I’ve blinked and the year has already finished, which as we all know means, we need to discuss some of the best films of the year. It never gets easier, year after year it’s a struggle to put a list together. For as long as I can remember, I haven’t been able to narrow it down to 10 films, and this year isn’t any different. So, these are my twenty favourite films of the year. There are many I didn’t get around to watching, and I will be rectifying that in the near future, but for the time being, these are the films I think helped define this year, and the ones I’ll be recommending for the foreseeable future.
The first eighteen films will be in alphabetical order, except for the last two that are tied.
Directed by James Wan
There’s many things that need to be said about this. I believe I’ve had “Comic Book Movies” on my list before, but I’ve never had a “superhero” film (if there’s a distinction, I’m making it here) and this year I have three, so it has been a great year for them. On top of that, I didn’t have Wonder Woman on my list, so this marks my first DCEU film to make it as well. The truth is I’ve loved James Wan work since the first Saw film, and I’ve been watching him become a household name over the past decade or so. What makes his films work is that they aren’t stuck in a genre, even though he makes incredible horror films, they are also films about family and love (The Conjuring). In fact, a lot of his films revolve around family, albeit getting revenge / finding them (Death Sentence) or finding your own, like is the case with Aquaman. He does what he is known for, an incredible story with beautiful visuals. His long takes are absolutely to die for. This must be the golden age of superhero films if the movie about Aquaman makes it on to my list.
Directed by Ryan Coogler
And thus, the first MCU film on my list as well. There is something kind of incredible with Coogler’s streak. I remember hearing all the praise for Fruitvale Station from Sundance and waiting for it to show up in Toronto. And when it finally did, I went twice to try and watch it during the opening weekend but was turned back due to it being sold out. On my third attempt a week later, I bought the last tickets. The theatre was packed and the atmosphere was electrifying and as the film came to a close and the theatre was weeping, I knew two things. Michael B. Jordan and Ryan Coogler are stars and they are meant to work together. And then they made Creed and the world hasn’t been the same since. Seeing Black Panther made me feel things that I didn’t realize was missing. The representation of having an almost all-black cast in a film this massive, it has brought many people to tears. It’s been a beautiful journey, and the film is remarkable on top of that. MBJ is so charming that even though he’s the villain, it’s easy to not only understand him but also to sort of have a crush on him as well. I know that whatever they do next, I will be there opening day once again.
Directed by Lee Chang-dong
A film that is hard to put into words, but I just know the feeling that I had when I watched the film. There is something miraculous about a film that runs for two and a half hours, feels like two different movies never drag and is somehow still mesmerizing to witness. The film walks a tightrope of making me feel peace and serenity until I feel completely unnerved. And once again, we have a villain who is both intimidating and absolutely charming. Steven Yeun gets to actually play South Korean and has this smile that pulls you in super close until you start wondering about the big picture of it all. I could not look away and I was entranced for the entirety of it all.
Directed by Bo Burnham
Everyone’s favourite YouTube comedian has made his feature debut and the world exploded around him. At the age of twenty-eight, he was able to make a movie about what it is like to be about to go into high school in today’s internet-based landscape, but yet he made a film about all of us. All of us with anxiety at least. There are moments of pure truth about trying to accept yourself that adults relate to on a daily basis. And there’s a beautiful truth in trying to “fake it before you make it” when it comes to confidence or even happiness. And watching Kayla (played incredibly by Elsie Fisher) give up or second guess herself is absolutely heartbreaking. I understood what it means to try and protect something pure. I also understood the fear of passing my anxieties to a child, and if I do (or frankly, even if I don’t) I’ll show them this movie to show that even though some things have changed – a lot hasn’t. And it’s normal to not fit in, and that everything is going to be Gucci.
Directed by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead
I had been waiting for this film for a while. A few years back, this directing/writing/acting/cinematographer duo released Spring and as soon as I watched it, I fell in love. It was like everything I was looking for in a movie. And so, when the film played in 2017 at Toronto After Dark Film Festival, I made sure I didn’t miss out on the film. And I didn’t, and it blew me away. I knew it would make it on my list for whenever it did come out, and as it finally was released, I went back and watched it on Netflix and I knew I needed it. It’s a film that I’ve thought about fairly often since I’ve seen it and it’s been a while since I have. The team are making phenomenal works of art all while being incredibly down to earth. They have a film being released this year, and I know you’ll see me writing about it here when it’s finally released.
