best film: Midsommar.  Minor spoilers here so consider yourself warned. This is a tough year to select a #1 film. In years like 2011, 2016 or 2018 there is one single film standing alone on top of the mountain at the end of the year (I spent zero time thinking about my #1 film of 2018- it is Roma)– but 2019 isn’t so easy. Midsommar is my choice but that could easily change if you asked me again in 2 weeks, 2 months or 2 years. There may be as many as seven films (my top seven below) that have a potential (“potential” being a key word) to be a masterpiece.  That would be a nearly unprecedented amount of masterpieces (1960 is the only year I can think of with 7—most years have about 3 masterpieces) and there isn’t much separation here between films 1-7. There’s probably a film (or two) among the seven that I’m currently overrating and I’m sure vice-versa… ok— enough of a filibuster…. Ari Aster is a genius and Midsommar is brilliant. He makes formal stylistic choices like the winter/summer lighting (paired with the upside down camera flip) that marry the style to the narrative and characters. There’s one of the best uses of camera movement throughout the year (the harrowing tracking shot suicide/murder sequence) and countless stunningly arranged mise-en-scene/décor frames. Aster goes often to perfectly symmetrical arrangements (tied to the unease and horror of this community) with reoccurring overhead shots. Dani (played phenomenally by Florence Pugh) is a character with great nuance. Lastly, Midsommar – like the best of auteur cinema- (which is the best of cinema) accentuates and reemphasizes Aster’s 2018 film Hereditary.  We have a leader among this latest age of auteurs- and it’s Ari Aster.

We have a leader among this latest, impressive age of auteurs- and it’s Ari Aster.

most underrated:  Waves. Trey Edward Shults’ Waves feels like something big—a film as ambitious in visual filmmaking and film form as anything made this year (and again that is in a year where masters like Tarantino and Scorsese were given 100million+ in budget to do whatever they wanted and unequivocally succeeded).  TSPDT doesn’t have a consensus list for the year yet (they do a great job and I can’t wait for it—it comes out in February) so I’m using the metacritic critics’ consensus here for my underrated and overrated categories. Waves currently sits at #26 and I have it at #7 so we’re 19 slots apart. There are other candidates—Midsommar is #15 on mc and my #1 (14 slots) and Ad Astra is #19 on Mc and my #4 (15 slots).

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Trey Edward Shults’ Waves as been tragically overlooked and underrated- in my review I compare it WKW’s Chungking Express, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Syndromes and a Century  along with Aronofsky’s Requiem For a Dream and PTA’s Punch-Drunk Love

most overrated: I’m going with Booksmart at #13. There’s not a lot here visually/stylistically so we’re left with performances and laughs and that just isn’t near good enough to be #13 of the year (where it currently stands on metacritic) in a year like 2019. There are other candidates—Parasite is #1 (my #11) on mc, Knives Out is #8 (probably my #18 or so) and The Farewell is #10 it wouldn’t be any higher than 20-25 on my list but I think I’ve seen 40 films from 2019 better than Booksmart so that gets my selection here.

gem I want to spotlight: In a year with this kind of top 10-15 I’m not going to get creative here and go too far down the list or off the grid. The Irishman is genius (I’m confident it’s Scorsese’s finest going back to The Departed and I’m not so sure it’s not his best going back to maybe Casino, Age of Innocence in 1993) as is Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood—it has the year’s strongest production design. But for my gem selection (tempting just to go Uncut Gems with the name) I’m going with Ad Astra. James Gray has been hovering around this level of greatness for a long time (The Immigrant and We Own the Night in particular but really there’s a lot of depth in his filmography) so to see him finally, fully arrive with a film on this level and a transcendent visual/formal design–  very cool. The sun spot lens flare motif throughout—my god— the detail. Can you imagine how much time was spent going through this film and crafting it in such a way?

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Gray has been hovering around this level of greatness for a long time (The Immigrant and We Own the Night in particular but really there’s a lot of depth in his filmography) so to see him finally, fully arrive with a film on this level and a transcendent visual/formal design–  very cool. The sun spot lens flare motif throughout—my god— the detail. Can you imagine how much time was spent going through this film and crafting it in such a way?

trends and notables:  By any metric- 2019 is a special year for cinema. It’s tricky talking about the quality of a year when we’re in it, or so close to it, so the best I can say right now is that it seems very special and time will tell. Looking back there have been other strong years like this—2013 has an incredible top 10, 2007 and then all three years from 1999-2001 seem special. Going back historically I mean 1982 is historically strong as is 1973, 1960 as previously mentioned—1946 and a few others going farther back. Just to quickly compare and prove my point, as many as 10 films from 2019 could/would be the #4-5 film from 2016. When trying to talk about the reason for such a strong year it becomes more difficult. A24 deserves a ton of credit. They have supported talented filmmakers. They are at least partially responsible for 5 of the top 15 films of 2019 including films by Aster (33 years old), Shults (31), The Safdie brothers (ages 33 and 35) and Robert Eggers (36). They supported Gerwig’s last film (she’s 36 now—34 at the time of Lady Bird) and though Joanna Hogg is a bit older The Souvenir was delivered by A24 here. To be clear, the artists are the reason for the artistic boom in 2019 cinema- but A24 needs to be applauded for supporting them. Netflix is a help- 2 of the top 6 films are from them and currently I have 40 total 2019 films in the archives and I think 6 were from Netflix— not “on Netflix”— but “from Netflix”. Cannes seemed to be spurned on by the dominance of Venice in recent years and had a big year. Once Upon a Time, Parasite, A Hidden Life, The Lighthouse and Pain and Glory all got their start at Cannes. But again, what’s the reason for the boom? There’s essentially Disney (MCU, Star Wars, Pixar) dominating the box office. But because of that- there seems to be a real fragmenting of everything else. There may be less intelligent popular adult fare (Ford vs. Ferrari, Knives Out) than ever before—and that’s sad and a loss—but as far as auteur cinema is concerned (which is always going to dominate the top 10) there seems to be more outlets for artistic expression. If you go back to those cinema enthusiasts who prefer the studio movies of the 1930’s and 1940’s there were so many great films produced within the system. These directors here at A24 do not seem bound to anything larger system at all. It’s almost as if they know they aren’t going for a wide audience—it’s freed them. Anyways, that’s my theory. We add to that really strong work from Tarantino, Scorsese, Malick and Almodovar (four top 100 auteurs) and breakthrough best of the career films from Gray, Baumbach and Bong Joon-hoo. You combine these 7 auteurs with the impressive work by the generation in their 30’s (5 directors in their 30’s) represented below– that’s 12 of the top 15 films.

