Kelly’s Favorite Films of 2019

Quentin Tarantino made headlines last month when he told Deadline’s Pete Hammond that his favorite film of the year might just be Alejander Aja’s woman-terrorized-by-alligators thriller Crawl. His year-end lists are always eclectic, but in a year with The Irishman and Parasite out there – which he did name as his second and third favorites of the year – picking Crawl seemed especially stunning, even for Tarantino. There are important films like The Irishman, and then you have escapist joy like Crawl. When naming your favorite films of the year, you’re supposed to favor the former. That’s just what you do.

I struggle with that. For example, while I didn’t put Crawl in my favorites-of-the-year list I do have a horror-comedy, Ready or Not, ranked fairly high. It didn’t profoundly impact me nor did it bowl me over with its artistic brilliance; instead, it entertained the hell out of me by being a clever, impeccably well-made thriller with a perfectly balanced ratio of scares and laughs all while packing a little social commentary. That has to count for something. After all, sometimes you just want a really fun genre flick made by people who seem to love what they’re doing.

2019, however, didn’t seem to have as many as those as usual. Indeed, this was the year of the blockbuster bomb, a time when Hollywood’s turn toward genre IP at the expense of adult dramas finally backfired and franchise fatigue – outside of the Marvel movies, of course – reared its ugly head. The big Hollywood movies with built-in audiences routinely disappointed, which is probably why Netflix’s dramas and docs (Dolemite Is My Name, Marriage Story, The Irishman, The Two Popes, American Factory) and indie powerhouse A24 (Midsommar, The Lighthouse) are so well-represented on so many best-of-the-year lists. The slack, after all, had to be picked up somewhere.

Then again, 2019 also had Joker, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Ford v Ferrari, Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Hustlers, and Knives Out. Despite reports to the contrary, the mid-budget studio picture isn’t quite dead yet. Netflix doesn’t have the adult drama/comedy market completely cornered nor is Disney the only company in town capable of commanding blockbuster-sized audiences.

So, which films emerged from all of that as my favorites of 2019? Well, to answer that I have to start with something that actually came out in 2017. It’s…complicated.

15. One Cut of the Dead

I went back and forth on whether this one is even eligible for this list. After all, One Cut of the Dead was made and released in Japan in 2017 and played multiple film festivals in America in 2018. Sure, but it wasn’t officially released in the states until September of this year, and I didn’t see it until it dropped on Shudder.

All of that aside, One Cut of the Dead is a pure delight, a Japanese zombie movie that’s not actually a zombie movie. Instead, it is 37 minutes of one-shot, low-budget zombie mayhem followed by an hour of fictionalized behind the scenes peeks into how they pulled it all off. It’s like a movie immediately followed by a “making of” except the making of is infinitely more entertaining than the movie, certainly filled with far more colorful personalities.

Like so many movies about movies, One Cut of the Dead is ultimately a tribute to the dreamers, but I’m a sucker for that and had never seen it done quite like this before. Speaking of movies about movies…

Where to Watch: Shudder

14. Dolemite Is My Name

A profile of blaxploitation legend Rudy Ray Moore and the making of his first movie Dolemite, Dolemite Is My Name broadly adheres to screenwriting pair Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski’s love for the fringe figures of American pop culture – Ed Wood, Auto Focus, The People Vs. Larry Flynt, Man on the Moon. But for an Alexander/Karaszewski joint, Dolemite is more surface-level fun than usual, which is why it was discounted by many critics as harmless fluff more interested in entertaining than diving deep. Still, Dolemite is a complete audience-pleaser, with one meme-worthy moment after another and a powerhouse central Eddie Murphy performance that reminds you, damn, that man is charming when he wants to be.

