Best Films of 2019
Alex Rose: Even though we’re writing and publishing this later than most of our brethren, I always feel weird about writing a best films of 2019 list right at the end of the year. I see more movies than a lot of people, and even I could not possibly claim that I am ready to make any final declarations by the end of the year. It’s just too hard to catch up on what you’ve missed: festival titles you didn’t get around to, things you missed in theatres, things you’ve never even heard about and even things that possibly require a second look. 2019 was particularly thorny for me because, as some have heard, I was in a car accident at the end of November and essentially couldn’t get out of the house to see nearly anything that came out in December. All of these lists come with a caveat, but I find the caveat even more imposing this year.
Justine Smith: Over the years, I’ve gotten a little better at imposing cut-off dates. I accept that there is no year since the invention of cinema where I feel I’ve covered my bases sufficiently, so my lists are due when my deadlines hit. But every year it feels like the unveiling of lists comes earlier, as if every major publication wants to scoop the competition by being the first to declare Parasite the best movie of the year. The only reason beyond the market pressures of the publishing industry that explain why no one seems to wait until Dec. 31 is anxiety about the past. In spite of the continued awards coverage, we impose on ourselves a clean slate, perhaps as a way of mitigating that aching feeling you’re describing: that pressure to catch up, an impossible feat even when you haven’t been hit by a car. It’s a feeling that only grows every year, as you reach towards death, and there are only more and more movies to see.
Increasingly, my year-end lists are formed as much by what I decide not to watch as what I chose to lay down my hard-earned cash to see. There are many films I’m sad I missed and still hope to catch up on as soon as possible: The Last Black Man in San Francisco, Pain & Glory, The Farewell, Richard Jewell, The Lighthouse, Jeanne, The Forest of Love, etc. etc. There are also films I’ve consciously not watched, though that isn’t to say I won’t someday. Films like Captain Marvel, Spider-man: Far From Home, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, Toy Story 4. You might notice these are all Disney movies.
Justine: While we’re talking about the best films of 2019, we might also talk about the biggest film story of the year: Disney becoming an even more dominating force in the screen industry and what that might mean. As someone with an avoidant personality, I mostly avoid seeing the new Disney movies (unless I’m paid to see them) because I can’t quite cope with the direction they’re taking the industry. I think it’s a losing game to boil down Disney’s influence or importance to individual films because it’s kind of a smokescreen that obscures the fact that they control so much of our attention and so much of the industry from the top down.
Alex: The overarching negative influence of Disney, beyond its numerical and statistical domination, is one that I’ve seen directly affect people around me who were perhaps never die-hard cinephiles but habitual moviegoers: it’s slowly but surely imprinting this idea that only Disney movies are worth going to the theatre for.
Granted, I’m not an in-theatre evangelist. I certainly prefer it, but I would be lying if I said that many of my formative movie-watching experiences were not had in my living room or in the basement at my parents’ as a teenager. Similarly, “I’ll wait for it to come out on video” is a maxim that’s at least as old as I am, but the promise of unmatchable spectacle constantly offered up by Disney is narrowing people’s perspectives without them even knowing it. I see it in some people’s mitigated reactions to The Irishman — a movie I loved, but one that I have to assume that I loved mainly because I watched it in a theatre. To be fair, I’ve never watched any of Disney’s recent crop at home (or rewatched them, for that matter) so perhaps they suffer from exactly that same thing, but it’s not a good sign that audiences are being trained to leave their house only with the promise of wide-open spectacle.
Quality and quantity
Alex: That having been said, it’s been a pretty good year for movies. I, too, have many blind spots: The Last Black Man in San Francisco, Richard Jewell, Little Women, Atlantics, Ford v Ferrari, Monos, High Life, The Nightingale, etc. What I’ve noticed, however, is that there are even more consensus titles across all the lists I’ve seen this year. There are movies where opinion is sharply split (Joker, Jojo Rabbit) but also movies that nearly everyone loved — and our lists sort of betray that! We’d have the same Top 2 if I hadn’t remembered that my actual favourite movie I saw last year, Laszlo Nemes’s Sunset, came out in Montreal theatres this year. In fact, of all I’ve read and heard about Uncut Gems, I’ve really only heard of one person who didn’t like it.
