Having not yet seen Bong Joon-Ho’s critically-acclaimed Parasite yet, I already feel like this list isn’t 100% complete. That being said, 2019 was a pretty damn good year for film. It finally feels like major studios are realising that unimaginative reboots & sequels aren’t going to cut it anymore – film goers want to be challenged as much as they want to be entertained.
If you look at the list below, the main thing that stands out is that big-name directors & actors are at least trying new things, whether it’s A-listers producing their own slow-burn sci fi films (Brad Pitt with Ad Astra) or one of last year’s big Oscar winners starring in one of the most bizarre & breathtaking TV shows ever made (Regina King in Watchmen).
The second thing worth noting is that the biggest & best films for the year (as well as a majority of my list) seem to be influenced by only a handful of people, including Brad Pitt (Ad Astra & Once Upon A Time In Hollywood), Scarlett Johansson (Marriage Story, Avengers: Endgame & Jojo Rabbit), Robert DeNiro (Joker & The Irishman), Chris Evans (Knives Out & Avengers: Endgame), LaKeith Stanfield (Knives Out & Uncut Gems) and Don Johnson (Knives Out & Watchmen).
Anyway, here’s the list…
10. The Art of Self Defense
Maybe by choice, but Jesse Eisenberg somehow manages to be an annoying weasel yet strangely likeable in everything he’s in – from The Social Network to Zombieland. Here, in a very black comedy that fuses Fight Club with Napoleon Dynamite, he similarly manages to be convincing as both a coward & karate master.
9. Ad Astra
If they make just one original sci-fi film like this every year then there is hope for Hollywood yet. Just like Annihilation and Arrival before it, director James Gray takes a complex idea and presents it simply & beautifully, so you can admire it even if you don’t entirely understand it.
8. Marriage Story
The marriage of Black Widow & Kylo Ren was never going to end well, but with Noah Baumbach’s indie touch it’s certainly an emotional ride. Everyone involved gives everything they’ve got, particularly from the two leads, and it will no doubt land Laura Dern a deserving Oscar.
7. The Farewell
Another emotional journey but this time dealing with the expectations surrounding death & family. This feels like the first film to explore the impact of families living abroad, specifically the effects it has on parents and children. With all the Chinese tradition woven in, an American remake just wouldn’t have the same impact – but seeing as we’ve had The Intouchables already and Force Majeure coming soon, we’ll no doubt see it soon.
Nobody asked for this origin story, in fact there was a lot of fear it could ruin the mystique behind Batman’s greatest foe. However, what director Todd Philips & Joaquin Phoenix created is entirely original and still pays homage to the lore of DC comics. It’s dark & twisted, but the draw card is Phoenix’ transformation & the visual aesthetic of Philip’s terrifying Gotham City.
5. Avengers: Endgame
There may be some Marvel fatigue surfacing, but you can’t deny the sheer magnitude of what the Russo Brothers created here. A 3-hour rollercoaster that works as a standalone film, a sequel to Infinity War and a bookend to the previous 23 Marvel films that have spanned more than a decade. We’re unlikely to see anything of this scale that actually delivers for a long, long time.
4. The Irishman
While this isn’t Scorsese’s best film ever, the craft behind it is still superior to anything else this year. If anything, just to bring together the legendary director with the best actors of his generation, in DeNiro, Pacino & Pesci, is truly something, and would be a fitting farewell if it happened to be any of their last. Watching DeNiro hobble around as a de-aged twenty-something is certainly laughable, but over time this will likely be considered The Godfather of the Netflix age.
3. Once Upon A Time In Hollywood
Tarantino, Pitt & DiCaprio are (subjectively) our generation’s Scorsese, DeNiro and Pacino – so to get both trios together in one year is a treat – let alone for them all to deliver career-high form. In similar fashion, just as Scorsese paid tribute to the crime genre he spent so much time with, Tarantino finally gets to write a love letter to the golden age of Hollywood, and it’s hard not to be swept up in his passion & attention to detail.
2. Knives Out
I’ve been a fan of director Rian Johnson since his highly-rewatchable debut Brick, which starred Joseph Gordon-Levitt in a high school-set noir detective thriller. He returns to similar ‘whodunnit?’ ground here, with one of the most talented & likeable ensembles in some time – to the point where Toni Collette still shines as a fairly minor character. The reason this ranks so high is because it breathes new life into the murder mystery genre, which has been around since Agatha Christie adaptations first started back in the 1930s. Johnson doesn’t try to hide the many twists, but instead uses snappy dialogue & timeline shifts to make the retelling of how we got from A to B the exciting part.
1. HBO’s Watchmen
Having a TV series topping a list of films may be a cop-out, but Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen series is unlike anything I’ve seen before. Sure, I may be biased as one of the few people who still considers Lost (also written by Lindelof) as one of the greatest TV series ever, and also a fan of Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons infamous graphic novel, but this absolutely blew my mind.
Watchmen plays with some ridiculously heavy themes, primarily the resurgence & historical trauma of racial abuse, and mixes it with bat-shit crazy ideas, such as swallowing people’s memories in pill form, intergalactic world building & baby squids showering from the sky.
The reason I feel obligated to put this atop the list is because the series as a whole feels so well book-ended, with an ambitious start & satisfying ending, but also the singular episodes themselves contain better arcs & more substance than most feature-length films – particularly episode 6, called “This Extraordinary Being”.
I can’t speak for anyone who hasn’t read the comic as to whether all the loose ends were tied up, but regardless, there is still so much to absorb & appreciate throughout the journey. Whether it’s Regina King’s powerhouse performance, the hard-hitting historical recreation within (Tulsa ’21 actually happened!), or the absolute grandeur of Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross’ score; there is enough in here to warrant many repeat viewings.
Side Note: Episode 6 was written by a guy called Cord Jefferson, who has had an extraordinary year himself, with credits that include The Good Place & Succession.
Long Shot, The Gentlemen, Spiderman: Far From Home, Shazam!, John Wick: Parabellum, Glass, El Camino, Ford Vs. Ferrari, Guava Island, Leaving Neverland, Bash Brothers
Yet To See:
Parasite, Uncut Gems, Jojo Rabbit, Hustlers, Dolemite Is My Name, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, Us, Booksmart, Toy Story 4, The Lighthouse, Rocketman, Zombieland: Double Tap, Pain & Glory, Good Boys, Honey Boy, High Flying Bird, The Report, The Laundromat, Brittany Runs a Marathon, 1917, Queen & Slim, 21 Bridges, Bombshell
Best of the Small Screen:
Watchmen (see above), Succession, Fleabag, The Mandalorian, Silicon Valley, The Walking Dead, The End of the F@#king World