On January 3, just a couple days before heading back to Northwestern for our winter quarter, I took a trip to the movie theater with my dad to watch the Adam Sandler drama Uncut Gems. I enjoyed the flick trip, but little did I know that the first movie theater excursion I took in 2020 could be my last.
2019 was a legendary year in Hollywood, maybe the best on record. Whether watching a prominent franchise like Star Wars or Avengers or a new genre for me such as Us or Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, I made the movie theater almost a second home. I even saw Toy Story 4, Star Wars Episode IX, and Ford v Ferrari twice in theaters. And now, planning to see a movie in theaters once may be a reach. Hollywood has been put on hold by the coronavirus pandemic, and when theaters do open the changes to the moviegoing experience will be immense.
So today, to commemorate the year 2019 with a long overdue post and build off the nostalgia of last year, I will be discussing the best movies of 2019. One of the best parts of the 2019 class was its depth, and the reality that it is so painstakingly difficult to choose a favorite or rank them in any sort of order. Almost all of them took me by total surprise — I was only really hyped for Uncut Gems and Us, and many of the other favorites were in completely new genres. And it is interesting to reflect on my own thoughts on these films, revealing not only my interpretations but how I see films in general. In roughly chronological order, here are my highest ranking films of 2019, and the case for each to be my favorite film of 2019. Apologies to High Flying Bird, Spiderman: Far From Home, Endgame, Toy Story 4 and Joker (okay, maybe not to Joker).
Us (March 22, Directed by Jordan Peele, Starring Lupita Nyong’o in two different roles)
Sentence Synopsis: One family’s trip to Santa Cruz turns for the worse when their “tethered” murderous look-alikes appear.
The Case: Jordan Peele’s second film doesn’t share the masterful strokes of Get Out, though its more abstract critiques of society give more ground for dissection. For a horror film as taxingly violent as Us is, I watched it three times during the year, and its enduring images rented a beachfront property in the forefront of my mind. The music and set design make for a truly haunting and stylized movie and may have the most delectable acting performances of any movie this year. Peele’s carefully crafted plot was too outlandish and incomplete to carry the power of Get Out or 2019 soulmate Parasite, but it stayed with me from March until year’s end on its flair and innovation alone.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (July 26, Directed by Quentin Tarantino, Starring Brad Pitt and Leo DiCaprio)
Genre: Buddy film
Sentence Synopsis: An actor and his stuntman star in a hangout film set in mid-20th century Hollywood, with traces of the Manson family.
The Case: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has nowhere it has to be, yet at the same time every ounce of this film feels worth savoring. The relaxed tenor of the story of Rick Dalton, an actor past his prime, is perfectly complemented with the film’s depiction of Hollywood’s darker side (I came in cold on that history and was really shocked). The first Tarantino film I have seen, Once Upon a Time is a wildly amusing departure from the 21st century blockbuster — there’s no devotion to today’s norms or the almighty box office dollar — yet is among the most stylish and enjoyable films of the era. From the acting to the set-up to the refreshing approach, this was a film that deserved a Best Picture nod. It just picked the wrong year for its nomination.
Parasite (November 8 — US release, Directed by Bong Joon-ho, Starring Kang-ho Song)
Sentence Synopsis: A South Korean thriller about a lower class family’s drastic attempts to rise above the poverty line.
The Case: The first-ever foreign language film to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards is worth the hype. Bong Joon-ho drew parallels between the Us trailer and his film, and while the comparison is apt from a conceptual standpoint, Parasite is Us with conviction. The story is so structurally sound, and strangely realistic, that it is haunting and engrossing in a way that keeps you up late at night (I know this because I watched Parasite this week and it kept me up late at night). The story about a poor family finagling their way into jobs with the same high society family builds the spectator’s trust through its adherence to patterns and predictable punches, then reverts this trust into helpless manipulation once the film takes a turn. Parasite is fresh, haunting, and perfectly executes what it sets out to do.
Ford v Ferrari (November 15, Directed by James Mangold, Starring Christian Bale and Matt Damon)
Sentence Synopsis: Two men undertake the challenge of their lifetime — build a Ford race car that can upset Ferrari at the storied Le Mans race.
The Case: I’m a sports fan, and this is my second-favorite sports movie of all-time. Ford v Ferrari certainly stakes out a different sports terrain than the foremost titles in the sports movie genre, but it delivers. Bale and Damon are brilliant in their roles as driver Ken Miles and owner Carroll Shelby and relatable as underdogs against both their Italian opponents and their stubborn superiors at Ford. The film makes no attempt at the structural brilliance of a Parasite or Us and maximizes its more basic, natural story into the most fun film of the year. The racing scenes are a blast into the past to the level of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, giving innovative shots a genuine and exhilarating feel. It does no wrong.
Knives Out (November 27, Directed by Rian Johnson, Starring Daniel Craig and Ana De Armas)
Sentence Synopsis: Rian Johnson puts his spin on a well-tread genre in an enjoyable thriller that would make Agatha Christie proud.