Where to Watch: Netflix

13. The Lighthouse

A black and white picture presented in an antiquated aspect ratio we haven’t seen since the silent film days, and it’s about Willem Dafoe farting in Robert Pattinson’s face as they’re stuck together in a lighthouse? AND it eventually devolves into a complete mindfuck commentary on toxic masculinity, calling back in a way to the obscure Australian film Wake in Fright? Ok. Where’s the camera? This is a Prank Encounter, right? Surely this Madlib version of a pretentious-sounding art-house movie isn’t real?

Oh, no, The Lighthouse is very real. It’s Robert Eggers’ follow-up to The Witch, and as with the goat from that film Lighthouse also leaves us with several memorable moments of man vs. nature. (Spoiler: seagulls are total dicks.) However, Dafoe and Pattinson carry the day with initially measured, eventually borderline insane, but always compelling performances that ground us emotionally even as the film turns positively Lovecraftian.

Where to Watch: Check JustWatch

12. Ford v Ferrari

When Disney bought Fox it inherited a lot of troubled projects, partially because the people at Fox weren’t exactly doing their best work in that final year before the sale went through. Most of them were busy looking for new jobs. Some Fox executives, THR famously reported, were even caught sleeping in their cars in the parking lot, just wasting away their final days on the job. However, one of the inherited projects Disney instantly gravitated toward was Ford v Ferrari, and it’s not hard to see why:

This – Matt Damon and Christian Bale playing two famous car racers who helped Ford take on Ferrari at Le Mans in ‘66 – is essentially an inspirational sports movie ala The Rookie or Remember the Titans. However, since it was made by Fox prior to the sale the end result is something with slightly more edge to it, far more of director James Mangold’s unique vision and ambition to top every car race movie that came before. I don’t know that Mangold quite reached that height, but with Christian Bale behind the wheel – both literally and figuratively – you can’t really go wrong. You leave it wondering why Damon and Bale took so long to make a movie together – they’re a perfect buddy duo.

Where to Watch: In theaters

11. Wild Rose

How do you get to Nashville from Scotland when you have two young kids, no money or contacts, and a criminal history which prevents you from traveling? That’s the conundrum facing Wild Rose’s central character, a bawdy, talented country singer who lives the life she sings about in her songs even if it means hurting everyone around her. Eventually, she is forced to confront the selfishness of her own dreams, a journey star Jessie Buckley brings to life with charm and maturity. Her journey culminates in a heartbreaking performance of an original song called “Glasgow (No Place Like Home),” which is far and away the best movie music moment of 2019.

Where to Watch: Hulu

10. Hustlers

Hustlers is a movie about the unintended and largely ignored consequences of capitalism. It is also a movie about sisterhood, empowerment, the plight of sex workers, the difference between righteous retribution and pure greed, and the thin line between journalism and advocacy. It’s Goodfellas from the stripper’s point of view. Mostly, though, Hustlers is an engrossing crime drama with a career-best Jennifer Lopez performance and breakthrough writing/directing from Lorene Scafaria.

Where to Watch: Rent or Buy

9. American Factory

A Chinese company bought a shuttered American factory in the Midwest and immediately put a bunch of laid-off blue-collar types back to work. Cue culture clashes and pointed contrasts between the experience of the average Chinese employee back in the company’s mainland factories and the disgruntled American employees threatening to form a union. The depressing conclusion: we’re different, sure, but at the end of the day we are all in the same boat, punching the clock on jobs which will soon be done by machines instead of humans. Depressing, sure, but also deeply fascinating and captured here by two documentarians who gained astonishing access to both the factory floor and the lives of all the employees, all the way up to the CEO’s house back in China.

Where to Watch: Netflix

8. The Irishman

Unpopular opinion: I don’t love Scorsese’s mob movies, at least not all of them. As a result, The Irishman – both his tribute to and obituary for the mob movie – doesn’t quite hit me as strongly or emotionally as it does others. That’s my way of explaining why it’s in my top 10 but not top 5, but obviously, it’s still on here. That’s because Irishman is an undeniably well-made, impeccably performed feat of filmmaking, a sad look at what happens to a man who puts so much faith in the wrong system that he ends up betraying what should really matter the most in life

Where to Watch: Netflix

7. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

When most men reach a mid-life crisis moment, they buy a sports car. For Quentin Tarantino, he got Sony to give him $90m to recreate the Hollywood of his youth and to mix history and fiction to play-act his own dilemma over what to do with the rest of his life. The subtext is mostly text, the nostalgia dripping with surprising sincerity, and the inclusion of Sharon Tate and Bruce Lee not as deftly handled as it should have been. Still, Tarantino at his most self-indulgent still registers as a cinematic event, and thanks to him we’ll forever have that scene of Leonardo DiCaprio scolding himself for drinking too many damn whisky sours.

Where to Watch: Rent or buy

6. Knives Out

I’m always down for Rian Johnson’s latest attempt to blow-up yet another genre. This time, he takes on the whodunnit, Agatha Christie murder mystery. Add in a stacked cast (Chris Evans, Lakeith Stanfield, Toni Collette, Jamie Lee Curtis, etc.) and Daniel Craig doing his weird American accent thing and you have a recipe for a murder mystery that conspires to both undercut and honor the genre. Only Johnson could have created Benoit Blanc, a master detective who at one point obliviously sings along to Sondheim in a car while major crimes happen directly behind him, but at other points proves to be exactly the kind of genius you’d expect. What a delightful character to behold. The fun, however, isn’t completely calorie-free. Knives Out delves into the 1% vs. 99% dynamics of the day, but never in a way that overwhelms the story. Say, speaking of rich vs. poor films of 2019…

Where to Watch: In theaters

5. Ready or Not

Ready or Not is basically an updated Most Dangerous Game, but it’s a version of Most Dangerous Game where the rich people are as incompetent as the Bluths (from Arrested Development) or Roys (from Succession). Every part of that sounds amazing to me, and, thankfully, Ready or Not absolutely delivers everything you’d want out of that.

Stephen King once said horror and comedy each work best when they elicit a vocal reaction from the audience. That’s why they often go so great together, and Ready Or Not made me gasp in horror – seriously, a hand falls straight down onto a nail – and laughter. I was never truly scared, but I had a great time with it. Samara Weaving starts out like a B-Movie Margot Robbie and ends like a badass Furiosa, the supporting cast perfectly toys the film’s satirical line, and the social commentary about the absurdities of the rich is there just enough to be appreciated or ignored.

Where to Watch: Rent or Buy

4. Midsommar

2019 oddly offered up several memorable films about couples who really shouldn’t be together, from Honor Swinton Byrne and Tom Burke in The Souvenir to Adam Driver and Scarlet Johansson in Marriage Story. Sure, but did any of them end up in a bear costume? No? Well, Midsommar’s got you beat.

Coming straight from the twisted mind and sad life experiences of Ari Aster, Midsommar is technically a horror movie but is better thought of as an ultra slow-moving break-up movie. It follows a couple (Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor) who should have parted ways years ago. However, they stay together for convenience and co-dependency, and after she suffers a family tragedy there’s no way he can leave her. It takes a trip with some friends to rural Sweden to put them to the final test. It’s a disorienting, disturbing, and in some ways cathartic journey. Skol!

Where to Watch: Rent or Buy

3. Avengers: Endgame

Setting aside the Scorsese vs. Marvel situation, let me just look at this as a genre fan:

Endgame takes some big swings, including a mid-section that is basically The Leftovers set in a superhero world, but pretty much all of those swings worked for me. We quibble over the various plot holes, fat jokes, and head-scratching moments because this is the biggest film of all time and we care so much about these characters. We’ve been on a journey with all of them since Iron Man first emerged out of that cave back in 2008 and were stunned to see them lose in Infinity War. Endgame is their final victory together, and that goes for both the on-screen and behind the scenes talent. (The Russos are probably done with this world.) The MCU will never be the same again, but what a fitting swan song to an era of unprecedented storytelling.

Where to Watch: Rent or Buy

2. Parasite

This is to Bong Joon-ho what The Shape of Water was to Guillermo del Toro – it’s the culmination/crystallization of everything he’s done to this point, delivered in the most accessible work of his career. That’s possibly why #BongHive formed on Twitter and conspired to turn Parasite into the new Shawshank Redemption, Frank Darabont’s beloved classic that still sits at #1 on the IMDB’s top 250 and still leads people to question, “It’s good, but best of all time? Really?”

#BongHive wants Parasite to be in that same conversation. So, it’s up to #21 on the IMDB Top 250, and it’s actually Letterboxd’s best-reviewed film of all time. The “is Parasite really that good?” pushback seems inevitable, but it’s hard to get into since Parasite is impossible to talk about without spoiling too much.

Suffice to say, Joon-ho keeps with his tendency to mix genre with commentary, offering up an us vs. them story that has the feel of a remarkably clever heist movie before swerving hard into something completely new. It’s Joon-ho speaking to a lot of the same things Jordan Peele was going for in Us but doing so in a way that feels less indebted to what came before. The word “muli-layered” comes to mind, but films this layered don’t often feel so simultaneously fun and profound.

Where to Watch: At the moment, nowhere.

1. Marriage Story

This movie – Noah Baumbach’s dramatization of his own divorce process – broke me, which is weird since I’m not married and only know divorce from the child’s point of view. The best – or maybe the most meaningful – movies, however, are supposed to impact you like that. There’s an emptiness inside, one you didn’t even know was there until a film comes along to fill it in. You absorb it into yourself, allow it to become a part of who you are, maybe make you more empathetic to others or at least aware of your own failings. That’s what Marriage Story did to me.

In a year with so many political films, escapist blockbusters, genre experiments, and personal passion projects I was most blown away by Adam Driver and Scarlet Johansson methodically moving through a divorce, perhaps precisely because it feels so grounded, ordinary, and emotionally real. At a time when we as a people have lost the ability to communicate with one another, seeing a couple’s rage supplemented by mouthpiece divorce lawyers feels right, somehow, invigorating even. Watching Driver sing Sondheim’s “Being Alive,” though, is enough to give anyone an existential crisis.

Where to Watch: Netflix

Honorable Mentions: Us, Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Toy Story 4, How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, Booksmart, John Wick 3, Joker, The Farewell, Brittany Runs a Marathon, Klaus, Little Monsters, Diego Maradona, Apollo 11

Dishonorable Mentions: Dark Phoenix, The Beach Bum, Replicas, Serenity, Alita: Battle Angel, The Hustle, Black Christmas

Still Haven’t Seen: Portrait of a Lady on Fire, 1917, Little Women, Uncut Gems, I Lost My Body, Just Mercy

2020 Movie Most Likely to End Up On My Next List: Wonder Woman 1984. Fingers crossed.

What movies are on your list? Let me know in the comments.


    1. I wonder if maybe Wild Rose – and several other films, like The Last Black Man in San Francisco – fell victim to the dreaded “came out too early in the year curse.” I heard such raves when it came out that I drove three hours to see it in another city and I adored it, but the online enthusiasm just went away as the next batch of films came along. Wild Rose turned into something people would briefly mention while primarily discussing Jessie Buckley’s breakout performance in HBO’s Chernobyl. Like, “she’s really, really good in this HBO mini-series everyone is talking about. Also, she did some indie movie called Wild Rose that people like. Heard she sings in that one. But, seriously, have you seen Chernobyl?” She can be good in both!

      The good news is “Glasgow” is on the Oscars shortlist for Best Original Song and most of the leading analysts seem to agree it is will be among the five songs ultimately nominated in that category. If they’re right – and that’s a big “if” since the Best Original Song category is usually just a parade of the songs that famous people sang over closing credits of Disney movies – Buckley could end up performing “Glasgow” at the Oscars in 2020. She won’t be nominated for her acting in Wild Rose, but if she is given the platform to share that song with millions around the world via the Oscars telecast then maybe the film will get a bit of a bump.

  1. I think you put Once Upon A Time pretty high… and above The Irishman? Okay, haven’t seen The Irishman yet. I thought the most interesting part is when Leo’s character did spaghetti Western but the movie skips over it.

    Same here for Ready Or Not but I like it more than Midsommar. A lesser movie but with similar ‘rich people are satanists’ I also like is Satanic Panic.

    On the top my head my list would include: Parasite, Joker, Spring (2017 movie), Ready Or Not, King of Comedy (Stephen Chow, 1999), Sorry to Bother You (2018), The Boys (even tho not a movie). And I hope I could still watch some movies on your list before the year ends.

    1. I could have done with more of Rick Dalton’s tenure in Italy as a spaghetti western star. I agree with you there. As for why I have Once Upon a Time so high – higher than The Irishman, even – I like movies about movies more than mob films and I think I’m at just the right age to relate to Once Upon a Time’s mid-career crisis more than Irishman’s end-of-life parade of regrets. Once Upon a Time is so nakedly Tarantino in every way, both great and exhilarating but also self-indulgent and sometimes reductive. For that reason, it became another one of 2019’s cultural footballs, to the point that Bruce Lee’s daughter got it banned in China. It still works for me, however, as a love letter to a lost era and a great showcase for two of the biggest movie stars of our generation. I just have to wince at the end when the brainwashed cult members get annihilated like they were the freakin’ Nazi’s in Inglorious Basterds.

      “rich people are satanists/assholes” was a big theme this year, for probably obvious reasons. Ready or Not, Knives Out, Parasite, Satanic Panic all qualify. Or so I’d guess since I haven’t seen Satanic Panic yet. Before making my list, I binged a handful of movies I’d missed this year, and when it came to overlooked horror I picked Gwen – one of the best-reviewed horror films of the year according to RottenTomatoes – over Satanic Panic, which looked good but definitely lower budget. I picked poorly. Gwen is a perfectly fine version of one of those rural horror “is she crazy or is supernatural shit really going down” flicks in the mold of The Witch, but it felt like I’d seen several films just like it. I didn’t have enough time left for Satanic Panic, but it’s going on my watchlist for later.

      Spring is fantastic. I’m not familiar with the Stephen Chow King of Comedy. I just know the Scorsese one. Sorry to Bother You was in my top 25 of 2018. That final act trips me up. It’s such a hard, completely jarring turn, but it does pay off with one hell of an ending.

  2. I loved Knives Out too. Was very pleasantly surprised by Ready or Not- it was a lot of fun. I think Endgame worked brilliantly as the culmination of the Marvel movies. I really need to watch Marriage Story.

    1. I thought about ranking Endgame as my #1, but it almost seems unfair. As you said, it worked brilliantly as the culmination of the Marvel movies. It’s the biggest and most-badass season finale in the history of television; we just happened to watch it on the big screen since the Marvel films have brought TV’s long-form storytelling to movie theaters. So, Endgame almost doesn’t even seem like a movie. I don’t mean that in the Scorsese “not cinema” way; I mean it’s a completely unprecedented feat of serialized storytelling on a blockbuster scale, paying off over a decade of film history. Whatever it is or however you want to define it, Endgame was one hell of a moviegoing experience. Marriage Story got my #1, though, because it’s the film that had the biggest impact on me, emotionally. From conversations I’ve had with others, it doesn’t work on that level for everyone, but it hit me like a fist to the jaw.

      Which one on my list, though, would I most want to rewatch right now? Probably Ready or Not, actually. It’s just so much un. Everything I love about horror-comedy packed into one film and topped off with one of the best horror endings in recent memory..

      1. I think that is why Endgame worked so well. Marvel had earned it. They had spent the time on each of these characters so the pay offs were deserved.

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