The year 2019 has been a doozy for cinema. So many ups and downs and so many storylines but mixed in were twenty highlight features that represent the best the industry has offered over the past twelve months. The last few weeks I’ve been showcasing what I believe were the best movies in the genres of horror, sci-fi and fantasy, action and thriller, animation, and drama, a collection of 50 films, that I felt stood out through 2019. Now I’ve cut them down to 20, all represented on at least one of those lists and all of them having received perfect five-star scores from me in my reviews. Before I continue, I have to thank all of you. I’m entering my fourth year with this blog and when I started it in early 2017, I didn’t expect it to become much. While it still has a long way to go, I can’t express enough how grateful I am that you guys read my opinions and take the time to appreciate the work I put into this. So, here’s to another year of reviews, countdowns, stories and more on Cinema Spotlight! This is always my favorite moment of any given year, and it’s always the first thing I do on this blog every year. Without further ado let’s get to it. These are my picks for the Top 20 Films of 2019.
I approached this list using a combination of factors to help organize them, but in the end, it came down to which films I enjoyed the most and that I felt represented the best of the industry. It’s been a fun year for cinema and, as always, I want to know from you…what was your favorite movie of 2019? Let me know in the comments below.
Again, thank you all for continuing to follow Cinema Spotlight. I hope I can continue to earn your viewership and respect in 2020. Lets’ do it!
20. “Toy Story 4”
The only animated film to make my end of the year list in 2019, “Toy Story 4” might not be the sequel we wanted…in fact nobody really asked for another “Toy Story” movie after the great conclusion that was “Toy Story 3”…but it certainly lived up to fan expectations by giving Woody his own story exploring his life post-Andy. Incredibly animated and filled with all the charm and life lessons you’d expect from a Pixar film, “Toy Story 4” shined as the best animated film of 2019 in more ways than one adding another chapter and layer to the “Toy Story” saga nearly ten years after the series was thought done for good. Even though it was a good movie I do hope this is the end of the “Toy Story” series because the fourth film serves as a fine punctuation to compliment the third film’s emotional payoff.
19. “Ad Astra”
Every year there’s always at least one overlooked science fiction gem and it usually ends up on my end of the year list. This year’s underappreciated sci-fi epic was “Ad Astra”, a Brad Pitt-led slow burn that explores an astronaut’s solo mission to hunt down his father and stop his outer space experiments that have begun to effect Earth. Don’t let the fact that too few people saw this movie keep you from giving it a try because hidden within this picture is a heartfelt story that opens our eyes to the skewed priorities of humanity and how much we tend to value discovery over the blessings we already have. It’s an important message wrapped in an impressive and visually stunning piece of filmmaking.
Like “Ad Astra”, “Booksmart” was criminally underappreciated in 2019 which is odd because its style of comedy is usually a pretty standard draw for fans of the genre. However it’s not just outrageous comedy that makes this a great movie. Focusing on a pair of bookworm best friends who decide to enjoy their final night before graduation at a party, “Booksmart” takes viewers on a series of misadventures with absolutely hilarious results and a whole lot of heart. Often compared to “Superbad”, “Booksmart” is not only an entertaining comedy but one of the first films to fully embrace the culture of Generation Z, the youth currently growing out of their high school years, making it a film that deserves to be a landmark release of their generation. Hopefully in the years to come it will garner the respect it so truly deserves as a cult classic.
17. “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”
In these divisive times a movie about Mr. Rogers is probably one of the most timely films to help remind us to be kind to each other. While “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” isn’t a true biopic, it does showcase what made Mr. Rogers so great as he helps change the life of a reporter doing an expose on him. With Tom Hanks giving one of the best performances of the year as Rogers, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood’s” most important message is that it’s okay to ask for help and that just because we’ve grown up that doesn’t mean we have to ignore all the lessons childhood grants us. This was one of the best feel good movies of 2019, but it goes well beyond positivity. Like the man it focuses on it’s not afraid to show us the dark side of life and remind us there’s always a better tomorrow.
16. “Ford v. Ferrari”
As a race fan “Ford v. Ferrari” was a true treat for me in 2019 showcasing some of the most believable and raw race footage any motorsports movie has ever accomplished. The story of Ken Miles and Carroll Shelby’s partnership to help Ford win the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans felt made for a cinematic interpretation and with the capable James Mangold behind the camera and Brad Pitt and Christian Bale in the starring roles the final result did not disappoint. Part action packed racing epic and part sports drama, “Ford v. Ferrari” ups the ante for racing films to the point where I stand behind my statements that it’s not just one of the best of 2019, but one of the best motorsports movies ever made.
15. “Uncut Gems”
The 2010s for Adam Sadler have seen his career hit its lowest points turning him into a joke of a performer better known for hanging out with his friends than turning out quality work. To cap of the 2010s however he provided a career best performance with “Uncut Gems”. Directed by the Safdie Brothers, this energetic, anxiety inducing thriller helped provide an epic cinematic experience to end 2019 putting viewers right into the action and never relenting in its exploration of a gambler’s poor decisions and the domino effect of consequences that follow. This is one of the most kinetic movies of the year and solidifies the Safdie Brother’s as masters of their craft while proving Sandler is well above the material he previous chose to embrace.
