812filmreviews’ Top 25 Films of 2019

2019 is coming to an end, and because of such, I’ve put together my Top 25 Films of the Year. It’s the third time I’ve made such a list, and over the course of twelve months I’ve visited nine film festivals and watched nearly 250 movies. So suffice to say, there were more than a few worthy candidates.

Nevertheless, a couple items to take note of before you begin reading: There are no entries for documentaries on this list. Inevitably, with these countdowns many fine docs are overlooked in lieu of narrative features and I’d rather not forget those works. I’ll have a separate top ten in the coming days specifically for documentaries. Additionally, only films that have had a wide release were included.

The list you’re about to read is an assemblage of foreign language, Independent cinema, and Blockbusters, and also features a variety of voices: emerging and established, men and women, Black, Asian, Latin, and white. Most of all, they’re the works that have resonated with me the most. That is to say, this is not an objective “Best Of.” These are my favorites. For the films you don’t know or haven’t watched, I hope you take the time to find them because believe me they’re worth the journey. Having said that, below are the honorable mentions and below them—the Top 25. Thank you for 2019, and I hope to see you next year. 

Robert Daniels

Honorable Mentions

A Hidden Life, Clemency, Gloria Bell, Invisible Life, Light from Light, The Lighthouse, Monos, The Nightingale, Queen & Slim, The Report, Slut in a Good Way, This is Not Berlin, Toy Story 4, Uncut Gems, Under the Silver Lake, Us, and Vitalina Varela.

25. Burning Cane (Phillip Youmans)

Debuting at the Tribeca Film Festival, and taking top honors, Phillip Youmans’ Burning Cane not only surveyed the rarely examined Southern Baptist Church, the evocative picture also serves as the first salvo of a new exciting voice. Youmans, an evolving 19-year old filmmaker, presses against issues of toxic masculinity and hypocrisy in an involving and thrilling debut.

Where to watch: Netflix

24. Them That Follow (Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage)

A brilliant cast comprised of Kaitlyn Dever, Olivia Colman, Walton Goggins, Lewis Pullman, Jim Gaffigan, and Alice Englert populates another film dissecting the contradictions of zealotry. This time, nestled in a tiny religious community in the Appalachians. Poulton and Savage’s film is a tightening twist of fate, pushing these soon-to-be superstar actors to their breaking points, in an ending that espouses freedom and survival no matter the weight of one’s religious beliefs.

Where to watch: Amazon Prime ($3.99)

23. Midsommar (Ari Aster)

A bear burns, a flower queen rises, and heads are smashed with mallets in a work whose symbolism exemplifies the swing for the fences filmmaking that’s alighted the last two years of cinema. Purely by accident, Ari Aster’s follow-up to Hereditary: Midsommar—is the third film on my end of the year list to examine a secluded religious sect. This one, in Sweden. Blindingly bright cinematography mixes hallucinate effects in a story that examines mental health fueled toward a conclusion that’s quite literally still seared in my head.

Where to watch: Amazon Prime $0.99

22. The Burial of Kojo (Blitz Bazawule)

Lyrical and rule-breaking, Blitz Bazawule’s debut feature The Burial of Kojo is composed through unique camera angles and sumptuous tableaus. A ghost story, the Ghanaian film follows a daughter as she recounts the disappearance of her father and the mysterious reemergence of her uncle in an enthralling picture that examines the colonization of resources by outsiders and income disparity. Poetic and charged, The Burial of Kojo is the nearest thing to a masterpiece by a first-time director.

Where to watch: Netflix

21. Bliss (Joe Begos)

You probably never heard of Bliss until about two seconds ago, but I guarantee you won’t ever forget it. I first watched Joe Begos’ fever dream at Cinepocalypse 2019—where I gasped, leapt, and clutched my imaginary pearls to images of drugs and vampires in an enticing homage to Gaspar Noé. Not only that, but Dora Madison also offers one of the best performances of the year in a fly-off-the-handle explosion of overwrought artistic ambitions that often mirrors Nicolas Cage at his height of insanity.

Where to watch: Amazon Prime $3.99

20. Booksmart (Olivia Wilde)

2018 was the year of actors turned directors, and while 2019 hasn’t seen as many performers switch to the main chair, Olivia Wilde’s debut Booksmart certainly fills one’s appetite. A coming of age buddy comedy that’s as much about friendship as breaking up, Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein are more than stars in the making in this milieu of high school drama. Instead, they’ve fully arrived in a film that thrives on Wilde’s teeming ambitions. 

