Once again, it’s that time of year. I’m not a fan of ranking or even rating movies, though I do. (It’s an unfortunate necessity.) Every year I debate whether or not to do a top ten or best-of list, but I ultimately always do. So without further ado, here are my top ten movies of 2019. And I actually keep it to ten this year. Praise me.
As with any top ten list, this is 100% subjective. I still have no idea how people think film criticism is an objective endeavor. It most certainly is not. If it helps, think of these as my favorite movies of 2019. That’s what they are.
As far as order, I’m bad at that and dislike assigning a numerical value to each, though they’re in roughly descending order, one-ish through ten-ish. The order could easily flip around, and would probably look entirely different if I assembled the list yesterday or a week ago or in a couple of hours. But in this current moment, this is how they shake out.
There’s no set criteria. Some may be towering technical achievements, while others are a damn lot of fun or moved me to tears. Just know that if a movie is on this list, I saw it, loved it for one or many reasons, and recommend it highly. Whatever that’s worth.
Parasite is many things. It’s a family drama, a class war thriller, a pitch-black comedy, clever as all hell, and a borderline horror film. Most of all, Bong Joon-ho, never a filmmaker to be easily pigeonholed, crafted a delicate, off-kilter look at social and economic inequality that’s strange and bold and compulsively watchable. In a career full of goddamned masterpieces, this might be his best.
If you read this site on a regular basis, or know me at all, you know a John Wick movie has a damn good chance of winding up on this list, and Parabellum doesn’t disappoint. Maybe not as tight as the previous two, the third film further opens up the world where everyone is a secret killer, and builds on the mythology, cribbing not only from action movies, but Greek tragedy, Kurosawa, classic art, and much more. And it could go without saying, but I’m going to say it anyway, that the action choreography is once again top tier, slick and coherent and brutal, and perhaps most impressive, never feels rehashed or warmed over.
The cinematic equivalent of a heart attack, the Safdie Brothers Uncut Gems delivers a frantic propulsive narrative force. A white-knuckle series of escalating bad decisions sends Adam Sandler’s jeweler-with-a-gambling problem, Howard Ratner, on a non-stop downward spiral trying to dig himself out of a hole he can’t see keeps getting deeper. A year ago, if you’d said Adam Sandler would give one of 2019’s best performance—maybe the best—I’d have called you crazy, but here we are.
Combine the onscreen ass-kicking abilities of Scott Adkins with director Jesse V. Johnson and I’m there day one. But Avengement finds both working at career bests. A low-down, vicious slice of prison revenge exploitation cinema, it’s a bit different for both. The action is less polished and much more raw. The fights aren’t about skill and martial arts acumen, they’re brutal, ferocious affairs. Adkins plays a feral best of a man twisted by the system, giving a more nuanced, intricate performance than usual, while Johnson imbues the film with more stylistic flourishes than fans might expect. While it’s not wholly unfamiliar territory, this finds both men pushing themselves as artists, cements them as the heavyweight champs of DTV action, and represents a progression and evolution in how we view them.
A giallo-inspired horror yarn about a murderous red dress from the director of Duke of Burgundy? Sign me the hell up. Peter Strickland’s In Fabric is hilarious and terrifying, a radical screed about the dehumanization of the working class, conspicuous consumption, and the suffocating nature of capitalism, and a maudlin, melencholy look at dating and romance later in life. And, as mentioned, there’s a dress that literally kills people. It’s every bit as awesome as that sounds.
Lulu Wang’s The Farewell damn near broke me. The semi-autobiographical film tells the tale of a Chinese family who learns their grandmother is terminally ill and decides to keep her in the dark about her condition. Funny, sweet, heartbreaking, and deeply earnest in equal measures, it’s a movie about family and culture and love. It’s one that sticks with you, especially if you have aging family members, and star Awkwafina delivers a stunner of a performance.
Calling Booksmart Superbad with girls, as many have, does the film a disservice. Yes, Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut pulls from generations of last-day-of-school/one-night-changes-everything coming of age comedies, but it’s also a total blast on its own merits. It’s rowdy and foul-mouthed, sincere and sweet, and an earnest portrait of female friendship in our modern age. It’s also one of the best times you’ll have with a movie this year and a friendly reminder that people aren’t always who you think or what you expect. And in a movie full of fantastic performances, Billie Lourd’s supporting turn stands as one of the best of 2019.
