(As per 2015 and 2017, the numerical Star Wars entry is excluded from consideration)
1. Midsommar (horror, surrealist): There isn’t another movie-going experience like Midsommar. This film aesthetically is special. The daylight setting never brings a sense of calm or ease but rather adds to the slow-building dread and panic. Every scene is filled with mystery and an underlying sense of terror that the viewer can’t shake. It is wholly unsettling and mesmerizing, yet patient, and asks a lot of its viewers both as a slow-burning film and as one that pushes the limits of what you will witness on a screen. Aster’s insistence that every frame be packed with meaning keeps the viewer engaged and longing for more, hoping that they can catch a glimpse of what’s to come. The film also opens with one of the most traumatizing exposition stories ever, as well as an earnest look at relationships and what begins to break them apart. Aster also once again is able to get the most out of his leading actress, with the crux of this film being a vulnerable and spell-binding performance from Florence Pugh. With all this said, Midsommar is not for the faint of heart and requires a lot from its audience to stick with it. But if you do, you get to experience one of the most shocking and riveting stories horror has to offer.
2. Joker (thriller, drama): Joaquin Phoenix is completely dominating in his role, and it cannot be overstated how remarkably captivating his portrayal of Arthur’s descent from broken psychosis to murderous mania truly is. This is an actor at the top of their craft. Todd Phillips also excels in his direction, perfectly crafting a dirty and crumbling Gotham falling into a chaos that mirrors Arthur’s similar trajectory. The righteous anger at a political and economic system that is rigged against the everyday citizen fuels a political undertone that makes the rise of Joker understandable but not at all redeeming of his actions in and of themselves (which is far different from the supposed glorification of violence decried by other critics). This political undercurrent creates tension and fury for the audience to attach to and that allows the Joker not only to develop into the villain he is destined to become, but that gives us a reason for engaging in that journey with him. The film and its premise understand the ideological conflict that is at the heart of the relationship between Joker and his main adversary (who’s minimal appearance is well-crafted and riveting), and it’s this understanding that allows for a deep and dark exploration of the Joker in an intimate setting.
3. The Lighthouse (horror, psychological thriller): Robert Eggers’ follow-up to his tantalizing debut is just as captivating, dark, and unforgettable. Not enough can be said about the skill of his direction, as well as the powerful chemistry that is forged between Pattinson and Defoe. The two leads deservedly demand all the attention of their audience and deliver an enthralling dynamic that drives the movie forward. The film is grimy, wet, and bitterly cold, and this universe that Eggers creates perfectly mirrors our own reality. It’s one where your fears and your secrets begin to seep in, and you can no longer tell what is real and what is fantasy. Which is the ultimate point: how we view the world and interpret the events that happen therein, is more about how we choose to believe and interpret them than what actually happens. The Lighthouse is post-modern filmmaking at its highest potential.
4. Us (horror, psychological thriller): With Us, Jordan Peele fully asserts his gravitas as a director, storyteller, and cultural insider. The film is layered in complex storytelling, character building, lore, and social commentary. No two people will walk away from the film with the same interpretation, and Peele readily assumes the film’s role as a post-modern staple. The first third of the film is truly horrifying, and while I believe some of the pacing slips heading into the third act, Peele so firmly holds you in his grasp that you can’t help but be completely invigorated by his tale. With his sophomore film, Jordan Peele shows us that not only is he the face of a new generation of filmmaking, but that he is reinventing the bar for everyone else.
5. The Beach Bum (drama, comedy): Following the thematic ideas of his previous film, Harmony Korine’s latest effort is an even more bombastic and crass exploration of excess and indulgence. The focus, as always with Korine’s films, is all about aesthetics rather than conventual storytelling. In reality, the movie feels like a collection of improvised scenes between Matthew McConaughey and the ridiculous amount of familiar stars rounding out the cast. Korine aims, and succeeds at, capturing the highs and the lows of life-based on pure ecstasy, as well as subverting the mundane aspects of our lives with an over-the-top glorification of psychological inhibition. Also much more unique to his previous work, Korine takes his unique neon and dirt aesthetic into the realm of a character study, charged by a riveting performance from his lead actor. Matthew McConaughey is cut loose and allowed to explore and portray the depths of an artist’s psyche who is never sober and always thrill-seeking, allowing for a much more personable and intimate film from a director who has tended to shy away from such a narrow focus. There is room here to wonder if Korine is projecting much of his own life, philosophy, and insecurities through McConaughey, and the director is surprisingly vulnerable in this regard. When summing up the core ideology of the film, and of Korine, one of McConaughey’s last lines puts it all into perspective: “I just like to have fun.” And “fun” is undeniably what The Beach Bum is. It’s shocking, full of humor, sexually charged, and an exercise in over-stimulation. This is where Korine shines, and his latest film reminds us why he is a master of aesthetic-focused filmmaking.
