From the incredible showing of films from FIN – The Atlantic International Film Festival to some of the strongest foreign and indie showings in a long time, this was a year of acting showcases and surprises.
It also happens to be a year where I saw nearly everything I could, and my list reflects the best and brightest I saw from January right to December 28, 2019.
Sometimes a film will be surprising – so intoxicatingly good – that it will all-out floor you. Foreign-language film Parasite is the type of movie where the less you know, the more you’ll enjoy it. At my sold-out FIN screening, I knew nothing, except that it was being hailed, and I was not disappointed.
Directed and written by Boon Joon Ho – the man behind the incredible Snowpiercer – this film about an under-employed family living in poverty who are looking for a way back to grace is completely perfect.
Start to finish, you’ll laugh so hard you won’t be able to catch a breath, you’ll gasp and feel guttural moments of complete disbelief, and most of all, you’ll enjoy yourself entirely.
This unmatched story of a suburban family and their attempt to put the pieces back in the aftermath of a tragedy is one of the best of the decade.
Trey Edward Shults has created a beautiful film that won’t just make you feel – it will crash down over you and leave you bewildered. It’s an experience like no other I’ve had since I began reviewing.
Kevin Harrison Jr. – who appears later in this list as well – has a star-making year and his performance in Waves is so good you’ll be stunned. Joined by a stunning cast and with an Oscar-worthy supporting turn from This Is Us star Sterling K. Brown, this is a film you simply can’t miss.
Within the first three minutes of Uncut Gems, you’ll forget you’re watching fallen comedian Adam Sandler. He’s driven out so many terrible movies the last decade I thought I’d never see another film of his I’d like.
Here I am, humbled, as I tell you that this story of addiction and selfishness could be the turning point Sandler needed. Much like they did for Twilight star Robert Pattinson in low-key heist drama Good Time, director brothers Benny and Josh Safdie have rescued another actor from career purgatory.
This offbeat film about a New York City jeweler who also happens to be dealing with a gambling addiction follows his path as he attempts to grab one final windfall and make a life for himself. A joke to his kids, on the verge of losing his business, and holding on tight to a girlfriend who can’t see his flaws, Sandler’s Howard Ratner is a slick loser who thinks he’s on top.
This truly spectacular film will leave you astounded. If you still aren’t convinced, let me say this: Adam Sandler is so good in Uncut Gems – with a performance so devastating – I forgave him for the film abomination Jack and Jill.
Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood
This fable of a film showing the struggles of a jaded television star and his stunt double as they traverse through glamourous 1969 L.A. is the best film auteur Quentin Tarantino has made since Pulp Fiction.
The writing brings us some of the most complex, interesting characters, and brings them to life. It’s a film with laughs, drama and the backdrop of the Charles Manson murders adding more intrigue to the central plot.
It’s not just a film: It’s an adventure, and one I’ve happily been on three times since its July release. The nearly three-hour film plays like 90 minutes, and the snappy dialogue and beautiful set-pieces only add to the magic.
Leonardo DiCaprio gives an outstanding performance as boozing, nervous, fragile actor Rick Dalton, and Brad Pitt gives his best performance in years as easy-going stunt double Cliff Booth.
Throw in Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate, and Emile Hirsch, Timothy Olyphant, the late Luke Perry, Dakota Fanning and a surprising performance from young Austin Butler, and we have an ensemble film you won’t likely soon forget.
Maybe I’m a little biased – the film was shot in Yarmouth, N.S. – but this dark, gothic thriller was the most pulse-pounding, intense experiences I had in a cinema this year.
From director Robert Eggers, this story of two lighthouse keepers who begin to sink into the depths of madness while living on a remote island in England in the 1890s features some of the most creative imagery I’ve seen put to film.
The distinct aspect ratio and black-and-white colour lend to the atmosphere of the picture, and it boasts a performance from Robert Pattinson that will ultimately leave you floored. But the real difficulty I’m having is knowing Willem Dafoe – who transforms himself here – isn’t getting the due he’s deserved.
This is one hell of a roller coaster into insanity, and these two actors sell it the entire way.
From Road Trip to Joker, I never thought this Todd Phillips movie would end up being one of the most affecting movies of the year – much less boast the most compelling performance of 2019.
Joaquin Phoenix thrills, chills and brings the all-out weird to his take on the origins of the Batman villain Joker, in a film less a superhero canon film and more a mental health exploration.
Much like Taxi Driver – coincidentally De Niro co-stars here – this shows the descent into disenchantment through the mind of a disenfranchised, lonely man.
It’s a riveting, difficult story, and one of the best of the year.
This heartbreaking film about the disillusion of a marriage in L.A. is the tearjerker of 2019. It plays out like Kramer Vs. Kramer for the millennial generation, and is a beautiful, sweeping tale.
Adam Driver is beautiful as a New York-based playwright who sees himself fighting for his son and marriage when his actress wife moves to L.A. to shoot a pilot, and their union begins to show frays and cracks.
He and Scarlett Johansson spar and spat like the best of them and make you feel things directly in your gut. It’s a wildly ambitious project from director Noah Baumbach, and will leave you breathless.
This Netflix mobster saga is both the longest film on this list, and the best culmination of work from a storied auteur in Martin Scorsese.
