If its fair to say, as a number of cinephiles would maintain, that 2019 got off to a rocky start for film releases, it would be hard to dispute that it also went out with a bang, even going so far as to make this one of the strongest years for film releases in recent memory.
This certainly made any attempts to filter through my top 30 films an incredibly tough and bitter sweet process. Which simply means two things.
First, it feels fair to say that any of the films in my top 30 not mentioned here could have easily earned a spot in a different year. And second, every film that did end up making my top 12 list of 2019 really stretched me to come up with very specific reasons for why they should be considered over and above the others. This has led, I think, to a fairly diverse representation and a list I can I can say I am proud of and excited for.
If there is a commonality to the 12 that I chose it is that each of these films emphasizes a clear and memorable narrative structure, each of these films vary to degrees in their emphasis on and distinctions between favorite and best (which to me is always the sign of a good year), and each of these are films that I would be super excited to celebrate and champion with others as recommendations (unlike say, The Lighthouse, which got bumped off the list for being too niche… I love it but I wouldn’t know how to recommend it to a wider audience).
I have included my link here to the full list of films that I watched in 2019 on Letterboxd (which is where I log and review films as I watch), which is based off of 222 film that I saw this year with a 2019 release date. I also included the link to my Letterboxd top 12 in full list form:
So, with all that said, on to my top 12 films of 2019. I will be counting down here from 12 to my #1 film of the year. Cheers to another year of great films.
12. THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON
There are so many things I could praise about this touching and affecting drama, but the one thing that really stands out for me is simply this- it is a great story.
With a cast of characters who are defined purposefully and distinctly according to their differences, the film explores the way these differences, using a wonderful travelogue style of narrative, can unite us within relationship. Relationships stretch our understanding of things like family and belonging and see past our differences to remind us of what we share. To call someone a friend or family is freeing, liberating precisely because it calls us to abandon the labels that tell us we are not.
While I personally could have envisioned the film with a different ending than it chooses for itself, the film earns every inch of the ground it treads to get where it does, making this one of the standout emotional gems of 2019.
11. LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO
A memorable narrative with a real creative edge bolsters this films immense and distinct cinematic voice. I love films that exude a real sense of place, and Last Black Man in San Francisco uses cinematography to bring its historical, geographical and contextualized interest to light.
In the case of this film, the conduit is a literal home, the person is the real Jimmy Fails played by the true Jimmy Fails, and the place is the exquisitely captured cityscape of San Francisco, which the film captures through a mix of romanticism and raw honesty.
There is always a richness to films that are influenced or inspired by real life relationships , and the relationship between the Director and (the real world) Jimmy is both palipatable and captivating as it is set against the story of the city that gave it life through the memory of its streets, neighborhoods and house, bearing these things out as an imaginative and eternal force.
“Let us find the courage to see beyond the stories we were born into” is the calling card and desperate cry of this films impassioned concern, which calls on the power of place to reconcile past, present and future, both within the intimacy of their relationship but also in the collective experience of the city and neighborhood that informs it.
10. AD ASTRA
Intimate. Powerful. Dramatic. Visual. Structured as a gradual but progressive world building exercise, Ad Astra begins with an earth centered view and slowly pushes as as viewers further and further outwards towards a more cosmic point of perspective. And with each step outwards, the film builds into this world building exercise greater depths of detail and more expansive pictures of humanities advancement.
At the same time, we are offered a really effective and fascinating parallel line in the character arc of father and son that exposes an innate need to be asking more meaningful and introspective questions surrounding the idea of space travel and human advancement.
By inspiring us to ask these tough questions, and by demonstrating a real and overwhelming concern for the human condition at the same time, this film demonstrates through startling images, breathtaking visuals and profound narrative arc a real theological relevance that definitely left its mark on me in 2019.
9. LIGHT OF MY LIFE
This subtle and quiet gem of a film also happens to be a powerful and hard hitting metaphor for the modern landscape. It reminds us that we are living in world in which the woman’s voice is still being silenced and their place in the world is still being oppressed.
