Over 80% of the 2019 box office revenue went to The Walt Disney Company. The Big Mouse’s Movie Monopoly is proving to be a pretty huge detriment to the film industry, as they churn out so many “live-action” (which I guess means soulless, hyper-realistic animation) remakes of their animated classics to cash in on our collective nostalgia. Or banking on the decade long money-extraction project that has become the Marvel Cinematic Universe, stooping to have Thor sit down for a round of Fortnite©, have Iron Man roll up in his new Audi E-Tron GT Sportscar (available for pre-order now at your local Audi dealership) and have Ant-Man notice Tony’s AXE™ Body Spray for Men.
Even Star Wars wasn’t spared from Disney’s greedy mitts. There was an exclusive setup for Episode IX you could only see in a limited time Fortnite in-game event. Fuck you if you think I’m going to hop into a lobby with a bunch of 12 year-olds to hear Palpatine set up Rey and Finn’s next adventure. I’d have been more pissed if the movie was actually good and I missed out, but…
It’s just a little hard not to get cynical about the state of the movie industry under Disney’s chokehold, you know?
But in that other 20% of the box office this year, in the care of a few bold production companies and innovative filmmakers, there were some fantastic movies released. Some films came from creators whose work I’ve followed and adored for years. But other films I hadn’t heard about before showing up at the theatre that day looking for something to see, and they blew me away.
In total, I saw 40 movies released in 2019, ate probably 2,000 metric tonnes of movie theatre popcorn and many smuggled cheeseburgers. And I did all this to find for you, dear reader, the best films released this year. There’s no need to thank me, for this is my cross to bear. I merely hope you appreciate the immense sacrifice I’ve undertaken to deliver you this definitive list… otherwise known as Stephan’s Top 10 Movies of 2019.
Also I tried making a video this year to accompany, and ended up spending way too much time on it.
Anyways, enjoy reading, nerd!
~ 10 ~
Breaking Bad ended in 2013. I was just entering grade 11, and having binged the shows first 4 glorious seasons to catch up I eagerly anticipated every episode of its final season- including what remains one of my favourite show finale to this day. But in that last scene with Jesse Pinkman speeding away from his life as a meth-making slave I wanted to know: what would he do next? While Better Call Saul filled some of those in-between years with the same high-quality, beautiful television I’d come to love from Breaking Bad– it was missing risk. Prequels never land as hard because you know who lives, who dies, where this all lands. El Camino, retaining all the quality of the show, recaptured that tension with Jesse’s story in the days after Walt’s daring rescue.
I never suspected we’d get a Breaking Bad movie, I thought the show ended with a purposefully ambiguous conclusion to Jesse’s story. And to be honest I was sceptical the film would be as good as the show’s glorious last episode. To be honest, it wasn’t. But it also wasn’t the obvious cash-in I suspected. With flashbacks touching moments all throughout the series and return performances that made me pump my fist like a fan seeing their favourite athlete knock one out of the park, El Camino puts to rest one of my favourite storylines ever to grace the television.
~ 9 ~
Stop-motion animation will never cease to amaze me. Ever since Coraline scared the hell out of an 11-year old Stephan back in 2009 I’ve been amazed by Laika’s ability to create hand-crafted (quite literally) worlds and characters that carry an emotional weight traditional animation can never quite achieve. With Missing Link, Laika and director Chris Butler handed us a delightful little expedition across the globe that, while it wasn’t as tight or memorable a story as Coraline, still delighted. I also can’t stress enough how much I loved Hugh Jackman and Zack Galifianakis bouncing off each other in this film, a severely underused duo in Hollywood.
~ 8 ~
I feel like Booksmart is the movie Good Boys wishes it was. Both coming of age stories, both released in 2019 and both making as much use of their R-rating as possible. But one featuring a witty, insightful perspective on growing up and the other having, well, just weed and dick jokes. And I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, I enjoy both. But why not have weed, dick jokes and a witty, inclusive story featuring a cast of characters that are more than the two-dimensional tropes of fat kid, nerdy kid and main kid?
