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Ki-jung (Park So-dam) and Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) from the film ‘Parasite’ stare intently at their phones Image: Neon/CJ Entertainment via Polygon

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The best movies of 2019

Sizing up the past year in film with 15 recommendations

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2019 was a startlingly great year for movies, with award-worthy contenders coming from major studios, indie producers, foreign markets, and streaming services alike. Marvel Studios united moviegoers with the arc-ending powerhouse of Avengers: Endgame, and smaller films like Lulu Wang’s tremendous The Farewell still got tons of word of mouth and found enthusiastic audiences around the world. And you can watch most of them right now, whether in theaters near you, on streaming destinations like Netflix, or through one-click rental services.

Below, we’ve collectively rounded up 15 of the year’s best movies, most of them highly personal visions from highly independent directors. In a year where Disney dominated the marketplace with a record-breaking $10 billion year, 2019 was also a year where more original stories than ever focused on the unique experiences of characters of color and voices on the margins. Here are picks for the best movies of the year.

brad pitt’s roy wears a space suit and watches out a window as his shuttle passes the sun in Ad Astra Image: 20th Century Fox

Ad Astra

Rent on Apple, Amazon, Vudu, or YouTube

At the far reaches of the cosmos, where most fictional space odysseys find extraterrestrial life, writer-director James Grey rediscovers humanity. Brad Pitt’s Roy McBride, an astronaut sent to Neptune to rescue the father who left him behind 26 years earlier, is a piercing proxy for the viewer’s own curiosity and fear. His journey takes every genre form — a high-impact lunar car chase makes Ad Astra the year’s best action movie; glimpses of Roy’s failed marriage reckon with romance; the procedural details of life on Mars check the box of pulpy science fiction — and from blastoff to landing, the production is transcendent spectacle. But even as a descendant of 2001 and Gravity, Grey keeps his personal thesis in the foreground: The “answers” to life’s biggest questions can’t overshadow what we already have here on Earth. In bringing Pitt back to contemplative Tree of Life territory, the film’s simple point is a revelation. —Matt Patches

apollo 11: an astronaut suits up for flight Photo: Neon

Apollo 11

Stream on Hulu; rent on Apple, Amazon, Vudu, or YouTube

Everything about Todd Douglas Miller’s documentary Apollo 11 is astounding. The subject — the 1969 Apollo 11 mission, the first spaceflight to put a man on the Moon — is astounding. And the film — almost entirely compiled from archival footage, most shown to the public for the first time — is astounding, too. There are no talking heads or CG recreations to stitch it all together. Miller knows the material is powerful enough to stand on its own, to the point that even though the history of the Apollo 11 mission is well-known, there’s still a palpable tension to watching the spaceflight play out, as though it’s all happening now, rather than half a century ago. —Karen Han

a Chinese family stands in front of a rainbow structure in The Farewell Photo: A24

The Farewell

Rent on Apple, Amazon, or Vudu

It may be hard to believe that a movie inspired by a family member’s terminal cancer diagnosis is hilarious and life-affirming, but Lulu Wang’s astonishing film The Farewell is a laugh-out-loud experience. Rap star Awkwafina takes on her first starring role in the film, as a first-generation Chinese-American immigrant whose family returns to China to visit her grandmother Nai Nai when they learn she has cancer. At the same time, they decide to hide the diagnosis from Nai Nai, to keep her morale up. The story that follows, based on Wang’s life and previously told on NPR’s This American Life, veers between tears and near-slapstick levels of comedy, but Awkwafina’s vulnerable, relatable performance as a woman caught between cultures makes the film particularly striking. —Tasha Robinson

Franz Jägerstätter carries a wooden basket along a dirt field, a giant mountain popping through the clouds behind him Photo: Reiner Bajo/Fox Searchlight

