The Best Films of 2019, According to IndieWire’s Staff – IndieWire

Dec 23, 2019 10:00 am
Over the course of a single year, the staff of IndieWire consumes a dizzying amount of films, thanks to packed film festival slates, stuffed streaming offerings (hello, Disney+, and welcome to the fray), and regular old theatrical releases. Along the way, we find plenty of films to love, and closing out another year at the movies gives us a chance to keep spreading the good word of the year’s best (at least in our eyes).
For those of you obsessed with numbers, IndieWire’s overall top five film picks likely don’t surprise: Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite” was the clear favorite, but it was followed by an array of darlings, including Celine Sciamma’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” the Safdie brothers’ “Uncut Gems,” Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women,” and Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman.” And while those top favorites appeared on a number of lists, a few films only appeared on one, including “El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie,” “Rocketman,” “Synonyms,” and “The Peanut Butter Falcon,” which all found dedicated champions eager to tout them.

Below, IndieWire’s staff unpacks some of our favorite films of the year. From awards darlings like “Parasite” and “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” to underseen gems like “Transit” and “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” we’ve watched (and loved) a lot of movies this year. We hope you did, too.
Eric Kohn, Chief Critic and Executive Editor – Film
My actual top 19 of 2019 stands, but it’s been a long and rich year for cinema. (It always is! You just have to know where to look.) In another year that didn’t have “Pain and Glory” and “Parasite” (not to mention “Uncut Gems” and “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” and…OK, just read it), I would have had no trouble finding another 10 highlights from 2019 releases worthy of celebration. Here they are, imported here from that alternate universe.
10. “Knives Out”
I’m not much of a whodunit guy, but Rian Johnson made me a believer by transforming the usual Agatha Christie routine into a clever indictment of wealth and xenophobia that feels very 2019.
9. “Invisible Life”
At once a riveting melodrama and a sophisticated meditation on the last gasp of traditionalism in Brazil in the middle of the 20th century.
8. “Synonyms”
An Israeli exile in Paris. A mesmerizing Kafkaesque journey loaded with unexpected bursts of emotion and mystery.
7. “Booksmart”
Fucking hilarious. The best teen comedy since “Superbad.”
6. “The Art of Self-Defense”
Jesse Eisenberg’s best role since “The Social Network” is equal parts “Taxi Driver” and “The Foot Fist Way.”
5. “Knives and Skin”
If “Twin Peaks” were a musical, it would look like Jennifer Reeder’s beguiling, enigmatic small-town drama.
4. “Gloria Bell”
Like a great theater piece, Sebastian Lelio’s graceful remake is just as thrilling with Julianne Moore as a middle-aged woman getting her groove back as it was with Paulina Garcia.

3. “Midnight Family”
A family drives its DIY ambulance around Mexico City, saving the day. Where’s the narrative remake of this thrilling nonfiction ride?
2. “Little Women”
Greta Gerwig manages to hit all the right beats of this iconic story while mining new insights from it that sneak into a beautiful, involving ensemble rich with top-shelf performances.
1. “In Fabric”
You will never go shopping again.
“Knives Out”
Claire Folger
Ann Donahue, Executive Editor – TV
1. “Knives Out”
2. “Parasite”
I was very, very close to flipping the order on these two; the deciding factor was Toni Collette’s hit job on Gwyneth Paltrow.
3. “Hustlers”
4. “Little Women”
5. “Booksmart”
6. “The Irishman”
7. “Ford v Ferrari”
8. “Rocketman”
9. “Always Be My Maybe”
10. “El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie”
Honorable mention: “Avengers: Endgame,” but only the Cap and Tony Stark parts.
