Best movies of 2019 picked by Cultural Hater are in!
Note: The films taken into consideration in this list are all films which premiered in Poland (had at least one screening at a festival) or a streaming services worldwide. Due to this condition, a few films, listed as “Honorable Mentions”, were not eligible to be counted in the ranking. However, they were just so damn good that it’d be a crime not to include them somehow.
It was a fun year. In comparison with 2018, where I named BlacKkKlansman (2018) the best film of the year (and I already kind-of forgot about it), these last twelve months were marked by mostly thrilling competition. The list that I’ve compiled consists of both blockbusters and independent films from all over the world.
But before we begin, let’s look at the ones who – due to the production dating to 2018 – couldn’t be included.
Honorable Mentions from 2018
Directed by: Ali Abbasi
Plot: In a world inhabited by trolls and humans, a troll customs officer meets an intriguing, suspiciously-looking man. Soon the two develop an intimate relation.
The brilliance of Border (2018) is the way it disintegrates the structure of the film. What starts as a quasi sci-fi movie, develops into a disturbingly erotic drama, and that, eventually, leads to a deeply thought-provoking thriller. The magnitude of its genre mix is purposefully strengthened by the film’s highly controversial themes – child abuse and the discrimination based on one’s appearance. It tethers the audience by a set of arresting visuals too. Border (2018) is a challenging feast to sit through, but one that comes with a fulfilling compensation.
El Angel (2018)
Directed by: Luis Ortega
Plot: A true story of a notorious killer from Argentina Carlos Robledo Puch.
This Argentinian drama distorts many facts regarding Carlos Robledo Puch, a criminal accused of at least 11 homicides in a very short time span. But its director Luis Ortega twists them on purpose. El Angel (2018) plays with fire, and turns the infamous killer into a cherubic teenager with the most innocent face imaginable. In El Angel (2018), Ortega observes the birth of a monster. But unlike Joker (2019) or almost any other film about a killer, Puch is not a product of the system – he’s forged all by himself. The role is carried fearlessly by Lorenzo Ferro, and the arresting style of Ortega brings The Clockwork Orange (1971) to mind.
The Best Movies Of 2019
#20 Zombi Child
Dir. Bertrand Bonello
Plot: A man is turned into a zombi in the colonial Haiti. Years later, a black student tries to fit in a school in modern France, but her roots connect her to the voodoo culture.
Bertrand Bonello’s Zombi Child (2019) sets its course on the topic that not many filmmakers explored before. The cult of voodoo has a dreadful layer pinned to it, with numerous people reported missing or even dead as a result of black magic. However, Zombi Child (2019) is not critical when it comes to the Haitian legacy. Bonello strives to understand how it influences lives of those who fled the island. As much as it s a drama, Bonello also employs methods of a documentary that prove the director’s fascination. Zombi Child (2019) manages to pack plenty of memorable moments and a blood-curdling finale too, and while it does not fully realize its potential, it constitutes a curious, untamed experience.
Read the full review of Zombi Child (2019) here.
#19 Move The Grave
Dir. Seung O-jeong
Plot: Three daughters reunite in the search of their brother, when a family is required to reach an agreement in relation to a grave movement.
The Korean drama Move The Grave (2019) has never reached wider audiences, and it’s a great pity. Overshadowed by its fellow feature Parasite (2019), this modest drama elevates a family feud drama to a level of an intricate vivisection of the patriarchal society of South Korea. Seung O-jeong, the debuting director of Move The Grave (2019), peppers the film with some light-hearted humor, the kind of sardonic smile which makes the film much more layered. The director’s patience is also remarkable – it’s the slow reveal of facts, and dirt that’s dug up from the past, that together unravel the family’s issues.
#18 La Belle Epoque
Dir. Nicolas Bedos
Plot: A man, whose relationship plunges towards a total despair, is given the unique chance to relive the moment in his life he wishes to.
