Best Movies of 2019

I started with a plan to make a Top 10 list, but that felt a little limiting. So I expanded to 15. Then to 25. Then I scaled it back to 20. Then back to 15 again. Finally, I went back to 20. I was just as firm in choosing the movies on my list. The real problem is that if I cut it at 20, there were two or three movies I wanted to talk about as much as the three or four in front of them that would miss the list. If I cut it at 15, the same would be true. So I landed on 20 movies for my best of the year list. I didn’t really expand it because this was an especially good movie year, it was fine, but because I saw a lot of movies this year and I really want to talk about some of them. So here is my list, with links to written reviews if I have one:

20. Toy Story 4:

This one kept falling as I adjusted my list, and I am not sure that is entirely fair. As I came to the end this list making process, Toy Story 4 essentially fell out of my Top 20. I really liked the movie. I don’t think the people I’ve heard call it the best Toy Story are crazy, but thinking on it half a year later, I don’t know that it quite stacks up for me. Still, its a real good movie.

19. The Two Popes:

I just saw this, so it might rise or fall in my estimation in the next couple of weeks, but right now it is just clinging to the list. I really liked the scenes where Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins are debating the direction to take the church and what is necessary to be a good priest or cardinal or pope. The rest of it is fine, just not as riveting as those scenes. Netflix had a heck of a year and this is one of their better ones.

18. Ready or Not:

This one has really grown on me since I’ve seen it. Its horror trappings almost kept me from going to see it, but I am glad I did. Just a winning performance from Samara Weaving, and several other strong performances throughout the cast. Lots of well staged action, humor that mostly hits its mark and gore that is sure to please whoever it is there to please. This movie deserves to be seen by more people. Knives Out hits a lot of the same notes; the two would make a great double feature.

17. The Breaker Upperers:

This is a fun little New Zealand comedy from early this year about a pair of women who run a business helping people break up with their partners. It slips in just conversational weirdness with some real strange, bigger moments that are almost all funny. It manages to catch you off guard, like when the protagonists visit one of their mothers and slip away to the bathroom to steal her cocaine. The situation is weird enough, but every detail added is stranger and funnier. This movie is a lot of fun and needs more people to pay attention to it.

16. Klaus:

A Netflix produced, Christmas themed, animated movie in the style of Disney movies. The plot and the story are good, a solid little Christmas movie. It is generally a fun world to enter for the 90 or so minutes the movie lasts. What really sets it above others is how gorgeous the animation is. It is like if Disney kept putting their resources into traditional animation instead of switching to CG. Basically, everything about this movie works. It really is worth the watch and will likely be in the Christmas rotation for years to come.

15. The Standoff At Sparrow Creek:

This is a solid little thriller. After a shooting, a militia group meets up to find that it was committed by someone in their group. Without knowing who was responsible, they lock down their headquarters and try to find the guilty party, hoping that by making it clear the rest of them had nothing to do with it, they won’t be in trouble. Of course, all of them have secrets. And out hero seems more interested in finding a scapegoat than the real party responsible. It is tense and entertaining.

14. The King:

I don’t quite know why this movie worked so well for me. It loses some of the best things from its Shakespearean sources, like Falstaff being an enjoyable character, but doesn’t do so in the name of being more historically accurate. Still, the story it tells of Prince Hal’s transformation into King Henry V, and the isolation of being the King I found very entertaining. This movie is for me.

13. Ad Astra:

Sad Dad in space. This movie is cold and haunting. Beautiful, but distant. It doesn’t quite bring everything home as well as one could hope, but the first two thirds are some of the best stuff I saw in a theater in 2019.

12. Missing Link:

I am a little late to the Laika love, having only really starting to pay attention after Kubo and the Two Strings. Their movies, in general, are criminally underseen. Missing Link, which bombed at the box office, might be the most overlooked. It is about a disrespected adventurer, Sir Lionel Frost, who meets up with a Bigfoot, Susan, who wants to find a place he belongs with more of his own kind. This sets them off on a world spanning adventure, as they evade hunters who want to catch Susan, as well as a former flame of Lionel’s, Adelina, from whom they stole a map. The whole thing is beautiful and heartwarming.

11. Jojo Rabbit:

This movie sets itself up a delicate balancing act and mostly pulls it off. I think it did a good job of making humor out of a terrible situation, but not trivializing the subject. I found it very heartfelt and charming. I really bought into the Jojo’s personal journey from being an outcast kid who believed some vile stuff to a thinking person. It is also just really funny, which you know, is good in a comedy.

10. The Man Who Killed Don Quixote:

I really wish Terry Gilliam hadn’t been showing his ass in the news lately, so I could feel better about championing his long gestating passion project. The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is about a man who played Don Quixote in a movie thinking he really is Don Quixote, and recruiting the director who made that movie to be his Sancho Panza as that director tries to get him help. Adam Driver plays the director as a man who has lost sight of his passion and is oblivious to the wreckage he leaves in his wake. It is a movie about chasing your dreams, even if others think you are crazy. It is kind of a mess. It is the quintessential Terry Gilliam movie. I loved it.

9. High Flying Bird:

Basically, the whole gimmick of this movie is that it is a sports movie that goes out of its way to never show any sports. It ends up playing like a heist movie, with agent Ray manipulating everything to try to end a lockout and get his clients, especially rookie Erick playing and paid. It is really entertaining.

8. John Wick 3:

The John Wick series continues to be just masterclasses of action movies. This one gets even deeper into the arcane mythology of this world. It also delivers three or four of the best action scenes of the year. Really, there is little not to like about it. The only flaw I can point to is that I don’t know that it is better than either of the previous two movies. That really isn’t a flaw; it is really just a sign of how great the movies are. I didn’t much like the ending twist, though. More in a I wish that didn’t happen way than a that didn’t make sense way.

