This year, like any other, The A.V. Club collected ballots from our regular stable of reviewers and then aggregated them, weighing both the number of contributors who shortlisted a film and where each of them placed it on their own ranked rundown. The result is our list of the best films of 2019, a document of the year in movies that reflects the broader arc of hopes, dreams, and fears being reflected on the big screen at this moment in history, but also the idiosyncratic tastes of the movie lovers who contributed to it. These perspectives become even more sharply defined when you look at the individual ballots, which reveal both our consensus picks for the year’s best and our personal favorites. Below, you can see how each of our 13 writers voted, along with their choices in a handful of superlative categories, including stump speeches for the “outlier” that appeared on one writer’s ballot and no one else’s. You won’t find complete agreement among our voters, particularly when it comes to the question of the most overrated film of 2019. But you will find passion, and lots of it. Besides, where’s the fun in everybody agreeing all the time?
1. Marriage Story
2. The Irishman
3. The Nightingale
5. Portrait Of A Lady On Fire
7. Long Day’s Journey Into Night
9. Knives Out
11. Little Women
12. Uncut Gems
14. Ash Is Purest White
15. Ad Astra
In the foggy mountains of what could be Colombia, teenage militants guard an American hostage. Eventually, they’re driven into the jungle below, where their makeshift adolescent society begins to unravel. Though it caught fair comparisons to everything from Apocalypse Now to Lord Of The Flies to Dogtooth, this intense action-drama casts its own hallucinatory spell. The mythic imagery never undercuts the human stakes—the way writer-director Alejandro Landes divides our sympathies between Julianne Nicholson’s imprisoned engineer and her tragically conscripted child captors.
Most overrated: 1917
Sam Mendes’ elaborately choreographed plunge into the trenches of WWI is an undeniably impressive technical achievement. But “impressive” isn’t the same thing as “involving”—and in fact, the lengths 1917 goes to present itself as a single, unbroken shot often undermine its drama, drawing much attention to the virtuosic filmmaking at the expense of immersing us in the plight of its beleaguered grunts. That the movie has been largely praised for its craft is hardly shocking, as every showboating moment of it begs for praise.
Most underrated: Glass
If I’m a little more forgiving of Joker than some of my AVC colleagues, it’s because that self-serious bad-guy origin story at least plays different than the formulaic comic-book blockbusters now dropping off the assembly line every few weeks. That goes double for M. Night Shyamalan’s flawed but fascinating Glass, a shared-universe superhero sequel that breaks hard from current trends in the genre, mainly by compressing its usual conflicts into a single location and a minimalist psychodrama of warring personalities. Clumsy as his writing can be, Shyamalan possesses a style—baroque, colorful, exaggerated—that’s more compatible than most with the visual language of comics.
Biggest disappointment: Where’d You Go, Bernadette
For most of this past decade, it felt like Richard Linklater could do anything; I’m a fan, even, of his previous film, the quasi-Last Detail sequel Last Flag Flying, which received some overly harsh reviews. But the Texas filmmaker ran smack into his limitations with this long-delayed Maria Semple adaptation, a quirky family drama that jettisons the mystery of its source material, leaving its audience with the larger mystery of figuring out—scene for scene—what’s being lost in translation. There are grace notes, but they can’t compensate for Linklater’s inability to crack these characters or relationships.
Most welcome surprise: A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood
Could any actor hope to disappear into the role of Mister Rogers, to compete with our memories of this beloved TV personality? Of course not, which is why A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood finds a savvier solution, using the comparable wholesomeness and decency and warmth of Tom Hanks as a proxy. In that way and others, this drama about the relationship between Rogers and an emotionally constipated journalist squirmed around my skepticism and past my defenses, slightly hoary dramatic angle notwithstanding. Though I guess I shouldn’t have been that surprised to like it, given the nuance and intelligence of Marielle Heller’s previous ripped-from-reality portrait of a cranky writer, Can You Ever Forgive Me?
2. Little Women
3. Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood
4. Portrait Of A Lady On Fire
5. The Irishman
6. The Farewell
8. High Life
9. Knives Out
10. Marriage Story
11. The Nightingale
12. Ford V Ferrari
13. Uncut Gems
14. The Body Remembers When The World Broke Open
15. Dolemite Is My Name
Outlier: Ford V Ferrari
If Ford V. Ferrari had been made in 1969 instead of 2019, Steve McQueen would obviously star as Ken Miles, given that the actor was an amateur racecar driver himself. And Paul Newman could have played the Carroll Shelby role—he was in a NASCAR movie called Winning in ’69, after all. And the driving scenes would be filmed from afar instead of in thrilling close-up, perhaps even incorporating footage from actual car races, as in McQueen’s 1971 flop Le Mans. Other than that, though, it’d be basically the same endearingly old-fashioned sports drama. Mangold stages the 24 Hours of Le Mans race with an action director’s command of suspense, but he pays plenty of attention to his characters, too. If this is a dad movie, then I guess I’m a dad.
