The Best Movies of the Year
While a good year for movies, 2019 may end up being remembered as a year that many moviegoers won’t quite remember. That isn’t to say that the end of the decade didn’t have its share of fantastic releases, but how many will be seared into our brains as stone-cold classics remains to be seen; with studios increasingly focused on well-made but formulaic blockbusters that all tend to blend together, and a plethora of subscription platforms sporting exclusives, it’s getting harder and harder to find those cultural flashpoints that everyone has seen and seems to agree on. Nevertheless, the Sordid Cinema staff has managed to find a sort of consensus on our Best Movies of 2019, which shows off some of the wide variety of releases from Hollywood and around the world that made an impression (for now).
The votes were spread out quite a bit, with many films coming up just short in support, but below you’ll find an eclectic mix of some of the best of the year. Enjoy, and we look forward to more in 2020!
During the lead-up to Gaspar Noé’s most recent provocation, Climax, he released a one-sheet that’s one the more honest bits of film advertising ever created: “You despised I Stand Alone, you hated Irreversible, you loathed Enter the Void, you cursed Love, now try Climax.” Nothing it says is wrong — each film has its defenders and detractors, but few filmmakers can turn off viewers like Noé. What’s most amazing about his latest is how completely enjoyable it is for the first forty-five minutes or so. What follows is peppered with his standard touchstones: sex, sexual violence, regular ol’ violence, and hallucinogenic drug trips. Noé fans will find everything they like about his films here in Climax, but even his usual critics may be seduced by his style — at least until the drugs take hold.
Climax telegraphs where it will go in its opening minutes. After a quick flashforward to future violence, we see a series of interviews with dancers on an old TV circa 1996. The on-screen text suggests the film is based on real events from 1996, but it’s all a fabrication on Noé’s part. His performers are congregated in a dance hall with their choreographer (Sofia Boutella, the film’s only professional actor), who plans to take the troupe on a US tour. In Climax’s first section, they perform a choreographed dance soundtracked with incessant ‘90s dance music. Even the staunchest Noé critics will have trouble finding fault with the voguing (the actors are all professional dancers and YouTubers), but someone has spiked their bowl of sangria with LSD, and the stylish music video soon turns into an even more stylish nightmare.
Noé’s camera is as fleeting and energized as the dancers in front of it. His regular cinematographer, Benoît Debie, plays up the garish club lighting — a candy-colored rave nightmare. There’s a virtuoso sequence toward the end where the camera flips upside down (mirroring its acrobatics in Irréversible), which cleverly dehumanizes the dancers. When looking at faces upside down, our brains struggle to reorient them; we can figure out who characters are through isolated features, but they look foreign, alien. The LSD has warped them into panicky monsters, and the camera allows us to see them in this new light by actually transforming them.
There’s plenty that’s sickening and offensive, including the fate of a child unfortunate enough to be roped into the debauchery, but few Noé films allow the audience to sit back and revel in the music and images quite like Climax. His movies always sit uncomfortably at the precipice of horror, and this one is more delightful than anything in his oeuvre in its first half, and more destabilizing than any of his films (aside from Irréversible) in its back half. Chances are, you’ll have a much better trip than the unfortunate souls on screen — that is, if you don’t vomit first. (Brian Marks)
Ari Aster’s Midsommar centers on Dani (Florence Pugh) and the slow dissolution of her relationship with distant boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor), as they accompany his school friends to remote Swedish festival that soon spirals into a blood-soaked nightmare. The film deserves acclaim for its excellent cinematography, acting performances, and originality. The entirety is shot in a way that lends direct praise to the director of photography Pawel Pogorzelski, but there are several choice scenes throughout Midsommar that are pulled straight from Aster’s screenplay — evidence of how tightly his directing plays into his screenwriting.
For instance, a simple scene transition from a city apartment to an airplane bathroom is instantly transformed into a remarkable shot; the camera floats seamlessly overhead as Dani is transported onto a transatlantic flight. The direction works in tandem with Pugh’s performance, preventing her character from fully escaping the constant panic attack that threatens to overwhelm her. Later on, the effects of drugs used throughout the film are echoed in the scenery and camera movements, creating a disorienting climax. As characters’ faces blur and colors appear to ooze through the screen, Aster’s directing style is simultaneously powerful yet purposefully disconcerting, which might as well be the thesis for Midsommar itself.
