- by Jeff Beck
The Top Ten Films of 2019
As we come to the end of another year, it's time to celebrate the very best that it had to offer in film. As usual, there were a few that didn't quite live up to the buzz surrounding them ("The Irishman" and "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" immediately come to mind), but there were still plenty of great films to choose from, so let's dive right in:
10. The King – Starting off with what will probably be considered an unconventional choice, we have David Michod’s “The King,” which received somewhat mixed reviews from critics, but was generally well-received by audiences. This gritty take on the story of Henry V’s rise to the throne and his campaign in France is similar in tone to Sir Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Henry V,” except instead of using the text of the play, Michod’s film goes off on its own to tell the tale. Featuring a strong lead performance from Timothee Chalamet as the young king, and fine supporting work from Edgerton as Sir John Falstaff, this is a gripping rendition of the material that is sure to please fans of historical dramas, as well as fans of the original Shakespeare story on which it’s based. If you happened to overlook it on Netflix, it’s most definitely worth going back and checking out.
9. Richard Jewell – Next up is one of the biggest surprises of the year. After years of seeing director Clint Eastwood deliver multiple duds like “J. Edgar,” “Jersey Boys,” “American Sniper,” and “The 15:17 to Paris” (“Sully” was decent), he returns with his first great film since 2008’s “Gran Torino.” “Richard Jewell” tells the story of a down-on-his-luck security worker who saves several lives when he discovers a bomb at an event for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. He’s hailed as a hero at first, but is quickly turned into the #1 suspect by the FBI and constantly hounded by the media, for which he elicits help from the only lawyer he knows. Featuring excellent performances from the entire ensemble, including Paul Walter Hauser, Sam Rockwell, Kathy Bates, and Jon Hamm, this is a powerful true story about the persecution of an innocent individual that has you hanging on until the very end. It may have taken over a decade, but it’s great to know that Eastwood is still capable of delivering something this captivating.
8. Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound – This will no doubt be the most obscure film on the entire list. As the title implies, this is a documentary all about sound in cinema, covering the evolution of the craft from the onset of talkies through contemporary projects. It covers important milestones such as “The Jazz Singer,” “Star Wars,” “Apocalypse Now,” and “The Matrix,” while featuring interviews with many of the sound greats like Walter Murch, Ben Burtt, and Gary Rydstrom, and directors like Steven Spielberg, David Lynch, Ang Lee, and Christopher Nolan. If you’re a cinephile like myself, or are just interested in learning about all of the hard work that goes into the art of film sound, then you most definitely owe it to yourself to track down this wonderful documentary.
7. Apollo 11 – Here we have the very best documentary of 2019. The film is simply archival footage of the Apollo 11 mission from preparing for liftoff to the crew’s triumphant return, but it is absolutely riveting to watch from beginning to end, and in such beautiful quality. Most people already know the story, but to watch these events play out exactly as they did 50 years ago is fascinating, and makes the brief 90 minutes fly by in a snap. It’s already won multiple awards for Best Documentary (including Critics’ Choice), and it wouldn’t surprise me in the least to see it end up with the Oscar next year.
6. Avengers: Endgame – This next one may come as a surprise to some, but it really shouldn’t be. What directors Joe and Anthony Russo and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely did with “Avengers: Infinity War” was big and bold, and then for “Avengers: Endgame,” they somehow went even bigger and bolder. Incorporating multiple characters, spread across multiple storylines and multiple times, they create a tapestry that is incredibly compelling from beginning to end. This is an epic on a scale that we just don’t see much of anymore, and the very fact that the film feels like it doesn’t even come close to its 181-minute runtime is further testament to how engrossing it is. It is the culmination of a remarkable achievement, with a course charted by producer Kevin Feige over the course of 22 films, resulting in a thrilling, emotional, and sensationally grand conclusion to the Infinity Saga. It now stands as a landmark, not only as the highest grossing film in cinematic history ($2.8 billion), but also as yet another example of how strong comic book movies can be.