Booksmart sets itself apart from the raunchy teen party movies I’ve seen dozens of times over by riffing on those films it knows have been done to death. Booksmart opts to celebrate this upcoming generation’s progressive attitudes and mindfulness that has started to define it. Booksmart also marks Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut and if this is what she can whip up on her first go I sincerely hope she gets another shot because I’m sure her filmmaking will continue to be refined and improved.
~ 7 ~
Pain and Glory, or Dolor y gloria in its native language of Español, tells the story of a director looking back on his life and career, contemplating how he wants his story to end. Does he become a drug-addicted tragic artist who dies in an overdose? Does he reconcile with his long lost lover? Does he pick himself up and get back into filmmaking like those closest to him so dearly wish? And does any of it matter anyway? I think these questions, and the introspective story within which they’re explored, hold a lot of value and taught me a great deal about what some struggle with near the end of their life. I (probably) will never be a famous director, nor a beloved actor, but their struggles and pain in pursuit of meaning and purpose are things I struggle with as well. Pain and Glory made me think. I admire movies that make me think.
~ 6 ~
An hour and a half into The Irishman my girlfriend asked “How much time is left?” to which I replied, “2 hours” at which point she groaned and rolled over, pulling out her phone. The Irishman is very, very long. But where other movies this year used their 3-hour runtimes to cram in fanservice and fabulously expensive CGI setpieces, The Irishman used its 3 and a half hour runtime and also fabulously expensive CGI to tell a story of one man de-aged through the power of modern animation, spanning decades of American history and illegitimate dealings. The Irishman makes me wonder what the difference is between the self-serving dealings of the mob, the unions or the government, aside from which side of the law they take place on?
I truly adored this movie. It made me feel like I was back in my living room in 2014, thinking I was so smart and cool for watching The Godfather trilogy. In a way, I think a lot of the discourse this year around Scorcese vs Marvel was really just about people wanting to think they’re smarter than they actually are. Marvel fanboys assigning all this deeper meaning to the superhero films they adore and Scorcese diehards feeling morally superior because the star of The Irishman is a geriatric ex-mobster coping with the loneliness his life of crime has left him in and that’s pretty deep if you think about it.
But Scorcese was wrong when he said Marvel movies aren’t “cinema,” mainly because, well, they’re released in cinemas. He’s right in his wariness of the Marvel behemoth, something I share and explained at the top of this post. The MCU is low-stakes, tried and true stories regurgitated every couple months to fill seats and sell plastic collector’s cups. Scorcese explained in a New York Tiems Op-Ed that, “If people are given only one kind of thing and endlessly sold only one kind of thing, of course they’re going to want more of that one kind of thing.” So I’m glad he’s out here making different things, things he admits wouldn’t get greenlit without Netflix support, another production behemoth except they don’t challenge Disney at the box office.
I’m not sure Scorcese has that much of a claim to being bolder or riskier than Disney when The Irishman stars two veteran, award-winning actors and is based on a successful book… but no one pulled up in a sportscar wearing Axe to play Fortnite and tease the next 10 years of “The Irishmen” cinematic universe, so, there is that. Based on my own personal bias I liked The Irishman more because of all the mobsters. I fucking love mobsters.
~ 5 ~
Midsommar wins the award for movie of 2019 that made me say “what the fuck” the most. Anyone who’s seen director Ari Aster’s previous film Hereditary (2018) shouldn’t be surprised. When you think back to Hereditary, to “the car” scene and all the creepy fuckery that transpired you get an idea what you’re in for with Midsommar. There are scenes from this film permanently seared into my brain like a hand pressed onto a hot stove… But any movie can make these moments, the Final Destination franchise is infamous for them and I wouldn’t consider them “good” movies. Where Midsommar stands apart is channelling these moments into an allegory for relationships, and how devastating it can be when they all fall apart.
