Written By: Daniel Kinsley
What an extraordinary year for the movies. As we near the precipice of wrapping up Year Three (!) it is easier than ever to feel a lot of pride at the things we have accomplished during our tenure. Old friends returned (Brittany, everybody!) we wrapped up a decade in film and managed to keep the holiday-theme-streak going for another year. It was also our lightest year yet in terms of content; during the first half of ’19, admittedly, this writer was worried that the mojo might have gone, but the second half proved that we were just waiting on the films that were going to inspire us (don’t call it a comeback) and boy there were a lot. Whether we will collectively reach the production highs of Year One is up for debate, but from an editorial perspective, the work we did this year is as good (if not better) than it has ever been. Perhaps that was reflective of the deep bench of movies we had this year, or perhaps it is that we here at Team Porkchop continue to grow as writers, as well as people.
If last year felt like a bit of a step back, then 2019 came roaring back with a vengeance in terms of the sheer quality of what was released. The MCU closed a huge chapter as over a decade worth of stories came to a hugely satisfying conclusion with Avengers: Endgame, and paved the way for fresh (and increasingly inclusive) new stories; female filmmakers continue to force their way into the conversation with films as diverse as Lulu Wang’s autobiographical The Farewell to Olivia Wilde’s deeply funny coming-of-age Booksmart and Alma Har’el’s emotionally cleansing Honey Boy. It continues to be a wonderful time to be a horror fan with a myriad of adaptations of the maestro himself, Stephen King, plus new entries from Ari Aster, Jordan Peele, and The Conjuring Extended Universe. It was an incredible year for independent and foreign cinema with some of the most lauded films of the year coming from countries from Spain (Pain and Glory) to Senegal (Atlantics). We also saw the return of powerhouse auteurs like Scorsese and Tarantino, the former of whom relied on Netflix to deliver his latest epic. Overall, it was another tremendous year of film.
For the best of the decade list, this writer elected to break out of the norm for the momentous occasion, but for this list the ordinary rules apply: Ten films, listed in alphabetical order (rankings are just an arbitrary way to make this way less fun) with a space for honorable mentions. Except this year, the rules are going to go out the window a bit (since they are enforced by this writer, anyhow) as 2019 was so good, that it does not feel right to make a Sophie’s Choice. This year, there will be eleven films that made the cut. As always, this is a wildly personal list, and is in no way intended to be indicative of the Best or Most Important films of the year. Of the 180+ films this writer saw this year, 111 were released in 2019, and eligible for consideration on the list. It is worth noting that as of this writing, there are a few notable releases that will not be released in wide distribution, and thus not eligible (1917, I’m looking at you).
And now, without further ado, the top ten (eleven) films of 2019.
A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood
If you got the chance to see the wonderful documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018) then you could be forgiven for thinking Marielle Heller’s film was a fictional take on the same material (hell, even this writer made that assumption) but you would be quite wrong. The typical biopic model is tired and outdated, and thankfully 2019 saw a good number of shake-ups to the formula, including this lovely, understated look at the tremendous impact of the inimitable Fred Rogers. Loosely based on a true story about the friendship between a freelance reporter (Matthew Rhys) and Mr. Rogers (a more perfectly cast than you even think Tom Hanks) it is a film bursting with warmth, compassion, and forgiveness. At a time where many people feel alone or alienated by the state of the world, along comes a film like this to remind us of the lasting power of kindness.
James Gray’s gorgeous space opera is alternately mythic and intimate as it deconstructs masculinity and explores generational trauma through the veil of a pulp-fiction adventure. Even though he has been a bit overshadowed in the awards conversation as of late, 2019 was the Year of Brad Pitt with a pair of career best performances (the second of which is a little lower down this list) serving as a welcome reminder of what a force he can be. There ought to be enough operatic action to satisfy the cosmic setting (Moon pirates! A zero-G fight!) but ultimately its aims are of the deeply personal and emotionally cathartic variety. A deeply affecting film this writer has not been able to shake for months.
Ford Vs Ferrari
James Mangold’s first post-Wolverine film in nearly a decade is one hell of a welcome back. This based-on-a-true-story could have been a snooze-fest in lesser hands; instead, it is a very charming and wildly enjoyable underdog story. It is as funny as it is exciting (which is to say very) and like the very best sports films, it works like gangbusters whether you are a gear-head or not. Christian Bale and Matt Damon are electric together, crackling with energy and wry humor. Bale has the flashier role, but Damon is doing some of the best work of his career and making it look easy. Ford vs Ferrari manages to be both a crowd-pleasing throwback and an appeal for big studio originals as superhero counter-programming. Not content to be just your dad’s new favorite movie, it is destined to become a new premium cable classic.
