Simon Ong’s Top Ten Movies of 2019

by Simon Ong

Yup, it’s that time of the year again! I slowed down a bit this year with only 54 trips to the movie theater in 2019, but there were still plenty of great movies to choose from. Unfortunately, I have a feeling there are some big movies that won’t make this list because I was away from New York or L.A. for the releases of some late entries (as in previous years, when the likes of If Beale Street Could Talk and Phantom Thread just missed out on the list), so consider this a preliminary list, but for now, enjoy the ten best movies to see wide release in 2019. And, since we’ve reached the end of a decade, there will be a very special second list going up tomorrow as a bonus, so check back soon!

10. Cats

Directed by Tom Hooper, screenplay by Lee Hall and Tom Hooper

[Editor’s note: Now seems a good time to clarify that the opinions expressed in this article do not reflect those of The Short Loop or its editors except Simon. —Trevor]

You didn’t seriously think there was any chance I was going to let us go into the new decade without talking about Cats, did you? Yes, Cats takes the number ten spot this year for the simple fact that, between the time of its first trailer exploding onto Twitter to a raucous opening night, no film brought me greater joy in 2019. In an age where film criticism has grown increasingly pretentious and filled with gatekeepers, I believe that simple joy is something to be cherished. Cats is a dumpster fire of a film unlike anything I’ve seen before, put forth with such sincerity that I cannot help but marvel at how on earth a modern studio in today’s entertainment industry allowed it to be made. I am so happy that Universal was up for it — even if the box office returns on Cats dissuade such future decisions. The performances are terrific, with every actor going absolutely full tilt into each chaotic decision they’ve been directed to make. I cannot recommend enough that every person go see Cats if not for the sole reason that you will never see another movie like it.

9. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino

Film school gave me a complicated relationship with Quentin Tarantino. Despite the fact that I enjoy most films by the controversial filmmaker, the often obnoxious cult of film-bros that has sprung up around Tarantino undeniably sours my experience with any of his films. That being said, I also can’t deny just how much I was charmed by Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. The film so completely transports you to the place and time with such an acute attention to detail that you become instant caught up in it that the 162-minute runtime seems to go by like nothing. Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt both give tour-de-force performances, though the heart of the film really lies in Margot Robbie’s thoughtful portrayal of Sharon Tate. Much ink has already been spilled on Tarantino and Robbie’s treatment of Tate, but it is her performance, particularly in its quieter moments, that holds the film together. Tarantino manages to restrain some of his more extravagant impulses — well, most of them — and produces one of his finest films, worthy of the kind of lavish praise so often heaped on him.

8. Midsommar

Written and directed by Ari Aster

When Midsommar director Ari Aster’s previous supernatural horror film, Hereditary, hit theaters last summer, Aster was instantly hailed as the next big name in auteur horror. Truthfully, I was underwhelmed and couldn’t quite see what all the fuss was about. Thankfully, Aster turned around and, within a year, gave us a movie far more deserving of the hype. Breaking out from the horror mold, Midsommar trades in night-time and claustrophobic settings for never-ending daylight and wide-open fields. Midsommar seems focused less on scaring you and far more on disturbing you. With hardly a jump-scare in sight, Midsommar instead serves as a sinister meditation on grief, led by a powerhouse performance from Florence Pugh. This isn’t going to be the last time on this list that we talk about Pugh: she’s had an amazing year and is on the verge of becoming one of the biggest actresses in the world. In Midsommar, Pugh’s role is incredibly demanding and very easily could have descended into unintentional silliness, but she keeps the film afloat, guided by Aster’s unflinching direction. Midsommar isn’t for the faint of heart, but it’s a film that hasn’t let me stop thinking about it.

7. Avengers: Endgame

Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely

After months of exhausting, unproductive discourse about Marvel movies and whether they should be counted as “cinema,” I’m quite aware that this ranking may be met with even more ire than Cats. However, I must stand firm: Avengers: Endgame is a massively ambitious and impressive achievement in storytelling, concluding an unprecedented 22-film arc spanning the decade. The amount of meat that Endgame manages to fit into its story cannot be overstated, featuring an extended Back to the Future Part II-sequence revisiting previous films in the franchise, all alongside a first act that is largely driven by smaller character moments. It’s easy to look at the Marvel Cinematic Universe and see little more than cookie-cutter blockbusters, filmmaking-by-committee, but that does a serious disservice to just how difficult a conclusion like this can be to pull off. Look no further than the Star Wars franchise stumbling over the finish line just this month with the tepid Rise of Skywalker. Ultimately, seeing Endgame in the theater was the event of the year. I’ve never seen a group of people so energized, and that kind of excitement for going to the movies alone earns Avengers its place on this list.

6. The Irishman

Directed by Martin Scorsese, screenplay by Steven Zaillian

Martin Scorsese returns to the gangster genre, bringing back with him an all-star cast to create one of his finest, and most thematically rich, films to date. Scorsese ditches the fast-paced hyper-violence of some of his earlier gangster movies, and instead approaches the film with a more somber gravitas. The Irishman is a film about regret, told from the perspective of old age — not a film that Scorsese could have made thirty years ago. As a result, the entire film ends up feeling more thoughtful, more measured. But things really kick into high gear in the final act of the film, when Zaillian and Scorsese deliver a stunning character portrait that elevates the entire film. This, of course, is saying nothing of the wonderful work done by the cast. Robert de Niro is great, as always, but it’s Joe Pesci’s return from retirement and Al Pacino’s incredibly nuanced performance as Jimmy Hoffa that stand out. At 209 minutes, The Irishman is a lot of movie, but thanks to Netflix it’s more accessible than it ever could have been in the past. While it may not be for everyone, seldom do you have the opportunity to witness a filmmaker turn on its head a genre they largely defined, let alone so successfully.