Justine: It has been one of the strongest years in recent memory. It was harder than usual to narrow down 10 favourites, and I keep switching things around. It speaks to how strong a year it has been that I haven’t seen the majority of your list. Of the ones not included on mine, I’ve only seen La grande noirceur, which I’m not terribly in love with but can respect its inclusion.
Aside from the obvious heavy-hitters we’ve both included as well, it does seem like a breakout year for smaller films. Very few of the movies I loved most were on my radar earlier in 2019. With how many films we usually watch in a year, it is refreshing to be surprised and excited by new voices. From one year to the next I worry that I’m going to grow cold and cynical about the state of cinema as an art form, but I haven’t yet. While I have a lot of apprehension about the direction of the industry, as a form, I feel like cinema is alive and well.
The Safdies’ masterpiece
Justine: Uncut Gems, in particular, is just one of those movies that feels impossible. I can’t believe it exists, and I mean that in the best way possible. Along with Parasite, it has to be among the most beloved films in recent years, achieving near-consensus adoration among those who’ve seen it. Unlike most crowd-pleasers, it doesn’t seem to be orchestrated to be well-liked. It just exists as a raw-nerve adrenaline-pumping experience that also manages to tell a compelling story about greed, risk and love. It’s utterly antithetical to the Disney products that are inundating our screens because it is a movie that could never be conceived in a board-room or by an algorithm.
Alex: To be honest, whenever it comes time to take stock of the year in movies, I pretty much always think it was a strong year! If I were to make a Top 10 of the decade, there would be two movies from 2019 in it, which does indeed cement its reputation as a superior year. I’d say that, as the years go by, however, the thing that seems to weigh the most on my perception is the never-ending, perpetually molting hype machine, which is increasingly sharing space with the hot take machine. I’m lucky enough to see many movies before the hype and/or backlash actually revs up. That makes it easy for me to make up my own mind but increasingly difficult to hold fast on my opinions in the following months.
I really liked Marriage Story when I saw it, but the subsequent discourse sort of soured me on it. I’m sure you can relate: it’s not so much that it has changed my opinion, or that I think its detractors are right or wrong, but simply that I don’t really want to think about it anymore. As we write this, the Oscar nominations have been announced; they more or less look like they’ve always looked, and people are predictably upset, which I imagine means the next month will also have some tiresome results.
One of the “snubbed” films was in fact Uncut Gems, a film that, in a perfect world, would win all awards. In our world, however, it never stood a fucking chance.
Justine: It’s worth considering why a film like Uncut Gems was doomed from the start. People are latching on to some stray comments from old Academy members that Sandler was “too cocky.” Still, the reality is more straightforward: most awards contenders have the backing of million-dollar campaigns, and Uncut Gems does not. Harvey Weinstein’s legacy extends far beyond his abuse of power and treatment of women — it changed the landscape of awards shows. He may be gone, but the game has changed. It doesn’t matter how good or how “Oscar Worthy” a film happens to be. Without a big, expensive campaign, it has no chance in hell. Whereas larger distribution companies can support multiple films, most smaller ones cannot. “Snubs,” more than just an oversight, often reflect the strategy of distribution companies that can only afford to back one or two films.
In the U.S., A24 is distributing Uncut Gems, and they’re still a relatively small company in spite of attracting big talent and properties. I’m not entirely convinced that Uncut Gems is not an “awards contender,” in the classical sense. In the pre-Weinstein era, it would have had a chance. It’s hard to watch the film without thinking of previous Best Picture winners like The French Connection or Rocky. In a way, Uncut Gems announces itself as a singular American masterpiece that only comes around once in a generation. I want to hate myself for leaning into hyperbole, but it’s obvious to me that the Safdies captured lightning in a bottle.
Gems has the strong foundation of a mythic and great script, and the conditions of casting, shooting and direction that the Safdies bring to the table build in the sense of unquantifiable spontaneity. When we say the film feels real, it’s less to do with the aesthetics of realism (the film is quite expressionistic). It has more to do with the feeling that anything can happen, that the characters are somehow bound by fate (the Safdies becoming mischievous Olympian Gods, screenwriters who’ve outlined how these lives are doomed to unfold) but unmoored by chaotic, often self-destructive free will. As much as the film’s breakneck momentum draws us in, this almost primordial tension is what really drives its appeal.