More than any other film on this list, Hustlers is met with skepticism whenever it is brought up by this writer. “The stripper movie? Jennifer Lopez?” Yes, and hell yes. Writer-director Lorene Scafaria’s slick crime film (based on a true story) is an absolute blast. Jennifer Lopez has rightly received a ton of awards buzz for her performance, which is the best onscreen role she’s had since smoldering off the screen in Out of Sight (1997) over twenty years ago, but it is the chemistry she shares with co-star Constance Wu (in a star-making turn) that makes this one of the best pairings of the year. It feels a bit like Goodfellas (1990) only centered around women. Make no mistake, though, this is Scafaria’s film through and through. It is as laugh-out-loud funny as anything to come out this year, and equally biting in its social commentary. Ditch the skepticism, and thank me later. Hustlers is the real deal.
Martin Scorsese’s (likely) final gangster film is both a summation and a culmination of over 40 years of filmmaking. The Netflix-produced epic reunited Marty with frequent collaborators De Niro and Pesci (the latter of whom was coaxed out of retirement) and pairs him with the inimitable Al Pacino for the first time. With a three and a half hour run-time (which truly flies by) that spans several decades and covers major events in American history, The Irishman is truly epic in every sense of the word. It is also the most soulful examination (and strongest condemnation) of themes Scorsese has been chasing his entire career. There has been a lot of talk about whether the film is too familiar, or too long, but let’s put them to bed once and for all. There is not a single wasted minute, and if the early going hits some familiar beats, it is only to pivot toward yanking them right from under on the way to the haunting finale. The Irishman is a singular achievement by one of our greatest living filmmakers.
It seems safe to say that few filmmakers alive would have the audacity to make coming-of-age comedy set in Nazi Germany, and fewer still would have the abilities to actually pull it off. Thank God then for a filmmaker as bold and imaginative as Taika Waititi. Utilizing some of that Marvel clout to swing for the fences, the film deftly manages heartbreak and hilarity in equal measure thanks to a trio of incredible performances from Roman Griffin Davis, Thomasin McKenzie, and Scarlett Johansson. Waititi’s anti-hate satire is a triumph made no less meaningful because of how hard it will make you laugh. One of the year’s boldest films is also one of its best.
Rian Johnson’s latest is a wickedly funny whodunit boasting the best ensemble cast of the year. And though it is truly an ensemble piece (every character gets at least a few scenes to make an impression) it is Daniel Craig (clearly having the time of his life) as famed investigator Benoit Blanc and Ana de Armas in a star-making turn as the protagonist at the center of the donut—er, mystery—it is a rollicking good time with a lot on its mind, as timely as anything released in the Trump Era, but steeped in kindness rather than rage. Simultaneously a love letter and a deconstruction of the genre, it is the most fun you are likely to have in a movie this year.
Writer-director Noah Baumbach has really grown on this writer during the course of his last several films, and Marriage Story might be his best one yet. Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson both turn in tremendous work that easily rank among the year’s best performances. It is an intensely personal almost Kafka-esque examination of the heartbreak and absurdity of the divorce process. It seems strange to say a break-up film is funny, but there are a lot of laughs to be had between sobs, and that is ultimately what makes the film work so well: it is a story about two people who love each other in spite of it all, and it will be devastatingly relatable to anyone who has ever gone through a messy split. It will break your heart as much as fill it with tender mercy, and if it hits too close to home at times, it also takes pains to remind viewers that nothing (good or bad) lasts forever.
If this is truly the penultimate film in Tarantino’s career…what a hell of a bow. This kaleidoscopic vision of the last days of the ’60s manages to be so many things all at once, all of them a delight. QT’s most relaxed work since Jackie Brown (1997) is the ultimate hang-out movie, anchored by two instantly iconic performances from Pitt and Dicaprio, and complemented perfectly by Margot Robbie who almost literally glows right off the screen. It may be too soon to tell where the film lines up in Tarantino’s output, but on its own merits, it is a tremendous masterwork that stands atop the best films of the year. From the first frame to the last, Once Upon A Time is a bittersweet love letter to days gone by, and the enduring magic of the movies.
Bong Joon Ho’s blistering dark comedy is not only one of the best films of the year, but also a terrific introduction to Korean cinema (for those who need it). Here is what you should know: an unemployed family con their way into the lives and employ of a rich family, and naturally, complications ensue, but it is almost certain it is not going in the direction you think. Like much of Bong’s best work, it defies easy categorization, bouncing comfortably between genres without missing a beat. It is immaculately crafted and once it gets going, steeped in the kind of tension few filmmakers outside of Hitchcock could sustain. The best way to enjoy this wild ride is to go in as cold as possible, so avoid reading too much and just hand yourself over to a master.
The Safdie Brothers are madmen. Undoubtedly one of the most adrenaline pumping, anxiety-inducing experiences this writer has ever had in a theater. From the word go, Gems is determined to push you out of your comfort zone, and keep you there. It is an intense, dizzying look at one man’s addiction to toxicity. Sandler reaches arguably career-best heights, in a role is entirely different from anything you have seen from him before. Everything about this film is cranked up to 11. You may not breathe for most if its two-hour run-time, but this pitch-black comedy wrapped in a panic attack is one of the most indelible film experiences of 2019.
Before wrapping up, check out the honorable mentions: films that did not quite crack the list that nonetheless merit a look, as they are all very good.
The Death of Dick Long
Dolemite Is My Name