MPAA ratings vary. Not all movies are suitable for all audiences.
10. Picture Character – directed by Ian Cheney and Martha Shane
I saw Picture Character at the Traverse City Film Festival, and an older man seated in front of me did not appreciate this movie. He peppered his movie-watching experience with a variety of muttered comments—”Oh my god,” “This is ridiculous,” “I can’t watch this”—designed to communicate his dissatisfaction to everyone seated near him. And the man, apparently a perfectionist, was not willing to subject his comments to misinterpretation: twenty minutes before the end of the movie, he stood up and left the movie theater, mumbling incoherently as he shuffled his way toward the aisle in the dark. A grand display of angry incredulity. 🙄
Picture Character offers a fascinating look at something few people bother to observe: the sociocultural impacts of emoji use and selection. Watch the movie because it dares to analyze ubiquity. 🙌 Watch the movie because you should understand the cultural weight of the emojis you use. 🏋️♂️ Watch the movie to anger the technologically illiterate Boomers in your life. 🤬
Whatever your reason, watch the movie.
9. Avengers: Endgame – directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo
I want to be clear: I believe that Hipster Hulk was a directorial misstep. Banner’s struggles with Hulk played a significant role in Infinity War. During Infinity War‘s long climactic battle, Banner admits clearly and notably that he and the “big green asshole” have some issues to resolve. But Endgame sidesteps the responsibility of showing that process to the audience. Hipster Hulk essentially shrugs and says, “Eh, figured it out.” Here is Hipster Hulk’s explanation in the film:
Hipster Hulk: Five years ago, we got our asses beaten. Except it was worse for me because I lost twice. First, Hulk lost. Then Banner lost. Then, we all lost.
Natasha Romanoff: No one blamed you, Bruce.
Hipster Hulk: I did. For years, I’ve been treating the Hulk like he’s some kind of disease, something to get rid of. But then I started looking at him as the cure. Eighteen months in a gamma lab. I put the brains and the brawn together. And now look at me. Best of both worlds…
That’s all we get. The Banner-Hulk dilemma drove much of Infinity War‘s storyline, and that’s all we get. Now, alternatively, imagine if, in the movie’s third act, Hulk decided to emerge after learning that one of his fellow Avengers had died. Imagine how that moment would have felt.
That said, the movie deserves credit for impressively juggling a massive assortment of characters. The narrative is coherent and emotionally impactful. The dialogue is adequate, and the visuals are mesmerizing. My favorite aspect of the film: Thor. Thor’s character development in Endgame is some of the most compelling of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and beyond. Big kudos to the Endgame team for moving beyond ultra-polished heroes in the most-watched box office movie of 2019.
Sometimes, big studios do things right. There are many things to question about Endgame (like the emotionally subpar climactic moment), but Endgame nonetheless manages to approach some emotionally and thematically nuanced concepts. Black Panther did this more effectively in 2018, but Endgame still deserves some praise.
8. Guava Island – directed by Hiro Murai
Guava Island offers neither the unfiltered intensity nor the glossy thematic swelling of Endgame—far from it. Guava Island is a simple story, but it lingers. Donald Glover’s 55-minute film offers a surprisingly profound parable of art and commerce. The New York Times called Guava Island a “casual charmer,” but that description doesn’t encapsulate the emotional richness of the film’s narrative beats. In an era of cinematic excess—multi-billion-dollar budgets, star-studded scenes, and numbingly ubiquitous advertisements—a poignant, near-aphoristic film such as Guava Island feels refreshing.
7. Ad Astra – directed by James Gray
Some film critics have dismissed Ad Astra as another self-indulgent look at troubled father-son dynamics. Such criticisms ignore two things:
- Many people have fathers, and many of those fathers make mistakes. This storyline is a literary archetype for good reason. To criticize its continued use is to ignore the relatability of its central conflict.
- As a film, Ad Astra is much more than its primary story. Visually, the film is beautiful. It looks and moves like a poem, each scene saturated with meaning and compelling tonal cues. Every single shot from the film could be hung on the wall as a piece of art.
