This decade in film is hard to pin down.
Maybe it was the flood of superhero flicks. Maybe culture is so fragmented now that thinking about it in such broad terms is an outdated concept. Whatever the reason, things as a whole feel a little indistinct—but whatever the hell we’re calling this decade was actually a fascinating time for movies. And while 2019 wasn’t necessarily the most substantial year in cinema history, it was still a solid finish for an innovative 10 years at the movies.
This is 2019 in review.
Best Action Movie
John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum
At this point, I think it makes sense to separate superhero and action movies in our Year in Film issues. There’s so many of the former we sometimes miss out on the chance to give a tip of the ol’ cap to a movie like John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum, which is one of the more impressive recent action movies. Plot-wise, it’s whatever, but it doesn’t need a plot. From its opening fight scene—where Keanu Reeves’ Wick uses books to murder Boban Marjanovic’s character—you know it’s going to be fun. Its insanely choreographed knife fight rings of classic Jackie Chan, and the ultimate showdown shatters more glass than Shaq and Sandra Day O’Connor combined (folks!). It’s a wild return to classic stunt movies and a masterclass in fight blocking.
Best Horror Movie
This might be the biggest toss-up of the year for me. Both Us and Midsommar are modern horror classics, so choosing between them kind of comes down to how you want to define the category. On one hand, I think Midsommar might have a slight edge holistically. It expands Ari Aster’s macabre visions by moving away from the supernatural, and that grounding in reality makes Midsommar all the more unsettling.
On the other hand, there’s some ineffable quality to Us that continues to creep me the fuck out. And if we’re operating under the notion that scariness is a major factor in deciding a horror award winner, then I have to go with Jordan Peele’s Twilight Zone riff. Also, Us is a phenomenal movie in its own right. It’s skillfully crafted by Peele and maxed out with smart nods, jokes, and set pieces. And a second viewing makes it even more astounding.
Either way you lean, there’s no question that we’re seeing a renaissance in horror thanks to filmmakers like Peele, Aster, and Robert Eggers. I’m excited to see how the genre changes in the ’20s. (The ’20s!)
Booksmart got a lot of Superbad comparisons when it came out—which is fair—but this coming-of-age tale stands on its own legs. There are plenty of possibilities in the fish-out-of-water format, so the key to success for a high school movie is covering contemporary ground while tapping into some timeless spirit. Whether it’s a budding lesbian romance, the 21st-century mechanics of Lyfting to high school ragers, or feeling alienated by your classmates, Booksmart does just that—and it’s laugh-out-loud funny. The chemistry between Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein is evident right out of the gate, and Olivia Wilde—in her directorial debut—handles good times and young ennui without veering into corniness.
Feel-Bad Movie of the Year
Waves is one of the best movies of the year. It’s also one hell of a bummer. The tale of a high school wrestler pushed a little too far by his father and fate will obviously lead down some dark paths, but I don’t think anybody was prepared for how rough this thing would get. Kudos to director Trey Edward Shults for ruining my night.
Best Original Soundtrack
Us, Michael Abels
Joker ’s Hildur Guðnadóttir deftly brings the grittiness of old-school Gotham and Arthur Fleck’s descent into madness to life, but the visceral response Michael Abel’s Us work elicits, even when you’re not watching the movie, speaks volumes about the composer’s effort this year. This shit’s straight-up spooky. Add his twist on Luniz’s “I Got 5 on It” to the mix and you’ve got a score that’s more memorable than any original movie song this year.
Best Song: "Daily Battles," Thom Yorke and Flea
This was not a great year for movie songs, but then it rarely is. And hey, this ain’t the Grammys. Aside from Randy Newman’s umpteenth Toy Story addition, the only noteworthy original was a song from Thom Yorke and Flea off the Motherless Brooklyn soundtrack. “Daily Battles” might be simple, but its sparse composition and plaintive tone melt together to form a little low-key magic. The movie itself was a big-time box office flop, so assuming you haven’t seen it/heard the song, make sure you give it a listen. Even Thom Yorke haters can’t bad-mouth it.