La Belle Epoque (2019) could easily turn into a silly farce, where a derivative plot serves as a background for situational gags. Thankfully, the narrative engineered by Nicolas Bedos, both writer and director of La Belle Epoque (2019), escapes such tentative areas. He’s well aware of how to strike a balance between comedy and drama. La Belle Epoque (2019) takes a look at a collapsing relationship, and its cast treats the subject with a great degree of subtlety. Bedos questions the way feelings pass, and emphasizes the importance of the constant fight for them. This heavy topic is served in a light sauce, with human soul as its secret ingredient.
Directed by: Ari Aster
Plot: A girl joins her boyfriend on a trip to Sweden’s festival of Midsommar, but the festivities quickly take a malefic turn.
After debuting with Hereditary (2018), which topped Cultural Hater’s ranking of horror movies in 2018, Ari Aster had to jump over a bar set ridiculously high. In Midsommar (2019), the American enfant prodige of psychological scares, plotted a story which bedazzled visually and leaned towards a heavyweight drama. Florence Pugh, the film’s protagonist, proved to be a highly capable actress, charismatic and versatile. Midsommar (2019) is her spectacle that she shares with Paweł Pogorzelski’s monumentally beautiful cinematography and Aster’s meticulous, bone-deep precision in direction. Although it might be overly pedantic at times – especially for a horror movie – Midsommar (2019) constitutes one of this year’s most exhilarating experiences.
Read the full review of Midsommar (2019) here.
Dir. Pema Tseden
Plot: A Tibetan family struggles to find peace in their life, as they are about to have a child which exceeds the allowed number of children per family.
Pema Tseden slowly seizes the area of insinuated provocations shipped from China to film festivals worldwide. His latest film Balloon (2019) discusses the law enforced in China, which limits the number of children allowed per family. Tseden concludes that without a proper education mechanism, this law leads to tragedies and generates friction on the touchpoint between religion and family values. Tseden, however, avoids blaming any particular party. The dispute is much more philosophical, taking place on more theoretical grounds. Set in the highlands of Tibet, as well as picturesque mountain-side villages, Tseden creates his own world – stranded and filled with its own problems to solve.
Read the full review of Balloon (2019) here.
#15 A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood
Dir. Mariella Heller
Plot: A story of a journalist, who writes an article about Mr. Rogers, the host of a popular show for kids.
Biopics are often films that – more than any other – choose the known paths over pushing the envelope. However, A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood (2019) stands out in its own category. Director Marielle Heller makes a genius move by embracing the slightly creepy, over-the-top figure of Mr. Rogers. While she obviously pays a tribute both to him and his kids show, she also hints at his own vulnerability. Tom Hanks, who plays the role of Mr. Rogers (and nails it) could steal the show easily, but the plot purposefully turns to its less sympathetic lead, Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys). And that’s another checkmate from Heller. Such a transition allows the director to sketch a more relatable drama – one which tremendously used Mr. Rogers and his entourage, but didn’t put him in the spotlight.
Read the full review of A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood (2019) here.
#14 The King
Dir. David Michôd
Plot: Upon the death of his father, young Henry takes over the control over medieval England in the 15th century.
David Michôd’s second affair with Netflix has washed away the mark left by the disappointing War Machine (2017). The King (2019) is loosely based on a Shakespearean play Henriad. David Michôd strikes a balance between a contemplative essay, which highlights King Henry’s rise to prominence, and a close-to-homage bow before Braveheart (1995). At its core, The King (2019) enthralls with its sordid portrayal of power abuse, but it also aims at understanding an unexperienced leader’s clash with the convoluted world of politics. The King (2019) unravels a slow-burner that reminds of previous works of Mr. Michôd – his fearsome debut Animal Kingdom (2010) and criminally underrated The Rover (2014). With the stunning work of the DP Adam Arkapaw and soul-stirring score of Nicholas Brittel, The King (2019) was an audacious offering from Netflix.
#13 A White, White Day
Dir. Hlynur Palmason
Plot: A man, whose wife recently passed away, discovers she had an affair. He begins to plot his revenge.