“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”
Sony Pictures
Anne Thompson, Editor-at-Large
10. “1917”
9. “Pain and Glory”
8. “Les Miserables”
7. “The Nightingale”
6. “Honey Boy”
5. “Ford v Ferrari”
4. “The Irishman”
3. “Marriage Story”
2. “Parasite”
1. “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”
Best Animated Film: “Toy Story 4”
Best Documentary: “The Edge of Democracy”
“Greener Grass”
IFC Midnight
Christian Blauvelt, Managing Editor
1. “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”
2. “Greener Grass”
3. “Aquarela”
4. “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”
5. “High Life”
6. “American Factory”
7. “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”
8. “Parasite”
9. “Marriage Story”
10. “Uncut Gems”
Honorable mentions: “The Beach Bum,” “Synonyms,” “Diamantino,” “Dark Waters,” “Hail Satan?”
“Little Women”
Kate Erbland, Deputy Editor – Film
1.”Little Women”
2. “Parasite”
3. “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”
4. “Hustlers”
5. “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”
6. “Uncut Gems”
7. “Booksmart”
8. “Ford v Ferrari”
9. “Knives Out”
10. “Marriage Story”
Honorable mentions: “Midsommar,” “The Souvenir,” “Clemency,” and “American Woman.”

Ben Travers, Deputy Editor – TV
1. “Parasite”
Only a filmmaker fully assured in his characters and story could shout “It’s a metaphor!” as loudly as Bong Joon Ho does in “Parasite” and still pack a punch on every level. Meticulous, marvelous craftsmanship driving an angry, righteous message. Don’t miss it.
2. “Uncut Gems”
A terrifying ride you can’t will yourself to escape, “Uncut Gems” is an intricate, hilarious, and absorbing study of self-destruction that lets you peek behind the delusions long enough to be invested in the trainwreck. Sandler is outstanding. Kevin Garnett’s reaction to Howard Ratner’s summation statement is as fine a piece of acting as I’ve seen this year
3. “The Farewell”
A moving consideration of individualism within a family unit, “The Farewell” puts its unique premise, large ensemble, and lush visuals to great use in an emotionally intelligent and surprisingly funny story about a fake wedding and a real goodbye. Director Lulu Wang creates so many scenes where what’s felt by the characters is juxtaposed by their surroundings — exchanges rooted in sadness and loss feature backdrops with bright colors and celebratory delusions, resulting in an uplifting tone that carries the movie through to its powerful close. “The Farewell” deeply understands how joy can feed sorrow — and vice versa — making for an earnest, gratifying, and all-around significant experience.
4. “The Irishman”
A devastating attack on outdated conceptions of masculinity, “The Irishman” is a haunting saga of irreversible mistakes and lost time. This is Martin Scorsese’s strongest condemnation of bad men, and the way he uses technology to emphasize death’s finality goes hand-in-hand with his more overt, cheekier reminders that we’ll all have our houses painted some day — probably sooner than we think. Robert De Niro is extraordinary. Joe Pesci has the best face. Four hours well spent.
5. “High Flying Bird”
As slick and savvy as its central character, “High Flying Bird” is a nimble examination of “the game on top of the game” — or how the NBA stripped its players of their love for basketball. Andre Holland is a thrill to watch tear through Tarell Alvin McCranry’s lean and mean script, while Soderbergh matches his movie’s nimble dexterity by building meticulous framings straight from an iPhone. This is a noble, riveting story told with immaculate style. Enjoy, then consider.
6. “Ad Astra”
Shout-out to the dad who walked his three sons into my theater and left. Good call, dude. You definitely didn’t need this movie.
7. “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”
A tender encapsulation of lost love, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is a shattering romance built to preserve the intensity of our fiercest passions, while honoring the pain of their fleeting nature. Céline Sciamma crafts breathtaking frames for her flourishing couple, as Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel instill their youthful lovers with upsetting suppression and defiant bursts of desire. Distressing, enlivening, and often overwhelming in its illustration of both, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” captures a raw, moving romance to remember.
8. “Hustlers”
J. Lo can do anything.
9. “Dolemite Is My Name”
Eddie Murphy is reason enough to watch the exuberant ensemble comedy “Dolemite Is My Name,” but the sets, wardrobe, and full team contribute huge to a riotous, R-rated ode to the creative spirit.