Among my favorite horror movies of the year was this haunting feature that subverts the normal expectations of the genre by creating fear through daylight instead of night. “MidSommar” focuses on a group of friends who find themselves caught up in a deadly ritual ceremony after visiting a commune leading to an unsettling series of events. As one of the greatest cultist movies of all time and director Ari Aster’s follow-up to his modern classic “Hereditary”, “MidSommar” earns its own place in modern horror lore as a strange and unsettling experience that feels so new yet so familiar. Plus, Florence Pugh, who quickly became one of my favorite actresses in 2019, pulls of an absolutely heartbreaking and raw depiction of depression which in itself makes this movie worth a place on this list.
Director Jordan Peele cemented his name as a modern horror great with his debut feature “Get Out” in 2017 combining thrilling genre elements with social commentary to create something completely unique. His second horror film, “Us”, further established him as a modern master of horror by giving us another thrilling fright fest that forces us to take a look at ourselves, literally and figuratively, as a source of terror. Focusing on a family under attack by their own doppelgangers, “Us” is a multiple layered experience that disturb you more and more with every new level of understanding and yet on its surface it’s also a fun and effective mainstream horror film that became one of the most successful and satisfying original pictures of the year.
12. “Little Women”
“Little Women” is such a classic story having been told on the big screen successfully six other times prior to 2019 and yet it took until this year for me to finally see it. Like “A Star is Born” before it “Little Women” proves that some stories truly are timeless as the themes presented are still just as relevant to our current society as they were to the world author Louisa May Alcott grew up in. The 2019 “Little Women” never feels like a remake or retread thanks in large part to the performances by a committed group of actresses who fully flesh out the March sisters and Greta Gerwig being in complete control as not only the director, but the writer. The costumes, shooting locations and dialogue all fit the theme and era of the movie making for one of the year’s most engrossing period piece.
11. “The Farewell”
Speaking of eye-opening experiences in cinema, 2019’s “The Farewell” was quite the hidden gem. A story about a young Chinese American named Billi, played by Awkwafina, whose grandmother is diagnosed with a disease. When she arrives in China to be with the family she comes face to face with a division of ideals as eastern tradition sees the family bear the brunt of the diagnosis while the patient remains ignorant to her sickness. Not only did “The Farewell” represent an important moment of diversity for Hollywood, with a cast of Asian actors and Chinese writer-director Lulu Wang at the helm, but it also forces you to open your eyes to new perspectives and diverse cultures even if you don’t agree with them, something that today’s world should really learn to embrace.
10. “Jojo Rabbit”
Now here’s a film that should have never worked and yet is does. “Jojo Rabbit” was definitely one of the year’s best comedies and probably one of the most obscure narrative concepts of the entire decade as it sees a young Hitler youth, who actually has an imaginary friend version of Hitler that he talks to, struggle with his ideals when he finds a Jewish girl hidden in his home. Heartwarming and charming on nearly every level but still sporting a ridiculous level of entertainment only its obscure premise could provide, “Jojo Rabbit” is yet another in a crowded line of films from the last year that forced us to rethink how we treat each other. It expertly creates humor from our own tragic human flaws of judging books by their covers somehow tastefully using one of the most vile hate groups in history to drive home its point.
Crowd pleasing biopics are a dime a dozen and they often avoid harsh realities to sugarcoat their subjects’ stories for the sake of mass appeal. In 2019 the Elton John biopic “Rocketman” found the perfect balance between tragic honesty and entertainment. Taron Egerton shines as Elton John and the story serves as a gripping and unapologetic if fantastical examination of the rock legend’s rise to superstardom. The set pieces, costumes and incorporation of John’s music give it a stage musical vibe yet there’s just something so cinematic about this story only a big screen film can capture. It’s unafraid to delve into Elton’s major flaws and bad decisions, yet by the end it’s an inspiring look at self-acceptance reminding us that no matter our flaws there’s always room to improve, grow and find peace of mind.
8. “The Irishman”
While not my favorite Martin Scorsese picture, and much lower on my list than probably most credible critics, “The Irishman” is still an astounding work of storytelling that reminds us all that even at his most basic Scorsese is still an absolute master filmmaker. Focusing on the real life tale of a mob enforcer and his relationship with Jimmie Hoffa and Russell Bufalino, “The Irishman” was destined to be a great film teaming Scorsese with Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci creating a perfect crew to bring the story to life. While it can be a bit of a slog and is by far the longest movie on this list, “The Irishman” is a commendable achievement that should age like a fine wine, getting better and earning even more appreciation with time even if it’s not my personal favorite from its director.
