It was another great year for movies, where we were blessed by new classics from beloved auteurs and new works of genius from fresh faces. Where sophomore efforts turned out to be magnificent titles in their own right. And, perhaps most interesting of all, where multiple movies conveyed a similar, and timely, “eat the rich” motto. My name is Chris Evangelista, and I approve this message. These are the 10 best movies of 2019, according to me.
Stylish and sexy, and ultimately more than a little tragic, Hustlers takes the backdrop of the 2007 financial crisis to tell a tale of wealth, power, and the haves and have nots. It was one of several “eat the rich” films of the year, a trend that will no doubt continue in the election year of 2020. After the financial crisis destroys their previously lucrative stripping careers, a team of dancers, lead by Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu, cook up a scam to rip off Wall Street douchebags. Everything goes well – until it doesn’t. Director Lorene Scafaria does a fantastic job keeping the story pumping, jumping back and forth in time and drawing on the language of crime movies in general (there’s more than a little Scorsese influence in here). Scafaria never judges her characters, but that doesn’t mean she lets them entirely off the hook. The key here is empathy – we know exactly where they’re coming from, and why they’re doing what they’re doing. Lopez is the key to it all, turning in the best performance of her career as the savvy Ramona, the ringleader of the criminal endeavor. Lopez’s fierce confidence is dazzling to watch here – you’ll never forget her introductory scene.
9. Knives Out
Rian Johnson takes the whodunit genre and flips it upsidedown, crafting a film that’s both lovingly referential and delightfully subversive. You enter Knives Out thinking it’s going to be a standard locked room mystery, but like the best of magicians, Johnson has a ton of tricks up his sleeve. Nothing goes the way you expect it to, and what a delight it all is. When a wealthy patriarch (Christopher Plummer) turns up dead, a private detective (Daniel Craig, having the time of his life) is called in to investigate the dead man’s extended family, all of whom make for pretty great suspects. But the film really belongs to Ana de Armas, playing the deceased party’s nurse. Armas breaks out in a big way, bringing a sweetness coupled with killer comic timing that more directors would be wise to exploit going forward. Johnson peppers in current events into the backdrop of the film – some of which are a bit clunky. But that’s okay. The end result is a total gem, and yet another 2019 movie about how terrible and oblivious wealthy, privileged people can be.
8. The Farewell
I’ll admit to being a bit indifferent to the talents of Awkwafina before I saw The Farewell. It wasn’t that I didn’t like the comedian/rapper/actress, it was just that I had yet to figure out what all the hubbub was about. That all changed when I caught Lulu Wang‘s marvelous film at Sundance. Here, Awkwafina showed an amazing range that I’m not sure many people suspected she possessed, turning in a deeply human performance that had its touches of comedy but was mostly dramatic. Based on a true story, The Farewell has Awkwafina playing Billi, a Chinese-American woman who learns that her beloved Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) is dying. But, in keeping with Chinese custom, the extended family has decided to keep Nai Nai’s illness a secret from the elderly woman. Instead, they plan to gather together for the purposes of a wedding while also using the occasion to spend one final time with Nai Nai. None of this sits very well with Billi, who thinks her dying grandmother should be made aware of what’s going on. This is Awkwafina’s show, but Wang also takes time to give the rest of Billi’s family ample time, creating a complicated but loving portrait of the clashing of both generations and cultures.
7. Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Céline Sciamma‘s achingly gorgeous love story follows an artist (Noémie Merlant) hired to discretely paint a portrait of a young woman (Adèle Haenel). A friendship grows between the two women – and it quickly blossoms into something deeper. Like Todd Haynes’ Carol, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a film about perceptions – a film about looking. Scene after scene, Sciamma has her characters intently studying the places, and people, before them. As a result, we can feel the desire radiating off this film, as hot and scorching as any flame.
Jordan Peele’s Get Out follow-up is weirder, denser, and more labyrinthine. Like Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, nearly every frame of Us feels as if it’s loaded with clues, and secrets, and omens. You don’t watch this movie, you absorb it. Lupita Nyong’o gives not one but two phenomenal performances here, playing a young mother haunted by her own doppelganger. Peele eventually provides a vague explanation for the doppelgangers that populate the film, but it’s not needed. Why try to explain the unexplainable? At times, Us runs the risk of buckling under its own themes of class warfare, but Peele always manages to keep the narrative steady, working wonders to conjure up something wholly unique and entirely unforgettable.
