The end of the decade brought us one of the best in recent years for movies. With the Academy Awards coming up in just a few weeks, it’s a great time to look back at the incredible 2019 in films.
There was everything last year from unforgettable ensemble casts to the grandest of superhero blockbusters and high-octane indie films starring Adam Sandler.
The growing presence of Netflix especially has been impressive, collaborating with the likes of Martin Scorsese and achieving the best of 24 Oscar nods. A few notable foreign-language films also managed to reach a wide audience and enjoy much global acclaim.
Here are some of our favorite movies released last year that you should check out. A few are still in theatres or available on streaming platforms.
Honorable Mentions: Uncut Gems, Little Women, Midsommar, The Farewell
- The Irishman
A mob epic for the ages. With the help of specially-made de-aging software, Scorsese crafts a gangster drama that covers a period of over 50 years. Clocking in at a hefty three and a half hours, the Netflix film really comes together in the final hour to form a melancholic tale of regret, loyalty, and mortality. Surprisingly this is Al Pacino’s first-ever appearance in a Scorsese film. Feels, somewhat sadly, like one last hoorah for the legendary collaboration of the master director with mainstays Pesci and De Niro. They deliver yet another riveting ride in the gangster genre that they have totally made their own.
- Marriage Story
The title of the second Netflix film on this list is quite ironic. Marriage Story details the story of a divorce and how a couple navigates the end of their relationship. Noah Baumbach wrote and directed this heartbreaking drama which features fantastic work from both Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson as the leads. The film does a terrific job of taking us through the perspectives of each partner and allowing us to empathize with them both. The remarkable realism of the story is what makes it so affecting, as it is sure to hit close to home for many viewers. Everything, from the understated score to the naturalistic dialogue and the blocking of each scene is executed to convey the story to perfection.
- The Lighthouse
The Lighthouse is a curious mix of horror, drama, fantasy and (even) comedy. Led by two sledgehammer performances from Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe, it depicts the descent into madness of two lighthouse keepers in the 1890s. This is promising young director Robert Eggers’ sophomore effort and he shines with this wholly original piece of cinema.
The brilliant stylistic choices create a unique atmosphere in which the film is grounded. The choice to shoot in black-and-white and an unusual aspect ratio (almost like a square) takes to us a world apart from our own. The sound design (with the ever-present, chilling fog horn) and the shooting on location at an isolated rock (battling the weather) help create a threatening mood.
Certainly not a film for everyone though. The story is very ambiguous; it’s easy to get confused in the chaos and uncertainty. It needs to be carefully considered to uncover the ideas and themes – particularly drawn from Greek mythology. Perhaps more than any other film on this list, The Lighthouse requires multiple viewings. In retrospect and in time this may be placed much nearer the top of this list.
- Knives Out
Everything you could ever wish for from a whodunit. Full of twists and turns that keep you second-guessing and enthralled throughout. A superb ensemble cast brings a colorful family to life. Daniel Craig and Chris Evans both play against-type to hilarious effect. And even beyond all the entertainment and thrills, Knives Out is layered and has something to say about class and privilege in society today. By and large, Rian Johnson’s refreshing murder mystery is guaranteed to be a fun time at the movies for just about anybody.
- Pain and Glory (Dolor y Gloria)
Legendary Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar presents a semi-autobiographical work that is as mature as it is moving. The deeply intimate story about an aging film-director deals with the life struggles of relationships, career, and identity – among other challenges. This wistful tale reflects on the protagonist’s childhood just as he makes several important encounters in the present. Each experience and interaction in Pain and Glory feel so real and visceral. It is also aesthetically pleasing – with each frame fantastically rich in color. Most striking of all is Antonio Banderas’s vulnerability in this role, making his performance incredibly touching and one of the best of the year (as well as his career). A film that truly stays with you.
Director Todd Phillips’ dark, gritty supervillain origin story brought something totally different to the comic-book genre. The downward spiral of the damaged Arthur Fleck into the iconic villain is captivating as well as convincing. Joaquin Phoenix carries the film with probably the finest performance of the year and deserves every bit of the awards recognition he has received. Certainly not shy of controversy, not many expected to see Joker pass a billion dollars at the global box office – becoming the highest-grossing R-rated film of all time.
See a full review here.
- Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is Quentin Tarantino’s love letter to Hollywood and the city of Los Angeles. The entire film is nostalgic for the lost era of Hollywood that he grew up with. The generally meandering plot and laid-back nature for the first couple of hours may be frustrating for some, yet manages to be so much fun if taken in stride. Three of the most watchable stars in Hollywood (Robbie, DiCaprio, and Pitt) make this all a treat regardless. Besides, just the feel and re-creation of 1969 LA is marvelous and can be appreciated through the many driving scenes – accompanied of course by a typically stellar sound-track. The final act returns to classic Tarantino fashion to make for a thrilling spectacle of a finale.
- Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is, in one word: exquisite. This 18th century period romance from France tells the story of a young woman hired to paint the portrait of a reluctant bride-to-be. A gradual bond eventually forms between the two women – painter and subject, turning into a heartbreaking love story. Celine Sciamma’s elegant direction guides this slow-burning yet inspired, cinematic tale. The film is a visual masterpiece, artfully constructed and gorgeously filmed. Both actresses (Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haene) deliver captivating, flawless performances in this powerful female-centric story.
- Avengers: Endgame
Martin Scorsese ignited some controversy for claiming that Marvel flicks aren’t really movies. Well, in the case of this particular film at least, he is absolutely right. Avengers: Endgame was a cinematic event, unlike any movie that we’ve ever seen. It brought the culmination of a series of 21 Marvel movies and countless comic-book characters in a blockbuster which has become the highest-grossing film of all time.
To be sure, Endgame is far from a perfect movie. In fact, its predecessor Infinity War was by all accounts a better film. Yet, the Russo brothers managed the formidable task of providing a satisfying finale to the beloved franchise. For millions of fans around the world, this was the end of a decade-long journey with characters and storylines that we’ve grown up with. As a result, it was able to reach emotional highs and lows that few other films could manage. Therefore, what this represents is a perfect MCU movie – and a fitting conclusion to the unforgettable saga.
The 2019 Palme D’or winner has been celebrated absolutely everywhere and for good reason. South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho has brought us this masterpiece which will surely be studied in film schools for years to come. The black comedy thriller depicts the infiltration of a wealthy Korean family by a clever, destitute family who manipulates their way into jobs in their household. The story offers important social commentary on class warfare as well as the potent themes of greed and ambition. It uses clever visual storytelling to craft a film that is utterly unique and original. This genre-bending tour de force leaves you all at once: enthralled, shocked, and pensive.
Bong Joon-ho said recently in his Golden Globes award speech: ”Once you overcome the one-inch barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” The triumph and achievement of Parasite prove this point most emphatically.