Friday 27 December 2019

My Top 10 Films of 2019

With 2019 drawing to a close, it's time to look back at the year that was and reflect on some of my favourite films from the past 12 months.

While picking a personal top 10 might feel a little redundant when you consider the thousands of other end of year lists that pop up around this time, I find it's a great way to bookend the year and have fun while doing so.

I've found 2019 challenging at times, but the films – by and large – have been excellent, particularly those that have hit theatres in the last few months as awards seasons kicks into gear. We've seen the industry pivot further into the realm of streaming, as titans like Netflix and Amazon vie for our attentions by releasing the kind of films usually reserved for theatres.

Even the likes of Martin Scorsese and Michael Bay have been tempted by the allure of streaming, and you may find one or two films in this list that Netflix has had a hand in bringing to life. When all is said and done though, nothing can top the theatre experience, and all but one of my top ten were seen on the biggest screen possible with an audience. Why would you want it to be any other way?

Note: As with previous years, my list is collated from films that were released in Australia in 2019. This means certain films that have yet to open in Australia – like Robert Eggers' The Lighthouse, Marielle Heller's A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood or Sam Mendes' 1917 – aren't featured (even though I've seen and really enjoyed those last two). They'll have to wait until this time next year to be considered.

Honourable mentions: Jojo Rabbit, Doctor Sleep, Judy, Us, The Irishman, Official Secrets, John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum, Dolemite Is My Name, It: Chapter Two, Midsommar

10th – Booksmart (dir. Olivia Wilde)

A whip-smart high school comedy with heart and humour in equal measure, Olivia Wilde's directorial debut Booksmart proved that even the most familiar and rote genre can feel anew with the right vision, voice and pair of hands at the reins.

A breathless bolt out of the blue that captures the confusion, nerves, uncertainty, excitement and fear that comes with graduating from high school, Booksmart serves up authenticity in spades. Best of all, the emotional beats hit hard, with Wilde displaying a deft understanding of her two charismatic lead characters played by an electric Beanie Feldstein and the lovesick Kaitlyn Dever.

9th – Avengers: Endgame (dir. Joe and Anthony Russo)

After 22 films, 11 years and a seemingly endless gallery of heroes, the Marvel Cinematic Universe culminated in Avengers: Endgame, a three-hour epic that was suitably shocking, stunning and satisfying. 

If 2018's cliffhanger Avengers: Infinity War was an adrenaline-soaked frenzy of action, Endgame is the sombre hangover. For the first time, our heroes – Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Black Widow et al – are faced with the fallout of their failure – they lost, and they’re struggling to move on. 

Endgame takes its time to explore what that means for those left behind for a solid chunk of its runtime, which means the action doesn’t kick into gear until over an hour until the film. But that’s okay – letting the dust settle and shifting focus to the characters isn’t just done well, it’s necessary for what comes next, which is essentially the celebratory victory lap.

Serving as a fitting farwell for the likes of Robert Downey Jnr's Tony Stark and Chris Evans' Steve Rogers, Avengers: Endgame was a heartfelt, sincere and emotionally shattering love letter to what has come before. It was the payoff, the triumph and the pathos audiences were looking and hoping for. In terms of finales, it’s up there with Return of the King or Return of the Jedi. Where the series goes from here is anyone's guess.

8th – Ad Astra (dir. James Gray)

At first glance, James Gray's Ad Astra – a sprawling spacefaring film starring Brad Pitt – sounds like your bang average blockbuster, complete with an interplanetary threat, a chiseled hero and a heart-pounding ticking clock. In place of this, Gray crafted a sombre and moody character piece, with a jarringly realistic and tangible depiction of space travel.

Few films capture the emptiness and loneliness of space like Ad Astra. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema's gorgeous visuals and composer Max Richter's sweeping score slavishly service Gray's overarching themes, as Pitt's pondersome inner monologue laments his father's emotional indifference and grapples with the responsibilities of family. 

A deliberate and methodical lament that slowly unfurls to reveal a tender and genuinely moving centre, Ad Astra is a melancholic journey of self-discovery – that also includes moon pirates and man-eating baboons. Slow, beautiful, odd and cold – it's one of 2019's more unexpected and challenging mainstream experiences.

7th – Hustlers (dir. Lorene Scafaria)

Lorene Scafaria's neon-soaked nightclub romp Hustlers is exactly the kind of mid-budget adult fare that multiplexes are sorely lacking nowadays, and audiences – namely, female audiences – responded warmly to their return.

Looking back at the film, it's easy to see why it took off. You've got a great ensemble cast – Lili Reinhart, Cardi B, Lizzo, Keke Palmer – with two terrific performances leading the charge from Constance Wu and the perennially popular Jennifer Lopez.

Plus, and this is the key factor here – Hustlers is a straight-up damn good film. Framed through flashback, narration and its fair share of slick montages and needle drops, this Robin Hood tale takes its cues from Martin Scorsese but crucially swivels its focus to the women that are typically brushed to the edges of the frame.

Juggling weighty themes – like the fallout of the 2008 Wall Street – and shady schemes, Hustlers was one of the year's biggest surprises, and we can only hope that Hollywood learns the right lessons from its success and takes the plunge on more just like it.

6th – The Farewell (dir. Lulu Wang)

Lulu Wang's familial drama The Farewell is a film that cuts many different ways. To some, it's about a clashing of cultures; east meets west, old meets young; to others, it's a story that unpacks the inherent complexities and contradictions of families; and to another, it's a nuanced and comedic dramedy of a young woman finding her place in the world.

More than anything, Wang's film captures the unique homesickness that comes with being an immigrant. It might be rooted in the Asian diaspora and deal with Asian ideals and values, but The Farewell speaks to anyone who is separated from their family – myself included.

