My Top Ten Favorite Movies of 2019

These are my personal favorite movies released in the U.S. in 2019.  They are not meant to reflect the box office or award-winners for the year.  I suggest that if you like four or five of the movies on the list, you might share my taste and sensibilities, and it might give some credence to you checking out the other films on the list.



Movies like Motherless Brooklyn rise or fall on the viewers desire for atmosphere, creativity, and story over frenetic pace and action for action's sake.
 
These are my kind of movies.  Add a detective, set the story in a romanticized time in the past, hardboil it without mocking it, and I'm buying in before the movie even gets going. The cherry on this already delicious treat is the uniqueness of the main character who suffers from Tourette's Syndrome and perhaps a few other symptoms on the spectrum.
 
Though I've never been a big fan of Ed Norton's work overall, he pulls off the difficult task of presenting his character's affliction without making him unwatchably annoying.  In fact, his performance captivates and pulls the viewer along.  His malady is a hindrance, but also an asset.  He's distracted, but also obsessively meticulous.  He's underestimated by those he's investigating.  He's disarming to those he's working for and working with.  It's brilliant.
 
Lionel Essrog (Ed Norton): It's like having glass in the brain. I can't stop pickin' things apart... twistin' 'em around, reassembling 'em. Words and sounds, especially. It's like an itch that has to be scratched.
 
Again, I have to admit upfront, I think Gugu Mbatha-Raw is one of the most talented, unsung actresses working today.  (You might see her later in the top ten.) I also quite appreciate the work of Willem Dafoe, Michael Kenneth Williams, and Alec Baldwin.  So, the supporting cast can only lift this movie up in my view.
 
Bruce Willis has a short, but integral part as Lionel's boss and mentor, Frank Minna: "Got through Guadalcanal without a scratch, and I get shot with my own gun -- in Queens!"
 
I wonder now, looking back on my skepticism about this movie, if there was any doubt it would end up at the top of my list.




I know many believe Mark Ruffalo to be a one note actor, and that may well be true, but he can bend that note in a myriad of ways to fit his character and the story being told.  No better example of that is his performance in Dark Waters where Ruffalo must carry the movie and survive the protracted battle against Dupont's legal and scientific juggernaut, a battle which exacts a toll on his own health and bank account.  Ruffalo diminishes in not only vigor but seemingly in stature as well.  It's an impressive and moving spectacle that accentuates the desperation of the daunting struggle.
 
Rob Bilott (Mark Ruffalo): The system is rigged! They want us to think it’ll protect us, but that’s a lie. We protect us. We do. Nobody else. Not the companies, not the scientists, not the government. Us. A farmer with a twelfth grade education told me that. On day one, he knew, and I thought he was crazy.
 
There should be an award just for actors like Bill Camp, those actors who lift a movie no matter how small their part.  Here, he plays the farmer who has catalogued, through meticulous documentation and photographic evidence, the years of destruction his farm, his cows, his wife's health and his own health have suffered because of Dupont's flagrant dumping of toxic waste into the town's groundwater.
 
Bill Pullman is perfect as the local attorney needed to bring the suit, and Tim Robbins plays the head of the corporate law firm where Ruffalo works who gains more than a grudging respect for the nature and tenacity of the young lawyer.  Anne Hathaway is especially good as his wife, a professional woman, perhaps the smartest person in any room, supportive, but unable to offer solutions where none exist, but still trying to hold a family and a marriage together.
 
Sarah Bilott (Anne Hathaway): Please, don’t talk to me like I’m the wife. Did Rob ever tell you about moving around as a kid? Ten times before senior year. No friends, no ties, no -- Just him, his sister, his folks. And then I came along, and you came along. And, your firm, it’s not just a job. To him, it’s home. And he was willing to risk all that for a stranger who needed his help. Now, you and I may not know what that is, but it’s not failure.




It seems many people thought this movie should have been a more zany laughfest, but I found it walked that tightrope pretty well.  The comedy is more acerbic wit than slapstick so that the complicated plot can carry the narrative.  There is a lot of making viewers think they know what happened, but which turns out to be not ALL that happened.  There are plenty of twists, none of which are whiplash or breakneck.
 
I have been impressed with Ana de Armas ever since her amazing performance in the Keanu Reeves' detective movie, Exposed, and her romantic work with Edgar Ramirez in the Roberto Duran biopic, Hands of Stone.  She is an understated success here as the confused, reluctant protagonist.
 
I am also a fan of Daniel Craig, but he's probably miscast here as the famous detective Benoit Blanc. He plays like a cross between Columbo and Monk.
 
Joni Thrombey (Toni Collette): Wait a minute. I read a tweet about a New Yorker article about you. The last of the gentlemen sleuths? You solved that case with the tennis champ. You’re famous!
 