the closing image from The Irishman– the single greatest shot of the year….
….the final image in The Souvenir may be a close second
this jaw-dropper is from Little Women

best performance male:  With this many great films it’s not surprising that this category is loaded. While I was brainstorming and putting together my starting list of names I had 13 names on the list… I had to whittle it down. I’ll start with Adam Driver. I think he gives the best single performance of the year by a male actor if we split apart the two Brad Pitt performances. They are my #1 and #2. Driver’s performance has everything in it and I think tops his work in Paterson to make it his career’s best work. Pitt’s work with Tarantino and Gray will stand out as well when we look back upon 2019 a 10- 20 years from now. Tarantino’s two-hander also has plenty of meat on the bone for DiCaprio who gets my third mention here. Joe Pesci walks away from Scorsese’s greatest work in a long time with the singularly best performance in The IrishmanJoaquin Phoenix does the unthinkable a year ago and makes the Ledger vs. Phoenix Joker debate a real thing in Joker and Adam Sandler works with the Safdie’s to deliver a performance to rival his work with PT Anderson in 2002’s Masterpiece Punch-Drunk Love.

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the greatest production design (Tarantino was right to call this his memory piece, his Roma) of the year is Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood. With it and Ad Astra Brad Pitt owns 2019– he’s wonderful in the 2nd and 4th best films of the year

best performance female: Florence Pugh’s tour-de-force performance in Midsommar is the best female performance of the year. She’s our narrative vehicle into this strange world. It’s her traumatic event that starts the film—I actually think there’s a lot in common here with Portman’s work in Black Swan.  After her work here and Toni Collette last year (I think Pugh and Collette hold up well with Ellen Bursyn and Mia Farrow in Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby historically) if I were an actor I’d be standing on Ari Aster’s front lawn right now. Pugh supports Saoirse Ronan’s lead as Jo March in Little Women – a performance that I think probably supplants the great Katharine Hepburn (who played her in 1933) as the definitive Jo March (in the definitive version). Ronan has, at a very young age (25) put together an incredible career already going back to Joe Wright’s 2007 film Atonement.  Scarlett Johansson and Laura Dern are my #3 and #4 choices here. They’re here mainly because of their work in Marriage Story – but it doesn’t hurt that both are scene-stealers in other 2019 archiveable films Jojo Rabbit (Scarlett)and Little Women (Dern)

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Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver in Marriage Story give two of the best 10 performances of the year

top 15

  1. Midsommar
  2. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood
  3. The Irishman
  4. Ad Astra
  5. 1917
  6. Marriage Story
  7. Waves
  8. Little Women
  9. Uncut Gems
  10. A Hidden Life
  11. Parasite
  12. Joker
  13. Pain & Glory
  14. The Souvenir
  15. The Lighthouse

Archives, Directors, and Grades

1917 – Mendes MS
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood – Heller R
A Hidden Life – Malick HR/MS
Ad Astra – Gray MS
Atlantics – Diop R
Dark Waters- Haynes R
Ford v Ferrari – Mangold R/HR
High Flying Bird – Soderbergh R
Hustlers – Scafaria R
I Lost My Body – Clapin R
John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum – Stahelski R
Jojo Rabbit –  Waititi R
Joker- Phillips HR
Knives Out – Rian Johnson R
Little Women – Gerwig                                        
Luce – Onah R
Marriage Story – Baumbach MS
Midsommar – Aster MS/MP
Monos-  Alejandro Landes R
Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood – Tarantino MS/MP
Pain & Glory- Almodovar HR
Parasite – Bong HR
Queen & Slim- Matsoukas R
Richard Jewell – Eastwood R
Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker – Abrams, H. R
The Farewell- Lulu Wang R
The Irishman – Scorsese MS
The Last Black Man in San Francisco – Talbot R
The Lighthouse- Eggers HR
The Peanut Butter Falcon – Tyler Nilson R
The Souvenir – Hogg HR
The Two Popes – Meirelles R
Too Old to Die Young – Refn R
Toy Story 4 – Cooley R
Triple Frontier – Chandor R
Uncut Gems – Safdie HR/MS
Us – Peele, Nyong’o R
Velvet Buzzsaw- D. Gilroy R
Waves – Shults MS
Where’d You Go Bernadette – Linklater R

*MP is Masterpiece- top 1-3 quality of the year film

MS is Must-see- top 5-6 quality of the year film

HR is Highly Recommend- top 10 quality of the year film

R is Recommend- outside the top 10 of the year quality film but still in the archives