The scene where Billi (a terrific Awkwafina) bids a final farewell to her beloved Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao), unsure if or when she would see her again, felt less like a story I was being told and more like a memory I was able to recall. I've been there, in her shoes. I can't think of another film this year that offered another moment as potent or as personal.

5th – Marriage Story (dir. Noah Baumbach)

Anchored by two amazing performances from Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, Noah Baumbach's Marriage Story was an empathic exploration of how the best of intentions can become fractured when a divorce becomes messy.

Inspired by his own divorce to actress Jennifer Jason Leigh, Baumbach's film doesn't strive to take sides; Marriage Story doesn't present either party as virtuous hero or dastardly villain. Nicole (played by a frayed but warm Johansson) isn't the perfect mother, but she's far from an antagonist; similarly, Charlie (Adam Driver in his best role to date) cares more than words can say about his family, but he's not a hero.

Instead, the film exists in the complicated, uncertain grey spaces between these two extremes, with its two lead characters engaging in an emotional tug-of-war in the middle. Marriage Story refuses to cast judgement, and tells both sides of its titular matrimonial tale, resulting in an enthralling, upsetting and raw portrayal of the awkwardness, strangeness and extremes that come with the territory when you're in love.

4th - Ford v Ferrari (dir. James Mangold)

Great sports films are a dime a dozen, but great racing films? Now that's another story. Director James Mangold – with not a single motorsport-loving bone in his body – has somehow crafted a film that sits alongside the best of the racing film subgenre, up there with the likes of Rush, Grand Prix and Senna.

With its thrilling and visceral racing sequences, impressive sound design, gorgeous cinematography and compelling performances, Ford v Ferrari was a treat for the eyes and the ears. And with bankable stars like Christian Bale and Matt Damon along for the ride, it's also an accessible slice of filmmaking for adults, whether you are an avid fan of motorsport (such as myself) or haven't the foggiest what a Gurney flap is.

The frenetic third act is the stuff blockbuster dreams are made of, with all the thrills and spills that only a classic motor race like Le Mans 1966 can provide. It's textbook big-budget moviemaking, where escalating stakes and nail-biting moments are stacked one after another. This is where the film really sings, through a choir of crunching gears, roaring engines and screeching brakes.

3rd – Knives Out (dir. Rian Johnson)

So you've just directed the best Star Wars film since Empire Strikes Back – what's next? If you're writer/director Rian Johnson, it's to dip out of a galaxy far, far away for a bit and flex that creative clout by reviving a genre anyone under the age of 65 has long since stopped caring about.

When people say "they don't make them like they used to", just point them in the direction of Knives Out. A clever and compelling pastiche of Agatha Christie or Arthur Conan Doyle, Knives Out sees Johnson having the time of life as he peels back the layers of the well-worn murder mystery genre and poking holes in them, before reworking it into something fresh and exciting.

Outfoxing a viewer expecting to be fooled is no mean feat, but Johnson deploys his terrific ensemble cast – including the likes of Jamie Lee Curtis, Ana de Armas, Christopher Plummer, Toni Collette and Chris Evans – with aplomb, cleverly moving them across the chess board – or should that be, a Cluedo board? – while simultaneously misdirecting the viewer through an intricate plot. Plus, Daniel Craig's suave Southern sleuth Benoit Blanc is a wonderful creation – one that I wouldn't be adverse to seeing crop up in further mysteries again and again.

2nd – Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (dir. Quentin Tarantino)

Quentin Tarantino's sprawling homage to the Swinging Sixties is both a raucous celebration and a sombre lament of a bygone era. As its title suggests, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a dreamy fairytale that sees Tarantino tip his hat to the films be grew up with, the stars he admired and the moviemaking landscape as it once was.

Just as he did with Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino posits himself as a storyteller first and a historian second. Rather than using his movie to merely recount history, he once again remixed history and reforged myth into a movie – in this case, it was reworking the fate of Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) through the lens of two terrific creations in Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt).

Every new film from Tarantino is cause for celebration, but Once Upon a Time in Hollywood felt especially special. It's Tarantino – who has previously explored crime films, slasher horror, Westerns and Hong Kong martial arts movies – turning his gaze inward more so than ever before, by making a movie about the movies. For a filmmaker whose modus operandi is so closely intertwined with the DNA of filmmaking, it seemed like only a matter of time – and it was worth the wait.

1st – Parasite (dir. Bong Joon-ho)

A bizarre black comedy from South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho, Parasite charts the interlocking lives of a rich family and a poor family. The latter, fed up with their lot in life, latch onto the former, determined to improve their social standing – but all is not as it seems at the Park's sprawling mansion home, and the impoverished Kim's find themselves entangled in a dark and gruesome web. In throwing two polar opposites in such intimate proximity – two sides who we're told should never mix – the film goes to some terrifying and terrific places.

The best way you can watch Parasite is to cut yourself off from the film entirely. No trailers, no reviews, nothing. This was how I saw the film back in July; all I knew going in was that the film had scooped the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival. 

So, if going in cold is preferable, what more do you need to know? Well, Parasite has shades of a home invasion thriller such as Panic Room; I can tell you the film comments on social hierarchy and familial struggle while mixing in elements of comedy, similar to another horror film from earlier this year – Jordan Peele's Us. And the film, regardless of where you think it is going, will surprise you. You will expect it to swing a right, but Bong will jaunt left. There really isn't another film like it from the last 12 months.


  1. Great list! OUATIH was the only one I didn't care for personally but all the others I either enjoyed or will also be on my Top 10 as well.

  2. We have a very different top 10 but I have a few in mine that match yours too so it's like.. 50/50 almost.



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