2019 in Review: Best Narrative Films of the Year

Call me old fashioned, but I’m a firm believer in not posting a Best Of the Year list until the year is actually over. I’m often able to squeeze in about a dozen or more films in the last couple weeks of December—mostly titles that others have told me are worth checking out, that I either missed when they came out in Chicago or movies that were never released here at all. I also tend to do a great deal of re-watching in those last two weeks, primarily to solidify my top 10.

According to my count, I saw 434 films in 2019, either in a theater or via screening link—from Escape Room at the beginning of the year to Clemency at the end. This tally does include a few vintage titles, but only if I saw them in a theater (often as restored prints, but not always). If I simply watched an older film at home, that doesn’t make the list.

As I do every year, I’ve separated my Best Documentaries list from narratives because I want an excuse to call extra attention to a whole other group of worthy films (20 this year) that might go unnoticed on a combined list. Plus, it’s always seemed strange to me to mix docs and narratives, the same way you don’t usually see fiction and nonfiction books shelved together in a book store. I value them equally, however.

2019 was a genuinely excellent year for movies, despite a few high-profile disappointments, and it was one of the best years of the decade. I was genuinely shocked at how many great movies didn’t make my Top 10, or even my Top 20, as I assembled this list. I often feel that after the first ten, the numbers don’t mean as much, and that’s certainly true this year. I say this every year, but if you think a list of 40 films is annoyingly excessive, feel free to stop reading at 30, or 20, or 10. I have faith you’ll find ways of coping with it.

I’ve included excerpts of my original reviews of my Top 10 films, if I wrote one; otherwise, I just scribbled down some thoughts. Hope you dig the list and that it gives you some ideas for future viewings on some platform or in some venue. Quite a few of these are still in theaters, and if they are, that’s where you should view them; there are also a couple of titles that will make their way to you in January.

Alright, enough preamble. Here is my self-indulgently submitted Top 40 best narrative features of 2019; look for my Top 20 Best Documentaries in this post. Please enjoy, discuss, debate, and above all else—go watch.

Us Image courtesy of Universal Pictures

10. Us (Dir: Jordan Peele)

Some might be bothered to learn that Us isn’t really a film explicitly about race, the way Get Out was. Some might believe that this time around, Peele might double down on racial dynamics in America in a purer version of a horror movie than his first film was. Instead, by creating an entire doppelgänger culture in America, he’s looking at the changing face of all Americans—not just those of a particular race or culture. He’s acknowledging that we all have good and bad elements to our personalities, and that most of us keep the bad things pushed down and hidden away, because polite society would banish us to the hinterlands if we let it out. But what if society changed enough that it was all right to let the monster within us run free in the open and commit evil acts with no consequences? Now you’re starting to understand…Full Review

9. Dolemite Is My Name (Dir: Craig Brewer)

It’s almost impossible to watch Eddie Murphy take on the character of world-famous stand-up performer/blaxploitation actor/rap pioneer Rudy Ray Moore and not wonder what took him so long to do it. The fit seems so effortless—almost necessary—that you forget within minutes where one actor begins and the other ends. Perhaps Murphy needed to meet director Craig Brewer and writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski for it all to move into place, but Dolemite Is My Name feels so right and is executed so deftly that you realize it takes genuine filmmaking artistry to make a movie about one of the truly great amateur productions in film history. Above all else, the film is one of the funniest damn movies of the year, and not because Murphy and company are lining up the jokes in rapid succession. They simply have to tell this outrageous story the way it happened, and the laughs just flow. Full Review

