Every year people complain to me about the quality of movies hitting theaters, and every year I tell them they’re watching the wrong stuff. Sure, there’ve been some fun blockbusters this year, as Us, Joker and Avengers: Endgame were all a blast, and all made enough money to turn a third world country into a first world country. But they weren’t what I would consider the “best” films of the year.
Out of the 175 titles to choose from (yes, I saw 175 movies released in 2019), picking 15 wasn’t easy. There were so many options: marvelous epics, classic comedies, teen comedies, documentaries, space odysseys, Disney remakes, art house classics, more remakes, romances, even more remakes and whatever the hell Midsommar was. All of these varying entities came together to make for a varying year. But the best of the best made it all worth it.
The following list, along with some truly honorable mentions, are the films that define where the medium is going, as well as prove that 2019 was indeed a great year for cinema.
15) Amazing Grace
It’s rare for a concert documentary to be good, and it’s even rarer for a concert documentary to make you feel like you were in the crowd. In this resurrection of Aretha Franklin’s two-day concert at a Missionary Baptist church in 1972, the footage has been restored and it’s a glorious thing to behold. See it for the Queen of Soul performing in her prime. See it for the weeping faces in the choir. See it for a coked-out Mick Jagger dancing in the steeples. This time capsule is the stuff of miracles.
2019 has been an amazing year for class conscious films. From Joker to Us, Hustlers to Atlantics, directors have assaulted the wage gap as if it owed them lunch money. No one, however, was able to execute like Bong Joon Ho. His upstairs-downstairs comedy portrays both the upper and lower classes as victims. Is it the rich family who are the parasites, or the poor family? Or is it the class system that is feeding off everyone? Everyone is a have-not in this have-to-see-it-to-believe-it masterwork.
13) Uncut Gems
Uncut Gems is the cinematic equivalent to mixing cocaine with acid, a burst of energy that plays like a dream. Adam Sandler – yes, that Adam Sandler – digs deep into the role of a man at rock bottom. He’s a diamond district jeweler who can’t seem to do anything right, in a film that can do no wrong. As the Safdie Brothers crank up the adrenaline, your head will spin as Sandler twirls around New York trying to sell his gem. It’s a gem he obsesses over the same way most of us obsess over Ryan Reynolds, and it’s at the core of this groundbreaking work of art.
Diane, as played by Mary Kay Place, is extraordinarily ordinary. She’s a 70 year-old caretaker who drives around a snowy town caring for her drug addict son and kicking it with her elderly friends. No explosions. No sex. Just a woman trying to find her way at the end of the road. If Avengers was your favorite film of the year, don’t bother. But if you’re open to an existential, often heart-wrenching look at a real-life superhero, Kent Jones’ debut feature will knock your socks off.
11) The Two Popes
This is the buddy comedy of the year. Anthony Hopkins is Pope Benedict XVI, while Jonathan Pryce is the future Pope Francis. They walk through gardens, drink Fanta and talk theology. It’s a testament to their monumental performances, as well as Fernando Meirelles’ unique direction, that this works. He reforms the historical drama in a way that makes going to church entertaining. Blending documentary-like camerawork with New Wave energy, his film is a blessing to us all.