This is the combined list of two of our pop culture critics, Dashran Yohan and Samuel Lim.
2019 has come and gone. Another eventful year in cinema it has been, though, not necessarily always for positive reasons. It’s a year where spectacle movies largely crashed and burned, either financially, critically or both. Sure, Avengers: Endgame delivered on all fronts — the film is not only critically adored and passionately loved by comic book diehards, but it also made all the money in the world, overthrowing Avatar at the global box office to become the highest-grossing film in the history of cinema. But, it’s also a year which saw the release of the criminal Hellboy, the middling Detective Pikachu, a passable X-Men: Dark Phoenix, a beautiful snoozefest in Godzilla: King of Monsters, the err-we-guess-China-loves-the-franchise-a-lot, Hobbs & Shaw and a slew of uninspiring Disney live-action remakes (that arguably made way more money than they deserved). Heck, even the culmination of the Skywalker Saga, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, a film that topped many of our ‘most anticipated film of the decade’ list, dropped the ball. Big time.
Let’s not forget the likes of Terminator: Dark Fate, Charlie’s Angels and Men in Black: International, one of which received critical acclaim, two of which garnered mediocre to scathing reviews, all of which proved that the reboot, remix and recycle philosophy doesn’t always guarantee the dolla dolla bills y’all.
That said, while blockbuster spectacles may have been a huge letdown, the smaller films constantly captivated our spirits and reminded us why we love movies. 2019 is the year that saw Quentin Tarantino make a film that is delicate and full of restraint, Martin Scorsese get the band back together and Rian Johnson bounce back with a vengeance after his $US 1.3 billion, critically acclaimed “failure” in 2017. It’s also the year that saw a controversial, R-rated comic book character study not only win the Golden Lion at the Venice International Film Festival but also go on to gross $US 1 billion worldwide.
What a year!
As we march towards 2020, Samuel and Dashran look back at 2019 and celebrate the best of the best. Here are the top 10 best movies of 2019.
*Keep in mind, this list is the personal opinion of both our pop culture critics.
*Only the films that were released in Malaysian cinemas in 2019 / the 2019 films that Malaysians had access to via streaming platforms, iTunes or BluRay were taken into consideration.
10. Avengers: Endgame
Director: Anthony Russo and Joe Russo
Writers: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeeley based on Marvel Comics
Cast: Robert Downey Jr, Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, everybody in the MCU including the little kid from Iron Man 3
The very fact that the magnificent Avengers: Endgame ends up 10th on this list tells you that we’ve had a great year in cinema.
Avengers: Endgame is absolutely, unequivocally bloody GREAT. This type of payoff can only happen through years of longform storytelling. This isn’t just a fun movie (though it is very fun), it isn’t just a spectacle (though, it is indeed spectacular, worthy of its expensive IMAX ticket price); this is a blockbuster film that is dense, layered, consequential and emotionally harrowing. It is filled with loads of smaller, talking moments. Scenes that are quiet but textured. Scenes where characters are just being. And these moments are some of the best the MCU has to offer. We’re given the time and space to actually feel the depressing aftermath of Thanos’ actions.
RDJ delivers a poignant and emotionally effective performance. The Russo brothers, Joe and Anthony, once again put on a directorial clinic of blockbuster cinema, crafting a film whose tone is perfectly balanced from scene to scene to scene. Endgame may not be the best 2019 had to offer, but it’s certainly the most culturally relevant, not just of the year but of the decade. An encapsulation of 21st Century pop culture.
9. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Writer: Quentin Tarantino
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is easily Quentin Tarantino’s most subdued and polished work to date. A film that doesn’t feel like an experiment carried out by a mad scientist with manic energy in an underground lab that’s on the verge of exploding. It isn’t jagged and unhinged, instead, it feels cleaner, refined and perfectly in balance. The creatively colourful swear words are toned down and so is the blood splatter, replaced instead by something tender with delicate emotional beats. These are signs of a filmmaker who has grown and evolved over the years. They’re perhaps also what makes OUATIH a tad disappointing. You expect a level of craziness and raw, unadulterated energy from a Tarantino picture.
