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The best movies of 2019: What to watch from this year – CNET

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Joker, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and Frozen 2 all made the cut.

Ian Knighton/CNET

It might not be labeled a vintage year, but 2019 delivered some of the biggest and best movies ever made. We got emotional about Booksmart and Marriage Story, but the year also saw a little film called Avengers: Endgame steamroll the box office and nab the title of highest-grossing movie of all time (it was also one of the most expensive movies ever made).

This Christmas, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker caps off the space sequel trilogy that began with The Force Awakens, followed by The Last Jedi, also known as the one Adam Driver forgot the name of. The Irishman saw unprecedented viewing figures on Netflix (according to Netflix), and the brilliant Korean “comedy” Parasite reminded us to watch movies outside Hollywood.

Without further ado, below you’ll find some wildly passionate takes on movies we recommend you watch from this year.

Sottish film Beats.

Altitude Film Distribution

If I had to pick the essential movie of the year, I’d probably go for the scathing The Report, a piece of real-life big-screen reportage that radiates rage. But I can pick what I like, and I pick Beats. I saw Brian Welsh’s Scotland-set coming-of-age rave movie at a parent and baby screening. It was the first time my wife and I left our house with our 5-day-old newborn daughter.

Beats is a heartwarming and hilarious film about friendship and belonging and music, which are exactly the kind of values I want to instil in my kid. So even in a year when I visited the set of Shaun the Sheep and bumped into Martin Scorsese in a bathroom — these were separate events, obvs — seeing Beats with my beautiful baby daughter remains my favorite movie memory of 2019.

She slept through the whole thing.

— Richard Trenholm

Ari Aster’s Midsommar.

A24

I walked out of Midsommar in a daze.

Hereditary, Ari Aster’s debut, was a movie dialed in to the subconscious horrors of the nuclear family. Midsommar is disguised as a slasher film set among Swedish cultists, but it’s essentially a slow-burn drama about the terrors of Florence Pugh‘s slowly decaying relationship. It’s visceral, inventive and — most importantly — savagely honest.

No movie has ever made me feel more “seen.”

Anyone who’s been in a bad relationship, or even argued with their partner, will recognize the aching realness of Midsommar’s human interactions. That combined with the literal acid trip of its final act, which delves into horrifying (and surprisingly funny) Lynchian nightmare territory, has stayed with me ever since. I doubt it’ll ever leave. That final shot. Of that one character just… smiling.

Oh my god. What a movie. Unforgettable.

— Mark Serrels

Joaquin Phoenix in Joker.

Niko Tavernise

I don’t care what Mark says. Joker was better than Midsommar.

— Daniel Van Boom

After sitting through roughly 59 hours of Marvel movies over the past decade, I’m exhausted by same-same sequels and popcorn blockbusters. Tired arcs, cliched beats — I’ve been grinding through a cinematic universe that no longer delights me. So, looking for something different, I took a punt on The Farewell and found my film of the year. The film follows Chinese-American Billi Wang (Awkwafina) who is living in New York when she learns her aging grandmother Nai Nai has been diagnosed with cancer back in China. But the diagnosis comes with another blow — the family is hiding the cancer from Nai Nai in a bid to shield her from grief.

Awkwafina in The Farewell.

A24

The movie effortlessly jumps between worlds: America and China, English slang and Mandarin, snort-out-loud humor and pure pathos. It paints such a vivid picture of the interplay (and friction) between cultures that comes with the immigrant experience. That’s not an experience I know, but as an Australian living in America at the time, it spoke to me. I left the cinema with an exploding heart — I missed my own grandmother, I was longing for family, my cheeks were sore from laughing, and I felt lifted by a story I never expected to find. That’s the joy of the perfect film.

— Claire Reilly

Elsa in Frozen 2.

Disney

The second installment in Disney‘s Frozen juggernaut proves that animated movies — and sequels — can still make best-of lists. Frozen 2 felt like the story Disney actually wanted to tell with Anna and Elsa. It was so strong and compelling that it made the first Frozen feel like a prequel that existed to set up the second movie.

Frozen 2 has a seriously talented cast (the infamous Samantha joke was even an improv by Josh Gad, who voices Olaf). With the voices of Kristen Bell as Anna, Idina Menzel as Elsa, Jonathan Groff as Kristoff and Evan Rachel Wood as Queen Iduna, we also get amazing songs like Into The Unknown, Some Things Never Change, Show Yourself and of course Lost in the Woods. They’re easily on par with Let It Go, Do You Want to Build a Snowman and For the First Time in Forever.

— Corinne Reichert

Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever in Booksmart.

Hulu

To me, Booksmart is the definitive coming-of-age movie. It’s hilarious, charming and real. Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein are absolute powerhouses and you can just feel their love and friendship through the screen and it makes your heart feel warm. Every cringey moment and situation is relatable without feeling forced. Billie Lourd ascends to legendary levels with her bewildering Gigi. Director Olivia Wilde allows each super-awesome cast member to shine in their own weird way and it just works. I think Letterboxd member “Jay” said it perfectly: “Olivia didn’t have to Wilde out this hard.” But she did. She did that for us. And I am thankful.