According to Aster, Midsommar is a movie about a breakup. Breakups are often horrific events, and I think this genre provides a space for dissecting the range of emotions that happen during a breakup better than any other. Midsommar is a teeth-gritting, stomach-turning film with that doesn’t rely upon cheap jump scares or gore for the sake of it. Instead, Aster uses the steady building horrors to slowly unravel the human cost of dishonesty, of selfishness and emotional abuse.
There was a joke going around during the time Midsommar was in theatres that you could tell how a couple’s relationship was doing by looking at each of their reactions to how the protagonist was being treated… and I’m sure there are several relationships ended in the days and weeks after this film released because of what it revealed. That’s some powerful cinema.
Another horror director I admire a great deal, Jordan Peele, said in an interview that “The reason [horror films] work, why they get primal, audible reactions from us is because they allow us to purge our own fears and discomforts in a safe environment. It’s like therapy. You deal with deep issues that are uncomfortable with the hope that there is a release.” Midsommar builds to the most grandiose, fantastical moment of release I saw on the big screen this year.
~ 4 ~
I’m 22 years old. But in my short time in this life I’ve sat by the bedside of several dying members of my family. I’ve held their hands and looked into their eyes. Some couldn’t speak to me, they just stared as tears rolled down their cheeks. Others commented on how quick the time goes, how I should treasure every second I have left. It was devastating, and also created some of the most vivid memories of my life so far.
Movies… are bad at death. Or rather, they make death seem way cooler then it actually is. No one gets to say something quippy first, no one gets to clutch their loved one’s hand while they whisper their final words of wisdom. People just die, unceremoniously and without most people noticing.
Paddleton is about death, and it understands death better than any film I’ve ever seen. The film opens with best friends (and neighbours) Michael and Andy living their totally average lives. Eating oven-cooked pizzas while watching their favourite Samurai movies, arguing over films and music, solving puzzles and walking to the abandoned lot where they play their favourite made-up game: Paddleton. But Michael has cancer and it’s terminal. So he decides to get a prescription, a prescription for some drugs he’ll take at home to end his life. The only pharmacy that’ll provide the drugs is a few days away, so he asks Andy to go with him.
The premise is simple, and it’s heartbreaking. What ensues is a painfully ordinary road trip to a pharmacy, with two grown men struggling to come to terms with what’s coming. For Michael, his death. For Andy, the loss of his best and only friend. The film balances this painful tone against the sarcasm and at times resentful discussions the men have. And when the time comes it isn’t a grand moment with a grand speech or a profound statement. It’s a human moment, one of the best in film and makes Ray Romano as Andy my pick for most underrated performance of 2019.
~ 3 ~
I saw Knives Out twice in theatres and it’s the only movie this year I appreciated even more upon a second viewing. From the very first screen, themes are being foreshadowed. Pitched to audiences as a “whodunnit” wherein a quirky detective reminiscent of Poirot without a moustache or Holmes if he wasn’t an asshole, the film stars Daniel Craig as the delightful detective Benoit Blanc. Every moment of Blanc onscreen put a huge smile on my face, it’s probably my favourite performance in a film this year.
But his stellar performance isn’t the reason I enjoyed this movie so much, even more so the second time around. Director, producer, writer and general movie magician Rian Johnson put so much care into every line in this film, every set and scene is deliberate, trying to tell you something more about the characters on screen and their motives. The way he telegraphs events to come through what seems like a throwaway line or simple prop makes me feel like there’s still more I missed.
And on top of all that Johnson manages to sneak in a scathing critique of our culture’s elites. The family at the heart of this whodunnit, the Thrombey’s, skewers every type of wealthy, privileged jerk at the heart of our world’s problems. The liberally educated self-pity feminist, the selfish playboy, the dreaded “I just think they should come here legally” middle-aged uncle… they’re all here. And they all come apart, in a cathartic, delicious romp through Blanc’s brilliant and bumbling process.
