Top 10 Best Films of 2019 (Paul Shirey’s List)

Last Updated on August 3, 2021

2019 has been a hell of a year for films, but oddly, that rings more significantly for streaming films than theatrical releases. In what initially appeared to be a kind of indulgent venue for filmmakers to do whatever the hell they wanted (which is actually still true to a point), Netflix found its footing this year with a stacked deck of talent that delivered some outstanding work. Some have flown under the radar, while others have been very much in the "indulgent" crowd, but another wave has risen to the top with outstanding performances with outstanding talent and it's as much a surprise to me as it is to anyone. That's not to say that theatrical films haven't made their mark this year, as many have, but it's interesting that so many of them were streaming movies that likely would've underperformed or languished theatrically. In that way, I'm especially happy that streaming exists and that companies like Netflix are taking the kind of risks that most studios aren't. It's the new frontier for film, particularly those that audiences just aren't paying for at a theater. With that, I find myself with a list that mixes theatrical with streaming, a first-ever for me in a Top 10. I've listed my picks in alphabetical order, as so often everyone fights over the arbitrary order and lose focus on the selections, which happen to simply be my opinon as Editor-in-Chief of the site. Naturally, everyone has their own list and I love that they do. Film resonates with everyone for different reasons and these are the ones that stuck with me the strongest as we close out the year. Enjoy and let me know what YOU thought of the flicks on the list!

Also, to note, there are a few "notable" films I haven't had the opportunity to see, such as 1917, LITTLE WOMEN, PARASITE and UNCUT GEMS, which could certainly factor into my Top 10, but I'll never know until I'm able to catch 'em. But, if there's any question as to why those (and some others) aren't on my list, that's why.

The Art of Self Defense

This is a film that came out of nowhere and knocked me to the ground…with laughter. A super dark, twisted and hilarious comedy that takes itself completely serious within the world it presents, but is absolutely hysterical, awkward and unnerving throughout. Director Riley Stearns (FAULT) ushers in a tale about masculinity and identity that both challenges the notion of "being a man" while also defining it for oneself, in this case via martial arts training. Jesse Eisenberg is perfectly cast for the role of Casey, a meek, single man that finds himself seeking a way towards self-respect, self-confidence and, ultimately, the ability to defend himself, both figuratively and literally. Guided by a wacky karate instructor that seems to have ulterior motives (brilliantly portrayed by Alassandro Nivola) and bonding with the top student in his karate class, a foul-mouthed, hard ass played by Imogen Poots, THE ART OF SELF DEFENSE is an oddly perfect little film that feels reminiscent of the long string of indies that rolled out in the '90s (even taking place in the 90s) that helped bring about a new style of films (and filmmaking). A gem of a dark comedy that revels in shocking you as much as making you laugh.

Avengers: Endgame

There's no denying the absolute feat of storytelling the MCU has accomplished with The Infinity Saga, a ten-year, 23-film journey to the finish. In fact, out of the three franchises closing out major storylines, the MCU, Star Wars and Game of Thrones, Marvel easily satisfied its saga in a way that was earned and satisfactory to those that have followed it since 2008's IRON MAN. The grand finale, AVENGERS: ENDGAME, represents a decade of storytelling that's allowed individual growth, while also forwarding a larger narrative (and universe) and with one guiding force to see that it all came together; Marvel Studios' Kevin Feige. While some have grown weary of Marvel's formula, there's no doubt that it paid off in spades, giving fans an ending that they could literally cheer for, while paying off storylines set up in all prior films. It's a monumental achievement, love it or hate it, and one not easily aped, as evidenced by the aforementioned Game of Thrones and Star Wars. Beyond that, AVENGERS: ENDGAME is simply an exhilerating watch (and I view AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR as part of the same film, much like Kill Bill Vol. 1 & 2) with countless iconic moments that make it earn its stripes as the #1 box office champ, setting the standard for how to close out a long-running, multi-film franchise story.

Doctor Sleep

With such a vast array of titles, it's a wonder there aren't more sequels to Stephen King novels, which is what makes DOCTOR SLEEP a special case. King famously disliked director Stanley Kubrick's 1980 adaptation of THE SHINING, which introduced audiences to Jack Nicholson's iconic role as Jack Torrance (as well as his son, Danny) and deviated from the original ending of the book. Flash forward 39 years later and we revisit a grown-up Danny Torrance, played by Ewan McGregor in a rare "straight-laced" and even "heroic" performance as he finds himself helping a young girl with his same gift (or curse) of "The Shine" to fend off a group of vampire-like creatures called The True Knot, led by Rebecca Ferguson's villainous Rose The Hat. Director Mike Flanagan, fresh off scaring the crap out of everyone with Netflix's The Haunting of Hill House, manages to find a way to bridge the gap between King's original ending of THE SHINING and the book finale of DOCTOR SLEEP into a single, cohesive blend that perfectly captures the original spirt and horror, while elevating the material into a strong supernatural thriller that feels both perfectly King and Kubrick at once.  

