The 20 Great Films of 2019

by Elijah de Castro

20. Apollo 11 (Todd Douglas Miller)

Courtesy of Neon

“Apollo 11” is a straightforward, honest, and visually beautiful piecing together of the events of the landing on the moon. This documentary is really about capturing the spirit and harmony behind the orchestral achievement. Perfect pacing, slow-rolling tension, and incredible restoration offer a presentation of a time in America with more unity.

19. Little Women (Greta Gerwig)

Courtesy of Sony Pictures Releasing

There is a moment in “Little Women” when the film becomes so alive with character that the rest of the film slips by without notice. The film is well-polished in many different areas, with every actor fully encompassing the energy of what writer-director Greta Gerwig has written for them. Gerwig proves her expertise again at creating sweet, honest films with her own personality and voice.

18. Hustlers (Lorene Scafaria)

Lili Reinhart, Jennifer Lopez, Keke Palmer, and Constance Wu star in HUSTLERS

While “The Wolf of Wall Street” is about the corrupt Wall Street men who stole money from innocent people, “Hustlers” is about the women who stole money from those corrupted wall street brokers. Scafaria has created a clever feminist parody of Scorsese crime films, one with tenacious, firm characters. While the film’s conclusion holds it back, the story is unique and fresh–the kind that can come only from women.

17. The Peanut Butter Falcon (Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz)

Courtesy of Roadside Attractions

Strongly reminiscent of the purity of Coen brother’s films (“O’ Brother Where Art Thou” is the strongest comparison to make) and overflowing with compassion, “The Peanut Butter Falcon” is a very nourishing story. Shia LaBeouf and Zack Gottsagen make a wonderful ragtag buddy pairing. The film slowly reveals itself to be a love story so wholesome its breezy runtime dissipates completely.

16. High Life (Claire Denis)

Courtesy of A24

So many smart science fiction ideas explode onto the screen of “High Life”. Granted, some are not as richly layered others, but the film succeeds at creating a sickly equanimous environment with a very Kubrickian edge. Denis uses space as a way of undertaking themes of isolation, eroticism, and insanity.

15. Mickey and the Bear (Annabelle Attanasio)

Courtesy of Utopia

“Mickey and the Bear” is another film this year with a strong foundation on its lead female performance. There is little new ground broken in storytelling, however, Camila Morrone and James Badge Dale create a palpable view of a toxic father-daughter relationship. In the crumbling infrastructure of modern rural Montana, Mickey must navigate her life as a teenage girl taking care of her PTSD-stricken veteran father.

14. Birds of Passage (Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego)

Courtesy of 1091 Media

The intransigent threat of the 1960’s Columbian drug trade is told by Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego with authenticity and beauty. They have created a film that is intense and vibrant, one that focuses on the loss of humanity within a long-existing community. The film is subtle and artful, while simultaneously being patient and riveting.

13. The Art of Self-Defense (Riley Stearns)

Courtesy of Bleeker Street

Riley Stearns stitches together “Fight Club”, “Whiplash”, and “The Master” in “The Art of Self-Defense”. As a dark comedy, the film is simple, entertaining, and thoroughly economical in its delivery. The films’ specialty is in its spicy and disturbing script, which intends to expose the fallacy of arguments for authority.

12. Knives Out (Rian Johnson)

Courtesy of Lionsgate

“Knives Out” is classic stuff. It is a trenchant murder mystery story with a modern political tone. Each character is an archetype of some type of person in American society. And because of this, the film fits in motifs of financial inequality and classism comfortably into this bait-and-switch filled ride.

11. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino)

Courtesy of Sony Pictures Releasing

“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is one of Quentin Tarantino’s finest films. The film has moments of Tarantino familiarity, however, when the film is at its best it is creating a mature statement of the end of an era. In a time when real filmmakers and movie stars seem to be fading off into obscurity, Tarantino provides meta-commentary on this in his depiction of a movie star past his prime.

