Naming the top films of 2019 is preposterously hard; nearly every week, a new film worth seeing arrived in theaters or debuted on a streaming service, which means there’s an embarrassment of riches to choose from.
But any top movies list is, after all, partial to the taste of the person who constructs it, and looking over this year’s films, I found myself favoring movies with a spark of risk and creativity that stood apart from the safer studio fare on offer at the multiplex most weekends. And there were plenty of those more daring options to choose from in 2019.
Here are my top 21 films of 2019 and how to watch them, with a lengthy list of runners-up near the end. Every single one is worth your notice.
21) The Competition
In The Competition, French documentarian Claire Simon turns her camera on the highly selective admissions process at Paris’s famous La Fémis film school, which boasts alumni like Alain Resnais (Last Year at Marienbad), Arnaud Desplechin (My Golden Days), and Claire Denis (High Life). As hundreds of applicants gather to write an essay, participate in acting and directing exercises, and talk to a panel of judges drawn from France’s elite cinema institutions (including museums, theaters, and libraries), Simon’s camera rests in the room, observing the hopeful students and the judges as they talk to one another. Only a small number of applicants will ultimately be invited to enroll, and Simon continues filming even while the judges convene, after the applicants have left the room.
Simon taught in the directing department at La Fémis for 10 years, so she knew the place inside and out when she arrived. The Competition is very much about that specific French school, but it’s also about the kinds of “performances” that people put on when they’re trying to impress strangers — whether it’s students trying to charm admissions officers who will determine their future, or interview subjects trying to look accomplished for a documentarian’s camera.
How to watch it: After a limited theatrical release in the spring of 2019, The Competition is awaiting home release.
Ari Aster’s Midsommar, a confidently directed and operatic follow-up to 2018’s Hereditary, situates its tale of grief, breakups, and rites in northern Sweden at the height of the country’s sun season. It’s a smart choice for the story Aster wants to tell, in which four American graduate students accompany their Swedish friend home for midsummer celebrations, then find themselves entangled in pagan rituals that rock them to their core.
Midsommar is obsessed with the passage of time and the cycle of seasons, and the ways humans scramble to make sense of monumental but still ordinary life change: breakups, aging, death, and more. The film takes a quietly balanced approach to this theme; neither the modern approach of treating changes like tragedies to be mourned nor the more ancient — even pagan instinct to memorialize them with rituals and acceptance is more “civilized.” Human life is violent, nasty, and explosive. And Midsommar is, after all, a horror film — one that reminds us there’s nothing on Earth more terrifying than existence itself.
19) Portrait of a Lady on Fire
French director Céline Sciamma has often made coming-of-age films about young women, frequently exploring the ways that gender expression and sexual desire morph, shift, and evolve during youth. In Portrait of a Lady on Fire, she trains her gaze on the past, telling the story of a young painter (Noémie Merlant) near the end of the 18th century. The painter has been commissioned to make a portrait of a woman named Marianne (Adèle Haenel), who’s being pressured by her mother to get married.
The artist and her subject become close, and when Marianne’s mother leaves home for a while, desire flames to life. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a restrained film until it isn’t, and exquisite in its rendering of both the women’s relationship and the period it’s set in. It’s not just a romance ruled by the female gaze; it’s centered in a world where men rarely intrude, and thus the full gamut of female emotion and desire is on display.
How to watch it: Portrait of a Lady on Fire is currently in theaters.
18) 3 Faces
At the 2018 Cannes Film Festival premiere of Jafar Panahi’s 3 Faces, a chair was reserved for the director, with his name printed on a piece of paper taped to the back. That chair remained empty: Panahi, his wife, his daughter, and 15 of his friends had been arrested in 2010 and charged with creating propaganda against the Iranian government. The filmmaker — one of the most celebrated in Iran, if not the world — was sentenced to a six-year jail sentence and barred for 20 years from making films, writing screenplays, giving interviews to any media, or leaving the country.
But Panahi didn’t stop making films. His 2011 work This Is Not a Film (it was) was smuggled out of Iran inside a cake and had its premiere at Cannes. Two more of his films have since premiered at the Berlin Film Festival and won major awards, and 3 Faces opened in the US earlier this year.