A Hidden Life

Now in theaters

Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit sparked a huge rolling debate earlier this year about exactly how disrespectful or inappropriate it is to turn Hitler into a wacky comedy figure. Meanwhile, Terrence Malick’s grim drama A Hidden Life reminded audiences why it might feel facile to hide behind the distance of time and safely mock someone who brought so much pain into the world. August Diehl gives a tremendous performance as Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian conscientious objector who, upon being conscripted in World War II, refuses to take an oath of loyalty to Hitler, and is arrested for the decision. Malick based what follows on the writings of the real-life Jägerstätter, and as usual for his films, he stretches out the story in long, contemplative scenes of intense reverie and emotion, lushly shot with an emphasis on the enduring beauty of the natural world rather than the ugliness people bring into it. It’s a powerfully moving film that gives one man’s life an epic scale, while still staying close to his personal perspective. —TR

joe pesci in big glasses leans over to talk to Robert De Niro making one of those Robert De Niro faces Photo: Niko Tavernise/Netflix

The Irishman

Stream on Netflix

Martin Scorsese’s portrait of Frank Sheeran, the truck driver union official who doubled as a career hitman for the mob, clocks in at nearly three and a half hours. That’s not a sign of indulgence. With a script by Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List) and the eye of longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker, The Irishman weaves together Frank’s stint in World War II, his early days under the wing of mafioso Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), his ascension in the labor movement as a loyalist and friend of Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), his grisly milestones as a guy who “paints houses,” and occasional glimpses of the family he’s sworn to protect. By the end, when life comes into full view for the audience and Frank himself, the film rebukes every gangster idolizer with a Goodfellas poster on their wall. Robert De Niro’s Frank is dutiful to a fault, and his often vacant gaze, spanning de-aged smoothness to craggy wrinkles, offers perspective on the poisonous effect of moral failure. Not every scene “speaks” to the plot, but each one Scorsese composes sticks like a memory, taking on more meaning further into the runtime. The same effect will likely deepen The Irishman as we all grow into it. —MP

the last black man in san francisco sits at a desk in the dark Photo: Laila Bahman/A24

The Last Black Man in San Francisco

Stream on Amazon Video; rent on Apple, Vudu, or YouTube

There’s a perfect harmony between music and motion in Joe Talbot’s The Last Black Man in San Francisco, which stars newcomer Jimmie Fails as a version of himself. Jimmie, who lives with his best friend Mont (Jonathan Majors) and Mont’s grandfather (Danny Glover), is obsessed with winning back his family’s old house, which his grandfather supposedly built in 1946. Rich colors and a brass-heavy score paint a lush picture as Jimmie reckons with history as well as the slow gentrification of San Francisco and loving a city that doesn’t love him back. Fails, Majors, and Glover all deliver magnificent, warm performances, grounding Talbot’s more fanciful sense of style. —KH

dafoe and pattinson sit across from each other on the floor, lit only by a oil lamp Image: A24

The Lighthouse

Now in theaters

It’s impossible to slot The Lighthouse into a single genre; it’s equal parts horror, comedy, literary amalgam, and nautical thriller, but also 100% fun. Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe star as two men whose four-week contract tending a lighthouse on an island becomes a one-way descent into madness. Increasingly violent storms keep them trapped at their post, and old superstitions about the sea seem to start coming true. Robert Eggers (The Witch) shot the whole thing in black and white, using contrasts and shadows to amplify how wild the unfolding story is, particularly when it comes to Pattinson’s marvelous, Conrad Veidt-esque performance. —KH

three little women walk across a mansion yard in big 19th century dresses Photo: Wilson Webb/Sony Pictures

Little Women

Now in theaters

Can a story that’s been around for more than a century and adapted too many times to count ever feel fresh again? According to writer-director Greta Gerwig, yes. Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women was originally published in 1868 and has been adapted multiple times for film, TV, theater, and radio, and yet Gerwig’s film adaptation feels almost like a new work. As Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) sets about writing the story of her family, each of her three sisters is given a fair shake despite all wanting different things and fitting different definitions of femininity, and Jo’s struggle as a woman getting her work published in the 1860s shapes a larger narrative about female artists and authorship. —KH

adam driver and don quixote ride horses Photo: Diego Lopez Calvin/Screen Media Films

