10 best movies of 2019

Michael Brzezinski:

10) “Hustlers” (Dir. Lorene Scafaria)

What had all the potential in the world to be a disposable camp fest about strippers robbing wall street bigwigs thankfully turned out to be a pointed and touching look at economic desperation and the bonds that it forms. Lorene Scarfaria boosts some very magnetic and audacious form that locks the viewer into her morally grey and emotionally complex world. On top of all of this, Jennifer Lopez gives the performance of an absolute lifetime.


9) “Transit” (Dir. Chirstian Petzold)

By far the most quietly ambitious work from this year. Anna Seghers’ 1942 novel is adapted transposed onto modern day Paris as a political statement on the cyclical nature of fascist terror. A constant sense of confusion and bubbling anxiety underlies every waking moment of this film making it genuinely one of the most transfixing and unforgettable experiences. 


8) “Honey Boy” (Dir. Alma Har’el)

A cinematic confessional unlike anything you have ever seen before. Raw, beautiful, painful, and so full of life and reflection. Shia LaBeouf’s harrowing yet comforting autobiography transcends every idea of what it means to make art that represents you. Alma Har’el’s direction is sensitive and lived-in and the trio of lead performances create a once-in-a-lifetime screen dynamic. I’ve seen it three times now and with every viewing, my heart hurts a little more but Shia is back and he’s here to stay.


7) “Pain & Glory” (Dir. Pedro Almodovar)

Another poignant and healing piece of semi-autobiography. Pedro Almodovar re-teams with 8-time starring collaborator Antonio Banderas for a portrait of how art and life intercepts and the relationships and bonds that inspire and drive both. Almodovar trades his usual flamboyant style for a much more subdued yet equally alive vibe. It’s bittersweet and features without a doubt the best ending of the year.


6) “Marriage Story” (Dir. Noah Baumbach)

A three-for-three in films that deal with a semi-autobiographical reflection. Noah Baumbach’s odyssey of forgotten love and emotional manipulation is clearly a cathartic work for the filmmaker who went through a somewhat high-profile divorce from actress Jennifer Jason Leigh in 2013. The film boosts one of the sharpest and tightests scripts of the year and two of the finest performances from Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson. Baumbach has always been a filmmaker with a deeply cynical and pessimistic view but as it turns out sentimental and warm is also a very good look on him.


5) “Varda by Agnes” (Dir. Agnes Varda)

A perfect swan song for one of cinema’s most important and humane voices. One half a captured speech by Varda herself and another a totally retrospect of her career and life as a creator, a mother, an activist, and a person. An active eulogy for Varda but one that is filled to the brim with joy, warmth, and subtle sense of wit. She may be gone but she will never ever be forgotten.


4) “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” (Dir. Joe Talbot)

A towering personal epic about our connection to our homelands. A film driven by a style and a voice that is so deeply rooted in the sociopolitical climate of today. It’s a battle cry for empathy in a post-housing crisis world and in the age of gentrification. It also features one of the most affecting and genuine portrayals of platonic codependent male friendship in cinema history. It really is the first of its kind and I’m not sure anything like it will ever come along again.


3) “Ad Astra” (Dir. James Gray)

Gray has been one of America’s most undervalued filmmakers for decades now and 2019 saw the release of his most ambitious and masterful work to date with his personal and poignant space epic. A film that uses the structure and subjects of the intergalactic classics to explore deeply human themes about isolation and exploration and how ultimately we’re all we have and we have to take care of us.


2) “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” (Dir. Cecilia Sciamma)

A love story stuck out of time. As entrancing as just staring at a beautiful layered painting for hours on end. Cecilia Sciamma’s magnum opus is one of the most deeply felt and emotionally resonant love stories ever to come out of the cinema. Every little acute detail of this film sticks with you in all of its warm and palpable glory. This will rightfully be talked about and reflected on for decades to come.


1) “Waves” (Dir. Trey Edward Shultz)

If empathy could be placed into a filmic form, it would be in that of Trey Edward Shultz’s “Waves.” One of the most wildly experimental new wave experiences I’ve had in a theater. A maximalist operatic deconstruction of the modern family unit. The way this film plays with structure and perspective is groundbreaking to say the least. It’s a visceral piece of work that is uncompromising in its emotion and catharsis. It moves at a break-neck pace but has so much regard for the feelings that you will inevitably feel during the course of its narrative. I still reflect on the way that this film knocked me flat on my back and how it will never cease to continue to do so.


Michael Edicola:

10) “Under the Silver Lake” (Dir. David Robert Mitchell)

Easily the most divisive pick for this top ten list, “Under the Silver Lake” is a film not concerned with being digestible. Just about every character in this film is unlikable on paper, but due to some truly stellar performances you can’t help but be entranced into watching their grotesque behavior. Combine that with a unique cast and the mystifying, otherworldly Silver Lake only becomes more darkly fantastical. Andrew Garfield leads this neo-noir thriller with a layered performance that truly unravels a despicable human being’s pursuit into madness. This won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but I’d be hard pressed to find another film that made feel as equally disgusted as I felt intrigued.


