2019 was a busy year. As a result, I’m behind on just about everything unrelated to work. Still – I went to the movies and saw a lot of them.
So here’s a ranked list of movies I liked, would watch again, and highly recommend if they’re of interest to you.
However, as is usually part of what makes lists like these so much fun, when I was thinking about the films that stuck with me this year, I noticed shared themes, common trends, and juxtaposition. Enough of them had strong enough bonds that, at least on their basis, I simply couldn’t decide which of them I liked better.
As such, the list you’re about to read is based on the strength of pairing together my favorite films of the year. It also allowed me to exclude movies that I liked but didn’t think were good enough for the list. Movies like Ad Astra, Joker, Richard Jewell, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, The Lighthouse, Good Boys, and The Wandering Earth. If those aren’t enough honorable mentions for you, or you think I missed something, feel free to comment below with your own pairings.
Here’s to the real list.
Knives Out & Shadow
What better way to begin the list than with… okay, I’ll admit it – the worst possible illustration of its theme? Both films feature women experiencing dilemmas of panic over the truth, as well as copious amounts of knives in its visual setting. There’s always the one reaching entry, but no list of mine would have been complete without Shadow – by far the most gorgeous and most visually enriching film I’ve seen all year. A beautiful tribute to and update of Akira Kurosawa; it is a wholesome epic of blood, romance, and political maneuvering that feels like the purest extract of Chinese mythology. It can’t top the thrills of Zhang Yimou’s global pop art triumphs from the 00s decade, but Shadow is an auteur masterpiece worthy of recognition all the same.
So worthy of recognition that I wasn’t going to let the fact that it’s technically not a “real” 2019 movie get in the way. Something that might also be said of Knives Out. Now, if you’ve seen this movie and you know anything about me, you might be wondering why I have it up here. Simply put – I respect the trolling. In fact, as far as cinematic trolling goes, it might be the best of all time (it’s at least up there with Sucker Punch). If immigration (illegal or otherwise) worries you or if there’s a certain movie by writer/director Rian Johnson for which you have strong negative feelings, boy does this little whodunit have something to say about you. I’m unmoved by the moral, but the craft is exquisite. It cuts fast and true from flesh to bone – just like the umbrella blades in Shadow.
Fittingly, this is also the most “feminine” dual entry, so to speak, on the list. Both films reconcile the masculine with the feminine. Knives Out has Daniel Craig and Ana de Armas in tandem complementing each other’s outward personalities as they work to undo the Thrombey Family treachery, not unlike the couple’s dance in Shadow that serves as the key to victory in the greater conflict.
The Irishman & Uncut Gems
Two gangster movies about men dissatisfied with their family lives starring actors who have spent the last two decades doing mostly “family friendly” movies. Both films observe an uncertain segment of our cultural history and track the movements and dealings of those behind and on the edges of them. And, perhaps my favorite thing about them, both films involve the audience (to a degree I never would have expected) and imbue in us a burning desire to reach both hands into the screen, smother the protagonist into silence, and show them the sour fruits of their addictions that go unquestioned throughout the entire runtimes.
There’s a pointlessness to the degeneracy on display in both movies that reveals desperation – addiction. Both films engage that well as they construct their relationships with their audience. The Irishman is a near 4-hour epic spanning three decades, narrated from the end, and bereft of the wild party antics from its more energetic predecessors Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street, but with plenty of Catholic guilt for us in the course of even trying to guess where Frank’s motivations come from. Uncut Gems, meanwhile, bounces from schools to pawn shops to casinos to apartments trying to keep up with the character as he stretches himself like an octopus to feed his gambling addictions. But it never loses sight of the fact that this is a problem. Even when you think the movie is about to do a Silver Linings Playbook and “movie” its way into a happy ending, it remains honest and serious about this funny guy. And yes – Adam Sandler is a funny guy. He’s funny looking, funny sounding, he looks funny when he’s humiliated and undignified, and he’s even funnier when he pathetically tries to act tough here. It’s an incredible performance. Not to snub De Niro, of course, putting in his best work in years. The crime genre really is his specialty; I even like his brief return to it in The Family. A witness to his own crimes as much as he is the perpetrator, De Niro lets his blank expressions convey his dissatisfaction and helplessness as everyone moves around him, above him, and below him, and all he can do is obey while sending ripples through history with every pull of his trigger.
