The Best Films of 2019
As the year draws to a close, the race toward award season truly begins. We currently find ourselves in the thick of Proper Film season, with Oscar contenders like The Irishman and Marriage Story just hitting cinemas, and gems like Palme d'Or winner Parasite still to come in 2020.
With Netflix emptying its pockets in the hope of a big Oscar win, you don't even need to leave the house this winter to see some excellent movies. Arthouse films are getting cinematic and streaming releases, films derided as blockbusters are getting huge budgets, and smart horror films like Us are winning critical acclaim. There's truly something out there for everyone.
Here are the best things we've caught this year so far.
Director Noah Baumbach is an expert at unpicking relationships: whether that of siblings in The Meyerowitz Stories, children and their parents in The Squid and the Whale, or partners and their friends in While We're Young. His latest is his finest yet, offering a compassionate portrait of divorce through couple Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson). Both performances are exceptionally moving and very funny, as are supporting roles from Laura Dern and Ray Liotta.
Baumbach comes to the story from his own experience of separation and custody battles, and one argument scene between Nicole and Charlie—which Baumbach says is "one of the most difficult things I’ve done as a director"—is as brutal as a boxing match.
Martin Scorsese assembles a cast of infamous gangsters for an epic farewell to a career spent telling the stories of mobs and the criminal underworld. His latest centers on Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), who reflects on a life spent carrying out misdemeanors in the name of Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and later, Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino).
Thanks to CGI de-aging technology—which almost never falters—we get the feel of a generation-spanning story as the three actors play themselves over several decades. The Irishman has all the grit and violence of a Scorsese film, but here he looks into the mirror and addresses regret and guilt too, and with powerful results.
Dolemite is my Name
If the phrase 'Eddie Murphy Oscar buzz' catches you off-guard, you're not alone. But that's exactly the reaction the comedy stalwart is getting for his turn as Seventies blaxploitation star Rudy Ray Moore. Moore was a comedian, singer and actor, best known for playing Dolemite in a series of 1970s films about a pimp with a penchant for telling obscene stories.
Unlike the middling recent reboots in the genre, such as Shaft and Proud Mary, Dolemite is my Name is hilariously brash and truly puts Eddie Murphy back on the map.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco
Buzzy film studio A24 has several horses in the award season race this year, one of which is this stylish and moving story of Jimmie (Jimmie Fails) and best friend Mont (Jonathan Majors) trying to reclaim the house his grandfather built in San Francisco's Filmore District.
While it's an effective rebuke of the gentrification that has swallowed the city—San Francisco has had the highest rent of any city in the world for several years—it's quietly sad about the fate of the poor, instead of enraged or emboldened. A resignation to their fate which sees Jimmie utter the line “You never really own shit”. Like A24's The Florida Project, the film's colorful and bold style lends it a feeling of being a surreal fairytale.
The 50th anniversary of the moon landing has seen multiple dramatizations and documentaries of the historic event. What sets this one apart is how the astonishing and extensive footage is left alone, allowed to truly transport you to the summer of 1969.
Director Todd Douglas Miller focuses on the precise and mundane details of the mission, which makes landing two men on a rock 238,000 miles away seem even more like lunacy. There's also brilliant flavor of the public excitement surrounding the event, like a woman combing her hair while sitting on a car bonnet and waiting to see the spacecraft enter the sky.
Director Lulu Wang first shared the story of her grandmother's terminal cancer diagnosis, and how the family kept it a secret from grandma “Nai Nai”, on an episode of the podcast, This American Life, later turning it into a film script. In the dramatization, Billie (a never-better Awkwafina) returns to see her Nai Nai in Changchun, China, the farewell disguised as the wedding of her cousin.
The conflict between the family in the East and those who left for the West gives humorous tension, with one telling Billi as though breaking bad news: "You're not that skinny!" Elsewhere the neon-lit markets and sizzling fried food stalls of Changchun capture the sense of walking through streets that feel half-familiar but totally alien.
Once Upon a Time In Hollywood
Quentin Tarantino ninth feature film stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, and Margot Robbie in a story about two aging film stars and Sharon Tate, all set against the backdrop of Charles Manson's cult and Los Angeles in the summer of 1969.
Featuring an unusually comic but brilliant performance from Leo, and a turn from Pitt which reminds you just how good he is, Tarantino's ode to the cinema of the past is filled with easter eggs for cinephiles. Throw in a killer wardrobe and lively soundtrack and it's three hours well worth slipping into.
The latest biopic from Amy and Senna director Asif Kapadia focuses on the story of the greatest footballer there ever was, Diego Maradona. It's a tale that has it all: shady mobsters, a secret love child, a Shakespearian fall from grace and the "Goal of the Century", according to FIFA anyway.
Told through interviews with his friends, family, coaching staff and the man himself, the documentary charts his troubled time at Napoli between 1984 and 1991. While those familiar with the story of Napoli and Argentina legend Diego Maradona might not glean much new information, there's still joy to be found in the retro kits, lo-fi footage and balletic movements across the pitch.
