Scott Menzel’s 19 Favorite Films of 2019
2019 was an interesting year for film. While there were a lot of solid films released throughout 2019, the year as a whole was a pretty mixed bag. Each year, I tend to watch more movies than I did the year before and that was definitely the case in 2019. In total, I watched over 350 films which one would assume would make creating a list of favorites films of the year a lot easier. However, truth be told, it was very difficult to select 19 films that truly stood out. As in the year’s past, the films on this list are a combination of the best films of the year and my personal favorites.
Before I begin my official list, I would like to start with nine honorable mentions in no particular order:
The Peanut Butter Falcon
Once Upon A Time in Hollywood
Toy Story 4
Now without any further delay, here are my 19 favorite films of 2019:
19. The Farewell
I remember skipping the first screening of The Farewell at Sundance because I thought to myself, “well, this will probably be a decent Sundance movie that won’t end up going anywhere.” Well, I was wrong. Not only did The Farewell become one of the most talked about films of the year but it was a comedic yet deeply moving film about traditions, life, and death. Awkwafina has always been great in movies but with her performance in The Farewell, she has taken her career to the next level.
18. Dark Waters
This latest film from Todd Haynes might not be the most impressive in terms of his direction but you can feel his passion throughout in wanting to tell this story. Dark Waters is scary, shocking, and incredibly important. This is a film that will make you angry when you watch it but everyone should watch it because of that reason. The world needs to know what happened with DuPont for decades and how they repeatedly covered up their dirty laundry despite it causing people to die. Dark Waters also features one of the best performances from Mark Ruffalo this decade and you can tell that he poured his heart and soul into this film.
17. Dolemite is My Name
I grew up with Eddie Murphy and saw his downfall in the early 2000s. Eddie Murphy’s performance in Dolemite is My Name is not only a great comeback performance but one of the best ones of his career. The film itself, which is written with such love and care by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, is truly a great underdog story that celebrates passion and dedication. The entire supporting cast also brings their A-game including Wesley Snipes and Da’Vine Joy Randolph. Dolemite is My Name is a celebration of black cinema but it also is a great film that is going to be remembered as one of the best comedies that this decade in film had to offer.
David F. Sandberg is the man. He started off making horror shorts with his wife which he eventually uploaded to YouTube. His feature film debut was Lights Out, a horror film that embraced the simple concept of using the lack of light to build tension and scares. After that, he turned the Annabelle franchise around with Annabelle: Creation. This year, he released Shazam!, the first DC film of the year and one that only gets better and better the more you watch it. Shazam! is fun and entertaining with rewatch value. Sandberg’s direction here is top-notch as he incorporates some horror into the world of superheroes but also knows how to have fun with it. It is hard to believe that Zachary Levi has never played a leading man before but I am glad that he more than likely will become one now. Also, Shazam! features the best child actor cast ensemble in recent memory with Jack Dylan Grazer proving that he has a very long and promising acting career ahead of him.
15. Long Shot
It is no secret that I have a love/hate relationship with Seth Rogen. I appreciate that he is incredibly successful and creative. Rogen has worked very hard over the past decade and I love that he is now working as a producer and creating television series such as The Boys. However, when it comes to his comedy work, nine times out of ten, I don’t find his films to be remotely clever or humorous. In fact, I will admit that the majority of the comedies that Seth Rogen is in do end up being on my worst film of the year list for that given year. With all that being said, it was a total and unexpected surprise that I absolutely loved Long Shot. I saw it at its premiere at SXSW and laughed pretty much throughout. The pairing of Seth Rogen with Charlize Theron has to be one of the best oddball casting decisions of 2019. These two bring out the best in one another. Their chemistry together is truly the glue that holds this film together. The two of them with their witty one-liners make this movie truly one of the most hilarious comedies in recent memory.
14. Brittany Runs A Marathon
I am not going to lie, I didn’t expect Brittany Runs A Marathon to work for me. I saw this film at Sundance and it ended up being my favorite film to come out of the festival this year. Before seeing this film, I was not a big fan of Julian Bell’s work. I felt prior to this film that she as an actress was someone who played the same role over and over again. I understand how some found that career-type amusing but it gave me Rebel Wilson vibes and never worked for me. However, after Brittany Runs A Marathon, I am a huge fan. This is a career-defining performance for Julian Bell, whose commitment to telling this story is truly inspiring. We have seen so many inspirational films over the years but what makes Brittany Runs A Marathon so remarkably special is the fact how much it is grounded in reality. The lead character Brittany who is played by Bell is flawed and isn’t always the most likable person in the world. I found this aspect of this film to be so refreshing. Brittany has highs and low throughout this film and she says some truly upsetting things to her friends and family. I don’t know how to properly articulate it but the connection that I felt towards Brittany and her life was something that really struck a chord with me. I love this film and felt inspired by this story not only when watching it also whenever I think about it.