This is 100 percent speculative so take it for what you will, but I still feel that Affleck’s problematic history in this area does appear to take on an almost therapeutic and reconciling presence here, giving this patient drama a personal sense of urgency as well.
This is ultimately a film written around the idea of telling stories, and stories can be a powerful force for personal and cultural reflection. It certainly proves so here. What lingers in this case is a hopeful spirit. If this is a metaphor for particular cultural challenges of both history and our modern age, the story’s arc imagines a future that could and can be shaped in a different kind of trajectory. One in which a woman’s voice is no longer silenced and their presence no longer oppressed.
This is of course an unexpected place to find this message, given this film is in the hands of a male Director who has allegedly contributed to the issue. But it is also a welcome message to find here as well, perhaps the result of a willing and grace filled intention to change and see both his actions and the world a bit differently. And if this also inspires change in us as viewers, this is simply a testament to the power of great films to inspire. And as inspirational films go, this is a standout for me in 2019.
This is without a doubt the most meaningful narrative experience that I encountered in 2019. Exchanging a pure character study of Tolkien the writer for a more prominent thematic exploration of what inspired his writing, the film challenged my expectations and reformed my understanding of the kind of range biopics can have. Using plenty of visuals and rich, tonal undertones, this film brings to light the most important things in Tolkien’s life, and in doing so it illuminates the writer that exists behind the person.
As a big Tolkien fan and enthusiast, the fact that this film took some risks in its approach to familiar Biopic sensibilities is what endeared me to it in such a resonant fashion. It doesn’t necessarily bring much to the table that one wouldn’t already know through other available sources, but what this does do is offer us a spirit filled romp through an iconic individual’s life shaping experiences. We see his loves and how these loves gave shape to his writing, and for me I found this part of the journey to be both emotionally powerful and enlightening in a way few other films were in 2019.
7. THE MAN WHO KILLED HITLER AND THEN BIGFOOT
A grace filled romp through some impressive narrative, emotional and tonal shifts. This film didn’t make much noise when it released, and many still aren’t aware of its existence, but its technical prowess, cinematic presence, and narrative conviction pairs so perfectly with its enigmatic lead that I couldn’t look away or stop thinking about it for a long time afterwards.
This film checks all of my favorite boxes, not the least of which is its thematic concern. This is a film about what separates man from beast, and recognizes that exploring this theme connects us intimately to both nature and spirit. But it’s the way it explores this theme that was most unexpected, digging deep to offer something incredibly emotional and absolutely profound.
And ridiculously entertaining too. That’s the real icing on the cake here.
What was likely the most talked about film about 2019 also happens to be a film that reformed our conversation about film moving forward in a variety of ways. This film is the very definition of a cultural touchpoint, and it earns that definition by way of being a truly fascinating and compelling film that is as divisive as it is compelling.
One wouldn’t expect to find this in a film about Batman’s most famous villain, but the ways in which its Director manages the story, approaching it in an astute and sure handed fashion, elevates this story beyond genre distinctions. You could be watching the evolution of the Joker or you could be watching the story of an unstable man responding to the external forces that shaped him. The film works on both levels, and for me represents the most intellectually interesting film of 2019. That it is also an emotional ride, inspiring such different emotional experiences across viewing experiences as well, is astounding and astonishing. It would be near impossible to ignore this film even if I tried, but thankfully this is a film that I don’t want to forget any time soon.
5. THE FAREWELL
I like to call this the little film that could. I don’t think I expected The Farewell to persist so high on my list so far into the year. It takes this spot because of this persistence, which for me is the surest sign that its spot here on my list was truly earned.
There easily could have been something of a cultural divide that might have prevented such a culturally entrenched story from translating across diverse lines. But what The Farewell does so incredibly well is use the story it is telling as a way to embody and speak to this cultural divide. By building this into the fabric of the story it is then able to bring the nuances of its culturally bound story to the surface, helping a broad audience to really understand who these characters are and what the struggle is. And the more I was able to understand this, the more aware I was of how universal these struggles are.