Head-Scratcher of the Year
The bizarre early swimming scene should have been a dead giveaway that Matthew McConaughey’s nautical noir adventure was going to be a weird one, but I can safely say there’s not a soul on Earth who could’ve predicted Serenity’s twist. If you haven’t seen it yet, you’re not missing much, but the big reveal—that (spoiler!) McConaughey’s drunken tuna boat captain is actually a video game character created by a dead war veteran’s son—might be one of the more puzzling moments I’ve had at the movies. It’d be bad enough as a closer, but we learn this information in the middle of the movie, which means there’s a lot of time to sit and wonder how the hell this thing got made.
Best Superhero Movie
Was there any doubt? Avengers: Endgame succeeded as the end of a massive arc, but it was also an incredible sorta-standalone picture. Replete with star showings, dazzling special effects, and an emotional finale, Endgame furthered the reality that comic books and the stories therein aren’t just for kids. It’s the highest-grossing movie of all time and a powerful capstone to arguably the greatest saga in film history. I wish I could watch it for the first time all over again.
Most Shocking Nude Scene
Holy mermaid vagina, future Batman!
Best Original Screenplay
The Lighthouse, Robert & Max Eggers
Few filmmakers write like Robert Eggers because few filmmakers study like Robert Eggers. It’s most apparent in his dialogue, whether delivered with the 17th-century Yorkshire accents of The Witch or the old-timey sailor talk of The Lighthouse. That authenticity makes his movies stand out—how many period pieces have been ruined by horribly displaced or anachronistic Brit speak?—but his scripts are so much more than speech patterns. They’re crafty character dramas rooted in and made better by Eggers’ yen for accuracy. The Lighthouse is more of an experience than most movies for a lot of different reasons, but it all starts with his writing. As clichéd as it is to say, The Lighthouse really does transport us to a different world.
Best Sci-Fi Movie
While it’s technically a 2018 release, High Life didn’t hit America until this year, so we’re counting it. The story of a spaceship full of convicts sent into the unknown, High Life explores themes of violence, sexuality, and fatherhood while carving out a brutal spot in science fiction. Mashing up prison tropes with that of an interstellar odyssey brings tons of novelty. Robert Pattinson (another guy who had a great year) continues to show his chops and shake off his Twilight reputation, and Juliette Binoche, well...
Best Supporting Actress
Juliette Binoche, High Life
I doubt Binoche will even make most people’s shortlists for this award, but in my opinion, High Life shows her delivering the goods as the deranged Dr. Dibs. Smart, scary, sexy, sad—she does it all. High Life is obviously a space movie and flirts with enough horror that it doubles down on being a genre piece, but that should never be a knock. If anything, taking a character as strange and evil as Dibs and making her feel human shows just how talented Binoche really is. I’m here for you, Juliette.
Best Animated Movie
Toy Story 4
It’ll probably be a while before any animated feature lives up to 2018’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, but man, this felt like a poor year for the category. That said, Toy Story 4 shouldn’t be discounted as some bland winner by default. Pixar’s return to the franchise was heartfelt and often hilarious. Sure, it didn’t need to be made given the third entry’s perfect ending. But there was more than enough meat on the final snake-booted leg of Woody’s journey to make Toy Story 4 worth seeing.
The best documentaries in any given year usually detail timely issues or shed light on some unfamiliar subject, but this year’s best covers one of the most significant, well-known events of the 20th century: the moon landing. There’s no narration or interviews, just previously unreleased footage and some artful editing by director Todd Douglas Miller. Sound and some simple graphics work to put you in the ship with our three intrepid astronauts, and though we’ll never know the full extent of that experience, Apollo 11 is about as close as any of us will get.
Keanu Reeves, Always Be My Maybe
Keanu was all over the place in 2019—Between Two Ferns, Toy Story 4, John Wick 3—but his appearance in Ali Wong and Randall Park’s Always Be My Maybe was his most unexpected. The dude’s famously nice, so it was a real joy to see him come out of nowhere and play a dickhead version of himself with such gusto.
Best Supporting Actor
Willem Dafoe, The Lighthouse
Period-accurate dialogue is awesome, unless your talent can’t pull it off. In The Lighthouse, to nobody’s surprise, Willem Dafoe smashes it out of the park. Embodying the role of surly one-time seaman/maybe-crazy lighthouse keeper, Dafoe runs the gamut from sad man-child to wrathful bastard. His ability to deliver such foreign English with such convincing ease makes me wonder if he’s secretly an ancient mariner cursed to do movies for the rest of time. It’s either that or he’s a very good actor, but I’m leaning toward the former.