Dolemite Is My Name

It's been three years since Eddie Murphy delivered a feature (MR. CHURCH) and it seemed like we may never see him back in top form again. As someone that grew up with his films, from BEVERLY HILLS COP to COMING TO AMERICA to THE NUTTY PROFESSOR and everything in-between (including his outstanding stand up), I missed Eddie Murphy. And now, out of the blue, comes Murphy embracing not only his comedy roots, but his dramatic chops as well with a biopic about legendary blaxploitation actor Rudy Ray Moore. Directed by HUSTLE & FLOW and BLACK SNAKE MOAN's Craig Brewer and written by THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT and BIG EYES' screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, DOLEMITE IS MY NAME is not only a terrific comeback vehicle for Eddie Murphy, but an amazing underdog story that fully captures the era of blaxploitation and the pioneering spirit of Rudy Ray Moore, thankfully given a venue to be told with Netflix. Factor in the amazing cast that includes Wesley Snipes, Keegan-Michael Key, Craig Robinson, Mike Epps, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Snoop Dog, Titus Burges and a star-making turn by Da'Vine Joy Randolph, it also serves as a film that shows how all races worked to make the genre a success, thereby being a kind of race unifier in a way. It's hilarious, moving and an absolute crowd pleaser from top to bottom and a true pleasure to see Murphy back where he belongs.

Ford V Ferrari

FORD V FERRARI is the kind of film that echoes the days of rip-roaring, crowd-pleasing spectacles that didn't involve superheroes or machine guns. It's from an era where the everyman was the hero, the underdog, the one to beat the odds and rebel against the authority that crushed him under the weight of their thumb. In that way, FORD V FERRARI is a "dad movie" and in the best possible way. It all starts with an amazing cast that includes Christian Bale as the "underdog" of this story, renowned racer Ken Miles, and Matt Damon as automotive legend Carroll Shelby. The supporting cast is exceptional, including Jon Bernthal, Josh Lucas, Tracy Letts, Ray McKinnon and Caitriona Balfe, all of whom shine under the direction of James Mangold (LOGAN, WALK THE LINE), who crafts a thrilling and emotional tale that resonates with anyone that's had to find balance in serving their own best interests and those of the greater puzzle when chasing their passion. In terms of racing movies it has some of the most visceral and pulse-pounding scenes ever put to film and is idling with heart throughout. Couple that with the high-caliber performances from Bale and Damon, this is a pure classic crowd pleaser the likes of which we rarely see anymore.  

JoJo Rabbit

Making a satirical comedy about Hitler and his youth brigade isn't exactly what you'd think of as comedy gold, but under the guidance of writer/director Taika Waititi it's all that and more. At a time where audiences are bellowing about "original" content while throwing all their money at Star Wars and Marvel films, JOJO RABBIT represents exactly the kind of entertainment that people are clamoring for, but not showing up to watch. Waititi doubles his directing duties with the role of an imaginary friend version of Hitler that serves to guide a young Hitler youth named JoJo (Roman Griffin Davis) as he struggles to find his identity in The Third Reich, while his mother, played beautifully by Scarlett Johansson, attempts to steer him to more peaceful pastures. It all goes haywire when JoJo discovers a young Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) hiding out in their home, which disrupts his whole world when he finds that he actually likes her. The kids are phenomenal and the supporting cast, including Sam Rockwell, Alfie Allen, Rebel Wilson and Stephen Merchant make it all the better. While touching on thematic elements that certainly are circulating today, it's a film that also touches on all the familiar coming-of-age themes we gravitate toward in the best of the genre, while packaging it in a format we've never seen before. An absolute gem (and a hilarious one at that).


