As 2019’s awards season comes to a close with the upcoming Oscars ceremony on February 9, the critics at Wylie Writes would like to shine a spotlight on the movies they thought were the very best of the year – including some festival favourites that will receive wider releases this year.
Don’t forget: click on those highlighted titles to read the writer’s full-length review!
#10. TIE: Klaus/Toy Story 4
Toy Story 4 and Klaus are two beautifully animated films that persevered through the impossible. Pixar’s fourth instalment was a wonderfully poignant addition to a perfect conclusion, while Netflix’s holiday flick gave an unforgettably fresh take on traditional folklore.
#9. Never Look Away
The first masterpiece of 2019 solidifies a spot on my year-end list. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s epic drama offers contemplative reflections on fate and humanity through its themes of heartbreak, trauma, and self-fulfilment. It was worthy competition for Roma in last year’s Best Foreign Language Film category at the Oscars.
#8. The Irishman
Following up with another epic drama, Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman was a bittersweet treat from some of cinema’s most legendary veterans. The crime and biopic genres are familiar territory for Scoresese, but he challenges himself with complex relationships and arcs that carry on after their flashy heydays. The heartbreaking third act will give you goosebumps.
Denis Côté’s low-key chiller is an ethereal, existential experience. While the atmosphere may be compared to David Lowery’s A Ghost Story, that film was about an individual journey. Ghost Town Anthology chronicles the life of a small community that has simultaneous epiphanies about the lives they lead as they’re haunted by local souls in limbo.
Ari Aster’s multifaceted sophomore feature is an intricate enigmatic horror. It’s a film that fully utilizes all of its resources to create a sinking sense of dread and claustrophobia through its various examinations of grief.
#5. The Nightingale
Though it’s an incredibly hard film to muster through, The Nightingale is a gripping revenge thriller. Jennifer Kent (The Babadook) weaves degrees of oppression through several stories in this extraordinary, nightmarish tale that’s also anchored by an extraordinary performance by Aisling Franciosi and consistent unsettling tension.
#4. The Dawn Wall
Formerly known as my favourite film of the year, The Dawn Wall has still managed to hang around in my thoughts. Just thinking about the fearlessness in this documentary freezes me to a dead stop. The Dawn Wall isn’t just an inspiring sports movie or a real-life adventure, it’s an all-around celebration of human strength.
#3. The Farewell
Meanwhile, Lulu Wang’s The Farewell is a celebration of life! Finding genuine levity and subtext during moments of sadness, Wang creates a universally accessible dramedy filled with heart and soul.
Todd Phillips’ departure from mainstream comedies completely shook movie goers. The film divided audiences, but my main takeaway from this fantastic movie is how the story provides perspectives of mental illness – how people can dismiss it and how others can misinterpret it. I thought Phoenix characterized the role well around these parameters. I also saw Joker as an interesting phase of maturity for Phillips, a filmmaker who hit it big with a comedy franchise that milked lots of laughs from a character who was mentally rattled, and now might be realizing that it wasn’t exactly the best way to find success.
Acting as both a crowd-pleasing road movie and a contemporary take on American fables, The Peanut Butter Falcon solidifies itself as a timeless classic by being one of the most authentic movies ever made.
Honourable Mentions: The Art of Self Defense, Paddleton, The Sun Is Also a Star, Unicorn Store
#10. Lords of Chaos
#9. The Grizzlies
#7. The Nightingale
#6. Little Women
#5. The Dead Don’t Die
#4. The Farewell
#3. Gloria Bell
#2. The Peanut Butter Falcon
#10. A Colony
Set in rural Quebec, A Colony tackles the perils of adolescence amidst a sensitive exploration of Indigenous relations in Canada.
The concept of Crawl sounds positively absurd (yet brilliant) on paper: a daughter and father find themselves trapped in their house during a hurricane, while hunted by a swarm of alligators. Alexandre Aja directs Crawl with an unrelenting intensity, yet Crawl remains surprisingly character driven, despite the gators taking centre stage.
