  More crucially, both films revel in using their environments to slowly exude a calculating grip on their respective characters and viewers, which makes both bravura works of sinister mood.   

The premise of THE LIGHTHOUSE could not be anymore simple: Two longshoreman are tasked with overlooking a lighthouse in the middle of nowhere, and while trying to stave off boredom and increasing feelings of agitation with one another, strange supernatural occurrences begin to rear their ugly heads and affect the sanity of both souls.  Showcasing two of the best performances of the year by Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson, THE LIGHTHOUSE matched its acting might with stunningly lush black and white cinematography, all shot in a tight 1.19:1 aspect ratio, which is all but extinct in this day an age (it also had the intended effect of visually evoking a sense that the lighthouse environment itself had a tight, suffocating influence on the characters).  Beyond that, Eggers demonstrated why the best horror thrillers don't wallow in mindless gore, repetitive violence, and perfunctory jump scares, but instead foster an undulating sensation of dread, which is arguably more frightening.  THE LIGHTHOUSE also emphasized one human phobia that's eerily relatable: Being trapped in a completely remote area with someone you hate and without any hope of salvation in sight.  

Now that's scary. 

5.  APOLLO 11

What a Herculean feat of awe-inspiring filmmakingThere are few films these days - fact or fiction - that legitimately evoke a sensation of childlike wonder in me while I bare witness to their sights and sounds, but Todd Douglas Miller's astonishing APOLLO 11 was one.  It represented a decidedly rare breed of filmgoing experience that created an out-of-body sensory experience.  The key to this magnificent doc's success was its startling economy: Using a very atypical genre approach (using no voiceover narration, interview subjects reflecting back, and so forth), APOLLO 11 was completely comprised of previously unreleased 70mm film footage of the days leading into and during mankind's fist steps on the moon on July 20, 1969.  With painstakingly restored footage married to actual archival recordings of the Apollo crew both on the ground and in space, Miller achieved the near impossible here by making an event so deeply entrenched in our collective subconscious somehow feel revitalizingly fresh and new again.  As a celebration of human ingenuity and persistence of technological vision and ambition, APOLLO 11 was as winning and powerful as any film from the past 12 months.  It was also one of the best cinematic experiences about the perils and triumphs of space travel and NASA's early days that I have ever seen. 

6.  JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 3 - PARABELLUM

I've frankly run out of superlatives when it comes to talking about the JOHN WICK action franchise.   

The series opened in extraordinary jaw-dropping fashion with the 2014 original, which was like a stylistic hypodermic needle to the heart of a genre that desperately required being jump started out of creative apathy.  This gave way to the even finer JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2, one of the best action sequels ever committed to celluloid and one that all but confirmed its fifty-plus year old star Keanu Reeves into the upper echelon of genre royalty (that, and it showed that the first film was no qualitative fluke).  My biggest takeaway with the first two JOHN WICK films was that you'll be hard pressed to find a better marriage of role and actor, and what astounded me to no end with - to quote its full official title - JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 3 - PARABELLUM was that it achieved and somehow surpassed the consummate filmmaking craft and scale of its two antecedents.  JOHN WICK 3 emerged as one of the most unrelentingly effective action thrillers of not only the year that was, but arguably of recent times, and it was one that was a fiendishly and ingeniously orchestrated ballet of wanton violence.   

The late Roger Ebert once coined the phrase "Bruised Forearm Movie," which referred to certain kind of movies "where your date is always grabbing your forearm in a viselike grip, as unbearable excitement unfolds on screen."   

JOHN WICK 3 is one of the greatest Bruised Forearm Movies ever made.

 

My CTV Review of JOHN WICK 3:

7.  AD ASTRA

James Gray's AD ASTRA (which is Latin for "to the stars") was an unqualified and masterful triumph for the science fiction genre.  Not only was it an absolute technical marvel, but it was also a space trekking film that favored thoughtful, nuanced, and thematically ambitious storytelling versus bombastic action and eye fatiguing visual effects.  