Directed by Ari Aster
This movie is not for everyone. That goes for most horror films but as with tradition, A24 has released another horror film that some may argue isn’t a horror film. It’s a “family-film” first, as in it is about a family. I was lucky enough to attend a screening with director Ari Aster in attendance and he explained that story comes first, and then the genre. And he explained that an audience would be more welcoming at watching a family fall apart as a horror film instead of as a drama. Depending on who you ask, Ari made a traumatizing film. One that has stuck with me since I saw it in May, it even caused me to sleepwalk after I saw it the first time. My reaction was to go see it two more times in the theatre. Even though not all horror fans will like the film, it’s necessary watching.
Directed by Greg Berlanti
Some of these films came up early and has just latched onto me. Love, Simon is one of those films. The acting in this film is unbelievably good. The film follows Nick Robinson as Simon who is being blackmailed to helping another student or risking being outed, all while falling for another student who he knows by a code name. The film is sweet, and a mystery all in one. Josh Duhamel and Jennifer Garner are the parents we all want, and their speeches are some of the best monologues of the year. In both terms of skill and emotion. There’s something very beautiful, loving and moving about the film, especially when we start to consider what it means to the people who rarely get to see themselves on the big screen, and in a happy role like this.
Directed by Jonah Hill
Okay, Jonah Hill. I’m listening and I’m watching. Even though I was born in the early ’90s, so I wasn’t the same age as Stevie (Sunny Suljic) at the same time, but I related heavily to the film. I grew up loving skate culture and understanding it a bit more from afar as I never learned how to skate. But besides that, between the brother dynamic that ranges from bully to idol, and back, again and again, is something I still feel. There is also a scene with the cable for the game controller that felt far too similar for my own liking and brought me back to a bad place for a moment. These characters are wonderfully realized and even though they make you a bit angry, they’re real and human. You understand all their struggles. The style is magnificent and the cast is incredible, especially considering that outside of Sunny, all the boys are newcomers to the industry. Jonah Hill a makes a movie for all.
Mission Impossible: Fallout
Directed by Christopher McQuarrie
I’m not typically an action movie type of person but sometimes they are done just right. And Mission Impossible: Fallout is one of those movies. The intensity and the stunts are some of the best of the series – which includes the Burj Khalifa scene. I saw the film twice in a week, and the second time gave me anxiety as I questioned, how they’ll make it out this time. That makes for a good movie. For once, we get to see what happens. The HALO jump scene is insane and an all-timer, and to see it on the big screen (and IMAX big screen), it was something short of a miracle. I lost my words during the film.
Monsters and Men
Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green
So while Reinaldo has been working for a few years now, this is his first feature film and it doesn’t feel like it at all. Monsters and Men are super timely and incredible, it takes the multi-character lead aspect just like The Place Beyond The Pines did a few years back, and he does it effortlessly. I saw the film during TIFF and it blew me away and it is one of the smaller films that I have wished more people would have seen – or even heard about it. But that’s why I’m here, and I’ll be yelling about it for a while. The film stars Anthony Ramos and Jasmine Cephas Jones (both from Hamilton) fame, but also stars John David Washington (BlackKklansman and Denzel’s son who has inherited his acting abilities) and even has Kelvin Harrison Jr. (It Comes At Night which made an appearance on my list last year) and they’re all superstars in their own way. The camera catches them and holds onto them and doesn’t let you look away.
Directed by Paul King
Manners. The movie that is all about manners and what it means to be nice to one another. It’s simple, and it’s lovely. That’s all that matters. A film a part of the “nicecore” movement (a term that David Ehrlich of IndieWire coined) that has decided to go against the grain and not make a film that is mean-spirited or rude, but rather one that makes you smile because the world outside is so grim, we need a proper getaway from reality. Paddington says it best, “if you’re kind and polite, the world will be right.” Frankly, sometimes it is that simple.