Most Disappointing Movie of the Year
The New Mutants
The New Mutants was a huge disappointment. Why? It didn’t even come out. Initially slated for an April 2018 release—yes, 2018—the folks at Fox kicked the X-Men offshoot down the road for what was supposed to be a year. Well, 2019 came and went, and now we’re allegedly looking at an April 2020 release. Yikes.
Roger Deakins, 1917
There was stiff competition in the category this year: Rodrigo Prieto made vintage look modern in The Irishman, Robert Richardson captured a perfectly nostalgic style in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Hoyte van Hoytema elevated Ad Astra beyond its script, and Lawrence Sher surprised a lot of people with the gritty ’80s reconstruction of Joker. For me though, Roger Deakins wins out.
I’m admittedly a freakins for Deakins, but I don’t think my bias factors in any more than usual here. His work on World War I drama 1917 is some of his niftiest thanks to the difficulty of its end goal, the presentation of one continuous shot.
The idea recalls 2014’s Birdman, another best cinematography winner in my book. However, 1917 is in some ways trickier because it’s shot almost entirely outside and therefore can’t rely on hiding cuts as much. It’s easy to write off as a gimmick, but it’s so much more here. I wouldn’t dream of ragging on Birdman, but 1917’s one-shot decision feels much more motivated and therefore more impactful. Deakins pulls off some gorgeous shots in spite of his constraints and helps make 1917 one of the more immersive war movies I’ve ever seen.
Joaquin Phoenix, Joker
2019 was a bright year for starring actors, and it would be otherwise difficult to pick the best had Joaquin Phoenix not run away with it in Joker. Phoenix was already one of the premier talents of his generation, but his disturbing portrayal of a proto-villain on the rise may be his best work yet. It’s not just the weird laugh or the sympathy he draws as lowly Arthur Fleck that make his turn memorable; it’s the transformation from sickly, hunched wannabe comedian to confident killer clown. That profound physical change punctuates the actor’s interpretation. Like Heath Ledger before him, Phoenix makes an iconic part his own.
Best Foreign Language Film
Spoilers: I chose Parasite for Best Picture, so skip ahead to read what makes this film so great.
Lupita Nyong’o, Us
Oh you didn’t think we could do it again? That’s right, another horror movie wins the prize. I’m sure Lupita Nyong’o will get snubbed like Toni Collette did with Hereditary, but she gives not one but two amazing performances in Us. Both Adelaide Wilson and Red feel distinct, sympathetic, and frightening, with Jordan Peele’s big twist showing precisely how first-rate Nyong’o’s handiwork is here. As with the movie itself, a second viewing reveals her performance to be even more intricate. We need a rallying hashtag for this until horror actors start getting the recognition they deserve. Take it away, Twittersphere.
Sam Mendes, 1917
It was only last year that I put forward the idea that Best Director and Best Picture are almost always connected. Well, consider this year an outlier.
1917 is a strong movie, but I don’t think it deserves Best Picture. Despite its backdrop, the story’s scope feels somewhat limited. There’s nothing wrong with that, and not every movie needs to be some grand, meaning-laden achievement. But it’s up against a couple heavy-hitters this year.
It’s hard to argue with what Sam Mendes accomplishes from a technical perspective. I remember one of the Birdman writers saying in an interview that “You have to be an idiot to do it all in one shot.” He’d know better than most. The sheer difficulty of the feat combined with the set design 1917 necessitates makes this seem, from the outside, like a logistical nightmare. Yet somehow Mendes pulls it off with skill, style, and substance. I’m a guy who thinks American Beauty is one of the most overrated Oscar-winners ever, so that should tell you something.
Writer-director Bong Joon-ho’s ingenious tale might play out on a small scale, but it’s universally fascinating. It’s silly and skeevy. It’s a thriller and a comedy. There’s love, death, treachery, hatred. It’s so metaphorical. Above all, this grifter-family tragedy is an incisive look at the growing discord between the rich and poor in South Korea and across the world. Movies as different as Joker, Us, Hustlers, Knives Out, and Ready or Not all touched on class conflict in 2019, but none of them did so as thoughtfully and effectively as Parasite. There’s been a lot of hype surrounding this movie, and for once it’s well-deserved.