The Case: Knives Out works so well because of its intimate awareness of its genre. Johnson parlays the most characteristic aspects of the genre (“a house like a Clue board”), and the ensuing expectations, in an apt 21st century adaptation that seeks to do the genre better. The cast, which includes the familiar faces of Captain America, James Bond, Sonny Crockett, and the “Get Out!” guy from Get Out, among others, is fantastic at every step, and (not-so-subtle jab at Last Jedi forthcoming) the more independent canvas of an original film gives Johnson the best space to bring his clever style to the big screen. Knives Out is not the most enduring film of 2019 by any means, but here’s the truth — an original movie could not be any more catered toward me than Knives Out, and for that to actually reach its potential is a significant feat.
Star Wars Episode IX: Rise of Skywalker (December 20, Directed by J.J. Abrams, Starring Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver)
Genre: Science Fiction
Sentence Synopsis: Rise of Skywalker attempts to tie a bow on the controversial sequel trilogy and does exactly that, though it more “exists in” than “adds” to the Star Wars universe.
The Case: How does Rise of Skywalker, a film that was given absolutely zero consideration for Best Picture, stake a spot on this hallowed list, you may ask? The answer is that it rated very highly on the Riker Scale and firmly among the other films on this list, plus I saw it twice and theaters and enjoyed it. The film stays true to the Star Wars lineage and makes a lot of the choices I wanted it to make. Fan service is a key component to this movie — I’m a fan, so to me it’s a clear positive. This film is really easy to nitpick, but to break it down to its simplest implications to me as a fan of Star Wars and movies, it is an enjoyable time and was as satisfying an ending to the flawed sequel trilogy as we could expect. And, in my opinion, a superior ending to a trilogy than Return of the Jedi.
Uncut Gems (December 25, Directed by the Safdie Brothers, Starring Adam Sandler and Kevin Garnett)
Sentence Synopsis: An incessant gambler stumbles upon the greatest boom-or-bust opportunity of his life after loaning a rock to Celtics great Kevin “KG” Garnett.
The Case: Has a movie ever executed so well on its premise? Uncut Gems promoted itself as a stressful imagining of an NBA gambler gone awry and is exactly that. Adam Sandler gives his best and most Oscar-worthy performance (or so I’ve heard, I’ve only seen Longest Yard), while film newcomers Kevin Garnett, the Weeknd, and Mike Francesa give such delicious and over-the-top performances that you can’t help but love this movie. High-strung would be a good term to use to describe this film, a point really hammered home by two hours of non-stop screaming and the agony over Sandler’s questionable life choices. Uncut Gems is a lot of things — brutal, hilarious, anxiety-inducing, quotable, out of control, awesome — and it makes for quite an anti-gambling PSA. If I never get to see another movie in theaters, I’d be pretty satisfied with having it be this wild ride.
A Final Discussion
Ranking these films based on their cinematic merit would be pretty easy. But the Riker Scale takes a different tact, and I won’t let myself get off the hook here by listing Parasite seven times. For my Riker Scale list of my top 100 movies, I go by how much I enjoyed the movies, a non-scientific measure that takes into account cinematic merit, style, experience, and a couple subconscious factors. Of course, my perception of movies tends to change over time and this is my opinion and largely based on my own interaction and personal experience with the movies. That being said, let’s look at the *definitive* best movie of 2019.
I’ll write off Rise of Skywalker and Knives Out for the purposes of this discussion. Each was an enjoyable, Friday night movie that reached its potential and didn’t do all that much more. I will also leave off Uncut Gems, because it is too stressful to be considered the absolute best movie of one of the best movie years ever. That leaves four movies: Parasite, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Us, and Ford v Ferrari. Predictably, I will settle it bracket style.
On the left side of the bracket stand the social commentaries on class, Parasite and Us. Parasite is the better developed story and more poignant commentary, but Us, which could effectively tell its story without its middle act, resonated more strongly with me with its impeccable music and set choices and inversions of Americana. Both incorporate fantastic acting, startling brutality, and deeper themes, and the two are almost as fun to unwrap as they are to watch. This is much closer than it should be. Ultimately, Parasite is a nearly perfect film and does its job as a film and commentary more thoroughly, while Us leaves some untapped potential. Verdict: Parasite
The right side of the bracket pits two recreations of the American Midwest in the mid-20th century, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and Ford v Ferrari. Once Upon a Time is so unique to Tarantino that it fits the bill of a masterpiece, while Ford v Ferrari’s very adherence to the formula of a feel-good Hollywood movie makes it great. The lead performances are incredible and both recreations of the past are convincing. Music choice slightly tips the scales in Once Upon a Time’s direction, but Ford v Ferrari has the benefit of heart-pumping racing scenes that would make Lightning McQueen’s jaw drop. I enjoyed Ford v Ferrari and see it as the more rewatchable movie. Verdict: Ford v Ferrari
The heavyweights. In one corner, the hard-hitting Parasite. In the other, the fast and exhilarating Ford v Ferrari. Parasite is a perfect film, but Ford v Ferrari just can’t be beaten. I love the look of the film, and the central theme of passion resonated with me as an athlete and overall spectator. It’s obviously a much more pleasant film than Parasite, and one with flair and eminent rewatchability. I saw it twice in theaters, and of any of the films, this is the one I’ve recommended the most often and the most strongly. Parasite deserved its stellar awards season, but Ford v Ferrari takes the battle on the Riker Scale.