Most overrated: Under The Silver Lake
Initially declared a failure after its disastrous premiere at Cannes in 2018, Under The Silver Lake has since gained a cult of critical followers substantial enough to propel it to #10 on The A.V. Club’s best-of-the-year list. I have to say, though, I agree with the Croisette on this one: The film’s a self-indulgent mess, centering on a character who’s not interesting enough to earn his obnoxious onscreen behavior. I don’t need my protagonists to be good people, but they should at least be intriguing; Andrew Garfield’s Sam is the opposite, an unsolicited dick pic in human form. Mediocre men who think they’re geniuses are a dime a dozen, and so are David Lynch pastiches that mistake being complicated for being deep. But then, I didn’t like Southland Tales, either.
Netflix’s strategy of buying up films and then ignoring them is always frustrating, but it can be fatal for a film like The Body Remembers When The World Broke Open. Released on the streaming platform in late November after a handful of festival dates, the first film from Ava DuVernay’s distribution company ARRAY is so unassuming, you might not even notice that it’s composed of a handful of long takes stitched together to create the illusion of a single shot. But this is also a movie with a lot to say about indigenous identity in the 21st century, told through the story of two native women—one middle class and white-passing, the other working class and dark-skinned—who meet one afternoon on a Vancouver street corner. Even critics seemed unaware of the film’s release; had more of them seen it, I bet it would have popped up on a number of best-of lists this season.
Biggest disappointment: It Chapter Two
Andy Muschietti’s 2017 version of It wasn’t the horror masterpiece some made it out to be, but at least it was scary. The same can’t be said for the sequel, which struggles with the pacing and structure of Stephen King’s novel in a way its predecessor didn’t. But what really sinks the movie is its wild inconsistencies in tone, which culminate in one of the most self-sabotaging needle drops I’ve ever seen. And I’ve seen Gotti.
Most welcome surprise: Ready Or Not
Most summers feature a pretty solid genre movie or two, but Ready Or Not seemed to come out of nowhere. (Specifically, it came out of the Fantasia Film Festival, where it premiered after I’d left for the year.) I’d expect something this fiendishly clever from the thriving indie horror community, but Fox Searchlight funding a nasty horror-thriller that blends Clue with You’re Next? A major studio green-lighting a film that rivals Knives Out in its pointed contempt for the 1%, but with a significantly higher body count? Maybe the future of studio horror movies is brighter than I thought.
1. High Life
2. Marriage Story
3. Her Smell
4. The Irishman
5. Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood
6. Uncut Gems
7. Under The Silver Lake
8. The Mountain
9. The Lighthouse
11. Knives Out
12. Our Time
13. An Elephant Sitting Still
14. A Hidden Life
Outlier: The Mountain
With this expertly wrought period piece, Rick Alverson peels back the placid surface of midcentury Americana to reveal the squirming hotbed of anxiety, repression, and predation lying just beneath the “good ol’ days.” Good doctor Jeff Goldblum takes young ward Tye Sheridan on the road as he goes from hospital to hospital demonstrating his barbaric lobotomy technique; the banal horrors Sheridan witnesses along the way lay bare the ugliness of our national character.
Most overrated: Jojo Rabbit
Taika Waititi’s self-proclaimed “anti-hate satire” (a bold stance, anti-hatred!) begins flaunting its badness early on, when meek Deutsches Jungvolk enlistee Jojo learns that his softness is actually the source of his strength. Such lumpy platitudes eventually give way to more noxious ideas, chief among them the notion that some Nazis just needed a friendly nudge in the right direction. Must be nice, to be so detached from the stakes of public life that you believe fascism can be halted with hugs.
Most underrated: Little Joe
Despite star Emily Beecham’s unexpected Best Actress win at Cannes back in May, the latest from Austrian master Jessica Hausner got largely lost in the shuffle at the Croisette and again when it came to theaters in December. But it’s a late-in-the-year treat, a cunning concept picture that adopts the language of horror to undermine our presumptions about fear. A scientist (Emily Beecham) breeds a flower that makes those sniffing it feel a deep contentedness, and then suspects it of brainwashing everyone around her. But the film interrogates her knee-jerk distrust for the happiness of others as chemical delusion, before guiding her to a more difficult and mature realization.