That said, it’s still a pretty damn incredible film. A lot of it has to do with Tarantino’s supreme and unmatched ability to craft a world so rich in detail that it feels as immersive and sprawling as a George R.R. Martin novel. There isn’t a particular character or characters on a mission, or hungry for revenge or trying to solve something or planning a heist. They’re merely existing. The world in OUATIH feels lived in and the characters that populate the screen, even the minor ones, feel like they have lives that extend beyond the first frame and the last. Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio deliver one of their best performances to date and that’s saying something.
Director: Jordan Peele
Writer: Jordan Peele
Cast: Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Elisabeth Moss
While Get Out was more of a psychological thriller, here Peele plants his feet firmly in the realm of pure horror. And for a large majority of the film, Us is a truly special, genuinely haunting piece of pure cinema. Peele creates a chilling, textured and palpable atmosphere that sucks you in and raises your heart rate.
Us is batshit scary as a bonkers, outlandish home invasion movie with creepy doppelgangers. But once you start peeling back the layers and interpreting what all of it means, it morphs into the kinda horror film that sticks with you as you walk out of the theatre hall and drive home; as you roll around in bed at night. In a hair raising moment, Adelaide’s doppelganger (we learn that they’re called the tethered) says: “We’re Americans!” The film is about The American Dream vs The American Reality.
7. Ford v Ferrari
Director: James Mangold
Writers: Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, Jason Keller
Cast: Matt Damon, Christian Bale, Jon Bernthal
In its single-minded focus to tell us a story of ego, friendship and obsession, Ford v Ferrari has cut through the drudgery that so often accompanied films of the genre. Much like the Ford GT40 in its heyday, the film is the very best of its field. Operating with impressive efficiency and at thrilling speeds. When the action kicks into the high gear with the screaming roar of metal death traps gliding down the tracks, the film soars.
Mangold refreshingly implies character development without every outright screaming it into faces. In lingering frames, quiet ticks and gritted teeth, Mangold connotes great meaning with stunning economy. Let’s not forget what drives the film forward though, Matt Damon and Christian Bale’s performance as Shelby and Miles. They’re absolutely terrific.
6. Peranbu (India – Tamil)
Cast: Mammootty, Sadhana
Peranbu doesn’t just address a female teen’s very natural sexual awakening, it explicitly addresses sexual awakening of a female teen with spastic cerebral palsy… through a non-judgemental lens. And how a father, single after his wife left him for another man, processes the goings-on and does what he thinks is best to take care of his less abled daughter. This is a bold film that deserves to be applauded, admired and dissected.
Director Ram has said that his films are always built on a thesis. Or more accurately, he stands on top of a thesis which helps him find his story. In Peranbu, his thesis is nature and it’s divided into many chapters. It starts off with nature is hateful, ends with nature is compassionate and explores everything in between.
5. The Irishman [Netflix Original]
Director: Martin Scorsese
Writer: Steven Zaillian based on a book by Charles Brandt
Cast: Robert DeNiro, Joe Pesci, Al Pacino, Harvey Keitel
The fellas are back and better than ever. The Irishman is the kind of film that defines a generation and would have if not for the tide of time. Scorsese has further solidified his status in the annals of crime film history. If any film shall bring about, or at the very least inspire, the second coming of the mobster film trend, The Irishman shall be that herald.
The world of The Irishman is one that feels familiar and yet so much more complex than the one we knew from Goodfellas. A story about the intersection between political factions and organized crime. A tangled web of alliances, betrayals and wars that go as far as to influence the outcome of the Cold War. Namely, the mob’s involvement with the Bay of Pigs.
4. Knives Out
Director: Rian Johnson
Writer: Rian Johnson
Cast: Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Ana de Armas, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, LaKeith Stanfield, Christopher Plummer, Katherine Langford
Knives Out is a spectacularly twisty whodunit that harkens back to the golden days of Agatha Christie, yet feels completely fresh and modern. One that tickles your funny bone as much as it titillates your mind. The premise, as most whodunits are, is simple. On the morning after his 85th birthday, the body of a billionaire, Harlan Thrombey is discovered in his bedroom with his throat slit. The doctors first rule it a suicide, but a detective by the name of Benoit Blanc suspects there might be foul play. He begins investigating and interrogating all the members of the Harlan mansion household.
Like a black hole in outer space, Rian Johnson sucks you right from the getgo into the zany eccentric billionaire world that he has built and takes you on this incredible journey that’s scattered with clues and clever misdirection. It works fabulously as an entertaining whodunit, but for those of us who enjoy sociopolitical commentary, this movie offers plenty more to chew on. This is a story about ignorant and entitled white people — some of whom are Trump supporters, some of them are not, but they all make up the type of white people we see in Get Out — who believe it in their bones that being wealthy is their birthright.