In both movies, characters do far too much for their own good. They ain’t too much fun to watch, but they’ll keep you hooked all the way through.
Doctor Sleep & John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum
Featuring the darkest, most hard bitten acting turns by underrated masters (Ewan McGregor and Keanu Reeves respectively), these two films both come as sequels where the main character starts out on the run, and then confronts a complex father/figure while fighting a woman in a sprawling hotel setting for the climax. Both films present the “peace through war” maxim via their protagonists.
They are both films built upon the layering of their predecessors. The original John Wick is still too young to be considered a classic (it’ll get there), but it is a masterpiece of gun action, poetic revenge, and nature’s reckoning. It is sophisticated through the compounded building blocks of simplicity in its expression and action. And of course The Shining cannot be touched. Not even by Stephen King, the author of the original novel (and the sequel from which Doctor Sleep is adapted) who hated the movie.
Having read neither book, I care little about their controversial differences. The Shining as a film is hardly a concrete plot or definitive narrative. It is, to use a term I first heard from Douglas Trumbull, by far the most vertically penetrating film ever created.
A ghost setting with multiple concurrent descents into madness where the ambiguity is part of the terror, but also where the locations were intelligible. The Overlook Hotel is brightly lit and easily navigable. All the easier to see the things that are out of place. Yet the only part that feels like a maze is the actual maze. The characters are defined just well enough for us to see what they see and react initially the way they do from the carefully timed, persistently non-jumpy brain burns of disturbing images. But the film just as strongly yet subtly indicates that they see what their past troubles direct them towards. The uncertainty of their takeaways slowly furthers the distance we feel from them as they spiral further, until eventually they become the scariest things in the film. The violence is barely featured; heavily suggested. The space in between events is left to the viewer, but unlike other films, that isn’t the homework assignment it sounds like. For example, the “shining” young Danny Torrence has, from which stems his imaginary friend “Tony,” is a coping mechanism for the abuse he suffered by his father’s drunken hand and/or a supernatural explanation behind the nose-to-stomach instincts and intuitions of uncomfortable children. Maybe both.
This, of course, is precisely what makes Doctor Sleep a near impossible sequel, which is why it’s all the more amazing that it succeeds. The implications of the shine upon Danny’s childhood are dispensed with in favor of a new, complex adult relationship with it. First he tracks the alcoholic path of his father by drinking his shine into suppression. Then he makes an uneasy peace with it by using it in his job to comfort dying patients in their last breaths. And then… well, after all the mcguffin chasing in Acts 3-4, that’s where Danny’s long, overdue confrontations begin.
Doctor Sleep is a movie about addiction and coping with trauma, but it’s paced almost like the stages of grief and war with the self. Denial and anger govern the alcohol induced stupor of Danny’s adulthood, bargaining is essentially what he’s doing as “Doctor Sleep,” and the final act is his road to acceptance, which gives him the peace to be to the next shiner what Halloran was to him. It turned horror to hope, all while toeing the tightropes of sequeldom to the most iconic and effective scary movie of all time. What a film.
Speaking of grief, the original John Wick made its titular character an incarnation of it. Now the clock is ticking before the entire world aims for his head for having broken a cardinal rule.
John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum is steeped in the meaning of consequence. All characters in this world accept on one level or another that they come due. But this is still a protagonist’s story, and a thrilling one at that. Some of the best action ever put to screen, a continued forging of Keanu Reeves into a myth of his own; Parabellum just plain rocks. Its texture outdoes its big-budgeted action counterparts by light years. It’s the best trilogy of the decade, yes, even better than Apes. Tons of fun, and a fitting alternative once the psychology of horror thins your patience.
Things are always, after all, a lot less scary when you’re armed.
Ford v. Ferrari & Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood
Two throwbacks to the triumphs of masculinity with affection for the authentic. It’s fashionable for big-budget studio franchises to pretend that they’re championing creativity by allowing some two-bit hack with a feminism textbook to make a pre-calculated, pre-focus-group-tested “critique” of straw masculinity, executed with neither the humanity nor the feeling that old school cinema once required.
