As we've discovered with all the end-of-decade rankings we've been trying to put together over the last month or so, it can take a while to get perspective on what was truly great in a given year. That said: These are the genre films that jumped out as the best of 2019… and the ones we bet we'll be thinking more and more about as the years go on.
If you read the profile The New Yorker published on director Claire Denis last year, you'd be forgiven for assuming that her latest film, High Life, would be a disaster. (Key quote from one of her producers: "A lot of people were thinking, 'This is good for my résumé, but I wish I weren't here.'")
But while this insular sci-fi drama — about prisoners on a spaceship — is a peculiar tale of survival and sexual perversion, it's also powerfully evocative, featuring great performances from Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, and André Benjamin. Certainly the best film of 2019 to feature "a f**k box" — a contraption you will never forget.
In films like The Master and You Were Never Really Here, Joaquin Phoenix had proven himself to be one of the great art-house actors. But he'd never done anything on as big a stage as he did with Joker, where he didn't only have to give us a credible origin story for Batman's biggest bad guy — he had to contend with the iconic performances of two former Jokers: Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger.
A movie that divided critics and audiences alike, Joker was proof that DC wasn't always going to be taking a backseat to their rivals at Marvel. It's a rare thing to see a comic-book movie with this much thoughtfulness. And Phoenix, no surprise, was phenomenal — heartbreaking, intense, instantly indelible.
Despite making a sci-fi film about a man venturing across our solar system to find his long-lost father, director James Gray saw Ad Astra as a pretty old-fashioned tale. "We tried to make a classic, stripped-down story," he said this year. "If you're stealing from something so old, maybe people think you’re new."
Indeed, Ad Astra is a classic adventure yarn that doubles as a cosmic metaphor for distant dads and emotionally crippled sons — of the lengths guys travel to compare themselves to their old man. Mighty on the big screen, Ad Astra contains one of Brad Pitt's best performances and some of the year's most stunning visuals. Also, one very, very scary monkey.
Ari Aster's sophomore effort isn't as unrelentingly heart-exploding as Hereditary, but it may be just as inspired. It is difficult to overstate the unsettling weirdness that permeates Midsommar, the sense that, as odd as all the circumstances these graduate students find themselves in are… there's something even stranger and more terrifying just outside of the frame.
The film's payoff is as explosive and crazy as you'd expect, which is why Florence Pugh's performance, which keeps everything grounded with her deeply honest emotions and reactions to everything that's happening, is so key to making the movie work so powerfully.
What’s perhaps most impressive about Robert Eggers' sophomore feature is, in the wake of the stolid seriousness of The VVitch, how confident and even silly it can be at times. Eggers is still able to disturb and scare you, but he's self-assured enough that he also is making a great workplace comedy with a ton of farts.
Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe are both perfect. And seriously: if humans and birds ever go to war, this could be the inciting document.
Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.