7. Shazam:

I was really afraid this movie wouldn’t hold up. I loved it early in the year, but kind of thought that a revisit would damper my enthusiasm. However, I watched with my family at Thanksgiving and it is still great. There are a few moments where the tone kind of gets away from it, like the boardroom scene, but otherwise it is the closest we’ve gotten to an Amblin superhero movie.

6. The Laundromat:

I might be the only person that likes this movie. I don’t get its complete dismissal. It packages complex financial maneuvering into a package that anyone can understand, making essentially an economics lesson entertaining. I loved the bits with Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas, I liked the parts with Meryl Streep. It was entertaining and infuriating.

5. Booksmart:

A lot of people just wrote this off as Superbad, but with girls. While there are similarities, people graduating this year were in kindergarten when Superbad came out. And honestly, Booksmart is the better movie. This is centered around great performances by Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein, but Billie Lourd steals every scene she is in. It is a surprisingly human movie, showing all of these high school kids as full people and not just one note stereotypes. Plus, it is really funny.

4. The Irishman:

The Irishman is long and contemplative and mostly a downer. It is also eminently watchable. The movie works to tear down the mafia mythology Scorsese built up in movies like Goodfellas and Casino. The de-aging special effects are effective if overblown. It is great to Joe Pesci again. This is just a great movie.

3. Once Upon a Time . . . In Hollywood:

This one stands out in Tarantino’s filmography. It is less pulpy, less violent than most of his other movies. It is thoughtful; with fading star Rick Dalton looking back on his career and the movie looking back on a Hollywood that died right at the time the movie is taking place. It is a world on the cusp of change. Even with the movie giving everyone a happy ending, it is clear that the world they live in will not last much longer. This is the perfect hangout movie.

2. Parasite:

A wild, wild movie. Parasite starts as one thing and just sort of seamlessly changes into something else two or three times. It highlights societal problems without really vilifying any of the people involved. Still, there are certainly “good guys” and “bad guys” but they are all people. It is heartbreaking and hilarious. Parasite is simply an amazing experience.

1. Knives Out:

Yeah, this movie is very much for me. Great cast, great performances. A classic murder mystery that also manages to find some twists withing that set up. The movie just keeps the viewer guessing the whole time and never stoops to cheating. It might keep secrets of who knows what and who did what, but in all of its pulling the wool over the viewers eyes and rug out from under their feet, the movie never lies. It is just not always clear what you are seeing. This is a movie that will be in heavy rewatch rotation for years to come.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

 

The Rise of Skywalker had a tough task, especially after Disney announced that it was going to be the last film in what they are calling the Skywalker saga. I am not here to write about how this movie fits into the overall Star Wars story; I am planning that post for a later date, after I have had more time to digest this and maybe see it again. I am also not here to relitigate The Last Jedi, which for the record is the best movie since the original trilogy, no contest. I am merely attempting to review the movie itself. All the other stuff is important and it is nearly impossible to separate this movie from ‘what this movie means’ but for the next few hundred words I am going to attempt to do that.

The Rise of Skywalker opens with the reveal that Emperor Palpatine is still alive (alive again? Its not clear). He has been hiding on a Sith planet called Exegol, building a new fleet of Star Destroyers and secretly controlling the first order from the shadows. A spy in the First Order gets this information to the Resistance, and our heroes set off to find the hidden planet and put an end to Palpatine and the First Order for good.

If I had to describe The Rise of Skywalker in just a few words, I would call it frantic and desperate. This is a movie that seems to be unable to stop for a second to breath or contemplate. Maybe because it knows that the house of cards that is its plot would completely collapse. JJ Abrams remains great at manufacturing excitement. The gang rushes from one catastrophe to the next, from one giant set piece into another, from one revelation to the next. There is no time for things to settle. For the most part, it works in the moment. Then there is the sheer amount of fan service. This movie remains as determined as The Force Awakens to remind the viewer of the original trilogy, even at the expense of telling its own story. That gives the whole thing a feeling of sweaty desperation, that that greatest fear of the people behind this movie is that the viewer might not like it.

One thing the movie does that is absolutely great is that, for the first half of the movie, keeps the central trio of Rey, Finn and Poe together. In the previous two movies, the main characters spent precious little time interacting with each other. Part of that was due to how many characters these movies have tried to juggle, adding characters from the original trilogy with plenty of newcomers. Here, we finally get to see how these characters interact with each other. It is a lot of fun.

Where it started to fall apart for me is when the movie did slow down a little and you could see how empty it was. Mostly, the movie plays the hits. Bits from Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi show up. Most of the revelations with Palpatine fell completely flat for me. Kylo Ren’s fate felt underserved, an echo of the past that was not really rooted in some character decision.

I can’t say the fan service didn’t work on me. I teared up a little with Leia’s exit. I loved to see Lando and that brief glimpse of Wedge. New characters, like Zori Bliss, were fun, though I hated to see Rose Tico get sidelined. The ending, which was easy to predict as soon as they announced the title for the movie, worked wonderfully.

The Rise of Skywalker is a movie that is trying very hard to please, to be everything its fans want it to be. The problem is that it doesn’t really have any ideas; all it has is a love of the past. So it trots out things you seen before, maybe gives them a little twist, and shows them to you again. Don’t you remember when the Death Star destroyed Alderaan? Here that destroys another planet. Remember that moment from A New Hope when Han Solo came back and saved Luke during the trench run? What if it wasn’t one ship but hundreds? It can delight in moments, but there is nothing hiding how empty everything is. But it tries so hard.

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