Flavorwire's Top 25 Films of 2019

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I’ve been making this list for this site for eight years now (look it up!) and I can’t recall it ever being harder to make – or easier. It was harder in the sense that 2019 was an incredibly strong year for new movies, especially for a soft touch like me, and I could’ve easily penned a list with twice as many films I unreservedly recommend. But it was easier because the top five slid into place with nary a second thought; no matter the high quality of so much of this year’s work, these films were (to these eyes) clearly the best of the best. You may disagree! But these are the films I’ve been unable to get out of my head:

25. “Hustlers”

STXfilms

Some of the most potent of political cinema smuggles its messaging in, dazzling us with flash and style and energy (and, yes, J-Lo quaking to “Criminal”) and then jabbing the knife when we least expect it. Writer/director Lorene Scafaria takes this to its extreme, knocking us out with skin and neon and cash and platinum, and delivering the punch with perhaps the best closing line of the year: “This city, this whole country, is a strip club. You've got people tossing the money… and people doing the dance.” (Now available on demand.)

24. “The Farewell”

Casi Moss/A24

No institution provides more (or richer) fodder for the contemporary filmmaker than the woes of family. Writer/director Lulu Wang’s friskily funny and enchantingly melancholy comedy/drama dramatized the offhand intimacy and casual deceptions of the modern family with grace and wit, with the added bonus of handing Awkwafina the kind of “surprising depth” role most comic actors have to wait a good decade for. (Now available on demand.)

23. “Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins”

Molly Ivins Collection, Briscoe Archives/Magnolia Pictures

The proud Texan and political commentator has been gone for a dozen years now, and the mind boggles at what could’ve been – at what the fiercest and funniest critic of the Bush boys and other Republican snake oil salesman would’ve made of the current administration. Thankfully, director Janice Engel helps us imagine; in addition to the (very good) straight-forward bio-doc elements of her film, Engel finds quotes and snippets from Ivins’s work that match up with contemporary images a bit too easily. Those moments remind us of the incisiveness of her wit, and of her proper place as a timeless commentator of the Will Rogers and Mark Twain school. (Now available on demand.)

22. “Luce”

Jon Pack/NEON

The films that matter these days, the ones that rise above the din of explosions and roaring engines, are those willing to have uncomfortable conversations – about who we are, how we act, and how we got there. Director Julius Onah and screenwriter J C Lee (adapting his play) aren’t afraid of those conversations; in fact, they revel in them, and this is one of the more anxiety-inducing motion pictures in a year loaded with them. And between this and “Waves,” it’s becoming very clear that Kelvin Harrison Jr. is a rare talent indeed. (Now available on demand.)

21. “Diane”

IFC Films

Mary Kay Place is one of those character actors who’s been doing work so good, for so long, that it’s easy to take her for granted. Writer/director Kent Jones ensured we won’t anymore with this penetrating character study, providing Place with a rare leading role as a nice retired lady whose story is a bit more complicated than it seems. (Now streaming on Hulu.)

20. “The Souvenir”

Agatha A. Nitecka / A24

Toxic relationships get a fair amount of discussion and dramatization in our culture, but it’s rare to see one brought to life with as much richness and depth as writer/director Joanna Hogg does here. It helps, of course, to have two actors this superb; Honor Swinton Byrne conveys the combination of neurosis and intelligence that would lead a woman like this to the point she's at, while Tom Burke puts across, in scene after scene, both why she would stay with him, and why she shouldn’t. (Now streaming on Amazon Prime.)

19. “Burning Cane”

ARRAY Releasing

It’s the origin story of the year: writer/director Phillip Youmans was all of 17 years old when he began work on this moody, bluesy story of sin and redemption in the contemporary south; at 19, it won multiple awards at the Tribeca Film Festival and a distribution deal with Ava DuVernay’s ARRAY. That someone that young could even make a professional feature is impressive; that it would be this haunting, this vivid, and this alive is a miracle. (Now streaming on Netflix.)

18. “The Last Black Man in San Francisco”

A24

Co-writer/director Joe Talbot made no less an impressive debut with this sprawling, elegiac, and absurdly funny story of gentrification, historical revisionism, and makeshift family in the Bay Area (quickly becoming a hotspot for innovative, provocative filmmaking). Talbot’s eye is distinctive – it’s a film of gorgeous compositions and memorable juxtapositions – but he’s a storyteller first, and the tenderness and quirkiness of the relationship at the film’s center (between Jonathon Majors and co-writer Jimmie Fails) is both charming and complex. (Now streaming on Amazon Prime.)

17. “High Flying Bird”

Peter Andrews / Netflix

Only Steven Soderbergh would go off and make a sports movie with no sports in it, but that’s what he does here, and brilliantly. “Moonlight” scribe Tarell Alvin McCraney set his fast, smart screenplay during an NBA lockout, stripping that league (and pro sports in general) to its basics: a business that deals in the value and commodification of human beings. The result is an entertaining and thought-provoking shot across the bow of capitalism, with yet another movie-star turn by the great André Holland. (Now streaming on Netflix.)

