The 50 Best Movies of 2019

The 50 Best Movies of 2019

June 14, 2024

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2019 was a climactic year for film. This last full pre-pandemic movie season gave us staggering box office returns (with Avengers: Endgame being crowned the highest-grossing film of all-time) and heralded the mainstreaming of international cinema in Hollywood and the rest of the world (with Parasite triumphantly kicking the door down for more South Korean movies and other subtitled fare). But beyond the headlines, 2019 still gave us an embarrassment of riches: diverse stories from singular voices from every corner of the world, now getting more of a chance to share their experiences through global streaming.

11. Waves (2019)

best

8.7

Country

Canada, United States of America, USA Canada

Director

Trey Edward Shults

Actors

Alexa Demie, Avis-Marie Barnes, Bill Wise, Carter Harcek

Moods

Gripping, Slice-of-Life, Suspenseful

A beautifully shot movie about a high-schooler who’s pushed by his father to always work and exercise the hardest. He aces his exams and always wins at wrestling, but nothing is ever good enough for the father and there is no margin for error. When things with both his body and his relationship start going wrong, his existence comes crashing down. This movie has two parts, and it takes a lot of narrative risks, but the beautiful camera work and believable characters land every single risk. It’s an incredible achievement and a movie that should have gotten much more attention than it did.

12. For Sama (2019)

best

8.6

Country

Syria, Syrian Arab Republic, UK

Director

Edward Watts, Female director

Actors

Hamza Al-Khateab, Sama Al-Khateab, Waad Al-Kateab, Waad Al-Khateab

Moods

Depressing, Intense, Touching

This story of a filmmaker who stayed in Aleppo, Syria during the war, got married then had a child called Sama, is a mix of difficult and inspiring.

There are stories of unsurmountable loss, as the filmmaker’s husband is one of the 30 remaining doctors in Aleppo (a city of almost 5 million), and she films many of the victims that come to his hospital. But while this is happening, there are also uplifting stories of resilience and rare but profound moments of laughter and joy.

We’re growing too sensitized to violence in Syria, and this movie, possibly the most intimate account of the war, can stir back a much-needed awareness of the injustices that take place.

When things get really bad in the documentary, it’s hard not to wonder where the humanity is in all of this. You quickly realize that it’s right there, behind the camera, in Sama and her mother’s will to live.

13. And Then We Danced (2020)

best

8.6

Country

France, Georgia, Sweden

Director

Levan Akin

Actors

Aleko Begalishvili, Ana Javakishvili, Bachi Valishvili, Giorgi Tsereteli

Moods

Feel-Good, Heart-warming, Romantic

Georgian dance has cut-throat competition: the art form is dying even within Gerogia, and to make it, dancers compete to join the one duo that represents the country. The chance finally comes and the spot opens up, igniting the hopes of performers from around the country. Mervan is one of them, a young dancer from a poor background who takes food from his restaurant job to feed his family. His main competition is a newcomer, Irakli, who also comes from a difficult background and hopes to secure the spot to provide for his ill father.

When their lives hang on them competing against one another, Mervan and Irakli fall for each other.

And Then We Danced is full of incredible dance sequences that add to the beauty of the romance at its center; but it’s also a heartbreaking exploration of unfulfilled ambition.

14. A Sun (2019)

best

8.6

Country

Taiwan

Director

Chung Mong-hong, Mong-Hong Chung

Actors

Apple Wu, Chang Han, Chen Yi-wen, Chen Yiwen

Moods

Character-driven, Dark, Depressing

In The Sun, a family of four is dealt with tragedy after tragedy, beginning with the younger sun A-ho’s sudden incarceration. The mother is sympathetic but the father all but shuns him as he chooses to throw all his affection to A-hao, the older brother, and his med school pursuits instead. Themes of crime, punishment, family, and redemption are then explored in gorgeous frames and mesmerizing colors with director Chung Mong-hong doubling as the film’s cinematographer. 

Despite itself, The Sun never falls into cliche melodrama territory. Its heavy themes are undercut by naturalistic acting and poetic shots, resulting in a deeply emotional but balanced film. Rich in meaning and beauty, The Sun will surely stay with you long after your first watch.

 

15. End of the Century (2019)

best

8.5

Country

Argentina, Denmark, Spain

Director

Lucio Castro

Actors

Helen Celia Castro-Wood, Juan Barberini, Mariano López Seoane, Mía Maestro

Moods

Depressing, Emotional, Lovely

Done entirely in candid conversation and quiet walks around the city, End of the Century may at first come across like another mumblecore romance, but director Lucio Castro brings such a delicate touch to this story that every idle moment feels like it means the world. An unspoken longing hangs suspended between characters Ocho and Javi, and it’s their little dance of disclosing more and more parts of themselves to each other that drives everything forward. And as the film reaches its miraculous third act, where hope and regret are articulated in such a painful—but kind—manner, it transcends its mumblecore inspirations and becomes its own vision of how our relationships change the way we grow.

16. Honey Boy (2019)

best

8.4

Country

United States of America

Director

Alma Har'el, Alma Har'el

Actors

Al Burke, Ben Maccabee, Byron Bowers, Clifton Collins Jr.

Moods

A-list actors, Gripping, True-story-based

There is so much power to this story based actor Shia Laboeuf’s life. As a kid, he lived with his father on the road during the filming of Even Stevens and other star-making roles. His dad was a war veteran who goes to bikers’ AA meetings and who had a brief acting career himself.  He was full of anger that made Laboeuf later suffer from PTSD, but which he was able to perceive in a fascinating way. 

Putting Laboeuf’s fame aside, this is an incredible movie on emotionally abusive parent-child relationships. It’s a universal story. With Shia Laboeuf as his father and Lucas Hedges as current-day Laboeuf. 

 

17. Diego Maradona (2019)

best

8.4

Country

UK, United Kingdom

Director

Asif Kapadia

Actors

Alberto Bigon, Ciro Ferrara, Claudia Villafane, Corrado Ferlaino

Moods

Inspiring, Instructive

Asif Kapadia, the genius of biopics who gave us Senna, is back with this documentary on an even bigger sports personality: Argentinian soccer player Diego Armando Maradona. Considered as possibly the best soccer player of all time, Maradona’s footage on the pitch is pure wizardry, and you’ll feel that way whether you are a soccer fan or not. But that’s not the focus of this documentary. What happens outside the pitch is more interesting: from Maradona’s modest beginnings to the passionate hatred (and love) that entire countries develop of him. And it doesn’t make his story less interesting that during his time in Naples he was affiliated with the mafia.

This is an excellent documentary that distills 500 hours of footage into 2, giving you all you need to know about a character who captured the imagination of a big part of the world for decades. 

18. Collective (2020)

best

8.4

Country

Germany, Luxembourg, Romania

Director

Alexander Nanau

Actors

Camelia Roiu, Cătălin Tolontan, Mirela Neag, Narcis Hogea

Moods

Discussion-sparking, Gripping, Intense

Following a group of journalists uncovering an entire architecture of institutional corruption in Romania, Collective makes for an inspiring watch—not just because these people are pursuing a story outside their usual wheelhouse, but because their enemy really is so much greater than they can handle. Yet they continue chipping away, never once backing down from speaking truth to power. Director Alexander Nanau understandably might not have much access to the government’s side, but he still manages to portray them as an ever-present, omnipotent invisible force, giving the film a thick atmosphere of dread and paranoia. But still, in the face of such overwhelming odds, the best thing to do is refuse to be scared into silence.

19. Cleaners (2019)

best

8.4

Country

Philippines

Director

Glenn Barit

Actors

Carlo Mejia, Gianne Rivera, Ianna Taguinod, Julian Narag

Moods

Character-driven, Original, Quirky

In Letterboxd, Cleaners was once the highest rated film of 2021, and was once in the list of the top 250 narrative features overall before the rating system changed in 2023. To viewers outside the Philippines, this might have been mind-boggling, especially since the film wasn’t yet released internationally the year it premiered, but it shot up the ranks for a reason. The coming-of-age anthology just looks so different, being filmed live, then xeroxed and highlighted, frame by frame, just like print-outs for school. The unique approach evokes a sense of nostalgia in high contrast print and blurred movement, and it’s matched with the classic Filipino coming-of-age moments that has rarely been seen before.

20. There Are No Fakes (2019)

best

8.3

Director

Jamie Kastner

Actors

Kevin Hearn

Moods

Mind-blowing

The highly unusual story of this documentary starts with Kevin Hearn, a member of the band Barenaked Ladies, realizing that his painting by famous Canadian Indigenous artist Norval Morrisseau is a fake. When he sues the collector he bought it from, he starts a series of inquiries that unravel a story that gets progressively darker: drug dealing, organized crime, addiction, sexual abuse, and completely crazy characters (reminiscent of Tiger King).

Behind all of that, There Are No Fakes is about the exploitation not only of Indigenous art but of Indigenous people in Canada in general.

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