Another A24 release, Gloria Bell is a near shot-by-shot remake of 2013 Spanish film Gloria, made by the same director, Sebastian Lelio. The titular character, played superbly by Julianne Moore, is a middle-aged divorcée partying her away around Los Angeles until she meets a kindred spirit who she starts a precarious relationship with.
As well as being visually alive, there's a carefree abandon to the film, flipping the typically dour topic of single older women into something that feels more like a bro comedy in parts, and we mean that in the best way possible.
Actress Olivia Wilde makes her directorial debut with this sharp comedy about two friends Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein) who reach the end of their time in school and realise they have traded their social lives for academic prowess, while their friends who were less fastidious are also headed for the Ivy Leagues.
As has been the journey for many teen comedies, they embark on one wild night out to remedy being nerds in the past, with chaotic results. Booksmart delivers laughs and heart as well as nailing Gen Z in a way that feels fresh rather than just trying to be a woke Superbad.
Following the surprising success of Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody last year, this Taron Egerton-fronted exploration of the life of Reginald Kenneth Dwight—that's Elton John to you and I—will likely be followed by the story of every aging singer under the sun.
That's not necessarily a bad thing if this film is used as inspiration for those that follow. With excellent performances from Richard Madden, Bryce Dallas Howard, and Jamie Bell, as well as Egerton's impressive belting out of the classics, Rocketman avoids being overly mawkish, and instead leans into the theatrical fun of this life. This isn't to say there aren't plenty of emotional moments—in fact, it means they hit harder when they do come.
Cementing Robert Pattinson's status as one of the most daring actors working today, High Life comes from beguiling French director Claire Denis. Pattinson plays Monte, a man isolated in deep space with his infant daughter. He is one of a group of criminals who believe they are participating in a sexual experiment in space in exchange for their freedom.
Though there's a "fuck box" and frequent masturbation, as enforced by Juliette Binoche's depraved character, sex here is unsettling and bleakly clinical. Like all the best sci-fi, it asks difficult questions about the progress of humanity, but it still manages to turn the conventions of space dramas on their heads in the process.
Growing up online is rarely captured well in film. Either technology is used to make a point about the decay of childhood innocence or it's clumsily inserted to prove the filmmakers are down with the latest hip app. Refreshingly, former YouTube star Bo Burnham's first feature film manages to unpick the problem of portraying the lonely, mundane, tragic and amusing world of being a teenager glued to their phone.
In it 13-year-old Kayla (Elsie Fischer) tries to make it past the social potholes of the final week of middle school, from pool parties to overstating her romantic experience. Muddling through growing pains with her father and hoping there are more friends waiting for her in high school, it's a touching and refreshingly honest look at girlhood.
Elisabeth Moss, best known for her portrayal of Offred in the adaptation of dystopian drama The Handmaid's Tale and her role as Peggy in Mad Men, has well and truly defied any typecasting this year. First superbly playing a rosé-swilling and botox-loving airhead in Jordan Peele's horror Us, she now acts as a self-destructive nineties rocker in Her Smell.
She plays Becky, the lead vocalist of a punk band starring Agyness Deyn and Amber Heard, under threat from another younger group, played by Ashley Benson and Cara Delevingne. Her downward spiral makes for uncomfortable watching, as she abuses her band, her mother, management and ex-husband in fits of rage, and isolates herself as the years go by.
This directorial debut from actor Jonah Hill follows a neglected boy who is drawn to a group of older kids who spend their days smoking, skating and indulging in reckless impulses. In the film 13-year-old Stevie's attempts to join in have, unsurprisingly, tragic consequences as, much like with skateboarding, he has to learn by falling over again and again.
What might have been a clichéd look at the perils of boyhood is made more real by Hill leaning into the darkness and violence that has long been a hallmark of growing up amongst a group of men.
Another road trip ends in disaster in Jordan Peele's follow-up to his Oscar-winning racial satire Get Out. Us starts when a young Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong'o) wanders off from her parents at a seaside funfair and comes face to face with a traumatic sight. Years later she returns with her husband Gabe (Winston Duke) and their young children. One night, versions of themselves standing hand in hand in red robes appear at the end of their driveway.
As the evening unfolds it becomes clear they are not alone and that across America, doppelgängers are rising up. Unlike Get Out it fits more neatly into the horror box and while it does make some interesting social commentary about a divided America and the horrors within us, the film is at it's best when leaning into the full thrill ride of a wild horror movie.
Fighting With My Family
Stephen Merchant directs this true story of a foul-mouthed family of wrestlers from Norwich who are thrown into the big leagues when their daughter is selected for the WWE roster in America. It's a story not often seen on screen—that of a working-class girl making it across the pond—as Paige becomes the youngest ever holder of the Divas Champion title.
With a cast that includes Lena Headey, Nick Frost, Jack Lowden and Vince Vaughn as well as containing some of the best one-liners of the year ("I’ve never had rectal bleeding before, but I’m pretty sure I’m not a fan of that") the family in the ring will leave you surprisingly little misty-eyed by the end.