Where to watch: Hulu

19. Climax (Gaspar Noé)

With a Gaspar Noé homage already on the list, it’s only fitting that his Climax would also appear. A fever dream that also flourishes through drugs, this one follows a French dance troupe as they devolve into murderous squabbles and other acts of revenge and violence. No film features a more striking use of color, and the opening dance sequence would be the most thrilling music video of 2019 if it were solely designed as such.

Where to watch: Amazon Prime (free with membership)

18. Atlantics (Mati Diop)

A love affair. A ghost story. A critique on capitalism. A tale of feminist freedom in the face of a controlling religious patriarchy. Mati Diop’s Atlantics manages to accomplish all in an array of sensory compositions that attunes the phantasmagorical components of the story to Senegal’s captivating beach fronts and shanty towns. Grounded yet mysterious, the film’s central star-crossed lovers: Ada and Souleiman, represent a passion that reaches beyond watery graves.

Where to watch: Netflix

17. Dolemite is My Name (Craig Brewer)

I can’t adequately describe the glee and reverence associated with seeing Eddie Murphy back in the kind of star-driven vehicle he was made for, but watching Craig Brewer’s Dolemite is My Name at its world premiere won’t soon be topped. Following Rudy “Ray” Moore in his quest to stardom: first through comedy then cinema, Dolemite is My Name gets better on each watch and features one of the year’s deepest and best ensembles: Craig Robinson, Mike Epps, Keegan-Michael Key, Tituss Burgess, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, and Wesley Snipes in a scene-stealing return to form.

Where to watch: Netflix

16. Knives Out (Rian Johnson)

After the abuse suffered at the hands of Star Wars fans angry at The Last Jedi, very few people deserved an out-and-out banger of a film than Rian Johnson. Composed as a Columbo mystery occupying an Agatha Christie frame, Knives Out is a perfectly written whodunit. Featuring another deep ensemble, it’s difficult to pick favorites, but both Daniel Craig (who’s always been a wonderful comedic actor) and Ana De Armas are the highlights in a hilarious film that still maintains political relevance through its skewering of MAGA worshipers.

15. The Irishman (Martin Scorsese)

Admittedly, I’m not much of a fan of Scorsese’s early work. I understand its importance and relevance, but his style never clicked with me. However, his late-period films: Hugo, The Wolf of Wall Street, and Silence—have all resonated: Possibly because they demonstrate a firmer hand and greater control of story than his previous pictures, which I often find stylistically brilliant but lacking in the former. The Irishman, Scorsese’s latest film, exemplifies that patience to the tune of 3.5 hours as we follow Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) and his friendships with Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) and Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) in a historical drama that’s surprisingly funny yet an elegiac whisper carrying loneliness and regret.

Where to watch: Netflix

14. Little Women (Greta Gerwig)

After Greta Gerwig’s incredible success with Lady Bird, I was more than disappointed that she’d be turning to a remake for her follow-up—especially considering said story already had two stirring versions. Nevertheless, her adaption of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women is an unabashed success. Perfectly cast—Saoirse Ronan is the best Jo since Katherine Hephburn—the film’s nonlinear retelling sets it apart from prior iterations, while the costumes and score make every scene drip with heart and pure emotion.

13. Parasite (Bong Joon-ho)

Parasite is one of those rare films where someone could spoil the entire plot to you, and it wouldn’t make a difference. Following an entrepreneurial family, so to speak, the picture (along with Knives Out) is another film that critiques the ambivalence of the rich in a twisting tale that constantly takes 180 degree turns. Such is the magic of Bong Joon-ho, a filmmaker whose prior works—Okja, Snowpiercer, and Memories of Murder—have been critically lauded, but who is now finding the mainstream success he richly deserves.

12. Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Céline Sciamma)

Shout out to Valerie Complex, who’s probably done more to promote Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire than its own country. Shockingly not selected as France’s submission for the Academy Awards, Sciamma’s lesbian love story between painter and subject features the most stunning cinematography next to Gaspar Noé’s Climax (an odd comparison, I know) of the year, and a breathtaking use of color. They’re the clear residue of the passion that encapsulates every scene. Gorgeous and alluring, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is the literal overflow of spontaneous emotion.