Panahi appears as himself in 3 Faces, and so does everyone else in the film — it’s a fictional story, but populated with real people. Behnaz Jafari, a famous actress in Iran, receives a video from a young woman named Marziyeh (Marziyeh Rezaei). Marziyeh explains in the video that she has sent Jafari many messages, begging the actress to convince Marziyeh’s family to let her attend the acting conservatory in Tehran — and it appears that Marzieyeh may have since hanged herself in a cave out of despair from not being able to follow her lifelong dream. Disturbed and confused, Jafari and Panahi travel to Marziyeh’s village to investigate.
3 Faces is Panahi’s exposition of and rebuke to traditionalist ideas about women’s value and dignity in Iranian culture. A lot of what’s happening in the film is metaphorical, in conversations that seem to slyly revolve around twisted notions of masculinity, whether in a discussion of a “stud bull” that’s blocking the road, or a comically pathetic story about a son’s long-ago circumcision. 3 Faces isn’t an obvious political statement, but its sideswipe at ideologies that prevent people from reaching their full potential is present all the same.
17) Honey Boy
Honey Boy has the kind of premise that could very rapidly devour its own tail or become unconscionably sentimental. Shia LaBeouf wrote the screenplay based on his own life, and he plays his own father in the film, which runs along two parallel story tracks. In one, a 22-year-old hotshot actor named Otis — LaBeouf’s own stand-in, played by Lucas Hedges — lands in rehab after his third drunken altercation with the police, and his therapist tells him he’s suffering from PTSD. As part of his recovery, he needs to recall his relationship with his father.
In the other, 12-year-old Otis (Noah Jupe) is a successful child actor with a steady income, some of which is used to pay his father, James, who works as his chaperone (a requirement on set for child actors). LaBeouf dons a potbelly and balding mullet to play James, a felon and an addict who’s been sober for four years, and a volatile and sometimes abusive parent, though he clearly cares for, and about, his son.
If Honey Boy was strictly fictional, it probably wouldn’t work at all, because it would feel strenuously contrived to garner sympathy. But all of it is based in fact, starting from LaBeouf’s successful career as a child actor, during which he played lead roles on the 2000-2003 ABC show Even Stevens and in the 2003 movie Holes. The screenplay was written mostly while LaBeouf was in rehab following a 2017 arrest, much like we see in the film. And in the hands of director Alma Har’el (whose previous directorial work has largely been in documentary filmmaking), the film is far too knowing and lived-in to fall into the sentimentality trap.
How to watch it: Honey Boy is streaming on Amazon Prime.
16) Chinese Portrait
Chinese Portrait is a stunning trip through modern China, a vast country with a diverse population and landscapes. Independent director Wang Xiaoshuai decided to create a portrait of the Chinese citizenry and their country by making literal portraits, on film. He began traveling around China, filming long, static shots of what he saw and often asking one or two people in the frame to look directly into his camera, as if they were in a painting.
Because Wang’s camera does not move, and he provides no narration to explain where he’s filming, Chinese Portrait invites the audience to become intimately engaged with its images. To viewers, seeing the movement around the static figure looking straight at us feels like looking at a living photograph. So whether we’re watching workers at a factory, strangers on a train, or young people at a bar, what we’re seeing is a whole world, action and emotion swirling around individual people.
How to watch it: Chinese Portrait is awaiting home distribution.
15) For Sama
There have been many documentaries in recent years about the bombings and humanitarian crisis in Aleppo, and many of them have been excellent. But For Sama is a new take on the subject, and it’s truly outstanding. Waad Al-Kateab and her husband, Hamza Al-Kateab are native Syrians who were living in Aleppo when Syrians began to protest against their government and President Bashar al-Assad. Hamza is a doctor, and when the couple’s daughter, Sama, was born in 2016, the family chose to remain in Aleppo — with Hamza running a hospital — as the bombings continued.
Eventually they left, and Waad and British documentarian Edward Watts edited years of footage she’d shot in Aleppo into For Sama. The film movingly documents life in Aleppo and in Hamza’s hospital during the years-long siege while also offering an explanation, addressed to young Sama, for why her parents kept her in a dangerous place and why their work was important.