A Quiet Place
Directed by John Krasinski
So apparently, not being a fan of horror films help you make a better horror film. John Krasinski who is known for The Office and him being his wife’s biggest cheerleader makes one of the best films of the year. This is due to the film being grounded in reality. The fear that comes from raising your child is evident from the haunting prologue that will rip your heart out. The relationship on screen is beautiful, and I’m happy to see Millicent Simmonds who was excellent in Wonderstruck. The film will make you emotional and scared, and you’ll welcome it all.
Directed by Alfonso Cuaron
This film is pure gold. Alfonso Cuaron’s return to filmmaking after all the acclaim he received and deserved for Gravity. With his return, he has made his first film about and based in Mexico since the masterpiece that is Y Tu Mama Tambien, but it’s not just about Mexico, it’s about his family. In his most personal film to date, Roma is a film that peaks behind the curtains into the lives of those who raised us. Sometimes, our parents aren’t the only ones that raised us, but also other relatives like uncles or aunts, or family friends. With Alfonso, he had Libo, a nanny who is as much part of his family as he was. Simply put, Roma isn’t a Mexican film, it’s a human film. The performance by newcomer Yalitza Aparicio is mesmerizing. The visuals that Alfonso shot as his own cinematographer is utter perfection. The love in this film bleeds off the screen into the theatre (or living room). Without even getting into what this film means to the Latinx community, this films means hope and love for the world.
Directed by Luca Guadagnino
I feel like I have been waiting for this film for a long time. After last year’s exquisite Call Me By Your Name, he reteams with his A Bigger Splash star Dakota Johnson to reimagine the Dario Argento classic. I am one of those people who love the original but am the first to admit that I couldn’t recommend it to others. The film is dated and can be seen as slow, even with the almost 100-minute runtime. But the visuals and the colours in that film make the film. Luca knew that he could never make something as beautiful, so he didn’t attempt to. And I commend him for making a movie that is beautiful – even though it happens to be lacking colour because he made the film evolve from a fairly basic dancing witch film. For one, there are performances in this that are beautiful and well choreographed and the film also never attempts to hide the fact that it there are witches. Luca also goes out of his way to make sure that the similarities end fairly early. While the original takes place in Munich, Luca’s film takes place in West Berlin in the middle of the German Autumn of 1977. This film takes politics and runs with it in the background and it enhances the experience, but it never makes you deal with the politics of it all. The film is filled with themes of guilt, betrayal and motherhood. It adds so many layers to what originally was shallow and pretty. The film runs a bit long, but even with the two and half hour run time – I am one of the few who never felt it. The film is split into 6 parts, and an epilogue, but also the final act is the explosion and pay-off I needed but never knew I did. People smarter than I can dissect this film for hours, and I’ll gladly send you their way, but this film made me both tense and safe at the same time. I need this film on physical media so I can witness the magic all over again. Maybe this time I’ll scar my mom instead of my girlfriend.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
Directed by Morgan Neville
Have you ever wanted or needed to cry? Put the film on, it’ll work for you. This documentary is about Mister Fred Rogers who helped raise a few generations and the man he was behind the scenes. And how it wasn’t so different from the man we watched on TV. The documentary is extremely moving, and beautiful is definitely part of the “nicecore” movement I mentioned earlier. There’s something pure about the way he treated children as if they were as intelligent – or even more so than adults. It was simple and his viewpoint on life was one that people alive in 2019 don’t even follow so he was ahead of his time, in every way possible.
You Were Never Really Here
Directed by Lynne Ramsay
In the summer, I decided to try a film a day challenge during August. You Were Never Really Here was one of the films that stuck with me. Lynne Ramsay made a film that had a hitman who dealt with PTSD and suicidal thoughts and has him be a hero in a way. The film beautifully deals with his intrusive thoughts and has him try to continue his life without letting it get in the way – but it definitely isn’t easy. As someone who struggles with their own mental illness, some days it causes you to break the same way that Joe (Joaquin Phoenix in a pitch-perfect performance) does near the end of the film. Even when things go right, it doesn’t feel like you’re good enough. And it builds and builds and builds, and it hits you when you don’t want to. It grabs hold of you and keeps their hold on you tight, and that’s what the film did, but in a good way. It held onto me and I couldn’t stop thinking about the movie or his performance. It’s a journey, and a struggle, but it’s just one day at a time, and we need to see that it’s a beautiful day sometimes.