Although the dialogue is less overtly dramatic than that of Hereditary (Aster’s film debut), the passive death of Dani and Christian’s relationship is painted with a delicate but knowing hand, and it’s also worth noting that Pugh’s portrayal of a young woman grappling with an anxiety disorder is visceral in every scene. Whether it’s shown through primal screams or a quiet, unending hum, Pugh embodies her anxiety — as well as her battle to dampen it at every turn — perfectly. When the climax finally allows Dani to fully feel everything and ultimately shed those worries for a new life, the moment feels earned. In short, Midsommar is by no means flawless, but it’s a welcome entry in an art form that’s quickly running out of creative corners to turn to. It’s beautiful, it’s disgusting, and above all it’s cathartic — all the traits of a modern horror film destined for cult status. (Meghan Cook)
13.) The Beach Bum
A lot of movies flopped in the first eight months of 2019, but the most inexplicable of those flops was probably The Beach Bum, Harmony Korine’s latest examination of slimy South Florida excess. This was one of those films in which the distributor clearly had no idea how to do sell it, so they just threw up their hands and gave up.
The film stars Matthew McConaughey at his most Matthew McConaughey-est, playing a drug and booze-addled party boy known as “Moondog” who lives life as a perpetual party, supposedly immune from consequences or accountability.
Despite not being able to string a sentence together thanks to constant drinking and drug-taking, Moondog is also a respected man of letters — and also the kind of guy who can amble tardily into his daughter’s wedding, grab the groom’s crotch, and continue to be welcomed as a guest for the remainder of the festivities.
One can draw political allegories about what the movie means (and I certainly did), but The Beach Bum is also enjoyable on the level of watching performers like Martin Lawrence, Isla Fisher, and even Snoop Dogg get to shine in prominent on-screen roles.
It may have barely enjoyed a theatrical release, but The Beach Bum is now available for streaming on Hulu. It’s the only movie of 2019 in which the protagonist is on a boat with both Snoop Dogg and Jimmy Buffett. (Stephen Silver)
12.) Ad Astra
They don’t make movies like Ad Astra anymore. Then again, they never made movies quite like Ad Astra in the first place. A big-budget science fiction adventure that is as much about stunted masculinity as space travel, James Gray’s follow up to The Lost City of Z must be one of the best cinematic glow-ups in recent history. Whereas the former film failed to take off due to Hunnam’s energy-less performance, Brad Pitt excels as a depressed astronaut attempting to reconnect with his estranged father.
Its evocative storytelling calls to mind Apocalypse Now in scale, while its appreciation of beauty matches Contact‘s wonder, all the while remaining a psychologically rigorous exploration of what it means to be fully in contact with your feelings. Featuring highly memorable, achingly beautiful moments like the silent race on the moon, or heart-rending terror in the form of a killer monkey, Ad Astra is a singularly affecting film that demands to be seen on the biggest screen possible.
Viewers and awards groups weren’t so kind. Faltering at the Box Office, with no Golden Globe nominations and a lack of being shortlisted for a special effect nod at the Oscars, it seems that Ad Astra has not been appreciated in its time, leaving the future of thoughtful sci-fi in the balance. While undeniably weird, it is not an inaccessible film; Roy McBride’s travel logs and evaluations allow us to see how he feels in real-time. The brilliance and nuance of Pitt’s performance — and I contend he has never been better — is the disconnect between what he says and how it plays out on its face. James Gray bestows an unusual amount of trust in the viewer here, inviting us to join in on the film’s meaning, making for a truly meditative, unique and transcendent experience. Let’s just hope that this isn’t the last time Gray has this kind of budget to play with. (Redmond Bacon)
When Warner Bros. announced in 2018 a Joker origin story made by the man who directed the Hangover series, the idea was met with a resounding “Meh” by those who had already been burnt by the likes of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Justice League. DC’s attempts to create a cinematic universe akin to that at Marvel had been lackluster, both critically and financially; a stand-alone story based on one of the most beloved villains ever created, without a hero to go up against him, would make even the most die-hard of DC fans nervous.