11. Her Smell (Alex Ross Perry)

I nearly walked out of Her Smell. Following the lead singer (Elisabeth Moss) of an all-girl punk rock group, Alex Ross Perry film is split into three parts: the descent, rock bottom, and recovery. The first act is one of the most uneasy watches of 2019, as we see a troubled individual who seems fated for an early demise. However, his movie soon unfurls itself into madness and then ambivalence before finally concluding with a heartfelt final act that’s so earned it physically hurts, as Moss gives the best performance of her career.

Where to watch: Amazon Prime $1.99

10. The Last Black Man in San Francisco (Joe Talbot)

From a compositionally immaculate opening sequence: replete with beautiful sun-drenched lighting, poetic match cuts, and an exhilarating tracking shot—Joe Talbot’s The Last Black Man in San Francisco offers an endearing friendship between Jimmie Fails and Mont (Jonathan Majors) wrapped in a critique of gentrification and extralegal housing practices. Majors truly gives the best male supporting performance of the year, thoughtfully portraying a man who’s an outsider in his own neighborhood and a nonconformist to the cliche standards of masculinity. The Last Black Man in San Francisco is never hurried, crafting typically static characters with depth and empathy.

Where to watch: Amazon Prime (free with membership)

9. Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino)

Part of the old white guy nostalgia fest of 2019, Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood offers another entry into his alt-history trilogy: Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained. While many have chagrin in the face of Sharon Tate’s storyline remaining in the background—which I actually think might be the best portion of Tarantino’s flick due to Margot Robbie’s incredible performance—the bromance between Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) and Rick Dalton (Leonard DiCaprio) takes center stage. A requiem for a bygone era in Tinseltown, everything from the costumes, production design (especially the vintage cars) and parodies, record a moment that never, yet once existed. Finally, the haunting final shot gives Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood a foreboding yet hopeful detour, claiming the title of Tarantino’s most mature film.

Where to watch: Amazon Prime ($3.99)

8. Honey Boy (Alma Har’el)

Art often acts as a balm, therapy for the troubled soul. Few actors have led as turbulent of a career and life than Shia LaBeouf: from child actor to public performance artist. With Alma Har’el’s Honey Boy he adds screenwriter to his resume too. Here, he plays his real-life father—an emotionally abusive rodeo clown, while Noah Jupe portrays LaBeouf in his earlier years, and Lucas Hedges depicts him during his 20’s. Certain scenes—like LaBeouf chastising Jupe—cuts through repressed layers of trauma while delivering an unnerving truthfulness. Every actor fully commits in this on-screen psychoanalysis that often veers between greatness, and a thankfulness that it exists.

Where to watch: Amazon Prime (free with membership)

7. Luce (Julius Onah)

If you’ve followed me since Sundance, you know that I’ve been the unofficial spokesman of Julius Onah’s gripping and turbulent drama Luce. Adapted from J.C. Lee’s eponymous play, provocative and melodramatic set pieces tussle with issues of toxic masculinity, rape culture, and Black Excellence. Onah’s film witnesses a breakout performance from its lead Kelvin Harrison Jr. in a portrayal as much about repression as raw emotion. Moreover, Octavia Spencer provides the rare instance of her in a slightly villainous role, which pulls the best acting of her career. A ball of disquieted energy detonates with each thump of Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury’s score, in the turning of a screw that unwinds into catharsis. Unfairly overlooked, Onah’s Luce is what inclusive filmmaking has been building to. 

Where to watch: Amazon Prime ($5.99)

6. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (Marielle Heller)

After the success of the Mister Rogers’ documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, the needs for a feature film appeared superfluous at best. But the dream combo of Tom Hanks as the famed television personality and the CanYou Ever Forgive Me? filmmaker Marielle Heller, makes for a deeply affecting story of forgiveness. Ingenious creative decisions: specifically the homages to the children’s program, abound while Hanks offers an incredible show of inhabiting the spirit of a character rather than relying on mere artifice. Matthew Rhys as the picture’s surprising lead Lloyd Vogel—a painfully cynical reporter assigned to cover Mister Rogers, also astounds while Chris Cooper (Little Women) remains one of the unsung heroes of 2019.

