The Best Films of 2019

Top 10 of the Year

1. Vitalina VarelaPedro Costa
2. MidsommarAri Aster
3. About EndlessnessRoy Andersson
4. Once Upon a Time in HollywoodQuentin Tarantino
5. Ad AstraJames Gray
6. ParasiteBong Joon-ho
7. The IrishmanMartin Scorsese
8. WavesTrey Edward Shults
9. A Hidden LifeTerrence Malick
10. 1917Sam Mendes

Best Film

Vitalina Varela. Pedro Costa’s darkly-lit, glacially paced character study of a woman’s grief may be one of the more obscure films in my top 10, but even in this year loaded with masterpieces, it manages to come out on top. Vitalina Varela is also the name of the non-professional actress playing herself, wandering the gloomy remnants of her deceased husband’s derelict home in a decaying Portuguese village, and as Costa studies her grief and resentment, he hypnotically slips through a series of cinematic paintings that challenge us to peel back the layers of its solemn visual poetry. His rigorous presentation of such an immersive visual style effectively sets Vitalina Varela up as a work of astounding formal beauty, meticulously rendered through static tableaux that demand patience from its audience.

The stillness of Vitalina Varela is trying and inaccessible to mainstream audiences – but sit with this and Costa’s glacial meditation on grief and contempt sinks its teeth into you.

Most Underrated

About Endlessness. Roy Andersson’s deadpan gallery of absurd dioramas is missing from the TSPDT list entirely, meaning it isn’t considered to be in the top 31 films of 2019. It is a meditation on war, loss of faith, and a binding love that pulls us through the miasma of the mundane. But even more than this, it is about exactly what its title states – the concept of infinity, which we can either perceive as soothing or terrifying. It very much follows in the style and form he has been returning to for almost 20 years of rigorously presented tableaux, though he also weaves through a voiceover which delivers observations of its scenes ranging from unassumingly basic to beautifully profound. Such is the nature of eternity’s rhythmic ebb and flow.

A stunning formal break from Andersson’s static tableaux lands halfway through About Endlessness, with his camera slowly gliding over this derelict city. Just about the definition of a cinematic painting.

Most Overrated

First Cow. This might have ended up in the top 10 if 2019 was any weaker. Unfortunately for Kelly Reichardt though, this is one of the strongest years in film history, and #4 is far too generous given the competition. Much like McCabe & Mrs Miller, First Cow often feels like it is skirting around the edges of America’s grand historical legends in the Old West, letting every instance of violence play offscreen while we sit patiently with those who traditionally go unnoticed. This is a microcosm of modern society – a region where almost everyone is an immigrant looking to tame this strange, unfamiliar environment, only to find the cogs of capitalism at work, forcing the disadvantaged into petty crime just to get ahead. With some fantastic, authentic production design on its side as well, it is certainly an admirable film, but far from the top 5 of the year.

This fable of capitalism and corruption set in 1820s Oregon is rich in its subtext and storytelling.

Best Directorial Debut

Swallow. Carlo Mirabella-Davis sets up a disturbing character study here of a housewife slowly taking back control of the life she handed over to her domineering husband – something she achieves by eating small objects like marbles, tacks, and trinkets. The oppressive lines and angles of her house feel very inspired by Todd Haynes’ psychological drama Safe, and our central character seems to blend right into the light colour palettes of her surroundings. This a very visually inspired yet uncomfortable piece of body horror, boding well for Mirabella-Davis’ future efforts.

A lot of directors can only hope of directing a debut this formally layered and stylistically lush. Swallow is very much a psychological twist on more traditional melodramas like those from Douglas Sirk.

Gem to Spotlight

The Souvenir. There is a quiet frustration in seeing haughty intellectual Anthony emotionally manipulate ambitious film student Julie in The Souvenir, but Joanna Hogg’s autobiographical self-reflection on toxic young love takes a touchingly nuanced understanding of the matter. This is a gently paced study of flawed characters, and the frequent symmetry of Hogg’s compositions is integral to the framing of this tempestuous relationship, shooting her actors through corridors and doorways that open into small, isolated frames. Julie is a woman not yet fully sure of the space she inhabits in the world, but Hogg quietly reassures us – she’s getting there, even despite her many blunders and setbacks.