For the last decade or so, the minute nation of Iceland has been quite prolific. This year’s festival circuit has been occupied by A White, White Day (2019), directed by Hlynur Palmason. The film’s focal point is moving on after a personal tragedy. Its main character, played by a charismatic actor Ingvar Sigurdsson, wishes to make peace with the past. But, as Palmason argues, is it really possible to move on until the past is resolved and buried? This tract of past and presence relies on two main factors – the sharp-as-a-knife protagonist and the confident direction of Palmason. With a right set of other tools – Icelandic landscapes, a handful of charmingly dark gags – Palmason crafted a film that’s a rollercoaster of emotions.
Read the full review of A White, White Day (2019) here.
#12 Knives Out
Dir. Rian Johnson
Plot: When a wealthy man dies in his mansion, the entire family turns into suspects. The mystery surrounding the old man’s death needs to be solved.
They don’t make them like this anymore. That’s the best way to approach Knives Out (2019), Rian Johnson’s love letter to Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie. The whodunnit pattern gets not only recycled, but up-cycled too, with flair that guarantees fun over the span of two hours straight. Johnson juggles with a plethora of characters, almost all of which has a sharp claw and a household name attached to it – Daniel Craig, Lakeith Stanfield, Ana de Armas or Michael Shannon to name some. Yet the cast, though it solidifies the entertaining layer of Knives Out (2019), serves as cogs in the machine in Rian Johnson’s narrative. These sometimes-goofy, over-the-top and treacherous people wouldn’t be as colorful if not for the grand scheme that sets the whole avalanche of events in motion. While it’s not the deepest films of the year, Knives Out (2019) could easily one be called the most entertaining one.
#11 Honey Boy
Dir. Alma Har’El
Plot: A portrayal of a kid actor’s difficult childhood, lived with an abusive father.
In Honey Boy (2019), Shia LaBeouf opened up about the detrimental influence that his father had on him. This self-portrait feels purifying for the actor, but it also reaches a universal message about parenthood, and one that goes beyond a case-by-case trauma. It’s quite stunning to watch as Shia LaBeouf portrays his father, and that role is one hell of a reason alone to watch Honey Boy (2019). However, it’s not only LaBeouf who shines. Lucas Hedges and Noah Lupe take on LaBeouf in two stages of his life, and both do an equally mesmerizing job. There’s also a lovingly warm, purple-ish palette that filters most of the shots in Honey Boy (2019). In combination with a soothing, creative soundtrack, these images are almost otherworldly. They are responsible for a dreamy vibe that reminds of Tangerine (2015), American Honey (2016) and Mid90s (2018).
Read the full review of Honey Boy (2019) here.
Dir. Todd Phillips
Plot: An origin story of Batman’s most iconic villain, Joker.
Joker (2019) stirred the pot like no other film did this year. It all has begun with its striking victory at the Venice Film Festival, which was followed by a rain of polarizing reviews and a spectacular, history-in-the-making box office. Joker (2019) steered away from judging its antagonist, which was a dangerous step to take. But this approach – one that attempts to justify the birth of a psychopath and criminal – works only thanks to the astonishing work of Joaquin Phoenix as Joker. Phoenix owns the film by disappearing entirely in the role. And Phillips has devised an incredibly grim wrapping orchestrated by both the cinematography and the solemn score of Hildur Guðnadóttir. It’s hard to forget Joker (2019), which makes it a must-see.
Read more about Joker (2019) here.
#9 Pain and Glory
Dir. Pedro Almodovar
Plot: An aging artist recollects his past and how his life has been shaped by certain figures he met along the way.
Pedro Almodovar reflects on his career in Pain and Glory (2019), and revives the energy that he used to resonate with in the past. This film is an artist’s confession, a tale about squaring with the accounts of life. Almodovar explains that the true art stems from experiences – both painful and pleasurable. There’s an electrifying energy in Pain and Glory (2019), like a gentle breeze, which marks Almodovar’s masterful craft. Moreover, it’s a delicious spectacle of Antonio Banderas. As a quasi-Almodovar director, Banderas forms some of his most subtle works, where his grey hair and slim posture reflect the character’s luggage that he carries. It’s a beautiful way to look at the process of art-making, which stroke similar chords to The Great Beauty (2013).
Read the full review of Pain and Glory (2019) here.
#8 Marriage Story
Dir. Noah Baumbach
Plot: A separated couple goes through a painful and wound-deepening process of divorce.