14) Wild Nights With Emily
Move over, Dickinson. The best, funniest, most affecting on-screen Emily Dickinson of 2019 arrived via Wild Nights with Emily, a movie that is a lot of things: a comedy, a historical drama, a romance, and a reimagining of a woman who’s familiar to and beloved by many. Molly Shannon plays Emily Dickinson, who — as relatively recent scholarship seems to indicate — had a lifelong love affair with her friend Susan Gilbert (played by Susan Ziegler in the film), the wife of Dickinson’s brother Austin. The affair was covered up and even literally erased by Mabel Loomis Todd (Amy Seimetz), who was both Dickinson’s first posthumous editor and Austin’s lover. (Yes, it’s a little confusing.)
These tangled circumstances gave writer and director Madeleine Olnek ample fodder for a film about Emily and Susan’s romance, which swings at times toward farce as the two women live next door to one another and try to hide their relationship, with varying degrees of success. But in telling the story, Olnek unseats an established part of the Dickinson mythology, which suggests that Emily was a lonely spinster who wrote her poems and shut them away, where they were discovered posthumously. Instead, we see Emily actively pitching her work for publication and passionately pursuing success during her lifetime. The result is a bracing, often funny reclamation of a famous woman’s life as her own — and one that, in the end, packs a true gut punch.
13) Her Smell
In Her Smell, Elisabeth Moss plays the mesmerizing whirling dervish Becky Something, the strung-out lead singer of a ’90s riot grrrl group called Something She. Shot in long, smoky, kinetic segments, the film chronicles Becky’s lowest point and slow climb out of the depths of addiction and despair. It’s thrilling, funny, and heartbreaking, with an unforgettable performance by Moss.
Her Smell seems at times bent on deconstructing the mythology of the rock star, the self-destructive genius whose appeal and inspiration lies in havoc. Maybe, the film suggests, there’s more to the archetype than that. Though it’s not always easy to watch — seeing someone try so hard to ruin their own life can be excruciating — Her Smell’s march toward something like peace for Becky, however tenuous, makes it an empathetic rather than mean-spirited look at the cost of being a celebrity and the possibility for anyone who faces similar struggles to return to the land of the living.
12) Little Women
Greta Gerwig decided to follow up her beautiful, heartfelt 2017 comedy Lady Bird with an adaptation of Little Women that boasts an inspired cast: The film’s extensive ensemble features Saoirse Ronan, Timothée Chalamet, Florence Pugh, Emma Watson, Eliza Scanlen, Meryl Streep, Laura Dern, Bob Odenkirk, Louis Garrel, Tracy Letts, and many more. It is every bit as funny and loving and heart-wrenching as Little Women has always been, throughout its many adaptations.
But for those who’ve loved the story for years, it packs a twist, interrogating the source material without disrespecting it, and thinking about what Louisa May Alcott wrote from the distance of more than 150 years. It’s not revisionist; instead, it functions like the best works of criticism, thinking about the circumstances in which a woman like Alcott would write a book like Little Women, and the world in which she lived. It’s deft, lovely, and altogether wonderful.
11) A Hidden Life
Set during World War II and based on a true story, A Hidden Life — the latest film from Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life, Badlands, Days of Heaven) — is about Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian farmer who could have lived a prosperous life if he’d agreed to swear an oath of loyalty to Hitler. But he refused. And for that act of protest, his pastoral home is shattered by a brutal regime that demands total loyalty, while his neighbors turn on him and his family.
A Hidden Life is Malick’s most overtly political film and one of his most religious, urgent, and sometimes even uncomfortable, because of what it says — to everyone, but specifically to Christians in places where they’re the majority — about the warp and weft of courage. It also seems designed to lodge barbs in a comfortable audience during an era of rising white nationalism. Instead of battlefield valor or underground daring, Malick tells a tale of something much more difficult to emulate: goodness and courage, without recognition. It’s about doing what’s right, even if it seems the outcomes hurt more than they bring good to the world.
With Peterloo, Mike Leigh (Secrets & Lies, Vera Drake, Happy-Go-Lucky) turns his attention to the 1819 Peterloo Massacre, in which the British cavalry charged into a large crowd of civilians in Manchester who had gathered to call for parliamentary representation reform. But the violence isn’t the whole story — for the situation to progress to that point, many people had to talk to each other, make plans, and voice their resistance to the government. And that’s largely what Peterloo focuses on.