9) “Booksmart (Dir. Olivia Wilde)

On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, “Booksmart” is the most rewatchable film of the year on my list. This coming of age comedy helmed by Olivia Wilde is a veritable warm blanket of nostalgia for adolescence that I just can’t get enough of. That’s not to say this film is content with simply nailing it’s comedic aspects. In fact, it goes a step further and nails the raw, heartbreaking dynamic of two teenage girls on the verge of separation for the first time in their young lives. Breakout stars Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein handle the material with such care that anyone in their right mind would be crazy to not watch their careers going forward.


8) “1917” (Dir. Sam Mendes)

This isn’t your dad’s war movie. Well, maybe it is, but it’s mine too so we’ll have to share it. “1917” markets itself as a war drama, which it is, but I would argue it shares more qualities with the horror genre. The gloomy, grey skies and dark corridors ooze this sense of unease this is only enhanced by the choice to have the film consist of seven long takes stitched together. This creative choice works to contribute to this growing anxiety so that it transcends the label of “gimmick,” which is no surprise when you realize the cinematography is done by living legend Roger Deakins. All of this wraps up into one incredible epic that doubles as a touching tribute to director Sam Mendes’ grandfather.


7) “The Irishman” (Dir. Martin Scorsese)

Speaking of grandfathers, “The Irishman,” or “I Heard You Paint Houses,” is chock full of them. All time legends Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, and Joe Pesci return together to tell one of the most compelling gangster stories in recent memory. While the three and a half hour runtime may appear daunting, the movie in no way feels it’s length. The third act of this film is what separates it from its contemporaries, offering something that I cannot and will not spoil. It uses every minute to deliver one of the most surprising and gripping films of the year and it continues to prove the legendary status of director Martin Scorsese.


6) “The Beach Bum” (Dir. Harmony Korine)

“The Beach Bum” is by far one of the most optimistic movies I’ve seen this year. This offbeat comedy offers a unique perspective on existing and the desire to live a comfortable and fulfilling life. Matthew McConaughey gives this perspective all the life, love, and energy needed to sell this little slice of the world. With fascinating one off costars like Snoop Dogg, Zac Efron, and Martin Lawrence and one of the most emotionally affecting montages, this film is a constant surprise that will leave you feeling warm inside from start to finish.


5) “Marriage Story” (Dir. Noah Baumbach)

Raw, human, and empathetic are just a few words that come to mind when thinking of “Marriage Story.” It’s no small task to bring a couple falling out of love to life on screen, but writer and director Noah Baumbach expertly does so with all the messy little details that come along with it. The movie never paints either parent as the villain, and Adam Driver gives the performance of a lifetime as a struggling father juggling his desire for his career and his need to be there for his son. Top it off with a score by Randy Newman and you’ve got a recipe for a phenomenal film.


4) “Ad Astra” (Dir. James Gray)

From the outside, “Ad Astra” may appear to be just a sci-fi space epic. It’s not about space, not really. Sure, Brad Pitt goes to the moon and Mars but that’s just set dressing to the actual narrative of the film: daddy issues. Brad Pitt gives a leveled, stoic performance to a character who slowly tears down walls as he gets closer and closer to confronting his father for the first time in years. It’s methodical in its pace, it’s beautifully shot and if there’s one film on this list I would hope people take a chance on it would be this one.


3) “Waves” (Dir. Trey Edward Shultz)

There has been no shortage of empathetic films this year, but leading the charge is one particular family drama: “Waves.” I saw nothing like this film this year and honestly struggle to find the right words for it. It makes unexpected choices narratively but character choices feel earned from start to finish. Each member of the family gets to be a full character with wants and needs. The soundtrack makes choices for songs so well that it gives these popular tracks entirely new meanings in relation to the film. Let this movie wash over you with all it has to offer and you will not be disappointed.


2) “Mickey and the Bear” (Dir. Annabelle Attanasio)

The most unexpected pick of this list is by far the unexpected “Mickey and the Bear.” It had a limited release in Chicago and I am so thankful I took time out to see it. This indie drama centers on Mickey, a senior in high school who is forced to make a difficult decision: leave her small town to live a life for herself or stay and take care of her neglectful veteran father. With incredible performances from leads Camila Morrone and James Badge Dale, this gripping narrative is brought to life with real skill and expertise. Writer and director Annabelle Attanasio offers a sharp, witty, and enrapturing work for her first feature and it’s safe to say I eagerly await what she will do next.


1) “Uncut Gems” (Dir. Josh & Benny Safdie)

“Uncut Gems” could easily be summarized in two words: panic attack. A film focused on a seedy jewel salesman, played by Adam Sandler giving a knockout performance, who constantly neglects or avoids consequences outright constantly fills the viewer with a pit in their stomach and an anxiety that won’t be remedied until the end of its runtime. Directors Josh and Benny Safdie have honed and refined their craft from previous works to offer a film going experience like no others. The final act of this film gave me such a rush of adrenaline that I could have sworn I was on Space Mountain: terrified and anxious in the dark, but the moment I get off I want to hop right back on.