7. “Knives Out”
Directed by Rian Johnson and starring an ensemble cast, “Knives Out” mixes relevant social themes with an engaging mystery that at first feels like it’s being spoon fed to the audience until you come to realize all is not what it seems. Similar to “Ready or Not” an underappreciated horror gem from 2019, this whodunit forces you to think outside the box with not only its mystery but also its commentary. The group of suspects is made up of diverse personalities from a right-wing blogger to a left-wing SJW and everything in between, all of which prove to be pretty despicable people to someone they consider an “outsider”. It’s a fine cinematic interpretation of human flaws in the face of ideals as well as a reminder than the whodunit genre is still alive and well.
6. “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood”
Director Quentin Tarantino returned to the big screen in 2019 with one of his most enjoyable films to date, “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood”. A love letter to the Golden Age of Hollywood that explores an alternate history of the Manson Murders, “Once Upon a Time” isn’t just the year’s best comedy but could also be considered one of 2019’s best period pieces, and thrillers. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, “Once Upon a Time” puts you right into the atmosphere of its chosen era and blends different tones with Tarantino’s signature cinematic style to create one of the year’s most universally entertaining products. While it might not be the most complex work of Tarantino’s career, it doesn’t have to be and there’s still enough of that multilayered charm to make it one of the director’s best.
5. “The Lighthouse”
Like Ari Aster and Jordan Peele, director Robert Eggers has had a great decade establishing himself as a horror master. All three released their sophomore films in 2019, but Eggers’s was the most impressive. “The Lighthouse” is inspired, poetic, tragic and haunting serving as a spectacular slow burn that delves into the psyche of human obsession and isolation through two lighthouse keepers, played by Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson. Channeling Greek folklore as its inspiration and filmed using a limited aspect ratio to create an immersive claustrophobic effect, “The Lighthouse” feels inspired from every angle and demands thorough examinations of its finer details to completely understand. This is as close to cinematic art as horror could ever get in 2019.
4. “Marriage Story”
If film is supposed to offer a doorway into the human experience than “Marriage Story” is a perfect example of how to make a movie. Well shot, well scored, impeccably acted and beautifully paced, “Marriage Story” tells of the tragic separation of a couple and how their divorce challenges their friendship beyond the bonds of wedlock. On one hand “Marriage Story” is an unapologetic look at divorce culture and how it has become nothing short of an enterprise in America. On the other hand, it delves deeper into the complexities of a separation and the emotional struggles for both sides from guilt and grief to trying to find a new sense of purpose while also coexisting as parents. It’s a fascinating emotional journey with a relevant subject matter that deserves to be considered among the greatest achievements in cinema in 2019.
3. “Avengers: Endgame”
For over ten years the Marvel Cinematic Universe built up to an epic finale in one of the riskiest cinematic ventures in history. Twenty-one movies built up to “Avengers: Endgame” which broke countless records upon its debut in 2019 including becoming the highest grossing movie of all time worldwide. “Endgame” did what many thought impossible, bringing together everything we’ve come to know and love about the MCU and its different individual franchises culminating in a movie that rises above its clichéd elements and serves as a tribute to the MCU’s history through its own epic standalone adventure. Countless iconic moments have come from this film and while many will forever debate whether or not it’s a work of art, it’s hard to deny it was one of the biggest, most entertaining and satisfying cinematic experiences of not only 2019, but the entire decade.
I’m clearly in a minority seeing this as one of the top ten, or even top five films of 2019 but here we are. “Joker” to me is an astounding piece of cinema, one that feels genuinely inspired especially considering its main character’s comic book roots. Focusing on the Joker’s decent into madness and the societal and health factors that play a role in his evolution, “Joker” is a dark and depressing but important examination of one of today’s most important social issues, mental illness, forcing us to come face to face with a damaged villain who is much more layered and tragic than I think anyone expected. Joaquin Phoenix turns is an absolutely astounding performance as the Joker which, hopefully, will finally win him his overdue Oscar and while it can be argued the entire movies rides on him, the scripting, cinematography, music and careful pacing all assist in making “Joker” one of the year’s absolute best.
I guess the term “saved the best for last” is very relevant for me in 2019. I really tried to go against the grain when choosing my favorite film of 2019, especially seeing as I only saw “Parasite” less than a week ago making it the final movie I reviewed during the year, but even if given more time I have a feeling this haunting movie was always going to leave a lasting impression. A virtually genreless experience embracing elements of drama, thriller, horror, comedy and beyond, “Parasite” is a perfect mixed bag that explores a poor family’s scheme to implant themselves in the employment of a rich family to leach off of their wealth. Class division, global warming and other themes are all incorporated into a narrative that can leave you deep in thought one moment and on the edge of your seat the next. Complimented by engaging performances, fun and effective writing and a strong commitment from director Bong Joon-ho and crew, parasite is an undeniable example of modern cinematic art. This Palme d’Or winner is not only one of the year’s best movies but should be considered one of the best of the entire decade.