A Private War
The extraordinary life of war correspondent Marie Colvin is retold in this biopic which counts down the journeys she took to the most dangerous and desperate parts of the world, culminating in her final trip to Syria in 2012.
It's a role that shows Rosamund Pike deserves brilliant material, as we see her grapple with the PTSD and alcoholism that plagued Colvin and the relentless determination that drove her to keep going.
The film flits between scenes on the ground, like the moment she lost her eye to shrapnel while reporting in Sri Lanka, and the award ceremonies and cocktail parties recognizing her achievements back in London. Like Marie's reporting, which made the unimaginable scale of war feel small and real, A Private War is a reminder of the human cost of war, not least as it ends at the moment she is killed.
Esquire cover star Mahershala Ali picked up his second Oscars in three years for the film which also went on to win the 'Best Picture' Oscar. In follows the real story of a tour of the deep south Jamaican-American pianist Don Shirley (Ali) took with his driver, former bouncer Tony "Lip" Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) in the 1960s.
Both Ali and Mortensen's performances balance comedy and candor and have on-screen chemistry and warmth with each other that carries the film. Another strong and largely unsung performance comes from Linda Cardellini who plays Lip's wife.
A satirical thriller set in the art scene of Los Angeles, Velvet Buzzsaw satisfyingly skewers the critics and collectors of this underworld and sees Jake Gyllenhaal reunited with Nightcrawler director Dan Gilroy.
Here pretentious installations and vapid art enthusiasts are the primary target, think "Kindergarten go-pro" exhibitions and people asking "are those the new Persols?" in response to somebody wearing optician-issue light sensitivity glasses. The supporting cast of Toni Collette, Zawe Ashton, Tom Sturridge make an excellent pack of wheelers and dealers trying to cash in on the work of an unknown dead artist. Thankfully justice is served in gruesome fashion when the work comes to life and goes after this pack of reprobates.
Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Melissa McCarthy trades her comedy stripes for a more serious role in the true story of Lee Israel, an author who falls on hard times and turns to forging the letters of celebrities and prominent writers like Noël Coward.
Encouraged by eccentric new friend Jack, played with typical gusto by Richard E. Grant, her forgeries take on a life of their own and land her in trouble with the law. Coming at time where the world is thirsty for stories about scamming, Can You Ever Forgive Me? pits these two loveable villains against the rest of the world and has you rooting for them.
Tragically under-nominated at the Oscars, it more than deserved its acting nods and the 'Best adapted screenplay' category for its incredible one-liners and brilliant sparring dialogue between Lee and Jack.
A period drama with Olivia Colman as mad Queen Anne and Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone as the ladies of the court who compete for her attention and try to manipulate her, The Favourite is a period drama that's light on the customs of court and heavy on the violence and betrayal.
It comes from Yorgos Lanthimos, the director who bought us The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, though anyone fearing anything bizarre and high concept as those two may be relieved to hear it's a more conventional film, and one with plenty of humor.
Playing Anne, Colman creates a figure who audiences will not so much love to hate, but find themselves grudgingly adoring for her eccentric whims, whether it's lobster racing in her bedroom, bathing in mud or letting her army of pet rabbits loose in the castle. A role that deservedly won her the 'Best Actress' Oscar and in turn led to the best speech at the Oscars in some time.
Chronicling a boy's descent into meth addiction and the repeated relapses that follow, Beautiful Boy is told through the eyes of David (Steve Carell), a father who watches his son, Nic (Timothée Chalamet) gradually be consumed by the drug.
Beautiful Boy comes from Brad Pitt's Plan B studio who has had a string great films including 12 Years a Slave, The Big Short, and Moonlight. While Carell doesn't always convince as the desperate father, Chalamet cements his status as one of the most exciting actors of the moment after his Oscar-nominated performance in Call Me By Your Name last year.
"I can handle the more mundane jobs," Dick Cheney says in Vice while president Bush looks confused and chews on a chicken leg. "Overseeing bureaucracy, military, energy and err foreign policy."
"Yeah, right. I like that," Bush says nodding slowly.
Coming from dark comedy expert Adam McKay (The Big Short), Vice stars Christian Bale as former VP Dick Cheney, Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush and Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld. The biopic charts Cheney's ascent from the early days of the Nixon White House to becoming 'the most powerful Vice President in history.'
If Beale Street Could Talk
The Moonlight follow-up from director Barry Jenkins is another Oscars snub that we're still reeling from. Adapted from James Baldwin's novel of the same name, If Beale Street Could Talk is a love story set in 1970s Harlem which in similar vein to Moonlight manages to make a profound statement about the power of love in the most testing of times. When 22-year-old Fonny (Stephan James) is falsely accused of rape he is imprisoned causing his 19-year-old fiancée Tish (KiKi Lane) to fight to free him before the birth of their first child.
James and Layne are both impressive, as is Regina King as Tish's mother, a role that has earned her an Academy Award nomination. It's a film that glows with love and pain and features gorgeous colors and costumes as well as serving as a timely criticism of the skewered justice system in America.
This story originally appeared on Esquire.co.uk. Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.