/Film’s Top 15 Movies of 2019

8. Midsommar

Hoai-Tran Bui: Ari Aster‘s follow-up to Hereditary is the world’s worst break-up movie. Disarmingly funny and surprisingly cathartic, Midsommar is perverse pastoral nightmare that follows the slow breakdown of a toxic relationship between the insecure Dani (Florence Pugh, in an all-timer of scream queen performances) and her gaslighting boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor). Reeling from a family tragedy, Dani invites herself on a trip with Christian and his frat bro friends to see the rare midsummer festival in a secluded Swedish village. But this eternally sunny village’s rituals soon take a turn for the violent. It’s horror by the harsh light of day — with the abundance of nervous chuckles and bursts of bloody carnage lending to the film’s freakish nature. But, Midsommar argues, the real horror and the most insidious violence is in a bad relationship, and the people who refuse to share your grief.

Chris Evangelista: Director Ari Aster described Midsommar as an “apocalyptic breakup movie” before it opened, and he wasn’t kidding. This is like a rom-com with a body count. Aster’s Hereditary follow-up is more ambitious and more audacious. It’s also surprisingly funny as hell. Neurotic, insecure Dani (Florence Pugh) tags along on a trip to Sweeden with her genuinely terrible gaslighting boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) and his pals. There, they take part in a midsummer festival that looks sunny and festive and inviting – and then slowly goes off the rails. Aster runs his cast through the wringer, with Pugh having to do the brunt of the heavy-lifting, and succeeding marvelously. There’s a reason everyone can’t stop talking about her these days.

Ben Pearson: Ari Aster’s follow-up to Hereditary is a wholly different cinematic experience, but still very clearly from the same twisted mind. Midsommar is the closest thing I’ve seen to the original version of The Wicker Man since 2011’s Kill List (although all three films have their own distinct identities). Aster’s sun-soaked horror movie is all about the terror of the unfamiliar, and about finding an unconventional family in an unexpected place. Florence Pugh delivers one of the year’s best performances as Dani, an emotionally drained woman who just needs some support during a rough time in her life, but doesn’t get it from her self-centered boyfriend (a solid Jack Reynor). The film is loaded with subtle hints that point toward its ending, which feels simultaneously shocking and inevitable and perfectly walks the line between disturbing and cathartic.

7. Knives Out

Jacob Hall: The first time I watched Knives Out, I understood it was one of the most entertaining films of the year. The second time I watched it, I realized this Agatha Christie-stlye throwback carefully masks one of the most spectacularly constructed and humane movies of the year in the most crowd-pleasing and accessible shell possible. Daniel Craig’s southern-fried detective is the initial draw here (and he’s wonderful), but writer/director Rian Johnson realizes that Ana de Armas is the real heart of the film, playing a young immigrant nurse who finds herself embroiled in a vicious murder mystery that exposes the darkest corners of the American nightmare. It’s funny and it’s sweet and every twist lands and every scene is an absolute pleasure to witness.

Ethan Anderton: The classic murder mystery is a genre that has fallen by the wayside in favor of thrilling true crime stories. But director Rian Johnson has infused new life into the whodunit with Knives Out. However, this particular murder mystery comes with a heavy dose of relevant social commentary about racism, class and entitlement. Ana De Armas gives a breakthrough performance as the home nurse who gets caught up in more intrigue than she ever could have imagined, and Daniel Craig becomes a delightful deep fried southern detective who gives Hercule Poirot a run for his money, and he even has a better name in Benoit Blanc. Combine that with an incredible ensemble cast where each actor gets their chance to shine, and you’ve got one hell of a flick.

Hoai-Tran Bui: With a cast as star-studded, a script as sharp, a theme as timely, and a film as stylish as Knives Out, how could it not be one of the best movies of 2019? Rian Johnson‘s Agatha Christie-inspired whodunit that toes the line between subversive satire and murder-mystery love letter, Knives Out is a delightfully energetic and unpredictable magic trick of a movie. After the supposed suicide of a wealthy patriarch (Christopher Plummer), a renowned private detective (Daniel Craig) is called in to investigate the dead man’s extended family. Every scene is chewed to bits by the phenomenal cast — for whom no role is too small — most of all by Craig, who is having a blast as the eccentric detective with the most deep fried of Southern accents and a fondness for doughnut metaphors. But the breakout and emotional anchor is Ana de Armas, who plays the deceased patriarch’s kind nurse who gets dragged into the family’s entangled web of schemes. Johnson elevates the frothy character actor elements with a highly topical story that at times can be a little on the nose, but makes for a whodunit that is a little more nutritious than a doughnut hole.