Easily among the most powerful closing shots of the year in The Souvenir – a daunting frame as Julie embraces new beginnings and heads out into the world.

Best Male Performance

Adam Driver solidifies his 2010s reign with his single greatest performance in Marriage Story – a raw, naturalistic display of bitterness, regret, fury, love, and resignation. Charlie Barber is a thorny, complex character who has cheated on his wife, built a prosperous career, proved himself to be a loving father, and is now finding it all ripped away from him in his divorce. Like his wife, he makes some impulsive mistakes in the heat of the moment, and when Driver delivers venomous lines like “Everyday I wake up and I hope you’re dead!” you can feel both the savageness of the barb and the tender sensitivity of the wound it comes from. This is pure, psychological pain rendered onscreen.

Next, Brad Pitt has the slightly better year than his Once Upon a Time in Hollywood co-star Leonardo DiCaprio for also leading James Gray’s space epic, Ad Astra, with quiet introspection. Solely within Tarantino’s hang-out film though, their achievements are relatively even, displaying humour and charm as old friends ruefully coming to the end of their careers in the film industry.

Adam Driver’s greatest performance to date as Charlie Barber – a raw, naturalistic display of bitterness, regret, fury, love, and resignation.

Joaquin Phoenix’s take on the Joker in Todd Phillip’s psychological thriller is pure expressionism, like a character lifted from The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and twisted into a disturbed clown. He is hunched, painfully cackling, and unhealthily gaunt.

Al Pacino and Joe Pesci beat out their co-star Robert de Niro who sadly won’t get a mention here for The Irishman. Pacino is loud, bombastic, and incredibly likeable as the leader of the Teamsters, while Pesci comes out of retirement to play against type as the more level-headed of the two.

Coming towards the end of these mentions, Adam Sandler proves again that he is more than just a lowbrow comedian in the thriller Uncut Gems, though he still gets his own share of dark humour. His descent feels like watching a train crash in slow motion, heading towards inevitable disaster through a series of bad choices. Lastly, Song Kang-ho gives the single best performance in Parasite’s ensemble as the father of the Kim family, suffering the prejudice of his employers.

Joaquin Phoenix is a collection of askew, contorted angles in Joker. A complete commitment to the madness of the most iconic comic book villain.

Best Female Performance

Florence Pugh’s major breakthrough comes in the last year of the decade in two of 2019’s best films, Midsommar and Little Women. Her portrayal of Amy is certainly deserving of praise, but it is her performance as the severely traumatised Dani which marks her as a truly special talent worth watching. When we first meet her, she is on edge, unable to make contact with her sister, and then a few minutes later we see her at her lowest point – awful, guttural sobs erupt from deep in her chest, making the sort of noise no human should be able to make. From there, she undergoes a drastic transformation and brainwashing at the hands of the Swedish cult at the film’s centre, and in its very final shot, leaves us with an uncomfortably cathartic smile in close-up. 

Pugh’s co-star in Little Women gets the second mention of the year – Saoirse Ronan gives the definitive take on literary heroine Jo March, beating out Katharine Hepburn with a performance that is bleeding with all the contradictions of adolescence and young adulthood. She is self-assured yet insecure, intelligent but reckless. Her line deliveries are so natural, stumbling over herself as she laments the position women are relegated to in society as wives, while expressing a profound loneliness in the exact same line.  

Trauma and catharsis in Florence Pugh’s character arc, finding the terror in both.

The second-last mention in this category rivals the two above her – Scarlett Johansson gives her most purely realistic performance to date in Marriage Story, chipping away at her image as sex symbol and revealing the true ugliness of divorce. Quite essentially, her rapport with Adam Driver opens up an incredibly rich, bitter relationship between them, and those scenes where they are just going at each other’s throats are some of the best. Johansson has proven her range before, but this still feels like yet another level for her.

A little bit below these towering top 3 performances is Haley Bennett for her work in Swallow. There is so much going on in those eyes, at times looking completely dazed and entranced, yet slowly clearing over the course of her character’s awakening. Laura Dern doesn’t have nearly as much screen time as Johansson playing her lawyer in Marriage Story, but she is a real scene stealer. Sometimes you’re not sure whether you love her or hate her, but this only speaks to the nuances she brings to the part.