Biggest disappointment: The Dead Don’t Die
On paper, “a loose, shaggy small-town zombie story from Jim Jarmusch” sounds like a slam dunk. But something’s off. Maybe it’s that the allusions the filmmaker loves so much play to the broader side, or that his longstanding attachment to analog technology curdles into fogeyish admonishments for the young people to get off their damn smartphones. Or maybe it’s the MAGA hat thing. Whatever it may be, The Dead Don’t Die is funnier than it is profound, and for Jarmusch, that’s damning praise.
Most welcome surprise: Piercing
I was lukewarm on Nicolas Pesce’s debut The Eyes Of My Mother, which made his sleek, sexy, sadistic sophomore effort hit me like an ice pick to the skull. That’s the act of violence that protagonist Reed (Christopher Abbott) must refrain from committing on his infant daughter, so he instead channels his homicidal impulses onto a sex worker (Mia Wasikowska). Suffice to say, he gets more than he bargained for, setting the stage for a long, bizarre night during which fetishes and phobias commingle as reality gradually crumbles.
1. Knives Out
2. In My Room
3. Under The Silver Lake
4. Light Of My Life
5. Uncut Gems
6. First Love
9. Once Upon A Time... In Hollywood
10. High Flying Bird
11. Too Late To Die Young
12. They Shall Not Grow Old
13. Sword Of Trust
14. Her Smell
15. Marriage Story
Outlier: La Flor—Part 1
While Grasshopper Films released Mariano Llinás’ 13-hour, six-episode behemoth in four parts, we reviewed it here as a single film, and I didn’t love the entirety enough to put it on my list. But Part 1, consisting of the first two episodes, would have been my #2 for the year. One episode is an 80-minute B-movie involving a cursed mummy; the other is a two-hour melodrama that leaps back and forth between the painful dissolution of a singing duo and a secret society’s bizarre quest for toxic scorpion venom that bestows eternal youth. Both star the same four women (in wildly different roles), both end on cliffhangers that deliberately never get resolved, and both are as much fun as I had at the movies all year long.
Most overrated: Ad Astra
“Daddy didn’t love me” has always been one of the laziest dramatic engines, and it’s particularly risible to see an entire science-fiction epic constructed around it, building to a laughable climax in which letting go of someone emotionally gets represented by letting go of him physically. In space. Might have been less awful with a different lead actor—if your protagonist is somebody whose resting heart rate never elevates above 80, do not cast Brad Pitt, who reliably threatens to go comatose when he’s not actively engaged.
Most underrated: American Dharma
It’s been a hoot listening to Errol Morris—a notably testy interview subject, especially considering that he basically interviews people for a living—defend his documentary portrait of Steve Bannon, which was widely criticized for not aggressively confronting one of the architects of our current national nightmare. As Morris has pointed out multiple times, that’s not what he does. His modus operandi has always been to make nice with the folks in front of his camera and let them reveal themselves as they truly are, employing visual counterpoint when necessary. That’s exactly what we get in Dharma, and it’s typically illuminating.
Biggest disappointment: The Lighthouse
I’m always ridiculously excited to see the sophomore effort of a director whose feature debut knocked my socks off—after all, they have a perfect track record! So I couldn’t wait to see Robert Eggers’ follow-up to The Witch, especially after learning that it’s a black-and-white, Academy-ratio two-hander starring Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe, with both apparently speaking in antiquated English. And I still adore the idea of The Lighthouse, just as I still adore the idea of Steven Soderbergh’s boldly bizarre second film, Kafka. In both cases, though, the conviction is missing, and crazed ambition leads only to hollow tedium.
Most welcome surprise: Gloria Bell
On the flip side, I’m always downright eager to avoid English-language remakes of foreign films, even (or maybe especially) when the original director helms the new one as well. Maybe it’s PTSD from enduring George Sluizer’s second shot at The Vanishing, in which he inexplicably jettisoned everything that was great about the Dutch version. But Sebastián Lelio’s Gloria Bell is nearly as good as his earlier Gloria, and Julianne Moore does justice to the title role without attempting to mimic Paulina García’s sublime performance. Not a movie that necessarily needed to be made, but a significantly better one than I’d expected.
1. Asako I & II
2. An Elephant Sitting Still
4. A Hidden Life
5. Her Smell
7. Our Time
8. In My Room
12. Sorry Angel
14. Los Reyes
15. Once Upon A Time... In Hollywood
Given the prolificity of South Korean writer-director Hong Sang-soo, it’s easy to take his output for granted. Grass, his second feature released by Cinema Guild this year, might be his most structurally harmonious film since Right Now, Wrong Then. Built around a writer (Kim Minhee) who people-watches at a small café, it’s a melancholy meditation on the limits of artistic expression and the mysteries that remain beyond its purview.