When two people stand on the brink of their marriage, it should be up to them how to handle things. Yet director/writer Noah Baumbach proves that it is the exact opposite in Marriage Story (2019). His two main characters, played by equally magnificent Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, are lost in the labyrinth of their own relationship. Once they decide to leave each other, all kinds of therapists, lawyers and other professionals flock to wave their wings at them. None of them is, however, eager to really help the two. Baumbach’s narrative smartly observes what the lack of communication does to people, how it turns them hostile, angry and frustrated. The spiraling wear-off effect and anger is brilliantly encapsuled by Driver and Johansson, whose towering performances are people of blood and flesh. Baumbach’s writing is top-notch as usual too. Instead of one large cut, he makes hundreds of tiny ones, but that’s precisely why Marriage Story (2019) has much more impact – drop by drop, thoughtfully and with an utmost precision.
Dir. Julius Onah
Plot: In a popular high-schooler’s locker, a teacher finds dangerous fireworks. The situation sets in motion an entire spiral of lies and deceit, where the boy’s background weighs in heavily.
I honestly crossed out Julius Onah after he directed the abominable The Cloverfield Paradox (2018). However, Luce (2019) removed the stains, and even made Onah a name to follow from now on. This American drama starts with a simple premise: what is the real burden of expectations and how strong are the facades we like to live by? The answer is an expanding net of lies and deceive, which turn Luce (2019) into a riveting thriller. Onah avoids taking sides, which also benefits the film greatly. Layers of misconceptions, ideals and expectations clash like rivaling armies on a battlefield, and it is up to the audience to choose who’s right. The spectacle is enriched by the powerful performances of Kelvin Harrison Jr., Octavia Spencer and Naomi Watts, as well as an electrifying soundtrack from Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury.
Dir. Alejandro Landes
Plot: A group of juvenile soldiers under a rebellion guerrilla warfare keeps an American woman hostage deep in the Colombian jungle.
When Francis Ford Coppola went through hell and back with Apocalypse Now (1979), Alejandro Landes – the director of Monos (2019) – was not even born yet. Decades later, his Monos (2019) is imbued with the same vibe that made Coppola’s film so visceral and memorable. In Monos (2019), Landes paints a coming-of-age drama that draws from both Coppola but also William Golding’s novel Lord of The Flies. While awaiting orders, the juvenile Monos squadron grasps every inch of childhood they can get. It is gorgeously photographed, with the image quality that is rarely seen in independent films. Monos (2019) is both visceral and magical, and beats to its own rhythm of army boots and sounds of the jungle.
Read the full review of Monos (2019) here.
#5 The Irishman
Dir. Martin Scorsese
Plot: The true story of Frank Sheeran, a mob hitman who was involved in the homicide of labour union’s leader Jimmy Hoffa.
At some point of his career, Martin Scorsese has devised his own genre – mob thriller. He revisited the old blocks in The Irishman (2019). It’s a nod to Goodfellas (1990), but also Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) – a mature, spanning over almost 4 hours epic that enthralls with its execution’s precision, the visual design and the thematic scope of it all. The Irishman (2019) plays out as an immersive throwback to the times of the immigrant America, to mobs and small-time crooks ruling in the streets. But there is also a much wider history at stake, and Scorsese’s vision packs decades of the American history into The Irishman (2019). The director wouldn’t pull that off without the leverages in the names of Al Pacino, Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro, who earn their accolades with every scene and line of dialogue. This film is a cinephile’s feast and a king-size jewel on Martin Scorsese’s crown.
#4 Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Dir. Céline Sciamma
Plot: A female painter is hired to paint a wedding of an aristocratic woman. The two women soon get closer to each other.
The narrative of Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) skillfully mitigates the risk of a convoluted game of charades, the exact kind of charades that eventually sunk Carol (2015) a few years back. Céline Sciamma’s cunning lies in the way her modest drama draws inspiration from the profession of her protagonist herself. The cinematography reflects painter’s tenderness, and highlights the character’s genuine fragility. Furthermore, Sciamma lets the stunning duo – Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel – blossom a relationship that’s fiery at its core, but lives within shackles. Their chemistry is undeniable, and in the confident hands of Sciamma, this feeling has a very true ring to it. As a result, Portrait Of a Lady on Fire (2019) is an exquisitely painted image, where every stroke of a brush keeps a part of the story.
