Rocketships! Puppets! Mermaids! Acid cookies! The cinematic landscape of 2019 was varied indeed — if you knew where to look. While our new corporate overlords at Disney cast a hulking shadow over the theatrical market, 2019 was also a red-letter year for indie studio A24, which released the majority of the most critically-beloved films of the year (and this list). It was also a banner year for streaming services, as more niche independent content sidestepped theatrical distribution entirely, while Netflix had its biggest year ever pumping out an avalanche of quality content in an attempt to seize its first best-picture Oscar. I saw more films in the theater this year than ever before (thanks AMC Stubs!) and the films in this list vary wildly in tone, style, and theme. The films I’ve chosen are all tied together by a loose set of criteria: 1) a strong representation of film as an inherently visual medium, 2) well-structured stories with themes focusing on empathy and humanity, and 3) stories that approach their subjects from a unique perspective. They also happen to be movies that I just personally really liked a lot. Don’t see your favorite movie on this list? Tell us about your fave in the comments!
10. The Last Black Man in San Francisco
Joe Talbot’s debut feature about the search for place in a hyper-gentrified city feels more like a fairy tale than gritty realism. Characters appear to glide and float through urban landscapes, houses are framed like castles, buskers sing like minstrels, and a Greek chorus takes the form of a group of street hustlers. The filmmakers are not interested in re-litigating the tech-fueled gentrification of San Francisco that forced out its original, often POC inhabitants. Instead the film attempts to find poetry in the reality of the present as it examines what it means to have — and to lose — a home. Stunning cinematography, a soulful score, and quiet, earnest performances make The Last Black Man in San Francisco one of the most personal and intimate films of 2019.
Read my full spoiler-free review of The Last Black Man in San Francisco here.
How to watch: The Last Black Man in San Francisco is available to stream on Amazon Prime.
9. Apollo 11
50 years after Niel Armstrong set foot on the Moon, it seems impossible that any documentary could tell us anything we didn’t already know about that world-changing event. And yet the team behind Apollo 11, through meticulous research and restoration of NASA archival footage, have put together a narrative that is at once beautiful, suspenseful, and informative. Eschewing the talking-head structure of a typical documentary, Apollo 11 presents a fly-on-the-wall narrative, knitting together footage and audio communications that illustrate the what of the events in favor of the who. Simple informational graphics keep the viewer updated on the mission’s progress and stakes, but otherwise the audience experiences the events much as they were experienced by the mission’s technicians and crew in real-time. A dazzling score by Matt Morton compliments the stunning visuals (a close-up shot of the rocket flames during takeoff is especially thrilling), and an extended landing sequence on the lunar surface is as nail-biting as anything dreamed up in fiction. Apollo 11 is a tremendous accomplishment in visual storytelling and a fitting tribute to a history-changing event.
How to watch: Apollo 11 is available to stream on Hulu.
8. Bathtubs Over Broadway
No other film this year will leave you with a spring in your step and an ear-to-ear grin like this earnest and irresistibly charming documentary about industrial musicals and the people who love them. From the postwar boom to the late 80s, corporations spent millions commissioning musicals about their products to be performed exclusively at national sales meetings and industry conventions (Mr. B Natural, anyone?). The result was a booming underground industry of professional-grade musicals featuring surprisingly catchy songs with titles like “Diesel Dazzle” and “The Bathrooms are Coming”. In the film, comedy writer Steve Young shares his passion for collecting these musicals on vinyl and sets out to meet other enthusiasts as well as the artists who made them. The result is a delightful, utterly cynicism-free documentary about the joys of people finding connection through a shared passion and the pivotal role this unlikely artform played for decades in the American musical theater landscape.
How to watch: Bathtubs Over Broadway is available to stream on Netflix.
7. Little Women
The cast is the thing in Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of the beloved Louisa May Alcott novel. Through impeccable performances, stunning cinematography, and a lovely score Gerwig has created a world I very much would like to live in. A cozy New England cottage populated by a family of artistically-minded sisters who also happen to be each others’ best friends. Well-heeled acquaintances are conveniently available to provide extra funds when needed while the men in their lives are both supportive of and charmed by the women’s spunky ebullience. As much as Little Women tries to mine conflict from the financial restraints of women in 1860s America, the heart of the story has always been the relationship between the sisters. The chemistry between stars Saiorse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, and (to a lesser extent) Eliza Scanlen is so infectious that the film is at its most engaging when exploring their own personal triumphs and tragedies. Timothée Chalamet’s floppy-haired charm is a welcome addition to the women’s dynamic, and an irresistible cadre of supporting actors that include Meryl Streep, Laura Dern, Chris Cooper, and Bob Odenkirk ensure that every moment of the film is carried off with impeccable grace and charm. However you might feel about the meta-textual elements of Gerwig’s adaptation, it’s hard to deny (or resist) the warm comfort the movie instils and will no doubt endure as a new classic.
How to watch: Little Women is currently in theaters.