Leigh’s approach to filmmaking, which emphasizes extensive character development in concert with his actors, ensures that Peterloo is anything but a conventional historical film. It’s full of memorable characters, who spend much of its runtime discussing what to do, how to do it, and whether reform is truly desirable or even possible. And the purpose of telling this story isn’t just to reenact a historical moment; it’s clear that Leigh has something to say about modern politics, and about the plight of populism 200 years after the massacre.
How to watch it: Peterloo is streaming on Amazon Prime.
9) The Farewell
Billi (Awkwafina, in a terrific, dramatic performance) lives in New York City, where she and her parents emigrated from China when she was 6 years old. But when her grandmother is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, Billi and the rest of the family gather in China. But since they haven’t told their grandmother about her diagnosis — a common practice among Chinese families — they hastily plan a wedding for Billi’s cousin as their reason for visiting.
Family drama ensues, as you might expect. But The Farewell (from writer and director Lulu Wang) never falls back on familiar beats. Instead, it crafts an engrossing tale about a family, long separated by geography, who discovers that their own internal topography is being subtly readjusted in the face of tragedy. The result is a finely tuned drama that finds humor in the everyday absurdity that comes from belonging to a family. Grief and love coexist in The Farewell, as do truth and fiction, past and present, sorrow and joy. It’s an outstanding, quietly devastating, deeply personal story, and one that’s destined to put Wang firmly on the map.
8) Black Mother
Khalik Allah’s documentary Black Mother is an astonishing film. I’m not sure whether to call it a lyrical ethnography or an immersive personal essay. All I know is it casts a spell from the start and is impossible to forget afterward.
Allah grew up traveling to visit family in Jamaica, some of whom appear in the film — most prominently his grandfather, whose voice is heard in some of the narration and who appears in the film’s imagery. There’s no “story” to Black Mother; instead, it’s a meditation on birth and death, life and gestation. The film is structured like a pregnancy, with “chapters” for each trimester and for birth, and it’s almost wholly non-diegetic, meaning the sound and the images of Jamaica’s people and landscapes are layered on top of one another, rather than synced up. The effect is dreamlike, even as Black Mother simultaneously presents a critique of Jamaica’s colonialist history and a vision of its beauty.
How to watch it: Black Mother is available to digitally rent or purchase on iTunes.
7) The Hottest August
Documentarian Brett Story is interested in how people and their places dwell alongside one another; her previous film, The Prison in 12 Landscapes, used vignettes filmed throughout the US to explore the concept of imprisonment and the many policies that govern it. For The Hottest August, Story spent August 2017 — a month of extraordinary heat, both literally (temperatures in the US hit all-time highs) and metaphorically (social and political tensions roiled in Charlottesville, Virginia, and elsewhere that month) — exploring Americans’ anxieties about the future and, in particular, the effects of climate change.
The Hottest August consists largely of on-the-spot interviews with New Yorkers, mostly in places where cinema rarely ventures — non-hipster Brooklyn, beach communities on the city’s fringes that are still recovering from Hurricane Sandy, cop bars on Staten Island. They talk about their hopes and fears for their future and their children’s futures. In the background, white nationalists march in Charlottesville, hurricanes hit Houston, and a total solar eclipse happens. Optimism, pessimism, and realism mix. And the film leaves us to draw our own conclusions about life on a planet and in a country where things seem uncertain, and hotter than ever.
How to watch it: The Hottest August is not currently available for home viewing, but you can request to host a virtual screening.
6) Uncut Gems
Uncut Gems is a movie-length panic attack, in the best way. Adam Sandler turns in the performance of his career, leaning into the role of Howard Ratner, a jewelry dealer in New York’s Diamond District who’s always on the hunt for the next big deal. He ends up in hot water when he lends an opal to Celtics player Kevin Garnett for good luck before a game, then starts pawning possessions to bet on the outcome.
Directed by brothers Josh and Benny Safdie, who drew on stories they heard from their father to make the film, Uncut Gems boasts the same heart-pounding intensity of their 2017 film Good Time, but with a bit more polish and panache. It’s a thoroughly fun thrill ride, a perfect study of a man who’s both an eternal optimist and an irrepressible screw-up. You can’t help but root for Howard — while wanting to grab him by the throat and shake some sense into him — and for the Safdies, whose command of their craft is pure pleasure to watch.
Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is the story of Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), an actor who was huge in the 1950s but whose star is fading when the movie takes place, in the late 1960s. Rick’s stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt, mesmerizing in this role), also acts as his driver, best friend, and pep talk provider. Two main stories run on parallel tracks in the film. One concerns Rick’s neighbor Sharon Tate, who is carefree, innocent, and eager to please. The other follows Rick and Cliff, and often splits into two stories of its own: Rick’s struggle to maintain his status as an actor of real worth in a changing industry, and Cliff’s brush with a group of teenage girls (and a few guys) living on an abandoned ranch that once functioned as a movie set. That group just so happens to be the Manson family.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is Tarantino’s ninth feature film, and simultaneously operates as a fairy tale, a fantasy, and a wistful elegy for a world that most of us wish we lived in — most of all, Tarantino himself. Famously obsessed with the history of cinema and its preservation, the director has recreated a world he wishes he could have worked in with such care and skill and love that, for the most part, it feels like his most personal film. It’s lots of fun, but it’s also strangely, hauntingly sad.
4) The Irishman
Time telescopes in Martin Scorsese’s newest movie, shifting back and forth through decades as old, wistful Frank narrates the tale of his life as a hitman for crime syndicate boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and then for Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino, who has somehow never worked with Scorsese until now). Which of course means the film will rightfully be compared to earlier Scorsese movies, like 1973’s Mean Streets and 1990’s Goodfellas, and not just because of the subject matter; in The Irishman, the director reunites with some of his acclaimed collaborators from those earlier films, including De Niro, Pesci, and Harvey Keitel.
Like both Mean Streets and Goodfellas — and all of Scorsese’s work, really — The Irishman is also about guilt, sin, and redemption. But with its lengthy runtime of more than three hours, this one has space to lean in two different tonal directions. The Irishman has both the frenetic swagger of Scorsese’s mob movies and the more contemplative gut wrench of his most spiritual films. It also has the maturity of an older man’s perspective, an eye cast backward on a full life. It is lively and wry and very funny, but at times it also feels like a confession, a plea for grace, not just from its protagonist but from the filmmaker himself.
How to watch it: The Irishman is streaming on Netflix.
3) The Souvenir
The Souvenir doesn’t knit its story threads together too tightly; it asks us to weave ourselves in. Joanna Hogg’s extraordinary memoir-in-a-film is about a youthful romance gone very sour, and it unfolds as a cascade of memories. Characters are not introduced so much as they first appear in the background of a scene and then, in the next, become central. Sometimes we catch a quick glimpse of a half-focused face, and by the time we figure out what we’re looking at, the film is on to the next moment. We might notice a meal here, a glance there, a still landscape while a letter is read in voiceover. Sometimes days or weeks elapse between scenes, pushing time inexorably forward.
Honor Swinton Byrne and Tilda Swinton star in art-imitates-life turns as daughter and mother, alongside Tom Burke as the younger woman’s ill-fated boyfriend. With outstanding performances from all three and a visual style marked by just a hint of sepia-tinted reminiscence, The Souvenir clearly stands out as one of 2019’s best films: pointedly personal art that somehow manages, in its specificity, to hit on something universal. It’s an exquisite work of remembrance and reckoning.
1) Tie: Parasite and Marriage Story
I’ve spent months deliberating between which of these two films would be my top pick for 2019, and finally admitted to myself that I can’t possibly choose. Each boasts unforgettable performances from their ensemble casts. Each is a true pleasure to watch, funny and tragic by turns, with the kinds of unforgettable moments that make a film stick in your memory. Each reflects a director — Bong Joon-ho (Parasite) and Noah Baumbach (Marriage Story) — working at the very top of his game, displaying admirable control of all the elements that have characterized his respective work for years.
But while both films are about families, they also couldn’t be more different. Parasite is a parable of social inequity, an often hilarious but very angry story about how the rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and everyone sucks the lifeblood from one another in the process. Marriage Story, in contrast, is also frequently hilarious — but it’s more of a portrait of a marriage that’s coming apart in some ways but growing together in others. Neither film has left me since I saw them, and I hope to watch both of them many times more.
Fiction: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Ad Astra, Atlantics, Booksmart, Diane, Gloria Bell, High Flying Bird, Hustlers, In Fabric, Knives Out, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, The Lighthouse, Light from Light, The Report, The Third Wife, The Two Popes, Under the Silver Lake, Us, Waves, The Wild Pear Tree, Wild Rose