Craig does give it a worthy effort with perhaps too much panache.
 
Ransom Drysdale: (Chris Evans): Oh, shut up, Blanc! Shut up! Shut up with that Kentucky fried Foghorn Leghorn drawl!
 
But it may well be all part of the fun, something akin to certain portrayals of Hercule Poirot or Inspector Clouseau.
 
The rest of the deep cast, Christopher Plummer, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, and Toni Collette, is another major selling point of the film.  LaKeith Stanfield continues to build a solid resume.  Chris Evans shows a wicked side in both wit and cunning.
 
The reverence for the genre included in the meticulous work done on the setting, the scenery, the props and all the visuals makes for enormous fun on repeated viewings.  I'm sure I haven't caught them all yet.

The final shot of Ana de Armas on the balcony is a quintessential fade out.



Often, I see this movie labeled the "super-hero movie" you missed.  There is no connection to the "super hero" genre in this movie.  This is excellent sci-fi with the rare human story which could make it something special.
 
"Don't be scared. I'm a scientist. I work for the government." -- Bill (Christopher Denham)
 
After hearing that, you know it's time to run, and that's just what Ruth (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) does. Home -- to her mother's house, Bo (Lorraine Toussant) who has been caring for Ruth's daughter, Lila (Saniyya Sidney).  They are three generation of women who share, to varying degrees, a power they have been hiding for their own safety and the safety of those they love. 
 
They live near the little town of Garrison in some unspecified state in the United States.  It is a dystopian near future in which water is scarce and food and power are not plentiful.  That alone  makes this a very relevant movie for our time.  It feels like tomorrow instead of a distant eventuality.
 
Anyone who has read my movie reviews will know how good I think Gugu Mbatha-Raw has been and continues to be.  I first noticed her in Odd Thomas, a much overlooked Anton Yelchin thriller. It was really her powerful work in A Free State of Jones and crafty work in Miss Sloane that sold me forever.  She continues to impress.
 
Government men, perhaps funded by private interests, have been hunting Ruth since she ran away as a young woman.  David Strathairn plays the local sheriff who tries to stall them until a safe solution can be found.
 
This movie is less about the power and much more about the powerful bond of the three generation of women, working through their past lives, the here and now, and how they will forge a future.




This movie could have been titled "Scapegoat." Good police work could have fixed this problem early on, but good police work was not what the politicians and the public were after at the time.  Paul Walter Houser is brilliant as Jewell, a sincere man who allowed his ernest desires to succeed as a law enforcement professional make him his own worst enemy.
 
Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser): I wanna help you fellas. I’m law enforcement, too, same as you.
 
It's not always easy to like the protagonist in a Clint Eastwood movie, but they are often up against forces stacked against them which are either grossly unfair or monumental or both.
 
Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell): His accusers are two of the most powerful forces in the world - the United States government and the media.
 
Sam Rockwell battles as a real estate attorney, a bit out of his league, but the only lawyer Jewell knows from his time as a supply clerk years before at the Small Business Administration.
 
Bryant: Well, I don’t always trust cops, but sometimes I NEED one. And right now you need a defense attorney who specializes in capital crimes. Preferably from a small firm that the Bureau respects. That’s not me.
 
As is often the case, Kathy Bates gives the best, most affecting, performance in the movie as his loving, but confused mother, Bobi.
 
Bobi Jewell (Kathy Bates): They’ve went through my under-things. How much indignity do they want us to take?
 
Jon Hamm provides the most surprising performance as the FBI agent who either feels enough pressure to need a quick arrest or genuinely dislikes Jewell enough to convince himself he's guilty of the crime, even though evidence mounts that he couldn't have done it.
 
Jewell: "I used to think federal law enforcement was just about the highest calling a person could aspire to. But I hafta say, I don’t anymore. Not after all this."
 
There has been some unfortunate fallout surrounding Olivia Wilde's character possibly trading sex for a story, but my perception was that her character and Hamm's character already had a physical relationship.  Their intimacy had occurred before and was likely to occur again whether Hamm's character wanted to slip the story among other things to Wilde's reporter character.
 
JEWELL: I did my job that night. Some people are alive right now ‘cause of that. But the next time some security guard sees a suspicious package somewhere, you think he’s gonna call it in? I doubt it. He’s gonna say to himself, ‘I don’t wanna be another Richard Jewell. So I’m just gonna run.’ And how’s that make anybody any safer?




If you would have told me before the year that I would have two wrestling movies in my top ten favorites for 2019, I would have scoffed at best, but here they are.  One about a female wrestler and the other about a Down Syndrome wrestler, no less. They are both movies about great struggle, arduous journeys, and singular triumph's shared by families.
 