Having been amongst the first group of media to see JOKER, I witnessed the early reactions around me, which were sharply favorable and even lauded with praise. Then came an odd turn where some of those voices became those of dissent, twisting a brilliantly-made character study into some kind of sociopolitical harbinger of doom; particularly that of a repeating narrative that somehow the film would inspire a white male to dress up as a clown and shoot up a theater. I even encountered "peers" who hadn't seen the film calling it "dangerous" because they "heard" that it was (having still not seen it for themselves). The irony of the spectacle created over JOKER would've made the actual character from the film laugh maniacally at their stupidity. Perhaps that's the brilliant irony of JOKER; it lays out a tale of a mentally-disturbed man shunned from society and how society turns their back on him as he spirals further into madness, then act shocked and surprised when he lashes out violently. Joaquin Phoeni is in peak form here and along with director Todd Phillips, has crafted a powerful film that echoes the stylish grit of the 70s, while funneling it through a comic book property. If anything, JOKER proves that you can experiment with the genre and still inspire the masses (and make a mint all the same and on a much smaller budget). Guess the joke's on the naysayers with this one.

The King

Up until THE KING I did not get the Timothée Chalamet hype. He was fine in CALL ME BY YOUR NAME and impressive enough in BEAUTIFUL BOY, but I just hadn't seen anything to indicate he was some kind of acting powerhouse. Then, along came THE KING, yet another original movie from Netflix, that gave Chalamet the chance to show that he could be a leading man and not just a skinny, moody kid. Based on Shakespeare's Henry V and told in a more linear fashion from the writing/directing duo of David Michod and Joel Edgerton (ANIMAL KINGDOM), THE KING puts Chalamet and the rest of the cast on center stage to absolutely act their asses off in a way we haven't seen before. Medieval politics are abound and the film gets very "Game of Thrones" but without the magic and dragons. Chalamet is amazing as the would-be king that simply doesn't want the job, while his right hand man, Joel Edgerton's Falstaff, provides the wisdom and comedy. Ben Mendelsohn and Sean Harris provide the questionable, all-knowing personas and future Batman Robert Pattinson is a pure delight as a sinister asshole of a French Prince. THE KING is ripe with character and an absolute showcase for refined acting. Maybe that sounds like some "stuffy critic" shit, but it's the truth. It's a damn masterclass. 

Marriage Story

It took me two watches to fully absorb MARRIAGE STORY, which was preceeded by a mountain of hype to live up to before I could finally see it for myself. I also had to toil with relating to the movie far too much, as I went through a divorce myself in the last year with more than a few similarities to Noah Baumbach's own semi-autobiographical tale. Make no mistake, this is a tough one to take in as it's ripe with awkward and difficult situations, but Baumbach infuses it with a whimsical flow that isn't afraid of the ugly (or the funny) aspects of it all. In many ways MARRIAGE STORY is almost a Shakespearian tale, but told in a modern framework, chock full of bitter truth, harsh reality and tragic irony. It's a beautifully told story about a decidedly painful life event. Scarlett Johansson is in top form here, her first strong role since rising to superstardom as a superhero in the MCU. The supporting cast is outstanding and offer a balance and perspective to the unfolding events, including Laura Dern, Ray Liotta, Alan Alda and Julie Haggerty, but the absolute shining star of this film is Adam Driver and, admittedly, the main reason for being in my Top 10. Driver has been doing great work since he arrived on the Hollywood scene, but MARRIAGE STORY is his step into the big leagues, putting him on another level entirely. His oft-memed scene with Johansson is that good and worth all the praise you may have already heard. This is another win for Netflix and a calling card for Driver, not to mention a touching film all around.

Once Upon A Time In Hollywood…

I had a tough time with ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD… on my first watch. I felt it was indulgent, overrated and a narrative mess. But, that doesn't mean there weren't things I liked, let alone loved, and sometimes it takes a second or third viewing to really get the pulse of how you feel. Such was the case with ONCE UPON…, Quentin Tarantino's tenth film (9th if we're going by his count) that serves as a love letter to a bygone era of Hollywood, from the stars to the filmmakers to the working life and the personalities that led the way until things suddenly shifted into the 70s, never to be the same again. What I initially considered indulgent I still consider indulgent, but for all the right reasons (even those overly-long driving sequences). Beyond the nostalgia, this is a film chock full of inspired performances, which is kind of unfair when you consider it's Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt leading the charge and they don't disappoint. DiCaprio gives us another outrageously emotional performance, while Pitt plays it straight and they end up being a perfect onscreen duo. The Manson Murders aspect is handled in a compelling way that, while still a revisionist history take, lives up to the film's title. This is an American Fable and one I think will be watched over and over again, even for those that feel it's not quite the masterpiece many make it out to be. Give it time. It's a tough one to shake.

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