5. The Farewell (Lulu Wang)

No movie made me cry more than Lulu Wang’s biographical film The Farewell. Following Billi (Awkwafina)—the fictional incarnation of the director—audiences witness a family who make a nearly impossible decision: to withhold a life-ending cancer diagnosis from their mother/grandmother Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen, who’s utterly brilliant). Dissecting several cultural off-ramps: Chinese, Chinese-American, and Japanese—through the guise of assimilation, The Farewell is as much about family as  a crucible of truth and identity. The final tracking shot, as Nai Nai waves goodbye is the most devastating soul crushing image of 2019.  

Where to watch: Amazon Prime ($5.99)

4. High Life (Claire Denis)

“Bat-shit crazy,” doesn’t accurately describe Claire Denis’ High Life, a mash-up of art house aesthetics and blockbuster sensibilities. Depicting a literal prison in space, the film centers around a group of death row inmates who have volunteered to serve the rest of their sentence in the name of medical research. This batch of offenders, devolve into murder and masturbation in a provacative swing for the fences. And between fuck boxes and studies of isolation and environmentalism, resides Robert Pattinson’s destructive performance. Already the apple of every indie director’s eye—between Good Time, Damsel, The Lighthouse, etc.—Pattinson delivers a cold yet vulnerable performance as both a violent prisoner yet loving father. Making High Life a mind fuck of a Sci-Fi movie.

Where to watch: Amazon Prime (free with membership)

3. Marriage Story (Noah Baumbach)

Some unions end amicably, and some descend into hurtful words that can’t ever be unsaid. Semi-autobiographical, Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story is a return to familiar territory for the director best known for family dramas. Simply predicated upon a divorce, Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) are a writer and director from two different coasts (east and west) with a son caught in the middle of their separation.    

From top to bottom, no film contains a better assortment of performances. Ray Liotta and Alan Alda both offer attention-grabbing scenes in their few minutes of work, while Laura Dern as a combative lawyer unrelentingly commands the camera’s gaze. But most of all, Driver and Johansson offer “wow” moment after “wow” moment, especially in one scene that’s taken a life of its own: the argument scene. Both enter a new stratosphere, in a movie that asks us to do what these characters struggle to do themselves: to see them as equals.

Where to watch: Netflix

2. Ad Astra (James Gray)

“Sad white guys in space” doesn’t faithfully articulate the brilliance of James Gray’s Ad Astra. An immaculate use of VFX and production design offers breathtaking vistas mapped across isolation and religiosity. And while many have claimed Brad Pitt’s turn as Cliff Booth in Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood as a career-best performance, such title really belongs to his acting in Gray’s esoteric work. Here, Pitt portrays the unflappable Roy McBride, the world’s top astronaut. However, when unexplained events lead to deadly results on earth, he’s contracted to discover their origins, which might trace back to his long-missing father Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones).

To these ends, the astronaut travels to the far reaches of the solar system in a narrative that calls for the examination of God and toxic masculinity. This deconstruction of the God Complex causes the younger McBride to existentially come undone, which opens his once repressed emotions. A spectacle that wasn’t remotely appreciated in its initial theatrical run (a true shame because this needs to be seen on the biggest screen possible), the film truly deserves the often overused title of “masterpiece.” 

Where to watch: Google Play ($5.99)

1. Pain and Glory (Pedro Almodóvar)

Pedro Almodóvar hasn’t ceased making great movies. 2016’s Julieta, for instance, was another commanding work from the legendary Spanish director. Nevertheless, Pain and Glory still feels like a return to form. Reuniting him with his former muse Antonio Banderas, the autobiographical narrative follows the writer-director Salvador living in regret and agony. Suffering from multiple ailments, he can no longer work and therefore suffers from depression (an ode to Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2). To these ends, he often lives in his memories, typed in private files and hidden away on his computer.

Over the course of nearly two hours, Almodóvar mixes flashbacks with present-day introspection and experimentation by Salvador. The character tries heroine, attempts to mend a broken friendship with Alberto (Asier Etxeandia), and even spends one more night with a former lover. But most of all, he thinks upon his mother: played both by Penélope Cruz and Julieta Serrano, culminating in a final shot, that’s still the most shocking and thoughtfully conceived of the year. Pain and Glory witnesses Banderas in his most vulnerable state, and survives as an undeniable example of cinematic greatness.

Once again, thank you for spending 2019 with me. Please be on the lookout for my Top 10 Documentaries of the Year list, and my upcoming coverage from Sundance. See you in 2020.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: