The 50 Best Movies of 2019

The 50 Best Movies of 2019

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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.

10. Waves (2019)

best

8.7

Country

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.

9. Pain and Glory (2019)

best

8.7

Country

Spain

Director

Pedro Almodóvar

Actors

Agustín Almodóvar, Antonio Banderas, Asier Etxeandia, Asier Flores

Moods

A-list actors, Emotional, Romantic

This is the latest Oscar-nominated movie by Spain’s highest-regarded director, Pedro Almodóvar. It’s his most personal work to date, being a slightly fictionalized account of his youth and then the last couple of years. He is mostly portrayed by Antonio Banderas, who was also nominated for an Oscar for this role; while another star performance comes from Penélope Cruz who plays his mother in the flashback scenes. Pain and Glory is about life in the arts: how a tormented artistic personality is formed, the days of focusing on work over relationships, and dealing with the consequences later in life. It begs the question: in Almodóvar’s life, was the glory that got him to making as great of a movie as this one worth the pain?

8. Klaus (2019)

best

8.9

Country

Spain, UK

Director

Sergio Pablos

Actors

J.K. Simmons, Jason Schwartzman, Joan Cusack, Neda Margrethe Labba

Moods

Easy, Uplifting

Shot by Sergio Pablos, a weathered animation film creator, here’s a future holiday classic to be reckoned with. Klaus is a beautifully old-school-looking, 90s Disney-style animation movie about the origin story of the world’s most beloved toymaker, Santa Klaus. Dispatched to a bleak arctic town, because he really wasn’t very good at his job at all, mailman Jesper stumbles upon the now-famous Klaus, making an acquaintance that will change the town forever, and, with it, the way Christmas is celebrated around the world. In addition to its homely warmth, funny moments, and nostalgic hand-drawn animation style, you will recognize many famous voice-overs in this festive family film, including the always amazing J.K. Simmons, Rashida Jones, and Jason Schwartzman, to name a few.

7. Corpus Christi (2020)

best

9.0

Country

France, Poland, Poland France

Director

Jan Komasa

Actors

Łukasz Simlat, Aleksandra Konieczna, Anna Biernacik, Barbara Kurzaj

Poland’s nomination for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2020 Academy Awards may have lost to Parasite, but director Jan Komasa’s film is still utterly compelling. The crazy sounding premise is inspired by true events: after having had a transformative experience in jail, an ex-convict, played by the wiry, blue-eyed Bartosz Bielenia, decides he wants to become a priest. When he is told that his criminal history prohibits it, he goes down the path that got him into trouble in the first place and just pretends he is. Apparently, he does so quite convincingly—and serves the community well, which is collectively grieving for the victims of a tragic accident. For all his charisma, there’s no way not to root for the crooked clergyman conning his way to the top. The complex character at the heart of Corpus Christi is refreshing and three-dimensional, and the smart writing of the film excels at exploring they grey areas of truth and religion. The ending, too, circumvents the soppy and the melodramatic. Thought-provoking European drama.

6. System Crasher (2019)

best

9.0

Country

Germany

Director

Female director, Nora Fingscheidt

Actors

Albrecht Schuch, Axel Werner, Barbara Philipp, Cederic Mardon

Moods

Intense, Thought-provoking

While quite testing for viewers, this is one of the craziest, most high-energy movies you’ll ever watch. In this incredible German drama, child actor Helena Zengel plays Bernadette aka Benni, a traumatized 9-year-old child who tends to lash out and has been repeatedly suspended from every school she went to. Benni is a so-called “Systemsprenger” (which is the original German title). A system crasher is a child so uncontrollable and aggressive that, over time, she falls through the grid of special schools, foster care, and social work facilities. Despite the best efforts of her designated social worker, Frau Bafané, played by Gabriela Maria Schmeide, she is turned down by everyone, testing the patience of her surroundings, wherever she goes. A trip with Micha (Albrecht Schuch), a tough boxer and anger-management trainer, turns out to be the last resort. Directed by Nora Fingscheidt, System Crasher is intense, punky, and wild with an almost eerie sense of authenticity. Its devastating effect is helped along by its unique, hyperactive camerawork. Much like the social workers themselves, you might have a hard time keeping professional distance to all this. This intense drama will stay with you for a long time.

5. The Edge of Democracy (2019)

best

9.0

Country

Brazil

Director

Female director, Petra Costa

Actors

Aécio Neves, Barack Obama, Dilma Rousseff, Elena Andrade

Moods

Emotional, Instructive, Sunday

In this powerful documentary, Brazilian filmmaker Petra Costa intertwines her own family history with the democratic journey of her home country. As she says herself, Costa and her country’s democracy are of the same age. This is not the only reason why she was uniquely positioned to make a film like this: her parents were left-wing activists in the 1970s, who went to jail for their beliefs, while her grandparents were part of the ruling class have made Brazil’s strong-man politics and right-wing backlash possible. Her mother was held at the same prison that ex-president Dilma Rousseff (2011-2016) was sent to. Costa tells the story of Rousseff’s demise as well as that of Luiz Inácio da Silva (2003-2011) aka Lula, whose future remains up in the air. The Edge of Democracy is thus a gripping and urgent warning that democracy in the world’s sixth most populous country is under attack. In content and form, Costa is obviously opinionated, but she makes a strong point.

4. Booksmart (2019)

best

9.0

Country

United States of America

Director

Female director, Olivia Wilde

Actors

Adam Krist, Austin Crute, Beanie Feldstein, Ben Harris

Moods

Easy, Feel-Good, Funny

Do you keep re-watching Superbad when you’re hungover? Next time you are, try the film that has been praised as ‘the female Superbad”: the amazing Booksmart. Yes, it’s coming-of-age comedy, but, like Superbad, it tried something a little different. Like its two main characters, one could say it’s a bit smarter than Greg Mottola’s seminal bromedy. Molly (Beanie Feldstein, incidentally, Jonah Hill’s younger sister) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) are best friends, class presidents, and academic overachievers. Nice girls, too. With excellent grades in their pockets, they head off to college only to find that the same in-crowd from high school that was doing nothing but partying, now goes to the same college as them. Why, oh why, did they choose academic success over partying, when, clearly, they could have had both? On their last day in high school, now here’s a trope, they decide to make up for all the years of lost partying on one night. This sets off a raucous, raunchy, and wildly entertaining ride. And with a feminist twist!

3. Sorry We Missed You (2020)

best

9.1

Country

Belgium, France, United Kingdom

Director

Ken Loach

Actors

Charlie Richmond, Debbie Honeywood, Katie Proctor, Kris Hitchen

The British social-critical director of I, Daniel Blake and The Wind That Shakes the Barley, Ken Loach, delivers another scathing indictment of our economic system, the slashing of worker protection, and the gig economy. While these are indeed the themes of this affecting drama, Loach always makes it about the people. In this case, a struggling family man who tries to turn his life around by working in package delivery. Gig economy workers are usually freelancers who own their trucks and are made fully responsible for packages until they reach their respective recipients. From peeing in a bottle to save time to seamless monitoring by an overlord hand-held device, Sorry We Missed You manages to capture the indignity and gives you an intimate introduction to the human cost of having everything delivered to your doorstep at a moment’s notice. Thanks to Loach’s use of amateur actors, it has a raw and real feel to it without being melodramatic. Sorry We Missed You makes sure that the habitually unseen take center stage.

2. The Farewell (2019)

best

9.1

Country

China, United States of America, USA China

Director

Female director, Lulu Wang

Actors

Aoi Mizuhara, Awkwafina, Chen Han, Diana Lin

Moods

Depressing, Emotional, Inspiring

Many things clash in this beautifully layered, semi-autobiographical film of American director Lulu Wang: cultures, morals, and emotions. The result is a type of comedy that is complex and bittersweet⁠—and based on a true lie: this is the story of a Chinese grandma whose family won’t tell her that she is fatally ill. Instead, they organize a fake wedding in China, where everyone gets together to bid a farewell to the unwitting matriarch (played by Zhao Shuzhen). The fake wedding is, in fact, a premature funeral for a person unaware that she is going to die. Played by rapper and comedian Awkwafina, Billi, a New-York-based Chinese-American with a complicated relationship to China, embodies the cultural and moral question at the heart of this story: is it right or wrong not tell grandma? It is thanks to Wang’s deft writing and Awkwafina’s outstanding performance that The Farewell homes in on answers without ever being melodramatic. Warm, honest, and beautiful.

1. Honeyland (2019)

best

9.3

Country

Macedonia

Director

Female director, Ljubomir Stefanov

Actors

Hatidze Muratova, Hatidzhe Muratova, Hussein Sam, Nazife Muratova

Moods

Instructive

The first movie to be nominated for both the Documentary and Foreign-Language Oscar categories and the most awarded film of the 2019 Sundance Festival, Honeyland quietly accompanies the last wild beekeepers in Europe over three years. It portrays the lonely and primordial life of Muratova, which is centered around harvesting honey according to the rules of her ancient ancestors and caring for her ailing mother.

Originally planned as an environmental documentary, this film evolved into something completely different, as it often goes with immersive documentaries, when the Macedonian directors Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov met beekeeper Hatidže. The film takes another sudden turn when Muratova’s life is upended by a nomadic family settling next door, threatening her tradition, her way of life, and her natural environment.

This unbelievable cinematic journey is a feast for the eyes thanks to the amazing work done by cinematographer Samir Ljuma. However, despite the awe-inspiring imagery, Honeyland never imposes on its subject, creating an incredible intimacy with Hatidže’s life and her natural environment. Breathtaking!

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