You could argue that this decade is ending with one of the strongest years in recent memory. What’s funny, though, is that at the halfway mark of 2019, I thought I’d struggle to find enough movies to make up a 10 Best list. Then, the back half of 2019 came roaring on like the proverbial Lion in Winter, and it turned out that some very impressive movies (like Parasite, Ford v Ferrari and the hysterical Dolemite is My Name) found themselves on the outside of my personal Top 10, looking in.
That’s what happens when unquestionable masters such as Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino put out masterpieces, joined by the likes of Sam Mendes, Noah Baumbach, Greta Gerwig and the Safdie Brothers. It was a great year for Marvel, and a solid year for a classic D.C. villain. But when your favorite movie of all time (Avengers: Endgame) gets dethroned in the race to discover the BEST movie of 2019, you just know that this is a crazy year.
So, without further ado, here are the 10 Best Movies of 2019, as chosen by yours truly, Sean O’Connell, the Managing Director of CinemaBlend.
10. Little Women
What an exquisite movie. And one that I never thought we needed, but damn, and I thrilled it exists. After the fresh and vibrant coming-of-age comedy Lady Bird, the last thing I wanted was for Greta Gerwig to attempt yet another adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s seminal novel.
And yet, the cast is pitch perfect, the approach to the material is lively and effervescent, and Gerwig shows immense poise for only a second-time director. To paraphrase the Rolling Stones, you don’t always get what you want from a filmmaker. But sometimes, you get what you need.
9. Uncut Gems
Uncut Gems triggers an age-old conversation I love having with cinephiles: How many times does a movie need to work? Because Benny and Josh Safdie’s tense and edgy Uncut Gems works so well the first time through, as Manhattan con man Howard (Adam Sandler) tries to stay ahead of all the people to which he owes money.
But the extremely effective tightrope walk loses a little steam on repeat viewings, only because the mystery of where Uncut Gems can go dissolves. I don’t blame the Safdies for that. Their movie is still a hell of a ride. But repeat viewings knocked this move from Top 5 for me to number nine. Still terrific.
The movie-musical biopic that should have gotten all of the attention that went to the tepid Bohemian Rhapsody last year. Dexter Fletcher’s Rocketman tells Sir Elton John’s story in all of its R-rated glory, putting an incredibly fresh spin on some notably dusty classics by embracing the fantasy aspect of the piano maestro’s journey.
The wild card is Taron Egerton, who is brilliant as the ivory-tickling superstar. He’s larger than life (as John is, himself) and does his own singing and dancing, leading to a few arrangements on the Rocketman soundtrack that I actually prefer to the original Elton John tunes (Your Song and Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting being two examples).
The first time through, I focused on the gimmick. It’s impossible not to, with all due respect to director Sam Mendes. But when you tell me that Mendes and genius cinematographer are making a WWI movie in one “continuous” take (with a few cheats), you HAVE to pay attention to the gimmick. And it’s mesmerizing.
But on a second viewing, I got completely caught up in the story of the two soldiers (Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay) tasked with delivering a message in time to prevent a military slaughter. And the storytelling craft of Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns overwhelmed the one-shot aspect of 1917. It was still spectacular (and I have no clue how Mendes and Deakins staged some of the masterful shots in this brilliant movie), but the human element caught up with the technical element, leading to one unforgettable movie.
According to DC Comics, the Joker has no origin. Which gave director Todd Philips and actor Joaquin Phoenix a blank slate to figure out how an individual would morph into the Crown Prince of Crime in Gotham City. Phillips’ realistically grungy interpretation of Gotham is a huge part of the reason why I love Joker. You believe this decrepit hell hole could birth both a Joker and a Batman, who finally tries to clean up these disgusting streets.
But Phoenix’s transformation from Arthur to Joker is what makes this comic-book origin story an all-timer, with an appropriately vague ending that will have you questioning how much the unreliable narrator is messing with your head the entire time. Joker is exactly the movie that the Joker deserves.
Trey Edward Shults’ Waves knocked me completely on my ass… in the best way possible. It’s essentially two separate movies, one about tragedy, and one about picking up the pieces after a disaster. But you don’t know where either story is going while you are in them, and the writer-director so seamlessly transitions between the two, you know you are watching a master at work.
The cast, from top to bottom, is amazing. And the best part is that they’re relative unknowns, with Kelvin Harrison Jr., Taylor Russell and Alexa Demie carrying the bulk of the dramatic load. Waves wins the imaginary prize for Most Captivated An Entire Audience Was During A Pivotal Scene. I’ll never forget the sound my crowd made during THAT moment in this movie.
4. Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood
Quentin Tarantino can’t ever retire. Not when he’s still making movies as layered, laid-back, riveting and introspective as Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. His best movie since Pulp Fiction, this film celebrates QT’s home town, and the industry that props up every player who comes to L.A. seeking fortune and recognition.
The results are as hopeful and distressing as you might imagine, with the parallel story of a rising starlet (Margot Robbie) and a fading star (Leonardo DiCaprio), while Tarantino also injects a brilliant commentary about male friendship, and the bonds shared between like-minded brothers. Everyone in the cast is at the absolute top of their game, and Tarantino is in no rush to get anywhere, giving Hollywood a lavish, luscious and leisurely pace that improves with each repeat viewing.
3. Marriage Story
Noah Baumbach’s heartwrenching look at a marriage slowly being chipped away at until all that’s left is the raw nerve. Baumbach writes from a place of emotional honesty, presenting a situation in which both parties are right… and wrong. And what begins as an amicable split gets more and more complicated – as these things often do.
Adam Driver is spectacular. Scarlett Johansson reminds us how good she can be when handed the right script. But Marriage Story stands shoulder to should with Kramer vs. Kramer by populating all of its crucial side characters with outstanding character actors (Ray Liotta, Laura Dern, Alan Alda) who knock every scene they are given out of the park.
2. Avengers: Endgame
An impossible movie. Seriously, how on Earth can Avengers: Endgame exist? There’s a scene in Avengers: Endgame where Captain America (Chris Evans) calls out, “Hey Queens?” then throws Mjolnir through the air, and it’s snagged by Spider-Man (Tom Holland), who is wearing an Iron Spider suit designed by Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) while carrying the Infinity Gauntlet. That exists, and in context, makes total sense.
Avengers: Endgame is every Marvel fans’ dream. It’s a deeply satisfying conclusion to the 23-film Infinity Saga that serves as both a fitting farewell for some characters and a suitable launch pad for others. No matter what happens in the MCU next, they’ll always be able to look back on Endgame and say, “We stuck the landing.” Excelsior, you superhero-movie geniuses. Thank you from the bottom of my geek heart for making this magic trick come to life on the big screen.
1. The Irishman
After I walked out of Joe and Anthony Russo’s Avengers: Endgame, I declared it my “favorite” movie of all time, surpassing my go-to answer of John McTiernan’s original Die Hard. Endgame remains my “favorite” movie of all time, but Martin Scorsese’s masterful The Irishman is, unquestionably, the best-made movie I managed to see in 2019.
The natural progression of the gangster pictures Scorsese made in both Goodfellas and Casino, The Irishman packs a reflective tone that stems from the director’s recent Silence to allow the weight of the criminal actions of its protagonists to hang over the final act of his story. Collaborating with Scorsese brings out the absolute best in three legends who’ve been giving far less than their finest on screen – Al Pacino, Robert De Niro and a retired Joe Pesci. And Steven Zaillian’s screenplay seamlessly marries three separate narratives into one clear storyline, a ridiculous balancing act that pays off on every level.
Ambitious, epic and masterfully crafted, The Irishman is the best movie of 2019.