5. Jojo Rabbit

Written and directed by Taika Waititi

This movie was always going to make people uncomfortable. A dramatic comedy about a boy growing up in Nazi Germany with Adolf Hitler as his imaginary friend was never going to be an easy sell. However, writer-director Taika Waititi approaches the subject with such precision that he manages to get laughter without making light of the situation. This is Jojo Rabbit’s greatest strength. It is a film that can at one moment be riotously funny and, at the next, completely shatter you. If there’s one thing that Waititi should be recognized for, it’s his amazing ability to cast young actors. That ability is on full display in Jojo Rabbit. Roman Griffin Davis and Archie Yates are treasures, and Thomasin McKenzie, who last year stood-out in Leave No Trace, continues to prove that she’s destined for great things. And while Scarlett Johansson lends a surprisingly touching performance, these young actors are really the soul in a film that could so easily otherwise feel soulless. Though the film was instantly divisive, I found Jojo Rabbit entirely captivating and a funny but thoughtful subversion of subject matter that is so often treated in the same, tried-out ways.

4. Uncut Gems

Directed by Josh and Benny Safdie, screenplay by Ronald Bronstein and Josh and Benny Safdie

A longtime Adam Sandler skeptic, I have always found his comedic roles incredibly grating. Billy Madison, Happy Gilmore, Big Daddy: though some swear by these, I’ve never been able to get all the way through them. Though his performance in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love is fine, I still regard that as one of Anderson’s weaker entries. Enter the Safdie Brothers. The directing duo made a Robert Pattinson believer out of me with their 2017 film Good Time, but could they do the same with Adam Sandler? Yes, even more so. The marketing campaign for Uncut Gems touted Sandler as “god-level, mythologically great,” and that pretty accurately sums up my thoughts. Sandler’s portrayal of Howard Ratner is a complete roller coaster, within a roller coaster of a film that is undeniably one of the most stressful experiences I’ve had in a movie theater. This is what the Safdie Brothers excel at; capturing a hostile energy of pure chaos and aiming it directly at their protagonist. This is all complemented by cinematographer Darius Khondji’s frenetic style that just keeps that chaos coming. Uncut Gems was not a movie I expected to love, but Sandler and the Safdies bring their A-game, and it completely won me over.

3. Marriage Story

Written and Directed by Noah Baumbach

This one has been another subject of extremely bad-faith Twitter discourse in the weeks since it landed on Netflix for public viewing. Don’t be fooled by out-of-context clips: Marriage Story features some of the best performances of the year, and they come together to create a heartbreaking final product. Scarlett Johansson earns her second shout-out on this list, and Adam Driver really steals the show — particularly in a sequence at the end of the film that is so absolutely haunting, it’ll stay with you long after the credits roll. Great secondary performances from Laura Dern, Alan Alda, and Julie Hagerty truly round the whole thing out. I would also be remiss if I did not mention the score by composer Randy Newman. From the opening scenes of the movie, Newman pulls on the heartstrings, creating his trademarked tones of blended melancholy and sweeter optimism. Writer-director Noah Baumbach pulls all these things together and, clearly drawing from some real-life experience, creates a story that is strongest in its long scenes of dialogue between two characters, pushing and testing each other. This is sure to be pretty heavy stuff for a lot of viewers, but Marriage Story is impeccably crafted and stands as one of the great love stories this decade.

2. Little Women

Written and Directed by Greta Gerwig

I have not read Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women beyond its first three chapters (though I do intend on finishing it). I merely get that out of the way upfront to say that I am by no means the person to talk about the nature of Gerwig’s adaptation in relation to its source material, or even previous adaptations. However, I think I can comfortably say that Gerwig absolutely hits it out of the park. I know enough to know that the choice to interweave timelines is unique to this adaptation, an inspired choice that compliments the story and strengthens the emotional beats that Gerwig is trying to hit. Saoirse Ronan and Timothée Chalamet are their usual exceptional selves, but I must again call specific attention to Florence Pugh, whose portrayal of Amy March was simply one of the most delightful things on screen this year. Chris Cooper gives an especially emotional performance that’s really just the icing on the cake in a film crammed with great performances. Laura Dern, Emma Watson, Meryl Streep! I could go on and on. The film is also full of these amazingly composed shots of sweeping hills or rolling beaches, thanks to the work of cinematographer Yorick Le Saux. Little Women is so good it was very close to becoming my film of the year, but alas, there was one film that stood out even more.

1. Parasite

Directed by Bong Joon-ho, screenplay by Bong Joon-ho and Han Jin-won

Parasite is the best movie of the year. No other film this year was as carefully crafted while being so incredibly topical — speaking to issues common across many different cultures. As Bong Joon-ho put it in an interview surrounding the film’s release: “ Upon screening the film after completion, all the responses from different audiences were pretty much the same, which made me realize that the topic was universal. Essentially, we all live in the same country called Capitalism.” It’s a sobering statement on the nature of the wealth gap in most modern societies, and how the system promotes a false rag-to-riches dream that is, for the vast majority of people, nothing more than a lie. However, beyond its larger messages, Parasite also just stands as an incredibly entertaining film. It’s rare that you can find typically unadventurous American audiences letting out real laughter or genuine gasps at a subtitled film, however both times that I saw Parasite, that was exactly the reaction it received. The best way I can recommend you go see Parasite is to know as little about it as possible — I’ve done my best to avoid revealing anything about the plot of the film itself — but I’d even recommend steering clear of trailers or even basic advertising synopses. Do yourself a favor and see Parasite as soon as possible.