Fighting with My Family is loosely-based on the true story of the WWE wrestler named Paige (Real name Saraya-Jade Bevis) who became the youngest Divas champion at age 21.  Florence Pugh is rapidly building a star profile.  She is good enough here to make a difficult sell look easy, keeping the human story of determination and family front and center.  She is helped immensely by Lena Headey and Nick Frost as her parents as well as Jack Lowden in an even more difficult role of the brother left behind who must find solace in other avenues while watching his sister live out his dream.
 
Directed by Stephen Merchant who adds enough warm humor and irony to make the unbelievable feel more real.
 
Vince Vaughn has a neat turn as the manager of the new training program for wrestlers looking to break in.  He helps add some struggle to the heart and desire, but ultimately molds the young diva into a surprise champion.

The Peanut Butter Falcon
 
I resisted Peanut Butter Falcon for awhile because the trailers looked like another handicapped kid does a bunch of stuff he shouldn't be doing with no adverse consequences.  That turned out not to be exactly what this movie is.  In fact, it could be argued that Shia Labeauf's Tyler, orphaned by his parents and abandoned by the death of his older brother, is in as much need of a support person as (Zack Gottsagan) the young man escaped from a care facility.
 
Dunc (John Hawkes) and Ratboy (Yelawolf) have scooped up Tyler's brother's commercial fishing tag after his death because Tyler was too young and broke to keep it.  Tyler spends his time doing odd jobs for other fisherman and raiding Dunc and Ratboy's traps.
 
Zak has been relegated to a retirment facility because it's the only option for the care of a young man with his condition.  His roommate, Carl (Bruce Dern) has seen Zak's wrestling school tape so many times, he agrees to help him escape.
 
Zak: Carl, you are my best friend, and you are my family.

Carl: Well, that's it.  Friends are the family you choose.

When Dunc and Ratboy leave him no choice,Tyler has to go on the run as well after burning their boat and traps.  Zak stows away on Tyler's boat and refuses to be left behind. 

Dakota Johnson is excellent as Eleanor, the support person responsible for Zak whose future job prospects ride on her bringing Zak back unharmed.

 
Tyler: You a bounty hunter?

Eleanor: Would I be a bounty hunter if I just told you there isn't any bounty?
 
But it is the relationship between Zak and Tyler which slowly becomes an equal friendship that raises Peanut Butter Falcon above the cliche.  When Eleanor sees this and joins the quest, the movie begins to take on the shape of something special.
 
Eleanor: That’s it. That’s all you get. The wrestling school and that’s the end for you.
 
Tyler: It’s not for me.
 
But ultimately, the tipping point getting this movie into my top ten is Thomas Haden Church playing the Saltwater Redneck.  He's such a good MacGuffin, it makes me cry.
 
SALT WATER REDNECK: So... He used to be a fan?
 
TYLER: Oh, more than that. Shit, you’re his hero. He believes in you... That’s a hard thing, to believe in something.
 
Outside the world of making movies, Labeauf appears to be a disfunctional mess, but I don't believe I've ever seen him give a bad performance.  This is a really nice piece of work here, especially playing off a non-traditional actor so well.




I was not sure what to make of this movie, and am still not quite sure.  I almost turned it off early on as offensively bad satire, but I stuck with it long enough to see the Hitler Youth camp training sequence which made me laugh harder than I've laughed going back to Monty Python or early Woody Allen.  The iconoclastic use of Tom Waits' "I Don't Want to Grow Up" as background music was inspired and only added to the slapstick and sight gags on screen.
 
Sam Rockwell is funny and moving, hilariously vulnerable, and finally heroic.  Rebel Wilson is incapable of not being fun to watch.  And newcomer Archie Yates is funnier than all of them as JoJo's friend, Yorki, who is promoted the farthest up the ranks from the Hitlerjugend.
 
JOJO: You’re a soldier now?
 
YORKI: At your service! I even drink schnapps and smoke cigarettes now. Except I don’t light them because they taste like arse.
 
But finally, he is still just a little boy:
 
YORKI: Nothing makes sense.  It’s definitely not a good time to be a Nazi. (beat) I’m gonna go home and see my mother.  I need a cuddle.
 
Most of the film is carried by the two young leads, Thomasin McKenzie, who was amazing in Leave No Trace, and Roman Griffin Davis who is so good as the youth Nazi whose ideals are challenged by the lovely Jewish girl in his attic.  This is most effectively a story of war through the eyes of a ten-year old boy learning that the world is different than the indoctrinated version he's been fed.
 
JOJO: I said to draw where Jews live. This is just a stupid picture of my head.
 
