A few weeks back, Chappelle Show co-creator Neal Brennan tweeted, “The fact that critics write, ‘Best of 2019’ and not ‘My Favorites of 2019’ is wild.”
I initially reacted negatively, overcome by the idea that in the year 2019, any person could be confused by the idea that an arts review is subjective. While I suspect this question comes from a long line of flawed “critics only exist to tear things down” thinking, as if our goal in writing about the arts is for people to stop making art because, grr, we hate art!, and not to participate in an artistic form of our own that we enjoy, I admit Brennan made me reconsider the kind of headline we reflexively stick on our requisite year-end lists. (If you missed it, you can read Uproxx’s Best of 2019 movies list here.)
Why do we say “the best” instead of “my favorite?” There are plenty of answers. The most basic and pragmatic is that newspaper writing best practices have long all but banned any use of the first person. Such that using “my” in a headline in any form would be a nonstarter with 95% of editors. And anyway, one might argue, “my” would be redundant, as any review is automatically assumed to be subjective, with the opinion coming from the writer. Why say “my favorite” when that’s already obvious?
That being said, I suspect the preference for “the best” over “my favorite” comes in part from a notion that people won’t read an opinion unless it comes with the sheen of authoritativeness. This isn’t AO Scott’s favorites, who the hell is that? This is the NEW YORK TIMES and their OFFICIAL LIST of GOOD THINGS, that is CORRECT because they are EXPERTS. There’s also the question of whether a reasonably intelligent person being able to understand that opinions are subjective excuses the relative untruth of writing “the best.” Just because things have been done a certain way doesn’t make that way the best.
Anyway, something to think about. All I can say is, I don’t particular care whether anyone thinks I’m an “expert” as long as they read what I’m writing. Ideally, I’m just a guy whose opinion you enjoy reading, regardless of whether you agree. That’s how I’ve always felt about my favorite critics (and there are pieces of criticism that have stuck with me over the years as much as any work of fiction has). At the risk of stating the obvious, there’s no such thing as an “expert” movie watcher. If that’s the myth you need in order to read my reviews, I can play along, but the only type of expert I truly aspire to be is opinion-haver.
So here they are, the best movies of 2019, as determined by rigorous experimentation and a proprietary blend of unique genius. If you need, go ahead and picture me pouring bubbling liquids from beaker to beaker and simmering slowly over a bunsen burner and shit. As always, if you disagree with this list you are wrong. Objective truths hurt. Subjectively.
A note on this year as a whole:
Every year has good movies and bad movies, but it does seem like this year gave us far more great movies than the last couple. Every movie in my top three this year would’ve been the best in a different year this decade. Hell, A24 alone put out enough great movies to fill an average end-of-year list. Identifying causes is probably a reach, but if I had to pin it to a single factor I’d say that this was the year the non-Disney studios stopped trying to be Disney. Some people in charge seem to have finally realized that assuming competing with Disney is even possible, you’re not going to do it by trying to be Disney. You’re not going to create the next Marvel universe. Acknowledging that is a good thing. It’s how you get a year with Joker (an R-rated, pseudo arthouse movie that barely ties into a larger universe and still made a billion dollars) and without anything like The Mummy. Modest profits are your friend!
Movies 14-19 in no particular order:
Is that too many? Whatever, maybe one of them was a tie, who cares. Worst movie I saw this year? Probably The Dead Don’t Die. There’s a special place in movie hell for constantly referencing your own theme song.
13. Under The Silver Lake
I’m guessing you never saw director Robert David Mitchell’s follow up to It Follows, considering it was released in 16 markets at its widest and made a grand total of just over $46,000 in domestic box office. Criminal, I tell ya! Don’t get old man Mancini started on the injustice of such things!
Under the Silver Lake (original review) is a spiritual heir to films like The Big Lebowski and Inherent Vice, a wild and woolly narrative perhaps not meant to be taken strictly literally, and with perhaps too much story to squeeze into a single feature. It’s also so dense with meaning and blink-and-you’ll-miss-it jokes that you could watch it over and over. Under the Silver Lake is a satire of contemporary LA structured as a classic LA noir, starring Andrew Garfield as Sam, a horny slacker who doesn’t seem to have a job, whose neighbor is officially credited as “topless bird lady.” His white whale is Sarah (played by the incomparable Riley Keough), with whom Sam becomes obsessed, for the most superficial reasons. All the while, birds keep committing suicide. Yes, shit gets weird.
I’m not sure you could do a critique of LA without things getting weird, and Under The Silver Lake is an insanely incisive satire of LA life — where sex is a commodity, the good life is right there if only you can crack the arcane code, and everything rests on a foundation of unspeakable environmental degradation and corruption. LA is awful, wonderful, and world capital of “wait, is everyone having fun without me?” There’s a scene in Under The Silver Lake that’s like the mallet scene in Midsommar meets Teddy Perkins in Atlanta, easily one of the best scenes of the year.
12. Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood
Once Upon A Time In Hollywood (I refuse to type the damned ellipses again) is a strange case where I feel compelled to defend not its inclusion on this list but why it’s so low. As a long-time Tarantino apologist, this was the first of his movies (excluding Death Proof, my least favorite) that I didn’t feel like I “got.” It felt a bit like an extended prequel for Tarantino’s alternate history version of the seventies if Sharon Tate never got murdered (what if the swingin’ sixties never ended!). I almost want to see that more than this movie. Few things are lamer than dismissing a Tarantino movie as “problematic,” but taken together, the (possible?) wife murder, the Bruce Lee scene, and the general tone of “cowboys good, hippies bad,” do make it a little hard not to wonder whether this represented an examined yearning for a world where white guys were more unquestionably in charge.
That nagging thought aside, Leo was wonderful, and Once Upon A Time In Hollywood might be this year’s most rewatchable film, which is pretty amazing considering it’s pushing three hours long. More than anything else, it created a world I was just content to live in for a while. And to think, I used to show up to Tarantino movies for the blood spatter and snappy dialogue. This time around, Cliff Booth’s creeping unease as he gradually begins to realize that something is very wrong at Spahn Ranch is the best thing in it. In fact, it’s one of the best sequences in any film this year, and one of the best things Tarantino has ever filmed.
11. Ford V. Ferrari
Don’t ask me why, but 1917 is the movie that by far the most dads and uncles have asked me about this season. I love WWI stuff as much as the next dad, and 1917 is… fine, just fine. But if you’re looking for a true uniter of dads and uncles everywhere, Ford V. Ferrari is the movie for you. Ford V. Ferrari is a gearheads vs. eggheads romp that is both extremely a movie (truly one of the most movie movies of the year) and extremely good at being a movie. All the usual Hollywood bullshit seems to work best in car racing movies, for whatever reason (see also: Days Of Thunder). It also helps that Ford V. Ferrari‘s theme is sticking it to your asshole boss and toadying coworkers. That asshole boss, in turn, is played by Tracy Letts as Henry Ford II, in an asshole boss performance for the ages. Ford V. Ferrari is the movie you can take grandpa or the in-laws to, confident in the belief that it won’t spark any divisive discussions afterwards. You’ll still have a blast.
10. The Report
They need to invent a cumulative best actor Oscar for Adam Driver, who produced leading man greatness across varied roles in volumes never before seen. In addition to single-handedly making Marriage Story almost tolerable, Driver anchored The Report (from Soderbergh collaborator Scott Z. Burns), a modern day The Insider for torture. As Burns told me when I interviewed him, Driver works because he’s “extraordinary just looking at a computer screen.” The Report very easily could’ve been, and probably would’ve worked well as, an Informant! style screwball dark comedy about the two con men who sold their “enhanced interrogation program” to the CIA. But somewhere along the line, Burns seems to have thought that the War on Terror’s legacy of normalizing torture deserved something more earnest, and that Adam Driver had the gravitas to carry it. He was right.
The Report took the time to call out Zero Dark Thirty by name for its role in popularizing a false narrative, something both necessary and exceedingly rare in an industry where people are nothing if not loathe to criticize each other. Which, let’s be honest, is a shame. What the Oscars could really use is UFC-style pump-up packages before they announce the winners, in which Laura Dern calmly explains why Meryl Streep is a showboat who’s gone soft and needs to get taken down a peg. “That’s right, Ellen, I said a cocoon of horror.”
Midsommar is perhaps not as tight and without as strong an ending as Ari Aster’s last movie, Hereditary, which finally gave us the horror movie in which Satan wins. Yet in Midsommar he did manage to wedge a pitch-perfect depiction of a dysfunctional relationship into a woolly riff on The Wicker Man — arguably an even greater feat. Aster traded claustrophobic night-time interiors for sunshine-and-flowers-drenched horror, carrying entire scenes on the strength of vibe alone. Meanwhile, Florence Pugh’s Dani was a horror protagonist like we’ve never seen — neither a wilting ingenue nor a sexy tough girl, just an every woman stuck in a toxic relationship while trying to cope with the death of her entire family on a trip to a strange cult in Sweden. You know, that whole story. I enjoyed few things this year so much as discovering what that giant mallet was for.
The degree of difficulty in following something as unexpectedly successful as Get Out, not to mention doing it just two years later, is off the charts. Yet Jordan Peele managed to repeat style without repeating content, to give us what we want without giving us what we expected. Whereas he used the horror format to give us satire in Get Out, in Us Peel used the promise of social satire to make what’s essentially a drum-tight genre movie. How did Peele, Lupita Nyong’o, and Winston Duke fall out of the awards conversation? As far-fetched as Us was, it was also extremely relatable to those of us who spent our childhoods being creeped out by the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Us was the top-grossing non-sequel, not-based-on-anything film of the year, and basically the blueprint for how to get people into theaters without making bland tie-ins to existing properties or movies from 20 years ago. Can we clone Jordan Peele?
7. Cold Case Hammerskjöld
Cold Case Hammerskjöld begins as documentarian Mads Brugger’s investigation into the suspicious 1961 plane crash death of UN Secretary General Dag Hammerskjöld, whose anti-colonial views on Africa had made him unpopular in the west. But just as that trail seems to run cold, it takes a hard left into the world of shadowy white supremacist groups (with possible ties to the CIA and MI6) deliberately spreading AIDS in Africa in the dying days of Apartheid. Yes, “holy shit” is right. It’s hard to find a review of anything Brugger does that doesn’t describe him as “eccentric” or “idiosyncratic” — occasionally even “unreliable” or “ham-fisted” — but a lot of that seems to come from journalists who don’t have the guts to report what Brugger does criticizing him for not sounding like they do. Hell, I was afraid to even interview Brugger after this movie. I was at Sundance when I saw Cold Case Hammerskjöld, a 128-minute documentary after which the entire audience stayed for the whole post-film Q & A. In almost 10 years of going to Sundance I’ve never seen that happen before.
6. Honey Boy
The first half of Ad Astra was inspiring and epic. The second half was a navel-gazing slog. Why am I writing about Ad Astra in an entry for Honey Boy? Well, because they’re both Daddy Issues movies. The difference is, Honey Boy feels like the raw, uncut version. Daddy Issues power a lot of narratives, but if most of the time they’re the hum that keeps the lights on, Honey Boy is like sucking on a live wire. Likewise, lots of actors have made semi-autobiographical coming-of-age movies in the past few years, but Shia Lebouf’s (he wrote Honey Boy‘s script in collaboration with director Alma Har’el) stands out as one of the most honest and vulnerable. And that’s to say nothing of the incredible acting. Lucas Hedges does a version of Shia Labeouf that’s so good I would watch him do it at the county fair, while Shia plays an intense and erratic version of his own father, and Noah Jupe holds it all together as young Shia. They all deserve at least as much Oscar consideration as anyone in The Irishman or Once Upon A Time In Hollywood.
5. Little Women
I don’t think we need a “see it or else the misogynists will win!” campaign to get people to see Little Women (in 2020 it is my fervent hope that we can just stump for things we like because they’re good and not because of what straw men we’re sticking it to by liking it) but it is infuriating to me how many more awards nominations Noah Baumbach got for Marriage Story than his real-life partner Greta Gerwig got for Little Women, a movie that was superior on pretty much every level. I don’t know that it’s inherently sexist, but there does seem to be a natural reticence to see a movie about Victorian-era girlhood. I had it too! 15 minutes into Little Women I wondered why I was even watching it; everyone just seemed too fucking happy. But by the end, I was not only invested but practically bawling. Which mirrored the arc of Little Women‘s main character, Jo (played by Saoirse Ronan, who should win an Oscar for it), in realizing that the story she’s telling actually matters. Gerwig doesn’t just adapt Little Women, she makes a case for it. Greta Gerwig is the real deal.
One of the worst things online is how often people complain about superhero movies not getting enough awards consideration even as they ignore the superhero movies that were actually good. Scorsese vs. Marvel? Doooonnnnnn’t caaaaaare. Shazam!, a superhero property whose costumes or powers I couldn’t have told you before the film, was better than either of their outputs this year. Whereas even the “wokest” Marvel movies seem to argue for a space monarchy, Shazam! was a sweet story about foster kids and finding family wherever you can. It’s also one of the few superhero movies ever to treat potential casualties with actual gravity, and to be honest about what a teen boy would actually do with superpowers — ie, buy beer and get into strip clubs. That’s the thing about Shazam!, it was somehow both more mischievous and more heartfelt than the usual fare. Zach Levi played a 14-year-old in a grown-up’s body brilliantly, every child actor brought their A-game, and I’m a sucker for any superhero movie that plays a punk song over the credits. Avengers End Game for your consideration campaign? Please, Shazam! ate your lunch.
I generally don’t put much stock in critical consensus, but Parasite is the rare case where all the great things you’ve heard are also true. Like virtually all the films on this list to some extent, Bong Joon Ho doesn’t soften any of his natural weirdness, as so memorably displayed in Okja and Snowpiercer. But in Parasite, he weaves the fantastic into an elegant tale of materialist social mores and class resentment. I rewatched The Talented Mr. Ripley the other day and it’s striking how many of its themes mirrored Parasite‘s, but I’m not sure the world of 1999 was quite ready for that level of maniacal striving. Parasite, by contrast, is the perfect movie at the perfect time, so beautifully engineered that not even a subtitle-averse public can deny its greatness. Submit to Parasite.
2. Uncut Gems
I never knew that an extremely Jewish Bad Lieutenant starring Adam Sandler was something I needed until I saw Uncut Gems, but here we are. It may be premature to say this without more distance to reflect, but I think Uncut Gems is even better than Bad Lieutenant. It has all the intensity with little of the sensationalism. Is Adam Sandler great in it? Yes, and that’s not even close to the best thing about it. So many critically-acclaimed films feel so mannered, mood pieces that inspire us to introspection and easy morality pieces that invite us to clap for characters who flatter our sensibilities. The Safdie brothers make snarling cinematic middle fingers for fuck you enthusiasts, movies that feel untamed even as they’re thoughtfully conceived. Good Times was an intense vibe movie, but Uncut Gems is a true masterpiece, retaining all the spit and snarl of their previous films (not to mention the unforgettable performances from first-time actors) but with an evolved sense of character and commentary. Yes, it’s as good as everyone says.
1. The Death Of Dick Long
The truth is that there were two or three films that could’ve gone in the number one slot this year. So yes, I’m banging the drum so hard for this one partly because I’m not seeing it on nearly enough best-of lists and I feel like it needs a champion. But The Death Of Dick Long needs a champion because it’s such an illuminating example of how to tell a story. And storytelling isn’t just entertainment, it’s critical thinking. Director Daniel Scheinert and writer Billy Chew took the most hare-brained story they could find and told it in such a way that every character in it believes that he or she is the protagonist of their own story. When you think that way it opens up so many possibilities, which is why The Death Of Dick Long works as both a white knuckle thriller and a laugh-out-loud comedy.
Conversely, a failure to acknowledge other people as the heroes of their respective stories explains a lot of terrible policy decisions — like believing that people in foreign countries will do what you want if only you kill their leaders, say. If you treat people like side characters and celeb cameos you will be constantly blindsided by reality. Sorry! I am sorry for doing a politics in your movie post, but it’s true. Politics aside, The Death Of Dick Long had one of the finest ensemble casts of the year, with Oscar-worthy performances from Andre Hyland as a jittery, vaping oddball and Virginia Newcomb as a horrified wife (it’s almost offensive to single anyone out in this movie considering how good everyone in it is, but I can’t let them go unpraised). This was also by far the hardest I’ve ever laughed at someone singing a Staind song. Please, just see this movie so that I can finally shut up about it. And if you don’t like it as much as I did, please send your detailed complaints to IAmExtremelyWrong@FuckOff.com.