The cynical may call it a cash-grab — a desire to create a hard-hitting drama about mental illness veiled with a pop-culture icon — but Joker is far more than that. A treacle-dark look at how we treat other people and the impact we have without even realizing, the movie is unrelentingly grim, with zero space for humour. It’s difficult to think of a more dour mainstream film in recent years.
Few actors can pull off the recent, gritty iterations of the Joker without looking like they’re trying too hard, but there is nobody better in today’s landscape to depict this deteriorating mental state than Joaquin Phoenix. He’s never phoned in a performance, but here it’s something else; he’s so deeply in tune with what this movie requires of him — an incredibly painful illustration of a man who was not only failed by the society around him, but by his own family.
There are some missteps — a reveal around his neighbor holds the viewer’s hand to really drive its point home — but much of the film remains ambiguous, drawing us in to further interact with someone who we could have let down in our own worlds, making us complicit in the breaking of a man. As it reaches its inevitable and disturbing climax, it cements itself as one of the more unforgettable films of the year, a (much) darker lesson in kindness than other recent fares. (Veronica Cooper)
Jordan Peele’s Get Out was a smashing hit back in 2017 — a biting satire on racial tension in America that won Peele an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, and was one of the most talked-about and commonly dissected horror films of the decade, catapulting the first-time director firmly into the spotlight. Now, two years later, Peel has returned with his sophomore effort, the physiological thriller Us, which pits an endearing American family against a terrifying and uncanny opponent: doppelgängers of themselves.
Where Get Out took a simple premise and turned it into a brilliant allegory for what it’s like to be black in America, Us structures itself as a home invasion thriller that touches on issues of class, capitalism, gender, and on the lasting effects of trauma and/or mental illness. It’s a smorgasbord of terrifying sights, sounds, and images, with a climax that will likely leave audiences with split opinions. For some, the reveal will enhance the experience, but for others, it will leave a bitter taste in their mouth. Regardless of where you stand, Us demands to be seen a second time, as it is the sort of film that will be over-analyzed for years to come — something the best horror movies all do. (Ricky D)
9.) Knives Out
While Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi has continued as a cultural lightning rod years after its release, the director turned around and made a completely different kind of great movie — an original story that plays delightful tribute to the whodunit genre, while also standing well on its own.
Knives Out, which Johnson wrote and directed, follows many of the tropes of the Agatha Christie genre, including a brilliant and eccentric private eye, a family full of characters who all looked varying degrees of guilty, and a unique space where it all takes place.
To that, Johnson adds contemporary political resonance, including arguments about immigration and an overarching attitude of contempt for the idle rich that’s very much in line with both the cinema and the attitudes of this year.
And while the mystery is compelling and the political points all land, the film is also consistently hilarious, featuring a laugh-out-loud lead performance from Daniel Craig as private detective Benoit Blanc, and a long list of talented performers — Christopher Plummer, Ana de Armas, Toni Collette, Jamie Lee Curtis, and especially Chris Evans — acting against type.
The film has got an ear for how these sorts of people talk, such as how a mystery novelist might write down an odd method of murder for use in a later book, or the way that smug rich people like to one-up each other on how much they love Hamilton (“I saw it at The Public!”).
Overall, Knives Out is a film that people on both sides of The Last Jedi Wars can appreciate. Even Yoda (Frank Oz) appears in one scene.
The Philadelphia Film Critics Circle, of which I’m a member, voted Knives Out the best film of 2019. While it’s far from an Oscar favorite, I can see it becoming one of the films this year that’s looked back on most fondly in the years to come. (Stephen Silver)
8.) Marriage Story
Noah Baumbach’s newest film, Marriage Story, is partly inspired by his divorce earlier this decade from the actress Jennifer Jason Leigh. Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson star as Charlie and Nicole; he’s a renowned theater director in New York, and she’s an actress best known for starring in a popular teen comedy — though in recent years she’s starred in her husband’s productions.