16. “Little Women”

Wilson Webb/CTMG, Inc.

I’ll own it: I was initially a little bummed to hear that Greta Gerwig was following up the triumph of Lady Bird with yet another film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic. Hadn’t we seen that enough? It turned out, we hadn’t seen one quite like this – playful, noisy, rowdy, and sharp-edged, as much a work of literary criticism as literary adaptation. It does what the very best of all film retoolings do: it merges the sensibility of the original work and the filmmaker, blurring them to a point where each one's influence on the work is indistinct from the other. (Opens in theaters Christmas Day.)

15. “Knives Out”

Claire Folger/Lionsgate

Few films this year were as flat-out, straight-up entertaining – fast, fleet, funny, and unpredictable – as Rian Johnson’s manor house murder mystery, which takes the dusty conventions of such frivolities and turns them inside out. He makes fine use of one of the year’s best casts, but special praise is warranted for Ana de Armas’s star-making turn as the surprise heroine, and Daniel Craig doing the best fake Southern accent since, well, Daniel Craig in Logan Lucky. (Now playing in theaters.)

14. “Mike Wallace is Here”

Magnolia Pictures

Part of making a list like this is owning your soft spots, so let’s just put this out there: there are few things on this earth admire more than a present-tense documentary, the somewhat-in-vogue-lately subset of nonfiction filmmaking that tosses away two of the biggest crutches of the form – voice-of-God narration and present-day talking-head interviews – to tell its story purely through archival footage. Avi Belkin’s bio-doc is the first of two such films on this list, detailing the career of television’s eminent newsman solely through interviews (both those he sat for and those he conducted) and various ephemera (pre-rolls, outtakes, etc.) It doesn’t sound like it should work. It works magnificently, a classic case of medium merging with message, showing us both the man Wallace wanted to present to the world, and the more complicated figure underneath. (Now streaming on Hulu.)

13. “Honey Boy”

Amazon Studios

Alma Har’el has been one to watch for a while now, an innovative filmmaker playing at the crossroads of narrative and documentary. She was thus a smart choice for longtime booster Shia LaBeouf’s therapeutic screenplay, based on his years as a child actor, his damaging relationship with his father, and his struggles as a young adult. Har’el keeps the material from creeping into the realms of treacle and self-indulgence, even with LaBeouf risking both by playing the part of his own father. It’s a chilling performance – and a powerful, moving picture. (Now playing in theaters.)

12. “The Report”

Atsushi Nishijima/Amazon Studios

Scott Z. Burns’s screenplays for Steven Soderbergh (including Contagion and The Informant!) were the kind of sharp, intelligent, quietly furious acts of protest that are increasingly rare in mainstream entertainment. His directorial debut is in the same vein, detailing analyst Daniel J. Jones’s work on the Senate Intelligence Committee’s Report on the CIA Detention and Torture Program, and the attempts by those it indicted to bury it. A first-rate investigative thriller, with an even trickier piece of acting by Adam Driver than Marriage Story, in which we watch this patient, methodical man's slow fuse turn into a live wire. (Now streaming on Amazon Prime.)

11. “Ad Astra”

Francois Duhamel/20th Century Fox

Writer/director James Gray (whose The Immigrant has been suspiciously missing from all those best-of-the-decade lists) makes a star-driven sci-fi movie, but you can’t take the art out of the art filmmaker, and thank God for that. He turns Brad Pitt’s mission into deepest space into a personal journey, as a man comes face to face with the father who abandoned him, but left his most unfortunate remnants in his son’s soul. It’s both dazzling and elusive, and Pitt’s reading of three simple words (“I know, Dad”) may be the single most heartbreaking moment of cinema this year. (Now available on demand.)

10. “Her Smell”

Gunpowder & Sky

By turns raw and exhausting, ebullient and maddening, lyrical and roughhouse, Alex Ross Perry’s five-act surgical examination of an impossible genius is a film of nerve-jangling energy and emotional nudity. Elisabeth Moss has never been better (and that’s certainly saying something); Ross’s messy style has never been more effective. I’d have never guessed a Bryan Adams song would move me to tears, which may tell you everything you need to know about the power Perry and Moss are wielding here. (Now available on demand.)

9. “Parasite”

NEON

Bong Joon-ho brings his class warfare sensibility to the con artist comedy, and comes up with one of his spikiest works to date. His sense of film rhythm is peerless, Hitchockian really; he juggles his varying tones and threads with such grace and ease, it’s easy to be lulled into complacency. And then he clobbers you. The clobbering of Parasite’s climax is the kind of organized chaos that would wobble most filmmakers – yet Bong barely breaks a sweat, bringing this one home with vividness and verve. (Now playing in theaters.)

8. “Fast Color”

Jacob Yakob/Codeblack Films.

The year’s only great superhero movie was probably the only one you didn’t hear about, and that’s a shame. It may not be a superhero movie at all; this story of three generations of women reuniting and harnessing their telekinetic abilities in a vaguely post-apocalyptic American Southwest is a character-driven indie drama first and a tale of heroism (and special effects) second, and a distant second at that. It’s disarmingly emotional and endlessly absorbing, and that’s more than I can say for any of the Marvel movies we all sat through this year. (Now streaming on Hulu.)