#8. A Brother’s Love
Few films understand the precarity and insecurity that comes with pursuing higher education. Monia Chokri’s A Brother’s Love sympathetically looks at the modest, at-times unpleasant, life of a post-graduate as she juggles life, finances, love, and family.
#7. Little Women
Breaking convention, Greta Gerwig tells the iconic story of Little Women non-linearly, yet it’s always clear where we are in time and space. Such close attention to detail speaks volumes of Gerwig’s talents as a director of one of the year’s most beautifully constructed movies.
#6. Uncut Gems
Quite possibly one of the year’s most anxiety-inducing films, Uncut Gems swiftly and brutally portrays the consequences of gambling. A terrific turn here for Adam Sandler, who gives one of the year’s best performances, who complements the film’s stylistic chaotic.
#5. Doctor Sleep
This sequel to The Shining didn’t get quite the attention it deserved. Though it falters at times, Mike Flanagan’s sensitive, character-driven approach to the horror genre shines here (no pun intended) as Doctor Sleep explores, in some ways better than Kubrick’s masterful 1980 original, alcohol abuse and trauma.
#4. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood
Tarantino’s last few films were disappointing, but Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood finds the iconoclastic director in full-form in this historical revisionism of the Sharon Tate murders. Although it takes a backseat to the far more compelling central narrative, supported by two terrific performances by Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt.
Jordan Peele’s follow-up to Get Out didn’t receive quite the critical acclamation its predecessor did, but the film’s satirical subtlety of contemporary U.S. identity politics deserves significant attention. Years from now, this will be the film we talk about.
#2. Marriage Story
Some may have been turned off by the artifice of Marriage Story, but it’s all a part of the film’s meticulously crafted design. Marriage Story boasts many of the year’s best performances, with Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver giving the best performances of their respective careers, and one of the year’s most emotionally satisfying conclusions.
#1. Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Celine Sciamma’s sumptuous Portrait of a Lady on Fire beautifully and brilliantly depicts a burgeoning, forbidden romance between two women in the eighteenth century. Sciamma’s graceful, picturesque approach here draws you in until the film’s beautiful, emotionally charged conclusion.
Honourable Mentions: The Grizzlies, Yesterday, Rocketman, Dolemite is my Name, El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, Joker
#5. Knives Out
Rian Johnson struts his stuff in the incredibly engaging murder-mystery that has earned him the positive praise he deserves. In Knives Out, Johnson shows off some incredible writing chops and brings his vision of a pretty damn good movie to life. The ensemble cast is exceptional, and the twists and turns are all captivating throughout.
Parasite is a genre-bending wild ride, a non-stop thriller that is wholly unpredictable – the narrative direction will keep viewers guessing until the explosive climactic scene. The film’s social commentary is sharp and reflective. The only detriment in the film is the wavering likability of the characters, who take a fun con a little too far, making it occasionally hard to side with them.
#3. Ford v Ferrari
An all-around good time, Ford v Ferrari has a slick and classic look that’s bound to transport viewers back to the 1960s racing scene. A simple story executed with style and grace, it’s a film with exciting action sequences and plenty of dramatic flair. Plus, this is the only time we’ll ever get to see Christian Bale and Matt Damon fight each other using a loaf of bread as a weapon.
#2. The Peanut Butter Falcon
This movie wins as the most sincere, heartfelt film of 2019 as far as I’m concerned. The quirky, bluntly honest approach the film takes to addressing otherness is profoundly eye-opening. It’s a film for outsiders, with a larger than life, whimsical story that will leave viewers grinning from ear to ear. The Peanut Butter Falcon has a perfect balance of humour and heart from start to finish, with incredible performances from Shia LaBeouf and Zack Gottsagen.
