GOOD Morning Wilton‘s movie reviewer, Sebastian Hunt, is a junior at Wilton High School who loves film and television, and hopes to become a filmmaker himself one day. He’s already gotten a jump start on that, producing his own screenplays and planning on submitting his work to film festivals. You can learn more about Sebastian on GMW‘s “Our Team” page.
Contrary to some pessimistic headlines, 2019 was actually a pretty good year for cinema. Box office records were broken, a number of new talents were discovered, and of course, several great films were released.
The 10 movies I’ve gathered aren’t necessarily what I considered the best films of 2019, but are those that spoke to me most clearly. They represent the best individual times I had at the cinema. Irrespective of differences in story, character or set-up, these films reminded me what the medium is capable of.
In (very loose) order:
Not as funny as Superbad, though more intelligent in its portrayal of high school life, Booksmart is an adolescent dramedy for the ages. Emily Halpern and company’s screenplay grapples with real-world teenage issues, authentically brought to life through standout performances (particularly Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein).
If not for some initial hiccups, Booksmart might’ve appeared much higher on this list. Regardless, Olivia Wilde’s first film remains a thoughtful and intimate look at the ugly, beautiful world that is high school.
What’s better than Batman? Just The Joker, apparently. Though perhaps a little too reverent to some Martin Scorsese classics, a masterful leading performance by Joaquin Phoenix and chilling music propels Joker to become one of the year’s best films.
Whether he’s laughing or crying (or both), Phoenix never ceases to be captivating. His performance will become synonymous with the Clown Prince of Crime; Phoenix is very possibly the live-action incarnation of the character.
Given Joker’s behemoth box-office intake, I can’t imagine that a sequel isn’t on the horizon, which is a shame since Joker is one of the year’s most well-defined character portraits in no need of expansion.
8. The Farewell
2019 was very much the year of foreign-language breakout films, with both The Farewell and Parasite (also on this list) electrifying the industry. Though not quite the unnerving thrill-ride that is Parasite, The Farewell is nonetheless a heartfelt and contemplative look at a controversial Chinese tradition.
The Farewell asks hard questions about American and Chinese cultures and their juxtaposition. Multiple characters act as advocates for each side: Awkwafina’s Billi firmly argues for a Westernized approach to her family’s woes, while others vouch for the legitimacy of Eastern philosophy. Everything builds to the film’s conclusion–without a doubt one of the most shocking and perception-altering endings in recent cinematic memory.
To say anything more would rob potential viewers of a unique experience, so I’ll leave it here. The Farewell is a touching, well-performed, eye-opening debut for director Lulu Wang and a hopeful indicator of things to come.
7. Ford v Ferrari
What makes Ford v Ferrari so good? I think there’s a number of reasons, but it really boils down to its two leads: Matt Damon and Christian Bale. Each actor is a perfect fit for his respective role–Damon as a retired, aging race car superstar, Bale as a hot-tempered up-and-comer. They work in harmony to create one of the most entertaining and compelling dynamics of the year.
And the racing scenes. Can’t go wrong with them (they’re awesome).
6. Little Women
Greta Gerwig is certainly one of the greatest filmmakers of her generation. Her first film, 2017’s Lady Bird, set an almost unrealistic expectation for the remainder of Gerwig’s career, yet Little Women managed to dazzle audiences and critics alike, further confirming her formidable skills.
Every other adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s post-Civil War classic is put to shame as Gerwig is in full command of her vision. Matched with a terrific cast of actresses, Gerwig’s inventive direction and screenplay make Little Women one of 2019’s most atmospheric and engaging films.
It is possible that Gerwig has already hit her creative peak. Or, as is often the case with great directors, maybe the best is yet to come.
Some might find Jordan Peele’s Us too “weird” for their tastes, or simply cannot escape the shadow of Peele’s first effort, Get Out. True, Us isn’t nearly as accessible as Peele’s debut feature, but in my opinion, that’s precisely what makes it so fascinating.
Not since The Shining has the horror genre been this deliciously ambiguous. Is Us a biblical allegory? A dismantling of the American Dream? Meditation on class divides? Or just a stylish, scary horror flick? Maybe we’ll never know. The only thing we can definitively discern is Jordan Peele’s talent as a filmmaker–a distinctive, courageous auteur on-track for continued brilliance.
Oh, and Lupita Nyong’o totally steals the show.
4. The Irishman
Move over, Avengers: Endgame; The Irishman is 2019’s true defining conclusive epic. Jokes aside, Martin Scorsese’s 25th feature film feels like it could be the director’s last. And what better way to go out?
Themes across the entirety of Scorsese’s filmography–Catholic guilt, toxic masculinity, faith, power and the ultimate fallacy of a life of crime–are revisited and re-explored in the context of a character study that spans 50 years. Rejoining him are longtime collaborators Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci and even Harvey Keitel (albeit in a minor role).
The Irishman serves as a masterclass in filmmaking, and surely immortalizes Scorsese as an all-time great. Kudos to you, Marty.
Parasite is a film I won’t be forgetting anytime soon. Bong Joon-ho’s biting statement on economic divisions follows a low-class family as they indulge in unseemly activities in order to gain financial success, yet it asks a central question: what would you do under their circumstances? None of the characters in Parasite are that far removed from reality. They are manifestations of our deepest and most conniving desires; tortured stand-ins for all economically depressed citizens.
Morality can be tricky to tackle in cinema. With Parasite, Joon-ho provides one of the subject’s most fascinating explorations yet.
2. Marriage Story
I still struggle to put Marriage Story into words. It’s a film about divorce, yet the undying nature of love. Splitting up, but staying together. Few 2019 films moved me as profoundly or challenged as many of my preconceived notions. Nor did any boast such collectively powerful performances; Scarlett Johannson and Adam Driver are mesmerizing.
Marriage Story is not the sort of film you can watch and then discard. The film lingers in the mind. Its resonance deepens over time. And once the film’s true messages and implications are grasped, you, like the ill-fated Driver and Johannson, realize that the credits are about to roll.
1. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood
Perhaps Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood isn’t as emotional as Marriage Story or as cutting as Parasite, but no 2019 film engrossed me more, nor represented such an evolution in a filmmaker’s style.
Director Quentin Tarantino, despite his obvious talent, is not someone known for his poignancy. His films are often chock-full of violence and profanity, without much room for genuinely resonant characters. This is not a critique, merely an observation. Tarantino makes digestible, sensationally entertaining and imaginative action/crime romps; not everything has to be “weighty”.
Once Upon a Time keeps Tarantino’s trademark senses of blood and guts intact (particularly in the third act), but interweaves it with deeply personal and humanistic themes. For the first time in a Tarantino film, I experienced emotions other than excitement; I felt for his characters.
If Once Upon a Time truly is his second-to-last film (as he claims), it’d be a shame. Tarantino is experiencing a career renaissance, and delivered my favorite film of 2019.