A Year in Review: Top Films of 2019 (according to Preston Barta)

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Preston Barta // Features Editor

It was a strange year for cinema, just as it was a strange year for the world. Despite all its darkness — in the form of Cats and other sorts from the bad litter — there were plenty of great films worth celebrating.

Here are 15 highlights worth lauding from a year decorated with spectacular movies.

15. The Death of Dick Long

Speaking of totally weird, A24’s quiet but impactful drama The Death of Dick Long is as bizarre as they come. Through comedy, uncomfortable situations and region-accurate specificity, this Kentucky fried oddity delves into the skeletons that we all hide in our closets.

14. The Peanut Butter Falcon

Shia LaBeouf and newcomer Zack Gottsagen lead a movie that surprises and delights. The setup is such familiar material, like a classic Mark Twain book, that you think its narrative is going to spin flat and fast. However, the script by Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz (who both also directed) cuts deep. Between the fun character interactions are quiet nuggets of wisdom and truth. So sweet and charming.

13. Knives Out

Rian Johnson’s star-studded whodunit didn’t need explosions or sword fights to make it one of the most entertaining films of 2019 — just a tightly wound narrative, great performances and a sharp-to-the-touch screenplay. Knives Out has all the twists, turns and unfiltered character exchanges to make it a dynamite cinematic happening.

12. Love, Antosha

I’m a massive fan of Anton Yelchin, and this tender documentary about his life tore me to pieces. Love, Antosha isn’t merely the late actor’s friends and family gushing about how wonderful he was to work with and be around. The film also taps into his complexities, health issues and the myriad ways he plugged into creative outlets. It’s honest, inspiring and heartbreaking.

11. The Farewell

Set in China, Lulu Wang’s The Farewell is a bittersweet account of a family gathering to say goodbye to its matriarch (an Oscar-worthy Shuzhen Zhao) who’s dying of cancer. The twist is she doesn’t know it because of some unique cultural traditions. The result is one of those dramatic works that manages to hit from all angles. It doesn’t just provide a singular experience but rather a multilayered narrative that has the power to heal and open one’s eyes to a much larger world. It has its tears, but it also has many laughs and uplifting moments to carry you through your own obstacles.

10. Midsommar: Director’s Cut

When I first saw Midsommar, I said it was one of the few experiences in my life watching a movie where it felt like a true misanthrope directed it. It’s so wicked, and it’s only gotten better with repeat viewings, especially after its director’s cut (available now through Apple TV). The three-hour feast colorfully visualizes themes of grief, codependency and death through nightmarish channels.

9. Jojo Rabbit

Reading the plot of Jojo Rabbit is enough to raise an eyebrow. But packed within Taika Waititi’s World War II satire is an incredibly compassionate tale built with ultimate love. It has so much positivity in its story that it could warm the iciest of hearts.

8. The Art of Self-Defense

Riley Stearns (Faults) directs an offbeat and unpredictable comedy that operates similarly to a Yorgos Lanthimos film in terms of its otherworldly presence and proper manner. Outside its commanding performances (most notably Alessandro Nivola as a deranged karate sensei), the most impressive facet is what’s written between the lines. Stearns manages to burrow into the pressures society places on us — and the pressure we put on ourselves. There’s plenty to talk about and lots to enjoy.

7. 1917

Sam Mendes’ one-shot dramatic war thriller thrusts you into a real-time experience. By following two British lance corporals through the trenches and death-strewn landscapes, 1917 makes you feel every ounce of the emotions felt on the battleground. It navigates between objective and subjective perspectives to fashion a stunningly crafted and thematically rich achievement.

6. Marriage Story

Although divorce is often a focal point that may send you running in the opposite direction, you can revel in the chemistry of two actors turning in the best performances of their careers and filmmaker Noah Baumbach’s nuanced storytelling approach. Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver guide us through a touching and insightful drama of a disentangled couple finding love through the scope of their marriage’s end.

5. Parasite

Bong Joon Ho’s Hitchcockian mind-tickler isn’t far off from Knives Out for playing you like a fiddle. Parasite doesn’t try to go for broke in terms of scale. It’s much more reserved, and it primarily fuses complexity through its character arcs and not its narrative arcs. It’ll keep you on your toes and will have you hunkering down like a moth to a flame.

4. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

As foreign as it may sound, Quentin Tarantino paints a staggeringly gorgeous ode to the fading studio era of Hollywood’s golden age. It’s a feature that forces you to realize that we get old, things don’t always pan out the way we’d hope and culture passes us by. It also entertains, shocks and moves like no other. It’s one cool flick.

3. Booksmart

What makes Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart such a treasure is how much it breaks through teen archetypes. Similar to The Breakfast Club, it presents characters you recognize and injects them with stinging relatability. Wilde tosses a wide net of glory, hitting all the facts of teenage youth while also leaving lots of room for fun. I loved it from cover to cover.

2. Little Women

Writer-director Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird) shapes a beautiful and lyrical screen adaptation of the classic Louisa May Alcott novel. Rather than follow the story’s blueprint and old-school formula, Gerwig stirs in a sense of energy and agency from the modern era. With its pitch-perfect ensemble of actors, Alcott’s work comes to life for the ultimate telling.

1. Waves

No film in 2019 hit me harder than Trey Edward Shults’ Waves. Shults (It Comes at NightKrisha) is a filmmaker who experiments with technique and drama reveals to unearth stowed-away feelings. There are elements to this film that helped me to articulate thoughts about my own hardships, and that’s a gift. Using a diptych structure, Shults subtly but powerfully illustrates how life’s pains, pressures and disappointments can bring us together just as much as they break us apart. Waves is a remarkable story of healing.

Honorable mentions

16. Joker
17. Arctic
18. John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum
19. The Last Black Man in San Francisco
20. Avengers: Endgame
21. The Current War: Director’s Cut
22. Ad Astra
23. Honey Boy
24. The King
25. The Souvenir
26. Climax
27. Bombshell
28. Fast Color
29. The Lighthouse
30. Uncut Gems

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.