The definitive Jo March put to film, even beating out Katharine Hepburn’s.

Best Cinematography: Vitalina Varela

1. Vitalina VarelaLeonardo Simões
2. 1917Roger Deakins
3. MidsommarPawel Pogorzelski
4. About EndlessnessGergely Pálos
5. A Hidden LifeJorg Widmer
6. Ad AstraHoyte van Hoytema
7. Once Upon a Time in HollywoodRobert Richardson
8. WavesDrew Daniels
9. JokerLawrence Shur
10. SwallowKatelin Arizmendi
11. ParasiteHong Kyung-pyo
12. The SouvenirDavid Raedeker
13. Portrait of a Lady on FireClaire Mathon
14. Little WomenYorick Le Saux
15. The LighthouseJarin Blaschke
16. The IrishmanRodrigo Pietro
Dilapidated architecture and suffocating darkness presses in on Costa’s characters from virtually every direction, you can barely tell the difference between interiors and exteriors.

Best Editing: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

1. Once Upon a Time in HollywoodFred Raskin
2. Little WomenNick Huoy
3. A Hidden LifeRehman Nizar Ali, Joe Gleason, Sebastian Jones
4. MidsommarLucian Johnston
5. WavesTrey Edward Shults, Isaac Hagy
6. Marriage StoryJennifer Lame
7. ParasiteYang Jin-mo
8. The IrishmanThelma Schoonmaker
9. The LighthouseLouise Ford
10. JokerJeff Growth
11. Uncut GemsRonald Bronstein, Benny Safdie
Much of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood drifts by at a comfortable pace, but Fred Raskin also knows how to turn the tension up in the Spahn Ranch scene, and of course the build-up to the final, violent confrontation.

Best Screenplay: Marriage Story

1. Marriage StoryNoah Baumbach
2. ParasiteBong Joon-ho, Han Jin-won
3. MidsommarAri Aster
4. The IrishmanSteven Zaillian
5. Once Upon a Time in HollywoodQuentin Tarantino
6. The LighthouseRobert Eggers, Max Eggers
7. Little WomenGreta Gerwig
8. Ad AstraJames Gray, Ethan Gross
9. The SouvenirJoanna Hogg
10. Uncut GemsRonald Bronstein, Josh Safdie, Benny Safdie
11. About EndlessnessRoy Andersson
12. Portrait of a Lady on FireCéline Sciamma
13. A Hidden LifeTerrence Malick
14. SwallowCarlo Mirabella-Davis
Noah Baumbach writes the character relationships of Marriage Story with so much moral complexity and sincerity, committing to the realism of their many-layered conflicts.

Best Original Music Score: Midsommar

1. MidsommarBobby Krlic
2. A Hidden LifeJames Newton Howard
3. 1917Thomas Newman
4. ParasiteJung Jae II
5. JokerHildur Guonadottir
6. Little WomenAlexandre Desplat
7. The LighthouseMark Korven
8. Marriage StoryRandy Newman
9. SwallowNathan Halpern
10. WavesTrent Reznor, Atticus Ross
11. Uncut GemsOneohtrix Point Never
12. Ad AstraMax Richter
Bobby Krlic’s score for Midsommar wails with its characters and shimmers with the dazzling, bright daylight – remarkable and unconventional scoring for a horror film.

Year Breakdown

2019 is the best year of film this decade, and the only real competition is 2017 – but not even that can compete with the seven masterpieces here. When you have a film as strong as 1917 just barely cracking the top 10 list, you know that there are going to be some brilliant ones left off, so it is worth shouting out Little Women, Marriage Story, and Portrait of a Lady on Fire which would all make appearances in any ordinary year. This is also the year before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the industry hard and sunk the quality of films for a short while – perhaps the universe knew what was coming and lined this up for us.

