Critic's Picks: The Best Films of 2019

Our chief critic watched nearly 300 new releases in 2019, and these are his picks for the 19 best.

Rewind Critics

This article is part of our 2019 Rewind. Follow along as we explore the best and most interesting movies, shows, performances, and more from 2019.


I know what you’re thinking… why is a “best of 2019” post dropping a full month into 2020? Well, why not? It’s never too late to look backward with a critical eye, and there’s an argument to be made that more time to sit on your thoughts can only make things clearer and truer. This applies to pretty much everything, but with movies, the additional days and weeks allow a film’s characters, feelings, and story to swirl in your mind revealing new elements to love, fresh observations on things that maybe don’t work, and confirmations on the beats you can’t forget.

2019 was another spectacular year at the movies, and while I watched nearly 250 new films that received an official US release throughout the year that’s still less than a third of 2019’s total output. That means there are still hundreds of movies I didn’t get the opportunity to see, but even if I had tastes differ from person to person — and that’s a glorious thing. The FSR team compiled a collective list of the year’s top 50 films, but the list below brings together the 19 best movies of the year according to me and me alone.


19. Arctic

Arctic

There’s probably no better way to kick off a year-end best-of list than to start with a film that most people haven’t seen, but that’s the beauty of a subjective endeavor. Joe Penna’s tale of survival stars Mads Mikkelsen who we first meet days after the plane crash that’s left him stranded in the vast Arctic tundra. He’s the only character here meaning dialogue is sparse, and we watch as he struggles to survive and find his way to rescue — it’s a simple concept executed beautifully in both its visuals and its approach to capturing the loneliness, the frustration, and the emptiness all around. It’s a film you watch with clenched fists as our hero’s tides rise and fall, and Mikkelsen quickly and fully becomes someone we champion through to the end.


18. The Standoff at Sparrow Creek

The Standoff At Sparrow Creek

This compact thriller opened at the very start of 2019, but its staying power has kept it in my thoughts in the year since. Ostensibly about an investigation into a shooting, the film is actually a dissection of an American culture built on blind devotion to the 2nd Amendment and a conspiratorial approach to mistrusting our own government. The small cast includes men like James Badge Dale, Chris Mulkey, Gene Jones, and others, and each brings a varied personality to life representing the stages of disconnect to our uniquely American problem with guns. Far from just a treatise on militia men and gun owners, the film also delivers a tight little mystery with a story that shifts and turns until its violent conclusion.


17. Styx

Styx

From All Is Lost (2013) to last year’s The Boat, I’m an admitted sucker for movies that send people to sea alone and then thrust them into extraordinary situations. While those two films are modern survival gems, the latter with a horror twist, this new entry into the sub-genre adds a moral obstacle into the mix as a western woman is faced with a dilemma. Her instinct is to help the refugees she finds adrift on an overcrowded trawler, but her craft can’t hold them all and the Coast Guard is telling her to keep away until their rescue mission has time to arrive. But then people start falling from the sinking ship and drowning. It’s a tense, thought-provoking tale brought to life with beautiful cinematography and a strong lead performance by Susanne Wolff, and while there’s importance in the brief dialogue exchanges there’s even more power in the silence.


16. Piercing

Piercing

Takashi Miike’s Audition remains an absolute gem of madness, brilliance, and darkly comic terror, and while he’s a big part of that the source novel by Rya Murakami is equally deserving of credit. Director Nicolas Pesce takes the reins on another Murakami adaptation, and the results are equally memorable. A young man sets out to kill a random prostitute, but instead, he finds a love story, of sorts, about two people finding each other at the best possible time… or maybe the worst? It’s really all about perspective, pain, and one perversely hopeful ending.


15. Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Portrait Of A Lady On Fire

Sumptuous and simple aren’t often words used together to describe the same thing, but Celine Sciamma’s latest is both and so much more. A female painter arrives on a small island to capture the portrait of a young women soon to be married, but their time together sees a different art take the lead as the two dance around a growing attraction to each other. The landscape is beautiful but isolated, just like the romance blossoming in a time where such things are forbidden, and the the collective result is a film that washes over you with warmth and an endless desire for more.


14. I Lost My Body

I Lost My Body

Imagine Oliver Stone’s The Hand (1981), but from the severed hand’s perspective, and you’ll still have very little idea what to expect from this stunningly beautiful and affecting feature debut by Jérémy Clapin. A hand “awakes” in a fridge, escapes, and heads out on a journey to reunite with its owner, and it’s one fraught with danger and memory. Running parallel is the story of a young man haunted by tragedy, lost in life, and clumsily trying to pursue a love. None of it goes where you expect as it leads toward a finale that’s as breathtaking and perfect as you hope.


13. Fast Color

Fast Color

There’s something so unassuming about this low-key superhero origin story, but its effect will stay with you long after the end credits roll. It follows a woman with special powers against a backdrop of a world trapped in a near apocalyptic drought, and when it brings in her mother and daughter it becomes a stunning tale of three generations of black women facing a world that fears their strength. The great Gugu Mbatha-Raw takes the lead — something that should be happening on a far more regular basis — and creates a character who captivates even before she starts shaking the world. It’s a beauty.


12. Ad Astra

Ad Astra Chase Scene

Brad Pitt is rightly getting recognition for his turn in Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood, but his lead turn here is equally compelling for wholly different reasons. His character is far more introspective and quiet, but his journey as a man searching for a lost part of himself is captivating stuff. Director James Gray sets what could easily have been an Earthbound drama smack dab into the middle of space making for a film that constantly shifts gears between drama, adventure, action, and even horror — seriously, there’s a sequence here that could be the basis of an entire movie that I’d watch a dozen times. It’s also an absolutely gorgeous film filled with stunning effects and visuals bringing it all to life.


11. Birds of Passage

Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman was the year’s big crime family film, but this Colombian epic is the more moving experience and the better movie. More than just another story about the rise and fall of a criminal enterprise, the film reveals nothing less than the piece by piece destruction of tradition, belief, and culture in the face of greed, ambition, and the lucrative drug trade. It’s engrossing, beautiful, and devastating in its charting of an indigenous family’s slow shift from what they’ve always known to what the Western world tells them they should want. Violence follows, surprising no one, and in the end the only profit they retain is an increased suffering. It’s a grand tale working both as straight story and metaphor for even bigger losses.


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