23/12/2019 06:00 GMT

The 11 Best Films Of 2019

Parasite, Hustlers and Little Women are among the year’s highlights.

Illustration: Damon Scheleur/HuffPost; Photos: Getty/Gunpowder & Sky/STXfilms/Sony/A24/Neon

The 2010s’ final revolution around the sun was full of half-baked goodbyes. The Avengers crew that inaugurated Marvel’s ubiquity hung up their bodysuits, but the franchise will probably outlive them all. Star Wars promos made a fuss about The Rise of Skywalker ending its titular hero’s saga, even though there’s more (so much more) on the galaxy’s horizon, whether or not Luke is involved. And in between discarding projects from its newly acquired 21st Century Fox slate, Disney released a trio of uninspired reboots — DumboAladdin, The Lion King — and bid farewell to creativity as a prevailing business model. 

These movies were, or will be, massive hits, no matter their redundancies. In them, we see an industry unsure how else to thrive amid an overcrowded marketplace further veering toward streaming platforms and short-form handheld content. It was appealing, then, to watch a few greats grapple with their legacies, free from Hollywood’s intellectual-property demands.

Behind the camera, Martin Scorsese did it with The Irishman, Quentin Tarantino with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Pedro Almódovar with Pain and Glory and the late Agnès Varda with Varda by Agnès. In front of the camera, Brad Pitt, Renée Zellweger, Eddie Murphy, Adam Sandler, Jennifer Lopez and Shia LaBeouf asked us to reconsider how we perceive them. Their respective resurgences spoke to the power of the movie star, an endangered species in the age of comic-book dominance.

It’s been a strange year: dreadful in the first half, sneakily great in the second. What lingers most are the debates and dissension, which might be the most 2019 thing of all. Would Joker, a downer about a misunderstood clown who gets a gun, spark copycat violence? Are superhero movies cinema, or nah? Why were Sonic the Hedgehog’s teeth so big? Why do the cats in Cats have humanlike bosoms, and who decided that Jason Derulo could share billing with Judi Dench? We may never have all the answers. 

But for now, I’m here to direct people to gems they might have missed and to document, however subjectively, the wonders of what the movies can still offer us. Happy watching!