The film opens with a touching set of dueling montages, as both characters recite their favorite aspects of their partners — only to reveal that they’re separating, and this is just an exercise cooked up by a mediator to keep their relations positive. Driver and Johansson are at the top of their game, and Baumbach has never been better. He keeps his camera work reserved so as not to distract from his airtight screenplay and the moving performances. No film can convey all the heartache and longing that comes with divorce, but Baumbach may have gotten closer than anyone else. (Brian Marks)
7.) Under the Silver Lake
David Robert Mitchell’s third feature is a mess of a film, but it’s also an incredibly entertaining mess that had me glued to the screen from start to finish (despite the two-and-a-half-hour running time). It’s a movie that shifts between so many characters, themes, and subplots that it will leave most audiences confused — and who can blame them? There are so many ideas sliding into Mitchell’s whirlwind of pop culture overload that it’s understandable not to find coherence in it. Some storylines conclude, some intersect, others squander, and some scenes feel like they were lifted from another film and accidentally spliced in. And yet, that might be why Under the Silver Lake is destined to find a huge cult following in years to come.
Mitchell is aiming big with his latest feature. He’s not just trying to hit a home run — he’s looking for a grand slam. Some things work and some things don’t, but in a world littered with mediocre, formulaic fare, Under the Silver Lake at least stands apart from most movies coming out of Hollywood. It’s a bold, bewildering tale about obsession and paranoia, and much like his 2014 indie-horror hit, It Follows, Under the Silver Lake is a movie in which the main character is either being followed or he himself is following others. Only this time, he’s made a detective story! (Ricky D)
As much as cinema exists to be a source of mass entertainment, it’s also an art form capable of supporting social and political passions. But navigating those sometimes tricky topics can be torturous; addressing an issue too directly can lead one to be labeled a hack lacking in style and subtlety, but disguising the issue through symbolism or allegory can make one seem too distanced or afraid to offend. Christian Petzold’s Transit considers these difficulties and charts a nearly miraculous course between allegory and head-on depiction that’s both subtle and intensely moving.
Petzold sets his sights on the mass migration of refugees across the globe, as well as the ways certain nations have done everything in their power to keep them out. The film is loosely based on Anna Segher’s 1942 novel of the same name, though the writer and director has crucially shifted the film’s milieu to the present day. Franz Rogowski stars as Georg, who has fled from Paris to Marseilles in hopes of getting passage out of Europe in the early days of World War II. He has assumed the identity of a famous writer who recently killed himself, so the new papers should make it easy for him to escape to Mexico. While waiting for a visa to go through, he does his best to lay low in Marseilles, mostly frequenting a local bar. It’s there that he meets a woman who may have known the dead writer whose identity he has assumed.
The identity themes instantly draw comparisons to Petzold’s previous film, the exquisite WWII-era Vertigo-redux, Phoenix. But the director, perhaps fearing that viewers would be too content to leave Transit’s story in the past, has done something unexpected: he’s dressed everything in completely modern style, even as the story still takes place in WWII. Georg and the denizens of Marseille all wear what they would have worn in 2019, live in buildings with contemporary design, and drive modern cars. On first viewing, it took a few minutes to confirm that the film was indeed set during the Nazi occupation of France, and not in some kind of alternate timeline in which fascists had regained control of Europe. Petzold’s story is full of longing and loss, but the modern garb makes it impossible to dismiss his story as irrelevant. Aided by appropriately minimal performances from Rogowski and Paula Beer, Transit manages to make its audience pay attention to the plights of those being shoved around the globe. If it appears to be cool in style, it’s only a deception to hide its red-hot passion. (Brian Marks)
5.) The Souvenir
There’s a version of Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir that uses its basic storyline, but instead of an aching evocation of the mistakes of early adulthood, it would be a cringe comedy about a woman making all the wrong decisions in life and love. But there’s not much to laugh at in the film as it exists, as it’s loosely based on Hogg’s own experiences of starting film school while in a relationship with a man addicted to drugs. She deftly mines her own growing pains, while charting a course for other aspiring artists. It also doesn’t hurt that her film is one of the most gorgeous films released in the past year.
