In terms of what films I personally enjoyed the most, this was a weird year for me. I genuinely like a lot of films that are being nearly universally hailed as some of the best of the year, and some of them I would go so far as saying I love, but when I formulated this top ten list I found that few of them rose to the level of emotional impact that I felt necessary to make the cut. I suppose that’s the difference between visceral enjoyment and respect for craft, and art is ultimately what speaks to your gut more than speaks to your head. So if you don’t see one of the big Best Picture contenders on this list, pretend the list has an eleventh slot and that your preferred film sits there. You probably aren’t too far off (unless it’s Joker), and I’d much rather use this space to shine a light on films that might not get it elsewhere, though there are certainly some common favorites in here as well.
See? I’m not completely pretentious!
10. The Art of Self-Defense (d. & w. Riley Stearns)
The Art of Self-Defense seemingly came out of nowhere with its deadpan, searing take on toxic masculinity, and it instantly became one of my favorite films of 2019. Jesse Eisenberg’s trademark dweebishness is cranked up as high as it can go in an allegorical tale of being beaten down by a culture that only accepts one kind of masculinity, only for that masculinity to be a sham that only harms those that adhere to it, particularly women like Imogen Poots’ Anna who want to achieve the same level of recognition as their masculine counterparts. The darkness of its satire does nothing to detract from the absurdity of its presentation, but it’s just real enough that you know writer-director Riley Stearns ain’t fucking around. Much like the legendarily fatal single-finger punch, there’s more to The Art of Self-Defense than is first apparent on the surface.
9. Doctor Sleep (d. & w. Mike Flanagan)
Not being one of BMD’s biggest Stephen King fans, or even the biggest fan of Kubrick’s The Shining, I wasn’t expecting Mike Flanagan’s take on Doctor Sleep to hit me as hard as it did. But lo and behold, this seemingly blatant cash-grab sequel to one of the most iconic films of the twentieth century is actually steeped in a nearly overwhelming amount of subtext pertaining to loss, regret, alcoholism, and generational trauma. Ewan McGregor’s performance as adult Dan Torrance is heartbreaking, Kyliegh Curran is a breakout young star as Abra, and Rebecca Ferguson steals the show as the deliciously villainous Rose the Hat. It’s a moody film that pays tribute to what came before while contemplating what it means to build upon the faults of the past. We probably did cinema a great disservice by not turning out to see this one in theaters.
8. Booksmart (d. Olivia Wilde, w. Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel, Katie Silberman)
I wouldn’t have expected a female Superbad riff to have made this list at the beginning of the year, but hot damn if Booksmart doesn’t deliver where it counts. A touching and hopeful look at the world of Gen Z students as they enter adulthood, a hilarious take on the necessity of a life outside of one’s work and goals, a vehicle for Billie Lourd to completely run away with every other scene: whichever of these stuck with you the most, it doesn’t matter. This is a wildly imaginative and completely sincere buddy comedy that embraces queer normalcy and unironic feminism while remaining sharp and funny enough for those messages to be taken for granted.
7. The Farewell (d. & w. Lulu Wang)
Lulu Wang’s autobiographical story of love and sacrifice is one of the most heartwarming and heartbreaking films of the year. It’s a story about the secrets we keep and the reasons we keep them from the ones we love. Awkwafina demonstrates dramatic chops on par with her comedic ones, and Zhao Shuzhen is hypnotically loveable as her seemingly oblivious, but by no means stupid, grandmother recently diagnosed with cancer. The Farewell is about the conflict of secretly shouldering familial burden, even when honesty would let the person tasked with that secret assuage their guilt for pretending. Steeped in cultural and generational conflict, this is a film without easy answers, and the final shots are all the more devastating for the family you grew to love in the meantime.