10. “Always Be My Maybe”
Smart, funny, sweet — “Always Be My Maybe” makes the most of its “will they, won’t they” relationship by investing in the individuals first, their relationship second, and personal growth above all. The cameo (best left unsaid, if the trailer didn’t spoil you) is purposeful, fun, yet rooted in the leads’ development instead of a showy, time-sucking crutch — and Nahnatchka Kahn’s directs the hell out of this from start to finish. Love, love, love.
Chris O’Falt, Toolkit Editor
There’s so much that I still haven’t seen — “Avengers: Endgame,” “Atlantics,” “Birds of Passage,” “Fire Will Come,” “Her Smell,” “Invisible Life,” “I Lost My Body,” “Transit,” “Cats,” — that no doubt this list will change tomorrow.
1. “Honeyland”
Filmmaking boiled down to its essence: Character expressed in action, movement and reaction.
2. “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”
A reminder that our best films (knowingly or not) often become meditations on the medium itself.
3. “Waves”
Sound, color, movement at the service of unfiltered, raw emotion.
4. “The Irishman”
5. “The Beach Bum”
There was just something about staring (without judgment, but through Benoit Debie’s beautiful lens) hedonism squarely in the eye for 96 minutes while the world outside the theater burned that I found as enjoyable as I did thought-provoking.
6. “Monos”
I don’t even know how much I enjoyed this film, as much as I was intoxicated by one of the most astounding new filmmaking talents I’d encountered in awhile.
7. “Parasite”
There was nothing wrong with Bong Joon Ho’s last two films; but there was an element of heavy lifting and strenuous math required to orchestrate so many pieces, that I found myself watching the orchestration. It was a pure joy to see him work in an enclosed narrative space where he could playfully control everything — especially the audience. He very well may have a “Fury Road” in him, but for the moment I’d prefer him being our far more emotionally well-adjusted, socially conscience, slightly wacky Hitchcock.
8. “American Factory”
Incredible access to a story that is the perfect political and economic metaphor for America in 2019. It is also incredibly structured, the best told story of 2019 (and the best edited film of the year).
9. “Ford v Ferrari”
What was lost in the Scorsese vs. Marvel debate is how many of us cinephiles believe in what Hollywood was and still can be.
10. “A Hidden Life”

Maybe it’s the strength of the film’s conflict, or how deeply on a spiritual level Terrence Malick felt the protagonist’s Jesus-like struggle, but for me this is the first film since “Tree of Life” where the pieces of Malick’s natural cubism (h/t Benjamin B.) came together to form a satisfying whole.
11. “Black Mother”
It is so exciting to watch a filmmaker continue to wrestle with the medium on his own terms, creating a personal process and language.
12. “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”
Marielle Heller’s ability to find an expansive emotional truth in the small, in between moments not only grounds this film — which, frankly, could have been a schmaltzy trainwreck — it elevates it to something special. Once upon a time in Hollywood, we considered that great directing.
#13-25 (in Alphabetical order): “Ad Astra,” “America” (a short by Garrett Bradley), “Booksmart,” “Cold Case Hammarskjöld,” “Dark Waters,” “The Dead Don’t Die,” “An Elephant Sitting Still,” “Little Women,” “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” “Marriage Story,” “Missing Link,” “Rolling Thunder Revue,” “Uncut Gems,” and “Under the Silver Lake.”