Scarlet Johansson was nominated for a best supporting Oscar, but was on screen just long enough to make the viewer wish there had been more.  Perhaps, that was the intention. Taika Waititi, the writer-directer, takes the imaginary Hitler role as his little vendetta against the entire idea of the Third Reich.




The symmetry of being able to also group two young adult movies or in the vernacular of Joe Pesci from My Cousin Vinny, movies about "yutes" was too perfect to pass up.  It also allows me to include them both in my top ten favorites.  And Will Forte plays a dad in both.
 
Neither movie is as good as the sum of its parts because some of the parts aren't as good as others, but there are enough parts in both that are not only near perfection, but strikingly fun and original.
 
booksmart is the more serious movie, but with enough sincere humor to cushion the rough patches.
 

MOLLY (Kaitlyn Dever): We only have one night left to have studied and partied in high school. Otherwise, we’ll always be the girls who missed out.
 
Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Goldstein are really good and made all the better because of their marvelous chemistry, but the bit players in the supporting cast are an unexpected bonus: Will Forte and Lisa Kudrow as Goldstein's hovering parents who mean well but try too hard.  Jason Sudeikas as their principal who drives uber to make up for his paltry salary.
 
Billie Lourd (Carrie Fisher's daughter) has the plum-role of Gigi, the crazy girl who somehow shows up at every party.
 
MOLLY: It doesn’t work for me. I ate a legal pot brownie when Model UN went to Amsterdam but as soon as I got high, I just cried about the fact that one day my mom will die.
 
GIGI: That’s crazy! I have the exact same thing! ... I lost my virginity in what I thought was a park, but it turned out to be a graveyard and now the ghost spirits live inside my eggs, waiting to be reborn.
 
AMY: That’s -- not at all the same thing.
 
Skyler Gisondo has the most poignant turn as Gigi's rich friend who turns out to be sincere and caring, albeit without the skills to convey it.
 
MOLLY: Dude, this doesn’t work. You can’t buy people’s affection.
 
JARED: I’m pretty sure you can. I’ve seen it a lot. My parents did. Their parents did.
 
As the evening progresses, the wild abandon bumps up against reality.  One final night filled with too many surprises turns out to be just as hard as the rest of your life.
 
The Good Boys
 
The boys in The Good Boys are graduating from middle school so the stakes may not seem as high or the deadlines as concrete, but growing up always feels like life or death.
 
Neither of these movies was particularly concerned about the depth or cohesiveness of their stories.  Both were more concerned about fitting in great gags and sketches.  These are where the really special moments happen in both movies, especially in Good Boys.
 
Jacob Tremblay who was so good in dramas like Room and The Book of Henry is just as good here.  He plays it so straight, the comedy is heightened.  The script leaves him high and dry and over-the-top at times, but it's never tedious.
 
Max Newman (Jacob Tremblay): No, she's a nymphomaniac.
 
Lucas (Keith L. Williams): She starts fires?

Max: No. A nymphomaniac. Someone who has sex on land and sea.
 
Keith L. Williams and Brady Noon are not in his league so sometimes can't ring much out of the bad dialogue stretches.  They each have their highlights.
 
Lucas (to Stephen Merchant): You look more like a pedophile than anyone I've ever seen.
 
Molly Gordon and Midori Francis are the teen girls who do not take kindly to being spied on so the boys can learn how to kiss.  They end being unwitting villains until they end up offering the wisdom from their age and experience.
 
Lily (Midori Francis): You're only in 6th grade. You guys are gonna figure it out.
 
Hannah (Molly Gordon): Yeah, you have your whole life for that.
 
Nothing turns out quite like we thought it would, but somehow it all seems to be turning out like it should.



American Woman is a difficult movie to describe accurately, and a difficult one to watch in places.  It's a powerful movie which needs to be felt on a visceral level.  It was clear the story was not about the supposed mystery running through it.  Another thing that would make too much description confusing.
 
For me, this is a break out role by Sienna Miller.  I have seen her in other things and always found her to be fine, certainly never a detriment, but this movie would not be anywhere near as good without her.
 
Jake Scott (Ridley's son) directs Brad Inglesby's script with the confidence to let Miller run with her flawed and tragic character through wrong turns, self-pity, and finally, a semblance of triumph.
 
Christina Hendricks and Will Sasso are excellent support as Miller's very unstereotypic sister and brother-in-law.  Alex Nuestaedter is startlingly good as the too-young father of Miller's grand son, Jesse (Aiden McGraw and Aiden Fiske as he grows up).
 
E. Roger Mitchell deserves a special mention for persuasively subtle acting as the cop investigating the mystery amid the lack of evidence until he can finally help Miller's character find some peace.


Honorable Mention:

Just Mercy

The Goldfinch

Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood

Wild Rose