10. One Cut of the Dead (Shin’ichirô Ueda)

Courtesy of Amazon Studios

This is quite literally a “behind-the-scenes” movie. As every layer of how they made the film is peeled back, it becomes an even more genius. The coordination and timing that went into the creation of this film is mind-blowing. Completely unpredictable and thoroughly subversive, this is low-budget filmmaking at its absolute best.

9. The Lighthouse (Robert Eggers)

Courtesy of A24

“The Witch” featured drab, flat colors but had piercing suspense and exceptional performances. Robert Eggers clearly took into account the critical response to “The Witch”. Eggers ramps up everything that made “The Witch” a great and replaces the uninspired look with visceral, black and white photography. Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson give performances that perfectly match what the film is really about – isolation and disgust.

8. Marriage Story (Noah Baumbach)

Courtesy of Netflix

Here, the untold struggle in divorce cases is exposed with accuracy and tremor. Noah Baumbach is a zealous director, and the performance he pulls from Scarlet Johansson is career-defining. The film displays the end of a marriage as death without a body, and the characters experience the stages of grief. Their son is confused. In a year when films have been lacking substance, “Marriage Story” is full of it.

7. The Nightingale (Jennifer Kent)

Courtesy of IFC Films

The violence and hopelessness in “The Nightingale” is not for shock or as some sort of meaningless ploy. The violence is essential for Jennifer Kents subtext. In this rape-revenge story, Kent pairs together a woman who has lost her family, and an African man who has lost his land to colonizers. While the film is at face value, about historical violence against women, what the film is really about is loss of identity.

6. A Hidden Life (Terrence Malick)

Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

A Hidden Life is a sonnet of sensual beauty and romantic-era composition. This is Terrence Malick’s magnificent return to form after swimming in his own ego since “The Tree of Life”. The film is massive, dripping with visual beauty and full of heartbreaking performances. Malick has crafted a film that mixes classic Hollywood storytelling with his signature experimental style.

5. Climax (Gaspar Noé)

Courtesy of O’Brother Distribution

Sam Mendes’ recent film “1917” is impressive, but the film being told in all one take seems purposeless, more of a marketing gimmick than anything. While not all of “Climax” is one take, there is an actual purpose behind the continuous movement of the camera. French extremist Gaspar Noé has created a film with incredibly harsh and psychological standings. As a film that depicts the horrors of bad trips on psychedelics, “Climax” succeeds in an extraordinary fashion.

4. Parasite (Bong Joon-Ho)

Courtesy of Neon

Bong Joon-Ho brings more commentary on classism to the table with “Parasite”. Joon-Ho pulls out all of his tricks in “Parasite”. The film is erupting with ideas, subtexts, and themes that all hit remarkably. In many ways, the film also makes a statement on corruption by reversing the status quo: instead of rich people corrupting innocent poor people, the film tells itself the other way around. The film achieves all this while at the same time telling an accessible, mainstream narrative.

3. The Irishman (Martin Scorsese)

Courtesy of Netflix

Martin Scorsese and Robert DeNiro reflect upon their collaborations together in “The Irishman”. This three and a half hour mobster epic feels like a continuation of Scorsese’s gangster films, with all the humor and nuances of his previous films. Mature and threatening, “The Irishman” is nuts and bolts gangster storytelling.

2. Honeyland (Ljubomir Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska)

Courtesy of Neon

It is certainly debatable on whether or not we should call “Honeyland” a documentary. The film is a visually and narratively beautiful depiction of a lower-class woman and a struggling family both competing to sell their honey. As the modern world outside of this Mediterranean climate creates honey in a more practical way, they both struggle to keep their heads above water. The film stands back and creates a respectful view of the beauty in the lives of people society normally casts aside.

1. An Elephant Sitting Still (Hu Bo)

Courtesy KitSim

This is the first and last film from writer turned director Hu Bo. After his tragic suicide at such a young age, the film was released in its full four hour artistry. Shadows of Bo’s potential to be a master filmmaker are found in every area of “An Elephant Sitting Still”. In the crumbling economic infrastructure of rural class China, Hu Bo tells a story that is divine and sagacious. Even a masterfully emerging visual style is found in “An Elephant Sitting Still”. This is one of the most depressed, hopeless films ever made. This is a lost masterpiece.

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