Libby Hill, TV Awards Editor
10 Films I Enjoyed More than “Marriage Story” and “The Irishman”
“Avengers: Endgame”
“The Farewell”
“I Lost My Body”
“Knives Out”
“Little Women”
“Portrait of a Lady on Fire”
“Portrait of a Lady on Fire”
David Ehrlich, Senior Film Critic
10. “Knives Out”
9. “Her Smell”
8. “Synonyms”
7. “Uncut Gems”
6. “The Souvenir”
5. “The Farewell”
4. “Ad Astra”
3. “Little Women”
2. “Parasite”
1. “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”
Revolver/Schrammfilm 2017
Zack Sharf, News Editor
1. “Parasite”
2. “Honeyland”
3. “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”
4. “Transit”
5. “Ad Astra”
6. “Midsommar”
7. “Pain and Glory”
8. “Little Women”
9. “Uncut Gems”
10. “Gloria Bell”
“Amazing Grace”
Jude Dry, Associate Editor
1. “Amazing Grace”
2. “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”
3. “Parasite”
4. “Uncut Gems”
5. “Dolemite Is My Name”
6. “Monos”
7. “Pain and Glory”
8. “Birds of Passage”
9. “Atlantics”
10. “Us”
“The Nightingale”
Ryan Lattanzio, Weekend Editor
1. “The Nightingale”
Jennifer Kent’s second feature is hell to behold. But shone through the prism of lead actress Aisling Franciosi’s feat of empathy of bravery, “The Nightingale” suddenly becomes not difficult to watch at all.

2. “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”
A tryst in a flooded room, a house that spins, a woman who may or may not be missing — all the pieces remain fragmented in this Roberto Bolaño-inspired mystery. Yes, the 50-minute long take that finishes the movie astonishes, in 3D or not. This movie runs through the mind.
3. “Diane”
Former New York Film Festival director turned narrative filmmaker Kent Jones finds poetry in the trudge of everyday life, but it’s Mary Kay Place who walks away with this movie that’s part “Synecdoche, New York” for the Midwest.
4. “Transit”
Cristian Petzold’s crushing revisionist WWII drama examines the futility of life in, and escape from, Nazi-occupied France.
5. “The Souvenir”
A farewell to toxic love, a window into a woman’s tortured psyche, and an ode to letting go of that impossible thing that once kept you so allured by its momentary glow.
6. “Parasite”
What’s left to say?
7. “Her Smell”
If you want a woman on the verge, you know who to call, and it’s Elisabeth Moss.
8. “Atlantics”
Mati Diop’s moody, dreamy directorial debut drips with tactile sensuality. The horniest movie of the year.
9. “Marriage Story”
“I can’t believe I have to know you forever.”
10. “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”
Never has the number 28 been so haunting, and neither will it be again.
“Pain and Glory”
Sony Pictures Classics
Leo Garcia, Creative Producer – Video
1. “Parasite”
As I mentioned on IndieWire’s Millions of Screens podcast (never miss an opportunity for a plug), I love lists, but dislike ranking said lists. All the films that follow Bong Joon-ho’s masterpiece could essentially swap places with one another, but ‘Parasite’ has occupied this top spot since I saw it at TIFF (I actually spent precious screening time watching it a second time at the festival). Far better writers have spilled far prettier words about the movie, but what sticks with me is how the film so wonderfully captured the zeitgeist, a hypnotizing distillation of the income inequality that plagues our entire planet, hanging over us, like a boulder teetering on the edge of a cliff, just waiting for a reason to fall.
2. “Pain and Glory”
3. “Marriage Story”
4. “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”
5. “Avengers: Endgame”
In the wake of “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker,” it’s nearly impossible not to compare the way the Skywalker saga has concluded to what Kevin Feige and company accomplished while closing out their own Infinity saga. Fan service, it seems, is a double-edged sword, and the Russo brothers brandished it to perfection. One would be hard-pressed to find a more satisfying triptych of cinematic moments in theaters this year than the triad of Captain America wielding Mjolnir, Falcon’s “on your left,” and finally, the much-anticipated “Avengers Assemble.” Scorcese wasn’t wrong, these movies are theme park rides, but they’re also cinema, in the way the best escapist narratives — be they of the superhero, space opera, or gangster variety — have always been.
