Yes, I’m a Top 10 straggler, but I’d rather be sure about my choices than second-guess them down the road.
Rushing out a list during the onslaught of screening season, simply to meet the obligatory date of December 31st, doesn’t allow for proper consideration, especially with so many contenders dumped out en masse at year’s end.
As a result, I like to let my finalists marinate just a little while longer, maybe even watch a few again to break some difficult ties. That extra time allows me to be far more certain; or, at least, as certain as one can be.
Suffice it to say, the list I’ve settled on below looks a bit different than the one I would’ve posted on the last day of 2019. Not dramatically so, but I dropped a couple in place of others, and shifted the order around for those that remained.
My #5 received the biggest boost from a re-watch. My Top 2, however, were always going to be there and nothing was ever going to change that.
The list unfolds in ascending order, from 10 to 1, complete with brief thoughts about each. It then concludes with a few honorable mentions, i.e. the ones that fell just outside my Top 10, followed by an alphabetical listing of the other movies I admired and/or really enjoyed throughout the year.
Here are the 30+ films from 2019 that I Can’t Unsee.
(Film titles are linked to my full reviews, where possible.)
JEFF HUSTON’S TOP 10 LIST
for the Best Films of 2019
10. Wild Rose (dir. Tom Harper)
This “singer with a dream of making it big” story upends so many formulaic clichés. The film’s genre subversions lead to so many rich, emotional rewards, but it has the guts to challenge YOLO sentiments with a brutal-but-necessary integrity. Wild Rose is honest (and moral) enough to not skirt the fact that life sometimes requires us to make a choice between our dreams and our responsibilities. Depending on the choices we’ve made or what life may have thrown at us, dreams and responsibilities may be incompatible. Our future may actually come down to choosing one over the other, and we will be defined by which we choose. Jessie Buckley gives the breakout performance of the year, both as an actress and singer, while Julie Walters may give the year’s best supporting turn as the mother who won’t let her daughter run from hard truths. Both actresses should be up for Oscars, and arguably win. (Available to stream on Hulu or rent on most VOD platforms.)
9. Knives Out (dir. Rian Johnson)
In an inspired return to original storytelling following The Last Jedi, writer/director Rian Johnson not only crafts a clever homage to Agatha Christie whodunits; he replicates that formula and then goes beyond it, first in depth of intrigue but also in emotional resonance and moral weight. Anchored by a breakthrough performance from up-and-coming actress Ana de Armas (Blade Runner 2049), Knives Out is a riveting crowd-pleaser that registers on a much richer level than most plot-driven genre movies ever do. It layers in contemporary political themes, too, without beating us over the head with soapboxing. One of the most entertaining films of the year, and also one of the smartest. Perhaps the most exciting twist of all? Johnson is turning this into a Daniel Craig franchise. (Available to rent on most VOD platforms.)
8. The Last Black Man in San Francisco (dir. Joe Talbot)
This debut film from director Joe Talbot and co-writer & star Jimmie Fails, The Last Black Man in San Francisco is an elegiac mix of Spike Lee’s righteous anger and Barry Jenkins’ poetic lament. This tale of a poor African-American trying desperately to reclaim the home his grandfather built is, on the surface, about gentrification, but more deeply it’s addressing the historical displacement that African-Americans still suffer today. Unlike white people, whose ancestors founded this nation, or ethnic immigrants that came here on their own terms, black people are the one minority that built this nation without the benefit of ownership. This movie grieves the lingering effects of that tragic legacy. (Available to stream on Amazon Prime Video or rent on most VOD platforms.)
7. Ad Astra (dir. James Gray)
This Apocalypse Now in Space adventure is more philosophical than action-driven (although a pirate chase on the moon is thrilling), told on an ambitious scale both visually and thematically. Brad Pitt gives the performance of his career as an astronaut tasked to trek to the edge of our galaxy. His mission? To discover what went wrong on the furthest deep-space expedition ever made by humankind – one led by his father, who may have gone mad (played by Tommy Lee Jones). As with all of James Gray’s movies, the underlying tension here is about self-destructive obsession, but it’s explored with contemplative patience and spiritual yearning. In both spectacle and soul, Ad Astra is a wonder to behold. (Available to rent on most VOD platforms.)
6. The Lighthouse (dir. Robert Eggers)
This black-and-white New England period piece – filmed with silent era camera technology and shot in the square 4×3 frame of that age – is as submersive into its time and place as it is the psychotic descent of two lighthouse workers (played by Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe). Eerie, strange, and deeply unsettling, this is art house fare at its most provocative and cryptic. (In other words, it’s not for everybody.) Robert Eggers’ follow-up to The Witch happened to hit theaters when that “What Is Cinema?” debate was raging on Film Twitter, having been sparked by Martin Scorsese’s dismissal of Marvel movies as being akin to theme park rides. Ladies and gentlemen, The Lighthouse is cinema. (Available to stream on Amazon Prime or rent on most VOD platforms.)
5. Little Women (dir. Greta Gerwig)
A film that moved me on first watch became absolutely transcendent on the second. I often found myself emotionally overwhelmed by mature insights that rang deep and powerfully true. There’s so much wisdom in this retelling. The depths that Greta Gerwig explores in her inspired restructuring of Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel are humble and profound, juxtaposing future and past events that mirror each other in poignant, revealing ways. In doing so, Gerwig shows us that life itself is non-linear, that we are who we’ve been, and to not be afraid of that. It’s what has helped us to grow. It still does. (Available to rent on most VOD platforms.)