The storytelling here deserved some compelling similarities to APOCALYPSE NOW in how it chronicled the physical and spiritual journey of its main hero into the heart of darkness of dangerous space (which replaced the jungles of Vietnam in Coppola's film).  Most importantly, AD ASTRA still offered up the grandiose sights and sounds that we've come to expect from these types of pictures on top of being atypically observational and considerate with the psychological headspaces of its characters.  The true emotional epicenter of this film laid with its lead character (played in another thanklessly understated and effortlessly dialed performance by Brad Pitt) and his cerebral battle that he waged within himself as he entered the stars and courageously faced the daunting unknown of the cosmos while confronting some very personal demons along the way.  AD ASTRA was not seen by nearly enough people upon its early fall release, making it one of best least-seen films of 2019.

8.  HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON: THE HIDDEN WORLD

One of the most wondrous and delightful surprises of the animated movie world has been Dreamworks' truly sublime HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON franchise, which has been, for me, as good - if not better - than just about anything that the studio's biggest competition in Disney/Pixar has put out over the years.   

The third film in this series, THE HIDDEN WORLD, managed to carry on and improve upon the series' stunning artistic quality control by being an endlessly gorgeous animated sequel, but it also concluded the entire story arc of this saga with dramatically potent strokes that more than earned its heart-tugging final moments.  Writer/director Dean DuBlois deserves absolute high praise for concocting a sweet and moving narrative involving the budding friendship of a young Viking and his newfound friend in a dragon, and allowing for that to mature and evolve organically and meaningful throughout three films.  During a year that saw the coming of a depressingly unsatisfying trilogy closer (I'm looking at you, STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER!), HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON: THE HIDDEN WORLD was an absolute triumph as a fitting and tear inducing swan song for what has emerged as one of the best trilogies (live action or not) in an awfully long time.

9.  KNIVES OUT

 

Remember Rian Johnson's last film, a little know and little talked about franchise picture named STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI? 

Sarcasm aside, the deeply polarizing response to that film made many, I think, forget about Johnson's indelible talents, and efforts like his audaciously crafted rookie effort in BRICK to his supremely inventive and enthralling sci-fi time travel thriller LOOPER should remind us of this.  KNIVES OUT emerged as a most welcome return to superb form for Johnson after the creatively wrongheaded THE LAST JEDI, and one that showed his worthy prowess as a uniquely bold cinematic provocateur.  KNIVES OUT, on a superficial level, was a murder mystery thriller, but it was one that Johnson showed a level of fanboy reverence for by adhering to its conventions while simultaneously subverting them in deeply clever and sly ways.  On top of that, Johnson also gathered together one of the great casts of 2019, and the grade-A crackerjack squad assembled here were all uniformly on the top of their game.  And who would have thought that James Bond himself in Daniel Craig playing a thick southern accented and Americanized Sherlock Holmes was one of the more purely endearing breakout characters of the year that made you genuinely want to see more mystery films featuring him to hopefully come. 

10.  ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD

ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD might be the most personal film on this list, seeing as it was set in Los Angeles of the late 60s, a city and period that's deeply linked to writer/director Quentin Tarantino (he grew up in the City of Angels).  The title alone hints at fairy tale trappings (as well as serving as a direct homage to the works of Sergio Leone, like ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST and AMERICA, a pair of Tarantino favorites), but what made this period work linger with me so long in the wake of screening it back in the late summer was that it was arguably one of the finest time capsule pictures of 2019.  ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD not only gloriously and lovingly evoked an L.A. of yesteryear, but it also was a thoroughly involving chronicle of how the very movie and TV industry itself was on the verge of seismic change, which all just so happened to be typified by the shocking events on Cielo Drive in the summer of 1969.  

Of course, the Marilyn Manson family murders are featured in Tarantino's film, but the 56-year-old director wasn't crafting a film wholly about that tragic event.  No, ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD was really about transporting viewers to a period and place, all while, in pure Tarantino-ian fashion, telling multiple storylines featuring a kaleidoscope of colorful characters (two of which were played brilliantly by Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio, combining to create the year's best on-screen bromance).   And like INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS before it, this film played within the sandbox of history by throwing its own toys into the mix for good measure.  It gave the Golden Age of Hollywood its much deserved fairy tale ending.  ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD may not achieve the upper echelon of quality of the finest of Tarantino's past work, but it showed that when he's operating at even 80-90 per cent capacity he's still creatively well ahead of the pack.

