Looking Back: Adam Frazier Picks His Top 10 Favorite Movies of 2019
by Adam Frazier
December 31, 2019
Over the last 12 months, I've seen more than 125 new releases — that's over ten days in total spent watching movies — and I'm happy to report that it's been another exceptional year at the multiplex. This year, we got to see vital new work from visionary filmmakers like Bong Joon-ho, Martin Scorsese, Greta Gerwig, Quentin Tarantino, Jordan Peele, Lulu Wang, and Shin'ichirô Ueda, whose zombie comedy One Cut of the Dead is one of the most unique and refreshingly original horror movies of the year. We witnessed great performances from Awkwafina, Adam Driver, Lupita Nyong'o, Scarlett Johansson, Eddie Murphy, Florence Pugh, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lopez, and Adam Sandler. And we were all left in awe by stunning cinematic art like 1917, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and The Lighthouse – works of impeccable craftsmanship by the cinematographers, production designers, and costume designers alike.
If you're into genre movies, 2019 brought us many impressive horror, science fiction, and fantasy titles like James Gray's Ad Astra, Mike Flanagan's Doctor Sleep, Claire Denis' High Life, Julia Hart's Fast Color, Ari Aster's Midsommar, Issa López's Tigers Are Not Afraid, and Jordan Peele's Us. If popcorn flicks are your thing, there were blockbuster spectacles like Avengers: Endgame, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, the kick-ass action movie John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum, and delightful whodunnit Knives Out. And for fans of documentaries, we were engaged and inspired by Apollo 11, Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror, What's My Name: Muhammad Ali, Hail Satan?, The Black Godfather.
Below are my ten favorite films from 2019. Please note that this does not mean they are the year's "best" films – you can also visit GoldDerby for a complete list of Best Picture predictions if that's your thing. No, these are the movies that affected me most – the ones I cannot wait to watch over and over again. Also included is a formidable list of honorable mentions (found at the bottom of the post) that reflects just how strong of a year it's been for cinema. So what did I enjoy the most? Which are my favorites? Let's find out.
#10. The Irishman
Adapted from Charles Brandt's 2004 book I Heard You Paint Houses, Martin Scorsese's gangster epic The Irishman features a trio of spectacular performances by – Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci. The biographical crime thriller follows Frank Sheeran (De Niro) as he recalls his time working for the Bufalino crime family and his involvement with Jimmy Hoffa's disappearance in 1975. While Scorsese's 2016 film about priests in Japan, Silence, was his most personal and deeply affecting work, The Irishman is the summation of everything the director – known for Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, and The Departed – has learned and done in his career to this point. It's often humorous, occasionally profound, and extremely entertaining, making its lengthy runtime (209 minutes) an enjoyable and undemanding experience.
Co-written and directed by Sam Mendes (of Road to Perdition, Skyfall), 1917 is the year's most stunning technical achievement in filmmaking. Based on a story told to Mendes by his grandfather, the film follows two young British soldiers, Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) who, at the height of the World War I in northern France, are given a seemingly impossible mission to deliver an important message across enemy lines. Using long takes and elaborately choreographed camera moves, 1917 feels more like an immersive virtual reality experience than just a film; you are inside the narrative, pushing forward alongside the characters through one continuous take. Mendes, cinematographer Roger Deakins, and editor Lee Smith capture the horrors of trench warfare with devastating effect, and MacKay delivers an emotional payload with his stirring, shell-shocked performance.
#8. Little Women
Despite being the seventh film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's 1868 novel, Greta Gerwig's new take on Little Women is as high-spirited, effervescent, and relevant as any of this year's more original offerings. Gerwig, who wrote and directed the Academy Award-nominated 2017 comedy-drama Lady Bird, delivers a warm, sensitive, and smart retelling of Alcott's timeless story with an incredible ensemble including Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Laura Dern, Timothée Chalamet, Meryl Streep. With polished direction and strong writing, splendid performances, and elegant costuming and production design, Little Women is one of the most positively charming movies of the year. Gerwig's film has all the bells and whistles of an awards season period piece with the heart and personality of a contemporary indie.
#7. The Peanut Butter Falcon
The Peanut Butter Falcon is unquestionably the feel-good movie of 2019. Co-written and co-directed by filmmakers Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, both making their feature debut, the film follows Zak (Zack Gottsagen), a young man with Down syndrome, who escapes from his assisted living facility in North Carolina to pursue a dream of becoming a professional wrestler. He befriends Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), an outlaw on the run, who promises to take the young man to the wrestling school of his hero: "Salt Water Redneck" (Thomas Haden Church). An absolute joy to watch, Nilson & Schwartz's uplifting modern-day Mark Twain story has an Andre the Giant-sized heart and soulful performances by LeBeouf, Gottsagen, and Dakota Johnson and fun cameos by wrestling legends Jake "The Snake" Roberts and Mick Foley.
#6. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
Co-written and directed by J.J. Abrams (Star Trek, Super 8, Mission: Impossible III), Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker has proven to be as divisive & controversial as its predecessor, The Last Jedi. For me, however, the fast-paced, action-packed final chapter of the Skywalker Saga brings the series to a satisfying and emotionally resonant conclusion. Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, John Boyega, and Oscar Isaac are all excellent, and supporting turns by Star Wars veterans Ian McDiarmid, Mark Hamill, Anthony Daniels, and Billy Dee Williams are equally strong. With dazzling visuals conjured by cinematographer Dan Mindel, special effects and make-up artist Neal Scanlan, and the jaw-dropping work of Industrial Light & Magic, The Rise of Skywalker is a thrilling cinematic experience for fans of that galaxy far, far away.