Much like 2017’s Dunkirk, 1917 is a cinematic experience that must be seen theatrically to fully appreciate. The sound mix alone makes for an incredibly integrated viewing experience. Roger Deacon’s camera work is profound, although occasionally the visual style of the film is limiting, especially regarding the accurate depiction of time passing. Director Sam Mendes has choreographed a fantastic war movie that inserts viewers directly into the line of fire.
I will say, I definitely watched more good movies this year than bad; though there is an element of self-selection there. I actually thought 2019 was really interesting for movies, with established directors like Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino offering up ambitious, (inevitably) lengthier works, while newer blood like Jordan Peele and Greta Gerwig made enterprising plays. Regrettably, I was sick with the whole flu the night I was supposed to go to Cats. A part of me will always wonder what this list could’ve looked like – or even, who I might be today – if only I’d seen Cats.
Honourable Mentions: Parasite, Little Women, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood
#5. The Irishman
While I generally find mob movies difficult to follow and The Irishman was no exception, once I was able to get my bearings on all the characters, I found Scoresese’s film to be thoroughly gripping and well worth the time investment. I was surprised by how absorbing the story of Frank Sheeran’s rise through the ranks of the mob would turn out to be. The most readily suspenseful aspect, of course, being his blossoming friendship with the legendary Jimmy Hoffa. Come for the violence, stay for the exquisite drama.
I feel comfortable calling Judy one of the most solidly underrated films of the year. No, it’s not a particularly cheerful watch; focusing mainly on the last year of Judy Garland’s life as a has-been struggling with substance abuse, occasionally flashing back to her days as a talented teen actress ruthlessly browbeaten by her studios. Renée Zellweger nails this role, bringing to life one of the most sensitive scripts cinema’s seen in some time.
As the year went on, Us really grew on me. Initially I thought it was an insufficient follow-up to Peele’s Get Out, but the more I thought about the originality of the story and some of the fascinating creative choices, the more I can see it evolving into a bona fide modern classic. Everything from the haunting “I Got 5 on It” remix to the opening credits’ shot of rows of caged white rabbits screams a rare distinctiveness destined to be remembered.
#2. Marriage Story
Noah Baumbach’s personal and vulnerable dive into the bitter realities of modern divorce is heartbreaking, frustrating and illuminating. Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson deliver hard-hitting performances as a couple trying to end their marriage amicably before lawyers and a coast-to-coast child custody battle put each of them through the wringer. A shining example of just how much of a true art form movies can be.
#1. The Farewell
This incredibly moving family drama stayed with me all year. Building on the already-interesting premise of neglecting to inform a grandmother of her terminal diagnosis, Lulu Wang’s tale of precious familial bonds meeting cultural discomfort pairs great writing with natural, sincere performances for one of the most poignant films of the year. My guess is stories like this will only become more frequent and relevant in an increasingly globalized world.
#10. TIE: It Must Be Heaven/The Other Lamb
Elia Suleiman (It Must Be Heaven) tells funny stories of living in diaspora. Malgorzata Szumowska (The Other Lamb) tells a depressing story of living in an off-the-grid cult. These films have nothing to do with each other, but they share a spot because of one reason: they’re both too great to be left off the list.
#9. Simple Women
There are two stories in this film: celebrity obsession and the perils of creation. Both are done expertly with a great heaping of humour.
#8. The Truth
Hirokazu Kore-eda is unquestionably one of our greatest filmmakers. In his English-language debut, he showed why that is with his ability to tell universal stories about family in any language.
#7. Sorry We Missed You
This is what Ken Loach has been making for decades, so it does not seem like it should work, yet it does. A simple look at a family struggling to get by points its finger at capitalists, at a time when it is most needed.
#6. Velvet Buzzsaw
This Netflix production kind of flew under the radar, but it’s a must-watch for anyone who has ever found themselves surrounded by artists. Part horror movie, part satire, all amazing.