  ...and now to round off my TEN BEST FILMS OF 2019 with my selections from 11-25:  
 

11. HIGH LIFE:  Director Claire Denis made the second best sci-fi film of 2019, which harnessed the second best Robert Pattinson performance of the year as well.

12. FORD V FERRARI:  One of the most purely entertaining pictures of the year, with an enthralling fact-based narrative set in the world of 1960's competitive racing, capped by two captivating lead performances and top notch direction by James Mangold.   

13. ARCTIC:  A breathtakingly powerful outdoor survival thriller that's quarterbacked by one of the finest performances of his career by Mads Mikkelsen.   

14. STARFISH:  Writer/director A.T. White's feature film debut was a hypnotically memorable avant garde piece of post-apocalyptic sci-fi.   

15. THE ART OF SELF DEFENSE:  This painfully blunt piece of social satire emerged as something far more than just another run of the mill KARATE KID clone.     

16. LATE NIGHT: Emma Thompson gave an Oscar worthy performance in this splendid Mindy Kaling scripted workplace comedy about a down on her luck late night talk show host seeking career rejuvenation.   

17. READY OR NOT:  A viscerally nasty, but darkly hysterical screwball horror comedy that ended the summer film season that was on an unexpectedly high note.   

18. SHAZAM!:  The DC movie universe showed increased levels of creative maturation with this super hero film of great unpretentious fun.   

19. ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL:  Director Robert Rodriguez and writer/producer James Cameron teamed up to produce this visually sumptuous and extremely underrated live action adaptation of the beloved magna series. 

20. THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON:  This charming and wonderfully acted comedy-drama put a smile on my face that I'm still trying to rub off weeks after screening it.   

21. COLD PURSUIT:  This criminally overlooked and richly atmospheric Liam Neeson revenge action thriller had more thematically going on under its hood than most other previous genre efforts on the actor's recent resume.   

22. THE MAN WHO KILLED HITLER AND THEN THE BIGFOOT:  One of the most specifically and preposterously titled films of 2019 contained a surprisingly nuanced script of intoxicating intrigue and a lead performance by the great Sam Elliott that really helped elevate the piece well above B-grade luridness.   

23. DOLEMITE IS MY NAME:  Eddie Murphy gave his most joyously engaged performance since DREAMGIRLS in this Netflix produced fact based comedy.   

24. MISSING LINK:  Yet another qualitative home run for Laika, the Oregon based stop motion animation studio that rarely seems to miss a beat with any of the productions.   

25. THE KID WHO WOULD BE KING:  This mostly forgotten Joe Cornish directed family fantasy was an infectiously agreeable mishmash of THE MONSTER SQUAD and EXCALIBUR.   

 
  Beyond my TOP 25, here's a further selection of films that are definitely worth seeing, but just not quite great enough to make the final cut:  
EL CAMINO: A BREAKING BAD MOVIE: This sort of sequel, sort of prequel to AMC's iconic TV series BREAKING BAD served as a thoroughly engrossing extension of that small screen sensation.  

LITTLE WOMEN:  Writer/director Greta Gerwig's radical departure from the source novel's structure may have offended some literary purists, but her adaptation of the celebrated 19th Century novel was superbly performed and engaging. 

BOMBSHELL:  The remarkable performance triumvirate of Margot Robbie, Nicole Kidman, and Chalize Theron led the charge in this absorbing expose on Fox News and workplace harassment culture.  

MARRIAGE STORY: Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver were the best thing going in director Noah Baumbach's latest drama.  

HUSTLERS:  A surprisingly unsucky fact based crime drama set in the world of con artist strippers (far better than its sensationalistic description).    

THE UPSIDE:  Bryan Cranston and Kevin Hart gave good performances in this mostly decent remake of the French film THE INTOUCHABLES.    