Most overrated: Parasite
There’s no denying that Bong Joon Ho knows exactly what he’s doing in Parasite, packaging class commentary and capitalist critique within a shape-shifting genre film. But between the its calculated script, its familiar themes, and Bong’s clockwork direction, Parasite doesn’t have much room for anything but its own virtuosity; plot twists abound, but there’s no real sense of surprise. The movie quickly goes from breathless to suffocating, from airtight to merely airless.
This father-daughter drama from Uruguayan director Federico Veiroj went largely unseen amidst the year’s steady rush of Netflix releases. Granted, Belmonte might look like an aggressively minor film, centering on an artist’s midlife crisis and running a mere 75 minutes. But owing to Veiroj’s dynamic direction, distinctive compositions, and tender view of his characters, the result is a character study that’s as memorable as it is modest.
Biggest disappointment: High Life
The prospect of a Claire Denis space movie starring Robert Pattinson seemed like a sure bet—and since its release, the film has been well-received across the board. But the rhythmic, sensuous pleasures that I’ve come to associate with the French director’s prodigious body of work are all but absent from High Life. The film’s narrative progression and structural elisions are oddly conventional for Denis, and by the end of its lugubrious, logy middle section, I found myself alienated by its monomaniacal sense of portent.
Most welcome surprise: A Hidden Life
Terrence Malick’s look at the life of WWII conscientious objector Franz Jägerstätter was high on my list of most anticipated films, despite the fact that I hadn’t loved any of his features since The Tree Of Life. But I was still unprepared for the film’s clarity and force of vision, not to mention its sheer emotional impact. Apart from charting new philosophical concerns for the storied American director, even as it looks to historical events, A Hidden Life also features the most radical use of a closing epigraph—here taken from George Eliot’s Middlemarch—that I can recall.
1. The Irishman
2. High Flying Bird
3. Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood
4. Little Women
5. The Last Black Man In San Francisco
6. A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood
9. Her Smell
10. The Farewell
11. Under The Silver Lake
12. Ad Astra
13. Marriage Story
15. The Nightingale
Outlier: Tigers Are Not Afraid
Our top-15 lists for best films of 2019 had a fair amount of overlap this year, and so my outlier choice is my #16 pick, Issa López’s Tigers Are Not Afraid. López infuses magical realism into her take on the devastating costs of the Mexican Drug War, using the omnipresent image of the tiger—a Mexican folk icon imagined here as animated graffiti and a living stuffed animal—to demonstrate the youth of the children most affected by the ceaseless violence. The film’s ghost story owes a recognizably debt to Guillermo del Toro, but Tigers Are Not Afraid stands on its own as a portrait of devastation and survival.
Most overrated: Joker
For months before Joker’s release, Todd Phillips and Joaquin Phoenix courted controversy at every stop of the press tour. Their provocation was in service of a film that takes zero risks whatsoever; that is gleeful in its celebration of a song by a convicted sex offender; that equates mental illness with murder; and that cannot, from scene to scene, say anything poignant or meaningful about the state of modern American society, social isolation, or economic disenfranchisement. By the time Phillips was coyly telling journalists that maybe Joker wasn’t about the Joker, the movie’s hollowness was clear.
Most underrated: Blinded By The Light
Gurinder Chadha’s Bend It Like Beckham remains a girl-power cult classic for its insightful depiction of intersectional feminism and the myriad directions in which first-generation immigrants are pulled. 17 years later, Chadha offered just as much emotional complexity in Blinded By The Light, with a lovely breakout performance from Viveik Kalra and an impassioned soundtrack of Bruce Springsteen hits. So what the hell happened at the box office? The film faltered in the shadow of Danny Boyle’s inferior Yesterday, because apparently American audiences can’t handle two movies with brown leads in the same summer.
Biggest disappointment: The Laundromat
Putting out two movies in one year is a classic Steven Soderbergh move, but there hasn’t been a gap in quality between his same-year films as broad as the one between High Flying Bird, one of the best films of 2019, and The Laundromat, one of the most embarrassing. Soderbergh cosplaying as Adam McKay is the absolute wrong choice for an explanation of the Panama Papers; the film is too disjointed, with characters breaking the fourth wall and opulence masquerading as satire, to connect with viewers. And Meryl Streep in brownface? Yikes.
Most welcome surprise: The Wedding Guest
Film Twitter has long championed Dev Patel as a potential choice for the next choice for James Bond, and there is no stronger audition tape than the Michael Winterbottom thriller The Wedding Guest. I wasn’t sure what to expect from a film made by a white British guy about Indian-Pakistani tensions, but The Wedding Guest is an exceptionally crafted neo-noir with thoughtful cultural spins on genre conventions, including stolen diamonds, brides smuggled over borders, and marks buried in the desert. Radhika Apte has a strong command of her character as a smartly scheming femme fatale, but the film is utterly Patel’s, and his darkly efficient, alluringly sexy turn as a hired gun should only amplify those calls for Bond consideration.