6. Pet Sematary (horror): Pet Sematary not only faces the challenge of being yet another remake of a classic horror film but is also based on one of the most notorious novels of all time from a beloved author. What this does, is creates expectations and assumptions about the film that may (IT), or may not (The Amityville Horror), work in its favor. What Pet Sematary does remarkably well (aside from its stellar cast and haunting atmosphere) is taking all those expectations and subvert them. The 2019 remake not only captures the spirit of both King’s novel and the original 1989 film but improves upon them. It takes the narrative structure and plot beats and twists them in a way that creates something fresh and unique, even for viewers who will come in with an intimate understanding of the source material. This is something remakes often forget to do. Not only do you need to be true to the heart of the original material, but what can you do to offer a new take, or a new interpretation of, aspects of the original story? Pet Sematary is a perfect example of how to approach that challenge.
7. Spider-Man: Far From Home (action–adventure, comedy): Simply a blast. The charm and character that made Homecoming a special entry into the web-slingers filmography are even more prominent in the follow-up. Rather than playing out like a typical superhero flick, this feels more like a mid-80s teen rom-com in the guise of a comic-book movie, especially for the first two acts. However, moving into the third act is where the film really shines. The modern take on Mysterio and his abilities are absolutely stunning, and the main action sequences with him are mesmerizing. To be frank, they could be some of the best action sequences in the MCU. The whole cast is full of an energy and enthusiasm that is infectious and fills every frame of this movie with joy. While the plot has some pacing hitches in the beginning, as soon as it picks up the film really settles in for a marvelous ride. Once again Jon Watts helms one of the better entries in the MCU and proves why Spider-Man is the quintessential character for Marvel.
8. Toy Story 4 (family, drama): Toy Story returns with a heartfelt story and a resolution fitting for these iconic characters in a stellar franchise. At no point does the film feel forced, or as if it shouldn’t exist, a problem many sequels face. Additionally, the film knows its audience and knows that a lot of the kids who grew up watching the franchise are now adults with children of their own and carries a powerful message for them to take away from the movie as well. It’s not simply a story about friendship or childhood memories, but learning about when to let those go as we move into new phases of our lives.
9. Avengers: Endgame (action-adventure, sci-fi): The immense pressure of being the climatic end of an over decade-long, twenty-plus film series would be enough pressure to crack the most notable of movies. Not only does Endgame satisfy in being the ultimate finale, but it also supersedes expectations and creates bold new heights for how big and bold cinema can feel. It is epic in all sense of the word. However, this movie is little more than a three-hour exercise in Hollywood excess. While Endgame lives up to the hype as one of the most remarkable spectacles in film history, it offers minimal substance to pair with its three-hour fanfare. We do see nice resolutions to some of the iconic heroes’ story-arcs, but their dynamics as characters, and in their relationships, are left at the wayside for more of a surface-level payoff. While the preceding film (Infinity War) is dark, offers new unique character motivations and interactions, and terrifies its audience with its omnipotent, and more importantly, strikingly interesting villain, Endgame settles for more bombastic and simpler aesthetic. There are some nice moments along the way that suppress expectations, offer a slight twist on common tropes, and keep the audience guessing about how the inevitable outcome will sort itself out, but overall the film sticks to what it needs to do, and as noted before, even at times will exceed that. This was a unique moment in pop-culture and something we will likely never see again, and Endgame more than lives up to how it ought to be, and will be, remembered.
10. IT: Chapter Two (horror): Full of nightmarish imagery and startling horror sequences, IT: Chapter Two certainly feels like the more mature and eerie sequel to its 2017 predecessor. The casting is utterly perfect as every adult perfectly personifies and captures their younger counterparts. Bill Skarsgård once again is the soul of the film with his demonic presentation as Pennywise, and the additional screen time only further cements his perfect grasp of the role. The film certainly feels like the novel as well, and while it shies away from some of the more obscure cosmic elements (RIP my giant space turtle dreams), there are just enough of them there to give the story that unmistakable Stephen King flair. It does feel bogged down and sluggish in moments with its nearly three-hour run time, but it is true to its source material in that sense, as the novel suffers from some of the same pacing issues. Additionally, the strength of the story is the narrative surrounding the Losers Club as children, so focusing on the adult narrative leaves the film with less of an identity. That nostalgic feeling of a classic children adventure story is what makes the book (and first film) so memorable. So while the decision to split the films this way on paper makes sense, it does lose a bit of that magic. Overall though, Chapter Two more than satisfies, and is a worthy adaptation and sequel.
John Wick: Chapter 3
Pokemon: Detective Pikachu
Biggest Disappointments: The Lion King, Men in Black: International, Ma, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark
Didn’t get to see: Marriage Story, The Irishman, Parasite, Cats, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Hustlers, Jumanji: The Next Level, Booksmart, The Farewell, Ad Adastra, High Life, The Last Black Man in San Fransisco, Apollo 11, The Lego Movie: The Second Part, Ready or Not, Knives Out, Honeyland, The Dead Don’t Die, Little Monsters