Speaking of a good time at the movies and class war, we come to Ready or Not. Who knew a movie based on the game hide and seek, a child’s pastime, would be what I called “a wild, gory, clever play on ‘The Most Dangerous Game,’ complete with a bloody, eat-the-rich motif.” Raucous and thrilling and blood-soaked, this is wicked, devilish fun that damn near saved the bloated, sequel-heavy summer movie season. And amidst a fantastic cast Samara Weaving delivers a performance that should make her a damn star.
Alexandre Aja made one of my favorite modern nature-run-amok movies in 2010 with Piranha 3D, and in 2019, he delivered again with Crawl. Less campy and splatter-centric, this is an earnest tale about a father and daughter working through their issues. During a category five hurricane. While they battle rampaging alligators in their basement. It’s a tense, quivering wire of a contained thriller and Aja escalates the pressure on his characters every chance he gets. And yes, it absolutely rules.
With a title like Jesus Shows You the Way to the Highway, and coming from the mind behind Crumbs, you might expect something strange. Well, you have no idea. Here are just a few of the things you’ll see in the latest from Miguel Llanso: “Batman as the cocaine-addled Ethiopian president, a computer virus Stalin, kung fu masters named Spaghetti and Ravioli, rock and roll Jesus in a fly costume taking hallucinatory drugs.” There’s weird 8-bit animation, live-action stop-motion, unsettling paper masks, and a CIA agent who just wants to retire and open a pizza restaurant. This is something you’ve never seen. In fact, it’s many things you’ve never seen, totally imaginative and unhinged and one hell of a ride.
As usual, there are so, so many more titles that could, and maybe should be on this list. I vote for awards in two different film critic groups and my top tens were different both times. And there are, of course, still a handful of stragglers I haven’t had the time or inclination to watch yet. (I’m sure Marriage Story is as good as people say, I just have zero interest in watching it.)
So with that in mind, we move on to the honorable mentions. The films that just missed the cut, or that have found their way into various iterations of my top ten at some point, include Robert Eggers’ weird-as-balls The Lighthouse, Greta Gerwig’s interpretation of Little Women, Jordan Peele’s Us, and Takashi Miike’s mean-spirited rom-com First Love. Any one of those could easily replace one or more of the above movies.
Gritty rust-belt drama Donnybrook and glitzy, stripper-heist tale Hustlers also just missed out. As did two of the strangest movies of 2019. Harmony Korine’s The Beach Bum has Matthew McConaughey working on some next-level plane. While The Death of Dick Long has to be seen to be believed—though it’s easily the best movie about an Alabama-based Nickelback cover band ever made. Rian Johnson’s Knives Out is also a total blast and came a-knockin’ on the door of this list. As did Kiet Le-van’s badass revenge actioner Furie.
Despite what some stupid articles written by people who don’t know what they’re talking about said, 2019 was, as always, another banger year for horror. The world-at-large finally laid eyes on Issa Lopez’ Tigers are Not Afraid (another film I’ve listed in my top ten at various points), Gaspar Noe’s dance nightmare Climax, Harpoon’s friendly reminder never to get on a fucking boat with people you’re keeping secrets from, time loops Happy Death Day 2U and Koko-di Koko-da, hallucinatory mind-melter Daniel Isn’t Real (think Drop Dead Fred, but evil), gay-porn-world-set slasher Knife+Heart, and I’ll Take Your Dead, which synthesizes a gritty crime film with an eerie ghost tale.
No documentaries scratched their way into my top ten, but there were no shortage of great offerings. My favorites are David Shield’s cinematic collage, Lynch: A History, a look at the enigmatic Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch; Love, Antosha, an illumining, moving glimpse at the gone-to-soon talent that was Anton Yelchin; The El Duce Tapes, a fascinating look at the revolting frontman of The Mentors; and the too-strange-to-be-fiction examination of a hit Italian disco song in Dons of Disco.
So, that’s it. Go see movies in 2020. Love what you love.