Honor Swinton Byrne (daughter of Tilda), plays the autobiographical lead role, here named Julie. She’s the daughter of an upper-middle-class family who is starting her first year of film school. Despite having lived a comfortable life and have never wanted for anything material, she’s determined to make her first film about less fortunate, working-class characters. While at a party, she meets Anthony (Tom Burke), a pompous yet charming civil servant who works for the Foreign Office. The two engage in scintillating conversations on the kind of art she’s hoping to create, though he often dominates and dismisses her ideas. Anthony also happens to be addicted to heroin, something Julie is initially ignorant to. Their early combative relationship becomes increasingly toxic as he sinks deeper into his addiction, all while Julie struggles to find her own artistic voice.
Such an autobiographical work is by definition personal, and there’s something exhilarating about watching The Souvenir, even when it’s at its slowest or driest. It’s as if we’ve been let in on a secret about Hogg’s life, and the glimpse behind the curtain makes things that might seem boring or commonplace suddenly intriguing. It’s also a film that uniquely understands the irrationality of its young protagonist. Teens and twenty-somethings are often depicted as oddly wise, despite the human brain not being fully developed until around age 25, so rather than cleaning up her own story, Hogg emphasizes every irrational misstep she took, without trying to make sense of it.
It helps that Swinton Byrne gives the best performance of the year as Julie. Despite having a famous mother (who plays her mother in The Souvenir), Swinton Byrne had never seriously acted, so everything she does is fresh and unstilted. When she seems shy or uncomfortable, it’s because she’s shy and uncomfortable in real life. Burke is an able partner for her, an actor who’s able to make us (and Julie) forget his many betrayals, while also pointing toward the more decent person he might have been if heroin weren’t constantly nipping at his heels. There’s much in The Souvenir that’s painful and hard to watch, but when these artists are working at the top of their game, you’d never want to look away. (Brian Marks)
4.) Uncut Gems
With their sixth feature, Uncut Gems reaffirms the Safdie Brothers (Benny and Josh) as two of the best filmmakers on the planet. Uncut Gems is one of the most anxiety-inducing features in recent memory thanks to the skill behind the camera and the heart-stopping performances from the entire cast comprised of mostly non-professional actors and Adam Sandler who plays Howard Ratner, a diamond-district hustler and compulsive gambler who’s racing the clock to pay off his colossal debt.
Uncut Gems proves Sandler remains a formidable dramatic actor when given the right material (also see Punch Drunk Love). He’s so good here, I’d wager he’ll finally win an Oscar. Even more surprising is Sandler’s costar: NBA Hall of Famer Kevin Garnett, who plays himself, in his final year with the Boston Celtics during their grueling playoff series against the Philadelphia 76ers. When Garnett becomes convinced an uncut opal that Howard has procured will bring him and his team good luck and help them win the series, he does everything in his power to buy it from Howard. Meanwhile, Howard does everything he can to move around plenty of expensive jewels, a couple of NBA Championship rings, and some heavy cash in order to score big with a local bookie (played with by NYC sports talk legend Mike Francesa). From there, things escalate further out of control.
Uncut Gems is part thriller and part character study and like thier previous work, Uncut Gems feels like a throwback to ’70s crime pictures and yet seems wholly original. The film is designed to keep viewers unsettled; it almost never stops moving; Sandler almost never stops talking— and by the time the 135 minutes of the running time is over, you’ll find your pulse pounding. It’s excruciating and exhilarating and the biggest surprise of 2019. (Ricky D)
3.) The Irishman
Is Martin Scorsese a hack who only makes mob films? Well, no, of course not — no matter what the most defensive fans of filmmaking-by-committee might want to believe. But one wouldn’t be wrong to attribute special importance to his mafia and crime films, which often attempt to sum up periods of lawlessness in the United States’ checkered past. With The Irishman, he has made one of his most elegant and moving surveys of the influence of organized crime — a movie that easily belongs in the same category as Goodfellas, the criminally underrated Casino, and his previous crime epic, The Wolf of Wall Street.