#5. Knives Out
Written and directed by Rian Johnson (Brick, Looper), Knives Out is simply delightful. With its star-studded cast, impeccable production design, and clever wordplay, this whodunnit mystery is one of the most entertaining movies of the year. It's the kind of movie where you can just tell that everyone involved had a total blast making it; the relaxed nature of the set and the enthusiasm for the project give the filmmaking and performances a confidence and charm that few movies have. The energy created is infectious, making for an engaging film-going experience where you're completely invested in solving the case while taking tremendous satisfaction in watching the assorted weasels, vipers, and sycophants of the Thrombey family get what they deserve. The only thing more satisfying is having a master storyteller like Rian Johnson reveal everything to you in a way that makes you kick yourself because you didn't see it coming from the start.
#4. The Farewell
Filmmaker Lulu Wang's second feature, The Farewell, follows a Chinese-American family who, upon learning their grandmother (Zhao Shuzhen) has cancer and only months to live, decide not to tell her and travel to China for a family gathering before she dies. At the heart of the story is Billi (Awkwafina, seen in Ocean's 8 and Crazy Rich Asians), an aspiring writer living in New York City who is extremely close with her Nai-Nai and considers exposing the family's lie while there. Wang's film, based on her own personal experiences, is a poignant examination of family dynamics and cultural traditions, exploring the Eastern concept of collectivism — allowing the family to bear the emotional burden of the diagnosis, rather than Nai-Nai herself — versus the individualism of Western culture. Exquisitely crafted by Lulu Wang and her cinematographer, Anna Franquesa Solano, The Farewell is sweet, hilarious, and intensely touching, with award-worthy performances by both Awkwafina and Zhao Shuzhen (as Nai-Nai).
#3. Avengers: Endgame
With Avengers: Endgame, directors/brothers Anthony Russo and Joe Russo, along with co-writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, have delivered an emotionally satisfying and viscerally thrilling movie that works not only as a follow-up to Avengers: Infinity War but wraps up over a decade's worth of character arcs and story threads, making for a gratifying and cathartic experience for fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. "Epic" doesn't really do this movie justice – it's like Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi, Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and The Dark Knight Rises combined into one massively entertaining feature, with Marvel's signature blend of perfectly balanced humor, action, and gravitas.
#2. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood
Set in 1969 in Los Angeles, Tarantino's Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood tells the story of Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), former star of the western series Bounty Law, and his longtime stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), as they struggle to make it in a Hollywood they don't seem to recognize anymore. The film, written and directed by cinematic provocateur Quentin Tarantino (of Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained, The Hateful Eight), blends reality and revenge fantasy to create a vibrant and delightfully unrestrained love letter to Hollywood's golden age that features Roman Polanski (Rafał Zawierucha) and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), the Manson Family, and even Bruce Lee (Mike Moh). Tarantino's ninth feature film is simply a blast from beginning to end with an amazing soundtrack, gorgeous cinematography, incredible performances, and the most satisfying ending I've seen all year.
Bong Joon-ho has made a number of fantastic films, including The Host, Mother, and Snowpiercer. With Parasite, the South Korean filmmaker makes his first masterpiece. A pitch-black comedy thriller laced with social commentary, Parasite tells the tale of two families: the wealthy Parks and the street-smart but destitute Kims. The two groups are brought together when members of the Kim family install themselves as skilled workers, unrelated to each other, in the Parks' home. As the Parks' English tutor (Choi Woo-shik), art therapist (Park So-dam), chauffeur (Song Kang-ho), and housekeeper (Chang Hyae-jin), the Kims form a symbiotic relationship with the affluent family, but when a parasitic meddler threatens the Kims' newfound comfort, a savage battle for control breaks out, threatening to destroy the fragile ecosystem between the two families.
Bong Joon-ho's scathing satire refuses to stay one kind of movie for long, displaying a kind of genre fluidity that very few movies can pull off. The filmmaker's masterful use of framing and composition, combined with the strength of cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo's visual vocabulary, makes for a gorgeous and energetic but uneasy film, where there's filth and decay under every lovely, painstakingly polished surface. Parasite is the most timely and original film of 2019 and my favorite film of the year.
Honorable Mentions: Uncut Gems*, Apollo 11, Us, Midsommar, Dolemite Is My Name, One Cut of the Dead, The Lighthouse, Rocketman, Doctor Sleep, It: Chapter Two, Tigers Are Not Afraid, Horror Noire: The History of Black Horror, The Art of Self-Defense, Spider-Man: Far From Home, Booksmart, Ready or Not, Marriage Story, Jojo Rabbit, Ford v Ferrari, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.
*Uncut Gems is, without question, one of the best films of the year but, considering it's a nerve-shredding 135-minute anxiety attack, I can't place it in my Top 10 favorites because I can't imagine ever revisiting it, though I'm sure I'll recommend it to anyone who will listen. I should’ve learned my lesson with Good Time – I’m never watching another Safdie Brothers feature again without taking two Xanax beforehand.
Recommended Streaming Series: True Detective (Season 3), Watchmen, The Mandalorian, The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, Who Killed Garrett Phillips?, The Righteous Gemstones, Los Espookys, Mindhunter (Season 2), Stranger Things (Season 3), Leaving Neverland.
What do you think of Adam's Top 10 films of 2019? Do you agree or disagree with his picks?