~ 2 ~
I’ve seen every single Key & Peele sketch ever aired. I went to see Keanu day one with all my friends right before we graduated highschool. I eagerly awaited Jordan Peele’s directorial debut with 2016’s Get Out. After seeing that film, I thought to myself, “Ah, this is the calibre of cinema he’s been waiting to create.” So I sat down to watch Us expecting more Get Out. More terrifying cinematography, tense and humourous moments of shock and gore, littered with thought-provoking subtext (and not-so-subtext). And all that was there. Yet somehow Us still felt… different.
I don’t want to just compare Us to Get Out, but I know I wasn’t alone in having my expectations subverted. And I know this because walking out of the theatre with all my friends we all just looked around saying “I don’t think I get it” to one another. We know what we saw was rad- we just weren’t sure why. We sat in the parking lot Googling explainers and theories, trying to make sense of what we’d just witnessed. For me, this continued for several weeks. I scoured written and video essays as the collective internet poured over every tiny detail of this movie trying to suck the meaning from Peele’s sophomore horror film like a toddler given a juicy orange slice. This collective, obsessive dissection is the hallmark of a brilliant film.
On its surface, Us seems like a bizarre horror story about a family vacation gone awry. But if you look deeper, this is a film about so much more. Us is at its core about privilege- and the consequences of ignoring it. That’s not some genius interpretation I came up with, Peele says in the film’s director’s commentary that “For us to have our privilege, someone suffers. That’s where the Tethered connection resonates the most- those who suffer and those who prosper are two sides of the same coin.” Us is about class privilege. It’s about white privilege. Us is about those who got left behind by a string of racist policies going back to Reaganomics and beyond. Us is about, well, it’s about us. Or maybe it’s about the U.S.?
Nah that’s dumb… If you take anything from this, know that Us is scary, Us is thought-provoking and Us is really fucking funny- sometimes all at once. Go watch it.
~ 1 ~
Tom Quinn said in an interview with Variety when discussing Parasite that, “You may live in Korea, I might live in the U.S., but we live in the country of capitalism.” After walking out of the theatre muttering “holy shit” over and over while my girlfriend echoed a simple “right?!” I see the truth in that. Parasite is set in South Korea and stars Korean actors I’ve never seen before, depicts a culture I’m unfamiliar with and a country I’m very uneducated about. And yet, the story told with these characters, this setting and this city across 182 minutes of captivating cinema felt so familiar. These characters and I, we all live in the country of capitalism.
Audiences could just as easily see themselves as either family in this film: the well-off Parks’s or the struggling working-class Ki-taek’s. I’ve met both families before. From the McMansion-dwelling colleague who I met in university, living a lifestyle afforded to them from inherited family wealth to one of my childhood friends who lived in a basement apartment, their parents delivering papers and walking dogs on top of their 9-5 to get by. The two families in Parasite are real, they exist just as much here in Canada as they do in South Korea. Director Bong Joon Ho gives a simple answer when asked why the film connects so well: “The story is very universal. It’s a story about rich and poor.”
As for why I loved this film more than any other I’ve seen this year, quite simply it surprised me. This dark comedy-thriller features twists no one, and I mean absolutely no one, could see coming. As YouTuber Chinese-Canadian filmmaker Yang put it, “Bong Joon Ho has a knack for creating genre films and making them feel like art pieces.” Parasite delicately rides whole wave of human emotion with moments where I laughed out loud- and others so tense I shuffled to the edge of my seat. But through it all, Joon Ho weaves a poignant narrative of class struggle, of what the need to survive under the cruel heel of capitalism can push people to do. It’s a story whose twists shock, whose shifting tone mesmerizes and whose story I’ll remember for a very long time.
Thank you so much for reading! I’d love to know what you think of my list, if there’s a movie you’re going to check out now or one you think I missed that I should try and watch. I really appreciate every person who takes the time to read my work and I’d love to know what you think in the comments below!