Yet, what separates The Irishman from those earlier masterpieces is the sense of regret that suffuses it. Those films are all stories of inevitable failure (and the success that briefly forestalls it), but never has Scorsese zeroed in so closely on the way a man has chipped away at his soul, bit by bit, until nothing remains. Ironically, the de-aging technology that some viewers have derided helps illustrate that internal and external decay. Robert De Niro’s wrinkles and jowls can be smoothed out with the aid of computers, but he still has a 76-year-old’s hunched-over frame, as if he’s weighed down by his own sins.
De Niro and his costars Al Pacino and Joe Pesci are all doing some of the best work of their careers (though Pesci had been unofficially retired for years before Scorsese pulled him back in). De Niro and Pacino have often given in to their laziest inclinations, especially with less talented directors who weren’t able to rein them in or keep pushing for gold, but Scorsese knows what makes them tick — even with someone he’s never worked with before, like Pacino.
What’s most surprising about The Irishman is how plain enjoyable it is, at least for the first two hours or so. It’s funny, even uproarious at times, like the best parts of Goodfellas. But it’s the soul-crushing final section that elevates the film to the top tier of his already stacked filmography. (Brian Marks)
2.) Once Upon A Time in Hollywood
Quentin Tarantino’s latest belongs right up there with his greatest, depicting an indelible fantasy version of a bygone Hollywood era that ushered in a changing of the guard. Mostly following a few days in the life of an aging TV star and his buddy/stunt double, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood may not capture a place and time as it really was, but like much of the writer-director’s work, it’s the product of a passionate imagination. It’s also a soothing balm for those who relish flowing dialogue, and who aren’t impatient at getting lost among the tumbleweeds of dusty back lots and hillside pool parties.
Of course, this is a Tarantino film, so confrontation is expected at some point. And it will probably be bloody. Tension in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is supplied by the Manson Family, a commune of ominous hippies who have taken over a former film lot outside the city. Though their infamous leader is only briefly seen, actual history is a constant cloud hanging over the proceedings, especially whenever the bubbly, carefree, force-for-positivity that is Sharon Tate appears on screen. Her fleeting moments portray a refreshing zest for life and optimism that we’d rather not see tragically snuffed out; Hollywood can be unkind enough as it is.
But this is a fairy tale, and so the wrongs of the past have the chance to be righted. Yes, it takes a while for that head-squishing, flame-throwing assault to happen, so it’s best to sit back and enjoy the cruise; this story is more about the journey than the brutal, cathartic final battle. With its fascinating peek into the lives of rising and setting stars, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is ultimately a ballad to the love of movies, a chatty symphony of wishful thinking that the old and the new can coexist in some kind of happily ever after. (Patrick Murphy)
The last few years of the 2010s have been, shall we say, tumultuous. It seems impossible to turn anywhere online without stumbling upon a fiery political debate, tirade, or angry late-night tweet from unnamed world leaders. Films are often used to reflect the times, and very few films in the last few years have managed to capture the spirit of the time without getting too overtly political quite like Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite.
As Kim Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) and his family struggle with living in a basement and folding pizza boxes in order to make ends meet, he humbly accepts an opportunity from his college student friend to be a tutor for an affluent family, despite not having the education or credentials. It doesn’t take long for him to fall in love with the lavish lifestyle of the gullible and over-privileged Park family, and he slowly sneaks his entire family onto the staff in various positions. The film starts as a black comedy about a working-class family lying and scheming its way into taking over a household, but as it progresses, Parasite becomes a dark story focusing on the egregious difference between the socioeconomic statuses. The Park family is a seemingly pleasant and gracious family, particularly the clueless matriarch, Park Yeon-gyo, but she and her husband, Dong-ik, still display elitist “Let them eat cake” levels of naivety when it comes to the working class. Before long, the story develops twists and turns that turn a simple social satire into a genre-defying thrill ride.
Bong Joon-Ho’s engaging and insightful direction depicts a clever and eye-opening story about the codependent relationship between the classes. It is a universal cautionary tale about the cloying struggle to the top and the blatant poverty problem in a flawed capitalist society, and certainly has proven itself as one of the best films of the decade. (Sarah Truesdale)