1 - Honestly, I didn’t see enough films released in 2019. I’m sure there are many good ones out there that I simply haven’t yet seen. My initial plan was to keep watching 2019 movies for a few weeks into January, but no, what I’ve seen is what I’ve seen. Besides,
2 - I believe you really can’t judge a film until some time (years, probably) has passed. If you don’t believe me, look at the Oscar nominees and winners from the past five or more years and see how well they’re holding up. (And also look at what didn’t get nominated that does hold up.)
3 - These are not necessarily the best movies I saw, or even my favorites, but the ones I thought about, wrestled with, and talked about with others the most. I will, however, pick my favorite film, which may also be the best.
4 - You can read the synopses elsewhere, so I’m going to spend very little (or no) time on the higher-profile films.
5 - I’ll also pick a few honorable mention films that I enjoyed, most of which are not high-profile titles.
6 - As far as I can determine, all of these films had a 2019 release in the U.S.
Now that you've read all that, the rest will be easy: my Top 12 in alphabetical order:
Apollo 11 - Todd Douglas Miller (Blu-ray, now on Hulu)
Fast Color - Julia Hart (library DVD, now on Amazon Prime)
A smart movie with science fiction and quite possibly superhero elements. No costumes, no extravagant special effects, no cities exploding… Just a good story told with grace and simplicity containing amazing performances. Not enough people are talking about this film, but maybe they will soon: a TV series is planned.
High Life - Claire Denis (library DVD, now on Amazon Prime, Kanopy)
Prisoners in space? This is a Claire Denis film, so there’s so much more to the story than that simple question. High Life stars Robert Pattinson and Juliette Binoche, but I'm betting you've never seen them like this before. This is a challenging film that certainly demands more than one viewing.
The Irishman - Martin Scorsese (Netfilx)
Is this Scorsese's best? No. Would I place it in his Top 5? Probably not. Did I enjoy it? Yes. Read more: Previously reviewed
Knives Out - Rian Johnson (in theaters)
The most fun I’ve had at the movies in quite some time. A smart, entertaining film with a wealth of talent in front of and behind the camera. The film also contains my favorite closing song and final shot.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco - Joe Talbot (Netflix)
My favorite film of 2019, and just possibly the best. The movie follows an African-American man named Jimmie (Jimmy Fails) and his efforts to reclaim and restore the house he grew up in, but gentrification has placed the home out of his reach. This is a tremendous film that attempts many things and nails them all. Watch this film, now on Netflix, and keep an eye on director Joe Talbot.
The Mustang - Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre (library DVD)
Matthias Schoenaerts plays Roman Coleman, an inmate in a Nevada prison for permanently injuring his domestic partner. While there, Roman becomes involved in program focused on training wild horses, a program overseen by an aging trainer (Bruce Dern). This is one of those quiet films that tells a familiar story, but does it exceptionally well. Schoenaerts is outstanding.
Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood - Quentin Tarantino (in theaters, now on physical media and on demand)
So much has already been written about Tarantino’s ninth (and possibly penultimate) film, I’m not sure I can add anything to it, at least until I’ve seen it for a second time. Other than Jackie Brown, this is probably my favorite Tarantino film. Lots of debate about the ending…
Parasite - Bong Joon-ho (in theaters)
Is a South Korean family struggling to make ends meet by simply working a harmless scam or is there something more to their shenanigans? And just who is the parasite and who is the victim? I saw this film with my friend Tom and we talked about it non-stop for an hour on the way home. In Korean with English subtitles
They Shall Not Grow Old - Peter Jackson (Blu-ray, also available on HBO Now, HBO Go)
Everyone should see this documentary covering a small part of WWI, but that small part speaks for an untold number. A powerful film that absolutely stunned the audience when I showed it at the library for Veterans Day.
Uncut Gems - Josh Safdie, Benny Safdie (in theaters)
I should probably say that I admired and appreciated this film more than I actually liked it. Read more:
Us (2019) Jordan Peele (library DVD, also available on HBO Now, HBO Go)
Jordan Peele’s follow-up to Get Out may be an even better, more terrifying film.
Ruben Brandt, Collector - Milorad Krstić (library DVD)
I Lost My Body - Jérémy Clapin (Netflix)
Two very different animated films, different from each other and different from most of the animated releases you’ll see in theaters or streaming. (Neither are for children.) Ruben Brandt is a wild, non-stop crime thriller set in the art world, while I Lost My Body chronicles a severed hand as it seeks to get back to its body. Seek them both out.
Crawl - Alexandre Aja (library DVD)
When a hurricane hits a Florida town, Haley (Kaya Scodelario) returns to her home to locate her dad (Barry Pepper), who’s gone missing. She finds him injured and trapped in their family home, but he’s not alone. He’s trying to fight off alligators. Crawl is far better than I thought it would be, an effective horror/disaster film.
Dolemite is My Name - Craig Brewer (Netflix)
I recommend that you watch Dolemite is My Name before watching Rudy Ray Moore’s original Dolemite (1975) on Amazon Prime or Kanopy. Doing so will give you a greater appreciation of Moore’s vision and dedication to make movies, despite enormous odds. Dolemite is My Name is raunchy, but hilarious, and Eddie Murphy as Moore is outstanding.
The Kid Who Would Be King - Joe Cornish (library DVD, also available on HBO Now, HBO Go)
This film bombed at the box office, which is real shame. It’s certainly not perfect, and its first hour is much better than its second, but this is a fun adventure that deserved better. I hope you’ll give it a chance.
There you have it. Let me know what you enjoyed in 2019.
Photos: East Bay Express, Variety, NPR, TPR, The Verge, Inverse, Escondido Times-Advocate, NBC News, Vulture Hound, World of Reel, Polygon, The Atlantic, Letterboxd