6. “Uncut Gems”

7. “A Hidden Life”
8. “Apollo 11”
9. “I Lost My Body”
10. “Knives Out”
“Uncut Gems”
Tambay Obenson, Staff Writer
“Uncut Gems”
“Portrait of a Lady on Fire”
“Les Miserables”
“The Lighthouse”
“Amazing Grace”
“Little Woods”
Chris Lindahl, Film Business Reporter
1. “Uncut Gems”
Some people say anxiety-provoking like it’s a bad thing. By pairing an exciting original story with brash characters and balls-to-the-wall pace, the Safdie brothers created exactly the kind of movie we need more of — one that can make even the most inattentive viewer forget about checking their phone for a couple of hours and immerse themselves into the depraved world of “Uncut Gems.”

2. “Parasite”
The laugh-out-loud dark humor, nail-biting suspense, and delicious recipe ideas help make the provocative social subtext in “Parasite” go down easy and make for a movie that’s as enjoyable as it is globally important.
3. “Waves”
Here’s what teenage invincibility feels like: It’s an Animal Collective sing-along, your one-and-only by your side, your leg recklessly hanging out of the car window. It’s the relentless drums of Tame Impala and the chaotic camera following a high school athlete at the top of his game. Eventually, invincibility gives way to the horrors of reality and the impact that can have on your whole family. This is modern life, and Trey Edward Shults captured it stunningly in “Waves.”
4. “Midsommar”
In his follow-up to “Hereditary,” Ari Aster again played to his strengths of constructing a world anchored in the relatable relationship drama of his main characters to fantastic results. With that as a grounding force, I eagerly entered the fantastical Hårga where mushroom trips and pubes-in-pies can lead to equally terrifying results.
5. “Pain and Glory”
Pedro Almodóvar creates massive empathy for his characters from boyhood to elder years by gracefully exploring some of the excitements, tragedies, and battles capable of affecting a person over the decades.
6. “The Irishman”
It may be a mind-boggling 3 1/2 hours long, but Martin Scorsese wasted no time with “The Irishman.” If the film had been cut to a more theatrically appropriate runtime, would we have been given such gifts as the constant smoke breaks on Frank Sheeran’s fateful road trip? The Netflix release shows what’s available for master filmmakers on the platform.
7. “Honey Boy”
“Honey Boy,” which may appear as a self-indulgent personal project from screenwriter and actor Shia LaBeouf, reveals itself as something extraordinary for anyone who has been touched by addiction. LaBeouf offers an empathetic take on the character he plays, based on his own father, a choice that shows just how beautifully effective the therapy of creating the film was for the actor.
8. “Marriage Story”
Anyone who has spent time in both cities knows that the promise of leaving New York for “more space” in Los Angeles is a false promise. But “Marriage Story” deftly shows how there’s two sides to that idea: Scarlett Johansson realizes that promise as Nicole, who finds herself thriving in the space newly available to her in LA, while her soon-to-be-ex, Charlie (Adam Driver) painfully sees it as trading crowded avenues for backed-up freeways.
9. “Booksmart”
Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut shows that in the right hands, a familiar story can feel refreshingly new. With delightful performances by Kaitlyn Dever as a queer high school senior and Beanie Feldstein as her best friend, “Booksmart,” with its raunchy jokes and wacky cast of characters, is proof that so-called PC culture is absolutely not ruining comedy.

10. “American Factory”
The years of work Ohio-based directors Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert put into building trust with their subjects translated into extraordinary access, allowing the pair to tell the story of how a community is changed when a Dayton, Ohio-area shuttered GM plant gets a new life as a Chinese-owned automotive glass factory.
“Marriage Story”
Tom Brueggemann, Box Office Editor
“Pain and Glory”
“Marriage Story”
“The Souvenir”
“Little Women”
Four outstanding films, tied together by their filmmakers creating fictional worlds parallel to their own lives in varying degrees. Each is self-aware and at times critical, but lacking the narcissism or sentimentalism that such efforts can bring. Their apparent departures from autobiography are the more interesting aspects. The one furthest removed from the “facts” — Greta Gerwig’s sublime and formally inventive adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s novel — among these plays closest as a sequel of sorts to her earlier work.