4. Parasite (dir. Bong Joon-ho)
This suspense-horror satire examines class division in modern society like a South Korean equivalent of a Jordan Peele genre thinker (Get Out and Us). Director Bong Joon-ho has crafted the masterpiece of his career, not letting either rich or poor off the hook from their own self-centered justifications. Even so, as this twisty thriller escalates, surprising and shocking along the way, Bong has empathy for both as well. He indicts each as predator, yes, but ultimately he grieves the polarizing divide that victimizes us, and he does so with the precision of Kubrick and Hitchcock. (Available to stream on Hulu and to rent on most VOD platforms.)
3. Uncut Gems (dir. Benny and Josh Safdie)
Adam Sandler gives the performance of his career as a New York jeweler who thrives on living (and gambling) dangerously. The Safdie Brothers are the young Scorseses of their time, pushing cinematic limits in ways that others will eventually emulate. In an inspired conceit, they take a real-life 2012 hot streak by Boston Celtic Kevin Garnett (who co-stars as himself) and use it as a framing device to explore the psychology of Sandler’s self-destructive Howard Ratner. They have a clear empathy for Howard but refuse to let a sympathetic bias creep in. The Safdie’s never pull a single punch, and sentimentality never softens this juggernaut’s razor-sharp edges. (Available to rent on most VOD platforms.)
2. Marriage Story (dir. Noah Baumbach)
I’ve never been married, let alone divorced, and yet I found this to be as relevant personally as it is for married people, and on par with the kind of character dramas that used to sweep the Oscars two generations ago (think Kramer vs. Kramer and Ordinary People but with a Woody Allen sensibility). Writer/director Noah Baumbach gently examines the gut-wrenching process of a marriage coming apart while providing an acting showcase for Oscar nominees Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson (I wish they’d both win). Baumbach goes back-and-forth between their Charlie and Nicole, taking each spouse’s side while also being honest about their faults, but never condemning either. For as heavy as much of it is, humor serves as a compassionate leaven throughout. Somehow, some way, from some deep well of brutal honesty and profound charity, Baumbach takes the hardest personal experience imaginable and tells it in the most humane way possible. (Currently streaming on Netflix)
1. The Irishman (dir. Martin Scorsese)
A mob movie that crescendos to a spiritual reckoning, The Irishman is a culmination of the genre that defined Martin Scorsese as a master auteur and its stars Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci as among the best actors of their generation. There isn’t an indulgent or superfluous moment in its three-and-a-half hour run time as it goes beyond where other mob movies have: old age, having to contemplate all that you’ve done, and living with the regrets. Its real-life central figure Frank Sheeran (Jimmy Hoffa’s right-hand man, played by De Niro) must grapple with the wages of his sins in a way that mobsters who get knocked off in their primes never do. The Irishman is much more than Scorsese fan service. It’s art, rumination, and penance all in one. (Currently streaming on Netflix)
Here’s that list again, this time in simple descending order:
- The Irishman
- Marriage Story
- Uncut Gems
- Little Women
- The Lighthouse
- Ad Astra
- The Last Black Man in San Francisco
- Knives Out
- Wild Rose
Here are the four movies I really grappled with including on my Top 10:
- The Farewell, writer/director Lulu Wang‘s fictionalization of a real-life story from her family that she first shared on “This American Life.” Awkwafina won a deserving Golden Globe for her performance as a Chinese-American who returns to China when her grandmother receives a fatal cancer diagnosis. Per cultural tradition, however, her grandmother is never told. What unfolds is an emotionally delicate, humorous, and raw story of a family trying to reckon with their dysfunctions while avoiding the biggest elephant in the room. This deserved something at the Oscars, with Wang’s screenplay and Zhao Shuzhen’s supporting turn as the grandmother being the most notorious snubs. (Available to stream on Amazon Prime or rent on most VOD platforms)
- Maiden was as overwhelming an emotional experience as I had in a theater all year. This late-80s set documentary about the first-ever all-female crew for an annual boat-race around the world left me in a blubbering puddle from the wake of its profound inspiration. Would recommend this to anyone. (Currently available with a Starz! subscription through Hulu and Amazon Prime)
- The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, a deeply personal passion project from the off-beat artistry of director Terry Gilliam (The Fisher King, 12 Monkeys) that, like Scorsese’s The Irishman, is sort of a career reckoning. Adam Driver stars in his most underappreciated performance (in a year packed with great ones for him) and Jonathan Pryce is better here as Don Quixote than he is in his Oscar-nominated turn from The Two Popes. (Available to rent on most VOD platforms)
- Waves is like the most powerful Afterschool Special ever made (and trust me, that’s not a back-handed complement), the work of a legit auteur experimenting with the form in intense ways, about a well-to-do African-American family that must face the fallout of the eldest son’s actions and the burden that creates for his younger sister. Sterling K. Brown co-stars as the strict father (you could also dub this a gritty This Is Us) in a movie from Trey Edward Shults (It Comes At Night, Krisha) that will legitimately scare any teenager straight, and one I’ll likely regret leaving off my Top 10 someday. (Available to rent on most VOD platforms)
And finally, the rest of the movies I really enjoyed and / or respected from 2019 (among those I was able to get to, anyway), in alphabetical order:
American Factory (on Netflix), Avengers: Endgame (on Disney Plus), Brittany Runs A Marathon (on Amazon Prime), Diane, Downton Abbey, Ford V Ferrari, A Hidden Life, Honey Boy, I Lost My Body, Jesus Is King, Jojo Rabbit, Late Night (on Amazon Prime), Mike Wallace Is Here, The Report (on Amazon Prime), Shazam!, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, Us