This film is about the idea of cultural conditionings, particularly as it translates from one foreign culture to another, and in being about this it is able to help us to see in the life of this family both a particular culture and a universal struggle. It’s out of these two things that The Farewell is able to traverse an impress amount of emotional ground, evoking plenty of happy tears and sad tears along the way.
4. JO JO RABBIT
I am a big fan of Taika Waititi, so when he releases a project that I consider to be his best work, it comes as no surprise to me that it would land this high on my end of year rankings.
The concept definitely comes with a good deal of risk, but it reaps immense reward with its ability to use Waitit’s token humor to tap into an immense cross section of emotions and meaningful dialogue and commentary. Stylistically this film could be considered a masterclass in filmmaking all its own, but the richness of the characters and the execution of its story are what make me convinced that conceptually this could only have worked with Waititi as its guiding force.
This is one that’s going to persist in my cinematic consciousness for many years to come, I’m certain of this. Hopeful notes are huge for me in film, and the fact that this was able to bring a hopeful and redemptive light to one of the darkest pieces of human history that we know is an incredible feat. That it manages to do this without making light of the tragedy, even elevating it for me to certain visceral and contemplative levels I hadn’t considered before, is astounding.
The second most memorable theatrical experience of 2019 for me. There are films that hit harder on an emotional level in 2019, that is for sure. But what this film undoubtedly is is a true technical masterpiece from start to finish. It is immaculately crafted towards a true social experience, which is precisely what allows its powerful social commentary to take front and center. You have a series of characters that are represented in complex ways, leaving viewers in a complicated place in terms of knowing where to place our empathy over the course of this film.
And this is where the film elevates our own participation in the story. By playing with this sense of allegiance and our penchant for needing to know where to attach our emotions in a given story, the lack of immediate clarity it provides in terms of who these characters are and what it is that motivates them to do what they do allows the film to turn this narrative on ourselves, forcing us to reckon with how it is that we enter into discussions of social concern within our own context. And once some of these motivations begin to gain some clarity, much of that coming in retrospect for me, the film raises to a whole other level yet.
It’s uncomfortable, humbling and also revealing, and its a viewing experience I won’t soon forget.
2. ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD
This is a love letter to cinema through and through, both as an artform and as an experience. The technicals on display here, from the narrative vision to the set design to the music to the casting to the camera work, are all something to behold. This is the rich stuff of a true master, and it is a film that seems to reflect someone who has spent years honing his craft and is now reflecting on his own life’s work at the same time. There is a maturity here that I don’t think we have seen in this Director before, bringing his wealth of experience to the table in a way that feels deeply personal.
For me this is hands down the most complete film of 2019, and it is one that will only get better with age.
1. A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD
This was one of my most anticipated films of 2019, so I came into it with a whole lot of expectation. That the film caught me so off guard and gave me something so unexpected is a testament to the brilliance of this films vision. This film isn’t technically perfect, but it represents the most perfect and powerful emotional experience of 2019 for me personally.
I also feel like the film couldn’t be more timely or necessary. This is a film about cynicism, and the way it uses the story of a cynic to explore the spirit of who Mr. Rogers was in such an incredible and deeply affecting way is something I am still shaken over and caught by as I write this.
There are a couple different facets of filmmaking that could define this films strengths, one of those being the Direction, the other being its vision and structure. Both of these things come around a narrative idea that I felt couldn’t have been a more perfect way back into the story that we came to love in the previous Documentary. It’s a one two punch that works in true and pure complimentary fashion.
This isn’t your usual biopic. What it is is an artistic take on an iconic figure that we all know, and feel we know personally and intimately, from Hank’s brave interpretation that avoids any sense of impersonation, to the set design that helps us re-imagine Mr. Rogers show from a slightly different point of view, to the message about forgiveness, to the way it gave me my most memorable theatrical experience of 2019. This was a film concerned for the collective, and a film interested in reaching the collective with a real message that is able to say something about what cynicism is and how we counter it.
This absolutely believe this film was a true gift. I laughed, I cried, I learned, and I even participated. It is a testament to what the power of cinema can be and do, and it is a film I am proud to have as my #1 of the year.