By Hector Valverde
The Oscars have spoken! But with so many weird selections and searing omissions, just how much can the Academy be trusted? What really were the finest movies, performances, and cinematic exploits of last year? I’ve got you covered with hand-picked selections of the best of the best in film of 2019.
Taylor Russell (Waves)
Halfway into the film’s runtime, Taylor Russell emerges from the sidelines to pick up the entire remaining narrative of Waves on her back. It’s a lot to ask, but she never skips a beat, completing the story about grief, tragedy, and healing with a somber presence full of soft, blossoming hope.
Scarlett Johansson (Marriage Story)
Ringing with an arrestingly expressive timbre only matched this decade by her own work in Her, you’d be hard-pressed to find a performance as genuine, poignant, or ranged as Scarlett Johansson’s in Marriage Story. The tenderness of the film’s opening narration alone cements Johansson’s work as some of the best of 2019.
Cate Blanchett (Where’d You Go, Bernadette)
Firing on all cylinders with a manically hot and cold performance, Cate Blanchett is phenomenal in Where’d You Go, Bernadette. Blanchett chugs along at full blast as the film’s titular grouch, feverishly switching between sluggish sarcasm and endearingly maniacal rants at the flip or turn of a dime.
Saoirse Ronan (Little Women)
Little Women has been adapted across the stage and screens dozens of times, yet Saoirse Ronan makes Jo March all her own in her wonderfully vivacious take on the treasured character. Ronan leaves a trail of dazzling sparks as she zestfully inhabits seven eventful years of Jo’s life, impeccably capturing the tumultuous ups and downs of young adulthood with wit, spirit, and emotional depth to spare.
Ana de Armas (Knives Out)
In a film teeming with over-the-top performances from an all-star cast, Ana de Armas anchors everything back down with pure heart and soul. She gives the murder-mystery stakes that truly matter, communicating an investing sense of panic and remorse through the cutting stare of her super-expressive eyes.
Best Supporting Actress
Imogen Poots (The Art of Self-Defense)
An intense, palpable fury seethes through every fiber of Imogen Poots’ being in The Art of Self-Defense. Beaten, resigned, but ready to savagely pounce at the tip of a hat, it’s a brooding portrait of a woman pushed well past her breaking point, as well as one of the finest performances of the year.
Florence Pugh (Little Women)
From her introduction as a bratty pre-teen all the way through her progression into an ambitious but embittered young woman, Florence Pugh goes all in portraying every step of Amy March’s coming-of-age. Against a crowded and very talented cast, it’s an excellent performance that closes out an impressive breakout year for the up-and-coming actress.
Rebecca Ferguson (Doctor Sleep)
Come for the hat, stay for Rebecca Ferguson’s delectably villainous performance. Seductive and menacing, Ferguson chews through the scenery of Doctor Sleep with a sumptuous crunchiness that only gets more interesting as the film goes on.
Laura Dern (Marriage Story)
Laura Dern’s character in Marriage Story doesn’t tell you anything you don’t already know about lawyers, but boy is she great in the role. She’s sleazy, but charming, selfish, yet captivating, and you can’t help but adore the fast-talking hotshot every minute she’s onscreen.
Scarlett Johansson (Jojo Rabbit)
Just a real saint all around, Scarlett Johansson’s Rosie Betzler exudes a loving maternal warmth full of patience and compassion for her confused Nazi aspirant son. Paired with Taika Waititi’s delightful script, Johansson rocks the screen with an effortlessly cool swagger you can’t take your eyes off of.
Adam Sandler (Uncut Gems)
Only one person could pull off the concentrated chaos the leading role of Uncut Gems demands, and that actor is Adam Sandler. A smarmily grinning conduit for the hysteria of the Safdie brothers’ panic attack-inducing film, the Sandman makes the impossible possible by making you root for the year’s most unlikeable protagonist. He also wears the heck out of those glasses, hot damn!
George MacKay (1917)
In a film with relatively little dialogue, George MacKay carries 1917 with a laboriously emotional and physical performance. MacKay brings the human element the war epic requires with devoted focus and nobility. additionally landing all the blocking marks demanded of the heavily technical production with thanklessly tight precision.
Kelvin Harrison Jr. (Luce)
Unsettlingly two-faced and chilling to the bone, Kelvin Harrison Jr. plays with a fire that maliciously burns through the scenery of Luce. Harrison Jr. is more than a match for Octavia Spencer as the disquieting half of their characters’ firecracker rivalry, perpetually toying with one’s perception of his person in the most fascinating, complex, and moving performance of the year.