1. Once Upon A Time... In Hollywood
2. Under The Silver Lake
3. The Irishman
5. Marriage Story
6. Uncut Gems
7. The Last Black Man In San Francisco
8. Knives Out
9. Slut in a Good Way
12. Toy Story 4
13. Little Women
14. Gloria Bell
15. Portrait Of A Lady On Fire
Outlier: Slut In A Good Way
Sophie Lorain’s French-Canadian teen sex comedy didn’t get much play in U.S. theaters—which is a shame, because it’s a shiny black-and-white gem. Following a trio of close female friends navigating the turbulent singles market of a big-box toy store where they all work, Lorain moves her camera and choreographs her talented actors with musical grace. Underneath the sprightly filmmaking and delightful performances, the movie touches upon the mixed messages that can define or derail a teenage girl’s romantic experiences.
Most overrated: Always Be My Maybe
No one can blame Netflix for throwing some easy-watching romantic comedies with charming, underserved leads into its content churn, but must we rave about glorified Hallmark movies just because it’s delightful to see Randall Park and Ali Wong starring in them? Even grading on a TV-movie curve doesn’t account for the shoddiness of this production, from filmmaking that has no idea how to convey the passage of time to actors who appear under-directed at every turn to jokes that often sound as if they were added to the margins of scenes during post.
Most underrated: Gemini Man
Granted, hardly anyone was able to see Gemini Man as director Ang Lee intended, in the full glory of discomfitingly vivid 120fps projection—and even the sickest tech demo doesn’t bypass the clunky dialogue or sci-fi clichés. (It may even exacerbate them.) But Lee is a terrific action director, and the movie’s cornball, semi-retro stylings finds a vessel of sincerity in Will Smith, both in the flesh and motion-capping a younger, digital self. Sometimes the messiness is the point.
Biggest disappointment: Hobbs & Shaw
This attempt to spin Jason Statham and Dwayne Johnson out into their own Fast & Furious-based franchise has its pleasures: Statham’s scowl, Vanessa Kirby’s ass-kicking, and a couple of neat set-piece tricks from director David Leitch. But shouldn’t the Atomic Blonde guy making the biggest-budget Statham vehicle ever come up with something a little more exciting than a movie that stops cold for multiple big-name comedy actors to vamp and threaten to turn up for the inevitable sequels? The best Fast & Furious movies come by their ridiculousness honestly; Hobbs & Shaw labors to tell everyone that it’s in on the joke.
Most welcome surprise: Alita: Battle Angel
My initial review of this Robert Rodriguez/James Cameron collaboration reflects both its high entertainment value and unwieldy, exposition-packed story. But after a year of largely unspectacular spectacles and a couple more rewatches of a highly satisfying one, I’m inclined to say I might have been overcautious, because I love this loopy, overstuffed journey of sci-fi self-discovery with all of my ridiculous heart.
1. Her Smell
2. Ash Is Purest White
3. Asako I &II
4. Marriage Story
6. Uncut Gems
7. The Souvenir
8. Portrait Of S Lady On Fire
9. High Life
12. What You Gonna Do When the World’s On Fire?
13. The Irishman
14. The Nightingale
Roberto Minervini’s documentaries are immersive experiences, and with What You Gonna Do When The World’s On Fire? the Italian-born filmmaker applies his intimate approach to three stories of Black Americans living in the South, resulting in his most urgent work to date. Refreshingly eschewing the school of documentary activism that seeks to teach rather than simply show, the film grants its subjects room to breathe and speak for themselves.
Most overrated: Dolemite Is My Name
I’ll be the first to admit that Wesley Snipes is hilarious playing against type as reluctant actor and director D’Urville Martin, but little else about Craig Brewer’s star-studded Netflick lives up to its potential. Eddie Murphy’s hyper-charismatic take on Rudy Ray Moore feels at odds with the irony and offbeat cool of the blaxploitation star, and funnymen Keegan-Micheal Key and Craig Robinson go criminally underused. The movie plays out like one long montage of feel-good underdog heroics, relying too heavily on the inherent outrageousness of the true story without adding any real punch of its own.
Most underrated: Peterloo
Mike Leigh’s sprawling dramatization of the events leading up to the 1819 Peterloo massacre features a colorful big band of working-class revolutionaries and government cronies. Rather than focus on a single character, Leigh takes a somewhat experimental route, narrowing his attention to the varying textures of speech within the collective to ultimately show how the relationship between rhetoric and action is fraught with misapprehension. The script is a goldmine of delectable language, from the motley Manchester dialect of the peasantry to the ornate, bloviating speech of the aristocracy. It’s politics rendered poetic.
