Best of 2019

This film list is a little different from the Top 10 of my Southeastern Film Critics Association ballot I published about a month ago. That’s partly the result of this list being one of pure favorites, where my SEFCA ballot allows for some strategic voting toward the end of the Top 10. It’s partly the result of having seen a couple of contenders for a second time since then. And it’s partly because any list of favorites is likely to change a little each time you consider it. 

In both cases, my four-film top tier remains the same, with only the order changed a little. I love these four films and don’t have particularly strong feelings about order. Greta Gerwig’s Little Women jumps from No. 4 to No. 1 here after a second viewing and first in a theater, during which it knocked me flat. Maybe there’s a little recency bias at play. But I think it’s a genius work of adaptation that arrives as an instant family-film classic. 

Like Little Women, Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a thrilling feminist period piece, searing where Little Women is warm. These films don’t so much inject a modern sensibility into their respective 18th- and 19th-century settings as make their stories feel very much present-tense. 

I think Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood is Quentin Tarantino’s best movie in nearly 25 years. In an expansive, charmed middle sequence that intertwines a day in the life of each of his three protagonists – Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate kicking up her bare feet to watch herself on the big screen, Brad Pitt’s Cliff Booth reminiscing on the roof and taking a drive, Leonardo DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton getting himself together for the best acting young co-star Trudi’s ever seen in her life – it’s also the best filmmaking of this year or Tarantino’s career.

Parasite is as brilliant and urgent as advertised. It could have easily been my No. 1, and if I’d had time to give it a second viewing, it may well have been.

The Irishman moved into my Top 5 on a second viewing. I feel like it not only earns its run-time, but ultimately needs it. The awkwardness of the film’s de-aging technology – these old actors move like old men even when meant to be younger – lends a poignancy that may or may not be intentional. But the film is framed as a recollection of an old man; you feel the present fragility even in memories of relative youth.

My No. 6 (The Farewell) and No. 8 (American Factory) would make a good double-feature on the complicated relationship between the U.S. and China. The former is deceptively light, but that lightness is a reason I’ve recommended it to so many people of differing tastes.

I didn’t do a music list this year. My listening was too scattered and unsatisfied. Perhaps I’ll “revisit” 2019 somewhere down the line. I do have some brief notes about my year in TV and books at the end. 

  1. Little Women (Greta Gerwig)
  2. Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino)
  3. Parasite (Bong Joon-Ho)
  4. Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Celine Sciamma)
  5. The Irishman (Martin Scorsese)
  6. The Farewell (Lulu Wong)
  7. Diane (Kent Jones)
  8. American Factory (Steven Bognar, Julia Reichart)
  9. Ford v. Ferrari (James Mangold)
  10. The Nightingale (Jennifer Kent)
  11. Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story (Martin Scorsese)
  12. Amazing Grace (Alan Elliott, Sydney Pollack)
  13. Uncut Gems (Josh & Benny Safdie)
  14. Peterloo (Mike Leigh)
  15. Marriage Story (Noah Baumbach)
  16. Her Smell (Alex Ross-Perry)
  17. The Souvenir (Joanna Hogg)
  18. Us (Jordan Peele)
  19. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (Marielle Heller)
  20. Knives Out (Rian Johnson)

Better Than Expected (or Than You Heard): Long Shot, Peanut Butter Falcon, High Flying Bird, High Life, Last Black Man in San Francisco

Ambitious but Flawed (in descending order of success): Dolemite is My Name, Queen & Slim, 1917, Atlantics, John Wick: Chapter 3, Jojo Rabbit, Harriet

Performances Better Than Their Films: Charlize Theron (Bombshell), Florence Pugh (Midsommar), Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein (Booksmart), Jennifer Lopez (Hustlers), Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins (The Two Popes), Taylor Russell (Waves), Adam Driver (The Dead Don’t Die)

I’m So Bored With the MCU …  But What Can I Do?: Avengers: Endgame, Spider-Man: Far From Home, Captain Marvel

Duds I Didn’t Avoid: Joker, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, Judy

Ten I Haven’t Seen (Yet): Ad Astra, Apollo 11, Ash is Purest White, A Hidden Life, Dark Waters, Honeyland, The Lighthouse, Pain & Glory, Synonyms, Transit.

Best Old Movie Seen for the First Time This Year: The Big Sky (Howard Hawks, 1952)

Television I Loved Without Hesitation: Fleabag, Unbelievable, Mindhunter

Television I Watched With Appreciation: Watchmen, The Deuce, True Detective, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Killing Eve, Glow

Television I Watched Out of Perceived Obligation: Deadwood, El Camino, Game of Thrones, Bluff City Law

Best Novels I Read For the First Time This Year: Sula — Toni Morrison (1973) and The Dog of the South — Charles Portis (1979). 

Best Non-Fiction I Read For the First Time This Year: The White Album — Joan Didion (1979) and Is It Still Good To Ya?: 50 Years of Music Criticism — Robert Christgau (2019)

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