Directed by Brady Corbet
To the friends who didn’t like this film, I am so sorry, but yes, Vox Lux made it. My last addition to the list. Arguably the most “out-there” film. And not always in a good way. Some moments were too dark (visually) and it felt as if it was balancing experimental indie with a “behind the music” documentary even with narration from Willem Dafoe. There’s an opening credit crawl that is odd but it was the first of many choices that made me realize this is made for me. The music by Sia is great – more so as a stand-alone soundtrack that I’ve listened to on repeat over the holidays, but it doesn’t always fit the Celeste character. Celeste is played both by Natalie Portman (who is incredible) but also by Raffey Cassidy who steals the show in dual role performance. I will not be recommending this to many friends, but I will be pleading many to try.
Directed by Paul Schrader
If Beale Street Could Talk
Directed by Barry Jenkins
My two favourite films of the year are different, yet they’re similar. They are two sides of the same coin. In First Reformed, we are given Reverend Ernst Toller who begins to question his faith after he interacts with a member of the community. He starts to question where would we go next. The world is royally screwed up, and it’s only time until it gets worse and worse. Between climate change and the way the general public treat the world, we are destroying it. Toller played by Ethan Hawke in yet another breathtakingly perfect performance as he gets stuck in a rabbit hole of LiveLeak videos, the same way you or I might do the same. And we watch him lose himself and all of his faith as he looks for answers. With Amanda Seyfried and Cedric Antonio Kyles (the first time Cedric the Entertainer has been credited as his real name), they try and guide him but it doesn’t always work. Magical, mythical, and terrifying as we witness a clergyman face his own demons.
And on the other side of the coin is Barry Jenkins’ follow-up to Moonlight, based on the James Baldwin novel of the same name, If Beale Street Could Talk. In Beale Street, we have Tish and Fonny who fall in love after knowing one another for all their lives, and one day, Fonny gets wrongfully convicted as Tish realizes she’s pregnant. Both these films are about how the world is out to get us, about how on some of our darkest days, we don’t know where to go next. First Reformed makes us question ourselves and question God, or how to ask Her if She can ever forgive us. Or how do we forgive ourselves? As our own toughest critic, we treat ourselves the worst. Between self-harming thoughts, to thoughts about self-harm or worse, we can get lost in that despair of it all.
But we need to learn how to balance our despair with the hope found in the world and hope is found all over the frames of If Beale Street Could Talk. Barry Jenkins and his films bleed love and hope. The trailer to the film still makes me tear up all over again. There’s pureness found all over it and it’s hard to appreciate and love the strong love displayed on the screen. It’s not something we see that is so pure on the screen – especially not black love. And not just romantic love, but also familial as well as platonic. The scene that Stephan James (a new Canadian star from Scarborough) and Brian Tyree Henry is endearing to be allowed to be a fly on the wall during their conversation. Barry Jenkins’ work is to be celebrated time and time again. A companion piece to Moonlight that had parents that represented his own, but the family in Beale Street is the one he wishes he had. One filled with support, and love. There’s magic in these films, even if it’s not the way we may think it, it’s in the swiftness of the purity that shines so bright even in the darkest of times.
These two films help define me in a way, there are days when the worst thoughts run through me and I want to stay in my room and hide far away from the world, but there are also times when even though things are bad, I face it with a smile. It’s not always easy and in fact, it’s easier to get lost in the despair, but the truth is we need to be like Tish and Fonny and survive. We are survivors, and unfortunately, we will be okay.
These films stood out the most, but in reality, there are many other films that could have made it onto the list – in fact, a lot were tossed in and out and back in again. Making these lists don’t really seem to get easier. These are some of the films I almost put on my list, and again, in no real order.
Teen Spirit / Destroyer / Hearts Beat Loud / Game Night / Crazy Rich Asians / What They Had / Clara / Upgrade / Three Identical Strangers / Tully