Adam Driver (Marriage Story)
In addition to three other great performances in 2019, Adam Driver proves he’s a top-tier actor with his crowning achievement in Marriage Story. Driver chronicles a father’s divorce and ensuing custody battle with thoroughly gutting desperation, masterfully acting through the entire emotional spectrum in one of the truest, most sincere performances ever put on film.
Jonathan Majors (The Last Black Man in San Francisco)
Largely built on observation and a respectful rapport with his co-lead, Jimmie Fails, there’s a beautiful tranquility to this gentle performance from Jonathan Majors. He almost melts into the background of most scenes, subtly building towards a show-stopping conclusion that launches at you straight from his heart.
Best Supporting Actor
Jonathan Pryce (The Man Who Killed Don Quixote)
The word “bizarre” doesn’t even begin to describe the delirious meta narrative of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, and while not technically playing the titular mad knight, Jonathan Pryce does his part one better. Pryce plays a deranged man playing a deranged man with the crazed fervor only a deranged man could muster, subtly cracking peaks at the broken soul inside while nailing the essence of Cervantes’ classic character to a tee.
Willem Dafoe (The Lighthouse)
Willem Dafoe is a monologuing monster in The Lighthouse, a salt-beaten curmudgeon who delivers some of the year’s most memorable lines with gruff, unhinged madness. It’s a strange and difficult part to play, but Defoe sells every tricky bit of it; farts have never carried so much rotten gravitas.
Alessandro Nivola (The Art of Self-Defense)
Is he ridiculous? Is he intimidating? How is this man not more in the mainstream? Alessandro Nivola dishes out a wicked deadpan and some of the year’s best comedy in the The Art of Self-Defense, striking a corrosive balance of fraternal male affection and machismo as the film’s beguiling Sensei.
Taika Waititi (Jojo Rabbit)
In what could have been a cheap joke relying on controversy, Taika Waititi turns in a surprisingly brilliant performance playing—ahem—Adolf Hitler. More accurately, a ten-year-old boy’s projection of the Fuhrer as his imaginary friend. Waititi’s natural disposition for silliness is always a super fun time, but it’s his thoughtful meditation on hate and prejudice that makes this performance something really special.
Daniel Craig (Knives Out)
In a movie full of scene-stealers, Daniel Craig mugs the best and most for the camera as the jib-jabbering ace PI, Benoit Blanc. A fond tribute to Agatha Christie’s detectives of old, Craig galivants across the screen in pure, self-aware delight, relishing every word of his character’s meandering soliloquies in a mesmerizingly smooth southern drawl.
Sly, dry, and ever so wry, the cast of Parasite oozes the mischievous energy of a fiendishly fun scam scheme. As push comes to shove, everyone embraces the darkness the film gradually casts with hungry performances that are as seductive as they are sadistic.
What a cast! Not a single part is wasted in Little Women as the loveliest of leading and supporting performances light up the film in wholesome familial joy.
Bringing back a long-missed sense of optimism and glee, Eddie Murphy triumphantly returns to the silver screen as blaxploitation super-star Rudy Ray Moore. Alongside him is a fabulous troupe of first-rate entertainers that seldom leave a quiet moment to catch one’s breath. Look out for a prime comedic performance from a scene-stealing Wesley Snipes!
Rian Johnson’s sharply-written script is brought to life by a fantastic cast exuberantly leaning into the campier side of the murder mystery genre. No shortage of memorable moments from Ana de Armas, Daniel Craig, Jamie Lee Curtis, Toni Collette, Chris Evans, and more make Knives Out a consistently entertaining pleasure.
The culmination of one of cinema’s most intricate projects of all time, Avengers: Endgame gives every one of its many, many (many) beloved heroes their due. Well worth its decade in the making, we’ll likely never see another cast as tremendously stacked, packed, or on its game as this one.
Best Animated Feature
Just as good as the original, The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part is a sugary explosion of sweetness with bombardments of side-splitting humor at every turn. The painstakingly rendered LEGO world looks incredible, and the touching narrative about sibling relationships and growing up beautifully ties into the larger story at hand.
We didn’t want it, we didn’t need it, but Toy Story 4 is superb all the same. Pixar’s epilogue to one of the greatest trilogies of all time is funny, thoughtful, and still genuinely surprising after more than twenty years, not to mention tear-jerking.
Stop-motion animation is a sadly dying art form, but thankfully, Laika won’t let it go down without a fight. Missing Link is an exotic visual treat that tickles your eyes alongside your heart, a charming, old-fashioned adventure with a special little something for audiences of all ages.
Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow (Luce)
Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow outdo themselves with this one-of-a-kind score. Led by the rattling “Skyhooker” theme, it’s a propulsive musical marvel that perfectly complements the sinister psychological drama in front of it.
Daniel Lopatin (Uncut Gems)
Disco disco, good good! Daniel Lopatin’s awesome synth score is a great musical composition on its own, but as the explosive pulse of Uncut Gems, additionally ramps the film’s frenetic energy up to a wildly beating eleven.
Alexandre Desplat (Little Women)
Rosy as a sunny spring afternoon, the sprightly strings of Little Women pluck through Alexandre Desplat’s score is pure, euphoric bliss. Desplat’s compositions are exquisite food for the soul, soothing to the core like a big, comforting hug.
Randy Newman (Marriage Story)
Marriage Story’s warm melodies are surgically crafted to split your heart in two. Randy Newman’s score trickles in like the tearful cries of a time long past, a bittersweet reminder of two people’s former love and all the memories it has wrought.
Thomas Newman (1917)
Thomas Newman’s score starts soft, tense, reflective, even, slowly building as our heroes’ mission drives the action forward. Though it comes to hit its powerful swells and crescendos, the score doesn’t push grandiose; it’s always respectful and aware of the solemn material it inhabits.
Dan Lauststen (John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum)
Every punch, gunshot, and swipe of the knife in Parabellum is shot in glorious clarity by Dan Lauststen and the film’s stunt team. The best action of the year demands some of the best camera work to truly shine, and Lauststen is more than up to the task with crystal-clear wide shots that up the bone-crunching ante in long, well-realized takes.
Drew Daniels (Waves)
Drew Daniels uses every cinematic technique in (and out of) the book to create a vivid sensory experience in Waves. Each brilliant shot tells a story on its own, all coming together to make the prettiest film of 2019, hands down.
Jarin Blaschke (The Lighthouse)
A dreadful wave of ambiguity pervades through the imagery of The Lighthouse, something mysterious, something vague. Jarin Blaschke’s hazy monochromatic visuals lull you into an entranced state of terror, depicting the eldritch abstract with bountiful cinematic creativity.
Hoyte van Hoytema (Ad Astra)
The expansive majesty of space is put through a bold new lens in Ad Astra. Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography is vast, frightening, prismatic, and wonderous, a daring venture into the unknown, an introspective, dreamy cruise through the stars.
Roger Deakins (1917)
The man, the myth, the legend, Roger Deakins, himself, has created another masterful feast for the eyes in 1917. Pressingly intimate, the stakes couldn’t be higher as Deakins places you smack in the middle of the battlefield, creating the illusion of two amazingly choreographed long takes by moving and operating the camera in ways that shouldn’t be possible.
Best Production Design
Henrik Svensson (Midsommar)
In an inspired turn for a horror film, the Swedish daymare of Midsommar is bathed in shimmering whites and pastels. Bright colors and flowers adorn every nook and cranny of Henrik Svensson’s lavish production design, a beautiful, but surreptitiously dark play on the idyllic folk countryside.
Nigel Phelps (Detective Pikachu)
The rainy, neon-lit Pokémon wonderland of Ryme City will leave any fan giddy with excitement, as well as anyone else with an appreciation for grimy neo-noir goodness. The film’s richly detailed city and lush, rural locales look fantastic, a chef’s kiss mix of modern Japanese architecture with a slick futuristic aesthetic.
Jan Roelfs (The Current War: Director’s Cut)
Jan Roelfs’ swanky production design captures the distinguished steampunk sweet spot of the late nineteenth century with a cool, captivating glow. The messy sets strewn with luminescent wires, bulbs, and prototypes look great, galvanizing the eyes in the leadup to the film’s dazzling recreation of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.
Dennis Gassner (1917)
Against bombs, bruises, and blows, 1917 tells a good portion of its story through its ghostly periphery. Dennis Gassner’s ruinous sets haunt the screen in dilapidated magnitude, speaking the horrors and tragedies of war without even a whisper of a word.
Lee Ha-jun (Parasite)
A substantially different take on the traditional horror movie house, Lee Ha-jun’s luxurious modern architecture could be considered a character in its own right. The custom-built home is a ravishing work of art set in sharp blacks and whites, a piece that impresses all the more as shadows and sunlight creep in through the glass.