The emotions sparked by Ad Astra have lingered in my heart and mind for months. That means something.
6. Marriage Story -directed by Noah Baumbach
For those who haven’t seen Marriage Story yet, here are some things you should know:
- Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson are so much more than Kylo Ren and Black Widow. They are artists. Fans of Driver and Johansson have known this for years. See Lost in Translation, While We’re Young (also directed by Baumbach), or Adam Driver’s TED Talk. (Also, boo Terry Gross. #TeamAdamDriver.)
- Noah Baumbach consistently makes great movies. He is the king of understated dramas about age, social philosophy, and awkward interpersonal moments. Marriage Story is another jewel in Baumbach glistening crown.
- In some ways, Marriage Story is an echo of 2010’s Blue Valentine, a film that details the painful decline of a once-beautiful relationship between characters played by Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams. Both movies are difficult to watch. Both movies are complicated. Both movies are brilliant.
5. Booksmart – directed by Olivia Wilde
Have you ever counted the number of high school movies in existence? Neither have I. But there are a lot.
High School Musical, Lady Bird, Perks of Being a Wallflower, Mean Girls, Saved!, The Trotsky, Charlie Bartlett, Easy A, Rocket Science, She’s All That, She’s the Man, Rushmore, Bandslam, The Breakfast Club, Napoleon Dynamite, Camp Rock, The Edge of Seventeen, Bring It On, 10 Things I Hate About You, The Kissing Booth, Love Simon, Remember the Titans, Lemonade Mouth, Love Don’t Cost a Thing, Assassination Nation, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, Speech & Debate, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Say Anything…, Superbad, Pretty in Pink, A Cinderella Story, Cooley High, 17 Again, 21 Jump Street, Prom, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Grease, Heathers, Sixteen Candles, The Spectacular Now, and so many more.
The movie market is filled with films about the high school experience.
Yet I loved watching Booksmart. Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut is entertaining, smart, and—most impressively—somehow refreshing.
4. Uncut Gems – directed by Josh Safdie and Benny Safdie
Adam Sandler should have been nominated for an Oscar. (Actually, there are many un-nominated actors this year who should have received nominations, but that’s for a different article.) Sandler, LaKeith Stanfield, Kevin Garnett, and Idina Menzel each delivered brilliant performances. (P.S. What a cast!)
Uncut Gems is a loud, vulgar, unnerving film about gambling, jewelry, and stubborn hope. Some moviegoers have said that the movie gave them headaches. But Uncut Gems is, at its core, an unforgettable story rooted in true human experiences related to hope, loss, and relationships. It’s a film you won’t quickly forget.
3. Gay Chorus Deep South – directed by David Charles Rodrigues
In 2017, the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus organized a tour of performances in southern states, many of which had/have homophobic laws. The group wanted to raise awareness by singing in venues (mostly churches) located in these states.
Consider this excerpt from Matt Fagerholm’s review of Gay Chorus Deep South:
The overwhelming positivity in this footage is illuminating and encouraging, yet also more than a touch puzzling, raising questions of precisely where this intolerance hibernates when cameras aren’t around to support such devastating legislation. Let us pray that the optimism on display here, signaling an overarching move towards civil unity across the United States, is more than just a cinematic mirage.
Gay Chorus Deep South does not offer many actionable solutions—and more nuanced discussions about systemic prejudice are certainly needed—but the documentary does offer a well-crafted glimpse of hope in an arguably dark time.
There is power in a voice. There is even more power in a chorus of voices.
2. Paddleton – directed by Alex Lehmann
Paddleton successfully delivers what many high-hype films attempt: an earnest depiction of life, death, grief, and friendship. Ray Romano brings to vibrantly bitter life the profoundly simple story created by writer Mark Duplass. An understated tour de force for all involved.
1. The Peanut Butter Falcon – directed by Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz
The Peanut Butter Falcon is part adventure, part Bildungsroman, and part alternative WWE experience. It is also the most genuinely heartwarming film I have seen in years.
What are your favorite films of 2019?