Biggest disappointment: The King
Casting Timothée Chalamet as a Shakespearean king was a bold choice, and it mostly works as a more realistic depiction of a young and not exactly macho man with greatness thrust upon him. But despite its promising cast, which includes the likes of Ben Mendelsohn, Sean Harris, and Robert Pattinson (as a caricatured Frenchman no less!), The King drags through a familiar formula. As for the action, its sword and shield brawls both resemble and disappointingly pale in comparison to those in Outlaw King, Netflix’s not-so-hot medieval entry from last year.
Most welcome surprise: Honey Boy
Welcoming back a celebrity whose fallen out of public approval can seem like the amnesiac outcome of icky PR stunts, especially when the person in question has done legitimately foul things. Yet Honey Boy feels far from a manufactured apology tour. Shia Labeouf, as actor and writer, bares his soul in unexpectedly compelling ways, reckoning with the ugly parts of himself while confronting, with remarkable lucidity, the traumas that have come to define him.
2. Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood
3. Uncut Gems
4. Marriage Story
5. Portrait Of A Lady On Fire
6. Little Women
7. The Farewell
8. The Irishman
9. Knives Out
11. The Souvenir
12. I Lost My Body
13. Dragged Across Concrete
14. Chained For Life
15. Apollo 11
Outlier: I Lost My Body
The year’s best animated film is partly about a luckless, lonely young man falling in love, and partly about a severed hand that’s slowly crawling across a city filled with small-scaled dangers. The two pieces complement each other, frequently pushing I Lost My Body toward the poetic and metaphorical. But the movie is also just beautiful and exciting on a moment-to-moment basis—as both a low-key romance and as a gory thriller.
Most overrated: Hustlers
Yes, J-Lo’s great. And yes, writer-director Lorene Scafaria tells this tale of vengeful strippers with energy and pizazz. But unlike the Jessica Pressler article it’s based on, Hustlers is too vague and simplistic when it comes to the details of the heroines’ fleece-the-rich caper. The original story is more cynical and matter-of-fact about a system stacked against a handful of women who think they’ve finally found an angle of attack. The big-screen version is plenty entertaining; but it’s also too much of an uncomplicated celebration of empowerment.
Most underrated: Wounds
Babak Anvari’s New Orleans-set follow-up to his acclaimed Iranian horror film Under The Shadow failed to generate much positive buzz when it debuted at Sundance earlier this year, or when it landed on Hulu a few months back. But for those who can stomach grotesque body-horror and cockroach-infested sets, this adaptation of a Nathan Ballingrud novella is actually one of the year’s deepest and most original genre pictures. Wounds starts out as a marvelously written and acted look at life in one seedy dive bar, before becoming an impressively disgusting journey into Lovecraftian madness.
Biggest disappointment: Captain Marvel
The massive Marvel machine routinely turns out entertaining movies, liberally sprinkled with fun character moments. Captain Marvel is no exception, but given that this is the first MCU film with a woman as the primary protagonist—and given what a fascinating character Carol Danvers has always been—it’s a drag that it presents her as someone fairly bland and square, with few of the quirks and vulnerabilities that make the comic-book version such a great Marvel hero.
Most welcome surprise: Anna
The sexual assault allegations against eccentric French action auteur Luc Besson make it difficult right now to recommend his movies, even to longtime devotees. Nevertheless, anyone who loved the likes of Lucy and Nikita will likely enjoy this gonzo super-spy extravaganza, with its clever nesting-doll narrative structure. Calling the movie “welcome” is a bit of a stretch, but given that Anna was unceremoniously (and understandably) dumped into the theaters, it was definitely a surprise to find that it stands up to Besson’s best.
1. Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood
3. The Irishman
4. Under The Silver Lake
5. Uncut Gems
7. Give Me Liberty
8. In My Room
9. The Souvenir
10. Asako I & II
11. Her Smell
12. High Flying Bird
13. Marriage Story
14. Knives Out
15. The Day Shall Come
Outlier: Give Me Liberty
If Give Me Liberty was just a portrait of manic stress brought upon by the small concurrent crises impacting an in-over-his-head medical transport driver, it would still be one of the best films of the year. But on top of that, it’s also a deeply moving depiction of allyship. Director Kirill Mikhanovsky understands there’s simple nobility in driving people to places they can’t otherwise get to themselves, especially when doing so is a massive inconvenience.
Most overrated: Booksmart
This Gen Z-version of Superbad forgoes legible characterization in favor of a utopic vision of adolescence swiped from an adult #Resistance liberal’s fantasy. All of the kids speak in edgeless bromides and walk through a world devoid of anything resembling conflict, struggle, or reality. Even the serial killers preach the dangers of sexual assault. Comedy, like life, can’t flourish if there’s nothing at risk.