Midsommar Image courtesy of A24

8. Midsommar (Dir: Ari Aster)

Whereas the filmmaker’s previous film, Hereditary, was a film that was built upon darkness, Midsommar is bathed in the oppressive sunlight of Sweden during the time of year where the sun rarely sets. Aster is obsessed with reality-based grotesque that is used by cults/communities/religions to warp the minds and bodies of outsiders in an effort to keep traditions alive and the cycle of life and death moving forward. It’s also a commentary on the ugly American, traveling abroad and criticizing everything that isn’t familiar. Some may think the film goes too far off the tracks in its second half, but I found that it’s in those absurd and sometimes confusing moments that Midsommar finds its footing. And the statements the film makes about the power and fury of woman scorned is devastating and quite funny at times. Either way, you win thanks to an edgy, fragile performance by Florence Pugh. Full Review

7. The Last Black Man in San Francisco (Dir: Joe Talbot)

The feature debut from director Joe Talbot is a film from a screenplay by Talbot and writer Rob Richert, based on the life story of one of the film’s lead actors, Jimmie Fails. The movie was one of the most talked about and highly regarded works at 2019's Sundance Film Festival, where it debuted, telling the tale of a man named Jimmie whose family had been displaced from their longtime home in San Francisco. Much like many recent films set in nearby Oakland, this movie addresses such subjects as gentrification and the irony of rich, mostly white buyers moving into a neighborhood because of its hip culture, and then immediately driving out what made the neighborhood interesting in the first place. But the film does this is an almost dreamlike manner, with Jimmie and best friend Montgomery taking a much more emotional position on the changes, almost like they’re mourning the loss of a place.

6. 1917 (Dir: Sam Mendes)

1917 is so much more than the sum of its single-take gimmick. Although some of the “hidden” edits are pretty easy to spot, others are virtually invisible. But more important, after a short time, you’ll likely stop looking because the story itself is so captivating and you’ll care too much for the lives of these two brave men to remember to look for cuts. Above all else, the seemingly death-defying camera work from master cinematographer Roger Deakins is extraordinary as it moves through terrains with no place to hide lights. What is captured here is a powerful antiwar statement couched in a tense and emotionally gripping work, as the camera seems to hover around the action as both a ghostly observer and a fellow soldier in the trenches. 1917 is a full-body exercise that will take quite a while to shake, and may even leave you gasping for breath as you emerge from the seemingly endless walk alongside our heroes. One of the most unique experiences of the year, the movie is also emotionally devastating and utterly unforgettable. Full Review

5. Uncut Gems (Dirs: Josh Safdie, Benny Safdie)

A cinematic pressure cooker about a New York jeweler who can’t help but make all the wrong decisions because somewhere in their midst is a play that leads to that elusive big score. The last 20 minutes of the film are extraordinary in terms of editing, pacing and performance, bringing several of the leads into a layered sequence that is both triumphant and tragic. The movie marks a new level for Sandler and the other players in the film, but it also marks new highs for the directors, Josh and Benny Safdie, whose whirlwind shooting process and skillful use of both seasoned and first-time actors results in some of the most authentic scenarios in any movie this year. Trust me on this one, and you will undoubtedly be floored by this panic attack on film. Full Review

Knives Out Image courtesy of Lionsgate

4. Knives Out (Dir: Rian Johnson)

The films of writer/director Rian Johnson can sometimes be divisive, but most times we get something like his latest and perhaps finest film, Knives Out. It’s Johnson’s take on the Agatha Christie-style whodunit murder mystery, complete with a family full of suspects, each one more reprehensible than the last, and an eccentric private detective, Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), a character I would love to see solve a half-dozen more mysteries over the next 20 years. Above all else, Knives Out is a hoot. This story could have easily been set in just about any decade in the last hundred years (the filthy rich are deplorable in every era). It has a beautifully timeless quality to both its story and its visual elements. And although I might not call it a comedy, the humor supplies a great deal of energy to the proceedings. This is an easy movie to adore and watch over and over, revealing new subtleties to the performances and the filmmaking. So come for the mystery, but don’t forget to take a look around at the eccentric decor and the group of actors clearly having the time of their lives. Full Review

3. Marriage Story (Dir: Noah Baumbach)

Marriage Story is writer/director Noah Baumbach's incisive and compassionate look at a marriage breaking up and a family staying together. The film stars Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver as Nicole (an actress) and Charlie (a theater director), both living and thriving professionally in New York. Then Nicole gets a chance to shoot a pilot in Los Angeles, her hometown, and once she gets there, she realizes it’s where she wants to stay and raise their young son. Charlie is blindsided, even though he shouldn’t be. The film examines the forces that brought these people together, so it’s a beautiful love story in that respect, but it’s a deeper, raw and emotional take on what pulls them apart, threatening to shred everything that worked between them. Some of the best acting of 2019. 

2. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (Dir: Quentin Tarantino)

Like many works by Quentin Tarantino, this film is an exercise in creation and re-creation, often simultaneously, but never more so than in its love letter/death knell to an era of Hollywood that was ushered out in the late 1960s by films like Easy Rider and the cheaply made but highly influential spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone. Within this very real backdrop of 1969 Los Angeles, we meet fictional Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), who had a long, successful run on the black-and-white TV Western “Bounty Law” in the late ’50s and early ’60s. But by the time 1969 rolls around, his movie parts have dried up and he’s been reduced to one-off parts (almost always playing the bad guy) on TV shows. His constant companion is his stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), who himself has been reduced in stature. It’s a movie that both mourns and celebrates a time and place, and it’s a glorious gift to movie lovers and a history lesson of sorts to those who only dabble in the cinema arts from time to time. However you approach it, it’s one of Tarantino’s finest, most mature works, and I’m desperate to watch it again. Full Review

Parasite Image courtesy of Neon

1. Parasite (Dir: Bong Joon Ho)

The movie centers around two South Korean families, the Kims and the Parks; one is struggling financially, the other is quite well off. Both are traditional nuclear families, but the similarities end there as one effectively cons their way into the lives of the other. Once the Kims are fully integrated into the lives of the Parks, their differences become all the more obvious, and the film becomes a scathing and sometimes horrifying examination of socio-economic disparity, and director Bong Joon-Ho isn’t afraid to ask: who is the parasite and who is the host? Sharp as both and ideological exercise and a pure cinematic takedown of one percenters. 

The Next 30...

11. The Irishman (Dir: Martin Scorsese)  12. Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Dir: Céline Sciamma)  \  13. The Nightingale (Dir: Jennifer Kent)  \  14. Honey Boy (Dir: Alma Har'el)  \  15. Her Smell (Dir Alex Ross Perry)  16. Little Women (Dir: Greta Gerwig)  \  17. Avengers: Endgame (Dirs: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo) 18. Waves (Dir: Trey Edward Shults)  \  19. The Farewell (Dir: Lulu Wang)  \  20. Booksmart (Dir: Oliva Wilde)

21. Ad Astra (Dir: James Gray) 22. Toy Story 4 (Dir: Josh Cooley)  \  23. Pain and Glory (Dir: Pedro Almodóvar)  24. The Mustang (Dir: Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre) 25. The Report (Dir: Scott Z. Burns) 26. The Lighthouse (Dir: Robert Eggers) 27. The Art of Self-Defense (Dir: Riley Stearns) 28. Gloria Bell (Dir: Sebastián Lelio)  \  29. Missing Link (Dir: Chris Butler)  \  30. Luce (Dir: Julius Onah)

31. Wild Rose (Dir: Tom Harper)  \  32. Long Shot (Dir: Jonathan Levine)  \  33. Blinded by the Light (Dir: Gurinder Chadha)  \  34. The Peanut Butter Falcon (Dirs: Tyler Nilson, Michael Schwartz)  \  35. Jojo Rabbit (Dir: Taiki Waititi)  \  36. Hustlers (Dir: Lorene Scafaria)  \  37. Rocketman (Dir: Dexter Fletcher)  \  38. Fighting with My Family (Dir: Stephen Merchant)  \  39. Good Boys (Dir: Gene Stupnitsky) 40. Spider-Man: Far From Home (Dir: Jon Watts) 

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.