3. Parasite (South Korea)
Director: Bong Joon Ho
Writer: Bong Joon Ho
Cast: Song Kang Ho, Lee Sun Kyun, Cho Yeo Jeong, Choi Woo Shik, Park So Dam, Lee Jung Eun, Chang Hyae Jin.
The brilliance of this Bong Joon-Ho film is that it can be enjoyed on two levels. On the surface, it’s a fun, funny and exciting film about a poor family scamming a rich one. But behind the funny lines, exciting tone and suspenseful beats lie a chilling and dark commentary about the way our society is built. And for Bong Joon-Ho fans who were disappointed in his previous film, Okja, this is the master once again in form. Parasite is pure unadulterated Bong from start to finish — funny, suspenseful, unabashedly weird, bloody, manic and powerful.
2. Marriage Story [Netflix Original]
Director: Noah Baumbach
Writer: Noah Baumbach
Cast: Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson
Noah Baumbach strikes again with yet another heartwrenching, gut bursting entry in his ever-growing list of slice of life dramas. This time, we get to see a couple disintegrate before our very eyes in Marriage Story. Ironically enough, the film follows Adam Driver’s Charlie and Scarlett Johansen’s Nicole as they go through the tumultuous process of getting a divorce. The strange beauty amidst the custody battles and domestic spats is the amount of restraint and tact these two actors have put into their parts.
Just when the film seems like its veering off into the realm of soapy melodrama, it expertly subverts our expectation. A lot of this has to do with Baumbach’s writing and direction. When the confrontation we’ve all been waiting for arrives it feels earned, cathartic and tragic all at the same time. Years from now when people talk about what it means to live and love in the 21st century, Marriage Story will still have volumes to say on the subject as it so brilliantly does now.
Director: Todd Phillips
Writers: Todd Phillips and Scott Silver based on DC comics
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert DeNiro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen
Joker is a wonderfully written, superbly crafted, unnerving and frankly uncomfortable telling of a sad man. A broken man with a deeply tortured soul. A literal clown (he works at a company called ‘Hahas’) suffering from severe depression and who tries to justify — and perhaps understand — his mental instability by pointing towards the escalating volatility of Gotham City. The broken man is brought to life by Joaquin Phoenix, who delivers a heartbreaking performance of staggering genius that anchors the whole film.
The film isn’t about the plotting. It’s about the moments, the individual scenes we spend with Arthur Fleck and exploring the inner workings of his deteriorating mind. It’s like we’re reading the journal he so dedicatedly writes on. The journal of a man who starts off wounded and progressively morphs into a delusional cold-blooded killer whose moral compass is vastly different from ours. A man we come to empathise with but rarely feel sympathy for.
And now for some HONOURABLE MENTIONS — the films that didn’t quite crack our top 10 but deserve all the love anyway.
Late Night, for smartly and hilariously providing commentary on our current media and cultural climate.
Super Deluxe (India – Tamil), for being the most creative film of 2019 outside of Parasite.
Toy Story 4, for wonderfully bringing Woody’s arc full circle in a bittersweet way and also telling a profound story on death, happiness and the meaning of life.
El Camino [Netflix Original], for beautifully concluding the arc of Breaking Bad’s Jesse Pinkman.
Asuran (India – Tamil), for being an emotionally affecting action-thriller on casteism that proves once and for all that director Vetrimaaran and actor Dhanush, are some of the most underrated talents working in world cinema today.
The King, for being an absorbing piece of epic cinema this decade has desperately missed. We’re still a little sad this wasn’t released on the big screen.
Rocketman, for burning out his fuse out there alone. And for being both a biopic and a musical, both unabashedly fun and highly moving.
John Wick 3, for being easily the best pure-action, adrenaline-pumping vehicle of the year.
Long Shot, for being an engrossing and astute romantic comedy unlike any other. A rarity these days.
And last but certainly not least, Fly By Night (Malaysia – Mandarin, Malay), for taking Malaysian cinema to new heights. It may not have lit the box office on fire, but it captured the hearts of cinema lovers across the nation. Onward and upward Zahir Omar. You made us proud!