#5. Guns Akimbo
This one is probably going to get ravaged by critics upon its wider release, but who cares? I cannot remember the last time I had as much fun at a movie.
People who didn’t like this movie don’t like fun! There, I said it. Tilda Swinton being weird, Adam Driver being self-aware, Iggy Pop and Sara Driver as zombies; what more could you possibly want?
#3. The Lighthouse
This film is just gorgeous to look at. Add some great performances, great sound design and a lot of historical research, and you get another brilliant work by Robert Eggers.
Taking on capitalism the way only Michael Winterbottom can, this film took a fictional billionaire and used him to point out just how much harm needs to come to the world for that one man to prosper. What propelled it was just how funny it managed to be throughout.
#1. Jojo Rabbit
It’s not often that my top film is one that has been accepted by the American press, but it’s simply the best film of 2019. Full of heart, humour and fantastic performances, this was exactly the film I needed this past year.
Best Short Films of 2019
#10. Alaska (DIR. Gwynne Phillips, Brianna Templeton, Chris Wilson)
#9. Human Nature (DIR. Sverre Fredriksen)
#8. The Haunted Swordsman (DIR. Kevin McTurk)
#7. Best Friends Forever (DIR. Emily Gagne, Josh Korngut)
#6. Furnace of the Birds (DIR. DArsen Arzumanyan)
#5. Maggie May (DIR. Mia Kate Russell)
#4. Imagine a World (DIR. Joanna Tsanis)
#3. Kitbull (DIR. Rosana Sullivan)
#2. Place (DIR. Terrance Daye)
#1. Nimic (DIR. Yorgos Lanthimos)
Jennifer Lopez’s performance alone is enough to land this film in the top five for me this year, but Hustlers has more going for it than just J. Lo. This is a smart, often funny, and nuanced film that explores gender, privilege, family, and economic precarity. At its core, Hustlers is a platonic love story about women who support one another through personal and professional hardship. It also has a great soundtrack.
#4. Blood Quantum
This is not a perfect film, but it is fiercely original and socially relevant. A zombie survival story set on a Mi’gmaq reserve where the indigenous residents find themselves immune to a virus that has infected the white population, Blood Quantum is admittedly heavy-handed when it comes to its central metaphor. Bloody action sequences, well-timed humour, and haunting animated sequences more than make up for this film’s rougher elements.
#3. Knives Out
Sure, there is some social commentary about immigration and wealth, but Knives Out is mostly just a really, really good time – from the murder-mystery plot to the eccentric ensemble cast that includes the likes of Toni Collette, Michael Shannon, and a truly stunning Jamie Lee Curtis. The real stand out, however, is Daniel Craig and his over-the-top southern accent as detective Benoit Blanc. The person I went to go see this film with said they wanted to see a spin-off miniseries in which Craig’s character travels around the United States solving mysteries and soliloquizing about doughnuts. That’s a show I would watch in a heartbeat.
Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite deserves all of the accolades and attention it has received in recent months, and maybe more. Social class and privilege are certainly not new themes, filmmakers have been exploring them for decades, but Parasite offers a fresh, relevant, and necessary take on economic disparity. From perfect pacing to beautiful cinematography, this is film that never puts a single toe out of place.
#1. Portrait of a Lady on Fire
This was hands down my favorite film of the year. Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which follows a female painter in 18th century Normandy and the young noble woman whose portrait she has been hired to create, is a well-crafted queer love story that thwarts many of the conventions of its genre. It is also a poignant and poetic meditation on love, companionship, desire, and the limits of female artists’ ability to challenge the male gaze that is deeply imbedded in many western artistic traditions.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire opens in select theatres on Friday, February 14.
Greed opens in select theatres on Friday, February 28
Guns Akimbo hits Digital HD on Tuesday, March 3.
Sorry We Missed You opens in select theatres on Friday, March 6.
Blood Quantum opens in select theatres on Friday, March 27.
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