A coming-of-age movie for people who hate coming-of-age movies, Booksmart wins you over by refusing to take sides. Every single character in the film is portrayed as unbearably tragic, from the popular jock to the catty hot girl, because the film understands that — unlike what is portrayed in other teenager-centric films — everyone was unbearably tragic in high school. Booksmart allows the viewer to see themselves in any number of characters and laugh self-deprecatingly at how cringeworthy we all were at that age. By freeing us from our own self-consciousness the film allows us to simply enjoy the ridiculous odyssey of best friends and overachievers Molly (Beanie Feldstein in a phenomenal breakout performance) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) as they make their way to their first-ever high-school party in an attempt to be reckless at least once before graduation. First-time director Olivia Wilde demonstrates an extraordinarily confident visual style full of bright colors and dynamic framing choices, not to mention some of the choicest needle-drops of any film this year. Booksmart is, well, smart – a film made by a largely-female crew that revolves around a touching story about the importance of female friendship.
How to watch: Booksmart is available to stream on Hulu.
5. The Irishman
While Martin Scorsese’s filmography represents a wide swath of genres and subjects, his gangster films have arguably most sharply defined his image in the popular consciousness. The Irishman feels like a natural coda for what could be considered a gangster trilogy. While Goodfellas revelled in the over-the-top machismo and violence of the mafia lifestyle, Casino hinted at the darkness at the edges while still retaining a definite air of admiration. The Irishman, however, leans fully into the thesis that no glory is to be found in a life of violence, only isolation and irrelevance. And yet while exploring these themes Steven Zaillian’s script resists getting too preachy by injecting regular bouts of absurd humor. Immersive cinematography and career-best performances by both Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci make every minute of the film’s 3 ½-hour running time a joy to experience.
Read my full spoiler-free review of The Irishman here.
How to watch: The Irishman is available to stream on Netflix.
4. The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance
That’s right, I put a series in this list. If it’s good enough for the snail-eaters at Cahiers du Cinema then it’s good enough for me. After all, Age of Resistance is the essence of what great filmmaking is all about: a collaboration between artists and craftspeople to produce a truly one-of-a-kind work of cinematic art. The series is the result of a level of passion not seen since Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy almost two decades ago. A prequel to Jim Henson’s dark, trippy 1982 film, Age of Resistance fleshes out the fantastical world only glimpsed in the movie. But this is not merely a case of lore without meaning. Talented puppeteers and voice actors bring to life a largely-female cast to tell an absorbing story about love, empathy, and pushing back against power structures that feed off of the exploitation of others. The accompanying making-of documentary is a must-watch to appreciate the level of craftsmanship involved realizing the series’ vision, and the end result is arguably one of the best pieces of fantasy filmmaking ever made.
How to watch: The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance is available to stream on Netflix.
3. Knives Out
Even though JJ Abrams has thrown Rian Johnson under the bus during Star Wars press junkets he still couldn’t commit murder in as viscerally delightful, narratively well-constructed, or socially conscious a way as Johnson has in Knives Out. The script is as close to perfect as any film this year. Tightly layered and thoughtfully constructed, Knives Out shows immense reverence for the whodunnit genre whilst not being slavish to the form. A classic genre updated for a modern world and carried off by an enthusiastic all-star cast topped by a truly iconic performance by Daniel Craig as a shrewd private investigator with an aw-shucks Southern drawl. Knives Out is an instant classic, a film that will be on regular rotation in households for years to come, and one that has cemented Johnson as one of the most passionate and empathetic filmmakers of his generation.
Read my full spoiler-free review of Knives Out here.
How to watch: Knives Out is currently in theaters.
2. The Lighthouse
Shot in grainy, claustrophobic black and white, Robert Eggers has crafted one of this year’s most visually and thematically ambitious films. Featuring two knockout performances by Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson as a pair of earthy seamen trapped together on a remote island, The Lighthouse weaves together a story both dreamlike and nightmarish, at turns hilarious and terrifying. Incorporating deeply atmospheric sound design and truly jaw-dropping cinematography, The Lighthouse is a challenging, mind-bending triumph of filmmaking.
Read my full spoiler-free review of The Lighthouse here.
How to watch: The Lighthouse is currently available to purchase on all major VOD platforms.
1. Under the Silver Lake
There are many ways to describe David Robert Mitchell’s Under the Silver Lake: Hitchcockian, Lynchian, neo-noir. The protagonist Sam (Andrew Garfield) is the epitome of bourgeois ennui: listless, pleasure-seeking but never pleasure-finding, disillusioned by the knowledge that his life isn’t as meaningful as the media he consumed in his youth promised it would be. Every facet of his Los Angeles existence is wallpapered with the myriad ways women are objectified and exploited: porno magazines, barbie dolls, hamburger ads, skeevy casting calls, prostitution, and hedonistic parties thrown by rich and powerful men. When a young woman from his apartment building (Riley Keough) goes missing, Sam begins an obsessive quest to find her despite barely knowing anything about her. What follows is a bizarre, dreamlike odyssey down a rabbit hole of conspiracy theories, hidden codes, secret societies, and murder. But are Sam’s experiences genuine or a product of his desperate need to find meaning in his meaningless existence? Is he the hero or the villain of this story? Under the Silver Lake is complex, layered, and challenging; an examination of how women are chewed up by the Hollywood machine and how a generation of listless men act as accomplices through their own unexamined gaze.
How to watch: Under the Silver Lake is available to stream on Amazon Prime.