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote

Stream on Crackle; rent on Amazon, Vudu, or YouTube

A full 30 years after Terry Gilliam conceived of it — and in defiance of financial troubles, natural disasters, and legal disputes — The Man Who Killed Don Quixote made its North American debut in 2019. Unsurprisingly, the story, originally a more straightforward adaptation of Miguel de Cervantes’ work, became more personal over the course of time. In its final form, it’s almost autobiographical as a meditation on how painful — and how divine — art can be. When filmmaker Tony Grisoni (Adam Driver) returns to the town where he shot his student thesis film, a black-and-white version of Don Quixote, he discovers that the locals have never really been able to escape it. His Quixote, a cobbler named Javier (Jonathan Pryce), truly believes himself to be the knight-errant, and enlists Grisoni as his Sancho Panza. —KH

Image: Netflix

Marriage Story

Stream on Netflix

There are times when writer-director Noah Baumbach’s two-hander feels like a romantic Revenant. Lawyered up, Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver) crawl the mud to break up their marriage, with an unshakable love being their greatest obstacle. Baumbach departs from the caustic tone of his other divorce drama, The Squid and the Whale, to find sweetness in the proceedings. There are wisecracks and Sondheim numbers, confessional monologues and tears behind closed doors, explosions that leave holes in the walls. The pain of divorce comes from every direction, and Baumbach turns his camera to catch it all. A score by Toy Story composer Randy Newman keeps the days rolling along, and the hurt swells with each legal mediation. There’s tremendous calculus involved with Baumbach shaping characters this nuanced. But in the moment, there are only Johansson’s and Driver’s heartbreaking performances. —MP

a group of swedish cultists sing a song to the mayday pole Photo: Csaba Aknay/A24

Midsommar

Rent on Apple, Amazon, Vudu or YouTube

Ari Aster’s follow-up to the numbingly frightening horror film Hereditary isn’t nearly as scary, and Aster’s ongoing insistence on packing half a dozen major story threads into his films is still a frustrating distraction from the pure emotional power of his best-devised plots. But there were few 2019 films as vividly shot and performed as Midsommar, with its breathing flowers and heady visions, and its weighty sense of dread. A sense of inevitability hangs over the entire film, as a young woman (Florence Pugh) trying to cope with the death of her family goes on an ill-advised trip with her boyfriend and his friends, where they get drawn into a cult’s rituals. A moment early in the film where the camera flips over, turning a road into an oppressive sky and the sky into an uncertain and seemingly infinite void, is one of the year’s most memorable and most shudderingly unsettling shots. —TR

The Kim family sit around a pile of unfolded pizza boxes. Photo: Neon/CJ Entertainment

Parasite

Now in theaters

Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite intertwines the lives of two families and mixes many genres — comedy, thriller, social commentary — without showing a single seam. The Kim family is struggling to find employment, folding pizza boxes part-time for a neighborhood restaurant and trying to pirate Wi-Fi from local cafes from within their semi-basement apartment. When eldest son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-sik) is hired as an English tutor for the rich Park family, it seems as though the Kims’ fortunes might be turning around. What begins as a domestic comedy/drama, however, quickly blossoms into something bigger as the horrible realities of late-stage capitalism begin to set in. As becomes heartbreakingly and heart-stoppingly clear, clawing up one rung of the ladder means leaving someone else behind. —KH

adam sandler’s uncut gems character howard holds a jewel encrusted furby on a gold chain Photo: A24