Chris Evangelista: Rian Johnson takes the whodunit genre and flips it upsidedown, crafting a film that’s both lovingly referential and delightfully subversive. You enter Knives Out thinking it’s going to be a standard locked room mystery, but like the best of magicians, Johnson has a ton of tricks up his sleeve. Nothing goes the way you expect it to, and what a delight it all is. When a wealthy patriarch (Christopher Plummer) turns up dead, a private detective (Daniel Craig, having the time of his life) is called in to investigate the dead man’s extended family, all of whom make for pretty great suspects. But the film really belongs to Ana de Armas, playing the deceased party’s nurse. Armas breaks out in a big way, bringing a sweetness coupled with killer comic timing that more directors would be wise to exploit going forward. Johnson peppers in current events into the backdrop of the film – some of which are a bit clunky. But that’s okay. The end result is a total gem, and yet another 2019 movie about how terrible and oblivious wealthy, privileged people can be.

Ben Pearson: Rian Johnson is near the top of the list of my favorite working filmmakers, and I was thrilled when word came out that he’d be tackling an Agatha Christie-inspired murder mystery. In Knives Out, Johnson wonderfully captures the tone of those novels, bringing that classic detective formula into the modern day and providing some twists we haven’t seen before in the process. And while it has a great ensemble cast, including an especially fun turn from Daniel Craig as Benoit Blanc, it also has a real message about immigration and politics as expressed through the character of Marta, the film’s stealth lead who’s played by rising star Ana de Armas. I can’t wait to rewatch this.

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6. Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Hoai-Tran Bui: How do you condense 2,000 years worth of love poetry into a two-hour film? Celine Sciamma somehow figured it out with her ravishing lesbian romance Portrait of a Lady on Fire, one of the few movies that unironically deserves the descriptor “poetic cinema.” If to be truly seen is the ultimate form of love, Portrait of a Lady of Fire is love incarnate. Every frame is a work of art, every glance loaded with unspoken emotion and desire. Taking place in 1770, the film follows a female artist (Noémie Merlant) who is commissioned to paint the wedding portrait of a mysterious daughter (Adèle Haenel) of a French countess, under the pretense of being her walking companion. A close friendship blooms into attraction, and the two share a searing romance for the ages. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is that low burn of desire in your stomach and the choked-back tears in your throat — mythic and epic and intimate all at once.

Chris Evangelista: Céline Sciamma‘s achingly gorgeous love story follows an artist (Noémie Merlant) hired to discretely paint a portrait of a young woman (Adèle Haenel). A friendship grows between the two women – and it quickly blossoms into something deeper. Like Todd Haynes’ CarolPortrait of a Lady on Fire is a film about perceptions – a film about looking. Scene after scene, Sciamma has her characters intently studying the places, and people, before them. As a result, we can feel the desire radiating off this film, as hot and scorching as any flame.

Ben Pearson: Listeners of our /Film Daily podcast and readers of the site’s Best of the Decade coverage may be sick of hearing me talk about this movie, but in the words of pop star Selena Gomez, the heart wants what it wants. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is, quite simply, one of the best movies about love that I’ve ever seen. The film is a classical, aching romance that’s so beautiful it hurts, and writer/director Céline Sciamma’s heart-rending script and expert direction results in cinematic images that are even more beautiful than the gorgeous paintings we see throughout the movie. Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel are utterly mesmerizing in this devastating, punch-drunk love story that left me dazed as I walked out of the theater. I’ve thought about it every single day since.

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5. Avengers: Endgame

Ethan Anderton: Blockbusters tend not to get much love during awards season, and even when critics round-up their end of the year lists, prestigious dramas often outshine these big budget special effects extravaganzas. But in the same way that the Academy gave a record number of Oscars to Lord of the Rings: Return of the King in honor of Peter Jackson’s achievement for the entire J.R.R. Tolkien trilogy, Avengers: Endgame deserves recognition as the culmination of an unprecedented blockbuster franchise featuring interconnected stories, crossover characters, and an overarching narrative that builds to something truly spectacular. But even without taking into account this conclusion to the first era of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this is a blockbuster that packs an emotion punch, brings some of the most astounding comic book action to life, and has some damn fine performances from the core team of superheroes played by Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Mark Ruffalo and Jeremy Renner.

Ben Pearson: While I don’t suspect the Marvel Cinematic Universe will truly end any time soon, Avengers: Endgame is as satisfying a conclusion as I could have hoped for when it comes to Marvel’s so-called Infinity Saga. A three-hour superhero time travel heist film that manages to balance bleakness with effective comedic asides, it’s a movie containing several genuinely cheer-worthy moments (as opposed to, say, cheering during a Stan Lee cameo). Cap wielding Mjolnir. Peter Parker’s return to life. Scott Lang reuniting with his now-grown daughter. Tony Stark’s snap. Cap and Peggy’s last dance. Endgame has tangible emotional stakes, ones that have been built up for years and – here’s the impressive part – actually pay off in gratifying ways. In a world in which would-be mega-blockbusters are all chasing this particular high, Endgame is a narratively worthy high to chase.

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