It’s worth remembering that art is not qualifiable in the way a sport might be. There are no obvious winners or losers. It shouldn’t be surprising that politics and money play a big role in this whole universe. It’s also ignorant to act like even we humble critics are untouched by greater industry pressures and conflicts. Your example of Marriage Story is pretty spot on. It might not be that our opinions are being bought out or swayed, but covering the “discourse,” you get a little jaded about certain films or conversations. It’s almost impossible to measure whether this is due to a film not being able to hold up over time, or if the volume of hot takes is just burning us out.
What about the worst?
Alex: Ultimately, I find that my Top 10s of any given year will shape-shift and morph over time. I understand why we’re drawn to this idea of the year in review, but if I can watch movies from 1963 now and find them mindblowing, there’s no question that the opposite is also possible.
I wanted to touch upon the idea of a “worst-of” list as well. In the past, we’ve sort of covered this, but not methodically. The idea of the worst movies of a given year is a similarly slippery concept. There’s no question that something like A Karate Christmas Miracle is quantifiably worse than, I dunno, Zombieland 2, but I haven’t seen the former and was very put off by the latter. If I were to make a thorough list, however, I couldn’t produce one today. That sentiment was also felt on social media this year as various filmmakers and other movie-business insiders dunked on “worst-of” lists published by major outlets as being disrespectful, mean-spirited and politically motivated.
In a sense, they’re not wrong. These lists are often made to sprinkle a dash of additional snark on a movie that is already getting lambasted every which way. On the other hand, it’s not like these were invented in 2019, and whatever damage they may inflict is probably already done.
If I were to look at trends at the bottom end of the curve, though, I would say that 2019 is, paradoxically, showing the logical endpoint of the blockbuster model. Traditionally, the worst-received movies have never been the most expensive, quadrant-pleasing efforts (unless they were cataclysmic failures) but disposable studio fodder or bizarre vanity projects. The maxim “you have to spend money to make money” is becoming less and less relevant as films that seemed like sure-shots such as Dark Phoenix or Men in Black International crashed and burned. On the other hand, movies that rely on no intellectual property or franchise world-building like Knives Out, Us or even Hustlers have been doing much better than they would’ve even five years ago. I don’t know if we can call it a real upswing — the things that truly dominate all have Mickey Mouse and his bottomless moneybags at the helm — but it’s encouraging.
Justine: I’ve never been a huge fan of worst-of lists. A lot of the most obvious contenders, the real bottom of the barrel straight to DVD releases, aren’t worth digging your teeth into. Even though critics are often credited with more power than we generally have, I’d also argue your average critic does have some measure of power when dealing with small films without distribution. It’s often the case that I’d prefer to keep my mouth shut when those movies are bad. What’s really the point of going after a small film that hasn’t made a mark?
People aren’t wrong to say that there are a lot of politics involved in composing a “worst-of” list, more so than a “best-of.” I purposefully go after the big-budget monstrosities. I think we both have a higher than average curiosity about vanity projects, which is why I’m not even sure I’d put something like Cats on my worst-of list, even though it’s likely objectively worse than, say, The Lion King. Frankly, while Cats is more boring than some critics have let on, it is still more interesting than Men in Black International.
The best worst-of lists tend to use them as a platform to discuss the worst industry trends. Even if they’re framed as “worst of the year” lists, it would be more accurate to describe them as an annual check-up on the film industry, checking their vitals and raising cause for concern when necessary.
Your point about original films is well-taken. Even if Disney continues to grow its share of the market, it does seem to be creating a reaction on behalf of filmmakers and audiences seeking something different. It’s encouraging that bloated and uninspired franchise films are failing and smaller projects are succeeding. For all the doom and gloom forecasting the death of the film industry as we know it, there is still room to hope.
Alex’s Best Films of 2019
- Uncut Gems
- The Irishman
- The Lighthouse
- A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
- La femme de mon frère
- Her Smell
- La grande noirceur
Justine’s Best Films of 2019
- Uncut Gems
- The Irishman
- Portrait of a Lady on Fire
- Dark Waters
- MS Slavic 7
- One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk
- Vitalina Varela
See all of our Film coverage, including reviews of the Best Films of 2019, here.