#3 The Lighthouse
Dir. Robert Eggers
Plot: Two men arrive at a remote shore to work as lighthouse keepers. But within days, they slowly begin to lose their minds.
Robert Eggers took his time to follow up on The Witch (2015), but the wait was well worth it. His second feature film The Lighthouse (2019) offered the most satisfying cognitive feast of the year. Eggers went full-on Lovecraft by tailoring a story about two men and their descent into madness, with monsters, visions and delusions multiplying on the screen. The horror experience grows thanks to its two glowing stars, Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson. The two gentlemen are impeccable, as they establish a palpable chemistry and understand of each other. Dafoe delivers a most finest performance in The Lighthouse (2019), with a seaman’s chutzpah, while Pattinson too forms a unique character – chilling and malefic. On top of that comes the geeky aspect of cinematography, executed on a vintage camera and with tons of post-prod that gave The Lighthouse (2019) a truly archaic soul. Incredible piece.
Read the full review of The Lighthouse here.
Read the interpretation of symbols in The Lighthouse (2019) here.
#2 A Hidden Life
Directed by: Terrence Malick
Plot: A true story of an Austrian farmer who rebelled against Hitler by refusing to join the army and pledge loyalty to the Nazis.
Terrence Malick returned to the pantheon of the greatest filmmakers of our time, right on time after two previous box office flops. A Hidden Life (2019) might be his most benevolent feature – a career-redefining film that at the same time cements the director’s auteur craft. However, it’s hard not to begin the discussion about A Hidden Life (2019) without praising the work of Malick’s DP, Jorg Widmer. Highly focused on characters, but managing to excavate the beauty of Austrian Greenfields, this cinematography makes anything else released this year half-amateur. Fortunately, it’s not only the visuals that make Malick’s A Hidden Life (2019) a heartfelt experience. The director establishes a strong bond between the two main characters and the audience, while his philosophical meanders constitute a war poem which compliments The Thin Red Line (1998). It’s more than two hours of visual poetry that’s every inch of unique and human. And, to be fair, it was almost the only film in 2019 capable of making me shed a tear.
Read the full review of A Hidden Life (2019) here.
#1 Parasite – The Best Film Of 2019
Dir. Joon-ho Bong
Plot: A poor Korean family of Kims strikes gold when their son’s hired by much wealthier Parks. This, however, opens a Pandora’s box.
A drama about a dysfunctional family. A twisted, dark comedy. A full-blown heist movie and a riveting thriller. At times, even a bloody horror.
Parasite (2019), directed by a Korean filmmaker Joon-ho Bong, packed all of the above without making a mess. Every character, every decision and point in the narrative make sense, and builds up to the film’s momentum. Bong knows when to balance drama and comedy, and when to let his tremendous cast just go with the flow and carry the weight in a longer freestyle-felt debate. Such a meticulous approach allowed Bong to make a film close to being perfect – it’s almost nonchalant when reaching its significant depth, flawlessly flows between genres and makes universal points despite a very distinctive setting. A masterpiece to remember long after the screening.
Read the full review of Parasite (2019) here.
The following films were present on my shortlist, but didn’t make the cut: Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, Doctor Sleep by Mike Flanagan, The Report by Scott Z. Burns, Queen of Hearts directed by May el-Toukhy, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile by Joe Berlinger, and Avengers: Endgame from Anthony and Joe Russo, and Velvet Buzzsaw by Dan Gilroy.
A few indies were also included in the shortlist: The Wild Goose Lake by Yi’nan Diao, Kleber Mendonca Filho’s Bacurau, Atlantis by Valentyn Vasyanovych, Lost Bayou directed by Brian C. Miller Richard, Matthias & Maxime from Xavier Dolan, Tommaso directed by Abel Ferrara, and Ghost Town Anthology by Denis Cote.
There you go – here are the best movies of 2019! Share your favorites in the comments and don’t forget to keep in touch with me on Facebook and Twitter!