  • 11 Booksmart
    Annapurna Pictures
    Booksmart should have been a major summer hit, but Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut fizzled upon arrival. Bummer. It’s a playful, progressive comedy that largely unfolds over the course of a single night, when two shrewder-than-thou high schoolers (Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever) decide they’ll finally adopt their classmates’ partying ways on the eve of graduation. Few images this year were funnier than studious BFFs covered in what they assume to be an Altoids tin’s worth of cocaine while rushing to join the popular kids they’d spent so long spurning.
  • 10 Ready or Not
    Ready or Not
    Fox Searchlight
    Want to have a blast? Try Ready or Not, a devilish horror comedy that might as well be the result of a steamy foursome involving Clue, Hereditary, Succession and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. With a searing “eat the rich” bedrock and a plucky lead performance from Samara Weaving as a bride whose wedding night descends into murder, the film never takes itself too seriously, which lends Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett's masterstroke even more bite.
  • 9 One Child Nation
    One Child Nation
    Amazon Studios
    Part investigative memoir and part recent-history lesson, One Child Nation chronicles the staggering effects of China’s population constrictions. Nanfu Wang, who co-directed the documentary with Jialing Zhang, explores her own connection to the country’s one-child policy, in turn revealing a holocaust that spans government-mandated abortions, abandoned fetuses, twins separated at birth and the systematic policing of women’s bodies. It would be heartbreaking and vital even if the film didn’t draw comparisons to the United States' limited reproductive rights, but it’s all the more potent for doing so.
  • 8 The Irishman
    The Irishman
    The crime genre has defined Martin Scorsese’s career. In The Irishman, the 77-year-old director contemplates what that means. Did he glorify gangsters, or did we? What happens when crooks grow old and lonely, no longer commanding the streets like they once did? How does the world see an accomplished storyteller who sometimes gets reduced to his most lawless portrayals? This is Scorsese looking back at nearly a century of American culture with the help of his right-hand associates (Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel). In doing so, Scorsese also gazes ahead, focusing on men who must seek absolution for their misdeeds. One day soon, they may be phased out by a less patriarchal world. Scorsese explores those contours from the vantage of hindsight, redrafting his own legacy in the process.
  • 7 Marriage Story
    Marriage Story
    Divorce Story would be an apter title for this Kramer vs. Kramer-esque dramedy about uncoupling in the age of consciousness. Then again, divorce doesn’t have to invalidate an entire marriage, especially when there’s a child involved. That, among other lessons, is what Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver) discover in Noah Baumbach’s talky triumph. The accomplishment of Marriage Story stems from its ability to toss the audience back and forth between Nicole and Charlie’s differing perspectives, which are characterised by vulturous lawyers (Laura Dern! Ray Liotta!), years of shared history and the hard fact that we can never truly know another person.
  • 6 Pain and Glory
    Pain and Glory
    Sony Pictures Classics
    Pedro Almodóvar’s movies are known for coruscating colors and lusty longings, both of which are on display in Pain and Glory. But he's doing something different here. A certain transcendence abounds, as if Almodóvar has finally arrived at the destination he’d been seeking all along. In doing so, he gives longtime muse Antonio Banderas a defining role as a gay film director grappling with age, health, creativity and romance. Like most of Almodóvar’s work, the story doesn’t congeal until the final moments. When it does, you’ll feel reawakened.
  • 5 The Farewell
    The Farewell
    The Farewell started as segment on This American Life and became the year’s finest Sundance title. Culling from her own family history, Lulu Wang mines the complexities of maintaining a lie to benefit a loved one — a clever arrangement for this tragicomedy about an aspiring artist (Awkwafina, making a nourished dramatic debut) struggling with her relatives’ decision to conceal her Chinese grandmother’s (Zhao Shuzhen) cancer diagnosis. Wang smuggles into that premise a class drama, a wedding farce and a study in collectivism, all equally rich. Have tissues handy.
  • 4 Little Women
    Little Women
    I know, I know: Another Little Women adaptation? Greta Gerwig knows, too. Instead of giving Louisa May Alcott’s classic a straightforward retelling, she scrambles the story and turns it into a meta reflection on authorship, femininity and the passage of time. Finding something new to say about a 151-year-old text is no easy feat. Doing so with such painterly finesse is even harder. (And bravo to her for again casting Saorise Ronan and Timothée Chalamet as would-be lovers.) Between this, Lady Bird and Frances Ha, Gerwig became the artist of her generation.
  • 3 Hustlers
    Hustlers announces its mission statement at the start, courtesy of Janet Jackson: “This is a story about control.” Every person in every frame is competing for power, and none of them can keep it forever. Not the Wall Street brokers robbing America, nor the strippers maxing out said criminals’ credit cards. Director Lorene Scafaria makes heroes out of the latter group, emboldened by their resourceful transgressions. For so long, women like them ranked among society’s supposed reprobates; now they get to bathe in the cash that wealthy men stole from a country too mangled to know the difference. With a catchy soundtrack, a career-best Jennifer Lopez and a script overflowing with splendid one-liners, Hustlers is as fun as it is smart, an increasingly rare combination for a movie that opened on more than 3,000 screens.
  • 2 Her Smell
    Her Smell
    Gunpowder & Sky
    The female psychodrama is one of cinema’s great traditions, and Elisabeth Moss — rage savant for our modern times — is the perfect performer to wear the microgenre’s crown. Playing a ‘90s punk-rock hellion who roars and rants and seethes with high-strung resentment, Moss delivered the year’s most ferocious performance. The camera in Her Smell is wed to her every movement, snaking through cavernous corridors as chaos follows. It’s a feat of acting complimented by haunting sound design, romping riot-grrrl anthems and a wrenching finale wherein director Alex Ross Perry uncorks the character’s trauma to unforgettable effect.
  • 1 Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
    Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
    Here’s to Rick Fucking Dalton, has-beens, old buddies, revisionist history, the best acting you’ve ever seen in your whole life, California dreamin’, acid-dipped cigarettes, drive-in cinemas, Brandy the pit bull, Musso & Frank Grill, hippie love triangles, lethal weapons, The Wrecking Crew, Brad Pitt shirtless on a roof, the legacy of Sharon Tate, flamethrowers, TV cowboys and Quentin Tarantino’s best movie.

Honorable mentions:

1917 (directed by Sam Mendes)

The Beach Bum (directed by Harmony Korine)

Diane (directed by Kent Jones)

Hail Satan? (directed by Penny Lane)

High Life (directed by Claire Denis)

Honey Boy (directed by Alma Har’el) 

In Fabric (directed by Peter Strickland)

Jawline (directed by Liza Mandelup)

Knives Out (directed by Rian Johnson)

The Souvenir (directed by Joanna Hogg)

Plus eight indelible performances worth seeking out:

Roman Griffin Davis, Jojo Rabbit

Andrew Garfield, Under the Silver Lake

Lupita Nyong’o, Us

Florence Pugh, Midsommar

Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Dolemite Is My Name

Octavia Spencer, Luce

Alfre Woodard, Clemency 

Renée Zellweger, Judy