In this respect, both Ford v. Ferrari and Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood show the rest of the business, and the plebiscites who worship at that business’s altair, how true filmmaking is done. Two buddy dramas set in the late ’60s where the age of innocence is rapidly coming to an end, and where the bold, brazen ambitions and determinisms of individuals see their best, most dreamlike qualities realized.
Ford v. Ferrari may feature a race that involves nonstop looping for 24 hours, but as a movie it contains the most straightforward dramatic ground and pound narrative of the year. There is no problem that can’t be solved in a garage or in the pit, no limit to American exceptionalism or to the iron will of the individual, and no challenge too daunting for the determined. Optimism of this kind is too often misconstrued as trite whitewashing rather than recognized for the earnest love it offers. A power of awe that all characters recognize in crucial moments that make for two of the best scenes of the year. One of which involves a mini caper where Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) takes Henry Ford II for a quick spin, and the other involves maverick racer Ken Miles (Christian Bale) wordlessly slowing down to allow the two other Ford racers to catch up so they can all cross the line together. These moments are connected by their mutually mythic significance, where the can-do attitudes of Shelby and Miles reveal their maturity. There was nothing else like it this year.
Speaking of maturity, as fun as director Quentin Tarantino has been over the years (if you’ve got the stomach for it), he has never made a film like Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood before. When I first saw it, I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t grasp it. I thought it was just more of the same Tarantino from before, but here applied in far too self-centered a way as to convey the outward affection effectively. Bluntly, I thought it was too much Tarantino trying to tell himself a new, convoluted story about how old he’s getting.
I had it backwards. Just like the ending. There is a discomfort at the base of the film, one that has never existed in a Tarantino work before it. A fair critique of his previous films (irrespective of his political revisionism that I had no issue with) is that they’re all high-strung journeys of manic, diaphragm energy with no morality. For the first time, the indulgent violence in Hollywood‘s ending has an appropriate human, social, and even political context. The mistake I made was in coming at the movie with the reflexive urge to focus on the Tarantino alt-universe references rather than to engage the film’s illustrations of where those references came from.
What is the “Hollywood” that’s receiving the Leone-esque treatment in this film? Far from a perfect place; it has its dark corners and shady dealings. But it’s also where someone like Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) can be seen living her best life. It’s where the featured stars and unseen workers – boyish men who need each other – can collaborate and realize their best selves through the other as they try to revitalize and resurface their careers in a changing era. Of course, hanging over the entire drama is the degree to which things are about to change for the worse in a horrific and utterly unpredicted fashion: the Manson murders.
Hollywood has the courage to define its old self as not just innocent (that would be far too pretentious) but conservative. We’re seeing a fever dream – a relaxed weekend of storied life with the run-ins and awkward encounters you’d expect of such a small town (in this respect the controversy regarding Bruce Lee is ridiculous). The film’s real power lies in the concurrent escalation of tension built at Spahn Ranch – an old movie set where the Manson hippies have seduced and grifted their way into squatting and lurking. They are the fever encroaching upon Hollywood, and by extension America.
Suddenly it doesn’t seem so crazy to break out the flamethrower against them.
Taken together, Ford v. Ferrari and Once Upon a time… in Hollywood offer the warmth of a previous era’s wistful determination. The ’60s need not only be thought of as a chaotic upheaval of tyranny, or of growing pains and liberation. It may also be the last authentic, artistic, and inspirationally manly period in America’s time as an international superpower. Before the hippies ruined everything. I may not have been alive for it, but I miss it too.
Dragged Across Concrete & The Standoff at Sparrow Creek
I began this list by bringing up a film that was not a “real” 2019 film. If that wasn’t enough, here are two more. Both of these films technically saw limited festival releases in September, 2018 but they released in regular American theaters this year, both are produced by Dallas Sonnier, and both are extremely dark, quiet, nail-grindingly slow neo-noir thrillers about alienated men and social relationships.
