I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that we will look back on 2019 as one of those miraculous years. Despite being inundated by franchise fodder, there still was plenty of room for experimentation by masters and newcomers alike. The sense of the year is one of deep reflection – a number of films on the list are about the ramifications of a changing world – and given the general sense of turmoil, upheaval mixed with a modicum of hope, it’s clear that the art of the day reflects this sentiment. This is the year that Disney took over almost completely – eight of the top ten films at the box office are under their aegis – and their domination of popular culture doesn’t look to be abating. Other studios took admirable chances, but some of the most energizing and extraordinary films found their funding by Netflix. Following Roma last year, this is a dramatic shift in how these stories get told, and with half a dozen outright gems, it’s clear we’re at an interesting inflection point.
Our list below includes a musically stupendous re-imagining of late-60s Hollywood; a brash and brilliant biopic about a pianist; a sumptuous and deeply affecting story of love, art and “the gaze”; a glorious late-career chapter by a master director about the vagaries of aging; and a masterwork of tone and precision that collides genres like bumper cars with the end result being an unforgettable film about class, family, revenge, doorbell rhymes, and peaches. There are a half dozen others that may make their way into our best-of-decade list as we look back in the years to come, but for now the list below contains films as good as from any year.
Thanks for joining us while looking back. Hopefully you’ve found films to discover and others that you may have forgotten about and may now feel are deserve a rewatch. Feel free to let us know in the comments what we may have left out, and here’s to the next ten years of films – bon projection! (JG)
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
After my first viewing I had a sense it was going to be up there, but now, after a half dozen screenings (including some on an IMAX screen) I’ll make the call – this is not only one of the greatest films of the decade, it’s also Quentin Tarantino’s best. It’s the perfect collision of so many of his interests, from stunties to Hollywood to historical re-imagining, marked with glorious photography and a slamming soundtrack. Add in some extraordinary performances from Pitt and Dicaprio, as well as a luminous turn by Margot Robbie, and you have the culmination of everything QT has brought to bear over his decades making movies. The film works as an amalgamation of the entire Tarantinoverse – hell, the Cadillac that Cliff drives is the same one as from Quentin’s first film Reservoir Dogs – but Hollywood‘s greatest trick is how it feels more like a collaboration than any others. It’s as if the sordid subject matter had a maturing director for the first time take even more into consideration the collaborative nature of filmmaking, making this story that has a deep sense of loss and displacement feel all the more universal. It’s an overwhelming film of grand ambition that still feels like a hell of a lot of fun, a magical wonderland of great tunes, jetblack comedy, existential ennui and horrific violence, all with the undercurrent of being a love letter not only to Tinsletown but to a specific star whose tragic, horrific death marked the end of an era. (JG)
Watching a movie can be like going on a first date. Most often, there is a feeling-out period where you decide whether this film is for you. But just like love at first sight, the great movies immediately put you under their spell. Parasite held me captivated from the opening frame and rocked my world until the credits rolled.
Writer/director Bong Joon-ho’s 2019 masterpiece, Parasite, is the year’s smartest social commentary and also its most gripping thriller. Bong’s entire cast are all operating on his next-level wavelength and deliver pitch-perfect performances that will draw you into Parasite’s punishing world. The cinematography, production design, and cast all work together with clockwork precision to create a cutting film that will thrill you, shock you, and challenge your way of thinking. (VS)
Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Céline Sciamma crafts one of the most sensual and romantic films of the decade with Portrait of a Lady on Fire. An exquisite tale of love between Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), a reluctant bride-to-be, and Marianne (Noémie Merlant), a painter commissioned to do her wedding portrait, the film is a feast for the senses. Like an elegant painting, each of Sciamma’s brush strokes radiates with significance and passion. The latter of which is perfectly captured by Haenel and Merlant’s exceptional performances. Much like the female gaze that pours over the film, the audience feels the same sense of nervous anticipation and pulsing sexual tension as the characters do on screen. It takes one viewing to realize that Sciamma has created an instant classic. It demands multiple viewings to unpeel its rich layers. (CS)
There is a point in Rocketman where you forget you’re not actually watching Elton John. That in itself is an amazing feat since Taron Egerton doesn’t really resemble the “Your Song” singer. It is a testament to how wholly he embodies the performer on screen. Unlike that other musical biopic (mostly) directed by Dexter Fletcher, Rocketman features its cast actually singing as it uses music to tell the story, rather than the other way around. John hasn’t lived a PG-rated life and that’s not the glossy story Rocketman wants to tell. Despite his own personal involvement and that of husband David Furnish in the project, the good, the bad, and the downright ugly of John’s career are all covered while making his personal and professional journey all the more remarkable. Every note and moment on screen is pitch-perfect with incredible attention to detail in sets, design, and, above all, costumes and music. There’s no denying this film looks and sounds incredible. Blending elements of fantasy and reimagining some of John’s most iconic songs and deep cuts, Rocketman is a visual tour-de-force and not just one of the best musicals of the decade, but certainly one of the best biopics. (RW)
From the “honourable men” of Mean Streets to Henry Hill’s intoxicating walk through the Copacabana, Martin Scorsese has been chronicling the criminal underworld. The tracking shot that slowly but steadily waltzes through a senior citizens’ home in The Irishman is an abrupt reminder to audiences that Scorsese isn’t interested in treading over previous ground. Goodfellas offered a young man’s fascination with the criminal underworld and the naïveté that comes with it. The Irishman is built with the strain, angst, and weariness of a man who looks back on his life and hates himself for everything he’s done. Robert De Niro’s Frank Sheeran won’t be celebrated by his compadres, his friends, or family. For every murder that Frank commits, his daughter Peggy (played by Lucy Gallina and Anna Paquin in her later years) is there to watch mournfully. She witnesses her father’s actions and the costs they have on others. Death is ever-present, an inescapable fate that awaits us all, saint or sinner. And thanks to the life Frank’s led, he’ll almost certainly have to pick the casket out for his own funeral. As a master of his field looks back and surveys the final days of a gangster’s life, it’s hard to see The Irishman as anything other than a grand culmination of Scorsese and De Niro’s careers since they started working together in 1973. The director and leading man built the mobster into a mythological force, and now they’ve put him in a nursing home to die. (CB)