— Nicole Archer

Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite.

Neon

Parasite will move you like nothing else. The latest feature from Korean filmmaker Bong Joon Ho (Snowpiercer, Okja) starts almost as a con movie, allows you some laughs, portrays an unconventional family you want to spend more time with, takes a quick detour toward horror and ends up being a drama that delivers barbed commentary on class. It gives us a glimpse of how privilege and background can shape who we are or what we’re capable of.

This is a film that’s best enjoyed if you don’t know much about its plot. It’s a story that will stay with you for days and days, and it’s pretty much a given that Parasite will win the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. If only it could win the biggest prize of the night too.

— Patricia Puentes

Jillian Bell in Brittany Runs a Marathon.

Amazon

There aren’t many movies that can inspire me to get off the couch and train for a 5-kilometer run. But Brittany Runs a Marathon isn’t a typical movie. It’s the story of a 28-year-old woman who parties hard, makes bad choices with men, has bad eating habits and pretty much drifts through her life in New York without a game plan. Until one day, amid an attempt to score a prescription for Adderall, she gets a wake-up call about her health.

After reluctantly trying running for the first time, she eventually grows in confidence. That leads to a better outlook on life, a better job and better fitting clothes. But this isn’t a rom-com about losing weight and falling in love with the first guy who notices you. Brittany finds that dropping pounds is a lot easier than dropping her insecurities and self-loathing. For anyone who has suffered through endless fad diets with zero results — this movie will change your life for the better.

Bonnie Burton

Brie Larson in Captain Marvel.

Marvel

There’s a lot to like about a superhero flick that features a powerful, self-sufficient, smart, courageous woman — especially since until recently (thank you, Wonder Woman), there were too few of them to even talk about. Captain Marvel does its part to showcase the challenges that Carol Danvers, a fearless, self-sufficient, courageous Navy pilot, has to deal with as a woman. She shares those challenges with her best friend and fellow pilot, Maria Rambeau, which means the movie handily passes the Bechdel Test.

But Captain Marvel isn’t one of my 2019 favorite films just because it gets girls and women right, showing you can be strong and emotional and still kick butt. It’s because Captain Marvel is a great story. We get well-thought-out characters played by an engaging cast, fun action scenes set to a cool ’90s soundtrack and a sense of humor. Captain Marvel is a fearless, self-sufficient and courageous, fighting for what’s right. That’s the stuff that superheroes are made of. And how great that in 2019, she’s a woman.

— Connie Guglielmo

Samara Weaving in Ready or Not.

Fox

Ready or Not isn’t the best movie of the year, but it’s the most enjoyable horror of the year. (Midsommar is stunning but definitely not enjoyable.) That’s because it’s a perfect 95-minute bundle of black comedy and thriller contained in a big stooping manor.

The setup is simple: Grace marries into a family that’s rich and privileged and naturally super-weird. They have a ritual for newbies: You have to play a game. And in this case it’s hide and seek with hunting weapons. It’s the literal wedding from hell.

A vein of social commentary on class and marriage runs through the cat-and-mouse hunt before building to a cathartic ending. Extreme coolness exudes from Grace in her ripped dress, Converse shoes and big rude sash of bullets. Just don’t watch this if you’re about to get married.

— Jennifer Bisset

Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson in The Lighthouse.

A24

The Lighthouse is an absurd comedy. It’s a slow, anguished descent into madness. It’s the result of Andrew Wyeth dropping acid, reading Lovecraft and spending too much time on a Maine coastline. It’s a film that lingers in the corner of your mind as you find yourself wondering how the hell they shot certain parts, replaying monologues and drunken arguments in your head, resurfacing shots that perfectly pair the repulsive and beautiful. It doesn’t invite you to its world or ask to accurately reflect ours. It reaches out from the depths, grabs you by the neck and drags you down to its lair. Whether you enjoyed the film or not, you’ll always remember it.

— Morgan Little

The Lighthouse (again)

Fart, fart… fart. The Lighthouse was filmed in a square aspect ratio. It’s the perfect prison for two men as they watch over a New England lighthouse. Fart. When you confine two people in a small space, there’s not a lot of room for secrets, lust, fights, hallucinations, kinship or farts. And even though the film is black-and-white, the men are hundreds of shades of gray and salt. Over time, such confinement can make any sane man question reality. Yeah, you could go outside, but you’ll be cold and wet. And before you go up top, just remember that the light is mine. Hang on. Am I going mad watching the movie? Are the characters? And why is there so much farting? I’ll just have another sip of this turpentine wine and relax. Fart.

— Patrick Holland

Himesh Patel in Yesterday.