BETWEEN TWO FERNS: THE MOVIE:  One of the most uproariously funny films of the year was this Netflix produced film based on THE Zack Galifianakis starring Funny or Die series of web skits.   

THE LEGO MOVIE 2: THE SECOND PART:  This sequel to its vastly superior prequel was still a gloriously inventive and endearing follow-up entry.   

HIGH FLYING BIRD:  Director Steven Soderbergh teamed up with MOONLIGHT writer Tarell Alvin McCraney to make this Netflix backed sports drama that showed the former's continued persistence to take bold artistic chances that very few other filmmakers would.   

FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY:  This part dysfunctional family drama, part underdog overcoming all odds sports biopic, and part WWE recruitment film showed off the feisty screen presence of Florence Pugh to stellar effect.   

US:  Director Jordan Peele's follow-up to his critically adored GET OUT was a problematic, but nevertheless solid companion piece to his rookie effort.   

THE HIGHWAYMEN:  An alternate take historical film about the crime spree of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow boasted the understated charisma and chemistry of stars Woody Harrelson and Kevin Costner.   

AVENGERS: ENDGAME:  Although creatively unwieldy at times, this highest grossing film in cinematic history delivered a gloriously produced and entertaining swan song for the MCU.  

UNDER THE SILVER LAKE:  David Robert Mitchell's follow-up effort to 2014's IT FOLLOWS continued to show his maturing filmmaking talents while working well outside of comfort windows. 

LONG SHOT: The unlikely dynamic pairing of Seth Rogen and Charlize Theron made this political comedy stand out apart from the pack. 

DRAGGED ACROSS CONCRETE: A repellent film about repellent characters, to be sure, but one that was made with supreme craft and confidence by S. Craig Zahler. 

BOOKSMART:  Olivia Wilde made a solid directorial debut with this touchingly scripted high school comedy. 

ROCKETMAN: Taron Egerton's splendid performance as Elton John helped propel this biopic, alongside some wonderfully inventive musical fantasy sequences. 

TOY STORY 4:  A completely inessential (outside of Disney profit motive), but nevertheless agreeable fourth installment in this iconic series. 

YESTERDAY:  Danny Boyle's toe-tappingly delightful Beatles-themed musical drama contained a crackjack premise and a heartfelt performance by newcomer Himesh Patel.    

CRAWL: Alexandre Aja made a splash in the year that was with this unique and tensely helmed creature feature.    

STUBER:  The second oddest comedic pairing of the year goes to Kumail Nanjiani and Dave Bautista in this easy going and well oiled action comedy. 

I AM MOTHER:  Netflix's artfully produced and thoughtfully written science fiction thriller, one that favored intriguing themes and ideas over action and spectacle.

GOOD BOYS: Yes, it was heavily advertised as "SUPERBAD, but with elementary school aged kids," but it still balanced crude offensiveness with sweetness and sincerity rather well.

ISN'T IT ROMANTIC:  An engagingly self-aware and winning comedy satire that displayed great fun in mocking all of the tired rom-com troupes.

DOCTOR SLEEP: A thanklessly good sequel to THE SHINNING that somwhow was able to appease fanboys of Stephen King's original novel and the Stanley Kubrick film adaptation of it.      

A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD: There's not a wrong note to be had in Tom Hank's Oscar caliber portrayal of pioneering children's show host Fred Rogers. 

RICHARD JEWELL: This Clint Eastwood helmed true story about one innocent man being falsely accused of a terrorist bombing made some troublingly contradictory creative choices, but was held together by the combined strengths of its three lead actors.

JUMANJI: THE NEXT LEVELA superfluous, but mostly funny follow-up to its billion dollar grossing antecedent.   

1917: An absolute technical marvel, to be sure, this much advertised "one-take" World War I thriller was an immersive filmgoing experience, but very light on characters, story, and drama.   

THE TWO POPESA misguidedly scripted at times, but nevertheless flawlessly acted portrait of two well known power players in the religious world.   

UNCUT GEMS:  A career high performance by Adam Sandler headlined the latest anxiety inducing thriller from the Safdie Brothers. (added February 15)

 
 

 

 

   

 

 
 
 

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