Best Costume Design/Makeup
Mike Elizalde (Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark)
Makeup artist Mike Elizalde rips Stephen Gammell’s nightmarish charcoal illustrations right off the page and onto the screen with horrifying results. Only practical effects of this caliber could do justice to Gammell’s iconic designs, and the sheer attention, care, and craftsmanship going into every spooky creature never fail to impress.
Judianna Makovsky (Avengers: Endgame)
The contributions of countless costumes, makeup, and special effects designers have created modern mythological icons in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it’s Judianna Makovsky that gets to take the victory lap for the team in Avengers: Endgame. Marvel’s heroes have never looked more tastefully comic book-accurate, and it’s a testament to Makovsky’s vision that she’s able to cohesively weave the appearances of dozens of different characters and genres together so incredibly well.
Jacqueline Durran (Little Women)
The ladies and gentlemen of Little Women have never looked better. From its extravagant dresses down to its humbler attire, Jacqueline Durran’s assortment of period-era clothing handsomely pops with fetching colors and style.
Michael Wilkinson (Aladdin)
If there’s one thing Disney’s live-action remake of Aladdin manages to outdo the original in, it’s in its eye-popping visual storm of gorgeous costumes and outfits. Gaudy and flavorful, there’s no shortage of breathtaking design going into every colorful ounce of Michael Wilkinson’s Asian and Middle Eastern-inspired work.
Ruth Carter (Dolemite Is My Name)
The only thing as vibrant as the cast of Dolemite Is My Name is the sweet, sweet costumes their performances are hemmed in. With dapper hats, fuzzy coats, and as many snazzy suits as you could ever ask for, Ruth Carter ensures there’s always at least one piece of wardrobe peacocking onscreen.
Best Special Effects
It wasn’t until well after my screening of Alita: Battle Angel that I realized the movie’s titular character was an entirely CGI creation. Whether it’s in action or dialogue, Alita lives and breathes as much as any real person onscreen, and the rest of the cyberpunk adventure’s robotic creations don’t look half bad either.
Few other films will ever match the sheer spectacle of Avengers: Endgame. Pushing the technical boundaries of what movies can do, often invisibly to the keenest of eyes, the finale to Marvel’s Infinity Saga goes for broke with bombastic, decade-defining action and effects at no expense spared.
The behind-the-scenes framework of 1917 is a top-notch demonstration of cross-departmental synergy. It’s nearly impossible to differentiate between the film’s practical effects and its additional CGI enhancements; the VFX join together with the film’s cinematography, props, sets, and directed to form one seamless cinematic experience.
It’s a small miracle the visual effects teams on Detective Pikachu were able to make the film’s creatures look this good. The huge collection of Pokémon is adapted into live-action with amazing results, each monster and locale bursting with personality, texture, and life.
The landscapes and animals of The Lion King look so convincingly photoreal that Disney couldn’t make its characters look like they could speak. Whether that’s an achievement or folly (or a folly achievement) is up to you.
Bong Joon-ho and Han Jin-won (Parasite)
“Father. Today I made a plan. A long-term plan. I’m going to make a lot of money.”
David Robert Mitchell (Under the Silver Lake)
“I’ve created so many of the things that you care about… the songs that give your life purpose and joy. When you were fifteen and rebelling… you did that to my music. It wasn’t written on a distorted guitar…I wrote it… on a piano…here… in between a blowjob and an omelette. There’s no rebellion. There’s only me… earning a paycheck.”
Anthony McCarten (The Two Popes)
“It’s here, in confession, where we are forced to look at the vastness of our failures, that we finally see the vastness of His mercy.”
Julius Onah and JC Lee (Luce)
“I don’t like tokenism. What’s the difference between punishing someone for being a stereotype and rewarding them if they’re not? One of the two comes with benefits. What you’d call a benefit, I’d call a responsibility I didn’t ask for.”
Greta Gerwig (Little Women)
“Women have minds and souls as well as hearts, ambition and talent as well as beauty and I’m sick of being told that love is all a woman is fit for.”
Quentin Tarantino (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood)
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood revels in the little things, making a sincere joy out of watching TV, emptying a can of dog food, or a late-night stroll through LA. Tarantino digs in and pulls back with fluid, poetic grace; nine movies and nearly thirty years into his filmmaking career, no one directs a scene like the big Q.T.
Greta Gerwig (Little Women)
In addition to squeezing a sublime set of performances out of her cast, Greta Gerwig’s zealous directing style infuses Little Women with a very special touch. Gerwig’s passion for the material radiates all throughout her film, a personal, cherishing celebration of young adulthood you can tell resonates with her deeply.