Most underrated: The Day Shall Come
Chris Morris’ follow-up to Four Lions was almost completely ignored in the States, possibly because a satire about a delusional cult leader who appropriates black revolutionary rhetoric might not be kosher in 2019. It’s a shame because, along with being very funny, The Day Shall Come has a strong progressive streak. The overzealous FBI agents, eager to imprison terrorist cells (rule of law be damned) are the object of Morris’ ire, while Moses (Marchánt Davis, giving a stellar debut performance) and his four-person “army” are the underdogs. The film’s bleak, powerful ending confirms where Morris’ sympathies lie.
Biggest disappointment: Motherless Brooklyn
Twenty years after Edward Norton secured the rights to Jonathan Lethem’s novel, his passion-project adaptation finally hit screens. The results are frustrating to say the least: an overlong mixture of Chinatown and The Power Broker that bogs down what could have a fun detective yarn with Trumpian allusions and genre dress-up. Norton does solid work as a gumshoe with Tourette’s, but can’t help falling into Rain Man-like schtick. He should’ve leaned into the novel’s irony instead of embracing undercooked sincerity.
Most welcome surprise: Sword Of Trust
Having worked together on TV (Maron, Glow) and a stand-up special, director Lynn Shelton and comedian Marc Maron reunited for this low-delight about the perils of fake news, the latter in peak form, delivering sarcasm and heartbreak with ease. The ending falls a little flat and some of the improv can be hit or miss, but Sword Of Trust proves to mostly be a funny and surprisingly deep ride, and a return to form for Shelton, getting back into her Humpday groove.
1. Portrait Of A Lady On Fire
2. Her Smell
3. Little Women
5. The Irishman
6. The Souvenir
7. Marriage Story
8. Uncut Gems
9. American Factory
10. A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood
11. The Nightingale
12. Knives Out
14. Honey Boy
Outlier: American Factory
The first film from Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground Productions is inherently political, but it’s more complex than agitprop. Following the reopening of a shuttered factory in Dayton under the new ownership of a Chinese auto-glass company, directors Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert offer a startling intimate look at the struggle to blend two working cultures. Never descending into xenophobia or condescension, their documentary makes the point that the issues matter because of the effect they have on the people.
Most overrated: Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood
I’m sort of the cheese that stands alone on this one, I know, but wow, I just didn’t connect with Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood. I enjoyed it—how can you resist “Rick fuckin’ Dalton,” that yellow shirt, Sharon Tate enjoying her own movie, and other such moments? But at his best, Tarantino marries the enjoyable language, the thrilling set pieces, and the ensorcelling production design with something more substantial, something that lingers. What lingers with this one is envy that I didn’t have the experience so many others had.
Most underrated: Long Shot
Jonathan Levine’s playful but sincerely felt rom-com seemed to vanish from the cultural consciousness not long after it arrived. Which is a pity, becaue few films so successfully married fun and honesty. The simple notion of having Charlotte (Charlize Theron, in her best performance of the year) finally let loose, only to wind up having to deal with pressing matters of state, was such a clever subversion of one trope and such a new take on another that it’s amazing we haven’t seen it discussed more frequently. And Theron has wonderful chemistry with her costar, Seth Rogen.
Biggest disappointment: Lucy In The Sky
Perhaps the stumbles of Legion should have prepared us for the mess that is Noah Hawley’s Lucy In The Sky, a self-important, hollow piece of nonsense not even Natalie Portman’s best efforts could save. It would be tempting to say that the biggest mystery of this film is why such a miss hasn’t seemed to hurt Hawley’s career, but that would be ignoring an even bigger one: How the hell do you tell this story and cut out the diapers?
Most welcome surprise: Fast Color
Apologies to Captain Marvel, the Avengers, and the kids of Shazam, but the best superhero story of the year (on film at least) was Julia Hart’s intimate post-apocalyptic family drama. Anchored by the tremendous Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Hart’s film takes a bunch of familiar tropes and breathes new life into them by folding in issues of fear, addiction, and race. It’s also beautiful—give me Fast Color’s spare special effects over the bombastic blockbusters any day.
1. Portrait Of A Lady On Fire
2. Her Smell
3. Little Women
4. The Last Black Man In San Francisco
5. The Farewell
8. Wild Rose
9. Once Upon A Time... In Hollywood
10. Marriage Story
11. One Child Nation
12. The Nightingale
15. Hail Satan?
Outlier: One Child Nation
One thing our list doesn’t capture is the fact that 2019 was a fantastic year for documentaries. Among my favorites is One Child Nation, which examines the one-child policy that lasted in China from 1979 to 2015. In a fleet but frequently harrowing 89 minutes, directors Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang explore the effects of the policy through multiple lens, including a personal one. (Wang was born under it and interviews many of her family members.) What emerges is a cautionary tale about the terrifying power of propaganda, as well as a clarion call for the importance of reproductive rights.