The Standoff at Sparrow Creek is essentially Reservoir Dogs but mature and where the men at the center of it are due for their day of reckoning, which has arrived. The warehouse bottle in which they’re trapped is not quite a pressure cooker, but it’s a perfect catalyst for their undoing both collectively and personally. Meanwhile, Dragged Across Concrete features two old, tired cops who undo themselves slowly, regretfully, and painfully.
The films are like reverses of one another printed on the same palate with the same colors, same spaces, and with the same intent. In Dragged Across Concrete, every moment is its own ethical dilemma where men who are already over at least one line keep finding and crossing more. Their bad break is like a journey of a thousand miles, where each step is significant and in furtherance of the inevitable. Egalitarian modernity is a cruel grappling partner from which everyone is looking to escape, even the one doing it virtuously despite abetting a robbery. The path to their demise is viscerally felt. I felt like I was bleeding out, watching my last sunset, and… well… being dragged across concrete. Meanwhile, The Standoff at Sparrow Creek looks at the tired, horrified faces of men who have taken those steps a thousandfold. What virtues they might have once had have been tainted and sanded away with time and isolation. What has arrived is “the moment.” Theoretically they’ve been “preparing for” all too eagerly. Most of them have justifications behind their disillusion, but they have turned to the militia because they have no one and nothing left. No life, no purpose, no reason; just a vague notion of survival that they might share with unidentified members of other groups elsewhere. Yet they’re still human, still recognizable if only by their all-too-familiar personalities. And they prove to be exactly as vulnerable and sheepish as any other pack of men who fancy themselves wolves.
These are both movies that make for cold, still shivers in its audience. They didn’t have much for budgets but the filmmaking prowess was the best of the year. I don’t know if they’re better than 2-4, but they made the biggest impression on me for the year, and if you missed them (which, according to their box office numbers, you did), the full moon will be out soon enough.
Star Wars: Rise of the Skywalker
Do yourself a favor and resist the urge to see it again in order to try to make sense of this film or justify the “creative” decisions in this story. It won’t make more sense on the next viewing. Or the one after that. With each film, Disney, Kathleen Kennedy, and its legion of market researchers continue to desecrate Star Wars all in the name of fan and franchise worship.
The Purge did this better. Yes, the original. When everyone was having trouble figuring out this movie, outlets and media platforms exploded with “here’s the article that explains X!” Rarely by citing anything in the movie – just autistic hypotheses reaching outward at straws to grasp by people convinced that the creator must be an unbridled genius of infinite thought and speculating wildly about what stew of brilliance he conjured forth. This, of course, is how Jordan Peele hoodwinks fools into thinking he’s some sort of visionary filmmaker auteur on par with Nolan, Lynch, or Spielberg. But Us isn’t half as scary as its audience. This must be what fandom culture looks like from the outside. A boring movie for a boring woke fandom that keeps telling itself that nobody talks about the things they won’t stop talking about. At least it wasn’t racist and looked better than Get Out two years ago. But is this really how we’re going to watch movies now?
The Lion King
This movie is the Hindenburg of CGI. An awful looking bore from start to finish that somehow only looks worse the more you keep your eye on something. Technology, and the attitude of technology, has sucked the fun and soul out of this classic story. Admittedly, the original The Lion King was never my favorite. I have a better appreciation for it now. There was life and verve to that film. Here there’s just… nothing. Maybe next time, Jon Favreau.
You know, despite the problems with Interstellar, I still don’t hate Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway trying to act together and take each other seriously. But then an utterly ridiculous twist puts this already dumb movie into a tailspin and… okay I’m going to spoil it.
He’s a video game character created by the son of a dead marine who missed taking fishing trips with his dad. But before you start thinking “oh boy! Finally, he’s telling my story!” this movie then proceeds to do literally nothing with its subject. It’s honestly kind of astonishing, and if it were a parody I might have put it in a different list. But we don’t live in that world. We live in a world where even my most outlandish video games make more sense and excite me more than this.
…I got nothing.
Happy New Year!
*As of this writing, I have not seen Cats, but from everyone’s hearsay, I am perhaps left to prejudge it as the best film Tom Hooper has ever made.**
** That is not the compliment it sounds like.