Sam Mendes (1917)
On top of maneuvering through an insane series of logistical and environmental challenges, Mendes’ grandstanding presentation tells a stirring tale of heroism and duty. The grueling production of 1917 is almost an afterthought with how smoothly Sam Mendes directs against it all, a testament not only to his vision but also his ambition and grit.
Joe and Anthony Russo (Avengers: Endgame)
Twenty-one movies and eleven eventful years in the making, the creation of Avengers: Endgame is a herculean effort that should by no means have been possible. It’s somehow pulled off by the Russo brothers, who don’t just shoot great action, don’t just juggle dozens of character arcs, and don’t just tell a cohesive narrative. No, Joe and Anthony Russo additionally create an entertaining, sentimental, and thoroughly satisfying finale that marvelously pays off the legacy of everything that came before it.
Bong Joon-ho (Parasite)
Director Bong has once again proven himself a commanding master of cinema with Parasite. Tightly paced and directed, meticulously drawing connections between even the most flitting of details across all departments, it’s the auteur at the top of his game, ‘nuff said.
Reimagined in a fancy new non-linear narrative, Greta Gerwig has lovingly crafted the definitive edition of Little Women. Gerwig’s modern amendments elevate the best aspects of Louisa May Alcott’s novel to greater heights, capturing the jubilant spirit of youth and womanhood with electric performances and storytelling.
Under the Silver Lake
Only describable as the unholy lovechild of Blue Velvet and They Live, Under the Silver Lake is a hypnotic conspiratorial thriller with hair-raising surprises around every corner. David Robert Mitchell’s screenplay and directing are shocking in the best of ways, traversing through a delirious Lynchian underworld I couldn’t get enough of.
Though it’s set during the First World War, 1917 tells a timeless tale of bravery that goes well beyond its genre roots. Sam Mendes and Roger Deakins’ two take epic is a stunning cinematic feat, one whose incredible technical achievements never overshadow the dire emotions of the story at hand.
Atmospheric and unflinchingly straight-faced, The Art of Self-Defense is one eerie, offbeat hoot of a thriller. Riley Stearns’ darkly humorous study of masculinity scores the awkwardest of laughs alongside the awkwardest of drama, astutely commenting on what it means to be a man and the distorted, destructive measures one will take to prove it.
Marriage Story features not one, but two masterclasses in acting from Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson. Expertly directed by Noah Baumbach, the thespian duo gives two of the greatest performances of the decade with a gut-wrenching, eye-watering, heart-shattering realism you won’t soon forget.
Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite is, simply put, a perfect film. Very likely also the best of 2019. No creative choice passes by without a purpose, every single detail contributing to the film’s commentary on the class disparity in some form or other. With an impeccable cast, a smart screenplay, and a dastardly director at its helm, Parasite is filmmaking at its best: engrossing, entertaining, and cross-culturally artful.
Aged like a fine wine, The Irishman brings Martin Scorsese and his muses back together to pensively mull over the fear, violence, and misdemeanors of their cinematic pasts. Scorsese, De Niro, Pesce, and Pacino give some of their best work ever, thoughtfully reflecting on their legacies by riffing on the gangster stories and archetypes that built their careers. It’s a hefty one at a whopping 209 minutes long, but you’d be hard-pressed to find anything to trim or cut out.
You don’t have to be Catholic or even religious to appreciate the multilingual harmony of The Two Popes. While it does delve into riveting theological discussions concerning faith and the Church’s troubled history, Fernando Meirelles’ charming film is a universal, deeply human story about forgiveness and change anyone should be able to appreciate.
Julius Onah and JC Lee’s subversive exploration of race is also one of the most groundbreaking and impactful of the last decade. Luce fearlessly addresses the belittling effects of tokenism, of being a singled-out stand-in tool for someone else’s gain, with rage and nuance most other films would cower at. There are no easy answers to the film’s rousing narrative, but for the first time in a long time, I felt like my voice was finally being heard.
There’s nothing hidden about this gem. The Safdie brothers’ film is raw and in your face, a full-on, cacophonous assault on the senses charged forward by Adam Sandler at his best. It’s an uncomfortable ordeal well-worth sitting through, a frenzied rollercoaster ride of hard knocks that spectacularly crash into the most perfect ending of 2019.
Agree with these selections? Disagree? What were your favorite movie things last year? Leave your thoughts below! For more current film and television reviews, follow Hector Valverde on Twitter @hpvalverde.