“The Image Book”
“Varda by Agnes”
The two greatest living filmmakers at the start of 2019, only one surviving the year. These two seminal figures, linked, for decades at a great distance, both in their most recent (in one case for certain final) films both made very personal essay films of a different kind. Jean-Luc Godard’s is off-putting, impenetrable at first, but for those who have hung on his every film since he was the dominant figure, rewarding, particularly on second viewing. Agnes Varda’s film is for its part inviting and warm, disguising its own formal inventiveness as a career retrospective with a broader sense of sharing the themes of her other recent documentaries. A third master in the same late ’80s/early ’90s age bracket (combined, the makers of most features made at that age or above by anyone not named Manoel de Oliveira), Clint Eastwood, with “Richard Jewell” made his best film since “Gran Torino.” It falls short of the best due to unforced errors and the sense of unusual audience pandering, but still towers over most American studio releases of the year. With luck, we will have more of the two survivors. If not, they all kept the faith to the end.
“American Factory”
Unlike many entertaining, deservedly well-received documentaries that deal in nostalgia and celebrity, this is an unsettling contemporary view of the uneasy melding of struggling Dayton factory workers and a Chinese glass manufacturer who seems to appear as their savior in 2014. The travails of the employees by itself would make this worth seeing, but within the non-fiction format, the ease in which the directors (including the pioneering Julia Reichert, whose feminist and labor-themed films go back to 1971) convey complex issues as observers without dwelling on individuals to draw in viewers should stand as a model for serious-minded documentaries. No film this year better conveys the sense of America today.
Bong Joon Ho has never lacked for ambition as he rose to the upper levels of the South Korean and then international film world. His diversity (in genres, in scale, settings, tone) makes him unusual among directors celebrated as masters. Oddly paralleling Alfonso Cuaron’s similarly breakout “Roma” last year, this deals with interactions within a household between two classes; similarly it has extraordinary craft equal to productions with vastly higher budgets. But unlike Cuaron’s film, this is a wholly contemporary story. Its greatest achievement is in capturing the zeitgeist of today. As Bong says, we all live in the same country now: capitalism. In putting this concept within a comedy thriller with audacity and a feel for entertainment he has created one of the best films of our time.
“Portrait of a Lady on Fire”
A story at the intersection of love and creativity, about the freedom and limitations of both, told sublimely by Celine Sciamma who, after a series of intriguing films centering on young women, leaps into the forefront of contemporary directors. Desire, eroticism, attraction, beauty all are expressed as challenges in this 18th century Brittany coast set story of how a young painter found her passion when surreptitiously (initially) capturing an innocent noblewoman about to be sent to a strange man in an arranged marriage. The passion of the story is matched by the breathtaking images and framing.
“Long Day’s Journey Into Night”
Come for the gimmick, stay for the mind-bending experience. The nearly-hour-long single complicated tracking shot in 3D that concludes this film set in a wet, not yet modern, remote Chinese city is one of the most immersive and hallucinatory in the history of film. It alone elevates it to essential. A film noir of a kind, the plot such as it is involves a man returning to his home after a family death finds himself a past romantic obsession. That leads to what might be a dream, only on the surface tangentially related to the set up. It’s one you wish not to awaken from.
“The Irishman”
Bill Desowitz, Crafts Editor
1. “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”
2. “Parasite”
3. “The Irishman”
4. “1917”
5. “Marriage Story”
6. “Joker”
7. “Ford v Ferrari”
8. “Ad Astra”
9. “Jojo Rabbit”
10. “I Lost My Body”
“The Farewell”
Casi Moss
Leah Lu, Social Media Coordinator
“Little Women”
“Uncut Gems”
“Pain and Glory”
“Portrait of a Lady on Fire”
“The Farewell”
“The Peanut Butter Falcon”
“The Last Black Man in San Francisco”
“Marriage Story”
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