Universal

I didn’t see a lot of movies in 2019 (too much great TV, dammit!), but I’m so glad I managed to catch this in a theater. Danny Boyle’s little slice of fantasy is the kind of movie that rarely gets made anymore. Yesterday is wholly original and utterly charming, bolstered by music that’s woven into our collective DNA. It’s funny, romantic, thought-provoking and ultimately just one of the most satisfying movies in years. And without spoiling anything, I’ll just say there’s a late moment that caught me totally off guard and left me wrecked. Note to superhero-soaked Hollywood: More like this, please!

— Rick Broida

Brad Pitt in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

Andrew Cooper

Quentin Tarantino’s journey from directing fast-talking crime flicks to subversive genre pics to history-rewriting revenge porn has had its ups and downs. But Once Upon a Time represents the apotheosis of the filmmaker’s late phase. Rather than simply rewriting history for the sake of some pseudo-cathartic climax (shooting Hitler or killing a plantation-owner), Tarantino stays with the central characters after the “bad guys” have been offed, and shows the very real people — full of dreams, hope and love — that might have been spared had history taken an alternative route.

The end feels mournful, but it also shows the power of film not just to enact bloody justice, but also to save, if only for a moment, those who have been lost to great injustice. It was the first movie ever from the director to move me to tears.

— David Priest

Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale.

IFC Films

Clare, a young Irish convict, chases a British officer through the rugged Tasmanian wilderness. She is bent on revenge for a terrible act of violence the man committed against her family. To aid her search, Clare enlists the services of an Aboriginal tracker named Billy, who is marked by trauma from his own violence-filled past at the hands of British colonialism.

There are moments of loss and redemption, of anger and anguish. I found myself yelling at the screen, crying with the characters and smiling during their rare moments of joy. The Nightingale beautifully illustrates the spectrum of humanity and what human beings are truly capable of — the atrocities we commit as well as the indefinite well of strength we never knew we could muster. The cinematography, the dialogue and the performances of the actors highlight those innumerable events in history which should never be forgotten nor forgiven.

— Sophia Fox-Sowell

Joe Talbot’s The Last Black Man in San Francisco.

A24

From the opening frame, The Last Black Man in San Francisco drops you right into its world and keeps you there, simply because you want to watch the characters, whose rich inner lives unfold with a gentle and masterful ease. The drama touches on serious themes, ranging from gentrification to environmental racism, interspersed with absurdist comedy. Every frame is beautiful, the music is beautiful, the acting is beautiful, the camerawork is beautiful. It’s perfectly crafted top to bottom, inside and out. I can’t recommend it enough.

— Jesse Orrall

The cast of Knives Out.

Lionsgate

When a best-selling author of detective novels is found dead the morning after his birthday, you’re left wondering if a tale is too on-the-nose for its own good. Knives Out flips the whodunnit tropes of whimsical murder mysteries (fans of Clue and Murder on the Orient Express, please raise your hands) by giving you more details up front than you might expect. It subsequently leaves you guessing for the remainder of the film just how all the pieces fit together and possibly resemble a coherent picture.

Pair that with the fantastic Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson and Chris Evans trying desperately to hang on to their family fortune and you’re in for an intense and hilarious series of events. You’ll be hooked from the moment the accused tries to awkwardly cover their tracks but you’ll stay for Daniel Craig leaning so far into his incredible Southern accent that you’re not sure whether you’re watching a movie or are in fact inside the hole that is this mystery’s donut… within a donut… within a donut?

— Sean Booker

Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver in Marriage Story.

Netflix

I haven’t been through a divorce myself, but I’m even more motivated to be a better husband after watching Marriage Story. Noah Baumbach has made some excellent films (Squid and the Whale, The Meyerowitz Stories), but Marriage Story might be my new favorite of his. It’s clearly an actor’s film, as Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson deliver Oscar-worthy performances in a film with almost no plot.

What I like most about Marriage Story is how grounded the story feels. Unlike other films tackling the subject of divorce, both characters in Marriage Story are equally likable. Not only that, the characters clearly like each other, making the process they’re struggling through even harder to watch. I couldn’t find myself rooting for one over the other, as both characters are as flawed as they are charming. Marriage Story feels like the most honest insight into the divorce process I’ve ever seen on film, but it’s also one of the most realistic portrayals of two characters falling out of love.

— Logan Moy

The Avengers: Endgame epic poster.

Marvel Studios

If The Return of the King can receive all the praise as a culmination of an epic trilogy, then so should Avengers: Endgame. The feat alone of taking 22 films and piecing them together in a perfectly produced climatic event is simply staggering to think of. Endgame came up with an ingenious plot to revisit past movies and show how far the MCU has come, while also creating this Ocean’s Eleven-type heist to save Earth.

For all the criticism some give to comic book movies for not taking risk, just think of the risk that was taken in 2008 with Iron Man — a movie about a barely known superhero starring a supposedly washed-up actor. To see Marvel’s cinematic universe start there and last for more than a decade is mind-boggling.

— Oscar Gonzalez

Originally published Dec. 14.