I am sorely uneducated on Pedro Costa’s career (the only other film of his I have seen is 1997’s admirable Ossos), but Vitalina Varela feels huge for him, landing in the #1 spot of an already crowded year. In fact, there is a huge wealth of established auteurs working at the height of the powers and creating their single best films to date – Bong Joon-ho (Parasite), James Gray (Ad Astra), Ari Aster (Midsommar), Sam Mendes (1917), Greta Gerwig (Little Women), and Noah Baumbach (Marriage Story) to name a few. Meanwhile, Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese, and Terrence Malick are heading towards the tail-end of their careers, and yet are still putting out hugely impressive works of cinema that land in the top 10 of the year.

Parasite makes history in multiple ways this year, dominating the awards circuit and playing to both arthouse and mainstream audiences. It grosses almost $300 million, wins the Palme d’Or, becomes the first non-English language film to win Best Picture at the Oscars, and climbs to the #1 spot on Letterboxd’s ‘Top 250 Narrative Feature Films’ list. It is also the third film in history after The Lost Weekend (1945) and Marty (1955) to win both big prizes at the Academy Awards and Cannes Film Festival.

Parasite dominates the awards circuit in 2019 with its painful evisceration of Korea’s class hierarchy.

Thematically, Bong’s film is part of a 2019 trend which saw socially-conscious films take aim at class inequality, joining Us, Knives Out, Hustlers, and The Last Black Man in San Francisco in this vein. This may speak less to what’s going on in the world of cinema than it does the world at large though, with directors using the medium as an outlet for their own frustrations and filtering them through a wide expansive of genres.

Despite the Parasite-mania, Avengers: Endgame is the bigger talking point among mainstream audiences at large, becoming the highest grossing film of the year, and the second-highest grossing film of all time. It also ends a massive decade-spanning saga in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It is an entertaining watch, but there is little argument to be had regarding its value as a piece of art. The superior comic book movie of the year is quite easily Joker, which features some brilliant expressionistic filmmaking from Todd Phillips and one of the genre’s finest performances from Joaquin Phoenix.

It’s official – Malick is back on form with A Hidden Life, recovering from his post-Tree of Life slump.

Film Archives

1917Sam MendesMS
A Beautiful Day in the NeighbourhoodMarielle HellerR
A Hidden LifeTerrence MalickMS
About EndlessnessRoy AnderssonMP
Ad AstraJames GrayMP
BombshellJay RoachR
BooksmartOlivia WildeR
ChernobylJohan RenckR
Doctor SleepMike FlanaganR
El Camino: A Breaking Bad MovieVince GilliganR
Extremely Wicked, Shocking Evil and VileJoe BerlingerR
First CowKelly ReichhardtHR
Ford v FerrariJames MangoldR
HustlersLorene ScafariaR
I Lost My BodyJérémy ClapinR
Jojo RabbitTaika WaititiR
JokerTodd PhillipsHR
KlausSergio PablosR
Knives OutRian JohnsonR
Little WomenGreta GerwigMS
Marriage StoryNoah BaumbachMS
MidsommarAri AsterMP
Once Upon a Time in HollywoodQuentin TarantinoMP
ParasiteBong Joon-hoMP
Portrait of a Lady on FireCéline SciammaMS
Richard JewellClint EastwoodR
RocketmanDexter FletcherR
Sound of MetalDarius MarderR
SwallowCarlo Mirabella-DavisHR/MS
The FarewellLulu WangR/HR
The IrishmanMartin ScorseseMS/MP
The Last Black Man in San FranciscoJoe TalbotR
The LighthouseRobert EggersHR
The Peanut Butter FalconTyler Nilson, Michael SchwartzR
The SouvenirJoanna HoggHR
The Two PopesFernando MeirellesR
Toy Story 4Josh CooleyR
Uncut GemsThe Safdie BrothersHR
UsJordan PeeleR
Vitalina VarelaPedro CostaMP
WavesTrey Edward ShultsMS/MP


American FactorySteven Bognar, Julia Reichert
HoneylandTamara Kotevska, Ljubomir Stefanov
For SamaWaad Al-Kateab, Edward Watts
FyreChris Smith
Honeyland is unusually beautiful for a documentary, soaking in the golden hues of the sunlight, and observing the daily routines of a reclusive Macedonian beekeeper.

Short Films

NimicYorgos Lanthimos
Nimic is Yorgos Lanthimos’ brief experiment with short filmmaking, but with its eerie copycat premise, it is just as absurd as anything else he has made.

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