13. The Two Popes
I don’t know if there is anything that turns me off more when I watch a movie than when the film’s plot has to do with religion and/or finding faith. I skipped The Two Popes at Telluride because I was so convinced that there was no way that I would like the film. After hearing rave reviews from my friends, Clayton Davis and Mara Reinstein, about the film, I decided to add the film to my schedule at the Toronto International Film Festival and I am very glad that I did. The Two Popes can be best described as the Before Trilogy but with Popes. Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins talk to one another while sharing stories of their past, pretty much throughout the entire film. It is oddly captivating but often very funny as well. I saw this film again at the AFI premiere, thanks to the folks at Netflix, and honestly, its a perfect example of how less is more when it comes to crafting a great film. This movie is pretty much just two talented actors and a great script. There is nothing flashy about this movie and that is part of its beauty.
12. Charlie’s Angels
My love for Kristen Stewart runs deep and even though I was going to see Charlie’s Angels no matter what because of it, I will be the first to admit that I had my fair share of doubts about the film. 2019 was probably the biggest year of unexpected surprises when it comes to movies and Charlie’s Angels is number one on that list for me. I loved this movie. I thought it was everything that a fun popcorn movie should be. Kristen Stewart, Naomi Scott, and Ella Balinska are perfect together and you can totally tell that they are having the time of their lives in every single scene. The film’s storyline might not be the most original thing to come out of Hollywood but the majority of Hollywood movies nowadays don’t have original ideas. This is a film that celebrates being a woman while also being highly entertaining. It doesn’t force its agenda down the throats of audiences but rather takes them for a fun and wild ride. As a diehard fan of Kristen Stewart’s work in dramas such as Personal Shopper and Clouds of Sils Maria, I felt her performance in Charlie’s Angels showcased a whole new side of her personality that we never saw before and I definitely want to see more of.
Based on a stage play of the same name, Luce is another Sundance film that sadly didn’t get the level of love that it so deeply deserved. Luce is a character-driven film that dives deep into race, social class, and societal standards. It is easily one of the most compelling films of the year and one that you will be thinking about for days after watching it. It provides no easy answers but rather a lot of food for thought as you watch Luce’s story unfold. Kelvin Harrison Jr.’s performance is haunting and Octavia Spencer delivers what I feel is her most layered performance to date. Luce is a remarkable drama that sort of plays out almost as if it were a thriller. If you haven’t seen Luce, I highly recommend that you check out asap as it is now available on DVD and on-demand.
Last year, Dexter Fletcher had the very difficult task of finishing Bohemian Rhapsody after Bryan Singer was fired as director of the film. Despite its mixed reactions from critics, I loved Bohemian Rhapsody, even with its flaws. I’ve seen the film about half a dozen times and still deeply enjoy it. As for Rocketman, this was Dexter Fletcher’s baby from day one. He may have had the input and support of Elton John but this is his film and Paramount didn’t tell him what he could or couldn’t do. As a result, Rocketman is a joyous celebration of music that also tells the story of Elton John’s life. Fletcher digs deep into John’s dark past which includes a lot of sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll but ultimately, it is the friendship between Elton John and Bernie Taupin that makes this film so special. Taron Egerton and Jamie Bell are so committed to telling this story and you can tell by the level of accuracy in their performances. You often forget that you are watching two actors play Elton John and Bernie Taupin. These are career-defining performances for two actors who clearly are going to be around for generations to come.
9. Honey Boy
This is the fourth film that played at Sundance that is on my best-of list. If that isn’t an indication as to why you should go to Sundance, I don’t know what is. Like all of the Sundance movies on this list, I went into this movie knowing very little about it outside of the vague plot description that was printed on the Sundance website. Honey Boy is independent filmmaking and storytelling at its finest. Alma Har’el, who marks her feature film debut with Honey Boy, knows how to capture the rawness of human emotion. Based on Shia LaBeouf’s own personal story, Honey Boy is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to its performances. Noah Jupe, Shia LaBeouf, and Lucas Hedges all bring something to this film that we haven’t seen before from them as actors. As someone who has a family member currently dealing with addiction and whose own father was an alcoholic, this movie and its story spoke to me on a very personal level. I believe there is something in Honey Boy for everyone and while it might not be the easiest film to watch, it is an expertly crafted slice of life that deserves to be seen.
As a child of 80s, coming of age movies are my jam and honestly, who doesn’t love a great coming-of-age movie? Booksmart is like this generation’s Breakfast Club. Olivia Wilde, who I also think is criminally underrated as an actress, makes her directing debut with Booksmart and truly knocks it out of the park. With so many coming-of-age films out there, you have to do something to make your film stand out while also standing the test of time. Booksmart does this in so many ways but most importantly with its characters. The pairing of Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever is perfect as their relationship is grounded in reality while layered with authenticity. The supporting cast, which includes several up and coming young actors like Billie Lourd, Skyler Gisondo, and Molly Gordon are all fleshed out as characters. They aren’t portrayed as lazy high school stereotypes but rather actual people who you would encounter in a high school in 2019. Olivia Wilde takes a lot of bold choices as a first time filmmaker and even manages to dabble a bit in Stop-Motion Animation. If nothing else, Booksmart works as a prime example why the industry needs more female filmmakers and storytellers. Booksmart is female-led comedy that is written and directed by women. The world needs and deserves more films like this.