7. “Uncut Gems”

Julieta Cervantes/A24

Everything is just a lot to deal with these days, and there may no film that better captured the relentless too-much-idness of it all than the Safdie Brothers’ glorious throwback to the scuzzy New York movies of yore. Adam Sandler is a revelation as a diamond dealer with a gambling/cheating/general responsibility problem, and the Safdies surround him with a motley crew of weirdos, first-timers, and character actors. It’s a smashing movie, intoxicating and eccentric - a culmination of everything these filmmakers have done so far, and a promise of how much more they’re capable of. (Now playing in theaters.)

6. “Pain and Glory”

Manolo Pavón/El Deseo and Sony Pictures Classic

A towering, lyrical work of sublime pleasure from Pedro Almodóvar, and one of his most personal – concerning, as it does, a filmmaker in what is usually and politely dubbed the “late period.” The Almodóvar avatar is here played by his longtime star Antonio Banderas, in what is easily the year’s finest performance; the things Banderas is doing, in his eyes and on his face, as he watches his long-lost love walk away from his door are simply staggering. And Almodóvar is a director who knows he can hold on that face for as long as he likes. This is the work of two master artists, both working at the absolute height of their powers. (Now playing in theaters.)

5. “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”

Andrew Cooper/Sony Pictures

Quentin Tarantino says he’s only directing one more movie, and maybe he’s right (though let’s not forget Steven Soderbergh’s “retirement” from feature filmmaking back in 2013). If so, it’s sort of surprising this is his penultimate picture rather than his swan song, so steeped is it in affection for Hollywood – both as a concept and a geographic location. And that affection is undeniable; it’s right there on the screen in the attention paid to details of production design, costuming, history, and paraphernalia. He and his team build a living, breathing world for these characters to dwell and work and joke and screw around in, and while he’s made better films than this one, I’m not sure he’s made one so endlessly rewatchable. You just want to hang out with these people, in this town, at this time, and when it’s over, you want to hang out with them some more. (Now available on demand.)

4. “Apollo 11”

NEON / CNN Films

The second present tense documentary on this list, the best documentary of the year, and some of the finest editing this year in any film, of any kind. It’s not just that it takes such technical precision and mastery of technique to make one of the most-told tales of modern history seem fresh and exciting; it’s that Apollo 11 is so well done, so sharply cut and masterfully scored, that there are sequences where the filmmakers build suspense out of situations whose outcomes are why we’re watching the movie in the first place. It’s an astonishing feat of filmmaking prowess, and a blast to watch on top of that. (Now streaming on Hulu.)

3. “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”

NEON

Céline Sciamma’s period drama is one of the most intensely erotic films in recent memory, but not because it’s graphic or explicit. In fact, quite the contrary. Its eroticism comes from how its protagonists circle each other, for the better part of an hour –how they relate in the aftermath of their initial encounters encounters, and the operatic emotions that erupt from the story’s quiet beginnings. Sciamma doesn’t even use a score, so it’s a movie so quiet you can hear these characters breathe, and, more significantly, hear when those breaths get heavy. This is not a film about sex, but something much rarer and sexier: it’s a film about intimacy, and longing, and letting go. (Back in theaters February 14.)

2. “Marriage Story”

Wilson Webb/Netflix

Noah Baumbach’s most emotionally open picture to date, and his best, clearly inspired by his own separation from Jennifer Jason Leigh and thus pulsing with the pain and bleak comedy of lived experience. In taking his specific experience and addressing it so honestly, Baumbach has performed a tiny miracle: he’s made the confessional universal. It’s a wonderful movie, loaded with moments of tiny truth and emotional devastation, and this is probably the best work we’ve seen yet from Johansson and Driver. (Now streaming on Netflix.)

1. “The Irishman”

Niko Tavernise/Netflix

Some of the year’s best films found our most acclaimed filmmakers making, essentially, closing arguments – summaries of ongoing concerns and thematic motifs, tempered by an acute awareness of their own looming mortality. Almodóvar gave us Pain and Glory, Tarantino gave us Once Upon a Time, but none felt more like a director writing his own obituary (or, to use a scene from the work itself, picking out his own coffin) than Martin Scorsese’s elegiac death rattle, which came billed as a years-in-the-making gangster super-movie and turned out to be something closer to a Eugene O’Neill chamber piece. Robert De Niro is terrific as a mob enforcer whose lifetime of casual crimes and unapologetic tough stuff lead him to a job he does not want, a trigger he cannot pull, but must. Al Pacino is ferocious and funny as Jimmy Hoffa, chewing up these big speeches but turning into a big pussycat around the people he cares about, perhaps to his detriment. And Joe Pesci is stunning as a boss of quiet power, a man who never raises his voice – in other words, the kind of character we’ve rarely seen him play. Scorsese is, simply, a modern master, and this is one of his finest works. (Now streaming on Netflix.)