Uncut Gems

Now in theaters

The clock ticks, the sweat drips, the diamonds shimmer, and the chaos reigns in every frenetic frame of Josh and Benny Safdie’s wheeling-and-dealing thriller. “Adam Sandler movies” traditionally build off the actor’s hot-tempered goofball energy (even in a peak work like Punch-Drunk Love), but in Uncut Gems, Sandler buckles up into the sleazy Diamond District dealer Howard like he’s a walking, talking Tilt-a-Whirl. Running to and fro across fluorescent-washed New York, Howard has 800 tasks to accomplish — Retrieve an African jewel from the New Age-obsessed Kevin Garnett! Outrun a loan shark’s heavies before they bash his nose in! Get to his kid’s school play on time! — and maybe enough fuel to cross the finish line. The hurdles come from plot and craft. The Safdies suffocate their antihero in close-ups; a synthy soundscape from Oneohtrix Point Never keeps the down moments boiling; and Sandler wrestles with the anarchy of life, delivering the best Joker performance of the year. Grime has never felt this good. —MP

andrew garfield peeks from behind a palm tree with his sunglasses on Photo: A24

Under the Silver Lake

Stream on Amazon Video and Kanopy; rent on Apple, Vudu or YouTube

David Robert Mitchell’s third feature, following the intense horror film It Follows and the dram-com The Myth of the American Sleepover, is a mesmerizing shaggy-dog story that feels like a paranoiac’s hungover descent into mental illness. Andrew Garfield stars as Sam, a young Los Angeles resident with no clear job or purpose until he becomes obsessed with a woman (Riley Keough) who disappears shortly after he meets her. He chases hints and clues across the city, in a swoony conspiracy theorist’s nightmare version of a classic L.A. noir mystery. It’s something along the lines of Chinatown or The Big Sleep, but with more drugs, pretenders, scenesters, and manipulative artists, and with a hapless hero whose attempts to get to the bottom of it all are sometimes hilarious, sometimes harrowing. —TR

evil lupita nyong’o grabs the neck of good lupita nyong’o (or is the other way around??) Image: Universal Pictures

Us

Stream on HBO Now/Go

Logic doesn’t always apply to Us, Jordan Peele’s follow-up to his tremendous directorial debut, Get Out. When eerie doppelgängers come after middle-class mother Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) and her family, intending to kill them and take their places, the faceoff turns into a bloody horror-movie fight, with gruesome death around every corner. But the setup and eventual payoff seem designed to leave the audience with a lot of open questions. The mysteries and the closing twist aren’t what make Us memorable, though. Nyong’o’s double performance as Adelaide and her duplicate, Red, is one of the year’s most startling and committed. And the larger metaphor about America’s richest and poorest segments feels vividly, vitally relevant in 2019, and all the more so for being couched in such an intense storyline. —TR

Our individual lists

Karen Han

  1. Parasite
  2. Apollo 11
  3. The Farewell
  4. The Irishman
  5. Hustlers
  6. The Man Who Killed Don Quixote
  7. Ad Astra
  8. Midsommar
  9. The Lighthouse
  10. The Lonely Island Presents: The Unauthorized Bash Brothers Experience
  11. The Beach Bum
  12. Ash Is Purest White
  13. The Last Black Man in San Francisco
  14. Little Women
  15. Uncut Gems

Matt Patches

  1. Uncut Gems
  2. The Farewell
  3. Marriage Story
  4. Parasite
  5. American Factory
  6. Ad Astra
  7. Under the Silver Lake
  8. The Irishman
  9. Monos
  10. Her Smell
  11. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
  12. Little Women
  13. The Lighthouse
  14. The Report
  15. Us

Tasha Robinson

  1. Parasite
  2. The Farewell
  3. A Hidden Life
  4. The Nightingale
  5. Honey Boy
  6. Hail Satan?
  7. The Last Black Man in San Francisco
  8. I Lost My Body
  9. Wild Rose
  10. Knives Out
  11. Marriage Story
  12. Midsommar
  13. Us
  14. Under the Silver Lake
  15. The Man Who Killed Don Quixote