7. Richard Jewell
I am a sucker for films about the media and I like how this story shows how the media isn’t always the good guys. I completely understand how a film like this will struggle to find an audience since Donald Trump is President but that shouldn’t top people from seeing a film that not only tells a great and important story about how the media and government failed but also features some brilliant performances from Paul Walter Hauser, Sam Rockwell, and Kathy Bates. I’ve watched this film twice now and feel like it is works so well as perfect example of why people don’t speak up when they see things. This is Clint Eastwood’s finest work since Million Dollar Baby and I can only hope that it finds a bigger audience when it hits Blu-Ray and on-demand in 2020.
A someone who generally dislikes watching war movies, I was blown away by how deeply engaged I was watching 1917 on the big screen. As critics, we often talk about movies that are audiences must-see on the big screen and 1917 is the very definition of that. This is not a movie that you should watch on a tablet, laptop, or even, a 50″ television. This is one that you need and should see on the biggest screen that you can find so that you can be fully immersed in the film and its story. As a filmmaker and storyteller, Sam Mendes continues to wow and impress audiences with his films. 1917 ranks pretty high up there amongst his other films, especially from a filmmaking standpoint. I still don’t understand how he managed to make the film feel as though it is one continuous shot from beginning to end. It is a remarkable feat of filmmaking and a cinematic experience unlike any other you’ve seen before. I would also argue that out of all the war films that I’ve seen including the classics like Patton, Full Metal Jacket, and Saving Private Ryan, 1917 could quite possibly be the best war movie of all.
5. Knives Out
Knives Out was one of the biggest premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival this September. Director/writer Rian Johnson received a lot of fanboy backlash for his decisions with Star Wars: The Last Jedi but regardless of whether you like that film or not, Knives Out serves as a reminder that Johnson is at his best when he is working on original projects. Knives Out is a clever and original take on a classic whodunit but with a modern-day spin. There are a lot of films in 2019 with great casts but it is hard to argue that any other film this year has a better cast than Knives Out. Johnson’s razor-sharp script and impeccable direction make Knives Out of the most enjoyable and memorable movies of the year. It’s a must-see and truly deserves all the praise and success that it received since its TIFF debut.
One festival that I have never attended but is on my bucket list is the Cannes Film Festival. While there are usually only a handful of films that come out of Cannes with a lot of buzz surrounding them, this year Parasite premiered at the festival and may end up being the first foreign-language film to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards. If you don’t know what Parasite is and you consider yourself a film fan, you must be living under a rock if you haven’t heard the rave reviews about this one. Parasite definitely lives up to the hype surrounding it and gets better and better on repeat viewings. Its a mixture of genres and will hold our attention from beginning to end.
This is the second film on this list starring Kelvin Harrison Jr. and after seeing Luce and Waves in the same year, there is not a single doubt in my mind that he is going to become a superstar over the next decade. Waves is a beautiful, emotional and devastating cinematic experience that needs to be seen on the big screen. Trey Edward Schults, whose previous work includes Krisha and It Comes At Night, delivers his most personal and best film to date. Waves is a rollercoaster of a movie that is broken up in two very distinct parts. The first half is tension-fueled while the second half is all about the aftermath and trying to recover from the events of the first half. Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Taylor Russell carry his film on their shoulders and deliver two of the most impressive and deeply moving performances of 2019.
2. Marriage Story
Noah Baumbach is an iconic director and storyteller who is best known for his hipster indie films like Frances Ha and The Squid and the Whale. He is an acquired taste that is for certain but with Marriage Story, he has created a film that will connect with anyone who has ever been in a long term relationship or marriage. Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson play a married couple who are going through a divorce while one of them lives in New York and the other is in Los Angeles. This is a deeply honest film and one that grounded in reality. It is utterly heartbreaking to experience but often very funny to watch. It is a film that showcases one terrific performance after another and it is probably the best-written film of 2019 to boot. A masterclass in writing and acting.
Character-driven origin stories are a dime a dozen, but what Todd Phillps and Scott Silver managed to do with this reimagined vision of an iconic comic book character is nothing short of extraordinary. Star Joaquin Phoenix, who has delivered one phenomenal performance after another this decade, closes out a decade with a career-best performance. As Arthur Fleck, Phoenix delivers one of the most disturbing and captivating performances in recent memory. From the very first frame, Phoenix becomes Arthur Fleck, an unreliable narrator but also a man with a mental illness that is constantly being neglected by those around him. Dark, complicated and deeply compelling, Joker is an unforgettable look at mental illness that has already and will only continue to spark conversation and debate for years to come. With terrific performances from every member of the cast, a bold and unexpected screenplay, gorgeous cinematography and a haunting score, Joker is nothing like I expected it to be but ended up becoming my favorite film of the year.