Director Ari Aster described Midsommar as an “apocalyptic breakup movie” before it opened, and he wasn’t kidding. This is like a rom-com with a body count. Aster’s Hereditary follow-up is more ambitious and more audacious. It’s also surprisingly funny as hell. Neurotic, insecure Dani (Florence Pugh) tags along on a trip to Sweeden with her genuinely terrible gaslighting boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) and his pals. There, they take part in a midsummer festival that looks sunny and festive and inviting – and then slowly goes off the rails. Aster runs his cast through the wringer, with Pugh having to do the brunt of the heavy-lifting, and succeeding marvelously. There’s a reason everyone can’t stop talking about her these days.
Another entry in the “down with the wealthy” subgenre of 2019, and the best of the bunch. Bong Joon-ho‘s Parasite is an almost unclassifiable film. It has all the ingredients for a mystery, a thriller, a comedy, a horror movie, and more. But just when you think you’ve grasped what Bong is going for, Parasite pulls the rug out from under you and goes off in another wild, eye-popping direction. A down-on-their-luck family cons their way into working for a much wealthier household, and that’s when you start to think: “Oh, this is going to be all about these have-nots taking over the lives of the haves.” But no, that’s not what’s going on at all. Instead, Parasite goes deeper – literally, revealing a previously unrevealed basement to the house that has secrets of its own. Parasite courses with energy as Bong stages one dazzling set-piece after another, reminding us why he’s one of the best filmmakers around right now.
3. The Report
The Report is tragically even more relevant now than it was when it opened a few months ago. Those who ignore the past are doomed to repeat it, and sure enough, as America gears up to enter yet another endless, ill-thought-out war, The Report reminds us we’ve been here before and we’re too damn stupid to learn anything. Of all the great Adam Driver performances of 2019, The Report is the best, requiring the actor to rattle off page after page of information and somehow make it all incredibly exciting and cinematic. Driver plays Senate staffer Daniel Jones who is tasked with looking into the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation techniques” following 9/11. What Jones quickly discovers is that the CIA was flat-out torturing suspects, and gaining useless intel in the process. The CIA knew pretty quickly that what they were doing wasn’t really working, and yet they kept on doing it anyway. The Report doesn’t let anyone off the hook. While the enhanced techniques were instituted under George W. Bush, Jones sees first-hand that the Obama administration isn’t exactly rushing to set things right. Writer-director Scott Z. Burns channels great political thrillers like All the President’s Men to create a shocking, disturbingly timely story that deserves much more attention than it received.
2. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a hang-out film, a love letter to the past, a melancholy fairy tale. It’s all these things, and more. Set in and around L.A. in 1969, Quentin Tarantino’s magnum opus zeroes in on an insecure actor (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his cool-as-ice stunt double/best friend (Brad Pitt). In the background of it all is Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), the doomed starlet who met a tragic end at the hand of the Manson Family. But Tarantino isn’t making a Manson movie. He’s making a movie about dreamers in the city of dreams – people who feel fully alive, drawing us into a world that’s long gone. In fact, it never even existed. In the end, we’re all nostalgic for a fantasy.
1. The Irishman
The gangster version of Barry Lyndon. Martin Scorsese‘s The Irishman is a tour de force – the mob movie to end all mob movies. Spanning decades (with a hefty runtime), The Irishman is a bookend to Scorsese’s other two mob collaborations with Robert De Niro, GoodFellas and Casino. If GoodFellas is a story of youth, and Casino is a tale of adulthood, The Irishman is the twilight years – where the ticking clock is growing louder, and the world that you thought you knew is nothing more than a hazy memory. Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran (De Niro) takes us on a journey through his long, blood-drenched life as he rises from a meat truck driver to mafia hitman. Frank is guided by two different men. One is mob boss Russell Buffalino (Joe Pesci), the other is Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino, having a blast here). Hoffa is all bluster while Russell is quieter; more subdued. This gives Pesci, who had been in retirement until now, a chance to do something much different than he’s done before. His character here isn’t one of the volatile, motormouthed wiseguys he’s played in the past. He’s calm and even grandfatherly – but that doesn’t mean he’s any less deadly. The first two hours of Scorsese’s epic are a showcase for a life of crime, but they’re just setting-up the bleak, heartbreaking final hour as Frank grows old and feeble and learns that everything he did – all the hits, all the history-making crimes – were all for nothing. Sooner or later, everyone’s number is up. And when your time comes, what will you be remembered for? Will you even be remembered at all? Don’t close the door all the way.