6. The Dead Don’t Die (d. & w. Jim Jarmusch)
This will probably be the most controversial entry on this list, but you know what? Go make your own list. This one’s mine! The Dead Don’t Die is relentlessly deadpan, antagonistic to its audience, entirely blunt about its climate change metaphor, and it quite frankly doesn’t give a damn what you have to say about it. And that’s why I love it. This mean-spirited little deconstruction of zombie genre parable somehow gets away with being anti-consumerist while celebrating the kinds of fandom that give rise to consumerism. It’s a film that argues for our demise while offering a glimmer of subtextual hope for the future. It’s a movie that is purposely alienating if you aren’t on its specific wavelength. But I’m on that wavelength. Deal with it.
5. The Nightingale (d. & w. Jennifer Kent)
I struggled with whether I wanted to put The Nightingale on this list, purely because I’m not sure I’ll ever be inclined to revisit this intense, traumatic film. But I can’t in good conscience fail to recognize that Jennifer Kent’s sophomore feature is a work of extreme and terrible beauty, not only depicting the horrors of sexual assault and racist colonialism, but keeping firmly focused on the emotion of the horrific events it portrays rather than exploiting those events for entertainment value. A sustained perspective of pain can do much more than a brief shot of what’s causing that pain, and because of that, Kent’s film feels like a two-hour anxiety attack, where trauma builds upon trauma until the antagonistic main characters are humbled to relying on one another to survive their psychic scars.
4. Uncut Gems (d. Josh Safdie and Benny Safdie, w. Josh Safdie, Benny Safdie, and Ronald Bronstein)
But speaking of anxiety attacks, boy did Uncut Gems land like a big mean sack of bricks. Adam Sandler’s Howard Ratner is one of the most fascinating protagonists in recent memory, breaking down what it means to be not just a gambling addict, but an addict to every toxic impulse one has. You may not know someone like this, but you get the impression that Sandler and the Safdies do, and this bizarre idiosyncratic story featuring Kevin Garnett (who proves to be a decent actor in his own right) becoming obsessed with a stone he believes to contain magic properties is home to one of the best character deconstructions of the decade. This is scream-at-the-screen cinema, and no amount of foresight makes the inevitable course of Howard’s life any less distressing.
3. Us (d. & w. Jordan Peele)
Jordan Peele continues to be one of the preeminent horror masters of the modern age, and he’s only two films into his extremely promising career. Us might be much more ambitiously messy than Get Out, but it turns out to be even more rewarding with layers of double meaning and subtext on the American dream that only become more disturbing the more you ponder it. And you’re going to want to ponder it, as this is the rare film that encourages and aggressively rewards repeat viewings, propelled by a whole cast of double performances and cements Lupita Nyong’o in particular as one of the greatest actresses of our time. Peele’s now-trademark marriage of comedic undertones to socially-conscious horror beats makes for a film you’ll want to keep coming back to in the years to come.
2. The Lighthouse (d. Robert Eggers, w. Robert Eggers and Max Eggers)
The reason I think I like The Lighthouse so much is that there are seemingly endless ways to approach this eldritchian horror story about two men trapped on an island. Maybe it’s a tale of intergenerational angst. Maybe it’s a story of lost and found identities and toxic masculinity. Maybe it’s a class-conscious narrative that deconstructs the employer-employee relationship. Maybe it’s a psychosexual love story. Maybe it’s just about a disturbed guy who really wants to punch seagulls and fuck mermaids. I don’t entirely know. I don’t entirely care. I just love hearing Willem Dafoe spout a paragraphs-long nautical curse at Robert Pattinson for being ungrateful about his cooking. I just love it, okay?
1. Knives Out (d. & w. Rian Johnson)
Knives Out is the most fun I’ve had at the movies in a long while, and I mean that both in the narrative and subtextually meaty sense. Rian Johnson not only managed to smuggle a Hitchcockian thriller in the guise of an Agatha Christie locked-door mystery while demonstrating mastery of both genre stylings, he did so with one of the most memorable and complexly despicable casts of characters he could have assembled. Layer that even further with a stealth pro-immigration narrative wrapped in some of the funniest dialogue of any film this year, and Knives Out stands out from the crowd just for how much it seeks to accomplish and how much it actually does. It’s harder than it looks to marry fun with introspection, but Knives Out does it so seemingly effortlessly that it makes you want to hold other twisty mystery narratives to a higher standard.