Most overrated: Toy Story 4
The appeal of Forky is undeniable and I’m here for Badass Bo Peep. But apart from that, I just don’t get what so many of my fellow critics saw in Toy Story 4, a thoroughly unnecessary sequel with a lame antagonist and a story that sidelines too many of its major players in favor of giving Woody all the focus. As a made-for-TV follow-up, it’d make for perfectly fine afternoon viewing. As a big screen event, however, it never justifies bringing these toys back out of the box.
Most underrated: The Report
Scott Z. Burns’ look at an Obama-era investigation into the Bush-era CIA torture program captures a sentiment that feels more timely now than ever: the stunned disbelief that somehow even detailed documentation of incompetent, illegal government action isn’t enough to get anyone to do anything about it. Adam Driver may deliver a showier performance in Marriage Story, but the sense of internalized frustration he conveys in The Report is every bit as compelling.
Biggest disappointment: Bombshell
This slickly glib, frustratingly simplistic look at sexual harassment at Fox News is pretty much everything I feared we’d get from the all-but-inevitable wave of movies about the #MeToo movement. Bombshell turns the complicated women of Fox News into one-note totems of female empowerment, all while patting itself on the back for the important work it’s doing. It’s a story about systemic sexism that feels like it was made by filmmakers who just discovered that concept exists. Great Margot Robbie performance though.
Most welcome surprise: Isn’t It Romantic
As someone who’s spent the past two years exploring the history of romantic comedies, I’m always skeptical of films that set out to satirize a genre that already carries an unfair amount of cultural baggage. So I was delighted that Todd Strauss-Schulson’s Isn’t It Romantic strikes just the right balance between poking fun at rom-com tropes and wholeheartedly embracing the power of the genre, all while creating a zany comedic voice all its own.
1. Uncut Gems
2. The Irishman
3. Her Smell
4. Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood
6. Ad Astra
7. Under The Silver Lake
8. High Life
10. Ash Is Pure White
11. Knives Out
15. Long Day’s Journey Into Night
Sundance has long since become a farm league for the majors, but there are still some true American independents left—among them Joel Potrykus, whose latest, Relaxer, is a gross-out slacker fairytale about a telekinetic man-child (Joshua Burge) who refuses to leave the couch until he beats level 256 of Pac-Man. Shot on a single set that was built inside a suburban garage, Relaxer distills the themes of alienation, obsession, and personal apocalypse of earlier Potrykus micro-budget oddities like Buzzard and The Alchemist Cookbook, while also exhibiting his considerable technical evolution as a filmmaker.
Most overrated: Avengers: Endgame
The three-hour extravaganza of Pavlovian fan service that unseated Avatar to become the highest grossing film of all time. Sure, it’s got some funny parts, but so do most of the entries in the MCU corporate loyalty rewards program—some of which are even actual movies. To be honest, I’m as susceptible to this stuff as anyone else, but I still think that the current market dominance of Disney product (whether it’s Marvel, Star Wars, or those awful live-action remakes) has had an overwhelmingly negative impact on Hollywood and on movie audiences.
Most underrated: Our Time
Carlos Reygadas’ Our Time, starring the director and his real-life wife as a married couple in an open relationship, has been described as an overlong therapy session. Which it is. But if a filmmaker wants to cast himself as a pathetically insecure, controlling cuck, and throw in footage of bulls or whatever, I’m all for it. Critics prefer presumably autobiographical depictions of broken relationships when they come across as fair-minded and mature (see: Marriage Story), but if can’t extend the right to be indulgent and undisciplined to artists, then what’s the point?
Biggest disappointment: Little Women
Lady Bird is close to perfection, but I can’t share my colleagues’ enthusiasm for Greta Gerwig’s follow-up, Little Women, which takes on Louisa May Alcott’s novel with a combination of clashing millennial acting styles and postcard cinematography. Call me a philistine, but I think the film would work better in chronological order; the back-and-forth flashback structure leaves it without emotional arcs.
Most welcome surprise: Waves
I believe every critic’s list must be allowed at least one indefensible pick. Mine has to be Waves, Trey Edward Shults’s miserablist soap opera of all-American suffering. I thought Shults’s debut, Krisha, was overpraised, and I know I should be too smart for this one—which, among other crimes against good taste, offers up notions of sin, forgiveness, and class so simplistic that they would make Lars von Trier roll his eyes. Yet I enjoyed every minute of this maximalist, oversaturated smorgasbord of 360-degree pans, changing aspect ratios, and Pitchfork-approved needle drops.