5. Knives Out – After the massive success of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” all eyes were on what writer/director Rian Johnson would choose to do as his next project, which turned out to be this marvelous little murder mystery. Revolving around the murder of the rich patriarch of an eccentric family, we follow along with what we think is a simple murder, but which ends up having so many twists and turns that you end up guessing right up until the very end. Featuring one of the best ensembles of the year (one that inexplicably missed out on a SAG nod), including Ana de Armas, Daniel Craig, Christopher Plummer, Jamie Lee Curtis, Chris Evans, Michael Shannon, Toni Collette, and more, “Knives Out” is wildly gripping and entertaining from beginning to end, harkening back to classic mystery films, and coming complete with a full-throttle unspooling of the events at its conclusion. Don’t be surprised to find Rian Johnson earning his first Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay for this crafty opus.
4. Little Women – Fresh off of garnering two Oscar nominations for her previous film, “Lady Bird,” writer/director Greta Gerwig opted to adapt Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel “Little Women,” a novel that has been brought to the screen many times before. Proving that Alcott’s tale is utterly timeless, Gerwig’s rendition brings a fresh approach to the material, telling the story in two different time periods, and weaving them together in a wonderful fashion. The other key element that makes this such a marvelous adaptation is the exceptional cast that she brought together to bring it to life (another that was mysteriously left out of SAG’s Best Cast category), including Saoirse Ronan, Timothee Chalamet, Laura Dern, Florence Pugh, Emma Watson, Chris Cooper, Tracy Letts, and Meryl Streep. Even though you’re probably quite familiar with the story at this point, Gerwig’s new telling is an absolute delight to watch, so much so that you can be sure that it will be making multiple appearances at next year’s Oscars.
3. The Farewell – Here we have one of the smaller offerings on this year’s list, but it’s one that ended up being one of the very best films of 2019. Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell” tells the story of an elderly Chinese Grandmother who gets diagnosed with cancer, but her family chooses to keep it a secret from her. Instead, they plan a wedding to bring the entire family together to see her one last time, which includes her granddaughter, who is having difficulty with having to keep the news from her “Nai Nai.” It’s an incredibly sweet and moving film, featuring great turns from the ensemble, but particularly from Awkwafina as the Granddaughter and Zhao Shuzhen as the Grandmother. Aside from these two, there’s some strong Oscar potential here, including possible nods for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay, both of which it would absolutely deserve.
2. 1917 – After being absent for a few years following his double stint at the helm of the last two James Bond films, writer/director Sam Mendes returns with one of the best war films of the last several years. On the surface, it’s the simple story of two British soldiers in World War I who are tasked with delivering a message to call off a doomed attack, which would save 1,600 lives. However, Mendes, master cinematographer Roger Deakins, and the rest of the remarkable crew take this much further by offering a fully-immersive experience that combines the look of having been done in one shot with astounding direction, editing, production design, visual effects, sound design, and more. The film is a breathtaking technical achievement that will have you gripped from the opening shot to the thrilling conclusion. Make no mistake, Mendes’ film will be a major player in the “below the line” categories at next year’s Academy Awards (it will be a crime if Deakins doesn’t get his second Oscar for this), while also having a great chance of nabbing a nod for Best Picture and getting Mendes his second win as Best Director. It is one of those incredible cinematic accomplishments that simply demands to be seen.
1. Marriage Story – Admittedly, I’ve never been a big fan of writer/director Noah Baumbach. Over the course of his career, films he’s written or co-written like “The Squid and the Whale,” “Greenberg,” “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou,” “Mistress America,” and “The Meyerowitz Stories” just didn’t impress me, and were actually forgotten pretty quickly. However, when it comes to his latest project, “Marriage Story,” he has crafted a phenomenal, hard-hitting look at the collapse of a marriage. Heart-wrenching, funny, powerful, and mesmerizing, Baumbach’s brilliant screenplay hits all the right notes, drawing you into the proceedings and never letting go. Featuring the single best ensemble of the year (and yet was mistakenly left behind by SAG), including Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson, Laura Dern, Alan Alda, and Ray Liotta, the film is destined to be one of the biggest players at next year’s Oscars. In fact, the Oscars for Best Actor (Driver) and Best Original Screenplay seem practically guaranteed, with wins for Best Picture, Best Actress (Johansson), and Best Supporting Actress (Dern) being VERY strong possibilities. With all of the great films of 2019, it was actually difficult to pick which was going to be number one, but with the very best screenplay of the year, as well as the very best cast, Baumbach’s marvelous drama just had to come out on top.
Follow me on Twitter @BeckFilmCritic.