Written by Moneyball and Schindler’s List scribe Steven Zaillian, while it’s a bit overlong, it’s always engaging. This movie about a hitman and his relationship with mobsters and Jimmy Hoffa is a beautiful achievement for all involved.
Featuring swan song performances from Hollywood greats Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Al Pacino (who I believe may nab the Supporting Actor Oscar), this is one of the most complex, interesting films of the year, and a huge score for Netflix.
Originally described to me as a cross between Apocalypse Now and Lord of the Flies, I still wasn’t prepared for the film that I walked into.
Monos was an exhilarating, pulse-pounding experience, as we follow eight teens with guns who watch over a hostage on a mountaintop.
Writer-director Alejandro Landes creates an atmospheric, hugely entrancing film here, and it will keep you on the edge of your seat.
The visuals are stunning, the acting is splendid, and this was a welcome surprise.
Coming in late and releasing December 13 was Richard Jewell, playing it lowkey this awards season but winning my heart.
Director Clint Eastwood crafts a devastating tale around the true-life 1996 Olympics bombings in Atlanta and crafts one of the hardest films to watch of the year.
Relative unknown Paul Walter Hauser is splendid as the security guard with a checkered past who has spent his whole life trying to help others.
Though he finds the bomb and is able to save thousands, two detectives – one of them Jon Hamm, in a fantastic turn – begin to focus on Jewell as the suspect, not the hero.
This story about media frenzies, police and what happens when your social reputation suffers when accused of a serious crime is an accomplished film.
An ensemble featuring Sam Rockwell, Hamm, and the Golden Globe-nominated Kathy Bates is absolute gold.
Here are some brief takes on films that didn’t make the Top 10, but still caught my attention this year:
Queen & Slim
This racial prejudice tale featuring a Bonnie and Clyde resonance features a compelling script from Lena Waithe, fantastic lead performances from Daniel Kaluuya and newcomer Jodie Turner-Smith, and a career-best supporting turn from character actor Bokeem Woodbine.
Waves star Kelvin Harrison Jr. similarly stuns here as Luce, a young high schooler adopted from a war-torn country by white parents who may not be the perfect kid they thought they had. This one is a stunner.
Jordan Peele’s incredible follow-up to his classic horror flick Get Out is smart, stylish, features a unique and riveting double-performance from Lupita Nyong’o, and is the absolute best horror film in years.
At once brutal and mystifying, this unreal second feature from Ari Aster is both better technically and more accessible that Hereditary, with enough cringe-worthy moments to keep even the biggest suspense fans’ stomachs turning.
Brad Pitt delivers a quiet, nuanced performance as a tortured astronaut sent to check if his father – previously thought dead during a 30-year-old mission – is indeed alive and well. It’s a masterwork of filmmaking and a must-watch for sci-fi buffs.
Ford v Ferrari
A victim of a year where there are too many good films, in any other race, Christian Bale, the picture itself and director James Mangold would be on their way to the Oscars. This racing drama is simply incredible, and one of the most entertaining of the year.
Featuring a rich ensemble cast in a film that delights as a Clue-esque murder mystery, Daniel Craig gives a turn that still has me laughing at random moments in the day, and as the plot thickens, you can’t help but love to hate this cast of despicable characters. Rian Johnson has created a wicked, delightful modern masterpiece.
This musical-drama about Elton John’s life and recovery from substance abuse is both beguiling, heartbreaking and toe-tappingly brilliant. The fact Taron Edgerton has been forgotten this awards season – save for a Golden Globe nod – is hard to stomach. This film is absolutely incredible and was one of the best times I had at the movies in 2019.
Shot in black-and-white with some colour for emphasis, this stylized foreign-language revenge film is absolutely incredible, with performances and a rich storyline you won’t be able to forget.
The Peanut Butter Falcon
With all the drama, spectacle and difficult subject matter in film these days, this movie about an endearing disabled man who runs away from his care home to meet his favourite wrestler is just fantastic. Zack Gottsagen makes his first appearance, and it’s a doozy, and Shia Labeouf finally makes a film worth watching again. I can hardly describe how much I loved this film.
This culmination of all the Marvel films to date brings drama, action, intrigue and some of the most eye-watering, huge scenes of the year. This action movie made me feel things I wasn’t sure it could, and it was the perfect ending to an 11-year filmic journey.
A Beautiful Day In The Neighbourhood
This meditation on Mr. Rogers – through the lens of how he, in real-life, helped an investigative reporter work through some of his own issues – features an incredible performance from Tom Hanks. This movie is adorable in every sense of the word, and I thoroughly had a great time in the neighbourhood.
The Last Black Man In San Francisco
This film about a man struggling to find his place in a city he no longer feels at home in is one of the best-shot, most surprising of the year. Jimmie Falls is fantastic, and I can’t wait to see what he does next.
This film about a violent convict who joins a rehab therapy program that pushes him to train wild mustangs absolutely floored me. Matthias Schoenaerts gives one of the most incredible performance put to film this year, and it’s a hugely satisfying emotional journey.
Flicks I Missed:
Climax, Her Smell, Little Woods, The Souvenir, Everybody Knows, Transit, Apollo 11, Captain Marvel, Shazam, American Woman, Wild Rose, The Farewell, Skin, Pain and Glory, Harriet, Honey Boy, Dark Waters, A Hidden Life, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, 1917, Little Women, Just Mercy, Clemency, The Song of Names, Antigone, Bacurau.